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The MPAA Says Teens Can't See a Film About Edward Snowden. This Theater Is Going to Let Them in Anyway.

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 9:26 AM EST

"Citizenfour," a documentary about Edward Snowden, was given an R rating by members of the Motion Picture Association of America. Their rationale for doing so was apparently due to the occasional swearing that takes place in the hotel room where Snowden, director Laura Poitras, and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill conduct their conversation.

For all teenagers who think they can handle a bit of naughty cuss words and are interested in learning more about shocking global surveillance practices carried out by their government, head over to the IFC theater in New York City, where they're overriding the MPAA's suggested rating. Their rationale? "Not only do we feel the film is suitable for teens, we feel it is essential viewing for anyone who may vote in the next election."

(h/t Boing Boing)

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The Horrifying Reason Why Your Fruit Is Unblemished

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Back in 2010, I visited a labor camp that houses some of the migrant workers who grow America's fruit and vegetables. I found people living densely in shantylike structures made of scrap metal and cinder block, surrounded by vast fields and long rows of greenhouses. Strangers in a strange land who didn't speak the language, hundreds of miles from home, they lived at the mercy of labor contractors who, they claimed, made false promises and paid rock-bottom wages. Like all Big Ag-dominated areas, the place had a feeling of desolation: all monocropped fields, mostly devoid of people, and lots of billboards hawking the products of agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

Laborers are required to use hand sanitizer and keep their nails trimmed so that they don't damage the fruit.

You might think I had made my way to Florida's infamous tomato fields, or somewhere in the depths of the California's migrant-dependent Central Valley. Those places remain obscure to most Americans, but the gross human exploitation they represent has at least been documented in a spate of excellent recent books, like Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, Tracy McMillan's The American Way of Eating, and Seth Holmes Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. But I was somewhere yet more remote and less well-known: Sinaloa, a largely rural state in Mexico's northwestern hinterland.

If most Americans have heard of Sinaloa at all, it's because of the state's well-earned reputation as a center of Mexico's bloody drug trade. But in addition to the eponymous drug cartel, Sinaloa also houses vast-scale, export-oriented agriculture: farms that churn out the tomatoes, melons, peppers, and other fresh produce that help fill US supermarket shelves. And the people who do the planting, tending, and harvesting tend to be from the indigenous regions of Mexico's southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, where smallholder farming has been ground down by decades of free-trade policies pursued by the Mexican government, which left millions in search of gainful work to the north.

In my brief time there, I found Sinaloa overwhelming: a scary cauldron of labor exploitation, industrial agriculture, and drug violence. Now, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti have documented the grim conditions faced by workers on Mexico's export-focused megafarms in a long-form investigation, after 18 months of reporting in nine Mexican states, including, most prominently, Sinaloa. The Times plans to publish it in four parts; the first, here, is stunning.

Marosi found that Mexico's megafarms adhere to the strictest standards when it comes to food safety and cleanliness, driven by the demands of big US buyers. "In immaculate greenhouses, laborers are ordered to use hand sanitizers and schooled in how to pamper the produce," Marosi writes. "They're required to keep their fingernails carefully trimmed so the fruit will arrive unblemished in US supermarkets."

While the produce is coddled, the workers face a different reality. Pay languishes at the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day. Marosi summarizes conditions that often approach slavery:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

The piece includes excellent photography and is chockfull of stories straight from the mouths of farmworkers. And it shines a bright light on a hugely important source of our food. The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we're only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can't be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

It's Only Taken Us 5 Years to Forget the Single Biggest Lesson of the Financial Meltdown

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 7:24 PM EST

Yesterday the Federal Housing Finance Agency issued new underwriting guidelines that allow some home buyers to take out mortgages with down payments as small as 3 percent. Dean Baker brings down the hammer:

The NYT misled readers about the relative risk from low down payment loans in an article on the decision by the government to allow Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to purchase loans with just 3 percent down payments. The piece cited several commentators saying that the risk of defaults would not increase substantially by lowering down payment requirements.

A study by the Center for Responsible Lending found that the default rate for loans with down payments of between 3 to 10 percent was nearly 9 percent [correction: 6.8 percent]. This is more than 80 percent [45 percent] higher than the default rate it found for mortgages with down payments of 10 percent or more.

....It is dubious housing policy to encourage moderate income people to take out mortgages on which they are likely to default....I think it's great to help low and moderate income people get good housing. But this policy is about helping banks get their bad mortgages insured by taxpayers.

This decision by the FHFA is almost criminally myopic. After all, the go-go years that produced a towering housing bubble and then ended in an epic global financial meltdown are less than a decade in the past. Have we really forgotten so soon the primary lesson of these years?

For the record, here it is: If there was a single primary culprit in the collapse of the global economy, it was excessive leverage. It was embedded in exotic financial instruments. It was encouraged by weak banking regulations. It was exploited by traders and executives who all knew they could make a quick buck as long as the music kept playing. In the end, though, it turned Wall Street into a house of cards that didn't have the strength to withstand meaningful losses. When those losses finally, inevitably, materialized, the financial system collapsed.

But it's not just bank leverage that's a problem. Wall Street's most dangerous debt all originated with consumers, who had been relentlessly encouraged to take on ever more debt and ever more leverage for nearly a decade—mostly in the form of risky mortgages that were almost designed for failure thanks to down payment requirements that got steadily weaker as the housing bubble steadily inflated. If you make a 20 percent down payment, your leverage is 4:1. That's fine. If things go south, your house can lose a lot of value and you're still OK. (And so is your bank.) With a 10 percent down payment, your leverage is 9:1. That's more dangerous. But a 3 percent down payment? Now we're talking about leverage of 32:1. That's crazytown territory. Even a moderate setback can wipe you out completely. Put enough loans like that together and then lash them into leverage-soaked financial derivatives that no one truly understands, and a moderate setback can wipe out the entire financial system.

The FHFA's justification, of course, is that this 3 percent deal is only being offered to people with strong credit histories. But that's always how it starts, isn't it? The question is, where does it end?

Nowhere good. The single biggest lesson of the 2008 meltdown is that a strong financial system is built on a foundation of limited leverage. Limited leverage for everyone. Anything else is a foundation of sand. How can we have forgotten that so soon?

This Is the Predictably Awful Way Fox News Reacted to the CIA Torture Report

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 6:26 PM EST

On Tuesday the Senate released a long-awaited, scathing report condemning CIA torture methods during the George W. Bush administration. The report outlines horrible abuses including "rectal feeding" and "ice-water baths," but only the geniuses over at Fox News could see what it was truly about: Obamacare.

The hosts of Fox News' Outnumbered were convinced the report was made public in order to distract from Jonathan Gruber's testimony on Obamacare this morning. Jesse Watters, who says he would have rather remained in the dark, because after all people do "nasty things in the dark" all the time, said he found the timing of the report's release "ironic," which it is not.

Watters then went on to compare the torture report to Rolling Stone's botched sexual assault reporting at the University of Virginia, because why the hell not?

"They didn't even interview any of the CIA interrogators who do the report," Watters explained. "It's kind of like how Rolling Stone does their stories—they only get one side. And to say this is about transparency at the CIA, the Democrats didn't care about transparency when they were destroying hard drives at the IRS."

(h/t Media Matters)

Senate Report: We Tortured Prisoners, It Didn't Work, and We Lied About It

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 1:31 PM EST

Via the Washington Post, here are the top 10 key findings of the Senate torture report:

In plain English: The torture was far more brutal than we thought, and the CIA lied about that. It didn't work, and they lied about that too. It produced so much bad intel that it most likely impaired our national security, and of course they lied about that as well. They lied to Congress, they lied to the president, and they lied to the media. Despite this, they are still defending their actions.

The rest of the report is just 600 pages of supporting evidence. But the core narrative that describes a barbarous, calculated, and sustained corruption of both our national values and our most fundamental moral principles is simple. We tortured prisoners, and then we lied about it. That's it.

Quote of the Day: Questions About Torture Are "Not Helpful"

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 11:38 AM EST

From Jose Rodriguez, the head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in 2002, after field agents began questioning both the utility and legality of extended waterboarding sessions:

Strongly urge that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from in written traffic (email or cable traffic). Such language is not helpful.

This is, I suppose, not just the banality of evil, but its prolixity as well. Rodriguez, of course, is the guy who would eventually destroy videotapes of CIA torture sessions on the pretense of "protecting" the people who worked for him.

There's more at the link from the New York Times, which got an advance copy of the Senate torture report and is now releasing it. Along with everyone else in the world, I'll be posting bits and pieces that stand out as I read them. As much as I have the stomach for, anyway.

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The Senate Just Released the CIA Torture Report. Read the Full Document.

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 11:30 AM EST

A much-anticipated report investigating torture methods carried out by the CIA during the Bush administration was released on Tuesday. The report has taken nearly five years to produce and was widely expected to condemn the controversial torture program. Indeed, just last week Secretary of State John Kerry asked Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to consider delaying the release of the report given the ongoing threat of ISIS and the safety of American hostages abroad. Former Bush and CIA officials have also been organizing to preemptively challenge the report's findings.

Read the executive report in its entirety below:

 

We're going through the document now. Catch any highlights? Let us know in the comments.

Watch Dianne Feinstein Address the Senate on Release of CIA Torture Report

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 10:59 AM EST

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is scheduled to speak from the Senate floor this morning to deliver remarks on the upcoming CIA torture report. Watch live below:

Read the Senator's press release:

 

I Boldly Predict That The 2015 Senate Will Be the Same as the 2014 Senate

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 10:37 AM EST

Brian Beutler writes today about the recent Republican practice of gumming up the Senate by deluging every bill with a tidal wave of awkward, superfluous, or just plain dumb amendments designed to force Democrats to cast politically embarrassing votes ("Is Senator Catnip really opposed to free flag pins for all vets?"):

To deny Democrats even symbolic victories, Senate Republicans have flooded each legislative debate with amendments—some pertinent, some absurd—that Democrats didn’t want to vote on, or that threatened the legislative coalition behind the underlying bill. When Reid has stepped in to protect his members from these votes, McConnell has used it as a pretext to filibuster.

....With McConnell coming into control of the Senate, the dynamic will now flip....Thus his promise to open up the Senate...."The notion that protecting all of your members from votes is a good idea politically, I think, has been pretty much disproved by the recent election,” he said.

....I hope McConnell sticks to his guns on this one, because he’s completely correct about it. And if there’s a reason to think he will, it’s that it’s entirely consistent with his other, profound insights about the basic nature of legislative politics in America....McConnell wouldn't choose a more genteel legislative strategy if it weren't in his interest. But if he can prove that taking hard votes like this doesn't actually make much of a difference politically, then he can prove that the amendments themselves are worthless, or at least not to be feared, and perhaps make Congress a less ridiculous place in the long run.

Ahem. Mitch McConnell is notable for many things, but a commitment to principled process improvements in the Senate is rather notably not one of them. As Beutler says, demanding the right to offer a few hundred amendments to every bill is merely a pretext for filibustering, not the real reason. McConnell does it to annoy Harry Reid, not because he has a lifelong dedication to an open Senate.

In any case, the issue is a little more complicated. How many amendments can each side offer? Who gets to offer them? What order are they voted on? Is there a time limit on debate? How do you resolve competing amendments on the same subject? The only way to make this work is to have a cast-iron set of rules governing all this stuff. Without that, it will implode the first time someone breaks whatever gentleman's agreement McConnell strikes with Reid. And I don't think McConnell has the power or the votes to enact a cast-iron rule on amendments.

So....I'd put this in the general category of generic blather that switches sides whenever the parties trade majorities. For the past few years, McConnell has been for filibusters and against limitations on amendments. Starting in January, some alleged Democratic perfidy will quickly give him cover to switch his position, and Harry Reid will switch his too. Life will then go on exactly as before. You heard it here first.

Watch "Emperor" Obama Take Over Hosting Duties for Colbert

| Tue Dec. 9, 2014 9:10 AM EST

"You've taken plenty of shots at my job. I'm going to take a shot at yours."

And with that, President Obama seized control of a special D.C. edition of "The Colbert Report" last night, leading off by taking over hosting duties for the latest installment of "The Word," or as the president promptly renamed, "The Decree."

Later on, the two sat down and discussed everything from the midterm elections to the nuclear launch codes. Regarding immigration reform, Colbert asked his guest, "You realize you're an emperor now...Why did you burn the Constitution and become an emperor?"

Colbert, who will be replacing David Letterman over at the "Late Show" soon, concluded the special appearance with a suggestion that melded both immigration legislation and Keystone into one bizarre policy proposal. The president declined: "Stephen, that sounds like a ridiculous idea. But that's why you're where you are, and I'm where I am."