Mojo - June 2009

Oh Please Let Haley Barbour Run For President

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

The Washington Post this morning ranked the most influential voices in the GOP right now. Of course, Dick Cheney is way up there. But buried in the rankings is more chatter about the influence of Mississippi governor and former tobacco lobbyist Haley Barbour, who may be mulling a presidential run in 2012. Barbour has been making all the right trips around the country; on June 24, he'll pop in for his second recent visit to New Hampshire. And, he's term-limited so Barbour will be in the job market come 2011.

The Post posits that Barbour will ultimately decide that trying to run against a reformer as a former uber-lobbyist probably is a lost cause, but I'm still rooting for him to run. What could be more fun that a bubba like Barbour facing off with Obama on the stump, where he could brag about his record of say, dumping thousands of poor pregnant women off Medicaid and other such feats? As campaign fodder goes, Barbour has at least as much color to offer as Mitt Romney, one of the presumed front-runners, though he might be hard pressed to compete with the dog-on-top-of-the-car vacation stories and all that Mormon stuff. Still, Barbour's entry into the race would liven things up in the press pool considerably.

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John Roberts Doesn't Believe Money Is Worth Anything

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 12:55 PM EDT

The Supreme Court just ruled, 5-4, that a West Virginia judge who was the beneficiary of over $3 million in campaign spending by an energy company executive probably should have recused himself from ruling on an almost-$30 million case involving that same energy company. In his dissent (PDF), Chief Justice John Roberts asserts that it is "far from clear that [the over $3 million in campaign] expenditures affected the outcome of this election." Really? I could see using the word "determined" in this context (the judge did win by 7 percentage points). But to argue that over $3 million spent on a state judicial election had zero effect on the outcome beggars belief.

New York Times Fail

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 12:05 PM EDT

Last week, Mother Jones alum and current Talking Points Memo news editor Justin Elliott nagged and embarrassed the New York Times into running an editors' note explaining how badly it messed up a front-page story on alleged "recidivism" of Guantanamo Bay detainees. But this weekend, the Times was at it again, totally blowing yet another torture-related front-pager. Once again, the Times has obtained exclusive information about a politically controversial issue, and once again, the Times has simply regurgitated right-wing spin on what it obtained. (Sound familiar?)

This time around, the Times has obtained three emails (PDF) sent by Jim Comey, a Deputy Attorney General in the Bush administration, in April and May 2005. Any fair reading of these emails suggests that Justice Department lawyers faced enormous amounts of pressure from the White House to rule that the torture techniques the administration was already using were legal. Read the emails and see for yourself.

The Times seems to think that the news in the emails was that some right-wing Bush administration officials who were once thought not to have approved torture may have actually approved torture. Shocking, I know. It's almost as if the story was leaked to the Times by someone who wanted to promote the Bush-Cheney line on torture: "we were assured it was all legal." But the White House, of course, had all all the power, and pushed for exactly the opinions it wanted.

Comey even predicted in his emails that the officials who were demanding the legal backing at the time would later claim they had just innocently followed freely-given legal advice. "I told him the people who were applying pressure now would not be there when the shit hit the fan. Rather they would simply say they had only asked for an opinion," Comey wrote in the April 28 email. That's exactly what happened. But the Times left that comment for the bottom of its story, and spun the lead and the headline so much as to make it seem like they were writing about a different set of emails entirely. I guess I shouldn't be surprised at this behavior from a newspaper that won't call torture torture, but it's still disappointing. Marcy Wheeler, Glenn Greenwald, and Andrew Sullivan have more.

Obama's New CEO Pay Restrictions

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 11:14 AM EDT

The Obama administration is planning to increase its oversight of CEO pay. A top Treasury Department official, Kenneth Feinberg, will be charged with monitoring executive compensation at companies that have been bailed out more than once. Feinberg will have to approve any changes in compensation at those firms. The administration is also drafting broader principles that will apply to all banks and be enforced—or not enforced—by federal regulators. The New York Times explains:

The set of broad pay principles being drafted by the Treasury Department would authorize regulators to tell a bank to alter its compensation arrangements if it is found to encourage too much risk-taking. It is not clear how the government will define too much risk.

According to the two government officials, the new principles will not include bonus restrictions, although they will encourage banks to set compensation in a way that avoids rewarding risk-taking through short-term bonus awards. They will apply to a broad swath of financial companies, even the United States operations of foreign banks, as well as private companies like hedge funds and private equity firms.

