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John McCain Has Gone Tax Cut Crazy

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 3:44 PM EDT

TNR examines John McCain's speech on the economy today and finds that with his new proposals (a massive corporate tax cut and a doubling of the dependent exemption), he is hitting new heights in tax cut fetishizing.

McCain is now up to about $280 billion per year in tax cuts, far more than the Bush tax cuts in their first 10 years. (His campaign gets a lower number only by claiming that his corporate expensing proposal costs nothing over the long term. This is not a serious argument. A CBO report signed by McCain advisor Douglas Holtz-Eakin shows otherwise.) Against these $280 billion in costs, McCain has still proposed to cut not a single specific discretionary program and not a single specific tax expenditure. His ballyhooed plan to hike prescription drug premiums will save $1 billion per year, again according to CBO. Just $279 billion to go.

Remember, John McCain is pushing all these tax cuts while also proposing an open-ended commitment to the Iraq War. How he plans on doing that without exploding the deficit is anybody's guess.

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Muqtada al-Sadr Leads Largest "Humanitarian" Group in Iraq, Says Report

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 1:09 PM EDT

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Following a model first established by Lebanon's Hezbollah, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army has become the leading provider of humanitarian assistance to internally displaced Iraqis—in the process winning support from local populations and drawing a steady stream of new recruits. According to a new report (.pdf) from Refugees International, a Washington-based advocacy group, the Iraqi government's failure to respond to the needs of an estimated 2.7 million internal refugees has provided militias with a valuable propaganda tool and a way to strengthen their respective bases of support.

Both Shiite and Sunni militias have gotten into the humanitarian game, but Sadr's organization, under the auspices of local "Martyr Sadr" offices located in cities throughout Iraq, seems to have become the most predominant and, indeed, the most vital to the welfare of thousands of displaced persons.

According to the report:

Because of the Government of Iraq's inability to respond to the needs of Iraqis, and the UN's slowness in addressing the humanitarian crisis in Iraq, a vacuum was created that is being filled by non-state actors. The fragmentation of Iraq and the eradication of any form of real government benefit militias and individual political movements that provide assistance as an integral part of their programs. As a result, non-state actors play a central role in providing assistance to families throughout Iraq. The largest "humanitarian" organization in Iraq is the Sadrist movement affiliated with Muqtada al Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric, and his local Offices of the Martyr Sadr, which exist throughout Iraq—from Kirkuk to Baghdad to Basra. Operated on a model similar to Lebanese Hezbollah, his sustainable program provides shelter, food and non-food items to hundreds of thousands of Shiites in Iraq.
Electricity is an essential service that ends up being provided by armed groups.... the Mahdi Army—Muqtada al Sadr's armed group—also "resettles" displaced Iraqis free of charge in homes that belonged to Sunnis. It provides stipends, food, heating oil, cooking oil and other non-food items to supplement the Public Distribution System (PDS) rations which are still virtually impossible to transfer after displaced Iraqis have moved to a new neighborhood, though it is easier for Shiites to do so.

Refugees International concludes that armed militias now have "a quasi-monopoly in the large-scale provision of assistance in Iraq" and warns that such groups are using their good works to recruit an "increasing number" of civilians into their ranks. Put simply, the problem is that, at least when it comes to caring for the population's essential needs, "the government does not have any credibility left with Iraqis."

MoJo Video: Economist Nomi Prins on Death and Taxes

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 12:55 PM EDT

Mother Jones writer (and former Bear Stearns analyst) Nomi Prins asks students at St. Francis college in New York: What will you do with your Bush stimulus rebate check?

Keep debt at bay, mostly. Watch the video.

Thanks to Lavell Chichester, who filmed and edited the video.

Tax Day Means Big Bucks for Predatory Lenders

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 12:05 PM EDT

Poor people just can't get a break. Even when the government actually offers them a benefit, the private sector manages to find a way to take a big cut. That's what's happened since Bill Clinton pushed through a major expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a measure that boosts the income of working poor families with a refundable tax credit. It's now one of the biggest anti-poverty programs in the nation. At the same time, however, the EITC has spawned a lucrative cottage industry of scummy tax preparers who prey on unsophisticated workers with promises of "immediate" refunds that are, in fact, very expensive predatory loans that in 2006 drained nearly a billion dollars out of the refunds owed to people who really needed the money.

Tax preparers like H&R Block and Jackson Hewitt offer what are known as Refund Anticipation Loans, in which they give clients their "refunds" on the spot. The "refunds" are actually loans based on the future refund, which is then directed to the tax preparer or lender. The interest rates on many RALs are exorbitant—anywhere from 36 to 1,200 percent once all the fees are factored in. What's really evil about these loans is that many people eligible for the EITC don't realize that they can get all of their tax refunds, for free, from the IRS within a week or two of filing their returns, a fact that the tax preparers are certainly not sharing.

Earlier this year, consumer groups sent out mystery shoppers to many of the commercial tax preparation firms offering RALs and found that most of them didn't tell consumers that the money they were receiving was a loan, or that they'd get more money if they waited a week for the IRS. The groups also reviewed IRS records and discovered that RALs were such easy money that tax preparers can now be found in such dicey locales as payday lending shops, liquor stores, beauty salons, pawn shops and used car dealerships—one reason why RALs have been connected in many states to major criminal tax fraud scandals. Nearly two-thirds of RAL borrowers are EITC recipients, even though such folks only make of 17 percent of all tax payers. That's one reason why the IRS is currently considering whether to limit RALs. Unfortunately, any move will come too late for people filing this year.

Your Weekly Joe Lieberman Outrage

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 10:45 AM EDT

Is Obama a Marxist? Good question, says Joe Lieberman.

Here's the context. In Bill Kristol's newest column in the NY Times (no link; warmongers don't get links), he says that Obama's "bitter" comments are like Karl Marx's statement that religion is the "opium of the people."

On a radio show yesterday, Fox News' senior judicial analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano sat down with Joe Lieberman, and the following transpired:

NAPOLITANO: Hey Sen. Lieberman, you know Barack Obama, is he a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case in today's New York Times? Is he an elitist like your colleague Hillary Clinton says he is?
LIEBERMAN: Well, you know, I must say that's a good question. I know him now for a little more than three years since he came into the Senate and he's obviously very smart and he's a good guy. I will tell ya that during this campaign, I've learned some things about him, about the kind of environment from which he came ideologically. And I wouldn't…I'd hesitate to say he's a Marxist, but he's got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America.

Really, Joe? You may be in or close to mainstream America on a lot of issues, but the reason you're supporting John McCain is his position on the war, which is 100 years of occupation. I don't think that's anywhere near the mainstream.

The media and the blogosphere (I include myself here) are going to have to stop getting worked up every time Lieberman plays attack dog on Obama. There are tons of McCain surrogates who, in the course of any week in this campaign, will take shots at the Democratic nominee; we can't continue to treat Lieberman differently just because he's supposedly a member of the Democratic Party (he's technically an Independent, but whatever). He's a McCain operative now, and will say/do what McCain operatives say/do.

This may well be your last edition of the Weekly Joe Lieberman Outrage.

New "Pro Israel, Pro Peace" Political Group Launches: J Street Hopes to Prod Washington MidEast Policy Towards Center

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 7:43 AM EDT

For years, it's been commonplace for Washington policy observers to shrug over the power of the pro-Israel lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). On questions of Congressional legislation and appropriations involving U.S. defense sales to the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, and policy towards Iran and Syria, AIPAC's influence is an acknowledged fact of life on the Hill, similar to death and taxes, second in power as a Washington lobby group only to the National Rifle Association.

But though its power in Congress is broad and bipartisan, and with some 100,000 members it ostensibly represents an American Jewish community that skews overwhelmingly Democratic, some in Washington's policy community have as long been concerned by what they see as a sharp rightward tilt in AIPAC over the years, in particular as some of its funders and leadership have aligned themselves with hawkish policy positions on issues involving national security, the Arab Israeli conflict, and how to deal with Iran.

So began the motivation for the creation of J Street and JStreetPAC, a new nonprofit lobby group and affiliated political action committee being launched today in Washington, whose leadership describes the new organizations as "pro Israel, pro peace." And unlike most other smaller Washington Mid-East oriented policy shops that primarily issue position papers and opeds, J Street was designed to be distinctly political.

