2010 - %3, September

The Mind of America

| Tue Sep. 7, 2010 1:32 AM EDT

A new Washington Post poll is out. Selected questions are shown below. Summary: Americans trust Democrats more to handle the country's problems, they think Democrats represent their values better, they think Democrats are more concerned with the needs of people like them, and they think Democrats deserve to be reelected at a higher rate than Republicans. They also think (though I didn't show it below) that George Bush is substantially more to blame for our economic woes than Barack Obama.

And the result of all this? They say they plan to vote for Republicans by landslide numbers. It's the economy, stupid.

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The View From My Windshield: Hook 'em, Shorthorns

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 11:45 PM EDT

Marfa Marfa Marfa: Marfa Shorthorns at Alpine Bucks, 9/3/2010 (Photo: Tim Murphy)Marfa Lights: Marfa Shorthorns at Alpine Bucks (Photo: Tim Murphy).Alpine, Texas—It's a little cliched to say that high school football is kind of a big deal in Texas. There's a book about it. And a TV show. And a movie—two, actually, if you count James Van Der Beek's receding hairline in Varsity Blues. So I'll spare you the exposition on how football budgets dwarf English department budgets (I mean, have you ever read Beowulf?), on how Friday night games can become culture war hot zones, on how everything just means so dang much.

Instead, I'd just like to note three small details:

1.) When Marfa High School's marching band took the field at halftime of "the West Texas Rivalry" at Alpine on Friday night, its drumline consisted entirely of Shorthorns players still in uniform. Which was awesome.

2.) Any time a player went down due to injury, everyone—everyonein uniform immediately dropped to one knee with an almost martial discipline and stayed like that until the afflicted got back up.

3.) The idea of Frito Pie (in the case of the Alpine High School concession stand, that's "a bag of Fritos smothered in processed nacho cheese") is one of the four or five greatest arguments for health care reform. I'm not sure why President Obama doesn't talk about this more.

Working the Refs

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 12:09 PM EDT

Is the GOP paying for ad space on the Washington Post's front page these days? Check out this story today:

Small businesses feel squeezed by Obama policies

Last year, even as he struggled through the worst of the recession, Chris Upham said revenue at his District-based real estate and construction businesses doubled — allowing him to hire two agents.

But Upham said he hasn't increased his staff thus far in 2010 and he doesn't expect to for the remainder of the year. That's because his taxes rose sevenfold.

....The White House appears poised to respond to a growing backlash from businesspeople about the crush of higher taxes. Among the ideas being explored were a temporary payroll-tax holiday and permanent extension of the expired research-and-development tax credit, ways to offset the impending elapse of tax cuts for the top 2 percent of households.

Italics mine. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with running a story about higher taxes or new regulations, but only if there really are higher taxes or new regulations to complain about. However, the story has nothing — literally nothing — about any recent tax increases on businesses. I have no idea why Upham's taxes rose, but I can only guess that perhaps he paid virtually nothing last year and then paid seven times that much this year as his income went up. So maybe his taxes went from $100 to $700, or something like that. But who knows? Post reporter V. Dion Haynes just credulously quoted Upham and apparently didn't bother to ask anything further. So we have no idea where these illusory new taxes are coming from.

As for regulations, that's equally mysterious. Upham himself suggests that his hiring plans are due more to a real estate slowdown caused by the end of the homebuyer's tax credit than anything else. So what else is there? We're told that Obama's small business loan program has been "wildly popular." We're told that hiring mostly depends on boosting consumer spending. We're introduced to Luc Brami, who was delighted with the $9,000 payroll tax break he got from an Obama program to spur hiring of the unemployed. We're told that, "In all, the administration has implemented about a dozen small-business programs, including a health-care tax credit; more opportunities for women business owners to receive government contracts; and cuts in capital gains taxes."

So where's the actual problem? Well, there's a quote from a flack for the right-wing National Federation of Independent Business complaining about future provisions from healthcare reform. There's another quote from a flack complaining about a new regulation regarding 1099 reporting requirements. And there's a guy from a government contracting firm who doesn't plan to take advantage of the payroll tax break because it doesn't offset the entire salary of a new employee.

That's it. The 1099 thing is probably legit, but aside from that there are no new taxes documented in the piece and no evidence of burdensome new regulations. None. So what's going on? Surely if things were as bad as the flacks say they are, it would have been pretty easy to find plenty of good examples? Especially since I'm sure it was the flacks who produced the business owners quoted in the story in the first place.

Ladies and gentlemen, modern American journalism.

Obama's Teeny Tiny Stimulus

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 11:27 AM EDT

Barack Obama celebrates Labor Day:

President Obama on Monday is to call for as much as $50 billion in government spending to start up a long-term public works plan emphasizing transportation projects — roads, rail and airport runways — over the next six years.

....While Mr. Obama’s plan would call for investment over six years, the White House says it would be front-loaded with an initial investment of $50 billion in taxpayer money, to help create jobs in the shorter term. The administration says it would work with Congress to find ways to pay for the plan, so that it would not add to the nation’s rising deficit. One possibility would be to cut existing subsidies for oil and gas exploration and production.

This is all perfectly sensible. At the same time, if it's offset by other items in the budget it probably won't have any net stimulative effect. Essentially, we've given in to the deficit hawk brigade without even a fight.

Not that it matters, I suppose. It's too small to be more than a pinprick, and Republicans will probably filibuster to the death the right of our nation's oil and gas companies to their federal subsidies anyway. But I'm sure it will give Fox News something to roar about for the next month. Obama is socializing roadbuilding! He's endangering our supplies of oil and gas! It just shows his contempt for ordinary Americans!

Should be loads of fun.

A Historical Precedent for the Beastie Boys?

A new exhibit explores the intersection of black and Jewish music in popular culture.

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 7:07 AM EDT

In 1942 the Jewish torch singer Libby Holman recorded "Baby, Baby" with the famed bluesman Josh White. Holman was always fascinated by the music of black artists. She was the wealthy widow of a JR Reynolds heir and had used her fortune to pay for blues lessons and her collaborations with White. Once, she hired Billie Holiday to sing at her son's birthday party. She was "not trying to copy the Negroes," she said, "just taking their feeling."

Holman and White's "Baby, Baby" can be heard at Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations, a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in downtown San Francisco. Black Sabbath, created by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, explores the often surprising intersections of black and Jewish culture in the music of the 20th century. "These stories of common struggle and hardship have long left their mark on popular music," explains one sign at the exhibit. Indeed, the blues seemed to have resonated in this way with Holman. Looking back on her life, it isn't hard to see why.

Remembering Mother Jones in Coal Country

The miners' union she fought for has hit hard times, but the fiery organizer's legacy lives on in West Virginia.

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Last month, I traveled to the Coal River Valley, deep in the mountains of West Virginia. Mentioning that you work for Mother Jones doesn't always open doors, but when I drove up one steep dirt road to a tidy mobile home, I received a surprisingly warm reception. Paul Lucas said my employer's namesake was familiar. "I remember that name from that video," he told me. "Mother Jones speaking before all the men."

Lucas had seen the video in a class he took in February to become state-certified as a coal mining apprentice, setting himself up to be the third generation in his family to work the mines. But the video's reference to the original Mother Jones didn't mention the eponymous magazine that Lucas had sometimes seen. He'd never realized the connection.

"Was she involved with Blair Mountain?" he asked. I confessed that I didn't know.

"I believe she was involved with old Blair Mountain," Lucas went on.

"It had a lot to do with Cabin Creek and Paint Creek," added his father, Jim, a miner for the fiercely anti-union Massey Energy. Though I knew the basics about Mother Jones and her career as a fiery orator and labor organizer, I had no idea what they were talking about. So I just sat back on the couch and listened.

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Postcard From Woody Guthrie's Hometown

Rural Oklahoma's reluctant monument to the legendary, labor-loving folk singer.

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Okemah, Oklahoma—It's hard to imagine a quiet town like Okemah spawning a rabble-rousing, labor-loving, leftist. But then, once you walk around for a bit, it's also really hard to imagine Woodrow Wilson Guthrie coming from anywhere else.

The legendary folk singer's childhood home in Okfuskee County sits halfway up a hill ("the hill," if you ask for directions in town), one block south of the public library, roughly equidistant from Oklahoma City, Tulsa, and the surface of the sun (about an hour each way, I think).* If you drove 14,000 miles to see the home of a folk hero, it'd be more than a little dispiriting to discover it'd been turned into a McMansion with a swimming pool for the poodle and quarters for the servants. But don't worry; Woody Guthrie's childhood home is totally the mess you'd hope it'd be.

The house was torn down decades ago, leaving only the stone foundations, and, in true Guthrie fashion, it's been commemorated by a piece of folk art. A woodcarver named Justin Osborn, who lives and works right across the street on a plot cluttered with his creations, carved up an oak in the front yard of the old Guthrie house and made a monument: There's an acoustic guitar carved on top, "This Land is Your Land" in big letters on one side, and "Okemah" carved on the other.

Music Monday: 10 Songs for Labor Day

| Mon Sep. 6, 2010 3:39 AM EDT

In honor of road-tripping MoJo intern Tim Murphy's stop in Woody Guthrie's hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma, we've loaded up a player with five of Woody's most labor-oriented songs and matched them with another five commie pinko classics, including Gene Autry's version of "The Death of Mother Jones." As you enjoy the end of summer this fine Monday check out Josh Harkinson's dispatch from coal country, West Virginia, where the memory of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones lives on despite Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship's rampant villainy. Click the video thumbnails to listen to each song and don't forget to ask yourself the necessary question: What Would Woody Do?

 

Human Trafficker Profiled in MoJo Is Arrested

The law catches up to Motty Orian, who introduced thousands of foreigners to indentured servitude in the US.

| Sun Sep. 5, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Federal prosecutors sure know how to sweeten a Labor Day weekend. On Friday in Honolulu, they arrested Mordechai "Motty" Orian, the Israeli head of an L.A.-based HR firm that's believed to have foisted the largest human-trafficking case in US history, according to the FBI.

Regular readers of MoJo may recall the story of Orian, his firm Global Solutions, and the brutal conditions of foreign workers his recruiters brought to the US under duress. It was all documented in our May/June 2010 issue by contributor John Bowe. His report, "Bound for America," chronicled how conscientious family providers like Thai worker Nikhom Intajak can be hornswaggled into paying (or rather, owing) a recruiter big bucks for a US temporary worker visa and a job placement. Once in the states, these workers find that all bets are off: Their immigration status is in the hands of someone like Orian, they'll worker harder and make less money than promised, and they'll live in slave conditions. Meanwhile, the locals who recruited the workers back home may claim they owe more in middleman fees, coming after their families and properties. But what can these laborers do? If they run away from their new employers, they'll be illegal immigrants in the US. (The FBI statement on the arrest pretty much reads like a summary of Bowe's piece.)

At the head of this exploitive system was Orian, who acted as a go-between for the pineapple companies and egg farms that needed cheap foreign labor, and the tired, the poor, the huddled masses trying to make a quick buck for work that came naturally to them back home. (According to Raw Story, the Israeli Orian was also a bigtime contributor to Republican causes.) While reporting his MoJo story, Bowe caught up with Orian to get the kingpin's side:

Several times during our conversations, Orian launched into cogent diatribes detailing the shortcomings of American immigration policy. The system was broken. America had become the world's largest prison camp. No one wants to do farmwork in any country. "You know how much I pay when I came to this country?" he said. "You know how much I spend on immigration until now? For my own paperwork? Over $25,000. From visa fee, embassy fee, government fee, lawyers—25,000 goddamn dollars." When I suggested that this hardly compared to loss of family land and home, he scoffed. "Come on. Come on!" Everyone knew that poor workers will say anything to stay and work in the US. Where was the proof that these Thai workers were really losing their homes? "When it comes to money," he shrugged, "people will do crazy stuff. You cannot stop it and come to blame me."

When I mentioned that most people with whom I'd discussed the case felt that his workers had been not just exploited, but trafficked, he dismissed the idea with a jerk of the head. "Let me tell you something," he said. "Every day, I take my kids to school. Sometimes, I get into a traffic jam. That's the only trafficking I do."

FBI officials say they went to Orian's Malibu digs to arrest him Friday, but he'd already blown out of there. They tried to arrest him again at LAX boarding a flight to Honolulu, but it turned out he'd quietly switched flights. Federales finally caught up to him in Hawaii, where he pled not guilty in court on Saturday. He faces up to 70 years in prison.

One thing makes this story even sweeter: Along with Orian, the FBI indicted five co-conspirators, including two Thai recruiters of his slave labor. Among them was Pochanee Sinchai, who'd scammed Intajak, the protagonist of Bowe's story. US officials are now working with Thailand to manage extradition. Of course, unlike his marks, Sinchai won't be paying his own way to good ol' America; there's a prisoner transport waiting to take him away, compliments of Uncle Sam.

NYT Rides The "Foreclosure Express"

The Times reports on Florida's foreclosure mess and its wealthy profiteers—a month after MoJo did.

| Sun Sep. 5, 2010 1:08 PM EDT

The New York Times' Sunday Business section leads today with a smart story on the foreclosure crisis down in Florida—the woefully backlogged courts, the contentious tactics the courts are using to plow through the backlog, and the powerful law firms used by banks to handle those hundreds of thousands of foreclosure cases. Mother Jones readers should recognize the multimillionaire foreclosure attorney the Times spotlights, 50-year-old David J. Stern: A month ago, I broke the full story on Stern, his rise to become Florida's Ferrari-owning foreclosure king, and his controversial and lawsuit-riddled past. Moreover, my story on Stern, and on a breed of law firms (including his) dubbed "foreclosure mills," showed how America's biggest (and most bailed out) banks, not to mention the taxpayer-subsidized housing giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, retain Stern's sprawling operation and others like it to push through foreclosures using a high-pressure, assembly line-like process that's often accused of steamrolling homeowners who get in the way. As it happened, not long after my story came out, in early August, the Florida Attorney General announced an investigation into Stern's firm and two others like it.

The Times' story devotes an entire section to Stern but doesn't include much not reported by myself and others. The story spends more time exploring the mess that is Florida's judicial system, and how that system created new foreclosure-only legal divisions staffed by retired judges to process the foreclosure backlog, estimated at 471,000 cases. Late last month, I sat in on a morning's worth of foreclosure hearings in one of these divisions in Broward County, the epicenter of the housing market's boom and bust. As I described in my foreclosure-mill story, the hearings in Broward are an eye-opening experience: They take place in what's essentially a wide spot in a drab hallway; literally you step off the courthouse elevator on the fifth floor and...there you are, in a foreclosure hearing, judge, attorneys, staffers, and all.

These particular hallway hearings concerned uncontested foreclosure cases, meaning it's usually just the bank's attorney on hand with no homeowner present. Standing near the front of the room was a woman who rattled off names of banks—US Bank, HSBC Bank, JPMorgan Chase, etc.—and then the names of anonymous homeowners, names like Judy Upton, Indira Llanos, Guy Marc Saint-Fleur. Under banks of fluorescent lights it was a grim scene, foreclosure cases announced, decided, signed, and sealed all in a matter of seconds. The woman doing the announcing sounded like an auctioneer, spewing one long monotone stream of names and banks and legal jargon. Occasionally convicts in blue and green jumpsuits straggled by, their arms and ankles chained together. In one hour this uncontested court dispatched nearly 165 foreclosure cases. Sitting there watching, I felt like I'd arrived at the place where the American Dream goes to die.

The fear among legal experts and foreclosure defense attorneys—like Margery Golant, quoted in both my story and the Times'—is that this fast-paced foreclosure system, pushed ever faster by the banks' lawyers, could steamroll homeowners who have a good shot at saving their homes. As Golant told me for my initial story, "The judges are so swamped with this stuff that they just don't pay attention. They just rubber-stamp them." Worse yet, some defense attorneys fear that having older, retired judges deciding complex legal matters in a rapid-fire setting poses even more problems. "They're too fucking old to understand what's going on," one defense attorney, who asked to remain anonymous to avoid damaging work relationships, says of the senior judges. "It's the truth."

The Times mentions that the Florida legislature earmarked $9.6 million for this "foreclosure express." The paper fails to mention that some of that money comes from Obama's stimulus program. In other words, it's all our taxpayer money funding the foreclosure express, which can hardly be said to create jobs.

Think of what's going in Florida right now as the third act of the housing meltdown. There was the mania of the housing boom, then the market's breathtaking collapse. We're now witnessing the aftermath of that rise and fall. And Florida is unique in this because this kind of judicial crisis isn't the case in other hard-hit states because Florida requires judicial handling of foreclosures. In Nevada and California, for instance, foreclosures are an administrative affair, far less costly and painful, but with fewer chances for homeowners to push back.

The goal of Florida lawmakers and judges is to clear 62 percent of the backlog by next July. Time will tell whether they reach that goal—and what sort of new mess they might leave behind.