Blogs

Congress to Force Middle Class to Finance Hedge Fund Managers' Tax Break

| Wed Dec. 5, 2007 10:40 AM EST

amtchart.jpg If Congress adjourns this month without fixing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), 23 million Americans will see their tax bills increase next year by about $2,000. The AMT was originally designed to snare a few super rich tax cheats but it now threatens to affect millions of upper-middle class Americans. Congress is now scrambling to come up with $50 billion to make sure this doesn't happen.

Bush administration officials have claimed the AMT increase was "unanticipated" and as such, they've been urging Congress to fix it with deficit spending rather than by raising taxes on, say, hedge fund managers. But that's incredibly disingenuous. The AMT "crisis" stems almost entirely from Bush's 2001 tax cuts for the wealthy. In fact, the administration and its congressional allies were explicitly counting on the extra AMT revenue to mask the impact of the tax cuts. Iowa senator Charles Grassley acknowledged back then that Bush's tax cuts would double the number of middle-class people stung by the AMT.

Were it not for those early tax cuts, fixing the AMT would cost a fraction of what it's going to cost today, according to the nonpartisan Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (see the chart.) Given Wall Street's major lobbying campaign against taxing hedge fund managers, it likely that Congress is going to punt this bill on to our grandchildren.

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Mitt Romney Keeps the 'Sanctuary Mansion' Going

| Wed Dec. 5, 2007 10:39 AM EST

You remember the CNN/YouTube debate from last week when Rudy Giuliani ripped Mitt Romney for keeping a "sanctuary mansion" that employed illegal immigrants as gardeners, right? And you would think that Romney, who defended himself fiercely, would have the sense to make sure those illegal immigrants had either been fired or were fired shortly after, right?

Wrong.

...the very next morning [after the debate], on Thursday, at least two illegal immigrants stepped out of a hulking maroon pickup truck in the driveway of Romney's Belmont house, then proceeded to spend several hours raking leaves, clearing debris from Romney's tennis court, and loading the refuse back on to the truck.
In fact, their work was part of a regular pattern. Despite a Globe story in Dec. 2006 that highlighted Romney's use of illegal immigrants to tend to his lawn, Romney continued to employ the same landscaping company -- until today. The landscaping company, in turn, continued to employ illegal immigrants.
Two of the workers confirmed in separate interviews with Globe reporters last week that they were in the country without documents.... Both were seen on the lawn by either Globe reporters or photographers over the last two months.

The Romney camp learned of the two illegal workers when Globe reporters asked Romney about them on the campaign trail. Romney then proceeded to fire the company that employed the two, claiming that he had made it clear to the company after the Dec. 2006 Globe story that it was to never hire illegal immigrants again.

This whole affair shows poor judgment and a stunning lack of political savviness on Romney's part. His opponents will use it against him mercilessly on the campaign trail. But more important than any of that, two dudes got caught up in political whirlwinds they probably couldn't care less about, and are likely out of jobs today. They might even get deported. And that's a real shame.

How George Bush Could Win a Standing Ovation

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 8:49 PM EST

cop13_04_4_348.jpg You know he wants one. Desperately. All he needs to do is follow the lead of Australia's new prime minister Kevin Rudd. As Reuters tells us, Australia raised hopes of global action to fight climate change on Monday by agreeing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, thereby isolating the United States at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali as the only rich nation not in the pact.

Australia's decision won a standing ovation at the opening of tough two-week negotiations on the Indonesian resort isle. The talks aim to pull together rich and poor countries around a common agenda to agree a broader successor to Kyoto by 2009.

Think of it. George, alone in his corner, snarling at the world. He could travel to the lovely isle of Bali, relax, unwind, then stand before the summit and agree to Do The Right Thing. He would get so much more than a standing ovation. Hallelujahs. Laurel Wreaths. A Nobel. The relieved thanks of the world. A kinder place in history.

What a pretty dream…

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

How George Bush Could Win a Standing Ovation

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 8:40 PM EST

cop13_04_4_348.jpg You know he wants one. Desperately. All he needs to do is follow the lead of Australia's new prime minister Kevin Rudd. As Reuters tells us, Australia raised hopes of global action to fight climate change on Monday by agreeing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, thereby isolating the United States at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali as the only rich nation not in the pact.

