Mojo - December 2011

The GOP's 1-Percenter Candidates Can't Name a Single Financial Sacrifice

| Mon Dec. 12, 2011 11:59 AM EST

In the wake of Saturday's GOP presidential debate in Iowa, Democrats and Republicans are hammering Mitt Romney for offering to bet Rick Perry $10,000 that he had misquoted a passage in Romney's book concerning whether Massachusetts' individual mandate should be applied nationwide. (For the record, Perry's wrong.)

But the debate's most revealing moment wasn't Mitt's bet or Newt's deft deflection of his competitors' criticism. Tellingly, it was the candidates' responses to an online question submitted by "Andrew from Texas" via Yahoo News, a debate co-sponsor. Andrew asked, "When is the last time you had a personal financial strain that forced you, not only to give up a luxury, but also to cut back on necessity? And what were the consequences you faced?"

It was a question for the 99 percent. The candidates' answers branded them all 1 percenters.

None of the six candidates—Romney, Gingrich, Perry, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and former US senator Rick Santorum—could name a single necessity they'd cut back on because of financial strain. No one. Nada.

All they could muster were some childhood stories. In Romney's case, the son of a governor and automotive executive, that didn't help his cause, because as he stated, "I didn't grow up poor. And if somebody is looking for someone who's grown up with that background, I'm not the person." Perry mentioned his hardscrabble upbringing in central Texas, in a house that didn't have running water "until I was five or six years old." But then he added, "The fact is, I've never had a time in my life when I felt like that I gave anything up that I didn't have everything I needed." Paul, Santorum, and Bachmann likewise offered weak answers that vaguely alluded to the modesty of their upbringings.

As for Gingrich, who leads in state and national polls, he described living in an apartment above a gas station in Pennsylvania and getting by with his dad's pay as a junior officer in the Army. But even then, he continued, "it was fairly frugal, but you didn't feel desperate."

The candidates' inability to name a single necessity they'd given up owing to financial hardship only widens the gaping disconnect between politicians and the people they represent. Little wonder why. A recent report by the Center for Responsive Politics found that 250 members of Congress have an estimated net worth of $1 million or more. Broken down, that's 67 US senators and 183 House members, more Republicans than Democrats, belonging to the millionaire (or higher) club. The top three wealthiest members are Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) at $294.2 million, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) at $220 million, and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at $193 million, according to Roll Call.

Meanwhile, a Consumer Reports survey released in September found 48 percent of Americans said they'd skimped on medications or taken other steps to cut health care costs to save money. More broadly, income growth for the bottom half of all earners in America is stagnant, job creation is anemic, and the ranks of the poor and "near-poor" continue to swell in the country's sputtering recovery.

It's no surprise that the issue of income inequality, one of the gravest facing the working and middle classes, rarely, if ever, surfaces in the GOP presidential debates or on the campaign trail. The GOP is, after all, the party of the rich, and nowhere is that clearer than in obliviousness of Gingrich, Romney, and Co. to the financial pressures squeezing so many Americans.

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Your Daily Newt: The Speaker's Amazon Adventure

| Mon Dec. 12, 2011 10:34 AM EST

Editors' note: As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

The Republican presidential field was stale and uninspiring when Gail Sheehy profiled the speaker of the House for Vanity Fair in 1995. Sheehy reported that Newt Gingrich first began eyeing the Oval Office 19 years earlier, when he was an assistant professor of history and geography at West Georgia College. "[I]gnoring the minor setback of having just lost his second campaign for Congress, he and his acolytes began to plot a presidential run scheduled for 2000 or 2004." But Gingrich, at least publicly, wanted nothing to do with the nomination:

Today, Newt asserts unconvincingly that the presidency is not "one of the three highest items" on the checklist for the rest of his life. "But," he says, "hanging around with Marianne is pretty high on the list…I really do want to experience a lot of marriage."

When I ask what else is on the list, Newt rolls out a wish list that sounds like the contents page from Men's Journal. "I've always wanted to cross the Owen Stanley Range in New Guinea…I would love to go and collect dinosaur fossils for a while. Probably in Montana or northern Arizona. I would really love to spend six months to a year in the Amazon basin, just being able to spend the day watching tree sloths."

Out of spite, surely. The tree sloth, content to eat and sleep away its existence, is the very embodiment of the corrupt welfare state. Here's a video of a sloth refusing to cross a road without assistance because it wasn't raised in a culture that valued hard work:

Euromess: The View From Germany

| Mon Dec. 12, 2011 7:30 AM EST

It's not particularly shocking that many Germans are worried about inflation. Hyperinflation is often blamed for the fall of the Weimar Republic—the sclerotic democracy that ruled the country between the two world wars—and the rise of Hitler. "You'd get your money in the morning, and if you didn't spend it by the evening, it'd be worth half," one German journalist (who was not alive at the time) informed me this week. The country went through another round of very high inflation during and immediately after World War II, and since then German governments, the German Central Bank, and its successor, the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank, have been renowned for their inflation hawkishness. Now, with the euro itself in danger, many American and British commentators are calling for the ECB to loosen its fiscal monetary* reins. But without German support, that won't happen—and German support does not seem to be coming. 

I'm in Berlin for most of early December on a program for young American journalists. The agenda wasn't designed to focus on the euro crisis, but naturally it was on the top of everyone's mind—and I made sure, as we traveled around the city this week, to try to get German journalists' read on the situation.

For the journalists I spoke to—from outlets across the political spectrum—inflation hawkishness and hostility to eurobonds (centrally issued debt that Europe as a whole, including Germany and France, would have to pay back) were as accepted as, say, kissing babies is in American politics. These feelings went far beyond the left-right divide—people who were otherwise progressive seemed totally opposed to the idea that German taxpayers might have to pay to cover Spanish or Italian or Portuguese deficits.

Perhaps this isn't surprising. But what was shocking to me was the total absence of any recognition that there might be an alternate view. When I mentioned the idea that the euro's problems might not be entirely due to government irresponsibility on the periphery, but rather a balance-of-payments issue (see Matt Yglesias or our own Kevin Drum for more on that idea), people looked at me like I was from space. The fact that German and French banks are holding the bag for Spain and Italy's debt never came up, and no one seemed to have any doubts that the European Stability Mechanism, the fund the eurozone countries are setting up for emergencies, would be sufficiently large to deal with the situation. (Reuters' Felix Salmon is one of many outside commentators who find that hard to believe.)

One journalist for a top newspaper accepted that Greece may exit the euro, but she said that even if that happened, it wouldn't be a big deal for the markets or the rest of the eurozone countries. She argued that European governments have spent so much time convincing markets that Greece is a unique case that a Greek exit would be seen as an anomaly, not a sign of things to come. 

To get a good sense of how different the German landscape is from the debate here, take a look at John Cassidy's New Yorker blog post from Friday, in which he claims that "practically everybody"—"newspaper columnists, financial bloggers, Wall Street analysts, [and] hedge-fund managers"—agrees "the euro is destined to collapse, and with it the great post-war vision of European integration." Cassidy frames his piece—which suggests that the Eurozone may survive without major chaos—as a counterintuitive, against-the-grain argument. But in Germany, Cassidy's seems to be the majority view.

It's possible, of course, that my sample of journalists was oddly skewed and that German media are talking about this sort of stuff. But if Germans really are taking the "worry" side of the story seriously, it's a fringe thing. I spoke to reporters or editors from most of the country's largest papers and broadcasters, and they all seemed unconcerned. What's hard to convey remotely is the general mood: a kind of serenity, an almost utter confidence that everything will turn out fine. I hope they're right. But I'm not so sure.

Correction: I said fiscal when I meant monetary. Sorry. 

The $10,000 Bet Mitt Romney Will Want to Take Back

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 11:38 PM EST

Mitt Romney is very wealthy. The Boston Globe pegged his net worth at somewhere between $190 million and $250 million. So it was probably a bad idea for him to respond to a challenge from Texas Gov. Rick Perry at Saturday's GOP debate by offering to wager $10,000—more than a lot of Americans have in their savings accounts right now—that he had never supported a national individual mandate. Here's video, via TPM:

To make matters worse, Romney didn't just give President Obama grist for a campaign ad—he'd also lose the bet. Romney did, at least until recently, believe that his Massachusetts health care plan offered a model for the rest of the country.

Update: On further review, it's not clear whether Romney would lose the bet, since he didn't specifically call for a federal mandate in his (since-revised) book. But Perry's right that Romney supports mandates on principle, and he has, in other forums, endorsed their implementation at the federal level.

Newt's Big Whopper on the Individual Mandate

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 11:06 PM EST
Newt Gingrich

Pressed by Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) at Saturday's GOP presidential debate, Newt Gingrich offered a clever explanation for his longtime support for an individual mandate for health insurance. As the former speaker of the House told it, he had supported the mandate in 1993 specifically as an alternative to Hillarycare. The mandate was, he noted, a Republican idea. But "after Hillarycare disappeared…people tried to find other techniques."

There are a couple of problems with Gingrich's alibi, but none more glaring than the fact that he didn't simply abandon the mandate after Hillarycare failed. As David Corn reported, Gingrich was calling for an individual mandate for health insurance as recently as 2007. As Gingrich wrote:

In order to make coverage more accessible, Congress must do more, including passing legislation to: establish a national health insurance marketplace by giving individuals the freedom to shop for insurance plans across state lines; provide low-income families with $1,000 in direct contributions to a health savings account, along with a $2,000 advanced tax credit to purchase an HSA-eligible high-deductible health plan; make premiums for these plans tax deductible; provide tax rebates to small businesses that contribute to their employees' HSAs; extend and expand grant funding to high-risk pools across the country; and require anyone who earns more than $50,000 a year to purchase health insurance or post a bond.

Here's a video of Gingrich pitching his proposal while seated across from Hillary Clinton, herself, in 2005:

The Myth of Barack Obama, Regulation Lover

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 10:55 PM EST

ABC News' Diane Sawyer kicked off Saturday night's Republican presidential debate by asking the candidates precisely how many jobs they'd create in their first four years in the White House and how they'd do it. In a Gingrichesque move, Mitt Romney laid out a seven-point economic plan, one of which was making the federal government "get regulators to recognize their job is not to burden the system." The other candidates continued the regulation-bashing, with Rick Santorum saying President Obama's regulations killed jobs and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) claiming that "Barack Obama has given us a bevy of regulations that need to get repealed."

Problem is, President Obama is hardly the regulation lover the GOP's presidential candidates make him out to be. As Bloomberg News has reported, Obama approved 5 percent fewer regulations during almost three years in office than did his predecessor, George W. Bush. The cost of those regulations, meanwhile, hasn't hit the same peak cost as those approved by George H.W. Bush in 1992. And looking across the past three decades, the cost of Obama's regulations is nearly the same as the presidents before him when adjusted for inflation.

What's more, a November study by the Center for Progressive Reform found that the Obama administration had watered down more regulations than the George W. Bush administration did at the same point in Bush's first term as president. Obama's regulatory aides changed 76 percent of rules coming out of federal agencies, the study found, while Bush aides tweaked 64 percent of rules.

On Saturday, in fact, the Obama administration's propensity for whittling away at regulations was laid bare on the front page of the New York Times. After a multimillion-dollar lobbying blitz by the for-profit education industry, the Department of Education decided to weaken new rules overseeing for-profit schools, a regulatory tweak seen as a victory for industry.

Obama is no worse, in other words, than his Republican predecessors on issuing new regulations. While the US economy faces plenty of hurdles on the path to recovery, a unprecedented surge of new regulations is not one of them. 

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Santorum Gets It Wrong on Manufacturing Jobs

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 10:51 PM EST

Presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum took an early hit at President Obama's record on manufacturing jobs at Saturday's Republican debate, claiming the president has decimated the sector.

Let's look at the numbers, via PolitiFact: During Obama's presidency, the number of manufacturing jobs has declined by nearly 800,000. But since January 2010, the number of jobs has increased by nearly 300,000—a rise of nearly 3 percent over the past two years.

And when you compare Obama's record to that of past presidents, he looks even more impressive:

In general, manufacturing employment has declined more or less steadily since the mid-1970s. The last time manufacturing jobs saw such a large and sustained numerical increase was in the early 1990s. So while the increase in years two and three of the Obama presidency is relatively small, it is the best in about two decades.

One way to illustrate the long-term decline of manufacturing jobs is to look at how the numbers have moved during the past few presidencies. In the list below, we began counting from one year into each president’s tenure through to the end of their term. Using that methodology, here are the numbers of manufacturing jobs gained or lost per year:

Barack Obama: Increase of 157,368 manufacturing jobs per year in office
George W. Bush: Decrease of 434,143 manufacturing jobs per year in office
Bill Clinton: Increase of 37,143 manufacturing jobs per year in office
George H.W. Bush: Decrease of 336,000 manufacturing jobs per year in office
Ronald Reagan: Increase of 1,429 manufacturing jobs per year in office
Jimmy Carter: Increase of 15,333 manufacturing jobs per year in office

So by this measure, manufacturing jobs have actually increased by more under Obama than under any of his recent predecessors.

