Mojo - March 2009

British Government "Consigning Older Workers to the Scrap Heap"

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 3:27 PM PST

Just as Gordon Brown was lauding Senator Ted Kennedy in the U.S. House chamber yesterday, his government was basking in its victory before the European Union court to uphold a British law forcing people into mandatory retirement at 65. The British, of course, are also in the midst of a big economic downturn, and what their law does is to deny older people the right to work to get the money to provide for themselves with a modicum of decency–especially now that their retirement savings are decimated, just like ours are.

As the BBC reports, “The government continues to consign tens of thousands of willing and able older workers to the scrapheap,’’ said one advocate from Age Concern, the group that brought the suit. And Paul Cann, director of policy for Help the Aged, told the BBC, “Mandatory retirement ages are unfair and the government should act to abolish them as soon as possible…Challenging financial circumstances mean it is even more important for older workers to be able to choose to work longer if they want to. Ageism in all its forms must be eradicated from our society once and for all.”

The irony of this is extraordinary. Kennedy, who is 77 and was going strong until his recent diagnosis with brain cancer–and who has spent his entire life fighting for health care and decent treatment of workers of all ages–receivies a knighthood from the Queen, at the precise moment her government is sending older members of the British working class down the gangplank.

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Don't Bank on It: FDIC Running Out of Money

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 3:22 PM PST

Driven by a tanking stock market, a lot of people are looking to move their money to a “safe” place. This is especially  true of older people, who don’t have the option to follow the advice that’s being doled out by most money managers, which is to “stick it out” and wait for the market to “come back.” The safest place of all is supposed to be an FDIC-insured bank, where it may earn no more than a pittance, but it will at least be protected, since up to $250,000 in deposits for each individual are backed by the federal government through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The problem is, the FDIC is now running out of money itself. According to Bloomberg news:

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair said the fund it uses to protect customer deposits at U.S. banks could dry up amid a surge in bank failures, as she responded to an industry outcry against new fees approved by the agency….

The fund, which lost $33.5 billion in 2008, was drained by 25 bank failures last year. Sixteen banks have failed so far this year, further straining the fund.

Banks are reportedly upset that they are being asked to pay additional fees to the government to shore up the FDIC. They are accustomed to money flowing only in the other direction–from the government's coffers into theirs.

Choosing a C-Something-O

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 1:39 PM PST

We don't have a CTO yet, but we do now have a national CIO, a 34-year-old by the name of Vivek Kundra. Early reports suggest that his job portfolio will include a lot of things one would expect a CTO to do, which makes sense since Kundra's previous job was Washington DC's CTO. And by all accounts, he was exceptional it.

Maybe a CTO will be next. He or she will likely be Kundra's close partner. Together, they'll be doing some of the most cutting edge stuff in the administration, like using technology to democratize government information, encourage citizen engagement, and increase transparency across the executive branch.

Oh, and by the way, my favorite part of this WaPo profile of Kundra?

Kundra was born in India and moved to Tanzania at a young age. His family came to Gaithersburg when he was 11. His first language is Swahili.

One of his earliest memories after moving to Maryland is seeing a TV commercial for dog food. "I was shocked," he said. "I was used to seeing people starve in Africa. It was mind-boggling to me that people could afford to feed their dogs!"

DA's Link Arms With Sleazy Debt Collectors

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:28 AM PST
It's hard to believe anyone really writes checks anymore, but apparently they do, and lots of bad ones--enough that collecting on them has turned into a big business. And according to ProPublica, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bad-check collection biz may be your local prosecutor. District attorney offices around the country have outsourced bad check collections work to sleazy debt collectors. Because they are technically working for the local DA (check kiting is a criminal offense) the debt collectors, often pretend to be law enforcement officials when they call up to hound people into paying off their $47 checks (plus hefty fees to the collection agency), even threatening people with arrest. Writes ProPublica:

"Budget data from a dozen of the biggest counties that use ACCS show that DA offices have cashed in. Over the past four years, Los Angeles County received $1 million. In Illinois, Cook County collected more than $160,000 over a 12-month period. Florida's Miami-Dade County raked in $375,000 between April 2005 and September 2008)."

Perhaps just another good reason to pay with cash...

Are Journalists Running the Obama Administration?

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:00 AM PST
Right-wingers are always complaining that journalists are hopelessly biased liberals, but lately they seem to think they have new evidence to support the old beef. The latest edition of "Obama-Biden Watch," a newsletter published by the rabidly conservative group Citizens United, contains a short feature on all of the mainstream reporters who've recently joined the Obama administration.

Among those singled out by CU: Chicago Tribune reporter Jill Zuckerman, who's headed to the Transportation Department; former Time magazine Washington bureau chief Jay Carney, who's gone to work in Biden's office; Peter Gosselin, a former Los Angeles Times reporter, who's now a speechwriter for Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner; and former ABC News correspondent Linda Douglass, who worked on the Obama campaign and is rumored to be slated for a job at Health and Human Services. The newsletter came out before the news of Obama's appointment of Nancy Ann DeParle to a senior post at HHS, but no doubt her marriage to New York Times poverty reporter Jason DeParle might have rated a mention as well.
 
Of course plenty of journalists also went to work in the Bush administration (think Tony Snow and Karen Hughes), so the liberal bias connection is still, as always, pretty weak. But it's even weaker if you consider that this latest flight of reporters into government is happening at the same time the newspaper industry is imploding. It's not entirely surprising to find reporters from the bankrupt Tribune Company papers on the list of new Obama administration officials. In this economic climate, the government is one of the few places that's hiring!

Things that Are More Popular than Republicans, Cont'd.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 9:18 AM PST
First it was legalizing pot. Now it's communist China that is more popular than congressional Republicans.

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The Death of Expertise, Cont'd.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 8:35 AM PST

I've gotten angry before at what I see as Washington's bastardization of expertise. More evidence today, in what Andrew calls the "Kristol Syndrome":

[Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of California, Berkeley] studied pundits and discovered they were, to a rough approximation, always wrong when making predictions. He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock's further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn't self-correct, presumably because they'd invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view.

Pundits often have experience or inside knowledge that can improve our understanding of national politics. David Gergen, a CNN mainstay, has served in four presidential administrations. His commentary should leaven the public debate. But maybe he should limit himself to telling us (1) how current political events conform to or differ from past ones and (2) what his sources in power are saying. Because it doesn't appear Gergen and his pals are any better at predicting the future than you or me.

Peter Bergen: "This Is Not Your Father's Taliban"

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 3:11 PM PST
Testifying today before a House subcommittee, terrorism expert and Mother Jones contributor Peter Bergen (read him here, here, and here) offered his assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan. His comments make for interesting reading. He's particularly insightful about how the Taliban has evolved since 9/11. From his written statement:
But this is not your father’s Taliban. Where once the Taliban had banned television, now they boast an active video propaganda operation named Ummat, which posts regular updates to the Web. They court the press and Taliban spokesmen are now available at any time of the day or night to discuss the latest developments. The Taliban had banned poppy growing in 2000; now they kill government forces eradicating poppy fields, and they profit handsomely from the opium trade. The Taliban also offer something that you might find strange, which is rough and ready justice. The Afghan judicial system remains a joke, and so farmers and their families--the vast majority of the population-- looking to settle disputes about land, water and grazing rights can find a swift resolution of these problems in a Taliban court. As their influence extends, the Taliban has even set up their own parallel government, and appointed judges and officials in some areas.
The Taliban’s rhetoric is now filled with references to Iraq and Palestine in a manner that mirrors bin Laden's public statements. They have also adopted the playbook of the Iraqi insurgency wholesale, embracing suicide bombers and IED attacks on US and NATO convoys. The Taliban only began deploying suicide attackers in large numbers after the success of such operations in Iraq had become obvious to all. For the first years after the fall of the Taliban suicide attacks were virtually unknown in Afghanistan, jumping to 17 in 2005 and 123 a year later. Just as suicide bombings in Iraq had had an enormous strategic impact—from pushing the United Nations out of the country to helping spark a civil war—such attacks also have made much of southern Afghanistan a no-go area for both foreigners and for any reconstruction efforts.

Geithner Vows Tax Haven Crackdown

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 2:55 PM PST

We've known for a while now that 83 of the 100 biggest companies in the U.S. have subsidiaries in tax havens, a practice that lets those corporations skirt an estimated $100 billion in yearly tax liabilities.

On the list of 83 tax-dodgers, you'll find the quasi-nationalized Citigroup (which takes the top prize, with 427 subsidiaries in tax shelters), AIG, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America...

You get the idea: We've thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at these institutions that actively search for ways to avoid paying their full tax bill. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner addressed the problem Wednesday during his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee:

US To Shed Contractors in Iraq, But It Won't Be Easy

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 12:41 PM PST
General Ray Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, will seek to reduce the number of private contractors in the country by five percent each quarter, according to a directive obtained by the Christian Science Monitor. He is targeting 50 bases and smaller installations for reductions, where, so goes the thinking, Iraqis will begin to take over many of the responsibilities currently handled by private firms, such as laundry, driving, cooking, etc. There are currently about 150,000 contractors in Iraq, down from an all-time high of about 200,000. Some 39,000 of these are Americans, 70,000 are "third country nationals," and 37,000 are Iraqis--though according to the Pentagon these numbers are better thought of as guestimates; precise numbers are unavailable.

With US troops getting ready to leave Iraq by summer 2010 (itself a target date that is almost sure to be revised), a reduction in contractors only makes sense. But it will not be as easy as one might think. From the Monitor:
But reducing the number of contractors may not be easy. The support these contractors provide are sometimes critical, and difficult to eliminate quickly. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of them use American equipment, which may or may not be left behind.
As for hiring Iraqis, apart from the security concerns posed by employing them for certain jobs, many Iraqi workers need to be trained before they can take over jobs such as base maintenance overnight. A training effort is now being planned to ensure Iraqis have the skills to take over these jobs, says a senior official in Baghdad.
In the interim, US forces may be forced to fill the void left by some of these contractors on everything from training Iraqi security forces to driving trucks, which could take them away from their military duties, says a former senior commander.