Mojo - March 2010

A War Without Violence?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 7:04 AM EDT

Renowned revolutionary Srdja Popovic has helped orchestrate five peaceful regime overhauls in countries around the globe. Now he's on a quest to spread his tactics—starting on an idyllic atoll in the Maldives. As Nicholas Schmidle reports in his story in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, on Democracy Island, Popovic hopes to lead activists from around the world in sharing their nonviolent resistance strategies.

Born in the Ukraine, Popovic was one of the organizers for the Serbian youth resistance movement, Otpor!, which rallied ordinary citizens in a grassroots effort to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic's 13-year regime. Their methods of agitation—a get-out-the-vote campaign, strikes, street theater, and civil disobedience—led to triumph over a despotic regime.

If you're still curious after reading Schmidle's story, I recommend A Guide to Nonviolent Struggle, which was created by Popovic and other members of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies as a how-to manual for creating a nonviolent resistance movement of your own. "I am not a politician; I am a revolutionary," Popovic told Schmidle. "I see the world as a big battlefield between those who believe in the power of the people and those who try to control the power of the people."

Follow Titania Kumeh on Twitter.

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Undercover in the Foreclosure Scamming Underworld

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:50 AM EDT

It begins with a flyer on your front doorstep, a roadside sign with a local phone number, an ad on TV. "Stop Foreclosure Now!" "We guarantee to stop your foreclosure." "We stop foreclosures every day. Our team of professionals can stop yours this week!" They promise quick access to your bank or lender, and a way out of foreclosure and losing your home. They seem almost too good to be true, especially if you're a beleaguered homeowner clinging to your house.

Almost always they are too good to be true. Welcome to the world of the foreclosure rescue scam. Just as epic levels of fraud helped cause the subprime crisis, now, in the wake of the greatest housing meltdown in at least a generation, thousands of scheming, manipulative foreclosure relief swindlers are preying upon desperate homeowners unschooled in consumer finance and looking for help. The FTC, for example, reported 7,927 complaints on "mortgage modification and foreclosure relief" last year; in 2008, it had one. The Illinois Attorney General filed 31 different lawsuits last year regarding mortgage rescue scams, and the Florida AG filed 20 within the past year.

This newest wave of housing fraud is documented in painstaking detail in a new report, "Foreclosure Rescue Scams: A Nightmare Complicating the American Dream," to be released today by a leading housing advocacy group, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, as part of a hearing held by the House oversight committee. An early copy of the report was obtained by Mother Jones.

To document the pervasive foreclosure relief scamming out there, NCRC arranged more than 200 different undercover "shops," or visits with, these swindlers, getting details on numerous relief scams and probing what each claimed to offer. The services had names like 123 Fix My Loan, Help U Modify, and Legal Loan Bailout; others were clearly intended to confuse homeowners by sounding like legitimate government or private programs, like HopeNow Mortgages or Federal Loan Modification Bureau. In all, 115 foreclosure relief services were identified in NCRC's investigation. (So shady are some of these scams that 17 of them didn't even have legitimate phone numbers.)

The fear, the NCRC report says, is that these rackets draw homeowners away from real programs that could help them. "Modification companies are often operating in a regulatory vacuum, without any accountability, and may be preventing consumer access to the Home Affordable Modification Program," the report says.

Blacks Shut Out of Obama's Housing Rescue

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 5:10 AM EDT

Black homeowners hit hard by the housing crisis and economic downturn are disproportionately shut out of the Obama administration's multibillion-dollar homeowner rescue effort, the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). This startling new finding appears in a first-of-its-kind poll conducted by a leading housing advocacy group, the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, in conjunction with a hearing by the House oversight committee today investigating why HAMP has failed beleaguered homeowners and hardly slowed the rising tide of foreclosures. A copy of the report laying out NCRC's findings was first obtained by Mother Jones before its public release.

According to NCRC's findings, white homeowners eligible for the HAMP program are 50 percent more likely than blacks to receive a loan modification, which can lower monthly mortgage payments and help homeowners keep their homes. Loan servicers, the poll finds, foreclosed on black homeowners who were late on their mortgage payments noticeably faster than white or Hispanic borrowers. The poll's finding here "suggests that lenders and servicers push delinquent Black or African-American borrowers into the foreclosure process much sooner than borrowers from other racial and ethnic groups." Black homeowners who did receive modifications also saw smaller reductions in their loan's interest rate—an average drop of 2.84 percentage points—than did whites and Hispanics—3.32 and 3.35, respectively. So telling is NCRC's finding relating to racial differences that the group calls for "fair lending investigations of [the] HAMP program and participating servicers."

NCRC's poll is the first to investigate whether servicers and lenders treat people differently during the modification process due to race.

The poll is equally damning in its broader examination of HAMP, the Treasury Department's flagship homeowner initiative. As others have pointed out, HAMP's results have been dismal at best: Despite originally claiming that HAMP would help 3 to 4 million people—around 270,000 every three months—the program has only resulted in 170,000 permanent mortgage modifications in a year's time. In NCRC's poll, they found homeowners surveyed were more likely to get lasting help if they weren't eligible for HAMP than if they were.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 25, 2010

Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:55 AM EDT

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US Soldiers fortify an Afghan police checkpoint by placing razor wire around the perimeter in Robat, Afghanistan, on March 19, 2010. Photo via the US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Francisco V. Govea II.

Corn on "Countdown": The Republicans' Viagra Amendment

Wed Mar. 24, 2010 9:44 PM EDT

David Corn joined guest host Lawrence O'Donnell on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann to discuss some of the ridiculous amendments the Senate Republicans have proposed in their ongoing efforts to prevent the passage of health care reform.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Obama and the Hyde Amendment

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 6:48 PM EDT

During the White House press briefing on Wednesday, many questions were hurled at press secretary Robert Gibbs about the abortion executive order that President Barack Obama would be signing that afternoon. Most of these queries concerned the politics surrounding the order, which Obama had offered Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), an anti-abortion advocate, as an incentive to support the health care reform legislation. The order doesn't change existing law, as Gibbs and other White House aides have repeatedly noted. But it did mark an instance when Obama would have to put his signature on an order restating the Hyde Amendment restrictions on the federal funding of abortion that he had previously opposed. With that in mind, I posed a question. Here's the exchange:

CORN: Thanks.  In 2007, during the campaign, the President said that he does not support the Hyde Amendment and the federal government should not intrude onto a poor woman’s decision whether to carry to term or terminate her pregnancy. So my question today is, as he signs this executive order, which will further enshrine the Hyde Amendment, how does he feel about that?

GIBBS: David, I would have to see what -- I don’t know the comment that you’re referring to.

CORN: He was opposed to the Hyde Amendment.

MR. GIBBS:  Yes, I’d have to --

ANOTHER REPORTER: It was in a questionnaire, a pro-choice questionnaire.

CORN: It was in a questionnaire --

GIBBS:  And I’ll have somebody -- I haven’t -- you can just assume I haven’t looked at a questionnaire in quite some time.

CORN: But you stipulate that he opposed the Hyde Amendment, correct?

GIBBS:  I would stipulate that the President believes in a woman’s right to choose.

That was it. Gibbs wouldn't even acknowledge that Obama had once opposed the Hyde Amendment. It seemed a sensitive issue.

 

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Big Finance's Derivatives Battle

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 3:56 PM EDT

Gary Gensler, a top government regulator of tricky financial products like swaps and futures, singled out today big Wall Street firms and their lobbyists in Washington as a leading force specifically trying to kill new reforms of derivatives, the opaque deals that helped crash the global economy. Gensler told reporters at the US Chamber of Commerce today that Big Finance was "undercutting" efforts to regulate and shed light on derivatives, which help utilities and other companies hedge risk but are also used as gambling chips. "Wall Street has been expressing great opposition on Capitol Hill," Gensler said. "We've seen the emails."

Gensler, the chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, appeared at the Chamber to deliver a speech advocating for far more rigorous and reaching oversight of the $600 trillion, "over-the-counter" derivatives market. (Over-the-counter means they're traded in the dark, between buyers and sellers, without much transparency and information on bids and prices.) Unlike the speaker who preceded Gensler, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who vaguely hinted at the need to exempt certain users from derivatives regulation, Gensler took a strong stance by calling for complete regulation of the shadowy derivatives market. To illustrate his point, Gensler compared the derivatives markets to our streets system:

Can anyone imagine a traffic system without safety regulation? Of course not. Think about a regulation-free highway network: no traffic lights, no street lamps, no cops on the beat, not even a stop sign. Think about how we would be as a nation.

By placing a few street lights and stop signs, so to speak, in the derivative markets, it would "lower risk in this marketplace." Gensler said that, while not ideal, he could palate a narrow exemption for those companies that use derivatives solely to hedge risk and control for fluctuations in prices. But he insisted several times—and challenged the Chamber's top brass in attendance at the conference to back him—on the need for moving nearly all derivatives trades onto clearinghouses, where the prices and participants in trades are made public, and to make dealers register publicly as well. "I would think the Chamber would want to embrace this," Gensler said in his remarks. "This is not red meat."

Tom Coburn's Viagra Switcheroo

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (or, as his website refers to him, Tom Coburn, M.D.) hates it when his colleagues stuff bills with pork-flavored amendments. But he's not above doing the same when the matter is one of principles, rather than profits. And oh, what principles.

Coburn announced yesterday that he's sponsoring nine amendments to the Democratic health care reform bill that's now back in the Senate for reconciliation. His suggested contributions to this historic legislation include the Congress Should Not Lecture Americans About Fiscal Responsibility amendment and the If You Like the Health Plan You Have, You Can Keep It amendment. And if his website's listing of the amendments is any indication, none is more important to him than Amendment No. 3556, the No Erectile Dysfunction Drugs to Sex Offenders provision. Good lord, one wonders. Why would anyone oppose a law that prevents molesters from getting Viagra?

That's exactly what Coburn wants people to think...on first glance. On his website, Coburn says: "This amendment also prohibits coverage of Viagra and other ED medications to convicted child molesters, rapists, and sex offenders, and prohibits coverage of abortion drugs."