Dinging Obama for presiding over a still-stagnant economy is all well and good. But the numbers suggest that he's made commendable progress toward reversing a troubling 40-year trend.

Will Occupy Shut Down All West Coast Ports?

| Sat Dec. 10, 2011 7:00 AM EST

On the waterfront: Could this Occupy protest be a contender?: westcoastportshutdown.org westcoastportshutdown.org Around nine o'clock on the night of November 2, after more than 10,000 people marched to the Port of Oakland in support of Occupy Oakland's call for a general strike, an independent arbitrator declared the port unsafe for its workers, effectively securing its closure for the rest of the night. This Monday, Occupy Oakland will try to best its 12-hour port shutdown with a more ambitious West Coast "port blockade" joined by more than a dozen occupations from Anchorage to San Diego.

Occupy Oakland's renewed call to shut down the "Wall Street on the waterfront" was sparked in large part by the October firing of 26 port truckers in Los Angeles and Long Beach who wore Teamster T-shirts to work in defiance of their anti-union employer, the Australian-owned Toll Group. Monday's protests are also being billed as a protest against port terminals run by the Goldman Sachs-owned Stevedoring Services of America (SSA) and a show of solidarity with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's rank-and-file—particularly in Longview, Washington, where the union is engaged in a contract fight with Export Grain Terminal, a subsidiary of the agribusiness giant Bunge.

Barucha Peller, a member of Occupy Oakland's West Coast port shutdown coordinating committee, said Monday's plans are an "unprecedented" stand for a movement that's only three months old. Activists have learned from the previous shutdown, she believes, and will work to avoid repeating mistakes such as blocking truck drivers mistakenly thought to be incoming nonunion workers. "November 2 we were organizing on the fly," she explained. "Now we're communicating a lot better with the port truckers and flyering a lot more down at the port." Both truckers and the ILWU members, she added, have had "really positive responses" to the plans. 

Stan Woods, a member of the ILWU Local 6 in San Francisco on Occupy Oakland's port shutdown committee, believes that Monday's plans are in line with the union's decades-long history of picketing in support of social-justice causes (which former communications director Steve Stallone details here). "I have no doubt the national leadership believes what it says," Woods said, "but the ILWU, despite its problems, is one of the most democratic unions, with lots of autonomy." Solidarity strikes have been illegal since 1947, but ILWU workers have a history of protesting without official union sanction.

The ILWU leadership is against another port shutdown. Last Wednesday evening, ILWU communications director Craig Merrilees attended a meeting of about 40 members of Occupy the Hood's Oakland chapter to hand out a letter from union president Robert McEllrath, which disputed occupiers' claims. "Support is one thing," the letter read (PDF). "Organization from outside groups attempting to co-opt our struggle in order to advance a broader agenda is quite another and one that is destructive to our democratic process and jeopardizes our over two year struggle in Longview." McEllrath wrote that criticism of the ILWU's position "is shortsighted and only serves the 1%." A separate letter from the Port of Oakland (PDF) made a similar argument that port shutdowns would hurt average citizens by "diverting cargo, tax revenue, and jobs to other communities."

Of course, disrupting commerce is the whole point of Monday's protests. According to the Journal of Commerce, the West Coast ports are responsible for more than 50 percent of the country's containerized trade, and a 10-day lockout of longshoremen in 2002 cost an estimated $1 billion a day. Occupy Oakland's November blockade reportedly caused $4 million in revenue loss. In the video announcing Monday's protest, local hip-hop artist and Occupy Oakland organizer Boots Riley declared the movement's intention to "shut down all West Coast ports" to "not only make a statement but cause a lot of profit loss." (Watch his statement below.)

In reality, though, the Occupy movement has no intention of actually trying to shut down all of the more than three dozen ports along the West Coast of the United States and Canada. According to the protest's website, occupations in 14 coastal cities—including Los Angeles, Portland, Seattle, Tacoma, and Vancouver—will participate, but they don't all plan to shut down their respective ports.

The Port of Los Angeles, which adjoins the Port of Long Beach, is the nation's largest with 43 miles of waterfront—too large to realistically bring to a halt. Michael Novick, a member of Occupy Los Angeles' general strike preparation committee, said his group instead sees the protest as a "first step toward a general strike" in his city next May. Occupy LA, he said, only plans to picket at one or more SSA terminals at the two ports.

Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield isn't especially concerned about a shutdown. He said officials at the port will take a "thoughtful approach" that will "protect the First Amendment and allow people to demonstrate."

Just as Oakland's November 2 "general strike" wasn't really a general strike in the truest sense, the absence of a total West Coast port shutdown won't prevent the Occupy movement from making another bold statement. An untold number of occupations, from Houston to Denver to Wall Street, have direct actions planned Monday to express support for the port shutdown. Even rail workers in Japan are participating. As at other Occupy events, getting people to show up is half the battle. As Peller asks, "What's it going to look like when tens of thousands are marching on the coasts?"

Scientific Community Slams Plan B Decision

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 6:41 PM EST

On Wednesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius overruled FDA findings showing that Plan B One Step is safe to be sold to all females of childbearing age without a prescription. As we've already mentioned, there are some hefty problems with this ruling, including that now the emergency contraceptive will be kept behind pharmacy counters instead of on store shelves, where women will have to present either a prescription or identification proving they are older than 17 in order to purchase it. Yesterday, the president announced his support for the HHS decision.

The reproductive rights community has reacted strongly against the decision, wondering whether it really has to do with data. "When it comes to FDA drug approvals, contraceptives are being held to a different and non-scientific standard—in a word, politics," Center for Reproductive Rights President Nancy Northup said in a press release from the group.

Meanwhile, a less likely voice has entered the mix: that of the scientific community. The Union of Concerned Scientists published a statement yesterday on their website decrying the HHS decision—and Obama's support of it—as an attack not only on reproductive rights but also on sound science.

The UCS points out that this is the first time an HHS secretary has overruled the FDA on a drug approval. But as Erin Matson, action vice president of the National Organization of Women, noted on Twitter, the administration rarely disagrees with the FDA—drugs or no drugs. She tweeted: "Perhaps the last time the FDA was overruled: A cranberry recall in 1959. Now Obama admin after emergency contraception in 2011. OUTRAGE."

As such, yesterday's decision sets an ugly precedent for scientific assessment of drug safety. "The agency needs to be able to do its job without fearing that the integrity of its work will be compromised," says Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS's Scientific Integrity Program.

Gingrich Flip-Flops on Clemency Toward "American Traitor"

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 12:47 PM EST
Newt Gingrich

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Newt Gingrich suggested he was open to "clemency" for an American convicted of selling US secrets to Israel, a man Gingrich himself once referred to as an "American traitor." 

CNN host Wolf Blitzer asked Gingrich, "If the prime minister of Israel were to say to you as president, please free Jonathan Pollard, the convicted Israeli spy, what would you say?" Gingrich responded: "I will say as a candidate that I want a thorough review of—because every secretary of defense in both parties, I believe, has said no. And I want to thoroughly understand why they have said that." Then he said he had a "bias towards clemency."

I am prepared to say my bias is towards clemency, and I would like to review it. He's been in a very long time. But we are pretty tough about people spying on the United States. And I also have a study under way to compare his sentence with comparable people who have been sentenced for very long sentences for comparable deeds.

Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst, didn't just accept money from Israel in exchange for secrets, he's also believed to have tried to sell information to other foreign countries. Pollard is something of a pet cause for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has long pushed for his release. Pollard reportedly came up during negotiations between Israel and the Obama administration in 2010—Vice President Joe Biden claims he told Obama Pollard would be released "over my dead body." Abraham Foxman, national director of the of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in April that, "I hope that Vice President will reconsider it. This is today an issue that has a consensus among the American Jewish community. It's almost inhuman to keep him in prison—he served his time and there is no justification to keep him in prison." (I suspect "consensus" is overstated.)

It's interesting that Gingrich feels he doesn't have a keen grasp on the issues surrounding Pollard, since Netanyahu brought up Pollard during the 1998 Wye River talks, when Bill Clinton was president. Back then, House Speaker Gingrich said, "I think it is very troubling that the administration would even consider having an American traitor as part of the negotiations." Why isn't it troubling now?