Thursday, March 10, 2011

Last Call

Republicans show they are very, very bad at finance.

Check out this interview of Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) -- he of apologizing to BP fame -- by ABC on Wednesday. Pressed repeatedly by Jon Karl to stake out a position on tax credits enjoyed by offshore oil companies, Barton argued that the subsidies represent equal treatment, and are required to keep the companies like Exxon-Mobil from going out of business.

"Over time if you put so many disincentives against any U.S. manufacturing or production company, or oil and gas exploration company, they'll go out of business," Barton said.

Barton, perhaps the oil and gas industry's staunchest support on Capitol Hill, says the subsidies for the industry should remain unchanged "so long as you believe that you believe in the free market capitalist system and they should be headquartered in the United States."

Well let's see, the US government gives away about $4 billion and change per year to the entire oil industry in the form of subsidies.  You figure ExxonMobil's share is maybe, half a billion a year.  Now, to you and me, $500,000,000 is a lot of money.

Here's the "bad at finance" part.

Exxon Mobil Corp. earned $9.25 billion in the last three months of 2010, its most profitable quarter since the record third quarter of 2008.

One oil company cleared over $9 billion in profit in one quarter last year.   Half a billion a year to a company that earns $40 billion a year is kinda, well, chump change. Even if Exxon Mobil got all $4 billion plus in federal subsidies, and it lost them, the company still would have made more than twice that in just the last three months on the year.  And Joe Barton wants you to think that if your taxpayer money doesn't go to Exxon, they will go out of business.

Now, I'm not The Donald or anything, but if we ended oil and gas subsidies tomorrow, I think every oil company in America would be 100% fine.  Joe Barton on the other hand thinks you're too stupid to check his math.  He wants you to feel sorry for Exxon Mobil and its fellow oil giants in an industry that made over $100 billion just in profit last year.  He says if you don't give them $4 billion, they'll go out of business.


Joe Barton has gotten nearly $1.5 million in money from Big Oil since 1990.

And now he heads the House Energy Committee.  Quite a multiplier on their investment, is it not?  Meanwhile, because we're giving $4 billion a year in tax dollars to an industry that doesn't need it, we have to cut $75 million from a program to give homeless veterans a place to live because we can't afford it as a country.

Top Senate Democrats raised loud objections Thursday to a plan by Republicans in the House of Representatives that they said would eliminate 10,000 housing vouchers for homeless veterans this year, an effort to save $75 million from the 2011 federal budget.

Yeah, see, Republicans say thousands of housing vouchers go unclaimed, so instead of making the program work and making it easier for our combat veterans from the sandbox to get the help this country promised them when they took up arms to fight for us, Republicans would rather just trim the program because it's "wasteful".

To recap, $4 billion in tax money to energy companies earning tens of billions a year in profit, vital national interest.  Not wasteful at all.  Putting Afghanistan and Iraq veterans out on the street because we can't afford to help them as a result?  We can't afford to help them, sorry.  Got to cut waste.

Republicans are just wonderful human beings.

To The Shores Of Tripoli

The same creeping feeling I was getting in 2003 I'm getting again, looking at the news.  We will be in a shooting war with Libya inside 60 daysJosh Marshall sees what's coming too.

I sit at my desk every morning listening to the sounds of cable television in the air. Now a lot of it is about Libya. And I'm just blown away by the constant, almost unanimous chorus in favor of some sort of active, military involvement in the country. At this moment, I'm listening to some person say that it just doesn't make sense -- that it's inconsistent -- for the President to announce that it is our national policy that Qaddafi should leave and yet not take military steps to make that happen. I've also heard numerous voices arguing that we 'didn't act' in the Balkans and then didn't act in Rwanda and that we should not make the same mistake today.

This is a wildly different standard for military action than we've ever heard before, even in an era where our interventions have become much more frequent and when they've often been wise and necessary.
The Village fix is in, just like Afghanistan, just like Iraq.  Count on it.  Nick Kristof in the NY Times:

"This is a pretty easy problem, for crying out loud.”

For all the hand-wringing in Washington about a no-fly zone over Libya, that’s the verdict of Gen. Merrill McPeak, a former Air Force chief of staff. He flew more than 6,000 hours, half in fighter aircraft, and helped oversee no-fly zones in Iraq and the Adriatic, and he’s currently mystified by what he calls the “wailing and gnashing of teeth” about imposing such a zone on Libya.

I called General McPeak to get his take on a no-fly zone, and he was deliciously blunt:

“I can’t imagine an easier military problem,” he said. “If we can’t impose a no-fly zone over a not even third-rate military power like Libya, then we ought to take a hell of a lot of our military budget and spend it on something usable.”

He continued: “Just flying a few jets across the top of the friendlies would probably be enough to ground the Libyan Air Force, which is the objective.”

General McPeak added that there would be no need to maintain 24/7 coverage over Libya. As long as the Libyan Air Force knew that there was some risk of interception, its pilots would be much less motivated to drop bombs and more inclined to defect.

“If we can’t do this, what can we do?” he asked, adding: “I think it would have a real impact. It might change their calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”

Along with a no-fly zone, another important step would be to use American military aircraft to jam Libyan state television and radio propaganda and Libyan military communications. General McPeak said such jamming would be “dead easy.” 

We fly a few planes around, we scare a few Libyan pilots into defection, we play "Danger Zone" by Kenny Loggins as loudly as possible while doing it, and then we all have wings and beer on the way home. Duh, winning!  Tiger blood!  Adonis DNA!

What could possibly go wrong with our plan to depose Qaddafi?

Military commanders expect the United States to have a "significant presence" in Afghanistan for another eight to 10 years, according to a member of Congress who just returned from a trip to the region and has introduced legislation calling for a full accounting of the costs of the war.

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) spent his congressional four-day weekend on a fact-finding trip to Afghanistan, meeting with Gen. David Petraeus, Amb. Karl Eikenberry and members of the Iowa National Guard. In an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday, Braley said that while there has clearly been some significant progress, challenges will remain even after 2014, when combat operations are supposed to end.

"It was very clear that under the best-case scenario, there will be some significant U.S. presence, according to them, for the next eight to 10 years," Braley said, adding that he expected that presence to include both military and civilian personnel. "That includes a very clear commitment that the drawdown will begin on schedule in July, and that the targeted date of being out with most combat forces by 2014 will be met. They continue to maintain that they are on pace to maintain those objectives." 

We'll be greeted as liberators and the oil will pay for the invasion and WARLOCK IS LATIN FOR WINNING PEW PEW PEW!

The lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are that we have not learned a goddamn thing in the last nine years and we are basically screwed beyond my capacity for rational thought.  Last one out, turn off the lights.

New tag:  Libya Is Latin For WINNING.

A Billion Reasons Not To Believe The Recovery

The Forbes list of world billionaires is larger than ever.

This 25th year of tracking global wealth was one to remember. The 2011 Billionaires List breaks two records: total number of listees (1,210) and combined wealth ($4.5 trillion). This horde surpasses the gross domestic product of Germany, one of only six nations to have fewer billionaires this year. BRICs led the way: Brazil, Russia, India and China produced 108 of the 214 new names. These four nations are home to one in four members, up from one in ten five years ago. Before this year only the U.S. had ever produced more than 100 billionaires. China now has 115 and Russia 101.

Atop the heap is Mexico's Carlos Slim Helu, who added $20.5 billion to his fortune, more than any other billionaire. The telecom mogul, who gets 62% of his fortune from America Movil, is now worth $74 billion and has pulled far ahead of his two closest rivals. Bill Gates, No. 2, and Warren Buffett, No. 3, both added a more modest $3 billion to their piles and are now worth $56 billion and $50 billion, respectively. Gates, who now gets 70% of his fortune from investments outside of Microsoft, has actually been investing in the Mexican stock market and has holdings in Mexican Coke bottler Femsa and Grupo Televisa.

While nearly all emerging markets showed solid gains, wealth creation is moving at an especially breakneck speed in Asia-Pacific. The region now has a record 332 billionaires, up from 234 a year ago and 130 at the depth of the financial crisis in 2009. Sizzling stock markets are behind the surge. Three-fourths of Asia's 105 newcomers get the bulk of their fortunes from stakes in publicly traded companies, 25 of which have been public only since the start of 2010. 

