Mojo - March 2011

Ex-Goldman Banker Behind WSJ's Elizabeth Warren Attack

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

It's no secret that the Wall Street Journal's editorial page, a bastion of conservatism, dislikes the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its leader, consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren. But in recent weeks, the WSJ has amped up its attacks on Warren and the bureau, calling her a "czar" and accusing her and the bureau of "extorting billions of dollars from private mortgage servicers" and "stalling a US housing market recovery."

Really? Those are some awfully shrill and sweeping accusations by the Journal's editorial writers. They're also not true. For starters, no one's extorting mortgage servicers. They did a dismal job during the foreclosure crisis of trying to help homeowners reach a mutually beneficial solution to their housing woes. Even the GOP's top investigator in the House, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), said he'd consider a probe of servicers. A civil fine of $20 billion (or $10 billion, or $5 billion) to fund foreclosure mitigation efforts would go along toward making up for the sheer dysfunction and incompetence of the hopelessly broken mortgage servicing industry.

And what about "stalling a housing recovery"? Would a settlement forcing servicers to fix their broken practices have such an effect? Hmm, a statement like that suggests the housing market is in fact recovering—which it's not. The latest S&P/Case Shiller index showed house prices bottoming out at 2009 levels. That's bad. And at the heart of the problem isn't the prospect of a settlement or fine but the still-fragile US job market. To blame a mortgage-servicer settlement, let alone Elizabeth Warren and the consumer bureau, for undermining the housing recovery looks more like a smear than a reasoned argument. The Journal's own news team reported that a settlement could help the recovery, helping to "lift a cloud of uncertainty that has stalled the foreclosure process since last fall."

As HuffPo's Zach Carter reports, it turns out the editorial writer behind the attacks on Warren and the bureau is Mary Kissel, a former banker at Goldman Sachs. Here's more from Carter:

The foreclosure process is in disarray, and even Republican state Attorneys General say that banks have broken the law with improper foreclosures. Consumer advocates have accused banks of levying heavy, improper fees against borrowers, driving them into foreclosure, while other borrowers have been foreclosed on without missing any mortgage payments. Banks have also physically broken into the homes of borrowers in order to pursue foreclosures.

Warren has publicly criticized Goldman in testimony before Congress and during on-air interviews with CNBC and Bloomberg. When Warren chaired the Congressional Oversight Panel for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, she told Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) during a hearing that Goldman had not provided her panel with key documents pertaining to the bailout of AIG, from which Goldman reaped over $11 billion. She also said that the Wall Street giant should be investigated for wrongdoing pertaining to the sale of mortgage derivatives during the housing bubble. Goldman eventually settled with the SEC for $550 million over allegations that it defrauded investors.

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Bradley Manning's Torturous Treatment Met By Growing Resistance

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 11:02 AM EDT

The solitary confinement of Army Pfc. Bradley Manning in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia, is now approaching its tenth month. In addition to sporadic on-the-ground protests, a growing chorus of media and activist voices is calling for an end to Manning’s appalling treatment. Implicitly or explicitly, they link the accused WikiLeaker’s fate to that of tens of thousands of other US prisoners held in solitary, and shed new light on a widespread and torturous practice.

Yesterday the ACLU sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, charging that the "gratuitously harsh treatment" of Manning "violates fundamental constitutional norms." The letter states:

The Supreme Court has long held that the government violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment whenever it “unnecessarily and wantonly inflicts pain.” No legitimate purpose is served by keeping Private Manning stripped naked; in prolonged isolated confinement and utter idleness; subjected to sleep deprivation through repeated physical inspections throughout the night; deprived of any meaningful opportunity to exercise, even in his cell; and stripped of his reading glasses so that he cannot read. Absent any evident justification, such treatment is clearly forbidden by our Constitution…

President Obama recently stated that Private Manning’s conditions comply with the Pentagon’s “basic standards.” Given that those standards apparently permit Private Manning to be subjected to plainly unconstitutional conditions, it is clear that the Department of Defense must adapt its standards to meet the demands of the Constitution.

Amnesty International sent a letter to Gates in January, and amplified its protests last week. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch issued a statement calling on the US government to "publicly explain the precise reasons behind extremely restrictive and possibly punitive and degrading treatment that Army Private First Class Bradley Manning alleges he has received while detained at the brig at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia."

NPR's On Point this morning spent a full hour on Manning, and the show includes a good rundown of the controversy over his confinement. Mainstream publications have joined progressive critics like Salon's Glenn Greenwald in decrying Manning’s treatment. Earlier this week they were joined by the conservative National Review, which declared that he "does not deserve arbitrary and pointless abuse."

Madison Judge Temporarily Blocks Wisconsin "Repair" Bill

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 10:56 AM EDT
Flickr/WisPolitics.com

A county judge in Madison, Wisconsin, issued a temporary restraining order today blocking the publication of Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's fiercely contested "budget repair bill."

The order comes after Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne sued the state, alleging that state Senate Republicans violated open records law when they hastily convened a special committee on March 9 to vote on a rewritten version of Walker's bill. The judge, Maryann Sumi, said the restraining order will remain in place until she rules on whether lawmakers in fact violated state law, as Ozanne claims.

Judging by Sumi's comments at today's hearing, there's a strong chance Ozanne, the district attorney, could win his case and overturn the law. "It seems to me the public policy behind effective enforcement of the open meeting law is so strong that it does outweigh the interest, at least at this time, which may exist in favor of sustaining the validity of the (law)," she said, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Sumi's order is a brief victory for the unions, progressive groups, and protesters who flooded the streets of Madison over the past month in opposition to Walker's bill, which would, among things, eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions in Wisconsin. Ozanne's suit challenging the bill's legitimacy is one of several, with Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk also challenging the legality of the bill, alleging Senate Republicans did not have the necessary quorum to pass the bill. Falk's suit is pending.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 18, 2011

Fri Mar. 18, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

U.S. Soldiers with the International Security Assistance Force load a CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, March 8, 2011, before conducting a mission. (DoD photo by Pfc. Justin Young, U.S. Army/Released)

What's Happening in Wisconsin Explained

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 3:40 PM EDT
Protesters flood the streets of Madison surrounding the state Capitol building on Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011.

If you need to know the basics of what's going on in Wisconsin, read on. If you're already up to speed, you can follow the action on Twitter or jump straight to the latest updates.

The basics:

For more than a month, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin—and the halls of the state's Capitol building—to protest rookie Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union "budget repair bill," which the governor signed on March 11. Big national unions, both major political parties, the Tea Party, and Andrew Breitbart have gotten involved. Democratic state senators fled the state in mid-February to prevent the legislature from voting on Walker's proposals, but returned in early March after Wisconsin Republicans rammed the bill through using a parliamentary end-run. And the protests have spread to other states, including Michigan and Ohio.

Is this like Egypt?

Not quite. Though there are some similarities.

What's actually being proposed?

Walker says his legislation, which would strip most state employees of any meaningful collective bargaining rights, is necessary to close the state's $137 million budget gap. There are a number of problems with that argument, though. The unions are not to blame for the deficit, and stripping unionized workers of their collective bargaining rights won't in and of itself save any money. Walker says he needs to strip the unions of their rights to close the gap. But public safety officers' unions, which have members who are more likely to support Republicans and who also tend to have the highest salaries and benefits, are exempted from the new rules. Meanwhile, a series of tax breaks and other goodies that Walker and the Republican legislature passed just after his inauguration dramatically increased the deficit that Walker now says he's trying to close. And Wisconsin has closed a much larger budget gap in the past without scrapping worker organizing rights.

What's really going on, as Kevin Drum has explained, is pure partisan warfare: Walker is trying to de-fund the unions that form the backbone of the Democratic party. The unions and the Democrats are, of course, fighting back. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein drops some knowledge [emphasis added]:

wisconsin protestsActivists protesting new GOP Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union proposals have occupied the rotunda of the Wisconsin capitol building in Madison for the past week. They say they have no plans to leave unless Walker backs down.

The best way to understand Walker's proposal is as a multi-part attack on the state's labor unions. In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin's unions can't deliver value to their members, they're deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections.

You may think Walker's proposal is a good idea or a bad idea. But that's what it does. And it's telling that he's exempting the unions that supported him and is trying to obscure his plan's specifics behind misleading language about what unions can still bargain for and misleading rhetoric about the state's budget.

Walker's bill does have important fiscal elements: it roughly doubles health care premiums for many state employees. But the heart of the proposals, and the controversy, are the provisions that will effectively destroy public-sector unions in the Badger State. As Matt Yglesias notes, this won't destroy the Democratic party. But it will force the party to seek funding from sources other than unions, and that usually means the same rich businessmen who are the main financial backers for the Republican Party. Speaking of which....

Missouri Legislator: Sharia is Like Polio

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 3:28 PM EDT

On Wednesday, the Missouri House of Representatives held hearings on a proposed constitutional amendement to prohibit state courts from enforcing Sharia law. How did it go? Here's Republican State Rep. Don Wells, who introduced the bill, via the Post-Dispatch:

"This is to protect the people of America," Wells said of his bill.

He went on to compare Sharia law to a disease, like polio. Rep. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, stopped him to confirm.

"Sharia law is like polio?" Kander asked.

"Absolutely, as far as I'm concerned in this country," Wells responded.

It's actually not a terrible analogy, but I'd tweak it a little bit: Sharia is a lot like polio in that it poses absolutely no threat to the United States. Fixed.

To refresh your memory, when a similar bill was introduced earlier this month, its GOP sponsors, State Rep. Paul Curtman and Speaker of the House Stephen Tilley, held a press conference in which Curtman failed to offer any real-life examples that would actually justify the law:

"I don't have the specifics with me right now but if you go to—the web address kind of escapes my mind right now. Any Google search on international law used in the state courts in the U.S. is going to turn up some cases for you."

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What Will Happen When the US Attacks Qaddafi?

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 3:07 PM EDT
A rebel stands guard as another places a Kingdom of Libya flag at a state security building during a protest against Muammar Gaddafi in Benghazi, March 8.

Also see our explainer on what's happening in Libya.

[UPDATED, 6:38 p.m. EST: The UN's resolution to end Libyan violence and establish a no-fly zone passed 10-0, with 5 abstentions.]

[UPDATED, 5:05 p.m. EST: Foreign Policy's Colum Lynch has a copy of the UN draft resolution against Libya, which imposes a no-fly-zone and other penalties on the Qaddafi regime. It's expected to pass easily. Lynch also reportedly heard from an EU official that the UAE, Jordan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia will participate in the anti-Qaddafi effort. Which raises some questions about duplicity among the Saudis, since they're actively assisting the Bahraini royal family to violently put down that country's rebellion.]

There's no point in phrasing it diplomatically: Shit's gotten real in Libya. This morning, leader-for-life Muammar Qaddafi, whose troops have pushed anti-government rebels back towards their eastern stronghold of Benghazi, took to the air to promise swift retribution. "We are coming tonight, and there won't be any mercy," he said:

They are finished, they are wiped out. From tomorrow you will only find our people. You all go out and cleanse the city of Benghazi...As I have said, we are determined. We will track them down, and search for them, alley by alley, road by road, the Libyan people all of them together will be crawling out. Massive waves of people will be crawling out to rescue the people of Benghazi, who are calling out for help, asking us to rescue them. We should come to their rescue.

On the basis of this threat (and Qaddafi's recent, documented aggression), United Nations member countries are mobilizing. Tonight around 6 p.m. Eastern time, the UN Security Council is expected to vote on a resolution that would authorize airstrikes—and perhaps more—to halt Qaddafi's eastward march against the Libyan resistance. According to the US Navy, two aircraft carriers and two Marine amphibious ships are underway or already within striking distance of the Libyan loyalists' advance.

Rep. Weiner Thanks GOP For Saving America From Car Talk

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 2:34 PM EDT

You have to give Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) credit: He knows how to make a point. After the House today voted to ax public funding for National Public Radio, Weiner offered a big sarcastic kudos to his GOP colleagues for killing off Click and Clack, the Boston mechanics/MIT geniuses/brothers who host NPR's beloved weekly Car Talk radio show. (The Senate still has to approve the measure before it's final, an outcome that's far from certain.) Holding up a "Save Click and Clack" poster of the Magliozzi brothers, Weiner went on a tear, congratulating Republicans for finally discovering, in a time of crisis, "a target we can all agree on." Weiner thanked his Republican friends for ridding the airwaves of the brothers' horrible Boston accents, and especially for putting some of the show's staffers out of work—people like customer care guy "Haywood Jabuzoff," or their corporate spokesperson,"Hugh Lyon Sack." "I'm so relieved we had this emergency session...so we can finally get these guys off the radio," he fumed.

Really, print doesn't do the rant justice, so watch for yourself here:

Nuclear Watchdog Report Highlights US "Near-Misses"

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 12:20 PM EDT

My colleague Kate Sheppard has a piece up today on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency tasked with overseeing America's nuclear power plants and processing facilities. Today, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a new report analyzing the NRC's response to 14 "near-misses" over the last year. Conclusion: We're not doing so well. Among the "near-misses":

Peach Bottom. Workers slowed down control rod testing to evade regulations that would have required a plant shutdown; NRC inspectors were aware of the problem but failed to address it adequately.

Indian Point. Inspectors documented that the liner of the refueling cavity had been leaking since 1993; NRC management chose to ignore the problem.

Vermont Yankee. The NRC ignored regulations requiring that all releases of radioactively contaminated air be via controlled and monitored pathways—regulations that had been grounds for shutting down a Baton Rouge plant two years previously.

There's more: At Calvert Cliffs in Maryland, "A roof known for years to leak when it rained allowed rainwater to short out electrical equipment." At Diablo Canyon in California, "The reactor operated for nearly 18 months with vital emergency systems disabled." At Braidwood, in Illinois, "the problems included a poor design that led to repeated floods in buildings with safety equipment, a poor design that allowed vented steam to rip metal siding off containment walls, and undersized electrical fuses for vital safety equipment."

It's not all bad news—the report (which was scheduled for release even before last week's earthquake in Japan) highlights a few "outstanding" cases in which NRC regulators discovered problems and followed up to ensure they were resolved effectively. And because the most serious threats were fairly basic in nature, it suggests that safety can be significantly improved without dramatically overhauling the system.

But more generally, the authors argue that the NRC currently focuses on the immediate problem (a busted valve, for instance, or a leaking roof) without following up on the larger question of how those problems came to be, and why they weren't addressed sooner. The report also raises concerns about a specific company, Progress Energy, which was involved in 5 of the 14 "near miss" incidents; UCS suggests investigating the corporate policies of any company that racks up more than one "near miss," to clarify whether the demand for profits are interfering with public safety.

The big takeaway: "The more owners sweep safety problems under the rug and the longer safety problems remain uncorrected, the higher the risk climbs."

Scott Walker: The GOP's Best Presidential Hope?

| Thu Mar. 17, 2011 11:12 AM EDT
Flickr/jonbloy

What a couple of months it's been for Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker. The massive protests targeting Walker and his controversial "budget repair bill," the measure signed into law last week that slashed collective bargaining rights for most public-sector unions in Wisconsin, launched Walker into the national spotlight, making him the face of the GOP's nationwide assault on unions and attempt to defund the Democratic Party. Today, a Public Policy Polling survey finds that Walker's popularity among Republicans tops that of 2012 presidential hopefuls Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and Mitt Romney.

PPP found that Walker's favorability spread is plus-44, with 55 percent of those polled saying they like him and 11 percent saying they don't. By comparison, Huckabee's spread is plus-42, Gingrich's plus-19, Palin's plus-40, and Romney's plus-21. "None of the folks most seriously considering this race have been able to get any momentum yet, leaving a lot of room for a fresher face to enter and get a lot of traction," writes PPP's Tom Jensen. "Walker's crusade against the unions has put him in a position where he could be that guy."

Among all Americans, however, Walker's popularity plummets. Thirty-nine percent of those polled dislike him, while 34 percent take a favorable of him. Here's more from PPP's results:

Forty-six percent generally have a favorable opinion of labor unions to 40% who rate them negatively. And 45% say they side with the unions in the Wisconsin dispute to 41% who go with Walker. These findings all closely mirror what we found in the state itself- voters are extremely polarized but do side narrowly with the workers.

Even for the general election Walker's favorability numbers, though under water, stack up well to the rest of the Republican field. His -5 spread is better than Huckabee's -7 (35/42), Romney's -12 (32/44), Palin's -22 (35/57), and Gingrich's -31 (26/57). The primary flaw with the top GOP hopefuls is that Americans already know them well and dislike them. That might prove to be the case ultimately with Walker as well but a candidacy from him is an intriguing possibility. We'll throw him on some of our polls over the next few weeks for both primary and general elections and see how he does.