Mojo - November 2010

The Left vs. Jon Stewart?

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 12:06 PM EST

On Friday, Bill Maher finally said what needed to be said about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally to Restore Sanity":

The message of the rally, as I heard it, was that if the media stopped giving voice to the crazies on both sides, then maybe we could restore sanity. It was all nonpartisan and urged cooperation with the moderates on the other side forgetting that Obama tried that and found out...there are no moderates on the other side. When Jon announced his rally, he said the national conversation was dominated by people on the Right who believe Obama's a Socialist and people on the Left who believe 9/11's an inside job, but I can't name any Democratic leaders who think 9/11's an inside job. But Republican leaders who think Obama's a Socialist? All of them.

Here's the video of Maher's full comments:

Maher has great instincts (most of the time), but he doesn't always do the work to make sure he's fully informed about certain issues. As a commenter points out here, Maher's rarely prepared to counter the misinformation that's so often spouted by his conservative guests. Still, when he's right, he's right. At the rally, Stewart set up a false equivalence between the right and the left, and liberals gave him a pass on it because they like him and they like his show. 

I'd love to see Stewart respond to Maher's criticism—but not to Maher, who Stewart probably won't take seriously. A debate between Stewart and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who agrees with Maher, would be awesome. But Ta-Nehisi doesn't have a television show. So I think it's up to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. She's a Stewart fan, she's been on Stewart's show before, and he owes her an appearance. Like Stewart, she prepares and does her homework. Her channel, MSNBC, was among the targets of Stewart's ire. And best of all, she's (respectfully) sparred with Stewart on this issue before. In January, Stewart criticised her reporting about Haiti, suggesting it was too political and putting her in the same boat with Rush Limbaugh, of all people. Here's what she said in response

I love me some Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. I'm a big fan. But no apologies for reporting which agency is the lead in our national effort to respond to Haiti, whether or not that agency is well resourced, whether it has been subject to partisan attacks, how much the current administration values and prioritizes and indeed brags on that agency. We all as Americans are counting on our government to do a good job in responding to this catastrophe. This is what it looks like to report on our government's capacity to do just that.

When President Obama gave USAID the lead role in coordinating this response to the disaster in Haiti he handed that agency its biggest humanitarian mission in years. Six days before the earthquake in Haiti Sec. of State Hillary Clinton had just given a major speech about how the Obama administration was going to elevate USAID to a primary position in the government.

[…]

Six days later the earthquake in Haiti and USAID gets put in charge of America’s response to it. They report that as of today USAID is fifty five million dollars into that response. They’re the ones coordinating America’s search and rescue efforts, water and emergency food aid, the way that supplies get into the country, shelter and sanitation and hygiene. At this point the road to being the world’s premier development agency runs through Haiti and we’ll keep reporting it.

I think I get why Stewart does what he does. He's a nice guy, and he wants to be able to interact reasonably with people on the Right—without shouting or name-calling. But being polite, reasonable, and fair to conservative guests doesn't require putting Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow in the same segment, or comparing anyone on MSNBC to Glenn Beck.

Every night, Maddow proves that you can be painstakingly polite and reasonable to conservatives—and still be tough and critical and super-liberal. Ultimately, her way of dealing with conservatives is better than Stewart's. She should have him on and prove it.

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Asleep On the Foreclosure Beat

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 11:45 AM EST

In the wake of the financial crisis, fierce criticism has rained down on regulators of all stripes for missing tell-tale warning signs in the run-up to the meltdown. One lesser-known agency that's taken plenty of heat is the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC), the top watchdog for big national banks. It's well documented how the OCC and its former chief, John Dugan, blew it before the crisis by preempting state laws that would've cracked down on predatory lending and, as Zach Carter recently wrote in The Nation, helping to usher in the era of "too big to fail" banking. And when it comes to the ongoing foreclosure debacle, despite years and years of complaints from homeowners, attorneys, and many more, the OCC didn't deploy bank examiners to investigate the mess until...two weeks ago, as the Washington Post reports on Monday.