The recovery is awesome if you're rich, and especially in you're one of the 1,210 billionaires out there.  The other 99.9% of us? Not so much.  The world's billionaires have more wealth than the GDP of Germany, the country.  Something's wrong with that.

Turn On The Lights, Watch The Roaches Scatter Part 64

CNBC's Diana Olick puts today's RealtyTrac foreclosure numbers into perspective.  A 27% year over year drop in foreclosures doesn't mean the housing depression is starting to come out of the woods, it's about to fall off the cliff.

To prove the point, in this month's report RealtyTrac broke out the numbers by judicial foreclosure states (where foreclosure documents are filed in court before a judge) and non-judicial foreclosure states; the former are where the banks froze most actions, but they are also slowing the process and going over procedures in non-judicial foreclosure states as well. 

Notices of default, the first step in the foreclosure process were down 19 percent in judicial states in February and up 13 percent in non-judicial states. Bank repossessions, the final stage, were down 24 percent in judicial states and down 14 percent in non-judicial states.

The numbers are even more stark when you look at specific cities. I asked RealtyTrac for some specific data on that and they told me Miami ranked number seven in the top foreclosure rates in Q3 of last year.  In Q1 of this year, it ranks number 41. Florida is a judicial foreclosure state.  On the other hand, Los Angeles ranked 40th in foreclosure rates in Q3 of '10 and now ranks 24th in Q1 of this year. California is a non-judicial foreclosure state.

While an improving job market appears to be helping avert foreclosures, increasing negative equity is doing just the opposite; unfortunately, thanks to paperwork and judicial issues, at this point it is impossible to know which is prevailing.

RealtyTrac experts claim the foreclosure numbers have yet to show the final surge. While new defaults are falling, the pipeline is now so large that the numbers have nowhere to go but up.

Banks are scrambling to bunker up ahead of guaranteed litigation on the subject of MERS.  Millions, possibly tens of millions of mortgages are potentially fraudulent right now.  Banks own quite a bit of those mortgages.  The latest state to take judicial actions against MERS is Oregon.

Since October, federal judges in five separate Oregon cases have halted foreclosures involving MERS, saying its participation caused lenders to violate the state's recording law. Three of those decisions came last month, the key one in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Eugene.

Attorneys say it's not clear whether lenders in Oregon will simply start over or head to court to foreclose, steps that could prolong the crisis for months and drive up costs, attorneys say. Some suggest lenders might not have access to the documents they need to comply with state law.

"A lot of us are questioning whether there is a solution," said David Ambrose, a Portland attorney who represents lenders in mortgage transactions. "It's pretty amazing. There are a lot of unanswered questions."

MERS is listed as an agent for lenders on more than 60 million U.S. home loans, about half of all such loans. 

The system is now falling apart.  Title companies are refusing to do business with MERS mortgages.  Foreclosures are grinding to a halt because the entire housing market is grinding to a halt.  That means housing is increasingly becoming no-bid: it doesn't matter what the price is when nobody's sure who really owns the house and if they are authorized to record the sale or not.  That means the cliff on foreclosures means a cliff on housing prices.  The final set of blocks are about to be knocked out from under the housing market, and then it's game over.

MERS is done for.  More and more states are realizing MERS screwed them out of hundreds of millions in records fees and now cash-strapped counties want years of avoided fees paid in interest.

An added bonus for the banks is the avoidance of county fees.  When MERS is used to turn a regular mortgage into an investment, financial institutions don’t pay “recording fees,” which are usually small charges of between $50 and $100, to the counties where the underlying properties are physically located.

This has some county clerks upset.

“The average Joe who comes into my building, hard working people, have to pay the fees,” said John O’Brien, register of deeds in Southern Essex, Massachusetts.  

“Why in God’s name can’t banks and Wall Street lenders do the same thing?  Play by the same rules!”

O’Brien has officially requested that Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley file suit against MERS, seeking $22 million in unpaid recording fees associated with home loans that were bought, sold, and securitized since 1998.  

“I have challenged them to open their books and show me how many times they have moved people’s mortgages around,” O’Brien said.

$22 million in just Massachusetts.  And you'd better believe that states are going to go after MERS on this. The game is almost over and its death throes are going to wreck what's left of our economy.

