• Today’s Two Minutes Hate


    TODAY’S TWO MINUTES HATE….Here’s the latest reason to hate credit card companies: Shop at Wal-Mart, obviously a sign of financial distress, and your credit limit gets lowered. Hallelujah!

    This is from American Express, which has now decided to hunker down and simply lie about their habit of doing this. Compare and contrast the following news accounts. When Kevin Johnson returned from his honeymoon last year he got a letter from Amex saying, “Other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history with American Express.” Here’s what they told the Atlanta Journal Constitution about this in December:

    “We’re just doing this to manage risk,” said Lisa A. Gonzalez, an American Express spokeswoman. She declined to say which retailers or mortgage companies are associated with consumers with higher default rates. She said it makes sense to examine these factors because “customers who have loans outstanding with certain lenders or customers who make transactions with certain merchants tend to have a higher proportion of credit issues or a higher probability of default.”

    And here’s what they told the New York Times this week:

    “The letters were wrong to imply we were looking at specific merchants,” said Susan Korchak, a company spokeswoman….Now, the company says that there never was such a list. So what about the language in its letters to cardholders, which calls out particular “establishments” where cardholders had shopped, I asked. Well, apparently that was all just a big misunderstanding, despite the number of people who must have been in on drafting the notes in the first place.

    So: a month ago monitoring your transactions with “certain merchants” was a legitimate way of managing risk. This month the story is that they were never doing it in the first place. You betcha.

    Bastards. I really hate these guys and their entire sleazy industry. More here. Kevin Johnson’s website is here.

  • *Picking Up


    PICKING UP….David Cay Johnston is unhappy with the Obama press operation. It took a week for anyone at the White House press office to pick up the phone when he called, and when someone finally did things didn’t get much better:

    After a full week of such calls, a human being answers. But Ben LaBolt immediately bristles when asked to spell his name, refuses to give his job title, and says he is going “off the record” until I stop him to explain that the reporter grants that privilege, not the other way around — a basic journalistic standard that LaBolt seems unaware of. He soon hangs up without even hearing what I called to ask about.

    A return call is answered by Priya Singh, who spells her name when asked, but does not know (or will not say) what her job title is and several times describes requests for information about how the Obama administration press office is operating as a “complaint” which she would pass on. She says she is not authorized to comment, though she at one point tells me she is a spokesperson.

    ….My questions to LaBolt and Singh prompted a return phone call the next day from Nick Shapiro, who spelled his name, but had to be prodded several times to give his job title: assistant press secretary.

    During our brief conversation, Shapiro, like LaBolt (whose name Shapiro did not recognize), started one sentence with “off the record.” Told that the journalist grants the privilege, and that none would be granted here, Shapiro expressed surprise. His surprise was double-barreled, at both the idea that the reporter issues any privilege and that any reporter would decline to talk “off the record.”

    “Off the record” has become a cancer. It’s now practically a default presumption, rather than a rare exception granted for specific and justifiable reasons. Unfortunately, no one is willing to do anything about it. A few years ago the big newspapers all instituted policies that banned blind quotes unless there was a good case for them, but as near as I can tell the only result was to force their reporters to concoct ever more inventive ways of saying “because he wouldn’t talk otherwise.” Beyond that, life went on as usual.

    Reporters are as much to blame for this as politicos, and Johnston concedes that some of what happened here may just be birthing pains. Everyone is new, policies haven’t been set, equipment isn’t all working, etc. etc. Let’s hope so. Obama didn’t have much of a reputation for openness with the press during his campaign, though, so it’s worth holding his feet to the fire over this. Let’s not have another Bush administration, please.

  • Michael Steele


    MICHAEL STEELE….I see that the candidate I was rooting for to head up the GOP has won:

    It’s official. The new face of the National Republican Party is Michael Steele, a 50-year-old African American, the first in the history of Abraham Lincoln’s party.

    Ah, but he’s not just 50 years old. Steele was born on October 19, 1958, the exact same day as me. That’s why I was rooting for him.

    But it’s not all sunshine on the Michael Steele front. Because of our shared birthday I once pinged him to be my friend on Facebook. He never responded. Very sad. I guess he didn’t want to reach out.

  • Friday Cat Blogging – 30 January 2009


    FRIDAY CATBLOGGING….Last week I promised guest catblogging, and guest catblogging we shall have! This week’s episode comes via my sister, who’s doing some long-term catsitting for a friend and now has two new companions. That’s Azrael on the left, examining that perennial cat favorite, a cardboard box, and Jasper on the right. Azrael is a cute little lap cat who (apparently) demands attention at all times and all places. Jasper is more the economy size, and my sister complains that he keeps her up at night by sleeping next to her and purring loudly. This sounds absurd to me, since purring is a well known tranquillizer, but there you have it. Welcome to catblogging, A&J. The usual suspects will return next week.

  • So How’s That Working Out For You Guys?


    SO HOW’S THAT WORKING OUT FOR YOU GUYS?….Lockstep opposition to all things Obama isn’t working out too well for the GOP according to recent polling done by Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. CQ’s Balance of Power reports:

    A survey of 1,200 voters in 40 traditionally Republican congressional districts now held by Democrats [] shows Obama’s post-election honeymoon reaching a rapturous stage, with 44 percent of voters strongly supporting his policies. [Another 26% “somewhat support” his policies. –ed]

    A full 64 percent favor his economic plan, compared to 27 percent against. And precisely that same proportion favors the stimulus in 13 states that are expected to have competitive Senate races in 2010: Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Colorado, Ohio, Kansas, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Illinois.

    If DC Republicans continue to lash their fate to the SS Talk Radio, I think they can expect to see more and more of this.

  • Broadband


    BROADBAND….Over at TPMCafe, Yochai Benkler provides a nice little summary of the broadband provisions in the stimulus bill:

    The Senate proposal is better along two dimensions. First, it stands at 9 billion dollars instead of 6 billion dollars….Second, it is all to be administered through the NTIA, through a program that was set up during the Clinton Administration to support experimentation and deployment of public and non-profit efforts, and to study public networks.

    ….The House bill is, however, clearer on the access conditions imposed on those who receive funds. It requires grantees not only to adhere to the minimal net neutrality standards adopted by the FCC’s Statement of Principles, but also to run both wired and wireless broadband networks on an “open access basis.” The FCC is charged with defining what “open access” means within 45 days of the passage of the Act, but historically (that is, before the Bush-appointed FCC reversed course), open access was the loose term applied to the approach that typified the 1996 Telecommunications Act: that is, competition from new entrants would be the best check on incumbent abuses, and competition would be created by forcing the incumbents to let the new entrants use some pieces of the incumbents’ network as leverage to overcome the very high startup costs associated with offering any useful service at all to customers.

    There’s more at the link, including this weird factlet about the House bill: it stipulates that half the broadband money would be under the control of the Secretary of Agriculture. Because, um, who else comes to mind when you think of high-speed telecommunications infrastructure policy?

    Anyway, it would be nice if the final bill makes at least a start at reinstituting the principles of net neutrality as part of its language. I think this is a more complex issue than a lot of the blogosphere likes to admit, but it’s fundamentally the right direction to go. This is a good sign that Barack Obama agrees.

  • The World’s Most Famous Shoe


    THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS SHOE….An orphanage in Tikrit has constructed a giant statue of a shoe to commemorate the “heroic action” of Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw his shoes at George Bush last month. Seriously. But then the government took it down. Spoilsports.

  • *Who’s Your Sugar Daddy?


    WHO’S YOUR SUGAR DADDY?….Is the massive U.S. stimulus plan sucking up all the liquidity in the world, preventing developing countries from stimulating their economies? Apparently this is the complaint du jour at Davos, but Daniel Drezner is unimpressed:

    To be generous, these complaints are not completely without foundation. They are a little odd, however. If the United States does not engage in greater stimulus, then other countries are going to have to pick up the slack, or this recession will last a long time. Indeed, count me in the Martin Wolf/Brad Setser camp of those who would love to see other countries — *cough* China, *cough* — starting to boost their own consumption as a means for igniting global growth, because that would also help to redress the macroeconomic imbalances that are at the heart of the current predicament.

    To date, however, the efforts by most of these other countries have been underwhelming. [What about China?–ed. Their stimulus has targeted investment rather than personal consumption, so yes, them too.] If I were Obama, I wouldn’t trust other countries to provide the locomotive power necessary to get the global economy moving again. So I don’t see how they can blame the United States for doing what they are choosing not to do.

