2010 - %3, May

BP Told to Stop Buying Off Coastal Residents

| Mon May 3, 2010 3:09 PM EDT

BP is already taking plenty of heat for the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. The company, meanwhile, doesn't seem to be doing itself any favors.

On Sunday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shut down all commercial and recreational fishing in the affected region of the Gulf for at least 10 days, impacting an industry that brings in $41 billion dollars every year and maintains 300,000 jobs. How'd BP respond? Anticipating lawsuits, the company got to work trying to buy off local fisherman—offering a one-time payout of $5,000 in return for an agreement indemnifying the company from future damages.

Via Yahoo News:

The company, which owns the destroyed gulf oil rig that is pumping millions of gallons of crude oil into the waters off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, has reportedly been pushing commercial fishermen pitching in with relief efforts to sign settlement agreements capping any claims against the oil giant at $5,000, and reining in future legal action arising from the spill.

The Globe and Mail reported that agreements circulated at an event in Venice, La. incliuded this line: "I hearby agree on behalf of myself and my representatives, to hold harmless and indemnify, and to release, waive, and forever discharge BP Exploration and Production Inc., its subsidiaries, affiliates, officers, directors, regular employees and independent contractors …"

The Mobile Press-Register reports that the Alabama attorney general Troy King has told BP representatives to stop circulating the settlement agreements. King cautioned that "people need to proceed with caution and understand the ramifications before signing something like that." A BP represenative now says that the line about waiving rights has been removed from the agreement, and would not be enforced on agreements that have already been signed.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

'School of Shock' Intl. Complaint Filed

| Mon May 3, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

The Judge Rotenberg Center, a private school that uses electric shocks to punish its special needs students, has been on quite the roll since we profiled it in 2007. Just a few months ago, the Department of Justice opened a federal investigation into the school's unorthodox practices. Now, an international human rights organization has filed an "urgent appeal" with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture. The group, Mental Disability Rights International, created a lengthy report called "Torture Not Treatment" that details the school's use of restraint boards, food deprivation, isolation, and electric shocks to keep its disabled and emotionally troubled students in line. "JRC is the only facility of any kind in the US—and perhaps the world—that uses electricity combined with long-term restraint and other punishments to intentionally cause pain to children with behavioral challenges and calls it treatment," said report author Laurie Ahern. To read the report in its entirety, click here (PDF).

Times Square Bomb: The Right's Nuttiest Theory

| Mon May 3, 2010 2:16 PM EDT

[Updated] This much we know: A US citizen born in Pakistan has been arrested for allegedly parking a Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square Saturday night, loaded with fertilizer that doesn't combust, a kid's alarm clock that likely didn't tick, several gallons of gas, some propane tanks, and a few M80 firecrackers. Attorney General Eric Holder has released a statement saying Shahzad was "taken into custody at JFK Airport in New York as he attempted to board a flight to Dubai." There's a lot we have yet to learn about what this news means, but it probably rules out one favorite conservative theory about the attempted bombing—that left-wing protesters took advantage of May Day (aka International Workers' Day) to make a big bang in New York's neon-soaked seat of capitalism. Even before the bomb was found, a blogger at Andrew Breitbart's Big Journalism blog unleashed a post titled: "Note To New York Times, MSNBC, WaPo and CNN: May Day Is Here and So Are the Actual Violent Protesters." (Your money quote: "Leftist May Day protesters are so cowardly, many of them wear masks during their rampages. Look for them in Los Angeles, as well as other major cities in America and Europe.") Another reminded his choir that environmentalists, not Tea Partiers, are the truly violent types.

The Elephant in the Room

| Mon May 3, 2010 1:45 PM EDT

Bloomberg reports on the course of financial reform:

A standoff over protecting consumers against shady lending practices is the biggest obstacle to Senate passage of the biggest redesign of U.S. financial regulations since the Great Depression.

Republicans have ended a logjam blocking Senate debate, and a federal fraud suit against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. gave new momentum for tougher Wall Street oversight. The most contentious issue remains a Democratic consumer-protection plan that Republicans say would give regulators unprecedented power over commercial lending and threaten economic growth.

It’s still “the elephant in the room” preventing a bipartisan agreement, said Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker. He has been involved in months of on-again, off-again negotiations with Democrats.

Huh. And here I thought resolution authority was the elephant in the room. Or was it derivatives reform that was the elephant in the room?

Or maybe it's really all three. There's always another elephant in the room, isn't there?

Quote of the Day: Hiding the Housing Bubble

| Mon May 3, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

From Alan Greenspan, arguing in a 2004 Fed meeting that arguments about a possible housing bubble should be kept private:

We run the risk, by laying out the pros and cons of a particular argument, of inducing people to join in on the debate, and in this regard it is possible to lose control of a process that only we fully understand.

