Mojo - April 2009

Illegal Immigrants in Japan Forced to Leave Daughter Behind

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

The daughter, who is 13, chose to stay with an aunt. She was born in Japan and speaks only Japanese, but her parents entered Japan illegally. (A country with rigid, inflexible, and harsh immigration laws.) Mom finally got busted in 2006 and one of those nationally polarizing sagas ensued. Three years later, their poor daughter is weeping at the airport while cameras flash, and she has to choose between her parents and her country. She chose to stay, and likely will not see her parents again until she's 18. It's a terrible, heartbreaking situation, but only her parents are to blame.

Japan hasn't changed; they knew the gamble they were taking. I might have too were I living in the impoverished farming village they're returning to in the Philippines. But I'd like to think I would have chosen to illegally immigrate to a country with more flexible laws regarding aliens.

Then again, I also think we should abolish the boundaries between countries all over the world and let people go wherever they want to.

Yeah, I'm one of those One World People. There's more than enough for all of us, but we're too selfish and tribal to share with each other. Until then, Japan gets to enforce its laws.

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Scenes From the White House Egg Roll

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 11:49 AM EDT

The main difference between a Bush administration Easter egg roll and the Obamas'? Equal opportunity to throw up on the White House lawn. For the first Easter egg roll of the Obama presidency, the First Family distributed several thousand tickets to DC public schools, ensuring that the enormous crowd on the White House lawn was among the most diverse in modern history, and also the largest. (The White House gave out 30,000 tickets in all.) It wasn't an entirely terrible consolation prize to the school system that the Obamas rejected for their own kids.

At 6:30 a.m. this morning, my little DC neighborhood elementary school sent a small fleet of cheese buses down to the Ellipse to join the fray. We took off with the excitement of people who'd won the lottery, only to arrive at the scene with 6,000 other people who'd also hit it big. Not only did the Obamas invite local school kids, but they offered tickets to the rest of the country to ensure that the egg roll was no longer an exclusive event for Washington insiders and those willing to camp out overnight in the rain. All that democracy, though, meant a lot less egg rolling and a lot more standing in line. This year, black kids, white kids, kids from Alaska, kids from Anacostia, kids with two mommies, kids with no mommies, all had multiple, if not unique, opportunities to stand in line and freeze together in the shadow of the White House.

Obama's Bipartisanship

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 11:05 AM EDT

Whenever someone tells me that Obama has reneged on his commitment to bipartisanship, I always come back at them with some less articulate version of what Nate Silver is saying here:

...bipartisanship, as Obama intended the term, should not necessarily be confused for "compromise". Rather, it implied behaving in good-faith -- hearing out opinions from different sides of the aisle and identifying the best ideas regardless of their partisan origin. Bipartisanship, to Obama, was a process rather than an outcome. He could plausibly have been acting in a bipartisan manner, even if he hadn't gotten many Republicans to go along with his agenda.

In his election night victory speech, Obama repeated a line he had used throughout the campaign: "There are many who won't agree with every decision or policy I make as President, and we know that government can't solve every problem. But I will always be honest with you about the challenges we face. I will listen to you, especially when we disagree." I think as president, Obama has fulfilled the promise he made in that line. But listening to someone is one thing; doing what they say is another entirely.

Lessons in the Media Landscape

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 10:17 AM EDT

What does it mean that Matt Yglesias, a 20-something blogger, has a more astute take on political messaging and the leveraging of political power than David Broder, a man in his 70s who was considered for many years to be the dean of the Washington press corps? Two quick lessons: (1) Age and experience aren't everything, apparently. (2) Trying to shoehorn every new development into a worldview you're exceedingly well known for, as Broder is, will inevitably lead you to say some silly and misguided things from time to time.

Your conclusions, of course, may vary.

The Racial Wealth Gap, and Congress' Ignorance

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 10:00 AM EDT

The Washington Independent tackles an important issue -- the wealth gap.