The full failure of regulators like the OCC, the Federal Reserve, and others to prevent the latest foreclosure fiasco is just now coming into focus. As the Post reports, a few years ago Dugan's OCC blocked requests by state regulators for a thorough probe of the foreclosure shops of big banks for wrongfully foreclosing on homeowners. Not only that, but the OCC itself declined to investigate banks' practices, instead letting them conduct their own internal reviews. "Based on what we were seeing and what we were concerned about, it felt like a chronic underreaction at the federal level," John Ryan, an official with the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, told the Post. And get this: 

As I reported in a January story about mortgage servicers, the industry's problem-plagued middlemen, experts galore have complained to me about the lack of regulation of foreclosures:

Oversight of this troubled industry is spotty. "This is a very underregulated part of the system," says Jack Guttentag, an industry expert and professor emeritus of finance at the Wharton School. "It shouldn't be, because it's the part where the consumer has no place to protect themselves." Federal law allows servicers to send borrowers only one account statement a year—even if there are scheduled interest rate increases or new fees added during that time. If a borrower has a problem, HUD encourages her to first file a complaint with the servicer, and if there's no resolution after nearly three months, she can then appeal to the agency—assuming she hasn't been evicted in the meantime. While HUD can step in to fix the problem, it lacks the power to impose tough sanctions on servicers.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, and Office of Thrift Supervision also have limited oversight over the mortgage industry. An OTS spokesman could name only one formal action the agency has taken against a servicer—Ocwen, in 2004. An OCC spokesman said his agency has never taken action against servicers.

Which isn't to say the OCC is completely useless. Purely as a bank regulator, it's known for its tough examinations and for embedding examiners within the banks it regulates. And with the passage of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill in July, the OCC will grow even larger as it absorbs the Office of Thrift Supervision, which oversees state-chartered savings and loan institutions.

But as a foreclosure watchdog, the OCC has a lot to prove—and plenty of critics to win over. This line from the Post's story is hardly inspiring: "Regulators said they hope to complete a preliminary report [on the latest foreclosure debacle] this month but have not decided whether it will be made public." So much for winning public trust.

GOP Crying Wolf on Voter Fraud?

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 11:32 AM EST

Despite conservative fear-mongering that illegitimate voters would steal the midterms, there's been little, if any, evidence has surfaced to support these claims. But some GOPers won't to give up the ghost. Dave Weigel points out that Ed Martin, Republican candidate in Missouri's 3rd district, has refused to concede to his opponent Democratic Rep. Russ Carnahan despite having lost by a significant 4,418 vote margin. Instead, Martin insists that electoral fraud messed with the results. From the St. Louis Beacon:

Among other things, Martin has alleged irregularities in the city's votes and in the hiring of a security firm at the city Election Board headquarters to help out on Election Day. Martin particularly has raised questions about the final bloc of city votes that went heavily for Carnahan.

On Wednesday, a group of Martin allies picketed outside the downtown Election Board headquarters, shouting that vote fraud had been committed.

Local and state Republican officials have declined to back Martin's claims of voter fraud, urging him to concede in the long-Democratic district. As the Beacon notes, even the St. Louis Tea Party admits "that there appears to be 'no smoking gun' that the group can immediately target as a culprit in Martin's narrow loss."

But given the hysteria surrounding voter fraud on the right—amped up by the tea parties and legitimized by the GOP—it's not surprising that Republicans would use voter fraud as an excuse for a close loss. Given the degree of fear-mongering, I'm surprised that there haven't been more allegations of fraud since Election Day. In Nevada, for instance, Sharron Angle had claimed that Harry Reid wanted "to steal this election" and accused him of buying off union votes in the final stretch of the race. But such accusations almost immediately evaporated after she lost to Reid, and even Fox News cancelled a segment about voter fraud in Nevada that it had originally planned to air.

If such dirty tricks had actually happened in Nevada or elsewhere, you'd expect that the tea party right would be up in arms about the results. But instead, the deafening silence suggests that there wasn't much there in the first place. It's not surprising, then, that Missouri Republicans want Martin to shut up and concede that he lost already. In the build up to the election, Republicans were deftly able to amplify voter fraud allegations to whip their base into a frenzy. But after the fact, when it's clear that few such shenanigans actually took place, candidates like Martin make it appear that the right was just crying wolf in the first place.

*Update: Martin finally conceded the election to Carnahan on Monday morning but continues to allege there was "misconduct by the chair of the St. Louis City Board of Elections," claiming that there were widespread "irregularities" and claiming the Board "refused to take responsibility for compelling local boards of election to purge voter rolls of ineligible registrants." Martin promises that he "will continue to seek to highlight the importance of protecting our voting system and will ask you to assist me in this effort."