Wait—what? Abortion drugs? Yep, that's in the the provision's actual language. Don't remember hearing that in the name No Erectile Dysfunction Drugs to Sex Offenders. But sure enough, it appears Coburn is using the bogus issue of Viagra to rapists as a Trojan horse subterfuge to ban coverage of RU486 and possibly morning-after pills.

If you follow the link on Coburn's page to "additional background" on the amendment, you'll learn that the Viagra-for-rapists issue is a non-issue, and has been since 2005, when federal Medicare and Medicaid administrators told the states to put the kibosh on covering ED drugs for sex convicts. But that's not the real issue here. In his backgrounder, Coburn tackles abortion more directly, exposing it as the real matter of concern in his amendment. "There is no prohibition on abortion coverage in federally subsidized plans participating in the new health care exchange," he asserts, adding that the "abortion pill" costs more than an average American's routine visit to a general practitioner. "When many Americans are struggling to afford basic doctor for medically necessary care, taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize abortion pills provided by health care exchanges."

The only question now is: Will pro-choice senators have the cojones to vote against the measure, knowing fully well that conservative challengers in future elections will accuse them of "being soft" on sex offenders' hard-ons?

Watchdog Rips Obama Housing Rescue

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

A top watchdog for the government's bailout programs today blasted the Treasury Department's main homeowner rescue program, a multibillion-dollar effort that's done little to combat the still-roiling housing crisis. The special inspector general for TARP, Neil Barofsky, released the results of a new audit (PDF) today criticizing the paltry results of the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP) and the Treasury's efforts to airbrush the effects of its troubled program. As the audit points out, Treasury officials initially said the program would "help up to 3 to 4 million at-risk homeowners avoid foreclosure," but months later the Treasury made a quiet revision. Now, the department says the program aims to extend 3 to 4 million offers to homeowners—not necessarily real help. "Continuing to frame HAMP's success around the number of 'offers' extended is simply not sufficient," the audit says.

Barofsky's audit also highlights the abysmally low number of permanent mortgage modifications—somewhat lasting, legitimate relief for homeowners—which total a meager 170,000 so far. The reasons for HAMP's flop, Barofsky says, are three-fold: vaguely defined rules and constant revising of those rules; allowing mortgage servicers to begin modifications without getting all the required paperwork from homeowners; and a lack of promotion and marketing of HAMP by the Treasury. Too few people, Barofsky concludes, just didn't know about HAMP's offerings, if they know of the program at all.

Meanwhile, as the program limps along, the housing crisis rumbles onward. One telling statistic the SIGTARP audit found was that the average homeowner eligible for HAMP is underwater, meaning they owe more on their loan than their house is worth. And while homeowners make payments and wait for their equity to return, the Treasury, SIGTARP found, has mostly shied away from reducing homeowners' principal owed amounts—arguably the fastest way to help struggling homeowners. The watchdog paints a bleak portrait of a program that's done little to help beleaguered homeowners. And when comparing HAMP to the swfitness and effectiveness of the Treasury's rescue of the nation's banking system, it's little wonder average Americans are so angry with Wall Street and their government.

 

How Post-Health-Care-Fatigue Syndrome Will Hurt GOP

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Over at PoliticsDaily.com, I have a column today that notes that Washington is now experiencing Post-Health-Care-Fatigue Syndrome, or PHCFS. And I point out there are serious political side-effects to this condition. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi indicated to me and other columnists on Tuesday that she has little interest in pushing legislation advocated by liberal House Democrats to insert a public option into the overhauled health care insurance system. Of course, in the wake of the epic health care reform debate, an exhausted Congress appears unenthusiastic about taking on other heavy lifts—say, immigration reform—especially as the congressional elections near.

But PHCFS may pose a special challenge for those Republicans who plan to make repealing the health care reform legislation their main message for the 2010 elections:

There's no way of telling yet, but my hunch is that a lot of Americans are also exhausted by the reform tussle and may want to move on. Keeping this fight alive could serve the Republicans well among their Tea Party base, but it might turn off independent voters and others who wonder if the GOP has become a party of sore losers, who prefer re-fighting a lost battle to focusing on revving up the economy. The Republican Party is well-positioned to take advantage this fall of what will likely be months of high unemployment. Doing nothing and functioning as little more non-incumbents might serve GOP candidates well. Yet if GOPers come across as crusaders who want to revive the already-settled health care debate, voters may say, who wants to go through that again? After all, the best remedy for PHCFS is rest and resetting the agenda.

Already, the polls have turned in the Democrats' favor, with a near-majority of Americans saying the bill's passage was a positive development. And the Democrats are eager to ju-jitsu any GOP repeal campaign and accuse the Republicans of trying to undo a law that will protect Americans from insurance company abuses. Democratic Party chief Tim Kaine has been daring GOPers to go all-out for repeal: "'Bring back pre-existing conditions' is one helluva bumper sticker, if they want to use it. Alf Landon campaigned on repeal of Social Security in 1936."

There does seem to be some second-thinking going on within GOP circles about an all-out repeal strategy. Maybe the Republicans are getting tired, too.