Alex Park

Alex Park

Writing Fellow

Alex Park is a recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. His work has been published in PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, Time.com, and the Believer.

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A recent graduate of the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Alex Park is an investigative journalist with an interest in global agriculture. He has blogged in South Africa and reported on Cyprus, and in college he published an award-winning paper on a 2008 period of anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, since cited in academic works. Currently, his interests lie explaining complex social systems—be they governments, conflicts, trade patterns, or waves of immigration—for a general audience. His work has been published on PBS/MediaShift, New America Media, allAfrica.com, the Believer, and Time.com

AK-47 Manufacturer Fires Back at US Over Sanctions

| Fri Jul. 18, 2014 11:56 AM EDT
Everybody's favorite assault rifle.

When the US imposed more sanctions on Russia this week, some US gun owners assumed the move was a targeted assault on their constitutional rights. It's not. But according to Rostec, the Russian government-owned company whose Kalashnikov subsidiary makes the AK-47, the assault rifle will be much harder to come by for US customers. After Rostec was added to the sanctions list, it fired back. "For Kalashnikov...the US is an important market for selling arms," a spokesman told ITAR-TASS, a Russian government news agency. "It should be noted that the Kalashnikov products are very popular in the US... This means that the sanctions the US Administration has imposed on Kalashnikov contravene the interests of US consumers."

AK-47's, which are cheap and durable (though not terribly accurate), are the world's most popular gun. As many as 100 million have been produced since its debut in 1947—by Kalashnikov and a multitude of imitators in China and Eastern Europe. Kalashnikov's fully-automatic models are illegal to own in the United States without a special permit. But the semi-automatic version are regulated under the same patchwork of state and local laws that regulate hunting rifles. In recent years, as the Russian military has reduced its orders, Kalashnikov has shifted its focus away from the full-auto weapons and toward semi-automatic models for the gun enthusiast market in the United States.

Kalashnikov's Russian logo Wikimedia Commons

The new sanctions cut off the supply of AK-47s from the factory source, but gun stores with an old inventory and gun owners with one to spare are free to go about their business as before. The only caveat is that Kalashnikov can't make any money off the deal.

In an unsigned statement posted on its website, Rostec notes that its analysts are conducting a "full study" of the impact of the new sanctions on its business, and argues that sanctions are putting its partnerships with US businesses at risk: "Now it is possible to say that the measures taken by Washington will have a negative impact on the cooperation of several Russian and American companies, threatening to undermine mutual trust," the company maintains.

The AK issue came up during a State Department media briefing on Thursday. Asked if the Kalashnikov sanctions would affect customers in the US, spokeswoman Jen Psaki responded, "We take into account the impact on the United States, on US businesses and consumers, and certainly we feel that peace and political stability and respect for international law are of critical importance to the global economy and to US businesses."

Kalashnikov's exclusive US importer, RWC Group, has not yet issued a statement.

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New Study: Lobbying Doesn't Help Company Profits—But It's Great For Executive Pay

| Fri Jul. 11, 2014 3:00 AM EDT

Who really profits when companies drop millions on lobbying? A new paper by Russell Sobel and Rachel Graefe-Anderson of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University suggests a surprising answer: Corporate America's record expenditures on political influence may be doing little for the companies doing the spending, but a lot for their executives' pocketbook.

"Our main finding suggests that the top executives of firms are the ones who are able to capture the benefits of firm political connections," the paper says. The researchers mined a trove of PAC contributions and lobbying data from the Center for Responsive Politics and matched it with a variety of standard corporate performance indicators. They found that no matter how much lobbying or political contributions a company pays for, there's almost no significant rise in the company's overall performance—but executive compensation does rise significantly. The only exceptions were the banking and finance industries, where companies also appear to gain some benefits.

Regardless of who benefits, influence spending still registers in the billions of dollars: As the chart below shows, the amount of money spent on lobbying annually more than doubled to $3.3 billion between 1998 and 2013. In 2012 alone, the two leading spenders, the pharmaceuticals and insurance sectors, dropped more than $409 million on lobbying and more than $107 million on political contributions.

 

The Legacy of the Hobby Lobby Case: Protecting Anti-Gay Discrimination?

| Wed Jul. 9, 2014 6:49 PM EDT
A protester patiently awaits the Hobby Lobby decision outside the Supreme Court

In his majority opinion in the recent Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito took pains to frame the ruling, exempting companies from complying with Obamacare's contraceptive mandate if it violated the religious beliefs of their owners, as a narrow one. But gay and civil rights groups have long warned that a decision permitting such a religious exemption could have broad ramifications, potentially allowing employers to discriminate against gays. Now, their fears may be coming to pass.

"What we've seen since last week's decision came down is that opponents of LGBT equality have pushed a misreading of that decision as having broadly endorsed discrimination against people, including LGBT people in the workplace," says Ian Thompson, a legislative representative for the American Civil Liberties Union.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, told Mother Jones that the Hobby Lobby ruling "opens the door for corporations to discriminate against anyone that doesn't look, sound, or share the religious beliefs that they do. This isn't a business agenda; it's an extreme social agenda and it is deeply unpopular with the American people."

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