US Army Spc. Jerimiah Butts mans an M-240B machine gun from a rooftop during Operation Helmand Spider in Badula Qulp, Helmand province, Afghanistan, Feb. 9, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Efren Lopez.

Need to Read: February 18, 2010

  The must-read news from around the web and in today's papers:


The Treasury Department released the latest figures today for its $75 billion flagship homeowner relief program, and the figures are—you guessed it—still abysmal. Through January the Home Affordable Modification Program has resulted in around 116,000 permanent modifications, 76,000 offers of permanent modifications, and more than 1 million homeowners beginning trial modifications.

Now, an interpretation. First off, the statistic that really matters here is that first number—116,000—the number of permanent mods. It's not much at all. By comparison, 2.8 million households got foreclosure notices in 2009, shattering the previous record and foretelling more pain in the housing sector in 2010. Now while HAMP wasn't created to address all kinds of foreclosures (which is arguably one of its flaws), a program with $75 billion in taxpayer funds behind it should do far more than help a meager 116,000 homeowners almost a year later.

Then there's that "trial modifications" figure. Trial modifications are only a few months in duration, are hardly a guarantee for a permanent modification, and do very little, if anything at all, to lessen the burden on beleagured homeowners. One homeowner, for instance, told me that after wrangling with her servicer, Saxon Mortgage Services, for months to get into HAMP, she finally got a modification; to her dismay, though, her new payments were a measly $40 less than her original, unaffordable mortgage. The reason why? Saxon claimed this homeowner had a sister who was giving her more than $1,000 a month and that skewed her income calculations. The rub: This homeowner was an only child.

It's these kinds of errors and general confusion that continue to plague HAMP, as these latest numbers show. As for the Treasury's take on HAMP's progress—"With nearly one million homeowners paying less each month and the number of permanent modifications steadily rising, HAMP is doing the job it was designed to do," says Phyllis Caldwell, head of the Treasury's Homeownership Preservation Office—that's just complete and utter spin. One million homeowners are not paying less each month—maybe for a short period, but even that's questionable—and HAMP is not doing its job by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it.

We have finally discovered the political issue that unites the vast majority of the American people: It turns out that basically everyone hates the Supreme Court's decision last month to allow corporations to pour unlimited amounts of money into electoral ads.

A new Washington Post and ABC News poll finds that 80 percent of the public opposed the decision, with "relatively little difference of opinion" between Democrats (85 percent opposed), Republicans (76 percent) and independents (81 percent). Via the League of Conservation Voters, here's the results in graph form:

On Sunday, while defending the Obama administration's move to try the 9/11 co-conspirators, Vice President Joe Biden said this:

There have been three people tried and convicted by the last administration in military courts. Two are walking the street right now.

That can't be right! There's no way the tough-on-terror Republicans want to try terrorists in a system with such a poor record for keeping them locked up! Except, of course, it is right. PolitiFact explains:

After consulting news reports and military documents, we discovered that Biden was correct. We also checked with experts who both support and oppose military commissions for various reasons, and no one disputed Biden's numbers.

The three men who were convicted are David Hicks, an Australian; Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver; and Ali Hamza al Bahlul, a propogandist for bin Laden. Hamdan is free in Yemen; Hicks is in Australia.

When he was contacted by PolitiFact to rebut Biden's point, the best the National Review's Andrew McCarthy could come up with was that the commissions' "progress" has been "hampered" because they've been "constantly challenged by liberal attorneys," according to PolitiFact's paraphrase. "It is more than a little rich for the very people who moved heaven and earth to prevent the commissions from being completed now complain that we didn't complete very many commissions," McCarthy told the fact-checkers. But if the military commissions were less flawed, feared "liberal attorneys" would not be challenging them—let alone winning. McCarthy is blaming his political opponents for the fact that the military commissions he advocates for are riddled with problems. Those liberal lawyers were just too good! That's more than a little rich.

Andrew Sullivan approvingly quotes The Washington Times' Bruce Reidl on "What's Really Causing the Long-Term Debt":

So as deficits expand by 5.9 percent of the economy, nearly 90 percent of the growth will come from higher-than-average spending, and just over 10 percent from lower-than-average revenues. Virtually all of this new spending will come from surging Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid costs (driven primarily by 77 million retiring baby boomers), as well as net interest on the national debt.

Reidl is just wrong. Social Security is not the major reason for long-term deficits. Neither is the baby boom. Reidl's right that higher Medicare and Medicaid spending will overwhelm the budget. But that's not because of the larger baby boom generation. It's because of America's staggeringly high and fast-rising medical costs. There are many other developed countries with higher life expectancies than the US that manage to keep health care costs much lower. If our health care costs were comparable to those countries, our huge projected long-term deficits would be much smaller—or even disappear. You can see this clearly in the Center for Economic and Policy Research's health care budget deficit calculator. CEPR lays out the stakes:

The CEPR Health Care Budget Deficit Calculator shows that if the U.S. can get health care costs under control, our budget deficits will not rise uncontrollably in the future. But if we fail to contain health care costs, then it will be almost impossible to prevent exploding future budget deficits.

