Monday, July 30, 2012

Beating SCOTUS to the Punch

The Solution to Citizens United That No One Is Talking About

Could a narrow focus on Citizens United actually set back our drive for democracy?
That's been a real worry of mine, but my thinking has been fussy. So I was relieved to see Matt Bai, the New York Times Magazine's political correspondent, take on the challenge of deciphering what can and cannot be laid at the feet of this awful ruling.
In "How Did Political Money Get This Loud?" Bai suggests that Citizens United mainly "intensified" unintended consequences of earlier reforms. He argues that the burst of political spending in the last two years, while huge, is actually in line with the trajectory of growth in campaign spending since McCain-Feingold reforms in 2002.
He stresses that the biggest consequence of McCain-Feingold and Citizens United may not be the staggering scale of spending, but that "candidates don't really have control of their own campaigns anymore..."
With the passage of McCain-Feingold, Bai explains, "parties could no longer tap an endless stream of soft money [unlimited contributions used in a range of party activities not directly asking for votes]." So they turned to another means: "independent groups with their own turnout and advertising campaigns limited in what they could say," emphasizes Bai, "but accountable to no candidate or party boss..."
Then, Citizens United and related Court decisions wiped out most remaining limits, so "[n]ow any outside group can use corporate money to make a direct case for who deserves your vote and why, and they can do so right up to Election Day." The big outside groups today are "social-welfare groups" (including, believe it or not, Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity) and Super PACs, and the difference between them? Super PACs must disclose donors' identities, but social-welfare groups generally don't.
Many will likely debate Bai's analysis, but my concern is what it misses altogether:
"That there are solutions we can realize at least in part in the foreseeable future."
We can move democracy forward even before a new Supreme Court majority reversing Citizens United or victory in a long battle for a constitutional amendment.
Wonderfully, Americans are united across political divisions in our anger at big money's control of politics. Sixty-seven percent of us favor "voluntary public financing" of elections, already enabling regular citizens to run for the legislature in three states. And two-thirds of Americans also support disclosure of large contributors.
So let's get on with building a bipartisan uprising of voters with the guts to insist that candidates we support in November pledge to back DISCLOSE Act and Fair Elections legislation -- now being refined in Congress -- and that, once in place, they use this system, not private wealth, for their campaigns. (Under the "fair elections" bill, a candidate raises a specific number of small, in-state contributions -- each no bigger than $100 -- to qualify for significant public funds, both a lump sum and five dollars for each small-donor dollar up to a cap.) And let's demand that candidates we support denounce any unaccountable electioneering bodies, whether backing them or other candidates.
Join with the dozens of groups already on board from Public Citizen to Friends of the Earth at and reach out to friends and strangers who've never heard of this option.
Note that the DISCLOSE Act failed last week to achieve the super majority it needed by only nine votes. Nine is an achievable shift this November.
We can't afford to wait for the Supreme Court. We can't afford to wait for a constitutional amendment. Let's focus now on electing a president and a Congress who share the majority's position on these foundational questions. On this path, we begin to reduce the power of concentrated wealth in public decision making as we also build the inclusive citizen pressure necessary to reverse laws and rulings hindering solutions to all our biggest national challenges.
Frances Moore Lappé
Frances Moore Lappé just released EcoMind: Changing the Way We Think to Create the World We Want (Nation Books) on the fortieth anniversary of her Diet for a Small Planet.

Our necks are in the noose

William Rivers Pitt | The Ballot or the Bullet

William Rivers Pitt, Truthout: "A nation that cannot summon the will or self-interest to turn out more than 60 percent of its populace during a presidential election is a nation that happily puts its own neck in the noose, and then pules like a spoiled child when the rope chafes and constricts."

