Mojo - December 2008

Can You Name the Greediest Corporate Titans of 2008?

| Tue Dec. 23, 2008 10:59 AM PST

You know who Bernie Madoff is. But what about Dwight Schar, Patrick Soon-Shiong, or Richard Baker? These three men have the dubious distinction of winning spots on the America's Greediest 2008 Top Ten compiled by the Too Much online newsletter.

Madoff didn't make the list. (He doesn't need the publicity--or exposing--these days.) But what's interesting is that most of the honorees are not household names. Schar is head of NVR, a giant homebuilding firm. In the past six years, he has collected $625 million in compensation, and his company's stock has plummeted. Soon-Shiong sold a pharmaceutical company to a German company for $3.7 billion; the company, the only source of much-in-demand blood thinner, was attractive because in 2007 it had made $253 million on merely $647 million in sales. (Talk about mark-up!) Baker is a Louisiana congressman who gave up his House seat to become CEO of the trade association for the hedge fund industry. In Congress--no coincidence--he had chaired a subcommittee that had overseen the hedgers. And, by the way, jumping from watchdog to pitchman, Baker boosted his annual compensation from $163,000 to $1 million.

As one reads the list, a natural reaction would be: who are these people? (Steve Jobs does make the cut.) And the larger point is this: our economy is controlled--and we are held hostage--by a host of CEOs, money-managers, and assorted masters-of-the-universe who are not so masterful. They screw up--and they still get to keep the mansions and the yachts. But many of the rest of us pay. GM's top execs have to fly commercial--boo-hoo-hoo; their workers lose their livelihoods. And because the high-fliers on Wall Street thought they could spin debt and swaps into gold (for themselves) by creating all sorts of new financial products that would be free of pesky regulations, American taxpayers have to bail out Big Finance institutions deemed too big to fail.

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China Latest to Join Somali Pirate Hunt

| Tue Dec. 23, 2008 8:06 AM PST

A few days ago, Iran sent a warship to the Gulf Aden to keep marauding Somali pirates from attacking its merchant ships, joining a growing fleet of international ships patrolling the Somali coastline. I've speculated here before that this might inadvertently open the door to US engagement with Tehran. The news this morning is that China has dispatched three ships to the region. It's an increasingly interesting cast of characters—American and Western European ships cruising in close proximity to those from Russia, China, and Iran, among others. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, right?

Meanwhile, the International Crisis Group points out that piracy is a symptom of the larger problem. In a report it released today (.pdf), the group warns that Somalia is much worse for wear thanks to the US-backed Ethiopian occupation, but says that things could improve after the Ethiopians withdraw (planned by the end of this year). "There is reason to believe that despite radical posturing, a significant majority in the Islamist insurgency would engage in a political process that does not seek to criminalise it and offers them a role in future governance," the report asserts. "There is no other practical course than to reach out to it in an effort to stabilise the security situation with a ceasefire and then move on with a process that addresses the root causes of the conflict. In the course of that effort, the insurgents will need to provide assurances about the kind of Islamic state they envisage as well as clarify their rejection of foreign groups like al-Qaeda."

Our Writers Are Even More Amazing Than We Thought: Nomi Prins' Challenge to Readers

| Mon Dec. 22, 2008 2:40 PM PST

nomi_pic.jpgWhen we asked readers to help save our D.C. investigative crew after some major funders pulled out, one of our freelancers, Nomi Prins--a former Goldman Sachs managing director turned ace finance reporter--offered to put up the $1,000 fee for her most recent story as a challenge grant. Yes, just like on public radio: We won't hold the blog hostage for 20 minutes every hour to bludgeon you into giving, but we sure don't want to leave this money on the table. Can you help? It's incredibly easy, just follow this link. If you give $45 or more, we throw in a subscription to the magazine. Please help Nomi help us out. And then go read her story on the financial crisis. It will make you weep.

UPDATE: Now you can give via PayPal! Thanks to those of you who have already given, it means a ton. We'll let you know whether we make the match.

