Mojo - April 2010

Greenspan: Ideology Meant Nothing

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 11:52 AM EDT

During his near 20-year reign at the helm of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan was among the world's leading proponents of the free market ideology—that governments and regulators shouldn't meddle in the markets, and instead let the financial industry regulate and run itself. You know, Adam Smith's invisible hand, Milton Friedman and the Chicago school, all that. Observers point to a slew of Greenspan's decisions during his tenure at the Fed—his backing of massive financial deregulation, like the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act in 1999, and belief that financial institutions could oversee themselves—as evidence of his free market beliefs impacting his work at the Fed.

In the wake of the crisis, Greenspan admitted that he'd found a "flaw" in his free market worldview. Big banks, investment houses, non-bank institutions, and so on couldn't control themselves, Greenspan said; enhanced regulation was needed. It was presumed, at the time of Greenspan's concession, that he was repudiating the ideology that guided his leadership at the Fed.

Today, however, Greenspan rejected altogether the notion that his free market mentality at all inflected tenure at the Fed. When asked by Brooksley Born, the former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, whether his ideology led to the Fed's laissez faire approach to regulation and failure to stop the housing bubble, Greenspan replied, "It didn't look that way from my point of view." Greenspan countered that he was only doing what Congress told him to do, and enforcing the laws already in place. "I ran my office as required by law, and there's an awful lot of laws that I wouldn't have constructed in the way they were constructed, but I enforced them nonetheless because that was my job," he said.

Sure, in one sense, Greenspan essentially played the hand he was dealt. However, no one can forget how influential he was the apogee of his Fed tenure. His support for bills like Gramm-Leach-Bliley no doubt impacted their passage. Thus his claim today is one that many of Greenspan's critics will surely take issue with. What's more, for the growing chorus of critics who say that Greenspan, in recent months, has launched a campaign to whitewash his and the Fed's record, this latest pushback is sure to give those critics even more ammunition.

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Greenspan: Dummy-proof Wall St. Reform

| Wed Apr. 7, 2010 9:56 AM EDT

Alan Greenspan, the dour former chairman of the Federal Reserve, joined the growing ranks of financial experts saying we can't rely on "fallible" human regulators to rein in Wall Street under the re-drawn lines of new financial regulation. (That is, if we get new financial regulations.) Greenspan's remarks came as part of his testimony today before the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, a Congressionally-mandated panel investigating the root causes of the financial crisis.

A former regulator himself, Greenspan told the FCIC, led by former California state treasurer Phil Angelides, that new financial safeguards should require higher capital cushions to absorb losses and force banks to have more skin in the game on their trades. "Concretely, I argue that the primary imperatives going forward have to be on increased risk-based capital and liquidity requirements and significant increases in collateral requirements irrespective of the financial institutions making the trades," Greenspan said. "Sufficient capital eliminates the need to know in advance which financial products or innovations will succeed in assisting in effectively directing a nation's savings to productive physical investments and which will fail. He added, "In a sense, [capital requirements] solve every problem." Asked about what kind of capital requirements are needed, Greenspan didn't offer any specific figures but said only they needed to be "adequate."

Greenspan's views on financial regulation come, in part, as the former Fed chairman defends his record, despite widespread criticisms that he missed the housing bubble's genesis and failed to crack down on subprime lending. In his written testimony, Greenspan countered by saying he warned of the "housing boom" as early as 2002, and that the Fed took significant steps to crack down on a subprime market that, in the 2000s, spiraled out of control. However, Greenspan stressed, as he has before, that he himself, as well as any regulator, can never fully predict the next crisis, and that cold, hard capital restrictions are the key to preventing the next meltdown. 

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 7, 2010

Wed Apr. 7, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

  

US Army Pfc. Daniel Stamper, right, ducks down after helping to fire a 60 mm mortar round in the desert around Forward Operating Base Grizzly in Diyala, Iraq, on March 23, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Pfc. Adrian Muehe.

Shell Apologizes to Niger Delta?

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 8:00 PM EDT

On May 27, shellapologises.com popped up on the Web, blazing a message: "Shell Apologises to Niger Delta for Human Rights Abuses." The press release contained therein reads:

More than 60 per cent of the people in the Niger Delta depend on the natural environment for their livelihood. But due to the oil pollution, many of them use polluted water to drink and to cook and wash with, and eat fish contaminated with oil and other toxins. Oil spills and waste dumping have also seriously damaged agricultural land.

The destruction of livelihoods and the lack of redress have led people to steal oil and vandalise oil infrastructure in an attempt to gain compensation or clean-up contracts. Armed groups engage in large-scale theft of oil and the ransoming of oil workers. Government reprisals frequently involve excessive force and the collective punishment of communities, thus deepening general anger and resentment.

All of that is true; unfortunately, this part is not:

Shell apologises to all inhabitants of Nigeria’s Niger Delta for the many years of human rights violations, for which Shell takes full responsibility.

