2011 - %3, February

Corn on "Hardball": Sarah Palin Exposed in New Tell-All Manuscript

Tue Feb. 22, 2011 5:55 PM PST

David Corn and Cynthia Tucker joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the latest juicy revelations about Sarah Palin in the leaked tell-all manuscript of former Palin staffer Frank Bailey.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

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Expat Libyan Poet: "The People Have Gone Through the Ultimate Dismissal of Fear by Offering Their Lives"

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 4:32 PM PST

When Libyan poet Khaled Mattawa was 13 years old, Muammar Qaddafi's regime conducted public hangings of alleged traitors in Mattawa's home city of Benghazi. And he saw his independent-minded father, overcome by terror, plaster a giant picture of Qaddafi onto the side of the family car.

Thirty-four years later, Mattawa, 46, feels "complete and utter pride" as the residents of Benghazi have finally risen up—and launched the rebellions that are now sweeping across Libya. "This is the moment we've been waiting for," Mattawa said in a Monday phone interview. "Everything good about Benghazi that I know has appeared in the last few days."

But little in Mattawa's life story could have offered much hope for a scene like this week's.

Throughout his childhood in Libya, Mattawa was required to study the "Green Book"—Qaddafi's bizarre abridged version of socialism and so-called "democracy"—that banned all dissension. "My memories are tainted by this sense of raw fear," he says. "And there's an atmosphere of hostility that Qaddafi's regime has promoted among people. He's used Libya's tribalism to sow the seeds of division."

Buying Justice

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 3:08 PM PST

Paul Waldman notes that New York state's chief justice recently announced that judges have to recuse themselves if a lawyer arguing a case before the court has contributed more than $2,500 to one of the judge's campaigns. You'd think that should have been obvious all along, wouldn't you? But not to everyone:

It's true that the ability to buy a judge is not completely without limits, as we found in a case called Caperton v. Massey, involving the notorious mining company Massey Energy. Massey had recently been hit with a $50 million verdict in a lawsuit heading for West Virginia's Supreme Court of Appeals, so the company's chief, Don Blankenship, poured $3 million into the campaign of Brent Benjamin, a private attorney running for the first time, for chief justice in 2004. That amount was more than both campaigns spent combined. Benjamin ousted the sitting justice, and when the case reached the high court, Benjamin refused to recuse himself and cast the deciding vote in Massey's favor, tossing out the $50 million award.

When the appeal reached the Supreme Court of the United States, the Court ruled that Benjamin should have recused himself. But what was so remarkable about the decision is that it wasn't 9-0 or 8-1 but 5-4. Justices John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito — the Court's conservative bloc — actually thought it was OK for a judge to get $3 million from a defendant, then rule on that defendant's lawsuit.

This, of course, is the case that inspired John Grisham's The Appeal, which I highly recommend. Sure, it's Grisham, and I know he's not everyone's cup of tea, but The Appeal is great liberal porn and it only takes a few hours to power through. You'll enjoy it.

Indiana Senate GOPers Pass Collective Bargaining Bill; Dem Reps Go M.I.A.

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 2:44 PM PST

Governor Mitch Daniels isn't the only Indianan taking a cue from his northern neighbors in Wisconsin: Protesting Hoosiers swarmed the statehouse in Indianapolis Tuesday, while House Democrats reportedly fled the state, and the GOP-led Senate has passed SB 575 [PDF], which would eliminate state teachers' collective bargaining rights.

Several quorum calls have been attempted in the House, but there are not enough representatives to take a vote on the "Right To Work" bill that's currently before the Legislature. The body's Democrats, who are in an "indefinite caucus," according to spokesperson Peg McLeish, are rumored to be out of state. An approaching deadline is at hand, and if bills aren't passed this week, they are dead.

The Opposite of Wisconsin

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 12:02 PM PST

Jon Chait imagines a Democratic governor proposing a deficit reduction plan in a Bizarro-world version of Wisconsin:

Imagine a Democratic governor proposed a plan to close a budget crisis. First he jacked up the Earned Income Tax Credit. Then he proposed a tax hike on the rich and on corporations to close the deficit. And then he packaged it with a stringent campaign finance law, a law to require corporations to obtain permission from shareholders before engaging in any kind of political activism, and other laws designed to crush the political power of corporate America. (Pro-Democratic businesses would be exempted.) It's budget-related, because, after all, you can't maintain higher taxes on the rich if the rich are able to bend the political system to protect their interests. Oh, and Republicans accepted the tax hikes on the rich but opposed the other provisions, but Democrats refused to negotiate them.

I suspect conservatives would interpret this not as a genuine effort to close the deficit but as an exercise in class warfare and raw politics. They'd be correct.

It's all about power, baby, power. Scott Walker knows exactly what he's doing. For more on what the rich have to gain or lose in this battle, take a look at the great set of charts from Dave Gilson and Carolyn Perot that accompany my union piece today. It's called "Eight charts that explain everything that's wrong with America," which might be stretching things a bit. I can think of a few other things wrong with America too. But they're a pretty good start.

Free Oil!

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 11:01 AM PST

When the price of oil goes above a certain benchmark level, companies drilling on American territory in the Gulf of Mexico are supposed to pay royalties to the United States government. Which is to say, royalties to you, the taxpayer. Unfortunately, a bureaucratic snafu accidentally gave away some leases for free a few years ago, and ever since we, the taxpayers, have been receiving no royalties on those wells. But that's no problem, right? Our elected representatives in the United States Congress will just fix the error. Matt Steinglass explains the facts of life:

As of 2008, the bill came to $1.3 billion; this year, the losses will be $1.5 billion. Over the decades-long lifetime of the wells it'll add up to a lot more. According to the Government Accountability Office it'll come to $53 billion over the next 25 years. Last week, representative Ed Markey and a few other Democrats on the House Natural Resources Committee offered an amendment to the Republican budget bill to make those oil producers pay the standard amount in the future on the royalty-free leases they mistakenly received due to bureaucratic error. The amendment was voted down, 251-174.

Life is good when you own one of America's two political parties, isn't it?

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Tensions Rise As Indiana Legislators Plan to Put Collective Bargaining to a Vote (UPDATED)

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 10:38 AM PST

While public employee unions fight for their existence in Wisconsin, teachers and union members in Indiana are worried that their collective bargaining rights could soon be scrapped as well. Next week, the state legislature in Indianapolis plans legislative hearings similar to those in Wisconsin, Florida, and Ohio, where Republican majorities have moved swiftly to kneecap union organizing and bargaining rights. In Indiana, both houses are controlled by the GOP, and Hoosiers are afraid that anti-union bills could pass quickly.

Unions and the Rich

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 10:29 AM PST

Here's another take on why even public sector unions matter in the fight against the corporatization of the political economy. The chart on the right, from John Sides, shows the overall union density for each state on the X-axis, and this is probably a fairly decent proxy for the level of public sector union density too. He concludes that unionization has essentially no effect on state budget deficits, but Matt Yglesias makes a different and equally salient point:

Looking at this chart, what I think you would see is that unionization levels have a strong relationship to progressive taxation. New York, Hawaii, and Washington are all high-tax states, especially on rich people, while the non-union south has generally low levels of taxation and regressive tax structures. The conservative movement is financed by rich people whose primary interest in life is lower taxes. And on an intellectual level, the main wellspring of conservative economic policy ideas comes from people who believe that progressive income taxes are very economically damaging. A secondary intellectual inspiration is people like Greg Mankiw who believe that such taxes are an immoral imposition on a genetic elite. A key problem with this agenda is that higher taxes on rich people are a politically popular way to solve budget deficits. The solution is to create a dynamic in which political parties are entirely reliant on rich businessmen for their financing. Reducing labor unions to a state of political impotence will get the job done.

Italics mine. Needless to say, for more on this you should read my piece about the role of unions in the American political economy, which went online today. It's good! I promise.

The Stakes in Wisconsin

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 9:52 AM PST

Yesterday I wrote that the decline of unions over the past three decades "has left corporations and the rich with essentially no powerful opposition." Megan McArdle wonders, reasonably enough, what this has to do with Wisconsin:

In what way do public sector unions act as a check on the power of corporations? They are not negotiating against corporations; they are rarely competing with corporations (and certainly not in the case of the teachers' unions); and corporate taxes do not provide the bulk of the revenues for state and local governments.

It is surprising to me how determined both conservatives and liberals seem to be to view this through the lens of the private sector union fights — exploitative corporations and militant workers have been neatly transmogrified into selfish taxpayers and greedy unions.

My union sympathies are much stronger in the private sector than the public sector, primarily because I do indeed think the biggest value of unions is the fact that they act as a bulwark against unfettered corporate control of the political economy. But that doesn't mean this is the only benefit of unions. I also value unions for moral reasons: workers should have the right to effectively bargain with management over wages and working conditions no matter who management happens to be. Taxpayers can act unfairly just as easily as any other employer. And I value them for purely economic reasons: workers should be paid decently no matter who they work for and unions help make that happen. And for reasons of solidarity: the death of public sector unions will only hasten the further demise of private sector unions too. And for reasons of partisan hackery: public sector unions provide considerable support for the more liberal of our two great political parties.

There are some pretty reasonable arguments to be made against public sector unions, prime among them the fact that they exert a lot of control over the politicians who act as "management" in bargaining fights. To some extent this means they get to bargain against themselves, and taxpayers can sometimes end up with the short end of that stick (though see Jon Chait for the other side of this claim). For this reason, I'd support a ban on public sector unions contributing to political campaigns if the same rules applied to corporations and the rich. But they don't, and they never will.

For better or worse, then, I support public sector unions as well as their private sector counterparts. It's not a perfect world we live in, but bargaining for wage gains and decent working conditions is something that everyone should be allowed to do. Working for the government doesn't suddenly mean that right should disappear.

Bad Rumblings in the Economy

| Tue Feb. 22, 2011 9:11 AM PST

Bad economic news #1:

Real estate prices slid again in December, pushing a leading price index within a whisper of its lowest level since the housing crash began, data released Tuesday showed....“Despite improvements in the overall economy, housing continues to drift lower and weaker,” David M. Blitzer, chair of S.&P.’s Index Committee, said in a statement.

Bad economic news #2:

World oil prices are rising sharply as violence spreads through Libya, the first major petroleum exporter to be threatened by unrest sweeping North Africa and the Mideast. As fears mounted that soaring energy costs could derail the global economic recovery, the benchmark price of crude in London on Monday surged $5.48, or more than 5%, to $108.20 a barrel, its highest level since September 2008.

Falling house prices are hardly a surprise, so by itself this isn't that big a deal. Rising oil prices weren't either, back when they'd only gone up to $80 or so. But triple digits? And possibly more to come depending on what happens in Libya and elsewhere? Combine that with stubbornly high unemployment in the U.S., growing inflation in China, financial woes in Europe, and obvious fragility in the overall pace of our recovery from the Great Recession, and we might be wishing we'd opted for a more robust stimulus package pretty soon.