Tim Murphy

Tim Murphy

Reporter

Tim Murphy is a senior reporter in MoJo's DC bureau. His writing has been featured in Slate and the Washington Monthly. Email him with tips and insights at tmurphy [at] motherjones [dot] com.

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Herman Cain's Chilean Model, Explained

| Mon Sep. 12, 2011 8:56 PM EDT

For the second consecutive Republican president debate, pizza mogul and talk radio host Herman Cain has suggested the "Chilean Model" as a way to fix Social Security. Never mind that it's Medicare, not Social Security, whose runaway costs pose a long-term threat to the nation's fiscal health—what the heck is the Chilean Model? And do we want it?

As it happens, we've been down this path before. It was 2005, and then-President Bush was floating a proposal to privatize Social Security—to ensure, he explained, that it would still be there for future generations. Bush turned to the Chilean model, which itself was a product of the Chicago School of Economics, brought to South America by economist Milton Friedman. Here's how Barbara Dreyfuss explained it in a MoJo piece that year:

With labor's political power in check, [former labor minister José] Piñera focused on privatizing the pension system. He saw as his biggest obstacle the "tenacious belief that Social Security could and should be an effective vehicle for the redistribution of wealth." The new system, adopted in 1981, required all new workers to sign up for private pension accounts and offered financial incentives for those in the public retirement system to switch.

The transition was expensive and funded by slashing government programs, selling off state-owned industries, selling bonds to the new pension funds, and raising taxes. Privatization costs, which also included a government subsidy for workers unable to accumulate enough in their private accounts to guarantee a minimum income in retirement, averaged more than 6 percent of Chile's gross domestic product in the 1980s and are expected to average more than 4 percent of GDP each year until 2037.

But while the reform's supporters argue it has been a major success story, officials both inside and outside Chile now increasingly question whether the high costs and modest investment returns have doomed Piñera's original promise: a decent retirement income for workers at a savings for the government. Last year, the World Bank, which until recently encouraged countries to privatize pensions, published a highly skeptical report on private retirement systems in Latin America; Truman Packard, one of the report's authors, says the bank has told the Chilean government that it must spend more to subsidize the private system and "increase its role in preventing old-age poverty."

The full piece is worth your time. Check it out.

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Anti-Gay Heavy Metal Pastor Pens Open Letter to Obama

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 3:35 PM EDT

Minnesota heavy-metal evangelist Bradlee Dean is currently suing Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, and the Minnesota Independent for $50 million for accurately quoting his statements that homosexuality is a criminal activity with no place in public life. We first wrote about him because of his ties to Rep. Michele Bachmann, who has spoken at fundraisers for Dean's ministry, You Can Run But You Cannot Hide, and prayed for the group to multiply tenfold and spread across Minnesota like "burning incense." Shortly thereafter, he was invited to deliver the opening prayer at the Minnesota State House—an opportunity he used to allege that President Obama was our first non-Christian president. Hey, it's a theory that's out there.

Anyway, while he prepares for what is sure to be the trial of the century, Dean has decided to write an open letter to President Obama. It begins:

Courtesy of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide InternationalCourtesy of You Can Run But You Cannot Hide InternationalDean goes on to promote his ministry, which involves traveling to public schools on the taxpayer dime to encourage students to find Christ, and takes the President to task for his appointment of a gay man, Kevin Jennings, to a post as Safe Schools Czar. It's our generation's "Letters from a Farmer in Pennsylvania," but not, really. The full text, via Dump Bachmann, is here.

The Far-Reaching Consequences of Perry and Willingham

| Fri Sep. 9, 2011 11:43 AM EDT
Texas Governor Rick Perry overhauled the Texas Forensic Science Commission in 2005 as it was on the verge of concluding that Cameron Todd Willingham's conviction was based on bad science.

Adam and I both wrote on Thursday about Texas Governor Rick Perry's decision to go forward with the 2004 execution of Cameron Todd Willingham (in the face of evidence that called into question his guilt) and then kneecap the newly created state commission that seemed to be on the verge of blowing the lid off the whole thing. From a purely political standpoint, it speaks to Perry's judgment and diligence, as well as his respect for scientific process; in this case, the arson science that had been used to convict Willingham for murdering his three kids had been refuted by the time his execution date rolled around.

But the Willingham decision didn't just impact Cameron Todd Willingham; it actually set a precedent that will have a far-reaching effect. That's because, in the process of overhauling the Texas Forensic Science Commission just as it was set to produce a report extremely damaging to his administration, he appointed a new chair: John Bradley, a district attorney whose record was so controversial he was later removed from the TFSC post by the Republican state senate. As the Texas Observer's Dave Mann explains, Bradley took the odd step—likely as a way of wasting time—of asking the state's Republican attorney general to officially weigh in on whether the commission even had jurisdiction to evaluate cases that were decided before the commission was formed.

Given the circumstances by which it was conceived—given the stated goals of the legislators who drafted the law that created the commission—you might say that the entire point of the commission was to investigate cases that had already happened. But instead, the AG's office, taking advantage of a loosely worded mission statement, ruled that the commission could only offer non-binding recommendations, and only on cases that came after 2005. Here's Mann:

This afternoon, the commission considered new cases that involved flawed forensic evidence. It quickly became apparent how constricted the commission is following the recent opinion from the Texas attorney general's office.

The commission rejected a half-dozen complaints, including three allegedly flawed arson cases, because they weren't within its jurisdiction—at least as recently interpreted by the AG. The AG this summer ruled that the commission doesn't have authority to investigate cases before 2005.

The three arson cases all occurred before then. So even though the cases apparently contained serious problems—and would otherwise have been investigated—the commission was forced to dismiss them because of "jurisdictional issues," as Chair Nizam Peerwani put it.

This matters because, as he notes, there are a handful of arson cases, pre-2005, that were almost certainly based on bad science. Arson science changed dramatically over the last two decades; the process used to lock people up in the late 1990s is the forensic equivalent of alchemy.

Update: Yup, the TFSC met on Friday and affirmed that Abbot's ruling prevents them from investigating pre-2005 cases. But via the Statesman, it's not all bad:

The state fire marshal's office has agreed to review prior arson investigations to determine if criminal convictions were obtained using bad science or now-debunked assumptions, it was announced Friday.

The review was a key concession sought by the Texas Forensic Science Commission as part of its investigation into the science used to convict, and ultimately execute, Cameron Todd Willingham for the 1991 fire that killed his three young daughters...

Uncomfortable that a poor understanding of fire science could have influenced other investigations, the commission's Willingham report also urged Fire Marshal Paul Maldonado to review his agency's files.

Maldonado agreed to the review earlier this week, Forensic Science Commission Chairman Nizam Peerwani announced Friday.

Chart of the Day: The Federal Sentencing Gap

| Thu Sep. 8, 2011 11:57 AM EDT

The U.S Sentencing Commission has released a new report detailing trends in federal sentencing over the past five years. There's a good deal to sort through, but one big takeaway is that for the first time ever, the majority of federal felony convictions involved Hispanics—even though they make up just 16 percent of the total population. Here's a chart showing the figures:

Data from U.S. Sentencing Commission.: Chart by Tim MurphyData from U.S. Sentencing Commission. Chart by Tim Murphy

There's a pretty clear explanation for this. As the Associated Press notes:

The commission's statistics also reveal that sentences for felony immigration crimes — which include illegal crossing and other crimes such as alien smuggling — were responsible for most of the increase in the number of Hispanics sent to prison over the last decade.

On the other hand, we've seen a boom in the private corrections industry in response to the spike in immigration-related offenses. So don't expect anyone to actually do anything about this.

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