Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Israel's Van Creveld weighs in on Iraq

One of the world's foremost military historians came right out and called the Iraq war "the most foolish war" in over 2000 years. Despite his criticism of the Sharon government, this guy is not some wildeyed left-winger as some on the right would love to paint him as; in fact he wrote a book in which he supports the construction of a permanant security wall at the 1967 border between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

And this guy is not too optimistic about the endgame...

Noting that some two-thirds of Americans believe the war was a mistake, van Creveld says in his article that the US should forget about saving face and pull its troops out: "What had to come, has come. The question is no longer if American forces will be withdrawn, but how soon - and at what cost."

Welcome as a pullout might be to many Americans, it would be a hugely complex operation. Van Creveld says it would probably take several months and result in sizeable casualties. More significantly, though, it would not end the conflict.

"As the pullout proceeds," he warns, "Iraq almost certainly will sink into an all-out civil war from which it will take the country a long time to emerge - if, indeed, it can do so at all. All this is inevitable and will take place whether George W Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice like it or not."

Dionne: Why the Left is losing the debate on workers' rights

In a great Washington Post editorial, the great E.J. Dionne explains how the right does a better job framing the debate on labor rights and the limits of capitalism than the left. He notes:

The conservatives have a single, coherent story and stick to it: Economic change is good for everyone, especially for consumers, who get better stuff at lower prices. The fact that "producer groups" (such as those unions) are losing their "monopolies" and their capacity for "rent seeking" is cheered as progress.

The left's narrative is less compelling not only because there is no single story but also because few on the left attack the current system with the same gusto the right brings to defending it. Gone, for good reason, is the time when significant parts of the left called for "government ownership of the means of production." Much of the left accepts a certain amount of creative destruction because, in Margaret Thatcher's famous phrase, there is no alternative.

But this muddle reflects a default on parts of the left and, especially, within the Democratic Party. Because so many Democrats fear that they might sound like -- God forbid! -- socialists, they are unwilling to challenge the right's core story. Capitalism, all by itself, would never have achieved the rising living standards that were the pride of the United States in O'Neill's 1950s and still are today. The rules enforced by the National Labor Relations Board made it possible for Reuther's union to organize by protecting workers' rights. Cheap 30-year mortgages, which became the norm because of Federal Housing Administration guarantees, created a nation of homeowners.

Winning on tax policy

With the OECD blasting the Bush administration on its tax policy, specifically its failure to address spiraling budget deficits, it is high time for progressives to reframe the terms in which the issue is debated. George Lakoff gives some pointers on how to begin to win the war of ideas at the very time that support among Republican Senators for Bush's irresponsible tax-cuts may actually be waning.

Iran: The perfect geopolitical storm

A special report by Foreign Policy in Focus that lays out the history behind NPT and Iran's drive for nuclear weapons. Must read!

Monday, November 28, 2005

House budget cutting bill will lead to harsher welfare work rules

From The Washington Post:

The House has included a major restructuring of the nation's welfare system in its massive budget cutting bill, which would substantially increase the hours of work, training and community service the poor would have to perform to qualify for assistance.

President Bush has sought the changes for nearly four years but has been unable to get them through the Senate. Now Republicans have slipped them into a voluminous bill designed to save nearly $50 billion over five years by imposing new costs on Medicaid recipients, squeezing student lenders, cutting federal child support enforcement, narrowing eligibility for food stamps and trimming agriculture subsidies.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

The income gap grows

Cornell Economics professor Robert Frank writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Major social upheavals are sometimes preceded by years or even decades of rising levels of social unrest. If such unrest is currently building in the United States, it remains well-hidden. But as recent experience has made clear, social upheavals often occur with virtually no warning. Almost no one predicted the fall of the Eastern European governments in 1989. Because revolutions almost always entail important elements of social contagion, even small changes can launch political prairie fires once a tipping point is reached.

As Plutarch wrote almost 2000 years ago, "An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics." Before the United States succumbs to that ailment, we might want to reconsider the wisdom of policies that widen that already large gap.

Pentagon expanding its domestic surveillance activities

Just what we need, Don Rumsfeld and the incompetents that assured us that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear program spying on law-abiding Americans:

"We are deputizing the military to spy on law-abiding Americans in America. This is a huge leap without even a [congressional] hearing," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a recent interview.

