Mojo - May 2010

JPMorgan Gets an “F” on Mining

| Thu May 13, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

In late March, I wrote about how Wall Street powerhouse JPMorgan Chase continues to fund coal companies that engage in mountaintop removal mining (MTR), a dangerous, environmentally devastating type of strip mining in which the peaks of mountains are literally blown off, exposing the seams of coal that run underneath. Problem is, the rubble and waste from MTR mining usually ends up in nearby rivers and water sources, contaminating them, killing local wildife, and often violating federal laws like the Clean Water Act. As I reported, "over the past 17 years, JPMorgan Chase has helped to underwrite nearly 20 bond or loan deals, worth a combined $8.5 trillion, for some of the biggest players in the MTR mining business, according to data from Bloomberg."

Today, Rainforest Action Network, a leading environmental group pressuring banks to end MTR financing, released a new report card, in conjunction with the Sierra Club and Banktrack, grading the world's big banks on their MTR policies. JPMorgan, which has yet to cut its MTR ties (and repeatedly refused to tell Mother Jones why), received an "F"; so, too, did PNC, the world’s largest MTR financier, and UBS, which finances one-third of the Appalachian region's MTR mining.

Credit Suisse ranked highest among the world’s biggest banks with an "A-," a grade it received for its policy—first reported by Mother Jones—of refusing to finance any coal mined using MTR.

The report card's authors say they showed the banks their grades before releasing the report, in an effort to get the banks to change their policies. In one case, Morgan Stanley issued a public statement on its MTR policy after learning of its failing grade from RAN and the Sierra Club; that grade was bumped up to a "C" after the public announcement.

The full report is available here.

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The F-Bomb: Protected By The 1st Amendment?

| Thu May 13, 2010 9:57 AM EDT

It's a good thing VP Joe Biden wasn't in Pennsylvania when he exclaimed that passing health care reform was a "big fucking deal." He might have found himself in trouble with the law. Apparently Pennsylvania law enforcement has aggressively ticketed and even jailed people for cursing, especially when the cursing was aimed at a police officer. But it turns out that swearing is not a crime. Indeed, it's very much protected free speech. No surprise, then, that the ACLU is now suing the state police commissioner on behalf of several people cited for cussing, including a mother of three who called a motorcycle driver an asshole after he nearly ran her over while she was out walking. When she called the police to report the incident, the cops cited her for swearing. Such cases are apparently commonplace. The Legal Intelligencer reports:

The ACLU has successfully defended about a dozen individuals against such charges, including Dawn Herb, a Scranton, Pa., woman, who swore at her clogged toilet in her home, and David Hackbart, a Pittsburgh man who "flipped off" a police officer with a middle-finger gesture in a dispute over a parking space. Hackbart's case revealed that the Pittsburgh police had cited people for profanity about 200 times over a four-year period, and resulted in a $50,000 settlement in fall 2009.

While you never want to see cops violating people's civil rights, perhaps the Pennsylvania war on swearing is a good sign: The crime rate these days must be low enough that the state's police officers have nothing better to do than ticket women cursing out their clogged toilets. Still, as an ACLU lawyer told the Intelligencer,  "We hope this lawsuit helps teach the state police an important lesson about respecting how people choose to express themselves."

Fake Divorces and Housing Bubbles

| Thu May 13, 2010 9:52 AM EDT

The latest sign that China is in the midst of a raging housing bubble: Chinese couples are intentionally divorcing each other to dodge the country's strict second-home ownership rules and save some yuan in the process. China's autocratic government, China Daily reports, has sought to curb rampant property speculation (sound familiar?) by hiking the down payment costs and interest rates for married couples looking to buy a second house—in April, the government raised the minimum down payment for families to 50 percent of the home's value (up from 40 percent) and made mortgage interest rates for married couples at least 1.1 percent of the standard rate.

To avoid those new rules, perfectly happy husbands and wives are now entering into "fake" divorces in order to boost their property portfolios. "After we get divorced, my wife will claim our house, so that I can apply for a mortgage as a first-home buyer since I don't have a house under my name," 41-year-old Li Guoliang said. "And we will remarry after that."

Here's more from the story:

Li and his wife are among many couples planning on getting a divorce to circumvent the government's restrictions on second-home purchases.

"Such a 'fake' divorce may save the second-home buyer hundreds of thousands of yuan. So, why not do it?" said Chen Ping, a real estate agent in Changsha.

Chen said he had helped many couples apply for the preferential mortgage for the first-home buyer through a "fake divorce," which was "legitimate and viable, just like reasonable tax avoidance."

"In the two weeks after the new rules were introduced, I received 16 clients hoping to get a favorable loan by getting a divorce," said Li Yi, a lawyer with Tenghui Law Office in Chongqing Municipality.

In China, though, divorce for economics' sake contradicts the traditional Chinese view of marriage, and a poll by Chongqing Evening News in early May suggests the idea isn't that popular: 78 percent of people polled said they didn't support "fake" marriages to cash in on cheap housing rules. Still, consider fake divorces alongside the other signs of excess and speculation characteristic of a housing bubble. When you look at the small but telling details—the luxurious Shanghai condos with bronze doors inlaid with Swarovski crystals, the crocodile skin-wrapped bed posts—and the big picture statistics, too—an 80 percent spike in real estate sales between 2008 and 2009, an investor buying 54 apartments in a single day—China starts to like the next US circa 2004, except on a far, far larger scale.

Nightmare in November for Dems?

| Thu May 13, 2010 9:50 AM EDT

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll contains disquieting information for congressional Democrats and Republicans--but it's far more worrisome in the short-run for the Ds. NBC News' "First Read" newsletter offers a summation:

*** The GOP’s Good News, Bad News: The poll is mostly good news for the Republican Party -- at least as it relates to the upcoming midterms. It shows that the GOP is now winning key demographic groups (blue-collar voters, independents, white women, suburban women, and seniors) that it was losing in 2006. Also, the number believing that the nation is on the wrong track (56%) looks a lot more like 1994 (when the party in power lost control of Congress) than it does 1998 or 2002 (when the president’s party fared historically well in the midterms). But in the long term, there are dangerous signs for the GOP. First, the party continues to have a net-negative fav/unfav (which wasn't the case in '94). And second, it has a MAJOR problem with the country's fastest growing demographic group: Latinos. In the poll, Democrats have a 37-point advantage among Latinos when it comes to which party does a better job of protecting minorities, a 42-point edge in protecting immigrants against discrimination, and a 28-point advantage on the issue of immigration.

If the Democrats are losing blue-collar voters, as the Republicans have opposed or sought to weaken Wall Street reform (while calling for extending tax breaks for the wealthy), the Dems do have a mighty big problem. And though most economists say that the stimulus bill they passed prevented the loss of 2 million or so jobs, the Ds and Obama have received little credit for this. They have truly lost the message war.

The picture is far worse for the Democrats than Obama. Look at this:

*** Obama vs. The Dem Party: Here’s another striking finding from our NBC/WSJ poll: Obama and congressional Democrats have two completely different brands right now. For instance, by a 51%-36% margin, the public thinks that Obama is more concerned about the interests of average Americans than of large corporations when it comes to dealing with financial markets. But congressional Dems’ score here is essentially reversed -- 53% think they’re more concerned about protecting the interests of large corporations, while just 35% believe they’re looking out for average Americans. (Congressional Republicans’ score is even worse: 71% for corporations, 20% for average Americans.) Here’s something else: Obama is more helpful in rallying the GOP base (64% of Republican voters say they’re voting GOP to OPPOSE Obama and Dem candidates) than he is his own base (49% of Dem voters say they’re voting to SUPPORT Obama and Dem candidates). Translation: Obama’s presence on the campaign trail might solidify the GOP base without guaranteeing the same lift to Democrats.

Democratic strategists have been hoping that for the 2010 congressional elections the party can beat back an anti-incumbent wave by arguing that the Dems care about average folks and the GOPers do the dirty work of corporations. While most voters, according to this poll, do see the Republicans as bigger pimps for corporations than Democrats, these numbers suggest it still will be a hard sell convincing voters that the Democrats fight for average Americans instead of corporate interests. And if Obama can't help the Democrats, who can?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 13, 2010

Thu May 13, 2010 4:00 AM EDT

US Army Soldiers wade through a small creek while conducting a dismounted patrol in the village of Babus in Pole-Elam district, Afghanistan, on May 7, 2010. Photo via the US Army by Spc. De'Yonte Mosley.

Arizona Bans Ethnic Studies

| Wed May 12, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

Hispanic students fill nearly half the seats in Arizona's public school classrooms, but a new law signed by Governor Jan Brewer Tuesday makes it illegal for these students to learn about their heritage in school. HB 2281 prohibits schools from offering courses at any grade level that advocate ethnic solidarity, promote overthrow of the US government, or cater to specific ethnic groups—regulations which will dismantle the state's popular Mexican-American studies programs.

Much like Arizona's new immigration law, this ethnic studies ban is political interest dressed up to look like education reform. The bill was passed largely because of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne's personal distaste for the Tuscon Unified School District's Chicano studies program, in which 3 percent of the district's 55,000 students participate. He has been hell-bent on squashing the program ever since learning several years ago that Hispanic civil rights activist Dolores Huerta told Tucson High School students that "Republicans hate Latinos," the Associated Press reports.

"Traditionally, the American public school system has brought together students from different backgrounds and taught them to be Americans and to treat each other as individuals, and not on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds," Horne noted in an April press release. "This is consistent with the fundamental American value that we are all individuals, not exemplars of whatever ethnic groups we were born into. Ethnic studies programs teach the opposite, and are designed to promote ethnic chauvinism."

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Will Congress Crack Down on Sleazy Car Dealers?

| Wed May 12, 2010 4:08 PM EDT

Will Congress finally take action to rein in the car dealers who target American soldiers—among others—with dirty sales tricks? Gary Rivlin, whose upcoming book on the poverty industry is titled Broke, USA, reports in yesterday's New York Times that consumer advocates are angling for better oversight:

Even the Pentagon has weighed in, insisting that automobile purchases and dealer-assisted financing should be part of any new financial legislation because low-income military people are victimized in large numbers by shady car dealers that set up shop just outside many bases.

Officials say distractions caused by these bad auto deals could affect the readiness of the armed forces.

In February, Clifford L. Stanley, the under secretary of defense responsible for troop readiness, wrote in a letter addressed to a Treasury official that the Pentagon would “welcome and encourage” increased protections against “unscrupulous automobile sales and financing practices.”

But car dealers have formidable clout in the halls of Congress. MoJo staff reporter Stephanie Mencimer notes in "I Love a Mark in Uniform," that the dealers gave some $9 million to candidates during the 2008 election cycle alone. And Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas), Rivlin reports, is sponsoring an amendment that would exempt further regulation of car dealers, who, in Brownback's words, "are already struggling to get cars to market."

The people most often targeted by dealers are struggling just to make ends meet. Last year, Mencimer spent some quality time around Norfolk, Virginia, where a high concentration of naive young recruits has attracted all manner of unscrupulous salespeople. Here's a snapshot:

Crist: "I'm A True Blue Reagan Conservative"

| Wed May 12, 2010 1:48 PM EDT

It's hard to leave a political party.

Florida Governor Charlie Crist bolted the GOP to run for the Senate as an independent when it looked as if former Florida House Speaker Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, would clean his clock in the Republican primary. Of course, Crist couldn't say he was doing so to save his political career. Instead, he contended that the system was to blame—and that "the people" needed leaders who would break out of partisan molds.

During the April 29 announcement of his decision to run for the Senate without party affiliation, Crist declared, "I haven't supported an idea because it's a Republican idea or it's a Democratic idea." In a subsequent campaign video he exclaimed, "The parties don't work anymore." And his campaign even dropped the word "conservative" from its website, as the newly-independent Crist started making a play for Democratic voters.

But it wasn't that long ago that Crist was bragging about his conservative and GOP credentials. On February 9, his campaign issued a press release headlined, "Crist: I'm a True Blue Reagan Conservative." The campaign was touting an interview Crist had done with Newsmax.com, a conservative site, in which he had proclaimed himself a conservative GOPer, repeatedly citing Ronald Reagan and noting, "I'm an anti-tax, pro-life, pro-gun Republican."

This is a trap that Crist cannot escape. Any pol who switches party or dumps one to run as an independent will leave behind a trail of inconvenient utterances. Still, next time a reporter questions Crist, he or she ought to ask, "Are you still a True Blue Reagan conservative?" And, if not, what happened to your core beliefs between since February?

Is 19 Kids Too Many?

| Wed May 12, 2010 1:06 PM EDT

Is China's kid policy really so bad? Have you ever talked about the size of your family and its effect on the planet? Are people concerned with population apt to be hiding racial prejudice? 

Paul R. Ehrlich, Julia Whitty, Fred Pearce, and more esteemed population panelists and readers are touching these questions—and the rest of the population third rail—right now. Join the debate today through Friday—or just vote up the questions you like best—at the MoJo Population Forum, happening now.

Not Even Bork Got Treated Like This

| Wed May 12, 2010 11:26 AM EDT

You would hope that by now, when a woman gets tapped for a position of power, she might be treated with a modicum of dignity, even by talk radio hosts. That would be asking too much, I guess. Not only has Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan been subjected to not-so-quiet whisper campaign suggesting she might be a lesbian as a way of helping defeat her nomination, but now, the right-wing talk radio cabal has decided to take on her looks (a strain of attack not unrelated to the first). Media Matters has collected a sampling of the dialogue going on among talk radio stars and their listeners:

Here's HumanEvents editor Jason Mattera, tweeting about Kagan: "Why do Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan all look like linebackers for the New York JETS?"

Michael Savage told a radio caller that he found Kagan's appearance "personally grotesque," and that she looked like "she belongs in a Kosher deli." Savage added: "Isn't there such a thing about the aesthetics of the appointee? Don't they have to look a -- I mean, is there a certain aesthetic that you have to -- you know, it's one thing to be a legal scholar, it's another thing like you have to look at these people. Let's put it to you this way, she's not the type of face you'd want to see on a five dollar bill."

In a series of tweets, Neil Boortz tweeted that Kagan resembled Mike Myers, the voice of the cartoon character Shrek, then said, "Justice Shrek? O come on now. That a wee bit below the belt."

The comments, while perhaps predictable, offer another vivid example of how differently women in positions of power are treated than men are. It's hard to imagine a similar tirade coming from even the most lefty media outlet about say, Chief Justice John Roberts or Justice Samuel Alito. Even the attacks from the left on the infamous Robert Bork, the last male Supreme Court nominee whose appearance might have commanded some major snark, never seemed to reach the level of those against Kagan. Of course, there was no Internet then, and talk radio was still in its infancy. And perhaps Bork was such an obstreperous, cantankerous nominee with extreme right-wing views that critics had so much material to work with that they didn't need to point out that he was, well, scary looking. (He was roundly rejected by the Senate.) Kagan, on the other hand, is such a moderate, stellar candidate that her critics don't have much substance to hang on, leaving them grasping at non-issues like her sexual preferences or what she looks like. Still, the level of misogyny exhibited towards Kagan by the right-wing talkers seems truly breathtaking--enough to make me wish that some day a few of them end up having to defend themselves in her courtroom.