It's great that the administration finally seems to be taking the executive pay issue seriously. But back in 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama championed a weaker executive compensation reform that now seems to have gone by the wayside. It was called "say on pay," and would have allowed stockowners a non-binding vote to express their displeasure with a company's pay packages. As Mother Jones reported in March, a top Geithner aide, Mark Patterson, was one of the financial industry lobbyists fighting Obama's "say on pay" legislation. Patterson and his Wall Street bosses won that battle, and Obama's reform never became law. Now Patterson is Geithner's chief of staff. This time around, though, it seems like Patterson's former Wall Street bosses are the ones who aren't getting much of a say on pay.

Anti-Affirmative Action Hypocrisy

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 10:12 AM EDT

In an interview with The New Yorker, William Bowen—Princeton's president circa Sonia Sotomayor's freshman year there—articulates the argument for considering race in college admissions:

The way many Americans learn about civil rights—the way I learned about Rosa Parks in second grade—very much focuses on color blindness. The idea of racial justice often coexists uneasily with that basic narrative. In a recent Supreme Court decision striking down affirmative-action programs for some school districts, John Roberts reflected the opinion of many conservatives when he wrote, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” What’s your response to that?

[...]

One of the good outcomes of the O’Connor decision [in the Michigan v. Long affirmative action case]  was the rejection of quotas and just giving points because you were black or whatever. The University of Michigan was told that, at the undergraduate level, you can’t do that. That’s wrong. I agree! That is wrong because it fails to capture what the whole portfolio of the person looks like.

In short, your racial and ethnic background can shape who a student is and will become during and after college; paying no mind to it—or simply giving out a point for being Latino—ultimately patronizes that ethnic experience, whether white, black, Latino or Asian.

That idea gets lost, or overlooked, when people talk about color blindness—thinking of Rosa Parks as just another person. Color blindness, then, seems to overtake the affirmative action debate for many: Any mind paid to race is an anathema to racial justice. Scores of minority students at the nation's most selective colleges know exactly how that manifests itself—the complete shedding of racial blindness by some white students who see a minority student's race as their overriding factor for admission.

Just after I arrived for my freshman year at my alma mater, Northwestern, a Latina friend of mine overheard her white roommate on the phone lamenting to a friend that her roommate and her friends—about five of us—only "got in because they're Latino." The girl I had been dating the summer before school put it just as bluntly when I told her the school had given me a good chunk of financial aid: "That's because you're Mexican."

I remember making a point not to mention my racial background on my application, but the comments were belittling and condescending nonetheless. What makes them even more hurtful is that they are delivered wrapped in a thin film of ignorance about what affirmative action means: Considering a person's racial makeup to better understand who she is and could become, and how her experiences could contribute to a more dynamic student body. That group will always, and must, include white students.

But the argument against it, made most recently by talkers like Pat Buchanan in the debate over Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to the Supreme Court, pushes aside that definition of affirmative action. I did not indicate my own race on my college applications because I was all too aware of the idea that affirmative action means I would receive a point for my race. That's how so many Americans see it. It then becomes so easy to exploit when a president nominates someone with Sonia Sotomayor's racial background to the Supreme Court: She must have gotten to where she is because of her race.

Such words only show intellectual laze, because they are such an easy weapon to wield in a debate where. They create a convenient weapon, too, because it allows people to almost completely dismiss a person strictly on the basis her race and without paying mind to her body of work. That is the inherent hypocrisy in such arguments: After calling for color-blindness and focus on merits, those dismissing minorities like Sotomayor as "affirmative action" nominees eschew the former and overlook the latter.

Shocking News: Subprime Lenders Took Advantage of Poor People and Minorities

| Mon Jun. 8, 2009 9:25 AM EDT

Remember when conservatives tried to blame the subprime mortgage crisis on poor people and minorities? According to the conservatives' narrative, a 1977 law called the Community Reinvestment Act caused all of our problems by encouraging the extension of credit to poor people and minorities. The problem with that argument was that the vast majority of subprime loans were made by institutions that were not subject to the CRA, and studies have shown that the act has actually increased the amount of responsible lending to poor families. Even the Federal Reserve has posted research explaining that the CRA argument is bogus.