Of course, the US Congress seems unable to pass even the modest health care cost-cutting measures contained in the Senate's health care reform bill. So the long-term outlook isn't great.

GOPers Top Pork List

Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that regularly decries government spending, has released a database of the $15.9 billion in earmarks—those special projects slipped into the budget by legislators without votes—for fiscal year 2010. And the group has tagged the top porkers in the Senate and the House: Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young of Florida. Both are Republicans, and each is the senior GOPer on the defense appropriations subcommittee of his chamber. Cochran cooked up $500 million in bacon, with 242 earmarks; Young, $90.45 million, with 41 earmarks. They really show that the GOP is the party of spending discipline. Will Sen. John McCain send out a tweet denouncing them?

By now pretty much everyone has read Russell Shorto's New York Times Magazine cover story on the Texas state board of education. The whole controversy is kind of fascinating, but one aspect of the Texas textbook wars that can't be overstated is the skill with which conservative activists, in Texas and elsewhere, have exploited the democratic processmost notably by packing school boardsto advance their cultural agenda. Shorto digs up a pretty telling quote from Ralph Reed, formerly of the Christian Coalition: "I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school-board members."

That's probably right. After all, if you have a thousand school-board members, there's a pretty good chance that no one will even notice; it's a stealth revolution. With that in mind, I think Sara Mead nails it at Eduwonk:

Although it varies by state, Americans tend to elect a whole bunch of public officials, including a lot of officials in relatively obscure roles....that aren’t well understood by the public. Most voters, who have limited time and energy to devote to these issues, can’t possibly follow the performance and positions of all these officials. Having more of them be appointed by mayors, governors, and other public officials who are better known to voters may actually increase accountability.

Despite yet more indications the economy is turning up—a slight drop in unemployment, increases in housing starts and manufacturing productivity—the view from Mortgageland remains bleak as ever. The percentage of mortgage delinquencies, or people 60 days or more late on their payments, increased in the 2009 fourth quarter for the 12th straight quarter. In 4Q 2009, almost 7 percent of borrowers were delinquent on their mortgages, an all-time national record. This delinquency statistic, seen as a precursor to foreclosure, was up from 6.25 percent the previous quarter and, more troublingly, up from 4.6 percent a year ago—a 50 percent jump from last year to now.

A few more interesting statistics from TransUnion, who released the data. The average national mortgage debt continued to increase, now at $193,690 up a hair from $193,121 in 3Q 2009 and from a year before $192,789. The place with the highest average mortgage debt: My very own District of Columbia, at a whopping $372,869 per person. This data, especially the ever-rising delinquency totals, further confirm (as if you needed more confirmation) that efforts at recovery in the housing industry—say, the Obama administration's $75 billion bust, the Home Affordable Modification Program—just aren't doing the job, as millions of people across the country are without jobs and stuck with homes for which they owe far more than their house is worth. The foreclosure crisis is an intractable problem, an ongoing headache, and right now there's little light at the end of the tunnel.

Ahmed Chalabi, the conniving Shiite Iraqi politician who likely fed US officials bad intelligence before the Iraq war, is up to his old tricks yet again. Chalabi's latest controversy, the New York Times reported today, is one of two politicians blocking candidates in Iraq's upcoming parliamentary election with ties to Iran. The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, told the Times that Chalabi and Ali Faisal al-Lami, one of Chalabi's aides, are "clearly influenced by Iran" and that the US has "direct intelligence that tells us that." Odierno said Chalabi and al-Lami have had several meetings in Iran, including one with an Iranian on the US' terrorist watch list. The parliamentary blocking manuevers are an ongoing controversy in Iraq—the blockers say they're trying to purge candidates with former ties to Saddam Hussein, while blacklisted Sunnis say the block is sectarian-fueled and the result of outside pressure from countries like Iran. What's for certain is debacle's potential to undermine Iraq's elections next month.

For Chalabi, these allegations are merely latest twist in the long, strange journey of a brazen, amibitious, crooked man. From influential lobbyist and darling of Congress to arbiter of false intelligence and opportunist in the wake of Saddam's fall, no narrative of the Iraq war is complete without Chalabi, his manipulation of US leaders, and his illusions of grandeur as the new leader of a liberated Iraq—a vision, of course, that never came true. Now, in the latest act of a bad drama that won't end, Chalabi is allegedly doing the bidding of an increasingly dictatorial and militaristic country to undermine Iraq's early slivers of democracy and one of Obama's few foreign policy successes. He is, in short, the headache that just won't go away for American foreign-policy leaders.