Mojo - April 2010

Buzzkill: Seven-Buck Chuck?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 6:10 PM EDT

Seven-buck Chuck! Fourteen-buck six-packs! To the barricades!

I thought this was an April Fool's prank when I first saw it on LAist, but it's quite legit. People are always proposing nutty initiatives here in California—because they can. This round Josie and Kent Whitney, ostensibly a temperate San Diego couple, have introduced a state ballot initiative that reeks of Prohibition.

Citing alcohol's many ills—and there are plenty—they want to slap taxes on drinking that are high enough to render you stone cold sober. The current 6-cent excise tax on a sixer of beer? Make that $6.08! You'll likely be paying an extra $5.07 in taxes for a 750-milliliter bottle of wine. And the hard stuff? Hell, you won't be affording cocktails anymore. The Whitney proposal (title: Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010) would pump up the excise tax on a bottle of distilled spirits from 65 cents to $17.57. 

That's no typo. Okay, sure, the Whitneys have some perfectly valid points: Alcohol is indeed a drug. It can contribute to people being raped. And it adds significantly to crime and health care costs. Meanwhile, California is in the shitter, so a sin tax doesn't sound unreasonable. But $6.08 on a sixer—Christ almighty! The proposed initiative states that alcohol costs California taxpayers $38.4 billion a year, due to everything from crime to illness to lost productivity to increased welfare.

Let's assume that's accurate...But how much does alcohol net us? And with the state wine industry and high-end eateries hurting from the recession, how many waiters, bartenders, farmers, grape-pickers, vintners, brewers, distillers, scientists, shop owners, and restaurateurs would be devastated by such a draconian tax?

An analysis by the state Legislative Analyst's Office focuses on the direct impacts: The proposed law would likely raise $7 to $9 billion for the state, it says, with unknown state and local sales-tax losses (because you and I would be buying less hooch). But the analyst kind of buried the likely employment ripple effect:  

Indirect Economic Effects. If the measure were to result in declines in overall economic activity in California, it could produce indirect state and local revenue losses. Such effects could occur, for example, if businesses were to close because they could no longer remain profitable as the overall economy adjusted to a lower demand for alcohol in the long run. If these lost resources were not redirected back to California's economy into equal or more productive activities, then it would likely lead to a net loss in taxable income and spending for state and local governments. The magnitude of these potential revenue losses is unknown.

Here's my favorite part: Bootleggers! Smugglers! Hello, Al Capone.

Potential Costs and Savings for Law Enforcement. An increase in the tax rate on alcohol would increase the incentive for persons to illegally produce alcohol, smuggle alcoholic beverages into the state, or avoid the tax by other means. Law enforcement officials have some discretion as to how to allocate their resources. To the extent that illegal activities related to the production or procurement of alcoholic beverages increased, and law enforcement officials allocated additional resources to combat it, state and local law enforcement costs would increase.

Short answer: They need about 434,000 signatures by August to get this on the November ballot. I figure anyone who signs has got to be high! Then again, getting high could soon be legal in California.

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Feds Sue KBR Over Iraq Bills

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 5:39 PM EDT

Given Mother Jones' recent investigation of KBR's waste in Iraq (you know, the one that found a bunch of mechanics who worked 43 minutes a month for millions of bucks), as well as the third degree put on the war contractor's flacks by members of the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting Monday, the US government could take its pick of actionable business practices by the Houston-based profiteer. And it finally selected one to sue over. Perhaps it's the start of something bigger.

Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press reports that the government has filed suit against KBR in a Washington federal court, alleging that the company (an ex-subsidiary of the Dick Cheney-helmed Halliburton) "and 33 of its subcontractors used private armed security at various times from 2003 to 2006. The suit claims KBR knew it could not bill the U.S. government for such services but did so anyway." That's actually a convenient (if hard-to-explain) scam that outlets like the Washington Post have been wise to for several years. Back in 2007, The Nation's resident expert on private military contractors, Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill, estimated that KBR passed on nearly half a billion dollars in personal security expenses to the US government—including payments to Blackwater, a mercenary outfit that's built up quite the reputation for corruption and violence.

We here at MoJo haven't gotten our hands on the court filings yet—and we will. But suffice to say that if the suit is successful—and federal attorneys are likely to mount a much heavier legal offensive against KBR than poor Jamie Leigh Jones can manage on her own—an avalanche of legal claims against KBR may ensue. A dubious firm that once claimed immunity to US suits could end up in tatters. Something good may come out of the Iraq war yet.

General Petraeus Facts

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 3:25 PM EDT

Mark Bowden has written a long profile of General David Petraeus for Vanity Fair. Spencer Ackerman doesn't like it:

If you’ve never read a profile of Gen. Petraeus and you don’t mind really purple, sycophantic prose — “[W]hen Petraeus tests himself, he usually wins” is a line that survived the editing process — then by all means check out Mark Bowden’s thing in Vanity Fair.

Spencer has more, but the "when Petraeus tests himself, he usually wins" line reminded me of the whole "Chuck Norris facts" meme, which parodied the ridiculous badassness/kickassery of Chuck Norris. The meme was later applied to Jack Bauer and Vin Diesel, but if anyone is a great target for it, it's Petraeus. This isn't the first time someone has thought of this, of course. There's already GeneralPetraeusFacts.com, a not-entirely-tasteful site that a friend and I created in our spare time back in the day (I didn't write all of the "facts"). But the Bowden article definitely stands a chance of kick-starting a "Petraeus facts" meme. These lines are also in the piece:

Beyond his four-star rank, he possesses a stature so matchless it deserves its own adjective—call it “Petraean,” perhaps.

He is all gristle and bone. You sense that, if he ever were to overindulge, the fat cells would not know where to check in.

The sheer velocity of his career has created aftershocks, and those who stood too close have sometimes been bruised.

Interestingly, Bowden seems to recognize that Petraeus has been glorified:

For success to breed success, it must be seen and be heard. Much of his story has begun to undergo the slight embellishment and exaggeration that turn history into legend...—and this, too, contributes to his leadership. He is smarter, he is stronger, he is faster, he is more determined. He is “King David.” Once, in a heady and unguarded moment after an impressive ceremony in Iraq before 800 cheering sheikhs, he joked to a Washington Post reporter that sometimes it felt “like a combination of being the president and the pope.” He regrets that remark, which was turned into an embarrassing headline, but the Legend of David Petraeus now defines what an American military officer should be.

The Bowden piece closes with an anecdote. When Petraeus was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer last year, it was kept a secret. The New York Times eventually got a tip, and asked about it, so Petraeus' staff prepared a press release. The General himself added a line about how the cancer was kept secret to "avoid giving al-Qaeda hope." His wife later took it out, but it says a lot about the man. Bowden may recognize that the Petraeus story "has begun to undergo the slight embellishment and exaggeration that turn history into legend." But it seems that the General himself has bought into at least part of the legend.

Barney Frank Blasts Aide Turned Lobbyist

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 3:04 PM EDT

The story didn't make headlines, but it offered yet another glimpse of the endlessly spinning Washington-Wall Street revolving door: Peter Roberson, formerly a top policy adviser on the House financial services committee, recently left the committee to work as a lobbyist for a financial powerhouse in the derivatives industry—which also happens to be an industry the House committee is in charge of reforming as part of Congress' financial reform legislation.

Roberson's move to Intercontinental is so contentious because both the House and Senate are currently deciding whether to push much of the $600 trillion opaque, over-the-counter derivatives market onto transparent exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange is for stocks. Intercontinental happens to own two major derivatives clearinghouses; the company processes trillions of dollars in derivatives trades. "This is a classic example of a revolving door abuse," Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, which backs tougher lobbying rules, told Bloomberg News. "He will be instrumental for Intercontinental." (Roberson did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.)

Today, Roberson's former boss, financial services committee chairman Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), blasted the former adviser's move. "I completely agree" with criticism of Roberson's departure from Hill staffer to financial lobbyist, Frank said in a statement. The Massachusetts congressman said that when he heard of Roberson's potential move, Frank ordered his committee to sever ties with the staffer. And while there's a one-year ban on Roberson's interaction with members of the financial services committee, Frank said he's extending that ban for as long as Frank chairs the committee.

Here's Frank's full statement on the matter:

"Several people have expressed criticism of the move by Peter Roberson from the staff of the Financial Services Committee to ICE, after he worked on the legislation relevant to derivatives. I completely agree with that criticism. When Mr. Roberson was hired, it never occurred to me that he would jump so quickly from the Committee staff to an industry that was being affected by the Committee’s legislation. When he called me to tell me that he was in conversations with them, I told him that I was disappointed and that I insisted that he take no further action as a member of the Committee staff. I then called the Staff Director and instructed her to remove him from the payroll and provide him only such compensation as is already owed.

Stories about this correctly noted that there is a one year ban on his interaction with members of the Committee staff, but I do not think that is adequate. I am therefore instructing the staff of the Financial Services Committee to have no contact whatsoever with Mr. Roberson on any matters involving financial regulation for as long as I am in charge of that Committee staff. Fortunately, examples of staff members doing what Mr. Roberson has done are rare, but even one example is far too much and that is why I wanted to make clear I share the unhappiness of people at this, and my intention to prohibit any contact between him and members of the staff for as long as I have any control over the matter."

Obama Starting to Sound Like Bush

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 1:39 PM EDT

He donned a leather bomber's jacket with an Air Force One logo on it, got up in front of a boisterous crowd of about 2,000 military personnel in a hangar at Bagram Air Base, and gave a tub-thumping, "support the troops" campaign speech. I'm talking about Barack Obama on his six-hour visit to "Afghanistan." Of course, any presidential trip to "the front" is always essentially a domestic political phenomenon destined to trump all other news and be covered uncritically. In this case, it was undoubtedly part of the post-health-care run-up to election 2010, emphasizing an area—the Afghan War—in which Americans are, at the moment, remarkably supportive of the president's policies.

Starting with that bomber's jacket, the event had a certain eerie similarity to George W. Bush's visits to Iraq. As Bush once swore that we would never step down until the Iraqis had stepped up, so Obama declared his war to be "absolutely essential." General Mohammad Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry, even claimed that the president had used the long-absent (but patented) Bush word "victory" in his meeting with Hamid Karzai. Above all, whatever the talk about beginning to draw down his surge troops in mid-2011—and he has so far committed more than 50,000 American troops to that country—when it comes to the Afghan War, the president seemed to signal that we are still on Pentagon time.

Fiore Cartoon: Narco Trafficking

Thu Apr. 1, 2010 1:34 PM EDT

With California one step closer to legalizing marijuana, the weed debate has reached a fevered pitch.

In the cartoon below, satirist Mark Fiore offers his perspective: Why make pot legal when traffickers are all too happy to smuggle it at the expense of human lives?

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Hamid Karzai: Practical Joker?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 12:44 PM EDT

Is Afghan President Hamid Karzai pulling a prank? He says that his re-election was indeed tainted by epic fraud. But here's the twist: He says the UN, and in particular its former No. 2 official in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, were behind it:

"There was fraud in the presidential and provincial election, with no doubt there was massive fraud," he said.

"This wasn't fraud by Afghans but the fraud of foreigners, the fraud of Galbraith, or (head of the EU's observers Philippe) Morillon, and the votes of the Afghan nation were in the control of an embassy."

Accusing Galbraith of taking part in the fraud is particularly strange. The diplomat was reportedly removed from his post last fall because he was too outspoken about the tainted election, clashing with his boss, Kai Eide (who was later dismissed himself), over whether to aggressively pursue allegations of vote-rigging and ghost polling sites. In October, Galbraith wrote:

For weeks, Eide had been denying or playing down the fraud in Afghanistan's recent presidential election, telling me he was concerned that even discussing the fraud might inflame tensions in the country. But in my view, the fraud was a fact that the United Nations had to acknowledge or risk losing its credibility with the many Afghans who did not support President Hamid Karzai.

I keep waiting for Karzai's office to issue a release—"April Fool's!"—informing the international media that we've been punk'd. Apparently Galbraith, who called Karzai's remarks "absurd," thought the Afghan president was pulling his leg, too. He told the BBC: "At first I thought it was an April Fool's joke but I realised I don't have that kind of warm, personal relationship with President Karzai that he would do that."

Speaking of tense relationships, Karzai is on mighty thin ice with the Obama administration, particularly after his recent move to wrest control of his country's Electoral Complaints Commission by claiming the authority to appoint all five members of the panel, three of whom had previously been chosen by the UN. (The Afghan parliament voted overwhelmingly against Karzai's decree on Wednesday.) Karzai's maneuver so enraged US officials that the Obama administration abruptly cancelled a planned visit by the Afghan president to the White House. Karzai responded to this slight by inviting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Kabul, where the Iranian firebrand delivered an anti-American speech. After President Obama's surprise visit to Kabul on Sunday, the White House put the Karzai visit back on its calender—a move that it might be rethinking right about now.
 

British PM Gordon Brown to Go "Dirty Harry"?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 12:15 PM EDT

In an unbelievable political development in England, the Labour Party, which faces losing power in the next election, has decided to try to turn Prime Minister Gordon Brown's well-known volatility into an asset. The Guardian reports: 

In an audacious new election strategy, Labour is set to embrace Gordon Brown's reputation for anger and physical aggression, presenting the prime minister as a hard man, unafraid of confrontation, who is willing to take on David Cameron in "a bare-knuckle fistfight for the future of Britain", the Guardian has learned.

Following months of allegations about Brown's explosive outbursts and bullying, Downing Street will seize the initiative this week with a national billboard campaign portraying him as "a sort of Dirty Harry figure", in the words of a senior aide. One poster shows a glowering Brown alongside the caption "Step outside, posh boy," while another asks "Do you want some of this?"

Brown aides had worried that his reputation for volatility might torpedo Labour's hopes of re-election, but recent internal polls suggest that, on the contrary, stories of Brown's testosterone-fuelled eruptions have been almost entirely responsible for a recent recovery in the party's popularity. As a result, the aide said, Labour was "going all in", staking the election on the hope that voters will be drawn to an alpha-male personality who "is prepared to pummel, punch or even headbutt the British economy into a new era of jobs and prosperity".

Strategists are even understood to be considering engineering a high-profile incident of violence on the campaign trail....

It's quite amazing what some political strategists will do. Read the rest of the Guardian's incredible report here.

The USS Nicholas and Somali Pirates

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

On Thursday morning, some "suspected" Somali pirates made a very big mistake. They fired on a large-ish ship they hoped to hijack. Unfortunately for the would-be ransom collectors, the ship was the USS Nicholas (no relation), a very well-armed American guided missile frigate. Oops! More:

The USS Nicholas returned fire on the pirate skiff, sinking it and confiscating a nearby mothership. The Navy took five pirates into custody, said Navy Lt. Patrick Foughty, a spokesman....

"If you think of the kind of young men who are doing this, they go out into the middle of the ocean in a tiny boat. They might not always make rational decisions, and they often attack things that are bigger than they should (attack)," said [Roger Middleton, a piracy expert at the British think tank Chatham House.]

I get the point Middleton was trying to make, but have you seen a photo of the USS Nicholas? (You have! It's to the left.) That just doesn't look like the kind of ship you want to mess with.

Anyway, if you're interested in Somali pirate-related content, you've come to the right place. We've written about the pirates as environmental avengers, told you what Somali rapper K'naan thinks about them, explained why you can blame George Bush for them, and told you how they could help Barack Obama. We've also reviewed a book on pirate finance, explained what really motivates the Somali pirates, reported on the Somali pirates' PR people, told you about pirate "consultants", introduced you to America's piracy point man, and much more.

Is Living in the C Street House An Ethics Violation?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 11:32 AM EDT

Regular Mother Jones readers will recall the story of "the Fellowship," or "the Family," a secretive fundamentalist Christian group that boasts a large number of prominent politicians as members. In May 2008, we published an excerpt from Jeff Sharlet's bestselling book on the organization. Last year, scandal rocked the Family as Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), a member of the group, was caught up in a sordid sex scandal. (Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina, who was affiliated with the Family during his time in Congress, also got caught up in a sex scandal.)

Ensign, along with Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), and John Ensign (R-Nev.); and Representatives Mike Doyle (D-Penn.), Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) and Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), was one of the residents of a house on C Street in Washington, near the Capitol. The so-called "C Street house" is owned by a Family-affiliated group and is a center for Family-related activity.

Now the C Street residents are facing new problems—and this time, they're not related to a sex scandal. An August 2009 article in World magazine about the C Street house revealed that its residents pay around $950 per month to live in the house. In exchange, they don't just get a room—they get housekeeping service, too, and meals are sometimes available. Clergy VOICE, a group of clergy from different faith traditions, thought that sounded fishy, so they did a little digging:

The group surveyed the Capitol Hill rental market and discovered that nearby hotels charge a minimum of $2,400 per month, corporate housing costs a minimum of $4,000 per month and efficiency or one bedroom apartments typically go for at least $1,700 per month. None of these rates include any meals.

It appears that the residents of the C Street house are the beneficiaries of subsidized housing. So Clergy VOICE filed an IRS complaint asking how the subsidy might affect the C Street residents' taxes. On Thursday, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a DC good-government group, filed ethics complaints against the house's occupants:

The House and Senate gift rules specifically include “lodging” as a prohibited gift. There are only two exceptions to the ban on accepting lodging: if it is provided by an individual based on personal friendship, or if it is hospitality in a personal residence owned by an individual. Here, because a corporate entity – C Street Center, Inc. – owns the property, neither exception applies. In addition, members may not accept gifts offered to members of Congress because of their official positions. As only members of Congress appear to live in the C Street House, it seems likely that it is because of their positions that they are permitted to live there and are offered below market rent.

CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan stated, “At a time when so many Americans are losing their housing it is surprising to discover that some members of Congress are lucky enough to have a landlord that charges below market rent for fairly luxurious accommodations – and offers housekeeping and meal service to boot.” Sloan continued, “Rarely does someone – particularly a member of Congress – receive something for nothing, so you can’t help but wonder exactly what these members may be doing in return for all of this largess. Of course, this is the reason the gift ban was enacted in the first place. This situation cries out for an immediate ethics inquiry.”

There's more on this over at CREW's site.