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This piece, which I wanted to call “The Digitally Driven Rise of the Tea Party,” was originally about how the right was using new media to oppose climate protection regulations. The idea for the piece grew out of earlier conversations I’d had with climate activists about what made their organizations different from right wing groups. But when I handed it in, my editor asked me to chop it down by taking out the climate angle.

I’m happy with the end result. My boss was invited onto New Hampshire Public Radio to talk about my reporting and the rest of PoliticalShift 2010, the series of stories about politics and social media we published in the run up to the midterm elections.

The biggest story of the U.S. midterm election has been the growing influence of the Tea Party movement. Since their first rallies in early 2009, these vocal, visible conservatives have succeeded in shifting the center of American political discourse to the right. This election cycle, Tea Partiers have gone a step further, successfully backing primary challengers against moderate Republicans like Delaware’s Mike Castle. So how has this confederation of online, conservative activists used new media to build their growing political base?

Think locally, organize nationally

First and foremost, the Tea Party movement has succeeded by connecting local groups to the national conversation.

“I didn’t really start using Facebook and Twitter until I got involved with the Tea Party movement,” said Ana Puig, the 38-year-old leader of Pennsylvania’s Kitchen Table Patriots (KTP).

Puig said much of KTP’s online organizing would not have been possible without the help of two prominent, national conservative organizations: FreedomWorks and American Majority. These well-financed operations provide local Tea Party groups with the new media training and focus group-tested political messaging needed to get results.

Using what she learned from these national organizations, Puig and co-founder Anastasia Przybylski set up the KTP’s rudimentary website, which has proved effective in establishing the group’s digital presence and in attracting new members. Puig said KTP has an email list of a couple thousand people and has attracted over 400 fans to its Facebook page since she created it a month ago.

These personalized digital resources have enabled KTP to stage dozens of rallies since it was founded in February 2009. They’ve also organized an online boycott of Dawn after it advertised during a MSNBC Tea Party documentary and are currently running get-out-the-vote operations for conservative candidates across the state.

Digital tools

Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks’ director for federal and state campaigns, hinted at another way the Tea Party has grown its online political clout: By sharing digital tools.

“We see our new model at FreedomWorks as a service center for the grassroots,” he explains.

This approach is based in part on the success Steinhauser had using Yahoo Groups and viral videos to revive the University of Texas chapter of the state’s Young Conservatives organization in the years before YouTube was launched or Facebook became an open network. After his graduation in 2005, Steinhauser used the same tools to help found the Young Conservatives of California. He also published a book about his campus organizing experiences, The Conservative Revolution, and launched a blog with the same name.

Steinhauser was one of a handful of FreedomWorks staffers who have shown Puig, and many others like her, the digital ropes.

“A lot of it is training,” Steinhauser explained. “Most of these people are new to politics.”

In addition to seminars on the background and basics of political campaigning — from the tactics of the American civil rights movement to tips on how to stage an interesting meeting — FreedomWorks has sessions on social media.

“It’s very basic stuff, but it goes a long way toward making an impact” with the older members of the Tea Party movement, he said.

FreedomWorks also offers more sophisticated digital resources to its network of 650,000 online conservative activists. Puig initially contacted the organization to have one of the KTP’s rallies listed on a national Google Map that FreedomWorks created to share information about local Tea Party events. Steinhauser’s group also helped fire-charge the Congressional town halls in summer of 2009 by featuring on their website an “August Recess Action Kit” to aid supporters in exposing “the real intentions and the economic ramifications of the of the Cap and Tax and health care reform legislation on the table,” as Mother Jones reported at the time.

Click here to read more about FreedomWorks’ digital arsenal and the “guerrilla tactics” of American Majority’s online activist training sessions or to comment on the PBS MediaShift story.

Photo credit: (Astro)Turf Wars

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The tax loophole Fifa imposed on the World Cup’s developing nation host country was what originally attracted me to this piece. As I read more though, the post became less about “the Death Star that is Fifa,” as David Smith of South Africa’s Mail & Gardian put it, and more about how bad of an idea it was for the country’s leaders to take on this tournament.

With South Africans’ dreams of soccer glory dashed by the elimination of their Bafana Bafana from the tournament today, fans may now be hoping that at least the World Cup will deliver on the economic boost its organizers have repeatedly promised them. They are likely to be disappointed again. 

“We want, on behalf of our continent, to stage an event that will send ripples of confidence from the Cape to Cairo—an event that will create social and economic opportunities throughout Africa,” former South African President Thabo Mbeki said in the run up to the tournament. While Mbeki touted the international attention the World Cup would bring to South Africa, the government of his successor Jacob Zuma has made much of the attendant infrastructure improvements. Following a victory by Bafana Bafana in a friendly against Columbia in the newly renovated Soccer City stadium on May 27th, the national spokesman of the ruling ANC party issued a celebratory press release suggesting that the upgrades would “make the country ready to meet the many demands of a growing economy.”

The headline figures in a report from accountancy firm Grant Thornton released on the eve of the tournament seem to support the politicians’ claims. Despite the dampening effect the recession and weak global recovery have had on attendance, their study predicted that World Cup could add as much as half a percentage point to South Africa’s annual gross domestic product. That would be a huge boost for a country where GDP is only expected to grow by some 2.5 to three percent in 2010.

But there is good reason to question those figures…

Click here to read the rest of the post for TNR‘s World Cup blog or to make a comment.

Photo credit: AfricanGoals2010 (via Flickr)

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This is my second post on a topic of my choice for The Prospect‘s writing test. The first is here.

If you had asked me last week what lessons the US can learn from the Greek crisis, I would have only said, “don’t ask Goldman for debt advice.” Then over the weekend I read an insightful dispatch from Suzanne Daley in Athens:

In the wealthy, northern suburbs of this city, where summer temperatures often hit the high 90s, just 324 residents checked the box on their tax returns admitting that they owned pools.

So tax investigators studied satellite photos of the area—a sprawling collection of expensive villas tucked behind tall gates—and came back with a decidedly different number: 16,974 pools.

That kind of wholesale lying about assets, and other eye-popping cases that are surfacing in the news media here, points to the staggering breadth of tax dodging that has long been a way of life here.

It sounds like Greece is finally beginning to address the corrosive influence tax evasion and loopholes have had on both its battered budget and frayed social contract.

Tax evasion—long a favorite pastime in parts of southern Europe—is essentially an abdication of an individual’s commitment to society. Taxpayers provide revenue to the government, which in return provides public goods and services that markets fail to adequately produce. For example, most governments create transportation infrastructure and regulate water utilities. In Athens, the wealthiest citizens have upset this equation. They drive home along winding suburban streets and bask in pools filled with clean, subsidized municipal water—both of which are paid for in larger part by more honest (or audited) Greeks. The remainder of the balance has been paid for with unsustainable loads of foreign debt. As Daley notes, Greece “may be losing as much as $30 billion a year to tax evasion—a figure that would have gone a long way to solving its debt problems.”

Loopholes in Greece are less insidious, but also problematic. They exempt politicians’ favored constituencies from paying the full cost of the federal services they receive. Easily and inconspicuously slipped into law as an amendment to an unrelated bill, a tax giveaway then becomes maddeningly difficult to repeal. The beneficiaries will go all out to defend a targeted advantage most taxpayers are not even aware had been granted. Daley highlights one successfully repealed license to steal: Greek newsstand owners could avoid auditing by simply declaring an income of 12,000 euros (about $15,900). Any additional income was essentially tax-free.

All this lost tax revenue has added up. As Will Hutton reported in February, “uncollected tax runs at 13.6% of national output per year—more than the deficit.” No longer able to cheaply finance their growing sovereign debt on the skittish bond markets, Greek leaders have been forced to strengthen the country’s tax code. Unlike the cuts to wages, pensions, and public services that Prime Minister Papandreou’s Socialist government has been forced to make, this politically unpopular move will broadly benefit Greek society.

Although it may not be as flagrant or pervasive, America also suffers from tax evasion and a gamed tax code. (more…)

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For The American Prospect‘s excellent (and highly competitive) fellowship program I had to submit two article critiques and a critique of their group blog TAPPED, among much else. This article critique was assigned, the second critique is of an article I selected for myself. I’m still waiting–with fingers crossed–to hear back from the Prospect.

To improve the lot of the lowest, we must increase the taxes on those at the top.

Little more than a year after Wall Street’s bad bets brought the world economy crashing down, NYU Professor Dalton Conley told American Prospect readers, “don’t blame the billionaires.” This might have struck some as audacious after the implosion of the global economy, the cleaning up of which has disproportionately benefited the very same billionaire bankers who played such a central role in engineering the collapse.

Yet Conley was merely reiterating what was then and now conventional wisdom about the growing gap between the rich and everyone else. In a June 2006 issue featuring a special report on American income inequality, The Economist editorialized, “government should not be looking for ways to haul the rich down. Rather, it should help others, especially the extremely poor, to climb up.”  Two Brookings Institution scholars echoed this sentiment in a recent Huffington Post column, “America Needs More Economic Mobility.” This viewpoint overlooks one key question: Is it possible for the inequality of wealth and income to reach such a level that it inherently limits the economic opportunity open to those at the bottom?
(more…)

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I started working on this article during my last month at Mother Jones. Although it took longer than I had hoped to get it published–and required a revised lede–I’m happy this bit of reporting finally made it into the top story box. (Unlike, say, my body armor piece.) Clocking in at some 1300 words, this article is the longest piece I’ve had published anywhere. It also opened my eyes to the shadowy world of offshore tax evasion–an interesting beat that I hope to return to in another professional capacity.

UPDATE: My reporting was featured on BuzzFlash and in ProPublica’s daily round up of the top investigations elsewhere; re-posted on Corporate Crackdown, a blog by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington; and linked to an article from FINS, a new financial careers site from Dow Jones. Rational Review, which is apparently “the premier libertarian web journal,” also disapprovingly cited my piece.

When President Barack Obama’s jobs bill passed the House in early March, it contained a little-noticed provision to recover part of its $35 billion price tag by cracking down on offshore tax evasion, which costs the US some $100 billion a year in lost revenue. The provision, which requires foreign financial institutions to report more data to the Internal Revenue Service, was likely prompted by a 2008 Senate investigation that revealed the systematic efforts made by Swiss bank UBS to help moneyed Americans hide massive sums from the IRS.

The insider information that formed the backbone of the investigation—insight that eventually helped the feds recover billions in unpaid taxes—was provided by a former midlevel executive at UBS, American-born Bradley Birkenfeld. Birkenfeld is the only international banker who has ever blown the whistle to the US government on Switzerland’s legendarily secretive banking practices. He is also the only person connected to UBS’ massive tax evasion scheme to have been sent to prison: Birkenfeld is currently serving a four-year sentence for fraud. Whistleblower advocacy groups warn that this punishment could have a “chilling effect,” discouraging other financial whistleblowers from coming forward. Did Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ) exact retribution that could cost US taxpayers billions?

Click here to read or comment on the rest of this MotherJones.com top story.

Photo credit: monkeyleader (via Flickr)

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Below is my last MoJo blog post. I concluded my internship at the DC bureau of Mother Jones on Friday and had an editor publish the post for me at the beginning of this week. Next stop Reykjavík? (If you have any better ideas, leave me a comment.)

Could Iceland soon be to journalists what the Cayman Islands is to wealthy magnates? Supporters of the groundbreaking Icelandic Modern Media Initiative introduced a proposal today to establish the European island nation as the world’s first “offshore publishing center.” The proposal is based on the business model of offshore financial centers like Switzerland, which attracts foreign depositors with an enticing combination of low taxes and strict bank secrecy laws. The IMMI aims to do the same for investigative journalists by compelling Icelandic legislators to pass the strongest combination of source protection and freedom of speech laws in the world.

The IMMI was drafted with help from Julian Assange and Daniel Schmitt, two of the founders of Wikileaks, an otherwise anonymous whistleblower website dedicated to publishing leaks of sensitive governmental, corporate, organizational, or religious documents. Wikileaks, which is currently offline due to fundraising difficulties, has already experimented with ways of breaking stories on a particular country by publishing outside their legal jurisdiction. Last May, when the UK’s strict libel laws prevented the BBC from posting documents detailing the dumping of 400 tonnes of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, the papers appeared on Wikileaks days later. At the end of the summer, an Icelandic broadcaster listed the URL for Wikileaks on TV to circumvent a ruling blocking it from revealing a list of the country’s creditors.

Johnathan Stray of the Neiman Journalism Lab asks, “Could global news organizations with a home office in Reykjavík soon be as common as Delaware corporations or Cayman Islands assets?” In the wake of an economic collapse that some legislators feel was brought on by a lack of transparency, the Guardian reports that the proposal “has widespread backing” among Iceland’s 51 members of parliament. “The main purpose is to prevent something like our financial crisis from taking place again,” MP Lilja Mósesdóttir told Stray, noting the country’s financiers had great influence over the Icelandic media. “They were manipulating the news.”

Most coverage of IMMI has focused on the increased accountability that could result from passage of the groundbreaking proposal. But serious questions remain about the viability of the initiative. For instance, every country has libel laws for a reason. How will the IMMI ensure that it becomes a hub for investigative journalists and not the tabloid capital of the world? And if Icelandic MPs intend to remedy the country’s financial woes via journalism, they are likely to be sorely disappointed. As Gawker helpfully warns, “if you’re trying to pull in money from investigative journalists, Iceland, that’s strike two for you.”

Photo credit: Stig Nygaard (via Flickr)

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On Friday, I explained why UBS was the only bank that offered to take a hit on its contracts with AIG during the government’s backdoor bailout of the ailing insurer. The reason? A looming US investigation of UBS that meant the Swiss banking behemoth was in no position to play hardball. In an interview this weekend, one of Switzerland’s justice ministers revealed the extent to which the fate of UBS—and the entire Swiss economy—is again in the hands of the American government.

As Mother Jones reported in November 2008, UBS helped wealthy Americans hide billions of dollars from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in violation of a 2001 agreement signed by the bank promising to identify and document customers with any US sources of income. The agreement was a major departure from historic Swiss banking secrecy laws—one which Swiss courts recently deemed to be illegal. The high court’s decision could also prevent UBS from fulfilling its plea deal with the US government, in which it promised to provide more names of US customers with illegal accounts. If UBS fails to live up to its side of the agreement, the bank could face the revocation of its license to operate in America. Now, Swiss Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf warns, “the Swiss economy and the job market would suffer on a major scale should UBS fail as a result of its license being revoked in the United States.”

If there ever was a bank that’s too big to fail, it’s UBS. It is the biggest bank in Switzerland and—before massive subprime mortgage write-downs and the attention of the IRS scared many of its wealthy customers away—it was the largest provider of high-net worth private banking services in the world. (In an ironic twist, Bank of America has since taken its wealth management crown.) UBS and its chief domestic competitor, Credit Suisse, are six times larger than Switzerland’s entire economy—an imbalance reminiscent of the failed banks that decimated the economy and currency of Iceland. Last year the $2 trillion balance sheet of UBS alone was roughly four times the size of the total Swiss output. As Investment International magazine observed at that time, “a UBS ‘blow up’ would be catastrophic to Switzerland’s financial stability.”

Click here to read about the US response or to make a comment on this MoJo blog post.

Photo credit: geoftheref (via Flickr)

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