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Obama Explains the Budget He Wants You to Support

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 9:54 AM EDT

Yesterday, I noted that Organizing for America is asking people to call their lawmakers in support of a budget no one from the Obama Administration has explained.

Today, Obama does the explaining himself, in a web video. It's below.

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Quote of the Day - 3.17.09

| Wed Mar. 18, 2009 12:50 AM EDT
From Sen. Judd Gregg (R–NH), on the possibility of using the budget reconciliation process to pass healthcare and cap-and-trade bills in the Senate:

"That would be the Chicago approach to governing: Strong-arm it through.  You're talking about the exact opposite of bipartisan. You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."

Hell yes.  This is supposed to be a democracy.  Why, allowing legislation to pass based on nothing more than a simple majority vote would be just this side of mob rule.

Ex Post Punitive

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 11:32 PM EDT
Would it be legal to pass a law that retroactively taxed away the bonuses of all those AIG traders who destroyed the planet?  The main constitutional objections are that such a law might be construed as either ex post facto or a bill of attainder.  So what about that?

Well, Conor Clarke talked to certified expert Laurence Tribe, and he says not to worry about bill of attainder issues: "It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge."

Great!  So what about the problem with it being retroactive?  The Supreme Court has upheld retroactive taxes against ex post facto arguments before, and over at Interfluidity Steve Waldman quotes Daniel Troy, author of Retroactive Legislation, on a similar objection to the Superfund legislation: "Because the ex post facto clauses do not apply to civil laws, Superfund therefore would have to be characterized as punitive in nature to be classified as an ex post facto law. The current Court, though, has suggested that unless a law is exclusively punitive, it will not come within the scope of the ex post facto clauses."

Italics mine.  So it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it's not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it's not (it should be "manifestly regulatory and fiscal" Tribe says).  Then everything is kosher!  We can tax their socks off!

So there you have it.  Now we just have to figure out if most of these guys are actually U.S. citizens in the first place.  I hear that New York state AG Andrew Cuomo is working on that.

SXSW Dispatch: Gadflies, Meet Beekeepers

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 10:49 PM EDT

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest Festival. Read her first and second dispatches.

First They Came For the Bees

The Last Beekeeper, a moving 66-minute documentary that follows a year in the lives of three professional beekeepers, was never intended as a commentary on the recession. But it's difficult to watch these three very different Americans struggle to make it, and not think about how many other people in the country are suffering the same defeats, regardless of their professions.

The American dream at its best is predicated on the belief that hard work, honesty and passion will bring you success, or at least survival. What the beekeepers discover, in Montana, South Carolina, Washington, and California, is that the dream is a lie.

Perhaps the most heartbreaking protagonist is stoic Brian, who hides his pain and financial losses from his wife. It's a scene almost certainly being replayed in countless homes across the country. The film doesn't push the allegory, but it doesn't need to: It's not just the bees who are dying.

Borat on A Budget: The Yes Men Dream of Better News

"If a few people at the top can make the bad news happen, why can't a few people at the bottom make some good news happen?" —The Yes Men Fix the World

Fans of The Yes Men will be pleased to know that the activist prankster collective, fronted by charming shape-changers Andy Bichibaum and Mike Bonanno, have followed up their WTO-lampooning first film with a series of outrageous pranks that make "An Immodest Proposal" look like the New Deal. No spoilers, I promise, but just imagine if you could do this for a living:

  • Drive down the stock of a global corporation (if only for an hour or two)
  • Inject FEMA with a conscience
  • Introduce a revolutionary new alternative energy fuel.

Not bad for a day's work, or even five years of after-hours backbreaking toil. Although the film suffers from too much padding and a clunky narrative frame, it's still good inspiring fun. The Yes Men are committed gadflies, not auteurs, and as DIY agitprop (The Yes Men Fix the World was made on a modest $1.2 million budget), this sequel offers up inspiration for the weary and elevates practical jokes to the level of impractical, impassioned optimism. 

Whether "representing" DOW, FEMA, or the dreams of Joe Public, the Yes Men's antics are predicated on their explicit, stated belief that they are not playing hoaxes. Instead, they are giving us brief glimpses of what the world might look like if decency and common sense prevailed.

NB: Fans of Borat on a bigger budget will be pleased to hear that Bruno's sneak peak was received with raves and raucous cheers. For more on Bruno, and other highlights of SXSW, go to David Hudson's excellent blog on IFC.

Kindle Followup

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 8:48 PM EDT
Everyone is eagerly waiting to find out how I like my new Kindle.  Right?  Well, aren't you?

The quick answer is: it's pretty cool.  I like it a lot.  You know the basic drill: it's small and light, it holds lots of books, you can download new books in a few minutes, you can search your books, etc.  However, after a couple of weeks of using it there are also a few slightly less obvious things that I like and dislike about it.  First, the things I like:

1. Battery life is as good as advertised. I use it for an hour or two a day, and I haven't had to recharge it yet.

2. The leather cover Amazon sells for it is great.  It fits nicely, folds open completely, and feels good.  Well worth $30.

3. Here's an odd one: I normally have trouble skimming books, even when I'm reading sections that I'm not very interested in. I don't know why, but the Kindle makes it easier.  Although I read most stuff at my normal sluggish pace, for some reason I find it a lot easier to browse quickly through the passages I'm only marginally interested in.

4. This isn't really a like or dislike, just a suggestion: publishers should start sending review copies of books via Kindle.  Cheaper for them, more convenient for us.

And now the dislikes:

1. Different books use different fonts, and some of the fonts have pretty mediocre resolution.  The image on the right is a sample from one of the books I've downloaded.  It's not horrible, but it's definitely not the kind of resolution you get on a printed page.

(Technical note: It's surprisingly hard to photograph the Kindle accurately.  Get too close and the picture is misleading since you don't actually read the thing with a magnifying glass.  Reduce the image and it gets fuzzy.  Etc.  This image has been Photoshopped so that it looks subjectively similar to real life.  To my eyes, anyway.)

2. It's hard to page back and forth in a book.  This is by far my biggest complaint, and it might just be inherent in the medium.  In a physical book, it's easy to flip back 50 pages to re-read something, or to flip forward to the glossary to look something up.  On the Kindle, it's a pain.

3. On a related note, it's surprisingly hard to flip to a different page momentarily and then get back to your current page.  You have to bookmark your current page before you move, then move, then use the menu function to display your bookmarks, and then select the right bookmark.  Or you can repeatedly hit the Back button.  This is bizarre.  At the very least there ought to be a way to temporarily bookmark your current page and then get back to it instantly.  At best, the Kindle would keep track of it for you and offer a "Return to current page" option.

4. Pictures are sometimes several pages away from the text that references them.

5. There's occasionally odd behavior after you do a search: the Next and Previous Page buttons sometimes move you three or four pages instead of just one.

So that's that.  #2 is the only one that really bugs me, and it might not be a big deal once I get a little more fluent with menus and bookmarks.  Your mileage may vary on the other issues, or on whether you can stand to give up the feel of a good old paper book.  So far, though, I'm hooked.

POSTSCRIPT: Sorry about the lame list numbering.  That's twice in one day.  Unfortunately, our new site design doesn't seem to like HTML list commands, and I haven't been able to figure out yet how to fool it into working.  So inline numbers are all I have.  This should improve someday.

The Third Front

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 5:40 PM EDT
Only Nixon could go to China, and maybe only a Republican Defense Secretary can make serious cuts in big-ticket weapons systems.  Bob Gates has been rumored to favor axing some major platforms for quite a while, and the Boston Globe reports today that he's serious about it:

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

....Gates's budget plans remain closely guarded, but aides say his decisions will be guided by the time he has spent with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One aide who has traveled with Gates more than a dozen times said the secretary "is particularly keen and aware of the urgent operational needs on the ground."  That likely means greater investments in intelligence-gathering systems such as pilotless drone aircraft, special-operations forces and equipment, and advanced cultural training for military personnel, aides said.

Obviously we've heard this all before, and there's no telling if Gates and Obama will be able to fight and win this battle.  They don't call it the Iron Triangle for nothing, after all, and a fight like this will suck down political capital faster than a dozen stimulus bills.

On the other hand, it looks as if Gates is carefully taking away equal numbers of toys from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and it's possible that the stuff he wants to replace them with will be fairly evenly split too.  That may make his job easier.  Maybe.

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Correction: No Brown/Rihanna Duet

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 4:51 PM EDT
Ugh. See, this is what I get for breaking my rule not to talk about the Chris Brown/Rihanna scandal. Turns out my post last week citing a Reuters report that Rihanna had recorded a "love song" duet with boyfriend and alleged batterer Brown was incorrect, thank whatever deity or scientific principle you subscribe to. People (I'm quoting People in the Mother Jones!) has it covered, saying that it's all a big misunderstanding: Brown and Rihanna worked on a demo earlier in 2008, vocals to which apparently just recently leaked online, causing everybody to go into a tizzy. So, score one for, you know, sanity. My apologies for being that annoying blogger guy, just re-posting other stories for their shock value that turn out not to be true. I hate that guy! I promise to post lots of stories about cool up-and-coming bands this week to try and make up for it.

