Mojo - May 2009

Best Student Activism of 2008-2009?

| Thu May 7, 2009 3:50 PM EDT

Today's student activism news: High schoolers at Ursuline and Cardinal Newman, two Catholic high schools in California, think it's freakin' unfair that administrators canceled their prom due to the fact that students were freaking on the dance floor. To express their outrage, they're showing up at school in promwear this week.

Surely you've heard of other creative feats of student activism this past school year. MoJo, Campus Progress, and WireTap want to hear about them in time for the Hellraisers, our first annual student activism awards.

Here's how it works: You tell us about your favorite activism antics. Selected nominees will be featured in the September/October 2009 issue of Mother Jones.

Anyone can nominate any current student activists (and we're not just talking college here! High schoolers, grad students, kindergartners—all okay).

Nominating is quick and easy. Do it here.

 

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Now Bybee Wants to Explain His OLC Advice

| Thu May 7, 2009 2:19 PM EDT

Now Jay Bybee wants to explain his legal advice to members of Congress. Roll back the clock to February 2003, and Bybee's stock answer to members of the Senate judiciary committee considering his nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals: "As the head of the Department's Office of Legal Counsel, I am obligated to keep confidential the legal advice that my Office provides to others in the executive branch. I cannot comment on whether or not I have provided any advice on this matter, and, if so, the substance of that advice." Asked about the opinions his office rendered on everything from the establishment of a Violence Against Women office in the Justice Department to the Pentagon's use of data mining to the administration's enemy combatant policies, Bybee refused, on more than 20 occasions, to provide any information.

Recently, Bybee has gotten a lot more talkative. And it's no wonder why. There's a mounting drumbeat to impeach him from the federal bench for his role in drafting memos that provided a legal rationale for harsh interrogation techniques that many believe amount to torture. Meanwhile, the Justice Department is finishing up an internal probe that may recommend disbarment proceedings—though likely not criminal prosecutions—against Bybee and ex-OLC official John Yoo. According to the Las Vegas Sun, Bybee has recently reached out to members of Nevada's congressional delegation in order to "tell his side of the story."

The step suggests that Bybee believes maintaining the judicial branch’s customary distance from the political process is no longer in his best interest.

Breaking: Super-Rich Hedge Fund Manager a Politically Obtuse Whiner

| Thu May 7, 2009 12:46 PM EDT

A long, sternly worded letter about President Barack Obama by billionaire hedge fund manager Clifford Asness made its way around the blogosphere on Thursday. The letter, which first appeared on Zero Hedge, accuses Obama of favoring the United Auto Workers union and its members in the deal to bail out Chrysler. The Obama administration has criticized some of Asness' fellow fund managers for refusing to accept its bid for the Chrysler bonds their funds hold. Most Chrysler bond holders, including several TARP recipients, had agreed to take big losses, but nine hedge funds held out for a better deal, forcing the company into bankruptcy. So Obama criticized them as "speculators" who were "refusing to sacrifice like everyone else" and who wanted "to hold out for the prospect of an unjustified taxpayer-funded bailout." Asness thinks that's a horribly unfair thing for the President to say:

The President and his team sought to avoid having Chrysler go through [the bankruptcy] process, proposing their own plan for re-organizing the company and partially paying off Chrysler’s creditors. Some bond holders thought this plan unfair. Specifically, they thought it unfairly favored the United Auto Workers, and unfairly paid bondholders less than they would get in bankruptcy court. So, they said no to the plan and decided, as is their right, to take their chances in the bankruptcy process. But, as his quotes above show, the President thought they were being unpatriotic or worse.

AIPAC on the Run?

| Thu May 7, 2009 10:02 AM EDT
Change in Washington? How about AIPAC, the pro-Israel super-lobby, losing its stranglehold on Congress and the White House? The Forward reports:
"You're not going to like my saying this," Vice President Joe Biden told 6,000 delegates from the podium of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's annual policy conference - a spot that politicians usually vie over vigorously for the privilege of telling the crowd what they want to hear.
But Biden, after sending up his rhetorical warning, used his May 5 keynote speech to the pro-Israel lobby to convey the Obama administration's insistence on a number of policies directly conflicting with those of the new government in Israel - and some policies held by previous Israeli governments, too.
Other speakers, such as Democratic Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, underlined Biden's points on the need for Israel to stop expanding settlements in the West Bank and accept the necessity of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And when they went to lobby on Capitol Hill, AIPAC delegates even found some stalwart supporters in Congress holding back on one of their key legislative initiatives - a full-court press to impose new sanctions on Iran to accompany the Obama administration's drive to engage Tehran diplomatically.
What's next? Obama pushing Israel to acknowledge it has nuclear weapons and to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty? Maybe not. But the dynamic between Washington and AIPAC is shifting, and Bibi Netanyanhu ought to take note.

The Real Cost of Credit Cards: Small Business, Consumers, and Taxpayers All Pay the Price

| Thu May 7, 2009 1:06 AM EDT

In a move the AP described as “riding a crest of populist anger,” the House last week passed a credit card reform bill that goes after some of the industry's most predatory practices. But even if it makes its way into law, the new legislation will still leave the people plenty to be angry about. Credit card issuers have been furiously jacking up interest rates (even as the Fed cuts them), lowering credit limits, and generally scrambling to take another pound of flesh from an already battered American public.

Credit cards have yet another perverse effect on the overall economy, as well: They force up consumer prices. “Little attention has been given to the $48 billion in fees that credit card companies extracted from merchants last year,’’ writes Stacy Mitchell of the New Rules Project. “Largely invisible to the public, these fees, which amount to $427 per household, are ultimately passed on as higher prices to all consumers, whether they use plastic or not.’’ Most of these transaction fees are collected by Visa, MasterCard, and American Express, which together control 93 percent of credit card transactions in the United States.

While Visa and MasterCard set the rates--now averaging about 2 percent--it's the big banks issuing the credit cards that collect the fees. "Issuing credit cards has become a highly concentrated industry," Mitchell notes. "The top four card issuers— Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, and Capital One— account for more than 70% of all cards in circulation.” Following the release of the "stress test" results, at least two of these four banks are expected to line up for a new round of bailouts from the federal government. Yet they will continue simultaneously dipping into the narrow margins of America’s business owners.

Mahmood Karzai Defends Brother's "Warlord" VP Pick

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:29 PM EDT

A few days before departing Afghanistan for his meeting Wednesday in Washington with President Obama, Hamid Karzai announced the second of his two vice presidential picks: Mohammad Qasim Fahim, former leader of the militant group Jamiat-e-Islami. Fahim is a deeply controversial figure accused of numerous human rights violations during his time as a militia commander during the Afghan civil war. Human Rights Watch says that, by picking him, Karzai is "insulting the country." In 2005, the group put out a report called "Blood-Stained Hands," (.pdf) which found "credible and consistent evidence" that Jamiat-e-Islami had been involved in "widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."

Fahim previously served as Afghanistan's vice president in the years immediately following the 2001 US invasion, but was ousted by Karzai in 2004 in favor of Ahmad Zia Massood, brother of the slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massood, assassinated by Al Qaeda just days before 9/11. Why the Afghan president has decided to resuscitate Fahim's political career was among the questions I posed Wednesday to Karzai's brother Mahmood, who spoke with me by phone from Afghanistan. He defended his brother's VP choice, describing Fahim as a true Afghan patriot. Some edited excerpts from our conversation:

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The Bailout Makes A Profit*

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:37 PM EDT

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the $700 billion bank bailout has finally made a profit. The bad news is that it's for this week.

Paul Keil at ProPublica reports that $125.2 million came in and only $45.5 million went out through the bailout program over the last week, for a "profit" of $79.7 million. More from Keil:

The First Gay Supreme Court Justice?

| Wed May 6, 2009 1:32 PM EDT

President Obama may be considering nominating the first openly gay Supreme Court justice, Marc Ambinder reports. "Two of the the most qualified center-left jurists in the country are gay," he writes, "and they've got friends in high places."

The nomination of a gay person to the Supreme Court would, needless to say, represent a watershed moment in American history. But it would be even more significant if Obama didn't reference the person's sexuality as a factor. By nominating a highly-qualified jurist who just happens to be gay, Obama would be forcing conservatives to confront how they really feel about gays in society. Most conservatives who oppose gay rights insist that they are not homophobic. Instead, they are fighting against "special privileges" for gay people and defending "traditional marriage" from attack. The Supreme Court vacancy presents an interesting opportunity for Obama to call their bluff.

Center for Constitutional Rights President: Coverup of Anti-Torture Memo Is Bad News for Bushies

| Wed May 6, 2009 12:26 PM EDT

I just got off the phone with Columbia Law School professor Michael Ratner, who is also the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights nonprofit. Ratner read our story this morning about Philip Zelikow's allegations that Dick Cheney's office may have "collected and destroyed" an anti-torture memo Zelikow wrote in 2005. Any such coverup could present a significant problem for the defense in any potential torture trial targeting Bush administration officials, Ratner says:

Solitary Con-swine-ment

| Wed May 6, 2009 10:44 AM EDT

Sad news for Afghanistan's lone pig:

Afghanistan's only known pig has been locked in a room, away from visitors to Kabul zoo where it normally grazes beside deer and goats, because people are worried it could infect them with the virus popularly known as swine flu.

The pig is a curiosity in Muslim Afghanistan, where pork and pig products are illegal because they are considered irreligious, and has been in quarantine since Sunday after visitors expressed alarm it could spread the new flu strain.

Considering this guy is the only pig in all of Afghanistan, I'd say he has a pretty good chance of steering clear of the bug that's infected more than 1,000 people worldwide.