That's A Double

The price of a drug used to delay birth in women at high risk of delivering prematurely is going to skyrocket following Food and Drug Administration approval of a prescription form of the product, a synthetic form of the hormone progesterone.

Since 2003, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recommended that doctors offer the progesterone shots to high-risk women. But because there has not been a commercial product available, women have obtained the drug from so-called compounding pharmacies, which make it to order. The pharmacies have typically charged about $10 to $20 per shot for the drug, which is given weekly.

Skyrocket, as it turns out, is a generous term.  The $20 shot will now be $1500.  Per weekly shot, to be clear.   There is mention of significant assistance to make sure it's available to every woman who needs it.  Sure.  What was once affordable and reasonable will now become bloated and unavailable.  Women will no longer be able to afford the medicine, insurance companies will refuse to cover it, and preventable miscarriages will abound.  Nobody wins, except the guys charging 75 times the original cost of the shots. 

That's what we call a double screwing, folks.

Signs Of The Times

The Dalai Lama is retiring.  He announced it via his website.  Both events are telling of new times and how different things are now than they were even 50 years ago, when he left China as a young man.
"Since I made my intention clear I have received repeated and earnest requests both from within Tibet and outside, to continue to provide political leadership," the Dalai Lama said in his statement. "My desire to devolve authority has nothing to do with a wish to shirk responsibility. It is to benefit Tibetans in the long run.

Though retiring from political duties, he does intend to continue his role in spiritual leadership.  The man has lived his life making a point, but eventually  even the strongest of men grow old.  He acknowledged that he will "have to go sooner or later" and  "I'm also a human being. ... Retirement is also my right."

Look For The Union Scapegoat Label, Part 4

PolitiFact has hit the right with a Pants On Fire liar alert on the supposed $7.5 million cost to clean up the Wisconsin State Capitol after union protests.

While urging a judge to scale back protests, a state Department of Administration official said the state Capitol sustained $7.5 million in damage. State officials could not immediately provide a basis for the number, and later backtracked from it.  The new estimate: $347,500, some 20 times less than the original one. And there are indications that even that could be high.

This smells like an effort to pour gas on the anti-protester fire. The claim was ridiculously high. And that gets a Pants on Fire rating.

Gosh, you mean Republican state officials would flat-out lie in order to paint union protesters as "thugs" and "criminals" in an effort to destroy unions and hurt the Democratic party in the state?  I'm shocked.

Pants on Fire!

Yeah, but it's all about the state's deficit.  Right?

Our Real Domestic Terrorist Problem

As GOP Rep. Peter King of New York gets his show hearing on today about "Radical Islam" in the United States, there are two important points that he won't mention.  First, a vast and overwhelming majority of American Muslims not only want nothing to do with radical anti-Americanism, they are the key to stopping it.
Danger Room's Adam Rawnsley:

But the numbers tell the story of jihadis’ marginality in America in better detail. In a forthcoming report, Brian Michael Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior advisor at the Rand Corporation, updates a previous study on the subject and counts  the number of Muslims in America who’ve participated in jihadist-related crimes from 9/11 through 2010. He shared the results with Danger Room ahead of publication.

181 Muslims have either been indicted, arrested or self-identified (such as through suicide bombings in Somalia) as participating in jihadist-related crimes since 9/11, according to Jenkins’ study. Estimates on the number of Muslims in America  population are numerous and inconsistent; the Pew forum fixes the number at 2.6 million, Jenkins uses a figure of 3 million. In either case, the figure lies between 0.007 to 0.006 percent of American Muslims — an extreme minority in the fullest sense of the words.

“This is half-hearted jihad,” says Jenkins. Even if hundreds or thousands of American-based Muslims support or tolerate the radicals on the sly, it’s still a tiny, tiny percentage of the whole.

Those few Muslims who choose to engage in terrorism still represent a threat that needs to be taken seriously. But their relative position on the fringe of the community yields an important insight as to how this should be undertaken: America’s Muslim community is an obstacle to participation in al-Qaeda’s twisted interpretation of jihad, not a gateway. The logical conclusion is that we must embrace this community in the fight against terrorism rather than undermine it through fear-mongering.