    Agreed. But we still need a long-term plan to address those macroeconomic imbalances eventually.

  • Root Causes


    ROOT CAUSES….Ryan Avent, plugging a blog that will remain nameless because it inexplicably continues to host anonymous posts, a practice I despise, says:

    This week, the blog is hosting a discussion among economists on IMF economist Olivier Blanchard’s suggestion that pervasive uncertainty is at the root of the crisis….

    Sounds like a fine discussion. But just as an aside, why do people so frequently insist on trying to root out the cause of the crisis? Can’t it be a liquidity crisis and a solvency crisis and a confidence crisis and a regulatory crisis all at once? Who says there has to be one true cause?

  • Funding the Feds


    FUNDING THE FEDS….Via Matt, Pete Davis reports on a lunch talk yesterday from spending guru Alice Rivlin:

    Her most striking remarks were how forcefully she warned that we should undertake long-term deficit reduction measures now. Without them we will face rising interest rates before the economy has enough time to recover as foreign purchasers of U.S. Treasury debt balk at buying a lot more of it. She boldly asserted “Now is an excellent time to fix Social Security and Medicare.”

    ….Rivlin predicted we will need a new revenue source to cope with our long-run deficit problem, a value-added tax. I’m biased on this subject. I formulated House Ways and Means Chair Al Ullman’s VAT proposal in 1979. There’s no way to protect the poor and the elderly from such a tax, and it could become quite a money machine for a lot of government spending I would prefer to avoid. Rivlin has promoted a VAT for a long time because it is a more efficient tax and because it would harmonize our trade with the rest of the world, almost all of which has a VAT.

    I have a lot of sympathy for Rivlin’s view. Here are a few random comments to add to what she says:

    • I’m all for fixing Social Security now if it will get the issue off the table once and for all. It’s a distraction. What’s more, the fixes needed are fairly minor and doing it while Democrats have a big majority is good timing. But — although the fixes can be legislated now, they should be scheduled to phase in slowly starting around ten years from now. The last thing we should be doing is pouring more money into the trust fund right now.

    • If we’re looking for a new revenue source that won’t hit us in the pocketbook immediately (while we’re in a recession), but will provide a medium and long-term funding source, how about passing cap-and-trade? Even if we move full speed ahead, the machinery takes a while to implement, which means it won’t start up until 2012 or so. And even if part of the revenue is rebated to low-income families, it still provides a steady and growing revenue stream after that.

      Oh, and it helps to keep us from destroying our planet, too. Just a little side benefit.

    • I’m a big fan of using a VAT (in addition to the payroll tax and other existing funding) to fund national healthcare. Economically, it’s a pretty good tax; it can be made progressive if it’s properly implemented; and it’s a universal tax for a universal program. More details here.

    • I am, oddly enough, not really in favor of vastly increased funding for other social programs. Some increased funding is OK, but it should be kept under pretty strict scrutiny — and not just on the generic grounds that all spending ought to be monitored carefully to make sure it’s effective and pruned away when it’s not.

      Here’s why. I’m obviously more open to high government spending than most conservatives, but even liberals think there’s a limit to how much of the economy ought to be under government control. Speaking for myself, I’d put that limit at 40-45% of GDP. Somewhere in the low 40s, anyway. Currently, total government spending (state/local/federal) is in the low 30s, which means we can afford to increase spending by about 10% of GDP. I figure that changes to Social Security will eat up about 2% of GDP and funding a true national healthcare plan will eat up around 7-8%. That doesn’t leave room for very much more, and even reductions in defense spending only give us another point or so to work with. So we should be pretty careful with other long-term spending commitments.

    That’s my take, anyway. This is a pretty good time to be talking about these changes, even if they don’t get phased in immediately. We desperately need credible plans for future reductions of our current account deficit (which is tied to the federal deficit), and this is a good time to do it even if the plans don’t get phased in immediately. I expect Obama to kick off a rollicking discussion of this stuff later this year.