Iran Sends Warship to Fight Somali Pirates

| Mon Dec. 22, 2008 9:25 AM PST

Last month, after pirates hijacked an Iranian ship off the coast of Somalia, I speculated on the prospect that Tehran might choose to join the Western-led naval flotilla now patrolling the Gulf of Aden. By signing on to effort, low-level cooperation between US and Iranian ships would be virtually unavoidable, several experts told me, potentially opening the door to a wider detente between the two nations. Well, this morning the BBC reports that the decision has been made:

Iran has sent a warship to the Gulf of Aden to protect its merchant shipping from attacks by Somali pirates, Iranian state media has reported...
Iranian officials said their ships would be prepared to use force against the pirates if necessary.
"After travelling more than 4,000 maritime miles an Iranian warship entered the Gulf of Aden to protect Iranian ships against pirates," said the radio report, but gave no further details.
An unnamed official said the gulf was an international area and that Iran's armed forces would "carry out any decision made by their superiors".

"Merchant of Death" Breaks Silence, Maintains Innocence

| Mon Dec. 22, 2008 8:37 AM PST

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The current issue of The Economist includes a profile of Viktor Bout, the so-called "Merchant of Death," who until his capture earlier this year in a DEA sting operation in Thailand, was the dean of the world's black market in illicit weapons. The piece is a history of sorts, detailing Bout's sordid dealings with Third World dictators in search of the all-mighty dollar. It also describes the sting that brought him down last March—and graciously cites Mother Jones as having published an earlier detailed account of the operation.

Bout's story is the stuff of legend and perfect fodder for filmmakers. Nicholas Cage played a fictionalized version of the Russian arms dealer in the 2005 film, Lord of War. (Bout reportedly was not a fan of Cage's performance). According to the Guardian, Angelina Jolie is also set to play a UN arms investigator obsessed with busting Bout's network in a film due out in a year or two.

Turns out we won't have to wait that long to hear from Bout himself. Today in Bangkok, the arms dealer took the stand for the first time to fight against his planned extradition to the United States to face terrorism charges. Clad in the same orange prison outfit that has been his uniform for most of the year, Bout pleaded innocence. Never mind that he was caught with his hand in the cookie jar: sitting down with what he thought to be members of the Colombian FARC to discuss supplying them with guns, ammunition, and helicopters equipped with rockets. After all, the guy has a number of conflicting alibis: his wife says he was in Bangkok to take a cooking class; his bodyguard says he was there on vacation and to visit a medical center; Sergei Ivanov, a member of the Russian parliament, says he was there gathering "information on the aviation and construction business." It's all the same to Bout, who claims that whatever he was doing in Bangkok, it most certainly wasn't to sell weapons. As he told the court:

I never met or talked to anyone from FARC... I didn't do anything wrong in Thailand. I have never been to Colombia or the United States...I did not commit any terrorist acts... The US is trying to use this to cover up its internal problems and prevent good relations between Thailand and Russia.

Pew Releases "Final Verdict" on Bush

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 6:35 PM PST

As Bush's reign of error winds down, his supporters are working hard to sugarcoat his legacy, first with the Bush legacy project, and then the "Speech Topper on the Bush Record." But as Karl Rove and Bill Kristol recently discovered when arguing against the motion "Bush 43 is the worst president of the last 50 years," it's an uphill battle.

Pew's "final verdict" shows that Americans aren't falling for these last-ditch efforts. That is to say, only 24 percent of Americans currently approve of the administration, down from a high of 86 percent following 9/11.

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Here are a few highlights, including how George W. compares to Clinton, Bush Sr., and Reagan:

  • Nearly three-quarters of 18-29 year olds disapprove of President Bush, the most of any age group.
  • More than one-third of respondents believe that Bush will go down in history as a poor president, as compared to Clinton (11 percent), Bush Sr. (4 percent), and Reagan (5 percent). (The options were outstanding, above average, average, below average, poor, and don't know.)
  • Approval of state and local government has declined 3 and 4 percent respectively since 2002. The federal government's favorability rating has fallen 36 percent.
  • 83 percent of Democrats, 68 percent of Independents, and 33 percent of Republicans believe the Bush administration will be best known for its failures. In 2001, only 13 percent of Democrats, 27 percent of Independents, and 43 percent of Republicans said the same about Clinton.
  • Blacks disapprove of Bush more than whites by a fairly wide margin, 83 to 64 percent. And women disapprove more than men, 70 to 65 percent.
  • Interestingly, college graduates are slightly more approving of Bush than Americans with no college education.

