Need To Read: October 7, 2009

Today's must-reads:

Get more stuff like this: Follow me on twitter! David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets, as does MoJo blogger Kate Sheppard. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

Instead of fighting the Taliban, why not encourage them to run for office? Tell them to form their own political party, and they could officially govern many of the local Pashtun areas already under their control. Think of it: "Vote Taliban in 2010."

That’s one of the proposed solutions offered in a Financial Times op-ed on Tuesday with some fresh ideas on how the West can best exit Afghanistan. In a bloody conflict where tangible solutions are as rare as authentic election ballots, the op-ed’s authors—Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador in Washington, and Anatol Lieven, a professor at King's College London—offer Western leaders some food for thought in avoiding a disastrous exit, and a framework for withdrawal that hasn't figured much into US debates on the issue.

Third Intifada?

The Mideast news world is abuzz with talk of a possible third intifada, with Al-Jazeera, Ha'aretz and the Guardian all quoting senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Ereka's accusation that "Israel is lighting matches" in Jerusalem.

After intermittent rioting, stone throwing and rubber bullets, Jordan has asked Israel to close the area around Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslims, which has been closed in the past when tensions were high. Though conditions aren't as bad as they could be, experts warn that stalled peace talks and lingering ire over January's Gaza War (complete with damning UN report) could be incubating another uprising. The timing could be better: the second, or Al-Aqsa Intifada (named for the mosque at the center of the current controversy) began nearly nine years ago to the day, and observant Jews are flocking to the nearby Western Wall for the festival of Sukkot.

Al Jazeera:

"There were Palestinian worshippers who turned up for morning prayers. They were told by the police force that anyone under the age of 50 would not be allowed through," Al Jazeera's Sherine Tadros, reporting from Jerusalem, said.
"There are [at present] about 7,000 Jewish worshippers attending a prayer, a blessing at the Wailing [Western] Wall, which is just at the foot of the Haram al-Sharif.
"This is one of the three times during the year in which Jewish worshippers are told to go to Jerusalem and pray."

The New York Times ran an interesting piece Sunday on how private equity funds buy up undervalued firms, bleed off their assets, and then pass them on to other such funds in a vicious cycle. Using Simmons mattress company as a case study, reporter Julie Creswell describes how the process works, noting how Thomas H. Lee Partners of Boston profited off of Simmons' misfortunes:

The investment firm, which bought Simmons in 2003, has pocketed around $77 million in profit, even as the company’s fortunes have declined. THL collected hundreds of millions of dollars from the company in the form of special dividends. It also paid itself millions more in fees, first for buying the company, then for helping run it. Last year, the firm even gave itself a small raise.

Wall Street investment banks also cashed in. They collected millions for helping to arrange the takeovers and for selling the bonds that made those deals possible. All told, the various private equity owners have made around $750 million in profits from Simmons over the years.

How so many people could make so much money on a company that has been driven into bankruptcy is a tale of these financial times and an example of a growing phenomenon in corporate America.

But private equity has created problems not just for weak corporations, but low-income America, too. In our July/August issue, Adam Matthews reports on the phenomenon known as "predatory equity," in which private equity funds buy up affordable-housing developments, take out huge interest-only loans against them—sometimes withdrawing tens of millions in cash, which is protected from future creditors by using shell entities—and then flip the projects or peform upgrades to the units (stainless steel appliances?) as part of a strategy to drive up rents. Now that the real-estate market has tanked, however, many of these housing developments teeter on the brink of foreclosure, and that's a bad scene for the people living there. Matthews reports:

Unlike flipping a house, leveraging affordable housing affects the lives of thousands. Deals by [real-estate tycoon Larry] Gluck and other big players have stripped the equity from many of New York's developments; roughly 70,000 affordable units are overleveraged, says Dina Levy, a tenant organizer with the city's Urban Homesteading Assistance Board. (Levy even knows of one development where residents, many of them city employees, are being driven out by real estate companies financed by their own pension funds.) Saddled with oversize mortgages, cash-strapped buildings scrimp on basic maintenance. In December, New York Sen. Charles Schumer urged the SEC to investigate, calling the situation "subprime crisis 2.0."


A wave of botched executions in Ohio has led Gov. Ted Strickland to postpone two executions until the state's department of corrections revises its lethal injection protocol. Ostensibly, the new protocol is intended to make capital punishment more humane. But some death penalty critics worry that the new rules could increase the use of medical expertise intended to save lives, not end them. 

The debate flared up last month when Romell Broom, a convicted rapist and murderer, was punctured 18 times over two hours as guards struggled to find a suitable vein for the injection. At times, Broom even tried to assist them by massaging his arms and legs to keep veins open for the poison. Finally, a judge intervened and the execution was halted. Critics argue that Broom's ordeal amounted to cruel and unusual punishment at the hands of prison guards who were not qualified to administer the lethal dose.

Earlier this year, Mother Jones reported that physicians at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq were repeatedly asked to oversee torture in clear violation of their Hippocratic oath to "do no harm." Though doctors aren't currently involved in Ohio's or any other states' executions, this medical quandary hits a similar note as state officials attempt to find a better way to inflict the ultimate punishment, says Ohio State University professor of surgery Jonathan I. Groner.

When trying to prove that a country can switch entirely to green energy, it's best to start small. Denmark decided to start really small with Samsø, an island that lies 9 miles off the Jutland Peninsula. Just 4,100 people live on the island, which over the the course of 10 years has converted almost entirely to fossil-fuel free energy.

The project started in 1997, with the goal of becoming entirely self-sufficient and carbon-neutral. Today, wind provides 100 percent of the island's electricity, generated from 11 turbines on land. Each turbine can generate enough power for 600 homes. Another 10 turbines just offshore send power to the mainland.

They've also made significant headway on other energy needs, with 65 percent of home heat now generated by four biomass burning facilities—three straw-burning plants and one solar power/woodchip combination facility, owned cooperatively by the local communities. Another ten percent of homes on the island have switched away from oil-based heating to wood pellet, geothermal, or solar heating. There are also pilot projects on biofuels and grasses for home heating. Some homes are still heated with oil, and their automobiles, tractors, and ferries to the island are all of course powered by petroleum products, but the amount of energy exported to the mainland from the offshore turbines is greater than the amount they need to import at this point.

Our friends at the wonderful (and newly redesigned) Boing Boing are raising a collective middle finger to Ralph Lauren after the clothier took issue with their display of an ad that a staffer had singled out for criticism.

On September 29, Xeni Jardin re-posted the disputed ad, which she'd seen at a site called Photoshop Disasters, along with her own reaction: "Dude, her head's bigger than her pelvis." The implication, perhaps, was that the company's marketing people had tweaked the image to give the model, in the words of Jardin's colleague Cory Doctorow, "an impossibly skinny body."

Calling out such an ad for criticism or comment, Doctorow concludes in his followup post, is "classic fair use." But in their cease-and-desist letter, lawyers for Ralph Lauren claimed it was an "infringing image." The lawyers brought their complaint to Boing Boing's Internet service provider, which, rather than caving to Smartly Dressed Big Brother, passed it along so that BB staffers could discuss it. And they did. And the lawyers' complaint didn't pass their "giggle test."

"So, instead of responding to their legal threat by suppressing our criticism of their marketing images, we're gonna mock them," Doctorow promises. He then issues a scolding counter-threat: That any time the fashion house attempts such a weak legal maneuver, Boing Boing will again reproduce the original criticism, publish and mock the threat to ensure it is spread far and wide, and, my favorite: "Offer nourishing soup and sandwiches to your models."

Follow Michael Mechanic on Twitter.

Here's a nominee for one of the 111th Congress' most dubious earmarks: $3 million to subsidize a mining concern owned primarily by Goldman Sachs, recipient of a $10 billion bailout (since repaid), and two hedge funds. Politico reports that the measure was slipped into the House defense appropriations bill by Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the top Republican on the House appropriations committee who's regularly featured on Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics' annual list of the most corrupt members of Congress. How'd he earn a spot on the list? For allegedly trading earmarks for campaign contributions—a matter for which he's presently under federal investigation.

Lewis and his supporters say this particular earmark is a matter of national security. The mining project in question, run by a company called Molycorp Minerals, is harvesting rare elements that are an ingredient in the magnets used in precision-guided missiles and smart bombs. (Among Lewis' top contributors are defense and aerospace firms that produce such munitions.) China, as Politico notes, is the world's primary producer of these hard-to-come-by minerals, but the country has threatened to stop exports, prompting a search for other sources.

Back home in Washington, DC, I like to consider myself somewhat of a rebel, a risk-taker perhaps, because I commute by bike. DC doesn't have the greatest bike lanes (and in many parts of town, no bike lanes at all), and we have more than our fair share of aggressive drivers. Biking to work in the city does tend to offer some insight into one's personality—or at least their political and environmental inclinations. As Matthew Yglesias, who is also on this trip this week, points out, bikers back home identify with a bike culture and feel a common bond to others who bike to work. We're rogues in the District, totaling just 2.3 percent of commuters.

But here in Copenhagen, it seems these bike identity politics are somewhat provincial. And, after spending the afternoon with Lise Bjørg Pedersen, the political director of the Danish Cyclists Federation, I no longer feel quite as hardcore for biking. Seven years ago, Pederson traveled by bike to the hospital to give birth to her son. She wasn't peddling—that task fell to her boyfriend, she said – but she was riding in a giant bike cart padded with pillows. It was only three kilometers to the hospital, she said—not worth calling a cab.

This letter to the editor in Saturday's Washington Post was pretty amusing:

George F. Will used his Oct. 1 column to deride government officials and scientists warning of the consequences of global warming, and he suggested that these climate-change "Cassandras" slow down and not cater to "alarmists" 

Mr. Will has perhaps forgotten his classics. Cassandra, prophetess of Troy, was always right when she sounded the alarm but was never believed by those with power to avert disaster.


Senior Attorney

Environmental Law Institute


The man with the oddly appropriate name is right. (Via)