  • Beta Testing MoJo


    BETA TESTING MOJO….Next week (we hope!) we’ll be relaunching MotherJones.com. Gone will be the cluttered layout that you see here and the clunky code that we deal with. If you’d like to take a sneak peek, and along the way help us with load testing and bug targeting, go to http://www.motherjones.com. The login is mojo and the password is fearless (all lower case). Once you’re in the site, you can read about why we did what we did, poke around, register and pimp out your profile, etc. Please bear in mind, however, that:

    1. Your username will stay valid after the new site launches, so choose wisely….

    2. The content is several weeks old and is there for testing purposes only. Don’t worry, we’ll get the latest articles and all the comments moved over when we launch.

    3. Comments you leave on the beta site will be overwritten when we switch over. Please do leave comments and try out the discussion system, just remember that if you’ve written any great pearls of wisdom, you should save a copy elsewhere.

    4. Any questions, bug reports, or general input about the site, please leave a comment on our inaugural blog post, or email us at web-feedback@motherjones.com.

    We’re eager to hear what you have to say. (And yes, we know it’s slow, we’re running compression programs….)

  • Economic Update


    ECONOMIC UPDATE….You will be unsurprised to learn that the fourth quarter of last year sucked:

    The U.S. economy shriveled at the end of 2008, shrinking by the most in 26 years….Gross domestic product fell at a seasonally adjusted 3.8% annual rate October through December, the Commerce Department said Friday in the first estimate of fourth-quarter GDP.

    ….Federal government spending helped the economy….Also preventing the economy from sinking further were inventories, which rose at the end of 2008. On a down note, the inventory increase was likely unintended — the result of companies getting stuck with unwanted merchandise because demand has tailed off in the recession….Inventories increased by $6.2 billion, after going down $29.6 billion in the third quarter and $50.6 billion in the second quarter. Inventories added 1.32 percentage points to GDP in the fourth quarter.

    In other words, if not for the unwanted inventory buildup, GDP would have shrunk something like 5.1% or more. Yuck.

  • A Good Time To Be Rich


    A GOOD TIME TO BE RICH….Here’s the latest 2006 income data for the Fortunate 400:

    The nation’s top 400 taxpayers made more than $263 million on average in 2006, as the stock market was rallying, but paid income taxes at the lowest rate in the 15 years that the Internal Revenue Service has tracked such data, according to figures released Thursday.

    ….In constant dollars, the average income of the top 400 taxpayers nearly quadrupled from 1992….Meanwhile, the group’s average income tax rate [] fell to 17.2% in 2006 from 18.2% the prior year. That’s down from a high of 29.9% in 1995.

    Just for the record, my federal income tax rate is higher than 17.2%. And yours, probably. So maybe the quarter billionaire crowd can afford a wee bit more too?

  • Test Post


    Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party.  For example:

    • Cyan
    • Magenta
    • Yellow

    Bullets work!  Huzzah!  But opinions differ:

    Discuss the latest from Mother Jones with other readers in Comments Central. Discuss the latest from Mother Jones with other readers in Comments Central. Discuss the latest from Mother Jones with other readers in Comments Central.

    Blockquotes work!  Huzzah!  How about a picture?

    Huzzah!

  • Rod, We Hardly Knew Ye


    ROD, WE HARDLY KNEW YE….The Rod Blagojevich soap opera is over. The Illinois Senate has voted to convict him on abuse of power charges and has removed him from office. Our long regional nightmare is finally over.

  • Quote of the Day – 01.29.09


    QUOTE OF THE DAY….From Alison Singer, who recently quit as head of communications at Autism Speaks, on the overwhelming evidence that vaccines have nothing to do with the development of autism in children:

    At some point, you have to say, “This question has been asked and answered and it’s time to move on.” We need to be able to say, “Yes, we are now satisfied that the earth is round.”

    There was a time when investigating vaccines and thimerosal as possible contributing factors for autism made sense. That time is long past. The Jenny McCarthyization of the autism movement needs to be put finally and firmly to rest, and research money spent on actual science. Enough’s enough.

  • Factoids


    FACTOIDS….How is a factoid like Schrödinger’s cat? Answer here.

  • Employment


    EMPLOYMENT….The latest on the employment front:

    The total number of U.S. workers filing claims for jobless benefits lasting more than one week has soared to a record high, a government report showed, a sign of the severe toll the deepening recession is taking on the unemployed.

    ….The U.S. has lost jobs in each of the last 12 months, and employers slashed payrolls at a rate of about half a million per month in the final four months of 2008. This month’s claims figures point to another drop of that magnitude when January data are released next week.

    Indeed, the hemorrhaging of jobs shows no sign of abating.

    The stimulus bill making its way through Congress right now obviously isn’t perfect. What is? But all the evidence suggests that employment levels are going to remain anemic for another couple of years at least, which means that spending stimulus will remain effective through FY2011 at a minimum. And since virtually all of the spending in the current bill gets disbursed before then, this means it’s all reasonably well targeted.

    Still, isn’t the bill just a hodgepodge of unrelated spending? Sure. What else could it be? There’s no way to spend $800 billion on infrastructure over the next two years, so most of the money has to be spent on other stuff. But so what? Employing clerks or crossing guards or home care workers counts every bit as much as employing backhoe operators or engineers. Spending money on contraceptives does as much for the economy as spending money on rebar. An unemployment check gets spent on food the same way a paycheck does.

    In an ideal world there’s stuff about this bill that all of us would change. Overall, though, what we have isn’t bad, and the real world being what it is, I’d give it a B or a B+. So it deserves to pass, and quickly. But once that’s done, it’s going to be time to start talking seriously about what happens after that. Our economy is way out of kilter, and has been for a while, and President Obama needs to let us know what he thinks needs to be done about that. Pass the bill, then let’s talk.

  • Withdrawing From Iraq


    WITHDRAWING FROM IRAQ….General Ray Odierno, the top field commander in Iraq, thinks we can reduce forces there by no more than two brigades over the next six months. Then we need to wait until 2010 before making any further decisions: “I believe that if we can get through the next year peacefully, with incidents about what they are today or better, I think we’re getting close to enduring stability, which enables us to really reduce,” he said. Marc Lynch isn’t impressed:

    The politics of this aside, I think that Odierno’s intention of keeping troops in Iraq through the national elections is dangerously wrong. The CFR/Brookings/Odierno “go slow” approach ignores the reality of the new Status of Forces Agreement and the impending referendum this summer — which may well fail if there is no sign of departing American troops.

    ….This strategy is also a recipe for endless delay….Senior Iraqi officials have suggested that the national elections, which Odierno suggests as the point when drawdowns might begin, may well not be held until March 2010. I don’t think that 16 months is a sacred number. But what Odierno is proposing is no significant drawdowns for 14 months, followed by another period of wrangling. This could ironically make the “rush for the exits” that everyone wants to avoid more rather than less likely — whether or not it leads to the failure of the SOFA referendum.

    There’s always something a year down the road that we should wait for before pulling troops out. Provincial elections. Stability. SOFA. National elections. You name it. But at some point we need to demonstrate to the Iraqis that we’re really pulling out and they need to take the transition seriously. It’s well past time for that.

    Obama also has a lot of credibility at stake over this. He said during the campaign that he wanted to withdraw within 16 months, and while there’s a lot of room to fudge there, he still needs to show that he’s serious about that. It may end up being 24 months instead of 16, and the residual force he leaves behind may end up comprising tens of thousands of troops, but he still needs to start. He needs to show the world that his word is good.

  • Diplomatic Pouch


    DIPLOMATIC POUCH….The Guardian reports that the Obama administration plans to send a letter to the Iranian leadership:

    The US state department has been working on drafts of the letter since Obama was elected on 4 November last year. It is in reply to a lengthy letter of congratulations sent by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on 6 November.

    Diplomats said Obama’s letter would be a symbolic gesture to mark a change in tone from the hostile one adopted by the Bush administration, which portrayed Iran as part of an “axis of evil”.

    ….State department officials have composed at least three drafts of the letter, which gives assurances that Washington does not want to overthrow the Islamic regime, but merely seeks a change in its behaviour. The letter would be addressed to the Iranian people and sent directly to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or released as an open letter.

    An accompanying story suggests that the letter “represents a determined break from past US policy,” but then strikes a less hopeful tone: “There is one thing everyone agrees on — it is impossible to do any kind of business with the current Iranian president. Ahmadinejad’s speech in Kermanshah yesterday, demanding complete US withdrawal from all overseas deployments, clearly illustrated that.” Stay tuned.