Mojo - November 2011

Exclusive Video: Reporter vs. Cop Showdown at Zuccotti Park

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 1:14 PM PST

I asked Mother Jones' Josh Harkinson to narrate his night skipping barricades and risking arrest at Zuccotti Park, and I illustrated his story with my own interviews from throughout the night when Occupy Wall Street was raided by police. Read Josh's liveblog and first-hand account from the raid of Zuccotti, and check out all the rest of our #OWS coverage.

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Former GOP Budget Official Says Balanced Budget Amendment Is A Terrible Idea

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 12:05 PM PST
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.)

This week, Congress is expected yet again to take up a balanced budget amendment (BBA) proposal. The measure would require Congress to submit a balanced budget every year, no matter how the economy is faring. (Robert Greenstein and Richard Kogan of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) have the details.)

An earlier BBA reported by the House Judiciary Committee in June would have limited federal spending to 18 percent of economic output (which is never clearly defined) without a three-fifths vote in both the House and Senate, and would require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.

Bruce Bartlett, a former budget advisor for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, reminds us that there's a reason why a balanced budget amendment has never been able to garner enough Congressional support to become law: it's a terrible idea. As Bartlett explains, 18 percent of GDP (if that's what economic output refers to) is a completely arbitrary number, one that couldn’t be reached this year even by cutting every federal program other than Social Security, Medicare, national defense, and paying interest on the debt.

The balanced budget concept dates back to the country's early years, when the Founding Fathers' concerns over rising deficits and the potential for catastrophic hyperinflation led them to assume that the notion of not spending more than you take in was, essentially, self-evident. As a result, the budget was more or less balanced until the 30s, when the Great Depression made balanced budgets impossible and Keynesian economic theory brought deficit spending into vogue.

Ever since, conservatives have railed against big spending liberal policies as a "vast expansion of government. . . financed by seemingly costless deficits." Bartlett is sympathetic to that view, arguing that "[i]f people knew their taxes would go up or they would lose government benefits whenever spending increased, we would have a lot less spending." But then:

Unfortunately, conservatives intentionally destroyed the remnants of the implicit balanced budget constraint in the 1970s so they could cut taxes without having to cut spending at the same time. Finding enough spending cuts to pay for big tax cuts would have doomed their efforts, so they concocted a theory, "starve the beast," to maintain a fig leaf of fiscal responsibility.

Under this theory, deficits are intentionally created by tax cuts, which puts political pressure on Congress to cut spending. Thus, cutting taxes without cutting spending became the epitome of conservative fiscal policy. Unfortunately, it didn’t work.

We gave starve-the-beast theory a test during the Reagan administration, but as I have shown previously, when push came to shove, Reagan was always willing to raise taxes rather than allow deficits to get out of control.

We gave starve-the-beast theory another test during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations. They both raised taxes and, according to the theory, this should have caused spending to rise, because tax increases feed the beast. But they didn’t. Spending as a share of the gross domestic product fell to 18.2 percent in 2000 from 22.3 percent in 1991, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

We gave starve-the-beast theory another test during the George W. Bush administration. Taxes were slashed, but spending rose – again, the exact opposite of what the theory said should have happened. The economist Bill Niskanen asserted that the result was not surprising because the Republican position on taxes effectively reduced the tax cost of spending.

Nevertheless, conservatives like Grover Norquist insist that starve-the-beast theory works, which is why they relentlessly push for still more tax cuts despite the obvious failure of previous tax cuts either to stimulate economic growth or restrain spending, and oppose even the most trivial tax increases no matter how big the deficit.

Bartlett's conclusion: if the GOP cared about balancing the budget, it would back commensurate policies, like higher taxes and stricter controls on tax cuts—the same measures that brought spending in line in the 1990s.

Bachmann South Carolina Chair: "If at First You Don't Secede, Try Again"

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 9:58 AM PST
South Carolina Sen. Lee Bright (R) and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.)

The most recent poll out of South Carolina, like the poll before that and the poll before that, doesn't look very good for Michele Bachmann. She's currently in fifth place, tied with Ron Paul, and just a few points shy of the basement. So on Tuesday, looking to give herself a little bit of momentum, she announced her new South Carolina campaign chair: State Sen. Lee Bright.

Bright's a strong social conservative in a state where that means a lot. But he's also got some baggage. As the Minnesota Independent's Jon Collins reports, he's also got in trouble in the past for joking about secession after introducing a bill to reaffirm South Carolina's sovereignty, telling a local paper, "If at first you don't secede, try again." And earlier this year, he floated a proposal to allow the state to print its own currency: 

Bright introduced his bill to study the creation of a new South Carolina currency earlier this session. The resolution argues that the right to print currency can flow from the state’s constitutional police powers.

"[M]any widely recognized experts predict the inevitable destruction of the Federal Reserve System's currency through hyperinflation in the foreseeable future," the resolution reads. "[I]n the event of hyperinflation, depression, or other economic calamity related to the breakdown of the Federal Reserve System, for which the state is not prepared, the state's governmental finances and private economy will be thrown into chaos, with gravely detrimental effects upon the lives, health, and property of South Carolina’s citizens, and with consequences fatal to the preservation of good order throughout the state."

South Carolina is one of more than a dozen states that have issued similar legal-tender legislation as part of an effort to bring down the Federal Reserve from the bottom up. Bright also co-sponsored legislation to ban Islamic Shariah law from being considered in state courts.

Adbusters Suggests Occupy Wall Street "Declare 'Victory'" and Head Home for Winter

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 9:27 AM PST

Adbusters, the Canadian anti-capitalist magazine that helped spark Occupy Wall Street, suggests in a new "tactical briefing" on its blog that protesters in lower Manhattan "declare 'victory'" and wind down the occupation for the winter, letting the "diehards" hold what's been a site of constant protests for nearly two months.

The magazine's advice came a day before New York police officers raided and cleared out Zuccotti Park, the beating heart of OWS, at the order of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Authorities arrested nearly 200 protesters.

In July, Adbusters put out a call on its website to "flood into lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades, and occupy Wall Street." The magazine asked, "Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?" That call, in combination with months of discussion and organizing by an international cast of artists, activists, students, and more, gave rise to Occupy Wall Street on September 17th, a protest that spawned spin-off occupations around the world and shifted the debate in the US.

Adbusters' call to declare victory is one of two "strategies" the magazine lays out for OWS protesters:

STRATEGY #1: We summon our strength, grit our teeth and hang in there through winter … heroically we sleep in the snow … we impress the world with our determination and guts … and when the cops come, we put our bodies on the line and resist them nonviolently with everything we've got.

STRATEGY #2: We declare "victory" and throw a party … a festival … a potlatch … a jubilee … a grand gesture to celebrate, commemorate, rejoice in how far we've come, the comrades we've made, the glorious days ahead. Imagine, on a Saturday yet to be announced, perhaps our movement's three month anniversary on December 17, in every #OCCUPY in the world, we reclaim the streets for a weekend of triumphant hilarity and joyous revelry.

We dance like we've never danced before and invite the world to join us.

Then we clean up, scale back and most of us go indoors while the die-hards hold the camps. We use the winter to brainstorm, network, build momentum so that we may emerge rejuvenated with fresh tactics, philosophies, and a myriad projects ready to rumble next Spring.

Whatever we do, let's keep our revolutionary spirit alive … let's never stop living without dead time.

for the wild,
Culture Jammers HQ

In the wake of the NYPD raid, Occupy Wall Street's fate remains unclear. A Manhattan judge issued a signed court order permitting protesters to return to Zuccotti Park with their encampment gear. However, by late morning on Tuesday, police continued to block off the the park to the public.

Please Stop Using Justin Bieber in Your War Against Internet Censorship

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 4:00 AM PST
"Bieber not happy with Senator Amy!"

When he's not allegedly coming on to women decades his senior or using Twitter as a weapon, tween-pop icon Justin Bieber rages against the machine of congressional Internet censorship. During a radio interview in late October, Bieber forcefully opposed the Commercial Felony Streaming Act, or S. 978, a bill that would make unauthorized online streaming of copyrighted material a felony punishable by up to five years in the slammer.

The legislation, which could theoretically apply to people who remix or cover pop songs on their YouTube channel, is currently backed by the Obama administration and co-sponsored by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)—whom Bieber singled out as someone who "needs to be locked up—put away in cuffs" for supporting S. 978.

"People need to have the freedom," Bieber said. "People need to be able to sing songs. I just think that's ridiculous... I check YouTube all the time and watch people singing my songs. I think it's awesome." (Here's an audio clip of the interview.)

Minus the call to have an extraordinarily popular lawmaker imprisoned for having an opinion, Bieber makes a decent point: The Commercial Felony Streaming Act is, at its core, terrible politics. Its vague phrasing—supposedly intended to target websites that rake in huge profits by illegally streaming copyrighted content—could potentially leave the door wide open for prosecuting this Korean kid for copyright infringement. Taken to its logical extreme, you'd have a new law that, in a digital era of viral videos and overnight crazes, is excessive (given laws already on the books) and completely unenforceable.

How Pot Could Save Obamacare

| Tue Nov. 15, 2011 4:00 AM PST

On Monday morning, the Supreme Court announced that it will consider the constitutionality of the Obama health care reform law this term, guaranteeing a decision on the landmark legislation by the end of June, right in the middle of the 2012 election campaign. The administration seems fairly confident that the court won't, in fact, overturn the law. It has asked for an expedited review of the legal challenges, and, like the law's opponents, it has pressed the court to settle the matter as soon as possible so states can move forward with implementing the law.

"We know the Affordable Care Act is constitutional and are confident the Supreme Court will agree," White House communications director Dan Pfeiffer said in a statement Monday morning. The administration has good reason to be optimistic—and if the law is eventually upheld, the Obama team might owe a thank you to a surprising group of people: pot smokers. Here's why.

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

Tue Nov. 15, 2011 3:57 AM PST

Task Force Spartan 3 Soldier Army Specialist Daniel Fowler (right) provides security for his team while Afghan National Police (ANP) officers conduct routine vehicle inspections at Freedom Circle in the heart of downtown Kabul. Spartan 3 is a 15-person team who serve as combat advisors to ANP officers at more than 50 different checkpoints within 5 Kabul police districts throughout the densely populated city. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist (SW/AW) Chris Fahey, NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan Public Affairs Leading Petty Officer.

UPDATE (11/28/11): Via our scoop email, Mass Communication Specialist (SW/AW) Chris Fahey informed us that the title and name of the soldier on the left is Army Spc. Colby Young. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact us through our "Got a Tip?" page.

Memo to Mitt: There's No Insurgency in Iran

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 3:30 PM PST
"The insurgency in Iran is THIS BIG."

Since the GOP presidential primary season began, Mitt Romney has been helped by a Republican field filled with candidates whose penchant for gaffes has largely obscured Romney's less dramatic misstatements. That was the case in Saturday's foreign policy debate, where there was so much flailing happening that reporters barely noticed Romney offering up a howler of his own.

It's not quite as dramatic as Herman Cain trying to remember what his position is on Libya, but twice during the debate, in response to a question about Iran, Romney spoke of the need to aid Iran's "insurgents." 

Well, it's worth putting in place crippling sanctions. It's worth working with the insurgents in the company to encourage regime change in the country. And if all else fails, if after all of the work we've done, there's nothing else we can do beside mil-- take military action, then of course you take military action. It is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon.

We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. This term "unacceptable" has been applied by several presidents over history, and our current president has made it very clear that he's not willing to do those things necessary to get Iran to be dissuaded from their nuclear folly. I will take a different course. I will make sure that the sanctions, diplomatic pressure, economic pressure, and support of insurgents within the country help them become dissuaded to get away from their nuclear ambition...

There is no insurgency in Iran. There's the non-violent Green Movement opposition that emerged in the aftermath of Iran's 2009 presidential election, but there are no "insurgents." It's possible that Romney simply misspoke and meant "dissidents," but one would expect Romney, who spent much of the debate agitating for war with Iran, to have some basic idea of the nature of the domestic political opposition in a country he's advocated bombing for nearly four years.

As Steve Benen noted on Monday, Romney seems to be benefiting from an unearned presumption of competence, namely the idea that Romney knows what he's talking about even when he doesn't. That sort of aura can only be enhanced when the other candidates are declaring that the ACLU is running the CIA, dropping one world-government conspiracy theories, and urging that the US become less reliant on oil from Iran it doesn't buy.  

Herman Cain On Libya: Which One Was That Again?

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 2:46 PM PST

Herman Cain, in an interview with the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, struggles mightly to recall what the appropriate anti-Obama position is on Libya. Cain leans back in his chair and fidgets for ten long, painful seconds before saying, "President Obama supported the uprising correct? President Obama called for the removal of Gaddafi? Just want to make sure we're talking about the same thing before I say yes, I did agree or no, I didn't agree." Cain then added, "I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reasons...Nope that's a different one...Got all this stuff twirling around in my head..." Finally Cain asks for a more detailed question. "Specifically what are you asking me did I disagree or not agree with Obama?"

There are plenty of valid criticisms of Obama's Libya effort, whether the war was worth fighting in the first place, the administration's decision not to go to Congress, its misleading assessments of how long the war would last, and its dubious, hypocritical legal rationale for acting without congressional authorization after months had passed. Cain didn't mention any of these. He simply said, "I would have done a better job of determining who the opposition is," without explaining how that would have affected his decision, or what he would have done differently. 

"I'm a much more deliberate decision maker," Cain said. "Some people want to say, as president you need to know everything. No you don't. I believe in having all the information, as much of it as I possibly can. Rather than making a decision, or making a statement about whether I totally agree or didn't agree, when I wasn't privy to the entire situation." 

"I'm not trying to hedge on the question," Cain assured the board. "It's just my nature as a businessman." Well, it's better than "oops."

(h/t Jonathan Martin)

*This post has been edited for content.

Report: States Restoring Gun Rights to Very Scary People

| Mon Nov. 14, 2011 11:40 AM PST

Federal law dictates that people with felony convictions on their records lose their right to own guns. But the New York Times reports that states have been reinstating those rights, frequently for violent offenders, and with virtually no review. Take Washington state, for example:

Since 1995, more than 3,300 felons and people convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors have regained their gun rights in the state—430 in 2010 alone—according to the analysis of data provided by the state police and the court system. Of that number, more than 400—about 13 percent—have subsequently committed new crimes, the analysis found. More than 200 committed felonies, including murder, assault in the first and second degree, child rape and drive-by shooting.

Even some felons who have regained their firearms rights say the process needs to be more rigorous.

"It’s kind of spooky, isn’t it?" said Beau Krueger, who has two assaults on his record and got his gun rights back last year in Minnesota after only a brief hearing, in which local prosecutors did not even participate. "We could have all kinds of crazy hoodlums out here with guns that shouldn’t have guns."

The NRA-backed Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 rolled back a number of federal gun laws, kicking the issue of felons' gun rights down to the states. And the movement to restore gun rights to felons, the Times explains, has picked up speed, thanks to a 2008 Supreme Court ruling that the Second Amendment protects an individual's right to bear arms. Presently, restoration of firearms rights is automatic in at least 11 states for many nonviolent felons, after staying out of trouble for a certain amount of time.

In Washington, the most serious felons are barred from owning guns. But that didn't prevent at least one tragedy:

In February 2005, Erik Zettergren came home from a party after midnight with his girlfriend and another couple. They had all been drinking heavily, and soon the other man and Mr. Zettergren’s girlfriend passed out on his bed. When Mr. Zettergren went to check on them later, he found his girlfriend naked from the waist down and the other man, Jason Robinson, with his pants around his ankles.

Enraged, Mr. Zettergren ordered Mr. Robinson to leave. After a brief confrontation, Mr. Zettergren shot him in the temple at point-blank range with a Glock-17 semiautomatic handgun. He then forced Mr. Robinson’s hysterical fiancée, at gunpoint, to help him dispose of the body in a nearby river.

It was the first homicide in more than 30 years in the small town of Endicott, in eastern Washington. But for a judge’s ruling two months before, it would probably never have happened.

For years, Mr. Zettergren had been barred from possessing firearms because of two felony convictions. He had a history of mental health problems and friends said he was dangerous. Yet Mr. Zettergren’s gun rights were restored without even a hearing, under a state law that gave the judge no leeway to deny the application as long as certain basic requirements had been met. Mr. Zettergren, then 36, wasted no time retrieving several guns he had given to a friend for safekeeping.

"If he hadn’t had his rights restored, in this particular instance, it probably would have saved the life of the other person," said Denis Tracy, the prosecutor in Whitman County, who handled the murder case.

The Times piece is loaded with other, terrifying stories like this. Read them all.