Mojo - March 2010

Obama Sells Out College's Working Class

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 7:15 AM PDT

President Obama took a huge step yesterday toward expanding access to higher education. By cutting out private student loan lenders, he's saving a projected $61 billion, which will go toward beefing up the Pell Grant program; annual loan payments are now capped at 10 percent of income, so students aren't deterred from enrolling by the specter of crippling debt; and a host of other funding programs will now support minority-oriented institutions and other colleges. Yet conspicuously absent from HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act, was much-touted effort called the American Graduation Initiative (AGI).

The AGI was the most ambitious presidential plan since Truman to bolster community colleges, the nearly 1,200 schools that cater to students who can't afford a traditional university, want to work and go to school at the same time, want to use community colleges as a stepping stone to a four-year school, or want job re-training when looking to change careers. (Full disclosure: My dad's an English professor at a community college.) These colleges enroll anywhere from 35 to 50 percent of undergraduates nationwide. They enroll more low-income and minority students than four-year schools. 95 percent of community colleges are open admission—in other words, everyone's welcome here.

The AGI recognized the role of community colleges—increasingly so in light of the economic recession, when fewer people can afford skyrocketing tuition costs. Most importantly, the initiative proposed spending $12 billion over ten years to increase community college graduates by 5 million over the next decade.

But when higher ed reform got grafted on the health care bill, and a melee ensued to pass that package, the AGI somehow died. Apparently the community college "lobby" couldn't keep the AGI in the reconciliation bill signed by Obama. What these two-year schools did get out of the final bill was $2 billion to fund existing programs, mostly for disabled workers—nothing to scoff at, but a far cry from what Obama envisioned last summer, when he unveiled the AGI to much fanfare. "I know the colleges are grateful for the money that's in there, but it's for the status quo," Sara Goldrick-Rab, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin, told NPR. "The money for focusing on college completion might have been transformative."

Losing the AGI is, in short, a major loss for working class students. The initiative specifically targeted them and sought to offer the upward mobility of a college degree to millions of new students. So much for that idea. And considering how much political capital Obama expended to pass health care and student loan reform, it's unlikely we'll see future transformative initiatives for community colleges anytime soon. In the meantime, community colleges are increasingly cutting back on class offerings and are unable to hire enough qualified instructors—full time or part time—to meet a growing demand. Thanks to Obama's new bill, access to four-year colleges—a nice spot if you can afford it—may be increasing, but working class students will find themselves again shut out.

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Can The Pope Be Impeached?

| Wed Mar. 31, 2010 3:00 AM PDT

In recent weeks, the firestorm over sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergymen has reached even the pope himself.

The New York Times reported last week that Pope Benedict XVI was copied on a memo explaining that a priest who abused children would be reassigned to work with kids. The priest later abused again, and while the Vatican denies that the pope had any knowledge of the situation, the pontiff has come in for a barrage of criticism. Could the pope be impeached?

No. There's no procedure in church law that allows for a pope to be impeached. It's an open-and-shut case, Watson.

The pope has what is probably the world's safest job. It's essentially impossible to dislodge him without his consent. Even if he's sick or otherwise incapacitated, he's still the pope until he says otherwise. Theoretically, a pope can resign—and some of Benedict's critics have urged him to do so. But it's unlikely that this will happen. Canon law requires that any resignation be "freely made and properly manifested." The last pope to step down from the post was Gregory XII, in 1415.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 31, 2010

Wed Mar. 31, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

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An Afghan Highway Police officer stands watch during a joint reconnaissance mission with U.S. Soldiers assigned to the 8th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment In Robat, Afghanistan, on March 17, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force by Master Sgt. Juan Valdes.

Obama Signs Student Loan Reform

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 5:21 PM PDT

President Obama has said he considers community colleges "one of the great undervalued assets in our education system." Tuesday, he affirmed that sentiment by signing student loan reform into law at the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. The legislation ends a program started half a century ago that ceded lucrative government subsidies to private student loan lenders. It also helps make college more affordable by redirecting $36 billion of the $61 billion the legislation saves taxpayers over 10 years to the Pell Grant program for low-income students. Minority-serving institutions, community college job training programs, and a grant program to increase college access and readiness will also receive part of the savings.

Obama thrust community colleges into the national spotlight last summer when he challenged them to graduate 5 million more students by 2020 and proposed a $12 billion plan to finance his vision. But that mandate has not yet been funded, and an annual survey released Tuesday shows community colleges are facing greater enrollment gains and deeper budget cuts than in previous years. Of the 128 community college presidents and chancellors who responded to this year's survey, about two-thirds said their enrollment had increased more than 10 percent from the winter of 2009 to the winter of 2010. More than half of respondents also confirmed that their operating budgets had shrunk, with 18 percent reporting a decrease of more than 10 percent. Student loan reform is a great legislative victory, but it will mean little for students if traditionally open-enrollment community colleges are forced to start turning applicants away for fiscal reasons.

