Need To Read: October 21, 2009

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Bloomberg does some sleuthing through tax returns and reports on the income of the stage crew at Carnegie Hall:

Depending on wattage, a star pianist can receive $20,000 a night at the 118-year-old hall, meaning he or she would have to perform at least 27 times to match the income of Dennis O’Connell, who oversees props at the New York concert hall.

O’Connell made $530,044 in salary and benefits during the fiscal year that ended in June 2008. The four other members of the full-time stage crew — two carpenters and two electricians — had an average income of $430,543 during the same period.

Impressive.  Bloomberg's reporter suggests that the stagehands "benefit from a strong union."  No kidding.  But there's also this:

The Carnegie Hall board is led by Sanford I. Weill, former chairman of Citigroup Inc., and includes philanthropist Mercedes Bass, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn and Sallie Krawcheck, president of Bank of America’s wealth-management division.

OK, I see it happening like this.  It's 2005.  The union rep comes into the room and starts off with a joke.  "We're not greedy.  Half a mil a year will get us out of your hair."  Weill, who's busy trying to figure out his piece of Citi's structured finance action for the month, just laughs.  A minute later he's approved the contract and left the room.

Who says a rising tide doesn't lift all boats?

[Guest bloggers Lily Abood, Ben Jervey, and Adam Taylor are writing from the road this week while biking 350 miles to raise awareness of climate change issues. This post is the second in the Mother Jones Ride350 Dispatch series.]

We woke up in Arcata, CA at the crack of dawn yesterday. Bleary-eyed and disheveled, surrounded by half-packed bags and well-lubricated bicycles, we found ourselves greeted by dozens of residents and community leaders who were so excited we were there I thought I was still dreaming. (And, since I felt like I was dreaming the entire day, I can't say that I'll do much of a job recounting it—so it'd probably be better to read former MoJo web guru Nick Aster's post about our first day on the road.)

What I can say is that being greeted by dozens of strangers, in a place you've never been before, who are shaking your hand, handing you warm cups of coffee (in porcelain cups, no less), feeding you fresh, locally made bagels, and telling you that they are so honored to have you in their town, is a really humbling experience. I mean, really? You're excited to have me here?

Most days I sit in front of a computer, trying to track down people I want to talk to. I email across the country, I ride mass transit with a bunch of grumpy faced iPhone users, and I feel pretty darn isolated in my cubicle life. But, not yesterday.

And that same uncommonly wonderful feeling of being welcomed and appreciated has continued into today. From the chain-smoking mother sitting in front of her RV trailer at the campground wishing us good luck, and reminding us girls to "be safe out there," to the unique collection of locals who have approached us to ask if we're those folks they saw on TV, everyone in these wild little CA towns seem genuinely excited that we're here.

And—here comes the fun part: Most of them want to know what the hell we're doing and what that number "350" means.

My favorite encounter of the day was meeting the fine folks who run the Avenue Cafe in Miranda on Highway 101. Genuinely good people through and through, and generous as can be. After a 30-mile ride through the Avenue of the Giants, the team rolled into Miranda without a clue. Eyeing the sunny picnic benches on the patio at the Avenue Cafe, I popped my head in and asked if they'd mind hosting us and our sandwiches if we bought a drink or two. The invitation to stay was quickly followed by two baskets of bread sticks (yum) and a large cheese pizza from the chef.

Three of the staff came out to talk to us about the ride, and 350 ppm (they've heard of us too!), and what they're doing to lessen their impact. The manager proudly explained that he makes weekly runs of recycling to the collection center and donates the money to the local school, but he wants to get solar power panels installed, and do more to green their building. Small steps, he admits, but "everybody's got to do their part."—Lily

Adam Taylor is a green building consultant in San Francisco. While a bicycle enthusiast, he has never done anything like Ride350 before in his life—you can tell by looking at his legs. Ben Jervey is a journalist, activist, world traveler, great wedding dancer, and looks great in spandex. Lily Abood has worked with nonprofits in the Bay Area for 10 years (including her current role as Mother Jones' Major Gifts Officer). She plans to hug a lot of CA redwoods while she's on this adventure. For more information about the entire Ride350 team, check out the rider profiles here.

Via Noah Shachtman comes the shocking news that the Pentagon doesn't want its employees ghost riding the whip (or the MRAP, as the case may be). The military is actually encouraging social media, but telling soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to use it carefully.

None of that means we can't reminisce, though:

 

After creating quite the spectacle at the Press Club yesterday, the Yes Men were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday showing off their Survivaball suits to unsuspecting senators and passersby.

The Survivaball, as they describe it, is "the stupidest costume known to humankind," intended to "highlight the absurdity of the Senate's slow pace in responding to climate change." They market the climate-change survival suits to potential customers as a "gated community for one."

Today's activities apparently included harassing Arlen Spector (D-Pa.), a senator who has been on the fence about passing climate change legislation this year. From their blog:

At another point, a fleet of Survivaballs chased Senator Arlen Spector outside the Hart Senate Office Building. "Anyone as wishy-washy on climate issues as the Senator, who thinks that clean coal is an answer, needs a Survivaball," said Ross Finlayson, a top Surviva-model involved in the chase. "Maybe he ran away because he knew that even he couldn't afford one."

Our September/October 2009 Fiji Water expose had a big impact, and it's still going strong. Today the story was tweeted by Fox News anchor Julie Banderas... and by Celine Cousteau, granddaughter of filmmaker Jacques Cousteau and daughter of oceanic explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau. Celine Cousteau travels the world on expeditions, and her family owns the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, an "Eco Friendly Resort" on the island of Vanua Levu in Fiji. I'm not sure if the Cousteau resort stocks Fiji Water, but it's good to see the story strike close to Fiji Water's home.

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

Big Finance may be breathing a sigh of relief these days, but what about the rest of the country? With foreclosures at a record high and the national unemployment rate at 9.8 percent, I went to talk with some of the people still waiting for their recovery, their bailout, at a massive homeowner relief event in the San Francisco Bay Area. Organized by the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America, the "Save the Dream" tour offers many people a last-gasp hope at saving their homes—and for many, their American Dream.

Watch the video below to meet them and hear their stories.

Quote of the Day

From Andrew Ross Sorkin, on Hank Paulson's plan to meet socially with the Goldman Sachs board of directors in summer 2008 during a trip to Russia:

For fuck's sake! Wilkinson thought. He and Treasury had had enough trouble trying to fend off all the Goldman Sachs conspiracy theories constantly being bandied about in Washington and on Wall Street. A private meeting with its board? In Moscow?

"Wilkinson" is Treasury Department chief of staff Jim Wilkinson.  For the full context, see here.

I hope the fine folks at CBPP won't take offense if I point out that this might be the new winner in the "Most Boring Headline Ever" sweepstakes:

Excise Tax on Very High-Cost Health Plans Is a Sound Element of Health Reform

Still, you can't argue with the truth.  It is a sound element of health reform for two big reasons.  First, since it's a tax on health plans, it rises at the same rate as healthcare costs.  This helps ensure that funding for healthcare reform stays budget neutral not just for its first ten years, but over the long haul as well.

Second, providing funding is only half its appeal.  It's also one of those rare policy measures that (a) might actually pass and (b) might actually slow down the growth of healthcare costs:

The proposed excise tax would make a major contribution to slowing the growth of health care costs by discouraging insurers from offering, and firms from purchasing, extremely generous health insurance coverage that can encourage excess health care utilization. That, in turn, would reduce incentives for excessive health care spending.

Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Director Douglas Elmendorf has stated that changing the tax treatment of high-cost health insurance to reduce its attraction is one of “two powerful policy levers” the federal government has available to encourage changes in medical practice and thereby slow the increase in health care costs. (Changing Medicare’s payment rules is the other.) “Nearly all analysts agree,” CBO has reported, “that the current tax treatment of employer-based health insurance — which exempts most payments for such insurance from both income and payroll taxes — dampens incentives for cost control because it is open-ended.”

For more geeky goodness, read the whole thing.  It might be opposed by both labor unions and Republicans, but it's still a good idea.

Financial Autopsies

Mike Konczal writes today about the Grayson/Clay/Miller amendment, aka the "Financial Autopsy" amendment.  Basically, it would require the new Consumer Financial Protection Agency to take an annual look at the consumer products that have caused the highest rates of bankruptcy and foreclosure and report back on what ought to be done about them.  Here's Mike:

The CDC has a response team for when it finds cancer clusters. I like the idea of the CFPA having a similar response team, that can be called in for expert opinion in the case of foreclosure and bankruptcy clusters. A team of forensic accountants and financial experts who can be called in by members of Congress, or as a result of their own statistical samplings, to give opinions on what is going on on the ground in a member’s district when it comes to the end result of financial innovations. Financial detectives, if you will, who can shift through all the noise one finds with dealing with consumer finances to see if there’s any signal that is the result of changing products and options available to consumers.

And maybe the producers of House could create a spinoff series called Plank that solves financial mysteries.  Ripped right out of the headlines!

Anyway.  My first reaction is the same cynical one that Felix Salmon has: this might actually be mildly effective, so it will never see the light of day.  At least, not in any way that runs the risk of keeping it effective.

My second reaction, however, is that this is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about a while back when I objected to the Fed trying to do stuff like this.  As Mike points out in his post (and as Alan Greenspan acknowledged a few days ago), the Fed is institutionally incapable of this kind of regulation.  The only way it will ever happen is if it comes from an agency in which this is part of its cultural DNA.  An agency like the CFPA.

So how can it survive the usual gauntlet of opposition from bankers who don't want this kind of troublesome attention?  I'm not sure, but divide and conquer seems like the best bet.  There must be some corner of the financial industry (credit unions? community banks?) that mostly prospers from being careful and prudent, and would therefore benefit from having their least scupulous competitors put under an occasional microscope.  Bankers in general are so allergic to regulations of any kind that it's not clear you could get their support even for one that clearly benefits them, but you never know.  It's worth a try.