Mojo - April 2009

Legacy of Lies: The Great Economic Cover-Up

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 4:17 PM EDT

Remember back in February, when Bill Clinton urged Obama to be more “upbeat” about the economy? Clinton actually implied that the new president could be making the financial crisis worse by being honest about how bad it was, thereby rattling public confidence—and with it, the market. You’d have thought the primary campaign would be enough to convince Obama that nothing good could come from Clinton homme. But the president has clearly taken a page from Clinton’s playbook. He now largely avoids statements that might frighten the horses in favor of cheerful declarations that we are at “a turning point in our pursuit of global economic recovery,” while at the same time promoting the latest bank bailout plan, which he says will get us there.

There are plenty of reasons why its wrong to try to buoy up a sinking economy on a raft of positive rhetoric—among them, the fact that it obscures what actually happened in the past, and clouds our judgment about what should be done to “fix” it. In the current issue of Newsweek, Daniel Gross comments on the Orwellian linguistic feat by which the government seeks to rebrand the piles of worthless crap created by our financial system.

Remember those toxic assets? The poorly performing mortgages and collateralized debt obligations festering on the books of banks that made truly execrable lending decisions? In the latest federal bank-rescue plan, they’ve been transformed into “legacy loans” and “legacy securities”--safe for professional investors to purchase, provided, of course, they get lots of cheap government credit. It’s as if some thoughtful person had amassed, through decades of careful husbandry, a valuable collection that’s now being left as a blessing for posterity.

According to this morning’s New York Times, the administration is now taking things a step further by promoting a plan that would let us ordinary folks buy what are being called “bailout bonds”—shares in mutual fund-type bundles of lousy mortgage securities. These are supposed to eventually become profitable, thereby allowing us to share in the wealth. But of course, they could also go the other way. As the Times notes: “If, as some analysts suspect, the banks’ assets are worth even less than believed, the funds’ investors could suffer significant losses.” In other words, having been screwed once by Wall Street, we’re now being asked to bend over for a twofer—which some people just might do, if they believe the rhetoric that happy days are about to be here again.

Another point of view came from William K. Black, who was the chief federal regulator during the S&L crisis, in a long interview with Bill Moyers on Friday. Black calls Bernie Madoff a “piker” in comparison with the Wall Street giants that committed mass fraud, and are now nonetheless raking in government funds. When Moyers asks Black “why the bankers who created this mess are still calling the shots” instead of being fired like the auto executives, Black mentions the close relationships between Washington and Wall Street, which applies to Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as much as to Henry Paulson. Then he talks about what he doesn’t hesitate to call a “cover-up”:

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The Anti-Gay Commercial, Plus 'Talking Points'

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 1:53 PM EDT

By now, some of you have surely seen the National Organization for Marriage's anti-gay marriage commercials being aired across the nation in response to recent developments in Vermont and Iowa. If not, you can see them online here. The Human Rights Campaign has already rebutted the commercial's claims very well, so I won't go into that except to say Mother Jones wrote extensively about the case involving the "California doctor" who says she's forced to choose "between my faith and my job."

Like others in the blogosphere, I thought the commercial was pretty heinous, not to mention factually inaccurate. But my jaw really dropped when I went to NOM's site and read the suggested "talking points" supporters can use when confronted by pro-gay marriage folks. Here's one gem: "We need a marriage amendment to settle the gay marriage issue once and for all, so we don’t have it in our face every day for the next ten years." That's right: they said "in our face." I'm taking this to mean, "Why can't you people just go back in the closet and stop asking for rights?" That said, I agree with NOM. We do need a marriage amendment. But if this map is any indication, I don't think it'll be the amendment NOM is hoping for.

Another online amusement: NOM lists answers supporters can give to common, but uncomfortable, questions such as "Are you a bigot?" and "Isn't the ban on gay marriage like bans on interracial marriage?" The suggested answers really speak for themselves. Apparently banning interracial marriage was about "keeping two races apart so one race could oppress the other." And gay marriage has absolutely nothing to with keeping two kinds of people apart or oppressing one of them, right? Right. Seriously, the rest of the questions and answers are pretty priceless. You can check them out here

 

Gay Marriage Leads To Mass Murder?

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 11:02 AM EDT

Is there a connection between same-sex marriage and mass murder?

That's what one religious right outfit is suggesting. This week, Morality in Media disseminated a statement noting that the Iowa Supreme Court had legalized gay marriage on the same day that a gunman murdered 13 people in Binghamton, New York. The headline on the release: "Connecting the Dots: The Line Between Gay Marriage and Mass Murders." The group's president, Bob Peters, notes that the "underlying problem is that increasingly we live in a 'post-Christian' society, where Judeo-Christian faith and values have less and less influence." And, he continues, this "secular value system is also reflected in the 'sexual revolution,' which is the driving force behind the push for 'gay marriage.'"

Here's the punch line:

It most certainly is not my intention to blame the epidemic of mass murders on the gay rights movement! It is my intention to point out that the success of the sexual revolution is inversely proportional to the decline in morality; and it is the decline of morality (and the faith that so often under girds it) that is the underlying cause of our modern day epidemic of mass murders. 

That is, he's not saying that gay rights activists are directly responsible for the murderous actions of gun-toting madmen. But Peters maintains that those who champion gay rights are undermining the moral fiber of society and that this assault on traditional values creates an environment in which killing sprees can more easily occur. These acts of gun violence, he insists, are the poisoned fruit of the push for gay marriage.

Talk about exploiting tragedy to advance an agenda. It might be tempting to dismiss Peters and Morality in Media as marginal, but this group did receive federal funding from 2005 through 2007. The money supported a Morality in Media project, ObscenityCrimes.org, which paid two retired law enforcement officers to review citizen complaints about obscenity on the Internet and to forward the best leads to the US Justice Department for possible prosecution. A total of $300,000 was provided to Morality in Media through two earmarks Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) placed into spending bills, according to Peters. And a portion of that money went to cover Peters' salary. As The New York Times reported in 2007, no obscenity prosecutions had resulted from the Morality in Media's obscenity-tracking work.

Peters tells me that since 2007--thanks to the fuss about earmarks--he has received no more funds from the US government. After the earmarked grants ran out in 2007, he did apply directly to the Justice Department and was turned down. Since then, he has raised private funds to keep ObscenityCrimes.org going. That may be for the best--particularly for Morality in Media. Peters has recently attacked President Barack Obama's pick for deputy attorney general, David Ogden, as an "ACLU-minded" sort who would "likely weaken" government efforts "to curb sexual trafficking and sexual exploitation of children." It would be difficult--or, at least, awkward--for Peters to blast a Justice Department that was funding his own work.

In his statement on gay marriage and mass murder, Peters notes that Christianity and Judaism teach "that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and to forgive others." But on the subject of gay marriage, he does seem to have a rather unforgiving approach.

On Locking Up Teens

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 1:17 AM EDT

From CNN: It began as horseplay, with two teenage stepbrothers chasing each other with blow guns and darts. But it soon escalated when one of the boys grabbed a knife.

The older teen, Michael Barton, 17, was dead by the time he reached the hospital. The younger boy, Quantel Lotts, 14, would eventually become one of Missouri's youngest lifers...Lotts is one of at least 73 U.S. inmates—most of them minorities—who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in prison for crimes committed when they were 13 or 14, according to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Alabama that defends indigent defendants and prisoners."
The 73 are just a fraction of the more than 2,000 offenders serving life sentences for crimes they committed as minors under the age of 18.

Now that you've had some time to understandably fart, a la Life of Brian, in "[Lotts'] general direction," let's take a moment to remember who we are as the people we proclaim to the world we are. You remember 'us'? The people who believe in the rule of law.

Bad as it is that most of these kids are minorities, worse is that some of them are serving life without parole for non-murder, however horrific their crimes were.

I've been the victim of violent crime and had family members actually maimed for life and murdered, so it's not that I'm soft on crime. But I am soft on double standards. Trying kids as adults, as a category in itself, I find horribly unjust. Either you're a kid or you're not. No matter how mature a kid is, we don't let them vote til they're 18, drive til they're 16, drink, see dirty movies or marry until they're whatever that age is in your state. In law school, I was taught that this is your basic 'one way ratchet' and, by definition, to be viewed with suspicion.

Even a Stopped Watch...

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 1:02 AM EDT

Cal Thomas, writing in WorldMag, (via Andrew Sullivan) manages to be both terribly wrong, then terribly right about gay marriage and civil rights in general:

"As Iowa and other courts continue to dismantle the foundations of our nation without the approval of its citizens (each time the public gets an opportunity to vote on marriage, it votes to uphold the male-female version), they have an obligation to say where they intend to take us. What is the new standard for human relationships? Or do we make this up as we go, bowing to whatever pressure group makes the most noise?"

Yadda, yadda, yadda. Bill Murray summed this up best in GhostBusters: "Dogs and cats! Living together!" And humans marrying dogs and cats, or one human marrying 'leventy-seven humans, all to-be-expected when gays, gasp, are allowed to marry.

GOP Trying to Regain Its Sanity, Failing

| Thu Apr. 9, 2009 12:53 AM EDT

From HuffPo:

A self-identified Republican called in to tell Rush Limbaugh he was a "brainwashed Nazi." Here's a juicy excerpt: "We're not supposed to be torturing these people. This is not Nazi Germany, Red China, or North Korea." He then added, "I hate to say it...but I think you're a brainwashed Nazi." This did not go over well. Limbaugh shot back with a brainwashing accusation of his own, and blamed Charles and people like him for Obama winning the election. "I didn't vote for him," Charles protested, "I voted for McCain. I voted Republican." No matter. Rush signed off by saying, "Charles, Barack Obama is president of the United States today because of stupid, ignorant people who think like you do. You pose—you and your ignorance are the most expensive commodity this country has."

Must be heard to be fully appreciated.

Again with the HuffPo, Rachel Maddow has fun with right wing videos "proving" that Obama is a satanist. Sad when the GOP becomes a pajama party of teenagers shining flashlights in their own faces and playing stuff backwards. Now Fox anchors have joined in to support a newborn Tea Party movement. These guys aren't mad at the banks that spent all our wealth on magic beans, they're mad at the Prez who's fixing their mess. No wonder even David Horowitz had to tell the GOP to get a grip on itself.

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Online Lobbying Disclosure -- A Big Step Forward for Transparency

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 1:36 PM EDT

The Sunlight Foundation has long worked to bring transparancy to the lobbying process, and yesterday the good folks there made something of a breakthrough. They've developed an online lobbying disclosure form. That may not sound important, but here's why it matters.

Currently, lobbyists file disclosure forms four times a year. They are required only to disclose who their clients are, how much they got paid, what topics or bills they worked on for each client, and whether or not they visited the House, the Senate, or the executive branch. What that means is that if a defense contractor is using a lobbyist to make sure it gets a piece of the pie in an upcoming DOD budget, the public gets no info about the specific appropriation being targeted or the lawmakers who got the full-court press. We may only find out that the contractor was lobbying at all after the budget is passed.

The online disclosure form that Sunlight has developed -- you can see a mock-up here -- changes all of that. A lobbyist can pull up this form on her BlackBerry after each lobbying contact and easily fill out a very comprehensive range of fields: date and time of the meeting; name and client for the lobbyist; name, agency, and position of the federal employee(s) lobbied; topics discussed and specific actions promoted or urged.

If every lobbyist filled out a form like this after every meeting, a group like the Sunlight Foundation could build a constantly up-to-date database of lobbying contacts that would allow the public to sort by lobbyists, clients, federal agencies, bills, topics -- any and all relevant metric by which money in politics can be overseen and rooted out. John Wonderlich, writing on Sunlight's blog, adds, "This is just the beginning. What else can you imagine tracking? Would you set up an RSS feed of all lobbying related to your interests? Would you, as an agency head, track all lobbying directed at your agency?"

Now it's just a matter of getting folks in government to see the (sun)light.

Ending Privatized Medicare: A First Step

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 1:14 PM EDT

The Obama administation has taken an important first step toward reducing what are basically a set of handouts to private insurers, embedded in the Medicare system. These government subsidies to private industry enrich insurance companies at the expense of taxpayers and beneficiaries.

The particular handouts in question come in the form of subsidies to so-called Medicare Advantage plans. As the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday:

The federal government made good on its plan to cut 2010 payments for private Medicare plans, whittling the subsidies to health insurers sooner than the industry originally expected.

The cuts, announced late Monday by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, are slightly less severe than the 5% reduction the federal agency signaled in February, but still raise concerns about what has been a critical source of profit growth for many health insurers. Reimbursements to private insurers that administer so-called Medicare Advantage plans would fall by as much as 4% to 4.5% next year.

Even the WSJ acknowledges that “Republicans during the Bush administration pushed the plans’ extra benefits for seniors and subsidies to insurers to promote more private-sector involvement in Medicare.” 

Defense Spending Accounted For 37.3 Cents of Every Tax Dollar in 2008

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Even as Defense Secretary Robert Gates initiates an historic review of the Pentagon's budget, recommending that many of the department's big-ticket programs be scrapped after years of mismanagement and bloat, a new report from the National Priorities Project is a useful reminder of just how bad things have gotten. The report breaks down how Washington spent a median-income family's 2008 tax dollars. The results speak for themselves: 

As taxes come due on April 15, taxpayers can take stock of how the federal government spent each 2008 income tax dollar: 37.3 cents went towards military-related spending, while environment, energy and science-related projects split 2.8 cents...

37.3 cents for military-related spending breaks down as follows: 29.4 cents for current military and war spending coupled with 7.9 cents for military-related debt. At 3.8 cents of each dollar, veterans' benefits receive similar proportions of a federal tax dollar as housing and community programs and food-related programs.

Nancy Nord: Still An Imbecile?

| Wed Apr. 8, 2009 12:02 PM EDT

In 2007, congressional Democrats called for the chair of the Consumer Products Safety Commission, Nancy Nord, to resign after she failed to respond quickly to news of lead-tainted toys imported from China. Not only did she refuse to step down before her term expires in 2012, but she actively opposed Congress' move to double her agency's budget. In early 2008,  an exasperated Lou Dobbs, examining her record, asked, "is she as imbecilic as she appears to be as absolutely insensitive to American consumers, as absolutely lacking the judgment to run a federal agency designed and created to protect the American consumer?"

Nord managed to survive not just Dobbs' tirade but a change in administrations. But today, Florida Sen. Bill Nelson revived the "Nord must go" movement, writing to the Obama administration to demand Nord's firing for "neglect of duty." His beef? The CSPS under Nord's leadership has failed to recall or ban the import of toxic Chinese drywall that's been installed in thousands of homes across the South, particularly those built after Hurricane Katrina. The drywall has been linked to sulfide gasses that corrode electrical wiring, air conditioning units and household appliances. “The agency is doing too little, too late to help residents of Florida and other states who are reporting serious health and safety problems associated with living in homes built with tainted drywall,” he writes.