Australia's decision won a standing ovation at the opening of tough two-week negotiations on the Indonesian resort isle. The talks aim to pull together rich and poor countries around a common agenda to agree a broader successor to Kyoto by 2009.

Think of it. George, alone in his corner, snarling at the world. He could travel to the lovely isle of Bali, relax, unwind, then stand before the summit and agree to Do The Right Thing. He would get so much more than a standing ovation. Hallelujahs. Laurel Wreaths. A Nobel. The relieved thanks of the world. A kinder place in history.

What a pretty dream…

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Don't Trifle with the Truffle: A Lost Opportunity for the Art World

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 8:37 PM EST

truffle%20on%20platter.jpg

A gigantic 3.3 pound white truffle mushroom was unearthed in the hills nearby Pisa, Italy last month and sold at auction for $340,000 this past weekend. Art star Damien Hirst and his fellow bidder Sheikh Mansoor Bin Zayed al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi were defeated by Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho, who thus deprived the art world of another potential Hirst blockbuster. We may never know which of his regular tricks the world's most expensive living artist would have employed to transform a humble mushroom into an art object worth more than its weight in gold. Would he have suspended the fungus in formaldehyde or encrusted the dug-up edible with diamonds? Perhaps the exceptional Tuber magnatum would have inspired him to produce some more really detailed paintings. Most importantly, would this project-in-the-making have surpassed his previous $100 million price tag? Somewhere in Russia, a billionaire collector mourns the loss.

—Cassie McGettigan

Your Electric Car as a Battery in the Grid

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 8:02 PM EST

Paul%27s%20Civic%20-%20smaller.jpg Electric and hybrid cars could act as energy stores for the power grid when not being driven. New Scientist reports that researchers from the University of Delaware are using a new prototype by AC Propulsion to store or supply grid electricity (Washington DC got a first dose in October). If hundreds or thousands of owners opt into the system, the efficiency of power distribution could improve. A lot. The average US car is driven one out of every 24 hours. Combustion-powered cars are useless off the road. But plug-ins could act as backups to the grid while idle.

 

"Storage is golden for power companies because it is hard to do," [Willet] Kempton told New Scientist, who notes that the cost of storing excess electricity means that there is only capacity for around 1% of yield in the US and UK. Storage is particularly important for renewable energy because power supplied by the Sun, the oceans, or the wind, is often irregular.

 

Each plug-in can provide $4,000 of storage to an energy company per year, at a cost of $600 to install the high-power connection system. Energy companies need to pass on some of their savings to encourage drivers to help out, says Kempton… Hmm. Technology might be the easy part.

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Fuel Cell Cleans Pollution and Makes Electricity

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 7:27 PM EST

071203120753.jpg Pennsylvania State University environmental engineers have developed a fuel cell that uses pollution from coal and metal mines to generate electricity. Bruce E. Logan and colleagues describe successful tests of a lab-scale fuel cell based on microbial fuel cells capable of generating electricity from wastewater. Their device removes dissolved iron from solution while generating electricity at power levels similar to conventional microbial fuel cells (the recovered iron can be used in paints or other products). Better yet, the researchers say, later generations of these cells will lead to more efficient power generation in the future.

Engineers may save us yet.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

An Inside Glimpse at Gitmo Gets Leaked

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 7:10 PM EST

Wikileaks, the wiki for whistleblowers, has been bearing fruit lately. It's posted a list of military equipment in Iraq, which we used to calculate how many pieces of government-issue body armor (446,500), grand pianos (1), paper shredders (787), and BMW 735s (1) the Pentagon has over there. The site has also released a copy of the military's official guide to handling detainees, which includes detailed descriptions of how groups of detainees have been transported by plane, providing a new glimpse inside the flights that carried many of the Guantanamo prisoners from Afghanistan and generated the now-iconic images of shackled, goggled, masked, earmuffed, and gloved new arrivals at Camp X-Ray. The schematic below shows a sample seating configuration for 30 such detainees, AKA "cargo." (To insure a more pleasant flight, guards were supposed to receive one hour of training in "Cross Cultural Communications/Verbal Judo.")