Read the Article

Europe Must Inflate Euro or Die

Monday, July 30, 2012 – by Staff Report

Only Mario Draghi's ECB can avert global calamity before the year is out ... Mario Draghi has promised the moon. The European Central Bank's council had better deliver on his pledge this week. If it does not, the crisis will surely escalate out of control in August or soon after. – UK Telegraph
Dominant Social Theme: Inflate or die.
Free-Market Analysis: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard is growing grimmer and grimmer. Only Mario Draghi's ECB can avert global calamity before the year is out, he writes in this remarkably gloomy article.
It may be one of the strongest articles ever penned about the EU's apparently impending demise. And yet in a sense it perfectly tracks a larger dominant social theme of the power elite – that sluggish money circulation is responsible for recessions and depressions.
Evans-Pritchard likes to pretend that he is not a Keynesian but his approach has shifted to pure Keynesianism in the past few months.
Read More

Western dumb bunnies dump bail-out $$$ in Spain and Italy

European stocks were on the rise Monday morning, with both Spain and Italy seeing steady bond yields. Both countries are anticipating more stimulus from the European Central Bank and the U.S. Federal Reserve this week. Over the weekend German Chancellor Angela Merkel and fellow European leaders made a joint declaration that they’d do everything possible to protect the euro zone. Both the U.S. Federal Open Market Committee and the European Central Bank are holding meetings this week.

Kent State Student Arrested for Tweet
Saying he was going to "shoot up" campus
Mexican Newspaper Office Set on Fire
The paper’s second attack this month.
Apple and Samsung Clash
Over patents.
Bill Clinton Gets Key DNC Role
Will deliver a prime-time speech
French Beat U.S. in Swimming
In last quarter of relay