As Washington policymakers screamed bloody murder last month over bonus payments for a few hundred AIG employees, another much larger scandal flew virtually unnoticed on Capitol Hill: The divide between the wealth of blacks and whites — already gaping — grew again.... According to the Federal Reserve, the net worth of the typical African American family in 2007 was just 10 percent of the net worth of the typical white family — down from 12 percent in 2004. Put another way: For every $1 held by whites five years ago, blacks had 12 cents. Three years later, they had a dime....

The staggering statistic has taken some powerful lawmakers by surprise. Participants in a wealth gap summit on Capitol Hill last month said that House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who attended the event, was shocked to learn the extent of the disparity.

There's a lot more in the Independent article; little of it is new. The fact that the average black family in America has a fraction of the assets of the average white family is well known to the activist and policy communities, and the governmental policies, past and present, that have contributed to that phenomenon have been reported out in this magazine and others. The fact that anyone in Congress, particularly Democrats, is surprised by this is pretty shocking.

Private Medicare Insurers Pump Up Propaganda to Preserve Profits

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:40 PM EDT

Earlier this week, I wrote about the government’s long-overdue move to cut back  subsidies to private Medicare Advantage plans, much to the chagrin of the insurance companies that have profited so handsomely from this setup. As reported by the Medicare Rights Center, these insurers are already threatening to pass on the cuts to the old and disabled people who subscribe to their private plans:

The lobbyists for the insurance companies say the subsidy cuts could mean sharp premium increases and reductions in the extra benefits provided to enrollees in these plans. It is up to the companies offering these plans to decide whether to pass through the subsidy reductions to plan members. There is another option, of course.
Insurance companies can become more efficient at providing services. Universal American, a company with over 240,000 Medicare Advantage enrollees, spent just over 83 percent of its premium income on medical services for its enrollees last year. The other 17 percent went toward administrative costs and agent commissions (13 percent) and profit (4 percent).
Original Medicare spends about 3 percent on administrative costs. It does not make a profit. If Universal American and the other insurance companies could reduce their administrative costs, or even their profits, then their plan members might see little, or no, premium increase or reduction in benefits. Such a strategy, of course, puts the interests of people with Medicare ahead of the financial well-being of shareholders and insurance agents, whom Universal American recently enlisted to fight the subsidy reductions.

Actually, Universal American is trying to enlist more than just insurance agents in the struggle to hold on to their sweet deal. It's trying to bring Medicare Advantage subscribers and other ordinary old people into the fray, through a PR initiative misleadingly named The Coalition for Medicare Choices.

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Happy Days Are Here Again--Not

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 2:30 PM EDT

After waiting about a year too long to admit that the country was actually in a recession, financial analysts are now rushing to declare it over—with the politicians and the press not far behind. In another example of the upbeat rhetoric I wrote about earlier this week, the Washington Post this morning suggested that some “tentative signs of strength” in the banking sector, along with small gains in the Dow, could offer ”at least some hope that the darkest days of the recession could be ending.”

To be fair, the Post also acknowledges that unemployment rates are still rising, and could pass 10 percent this year. But they give the final word to a Standard & Poors analyst who declares, in a triumph of Orwellian Newspeak, “Less weakness is the new strength.” (Many of these same “analysts,” of course, were the folks who told us that the bubble would never burst.)

As Obama huddles with his top economic advisors today, the administration is also promoting a sense of what Agence France Presse describes as ”shy optimism” about the economy. At an Economics Club luncheon yesterday, Lawrence Summers acknowledged that there were “still substantial downdrafts” in the economy–which is how he describes more than half a million Americans losing their jobs every month. “But you also have to see that there has been a substantial anecdotal flow in the last six to eight weeks of things that felt a little bit better,” he added.

There are plenty of others, however, who refuse to add their voices to this “anecdotal flow.” 

Legal Citizens Nabbed By ICE

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 9:44 AM EDT

The Center for Investigative Reporting on Rennison Vern Castillo, a U.S. citizen and veteran held for months after immigration officials mistakenly took him for an undocumented immigrant:

After domestic disputes with a girlfriend, he was convicted in 2005 of felony harassment and violating a no-contact order, and was sent to Pierce County Jail in Washington state for eight months. He was in a holding area with inmates about to be released when a corrections officer held him back.

Castillo was handcuffed and whisked off in a van to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. A federal officer said records showed he was an illegal immigrant.

[Snip]

Castillo went before an immigration judge, who appeared via video conference, a common procedure in the crowded immigration court system. Again, he claimed citizenship. The judge didn't believe him. He was ordered deported on Jan. 24, 2006.

ICE says cases like Castillo's are extremely rare; human rights organizations say otherwise. But the real value of a story like Castillo's lies in the picture it paints of how clumsy, disorganized and overburdened our immigration courts can be—just one indication of the need for immigration reform. A database of all legal citizens and legal aliens doesn't exist, and those suspected of being an undocumented immigrant don't have the right to an attorney during their hurried hearings.

This week, the Obama administration outlined, albeit broadly, its proposal for immigration reform, which would include a national database to check the immigration status of workers. That would, at the very least, be a start; cases like Castillo's would probably diminish completely if such a database were created. But it's only one of the problems of our broken immigration system.

Obama says he wants to take on the issue this year, a move one anti-immigration advocate said would be "politically disastrous." But the question of what to do with our undocumented immigrants—a bloc whose population shrank last year but still numbers 12 million people—is so contentious I doubt there's ever a good time to tackle it. The looming census complicates the issue even further: Parts of the right have already accused Obama of wanting to pass immigration reform before 2010 to create new Democrat-friendly districts with heavy Latino populations. They forget, though, that Latinos aren't a Democratic monolith.

1/4 of Former Lawmakers Heading to the Lobbying Ranks

| Fri Apr. 10, 2009 8:51 AM EDT

This Bloomberg story is a nice compliment to Dan and my story from yesterday.

Dan and I reported that over 100 former congressional staffers and executive branch employees -- including some extremely well-connected people -- have left public service and are now lobbying on behalf of the zombie banks being kept afloat by your tax dollars. Despite Obama's efforts to change the revolving door culture of Washington, the huge gobs of money being handed out by the federal government these days means the Capitol Hill/K Street connection is more prevalent than ever. As Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation told me when we were reporting our story, "It has not gone unnoticed by special interests or K Street firms that there is a bonanza there."

It hasn't gone unnoticed by former congressmen and senators, either. According to Bloomberg, a full one-quarter of lawmakers who retired or were defeated in 2008 have moved to K Street. There is absolutely no concern anymore for the ethical questions that move creates. Bob Kaiser, author of So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government, gave me a great bit of historical context on this when I did a Q&A with him in March. I find it fascinating. I think you might, too.

Texas Lawmaker Says Asians Should All Have Names Like Betty

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 5:32 PM EDT

First, there were all of those "slanty eye" photos that circulated during the Beijing Olympics. Not okay. Then teen uber-sensation Miley Cyrus thought it would be funny to pose thusly, and it still wasn't (she apologized, twice). A regrettable trend, but maybe one that we could chalk up to athletes caught up in the moment and Hannah Montana-ness?

Well, today Texas state Rep. Betty Brown suggested (out loud, during House testimony) that Asians should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with.” (There's no accompanying photo of her making slanty eyes, that I have seen.) Brown was responding to testimony from Ramey Ko, a representative of the Organization of Chinese Americans, who was explaining to legislators the challenges Asian Americans face in voting and in obtaining identification because their legal transliterated names are often different from a common name they use on official forms. Brown thought she would help out:

“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?...Can’t you see that this is something that would make it a lot easier for you and the people who are poll workers if you could adopt a name just for identification purposes that’s easier for Americans to deal with?”

Wow. So helpful. You must have suggested that because you have helpfully shortened your own name from Elizabeth (long and full of syllables, I know) to the much more accessible, Betty. And Brown is a color, and one syllable, and so easy to say, like Bush! But Betty, if your name weren't Brown, but instead you (or your husband) descended from a long line of, say, Bartholomews, what a pain in the ass that would be if you ever wanted to become a poll worker, huh?