Mojo - December 2008

Slavery Comes Full Circle

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 1:49 PM EST

CNN reminds us, as the Obamas head for DC, of the slaves who helped build the White House (as well as many other federal buildings) and of the many presidents tended to there by slaves. George Washington started the trend:

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KBR Subcontractor Keeping 1,000 Asian Workers In a Warehouse

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 12:17 PM EST

I'm no expert in human trafficking, but this strikes me as worthy of criminal punishment. McClatchy:

About 1,000 Asian men who were hired by a Kuwaiti subcontractor to the U.S. military have been confined for as long as three months in windowless warehouses near the Baghdad airport without money or a place to work.
Najlaa International Catering Services, a subcontractor to KBR, an engineering, construction and services company, hired the men, who're from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. On Tuesday, they staged a march outside their compound to protest their living conditions....
The laborers said they paid middlemen more than $2,000 to get to Iraq for jobs that they were told would earn them $600 to $800 a month. Some of the men took out loans to cover the fees.
"They promised us the moon and stars," said Davidson Peters, 42, a Sri Lankan. "While we are here, wives have left their husbands and children have been shut out of their schools" because money for the families has dried up. The men live in three warehouses with long rows of bunk beds crammed tightly together. Reporters who tried to get a better glimpse inside were ushered away by armed guards.

One man held in the warehouse said there are "about 12" toilets for the 1,000 men. Because of this news report, the Kuwaiti subcontractor has said it will return the men to their home countries and give them back pay. The men, unsurprisingly, are skeptical.

New Nixon Tapes Are Always a Delight

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 11:22 AM EST

The new Nixon tapes released this week include a couple moments that neatly summarize Nixon's flaws and foibles.

The wickedness:

— On July 1, 1971, Nixon instructs Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.:
"I can't have a high-minded lawyer ... I want a son-of-a-bitch. I want someone just as tough as I am. ... We're up against an enemy, a conspiracy that will use any means. We are going to use any means... . Get it done. I want it done. I want the Brookings Institution cleaned out and have it cleaned out in a way that has somebody else take the blame."

The inferiority complex:

Against Nepotism

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 11:06 AM EST

This is a bipartisan plea. Can we stop with the scions of powerful families grabbing vacant positions for themselves? That means no Jeb Bush, who is considering a run for a Florida Senate seat; it means no Caroline Kennedy, who is apparently a contender to fill Hillary Clinton's New York Senate seat; and frankly, it also means no Terry McAuliffe, the Clintons' close confidant and former money man who is weighing a run for governor of Virginia despite being from New York state. If there was ever a time that the American people said decisively that they want new blood in Washington, it's now. Let's not perpetuate the old boys club in the face of that.

Update: Since none of the individuals mentioned in this post is getting a job directly from a relative, the title would probably be more accurate if it was "Against Legacies." But I'm going to embrace a broader, more colloquial definition of "nepotism" and leave it as is. Just, uh, in case you were wondering.

Obama's Coattails

| Wed Dec. 3, 2008 10:45 AM EST

The day after election day, when it looked like Democrats were going to pick up just 15 seats in the House and five seats in the Senate (remember, Oregon and Alaska were won late), political pundits wondered if Obama had shorter coattails than the hype surrounding him would suggest.

The results from yesterday's Senate run-off in Georgia, which Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss won by a substantial margin over Democratic challenger Jim Martin, make the case that Obama's coattails were quite strong, at least in certain areas. Here's MSNBC's First Read:

Consider that during the general election, [Martin] trailed Saxby Chambliss (R) by just three percentage points, 49.8%-46.8%, with a third-party candidate garnering more than 3%. But in yesterday's run-off, with 97% of precincts reporting, Chambliss won by 14 points, 57%-43%, preventing Democrats from obtaining a filibuster-proof 60 seats. How many House or Senate Democrats who believe they won because of Obama coattails -- especially in states like Alabama, North Carolina, and Virginia -- saw the run-off result and said, "Uh, oh. 2010 is going to be tough"?

Argument for Obama's coattails: Two consecutive "wave" elections for the same party are incredibly rare, and the Democrats pulled the trick off in 2008 with Obama at the top of the ticket. Argument against Obama's coattails: It's possibly that both Obama and the Democratic wave in Congress were the product of the same anti-Bush and anti-Republican sentiment. Argument that it doesn't matter: Obama has the majorities he needs to govern (for the next two years at least) and won by enough in the popular vote to declare a mandate. Coattails or no, it's time to get to work.

Cell Phone Lawsuit Follows Mojo Investigation

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 6:40 PM EST

On the heels of a recent Mother Jones investigation into the mortal dangers of driving while gabbing on a cell phone, the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety has sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, accusing it of illegally withholding information related to the risks.

The lawsuit, filed yesterday in US District Court in Washington, DC, claims that the federal agency violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release documents—including the first-ever government estimate of auto fatalities related to cell phone use: 955 deaths in 2002. NHTSA is a branch of the Department of Transportation that regulates the auto industry and aims to reduce injuries and deaths on the nation's highways. Contacted today, agency spokesman Rae Tyson declined to comment on the suit.

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Obama's First Policy Retreat?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 6:39 PM EST

offshore-oil-rig.jpg

Did Barack Obama just break his first campaign promise?

On the campaign trail, Obama railed against big oil companies. He often criticized John McCain for backing tax cuts that would reward ExxonMobil and other top oil manufacturers. But now Obama's proposal to apply a windfall tax on big oil has vanished... at least from his transition website. The President-elect's transition team hasn't explicitly announced it will drop the windfall tax plan, but a transition aide, commenting on the condition he not be identified, backed off the promise in an email. "President-elect Obama announced the [windfall profits tax] policy during the campaign because oil prices were above $80 per barrel," he said. "They are currently below that now and expected to stay below that."

The windfall profits proposal was deleted from the transition website almost three weeks before the eagle-eyed American Small Business League (ASBL), an advocacy group for small businesses, noticed the change and protested in a press release Tuesday. The plan was mentioned in a version (PDF) of the site that existed after Obama's election win. But when the transition website relaunched on November 8, references to a excess profits tax on the oil and gas industry were gone.

Should Blacks Gain From Obama's Win?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 5:36 PM EST

So the New York Times thinks more TV stars will be black, but The Root doesn't think black political reporters will see any advancement. I think both got it right.

Hard as it is to land a TV role, it's not so hard to make a lead character black. At least, not as hard as landing the plum job of White House reporter. The Root points out that many black reporters made their names covering Jesse Jackson's presidential run. But that run was never more than symbolic; basically, you send black reporters to cover the civil rights movement, which is the best way to characterize Jackson's play. But the White House? The press corps there won't be darkening any time soon. And it shouldn't. The White House beat should, by rights, go to those who've earned it. Which black reporters can, and will do.

Auto Execs Starting to Get It?

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 4:51 PM EST

Bad PR works wonders, apparently. Just two weeks after incurring public wrath for flying private jets to Washington in order to beg for bailout money, Detroit's top dogs are returning this week (driving hybrid cars to get here) with a plan to make amends:

Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Alan Mulally plans to tell Congress he is accelerating his company's development of hybrid and electric vehicles and is willing to cut his salary to $1 a year if Ford uses any federal funds.
General Motors Corp. is expected to focus on efforts to lighten the company's heavy debt load and consolidate or sell at least one of its eight automotive brands, most likely Saab, people familiar with the matter said. GM CEO Rick Wagoner also will take a $1 salary, those people said....
In a phone interview Monday, Mr. Mulally said Ford will explain to Congress it is rushing to launch new hybrids and electric vehicles by 2011, including a battery-powered commercial van and compact sedan. A plug-in electric vehicle that can be recharged from a standard electrical outlet should follow in 2012, he said.
In a separate interview, Ford Chairman William Ford Jr. said the company is looking beyond survival to opportunity. "We want to come blasting out as a global, green, high-tech company that's exactly where the country and the Obama administration want us to head," he said.

There is serious reason to doubt Bill Ford on this issue — he has long talked a good game on environmental matters while his company continued to mass produce gas-guzzling over-sized vehicles. At this point, though, reality appears to have finally penetrated the auto executives' thick skulls. No more private jets, no more massive salaries, no more ignoring the market for hybrids, and hopefully, no more business plans that produce SUVs and little else.

WMD Terrorist Attack "More Likely Than Not" by 2013, Says Report

| Tue Dec. 2, 2008 1:32 PM EST

On the heels of President-elect Barack Obama's announcement of his national security team, a new report wastes no time in outlining one of the more serious and immediate challenges facing the new administration: how to combat the spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). According to the Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism, a congressionally mandated, bipartisan panel of experts led by former senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent, the outlook is not good. The panel's final report, due out tomorrow, shows proliferation to be on the rise and concludes that "unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013."

The last administration famously began its ill-fated foreign adventure in Iraq out of fear that "a smoking gun could come in the form of a mushroom cloud." But the Commission sees biological rather than nuclear weapons as a more pressing concern, describing the United States as "very exposed" to biological attack. The US has taken the lead in securing fissile materials used in nuclear weapons (although serious problems remain), but comparatively little effort has been spent in preventing biological attacks. The nuclear age began with the use of nuclear weapons, which gave urgency to fighting their spread. "The life sciences community," says the Commission, "has never experienced a comparable iconic event. As a result, security awareness has grown slowly, lagging behind the emergence of biological risks and threats." One possible exception, of course, was the 2001 anthrax attacks. But the vulnerabilities in the system has been "only partly addressed" and the Commission notes that "if only 15 grams of dry anthrax spores delivered by mail could produce such an enormous effect [an estimated $6 billion in damages, not to mention lives lost], the consequences of a large-scale aerosol release would be almost unimaginable."