Finally, an age of corporate self-accountability, I thought. But like other writers at Mother Jones faced with similar press releases, I got punk'd. The Shell apology is part of an elaborate prank perpetrated by those infamous corporate imposters, the Yes Men. 

"We approached Shell in this case because we were asked to do a workshop in the Hague as part of a human rights film festival,"  the Yes Men's Mike Bonnano told MoJo in an email. "The target was Shell, since their HQ is right there in the Hague, and they have a bad human rights record, particularly in the Niger Delta, where they are currently refusing to maintain the environmental standards that apply elsewhere in the world for similar extraction operations.

"It also happens that Shell has just taken a huge step backwards by cutting their solar energy program and other green initiatives; their new CEO [Peter Voser] comes from finance and is taking the company in the direction of short-term profits at the expense of the long-term welfare of the planet. But then again, they are an oil company, so what do we expect?"

One expectation might be to see more corporate policies operating under the premise that helping people is profitable. The Yes Men's satirical theatre, which criticizes complacent corporations and complicit citizens without coming off as preachy, provides (as MoJo senior editor Dave Gilson wrote) much-needed "sudden jolts of awareness or catharsis." The group's actions basically translate into "We know all about you" indictments by expressing what companies like Shell should, but don't, do—as the group's faux press conference shows:

"After we did the announcements we went out on the streets with street teams dressed in shell uniforms apologizing to the people of the Hague on behalf of Shell," Bonnano wrote. "The event did in fact bait Shell...and it would be a bonus if they counter attack. But success does not require a response, it is just enhanced by it. If they fail to attack us, after all, we can always assume their identity and attack us for them, as we did with Dow Chemical in the past."

Stand by for Shell's response.

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Why Paying Interns Matters

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 7:06 PM EDT

Today, Atlantic Media (parent company of the National Journal and The Atlantic) decided to start paying interns. Not only that, they're going to pay them retroactively. As someone who's been an unpaid intern more than once, this is tremendous news. Although Mother Jones pays its interns, the magazine industry as a whole, as pointed out in a recent New York Times article, is known for its tradition of unpaid internships. Unpaid internships  give valuable contacts and job experience only to those who can somehow afford to work full-time, without pay, for months, in some of the most expensive cities in the nation. In one extreme example, the Philadelphia Inquirer actually asked journalism schools to pay *it* to support the paper's unpaid interns.

Despite the stereotype of being coffee-fetchers, interns often work 40 hours a week doing things that would otherwise be done by a paid staffer or a temp. Getting coffee, actually, sounds pretty good. Believe me, you haven't lived until you've schlepped clothes uptown for a photo shoot in 90 percent humidity. While I appreciated the, uh, multitasking experience, I was lucky enough to have funding to get me through the summer I was an unpaid intern for Condé Nast. But not all are as fortunate. Giving internships only to those who can afford them may be part of why the magazine industry is pretty white and often upper- or middle-class. "You’re only going to be able to attract upper-class white kids who parents can afford to subsidize their West Village apartment," Fast Company editor Jeff Chu said in an article published on the Magazine Publishers of America site. "The lack of diversity in this industry is mind-boggling," echoed Latina editor Mimi Valdés Ryan.

While I support diversity in hiring, smaller shops and specialty magazines sometimes really can't afford to pay interns much. The larger injustice is when someplace like Time Warner, which earned nearly $26 billion in revenues in the last quarter of 2009, can't shell out a few thousand bucks to help their full-time intern pay rent in New York City. Daniel Indiviglio of TheAtlantic.com thinks that the current economic recession means "now might not be the right time to crack down on unpaid internships... If some workers are willing and able to work for free and feel they're benefiting from the experience, shouldn't that be enough to legitimize the relationship?" I'd disagree. Just because someone is willing to do a job for free, or almost free, doesn't mean that not paying them is the right thing to do. And honestly, just a little bit of cash goes a long way when you're broke. Cutting the salaries of publishers by a fraction could fund several interns. The Atlantic's decision to pay its interns is a big move. Let's hope other magazines will follow.

"God Hates Fags" Son Speaks [VIDEO]

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 6:58 PM EDT

If you know Mother Jones, you know the Reverend Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps. In just the past week, we've carried two stories touching on the Kansas hatemonger and the extended family that comprise his Westboro Baptist Church—a "crew of sign-carrying flat-earthers, whose shtick involves loudly thanking God for smiting gay-loving, libertine America and its sworn defenders." They crisscross the nation, spreading their "God is hate" gospel at the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; at grade schools; and anywhere else they can score a permit and a TV crew.

Never let it be said that Phelps doesn't practice what he preaches. He's had 13 children, and a few of them—the ones who rubbed a few extraneous brain cells together and found Daddy's command of theology wanting—have found themselves on the outs with the family. After copious beatings, that is.