But at least we're going to have hearings on Capitol Hill on these new "domestic intelligence programs" in the near future, right?

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has not had formal hearings on CIFA or other domestic intelligence programs, but its staff has been briefed on some of the steps the Pentagon has already taken. "If a member asks the chairman" -- Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) -- for hearings, "I am sure he would respond," said Bill Duhnke, the panel's staff director.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What the Democrats and Republicans agree on

Members from both aisles of Congress apparantly think that it's okay to vote themselves pay raises even though significant cuts in domestic spending are being made at the very time the federal government is racking up huge budget deficits... and didn't Congress just promise that they wouldn't give themselves pay raises -- even cost-of-living raises-- this year?

(HT Sirotablog).

NY Times: Pension officers pouring money into hedge funds

From the New York Times:

Pension Officers Putting Billions Into Hedge Funds

Faced with growing numbers of retirees, pension plans are pouring billions into hedge funds, the secretive and lightly regulated investment partnerships that once managed money only for wealthy individuals and elite institutions.

The plans and other large institutions are expected to invest as much as $300 billion in hedge funds by 2008, up from just $5 billion a decade ago, according to a study by the Bank of New York and Casey Quirk & Associates, a consulting firm. Pension funds account for roughly 40 percent of all institutional money. This month, the investment council that oversees the New Jersey state employees pension fund said that the fund would invest $600 million in hedge funds, less than 1 percent of its assets, over the next several months.

While most pension plans have modest stakes in hedge funds, others have invested more than 20 percent of their assets. Weyerhaeuser, the paper company, has 39 percent of its pension fund's assets in hedge funds. In Congress, there has been a push for amendments that would make it easier for hedge funds to manage even more pension money, without having to comply with the federal law that governs company pensions.

Pension officials who have been shaken by market downturns and persistent deficits are attracted by hedge funds' promise of richer, or more consistent, returns. But the trend has caused some consultants and academics to voice cautions. They question whether hedge funds, with risks that are hard to measure, are appropriate for pension funds, whose sole purpose, by law, is to pay out predetermined benefits to retired workers.

Those benefits are considered so crucial that they are guaranteed: corporate pension failures are covered by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a government agency, while pension failures by governments are covered by state and local taxpayers. Given that the benefits are paid out on a set schedule, critics wonder whether it makes sense to rely on investments whose returns are hard to predict, managed by private partnerships that disclose little about their operations and charge some of the highest fees on Wall Street.

"It's very inappropriate when the company is offering a pension plan that is guaranteed by the federal government," said Zvi Bodie, a professor of finance and economics at Boston University who writes and lectures on sophisticated investment techniques and is enthusiastic about hedge funds in other contexts.


More recently, hedge funds have made headlines when they ran into trouble: Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund whose principals included two Nobel Prize-winning economists, nearly collapsed in 1998; and this summer, Bayou Group, a $450 million hedge fund based in Connecticut, shut down after most of its money disappeared. Its two officers have pleaded guilty to fraud charges. Hedge funds are meant to be only for wealthy, sophisticated investors so regulators have not monitored them as they have stocks or mutual funds, although there have been calls for increased regulation.

The news of splashy gains and scandals may not accurately reflect a business that in many ways has become more conservative as a result of the flood of pension fund money. To attract that money, many hedge fund managers emphasize stability.

Among pension fund managers, however, "the whole mentality has changed," said Jane Buchan, chief executive of Pacific Alternative Asset Management, which manages $7.5 billion in funds that invest in hedge funds, primarily for large pension funds. "They are saying, we need returns and we will be aggressive about getting them. They just don't want any downturns."


The New Jersey state pension fund hopes eventually to raise its total investment in hedge funds to $3 billion as part of a plan to diversify its portfolio, said Orin Kramer, the chairman of the oversight board.

The New Jersey fund has been wrestling with a $30 billion shortfall, after the stock market bubble burst five years ago. "In recent years, conventional stock investments haven't worked," said Mr. Kramer, who is also a hedge fund manager.

Other pension plan managers are far more aggressive. Weyerhaeuser's big position has significant benefits for the company. Accounting rules let companies factor expected pension returns into their operating income; Weyerhaeuser's hedge-fund-laden portfolio allows it to claim expected annual returns of 9.5 percent.