"It's the first time that there has been a political arm for those of us who are pro Israel but pro peace, and who believe that reaching a negotiated settlement in the Middle East is absolutely essential for the security of both Israel and the United States," Jeremy Ben-Ami, the executive director of J Street and JStreetPAC told me. "That is the reason for this effort. We believe the majority of American Jews and many other Americans friendly and supportive to Israel really do recognize that a policy both here and there that would be geared towards really pushing for a two state solution is in Israel's and the U.S.'s best interests."

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Half Australia's Shorebirds Gone, Cambodia's Recovering

| Tue Apr. 15, 2008 2:56 AM EDT

20_1.jpg First the good news. Storks, pelicans, ibises, and other rare waterbirds from Cambodia's famed Tonle Sap region are making a comeback. Some of the waterbird species have rebounded 20-fold since 2001. That's when the Wildlife Conservation Society partnered with the Ministry of Environment of the Royal Government of Cambodia to employ former hunters and egg poachers as round-the-clock park rangers to monitor the birds. The upshot is that the colonies of Tonle Sap (Great Lake), including the largest, and in some cases, only breeding populations of seven globally threatened large waterbird species in Southeast Asia, have increased from a total of 2,500 breeding pairs in 2001 to 10,000 pairs in 2007.

Now the bad news. An alarming new study reveals that Australia's shorebirds have suffered a massive collapse in numbers over the past 25 years. A large scale aerial survey study covering the eastern third of the continent by researchers at the University of New South Wales has identified that migratory shorebirds populations there plunged by 73% between 1983 and 2006. In the same timeframe, Australia's 15 species of resident shorebirds have declined by 81%. The study is published in the scientific journal Biological Conservation.

"This is a truly alarming result: in effect, three-quarters of eastern Australia's millions of resident and migratory shorebirds have disappeared in just one generation," says Richard Kingsford, one of the study authors. Of the 10 wetlands supporting the highest number of shorebirds, four had been substantially reduced in size during the survey period. And not only in Australia. "The wetlands and resting places that they rely on for food and recuperation are shrinking virtually all the way along their migration path, from Australia through Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and up through Asia into China and Russia," says Kingsford.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

"Bias" At The New Newseum

| Mon Apr. 14, 2008 10:49 PM EDT

What would it look like if Fox News produced a segment about bias in the media? Certainly it would follow the standard Fox format: conservative activists such as Accuracy in Media's Cliff Kincaid "balanced" by columnist Clarence Page, along with Fox anchor Brit Hume and Fox contributor Juan Williams. After due deliberation, they would gravely agree that the media, sadly, has an obvious liberal tilt.

Such a segment on media bias does exist. It's not on Fox, though; it's at the Newseum, America's "Interactive Museum of News" in Washington, D.C. The Newseum reopened last Friday amid great hoopla after a move to a giant new building near the Smithsonian and an extremely expensive redesign.

Where did the Newseum get this Fox ethos? Perhaps it's a bizarre coincidence. Or perhaps it's that the video is part of an exhibit funded by $10 million from Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation.

Whoops: Party Ben Gets Fooled by Fake Death Cab Leak

| Mon Apr. 14, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

The supposed leak of the new Death Cab for Cutie album I downloaded unwittingly last week and just opened up to check out today turns out to be a fake: an April Fool's joke by a blogger called Charlatantric. He put the new Death Cab song in the middle of a bunch of songs by German band Velveteen, whose singer sure sounds a lot like Ben Gibbard, in my (admittedly rather weak) defense. Guess I gotta check them out, I liked it so much. Anyway, goes to show: don't believe everything you read on this here series of tubes, something Nick Baumann just pointed out on this very blog. I'll review the real Death Cab CD as soon as we get it.

Iranian Nobel Laureate Threatened

| Mon Apr. 14, 2008 7:02 PM EDT

Iranian human rights lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the recipient of the Nobel peace prize in 2003, says she is receiving an increasing number of death threats, the BBC reports:

They included notes pinned to the door of her office building in Tehran, warning her to "watch your tongue".
Ms Ebadi, an outspoken critic of Iran's leadership, said she had forwarded the threats to the chief of Iranian police. ...