A Serious Challenge to Wall Street

From an Unlikely Source, a Serious Challenge to Wall Street

Something very interesting is happening.
There’s been so much corruption on Wall Street in recent years, and the federal government has appeared to be so deeply complicit in many of the problems, that many people have experienced something very like despair over the question of what to do about it all.A foreclosed home in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle/Getty Images
But there’s something brewing that looks like it might be a blueprint to effectively take on Wall Street: a plan to allow local governments to take on the problem of neighborhoods blighted by toxic home loans and foreclosures through the use of eminent domain. I can't speak for how well the program will work, but it's certaily been effective in scaring the hell out of Wall Street.
Under the proposal, towns would essentially be seizing and condemning the man-made mess resulting from the housing bubble. Cooked up by a small group of businessmen and ex-venture capitalists, the audacious idea falls under the category of "That’s so crazy, it just might work!" One of the plan’s originators described it to me as a "four-bank pool shot."
Here’s how the New York Times described it in an article from earlier this week entitled, "California County Weighs Drastic Plan to Aid Homeowners":
Desperate for a way out of a housing collapse that has crippled the region, officials in San Bernardino County … are exploring a drastic option — using eminent domain to buy up mortgages for homes that are underwater.
Then, the idea goes, the county could cut the mortgages to the current value of the homes and resell the mortgages to a private investment firm, which would allow homeowners to lower their monthly payments and hang onto their property.
I’ve been following this story for months now – I was tipped off that this was coming earlier this past spring – and in the time since I’ve become more convinced the idea might actually work, thanks mainly to the extremely lucky accident that the plan doesn’t require the permission of anyone up in the political Olympus.
Cities and towns won’t need to ask for an act of a bank-subsidized congress to do this, and they won’t need a federal judge to sign off on any settlement. They can just do it. In the Death Star of America’s financial oligarchy, the ability of local governments to use eminent domain to seize toxic debt might be the one structural flaw big enough for the rebel alliance to fly through.
The plan only makes sense in the context of America’s overall economic paralysis. Right now the economy is stuck in a standstill, largely because of the housing bubble. Five or six or ten years ago, when Wall Street was cranking out trillions of dollars of cheap home loans so that they could later be chopped up, pooled, and sold to unsuspecting investors in the form of high-grade securitized bonds, millions of ordinary people jumped on the housing comet, buying big houses for big money.
The problem is, if you bought a house for $300,000 then, it might be worth $200,000 now. When you’re $100,000 in debt, you’re not rushing out to buy washing machines, new cars, new DVD players. As Paul Krugman put it in his column today:
There’s no mystery about the reasons the economic recovery has been so weak. Housing is still depressed in the aftermath of a huge bubble, and consumer demand is being held back by the high levels of household debt that are the legacy of that bubble.
Then there’s the other problem. Even if you manage to keep making your payments on your house, your neighbor might not. Whoever used to live next door has left after a foreclosure: there are squatters building a meth lab in the basement now. Two more houses are being boarded up down the street. So now the value of your house is getting lower and lower every day. No matter how fast you make your payments, your debt situation is still going to be moving in the wrong direction.
Instead of letting everyone be slowly ground into dust under the weight of all of that debt, the idea behind the use of eminent domain is to pull the Band-Aid off all at once.
The plan is being put forward by a company called Mortgage Resolution Partners, run by a venture capitalist named Steven Gluckstern. MRP absolutely has a profit motive in the plan, and much is likely to be made of that in the press as this story develops. But I doubt this ends up being entirely about money.
“What happened is, a bunch of us got together and asked ourselves what a fix of the housing/foreclosure problem would look like,” Gluckstern. “Then we asked, is there a way to fix it and make money, too. I mean, we're businessmen. Obviously, if there wasn’t a financial motive for anybody, it wouldn’t happen.”
Here’s how it works: MRP helps raise the capital a town or a county would need to essentially “buy” seized home loans from the banks and the bondholders (remember, to use eminent domain to seize property, governments must give the owners “reasonable compensation,” often interpreted as fair current market value).
Once the town or county seizes the loan, it would then be owned by a legal entity set up by the local government – San Bernardino, for instance, has set up a JPA, or Joint Powers Authority, to manage the loans.
At that point, the JPA is simply the new owner of the loan. It would then approach the homeowner with a choice. If, for some crazy reason, the homeowner likes the current situation, he can simply keep making his same inflated payments to the JPA. Not that this is likely, but the idea here is that nobody would force homeowners to do anything.
On the other hand, the town can also offer to help the homeowner find new financing. In conjunction with companies like MRP (and the copycat firms like it that would inevitably spring up), the counties and towns would arrange for private lenders to enter the picture, and help homeowners essentially buy back his own house, only at a current market price. Just like that, the homeowner is no longer underwater and threatened with foreclosure.
In order to make MRP work, Gluckstern and his partners needed to find local officials with enough stones to try the audacious plan. With so many regions in such desperate straits thanks to the housing mess, that turned out to be not as hard as perhaps might have been expected.
First in line was San Bernardino County in California, not coincidentally located at ground zero of a subprime bubble blown to gigantic proportions by Southern Californian mortgage giants like Countrywide and Long Beach. San Bernardino is more or less a poster child for the mortgage crisis; more than half of its homeowners are underwater on their homes, unemployment is past 12%, and the county recently had to file for bankruptcy.
It’s not surprising, then, that local officials like Acquietta Warren, mayor of the city of Fontana, were receptive to the eminent-domain plan.
“Sooner or later,” Warren told the New York Times, “all these people who are upside down on their homes are just going to leave the keys out on the door and say forget it. This was supposed to be the promised land, and now we have people waiting in some kind of hellish purgatory.”
San Bernardino County officials, along with two of its bigger cities (Fontana and Ontario), have set up the legal mechanisms needed to condemn and seize home loans, but the details of the plan haven’t been completely worked out yet. Still, officials say about 20,000 homeowners in San Bernardino would be eligible for the program; how many will get to use it is unknown.
In the meantime, other counties in other parts of the country are considering the plan. MRP has been courting local officials in Nevada, Florida, and in parts of the Northeast. In New York, officials in Suffolk County on Long Island, where 10% of homes are underwater, are seriously considering the plan.
The role of MRP and the presence of businessmen like Gluckstern in this whole gambit is going to tempt some reporters to pitch this story as a purely financial story, and certainly it does have interest as a business headline.
But MRP’s role aside, this is also a compelling political story with potentially revolutionary consequences. If this gambit actually goes forward, it will inevitably force a powerful response both from Wall Street and from its allies in federal government, setting up a cage-match showdown between lower Manhattan and, well, everywhere else in America. In fact, the first salvoes in that battle have already been fired.
For instance, the Wall Street trade association, SIFMA, this past week issued a denunciation of the eminent domain plan that includes a promise of a legal challenge. “We believe the MRP proposal is unlikely to survive a judicial challenge,” one of SIFMA’s lawyers wrote. Other trade groups are lining up to describe the tactic as illegal or "unconstitutional."
More insidiously, however, SIFMA pledged that its members will not allow future home loans originated in counties that use the eminent domain tactic to participate in something called the To-Be-Announced (TBA) markets for mortgage-backed securities. Explaining this would require a sharp detour into a muck of inside-baseball mortgage terminology, but the long and the short of it is that SIFMA is promising to make it difficult for any community that tries this tactic to obtain private mortgage financing in the future.
Essentially, SIFMA is promising a kind of collusive financial lockout of uncooperative communities. The threat would appear to be a high-handed form of redlining that raises serious antitrust questions, but in a way, that kind of response is to be expected.
Ultimately, the MRP tactic will be a fascinating test case to see exactly how much local self-determination will be allowed by the centralized financial oligarchy and its allies in the federal government.
If through boycotts, collusion, federal pressure and other forms of encirclement, local governments can be stripped of their right to condemn blighted property, we’ll know that the guts have been cut out of the very idea of regional self-rule. It will be fascinating to watch. At the very least, this story has the potential to be the first true open, pitched battle between Wall Street and the homeowners and communities who have been the primary victims of financial corruption.
Tune in for more on this front soon.
Editor's note: Readers interested in learning more about this would do well to read North Carolina congressman Brad Miller's piece on this in American Banker. Miller is not necessarily a proponent of the exact mechanism proposed by MRP, but he is intrigued by the general idea of using eminent domain to address the blighted-loan problem, and seems particularly interested in the strategic possibilities of addressing the problem at the local level. He writes:
The biggest banks have used their political power in Washington to defeat any effort that would effectively reduce foreclosures, such as allowing judicial modification of mortgages in bankruptcy, allowing a federal agency to use eminent domain to buy mortgages, or providing teeth for the chronically ineffective Home Affordable Modification Program, because those efforts would also require the immediate recognition of losses on mortgages.
But Wall Street's power in Washington may be as useless in defeating a proposal in San Bernardino County as strategic nuclear weapons are in fighting an insurgency. No wonder Wall Street is panicked.
Also, here's a piece Miller wrote a couple of years ago in The New Republic suggesting the use of eminent domain through the use of a public vehicle similar to FDR's Home Owners' Loan Corporation, or HOLC.
Again, there's going to be a lot of heated discussion about this, and it's sure to get ugly in the near future. This idea will be portrayed as radical and unrealistic, but in reality it's neither terribly radical nor even all that new. What it is, more than anything else, is uncomfortable. Anyway, more on this to come.
Matt Taibbi
As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi

Greece: "we are the pigs"

We Are The Pigs‘ - in reference to the derogatory PIGS acronym - is a crowdfunded photojournalism ‘road trip' venture, to collect people's stories from European countries affected by the debt crisis. The project, started by two young Central European women journalists frustrated with the stereotypical hyperbole and abuse levelled in the media against Greece and other crisis-ridden countries, will hit the road in early August, starting in Thessaloniki, Greece.
Global Voices

Sunday, July 29, 2012


Six weeks after clashes between Rohingya and Rakhaine broke out in Western Myanmar, which resulted in another influx of refugees towards the Bangladesh border, Amnesty International is reporting that targeted attacks and other violations by security forces against minority Rohingyas and other Muslims have increased. More than 100 people have been killed since the violence began and more than 50,000 people are estimated to have been displaced.

Read more on Global Voices »

On the News With Thom Hartmann: Mitt Romney's Foreign Faux Pas, and More

On the News With Thom Hartmann: Mitt Romney's Foreign Faux Pas, and More

In today's On the News Segment: Mitt Romney flubs his first international trip as a Presidential candidate; Capital One was the first bank to be hit by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for defrauding consumers and ordered to pay $165 million to customers in refunds; Greece may be heading for an exit from the European Union;  the list of those who support Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's McCarthy-esque witch hunt against the State Department is growing; and more. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Peru: Undermining Justice - People & Power - Al Jazeera English