For Weyerhaeuser, each 0.5 percent increase in the expected rate of return is worth an additional $21 million to the company's pretax income this year, according to S.E.C. filings. Weyerhaeuser did not respond to phone inquiries about its hedge fund investments, but said in S.E.C. filings that its actual pension investment returns more than justify its assumption of 9.5 percent.

Weyerhaeuser is not alone: Eli Lilly has about 20 percent in hedge funds and the Pennsylvania state employees' pension fund has 22 percent.

Employees of G.M., Verizon or International Paper will not find any reference to hedge funds in those companies' annual reports, however. In their footnotes, these and other companies drop hints that a sophisticated investor might recognize as a reference to hedge funds, but they do not give the particulars. International Paper's description of its pension asset allocation, for example, breaks it down into "equity securities," "debt securities," "real estate" and "other."

Some companies and governments, like Pennsylvania, make the argument that hedge funds are not really an asset class at all, but an "asset management tool" that does not have to be disclosed as part of the pension fund's allocation to stocks or bonds.

That lack of disclosure has some regulators and pension specialists worried. Labor Department officials, who regulate pension funds, declined to discuss the hedge fund phenomenon, but referred to a 1996 letter the department wrote to the United States controller of the currency.

The letter said that the Labor Department still expected pension officials to exercise prudence when investing in derivatives, a form of trading in which hedge funds often engage. The letter also said pension officials were responsible for understanding and fully vetting their hedge fund investments, and measuring how they might perform - and how they might affect the pension fund - under a variety of conditions.

Susan M. Mangiero, author of "Risk Management," a textbook for pension officials, said she had come across pension executives who had not done that level of analysis. Some did not even know they had derivatives in their portfolios, she said.

"A lot of well-intentioned people don't know they don't know," she said.

In Washington, despite concerns over the health of the nation's pension system, there has been little discussion of the shift of pension funds away from traditional, caretaker investments. Even as Congress has been working to shore up the pension system and strengthen the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, a provision to relax the pension law for hedge funds has been proposed.

The provision would raise the limit on how much pension money a hedge fund can handle before it is deemed a fiduciary under the pension law, which would require it to be more prudent and careful than is required under securities law and would bar some trades entirely. The provision was added to a broad pension bill in the House shortly before the Committee on Education and the Workforce approved the legislation.

Currently a financial institution becomes a pension fiduciary when more than 25 percent of its assets consist of pension money; the bill would raise that to 50 percent. The House bill would also change the definition of "plan assets," so that only corporate pension money would be counted, not pension money from government plans or foreign plans.

These two changes are not in the counterpart Senate pension bill that was recently approved, but they could be added soon during efforts to reconcile the House and Senate pension bills.

Wall Street's interest in overcoming these legal barriers shows the allure of pension money, which tends to stick with an investment strategy and is far less likely to fly out the door the moment the markets turn bad.

"Pension money is the stickiest form of capital," Mr. Kramer of New Jersey noted.


But the surge of pension money into hedge funds is coming at a time when the returns of many hedge funds have been disappointing, raising questions about whether pensions are arriving at the party late. Hedge funds are up an average of 5.7 percent this year, according to Hedge Fund Research.

Indeed, with the proliferation of hedge funds, there is no guarantee that they will continue to beat the market.

"There is no such thing as a free lunch," said Frank Partnoy, a professor at the University of San Diego law school and a former trader at Morgan Stanley whose clients once included large pension funds.

"And even if there were, nobody is offering it to pension funds."

All this as economists calculate that "[t]he private pension wealth of the typical American nearing retirement is both smaller and riskier than it was a decade or two ago."

On agribusiness

Some guy named Neil the Ethical Werewolf writes at Ezra Klein's about the downside of Big Agri and whether it is a winning political issue for Democrats or not. Great discussion thread follows.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The erosion of employer-based healthcare

Over at the Health Care Blog, Matthew Holt notes:

There are two ways employers get out of providing health care. They can stop providing it (and plenty of data shows that they are doing just that) and they can also pass more of the cost onto their employees. That also has the impact that at the margin their employees stop purchasing it for their families or themselves. But it has one more impact, which is that the employees' costs are going up much faster than the employers.

