tagged w/ The Underreported Story
Imagine the government pulling down a website and seizing the domain for over a year. Sound like something more likely to occur in China than the U.S.? One might think, but that's what happened to Dajaz1.com, a popular music site that was seized by the Department of Homeland Security in 2010 and censored for more than a year.
Imagine the government pulling down a website and seizing the domain for over a... more
This holiday season, Amazon is unleashing its inner Grinch in attempt to steal business away from local stores.
The online retailer is offering a promotion that will save consumers $5 off their purchases if they compare prices with local stores using Amazon's mobile app. The app allows shoppers to scan the bar code of a product and coonduct a search to find the lowest price. Customers can also submit prices, to help Amazon be sure they're undercutting retailers. The promo boils down to this: Amazon wants customers to go into local stores, check out the merchandise they're interested in, scan the price (providing valuable data) -- and then walk out empty-handed to save a few bucks.
This holiday season, Amazon is unleashing its inner Grinch in attempt to steal... more
This morning the Senate has voted to advance a bill that would allow for the indefinite military detention of Americans, leaving 30 hours before the bill comes up for a final vote.
This morning the Senate has voted to advance a bill that would allow for the... more
If you've been busy following the news of the Super Committee's failure, you might have missed another piece of news coming out of Congress quietly cut the budget for the Commodities Futures Trading Commission in the 2012 budget.
If you've been busy following the news of the Super Committee's failure,... more
Two pieces of legislation making their way through Congress could change the Internet completely, for site owners and users.
The bills, backed by major players like the MPAA and RIAA, are set to be passed before Christmas, against the objections of tech advocacy groups and major tech companies, including Google.
Two pieces of legislation making their way through Congress could change the... more
Can the government attach a GPS device to your car without a warrant? The Atlantic reports that this is the question before the Supreme Court this week -- and as Justice Breyer noted, it starts to sound a lot like "1984."
Can the government attach a GPS device to your car without a warrant? The Atlantic... more
We've all come to expect a certain measure of indignity in airport travel in the past decade, but what about other means of travel? AOL Travel and The Atlantic reported on a local story that Tennessee was quietly working with the TSA on a program that screened drivers traveling on the highway.
Taking the TSA out of the airportThe TSA is reaching beyond the airport in an attempt to thwart terrorism. How? With the creation of something called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams, which began in 2005. These teams are deployed to other transportation facilities -- train stations, bus stops and ferry terminals. Although the VIPR program has received little media attention, the agency has quietly been utilizing teams; in testimony before the U.S. Senate, TSA Administrator John Pistole claimed that more than 8,000 operations have been conducted in the past year.
Is the TSA effective?Despite new restrictions on air travel, the TSA has been plagued by stories of contraband items making it onto planes. (Most recently, the story of a loaded gun falling out of a checked bag at Los Angeles International Airport has made the rounds.) And the TSA missed the deadline for 100 percent cargo screening required by law. There is also growing concern over the safety of X-ray scanners amid new news that the TSA has glossed over concerns that backscatter radiation could increase cancer risk. Plus the ever-present criticism of children and the elderly (not to mention everyone else) being subjected to invasive patdowns.Even if the TSA has managed to crack the security code, there's also the question of scale. There are more than 500 airports in the U.S. serving commercial aircraft; add train stations, ferry terminals, subway stations and bus terminals and it's easy to imagine how much the TSA would need to scale. Throw the 46,000 plus miles of interstate highways on top of that, and it's easy to see just how thin the TSA would be spread, even with the budget increases that it is requesting.
Questionable legalityBut the biggest issue raised by TSA presence outside of airports is, just how legal is it? After all, we still have the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure. It's why the police need a warrant and probable cause, and can't search your house on a whim. So how does the TSA get away with searches at airports? Because you can reasonably avoid such searches by choosing not to fly -- in effect, you consent to be screened when you buy your plane ticket. The TSA has asserted that these rules can also apply to other major transit centers, like ferry terminals or train stations. But what about truck stops or rest stops? The Fourth Amendment still applies; your vehicle is not a major transit center and to avoid search you'd have to effectively opt out of of all forms of transit beyond your own two feet -- an unrealistic proposition for most.
Why it mattersNot only would increased TSA presence outside of airports require more resources and budget in a time when the call is to cut spending, it also comes at a time when TSA procedures are still under scrutiny. Security is important and protecting the U.S. against terrorism is laudable goal. If there is a way to effectively prevent attacks while preserving civil liberties, it should be pursued. But at what point does the intrusiveness of security begin to violate individual rights? At what point does the right to travel outside one's own property become consent for invasive search?
We've all come to expect a certain measure of indignity in airport travel in... more
This week's underreported story comes from frequent "Countdown" guest Robert Reich, who blogged about a bill that would offer residency visas to wealthy foreigners if they purchase real estate, in an attempt to prop up the stumbling housing market.
Residency for real estateSenators Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) have introduced a bill that would give residence visas to foreign citizens who spend at least $500,000 to buy houses in the U.S. Here's how it works: In order to qualify, a foreign citizen would have to spend at least $500,000 on residential real estate. All $500,000 could be spent on one house, or as little as $250,000 could be spent on one residence and the remainder on residential real estate that could be rented out. In exchange, the purchasers would be granted residency visas.
This week's underreported story comes from frequent "Countdown" guest... more
Demands are beginning to surface in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and many protesters are calling for student-loan debt to be forgiven. Those opposed to debt forgiveness have called the demand greedy and misplaced. But student-loan debt is soaring, and in the current economy higher education is no longer the same cushion against economic difficulty it once was.
A path to the American DreamA college education is one step in the American Dream; work hard and do well in school and you'll succeed. In this economy, it can seem even more crucial. Workers with a bachelor's degree earn more -- in 2009, the median salary for a young adult male with a bachelor's degree was $51,000; a man with a high-school diploma had a median salary of $32,900.
But it's about more than just the wage gap. Recent numbers show a ratio of 4.6 job seekers per job opening, giving employers plenty of room to hold out for the most qualified candidates. The rise of globalization has meant a shifting of blue-collar jobs -- jobs that once were able to provide someone with a high-school diploma a chance at a solid middle-class life -- overseas. A bachelor's degree is now a ticket to the middle class, but not a guarantee.
Sticker shockThe cost of an education has risen dramatically. In 1980, the annual sticker price for a public, four-year university was, on average, $2,550. By 2009, it rose to $15,014. Two-year institutions, often held up as a more affordable alternative, also jumped from $2,027 in 1980 to $7,703 in 2009. With states slashing education budgets in the recession, the cost of attendance is continuing to rise. Budget cuts mean schools are proposing much higher tuition hikes, at an average of 8.9 percent.
Education for profitBeginning in 2006, another factor came into play: the deregulation of for-profit colleges. House Speaker John Boehner pushed through a few lines in the 2006 budget bill that eliminated rules aimed at protecting students and fueled growth of the for-profit education industry. The 50 Percent Rule had previously limited enrollment at universities with online course offerings, opened the door for the growth of for profit education, and Wall Street took notice.
Companies like Goldman Sachs got into the game, partnering with players like Education Management Corp., who increased high-pressure sales techniques aimed at boosting enrollment and collecting student-loan dollars. Employees told The Huffington Post reported they were directed to pressure students to enroll even when the program wasn't a good fit, or they seemed unlikely to be successful (for-profit universities have lower graduation rates than other institutions) in order to get aid dollars. Student loan burdens fall entirely on students, with colleges receiving their revenue up front, making them a low-risk growth opportunity for firms like Goldman Sachs.
Crushing debtStudent loans are meant to allow access to higher education, but in reality they often leave graduates saddled with crippling debt. In 2010, consumers began to owe more in student loans than in credit card debt. Student-loan debt has skyrocketed; estimates from the Department of Education put outstanding student loans as high as $805 billion at the end of June 2011. With the unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds much higher than the national average, at nearly 15 percent, delinquencies for student loans are also rising. Rising costs mean students who can't finance college on federal loans alone are turning to private lenders whose loans may come with variable interest rates and less forgiving terms. The picture is particularly bleak for students at for-profit colleges, who are less likely to graduate and more likely to default on their loans.
No escapeAlthough it's often classified as "good" debt, student-loan debt can be a burden that is nearly impossible to escape. Unlike a house or a car, you can't turn your diploma over to the banks and get a student loan forgiven. Since 1978, government-issued student loans have been unable to be discharged in cases of bankruptcy. Thanks to the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, all student loans are now protected, including private loans. Unlike federal loans, loans from private lenders are not eligible for repayment assistance, forgiveness or relief programs in the event of financial hardship. So just how difficult is it to escape student loan debt? Even death isn't a guarantee. Private lenders are not required to forgive loans in cases of death or permanent disability and co-signers are obligated to take on the debt.
Why it matters
Those with a college education have fared better in the recession than those with a high-school diploma. Jobs continue to be increasingly split between unskilled, minimum-wage jobs and those requiring higher education, making college that much more valuable. Yet the skyrocketing cost of college is leaving graduates with a burden of debt that may far outpace their earning potential.
Those who say that the demand to forgive debt is unreasonable should consider that affording college is not the same prospect it once was. Undervalued by the public and government alike, education budgets are being slashed and tuitions is rising, while the recession makes it even more difficult for students to afford college, leaving loans the only way to make up the difference. The deregulation of for-profit colleges has also opened the door to abuses and fraud, preying on the desperation of job-seekers and leaving many students with all of the debt and none of the benefits. Graduates are starting the game already behind; if the U.S. wants a healthy economy, the choice to pursue education shouldn't come with a shadow of debt and the threat of financial ruin.
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Demands are beginning to surface in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and many... more
This week, discount store 99 Cents Only sold for $1.6 billion dollars. Unless you're an avid fan of the business section, you probably missed this announcement. But as Salon writer Andrew Leonard points out, there's more to this than the sale of one chain, and it has a lot to say about who is benefitting in this economy.
Where the 99 percent shopIn a bad economy, consumers look for ways to be frugal. As the recession lags on and consumers continue to feel the effects of unemployment, debt and rising prices on essentials, the hunt for ways to stretch a dollar becomes even more paramount. Discount stores like the 99 Cents Only store suddenly become an option for things like groceries. In response, discount chains have begun to respond, opening new locations and sprucing up stores to attract a new clientele looking for cheap, generic options.
Bad for consumers, good for retailers... and Wall StreetThe economy may be hitting shoppers hard, but discount retailers have reaped benefits from the economic woes hitting the average American. In the case of the 99 Cent Only store, the chain has gone from roughly 120 stores in 2002 to 285 in 2011. A look at the source of profit is also telling -- shoppers aren't just looking for a good deal on non-essentials. Food and grocery items made up 54 percent of the 99 Cent Only stores sales in 2010. Now, the chain has sold for $1.6 billion, and earned a mention the Wall Street Journal's "hot stocks" list. So, while many Americans are busy searching for the least expensive way to buy milk and eggs, shareholders are seeing stock prices trend upwards and Wall Street celebrates.
Why it mattersAs Salon notes, if you want to understand what the Occupy Wall Street protesters want, look at news like this. While politicians in Washington are stalling on measures that could create jobs because they call for higher taxes on the wealthy, the rich continue to see increased profits. The majority of the country is suffering in a bleak economic climate with high unemployment and scraping by as they hunt for the cheapest possible way to get food on the table, and the discount retailers and Wall Street are all too ready to capitalize on the desperation.
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This week, discount store 99 Cents Only sold for $1.6 billion dollars. Unless... more
Workers forced to work in warehouses with temperatures over 100 degrees often suffering from dehydration or heat exhaustion. Demands that workers process items at increasingly high rates and facing discplinary action for not making rate. Sound like conditions in a third-world country? Try again. Think Pennsylvania.
Workers speak outThe Lehigh Valley News of Pennsylvania recently covered the conditions of workers at a local Amazon warehouse. Workers, mainly temporary employees, reported working in heat waves where temperatures reached over 100 degrees inside, with heat so bad that Amazon hired paramedics who parked outside in ambulances, ready to treat workers suffering from heat emergencies. Workers reported being pushed to perform at higher and higher speeds, threatened with termination and promised full-time jobs that never appeared.
Amazon isn't the first company to face such criticism over worker conditions. Earlier this year, IKEA factory workers spoke out about conditions at a U.S. factory, where workers complained about unpredictable hours and the high-pressure environment.
Recession economicsAmericans love a good deal. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn't scored cheap books on Amazon or headed to IKEA to furnish a new home. In a recession the lure of cheap goods is even more pronounced, and with new poverty statistics showing an increase in the number of Americans living in poverty and a 2-percent dip in median income levels, it's not surprising that people are looking to cut costs wherever they can.
High unemployment rates are also a problem for workers -- but not so much for companies, who know that there are plenty of desperate workers willing to apply for even low-paying jobs. Both IKEA and Amazon rely on large numbers of temporary workers who worked for low pay and no benefits. That might be a hard sell in a better economy, but the recession has created a ready pool of workers looking for any job they can get. Pushed to perform at high levels, workers who can't keep up with the pace are easily replaced with new bodies.
It's a vicious cycle; when the only jobs are low-paying, the demand for cheap goods is higher. Small businesses who can't compete with chains who can spread the burden of production and take advantage of cheap labor close, eliminating more jobs that may offer better pay or benefits. The higher the demand for cheap goods means companies look to increase profits by cutting costs and demanding that workers do more with less.
Workers' rightsAnother advantage of using temporary workers? They're less likely to know their rights and realize the extent to which they can demand better working conditions. Politically speaking, unions are a hot topic with states like Wisconsin, Ohio and Illinois pushing through laws that curtail bargaining rights for public employees. Those laws apply to public employees, not private ones, but the message is clear -- limit the ability of workers to organize and advocate for better conditions.
Why it mattersBeing able to furnish your apartment for under $1,000 may be great, but when conditions for American workers begin to sound more like third-world sweatshops, it's time we start paying attention. As long as there's a demand for cheap goods, companies will engage in whatever practices they can to cut costs and provide them. Everybody wants a great deal, but does that have to mean turning a blind eye on the way companies treat workers? We should be taking a closer look at where our stuff comes from -- and who is bearing the cost for cheap goods.
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Workers forced to work in warehouses with temperatures over 100 degrees often... more
Feeling fed up watching Washington fight over tax breaks for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population while unemployment continues to plague the rest of the country? Sick of watching Wall Street tank the economy and walk away? You're not alone and this weekend, protestors took to the streets of lower Manhattan with a demand for change.
The occupationThe protests in Manhattan are formed by a loose coalition of groups who say they've been inspired by the "Arab Spring" protests that have been rippling through the Middle East. Beginning on Saturday, protestors began to converge on lower Manhattan in protest of the corporate influence in American politics. It's not just a one-off protest event, either. Protestors are calling for people to pitch tents and set up barricades to occupy Wall Street for a few months.
The organizersThe original call for protest came from Adbusters, which called for people to support democracy, not corporateocracy:
The most exciting candidate that we've heard so far is one that gets at the core of why the American political establishment is currently unworthy of being called a democracy: we demand that Barack Obama ordain a Presidential Commission tasked with ending the influence money has over our representatives in Washington. It's time for DEMOCRACY NOT CORPORATOCRACY, we're doomed without it.
The group is organizing via the OccupyWallStreet website, with updates and livestreaming as well as resources for those who wish to join or aid the protests. But AdBusters isn't the only group -- the hacktivist group Anonymous is also supporting the effort, as is a group called the 99 Percent Project, which advocates for the 99 percent of Americans who aren't among the wealthiest in the nation.
The demandAs a loose coalition, there has yet to be one single, articulated demand from the protests. But the theme is taking corporate money and influence out of politics. The protestors, frustrated by a shrinking middle class and a financial sector that has escaped consequences for wreaking havoc on the economy, want to take the country back from the richest 1 percent that hold great influence over the political process. The goal? Return democracy to the people.
Ongoing protestsProtestors have continued to occupy Wall Street through the weekend and into this week, though the numbers have been smaller and several protestors have been arrested. The lack of leadership has also led to inefficiency as protestors debate the next move. Further complicating matters, emails regarding the protest that contained a link to the website were generating a message in YahooMail, leading some to suggest that Yahoo was censoring communication by activists, though the company says blocked emails were the result of an error.
Why it mattersA groundswell of popular support could make a big difference in the upcoming elections. Americans are frustrated by the recession, slow recovery and a government weighed down with corporate influence.
The Wall Street occupiers are vocalizing the frustration shared by many Americans across the country. They're calling for change and for attention to the cause, and some better organization and focus could go a long way toward making this the beginning of an American movement to take back our democracy.
Update: Keith Olbermann, who has been off the air since Wednesday, tweets today that he'll be covering the Wall Street occupation and media blackout on tonight's episode of "Countdown."
Feeling fed up watching Washington fight over tax breaks for the wealthiest 1... more
You can do just about anything you want online -- from sending an email to ordering a pizza to managing your bank account. Most people take secure websites for granted, but news of a recent attack on Google users in Iran could be a sign that we shouldn't.
The Iranian interceptAt the end of August, a man-in-the-middle attack on Iranian Google users was uncovered -- one that had gone on without detection for two months. The attack allowed for the interception of data including emails to search results. How? By compromising Dutch certificate authority (CA) DigiNotar, one of the companies authorized to create SSL certificates that verify websites. Once the CA was compromised, fraudulent certificates were created, allowing the attacker to eavesdrop on traffic between a user and a website that appears secure.
Certificates and securityIf you're online, you're relying on CAs and SSL to protect your privacy, even if you don't think about it. In short, SSL certificates work by verifying that the website you're on is the one you meant to visit. Look at the address bar in your browser when you're logged into your Gmail -- that "https" means it's verified that you're logging into Gmail, and not another site allowing someone to siphon off data. These certificates are relied on for sites to guarantee the security of everything from email communications to credit-card information.
SSL certificates are issued by CAs, which number in the hundreds and operate in many jurisdictions. Any one CA being compromised, as in the case of DigiNotar, could result in hundreds of fraudulent certificates. Since these companies operate in many locations, it's also conceivable that a government could compel a CA to create fraudulent certificates for the purposes of engaging in espionage or investigation of political dissidents.
Privacy and informationAs the Internet becomes an essential element of everything from commerce to communication to government, privacy and data become evermore valuable. The rise of organizations such as Wikileaks demonstrate the power of releasing information, and groups like Anonymous and LulzSec give activists and protesters an opportunity to use technical vulnerabilities to make a point, often with unsuspecting users getting caught in the crossfire.
Internet and mobile communications are also valuable for political dissidents and activists. If an individual hired by a government -- as the person claiming responsibility for the Iranian attacks claims to be -- could compromise a CA, or a government could compel a company to authorize false certificates, it would be possible to engage in espionage or conduct surveilllance on citizens. Malware downloaded from such sites could provide the ability to constantly spy on a user's activity.
The compromise of a major CA could also have a crippling impact on the Web. In response to the attacks, major Web browsers revoked DigiNotar certificates. But an attack on a major CA would result in a major disruption of Web services if governments or browsers were forced to revoke certificates, affecting everything from communications to the financial industry.
Why it mattersBecause it was bogged down in technical details, the Iranian intercept story failed to catch the attention of those outside the tech media. The industry is taking the attacks seriously, but the public needs to as well.
The more the Internet becomes essential for daily life, the more important privacy and security become, and people should be aware of of potential vulnerabilities and the steps they can take to protect themselves.
You can do just about anything you want online -- from sending an email to ordering... more
Congress is set to return to Washington this week and the controversial, bipartistan supercommittee of 12 members tasked with paring down the deficit by $1.5 trillion will also start its work. The chosen dozen needs to find that amount in spending reductions over a decade or face $1.2 trillion in across the board cuts starting in 2013. But who's influencing the supercommittee?
The K Street ConnectionThe path between K Street, the home of many of D.C.'s lobbying firms, and Capitol Hill is a well-traveled one. Former lobbyists sign on to work as staffers for new members of Congress, and former staffers make their way to K Street firms to lobby their old colleagues on Capitol Hill. It's networking, Washington-style. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the revolving door of lobbyists and staffers, reported that more than twice as many former lobbyists have been hired this session than in the previous one, giving lobbying firms even more ties to Congress.
Supercommittee ConnectionsThe Washington Post reports that the debt supercommittee is heavily connected to lobbyists. Nearly 100 former staffers of the supercommittee's members now working as lobbyists who will undoubtedly be trying to convince their former employers to go easy on their clients. So which committee members are the most connected? Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont. (pictured), who has 25 former staffers now working as lobbyists, including a former chief of staff, David Castagnetti, whose firm lobbies for a number of industries, including health care, oil and gas, and the automotive industry, among others. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., comes in a distant second, with 14 former staffers now working as lobbyists, and one current staffer with a previous lobbying career.At the other end of the scale are Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., who has only two former staffers now working as lobbyists, and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., with two staff members who formerly worked in the lobbying industry.
Why It MattersAfter a protracted debate over the debt ceiling, the supercommittee has been tasked with making deep cuts to the nation's spending. With so many ties to corporate interests, how will that influence the members' decisions on where to make cuts? Americans should be paying close attention as the supercommittee begins its work, to ensure the interests of the American people aren't shuffled aside by connections to powerful players trying to protect their interests.
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RELATED VIDEO:See what "Countdown" guest host David Shuster and Bill Press had to say about the supercommittee last month:
Congress is set to return to Washington this week and the controversial, bipartistan... more
Between Rick Perry's prayer rally and Michele Bachmann's religious background and beliefs, the Republican primary isn't short on faith. As the election heats up, both Bachmann and Perry have been connected to particular set of Christian beliefs that could influence their politics in a significant way.
The Roots of Dominionism
Dominionist Christianity lays it's foundations on one specific verse of the Bible, the King James translation of Genesis 1:26:
And God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth."
From this, dominionism takes the view that it is an obligation for Christians to rule and reclaim the world for Christ, not just in the realm of the church but in the realm of the state, as well, in a system based on Biblical law. Unlike traditional evangelicalism, which places the emphasis on salvation through individual conversion, dominionism emphasizes the creation of a state governed by Christian law and pits believers against non-believers in a struggle for control of society.Dominionism isn't new. Rousas John Rushdoony, a Calvinist philosopher, and Francis Schaeffer, who Bachmann has cited as an influence on her thinking, provided the foundations of the movement in the 1960s and 1970s. But politicians on the right have become increasingly cozy with the movement, particularly around election season.The New Apostolic ReformationOne of the new players on the scene is the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), headed by C. Peter Wagner, and the group affiliated with Perry's prayer rally. A loosely connected group, the NAR's members see themselves as modern-day apostles and prophets and preach spiritual warfare as a weapon to fight back against demonic influences. Of course, the effects of spiritual warfare often spread beyond the realm of prayer. Several of those associated with the NAR also have a history in Uganda, promoting the anti-homosexuality bill that makes being gay punishable by death. Primacy of Biblical lawThat's where the dominionist theology starts to have serious real-world consequences. Believing that the Bible is the only authority, one of the goals is to bring "Biblical Foundations" to the American court system, a goal helped by the creation of Christian law schools such as Oral Roberts University Law School, Bachmann's alma mater. The school's founder, Herb Titus, sees secular law as a form of tyranny, and interprets the First Amendment to mean that Congress cannot establish institutions tantamount to religions or enforce duties owed to God. Proponents of the movement have gained strength by playing on the narrative of Christians as second-class citizens saddled with the yoke of secular law. Although Christians still constitute a religious majority in the U.S., these movements do not typically consider mainline Christianity to be fully in accordance with scripture, and while they are growing, still make up a minority. This has helped fuel support from those who feel surrounded by an increasingly secular and pluralistic society. Why it mattersPerry and Bachmann have quickly emerged as front-runners in the GOP, and it's worth examine the religious philosophies that are guiding them. Although some have dismissed criticism of dominionism as liberal hysteria, the movement's ties to Uganda alone should serve as a warning of the potential consequences that can arise when mixing faith and politics.When it comes to candidates with ties to dominionism and the NAR, we need to be asking the hard questions: How much would a candidate allow faith to guide legislative decisions? To what extent do they believe Biblical law should influence American jurisprudence? Only then will voters be able to make an informed decision at the polls.
Between Rick Perry's prayer rally and Michele Bachmann's religious... more
You may have seen the video of Matt Damon's recent smackdown of a reporter at an education rally. But you may have missed the news coming out this week: that the Obama Administration had a sudden interest in meeting with Damon and the teachers involved in the "Save Our Schools" rally before the event.
The Save Our Schools Million Teacher March
In July, actor Matt Damon spoke at the "Save Our Schools" rally, criticizing education policy and defending teachers. He also got into an exchange with a reporter that quickly went viral online.
It has now come to light that Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to meet with Damon prior to the event. Leaders of the teacher march, who had been trying to get the attention of the White House previously, were also suddenly invited to meet with officials beforehand. When they offered to meet after the march instead, however, they were turned down.The No Child Left Behind Decade
The "Save Our Schools" Million Teacher March that took place in July was a response by teachers to the No Child Left Behind era of education policy.The brainchild of the Bush administration, NCLB focuses education policy on standardized test scores. All schools are required to meet proficient standards by the 2013-2014 school year and also must demonstrate adequate yearly progress or face consequences, up to closing the school or turning it over to private management.The emphasis on test scores has had a number of unintended consequences. The curriculum has narrowed, with schools cutting time spent on history, art, languages, music and other subjects not covered by the tests and putting pressure on teachers to teach to the test. Teachers in high-poverty schools or who teach disadvantaged populations face consequence for low test scores, despite facing daunting challenges. Those in favor of NCLB and similar reforms view it as a concrete way of measuring educational progress, with one set of standards that schools and teachers must meet to be considered acceptable. They also point to perfromance-based evaluation as a motivating factor. The argument goes something like this: If teacher pay isn't based on performance, there's no reason for teachers to work harder. Proponents also argue that teacher pay isn't as low as it seems, citing the hours of the school day and the length of the school year for students, while glossing over the additional, unpaid hours that teachers spend preparing lessons, grading, and providing additional support to students.While standardized test scores can provide a useful bit of data when evaluating school performance, there are also limitations to what they can measure. The emphasis on test scores also ignores the challenges teachers face in a classroom, facing students at varying levels of ability -- all of whom are expected to meet the same set of standards. Schools have also narrowed curriculums, resulting in what's known as teaching to the test. The emphasis on test scores has also opened the door for schools under pressure to cheat to meet standards. Test fraud has been uncovered in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., with teachers changing test scores to boost results, while New York state dropped its passing mark in order to boost the number of schools meeting a certain level. Other districts have discouraged low-performing students from coming to school or, in the case of charter schools, refusing to accept them at all. Obama and Education
The Obama Administration promised to reform No Child Left Behind. So far, they are -- by making test scores even more important. The Obama Administration is offering waivers to states facing looming deadlines set in place by NCLB, as long as those states promise to meet other educational reforms, which have been described as No Child Left Behind on steroids.
The Bottom Line
Educators have been speaking out against No Child Left Behind for some time, yet it took a Hollywood actor's appearance to prompt the Department of Education to offer a meeting, and even only before the really, presumably in hopes of quelling opposition. It certainly would appear that there's no desire for a high-profile celebrity shining the light on education reform. Which would seem to indicate it's an issue that deserves closer attention.
You may have seen the video of Matt Damon's recent smackdown of a reporter at... more
In the midst of a swirl of coverage of the Republican primary and the economy, NPR reported on changes that are quietly affecting the death penalty and the 58 prisoners on federal death row who are increasingly unlikely to be executed during President Obama's watch.
The Death Penalty in the U.S.In addition to individual state laws, the federal government can apply capital punishment as a sentence for 60 crimes, including three which do not involve murder. The exceptions are espionage, treason and drug trafficking in large amounts. Relatively few developed countries employ the death penalty. Japan and South Korea are the only other established democracies that still conduct executions.The death penalty has a long history in the United States -- the first person executed in the then-colonies was put to death in 1608 (his name was George Kendall, and he was accused of being a spy for Spain). There was a brief lull between 1972, when the Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia voided 40 death penalty statutes and effectively suspended the death penalty, and 1976 when Gregg v. Georgia approved guided discretion statutes and the death penalty was reinstated.
Lethal Injection Drug ShortagesA new challenge to the death penalty has arisen due to a shortage of the drug sodium thiopental, that serves as one of the key components in lethal injection. Sodium thiopental is an anesthetic and the first in the sequence of three drugs that makes up lethal injection, and is intended to prevent pain.
After a temporary production halt in 2010, Hospira, Inc., the sole American manufacturer of the drug announced in January it would no longer produce it. The company producing the drug had intended to resume production in Italy, however, Italian authorities refused to permit export if the drug were to be used for executions. A U.K. producer of the drug likewise refused to export the drug as of December 2010.
Changes to ExecutionsFacing the shortage of sodium thiopental, state and federal authorities have worked to develop alternate solutions for lethal injection. On Aug. 18, a Virginia man became the first prisoner in the state to be executed using a new drug cocktail that replaces sodium thiopental with phenobarbital. The Federal Bureau of Prisons, however, is still working to modify its lethal injection protocols, making it likely that Obama will not preside over any executions during his presidency. In 2006, a federal judge stayed the executions of three prisoners who challenged the constitutionality of lethal injection, claiming that the drug cocktail leaves prisoners conscious and in excruciating pain. Until the new procedures are in place, the litigation cannot proceed and no executions can be scheduled. In addition to the efforts to revise the lethal injection procedures, phenobarbital producer Lundbeck announced last month that it would restrict the drug's distribution to prevent it from being used for capital punishment.
A Shift in ProsecutionWhile all of this has been happening, the Justice Department has also adjusted the way it instructs federal prosecutors who wish to seek the death penalty, listening more closely to local prosecutors and seeking the death penalty less often in cases involving the murder of drug dealers. These policies are a shift from the Bush Administration, when controversy arose from Attorney General John Ashcroft, who directed U.S. attorneys who chose not to pursue the death penalty to reconsider.
A Shift in View?If Obama's term proceeds without any federal executions, it will stand in contrast to the Bush Administration, which presided over the excecutions of three federal prisoners. Could the changes quietly happening behind the scenes be a sign of a shift in attitudes toward the death penalty in the U.S.?
In the midst of a swirl of coverage of the Republican primary and the economy, NPR... more
If the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Iceland is Bjork, you may have missed the underreported news of Iceland's surprising approach to economic recovery. Although it's been developing for some time, the story of how Iceland has put the wishes of the Icelandic population ahead of the financial industry and turned the conventional approach to recovery on its head has started people talking.
The BackgroundIn the years leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, Iceland's economy grew with the help of cheap, foreign credit and lowered taxes. Newly privatized banks merged commercial and investment banking, and the banks grew larger and more interconnected, and income and wealth inequality expanded. Iceland's income levels were fifth highest in the world, and Reykjavik was an expanding city full of luxury goods.
CollapseIn 2008, when the financial crisis came crashing down on the world, Iceland's banks fell. The IMF arrived in Reykjavik to rescue the country, the first time it did so in a developed country since 1976. The IMF offered a loan to stabilize the krona, with the condition that Iceland honor the obligations to pay back foreign creditors. Although the government agreed, Iceland's population said no, erupting into protests and assembling in Reykjavik to demand the government's resignation. As a result, rather than than bail out the banks, the Icelandic government let them collapse. Twice now, the country has voted not to repay foreign creditors the money that was lost during the bank default, and to put citizens ahead of bankers.
RecoveryIt's been referred to as "bankrupting your way to recovery" and some have suggested it as a viable alternative for countries dealing with crippling debt. Compare the situation in Iceland to that of Ireland -- while Ireland has guaranteed all debts, it's had to engage in austerity measures to pay for it. Iceland, on the other hand, has preserved social welfare. In addition, unemployment is falling and the Icelandic economy is expected to grow. It's not all rosy, however. The Icelandic krona collapsed, making Reykjavik an attractive tourist destination but costing Icelanders who saw prices soar at the same time as wages fell. During the boom years, Icelanders were also encouraged to take out loans in foreign currencies, which mean they have seen their loans double or triple in value as well.
The Bottom LineIceland's solution to economic recovery may not be a viable option across the board. The country has several factors that play a key role, including a relatively small population and their own currency. But the quiet revolution from the Icelandic people to put citizens ahead of the banking industry is worth noting and worth considering as we struggle through our own economic recovery.
If the first thing that springs to mind when you think of Iceland is Bjork, you may... more
While everyone was staring up at the debt ceiling, a story trickled out about bill in the House that would require Internet service providers to retain records of your online activity, raising questions about online privacy and putting them up against the desire to combat child pornography on the Internet.The StoryLast week, the House Judiciary Committee approved HR 1981, a bill that would require ISPs to save subscriber information for at least 18 months. This data could be used to identify what websites you visited and the content you've posted online. The PlayersSponsored by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, the legislation is intended to help aid investigations into child pornography. While ISPs do keep records of activity, these are currently purged on a routine basis, which the bill's supporters claim makes it difficult to identify those trafficking in child porn online.Digital rights groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, oppose the bill, saying it's an expansion of federal power and a threat to the privacy of Internet users. Others in the House also question the scope of the bill, saying it does not clearly restrict the use of data to specific investigations related to child safety. While this bill is intended to help prosecute cases of child pornography, the stored data could be used in other types of cases or in civil court cases, such as divorce.The Bottom LineOn the one hand, it's difficult to disagree with a goal of getting child pornography off the Internet and finding the individuals responsible. On the other, HR 1981 has implications for the privacy of everyone online, even those doing nothing illegal. There's also a risk of data being breached -- with all the recent hacking cases in the news, it's easy to imagine such records could be a tempting target. At what point does the need to protect children outweigh civil liberties and privacy concerns?
While everyone was staring up at the debt ceiling, a story trickled out about bill... more
In the midst of endless coverage over competing debt ceiling deals, you might have missed the quiet rumblings over a move to include a second "one-time" tax holiday for corporations. The idea has gained support among moderate Democrats in the Senate, including Kay Hagan (N.C.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and John Kerry (Mass.), and Rep. Shelley Berkley (Nev.) in the House. Who's Talking?
"Countdown with Keith Olbermann" contributor Matt Taibbi has blogged about the proposed corporate tax repatriation holiday, while also questioning the lack of outrage over the idea:
As it is, leading members of the Senate are seriously considering giving the most profitable companies in the world a total tax holiday as a reward for their last seven years of systematic tax avoidance. Hundreds of billions of potential tax dollars would disappear from the Treasury. And there isn’t a peep from anyone, anywhere, on this issue.
So how does a tax repatriation holiday work? Current tax law allows companies to avoid paying taxes on profits kept overseas until the money comes back to the U.S., where it is taxed at a rate of 35-40 percent. But in 2004, corporations lobbied Congress for a tax holiday, in which they paid about 5 percent in taxes, with the idea that the savings would be used for job creation. Now, in the midst of ongoing debates over the debt ceiling, corporations want another chance to bring profits back home at a reduced tax rate. The idea is touted as an effort to incentivize job creation, and at least one proposal from Rep. Berkley wouldn't restrict the ways in which companies use the repatriated profits. This means the money could just as easily be turned into share buybacks and increased dividends rather than job creation or research and development -- which is exactly what happened the last time around.
Proponents of the tax holiday -- which include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and tech giants Apple and Google -- claim it would bring in $50 billion in revenue and spur job creation. But at the same time, Cisco, one of the corporations pushing for the tax holiday, is already planning to cut 16 percent of its workforce.
Opponents have suggested that a second "one-time" tax holiday wouldn't necessarily fund job creation and could send a message to corporations that they can just hold profits and jobs overseas until the next tax holiday rolls around.Bottom Line
If there's no evidence that a tax holiday has stimulated job creation in the past, why try again now? In an economic recovery where corporate profits are rising while median wages are falling and the unemployment rate remains high, this is a holiday we shouldn't take.
In the midst of endless coverage over competing debt ceiling deals, you... more