Blogs

Looking at "Labor Standards" in Colombia

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 10:06 AM EDT

You'll hear Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton talk frequently about how trade agreements need to have labor standards and environmental standards. A perfect example of what they mean when they say "labor standards" can be seen in Colombia, a country with whom the United States is considering a trade agreement. Here's Chris Hayes:

Imagine a country where CEO's live in fear. In just the past five years, 400 CEO's -- from manufacturing, banking, real estate -- have been shot down in cold blood. (Thousands over the past 15 years.) Almost none of these murders have been solved. Indeed, over the past five years the percentage of CEO murders simply brought to trial has declined from 30% to zero. CEO's now more or less live in fear.
Can you imagine the US have friendly relations with such a place? Can you imagine a president expending political capital to treat that country favorably in an international agreement? Right. Of course not.
Of course, such a place does exist, but they're not murdering CEO's.

No, they're murdering trade unionists. And they're getting away with it.

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Mark Penn Steps Down as Clinton's Top Strategist

| Sun Apr. 6, 2008 9:18 PM EDT

mark_penn.jpg Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Hillary Clinton's campaign and the CEO of worldwide PR company Burson-Marsteller, has stepped down from his post with the Clinton campaign following the news that he met with the Colombian government to secure congressional approval of a trade agreement that Clinton vocally opposes. Penn met with the Colombian ambassador in his capacity as the head of Burson-Marsteller, which had a one-year, $300,000 contract with Colombia. The conflict of interest raised by the meeting was a black eye for Clinton, who has adopted strongly populist rhetoric in key primary states.

In a press release Sunday evening, Clinton campaign manager Maggie Williams said Penn and his polling shop will continue to do some work for the campaign:

After the events of the last few days, Mark Penn has asked to give up his role as Chief Strategist of the Clinton Campaign; Mark, and Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates, Inc. will continue to provide polling and advice to the campaign.
Geoff Garin and Howard Wolfson will coordinate the campaign's strategic message team going forward.

Penn was (and still is) an unpopular figure. He was disliked by wide swaths of the progressive movement because he ran a multinational corporation that had its fingers in a lot of dirty pots. Burson-Marsteller and its many subsidaries have lobbied for and represented tobacco companies, oil companies, Union Carbide, and Blackwater, among other clients. Penn became a particulary easy target for criticism when it was revealed Burson-Marsteller specialized in busting unions.

Birds Feed Citizen Scientists

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 3:58 PM EDT

45705967_eb04516a4c_m.jpg But first, the slacker birds. You know them. You've seen them. They flit from one bird feeder to the next, swilling millet, spilling sunflower seeds, covered in hulls and husks. Ever wondered about the ecological effects of feeding these backyard beauties? Well, Gillian Robb, Robbie McDonald, Dan Chamberlain, and Stuart Bearhop of various worthy institutes in the UK have published a research review in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an online journal of the Ecological Society of America, as reported by AAAS. We dole out 500,000 metric tons of bird seed annually in the US and UK, supporting millions of songbirds. This researchers found that, though beneficial, the bonus seed may be a mixed blessing. From the abstract:

While alteration of the natural dynamics of food supply represents a major intervention in avian ecology, we have a remarkably limited understanding of the impacts of this widespread pastime… We consider positive impacts, such as aiding species conservation programs, and negative ones, such as increased risk of disease transmission. It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.

In one study, Robb and her colleagues found that dozens of blue tits that nibbled hand-out peanuts all winter fledged more chicks in the spring than those not fed. But a 2001 study of Florida scrub jays found that fed birds ate too much in winter and laid their eggs too early, so natural food sources weren't available when the hatchlings needed them. The review hints at concerns about indirect impacts too. Namely that fed winter residents could be monopolizing all the good breeding territories and natural food supplies in the spring, outcompeting returning migrants.