And while some Republicans are quick to demonize all American Muslims (and all Muslims everywhere for that matter) the reality is that the domestic terrorism problem we really do have involves not Muslims, but white supremacist hate groups.

Finally there has been an arrest made in the attempted terrorist bombing of the Spokane, Washington Martin Luther King Day Parade in January, and the suspect is a real doozy.

The man arrested today in Washington State for the attempted MLK Day bombing in Spokane is named Kevin William Harpham. Here's what the Spokane newspaper has found so far:
The Southern Poverty Law Center confirmed that Harpham in 2004 was a member of the National Alliance, which is one of the most visible white supremacist organizations in the nation. It was founded by the late William Pierce, who authored "The Turner Diaries," a novel about a future race war. That book was believed to be the blueprint behind the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh. 
"What to me this arrest suggests is that the Martin Luther King Day attack is what it always looked like: A terror-mass murder attempt directed at black people and their sympathizers," said Mark Potok, who is the director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project that tracks and investigates hate groups.
Potok said his organization's records also indicate that Harpham was in the U.S. Army in 1996 and 1997, serving with the 37th Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Lewis.

Ex-military white supremacist trying to kill a bunch of Americans, why does that sound familiar?  Oh yeah, and the bomb was specifically targeting African-Americans too.  But Kevin William Harpham?  Strangely, not a Muslim.

But you won't hear anything about this at Rep. King's "blame the Muslims" hearing.  The Spokane bombing story has been spiked since day one.  The story will continue to be spiked, too.  If King was serious about investigating radicalism in the country, he'd have to take a look at hate groups like this.  But that goes against the GOP narrative that there are no racists, only people who are racists for thinking racism still exists in 2011.

Patriot Games

Wisconsin State Senate Republicans stripped the financial parts out of the budget repair bill and passed the "strip collective bargaining from employee unions" part with no Dems present to even vote on it.  TPM's Eric Kleefield:

Capping a dramatic turn of events, the Wisconsin state Senate on Wednesday night passed a new, stripped-down "budget repair bill" -- which now excludes all the fiscal elements of the original budget repair bill, and simply includes the original's provisions to roll back the collective bargaining and organizational rights of Wisconsin's public employee unions.

With all 14 Democrats absent, having fled the state weeks ago in order to block the three-fifths budget quorum, the bill passed by an 18-1 margin, with only moderate Republican Dale Schultz voting no.
Gov. Scott Walker (R) has released this statement:
"The Senate Democrats have had three weeks to debate this bill and were offered repeated opportunities to come home, which they refused. In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature's action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs."
Meanwhile, state Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate has released this statement, vowing to recall all those Republican state Senators who are eligible under the state's recall laws, which require at least one year of a term to be completed -- and to recall Walker next year:
"Using tactics that trample on the traditions of our Legislature, the Republican leadership has betrayed our state. Republicans have rubber-stamped the desire of the Koch Brothers and their godshead Scott Walker to cripple Wisconsin's middle class and lower benefits and wages for every single wage-earner in our state. The vote does nothing to create jobs, does nothing to strengthen our state, and shows finally and utterly that this never was about anything but raw political power. We now put our total focus on recalling the eligible Republican senators who voted for this heinous bill. And we also begin counting the days remaining before Scott Walker is himself eligible for recall."

Whirlwinds and reaping come to mind.  Remember, the entire plan here is to eliminate public unions, and by doing so break the political back of state level Democratic Party organization.

This was never about the state budget, or the state's deficit, or taxes or expenditures.  This was about partisan payback, one side using the power they were given by the people not to govern the whole state fairly, but to cynically and cruelly dismantle the political power of their opponents to eliminate them, and it didn't matter whose throat they cut to win as they plowed through teachers, firefighters, cops, and nurses.

And in doing so, they proved beyond a doubt that the only thing that mattered was to wreck as many state employees lives as possible as partisan punishment for daring to support the unions or the Democrats.  It's not about governing the state, it's about destroying the opposition so that you don't have to govern.

I believe the Republicans in Wisconsin have badly, badly miscalculated here.  A big, red line was crossed. And it's something people aren't going to soon forget.  The first shots in the Great Austerity War have been truly fired.  There will be more.  And the losers will be American workers, unionized or not.


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