The top ten ethics scandals of 2008, which we've got on prominent display today, is classic Mother Jones content. But we write about things that are positive, too! Or at least we link to them. Sometimes. Like right now!

The Drum Major Institute has a list out of the best public policy from 2008. It includes Los Angeles' attempt to clean up its ports, an executive order from pre-Hookergate Eliot Spitzer, the Second Chance Act for released prisoners, and an attempt to expand health care citywide in San Francisco. Check it out here.

Torture

TORTURE....Responding to Andrew Sullivan, Reuel Marc Gerecht defends his defense of torture:


I take it from your post that if you had been confronted on 7 September 2001 with a captured Khalid Shaykh Muhammad or Abu Zubaydah and you knew that a major, mass-casualty terrorist strike was about to go down in the United States, and you had plenipotentiary authority for the nation's security, you would not have used any physically coercive techniques against the gentleman? Okay, but I do believe that moral men can go the other way, and I strongly suspect that the vast majority of Democrats and Republicans elected or appointed to high office would go the other way.

....Would that the Clinton and the Bush administrations — especially the Bush administration — had started a public discussion of what we do with holy warriors who live to slaughter thousands....You might not like what America's legislature would have decided (Andrew, what was your position on this in 2001/2002?), but it would have carried the approval of more of the American people's representatives.

Sadly, I suspect that Gerecht is right: if torture had been put to a vote back in 2001, it would have passed. The language would have been prettied up, of course, but the intention would have been clear enough and the public would have approved. Even today, I'm pretty sure that a majority of Americans are basically OK with torture as long as it's mostly kept out of sight and they can go about their business.

But even for torture apologists like Gerecht, I wonder how far they're willing to go. He must know that over the past few years we've tortured a steady and sizeable stream of people who were either decidedly small fish or else just completely innocent. How many of those people is he willing to brutalize on the slim chance that once, someday, we'll just happen to have someone in our custody who knows about a terrorist plot scheduled for tomorrow and can be successfully tortured into giving it up in time? Dozens? Hundreds? Thousands? Where exactly does he draw the line?

"It's time for a bailout for the oceans," declared Oceana's chief scientist Michael Hirschfield at today's National Press Club press briefing. Hirschfield, along with three of the country's top marine scientists, urged the Obama administration, namely recent energy appointees Carol Browner and Lisa Jackson, to abandon the ideology of the past eight years and take science seriously.

Overfishing, climate change, pollution, and increasing acidity were cited as the most ominous threats. But these threats are hardly new. Mother Jones examined the plight, the players, and the solutions in our 2006 special report "The Last Days of the Ocean." Check it out here.

The Minnesota canvassing board is taking a look at challenged ballots one by one right now. You can follow along via live video at theuptake.org. It's interesting stuff, and a Senate race likely hangs in the balance.

Following the indictment of five former Blackwater contractors last week, Erik Prince, the company's founder and CEO, took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal today to defend his company. What he says is less important that the fact that he's saying it at all.

In the past, the firm has responded to damaging news with silence. This is due in part to the firm's contractual obligation to avoid discussing its work for the State Department with the press, but also to the tight-lipped sensibility of the company itself. When it comes to the latter, I have it from two sources that Mother Jones has a little something to do with Blackwater's bunker mentality.

A new poll of more than 21,000 people in 21 countries shows that American impressions of the United States government's behavior in the Middle East differ drastically from the impressions of the rest of the world. A majority of Americans (56 percent) believe that the US "shows respect" to the Muslim world, but just 16 percent of worldwide respondents feel this way. Exactly two-thirds of the world feels the United States acts disrespectfully toward the Islamic world. Roughly half who feel this way believe American disrespect is born out of "ignorance and insensitivity" and half say the disrespect is shown on purpose. Importantly, majorities in Iran, Egypt, and Pakistan believe the United States intentionally tries to humiliate Muslims, with near majorities of Palestinians, Turks, and Jordanians agreeing. (Looks like Karen Hughes didn't accomplish all that much.)

American and worldwide opinion is similarly at odds on the question of America's global military footprint. Seventy percent of Americans believe it is a good idea for US naval forces to be stationed in the Persian Gulf, but just 22 percent of the worldwide public agrees. Huge majorities in Gulf states disagree. Full numbers can be found at worldpublicopinion.org.

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TAXES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS....Ezra Klein is doing tax wonkery over at his place, and I can't let him have all the fun. So just for the record, here's a look at effective federal tax rates in general:

Not very progressive! Add in state and local taxes and it would look flatter still. And just to remind everyone of exactly what that "Top 400 Taxpayers" segment at the far right looks like, here are the pinkos over at the Wall Street Journal to explain it to you:

The top 400 taxpayers have greatly increased their share of individuals' income since the mid-1990s. The group accounted for 1.15% of total income in 2005....more than twice as large as its 0.49% share a decade earlier.