On the plus side, feeders and nest boxes offer some swell opportunities for studying bird behavior. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has launched some cool citizen-science web efforts:

State Dept. to Renew Blackwater's Security Contract in Iraq

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 11:15 AM EDT

After Blackwater operators opened fire on civilians in Baghdad last September, killing 17 and wounding more than 20 others, there was speculation that the controversial firm would be replaced by another security contractor when its five-year contract with the State Department expired in May. After all, initial investigations by the military and the FBI indicated that—contrary to Blackwater's version of events—its contractors were at fault in the shootings. "It was obviously excessive, it was obviously wrong," a military official told the Washington Post back in October. "The civilians that were fired upon, they didn't have any weapons to fire back at them. And none of the IP [Iraqi Police] or any of the local security forces fired back at them." For a company that has maintained that the actions of its contractors were justified, the steps it took immediately after the shootings certainly seemed suspicious. Initially, Blackwater said that damage to its vehicles would prove its side of the story—that its contractors were attacked and were simply defending themselves and their clients. Yet, after the incident, the company reportedly repainted and repaired its vehicles, destroying key evidence that could potentially exonerate the company.

While a cloud still hangs over Blackwater, and it remains the subject of multiple investigations, including one by Henry Waxman's House oversight committee, the State Department shocked some Blackwater watchers yesterday by announcing that it would renew the firm's contract for another year.

The Internal Black Debate over Obama

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 8:16 PM EDT

Glenn Loury posted on TPM this week an amazing response to the challenge leveled in Obama's "Black, But More Than Black" speech. All I can say is—Wow.

Coming from someone like Glenn, who is a friend (I kept my list of wedding invitees brutally short. He and his lovely, accomplished wife were on it), this is utterly unexpected and a welcome relief! He completely disagrees with me on the import of the speech, but he does so in such a worthy, worldview-tilting way, I'm still rereading it, trying to make sense of a rebellion so cogently, unapologetically worded. Now, it's on! This, as opposed to the kneejerk "how dare white people tell us what to do?" reflexive response of the stick-it-the-man crowd, we can work with.

In short, Loury demands to know where Obama, who inherited but played no part in earning freedom, gets off telling him he's a neurotic, tragic figure for still being angry. More, he argues that elder-generation black anger is not a pathetic symptom of PTSD, but a legitimate reflection of how far blacks' limited freedom falls short of true equality. Just as young women refuse to accept that we old school feminists are right that they don't yet know how un-liberated they still are—that they're living in a post-feminist fool's paradise that will dissolve before their eyes when the boss suddenly demands sex in exchange for a promotion that will otherwise go to his mistress—older, Talented Tenth blacks furiously reject the notion that past racism has made them incapable of noticing that Jim Crow is dead and that being black is just a state of mind.

Loury argues that black anger, as funneled through the black prophetic tradition that runs from (at least) Frederick Douglass through MLK and onto Wright, is all that stands between America and kinder, gentler apartheid (I exaggerate, but see his post to get my drift). Its counterintuitiveness was bracing for those, like me, who want us to pragmatically stifle our anger in exchange for something like separate but truly equal (again with the oversimplifying exaggeration).

Finally, a real debate with unexpected twists and turns that can't be dismissed as mere defiance! I'm all tingly! Sometimes, not often when a dance floor remains uninvolved, it's a hoot to be black. Whatever else you think of Obama, he is engendering the kind of dialogue and debate which alone can move America forward on race. That an intracommunal fracas is raging among blacks is the surest sign of that; we have to gain ground in-house before we can gain ground with outsiders. Offerings like this will do exactly that.

You simply have to read the post in its entirety, but here's a slice of the frontal assault Loury flings right back in "his son's" face:

Pentagon Greenlights Same-Sex Partner for Military Flight

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 8:10 PM EDT

Last month, the House's only openly gay memberone of the House's two openly gay members, Democratic Rep. Tammy Baldwin, was granted permission to bring her partner Lauren Azar on a congressional military flight. In line with Pentagon policy, which only allows members to bring legally defined spouses on military flights when there is room and when it is "necessary for protocol purposes," Azar was initially barred from boarding the flight. Baldwin and Azar have exchanged vows, but their home state of Wisconsin does not recognize same-sex marriage. No matter, though: Clinton's 1996 Defense of Marriage Act would have made state recognition null and void to the Department of Defense.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped in and appealed to Defense Sec. Robert Gates. Gates requested a formal letter of authorization from Pelosi, which allowed him (and the Pentagon) to conveniently sidestep taking responsibility for setting precedent on the rights of same-sex couples in Congress. Azar was subsequently allowed on the flight, but the Pentagon made crystal clear that such an allowance does not reflect any change in policy.

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Our Presidential Candidates on Talk Shows: Who Does Better?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 7:24 PM EDT

Recently, our three major presidential candidates have made high-profile appearances on TV talk shows, with varying results. Does an ability to share easy jokes and gentle ribbing with our nation's nighttime sleep-inducers and afternoon time-wasters correlate to success in the polls? Let's take a look at some clips and see who's best at the gabfests.

Clintons Release Tax Returns - Here Are Most of the Details

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 5:21 PM EDT

clintons.jpg After weeks of pressure from the media and the Obama campaign, the Clintons have released their tax returns from 2000-2007. If you're a financial voyeur, you can read them all in pdf form here.

Over the last eight years, the Clintons have made roughly $109 million, have paid roughly $34 million in taxes, and have donated over $10 million to charity.

The Friday afternoon news dump is usually used to catch the media and its readership/viewership off-guard: nobody writes, reads, or watches much news going into a weekend. But these tax returns have been a hot topic in the presidential race for ages. Much scrutiny will be applied to the sources of the Clintons income over the next several days, primarily because of questions about whether Bill Clinton's worldwide business dealings allow nefarious interests to try and curry favor with the husband of a potential future president.

The Clintons asked for an extension on their 2007 taxes, meaning we don't know what the former President has been up to in the last year. The campaign did list some sources of income, including $150,200 from Senator Clinton's salary and $186,600 from President Clinton's pension. Less transparently, there is also $2,750,000 from unspecified "partnership income" and $400,000 from "advisor income" from a sketchy company called InfoUSA.

On this issue, the Clinton campaign does have a legitimate gripe with the media: reporters have not been good about presuming innocence. That said, the campaign fueled speculation about the tax returns' contents by not releasing them, despite endless calls for them to do so, and not providing a reason for why.

Note: Prior to this, the last time the Clintons released their tax returns (which has been the norm in presidential politics since the 1970s) was in 2000 when they made $416,039. They've certainly seen an income uptick.

Hillary's Prayer, Revisited

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 5:18 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton's campaign is doing its part to keep the Obama-Rev. Wright controversy alive. A few days ago one of Clinton's top advisers acknowledged that the campaign is aggressively pushing the Obama-Wright connection in its pursuit of uncommitted super-delegates. Hillary herself has repeatedly said that Wright "would not have been my pastor." And while there's no doubt the Wright issue will continue to be a headache for Obama, our prediction that Hillary's own untoward religious connections would become an issue has come true.

Last night NBC interviewed MoJo author Jeff Sharlet on Hillary's longtime participation in a secretive Capitol Hill group called the Fellowship.

Regular Mother Jones readers will be familiar with Hillary's involvement in the group from Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet's feature on the topic last September:

Religious Conservatives Revolt Against... Mitt?

| Fri Apr. 4, 2008 5:11 PM EDT

mccain_no_romney.jpg The movement conservatives that had long-standing problems with John McCain have begrudgingly come to accept him. Now some of them are threatening to leave McCain again... if he chooses Mitt Romney as his VP.

According to a newspaper ad taken out by the Government Is Not God PAC and signed by 26 conservative leaders, Mitt is a deal-breaker because "his recent 'conversion' to conservative and pro-life principles is not credible." Romney's "well-timed conversions," says the ad, are "mere political opportunism, and are offensive to those who demand 'straight talk' from their leaders."

The ad carries a threat, as well. After pointing out Romney's previously moderate positions on abortion and gay marriage, the writers tell McCain a Romney VP choice would "fatally harm your appeal to voters with deep constitutionalist and social conservative commitments." Decoded, that means "don't count on us turning our people out if you put Romney on the ticket."

GING-PAC, which also has a petition Romney-haters can sign, is explicit about this being push back against "Karl Rove, Sean Hannity and others in the economic wing of the Republican Party."