As one of its final acts in the worst economic year since the Great Depression, the federal government passed legislation suspending for 2009 the rule requiring old people to withdraw a minimum amount of money from their 401Ks, IRAs, or other individual retirement accounts. The current rule imposes a 50 percent tax penalty on anyone over age 70 1/2 who fails to take their so-called mandatory distributions by the end of the year.

That's right, fellow oldsters--as a parting gift to all of us, the 110th Congress and George W. Bush, who failed to prevent or contain the financial meltdown that has cost some of us a third or more of our life savings, is now giving us permission not to spend some of what's left.

The idea behind the legislation is that seniors shouldn't be forced to sell off their investments at a loss. Unfortunately, however, it applies to 2009, not 2008--which is, of course, when our retirement accounts got gutted. According to the New York Times, some members of Congress urged Henry Paulson's Treasury Department to apply the same change to 2008, but it declined to do so.

In a letter to members of Congress, the Treasury Department said any steps it could take to address the issue would be "substantially more limited than the relief enacted by Congress and could not be made uniformly to all individuals subject to required minimum distributions." It also said carrying out the changes would be "complicated and confusing for individuals and plan sponsors."

Well, by all means, let's not confuse the old farts; we're having a tough enough time figuring out how how it is that we did everything we were supposed to do--worked, planned, saved, invested--and still got so royally screwed. And let's not complicate things for the financial institutions, who are already overburdened figuring out how to spend their $700 billion handout.

Political Persuasion

POLITICAL PERSUASION....Matt Yglesias mocks RNC Chairman Mike Duncan's recent burbling about how Republicans need to start using Twitter and Facebook and "the different technology that young people are using today":

I love Twitter. I have two Twitter feeds. I manage one with Twitterific and another with Twitterfox. And of course there's my iPhone interfaces, too. Twitter's neat, it's fun, I enjoy it. But you can't do political persuasion on Twitter and anyone who's at all familiar with either Twitter or political persuasion could tell you that. It's important for political movements to embrace new technologies, but part of embracing new technologies is understanding them and actually respecting what they're for and Twitter is never going to be anything other than an incidental sideshow to political activism.

I'm not so sure about that. It sort of depends on what you mean by "political persuasion," I think. A steady stream of tweets containing ever more apocalyptic messages about (for example) the imminent demise of American civilization due to immigration legislation wending its way through Congress could be effective at helping to rouse the masses to protest. Couldn't it? Matt is probably right that Twitter by itself is something of a sideshow, but all of these technologies put together (Twitter, texting, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) could end up being as effective in mobilizing the 20something generation as talk radio was mobilizing the Newt generation. And mobilization is persuasion, no?

Actually, Duncan's real problem is probably not so much that he's wrong about Twitter, but that he doesn't have any real clue about what Twitter is. He seems to treat it more like a buzzword than a genuine concept. But at least it's a start.

burning-money.jpgThe House Oversight Committee released a report this morning identifying nearly 14,000 recommendations made by agency Inspectors General since 2001 that have yet to be acted upon by the Bush administration. In addition to simply improving health, safety, and security conditions, the committee claims that implementing some of these fixes could save taxpayers an estimated $25.9 billion. It's a big number, but more interesting to me were some of the IG recommendations that have languished. Along with examples of run-of-the-mill government waste—e.g., "FEMA could recover $16 million in excessive billings and questionable costs resulting from poor management of a contract"—there are a few doozies.

Like:

In May 2003, the IG for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued a report concluding that the Commission's limited oversight does not provide adequate assurance that all licensees properly control and account for special nuclear material, such as plutonium and uranium.16 In a December 2008 memorandum to NRC management, the IG raised concerns about "continued delays" in promulgating rules to address these security concerns. NRC estimates it may not complete the rulemaking until July 2011, eight years after the report's release.

Favorite Presidents

FAVORITE PRESIDENTS....At a recent debate, all the candidates for RNC chairman named Reagan as their favorite Republican. Ezra Klein comments:

It's really weird that Republican candidates for high office almost never named Abraham Lincoln as their favorite Republican president. He was, after all, a Republican. And he was inarguably more consequential than Reagan, no matter how enamored you are of Reagan's tenure. Indeed, most historians consider him America's greatest president.

Ezra chalks this up to coded racism, and maybe that's right. I guess I'd guess be a little more generous, though, and attribute it instead to the different valences of favorite vs. greatest, figuring that Lincoln would be more likely to come up if these guys were asked who the greatest Republican was. Maybe.

But this is really just an excuse to observe the weird fact that for modern conservative Republicans, Reagan isn't merely their most frequently named favorite, he's pretty much their only possible answer to this question. Bush Jr. is obviously damaged goods. Bush Sr., Ford, and Eisenhower are more or less considered closet Democrats these days. Nixon was a crook. Hoover — 'nuff said. Coolidge and Harding were do-nothings. If you're restricting yourself to the past century, you're basically stuck with Reagan and no one else.

Democrats have it way better. Sure, most Dems of the past century produce mixed sentiments (especially Wilson and LBJ) but virtually every one of them is at least a plausible candidate for "favorite Democrat." Modern liberals haven't excommunicated any of them.

Why is this? Why is it that Republicans have produced only one president in the past century that they're still enthusiastic about?