We Can "Live With" a Nuclear Iran: Brzezinski

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 2:34 PM PDT

Iran's stubbornness on its nuclear program has dominated a meeting this week of the G-8 nations' foreign ministers—and even convinced Canada, the US's "peaceful neighbor to the north," to press for sanctions against the Middle Eastern state. But as the ministers focus on taking steps against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime, a trusted ally of the Obama administration and former national security adviser is telling the Arab media that America can "live with" a nuclear armed Iran, if necessary.

Zbigniew Brzezinski—who served as President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, and is a mentor to numerous current and former US diplomats—made the comments in an extended interview that's set to air Wednesday on an Al Jazeera English TV show titled Empire. When asked if the US could tolerate a nuclear Iran, Brzezinski replied thus:

Indoor Tanning Salon Tax Racist?

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 8:46 AM PDT

Filling in for Glenn Beck on his radio show, conservative radio host Doc Thompson recently made the stunningly outrageous claim that a tax on indoor tanning salons, as included in the health care reform bill, is racist. Such a tax, Thompson claimed, discriminates against "all light-skinned Americans" because only white-skinned Americans use tanning salons. Never mind the deadly effect tanning beds and the like have on your skin and health, nor the fact that the tax would generate $2.7 billion over ten years to help pay for health care. No, that couldn't have anything to do with why the tax was included in the health care bill.

Here's an excerpt of Thompson from the Beck show, via Think Progress:

Racism has been dropped at my front door and the front door of all lighter-skinned Americans. The health care bill the president just singed into law includes a 10 percent tax on all indoor tanning sessions starting July 1st, and I say, who uses tanning? Is it dark-skinned people? I don’t think so. I would guess that most tanning sessions are from light-skinned Americans. Why would the President of the United Stats of America—a man who says he understands racism, a man who has been confronted with racism—why would he sign such a racist law? Why would he agree to do that? Well now I feel the pain of racism.

Which goes to show: Give a man a mic and he'll say pretty much anything. To be fair, it's one thing for the tanning salon lobby to cry foul and rail against the new tax. It's quite another to claim the tax is "racist," adding to the plight of "light-skinned Americans" around the country. Then again, crazier ideas have seen the light of day on Glenn Beck's radio show.

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How the Pentagon Rewrote DADT

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 8:01 AM PDT

When the Pentagon announced last week that it will relax its "Don't Ask Don't Tell" rules on gays in the military, the move was applauded by gay rights advocates as a first step toward repealing the policy altogether. Mother Jones has obtained a copy of the revised rules which shows exactly how the policy has been tweaked.

The new rules, announced last week by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, are intended to make it more difficult for military service members to be discharged for being gay. Gates mentioned some of the key revisions to the rules, such as greater restrictions on the evidence that can be used to dismiss gay service members. Only high-ranking officers will have the authority to launch investigations or decide that a discharge is necessary.

The document provides more detail about the changes, including revisions that Gates didn't focus on in his announcement. For example, the new policy rewrites the definition of "homosexual conduct" that constitutes grounds for dismissal. Previously, the military had used a broad definition which included the "propensity or intent" to engage in "homosexual acts." The new policy defines such conduct more narrowly, describing the grounds for misconduct as "engaging in, attempting to engage in, or soliciting another to engage in a homosexual act or acts, a statement by a Service member that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual, or words to that effect, or marriage or attempted marriage to a person known to be of the same biological sex." While the terms haven't been radically overhauled, the narrower definition could make it more difficult for investigations to be initiated.

Big Finance vs. Big Hollywood: Who Wins?

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 7:24 AM PDT

Last month, I told you the strange story of box office futures, new financial products that Wall Street wants to make available to schmoes like you and me:

For years, Cantor Fitzgerald, a Wall Street investment firm, has been operating the "Hollywood Stock Exchange," a fake-money game in which players trade "stocks" to bet on how films will do at the box office. Now Cantor could soon get government permission to make a real-money version of the game—a market in which players can gamble on the success or failure of, say, Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Critics are worried that this new market could be vulnerable to insider trading and create bizarre incentives for moviemakers—and that it will also enlarge the risky family of financial products that helped trigger the economic crisis.

"This is such a bad idea on so many levels," says Lynn Stout, a law professor at UCLA and an expert in derivatives, the category of financial instruments that includes Cantor's proposed box office futures. "What they want to do is basically open up a casino for people who want to make money for predicting the next blockbuster."

