Mojo - March 2010

Why America Needs A Black Agenda

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 1:15 PM PDT

On Saturday, black intellectuals and public servants at a 6,000-seat inaugural summit debunked the notion that creating a national agenda to aid black communities was exclusionary or racist. Their reasoning: Progressives policies for the public interest and the common good must address the condition of folks at the bottom of the socio-economic totem pole, i.e. the group of Americans with the highest rate of poverty, unemployment, and home foreclosures: black people.

Cornel West, Princeton professor, said: "Anytime you talk about black folk in America, you're talking about a state of emergency, especially for black poor and working people... you're making it a priority to say, 'America, keep track of the prison industrial complex, keep track of the dilapidated housing, keep track of the disgraceful school systems, keep track of the unemployment rates and underemployment rates, and unavailable health care, child care.' That is what it means to talk about the black agenda. Now what does that mean? That means the black agenda has always been the best agenda for the nation."

"We already see that any president is under tremendous pressure from the strong, the corporate elites, Wall Street oligarchs, various powerful folk at the top, who can easily push Obama in such a way that he tilts too much toward the strong and he doesn’t focus the way he ought on the weak, on the poor, on working people. And that’s why we’re here today."

Having a black-identified president was applauded by speakers and audience members alike. But "...a black agenda is not qualified or surrendered because Mr. Obama is in the White House," exclaimed Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson. In the age of Obama, the goals of social justice advocates remains unchanged: the social and economic gap must be closed and Americans with the least amount of resources must not be forgotten. Dyson pointed out that defending a black agenda may ironically "be even more viciously assaulted when we have a black face on an American empire that has historically been insensitive to the causes and claims of black people."

Said Michael Fauntroy, George Mason University assistant professor, "Too many of us are just happy that we have a black president. I'm not sure that a lot of us are prepared to ask this President and this Congress to do what we as American citizens... have a right to petition the government to do...Special problems require special solutions... Just think about what's going on 90 minutes north of here in Milwaukee where in late 2008 the black male unemployment rate was almost 50 percent. In my city, Washington DC, a city that has done reasonably well in this overall recession, the black male unemployment rate is 35 percent. Now that strikes me as a special problem. If Wall Street can identify a special problem that needs to be resolved then why can't we?"

Amid the impassioned speeches, some viable pro-equity solutions (PDF) were offered: grassroots voting, rallying at Congress' door, and redistributing stimulus funds into cities to support threatened institutions like libraries rather than sending the cash to states.

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Republicans Split Over Repeal Strategy

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 11:00 AM PDT

As soon as House Democrats passed their history-making health care reform legislation, Republican leaders launched a comeback strategy: repeal the bill. "This is not the end of the fight, it is the beginning of the fight," Newt Gingrich wrote on Monday—a call echoed by Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, Sen. John McCain, and Mitt Romney, as well as legions of disheartened Tea Party activists. Rep. Michele Bachmann and Sen. Jim DeMint quickly introduced measures in the House and Senate to overturn the legislation. But already the repeal-the-bill strategy is running into some trouble. 

Take Rep. Brett Guthrie, a conservative Kentucky Republican who has voted with his party over 93 percent of the time. Moments after voting against the bill on Sunday, the first-term representative expressed measured support for elements of the legislation. "We always said there are things that we can all agree on in the bill," says Guthrie. When asked what Republicans should do next, he responded that he'd support repealing parts, but not all, of the bill—particularly the mandate which requires that Americans purchase health care. Later, Guthrie added that he thought rejecting the entire reform package and starting over would be "the best policy"— but he appeared to regard repealing select provisions of the legislation as the more practical option.

"Then we could preserve some of the things [in the bill] that we all agree upon," Guthrie says. "I think you saw a lot of us were for [prohibiting insurance companies from denying people coverage for] pre-existing conditions." Guthrie also points to the House's 406-19 vote in late February that removed an exemption for health insurance companies from anti-trust laws as evidence that "there could be bipartisan support for incremental health reform." (That provision was not included in the final health care legislation.)

