Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, Men's Journal, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndyKroll.

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Homes: Underwater and Sinking Fast

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:15 PM EDT

Although a few glimmers of hope for the housing market have shown through as of late, several new reports concerning houses with "underwater" mortgages—when a homeowner owes more than the total value of his or her home—foresee bleak times that could undermine a full economic recovery.

Moody's Economy.com found that 24 percent of all US homes are currently underwater, a 15 percent jump from a year ago, while 8 percent of homes have debt equal to the home's value. Online real estate site Zillow similarly calculated in its own report that 23 percent of homes were underwater. A Moody's analyst told The Washington Independent that her firm's findings mean about 16 million homes are underwater, adding that "Home prices have increased in the last month or two but I think it's too early to call an end to the downturn." More ominous, though, is a recent projection by Deutsche Bank that a whopping 48 percent of all US home mortgages will be underwater or "upside-down" by early 2011.

The fear with these kinds of statistics is that they'll stunt a more vigorous economic rebound here in the US. The housing market—as the Great Housing Meltdown so painfully illustrated—is inextricably linked to broader economic health, and if staggering totals of underwater mortgages continue to pile up, that will seriously blunt recovery efforts to turn the economy around, like stimulus spending. It also doesn't help that the goverment's mortgage relief efforts—like the largely flawed Home Affordable Modification Program—have done little so far, as the recent Hope Now statistics show.

Yet apart from these relief programs, experts admit that the only way to deal with underwater mortgages is to sit back and wait—which doesn't bode well for a V-shaped recovery anytime soon. (Think more of a W.) "For the most part, we have to let it happen. We needed a correction," Deutsche Bank’s Karen Weaver told The Washington Independent. "And, as we let the crisis play out, shore up the rest of the economy with low rates and government stimulus."

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Music Monday: Dirtbombs, Dengue, TV on the Radio Top Outside Lands

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 6:30 AM EDT

San Francisco’s Outside Lands festival, spanning Friday through Sunday here in idyllic Golden Gate Park, had something of a split personality disorder. The festival’s two main stages, as this map shows, occupy opposite ends of the festival’s vigilantly guarded fenced-off area—and as far as Friday and Saturday’s shows went, the contrast in each stage’s fare couldn’t be more stark.

On Friday, rockers of various stripes held court at the main stage at the Polo Field, from Built to Spill and Silversun Pickups to Incubus and headliners Pearl Jam. Several singers at the main stage, however, were snake-bit that first day, it seemed—both Incubus’ Brandon Boyd and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sounded hoarse, and both limped through their sets and called on the crowd for help more times than I could count. But while Incubus was hardly spectacular (like their more recent albums), Pearl Jam tore through hit after hit, especially in the set’s second half, when Vedder seemed to loosen up a bit and the crowd chimed in plenty.

A Weekend of Rebellious Rock 'n' Roll Brought to You by...

| Mon Aug. 31, 2009 2:18 AM EDT

The girl nervously watched as the tattoo formed on her hand, a small, colorful flower in the fleshy crook between her thumb and forefinger. Up close, though, the flower’s shape came into focus: It was actually a stem and bulb formed by the silhouettes of tiny cars. Mid-size sedans, actually. That’s because this particular tent, peddling not just tattoos but bandanas and gift bags, was Toyota's “Prius Spot” tent, one of several scattered around this past weekend's Outside Lands festival in San Francisco. A tricked-out version of the popular hybrid sat parked inside.

I asked the flower girl’s boyfriend why anyone would want a flower made of sedans or an automaker's name inked on their hand. He shrugged. "It’s only temporary, right?"

Others stepped up for tattoos of their own, choosing between the Camry-inspired flower or a tangle of barbs encircling Toyota’s logo with the name “TOYOTA” emblazoned underneath. Indeed, a winged skull with the Toyota logo was among the most popular tattoos of the day, one of the inkers told me.

Needless to say, the ploy took branding to a whole new level.

Like that girl’s hand, just about every other inch of this weekend’s Outside Lands festival was “Presented by” or “Courtesy of” or sponsored in some capacity by a corporation or company. It was brand overload all weekend (at least for me), the staggering number of companies' names plastered throughout the festival's grounds staggering.

Will Salazar Save Alaskan Watershed?

| Thu Aug. 27, 2009 9:35 PM EDT

The battle over the fate of the Bristol Bay watershed in southwestern Alaska—one of the most abundant sources of salmon in the world, a boon to local native towns, and home to some of the largest untapped gold mines in the country—staggers on. In its waning days, the Bush administration submitted a plan to open up a million acres of the region to mining projects and oil and gas leasing. But in the latest development, a cadre of sportsmen and conservation groups are petitioning the Obama administration to ban those operations. They recently sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar expressing fear that the projects could damage the local fishing industry and leech the harmful, toxic kind of waste generated by industrial mines into the surrounding ecosystems. "We look forward to working with the BLM as we move quickly to reverse the wrong-headed decisions that were made in the closing months of the last administration and implement a common sense plan for fish and wildlife in Bristol Bay," the letter says, the AP reported.

This tussle over the fate of Bristol Bay isn't new. Indeed, one of the most incisive and vivid accounts of a similar struggle over the Pebble Mine, near the BLM's proposed mining area, appeared here in 2006, in a piece titled "The Midas Touch" by Kenneth Miller. Miller traveled to isolated Igiugig, Alaska to see the forces and characters at play (like fisherman, lodge owner, and former pro hockey player Brian Kraft) in this saga. He described their problem like this:

Kraft’s attachment to this stretch of clear, swift water goes deeper than the bottom line. “This river is a powerful living thing,” he tells me, a note of awe softening his usually blunt delivery. “It’s alive, and it’s carrying life. It’s in my blood.” It is also, he says, under mortal threat. At the north end of Iliamna Lake, a company called Northern Dynasty Mines aims to unearth what may be the largest gold deposit—and the second-largest copper deposit—in North America. The proposed Pebble Mine complex would cover some 14 square miles. It would require the construction of a deepwater shipping port in Cook Inlet, 95 miles to the east, and an industrial road—skirting Lake Clark National Park and Preserve and traversing countless salmon-spawning streams—to reach the new harbor. At the site’s heart would be an open pit measuring two miles long, a mile and a half wide, and 1,700 feet deep. Over its 30- to 40-year lifetime, the Pebble pit is projected to produce more than 42.1 million ounces of gold, 24.7 billion pounds of copper, 1.3 billion pounds of molybdenum—and 3 billion tons of waste.

More than three years later, it remains to be seen whether the Pebble Mine or the larger mining area under review by the BLM will get the green light or not. The latter decision, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman told the Anchorage Daily News, rests in Salazar's hands now. As Miller points out, the consequences of allowing more industrial mining into Bristol Bay could be disastrous not just to the environment, but to life as those who live there know it. Here's hoping Salazar is bearing that in mind.

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