Now, with regulatory approval for Cantor's box office futures exchange scheduled for as early as next month, the movie industry has finally weighed in on the idea. Late last week, the Motion Picture Association of America's interim chief executive, Bob Pisano, sent a letter to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the regulator responsible for approving the box office futures plan. As it turns out, the studios are worried about a lot of the same things that other critics of box office futures talk about—insider trading, for example. The Los Angeles Times explains the implications of all this:

Regardless of how the trading commission views these questions, opposition by the MPAA could be a major blow to the planned exchanges, as both were hoping to attract Hollywood insiders. Since the MPAA represents Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Studios and Warner Bros., Pisano's letter is a sign that none of them want to get involved and would discourage their partners from doing so.

"The only thing it seems to be doing is setting up a way for people to gamble on domestic box office receipts," MPAA Executive Vice President Greg Frazier said in an interview. "That is not good for our members who first and foremost have an image and integrity to protect."

Will Big Hollywood be able to stop Big Finance's plans? We'll find out soon enough.

The Wall St. Lobby's Flip-flop

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 7:01 AM PDT

If you need any more reason to distrust Wall Street's lobbying armada, which has spent millions to undercut a new financial reform bill, then look no further than an op-ed from Elizabeth Warren, the staunch consumer advocate and bailout watchdog, published today. In it, Warren highlights the utter hypocrisy of the banking lobby's aim to neuter, if not outright kill, a new, independent consumer financial protection agency.

Among the banking lobby's top talking points for fighting this consumer agency is that it would separate what's called "safety and soundness" regulation (your run-of-the-mill bank oversight, basically) and consumer protection measures, like cracking down on predatory lenders, usurious interest rates, and unfair credit card penalties. For instance, Scott Talbott, a top lobbyist for the Financial Services Roundtable, a powerful finance trade organization, told the New York Times that his organization "believe[s] that consumer protection and bank supervision should be housed under the same roof."

But as Warren points out, the position of Big Finance's biggest advocacy group, the American Bankers Association, was the exact opposite just a few years ago. In 2006, the FDIC, Federal Reserve, and other government regulators were considering allowing bank regulators to keep an eye on subprime mortgages, those tricky—and toxic—products that would help topple the economy. The ABA, when it caught wind of this potential move, sent a letter to the FDIC arguing against merging bank oversight and consumer protection, saying this "marriage of inconvenience between supervision and consumer protection appears to blur long-established jurisdictional lines." The association recommended that "the safety and soundness provisions relating to underwriting and portfolio management be separated from the consumer protection provisions." (The ABA, in a sign of true prescience, also said subprime mortgages weren't "inherently riskier" than plain vanilla mortgages and that letting bank regulators oversee subprime loans "overstates the risk" of them.)

This, Warren concludes, shows that Wall Street's "lobbyists’ consistent theme is unmistakable: they oppose meaningful rules in the consumer credit market." She goes to write:

The ABA’s premise that the country can’t have both meaningful consumer protection and safety and soundness is wrong. In fact, its defense against an independent consumer agency boils down to this: if banks can’t trick and trap people with fine print and legalese, they won’t be able to turn a profit.

When other industries have argued that tricking their customers is an essential part of their profit model, they haven’t gotten far. For example, it might be profitable in the short run to substitute baking soda for antibiotics, but basic safety regulations prevent such moves—and the pharmaceutical industry still manages to do just fine. In fact, the industry flourishes, bringing better, cheaper products to customers.

Similarly, the consumer agency now before the Senate is designed to cut out tricks and traps pricing, fine print that no one can read, and sharp practices that strip billions of dollars from consumers...

In the weeks ahead, the Senate does not need to decide between safety and soundness and consumer protection.

Delaware and Tennessee Win the 'Race to Consensus'

| Tue Mar. 30, 2010 3:21 AM PDT

Delaware and Tennessee will receive the first slice of the Obama administration's $4 billion "Race to the Top" education innovation fund, the administration announced Monday. The winning states edged out presumed front-runners like Florida and Louisiana—states that submitted equally reform-minded applications that were not as popular with teachers' unions.

The Department of Education gave Delaware's proposals the highest overall rating in the competition, and the tiny state will take home the $107 million it asked for. Second-place finisher Tennessee will receive about $500 million, leaving $3.4 billion available to states who participate in the competition's second round. Independent reviewers gave the winners' applications high marks for promoting accountability standards, implementing data systems to track student achievement, and pushing for charter school growth. 

Georgia placed third in the competition, followed by Florida.  Louisiana came in 11th place out of the 16 finalists announced earlier this month.

On Monday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan played down the importance of broad "stakeholder support," calling it one of many factors that contributed to the finalists' total scores. But while Delaware and Tennessee boast nearly complete teachers union approval of their proposals, Florida's largest teachers union urged members to rebuke its application, and fewer than half of Louisiana's districts supported the state's plan.