01/08/2014 archive

Punting the Pundits

“Punting the Pundits” is an Open Thread. It is a selection of editorials and opinions from around the news medium and the internet blogs. The intent is to provide a forum for your reactions and opinions, not just to the opinions presented, but to what ever you find important.

Thanks to ek hornbeck, click on the link and you can access all the past “Punting the Pundits”.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel: 2014 promises plenty of positive change

Will 2014 feature more of the same Washington gridlock, austerity, partisan posturing and just plain stupidity that made 2013 so miserable? The dysfunction got so bad that the media celebrated Congress merely for agreeing on a budget, one that will damage the economy but not as much as last year. That Congress could pass something, anything, made it seem like carping to note that legislators cruelly cut off emergency jobless benefits for workers unable to find work and stupidly killed the wind energy production tax credit, essential to that vital industry.

But the widespread predictions that 2014 will witness only more of the same ignore the growing reality that, outside the Beltway, people are beginning to stir and change is in the air. [..]

Currents such as these aren’t yet a tidal wave. The citizens in motion aren’t yet a consolidated movement. But 2014 begins not only with change in the air but also with change taking place on the ground. Washington may continue to be gridlocked. Across the country, however, people are starting to move.

Heidi Moore: The GOP couldn’t be more wrong about cutting unemployment insurance

If the government has any responsibility to its people, it’s not to force them into poverty when they have no other financial options

How do you improve the economy? If you ask some Republican members of Congress, the best way is to throw 1.3 million people into deeper poverty, starting this week.

For some time, right-wing think tanks and conservative politicians have held on to a number of arguments that they believe prove it’s a good idea to let unemployment benefits lapse for 1.3 million people. None of those arguments holds up under the least bit of scrutiny. America’s economy would be far better off if Congress extended unemployment benefits.

To look at their points, one by one, is to understand that the Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits is dishonest. It also stands to alienate many Republican voters, particularly in the south, where poverty is widespread.

Zoë Carpenter: Eighty-Six Percent of Americans Think the Government Should Fight Poverty

Fifty years after President Lyndon Johnson announced a “War on Poverty,” a majority of Americans believe that persistent economic hardship is the result of a broken economy, not of personal or government failures. They broadly agree that the government has a responsibility to use its resources to fight poverty, and should pursue a target of reducing it by half over the next decade.

Those are the conclusions of a public opinion survey published Tuesday by the Center for American Progress. The report assessed perceptions of poverty in general, as well as opinions of the War on Poverty in retrospect and of policy proposals on the table now. As lawmakers move to cut benefits and refuse to consider serious investments in the economy, in education and in healthcare, the survey is another reminder that those are precisely the investments people want the government to make.

Michelle Goldberg: This Is David Brooks on Drugs

he fact that David Brooks’s wistful, self-satisfied moralism cloaks a serious moral obtuseness is usually hardly worth noting. It’s simply to be expected, as predictable as Tom Friedman bumping into a taxi driver with pithy insights about globalization or Ross Douthat disapproving of his coevals’ sex lives. Still, Brooks’s lament about marijuana legalization is astonishing in its blindness to ruined lives and the human stakes of a serious policy debate. Somehow, he’s written a whole column about the drug war that doesn’t once contain the words “arrest” or “prison.” It’s evidence not just of his own writerly weakness but of the way double standards in the war on drugs shield elites from reckoning with its consequences. [..]

What’s missing here, of course, is any reckoning with the social costs of that discouragement. According to Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, a 2012 book by scholars at the Rand Corporation’s Drug Policy Research Center, there are currently 40,000 prison inmates with marijuana convictions, and “perhaps half of them are in prison for offenses related to marijuana alone.” A recent ACLU report tells us that between 2001 and 2010, there were over 8 million marijuana arrests in the United States, 88 percent of them just for possession.

Jessica Weisberg: [Undocumented Lawyers and Rogue States ]

In the first week of 2014, thirteen states increased their minimum wage, Colorado legalized recreational marijuana use and California restricted gun registration and granted more rights to transgender students. There are always new laws each January: Illinois banned anyone under 18 from using a tanning salon, Oregon now permits new mothers to keep their placentas, and Wisconsin has legitimized “pedal pubs”-which, for the uninitiated, refers to a dozen or so bicycles hitched together with a keg mounted on top. But the ideological aggressiveness of some of the 2014 laws have inspired many to proclaim 2014 as a “liberal moment.” Another example supporting the liberal moment thesis: the California Supreme Court ruled last week that an undocumented immigrant who passed the state bar should be able to practice law. [..]

Such laws have made the quality of life for undocumented immigrants vastly different from state to state: immigrants can get a driver’s license in New Mexico, and they pay the same tuition as their high-school classmates at any state university, but next door, in Arizona, they’ll never be eligible for a license and will pay three times as much for college as their peers. California has become, arguably, the most immigrant-friendly state in the country, having just implemented the Trust Act, a law that limits ICE’s power to hold and deport nonviolent immigrants.

Laura Wright Treadway: The Benefits of Digging in the Dirt

Nature schools are helping make outdoor play a priority for a generation of kids suffering from nature-deficit disorder.

In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, which introduced the world to the term “nature-deficit disorder,” journalist Richard Louv argued that children need to unplug from computers and smartphones and reconnect with the original way of learning about the world: by wandering around outside. Louv’s book, naturally, was a big hit with environmentalists (the National Audubon Society and Wilderness Education Association were among those who gave him awards). But now that I have a child of my own and read as much about parenting and child development as I do about the environment, I’m increasingly aware that it’s not just the eco-minded who are calling for more mud pies and fewer LeapFrog computers for preschoolers. It seems that everywhere I turn, there’s another reminder that our children need less time in front of screens and more time figuring things out for themselves. [..]

Parents are clearly willing to pay to get their kids outside more, and with good reason. Forty percent of U.S. school districts cut recess or physical education programs after Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, partly in response to pressure to improve test scores. But the benefits of getting outside to play are manifold, particularly in natural settings. Studies show that exposure to nature can help reduce ADHD symptoms; in schools with an environmental education component, students score higher on standardized tests in math, reading, writing, and listening than their non-nature-exposed counterparts. Other positive effects include improved critical thinking, problem solving, and cooperation. And there are health benefits, too: kids who play outside more often are less likely to develop nearsightedness, obesity, diabetes, and vitamin D deficiencies.

A Tale of Two Frauds

Why are these two tales of fraud not the same in the eyes of the law?

Charges for 106 in Huge Fraud Over Disability

By William K. Rashbaum and James C. McKinley Jr.JAN. 7, 2014

The retired New York City police officers and firefighters showed up for their psychiatric exams disheveled and disoriented, most following a nearly identical script.

They had been coached on how to fail memory tests, feign panic attacks and, if they had worked during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to talk about their fear of airplanes and entering skyscrapers, prosecutors said. And they were told to make it clear they could not leave the house, much less find a job. [..]

Former police officers who had told government doctors they were too mentally scarred to leave home had posted photographs of themselves fishing, riding motorcycles, driving water scooters, flying helicopters and playing basketball.

“The brazenness is shocking,” Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, said on Tuesday.

While those fraudsters were being indicted, arrested and arraigned, these fraudster were planning their next rip off of their investors.

JPMorgan Is Penalized $2 Billion Over Madoff

By Ben Protess and Jessica Silver-Greenberg

Preet Bharara, the United States attorney in Manhattan, and Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, gathered in Lower Manhattan as Mr. Bharara’s prosecutors were considering criminal charges against Mr. Dimon’s bank for turning a blind eye to the Ponzi scheme run by Bernard L. Madoff. Mr. Dimon and his lawyers outlined the bank’s defense in the hopes of securing a lesser civil case, according to people briefed on the meeting. [..]

Within weeks of meeting Mr. Bharara and recognizing their limited bargaining power, JPMorgan’s lawyers accepted the $1.7 billion penalty, the people briefed on the meeting said, which was within the range that prosecutors initially proposed. The bank also agreed to pay $350 million to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, accepting the agency’s only offer, one of the people said.

It could have been worse for the bank. At one point, prosecutors were weighing whether to demand that the bank plead guilty to a criminal charge, a move that senior executives feared could have devastating ripple effects. Rather than extracting a guilty plea, prosecutors struck a so-called deferred-prosecution agreement, suspending an indictment for two years as long as JPMorgan overhauls its controls against money-laundering. [..]

For JPMorgan, the Madoff case is the bank’s latest steep payout to the government. In November, JPMorgan paid a record $13 billion to the Justice Department and other authorities over its sale of questionable mortgage securities in the lead-up to the financial crisis. All told, after paying these settlements, JPMorgan will have paid out some $20 billion to resolve government investigations over the last 12 months. [..]

And critics of Wall Street are unsatisfied, noting that Mr. Bharara’s office opted to defer prosecution and did not charge any JPMorgan employees with wrongdoing.

“Banks do not commit crimes; bankers do,” said Dennis M. Kelleher, the head of Better Markets, an advocacy group.

A United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, Jed Rakoff, wants to know why have no high-level executives been prosecuted for the financial crisis

Five years have passed since the onset of what is sometimes called the Great Recession. While the economy has slowly improved, there are still millions of Americans leading lives of quiet desperation: without jobs, without resources, without hope.

Who was to blame? Was it simply a result of negligence, of the kind of inordinate risk-taking commonly called a “bubble,” of an imprudent but innocent failure to maintain adequate reserves for a rainy day? Or was it the result, at least in part, of fraudulent practices, of dubious mortgages portrayed as sound risks and packaged into ever more esoteric financial instruments, the fundamental weaknesses of which were intentionally obscured?

If it was the former – if the recession was due, at worst, to a lack of caution – then the criminal law has no role to play in the aftermath. [..]

But if, by contrast, the Great Recession was in material part the product of intentional fraud, the failure to prosecute those responsible must be judged one of the more egregious failures of the criminal justice system in many years. [..]

In striking contrast with these past prosecutions, not a single high-level executive has been successfully prosecuted in connection with the recent financial crisis, and given the fact that most of the relevant criminal provisions are governed by a five-year statute of limitations, it appears likely that none will be. It may not be too soon, therefore, to ask why. [..]

But the stated opinion of those government entities asked to examine the financial crisis overall is not that no fraud was committed. Quite the contrary. For example, the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, in its final report, uses variants of the word “fraud” no fewer than 157 times in describing what led to the crisis, concluding that there was a “systemic breakdown,” not just in accountability, but also in ethical behavior. [..]

Without giving further examples, the point is that, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the prevailing view of many government officials (as well as others) was that the crisis was in material respects the product of intentional fraud. In a nutshell, the fraud, they argued, was a simple one. Subprime mortgages, i.e., mortgages of dubious creditworthiness, increasingly provided the chief collateral for highly leveraged securities that were marketed as AAA, i.e., securities of very low risk. How could this transformation of a sow’s ear into a silk purse be accomplished unless someone dissembled along the way? [..]

Thus, Attorney General Eric Holder himself told Congress:

   It does become difficult for us to prosecute them when we are hit with indications that if you do prosecute-if you do bring a criminal charge-it will have a negative impact on the national economy, perhaps even the world economy.

To a federal judge, who takes an oath to apply the law equally to rich and to poor, this excuse-sometimes labeled the “too big to jail” excuse-is disturbing, frankly, in what it says about the department’s apparent disregard for equality under the law.

The Art of the Bluff

There is an apocryphal story about a trial where the defendant is accused of gambling and his defense was that he was playing Poker, which is not gambling at all.

In Poker one of your strongest tools is the Bluff, where you make a strong hand appear weak and a weak hand appear strong (through we generally only think of the latter).  As Joanne Woodward says in Big Hand for a Little Lady– “It’s not cheating, it’s entirely in the spirit of the game.”

Administration Peddling Increasing Blatant Canards on Proposed “Trade” Deals

by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Posted on January 6, 2014

One of the tricks of dealmaking and legislating is to try to create the impression that the negotiations/vote herding are going well, even when they aren’t. That tactic was fully on display with the Administration’s failed effort to get Congressional approval for intervention in Syria. The White House kept messaging that it was getting support lined up even when whip counts showed that putting the measure to a vote would result in an overwhelming rejection.

Now while things are not as clear cut on the trade deals, they were already in trouble last year. Foreign news reports indicated that various proposed signatories to the TransPacific Partnership simply weren’t on board with provisions that the Americans regarded as critical. A State Department press conference after talks in Bali was so out of tune and arrogant that the press representatives there were openly skeptical. And that was before the Wikileaks disclosure of the text of one of the draft chapters, on intellectual property. It both showed how extreme the American position is and how much opposition it was getting from the other supposed “partners”. We don’t know as much about where the European deal stands, but there’s reason to believe that those potential signatories have much less reason to make the world safer for US IT companies in the wake of ongoing revelations about NSA snooping.

So what line is the Administration, via the Financial Times, pushing? (Note my surmise is this article comes directly or from sources close to the US Trade Representative’s office; it very mildly complains that Obama hasn’t spoken forcefully enough about trade, as if that’s going to make any difference).

In the article, Obama challenge on selling trade deals to resurgent left, there is astonishingly no mention of the issues the prospective partners have with the deal or how the Wikileaks publication showed that the critics if anything had understated how bad the deal is. And the headline pretty accurately reflects the spin of the article: Obama’s is supposedly those damned pinkos, as opposed to his lame duck status and the increasingly obvious outrageousness of the deal. But to an uninformed reader, it’s easy to sell the prejudice that only Luddite lefties are against the motherhood and apple pie of economists and the business community, “free trade”.

Puhleeze. First, these “allies” that the Administration must manfully contend with are wusses. They make a show of opposition and let Team Dem carry on catering to powerful monied interests as usual.

Second, the notice how opposition to the deals are subtly presented as uninformed, as mere prejudice? The resistance is based on mere “belief”. In fact, NAFTA led to nearly a million lost jobs, and as we recounted in a weekend post, also wrecked much of the agricultural sector in Mexico. Tell me exactly how that helped regular people? And further notice the subtle bias in “ordinary workers”. To an FT reader, those are not part of their cohort, which are those directly connected to capital and the technocratic elite (executives, senior managers, policy wonks).

Third, the resistance extends well beyond the usual toothless leftie suspects. Over 200 Representatives, including some Republicans, have signed letters or otherwise voiced reservations about the trade deals. and another 30 to 40 are believed to be concerned. The opposition goes well beyond the small cohort of “progressives”.

Fourth, the Financial Times, rather than doing actual journalism (as in investigating) runs the blatant lie that the Administration is working to get tougher regulations via these deals. The most fundamental provisions of both pacts involve gutting regulations via strengthening the rights of foreign investors to sue governments at all level for anticipated losses (mind you, they don’t even have to prove they’d occurred) before secret international tribunals. As the group Public Citizen has documented in considerable detail, these panels are corrupt and bend over backwards to issue pro-investor rulings.

The Senate Finance Committee is gearing up to move a Trade Promotion Authority, which is just another term of art for what is also called “fast track”. Fast track give Congress a limited amount of time to respond to a tabled trade deal with a simple up or down vote. This is just the old effort to move the pacts forward.

But this messaging means the Administration is still keen to get these deals done, which means it is also incumbent to keep the pushback going. Please call or e-mail your representative and tell them “Hell no!”

Baby It’s Cold Outside

On This Day In History January 8

This is your morning Open Thread. Pour your favorite beverage and review the past and comment on the future.

Find the past “On This Day in History” here.

January 8 is the eighth day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. There are 357 days remaining until the end of the year (358 in leap years).

On this day in 1877, Crazy Horse and his warriors–outnumbered, low on ammunition and forced to use outdated weapons to defend themselves–fight their final losing battle against the U.S. Cavalry in Montana.

Six months earlier, in the Battle of Little Bighorn, Crazy Horse and his ally, Chief Sitting Bull, led their combined forces of Sioux and Cheyenne to a stunning victory over Lieutenant Colonel George Custer (1839-76) and his men. The Indians were resisting the U.S. government’s efforts to force them back to their reservations. After Custer and over 200 of his soldiers were killed in the conflict, later dubbed “Custer’s Last Stand,” the American public wanted revenge. As a result, the U.S. Army launched a winter campaign in 1876-77, led by General Nelson Miles (1839-1925), against the remaining hostile Indians on the Northern Plains.

On January 8, 1877, General Miles found Crazy Horse’s camp along Montana’s Tongue River. U.S. soldiers opened fire with their big wagon-mounted guns, driving the Indians from their warm tents out into a raging blizzard. Crazy Horse and his warriors managed to regroup on a ridge and return fire, but most of their ammunition was gone, and they were reduced to fighting with bows and arrows. They managed to hold off the soldiers long enough for the women and children to escape under cover of the blinding blizzard before they turned to follow them.

Though he had escaped decisive defeat, Crazy Horse realized that Miles and his well-equipped cavalry troops would eventually hunt down and destroy his cold, hungry followers. On May 6, 1877, Crazy Horse led approximately 1,100 Indians to the Red Cloud reservation near Nebraska’s Fort Robinson and surrendered. Five months later, a guard fatally stabbed him after he allegedly resisted imprisonment by Indian policemen

The Burglars Who Came In From The Cold

On March 8, 1971 a burglary took place in Media, PA. That wouldn’t be significant except for the target, the local FBI office, and the documents that were taken opened a can of worms that blew the lid off of the covert, and sometimes illegal, FBI program called COINTELPRO, an acronym for COunter INTELligence PROgram. The police and FBI, Hoover had over 200 agents on the case, were never able to find the perpetrators of the break-in. Now, 43 years later. with the statute of limitations expired, the burglars have some in from the cold.

They were never caught, and the stolen documents that they mailed anonymously to newspaper reporters were the first trickle of what would become a flood of revelations about extensive spying and dirty-tricks operations by the F.B.I. against dissident groups.

The burglary in Media, Pa., on March 8, 1971, is a historical echo today, as disclosures by the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden have cast another unflattering light on government spying and opened a national debate about the proper limits of government surveillance. The burglars had, until now, maintained a vow of silence about their roles in the operation. They were content in knowing that their actions had dealt the first significant blow to an institution that had amassed enormous power and prestige during J. Edgar Hoover’s lengthy tenure as director.

“When you talked to people outside the movement about what the F.B.I. was doing, nobody wanted to believe it,” said one of the burglars, Keith Forsyth, who is finally going public about his involvement. “There was only one way to convince people that it was true, and that was to get it in their handwriting.”

Two weeks after the burglary, Washington Post reporter Betty Medsger ran the first story exposing the FBI’s blanket surveillance of the peace and civil rights movement, the tactics of disinformation and deception the bureau used to silence protesters.

But the document that would have the biggest impact on reining in the F.B.I.’s domestic spying activities was an internal routing slip, dated 1968, bearing a mysterious word: Cointelpro.

Neither the Media burglars nor the reporters who received the documents understood the meaning of the term, and it was not until several years later, when the NBC News reporter Carl Stern obtained more files from the F.B.I. under the Freedom of Information Act, that the contours of Cointelpro – shorthand for Counterintelligence Program – were revealed.

Since 1956, the F.B.I. had carried out an expansive campaign to spy on civil rights leaders, political organizers and suspected Communists, and had tried to sow distrust among protest groups. Among the grim litany of revelations was a blackmail letter F.B.I. agents had sent anonymously to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., threatening to expose his extramarital affairs if he did not commit suicide.

“It wasn’t just spying on Americans,” said Loch K. Johnson, a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia who was an aide to Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho. “The intent of Cointelpro was to destroy lives and ruin reputations.”

The eight burglars never met again as a group. When the statute of limitations had expired, the FBI closed the case. Ms. Medsger wrote that only one of the burglars was on the final list of suspects. Three of the burglars have decided to remain anonymous.

Democracy needs whistleblowers. That’s why I broke into the FBI in 1971

By Bonnie Raines

Like Snowden, we broke laws to reveal something that was more dangerous. We wanted to hold J Edgar Hoover accountable

I vividly remember the eureka moment. It was the night we broke into an FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, in March 1971 and removed about 1,000 documents from the filing cabinets. We had a hunch that there would be incriminating material there, as the FBI under J Edgar Hoover was so bureaucratic that we thought every single thing that went on under him would be recorded. But we could not be sure, and until we found it, we were on tenterhooks. [..]

Looking back on what we did, there are obvious parallels with what Edward Snowden has done in releasing National Security Agency documents that show the NSA’s blanket surveillance of Americans. I think Snowden’s a legitimate whistleblower, and I guess we could be called whistleblowers as well. [..]

Democracy needs whistleblowers. Snowden was in a position to reveal things that nobody could dispute. He has performed a legitimate, necessary service. Unlike us, he revealed his own identity, and as a result, he’s sacrificed a lot. [..]

Nowadays, the country is divided once again, but I don’t see much concern about the abuses that are happening today, like the surveillance of mosques in America, using agent provocateurs. I hear people say, “I don’t care,” the government can do what it needs to do as long as it protects me from terrorism …” To me, that’s giving the authorities blanket permission to cross the line again.

Dissent and accountability are the lifeblood of democracy, yet people now think they just have to roll over in the name of “anti-terrorism”. Members of government thinks it can lie to us about it, and that they can lie to Congress. That concerns me for the future of my children and grandchildren, and that too makes me feel I can talk about, at my age, doing something as drastic as breaking-in to an FBI office in the search for truth.