W.: Still Not Telling the Truth about Iraq

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 8:54 AM EST

He's baaaaack. George W. Bush releases his book this week--in which he complains about Kanye West and defends his decision to invade Iraq. As David Corn points out in his PoliticsDaily.com column, Bush is still telling whoppers about the Iraq war. And so far, he hasn't been called out by the establishment media for his falsehoods. Here' Corn nailing him:

Bush is mounting a defense, as selective as it might be, of the Iraq war. He acknowledges that he experiences "a sickening feeling every time" he recalls the absence of WMDs in Iraq, but he contends that invading Iraq was the right move because "America is safer without a homicidal dictator pursuing WMD."

Yet that statement is flat-out wrong. Not the "safer" part, but the description of Saddam Hussein and WMDs. Bush is still trying to mislead the American public, for at the time of the invasion, Saddam, brutal dictator that he was, was not pursuing the development or production of WMDs. The Bush administration's own investigation found this. Following the invasion, there was an probe of Iraq's WMD activity conducted by Charles Duelfer, a hawkish fellow whom had been handpicked by the administration to handle this sensitive job. In 2004, his Iraq Survey Group submitted it's final report. The report noted that Saddam "aspired to develop a nuclear capability." But it was quite clear on the key point: Iraq had not been actively working on WMD projects. The Duelfer report concluded that Iraq's ability to produce nuclear weapons--the most troubling W in the WMD category--had "progressively decayed" since 1991 and that inspectors had found no signs of any "concerted efforts to restart the program." In plain talk: nada on nuclear. The same was true, the report said, for biological and chemical weapons. It found that by 1995, under UN pressure, Iraq had abandoned its biological weapons efforts and that there was no evidence Iraq had made any chemical weapons in the preceding 12 years.

The report was blunt: "The former regime had no formal written strategy or plan for the revival of WMD after sanctions. Neither was there an identifiable group of WMD policy makers or planners."

Nobody working on WMDs; no schemes to develop or obtain such weapons. The bottom-line: Saddam was not pursuing weapons of mass destruction. The UN inspections of the 1990s and the international anti-Iraq sanctions had rendered Iraq's weapons programs kaput.

So once again, Bush is not being accurate--or honest. To justify the war, the ex-president maintains he took out a dictator who was seeking the worst weapons imaginable. Did Bush not read the Duelfer report--at the time of it's release or in the six years since? Or does he not care about the real truth of his war? There's a question that ought to be put to him during the PR blitz for Decision Points.

And allow me to pile on. In a push-the-book interview with NBC's Matt Lauer, Bush claims that had he not invaded Iraq, Saddam "would still have the capacity to make weapons of mass destruction." Again, that's not so. See above. Per the Duelfer report, Saddam did not have such a capacity.

In that same interview, Bush, still on the subject of Iraq, declares, "I gave diplomacy every chance to work." This is another super-sized whopper. As Michael Isikoff and I revealed in our book, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, on May 1, 2002--almost a year prior to the invasion--Bush angrily told press secretary Ari Fleischer, "I'm going to kick [Saddam's] sorry motherf****** ass all over the Mideast." (Our source, Adam Levine, a White House aide, was a witness to the encounter.) Those are not the words of a fellow committed to a diplomatic solution.

That anecdote aside, the facts contradict Bush's claim: At the time of the invasion, the UN weapons inspections program was under way and succeeding in Iraq. The inspectors were resolving key issues, such as whether aluminum tubes obtained by Iraq were for a project to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons (they were not). They also were finding no signs of WMDs. The inspectors were getting a difficult job done and, as we know now, deriving the right answers. Certainly, they were encountering problems. Saddam was not cooperating 100 percent. But the inspectors were navigating the roadblocks, and robust inspections were proceeding.

Occasionally you will hear some Bush defender say that Saddam tossed out the inspectors and that's why Bush had to invade. This is not so. The inspectors were yanked out of Iraq by the UN because of the pending invasion. That is, by invading Iraq, Bush ended the ongoing diplomatic process that was effectively dealing with the supposed Iraqi WMD threat. He did not give it "every chance to work."

Corn asks, "Will Bush get away with these, uh, misrepresentations?" His prediction is not encouraging: "He did so as president, and history may be repeating itself this week."

