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Now This is Sisterhood

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:35 PM EDT

Remember the Pakistani woman ordered gang-raped in 2002 because her brother had improper relations with a girl from another clan? Never mind that even that heinous justification was a frame job meant to hide the fact that he'd been gang-raped by that other clan—check this out.

Not only has this sister refused to commit suicide like most rape victims due to the associated stigma. Not only did she press charges and go on to live a very public life in which "she runs several schools, an ambulance service and women's aid group while having written an autobiography. By marrying, she has defeated another stigma against rape victims" who live as outcasts. Until they kill themselves.  That's right-I'm applauding her for marrying. As a second wife, no less. Well, I'm not applauding her for marrying (unless it was her choice) but for why and how she married.

From the NYT:

Mr. Gabol [her new husband] was one of a group of police officers deployed to protect her after she was threatened by the rapists’ relatives to try to stop her from pressing charges.
Mr. Gabol had a hard time persuading Ms. Mukhtar to marry. He had been calling her off and on since 2003 but formally proposed a year and a half ago, she said. "But I told my parents I don't want to get married."
Finally, four months ago, he tried to kill himself by taking sleeping pills. "The morning after he attempted suicide, his wife and parents met my parents but I still refused," Ms. Mukhtar said...Mr. Gabol then threatened to divorce his first wife, Shumaila. Ms. Shumaila, along with Mr. Gabol’s parents and sisters, tried to talk Ms. Mukhtar into marrying him, taking on the status of second wife. In Pakistan, a man can legally have up to four wives. It was her concern about Ms. Shumaila, Ms. Mukhtar said, that moved her to relent.
I am a woman and can understand the pain and difficulties faced by another woman," Ms. Mukhtar said. "She is a good woman."
In the end, Ms. Mukhtar put a few conditions on Mr. Gabol. He had to transfer the ownership of his ancestral house to his first wife, agree to give her a plot of land and a monthly stipend of roughly $125.
Asked if she had plans to leave her village to live with her husband in his village, Ms. Mukhtar said no. "I have seen pain and happiness in Meerwala. I cannot think of leaving this place." Her husband, she said, "can come here whenever he wants and finds it convenient."

Something tells me he better not be expecting to get any.

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One Way to Avoid the Stimulus Bill's Bonus Loophole...

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:33 PM EDT
The Sunlight Foundation points out that if Congress wants to avoid unpleasant surprises about Wall Street bonus loopholes in federal legislation, a good way to start would be to give lawmakers, the public, and watchdog groups 72 hours to read a bill before lawmakers have to vote on it. I agree. Seems like common sense, no?

Unleash the Fed?

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 12:18 PM EDT
Over at our main site, James Ridgeway remarks that "the Federal Reserve seems to be catching remarkably little blame for the current economic crisis."  This doesn't surprise me.  After all, in a lot of ways the Fed seems to be practically the only institution in Washington actually capable of taking dramatic action these days.  And something is better than nothing.

More interestingly, James points to a Nation piece by William Greider, a longtime Fed watcher, in which he climbs down slightly from some of his previous criticisms.  It's not that he suddenly thinks the Fed is doing a good job, but drawing on the work of progressive economist Jane D'Arista he suggests that part of the problem is that the Fed now has too little authority:

When deregulation began nearly thirty years ago, some leading Fed governors, including [Paul] Volcker, were aware that it would weaken the Fed's hand, and they grumbled privately. The 1980 repeal of interest-rate limits meant the central bank would have to apply the brakes longer and harder to get any response from credit markets. "The only restraining influence you have left is interest rates," one influential governor complained to me, "restraint that works ultimately by bankrupting the customer."

....The central bank was undermined more gravely by further deregulation, which encouraged the migration of lending functions from traditional bank loans to market securities, like the bundled mortgage securities that are now rotten assets....In 1977 commercial banks held 56 percent of all financial assets. By 2007 the banking share had fallen to 24 percent.

The shrinkage meant the Fed was trying to control credit through a much smaller base of lending institutions. It failed utterly.

The problem, D'Arista argues, is that the Fed's control of short-term interest rates has less and less effect on long-term interest rates as the money supply moves outside the traditional banking system.  And fixed capital adequacy requirements, which require banks to slam the brakes on lending during bad times, make things even worse.

Read the whole thing.  I don't have the chops to fully evaluate what she says, but it's an intriguing argument and I'd be interested in hearing reaction from other blogospheric economists.  It's something to think about once we've put out the immediate fire.

The Federal Reserve Passes the Buck—and Prints a Trillion More

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 10:14 AM EDT

Financial crises have a way of exposing the real structures of economic and political power. The current “big mess”—as the White House has taken to calling the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression—has revealed, among other things, the monstrous power of the Federal Reserve.

I’ve never put much stock in conspiracy theories that posited "shadow governments” pulling the strings behind the scenes. But the Fed is as close as it gets. While we focus all our attention on our elected government—the Democrats and Republicans who fight it out over how much to spend on the stimulus package—the Federal Reserve goes on operating behind closed doors, making financial decisions that could make the stimulus look like chump change.

The Fed’s power was abundantly clear on Wednesday: While the politicians, the press, and the public remained riveted on the battle over a few hundred million in AIG bonuses (which the Fed, it turns out, knew all about months ago, and didn’t bother telling the president), the Federal Reserve decided on its own to pump $1 trillion into the economy—nearly doubling all its previous cash injections. This is accomplished, as the New York Times points out, by “creating vast sums of money out of thin air.” And that’s not just a figure of speech: The privately owned banks that more or less run the Fed are helping themselves to $1 trillion plus by printing new money.

Indispensable?

| Fri Mar. 20, 2009 1:19 AM EDT
Is it really true that the traders who created AIG's CDS mess in the first place are also the only ones with the knowledge to unwind it successfully?  Do we really need to pay millions of dollars to keep them around?  Simon Johnson, who certainly has the experience to know, says no:

If A.I.G. wants to argue that complex transactions, hedging positions and counterparty relationships require employees who are intimately familiar with those trades, it should at least provide evidence that the arguments for doing so are sounder than the ones made in Indonesia in 1997, when leading bank-owning conglomerates claimed that only they understood their financing arrangements, which certainly were complex. Or the Russian bankers in 1998 who were convinced that only they and their friends could possibly close the deals that they had taken on. We heard variants of the same idea in Poland in 1990, Ukraine in 1994 (and in the Ukrainian crises subsequently), and Argentina in 2002.

Any grain of truth in these arguments must be weighed against the costs of allowing discredited insiders to manage institutions after they have blown them up. Even if the conclusion is that a few experts need to be retained, offering guaranteed bonuses to virtually the entire operation is hardly the way to achieve the desired results. We should not let people think that the best way to guarantee job security is to lose lots of money in a really complicated way.

Charles de Gaulle said it best: “The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men.”  If the current crew isn't willing to work for anything less than a million bucks a year, I doubt that AIG will have much trouble replacing them with someone who will.

March Really Madness

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 5:52 PM EDT
The Big Dance started today. The week has been a frantic rush to fill out brackets, to winnow 128 teams (there's also a women's tourney going on, people) down to the champions come April. For a break from the careening Dow, people will glue themselves to their screens throughout the weekend watching young athletes try to make up for their schools lost endowments by getting deeper and deeper into the tournament. We'll all hope for a Cinderella story to cling to, to help us believe that miracles are possible. I once played in the dance (and two years later my team made history by being the only #16 seed to ever beat a #1) and for a long time I watched every second of every game, till I wanted to stab Dick Vitale's eyes out (there's only so much Dickie V. one can take). These days I'm more distracted, and much less enamored with the ritual, since it's more commercial than collegial. I'm sure I'll still shed a tear come One Shining Moment (I always do), but for now I am keeping my distance from the sports bars.

If you are too, or if you're a tourney junkie who can't get enough, there's still more fun with  brackets to be had. Check out this Bracket of Evil. Credo Mobile's creation is more of a Sour Sixteen, but it's still fun to consider who's more vile, Ann Coulter or Fox News, AIG or Blackwater? Pick your winners (losers?) and those with the most votes move on to the next round. One glaring omission is Dick Cheney, but that's likely because he'd win the whole thing in a blowout.

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The Obama Vegetable Garden

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 5:09 PM EDT

When Obama was elected back in November, activists had high hopes that he'd demonstrate liberal values with personal changes at the executive mansion. Never mind that presidential limousine; ride bicycles. Plant a garden. Serve quinoa at state dinners. Send the girls to public school.

And then the Obamas turned out to be, well, yuppies. They sent their kids to Sidwell Friends. They're redecorating the second floor using furniture from Pottery Barn. They even retained George W. Bush's White House cook, a woman who once served beef tenderloin and cheese grits to the prime minister of Denmark.

But now there's hope again. From Oprah's interview with the first lady comes news (via Treehugger) that the Obamas will plant a White House vegetable garden:

New Music: PJ Harvey & John Parish

New single from English singer/guitarist Harvey and longtime collaborator Parish evokes early lo-fi alt-rock.

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 4:46 PM EDT
It's hard to believe that it's been 16 years since English rocker PJ Harvey's Rid of Me shared a "for my walkman on the bus ride to work" cassette with Nirvana's In Utero. That was a good tape, if a little emotionally rough for 7:30am. I was going to say that since then, Harvey's never quite reached for the explosive energy of early tracks like "50 Foot Queenie," and this track opens with a mellow tempo and languid guitar riff, but then the chorus kicks in with devastating lyrical candor and melodic tension, and I'm not so sure. "I'd like to take you to a place I know," she declares, as the guitars rear up behind her, "my black hearted." There's a Sonic Youth-y balance of melancholy and squealing noise here (thanks to longtime collaborator Parish, who wrote the music) as well as the off-kilter, shambolic rhythm of Pavement's "Rattled by the Rush," but no-one has a voice like Polly, knife-edged and perfect, intoning, "I think I saw you / In the shadow." Aaagh, okay, yes, yes you did, that was me, sorry. Harvey's new album, A Woman A Man Walked By, comes out March 30 on Island. "Black Hearted Love" is on iTunes or listen below.

Iraq War, 6 Years and Counting

I don't think any of us thought the Iraq War would last this long.

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 4:11 PM EDT

I remember vividly this night six years ago, which I spent huddled around CNN with the rest of Salon's News/Politics crew, watching the deadly firefly light of missiles falling for the first time in the Iraqi darkness.

I don't think any of us thought the Iraq War would last this long, though Mother Jones coverage proved awfully prescient. 

Six years later, if you feel a sense of jaded anger coming over you when you consider Iraq's current state, look instead at the burial photos of fallen soldiers, and the faces of the walking wounded, and let this archive of our Iraq War coverage remind you of what we know now and should have known then.

The Hypocritical Oath

| Thu Mar. 19, 2009 3:33 PM EDT

More than 200 representatives and senators in the 111th Congress have signed Americans for Tax Reform's Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a vow to oppose all tax increases. That put them in a sticky place when they voted Thursday on H.R. 1596, better known as the bill that levies a 90 percent tax on bonuses given out by bailed-out banks.

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly—328 to 93—so doesn't that mean a bunch of lawmakers violated their oaths to Grover Norquist's anti-tax group? Nope, not according to two press releases ATR sent out a few hours before the vote.

The first release notes ATR is "STRONGLY OPPOSED to...the Rangel-Pelosi bill to tax AIG bonuses in order to deflect blame from Secretary Geithner’s failed mismanagement of Treasury funds." But how could pledge-signers vote against the bill when popular ire toward AIG and other banks with taxpayer-subsidized bonuses is so high? Because, according to ATR's second press release, the bill is "illegal, unconstitutional" and "is not a tax bill so much as it is a politically-driven police action by the Congress. The Pledge is intended as a serious commitment by serious defenders of taxpayers."

In Washington, that's what we call spinning for the sake of political cover.