Toxic Swaps Deals Sinking Cities

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 9:01 AM PDT

Around the country, cash-strapped cities are facing a harsh reality: They lack the money to pay their employees, keep their schools open, and maintain public services for their citizens. Making matters worse for dozens of metropolitan hubs are obscure, toxic deals with the world's biggest banks called "interest rate swaps," a peculiar kind of financial contract that provided city governments with easy cash before the crisis but has now turned sour and cost taxpayers more than $1.25 billion a year, according to a new report (PDF) from labor union Service Employees International Union. Cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Denver will in 2010 pay big banks—Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and JPMorgan Chase, among them—tens of millions of dollars in swaps payments, SEIU found; meanwhile, those same cities have previously cut tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars from their budgets to stay afloat. "These deals amount to the biggest taxpayer bailout of Wall Street you've never heard of," says SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger.

National swaps data via SEIUWhat's an interest rate swap, you ask? Well, they're contracts that allow, say, Baltimore to enter into a deal with Bank of America to pay for public infrastructure projects. In that deal, Baltimore and BofA will "swap" interest rates with each other: the city will pay the bank a fixed rate—3 to 5 percent, say—to borrow money, and the bank will in return pay the city cash based on a floating, variable interest rate. (This is determined by some underlying source, like the LIBOR rate for short-term lending.) The point of a swap deal is that, when the economy was booming, cities could borrow from banks on the cheap, because their fixed payment rate was on par with or better than the bank's floating rate. But after the economy tanked, and the LIBOR rate dropped with it, banks emerged as the winners: Their variable payment rates to cities are now basement-low because overall interest rates are low. Cities, however, are still stuck with those higher fixed rates. Essentially they're getting fleeced.

And banks want to keep it that way. To do so, they've imposed steep termination fees to get out of an interest rate swap. To wit: Detroit, which has annual swaps payments of $103 million and faces a crippling budget shortfall, would have to pay $303 million to exit its swap deals. The same applies to most swaps deals throughout the country, which means most cities are saddled with onerous payments with no reprieve until the contract ends some years down the road. (That said, there have been a few instances where cities and banks renegotiated; Los Angeles' City Council voted earlier this month to terminate their swaps deals altogether, a decision that's catching on throughout the country.)

Of course, a swaps deal is a contract. Cities willingly entered into these deals with the likes of Goldman and JPMorgan. There's no doubt they're getting screwed now, paying banks way more than they're getting in return, but they agreed to the swaps back when everyone was binging on credit and living beyond their means. However, their citizens are the same people who bailed out the world's biggest banks, so perhaps everyone would be better off agreeing to kill the swaps deals and go their separate ways.

AP: Ex-Blackwater Pres Faces Possible Indictment

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 8:58 AM PDT

The AP is reporting that the Justice Department may be preparing to indict a trio of ex-Blackwater officials on weapons charges, including the company's former president, Gary Jackson. The potential charges are connected to a June 2008 raid on the company's North Carolina compound by federal agents, who seized nearly two dozen automatic weapons from Blackwater's armory. The guns, which included 17 Romanian AK-47s, had been purchased by Blackwater but were technically owned by the local sheriff's office, which had inked an agreement with the company to store the weapons.

The AP reports:

Multiple law enforcement officials familiar with the case said investigators are trying to determine if Blackwater obtained the official letterhead of a local sheriff to create a false justification for buying the guns. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the investigation.

Federal law prohibits private parties from buying fully automatic weapons registered after 1986, but does let law enforcement agencies have them.

Reports of weapons-related improprieties have dogged Blackwater for years. In the past, federal investigators have probed whether the company had illegally smuggled guns (and silencers) into Iraq that wound up in the hands of a Kurdish group designated by the US as a terrorist organization. In court documents, two former Blackwater employees also alleged that the company had smuggled contraband weapons, sometimes hiding them in bags of dog food. Last month, a Senate committee revealed that personnel working for a Blackwater-subsidiary in Afghanistan had aquired hundreds of AK-47s and other weapons they were unauthorized to have from an armory that's meant to equip the Afghan National Police. In one case, a Blackwater contractor signed for a trove of guns using the alias Eric Cartman, an apparent reference to the South Park character.

Sen. Lindsey Graham: Any Attack on Iran Must Be Full-Scale

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 8:40 AM PDT

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) laid it on thick at AIPAC's annual gala banquet on Monday. Referring to the pro-Israel lobby, Graham declared, "The Congress has your back." (What other lobby would he say that to?) He declared that Israel is "our best friend in the world." (Does that tick off Canadians?) But Graham went especially far when he endorsed the idea of a military strike against Iran.

The former Navy judge advocate told the thousands of AIPACers that when it comes to dealing with Iran and the possibility it will develop nuclear weapons, "all options must be on the table" and "you know exactly what I'm talking about." He then made the obligatory comments, saying that war is a "terrible thing" and that he hoped it could be avoided. But added Graham, a member of the Senate armed services committee, "sometimes it is better to go to war than to allow the Holocaust to develop a second time." And he told the crowd that "time is not on our side" and that this AIPAC conference could be the last of the lobby's annual get-togethers before Iran possesses nuclear weapons. Military action ought to be taken against Iran, he said, before the country acquires a nuclear bomb.

But Graham noted that any such military strike should not be limited to targeting the country's nuclear program:

If military force is ever employed, it should be done in a decisive fashion. The Iran government's ability to wage conventional war against its neighbors and our troops in the region should not exist. They should not have one plane that can fly or one ship that can float.

Graham was talking about a wide-scale attack on Iran—and one that might have take place within the next year. Destroying Iran's military—which has about 130,000 regular soldiers and 14 air bases throughought the country—would entail a major assault, and it could trigger Iranian attacks  elsewhere in the region. It would be a rather good-sized war. But nothing less will suffice, Graham insisted. And the crowd applauded.

******

The above quote can be found at the 2:20 mark in the video below:

 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 23, 2010

Tue Mar. 23, 2010 2:00 AM PDT

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US Army Pvt. Edgar Madrid mans the gunner's turret as his unit heads out to patrol Dubak Tapa, Iraq, on March 16, 2010. Photo via the US Navy by Petty Officer 2nd Class Matthew D. Leistikow.

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ACORN Finally Cracks For Good

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 3:35 PM PDT

Congratulations, Andrew Breitbart and James O'Keefe. You killed ACORN. Who's next? The Salvation Army?

Yes, it's true. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now—known by most of America as ACORN, and by Inner America as "that dastardly evil fifth column of race-baiting, socialist election racketeers"—is officially kaput, having announced its own demise just a day after Congress passed sweeping reform that would provide health insurance—for the first time—to many of the same urban poor ACORN sought to help.

"It's really declining revenue in the face of a series of attacks from partisan operatives and right-wing activists that have taken away our ability to raise the resources we need," ACORN spokesman Kevin Whelan said in announcing the group's intentions to fold.

This was not a terribly surprising move; last month, we at Mother Jones predicted as much after ACORN's biggest state organizations—in California and New York—shuttered. And while no one's shocked that the overwhelming tide of right-wing rancor made the group's business—mostly advice and voter registration—impossible, it's still mystifying why this group got retrogressives' goat to such a grand extent.

Wall St. War to Senate Floor

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 3:01 PM PDT

In a brisk, no-frills 20-minute session, Sen. Chris Dodd's version of a sprawling financial reform bill was passed by the Senate banking committee—13 Democrats to 10 Republicans—and moves on to what will surely be a legislative war on the Senate floor. Today's mark-up session by the banking committee was meant to be a debate among committee members over nearly 400 amendments to Dodd's original bill (PDF), released last week. But lawmakers instead approved a manager's amendment to the bill, which makes a number of technical and rhetorical tweaks to Dodd's bill, then voted on the bill entirely, knowing that a Democratic majority would pass it and set up the real debate in the Senate.

