Mojo - January 2009

Call It a Trend

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:48 PM EST

George Voinovich is retiring. Kit Bond is retiring. Sam Brownback is retiring. Mel Martinez is retiring. Republican senators are heading to greener pastures, folks. A difficult 2010 map for the GOP is getting harder and harder.

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George W. Bush's Non-Mea-Culpa Tour 2009

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:41 PM EST

George W. Bush the wise and somber presidential veteran.

Spare me. But as Bush prepares to leave office, he's trying to strike that sort of tone. I suppose it's easier to pontificate about the office of the presidency than to say, "Boy, did I screw up, I'm outta here." So at a press conference on Monday morning--probably his final as president--Bush discussed the burdens of presidential leadership and noted there will come a moment next Tuesday when Barack Obama, after taking the oath of office and watching the parade, settles into the Oval Office and says to himself, "Oh, my." (Maybe he will add, "Is this my beautiful house?")

But being president is really not that bad, Bush said. According to Fox News, he remarked: "Disappointments will be clearly a minority irritant." (Was that a Freudian slip? Or just another Bushism? According to the official transcript of the press conference, Bush actually said, "minor irritant.")

But the most surprising (I suppose) element of his non-mea-culpa is his insistence that he is unpopular because he did the right thing. For instance, he said that it would have been wrong for him to back the Kyoto global warming treaty just to be popular. Of course. But that doesn't mean trashing it was the correct thing to do. Bush seems to believe that popular disgust with some of his actions is a signal that he made the hard and right choice. See Iraq.

On Fox News Sunday, Bush had this telling exchange with Brit Hume:

Freedom Declines For Third Consecutive Year, Report Says

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:34 PM EST

Freedom House, a Washington, DC-based NGO, today released its annual assessment of the state of democracy worldwide. The bottom line: freedom is in retreat for the third year in a row, with most reversals having occurred in Sub-Saharan Africa and the former Soviet Union. The study looks at the world's 193 countries and 16 strategic territories, classifying them as Free, Partly Free, or Not Free. Overall, 34 countries fell in the rankings, while only 14 advanced.

Key findings from the study after the jump...

Chris Dodd Is Putting His Foot Down on TARP. Kinda

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 12:19 PM EST

Chris Dodd must have woken up this morning and finally realized he is the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. He announced today that he is blocking the release of any further TARP funds ($350 billion remains in federal coffers) until the limits on executive pay and the help for struggling homeowners that were promised around the time of TARP's passage are made into a reality. (A rough paraphrase of Hank Paulson from October 2008: "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say. No golden parachutes. Money for families in foreclosure. Fine. Just please give us the damn money.")

Dodd's a little late to this party. After all, half the TARP funds have been distributed and it's not clear that any oversight was used, any limitation on executive pay was enacted, or any help has trickled down to the folks who are actually losing their homes. And, to be honest, he's a little weak in the spine. Barney Frank, Dodd's equivalent in the House, is standing behind legislation that would improve the bailout program while Dodd is reportedly ready to let the process move forward unchanged following a stern letter to the Obama people. Presumably Dodd would hold a press conference and say that the transition office has given him all the assurances he needs. Which is ridiculous, of course, because Paulson snowed him in exactly the same way.

By the way, is TARP working for you? It's working for us.

The Army Wants You to Be "Less" Than You Can Be

| Mon Jan. 12, 2009 10:21 AM EST

By weight, that is. The twin catastrophes of America's obesity epidemic and our-never ending wars have the Army caught between a rock and a fat place: America.

From the AP:

The Army has been dismissing so many overweight applicants that its top recruiter, trying to keep troop numbers up in wartime, is considering starting a fat farm to transform chubby trainees into svelte soldiers.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick, head of the Army Recruiting Command, said he wants to see a formal diet and fitness regimen running alongside a new school at Fort Jackson that helps aspiring troops earn their GEDs.

An Army fat farm? Geez. Eighteen and already too fat to fight.

Asking for TARP Funds Takes Only 27 Minutes

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 6:34 PM EST

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Journalists have written so much about the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP), better known as the federal bailout, that it's hard to find a new angle. Seems like everyone's clamoring for a piece of the collective capital. Maybe that's because it takes less than half an hour to ask for it.

It turns out that the application for TARP funds is surprisingly simple. Interested parties can find the complete guidelines for the TARP Capital Purchase Program here. The application is just two pages long. As a test, we decided to fill it out. Including the time it took us to explain this project to our chief financial officer, the TARP application took a mere 27 minutes to complete.

To put it in perspective, here are five things that take longer than filling out the TARP application.

  1. Applying for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF): 4 hours.
  2. Watching Wall Street: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
  3. Making a tuna noodle casserole: 1 hour, 20 minutes.
  4. Applying for New York State unemployment insurance benefits: 30 minutes.
  5. Applying for food stamps in New Jersey: 30 minutes.

One of the only things that takes less time is filling out a credit card application: 2 minutes.

—Alexis Fitts and Daniel Luzer

Image by flickr user JRP Photo

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Lessig's Change Congress Changes Course, Demands Nationwide Donor Strike

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 2:08 PM EST

Last year, Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig announced a new focus on corruption and a new organization, Change Congress, which asked politicians to support its four goals: a ban on earmarks, "total Congressional transparency," public funding of elections, and the rejection of PAC and lobbyist money. Now he's changing course. Today, Change Congress announced a strike of campaign donors until Congress takes steps to eliminate the influence of money in politics.

The strike is directed at a specific goal: passing the Fair Elections Now Act sponsored by Sens. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Arlen Specter (R-PA), and Reps. John Larson (D-CT) and Walter Jones (R-NC). That's good, because the old model wasn't working all that well. Very few incumbents had signed up for Lessig's plan—a point highlighted by all of the red "Pester Now" buttons on the Change Congress website. (Voters could click on the buttons to harass recalcitrant representatives into taking a stand on Lessig's reform goals.) That page, with its embarrassing list of reluctant politicians, is now gone from the Change Congress site, replaced with a much simpler, much more publicity-friendly idea: the donor strike.

But while a donor strike may be a better idea than asking voters to demand that their representatives take stands on reform, it suffers from the same, fundamental problem: it requires a huge mass of people to sign on to get it to work. Upton Sinclair said, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on not understanding it." The salaries of members of Congress depend on their reelection, and money from PACs and lobbyists help them get reelected. They'll be reluctant to give up that corrupting money unless something else threatens their salaries more. The only way for that to happen would be for a huge number of people to refuse to donate to them. Let's hope enough do. Want to help? Join the strike.

Economy in Peril; Congress Poised for Pay Raise

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 12:52 PM EST

Taxpayers for Common Sense has a point. Member of Congress are poised to receive their annual 2.8 percent pay raise, boosting their base salaries by $4700 to $174,000, while working Americans are suffering cuts to their 401K matches, suspensions of annual cost-of-living increases, and in some cases salary decreases. And that's those of us who are lucky enough to be employed. It just doesn't seem right.

Congress has managed to avoid the always unpopular pay raise issue since 1989, when the House voted to make the yearly cost-of-living increase automatic—that is, unless members vote to reject the pay hike. Taxpayers for Common Sense is calling on Congress to do just that:

To regain some credibility and demonstrate shared sacrifice, Congress should immediately move to suspend the pay raise and swear them off until the economy is in full recovery. Or until the unemployment rate is well below 5%. Or both.

There is recent precedent for a contingent raise. When the Democrats took control in the 110th Congress, they voted not to take a raise until the minimum wage was increased. After that happened, they took their raise. Right now many Americans can't even get a minimum wage job, so this seems to be a good time for similar action.


Liberal Economists Skeptical of Obama Stimulus Package

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 12:00 PM EST

Despite the fact that President-elect Obama described his stimulus package on Thursday with only broad generalities, the proposal is already coming under criticism from economists on the left. Anxiety that the package is too small is combined with a fear that the rumored $300 billion in tax cuts for individuals and corporations will do little to jump-start the economy. They argue that Obama, in seeking a solution that Republicans on the Hill will support, has sacrificed key components that would make the package work most effectively.

Paul Krugman, Nobel Laureate and in-house economic lefty for the New York Times, wrote on his blog this week:

Obama's Aide from the "Dark Side"

| Fri Jan. 9, 2009 11:51 AM EST

With one hand, he giveth, with the other....

By tapping Leon Panetta to be CIA chief, President-elect Barack Obama sent a clear signal: no to torture. A year ago, Panetta wrote an article declaring, "We cannot and we must not use torture under any circumstances." And he included waterboarding--which the CIA has used---as torture. When Obama on Friday morning publicly announced his appointment of Panetta, he declared, "under my administration, the United States does not torture." He noted that he was handing this "clear charge" to Panetta and that this policy "will ultimately make us safer."

In fact, Obama's reported first choice for the CIA job, John Brennan, a career CIA official, had had his chances scuttled after bloggers and others griped that he had been soft, if not supportive, when it came to torture and CIA renditions. A New Yorker piece by Jane Mayer identified him as a "supporter" of so-called enhanced interrogation methods. And in a 2006 PBS interview, Brennan said, "we do have to take off the gloves in some areas" but without going so far as to "forever tarnish the image of the United States abroad." He added that the "dark side has its limits."

Well, Brennan didn't get the top post at Langley. But Obama has selected him to be his chief counterterrorism adviser in the White House. The job requires no Senate confirmation. So Brennan will not be inconvenienced by questions regarding any past involvement with CIA renditions and waterboarding. (Brennan has reportedly told Obama he had no direct role in CIA's abusive interrogation policies and even internally expressed reservations.) In announcing Brennan's appointment, Obama noted, "John has the experience, vision and integrity to advance America's security."