Links to a summary of a Mercer Consulting atudy, which is probably more informative than the blog post itself. Also considers Wal Mart employee healthcare benefits compared to Costco.

A definitive guide on Structural Adjustments (SAP)

A fabulous, brief description on what SAP is and why it is so harmful for the developing countries that are often forced to subscribe to them by Washington Consensus economists is here.

An excerpt:

For countries seeking financial assistance, the IMF and World Bank provide it but apply a neoliberal economic ideology or agenda as the preconditions to receiving the money. For example:

They prescribe cut backs, “liberalization” of the economy and resource extraction/export-oriented open markets as part of their structural adjustment.
The role of the state is minimized.

Privatization is encouraged as well as reduced protection of domestic industries.
Other adjustment policies also include currency devaluation, increased interest rates, “flexibility” of the labor market, and the elimination of subsidies such as food subsidies.

To be attractive to foreign investors various regulations and standards are reduced or removed.

For poorer countries these impacts can be devastating. Factors such as the following lead to further misery for the developing nations and keep them dependent on developed nations:

Poor countries must export more in order to raise enough money to pay off their debts in a timely manner.
Because there are so many nations being asked or forced into the global market place—before they are economically and socially stable and ready—and told to concentrate on similar cash crops and commodities as others, it is like a huge price war.

The resources then become even cheaper from the poorer regions (which favors consumers in the West).
Governments then need to increase exports just to keep their currencies stable (which may not be sustainable, either) and earn foreign exchange with which to help pay off debts.

Governments therefore must:
spend less
reduce consumption
remove or decrease financial regulations
and so on.
Over time then:
the value of labor decreases
capital flows become more volatile
and we get into a spiralling race to the bottom
social unrest is often one result leading to “IMF riots” and protests around the world.

These nations are then told to peg their currencies to the dollar. But keeping the exchange rate stable is costly due to measures such as increased interest rates, etc.
Investors obviously concerned about their assets and interests can then pull out very easily if things get tough

In worst cases capital flight can lead to economic collapses like we have seen in the Asian/global financial crisis of 1997/98/99, Mexico, Brazil and many other places—of course, the blame by mainstream media and free trade economists is laid on emerging markets and their government’s restrictive or inefficient policies, crony capitalism etc, which is a cruel irony.

When IMF donors keep the exchange rates in their favor, it often means that the poor nations remain poor, or get even poorer. Even the 1997/98/99 global economic financial crisis around the world can be partly blamed on structural adjustment and overly aggressive and early deregulation for emerging economies.
Millions of children end up dying each year.

But I can't recommend visiting the site enough, it has hyperlinks to more information regarding many of these points. And the website, globalpolicy.org, is a fantastic resource for anyone looking to understand more about the politics and economics of international development.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Bush's idea of a one-liner?

From the Washington Post:

LONDON, Nov. 22 -- President Bush expressed interest in bombing the headquarters of the Arabic television network al-Jazeera during a White House conversation with Prime Minister Tony Blair in April 2004, a British newspaper reported Tuesday.

The Daily Mirror report was attributed to two anonymous sources describing a classified document they said contained a transcript of the two leaders' talk. One source is quoted as saying Bush's alleged remark concerning the network's headquarters in Qatar was "humorous, not serious," while the other said, "Bush was deadly serious."

In Washington, a senior diplomat said the Bush remark as recounted in the newspaper "sounds like one of the president's one-liners that is meant as a joke." But, the diplomat said, "it was foolish for someone to write it down, and now it will be a story for days."

Now, apparantly al-Jazeera wants some answers, and journalists are expressing a willingness to go to jail in order to expose the truth.

UPDATE:For more background, see this detailed post from dKos here.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Waas: Key Bush intel briefing kept from Hill Panel

More disturbing evidence that Bush knew there was no al-Qaeda-Saddam link, even as he cherry-picked intel to sell the war. Great article from the National Journal.

LGF Wingers go crazy over Chavez oil deals

This is a all too too funny. Apparantly, Chavez is offering to sell heating oil to Massachussets and the Bronx at 40% below market value. Yes, he is doing this to humiliate Bush, and it is working. After all, the Bush administration is so beholden to the Big Oil companies that it allowed its energy poilcy to be crafted by CEOs from the giants in secret meetings that were denied, then later proven to have occured. Oh, and all the money the oil industry lobbyists have showered on the GOP and the influence it has bought them.

