The Big Dance started today. The week has been a frantic rush to fill out brackets, to winnow 128 teams (there's also a women's tourney going on, people) down to the champions come April. For a break from the careening Dow, people will glue themselves to their screens throughout the weekend watching young athletes try to make up for their schools lost endowments by getting deeper and deeper into the tournament. We'll all hope for a Cinderella story to cling to, to help us believe that miracles are possible. I once played in the dance (and two years later my team made history by being the only #16 seed to ever beat a #1) and for a long time I watched every second of every game, till I wanted to stab Dick Vitale's eyes out (there's only so much Dickie V. one can take). These days I'm more distracted, and much less enamored with the ritual, since it's more commercial than collegial. I'm sure I'll still shed a tear come One Shining Moment (I always do), but for now I am keeping my distance from the sports bars.

If you are too, or if you're a tourney junkie who can't get enough, there's still more fun with  brackets to be had. Check out this Bracket of Evil. Credo Mobile's creation is more of a Sour Sixteen, but it's still fun to consider who's more vile, Ann Coulter or Fox News, AIG or Blackwater? Pick your winners (losers?) and those with the most votes move on to the next round. One glaring omission is Dick Cheney, but that's likely because he'd win the whole thing in a blowout.

When Obama was elected back in November, activists had high hopes that he'd demonstrate liberal values with personal changes at the executive mansion. Never mind that presidential limousine; ride bicycles. Plant a garden. Serve quinoa at state dinners. Send the girls to public school.

And then the Obamas turned out to be, well, yuppies. They sent their kids to Sidwell Friends. They're redecorating the second floor using furniture from Pottery Barn. They even retained George W. Bush's White House cook, a woman who once served beef tenderloin and cheese grits to the prime minister of Denmark.

But now there's hope again. From Oprah's interview with the first lady comes news (via Treehugger) that the Obamas will plant a White House vegetable garden:

It's hard to believe that it's been 16 years since English rocker PJ Harvey's Rid of Me shared a "for my walkman on the bus ride to work" cassette with Nirvana's In Utero. That was a good tape, if a little emotionally rough for 7:30am. I was going to say that since then, Harvey's never quite reached for the explosive energy of early tracks like "50 Foot Queenie," and this track opens with a mellow tempo and languid guitar riff, but then the chorus kicks in with devastating lyrical candor and melodic tension, and I'm not so sure. "I'd like to take you to a place I know," she declares, as the guitars rear up behind her, "my black hearted." There's a Sonic Youth-y balance of melancholy and squealing noise here (thanks to longtime collaborator Parish, who wrote the music) as well as the off-kilter, shambolic rhythm of Pavement's "Rattled by the Rush," but no-one has a voice like Polly, knife-edged and perfect, intoning, "I think I saw you / In the shadow." Aaagh, okay, yes, yes you did, that was me, sorry. Harvey's new album, A Woman A Man Walked By, comes out March 30 on Island. "Black Hearted Love" is on iTunes or listen below.

I remember vividly this night six years ago, which I spent huddled around CNN with the rest of Salon's News/Politics crew, watching the deadly firefly light of missiles falling for the first time in the Iraqi darkness.

I don't think any of us thought the Iraq War would last this long, though Mother Jones coverage proved awfully prescient. 

Six years later, if you feel a sense of jaded anger coming over you when you consider Iraq's current state, look instead at the burial photos of fallen soldiers, and the faces of the walking wounded, and let this archive of our Iraq War coverage remind you of what we know now and should have known then.

More than 200 representatives and senators in the 111th Congress have signed Americans for Tax Reform's Taxpayer Protection Pledge, a vow to oppose all tax increases. That put them in a sticky place when they voted Thursday on H.R. 1596, better known as the bill that levies a 90 percent tax on bonuses given out by bailed-out banks.

The bill passed the House overwhelmingly—328 to 93—so doesn't that mean a bunch of lawmakers violated their oaths to Grover Norquist's anti-tax group? Nope, not according to two press releases ATR sent out a few hours before the vote.

The first release notes ATR is "STRONGLY OPPOSED to...the Rangel-Pelosi bill to tax AIG bonuses in order to deflect blame from Secretary Geithner’s failed mismanagement of Treasury funds." But how could pledge-signers vote against the bill when popular ire toward AIG and other banks with taxpayer-subsidized bonuses is so high? Because, according to ATR's second press release, the bill is "illegal, unconstitutional" and "is not a tax bill so much as it is a politically-driven police action by the Congress. The Pledge is intended as a serious commitment by serious defenders of taxpayers."

In Washington, that's what we call spinning for the sake of political cover.

From CNN: If you're out of work like Steve Lippe, who was laid off from his job as a salesman in January, you know you already have problems. But looking at the fine print that came with his new unemployment debit card, he became livid.

"A $1.50 [fee] here, a $1.50 there," he said. "Forty cents for a balance inquiry. Fifty cents to have your card denied. Thirty-five cents to have your account accessed by telephone."

...The National Consumer Law Center says fees range from 40 cents to a high of $3 per transaction."