One of those children, Nate Phelps, quietly slipped into the ether, working as a cabbie in Cranbrook, British Columbia. But a chance encounter with a journalism student in his taxi led to a riveting news article...which led to a speaking engagement at an American Atheists convention...which led to this. Last week, Phelps sat down for an extended TV interview with reporter Peter Klein of The Standard, Canada's 60 Minutes. This is no prodigal son; he ain't ever going back. But the story of where he's been and what he's seen is absolutely amazing, from the stories of abuse to his father's drug dependency. Watch the full video and read selected quotes after the jump.

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GOPers Embrace Centrist Demon Sheep

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 5:38 PM EDT

As the midterm campaign season picks up, many observers have pointed to California as a state that could be ripe for a Tea Party takeover. Surveying the landscape in February, Washington Post columnist George Will declared that Chuck DeVore, an Orange County assemblyman backed by Sen. Jim DeMint and Tea Party groups, would win the Republican nomination and take on Sen. Barbara Boxer in November. DeVore would win the primary, Will argued, because DeVore is the most conservative candidate in the race. And in 2010, voters won't settle for anything less.

Well, maybe not. According to the latest Los Angeles Times/USC poll, 46 percent of likely California Republican primary voters said they'd prefer a "centrist" candidate, while just 42 percent said they'd like a "conservative" candidate. Those preferences are exemplified by support for individual candidates: Moderate former congressman Tom Campbell—immortalized as a "Fiscal Conservative in Name Only," demonic ungulate in a February ad by rival Carly Fiorina—leads the three-way race with 29 percent. After 16 months on the trail, Will's favorite DeVore has the support of just 9 percent of voters.

Obama "Committed" To Net Neutrality Despite Court Ruling

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 4:00 PM EDT

A federal appeals court dealt a major defeat to proponents of net neutrality on Tuesday morning, ruling that the Federal Communications Commission does not have the power to require internet service providers to treat different types of content equally. The ruling strengthens the hand of service providers who want to create "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" for different types of content on the internet. (So-called "net neutrality" rules would prohibit that practice.) President Barack Obama hasn't reviewed the court's decision yet, but he remains "committed" to net neutrality, press secretary Robert Gibbs said.

The court fight started last year, when the FCC issued rules aimed at forcing internet service providers to conform to net neutrality principles. But Comcast, a major cable and internet provider, sued to prevent the FCC from enforcing the regulations. Comcast wanted to reserve the right to carry different content at different speeds. The FCC, Comcast argued, did not have the legal authority to prevent Comcast from doing that. A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit unanimously agreed, and threw out a FCC order against the company.

Since the court basically decided that the FCC didn't have the power to enforce its rules, several Democratic legislators have decided to redouble their push to give the agency more power. Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced a bill last year called the "Internet Freedom Preservation Act" that would do just that. "Clearly, the Court’s decision must not be the final word on this vitally important matter," Markey said in a statement.

The DC Circuit's decision in this case also draws attention to the two vacancies on its bench. President Obama could have nominated judges to fill those spots, which would have moved the Court's balance from 6-3 in favor of GOP appointees to 6-5. But the spots, like 103 other judicial vacancies, remain unfilled. (Thirty-eight of Obama's court nominees are being held up in the Senate, but he hasn't nominated anyone for the other 65 spots.) Obama has a chance to reshape the federal judiciary if he nominates the right people. But when David Corn asked Gibbs why no one had yet been nominated for the two empty spots on the DC Circuit, the press secretary said he didn't know.

Dem Contender:"Repeal and Replace" the GOP

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 3:35 PM EDT

As the GOP's movement to repeal the health care bill continues to stumble, a Democratic challenger to North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr is putting the Republican opposition to reform at the heart of her campaign. "Richard Burr Wants to Repeal Health Care Reform," North Carolina's Secretary of State Elaine Marshall writes in a fundraising letter sent Tuesday. "We Say it's Time to REPEAL BURR!"

Marshall has launched a new website, repealburr.com, to build momentum behind her anti-incumbency campaign, which has celebrated the reform effort and her own credibility as a progressive outsider. It seems like Burr himself has begun to realize that his call to repeal the bill could become a real drag on his re-election effort—like so many other Republicans, he is backpedalling fast. The Washington Independent flags Burr's recent waffling: "It may not be total repeal at the end of the day...It may be a series of fixes over the course of this bill getting enacted."

The Butler Almost Did It

| Tue Apr. 6, 2010 1:51 PM EDT

Today, a nation mourns. Surely there are even Duke faithful who realize that if Butler had won the Big Dance it would have brought only unadulterated good to the business of college basketball. Because that's what it is, let's not fool ourselves; college basketball is a multimillion dollar industry, for schools, for TV, for the NBA. Take the four #1 teams going into the tournament and their respective men's basketball budgets: Kansas ($8M), Syracuse ($8M), Kentucky ($8M), and Duke ($13.8M). That's a combined nearly $40 million on coaches, recruiting, facilities, training, and those fly (sometimes Gothic-inlayed) uniforms. And for many of the big powerhouse schools that money is well spent, for example Syracuse's men's basketball program brought the university close to $17 million in revenue in 08-09, $9 million in profits. In this economy these teams are veritable Fortune 500 companies (minus the salaries).