Now Wikileaks has posted a copy of the 2004 Standard Operating Procedures guide from Guantanamo's Camp Delta, a treasure trove of information about the detention center's inner workings. Among the details: Upon arrival, detainees were subject to up to 30 days in solitary as part of a "behavior management plan" designed "to enhance and exploit the disorientation and disorganization felt by a newly arrived detainee in the interrogation process." Guards were prohibited from discussing "world events or history with detainees, or within earshot of detainees," including "the situation in the Middle East [and] the destruction of the Space Shuttle." Detainees who refused to eat or drink weren't on a hunger strike, they were officially on a "voluntary total fast." Wikileaks' own analysis of the document and its 2003 version suggests that new rules were added in response to abuses. For instance, the 2004 manual specifies that "Haircuts will never be used as punitive action" and prohibits guards from using pepper spray on "spitters, urinators or water throwers." And so on, for 238 pages. It's fascinating, revelatory reading, and deserves further scrutiny. Meanwhile, a Gitmo spokesman tells the Washington Post not to take the manual at its word because "things have changed dramatically" there since 2004. Until a more current manual turns up, this one will have to do.

detainee_flight600.jpg

New Info on Dirty Tricks Alleged by Clinton Campaign

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 4:26 PM EST

Earlier today, Barack Obama's campaign called accusations that its staffers are berating Hillary Clinton supporters in Iowa and New Hampshire a "flat-out falsehood."

The Clinton campaign supplied Josh Marshall with a woman who claims to have received such a call. Here's what she had to say:

Oprah and Obama: The Ultimate Power Couple?

| Tue Dec. 4, 2007 4:26 PM EST

Looks that way. From the New York Times:

BACK in 1992, the Bush White House deemed Oprah Winfrey's daytime talk show insufficiently serious for the incumbent president to visit. But in the intervening years, Ms. Winfrey's couch, along with the easy chairs on other chat shows, became so attractive to candidates that the political world is now wondering whether Ms. Winfrey might actually hold the Democratic nomination in her hands.

Judging from her fans' response, she'll pack much more of a punch than Donnie McClurkin's homophobe-fest for Obama, with none of that annoying bigotry. CNN reports that:

The Obama campaign wants this to be a huge event: The rally will take place at the Colonial Center, an arena here that seats 18,000 people. Oprah and/or Obama fans were camping out in sleeping bags outside Obama headquarters in Columbia on Saturday morning, waiting for tickets.
Assuming every ticket-holder shows up, there will be more people at the arena for a political rally than for an average University of South Carolina basketball game, which aren't usually sell-outs.

There's little question that the sleeping-bag-and standing-room-only crowd will be there to see their goddess but is she using her powers for good this time? I'd have to say yes, even if her fans only show up, and only bother to vote, because of her. The more people vote, the more they vote. Even if you do so only because the most popular girl on campus told you to, hitting either the polls or a political rally (which ain't for the faint of heart) once makes it so much more likely that you will again. Who knows how many women will come for the star power and come away politicized?

If the other candidates can't convince someone with Oprah's moral authority (and, yes, that's what it is), that's on them. Say what you will about Winfrey, she knows exactly how powerful she is and there's just no reason to believe she doesn't take that power seriously. Agree with her choice or not but be glad she cares enough to take a break from housewife makeovers to work for change in her country and in the world. It's because, in fact, she first bothered with the housewives -- a group who else bothered with? -- that ordinary women listen to her now. Women trust her because she spent years proving that they matter to her. Why should they listen to their ministers, husbands or CNN any more seriously than the girlfriend who bothers to help them find exercise short cuts or pick out good books to read while they wait out another ballet class or pediatrician appointment?

So, bravo for Oprah. And here's a warning for Obama: remember what she did when James Frey and someone at her leadership Academy disappointed her? She'll do it to you too, so you better come, and stay, correct. Oprah knows the power of admitting to your mistakes and requiring those around you to do so as well.