Saturday Reads: Tax Returns, True Crime, Olympic Porn, and More

Good Morning!!

It looks like Tim Pawlenty might be the perfect VP match for Mitt Romney. He has had some issues with his financial disclosure forms and he refused to release his tax returns as Governor of Minnesota. From the Guardian:

Democrats have been digging into a web of allegations from nine years ago which involved Pawlenty’s use of a shell corporation to shield $60,000 in payments from a telecommunications group during his election campaign that were not declared to the state’s campaign finance board. The money came from a firm run by a prominent Republican strategist. Pawlenty had until recently been a board member.

Opponents accused Pawlenty of accepting an unethical and possibly illegal salary to campaign. The scandal widened because the telecommunications group making the payments was exposed for scamming customers, many of them elderly.

Pawlenty is touted as a leading candidate to be Mitt Romney’s running-mate in part because his background is seen as a political antidote to Romney’s life of privilege. He is the working class son of a truck driver, who knows adversity after his mother died while he was a boy and his father lost his job.

But if he is on the Republican ticket, a fresh airing of the allegations from 2003 is not only likely to undermine Pawlenty’s attempts to portray himself as the voice of the working man but threatens to draw unwelcome attention to difficult issues for Romney – the pressure to release his own tax returns, the morality of his business practices and the parking of millions of dollars in shell companies.

And if Romney turns Pawlenty down for VP, he (Romney) will look like a hypocrite.

I posted this link on Thursday morning, but I think it bears repeating. This op-ed in the NYT by Michael J. Graetz is the best thing I’ve read so far on what Mitt Romney may be hiding by not releasing his tax returns. Graetz discusses Romney’s huge IRA:

With an I.R.A. account of $20 million to $101 million, the tax savings would be more than a few pennies.

The I.R.A. also allows Mr. Romney to diversify his large holdings tax-free, avoiding the 15 percent tax on capital gains that would otherwise apply. His financial disclosure further reveals that his I.R.A. freed him from paying currently the 35 percent income tax on hundreds of thousands of dollars of interest income each year.

Given the extraordinary size of his I.R.A., we have to presume that Mr. Romney valued the assets he put in his retirement account at far less than he would have sold them for. Otherwise it is quite a trick to turn contributions that are limited to $30,000 to $50,000 a year into the $20 million to $101 million he now has there. But we cannot be certain; his meager disclosure of tax records and financial information does not indicate what kind of assets were put into the I.R.A.

He also addresses Romney’s offshore accounts, and concludes that

Mr. Romney is an Olympic-level athlete at the tax avoidance game. Rich people don’t send their money to Bermuda or the Cayman Islands for the weather.

The part I found most interesting was Graetz’ discussion of Romney’s transfers of funds to his sons. Graetz suggests that Romney may not have paid any gift tax on the $100 million trust fund he established in 1995; because it is well known that the IRS doesn’t generally audit gift tax returns.

Based on his aggressive tax planning, revealed in the 2010 returns he has released and his approval of a notably dicey tax avoidance strategy in 1994 when he headed the audit committee of the board of Marriott International, my bet is that — if Mr. Romney filed a gift tax return for these transfers at all — he put a low or even zero value on the gifts, certainly a small fraction of the price at which he would have sold the transferred assets to an unrelated party….According to a partner at Mr. Romney’s trustee’s law firm, valuing carried interests, such as Mr. Romney’s interests in the private equity company Bain Capital, at zero for gift tax purposes was common advice given to clients like Mr. Romney in the 1990s and early 2000s.

At this point, I’m convinced that there is some really hinky stuff going on in those returns. Otherwise Romney would have released them by now. But he’s dreaming if he thinks the press will stop focusing on this.

Yesterday, Wimpy Willard dodged questions about Michelle Bachmann’s muslim witch hunt and the Chick-fil-A controversy. Alex Seitz-Wald at Salon:

Mitt Romney failed to join other Republican leaders today in condemning Rep. Michele Bachmann’s witch hunt against Muslims in the U.S. government, telling reporters at a campaign stop in Las Vegas that it was not “part of my campaign.” Republicans like Sen. John McCain and House Speaker John Boehner, among others, have spoken out publicly against Bachmann’s campaign, but when Romney was asked about it, along with the controversy over Chick-fil-A, he dodged the question. “I’m not going to tell other people what things to talk about. Those are not things that are part of my campaign,” the presumed GOP nominee said at a rare press availability after a campaign stop.

Nothing really new about that–just more evidence of Romney cowardice.

We’ve been talking about how the female Olympic athletes are forced to wear skimpy costumes, presumably to attract the male audience. But at The Daily Beast Tricia Romano has a different take: The Olympics or Soft Porn? Female, Gay Fans Gawking at Male Athletes

Ripped, tanned men seemingly carved out of marble are making women and gay men happy—very happy—during these Olympics, spurring Internet memes and social-media buzz. It’s like the Channing Tatum male-stripper movie Magic Mike got a sequel—a very (thankfully) long sequel—one that’s also preciously short on plot but long on beefcake.

While women have long provided daydream fodder for men and lesbians—say hello to the field hockey team when not checking out the scantily clad ladies taking part in the beach volleyball competition—London’s Games seem to be drumming up a particularly focused interest in celebrating the fine male physique.

American gold-medal swimmers Ryan Lochte and Nathan Adrian might have gained notoriety for winning races, but they became instant sex symbols the second they stepped out of the pool. In the days since their London debut, you can read all about Ryan Lochte’s penchant for one-night stands, and there are entire articles parsing the hot-but-dumb problem posed by Lochte, and conversely how smart and sweet Adrian is and whether or not he has a girlfriend. (He’s single! Ready, set, go!).

I was at the grocery store yesterday afternoon, and I noticed that the National Enquirer had a big splashy story about James Holmes, the “Dark Knight Shooter. I was sorely tempted to buy a copy, but I resisted. It’s just as well, because I discovered the story was on-line. In case you’re interest, here’s the “scoop” in this week’s Enquirer.

WORLD EXCLUSIVE: INSIDE THE SICK TWISTED WORLD OF THE DARK KNIGHT SHOOTER

There aren’t a lot of revelations. They quote a fellow student who was supposedly freaked out by Holmes:

by the time he got to graduate school, Holmes had grown into a creepy individual who frightened others just by his presence.

“I’d seen him many times, always walking alone,” a fellow student at the University of Colorado Denver told The ENQUIRER. “He was very odd, walking around with a blank stare on his face like he didn’t see anyone else. Sometimes he was talking to himself, in an angry tone. I would cross the street when I saw him coming.

“He may have been a nerd, but he was tall and muscular which can be very intimidating. I felt like he was the kind of guy you didn’t want to be around if he snapped.”

The article also says that Holmes’ admired Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.

In emulation of Breivik, Holmes spent the days leading up to his massacre of the innocent by bingeing on Internet sex and real-world drugs. He reportedly took the prescription painkiller Vicodin just before the shootings.

Holmes shared another trait with Breivik – a fascination with the extremely violent video game World of Warcraft.

I’m not sure where they got that. I suppose it could be a law enforcement source–or they could have made it up out of whole cloth.

There are a couple of other sensational stories on Holmes over there–look if you dare.

In other true crime news, the judge in the Drew Peterson case denied the defense’s request for a mistrial, and testimony continued yesterday. Anna Marie Doman, the sister of Peterson’s wife Kathleen Savio, testified that her sister had said that Peterson had threatened to kill her.

“She was afraid,” Doman said. “She said Drew had told her he was going to kill her. She wasn’t going to make it to the divorce settlement, and she wasn’t going to get his pension or the kids.”

After two years of court battles over the issue, it was the first hearsay statement heard by jurors in Peterson’s murder trial, allowing Savio to speak from beyond the grave.

As she described talking with Savio in her Romeoville home in 2004, Doman testified that Savio extracted a promise to take care of her kids, a vow Doman acknowledged she had failed to act upon.

“She made me promise over and over that I was going to take care of the boys,” Doman said. “She said, ‘I want you to say it — you’ll take care of my kids.'”

After a misstep by a defense attorney, Doman also was allowed to testify about a previously excluded statement — that Peterson had told Savio he would kill her and make it look like an accident.

I heard an interesting story on NPR a couple of days ago. It’s an interview with David Niose, a lawyer from Boston who has written a book called Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans. Here’s the blurb from the show:

The religious right has been a disaster for this country, according to David Niose, president of the American Humanist Association. It has imposed an outsized and overbearing influence on our national politics at the expense of reason, critical thinking, science and ethics. And he goes further, saying the rise of the religious right correlates with an array of social ills — from high rates of violent crime and teen pregnancy to low rates of scientific literacy.

But he says there’s a growing movement to counter the religious right. Secular Americans — non-religious believers who for a long time were marginalized in America — are now emerging as a force to be reckoned with.

While a large majority of Americans say they still believe in God, many are losing faith in organized religion. At the same time, the number of Americans who say they don’t have any religious identity has doubled since 1980.

I hope you’ll give it a listen. There also a link to some excerpts from the book at The Humanist if you’re interested.

I found this interesting piece at Raw Story: Mayans may have used chocolate in cooking 2,500 years ago

When the Spanish conquistadores invaded Mexico 500 years ago, they found the emperor Moctezuma drinking a exotic beverage called xocóatl with his breakfast. Made from ground cacao beans that had been boiled in water, spiced, and beaten to a froth, it was literally the drink of kings, permitted only to rulers and other high aristocrats.

Until now, it has been believed that chocolate was consumed in ancient Mexico only in the form of a beverage and not as a food or condiment. However, that belief has been challenged by the discovery in the Yucatan of a 2,500 year old plate with traces of chocolate residue.

The discovery, which was announced this week by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, suggests that present-day Mexican dishes, like the chocolate-based mole sauce often served over meats, may have ancient roots.

Previous excavations have revealed traces of chocolate on drinking vessels used by the Olmecs and other early Mexican cultures as far back as 2000 BC, but this is the first find involving plates.

Smart people, those Mayans.

Now what are your recommendations for weekend reading?


Friday Morning Reads

Good Morning!

Well, we’re seeing Dooky Chase’s famous gumbo Z’herbes being served so it must be close to the time of year when bunnies are chocolate and eggs are colorful. Miss Leah’s gumbo is the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant in the city. I have a few stories to share today that are less yummy but important to  think about.  When you think of “priestly disobedience” don’t most of you think of the pedophilia scandal?  Evidently, that’s not what the Pope has in mind.   It’s things that have to do with those filthy things called women.

Striking the tone that once earned him the nickname “God’s Rottweiler,” Pope Benedict XVI in a stern Holy Thursday homily denounced “disobedience” in the Roman Catholic Church, chastising priests who sought the ordination of women and the abolition of priestly celibacy.

Wow, that’s inspiring at a time of rebirth and celebration of hope.  Don’t marry the women.  Don’t consider them your peers or face the wrath of the empire.  Molest a few choir boys and we’ll over look that!

So, my second topic is about those chocolate bunnies and eggs.  A lot of child slaves are involved with the chocolate trade so it’s important you try to buy chocolate that doesn’t support producers that use child slaves. Try filling up those baskets and tummies with organic chocolate.  There are many places that rely on forced child labor to produce cocoa.

Thousands of children in West Africa are forced to labor in the production of cocoa, chocolate’s primary ingredient. The West African nation of Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the leading supplier of cocoa, accounting for more than 40% of global production. Low cocoa prices and thus the need for lower labor costs drive farmers to employ children as a means to survive. The US Department of State estimates that more than 109,000 children in Cote d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry work under “the worst forms of child labor,” and that some 10,000 are victims of human trafficking or enslavement.

These child workers labor for long, punishing hours, using dangerous tools and facing frequent exposure to dangerous pesticides as they travel great distances in the grueling heat. Those who labor as slaves must also suffer frequent beatings and other cruel treatment. Cote d’Ivoire’s child laborers are robbed not only of their freedom but of the right to a basic education. In a country where more than half the population is illiterate, basic education of “cocoa children” takes on an even more critical significance for Cote d’Ivoire’s future. Increased access to education must be a key component in any effective strategy to reduce poverty and exploitative child labor.

In 2001, in an attempt to avoid government regulation and intense media scrutiny, major cocoa companies made a voluntary commitment (the Cocoa Industry Protocol) to certify their cocoa “child labor-free” by July 2005, but that deadline passed with little fanfare. The deadline was then extended to certify 50% of farms “child-labor free” by July 2008. The cocoa companies trumpeted a few pilot programs, but continue to purchase and reap profits from child labor cocoa. The major cocoa importers need to use their vast influence on the cocoa market to bring about the kind of systemic changes necessary to eliminate child slavery once and for all.

The International Labor Rights Forum is committed to combating the scourge of forced child labor in the cocoa industry through public education and corporate campaigns.

Most of the major uses of cocoa produced by child slaves are large chocolate producers like Hershey’s.  Again, chocolate produced in the Ivory Coast area of Africa is most likely produced by forced child labor.  Lobbyists from the chocolate industry have stopped Congress from taking actions against trade in cocoa produced by child slaves.

Chocolate’s billion-dollar industry starts with workers like Abdul. He squats with a gang of a dozen harvesters on an Ivory Coast farm.

Abdul holds the yellow cocoa pod lengthwise and gives it two quick cracks, snapping it open to reveal milky white cocoa beans. He dumps the beans on a growing pile.

Abdul is 10 years old, a three-year veteran of the job.

He has never tasted chocolate.

During the course of an investigation for CNN’s Freedom Project initiative – an investigation that went deep into the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast – a team of CNN journalists found that child labor, trafficking and slavery are rife in an industry that produces some of the world’s best-known brands.

It was not supposed to be this way.

After a series of news reports surfaced in 2001 about gross violations in the cocoa industry, lawmakers in the United States put immense pressure on the industry to change.

“We felt like the public ought to know about it, and we ought to take some action to try to stop it,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who, together with Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, spearheaded the response. “How many people in America know that all this chocolate they are eating – candies and all of those wonderful chocolates – is being produced by terrible child labor?”

If you’d like to not support the use of children in this manner, consider buying “fair trade” chocolate.  Here’s a list of companies committed to fair trade.

Are you aware of how big the on line porn industry is? This has frightening implications to me.

The good folks at ExtremeTech took it upon themselves this week to get at one of the Internet’s crucial questions—just how big are porn sites these days? The answer? Ron Jeremy big. To study porn sites, ExtremeTech turned to the DoubleClick Ad Planner tool from Google (GOOG). It’s a useful website where you can peek at information gathered by ad-serving cookies about how much traffic a website gets, the age and income of visitors, and the amount of time people spend on a site.

According to this tool, the online porn kingpin Xvideos feeds up 4.4 billion page views per month. That’s about 10 times as many as the New York Times and three times as many as CNN.com. YouPorn—another site packed full of stimulating content—notches 2.1 billion page views per month. And while people spend a few minutes per day on news sites, they tend to spend 15 minutes or more on porn sites, which would seem to say something rather definitive about, er, male stamina.

“But it’s not just men on the sites,” you shout. True, although the top porn sites count men as about 75 percent of their visitors. Breaking the stats down further, about half of the visitors make between $25,000 and $50,000 per year, while only 2 percent earn more than $150,000 per year. According to Google, the other interests of Xvideos visitors include Latin American music and gangs and organized crime, while YouPorn visitors like networking equipment and family films, so it’s an eclectic bunch.

While anyone can dig through these numbers, ExtremeTech did a nice job of adding some context to the incredible amount of data served up by porn sites. According to the Google estimates, Xvideos would record “29 petabytes of data transferred every month, or 50 gigabytes per second. That’s about 25,000 times more than your home Internet connection is probably capable of, which is a couple of megabytes per second.” Sliced another way, Xvideos will “serve up 50 gigabytes per second, or 400Gbps,” ExtremeTech writes. “Bear in mind this is an average data rate, too: At peak time, Xvideos might burst to 1,000Gbps (1Tbps) or more. To put this into perspective, there’s only about 15Tbps of connectivity between London and New York.”

Someone at YouPorn chatted with ExtremeTech and said the Google estimates are way below actual totals. YouPorn stores more than 100TB of porn and feeds up about 28 petabytes per month.

Is it any wonder we’re having laws put into place that objectivize and remove the power of self-determination from women?

An adviser to former SOS Condoleeza Rice says that he believes that the kinds of extraordinary interrogation techniques used for Khalid Sheik Mohammed was wrong and likely illegal.  He wrote this in a secret 2006 memo that has now been published by The UK Guardian.

Philip Zelikow, who was the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s most senior official, told the Guardian that he now regards what officials euphemistically called “enhanced interrogation”, such as sleep deprivation and waterboarding, as torture – although he did not use that word at the time and is reluctant to use it now.

Zelikow, whose official position was counsellor to Rice, said he had her support on the issue. As the state department’s representative on the National Security Council committee considering legal issues around violent interrogations, he expressed his concerns at the time in a top secret 2006 memorandum.

The memo, to other members of the committee who represented the justice and defence departments and intelligence services, warned that the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other abuses were almost certainly in breach of US and international law. But the memo so alarmed the administration that it was immediately rejected and all copies were ordered destroyed.

A draft version of the memo, found at the state department, was released this week following a freedom of information request by the National Security Archive in Washington.

Zelikow told the Guardian in an email exchange that while he did not use the word torture in the memo, he believes that is what the CIA was using. “I do regard the interrogation practices and conditions of confinement, taken together, as torture – in the ordinary layman’s use of this term. But … ‘torture’ is also a term with a carefully worded legal meaning and definition. So I tend to avoid talking about ‘torture’ because it would appear I’m accusing officials of criminal activity, which I’m not sure was the case,” he said.

“I have sometimes just referred to ‘physical torment’ instead, which seems expressive and is accurate.”

Well, these might not be the most pleasant reads you’ll find this week, but I believe they are all important.  What’s on your reading and blogging list today?