Reagan Budget Guru: No Tax Cuts

| Mon Nov. 8, 2010 7:00 AM EST

Looming large over the 111th Congress' lame-duck session, which begins on Nov. 15, is the fate of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts. Prior to the midterm elections, Washington lawmakers punted on whether to extend the tax cuts or let them expire at year's end, putting off a bitter partisan battle until election season had ended. Now, the Bush tax cuts are front and center again, popping up on several of Sunday's news talk shows.

ABC's "The Week" with Christiane Amanpour featured the most interesting debate on the tax cuts, where Rep. Mike Pence, the number three Republican (R-Ind.) in the House, squared off against former Reagan budget guru David Stockman. Despite having worked for one of the most tax-hating presidencies in history, Stockman's position the Bush cuts is a curious one. He opposes extending the cuts, arguing that doing so would essentially bankrupt the country. A conservative Republican, Stockman told NPR this summer that "You have to pay your bills; you can't keep borrowing from the rest of the world at that magnitude, year after year after year. So in light of all of those facts, I say we can't afford the Bush tax cuts."

This forceful argument was on display again Sunday. While Pence claimed letting the cuts expire was "not fair" because "you would actually allow a tax increase on job creators," Stockman replied by saying this:

Two years after the crisis on Wall Street, it has been announced that bonuses this year will be $144 billion—the highest in history. That’s who’s gonna get this tax cut on the top, you know, 2 percent of the population. They don’t need a tax cut. They don’t deserve it. And therefore, what we have to do is focus on Main Street.

Here's the video of it, via ThinkProgress' Faiz Shakir:

To be clear, Stockman isn't singling out Wall Street or America's monied elite. Whereas President Obama wants to let the cuts expire for the wealthy but remain for the 98 percent of households earning less than $250,000 for couples and $200,000 for individuals, Stockman has said he thinks the Bush tax cuts should end for all earners. To wit, from his NPR interview:

[GUY] RAZ: In other words, you're saying he has to not just end the tax cut for the top 2 percent or 1 percent of Americans, but the middle-class, the so-called middle-class tax cuts as well.

Mr. STOCKMAN: Absolutely. The tax—the Bush tax cuts costs $300 billion a year: 100 billion to the top 2 percent, 200 billion to the middle-class. So I ask the White House, why is a $175,000-a-year family going to be given a tax break that we can't afford—a large tax reduction, tens of thousands of dollars a year? To me, it makes no sense.

Stockman, who's called GOPers' supply-side economic beliefs "utterly disingenuous," is a voice of worth heeding as Congress prepares to lock horns on the issue. At the least, his arguments serve as a reminder that just because Republicans in Congress say one thing, that doesn't mean all Republicans or conservatives are in lockstep.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 8, 2010

Mon Nov. 8, 2010 5:00 AM EST

Task Force White Currahee Soldiers from E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, take a break from walking up the side of a mountain in Charbaran District here during the early morning hours Oct. 27. The Soldiers were part of the largest combined air assault mission 4th Brigade Combat Team has conducted this year in the province. (Photo by U.S. Army Spc. Luther L. Boothe Jr., Task Force Currahee Public Affairs Office)

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Why Pelosi Should Stay

| Sat Nov. 6, 2010 7:22 AM EDT

On a Thursday morning in July, as the midterm elections were just starting to heat up, four members of MoveOn.org's San Francisco chapter sat around a table in the office of their local congresswoman, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Chapter leader Erin Gannon, who was wearing boots and rolled-up jeans and clutching a pink motorcycle helmet, wanted to know if Pelosi would sign MoveOn's "Fight Washington Corruption Pledge," a petition in support of campaign finance and lobbying reforms. It was the national MoveOn organization's biggest priority that summer.

Pelosi couldn't be there. She was in Washington trying to push through bills on health care and financial reform, for which she was being attacked by the GOP as a San Francisco liberal, out of touch with the rest of America. In the following months, the label would become so entrenched and radioactive that some of Pelosi's Democratic House colleagues would forcefully distance themsevles from her on the campaign trail. The label is now her biggest cross to bear as she seeks relection as Democratic minority leader.

But during the MoveOn meeting in San Francisco, it quickly became clear that Pelosi wasn't going to be the kind of ally that the local activists had hoped for. Her field representative, Mark Herbert, said, "As speaker she doesn't really sign..."

"Anything?" Gannon asked.

"She really doesn't even vote," Herbert replied.

When Gannon asked if Pelosi would at least push the pledge's goals with her members, Herbert suggested that was MoveOn's job, not the speaker's. "It always comes down to the nitty gritty of what we can pass and what we can get votes for," he said. "So in the end, one way to help is to support those congressional districts that are in..."

"Nebraska," Gannon offered.

"That are in marginal districts."

Both the speaker and many left-leaning activists understand how she's contstrained in the pursuit of issues that they most care about. Throughout her speakership, Pelosi has displayed the kind of realpolitik that belies her Left Coast image: She presided over the axing of the public option from the health care bill, the passage of a climate bill that the Sierra Club nearly mutinied on, and Wall Street reforms that were derided on the left as too weak. In most important respects, Pelosi's speaker tenure was no more liberal than the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency, but those details have been lost in the face of Republican caricatures of her as the "speaker from San Francisco."

I asked Chris Nahon, a Democratic political consultant and crisis communication expert who advised Bill Clinton, how much this matters for Pelosi going forward. "Some of that just comes with the territory of being the speaker of the House," he said. "John Boehner is pretty quickly gonna become known for being the country club, golf-playing, cigarette-smoking, orange-hair-looking Republican. That's already happening. Gingrich had this; at some level Denny Hastert did; you go back to Tip O'Neill. Part of being the speaker of the House is that you are going to be caricatured in some ways."

During the Bush years, Pelosi proved to be a highly effective minority leader, orchestrating the takover of the House in 2006 after 12 years of Republican rule. She's an excellent fundraiser who commands the loyalty of her remaining members. She's originally from Baltimore and "has got a tough Baltimore pragmatic play-to-win component to her," Nahon says. It could be that a more effective voice emerges from the Democratic caucus in the next two years, but for now the left is sticking with her. "Speaker Pelosi is a passionate, principled leader and we need her to stay on and keep fighting for progressive priorities," MoveOn told its members on Friday in an email blast. "Can you call and tell her you're counting on her to lead Democrats in the new Congress?"

The Keith Olbermann Suspension

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 3:26 PM EDT

Keith Olbermann has been suspended from MSNBC without pay, effective immediately. The suspension comes in response to a Politico story that reported that the anchor had made three donations to Democratic congressional candidates last week. Political donations apparently violate MSNBC's ethics policy—although other MSNBC employees, including Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough and commentator Pat Buchanan, have made similar donations in recent years. (Actually, it may be that the NBC rules under which Olbermann was suspended under don't apply to MSNBCers.)

This situation brings up several interesting issues of journalistic ethics. Like former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie, Olbermann says that journalists shouldn't vote. Still, his progressive affinities are well known and actually the bedrock of his show. So what's the point of a donation ban? If Olbermann donates to Democrats, will conservatives realize he's a liberal? This is just as silly as NPR forbidding its employees to go to the "Rally for Sanity." 

Media outlets should give up this insane act in which they pretend that their reporters are robots without biases. Everyone knows that's not true! People have lots of biases. Look, this is incredibly simple. Reporters and journalists and media figures should be judged on one thing and one thing only: whether what they say and report turns out to be true. Why do people not get that? If we had a media culture where people were hired and fired based on their record of truth-telling (or not), the world would be a much better place. 

Will Pelosi's Leadership Bid Help the Dems?

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 2:54 PM EDT

Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced via Twitter that she will be running for Democratic minority leader of the next Congress. The move stunned many in Washington who had expected her to step down from the party leadership after Tuesday's massive Democratic wipeout in the House. Traditionally, congressional leaders have bowed out after losing the majority in either chamber of Congress, prompting widespread speculation that one of Pelosi's more moderate colleagues would take her place. But Pelosi's liberal supporters have lobbied for her to stay on, and her candidacy effectively quashes any real competition for the post. Current majority leader Steny Hoyer says he will not challenge her. And though Blue Dog Heath Shuler has launched a quixotic bid to challenge Pelosi, the junior member is not seen as a threat, particularly as progressives now dominate the Democratic caucus. So the path for her new leadership bid is clear.