So the public supports a windfall profit tax on oil companies and the GOP Congress instead plays paddycake with these execs and doesn't require them to testify under oath. These companies have more cash than they know what to do with and neither they nor or government have done anything to stabilize the price of oil. This provides a perfect opening for Chavez, who has been successful in managing the economy of his own country to humiliate Bush, causing right wing fanatics over at Little Green Footbals to condemn Chavez rather than the oil companies.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

An "oil slicked playing field"

Great article from The Nation on "how a scramble for petroleum by developing countries worldwide is reshaping the global geopolitics in favor of oil-rich nations," particularly vis a vis Iran. As Dilip Hiro notes, Tehran believes India will likely side with them at the IAEA, thanks in large part to a "proposed $22 billion supply of Iranian natural gas to India for the next quarter-century."

Oil is power, as long as the developing world does nothing to break its addiction. And with oil companies anticipating Peak Oil in the near future, Third World dictatorships are going to see their geopolitical power increase. The only question is how long we will have to wait for a market intervention from the US government.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Newsweek on the Murtha drama

Read the article here, which deals with the run-up to Murtha's decision, the political fallout and the administration's pathetic attempt to convince Americans that we will win the peace in iraq. The most pathetic revelation comes at the end of the article:

War-room spinners also hope to highlight whatever good news there is to be found in Iraq, and which, they say, doesn't make its way into the American media. They recently dispatched one of their best operatives, Steve Schmidt (no relation to the Ohio congresswoman), to Baghdad to look for ways generate positive press. His answer: build better relations with the reporters. But they may be preoccupied these days by the need to dodge terrorist attacks on their hotels.

Knight Ridder dissects Bush lies

Solid debunking of all the President's counter-offensive lies here:

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Baker on Rubinomics

According to the great Dean Baker writing over at MaxSpeak, Clinton/Rubin don't deserve all the credit for the 90's boom and deserve some of the blame for the early 2000s stock market bust, accounting scandals, etc. Check it out.

Target: Iran


TEHRAN, Nov. 20 - Iran's conservative Parliament approved the outline of a bill today that would bar United Nations inspectors from visiting its nuclear sites if the agency referred Iran's case to the Security Council for possible punitive measures.


A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, said today that Iran would only allow the inspectors to visit that site if they could provide "concrete proof" of weapons-related activity. "They cannot just say we want to talk to this or that person and keep dragging out the case," he said. "They should tell us their aims, and these aims should be towards closing the case."

Gershman on US provocations...

and Asia Times argues that the US may be biting off more than it can chew in its partnership with Iranian dissident group MEK.

The Dirty Little Secret of Financial Globalization

A recent article from Dissent Magazine:

The debate about cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy is a false one. The issue is not whether transnational corporations and the very rich benefit from tax cuts, but that many of them walk away from all taxes. A General Accounting Office report found that between 1996 and 2000, 61 percent of all U.S. companies paid zero federal taxes. They accomplish this primarily through "profit laundering," a phrase that ought to be on the lips of every social critic.

A well-researched and provocative read.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Deconstructing the assault on Murtha

Newsmax has a short, unsourced and generally pathetic hit piece on Democratic Congressman John Murtha. The substance of the article: that Murtha was against the war last year. Their evidence? This quote: "We have to either mobilize or get out [and] I don't know that we have the will to mobilize." The article also says Murtha declared the war "unwinnable", but declines to put his use of that word into any context. As far as I can tell, Murtha was criticizing the administration's handling of the war and saying that the war would be unwinnable if we maintained the same direction. Now, 18 months later, he is saying Bush seems unable to get on track and that the military has done all they can do.

Wingnut blog Iraq The Model joins in on the fun with this nonsense:

I can’t imagine why Mr. Murtha said something like “is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region”.

It is really strange when a US representative says something like this few weeks after the elected Iraqi government demanded from the UN to extend the mission of coalition forces for another year; apparently my government (and I) do not think that US military presence is harmful for us and the Arab League also thinks that an immediate withdrawal would be disastrous for Iraq and the region."