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One (Really, Really) Cool Thing About Rick Warren

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 2:04 PM PST

I have serious disagreements with the man, but I respect Rick Warren for living out some values that he shares with me and that he likely shares with many readers of this blog. For example:

He reverse tithes, giving away 90% and keeping 10%.

Of course, when Warren publicly preaches against Prop 8, he's living out values that he doesn't share with me. But that little factoid is still pretty awesome. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't do the same if I made what he makes. That's from the Huffington Post, where you'll find a progressive defense of Warren.

Update: Man, this ruins the mood. Gays "unwilling to repent" are banned from Warren's church.

The Coldest Town on Earth

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 1:51 PM PST

If you're miserable because your Friday afternoon is gray and frigid, be thankful you don't live in the Siberian town of Oymyakon (map), where -31 Celcius is the sort of day when kids are happy to go out and play. It is, officially, the coldest continuously inhabited place on Earth.

From A Welsh View, via Boing Boing.

Bush Administration to Oil and Gas Industry: Merry X-Mas

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 10:04 AM PST

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Here's a last minute reprieve sure to make oil and gas companies scream: the Bush administration's controversial auction of Utah's public lands is going forward as scheduled on Friday, but with a major hitch. Environmentalists mounted a last ditch legal and PR campaign to stop the administration from leasing more than 100,000 acres of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Dinosaur National Monument, and Nine Mile Canyon—and on Thursday night they bought themselves a bit more time.

Under terms negotiated by environmental groups, sources tell me, the Bureau of Land Management can hold the auction but can't issue the leases for 30 days. That means the agency can collect the payments, but it can't cash the checks. In the meantime, a federal judge will hear a case filed by environmental groups, which are asking the leases to be invalidated.

Five environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council and the Wilderness Society, joined in the suit. Utah's most famous greenie, actor Robert Redford, also entered the fight, calling the Bush administration "morally criminal" for announcing the lease sale on Election Day and bypassing standard courtesies of public participation.

After putting out calls and emails to several sources, asking for comment on Friday's lease sale, I heard back from one irate BLM veteran who said in no uncertain terms that the Interior Department has placed the interests of industry firmly above those of the public. Dennis Willis, a BLM manager in Utah who has worked for the agency for 30 years, told me he plans to retire effective January 2. For this reason, he was especially forthcoming in an email, which is worth excerpting at length:

US Refuses to Ratify International Call to Decriminalize Homosexuality

| Fri Dec. 19, 2008 8:44 AM PST

This administration (1) doesn't know how to play well with others, and (2) continues to makes a pathetic mockery of its own principles. We're a country that launched a preemptive war, in part, to spread freedom. And yet, this:

Alone among major Western nations, the United States has refused to sign a declaration presented Thursday at the United Nations calling for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality.
In all, 66 of the U.N.'s 192 member countries signed the nonbinding declaration — which backers called a historic step to push the General Assembly to deal more forthrightly with any-gay discrimination. More than 70 U.N. members outlaw homosexuality, and in several of them homosexual acts can be punished by execution.
Co-sponsored by France and the Netherlands, the declaration was signed by all 27 European Union members, as well as Japan, Australia, Mexico and three dozen other countries. There was broad opposition from Muslim nations....

So why were we the only Western nation to opt out?

According to some of the declaration's backers, U.S. officials expressed concern in private talks that some parts of the declaration might be problematic in committing the federal government on matters that fall under state jurisdiction. In numerous states, landlords and private employers are allowed to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the federal level, gays are not allowed to serve openly in the military.

Sure. Why would we sign an internationally supported declaration in favor of human rights? It would keep local landlords and private employers from discriminating. We can't have that!