2012 - %3, April

John Boehner and the Amazing Student Loan Non-Vote

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 4:00 PM PDT

Here's the latest from Speaker of the House John Boehner:

Steve Benen does a fine job of explaining why this is so ridiculous. But on the bright side, at least Boehner — or the intern who tweeted this for him — called the 2007 Congress "Democratic-controlled" rather than "Democrat-controlled." Thanks, Mr. Speaker!

As for the substance of the student loan issue, I'll confess to feelings of extreme ambivalence about it. I'm feeling less and less confident over time that increases in federal student aid actually end up aiding students, rather than simply giving universities and trade schools more headroom to raise their fees. But I think I need to study up on this further before I take sides.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Wells Fargo Turns Away Its Own Shareholders From Its Shareholder Meeting

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 3:28 PM PDT

Outside the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in San Francisco: Josh HarkinsonOutside the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in San Francisco: Josh HarkinsonUpdated on Wednesday, April 25th at 11 am PST

"I would not want to work for Wells Fargo," one woman on lunch break in downtown San Francisco loudly told her friend.

No kidding. At around noon today, some 2,000 activists launched a blitzkrieg against the bank's annual shareholder meeting at the Merchants Exchange Building, where they blocked entrances, inflated a two-story cigar-smoking rat in the street, and deployed hundreds of shareholder activists to pack the joint.

Citing space constraints, the bank turned away many of the shareholders, a move protesters quickly decried as an illegal attempt to dodge tough questions. A press release from the activist group the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment claimed Wells Fargo packed the meeting with its own employees, and continued to let shareholders who were not part of the protest in through a side door.

A Wells Fargo spokesman did not immediately return my call.

In the building lobby, I ran into Wells Fargo shareholder Andrew Constans, who was wearing a suit and tie and holding a paper copy of his single share of stock. The 19-year-old University of Minnesota student flew halfway across the country to tell Wells Fargo that it should pay more taxes. (Between 2008 and 2010, Wells Fargo paid none, but got $681 million in tax credits.) "I pay taxes, so why can't they?" Constans asked. "I'm not a multinational corporation; I don't have 60 tax shelters."

The Wells Fargo protest is part of an effort on the part of 99% Power, a coalition of dozens of labor and community groups that plans to target some 40 corporate shareholder meetings over the next six weeks. "It's a broader group than normally does shareholders meetings," says Stephen Lerner, an executive board member with the Service Employees International Union. "It's a campaign that's saying, let's gather all the folks who are impacted negatively by these giant corporations and lets figure out ways to illustrate that and challenge them directly at the meetings."

That strategy was on full display today in downtown San Francisco, where demonstrators hit Wells Fargo from every possible angle. A speaker with the immigrants rights group Causa Justa pointed out that Wells Fargo is a shareholder in Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison firm that profits from detaining illegal immigrants. Bob Donjacour, a freelance computer programmer and member of Occupy San Francisco, held a sign that said, "Stop Funding Dirty Power," highlighting the bank's investments in oil and gas. Other protesters criticized Wells Fargo's involvement in the American Legislative Exchange Council, the excessive salary of CEO John Stumpf ($19 million in 2010), and, of course, its foreclosure practices.

On the corner of Pine and Sansome Streets, I ran into artist Cheryl Meeker, a member of an Occupy-related protest group known as Don't Just Click There. "It's about doing things in real life, like, physically," she explained. She was blocking the intersection with a long cloth banner with flames on it as others held up signs reading, "Hells Fargo."

"Do you think we can get through?" asked two guys in nice suits.

Meeker declined, but did give each of them a dollar bill. It sported an image of humans pulling a stagecoach with the caption: "Debt slavery."

According to press reports, 24 people were arrested at the protests, including several who disrupted the shareholder meeting from within. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo announced record profits and awarded CEO John Stumpf a $19.8 million pay package.

Sometimes Your Kids Are Safer If You Just Leave Them Alone

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 3:11 PM PDT

If you think that modern parents are entirely too protective of their children, this story is for you:

Although nobody keeps national statistics, orthopedic specialists say they treat a number of toddlers and young children each year with broken legs as a result of riding down the slide on a parent’s lap. A study at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola, N.Y., found that nearly 14 percent of pediatric leg fractures over an 11-month period involved toddlers riding down the slide with a parent.

....“This fracture is entirely preventable,” said Dr. [Edward] Holt, who has created a warning poster for local pediatrician offices and a YouTube video alerting parents to the hazard....To prevent the injury, the best solution is to allow a child to slide by himself, with supervision and instructions on how to play safely. Young children can be placed on the slide at the halfway point with a parent standing next to the slide. At the very least, parents should remove a child’s shoes before riding down the slide with the child on their laps, and make sure the child’s legs don’t touch the sides or sliding surface.

Just let your kids play. Sure, keep your eyes on them, but otherwise just let them play. They'll be fine. In fact, they'll be more than fine. They'll be better because they're figuring out how the world works all by themselves. I doubt they even need much instruction on how to play safely, either. It's a slide. Most kids grasp the principle pretty easily.

Does Chocolate Make You Thin?

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 1:45 PM PDT

Scientists love to investigate the potential health benefits of chocolate: A search of "chocolate" on PubMed, the primary database of biomedical research, yields references to 800 papers over the last three years. This emerging body of evidence suggests that chocolate might improve a range of metabolic processes and reduce the risk of heart disease, among other positive effects.

Just this week, researchers from San Diego State University are reporting at a scientific conference that, in a randomized trial, eating dark chocolate led to lowered blood glucose levels and better cholesterol profiles. The trial was very small (31 participants), very short (15 days), and as-yet unpublished, so the findings, while encouraging and consistent with previous research, need to be taken with a huge dose of caution.

The Bishops' War on Women, Nuns, and...Paul Ryan?

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 12:21 PM PDT

When the US Conference of Catholic Bishops declared war on the Obama administration on religious freedom grounds, the GOP was right there with them. Republicans cited the bishops' complaints as they blasted the administration's contraception mandate in health care reform, and gave the bishops a prominent platform on the Hill to air their grievances. When the Obama administration declined to award a new contract to the USCCB to serve clients of human trafficking, as it had been for the past five years, GOP members of Congress came out swinging. 

In September, the bishops lost a $19 million contract to provide services to trafficking victims after refusing to make accommodations so that their clients could have access to a full range of reproductive health services. (Read this story from the latest print issue of Mother Jones for all the particulars.)  The lost contract was just one more piece of evidence the bishops invoked to prove that the Obama administration discriminates against religious groups and follows an "ABC—anybody but Catholics" policy, and House Republicans were happy to parrot that charge as well. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) held a marathon hearing in December in which GOP members took ample time to accuse the administration of being anti-Catholic and to come to the defense of the bishops' organization.

But even as GOPers have been piggybacking on the USCCB's skirmish with the White House, they seem to have forgotten that the Catholic organization is hardly a Republican proxy. Even though they may align with Republicans on contraception, abortion, and gay rights, the bishops have traditionally been much more in sync with the Democrats. The bishops supported the nuclear freeze movement during the Reagan era, have consistently opposed the death penalty, and backed comprehensive immigration reform.

Despite some GOP claims that the Pope himself has said that the national debt is a moral hazard, the party leaders seem to have missed the part where the church has said that debt is bad because it hurts the poor. USCCB has been a leading advocate for debt relief in Third World countries because the bishops believe debt has to be relieved in a way to help the poor, not simply to placate bankers and rich people.

So Republicans seemed a little taken aback, when, in the midst of the USCCB's showdown with the Obama administration (and women, including nuns), the group took aim at the GOP for backing draconian cuts to government programs for the poor. The source of the controversy dates back to a an interview House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) gave to the Christian Broadcasting Network earlier this month, in which he suggested that his Catholic faith had inspired him to draft a budget that takes an axe to social welfare programs:

Through our civic organizations, through our churches, through our charities, through all of our different groups where we interact with people as a community, that’s how we advance the common good, by not having Big Government crowd out civic society, but by having enough space in our communities so that we can interact with each other, and take care of people who are down and out in our communities

Those principles are very, very important, and the preferential option for the poor, which is one of the primary tenants of Catholic social teaching, means don’t keep people poor, don’t make people dependent on government so that they stay stuck at their station in life, help people get out of poverty, out into a life of independence.

In response to these comments, as well the broader Ryan budget, the bishops have sent a series of letters to House GOP leaders criticizing the plan for the dire impact it would have on the poor and disadvantaged. Contrary to Ryan's insistence that the budget is in keeping with Catholic tenets, the bishops insist that many of the budget choices are actually immoral.

Now that the bishops are taking on the House leadership, top GOP lawmakers, including House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), have suddenly decided that the USCCB doesn't really represent the church or all its bishops, and thus, they are free to ignore it. "These are not all the Catholic bishops, and we just respectfully disagree," Ryan told Fox News last week. The argument didn't fly so well with the USCCB, which shot back in The Hill that the group does, in fact, represent all the bishops.
 

3 Things to Know About the Challenge to Arizona's Immigration Law

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 12:20 PM PDT

Rachel Maddow/Flickr

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on SB 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law, on Wednesday. Here are three tidbits to keep in mind:

There are four separate provisions at issue. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals prevented four parts of Arizona's SB 1070 immigration law from taking effect:

  • A provision compelling police to question the immigration status of individuals they suspect are undocumented
  • A provision allowing police to arrest such individuals without a warrant
  • A provision making it a state crime to work without authorization
  • A provision making it a state crime for immigrants to walk around without their federal papers (hence why detractors refer to SB 1070 as Arizona's "papers please" law)

"It's conceivable that the court could rule for the federal government on some sections and for Arizona on others," says Omar Jadwat, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrant Rights Project. "We believe all four sections are unconstitutional."

Only eight justices will be ruling on the case. Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the SB 1070 case because she worked on it during her time as solicitor general. That means that if the Democratic appointees vote to strike down the law and manage to peel off one conservative, the high court will be left with a 4-4 tie. If that happens, the lower court ruling will stand, but it will only have "persuasive," rather than "binding" authority over courts in other jurisdictions. Other courts have to consider the lower court's "persuasive authority" ruling but won't have to reach decisions that fit with its conclusion.

In the case of a tie, "the court won't issue an opinion—it'll affirm the provision below, which means all four provisions will continue to be suspended," Jadwat says. "There won't be an opinion like you usually get in a case, because there won't be a majority for any particular view." But if this case ends in a tie, there's no guarantee a sequel will: Kagan probably won't have to recuse herself from future challenges to state laws that have used SB 1070 as a model. 

The government's argument has nothing to do with racial profiling.  Despite some rhetorical acknowledgements of the law's problematic racial context, the Obama administration declined to include racial profiling in its challenge of the law, relying instead on the argument that Arizona has unconstitutionally usurped the federal government's authority on immigration. (Organizations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the law will lead to racial profiling.) Article I of the US Constitution says Congress has the authority to "establish a uniform rule of naturalization." In previous rulings, the court has held that "Congress' power over immigration is plenary, meaning complete, as long as it doesn't violate any other constitutional principles," explains Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA. Arizona is arguing that SB 1070 actually complements federal law, rather than interfering with it.

"The federal government's policy on immigration is to focus on serious crimes, in part because of a lack of resources," Winkler says. "Arizona's policy will force the federal government to expend resources enforcing the immigration law in ways the federal government does not wish to do."

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Net Immigration From Mexico Now at Zero

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 12:16 PM PDT

The Pew Hispanic Center reports that net immigration from Mexico into the United States has probably turned negative for the first time since the Great Depression:

The standstill appears to be the result of many factors, including the weakened U.S. job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations, the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings, the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates and broader economic conditions in Mexico.

I wonder if conservatives will ever give President Obama any credit for this? He's taken plenty of heat from lefties over his enforcement and deportation policies, after all, and he's apparently done it in the hope that if illegal immigration can be slowed or stopped, it might be possible to turn down the temperature a bit on immigration hysteria and gain support for the kind of comprehensive reform that failed back in 2006.

In theory, that should work. But I have my doubts. The problem is that the Republican Party is becoming ever more dependent on white votes and the Democratic Party is becoming ever more dependent on minority votes. For purely partisan reasons, then, they both have big incentives to keep the heat cranked up as high as they can. Compromise is becoming less and less in either party's interest. Regardless of who wins in November, 2013 is probably about the best chance for broad reform we're going to have. It's just going to keep getting harder after that.

Nobody Really Cares about Political Predictions

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 10:05 AM PDT

Over at Salon, Jim Newell has a fun piece about all the stupid predictions that pundits made during the Republican primary campaign. There's obviously a lot of material to mine here, since every single prediction was wrong except for "Romney will eventually grind out a win." Does that mean the punditocracy is hopelessly stupid? Maybe. But I think Paul Waldman gets closer to the truth here:

U. Penn psychologist Philip Tetlock did a lengthy analysis of predictions in politics, and concluded that while most everyone is terrible at predictions, those who have one big idea that they apply to everything do far worse than those who incorporate a diversity of ideas and sources (the former are Isaiah Berlin's hedgehogs, the latter are foxes). Knowing how dangerous predictions can be has led me to be careful about tossing them around willy-nilly, but I've also noticed something else: People like predictions. When I've made an emphatic one, it tends to get more links and tweets. Whenever I see friends or relatives whom I haven't seen in a while, or meet someone who finds out what I do for a living, invariably I get asked what I think the outcome of the moment's political conflict is going to be.

I tend not to make too many predictions myself, though I confess that Romney's eventual victory seemed so obvious to me that I was always a bit flummoxed that so many people seemed so certain someone else would take him down. It's one thing to see people making lots of different predictions about, say, whether the eurozone will survive. That's a genuinely hard problem. But why were so many people willing to get on the bandwagon for Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry or Newt Gingrich? That's craziness.