Italics mine. So how'd that work out for you, Alan?

UPDATE: I've been had. Greenspan wasn't talking about the housing bubble, he was talking about a discussion of the Fed's communication policy. Apologies.

The GOP and Immigration Reform

| Mon May 3, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Ron Brownstein recaps how the explosive growth of nativism on the right has torpedoed any chance for immigration reform:

Just four years ago, 62 U.S. senators, including 23 Republicans, voted for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal aliens....In 2007, Senate negotiators tilted the bill further to the right on issues such as border enforcement and guest workers. And yet, amid a rebellion from grassroots conservatives against anything approaching "amnesty," just 12 Senate Republicans supported the measure as it fell victim to a filibuster.

....For months, Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., have been negotiating an enforcement-legalization plan that largely tracks the 2006 model with some innovative updates....Yet it has been stalled for weeks because Graham had demanded that a second Republican sign on as a co-sponsor before the legislation is released, and none stepped forward.

I remember being astonished by the collapse of the GOP on this subject in 2006. It wasn't an issue I followed closely, and I vaguely figured it seemed like a pretty good bet for passage. But then, seemingly out of nowhere (to a lamestream-media-reading liberal like me, anyway) opposition among the base just exploded. It was like watching the tea parties in action opposing healthcare reform during the 2009 summer recess. The Republican leadership caved in to rabid fearmongering, Hispanics defected en masse to the Democratic Party, and the entire topic has been radioactive ever since. If you want to know what's happened to the Republican Party over the last decade or so, this is it in a nutshell.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bad News on Net Neutrality

| Mon May 3, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

Last month a federal court ruled that the FCC has no authority to enforce net neutrality rules on broadband internet providers. That was a setback, but hardly an insurmountable one: the FCC could overcome it simply by reclassifying broadband internet as a "telecom service," which would leave no doubt about its regulatory authority. Today that option became a lot less likely:

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to respond soon to the court ruling. Three sources at the agency said Genachowski has not made a final decision but has indicated in recent discussions that he is leaning toward keeping in place the current regulatory framework for broadband services but making some changes that would still bolster the FCC's chances of overseeing some broadband policies.

The sources said Genachowski thinks "reclassifying" broadband to allow for more regulation would be overly burdensome on carriers and would deter investment. But they said he also thinks the current regulatory framework would lead to constant legal challenges to the FCC's authority every time it attempted to pursue a broadband policy.

Well, reclassifying broadband would be more burdensome on carriers. That's the whole point. And investment in existing telecom companies doesn't seem to have suffered much from the FCC's heavy hand. After all, reclassified or not, the FCC is still allowed to show some discretion in which rules it applies and how it applies them.

Still, Genachowski might be right. Quite possibly, neither classification is really ideal given the existing state of the industry. That's why the best bet is, as it always has been, to have Congress step in. I don't know if they should change the classification rules set down in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, but they could certainly impose net neutrality rules across the board without touching them if they wanted to. They should get cracking on this.

Harry Reid's Health Care Ads

| Mon May 3, 2010 11:23 AM EDT

Harry Reid, the Democrats' Senate Majority Leader, faces a tough reelection fight back in Nevada this fall. He's in big trouble in the polls—TPM's poll average has him trailing Sue Lowden, the likely GOP nominee, 52.6 percent to 38.3 percent. These are terrible numbers for an incumbent, and they mean Reid will probably lose. Nate Silver, the polling guru, gives the Republicans a nearly 80 percent chance of picking up the seat. All that said, it's not over 'til it's over. Reid has an immense war chest, and has threatened to spend as much as $25 million on the election. The Democrats will certainly pull out all the stops to save him. And now that health care reform has passed the House and the Senate and been signed into law, Reid has something big to run on. So (to borrow a Vegas-related phrase) he's going all-in, running ads that tie him explicitly to health care reform. They're actually pretty good:

Reid's clearly counting on the passage of health care reform to help him get through his toughest reelection battle yet. He's focusing on the aspects of reform that kick in right away—like the tax credits for small businesses that offer health insurance to their employees—and hoping people give him credit for making their lives a little bit easier. Expect to see a lot more messaging like this from Dems across the country as November draws near.

Mickey and the Unions

| Mon May 3, 2010 11:05 AM EDT

Some guy named Robert "Mickey" Kaus has an op-ed in the LA Times today. Apparently he's "a blogger and the author of The End of Equality," as well as "a candidate for U.S. senator in the Democratic primary." How about that.

And guess what? To go along with the more decorous name, we also have a more decorous Mickey. The op-ed is basically his usual anti-union spiel, but pitched to persuade the median liberal LA Times reader. For example, check this out:

I don't mean we should embrace the right-wing view that unions are always wrong. Unions have done a lot for this country; they were especially important when giant employers tried to take advantage of a harsh economy in the last century, not only to keep down wages but to speed up assembly lines and, worse, force workers to risk their lives and health. If you think about it, unions have been the opposite of selfish. By modern standards they've been stunningly altruistic, lobbying for job safety rules and portable pensions and Social Security and all sorts of government services that, if they were really selfish, they might have opposed, because if the government will guarantee that your workplace is safe and your retirement is secure, well, then you don't need a union so much, do you?

Huh. It's been a while since I've heard Mickey make any concessions like that. What's more, when he's in this mode, I don't even find very much to disagree with in the rest of his piece. Union work rules did explode out of control in the 50s and 60s. Teachers shouldn't be effectively impossible to fire. Pensions for California state employees, especially public safety workers, are pretty rich. On the other hand, he also writes this:

When I was growing up in West L.A., practically everyone went to public schools, even in the affluent neighborhoods. Only the discipline cases, the juvenile delinquents, went off to a military academy. It was vaguely disreputable. Now any parent who can afford it pays a fortune for private school. The old liberal ideal of a common public education has been destroyed. And it's been destroyed in large part not by Republicans but by teachers unions.

You know, the first area of the country to ditch public schools en masse was....the South. And the area of the country with the weakest teachers unions is....the South. It wasn't teachers unions that drove parents out of public schools in LA. It was mostly a combination of court-ordered busing, massive growth in the number of low-income students, and plain old racism. If unions played a role, it was a pretty modest one.

Still, I agree that job protection regs got out of hand long ago. Ditto for work rules and public sector pensions. If you stick to that stuff but maintain strong and genuine support for the role of unions in bargaining for wages, benefits and basic working conditions in the private sector, then I'm pretty much on board. Unfortunately, the union bashers never stop there. No matter how reasonable they sometimes sound, what they really want is the end of unions. And I'm not on board with that.

Take Me Back to New Orleans

| Mon May 3, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

I got a little choked up finally watching the pilot of Treme last night.

It wasn't when the Mardi Gras Indian chief walks into his flood-destroyed house for the first time and his shoulders fall like my best friend collapsed in sobs on the sidewalk after she'd broken down the swollen wooden door to her apartment in late 2005. It wasn't when the restaurant owner tries to take a shower in the morning but can't get water pressure, just like I had to turn my faucet on half an hour before I could splash around in just a few inches of water in my cast iron tub, even in the spring of 2006. It was actually when the fiery professor played by John Goodman says he won't eat lemon ice until Brocato's opens. It's apparently a very emotional subject for me, gelato. Angelo Brocato's was right by where I lived, and if you ever had this gelato, you might almost cry too.

The reason I was catching up on Treme, besides its general awesomeness, is that I'm on my way to New Orleans on assignment today. I don't know that there is an emoticon or number of exclamation points that would adequately express my excitement about posting from the Crescent City. I'll be talking with exploited strippers, heroic and besieged public defenders, the guy who plays the bicycle-rickshaw driver in upcoming episodes of Treme. I'll revisit the restoration situation of the key public university, my alma mater, the University of New Orleans (hint: it's not good). Don't be surprised by a drunken, guiltily post about what a pussy I feel like for frantically moving, in the summer of 2006, right before the first post-Katrina hurricane season started. All while possibly puking up gas fumes! How thrilling! Fingers crossed for a trip to an oyster reef covered in BP's leaking crude. A friend of mine suggested some weekend kayaking, to which I responded that if he could locate some oil-befouled sensitive marsh or wetland area in Plaquemines Parish, that'd be perfect.

"We can't just go to a [clean] swamp and have a nice time?" he asked.

Nope.

So I've packed for most of the rest of May. When I was getting things together, my friend the kayak enthusiast warned me that the sky was completely black, with super dense and dark cloud cover but not a drop of rain. "It's like the end of the world here," he said.

"It's okay," I said. It's a completely empty, throwaway phrase, and I wasn't speaking to the encompassing, capital It, but still he paused, standing there in a house on a street that's still mostly deserted, surrounded again by a flurry of national and international headlines in a city where attention so often fails to lead to necessary action, then said, "Well. It's not okay."

Okay, it isn't. Still. I can't wait to touch down at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International tonight and get to work. I'll try to keep the ice-cream weeping to a minimum. Maybe.