There was an anticlimactic feeling surrounding the event, and a few senators, including several Republicans, didn't even show up to the mark-up and voted by proxy. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), a top GOP negotiator on the Dodd bill before talks broke down, had hinted earlier today that a low-key vote would happen, and predicted that the Senate would take up the bill after Easter. "It's probably true that we have a better opportunity with a different cast of characters, the full Senate, to do something that is sound policy-wise," Corker told CNBC today.

The quick vote today is undoubtedly an indication that senators handling financial reform didn't want a health care-like battle in committee. For months, health care talks were bogged down in the Senate finance committee, between Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), but by skipping over contentious amendments today, Dodd and his colleagues bypassed a several weeks' worth of infighting. The mark-up today marked a shift in GOP tactics more than anything. At several points in the meeting, Dodd, the banking committee's chair, asked GOP counterparts whether they wanted to make any statements or comment on the bill, but those in attendance all declined but for brief remarks by Shelby, the ranking member. Bypassing the committee negotiations was clearly a decision made by Senate Republicans to fight it out on the Senate floor, where the Dems enjoy a slim majority but Republicans have gained momentum. The Senate floor is also a more visible, high profile venue—center court, if you will—to lay out their hundreds of amendments.

Those amendments range from watering down an independent consumer agency to declawing a council of regulators that would guard against systemic, AIG-like risk. So while today's brief affair might've brought the negotiations to prime time sooner, all those amendments will still see the light of day in a few weeks. The battle over Wall Street is still coming. 

Code Pink Tricks AIPAC, Media

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 12:58 PM PDT

"Holy Crap," I thought when my editor forwarded me today's AIPAC press release, supposedly calling for a freeze on Israeli settlements. It turns out the statement, which would have been a massive departure from traditional AIPAC policies, was a stunt orchestrated by the anti-everything activist organization Code Pink. I wasn't the only person who got punk'd: NPR, C-SPAN and Al Jazeera all ran with the story before news broke that it was false.

Code Pink has so far refused to admit how they pulled it off. But it's clear that the press release was sent from a fake email address mirroring that of AIPAC media director Josh Block: block@aipac.org. His real email is jblock@aipac.org.

For much of the past fifty years, AIPAC has gained massive support in the American Jewish community. But as Israeli policy toward Palestinians became increasingly out of step with American liberals, Jews began taking a softer approach to the debate. As Robert Dreyfuss explained last September for Mother Jones, these liberals have mounted a challenge to the AIPAC hegemony under the banner of J Street, the self-proclaimed "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby. Today's statement would have been a momentus agreement between the foes on a national security matter.

Failing Afghanistan's Cops

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 12:26 PM PDT

Police training has been a crucial part of American counterinsurgency warfare and global policy for a long, long time. During the American occupation of Haiti, which began in 1915, the establishment and training of an American-led Gendarmerie d'Haiti would contribute to the sad, brutal modern history of that island; in the late 1950s and 1960s, U.S. police training helped shape South Vietnam into a quasi-police state ready to wield torture as a weapon of daily life; in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. police training under thuggish dictatorships led to torture and extrajudicial killings, a history painfully captured in journalist A.J. Langguth's presciently titled book Hidden Terrors; in Central America in the 1980s, it led to a flowering of extrajudicial death squads. The story of U.S. police training could, in many ways, act as a substitute history of human rights violations.

All in all, it's not a pretty tale and it's not a history that's left this country untouched, as Alfred McCoy, an expert in police training and counterinsurgency as well as the author of Policing the Empire, wrote for TomDispatch last November. What happens in our distant counterinsurgency wars, including the policing part of them, has a nasty habit of returning to these shores as ever more repressive surveillance and policing techniques in "the homeland."