And where are these fees going? Banks like JP Morgan Chase which has contracts with seven states and is negotiating with two others. But hey, you're unemployed. If you don't want to pay the fees, just wait ten days for a check.

BTW, in many states, child support payment debit cards nickel and dime you to death this way, too, lest we forget which segments of society must always benefit off the backs of the unfortunate. In both instances, you can opt for direct deposit, but it's hard to know about the fees until your card arrives. Which I'm sure is accidental.

Bonus Babies

Hilzoy comments on the terms of the bonus contract written last year for AIG's Financial Products division:

The introduction to the contract says that one of its aims is to "recognize the uncertainty that the unrealized market-valuation losses in AIG-FP's super-senior credit derivative and originally-rated AAA cash CDO portfolios have created for AIG-FP's employees and consultants." That certainly suggests that AIG-FP was aware that there might be significant losses, as does the fact that they got their compensation locked down in a way that made it independent of their profits or losses.

Of course they got their comp locked down when they saw the storm ahead of them.  This is what executives always do.  Back during the dotcom bubble, corporations handed out trainloads of cheap stock options even though the practice was heavily criticized.  Why?  Because the stock market was going up and it was a nearly guaranteed way to make lots of money.  After the bust, they suddenly took the criticisms to heart and largely stopped the practice.  Why?  Because the stock market was going down and it wasn't easy money anymore.

Likewise, in the financial industry, pay has long been heavily linked to performance.  Why?  Because the industry was going gangbusters and it guaranteed everyone a big payday.  Now, though, banks are all talking about increasing base pay and cutting back on bonuses.  Why?  If you think it's because they've finally taken public criticisms about short-term incentives to heart, I have a bridge right here in my backyard with your name on it.

What happened at AIGFP is standard practice throughout corporate America.  America's corporate titans like to talk endlessly about performance-based pay and how capitalism rewards risk, but in real life compensation packages are almost always constructed to avoid as much risk as possible.  If you work in a growing industry, your bonus depends on raw growth rates.  If you work in a declining industry, your bonus is linked to relative growth rates.  If the market is up, your bonus is paid in stock.  If it's not, suddenly deferred comp and increased pension contributions are the order of the day.  Heads you win, tails you win.

The AIG traders who got this sweetheart deal are nothing special.  Management probably didn't even think twice about it.  Of course you switch from performance bonuses to retention bonuses when the market looks stormy.  What else would you do?

I don't, frankly, care all that much about the AIG bonuses being slashed.  The only reason AIG isn't in Chapter 11 is technical (they're too big to fail!), so morally I don't see any reason not to treat them as if they were in Chapter 11 like any other failed company.  That means employees stand in line for their bonuses along with all the other creditors.  On the other hand, this whole thing really is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, and Tim Geithner and the United States Congress have better things to worry about.

But the culture that brought this on?  That deserves to be dismantled brick by brick.  I may not care much about AIG, but if it's the spark that finally gets Americans to take the executive comensation racket seriously, then hallelujah.  If it's not, then it's just a carnival sideshow.

We know all too well what happens when insurers like AIG overexpose themselves to Wall Street's impossible gambles. What happens when the insurance industry plays the odds on climate change? We don't really know, since the $16 trillion global industry hasn't fully revealed its exposure to the potential impacts of environmental meltdown. Even without hard numbers, it's easy to see how things could go very badly for them—and their customers—as the weather gets weirder and wilder. (A recent report found that rising sea levels could cause $100 billion in property damage this century in California alone.) Some European insurers have been been worried about this scenario for nearly 20 years; in 1990, the head of Swiss Reinsurance warned that "if the feared climate change is confirmed, it will obviously stretch the insurance industry to is limits." And that was back when we were still at 350 ppm.

American insurers have been more nonchalant about confronting climate change. It looks like that's about to change.

Hooray For Us!

We don't have Academy Awards here in magazine-land, but we do have the National Magazine Awards.  Last Year MoJo won the award for general excellence in our circulation category (that's 100,000-250,000, if you're curious), and this year we've been nominated for three awards, the first time in our history we've gotten that many nominations.  One is for general excellence in print, one is for public service, and the third is for general excellence online, for which I take full credit, of course.

(Except, um, for the legion of other people who write, design, blog, administrate, and illustrate the 99% of it that has nothing to do with me.  But other than that, full marks, baby!)

The full list of nominations is here.  Congrats to everyone nominated, and special congratulations to Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein, our co-editors here for the past three years.

Rough Justice

The LA Times reports on an ad hoc bankruptcy proceeding in Israel:

First came the employees, shortchanged two months' pay and laid off by the supermarket called God's Blessing. They rifled through their shuttered workplace, helping themselves to crates full of groceries.

As word spread through the small town, the store's jilted creditors joined in. They dismantled the light fixtures, ripped out wiring and absconded with the cash registers, even as television cameras rolled.

Within hours the parking lot was jammed with ordinary shoppers. They left car engines running and brought their children to help pick the shelves clean. Finally even the shelves were hauled away, leaving latecomers to scrounge the floor for leftover fruit.

This is not what you'd call an orderly liquidation.  Is it a harbinger of things to come?