Peru: Undermining Justice - People & Power - Al Jazeera English

With global demand for natural resources increasing year on year, some of the world's poorest communities are having to fight hard to protect their environment and way of life. When protests and direct action do not work, many will try and get redress through the courts.
But when multinational companies decide that the costs of settling such cases are far less than the huge profits on offer, is justice being undermined?
High up in the Andes of northern Peru, among cloud forests, high moors and fertile lands, lies the town of Huancabamba and the nearby farming community of Segunda y Cajas. Untouched by modern industry, the local population lives almost exclusively through farming, tapping into the rich soils and fresh water sources to put food on the table and sell produce to the lowland cities.
In 2002, this community's way of life, more or less unchanged for hundreds of years, was turned upside down by the arrival of British mining company Monterrico Metals. A mining company based in London, Monterrico had obtained concessions from the Peruvian government to start exploration and development work for the huge open cast copper mine called Rio Blanco - a project meant to run for 20 or more years.
In 2005, local communities marched on the mine site in protest against the company's plans.
According to those who were there, the rally had been envisaged as a peaceful affair but a confrontation with the police took place in which a number of people were injured.
Twenty-eight protesters were detained at the site for three days and, according to activists, were humiliated and tortured by the security forces. Unlikely to get any redress in Peru, the victims sued Monterrico in the UK, with the help of British law firm Leigh Day and Co, alleging that the company had been complicit in the affair.
But though their prospects looked good, the case was settled by Monterrico last year just before it came to trial. It meant the victims did get some compensation - but the wider problems they were fighting to reveal were never aired in open court.
The case is an interesting example of a growing trend. Multinational companies are increasingly likely to respond to legal challenges in this way. The settlement costs can be high but usually they are far less than they would be after a negative verdict. And more importantly it gives the companies - and their lawyers - control of the public debate.
But it begs a disturbing question: If corporations will do anything to avoid going near a court - how can indigenous peoples ever assert their rights?

Syria: Smugglers with a cause - Witness - Al Jazeera English

Syria: Smugglers with a cause - Witness - Al Jazeera English

Syria's opposition activists and the Free Syrian Army are hugely under-equipped and rely on meagre supplies trickling over the borders from Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Send us your views and join the Witness community
A network of Syrian activists on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border organise the smuggling of vital supplies into the country to support the resistance, as well as getting refugees out.
Volunteers take huge risks smuggling in items ranging from walkie-talkies to blood bags for transfusions. Many are injured, some are killed in the process.
"There have been lots and lots of guys killed carrying supplies across the border. There are always ambushes at the border," says Jamil, an activist organiser wanted by the Syrian authorities because of his activism during the early days of the uprising.
He fled to Turkey in July 2011 and now rents a house in a Turkish border town with up to 20 other activists. They are funded by their savings, families and Syrian donors.
Witness spends time with Jamil and volunteers Mohammad Ali and Omar as they wait on the Syria-Turkey border, preparing for the trip that will take them back home to fight the regime. They hope to join up with the Free Syrian Army in Qamishli, north-eastern Syria.

"There's no room for surrender," explains a determined Omar. "I'm not going to surrender to anyone. I'll resist any way I can and I'll not let them capture me."

Egypt: Morsi, the military and the media

Egypt: Morsi, the military and the media - Listening Post - Al Jazeera English
Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's president, has been in the job for less than a month, but has already found himself caught up in a battle with the country’s state media. The power struggle between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and President Morsi is being played out in the front pages of the country’s newspapers and on its television screens.
Private media outlets, which have taken off since the fall of Hosni Mubarak, are growing in numbers and becoming more opinionated than ever. State-owned media meanwhile have been accused of favouring the military over their new leader.
In this week’s News Divide, we look at the stand-off between Egypt’s new civilian administration and a state-owned media that continues to be influenced by remnants of the old regime.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

California cat hoarder busted with 113 dead kittens and 51 neglected cats | The Raw Story

California cat hoarder busted with 113 dead kittens and 51 neglected cats | The Raw Story

Police and SPCA officials in Seaside, California raided two properties on Tuesday after a tip from an apartment manager turned out to be connected to a residence officials were already investigating. At the apartment, rescuers found the remains of 113 dead kittens; at the residence, they found 51 alive, but neglected, adult cats. Of the rescued animals, five were currently pregnant and two required emergency surgery.
Officials say they also found 50 urns with the cremated remains of an unknown number of cats.
SPCA Sgt. Stacy Sanders says that they received a tip that the hoarder may have taken cats off the street — including ones that belonged to others in the neighborhood. The SPCA is asking for residents with missing cats to submit pictures to the SPCA, as none of the animals that were rescued were microchipped.
Hoarding is a little-understood compulsive disorder characterized by the need to collect things and the inability to discard them. Though scientists originally thought it a subset of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), many scientists now believe they are distinct. Doctors have had mixed results treating it with medications that normally help with OCD, though many patients respond positively to cognitive behavioral therapy.
While many hoarders live in abject conditions, animal hoarders are almost twice as likely to live in refuse-strewn environments and 45 percent have living spaces coated in “profuse urine or feces.”
Watch the video below, first broadcast by KGO-TC San Francisco on July 26, 2012: