2012 - %3, November

3 Newsmakers Who Tried to Sneak One Past You Over Thanksgiving

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 6:52 AM PST

Every year, like clockwork, as we turn off the news and settle in for the turkey, someone drops inconvenient news in hopes it will get missed. Among this year's under-the-radar Thanksgiving newsmakers:

Jesse Jackson Jr. 

Jason Moore/ZUMAPressJason Moore/ZUMAPress

Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) barely campaigned for reelection, was MIA from Congress for much of the past year due to bipolar depression, and recently became the target of a federal criminal investigation, yet cruised to reelection in Chicago's 2nd District with 63 percent of the vote. But he ended up only staying a couple weeks. The 47-year-old resigned last Wednesday as you were piling into the car to go visit your sister. Jackson, who held the South Side seat for 17 years, was already under investigation by the House Ethics Committee over links to ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's attempts to auction off Obama's Senate seat in 2008. Then in October, the FBI launched another investigation over allegations he used campaign funds to spruce up his Chicago home. In his resignation letter, he said health problems forced him to step down, but he also acknowledged the federal probe for the first time: "I am doing my best to address the situation responsibly, cooperate with the investigators, and accept responsibility for my mistakes…None of us is immune from our share of shortcomings or human frailties, and I pray that I will be remembered for what I did right." Besides the letter, there was no official announcement of the resignation. Gov. Pat Quinn is expected to announce a date for a special election today.

 

The Pentagon

Jonathan Alcorn/ZUMAPressJonathan Alcorn/ZUMAPressAfter Osama bin Laden was killed on May 1, 2011, by a NAVY Seal team, his body was packed onto a helicopter and flown to the USS Carl Vinson, and he was buried at sea. But how did it really go down? That's what the Associated Press wanted to find out through a Freedom of Information Act request it filed with the Pentagon. The Defense Department complied on Thanksgiving eve, handing over a trove of heavily redacted emails in the first public disclosure of government information about bin Laden's death. The story the documents tell is that only a small group of the ship's leadership knew what was going on, according to the AP, and that officers used code to discuss whether the body had arrived on the aircraft carrier. "Any news on the package for us?" asked one. "FEDEX delivered the package," another responded. The grand high wizard of terror was also given a quite civil burial. According to the AP, one email read:

Traditional procedures for Islamic burial was followed. The deceased's body was washed (ablution) then placed in a white sheet. The body was placed in a weighted bag. A military officer read prepared religious remarks, which were translated into Arabic by a native speaker. After the words were complete, the body was placed on a prepared flat board, tipped up, whereupon the deceased's body slid into the sea.

The AP requested other materials, but the DOD told the news wire it couldn't find any photographs or video of bin Laden's body taken during the raid or on the ship, nor any documents related to pre-raid plans, nor a death certificate, autopsy report, or DNA identification tests results.

 

Rep. Scott DesJarlais

desjarlais.house.govdesjarlais.house.govIn October, anti-abortion Congressman Scott DesJarlais' (R-Tenn.) campaign hit a little bump in the road when court transcripts from his 14-year-old divorce emerged revealing that when he was chief of staff at a Tennessee hospital, he allegedly had affairs with two patients, three coworkers, and a drug company rep and pressured one of the patients to have an abortion. He also backed his first wife's decision to terminate at least one of her pregnancies. DesJarlais won reelection by 12 points. Now, in his first public comments since the release of the tapes—published on Thanksgiving—the congressman basically said it was all water under the bridge. In an interview with the Knoxville News Sentinel DesJarlais said he has no plans to resign over the controversy, and that he will run for reelection in 2014. DesJarlais told the News Sentinel that his views on abortion have evolved, and that in the past, it "was just not something that I put as much thought into as I should have." He continued, "I am human. I don't think I ever put myself out there to be somebody that was perfect. I put myself out there as somebody who wanted to serve the public."

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Why Raises For Walmart Workers Are Good For Everyone

| Mon Nov. 26, 2012 4:07 AM PST

Chances are you missed this particular bargain on Black Friday: Agree to spend 15 cents more on every shopping trip, and Walmart, Target, and other large retailers will agree to pay their workers at least $25,000 a year.

Big box retailers aren't actually offering that deal, but a new study by the liberal think tank Demos argues that it would be a great bargain for us all if they did. Increasing the average wage at large retailers from $21,000 to $25,000 would probably cost you less than $20 a year at the register yet lift some 1.5 million people out of poverty (including your cashier), create 100,000 new jobs, and boost GDP by some $13.5 billion. 

Demos argues that retailers would benefit, despite higher labor costs, because their low-wage employees could suddenly afford to buy more of the basic necessities that they scan and load into plastic bags every day.

If you are still wondering what's in it for you, however, then consider this tidbit from Sasha Abramsky:

In 2004, a year in which Walmart reported $9.1 billion in profits, the retailer's California employees collected $86 million in public assistance, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. Other studies have revealed widespread use of publicly funded health care by Walmart employees in numerous states. In 2004, Democratic staffers of the House education and workforce committee calculated that each 200-employee Walmart store costs taxpayers an average of more than $400,000 a year, based on entitlements ranging from energy-assistance grants to Medicaid to food stamps to WIC—the federal program that provides food to low-income women with children.

Seen through this lens, the worker protests that erupted after Thanksgiving at Walmart locations around the country might end up being the best Black Friday specials of them all. Think of them as 2-for-1 coupons: Spend more on wages now, improve the economy AND save us all lots of tax money down the roadmoney that we can spend instead on more important things, like, well, parachutes for our cats.

The Effect on the Rich of a $50,000 Deduction Cap

| Sun Nov. 25, 2012 7:49 PM PST

Greg Mankiw suggests that instead of letting the high-end Bush tax cuts expire, we keep the lower Bush rates on the wealthy but limit their deductions to $50,000:

According to the Tax Policy Center, if we cap itemized deductions at $50,000 and keep tax rates as they are today, we’d raise $749 billion in tax revenue over 10 years. And 96.2 percent of the extra revenue would come from the top fifth of taxpayers, with 79.9 percent from the top 1 percent.

It's an interesting idea. But how would this affect the very wealthiest taxpayers compared to simply letting the Bush tax cuts expire? I was curious, so I took a look at the distributional analysis done a few months ago by the Tax Policy Center.

President Obama has actually proposed several changes aimed solely at high earners. First, he'd let top marginal rates go back up to 36 percent and 39.6 percent. Second, he'd limit deductions and reinstate the personal exemption phaseout. Third, he'd let the long-term capital gains rate go back up to 20 percent and he'd tax dividends at the same rate as ordinary income. So what effect would all this have on earners in the top 1% and top 0.1%?

The first set of numbers was done in 2010, while the deduction cap analysis was done in 2012, so the figures probably aren't precisely comparable. But they're pretty close. Bottom line: Thanks to Obama's proposed changes in taxation of dividends and capital gains, the rich would do slightly worse under his plan than they would with a deduction cap, but not by much. Obama's proposal would also raise a bit more money, but again, not by much. (The Treasury calculates that sunsetting the Bush tax cuts on the rich would raise about $848 billion over ten years.) Lower the deduction cap to $40,000 and both proposals would be very nearly identical.

So assuming I've done the arithmetic correctly, it looks as if both proposals would have a pretty similar effect on the very rich and a pretty similar effect on federal revenue. There might actually be the seeds of a compromise available here.

Today's Football Question

| Sun Nov. 25, 2012 12:59 PM PST

I don't watch much pro football, so I hope everyone will excuse my ignorance here. But I turn on pro games every once in a while, and as near as I can tell, the new normal is that if a team is way ahead then the network just gives up on the game and switches coverage to a different and supposedly better game. Is this really true? Or am I imagining things? 

Black Friday Black Cat Blogging - 23 November 2012

| Fri Nov. 23, 2012 6:25 PM PST

I'm so embarrassed. I forgot about catblogging today. But better late than never, right? So here's Domino, eyes as wide as saucers for some reason or another, staring at something from the cat dimension that none of us mere humans can see. I think she's probably just thankful that she doesn't have to go out shopping today.

Today's Crazy Idea: Let's Get Rid of Tax Brackets for the Rich!

| Fri Nov. 23, 2012 10:46 AM PST

A few days ago I wrote a post about rich people who didn't understand how marginal tax rates worked, and therefore thought that under President Obama's plan they'd suddenly face a big hike in their tax bill as soon as they passed Obama's magic $250,000 threshold. Today I extend an abject apology to these people. That may not be how the tax code works now, but apparently it's not crazy to think that negotiators in Washington are discussing exactly that:

One possible change would tax the entire salary earned by those making more than a certain level — $400,000 or so — at the top rate of 35 percent rather than allowing them to pay lower rates before they reach the target, as is the standard formula....“Would you consider that a tax rate increase?” asked one aide familiar with the idea. “It would not impact the top marginal rate, and no one would have an effective rate over 35 percent.” But, he added, taxes would rise for the rich. He, like other aides, spoke on condition of anonymity because Congressional leaders want negotiations to be kept quiet.

A Democrat familiar with the proposal called it plausible, but said its future would depend on an official scoring of how much revenue it would raise. White House and Congressional aides “are looking at lots of creative options,” the Democrat said.

I'll make several observations here. First, it's crazy. Under this plan, when you crossed the magic threshold from $399,000 to $401,000, you'd suddenly owe about $30,000 in extra taxes. You really would have an incentive not to make more money if you were near that cutoff point. The dumb urban legend would become fact.

Second, it's a gift for the super rich at the expense of the merely ordinarily rich. It would have a big effect on someone making $400,000, but only a tiny effect on someone making, say, $10 million a year, since their effective tax rate would stay at 35%, instead of going up to 39.6% for the vast bulk of their earned income. This implies that Republicans are willing to throw the ordinarily rich under the bus in order to save the super rich.

Third, the Times article suggests something similar was part of the tax code "in the late 1980s." Really? I didn't know that. But if that's the case, I assume it didn't last long because, you know, it's crazy. Why would anyone think it's a good idea to resurrect this brain-dead idea?

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My Annual Black Friday Post

| Fri Nov. 23, 2012 4:08 AM PST

According to the retail industry, "Black Friday" is the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical that this is really the origin of the term? You should be. After all, the term Black ___day, in other contexts, has always signified something terrible, like a stock market crash or the start of the Blitz. Is it reasonable to think that retailers deliberately chose this phrase to memorialize their biggest day of the year?

Not really. But to get the real story, we'll have to trace its origins back in time. Here's a 1985 article from the Philadelphia Inquirer:

[Irwin] Greenberg, a 30-year veteran of the retail trade, says it is a Philadelphia expression. "It surely can't be a merchant's expression," he said. A spot check of retailers from across the country suggests that Greenberg might be on to something.

"I've never heard it before," laughed Carol Sanger, a spokeswoman for Federated Department Stores in Cincinnati…"I have no idea what it means," said Bill Dombrowski, director of media relations for Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. in Los Angeles…From the National Retail Merchants Association, the industry's trade association in New York, came this terse statement: "Black Friday is not an accepted term in the retail industry…"

Hmm. So as recently as 1985 it wasn't in common use nationwide. It was only in common use in Philadelphia. But why? If we go back to 1975, the New York Times informs us that it has something to do with the Army-Navy game. The gist of the story is that crowds used to pour into Philadelphia on the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop, they'd stay over to watch the game on Saturday, and then go home. It was the huge crowds that gave the day its bleak name.

If we go back yet another decade we can find a Philly reference as early as 1966. An advertisement that year in the American Philatelist from a stamp shop in Philadelphia starts out: "'Black Friday' is the name which the Philadelphia Police Department has given to the Friday following Thanksgiving Day. It is not a term of endearment to them. 'Black Friday' officially opens the Christmas shopping season in center city, and it usually brings massive traffic jams and over-crowded sidewalks as the downtown stores are mobbed from opening to closing."

But it goes back further than that. A couple of years ago I got an email from a Philadelphia reader who recalled the warnings he got from the older women at Wanamaker's department store when he worked there in 1971:

They warned me to be prepared for the hoards of obnoxious brats and their demanding parents that would alight from the banks of elevators onto the eighth floor toy department, all racing to see the latest toys on their way to visit Santa. The feeling of impending doom sticks with me to this day. The experienced old ladies that had worked there for years called it "Black Friday."