But I think Paul has the answer: most pundits don't really care if they're right. It's not like they have any money riding on their predictions, after all. But predictions stir the pot, and unusual predictions stir the pot even more. This — controversy, provocation, contrarianism — is the coin of the realm for political pundits. Even among their peers they don't get any props for being right, since political reporters, in their heart of hearts, probably believe the whole enterprise is completely chaotic and inherently unpredictable in the first place.

I have to admit that I've always wondered how good my own prognostication skills are. No better than a coin flip, I'd guess, but the only way to find out for sure would be to plow through a year's worth of past posts and start grading them. There's no way I'm doing that, and there's certainly no incentive for anyone else to do it. That's true of everyone else too, which is why we never have a very good sense of who's a good forecaster and who isn't. It's because, really, we don't want to know. Hell, if someone did turn out to have a good record, we'd probably chalk it up to luck and then go on ignoring them. An accurate crystal ball just gets in the way of a good conversation, and that's the ultimate sin.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott Slashes Rape Counseling During Sexual Assault Awareness Month

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 9:05 AM PDT
Gov. Rick Scott

With a flick of his pen, Florida's tea party Republican governor, Rick Scott, used a line-item veto to cut funding to the state's rape crisis centers last week—in the middle of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The centers in all of Florida's 67 counties, coordinated by the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, are supported by a trust fund made up of fines levied on sexual offenders. But the fund, established in 2003, isn't yet large enough. "Fewer than 10% of sexual violence programs are able with current resources to provide the standard services identified as those most needed by rape victims," the group's site states. "As a result, many programs have waiting lists." 

The state legislature had approved $1.5 million to help close the gap so the centers could keep serving the approximately 700,000 women in Florida who've been victims of rape. But in reviewing the state's $70 billion budget, Scott decided last Tuesday that the .002 percent slated for the crisis centers was just too much. He used his line-item power to veto the funds, alongside $141 million in other cuts targeting a wide range of projects, including an indigent psychiatric medicine program, Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County, the Alzheimer's Family Care Center of Broward County, and a state settlement for child welfare case managers who were owed overtime. The entire list of vetoed programs is available here (PDF).

Why Wall Street Hates President Obama

| Tue Apr. 24, 2012 8:46 AM PDT

Brad DeLong writes today that the standard bargain between Democrats and Wall Street is simple: we might tax you a little more than Republicans, but in return we'll provide you with "competent economic management in striking contrast to that offered by the ideologically-blinded wingnuts who are the Republicans." And President Obama has done just that. So why do the lords of finance almost unanimously hate his guts these days?

A big part of it, I think, is that Obama was not just supposed to make things better: he was supposed to fix things — to bring things back to "normal"....[But] Obama did not fix things: Wall Street bankers today are a lot poorer than they were in mid-2007. And the Wall Street bankers think that Obama disses them. And the Wall Street bankers know that Obama wants to tax them.

I'm not sure I buy this. My sense is that Wall Street financiers, whatever their other blinders, take a pretty intellectual approach to the macroeconomy, and they know that the economy is doing about as well as they could have hoped back in 2008. The stock market is up, corporate profits are up, and bonuses have rebounded. From a purely self-interested financial point of view, I don't think very many of them are really dissatisfied with the Obama/Geithner/Bernanke regime.

So what is it? My guess is two things. First — and there's no point in pulling punches here — they're a bunch of spoiled brats. Over the past three decades they've gotten accustomed to the kind of deference normally offered to grand viziers of the Sublime Porte, and they're simply enraged at the fact that Obama not only doesn't seem very impressed by their accomplishments, but even criticizes them every once in a while. At this point, they have fully convinced themselves that (a) they weren't responsible for the 2008 crash in any way, (b) it's populist demagoguery to suggest otherwise, and (c) the government should stand with them against the rabble-rousers so that they have the freedom to run the world again. Obama doesn't quite agree — not totally, anyway — and that maddens them.

Which brings us to the second thing: regulation. Like a lot of business people, I think they hate regulation more than they hate reduced profits. They'll fight higher taxes, but in the end, that's a pure money thing and they're accustomed to winning and losing money battles. But regulation wounds them far more. It's a signal that they aren't to be trusted. It's a reminder that someone else can tell them what to do. It makes it harder to earn money from purely financial manipulation. Dodd-Frank and Basel III may, in the end, not be very stringent regulatory regimes, but they're still viewed as unfair punishment. And we all know how children react to punishment they view as unfair. They sulk.

In 2008 Wall Street somehow convinced itself that Obama understood them and would protect them from the mob. In reality, he's mostly done that. But he's only done it 80%, not 100%. That missing 20% is the reason they've turned on him like a pack of rabid dogs.