But will the return of Pelosi help the Democrats? Detractors argue that the Speaker helped embolden the tea party right and accelerate the GOP's return to power, concluding that she'll continue to be a liability for a deflated Democratic Party. Pelosi is certainly one of the most despised politicians in America today, in terms of favorability ratings: as the face of Obama's Democratic Congress, her image was plastered all over anti-Democratic ads throughout the midterms. She was arguably the single biggest reason that health care reform passed the House, bringing it back from the dead after other Democratic leaders had all but written off its passage following Scott Brown's upset win in January. Pelosi also forced members to take votes on measures like cap-and-trade that had a dim chance of passing the Senate before the midterms. Since the GOP used the Democratic agenda to scare voters into supporting them, the argument goes, the party needs a fresh start.

But for essentially the same reasons, Pelosi's return could help revitalize the Democrats by giving the party's disillusioned liberal base a reason to get excited again. "Speaker Pelosi's decision to run for leader is the first bold move we've seen from Democrats since the election," Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, wrote in a statement. Liberal activists argue that Democrats did themselves no favors by running away from the major accomplishments that Pelosi and other party leaders had shepherded through Congress. Even Blue Dog members who voted against major Democratic legislation and tried to keep the axis of Pelosi-Reid-Obama lost their seats, leaving only a tiny handful of conservative Democrats left in the House. In the absence of a strong message that sold the Democrats' accomplishments to the public, the Republicans succeeded in demonizing the opposition.

In the aftermath of this year's rout, Democrats will need to redefine themselves if they want to revive the party. And with Pelosi poised to be at the helm, the House's Democratic minority will assuredly try to push the party to embrace, not shun, its liberal identity.

Google Maps, Border Disputes, and Sandinistas...Oh, My!

| Fri Nov. 5, 2010 2:33 PM EDT

What in the name of Google is going on in Latin America? According to a bevy of viral and lightly sourced reports in US media outlets this morning, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are embroiled in a border dispute that involves soldiers, sediment, search-engine maps, and a Sandinista-turned-Contra-turned-fisherman. Apparently Edén Pastora, a Nicaraguan ex-revolutionary with a broken heart, is occupying some Costa Rican territory while literally trying to move the Rio San Juan, the river that demarcates the border between the two nations. The twist? "Excomandante" Pastora says says Google Maps gives him all the justification he needs. "See the satellite photo on Google and there you see the border," he says. "In the last 3,000 meters the two sides [of the river] are from Nicaragua. From there to El Castillo, the border itself is the right bank, clearly." That prompted a Costa Rican official to lodge a complaint with the Mountain View, California-based web apps company. "There is a bug in Google; we sent a note to the company to rectify the map," he said.

Actually, it turns out this border dispute has been around for awhile and even seemed "solved" a few weeks back. The SEO-obsessed mainstream media seems not to have gotten terribly interested until somebody mentioned yon Grand Duchy of Google, which to most American editors is a bigger international player than some places in some other hemisphere who love the soccer. (Google's revenues last year were almost 4 times greater than Nicaragua's GDP, and a little bit less than Costa Rica's. Seeing as how Costa Rica doesn't have a standing army, Google's security is probably a bit more robust, too. Good thing they're not evil.)

Border disorder: Eden Pastora, in happier days (for him, at least)/Wikimedia CommonsBorder disorder: Eden Pastora, in happier days (for him, at least)/Wikimedia CommonsBut tucked in here amid the "weird news" headlines is a really fascinating question for the international relations theory geeks: Is Google the new United Nations? Two countries have a dispute about national sovereignty, and both stake their cases on the correctness/falseness of a map published by the daddy of the dot-coms. Google has become an arbiter not just of global culture, but global politics. Skeptical? Look at that recent China-Google dispute.

Related to this: Will other transnational corporations replace sovereign nations as the main global players? The question's not exactly new (see also: Nike, Coca-Cola). The difference now is that, unlike United Fruit in Guatemala or ITT in Chile, we're not talking about companies needing friendly governments or harassing unfriendly ones; we're talking about companies becoming de facto governments, across traditional boundaries. Back in 2002, author and theorist Philip Bobbitt spilled ink across thousands of pages arguing that the evolution of capitalism and conflicts meant people would soon rely on "market states," not "nation states," to protect their interests.

Crazy conspiracy theory? Socialist paranoia? Perhaps. But this Google Maps skirmish shows increasingly how reliant we've become on corporations, even benign ones, to confer international legitimacy. If you don't think that poses a challenge to classic international relations, I've got some riverfront property to sell you in Nicaragua—er, Costa Rica.