So why, then, do we keep hearing about poor people and minorities defaulting on subprime loans? Because, as it turns out, subprime lenders didn't need any encouragement to make predatory loans to people they thought they could easily exploit. The New York Times reports:

As she describes it, Beth Jacobson and her fellow loan officers at Wells Fargo Bank “rode the stagecoach from hell” for a decade, systematically singling out blacks in Baltimore and suburban Maryland for high-interest subprime mortgages... Wells Fargo, Ms. Jacobson said in an interview, saw the black community as fertile ground for subprime mortgages, as working-class blacks were hungry to be a part of the nation’s home-owning mania. Loan officers, she said, pushed customers who could have qualified for prime loans into subprime mortgages. Another loan officer stated in an affidavit filed last week that employees had referred to blacks as "mud people" and to subprime lending as "ghetto loans."

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D-Day, the Queen, and a Wartime Childhood

| Sat Jun. 6, 2009 3:27 PM EDT

By now we’ve all heard about how Queen Elizabeth was snubbed by Nicholas Sarkozy, who was apparently so dazzled by the prospect of Barack Obama’s visit that he neglected to invite the queen to any of the events commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day. (In a last-minute face-saver, Prince Charles agreed to attend instead.) Some people are blaming Gordon Brown, who was too busy trying to save his political skin to make sure the queen got her due. But the British press, which is having a field day over this royal faux pas, has directed most of its rage at Sarko, and at the ungrateful French in general.

The Daily Mail declared the snub “an insult to the memory of the 17,556 British and 5,316 Canadian troops who died to free France and are buried there.” Commentators in the same paper took things a step further, declaring Sarzkozy a “diminutive egomaniac,” and denouncing the French as cheese-eating surrender monkeys whose “widespread collaboration with  the Nazi occupiers” made it all the more difficult for the British to “save” them from tyranny.  

I don't go in for France-bashing, and under normal circumstances, I couldn’t care less about anyone in the British royal family, or any of the pomp and protocol that surround them. I think it’s great that Michelle Obama dared to touch the queen--she could have given her a fist bump for all I care. In fact, I wonder why the Brits don’t just do away with the monarchy altogether, and save themselves a lot of money. (Although they’d still have to deal with MPs cleaning their moats at the public’s expense.) But when it comes to anything having to do with the Second World War, I’ve got a soft spot for the British in general, and in particular for HRH--who lives in my earliest memories as Princess Elizabeth. 

The Alleged Cuban Spies' Sweet-Looking Boat

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 5:27 PM EDT

The Justice Department just announced a major espionage bust, indicting a former State Department intelligence official and his wife on charges of spying for the Cuban government for nearly 30 years. After launching a sting on the couple in April, the feds swooped in yesterday afternoon and arrested 72-year-old Walter Kendall Myers (a.k.a. "Agent 202") and his 71-year-old wife, Gwendolyn ( a.k.a. "Agent 123" and "Agent E-634").

Beginning his career with State in 1977 at the department's Foreign Service Institute, Kendall, whose top secret clearance allowed him to view sensitive compartmentalized information (SCI), eventually worked his way to become a senior analyst, focusing on Europe, in the agency's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Sotomayor and the Media's Class Bias

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:24 PM EDT

"Sotomayor's finances look a lot like the average person's"—that's the headline on a McClatchy story about President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, a woman who owns (as the story notes) a $1 million Greenwich Village condo and is entitled to (as the story doesn't note) $2.5 million in guaranteed pension benefits. While Sonia Sotomayor has some credit card debt, and she's poorer than most of her potential colleagues on the court, she's far richer than the average American.

The national media frequently refers to people like Sotomayor—people whose wealth means they lead vastly different lives than the actual average American—as "average" or "middle-class." Often you get absurdities like the McClatchy story or Charlie Gibson suggesting that college professors making $200,000 in St. Anselm, New Hampshire are "middle-class." (The median household income in the US is under $50,000.) This happens because of class bias, which may play a bigger role than partisanship in determining what the media covers.

Watchdog Group: Liberals Right to Block Photo Suppression Bill

| Fri Jun. 5, 2009 2:03 PM EDT

I just spoke to Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a nonprofit government watchdog. She says she's glad Barney Frank and other* liberal Democrats in the House are standing up to President Obama by opposing Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham's bill that would exempt photos of detainee abuse from Freedom of Information Act requirements:

You can't make piecemeal exemptions to the FOIA. It's a slippery slope. You start with this and pretty soon there's a new law every time someone doesn't want to release something. In an era when we say we value government transparency and openness, there's no place for this bill.

Let's hope the House leadership can't get Frank and the others to cave.

*Update/Correction: Frank switched his vote, but the Lieberman-Graham bill will not pass with the war supplemental.