....The average federal income-tax rate for the group was 18.23%....well below the average income-tax rate of nearly 30% back in 1995, when Bill Clinton was in the White House.

So there you have it. The top 400 taxpayers, a group so rich and elite that I'd need scientific notation to properly represent their proportion of the population, have doubled their share of income in the past decade or two but have decreased their tax burden by nearly half. Nice work! As you can see, Warren Buffett wasn't exaggerating when he said his secretary paid a higher tax rate than he does. If she pays more than 18% — not exactly a tough hurdle when you figure that payroll taxes already account for about 8% of that — she probably does.

UPDATE: So how do the rich do it? Jonathan Stein interviews David Cay Johnston here to find out.

ARNE DUNCAN FOR ED SECRETARY....It's odd, but possibly the most contentious appointment Barack Obama has in his portfolio is someone to head up the Department of Education. The war on the left between the "reformers" and the "everyone elses" in the ed world makes battles over Afghanistan or bailing out GM look tepid by comparison, and apparently Obama decided he didn't really want to pick sides. Dana Goldstein comments on Obama's pick of Arne Duncan, the latest in his almost unbroken series of senior staff needle-threading exercises:

Duncan is one of the only prominent education leaders in the country who signed both the Broader, Bolder and the Education Equality Project manifestos. Duncan, a longtime Obama friend and adviser, has shown particular interest in early childhood education, a major part of Obama's education and anti-poverty agenda. And he sends his own kids to Chicago public schools. Here's hoping he'll live in the city when he moves to D.C. and continue his family's track record of support for the public system.

....Any pick of an actual superintendent to head the Department of Education, as opposed to a governor relatively ignorant of the nitty gritty of education debates, is a move by Obama in the direction of serious, hands-on reform. That's good news, I think, for those of us — regardless of ideology — who hope education will become a first tier issue under the Obama administration.

I guess so — though Rod Paige was a superintendent too, and that didn't do much to make education a first tier priority in the Bush administration beyond passing NCLB.

There's something a little surreal about all this, though. At the risk of sounding like an idiot TV talking head, I'm beginning to wonder if Obama plans to appoint anyone who's even the teensiest bit controversial to his senior staff. (And no, Rahm Emanuel very decidedly doesn't count. Give me a break.) There's something sort of oppressively bland about this entire exercise, and I say that as someone who's about as personally bland as you could ever hope to meet. Still, while I may be all for technocratic competence, I can't help but feel that No-Drama Obama could use an appointment or two whose only purpose is to mix things up a little and piss off the right people. Who will be his Harold Ickes?

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) has released its year-end list of the "top" 10 ethics scandals of 2008. Why isn't the recent criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on the list? Well, for one, it's not a Washington-centered problem. But Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, adds that while the Blagojevich case may be the flavor of the week right now, she thinks the scandals on her administration's list will have more of an impact in the long run. Here they are:

1. "Unchecked Congressional Ethics": CREW wants Congress to have a high-powered ethics office with subpoena power. MoJo Blog covered the vote on this earlier this year; we looked at this issue last year, too.

2. "No Guarantee that Bush Administration Records will be Properly Archived": We've been keeping you up to date on the ongoing missing White House emails problem.

3. "Speech or Debate Clause": Lots of politicians who are charged with crimes seek to have their indictments dismissed under the "Speech and Debate" clause of the Constitution, which they claim protects anything in their congressional office from being used against them in court on the grounds that its "legislative material." Sloan says that this may be the biggest of the ten scandals her organization highlighted. If Blagocevich had been a member of congress, Sloan says, he would have been protected from much of US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation. Law enforcement would not have been able to tap his office phone or include anything he did in the course of his legislative work as part of an indictment, Sloan says. And both Democrats and Republicans are protecting this hard-line interpretation of the speech and debate clause. "This is a bipartisan issue of protecting members accused of corruption from investigation and prosecution," Sloan says. Mother Jones covered this problem as early as 2006, with the raid on the offices of now ex-Louisiana Democratic Rep. William Jefferson.

In his first--dare we say it?--farewell interview, Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC News correspondent Jonathan Karl that he'd like to keep Guantanamo open until the "end of the war with terror." How long will that be? "Well, nobody knows," the veep said. To defend his hold-'em-forever stand, Cheney referred to the much-repeated claim that many of those released from Guantanamo have returned to terrorism. He said:

We've had, as I recall now--and these are rough numbers, I'd want to check it--but, say, approximately 30 of these folks who've been held in Guantanamo, been released, and ended up back on the battlefield again, and we've encountered them a second time around. They've either been killed or captured in further conflicts with our forces.

This figure of 30 back-to-the-battlefied Gitmo vets has been used by the administration and its supporters for some time now. One problem: it seems to be hype.

Last year, researchers at Seton Hall University School of Law researched this contention, examining the extensive records covering those who have been released from Guantanamo, and they found that the data did not support this claim: