Mojo - March 2011

WATCH: Jerry Brown Takes Budget War to YouTube

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 1:46 PM EDT

Today, in what may be an unprecedented move by a governor (unless you count this clip of Arnold Schwarzenegger with a giant knife), Jerry Brown took California's budget war online with a direct YouTube appeal to Californians. For anyone not paying attention, Brown has vowed to balance California's deficit by any means necessary—closing a massive gap of some $26.5 billion. The legislature is about halfway there, having agreed to cuts in services for the poor, the disabled, college students, and so on.

Brown wants to cover the rest through temporary extensions of taxes such as the vehicle license fee. The GOP minority, of course, won't even consider it, despite what is essentially a fiscal emergency. Nor are they supporting further cuts to universities, K-12 education, parks, health care, etc., which in Brown's words will cause "drastic alterations in the very fabric of our public service." What's more, state Republicans are blocking Brown's attempt to put his tax extensions on the ballot.

The YouTube video is Brown's attempt to put some constituent heat on the obstructionists. "We've been kicking the can down the road," he says, explaining his choice to balance the budget. "You've been treated with evasions, and gimmicks—smoke and mirrors... There's been a tendency to avoid reality, and you can't do that forever." Recalling his campaign promise to check in with voters on the most important decisions, Brown continues, "This is a matter that is too big, too irreversible to leave just to those you have elected... So let me know, let your legislators know, would you like the chance to cast this vote, or would you feel it's appropriate to shut out the people of California?"

He adds: "I don't see this as a Republican vs. Democratic issue."

Quite an operator, that Jerry Brown. But hard not to like the guy. Watch...

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What's Happening In Yemen Explained

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 11:15 AM EDT

The following is a basic primer on what's happening in Yemen. If you're already caught up on that, you can also skip straight to advice on how to follow the latest developments in real time. Click here for the latest update.

The basics: Yemen is a mostly Arab, mostly Muslim country on the Arabian peninsula. Its capital, Sana'a, is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, and legend has it that it was founded by Shem, a son of Noah (you know, the one with the ark). Yemen's population is around 25 million, but those people are spread out over a land area that is over 30 percent larger than California. Yemen is bordered by Saudi Arabia to the north and Oman to the east. Water forms Yemen's western and southern borders: the African nations of Eritrea and Djibouti are across the Red Sea to the west and southwest, respectively, and Somalia is across the Gulf of Aden to the south.

During the Cold War, Yemen was split into two countries; Ali Abdullah Saleh became the ruler of the North Yemen in the late 1970s and has ruled the whole country since unification in 1990. Yemen is the poorest country in the entire Arab world.

What's happening? The unrest sweeping across the Arab world hit Yemen early. Protests have been held in Yemeni cities since the earliest days of the Egyptian revolution back in January. But as protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya forced some degree of political change in those countries, the Yemen protests grew, and the crackdowns by the country's dictator, Saleh, grew increasingly violent. On Friday, March 18, (allegedly government) snipers killed at least 52 protesters with live ammunition. The European Union and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the attack, Saleh became even more unpopular at home, and the dictator's 30-plus-year rule started to unravel.

Egypt's Constitutional Referendum Passes, But Reformers Worry

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 11:11 AM EDT

We've retired our Egypt explainer. But the ousting of Mubarak was just the beginning.

On Saturday, Egyptians took the first crucial step towards remaking their country. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces held a national referendum on eight constitutional amendments that set the stage for legislative and presidential elections this summer.

Keep these facts and figures in mind:

  • 41 percent of the country's 45 million eligible voters participated in the election, with just over 14 million voters approving the referendum, according to the Egyptian government, reports The New York Times.
  • The proposed reforms limit presidential terms in office, beef up the independent judiciary, and abolish key pieces of the emergency law that were written into the constitution in 2007.
  • Voters were asked to vote "yes" or "no" on all eight amendments as a whole. "We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter," said election chairman Mohamed Ahmed Attia.

Reformers worry that the referendum's rushed timetable doesn't give the still-nascent liberal wing of Egyptian politics enough time to organize and mount viable campaigns. The limited time to prepare and organize, they fear, will effectively hand the elections to the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood and the rump National Democratic Party (NDP)—the same party that ran Egypt for decades under Mubarak. The reformers' chief concern: that these factions "would seek to write a constitution that centralizes power, much like the old one." The military, meanwhile, is all too eager to close the book on its reign over the country.

Count the Council on Foreign Relations' Steven Cook among the referendum skeptics. He argues that the reforms do nothing to curb the power of the executive branch, and generally keep the authoritarian state disturbingly un-dismantled. For Cook, anything short of immediate, sweeping reform risks handing the country over to Islamists and the dictatorial debris left over from Mubarak. His recipe:

What Egypt needs more than anything else is an entirely new constitution, not piecemeal changes that provide opportunity for counterrevolutionary and non-democratic forces to manipulate....the planned rapid pace of the handover to civilians favors groups whose democratic credentials are not above reproach. Can a parliament made up of remnants of the old regime, the Muslim Brotherhood, some "independent businessmen," and possibly Nasserists be responsible for overseeing the drafting of a constitution that will make way for a pluralist and representative political system? I suppose it is possible, but I have my doubts....In a counterintuitive way, the best chance that Egyptians may have to build a democratic order is to reject the amendments and get on with the real business of writing a constitution while revolutionary groups are at the height of their collective legitimacy. [emphasis added]

Egyptian reformers must contend with the tough truth that no matter how long elections are delayed, parties like the Brotherhood and NDP will remain the best-organized political operations in the country. Even if the young leaders of Tahrir Square can buy more time, it's far from certain when they'll be prepared to dislodge the old guard.  

Tim Pawlenty to Launch Presidential Exploratory Committee

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 10:30 AM EDT
Flickr/marcn

To no one's surprise, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty will announce this afternoon that he's creating a presidential exploratory committee, the first official step toward a bid for the White House. The Associated Press reports that Pawlenty will make the announcement on his Facebook page this afternoon. His official entrance into the race makes him the second Republican to do so behind former House speaker Newt Gingrich.

By filing with the Federal Election Commission to launch an exploratory committee, Pawlenty can ratchet up his campaign fundraising, which is limited for presidential aspirants who haven't officially declared their intention to run. Pawlenty's operation can also start to hire more campaign staffers, the bulk of which will reportedly be headquartered in Minnesota's Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul. According to polls, Pawlenty has his work cut out for him in the 2012 race. 

A survey from late January by Public Policy Polling showed Pawlenty trailing Republicans Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, and Newt Gingrich in popularity. And in a match-up with President Obama, Pawlenty would lose out by a wide margin, showing he has quite a ways to go before seriously challenging for the presidency.

Is Haley Barbour's Presidential Run All But Guaranteed?

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 9:53 AM EDT
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour.

In the past few weeks, Haley Barbour has been snapping up top GOP political strategists for his likely presidential campaign. Barbour hired former Republican National Committee communications guru Jim Dyke to work for his political action committee, Haley PAC, perhaps drawing on Dyke's experience at the powerhouse outside spending group American Crossroads.

Barbour's latest hire to his PAC is Sally Bradshaw, a Florida politico who has advised former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and worked on Mitt Romney's failed presidential campaign in 2008. Despite her ties to Romney, who's still considered a frontrunner in the 2012 race, Bradshaw told the Miami Herald that Barbour "is the right fit for me."

Here's more from the Herald:

Barbour has said he won't announce his White House intentions until April, after the Mississippi legislature ends it session. He ruffled feathers last week when he suggested to a conservative audience in Iowa that the U.S. should consider cuts to the defense budget in an effort to streamline government spending...

Bradshaw said that kind of candor is what attracts her to Barbour. "We need a president who is not afraid to be bold,'' she said. "Haley is not afraid of speaking his mind."

Bradshaw has worked for the Mississippi native once before, in the mid-1980s, when she was a Washington intern for Barbour when he was President Reagan's political director.

By hiring Bradshaw, a veteran strategist in Florida, Barbour is all but signaling that he's going to run in 2012. On Tuesday, he travels to Nevada, another battleground primary in the presidential race, to meet with Republican Governor Brian Sandoval and some state legislators. Put simply, Barbour is quietly amassing support in crucial states—Florida, Nevada—and laying the groundwork for a strong presidential bid. He may not officially be in the race, but it's only a matter of time before he puts his name in the hat.

Americans Still Baffled Over Health Reform

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 9:24 AM EDT

The House passed the Affordable Care Act a year ago today. But despite the partisan warfare over health care reform, public opinion has changed very little. When the law passed last year, Americans were more or less evenly divided over the law. Little has changed since then, Kaiser Health News reports:

A survey this month by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 42 percent of Americans support the health law while 46 percent are opposed. Although both figures were down slightly from February, overall they have changed little since President Barack Obama signed the landmark bill into law on March 23, 2010.

So why haven't Americans changed their minds about health reform, one way or the other? Well, despite the protracted political firefight over reform—or perhaps because of it—they still don't feel they understand what's in it:

The public also remains as confused about the law today as it was a year ago: About 53 percent of Americans said they are confused, the survey found. That is even more widespread among the uninsured and low-income Americans – the groups who have the most to gain from the law, particularly when most coverage expansions take effect in 2014. 

Another recent poll confirms Kaiser's findings. In California, 57 percent of small businesses aren't familiar with new tax credits for employee health insurance that reform offers small employers, and 62 percent don't know about the state-regulated insurance exchange, according to a poll commissioned by pro-reform groups. 

It's rather disheartening news for reform advocates who've spent the last year trying to educate the public about the benefits of reform. But conservative opponents of reform don't necessarily have the upper hand. According to the Kaiser poll, less than 40 percent of the public supports repealing the law, while more than 50 percent would either like to keep the law as is (21 percent)—or expand it further (30 percent). Such numbers also suggest that a significant number of those who oppose reform believe that the law doesn't go far enough. Last fall, for instance, one Associated Press poll found that there are twice as many Americans who oppose reform because it doesn't do enough as compared to those who oppose it because of government overreach.

With Americans still in the dark about what reform means for them, public opinion on the health care remains malleable. Despite the strum und drang of the Republican assault on reform, both sides still have the opportunity to sway public opinion. So Democratic supporters of reform shouldn't assume that they've lost the battle yet.  

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Ron Paul Coin Minter, Pot Priest, Faces 15 Years in Prison

| Mon Mar. 21, 2011 8:52 AM EDT

At least the Ron Paul chocolates are still legal. Bernard Von NotHaus, the "monetary architect" behind the world's only currency emblazoned with Ron Paul's face, has been convicted in federal court for producing counterfeit currency and engaging in "conspiracy" against the United States. From our friends at Indiana's Evansville Courier & Press:

Von NotHaus developed the liberty dollar in 1998 as an "inflation-proof" alternative currency to the U.S. dollar, which he claimed has devalued since the Federal Reserve was established in 1913.

The silver medallions were produced by a private mint in Idaho on behalf of Evansville-based Liberty Services, which also issued paper notes the group said were backed by silver reserves...

According to federal prosecutors, Liberty coins were marked with the dollar sign; the words "dollar," "USA," "Liberty," "Trust in God" (instead of "In God We Trust"); and other features associated with legitimate U.S. coins.

In 2007, federal authorities raided Von NotHaus' Liberty Dollars headquarters in Evansville, and confiscated more than 2 tons of copper, silver, and gold coins. Von NotHaus had made no secret of his ambition, telling a Spokane newspaper, "we're going to be to the Federal Reserve System what Federal Express was to the Postal Service." Since 2009, lawmakers in at least 14 states have introduced legislation to require or encourage state governments to accept payment in gold or silver. In Utah, for instance, a proposed bill would permit citizens to operate their own private mints.

Since the raid, as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, Von NotHaus has retired from the currency business to found the Free Marijuana Church of Honolulu, where he's a "high priest." He's currently working on a book, tentatively titled, One Toke to God—Two Tokes to Party. Von NotHaus faces up to 15 years in prison.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for March 21, 2011

Mon Mar. 21, 2011 4:30 AM EDT

Army Spc. Christopher Keefe, Provincial Reconstruction Team Zabul, scans his area of responsibility as he secures an area near a bridge construction site in the Zabul province of Afghanistan. Members from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were on hand to inspect the progress and quality of several bridges being built in the area.The PRT consists of members from the Air Force, Army and civilian agencies. Keefe is deployed from the 181st Infantry Regiment, Massachusetts Army National Guard. Photo via US Army

The Week in Sharia: And They Will Call it "Al-Aska"

| Sun Mar. 20, 2011 12:35 PM EDT

Choose your analogies carefully:

  • Terror babies are back! Because a jihadist is never so dangerous as when he's teething, the Center for Immigration Studies, a far-right anti-immigrant group, is out with a new report alleging that terrorists are coming to the United States to have babies, which would, some 21 years down the line, make use of their American passports to wage stealth jihad. There are obviously no flaws with that plan.
  • Rick Santorum is back, too, and he's in mid-season form. At an event in Durham, New Hampshire the former Pennsylvania Senator made clear he intends to make the threat of Islamic law a central part of his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination. Per Politico: "We need to define it and say what it is. And it is evil. Sharia law is incompatible with American jurisprudence and our Constitution."
  • I'd always assumed that, when the global caliphate comes to North America, we'd all be forced to move to Alaska to live out our pathetic existence in relative peace, in some sort of fusion of Coming Into the Country and Solzhenitsyn. But apparently it's the Last Frontier for Sharia, too. On Thursday, Alaska held hearings on a proposal to ban Islamic law from being enforced in state courts. You'll never probably guess who was invited to testify.
  • At hearings this week in Jefferson City, Missouri State Rep. Don Wells, sponsor of (one of) his state's proposed Sharia-bans, wanted the perfect analogy for what Sharia was capable of doing to his state. Instead, he compared compared it to Polio. Polio? Really?
  • And in Tennessee, the sponsor of a controversial bill that would classify Sharia as prima facie counter to American principles appears to have backtracked—at least somewhat.
  • Sharia giveth and it taketh away. On Tuesday, Pakistani authorities acquitted American contractor Ray Davis, who had been charged with murdering two men in Lahore. Why would they do that? TPM explains: "[T]he resolution came only after a deal was reached to pay the victims' families what the Punjab Law Minister called 'blood money'—in accordance with Islamic law." It's still unclear who actually paid for Davis' release.

The Rich Get Richer: CEO Bonuses Skyrocket; Worker Pay Flat

| Fri Mar. 18, 2011 2:47 PM EDT

It's looking like top corporate executives raked in the cash in 2010:

CEO bonuses at 50 major corporations jumped a median of 30.5%, the bigest gain in at least three years, according to a study of the first batch of corporate pay disclosures by consulting firm Hay Group for The Wall Street Journal.

To a large degree, the gains reflect the value of generous CEO stock options, which surged in concert with last year's bull market.  It might seem only fair to incentivize executives to boost their companies' share prices—until you consider how few of these gains have trickled down to the average American worker.

In 2010, median non-farm worker compensation increased by a mere 2.0 percent. With the exception of 2009, when compensation rose just 1.4 percent, that's the slowest rate of increase in decades