New Music: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 4:33 PM EDT
While Pitchfork's positive (8.4) review compared this New York band to Ride and Peter Bjorn and John, all I can think of when I see their unrepentantly verbose name and hear their strummy, melancholy, addictive tunes is The Smiths. Actually, the delicate, often-buried vocals mean I suppose this can be called "twee," but unlike the cutesy Belle and Sebastian, there's substance and strength here. There's the driving rhythm of "Young Adult Fiction," the Hacienda beat of "Stay Alive," and the Bowie-like skip of "A Teenager in Love." While lead singer Kip Berman has none of Morrissey's penchant for drama, he does have the Mozzer's ability to find the most interesting, ear-pleasing notes, counterpoints to the major chords that surprise at first but then seem utterly natural. To anyone who lived through, I dunno, 1988, this sound may feel so familiar it may seem like a carbon copy of a long-forgotten album. But to me, it's a a glorious renewal of a lost thread in rock music: a band that uses understatement to soar. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self-titled debut album is out now. MP3s: "Come Saturday," "Everything With You" After the jump, the video for "Everything With You"

The AIG Mystery: Who's Receiving Those Bonuses?

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

Just who's getting those AIG bonuses?

For days, media commentators, Republican and Democratic Legislators, and just plain folks have been ranting about the news that AIG, the belly-up insurance-giant-cum-hedge-fund that has been bailed out by the US government to the tune (so far) of $175 billion, is handing out at least $165 million in bonuses to its executives. The outrage has been flying fast and thick. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for AIG executives to resign or commit suicide. Stephen Colbert screamed and waved a pitchfork. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), declared that some of AIG's employees ought to be fired. President Barack Obama said he was "choked up with anger." Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, promised late Tuesday that Democrats would propose legislation taxing the bonuses at severe rates unless the bonus contracts were renegotiated. At the White House press briefings, press secretary Robert Gibbs has been pelted with questions about what Obama is going to do to stop—or reclaim—the bonuses.

But in all the furor, one unanswered question has been who precisely is receiving this largesse. Andrew Cuomo, the New York state attorney general, has been on the case. On Monday, he subpoenaed AIG for the names of the executives who received bonuses. The idea, presumably, would be to try to publicly shame some of the executives into returning the money. And Cuomo received something of a boost from the White House. At the end of Tuesday's press briefing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Gibbs said that the president is supportive of Cuomo's efforts and is also "looking into" obtaining and making public the names of the AIG employees awarded bonuses. This was not a rip-roaring endorsement, but a signal that Obama wouldn't mind if Cuomo succeeded in publicly humiliating these executives. After all, Cuomo's endeavor makes sense: If it's really so hard to get the money back from these folks (because preexisting contracts supposedly can't be broken), taxpayers should at least know whose bank accounts they're padding.

Death and Taxes

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:30 PM EDT
The AIG bonuses have already been paid out, so how can we get them back even if we want to?  Some clever congressmen think they have the answer:

Senate Democrats will seek to recoup $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of the troubled insurance giant American International Group through a narrowly focused tax, unless the money is returned voluntarily, party leaders announced this morning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Finance Committee Chairman  Max Baucus (Mont.) would unveil a proposal by tomorrow that would tax up to 98 percent of the bonus money. "That will certainly send a message to the people at AIG and all others who try to benefit from the hardships the American people face," Reid said.

In the House,  Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and  Tim Ryan (Ohio) introduced the "Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act" to create a 100 percent tax on bonuses over $100,000 that are distributed to employees of financial firms receiving federal bailout funds.

On the scale of grand karmic justice, this all sounds fine.  Screw 'em.  Sadly, though, the world doesn't work on the principle of karmic justice.  If it did, Rush Limbaugh would be flipping burgers at a McDonalds in West Sacramento.  So, some random thoughts:

• Would this cause havoc with the sanctity of contracts?  Would no one ever trust the United States government again?  I've now read variations on this theme several times, and I'm unimpressed.  More likely, I'd say, is that the lesson everyone would learn is that if you destroy the global financial system then you might have your bonuses taken away.  This does not strike me as such a bad lesson.

• Would this be legal?  Just curious.  The Supreme Court is fine with retroactive tax increases, but if you target this too finely couldn't it be read as a bill of attainder?  Maybe some legal eagles can chime in on this.

• I wonder how many of the folks at AIG getting the big bonuses are American?  Can we get Gordon Brown to put the screws to the ones who aren't?

• There's actually a genuine unfairness in applying this to every financial firm that's received federal bailout funds.  This is one of the reasons I opposed Hank Paulson's dramatic October gathering where he insisted that every big bank accept TARP funds: it means that we don't know which banks really needed the money and which ones didn't.  If, as Richard Kovacevich continues to insist, Wells Fargo never needed the money in the first place, does the government really have the moral authority to wipe out Wells Fargo's bonuses?

• Are we afraid that if we don't pay these guys millions of dollars they'll all quit and AIG will implode even worse than they already have?  Here's an idea: draft 'em.  Rewrite the selective service law to remove age limits, make financial wizards a special category, and then induct them into the Army.  Unlike the world of foreign affairs, this is one place where the carrot and stick metaphor is genuinely appropriate: instead of the carrot of millions of dollars for good performance, we'd use the stick of years in the stockade as a way of preventing bad performance.  Plus we could make them all wear uniforms and clean out the latrines in their spare time.

That last idea is dedicated to Tyler Cowen. We don't want bloggy fame making us too conventional, do we?