"For years." But how many years? Ben Zimmer collects some evidence that the term was already in common use by 1961 (common enough that Philly merchants were trying to change the term to "Big Friday"), and passes along an interview with Joseph Barrett, who recounted his role in popularizing the expression when he worked as a reporter in Philadelphia:

In 1959, the old Evening Bulletin assigned me to police administration, working out of City Hall. Nathan Kleger was the police reporter who covered Center City for the Bulletin. In the early 1960s, Kleger and I put together a front-page story for Thanksgiving and we appropriated the police term "Black Friday" to describe the terrible traffic conditions. Center City merchants complained loudly to Police Commissioner Albert N. Brown that drawing attention to traffic deterred customers from coming downtown. I was worried that maybe Kleger and I had made a mistake in using such a term, so I went to Chief Inspector Albert Trimmer to get him to verify it.

So all the evidence points in one direction. The term originated in Philadelphia in the 50s or earlier and wasn't in common use in the rest of the country until decades later. And it did indeed refer to something unpleasant: the gigantic Army-Navy-post-Thanksgiving day crowds and traffic jams, which both retail workers and police officers dreaded. The retail industry originally loathed the term, and the whole "red to black" fairy tale was tacked on sometime in the 80s by an overcaffeinated flack trying to put lipstick on a pig that had gotten a little too embarrassing for America's shopkeepers. The first reference that I've found to this usage was in 1982, and by the early 90s it had become the official story.

And today everyone believes it, which is a pretty good demonstration of the power of corporate PR. But now you know the real story behind Black Friday.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 22, 2012

Thu Nov. 22, 2012 10:51 AM PST

US Army Capt. Jacob Estrada, right, the security force commander for Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Farah, and Spc. Devont Perkins, a PRT Farah security team member, patrol a local shopping area during a key leader engagement in Farah City, on November 20, 2012. PRT Farah's mission is to train, advise and assist Afghan government leaders at the municipal, district and provincial levels in Farah Province, Afghanistan. Their civil military team is comprised of members of the US Navy, US Army, the US Department of State and the Agency for International Development (USAID). US Navy photo by HMC Josh Ives.

Thanksgiving Cat Blogging - 22 November 2012

| Thu Nov. 22, 2012 8:23 AM PST

Happy Thanksgiving from everyone in the Drum household! May all your dreams of turkey come true today.

Holiday Movies That Don't Suck

| Thu Nov. 22, 2012 4:08 AM PST
"OMG, honey, I'm so glad we rented 'Die Hard!'"

We're officially in the holiday season—which means there's secular Christmas pop music on every radio station, families hugging, good food being made (hopefully), weeping elf-slaves meeting the demands of online shopping, and, of course, holiday movies on every TV channel.

For family viewing, there are the obvious staples: Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life basically gets all the airtime in the world as Christmas approaches. Animated Disney and Pixar movies do well on TV this time of year. Charlie Brown, Kevin McCallister, and National Lampoon are also ubiquitous options.

Here are six family movies for the holidays that you might have overlooked—and another five holiday-ready flicks that you might want to watch without the kids:

Fantastic Mr. Fox: In 2009, director Wes Anderson took a critically acclaimed stab at stop-motion animation, and adapted Roald Dahl's (Scarlett Johansson-endorsed) children's book from 1970. George Clooney and Meryl Streep voice a married fox couple who go up against three mean-spirited farmers. The film's soundtrack also includes the Bobby Fuller Four, the Beach Boys, and "Street Fighting Man" by The Rolling Stones:

Meet Me in St. Louis: The 1944 classic, with Judy Garland being Judy Garland:

The Muppets: This came out last year, and featured a bunch of new original songs by Flight of the Conchords member Bret McKenzie. It is arguably the best Muppet movie ever. The film also provoked a depressingly hilarious conservative backlash. (Muppets have a long-running left-wing bias.)

Bolt: This 2008 computer-animated film is easy to write off as a Pixar knock-off. But it's actually got a lot of heart and visual oomph. Also, one of the main characters is a lovably delusional and insane hamster named Rhino, who does things like suggest snapping a security guard's neck:

The Last Waltz: It's never too early to introduce your small children to amazing music. Martin Scorsese's documentary captures The Band's star-studded farewell concert, which took place on Thanksgiving 1976. The film is rated PG and it's family-friendly, mostly because all the cocaine involved in the concert was edited-out. Here's a clip, this one of Eric Clapton jamming with The Band before a giddy audience:

The Absent-Minded Professor: This 1961 Disney picture provided the basis for the 1997 Robin Williams comedy Flubber. Here's the film in its entirety: