2013 - %3, June

Music Review: "Raw Wood" by John Vanderslice

| Mon Jul. 29, 2013 4:52 PM EDT

TRACK 1

"Raw Wood"

From John Vanderslice's Dagger Beach

SELF-RELEASED

Liner notes: "One day the pain will pass on from me to you," sighs John Vanderslice, as disjointed drums and ghostly backing vocals boost the unease on this post-breakup ballad.

Behind the music: The founder of San Francisco's Tiny Telephone studio, Vanderslice has produced for the Mountain Goats, Samantha Crain, and Spoon. He worked on the album's lyrics while hiking in California's Point Reyes National Seashore.

Check it out if you like: Anxious but articulate types, such as Thom Yorke, David Byrne, and Joanna Newsom.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

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Short Takes: "Gideon's Army"

| Tue Jul. 9, 2013 2:38 PM EDT

Gideon's Army

HBO DOCUMENTARY FILMS

Dawn Porter practiced law for 15-plus years, mostly for TV studios—before our justice system's iniquities inspired her to get behind the camera. Gideon's Army follows public defenders as they struggle with absurd caseloads and fret over clients' fates. One resorts to pocket change to buy gas. "This is all the money I have in the world right now," she explains. The occasion for the film is the 50th anniversary of the Supreme Court's Gideon v. Wainwright ruling, which compels states to provide an attorney to criminal defendants who can't afford one. And that's something. But as Porter sums up today's situation, "You have the right to a lawyer. You don't necessarily have the right to a good one."

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

Regulators to Beef Up Wall Street Rules…Thanks to Republicans?!

| Tue Jul. 2, 2013 9:10 AM EDT

When it comes to financial regulations, Republicans are perhaps best known for pushing efforts that would, say, increase the chances of taxpayers bailing out big banks or allow financial institutions to skirt regs by operating overseas. So what gives with a recent decision by GOP regulators to push tighter Wall Street rules?

Republican members of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) have convinced two other Wall Street regulators to make the country's largest banks keep more capital on hand in case of another financial downturn, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, and regulators are expected to issue the proposed rules Tuesday.

Some background: An international agreement on financial regulations called Basel III requires banks to keep a certain level of safe funds on their balance sheets; it says participating countries must ensure that 3 percent of a bank's total assets are backed by stockholder money. In the event of a financial downturn, losses would be absorbed by shareholders, and the bank wouldn't have to be bailed out by taxpayers. The Journal reported that last week, officials at the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) agreed to increase capital requirements for US banks above and beyond what the international agreement requires.

The proposal, which calls for 5 to 6 percent of a bank's balance sheet to be stockholder-backed, is something the FDIC's two Republican members, Thomas Hoenig and Jeremiah Norton, had been pushing hard, despite heavy resistance from other regulators.

But what motivated the GOP duo? Mike Konczal, an expert on financial reform at the Roosevelt Institute, says Hoenig and Norton's reasoning is fairly simple: The FDIC is the agency that would have to bail out failed banks. "This is a major undertaking, and [the FDIC], rather than other regulators or politicians, will be blamed if it goes wrong," he says. "So they certainly want things to be better situated if that happens." The capital requirements will "serve as a backup if the ratings agencies…fail in their job again," Konczal says, referring to the credit-ratings agencies that gave top-notch ratings to junk securities in the lead-up to the financial crisis.

Some financial reformers, however, say that the proposed capital levels aren't really something to celebrate. The FDIC's Republicans "are to be congratulated," says Marc Jarsulic of the advocacy group Better Markets, but "5 to 6 percent is clearly inadequate"—especially since the average loss at banks that the FDIC bailed out between 2006 and 2010 was 25 percent of their assets.

"The baby step just announced is welcome," says one financial-policy advocate. "But adult steps are necessary."

Increasing banks' capital requirements "is necessary, and the baby step just announced is welcome," says Bart Naylor, a financial-policy advocate at Public Citizen. "But adult steps are necessary." Along those lines, Sens. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) have introduced a bill that would impose a 15 percent capital rule on the largest banks. But it's highly unlikely the legislation will make it through Congress.

The regulators' capital-requirements proposal, if finalized, would not take effect until 2019. And even when it does go into effect, it won't be set in stone, says Jeff Connaughton, a former investment banker and author of The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins. He says the Dodd-Frank financial reform law of 2010 should have forced big banks to downsize so they couldn't pose such a huge risk to the financial system in the first place.

"Dodd-Frank should have imposed structural reforms on the big banks so we wouldn't have to worry how…regulators will vote [in] 10 or 20 years," Connaughton says. "Future bank regulators whose identities we can't even know today will inevitably fail to stop systemic risk from metastasizing, just like these regulators did in the run-up to the crisis."

Lies Your Government Tells You

| Sun Jun. 30, 2013 11:08 PM EDT

This might be the least surprising statement of the year:

Details that have emerged from the exposure of hundreds of pages of previously classified NSA documents indicate that public assertions about these programs by senior U.S. officials have [] often been misleading, erroneous or simply false....An examination of public statements over a period of years suggests that officials have often relied on legalistic parsing and carefully hedged characterizations in discussing the NSA’s collection of communications.

Read the whole thing.

Google Reader Now Has One Day Left to Live

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 7:02 PM EDT

I've been playing around a bit more with RSS readers over the past week. Here's a very brief update on the three I've spent the most time with:

I'm using NewsBlur as my default reader, with The Old Reader bookmarked for occasions when I need to search my feeds. I'd switch to TOR if it retrieved full text from partial RSS feeds, but it doesn't. (And no, I've found that most of the full-text retrieval utilities don't work reliably. The one built into NewsBlur is great.)

Obviously, the feature set you care about might vary from mine, but these are the things that matter to me. Just thought I'd pass it along.

Snowden Update: Father Trying to Broker Deal to Return to US

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 12:01 PM EDT

The latest on Edward Snowden:

He is a hero on Russian television programs, "which were almost certainly produced under Kremlin orders and have a powerful effect on public opinion."

Ecuador is in a tizzy. They don't want to be seen as knuckling under to the United States, but they also don't want to be seen as a pawn of Julian Assange, who has championed Snowden's case:

Mr. Assange's role has raised hackles among Ecuadorean officials. In one of the internal correspondences, Ecuador's ambassador to the U.S., Nathalie Cely, appeared to tell presidential spokesman Fernando Alvarado that communications should be handled better. "I suggest talking to Assange to better control the communications," read a note addressed from Ms. Cely. "From outside…[Assange] appears to be 'running the show.' "

Snowden's father is trying to broker a deal to bring him back to the United States:

In a letter to the Justice Department, Lonnie Snowden said through his attorney that his son wanted "ironclad assurances" he would not be held in jail before trial or subjected to a gag order, and would be allowed to choose where he would be tried on federal espionage charges...."We believe you share our objective of securing Edward's voluntary return to the United States to face trial," Washington attorney Bruce Fein wrote to Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. on behalf of Snowden's father.

Stay tuned. I'm off to get my weekly dose of exercise.

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The No-Fly List: Orwellian or Kafkaesque?

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 11:45 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, Rehan Motiwala tried to board a flight home to Los Angeles. Here's what happened when he changed planes in Bangkok:

Airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he'd been placed on the U.S. government's secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

....Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

Obviously Motiwala wasn't on the no-fly list when he left the country last year, and obviously he was on the list when he tried to return. The lesson is pretty clear: be careful who you talk to, citizen. You really don't want to get on our list, do you?

The basic outrage here is obvious: in a liberal democracy, no citizen should be subjected to this kind of treatment without due process. And the no-fly list not only doesn't incorporate due process, it goes out of its way to be the most Orwellian possible denial of due process imaginable. You are on a list. Maybe. But we won't tell you. How can I get off the list? Well, who says you're on a list in the first place? But I can't fly. Sorry, we can't comment on that. Rinse and repeat.

And here's what I don't get: If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what's the point? I guess the LAX option doesn't give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn't cooperate. Welcome to America.

Murder Rate Down Significantly In New York City

| Sat Jun. 29, 2013 11:26 AM EDT

Here's the latest crime news from New York:

The number of homicides on record in New York City has dropped significantly during the first half of the year — to 154 from 202 in the same period last year — surprising even police officials who have long been accustomed to trumpeting declining crime rates in the city.

....Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly attributed much of the drop to a new antigang strategy meant to suppress retaliatory violence among neighborhood gangs. Police officials also credited their efforts at identifying and monitoring abusive husbands whose behavior seemed poised to turn lethal.

Now, I now what you're thinking: it's not the antigang program, it's the lead! And I like the fact that you're thinking that way. But no: lead is probably responsible for the long-term drop in violent crime in New York City, but it's not the kind of thing that produces a sharp drop in a single year. That's either a statistical blip or else the result of something else. The antigang program is one possibility.

At the same time, the background of falling crime is certainly what makes a sharp drop from new police programs possible in the first place. If crime were still at 1990 levels, Kelly's antigang program would just be a drop in the ocean. It wouldn't have even a chance of succeeding. So in that sense, lead abatement almost certainly played a role in the 2013 drop in the murder rate. The lower overall rate of violent behavior makes the antigang program more effective because (a) there are now more murders that can be stopped with just a small nudge, and (b) it frees up police resources to work on the program.

Not that New York residents are likely to hear about this. It's a funny thing: when my lead piece for Mother Jones hit the newsstands, we offered to write an op-ed length version of the story for the New York Times. They turned us down instantly. Ditto for the LA Times. These are the two biggest cities in America; the cities that suffered the highest violent crime rates in the early 90s; the cities with the steepest decline in crime rates since then; and almost certainly the two biggest beneficiaries of the decline in lead exposure among young children. But although both newspapers relentlessly promote the latest stories from their mayors and police chiefs about the decline in crime, they apparently have no interest whatsoever in the lead hypothesis. It's a little hard to fathom.

VIDEO: "I Now Pronounce You: Spouses for Life"

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 10:18 PM EDT

Friday afternoon at San Francisco's City Hall, Kris Perry and Sandy Stier become the first same-sex couple in California to legally marry following a major Supreme Court decision on Wednesday that effectively overturned California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. The couple were litigants in the court's Hollingsworth v. Perry case, which addressed the California ban, making today's ceremony especially memorable for the crowd of local supporters and national media in attendance. Watch below as California Attorney General Kamala Harris officiates their wedding and pronounces them "Spouses for life":

"White House Down": A Harsh Critique of The Military-Industrial Complex, Starring Sweaty Channing Tatum

| Fri Jun. 28, 2013 3:35 PM EDT

Anti-imperialist politics at its finest.

White House Down
Columbia Pictures
129 minutes

"Ever heard of the military-industrial complex???" President James Sawyer (played by Jamie Foxx) asks his gun-toting protector John Cale (Channing Tatum), as the two hide in a White House elevator shaft. President Sawyer is explaining to Cale why he believes armed right-wingers have invaded and occupied the White House and begun frightening tourists and shooting government officials.

In the past few months, there's been an emerging cinematic trend of destroying the White House. Just as 1998 saw the wide release of both Armageddon and Deep Impact, this year features the release of not one but two Hollywood action movies about terrorists miraculously overrunning the White House. In Olympus Has Fallen, starring Gerard Butler (released in March), a band of North Korean fanatics take over the West Wing—with the help of a Secret Service agent who betrays America because he's fed up with globalization and Wall Street. In White House Down (released on Friday), it's white, American-born, ultra-conservative lunatics—who do so with the help of a Secret Service agent who betrays America because President Sawyer isn't being militaristic enough.

The script, penned by James Vanderbilt, is one enormous pander to the most naïve impulses of your average dime-store liberal.

The film is directed by Roland Emmerich, whose sole purpose as a filmmaker is demolishing the White House, whenever he isn't spreading scandalously awful lies about William Shakespeare. WHD is a mixed bag of B-movie pluses and minuses. There are moments when the dialogue is so laughably terrible and the bullet-riddled situations so wildly absurd that the scenes succeed on the merits of "so-bad-it's-good." But those moments are too often negated by tedious, sloppily choreographed action, and generic plot points designed to be taken way more seriously than they have any right to be. Emmerich's unwillingness to commit to a delightfully trashy tone makes for an uneven action-comedy experience at best.

And the script, penned by James Vanderbilt, is one enormous pander to the most naïve impulses of your average dime-store liberal. The president's agenda is defined by making peace with all the Arab, Muslim, and Persian world. After forging friendly relations with Iran's new reformist leader, President Sawyer (most definitely a Democrat) announces in a legacy-defining speech the Sawyer Doctrine—which includes the withdrawal of every single American soldier stationed in the Middle East. He sets out to convince practically every country on the planet to sign a new peace treaty, and vows to take on the US' out-of-control, conflict-hungry defense industry and its lapdogs in Congress.

War veteran and wannabe Secret Service agent Cale admires the president's vision. But far-right gunmen who want to wage nuclear war against Iran do not, so they conquer the White House and start killing scores of innocents. Audiences might also notice that one of the deranged right-wing insurgents is a huge fan of a cable news network that's clearly a stand-in for Fox News. As the henchmen round up the hostages, the American terrorist spots the network's White House correspondent, played by an actor who physically resembles Fox's Ed Henry. The terrorist proceeds to gush about how much he loves their Sawyer-bashing coverage, and how Ed-Henry-look-alike is basically the only truth-teller in the media.

Not to spoil the entire movie, but (spoiler alert) Jamie Foxx, Channing Tatum, and the liberals win the day, and the hawkish, Fox News-adoring, reactionary killers wind up either in jail or ripped to shreds by explosives and ammunition. It's typical Hollywood liberalism with gigantic firearms.

Now here's one of WHD's trailers, which makes the movie look far better—and much more dramatic—than it is:

White House Down gets a wide release on Friday, June 28. The film is rated PG-13 for prolonged sequences of action and violence including intense gunfire and explosions, some language and a brief sexual image. Click here for local showtimes and tickets.

Click here for more movie and TV coverage from Mother Jones.

To read more of Asawin's reviews, click here.

To listen to the movie and pop-culture podcast that Asawin cohosts with ThinkProgress critic Alyssa Rosenberg, click here.