Mojo - February 2011

For-Profit Schools Seduce Vets Online

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 8:21 PM EST

Under retired Army general Eric Shinseki, the much-beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs has begun in earnest to undo the extensive damage to troops and their support services that's been wrought in recent generations. One of its smarter moves was to jump on the social-media wave and use the interwebs as a way to get immediate feedback from vets and their families. The effort is spearheaded by blogger Alex Horton, an Army vet and pioneer milblogger who started tinkering with the format with a mostly-photos site, Army of Dude, while he was deployed in Iraq. He manages to build bridges between service members and their civilian counterparts with insight while avoiding political minefields or tossing the right-wing grenades that so many milblogs regularly lob. Yesterday, he offered civilians a heartfelt primer on how to talk to a vet. Today, he gives vets a rundown on how to maximize their education benefits—while avoiding some very nasty profit-making schemes:

Go to Google and search for "GI Bill schools." The first link you get isn't a page run by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The first result is GIBill.com, and it uses the name of the most recognized public education program in existence to its financial benefit.  It appears to be a legitimate site for information, but a cursory search of its privacy policy shows it is owned by an online marketing firm that, according to a major business publication, specializes in directing students to for-profit schools through its page. It's a questionable marketing strategy that seeks to legitimize a page that serves little purpose other than to funnel student Veterans and convince them their options for education are limited to their advertisers.

Questionable, indeed. MoJo's written about the scary ripoffs perpetrated by for-profit colleges here and here and here and here. They extract a lot of cash from unwitting students with little or no payoff, in terms of degrees and jobs. But they're so profitable, they've become highly valued among investors—possibly overvalued, to such an extent that they could represent a bubble market not unlike subprime mortgages.

But Horton brings up yet another way these schools break basic rules of fairness: by using official-looking sites to target service members and newly discharged vets, who come flush with government cash to apply to an education. Late last year, Bloomberg estimated that 20 for-profit colleges reaped more than half a billion dollars in taxpayer money, from GI Bill-eligible vets alone. No word on how many of those students ultimately graduate and get a job—or on how much they end up owing, above and beyond their benefit levels—but across the board, attrition and debt levels at for-profit schools are staggering, well above those for students at reputable state and private colleges. So, big props to Horton and the VA for drawing vets' attention to the racket. It may be the least the government can do, but it's a great start.

In not-so-related news, if you're an out-of-work vet, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) may be willing to help you. He's offering to enter unemployed vets' resumes into the Congressional Record to get them some exposure. (Craigslist, eat your heart out.) Interested parties, email your credentials to resumesfromveterans@mail.house.gov.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

SD Rep. on Justifiable Homicide Bill: "This Has Got Nothing to Do With Abortion"

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 2:54 PM EST

My story today on a measure in South Dakota that would expand the definition of "justifiable homicide" to include killings that are intended to prevent harm to a fetus—which pro-choice groups fear could be interpreted as making it legally defensible to kill an abortion provider—has caused quite a stir.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Phil Jensen (R), spoke to Mother Jones on Tuesday morning, after the story was published. He disagreed with this interpretation of the bill, claiming that it is simply meant to "bring consistency to South Dakota statute as it relates to justifiable homicide." This echoes the argument he made in the committee hearing on the bill last week. "If you look at the code, these codes are dealing with illegal acts. Now, abortion is a legal act. So this has got nothing to do with abortion." Jensen also aggressively defended the bill in an interview with the Washington Post's Greg Sargent on Tuesday morning.

Even if one accepts Jensen's argument—which is a stretch, given the long list of anti-abortion advocates called to testify in favor of it—the bill is, in the very least, an attempt to classify a fetus as a person. Fetal personhood measures are a tactic often used by the anti-abortion movement to give the fetus the same set of rights as a person—setting the precedent, of course, to interpret abortion as murder.

Further, whatever the "intent" Jensen had for the bill, given the bill's vague language, it certainly leaves itself open to the interpretation that defense of a fetus qualifies as "justifiable homicide." It also provides legal justification for the kind of extremists who would seek to kill an abortion doctor. Then there's the fear element. Anti-abortion lawmakers know they don't actually have to make it technically legal to kill a doctor—merely opening up the possibility of that interpretation in hopes of may discourage doctors from offering the service in the state. Given the history of violence against providers, this is no insignificant issue.

And Jensen's argument that this law wouldn't apply in the case of the killing of an abortion provider belies the fact that the South Dakota legislature has tried multiple times to make abortion illegal in the state. It is currently legal, but not for a lack of trying on the part of lawmakers like Jensen. Jensen is also a cosponsor of the other bill I mentioned in the story that would force women to seek counseling at a Crisis Pregnancy Center—a measure clearly intended to discourage women from following through with an abortion.

The bill's opponents in the state legislature also consider it a dangerous measure that could make killing abortion doctor permissible. "This bill sets a dangerous precedent to supporters of choice everywhere," said Rep. Kevin Killer (D), one of only three votes against it in committee last week. As it is written, said Killer, the measure "provides no protection" for against individuals who believe they are trying to harm the fetus. It also sets a dangerous precedent. "This will have a profound impact on states everywhere if the language of this bill stands," said Killer.

A vote on the measure is scheduled for 2:30 Central today.

UPDATE: The vote on the bill has reportedly been moved to Wednesday.

Fannie, Freddie's Legal "Feeding Frenzy" Costs Taxpayers $434 Million

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 1:45 PM EST

First you bailed out Fannie and Freddie. Now you're paying their legal bills.

Taxpayers have covered $434 million in legal fees for Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and their highly-paid executives since the federal government took over the wounded housing giants in September 2008, according to data (PDF) provided to Mother Jones by a congressional source.

A significant portion of those taxpayer-funded legal expenses—$163 million, or nearly 38 percent—was spent defending the two companies and their top brass, including former Fannie CEO Franklin Raines and CFO Timothy Howard, against charges of fraud, abuse, and other misconduct. Worse yet, a top state regulator currently suing Fannie Mae says the company is grossly overspending on its legal defense "to delay and stall, all while racking up astronomical legal costs and sticking America's taxpayers with the bill."

On Tuesday afternoon, a Congressional subcommittee will grill Fannie and Freddie officials on the two companies' lavish legal spending. The hearing is the result of an investigation by the House financial services committee's oversight and investigations subcommittee, which spent several months looking into how much the twin housing giants, known as government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs), have spent on outside counsel and legal defense. Fannie and Freddie's regulator says that so far, taxpayers have absorbed about $150 billion in overall losses from the two companies, a figure that could ultimately grow to nearly $400 billion. "Unfortunately, today, years after they were forced out of the company for their misdeeds, [former Fannie Mae CEO] Franklin Raines and his management team have continued their abuse," Rep. Randy Neugebauer (R-Tex.), the chair of the investigations subcommittee, said in prepared remarks. "This time, however, it is against the US taxpayers."

Jeff Flake's Sheriff Joe Problem

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 12:27 PM EST

Arizona's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio is flirting with the idea of running for Jon Kyl's Senate seat, telling The Hill that "the door is open right now" for a national bid. He made the remarks in light of an early poll that had him leading the pack of Republican contenders, with 21 percent of the vote, trailed by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) at 17 percent. Some observers are skeptical, however, that Arpaio will actually run: the spotlight-loving immigration hawk made similar noises when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer ran for re-election in 2010 but never launched an official campaign. 

Nevertheless, even speculation about an Arpaio run could be a thorn in the side for Flake, a leading contender for the seat. Though Flake is a hard-line fiscal conservative who's embraced the tea party, he's been significantly more moderate on social issues in the past. On immigration, most notably, he's previously supported a comprehensive reform package that included a version of the DREAM Act and a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. Such views—combined with his support for gay rights measures like Don't Ask, Don't Tell—has made him a pariah among some social conservatives. If "America's Toughest Sheriff" continues to toy with a bid, anti-immigration activists will only ramp up the pressure on Flake to defend his moderate positions during the Senate Republican primary, using Arpaio's harsh anti-immigration crackdowns as a foil.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) faced the same problem during his own re-election bid in 2010, when he faced anti-immigration extremist J.D. Hayworth. Like McCain, Flake has also toughened his stance on the issue, supporting Arizona's unprecendented immigration law and voting down the DREAM Act in December. But with the political and social tensions surrounding immigration are still running high in Arizona, Sheriff Joe could still cause a world of trouble for Flake in the run-up to 2012.

Poll: New Hampshire Primary is Romney's to Lose

| Tue Feb. 15, 2011 9:35 AM EST

The New Hampshire primary, the first of the presidential race, can make or break a candidate's run for the White House. According to a new WMUR Granite State Poll, New Hampshire's 2012 Republican primary is Mitt Romney's to lose, with 40 percent of prospective voters saying they'd vote for the former Massachusetts governor. The next closest presidential hopeful, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, received just 10 percent support.

Straggling in behind them were former governors Tim Pawlenty and Mike Huckabee with 7 percent each. Then comes former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin with 6 percent, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) with 5 percent, Donald Trump with 3 percent, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Mississippi governor Haley Barbour with 1 percent.

No doubt Romney's is partly owed to his tenure governing Massachusetts, a neighboring state. But his overwhelming support in New Hampshire also reflects the political make-up of the state's voters, who tend to care more about fiscal issues and less about religion and the culture wars. "Romney is doing well in part because his brand of Republicanism fits with most New Hampshire Republicans, who can be characterized as 'Rockefeller Republicans,'" Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center, told WMUR. Not that Romney's political DNA did much good in 2008, when he lost the state to John McCain.

If Palin does decide to launch a 2012 presidential bid, she'll have her work cut out for her in must-win early states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina. Right now, polls show flagging support for her in these states. Public Policy Polling recently found that Palin's support in Iowa was a mere 15 percent, badly trailing Mike Huckabee at 30 percent. Another poll by a Republican strategy firm also found Palin trailing Huckabee by double digits. Should Palin run and then lose Iowa and New Hampshire, her presidential aspirations would be all but sunk.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 15, 2011

Tue Feb. 15, 2011 5:30 AM EST

Sgt. Tracey Long grades a candidate during scenario-based testing for the Expert Infantry Badge for infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team, Feb. 1, 2011, at Fort Bragg, N.C. The EIB was created in 1943 as a means to recognize excellence among the infantry. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

Advertise on MotherJones.com

In Texas, a Life Spared and a Prosecutor Exposed

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 5:57 PM EST

It wasn't too long after the Texas Monthly ran an epic piece on the horribly flawed case against Anthony Graves that the Burleson County DA's office announced that it was clearing him on charges of capital murder and setting him free—after 18 years in prison. I wrote about that piece here ("Innocence Lost"), and have finally got around to reading Pamela Colloff's followup, which brings her story up to date and explores what happened when a badass special prosecutor sat down to look at the facts of Graves' case and decide whether to retry it. (An appeals court, finding some problems, had kicked it back to the lower court for consideration.)

The followup story, which ran in TM's January issue, is as gripping as the original. It captures the drama that unfolded when it began dawning on Kelly Siegler—the feared prosecutor who ate bleeding-heart liberals for breakfast, sent 19 men to death row, and had a rep for winning old cases based on circumstantial evidence—that Graves' trial was "a travesty" and a stain on the justice system that raised questions of borderline-criminal misconduct on the part of former district attorney Charles Sebasta.

Sebasta, Siegler told reporters at the press conference announcing Graves' release, "handled this case in a way that would best be described as a criminal justice system's nightmare." Sharing the podium was current Burleson County DA Bill Parnam, who was "absolutely convinced" of Graves' innocence. "There's not a single thing that says Anthony Graves was involved in this case," he said. "There is nothing."   

Colloff also captures Graves' humanity, and his refusal to let himself be consumed by the anger that is rightfully his. I've said enough. Go read "Innocence Found."

Update: Wow. The Texas state comptroller has denied Graves compenstation for his wrongful incarceration. As the Houston Chronicle reports, "The letter from the comptroller’s office said the court order must indicate 'on its face' that it was granted 'on the claimant’s actual innocence.'" The judge could have inserted that language, but Parnam—why? why?—didn't request it within a 15-day window provided under the law. This county, and the state of Texas need to do the right thing here.

Obama's Budget: Back to the Future...Again

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 2:59 PM EST

Winning the Future—that's the new watchword of the Obama White House. It was the core message of President Obama's recent State of the Union address, and it's the motto for the federal budget the administration has just released. But what about the here and now?

At a White House press conference on Monday afternoon, Jacob Lew, Obama's budget director, briefed several dozen reporters on the ins and outs of the budget. His major sales pitch was that the budget prudently saves money (by reducing deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next ten years) and wisely invests money (by increasing spending on education and R&D). Lew's tag line: "we can live within our means and…we can invest in our future." He said that several times.

There were plenty of questions from the assembled reporters about the administration's calculations, about baselines, about the president's reluctance to propose cost-savings in Social Security. (Lew noted that Social Security is not contributing to the nation's deficits at this point and that this is "not an urgent moment" regarding the public retirement program.) Not many questions, though, were aimed at how the Obama administration's proposed budget will directly affect Americans now contending with the country's economic troubles.

A reporter from the Boston Globe did inquire why the administration proposes to invest in wireless internet technology while cutting $2.5 billion or so from the program that provides heating assistance to the poor and elderly. In other words, do seniors and low-income Americans have to freeze next winter so the administration can spend billions on a wireless initiative? Lew noted that this spending reduction was "a very hard cut." He explained that the heating-assistance program (known by the acronym LIHEAP) doubled in size after energy prices spiked in 2008 and should not continue at that level. He added that he had helped create this program years ago, when he worked for House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and that it was designed to be a grant program, not an entitlement program, meaning the feds each year are supposed to figure out each year how much they can afford to hand to cash-strapped states. And the wireless initiative, he said, is part of the administration's crucial winning-the-future agenda. Lew did look pained to be rationalizing this particular cut.

Minutes later, I posed a similar, but broader, question. Noting that the administration was wrapping up the budget with its win-the-future rhetoric, I asked, if one of the millions of unemployed Americans were to look at this budget, what might he or she see that would provide direct assistance in the near-term? Lew replied by first pointing to the December tax-cut deal Obama struck with congressional Republicans, noting that it extended unemployment benefits. He referred to that agreement as a "very important backdrop" to the White House's proposed budget.

But what about the proposed budget itself? Lew cited the billions of dollars in spending increases for infrastructure, noting that the administration was looking for projects that could start quickly, "with a an eye to creating immediate opportunity." He didn't say much more about immediate job-creation.

It seems the administration has concluded that after that tax-cut deal—which did amount to something of a second stimulus—there is not much else the White House can do via government spending (or tax cuts) to create jobs, especially with Republicans controlling the House. A recovery—though anemic—is underway. (At the press conference, Austan Goolsbee, the chairman of the President's Council of Economic Advisers, noted that economic growth tends to average 4.2 percent in the five years following a reception, but the White House is forecasting only 3.8 percent growth in the current post-recession period.) But the president and his aides appear to be holding on to the hope that this recovery will make the next year or two (until Election Day 2012) sufficiently less awful than the past two and yield a political environment amenable for reelection.

Thus, the focus on the future, rather than job-creation right now. (Perhaps Obama should swipe the Bill Clinton theme song that featured the chorus: "Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.") It is good policy to be looking ahead. Such a stance also directs political attention from the economic difficulties of today, which might indeed be beyond the president's reach. Yet all of this looking ahead is unlikely to offer solace to folks out of work at this moment. Will they appreciate that Obama is trying to nudge the slow-to-change economy in a better direction, as he faces harsh challenge from Republicans, who these days have one thing in mind: slash  the government? And Will their appreciation—or lack thereof—be a factor in the next election?

The consensus of White House reporters is that the proposed budget, like most, is a political document that was chiefly designed to give Obama the best shot at winning reelection next year. True or not, until then, there won't be any telling if Obama's emphasis on the future is good for his own.

Middle East: Who's Next?

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 12:54 PM EST

As Nick Baumann wrote in our Egypt explainer today, unrest is flaring up all across the Muslim-majority world. From today's "Day of Rage" in Bahrain to Saturday's scheduled demonstrations in Algiers, protestors are following the Tunisian-Egyptian formula in hopes of achieving reform.

Here's a quick look at what's happening:

Bahrain

Protestors in the gulf kingdom of Bahrain dubbed Monday a "Day of Rage," and are pushing the ruling family to grant their demands for improved human rights. Most of the protestors are Shia Muslims, who constitute some 70 percent of the country's population. But they say they've been discriminated against by the ruling family. Meanwhile, the king has offered cash—$2,650 per family—in an attempt to keep the discontent from spreading.

Demonstrators have clashed with police in the capital city of Manama, and the security presence in Shia villages has been increased. Reports say that the police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell the protests in the Shia-majority village of Newidrat, located in the southwest part of the island.

Likelihood Of Explosion: Not high. But analysts consider Bahrain one of the most vulnerable among the Gulf states.

Yemen

Wielding clubs, batons, and electroshock tasers, police in Yemen have beaten back anti-government protestors for three straight days. Inspired by Egyptians who brought down their government, the demonstrators' demands are simple: political reform and the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. But as in Egypt, they're facing violent opposition from armed pro-government forces. Human Rights Watch has called on Saleh's government to bring an end to the attacks against the demonstrators and prosecute those responsible.

Saleh—a close ally of the United States—has been in power for thirty years, and promised not to run for office again, a move hailed throughout the country. A 2006 US Agency for International Development study on corruption found that only 40 percent of tax revenues in Yemen make it into the treasury, while 40 percent of its population languishes in poverty. Meanwhile, Saleh's government spends the least on public health of any government in the Middle East, leading to some of the highest malnutrition and child mortality rates in the world.

In the meantime, there's good news  for Saleh: he's getting additional millions of dollars in aid from the United States for help in the war against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Check out this Democracy Now interview with Sarah Leah Whitson, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

Likelihood Of Explosion: Temperatures are high and getting higher. Considering the ongoing sectarian conflict plaguing the country, expect the Obama administration to keep a very close watch on what happens there next.

Iran

What's old is new in Iran. Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad showed solidarity with the protestors in Egypt. Despite "satanic" Western designs, he said, the United States and Israel would not be able to interfere. "The arrogant powers will have no place in this Middle East," Ahmadinejad declared. And the Iranian people have listened. As of late on Monday, thousands had gathered at various spots around Tehran, showing solidarity with the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutionaries who brought down their respective governments.

But security forces, armed with tear gas, attacked demonstrators. Key opposition websites have been shut down. Opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karoubi were placed under house arrest on Monday, a day after they issued a statement supporting the protestors.

Watch this video, posted on Youtube, supposedly taken during Monday's protests. It shows people chanting, "political prisoners must be freed." Then a woman cries that tear gas has been deployed.

 

Likelihood Of Explosion: Moderate. If the aborted Green Revolution proved anything, it was that Iranians know how to get heard—and that Iranian officials do not hesitate to do whatever is necessary to crush any opposition.

Likelihood Of Ensuing Crackdown: Tragically high.

Algeria

The government of Algeria reaffirmed its promise to end its nineteen-year-old state of emergency. "In the coming days, we will talk about it as if it was a thing of the past," said foreign minister Mourad Medelci, repeating promises made earlier this month by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Angered by high unemployment, poor housing, and high food prices, demonstrators across the country have called for a change in government. Opposition leaders plan to follow up their protests from this past weekend with a demonstration this Saturday—and every subsequent Satudary—in the capital of Algiers.

Likelihood Of Explosion: Low.

The Liberal Attack on Obama's Budget

| Mon Feb. 14, 2011 12:45 PM EST

President Obama has released a $3.7 trillion blueprint for his 2012 budget request. The administration says its proposal would cut deficits by $1.1 trillion over the next decade. Sure, the president's suggested cuts pale in comparison to the $100 billion House Republicans want to slash from the budget. But it's not just the GOP cuts that have liberals worried: some of Obama's proposals are upsetting the left, too. Last week, for example, National Journal's Marc Ambinder broke the news that Obama would be putting home heating subsidies for low-income families on the chopping block. That and other proposed cuts have unsettled liberal budget-watchers, who fret that vital funding could be eliminated in the name of political compromise.

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn notes that Obama promised to give working families and education a boost but now supports cutting assistance for low-income college students and other vulnerable Americans:

Pell Grants, for low-income college students, are going to take a hit, albeit a carefully crafted one. There will be more money for building high-speed rail but less for helping low-income families pay their heating bills.

Is this a good thing? In absolute terms, clearly, the answer is no. The demand for Pell Grants is unusually high right now; among other things, cash-strapped states are raising tuitions at state schools just as cash-strapped students and families have fewer resources to pay them. Energy costs for next winter, when the cut in heating assistance would take effect, are likely to be higher than at any time since 2008. Unless the economic recovery quickens very suddenly, plenty of people will struggle to pay those heating bills. And those are just two examples of program reductions that will leave needy Americans even more needy."

Liberal groups like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee have lashed out against the president's cuts, accusing the White House of forcing the needy to pay for the $538 billion tax-cut compromise that passed last December. The PCCC blasted the administration in a press statement Monday:

Every proposed cut to necessary programs like Pell Grants and heating for low-income seniors needs to be judged in the context of the unnecessary tax cuts for Wall Street millionaires that passed at the end of last year. Proposing even more tax breaks for Wall Street banks while slashing and burning necessary government programs is right-wing radicalism, and no Democratic president should be part of it.

All that said, Cohn and other more moderate critics acknowledge that Republicans are pushing cuts to Pell grants and home heating subsidies that are even deeper than the ones the White House has proposed. The GOP has also proposed cuts to many other essential programs, including food inspections and nutritional assistance for pregnant women and infants. When push comes to shove, liberals will undoubtedly hope that the final budget is closer to Obama's proposal than it is to the bleak Republican alternative. But on the left, the debate will continue over whether Obama went too far or chose the wrong programs to slash—and whether the White House ceded too much ground in the name of politics and hurt the country's neediest in the process.