PANETTA TO HEAD UP CIA....Apparently Barack Obama has chosen Leon Panetta to head the CIA. This is a pretty unconventional choice since Panetta has no intelligence experience, but David Corn is enthusiastic:

A CIA director who has denounced torture, advocated intelligence cuts, and backed greater congressional control of covert operations — that would be....different. This appointment certainly has the potential to spark opposition from inside and outside the agency. But if Panetta manages to make it to Langley without much fuss, that would indeed signal real change in Washington.

More about Panetta at the link. Panetta on torture here.

UPDATE: Feinstein and Rockefeller apparently aren't very enthusiastic about this choice.

FINALLY....ELECTION POOL WINNERS!....Back in October I held a pool to guess the results of the November election. With Al Franken now the official winner of the Minnesota senate race (officially enough for me, anyway), I can finally declare a winner.

Two winners, actually. Here's how things broke down:

  • Obama won 365 electoral votes, but nobody got that exactly right. (Thanks, Nebraska!) So I rounded up all the people who predicted 364 electoral votes.

  • Democrats won 257 House seats and 59 Senate seats (counting the two independents). However, none of the folks in the 364 pool got that exactly right.

  • But two people came close. Professional prognosticator Sam Wang (founder of the Princeton Election Consortium) guessed 257 House seats and 58 Senate seats, while James Shearer predicted 260 House seats and 59 Senate seats.

Congratulations, James and Sam! A free subscription to Mother Jones is yours for the asking. Just email me your address and I'll get you signed up.

News outfits are reporting that Leon Panetta has been tapped by President-elect Barack Obama to take over the Central Intelligence Agency.

It's an unusual choice, for Panetta, a former Democratic congressman who became President Bill Clinton's budget chief and then his White House chief of staff, has no direct intelligence experience, and the CIA in previous decades has been rather unwelcoming to outsiders. (Obama's first pick for the spy chief slot, John Brennan, a career CIA officer, withdrew his name, after bloggers and others raised questions about his involvement in the agency's post-9/11 detention and interrogation programs.) Panetta, if confirmed, will work closely with retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's choice to be director of national intelligence.

Panetta is an even-tempered and highly regarded Washington player--kind of a Mr. Fixit in a nice suit. He is also a zero-tolerance critic of the use of torture, and he considers waterboarding--a tactic used by the CIA--to be torture. A year ago, he wrote in The Washington Monthly:

The New York Times has a piece today on misoprostol, the FDA-approved ulcer medication that is more often used as an underground abortion pill. Ann Friedman's piece in MoJo a couple years ago about Cytotec, Pfizer's misoprostol, explored the drug's rise as a go-to abortifacent, particularly among low-income, immigrant, and Latina women. Cytotec, readily available by mail, allows women to bypass increasing abortion hurdles in their states, like parental notification and waiting periods, barriers that women in religious conservative families simply can't face. And at $2 a pill they're cheap, cheaper even than drugs from a health clinic.

The Times piece points to two new studies that suggest misoprostol's use for a DIY abortion is on the rise. As Ann wrote back in 2006, this development shouldn't come as a surprise given ever-tightening abortion restrictions. "Despite the legal and health risks, Cytotec will likely remain an attractive choice for many women—so long as it stays out of the spotlight." Perhaps the Times' story, and the new research studies, will mean a place in the spotlight's not far behind.

Al Franken is Mick JaggerNow that it appears Al Franken has emerged just barely victorious over Norm Coleman in the Minnesota senate race, maybe we can finally celebrate. Let's relish the win by watching this little YouTube gem unearthed by Towleroad. It's Al dressed up in tight pants doing an impression of Mick Jagger on the actual Solid Gold TV show. The clip is undated, but Wikipedia says Marylin McCoo hosted from 1981-1988, so this isn't exactly the remote past, people. Anyway, ladies and gentlemen, your next senator from the great state of Minnesota, after the jump:

gitmo-graffiti-250x200.jpg

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged "kingpin" of the 9/11 attacks, was captured in Pakistan in March 2003. He then disappeared in the global network of "black sites" operated by the CIA before resurfacing in Guantanamo in September 2006. The US military plans to try him for the deaths of over 3,000 Americans by means of a military commission. Human rights groups argue that such a trial would lack legal safeguards necessary to guarantee a fair trial, and are therefore urging that the US government try Mohammed either in civilian court or by a standard military court martial.

The battle over Mohammed's legal fate continues, but we may see him tried (and presumably convicted) well before any US action takes place. The BBC reports that a trial opened today in France, accusing Mohammed and several co-conspirators of planning the April 2002 truck bombing of a Tunisian synagogue, which killed 21 people. Two of the victims were French nationals, a fact that has enabled French prosecutors to try the case.

From the BBC:

According to court documents, suicide bomber Nizar Nouar called Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Ganczarski, a convert to Islam who specialised in communications, just before he drove the gas-laden truck into the synagogue.
The calls were allegedly made on a telephone brought into Tunisia by the bomber's brother, the third defendant Walid Nouar.
All three men have been charged with "complicity in attempted murder in relation to a terrorist enterprise". They face 20 years in prison if convicted.
Relatives of the victims were in court on Monday.
"We are hoping for a life sentence... and we think there is sufficient evidence," said Judith-Adam Caumeil, a lawyer for German families.
Christian Ganczarski, a Polish-born German, identified himself to the court in German and insisted on his innocence.
"I had nothing to do with the attack," he said.
The bomber's uncle, Belgacem Nouar, was jailed in 2006 for his role in the attacks.
The trial is due to last until 6 February.