Umm, of course the Iraqi government wants the US military to stay indefinitely: we are the only thing keeping them in power. The security situation is so bad there that people don't even flinch when over 100 people are killed in bombings in a 48 hour period. So yes, the current Iraqi government doesn't want a withdrawal, but many of the victims of the US invasion of their country probably do, and they are the ones who seem to be in control of the country.

And the idiots at National review post a link to this year old Hill article which reports that Murtha supported the idea of a draft for the Iraq war. So how does this make him unpatriotic, unprincipled or anti-military? Murtha was just responding to the fact that "“The only way to increase the size of the armed services fairly is with a draft.” Holding the belief (an a better informed belief that those of civilian Rumsfeld) that a larger military force in the region will help us win the war is entirely consistent with his desire to support and win the war--that is until it became patently obvious that the war is unwinnable.

Bush and his supporters seem to be arguing that a war must be fought until it is "won", no matter the realities on the ground. So Bush and Cheney, who both miraculously avoided serving in Vietnam, would have liked to see that conflict rage on forever. This administration is a danger to the world and must be stopped in its tracks.

Update::Rep. Jean Schmidt calls Murtha a coward. Nauseating.

Friday, November 18, 2005

More on Anti-Zionism and the Left

Here is a great article from the British magazine the Progressive that deals with the rising level of anti-Zionism in the UK and analyzes the selective thinking employed by its proponents on the Left. One powerful excerpt:

The anti-Zionism that worries us is not the same as criticism of Israel. Israel is occupying and settling Palestinian land. In order to sustain this occupation, it uses racist violence and humiliation against the people that live in the West Bank. The occupation and some of Israel’s actions should be, and are, criticised by a large number of Israelis, Jews, and people around the world who are bothered by injustice. It is not those who protest against the injustice of the wall and the checkpoints, which control every stretch of road in the West Bank, who we worry about. It is not the just Palestinian aspiration to independence and statehood that worries us.

The anti-Zionism that worries us does not object to the policies of Israeli governments in the way that we might object to our own government’s policies. Rather, it understands those policies to be the necessary outcome of the existence of Israel. No other Israeli policy is conceivable to the anti-Zionists. So they do not criticise what Israel does. Rather, they criticise Israel’s very existence.

We are worried by the anti-Zionism that asks Israeli Jews – who are nearly all descended from victims of anti-semitism in Europe, in the Middle East and in Russia – to give up any aspiration to the possibility of self-defense by becoming the first nation in the world to voluntarily disband. If they refuse to do so, then the anti-Zionists would support the military conquering of Israel and its destruction as a nation state. Israel, and Israel alone for the anti-Zionists, must be incorporated by force into some larger political form.

We also worry when people are so much more enthusiastic in their anti-Zionism than they are in their criticism of regimes and movements that carry out much greater human rights abuses than Israel. Why do they seem unable to muster similar enthusiasm for criticism of China’s occupation of Tibet, for criticism of Saudi Arabia’s gender apartheid or for criticism of ethnic cleansing in Darfur? The list of more serious human rights abusers than Israel is long.

Left anti-Zionism inflates Israel into a symbol for all that is wrong with a world dominated by US imperialism. The details of the Roadmap or other actual, real-life political developments are rendered insignificant because the conflict is understood only though this symbolism. It is Manichaeism: the world is a great struggle between heroes and villains, only to be resolved by a great revelation and final undoing.

Read the whole article, it encapsulates much of my thinking. You can condemn the collective punishment and alleged human rights violations of the Sharon government, but rejecting the right of Israel to exist is akin to rejecting the right of the US to exist because of its own colonial origins.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Confronting Anti-Zionism on the Left

As the two or three readers of this blog know, I strongly identify with my Jewish identity and support the state of Israel. I feel that as a member of a people that have lived without a home for thousands of years, and as a result have often seen themselves on the business end of pogroms, genocide and other fun stuff, it is a good thing that there exists a Jewish state in my homeland. Obviously, many people do not share my sentiments. Yes, the Christian crazies (er, I mean evangelists) support Israel for their own self-serving purposes (they are waiting for the apocalypse or something). and yes, there are plenty of hard-core anti-Semites on the right (the KKK, neo-nazis and militias jump to mind).

But what I want to write about are my fellow travelers on the Left. OK, maybe I'm more of a "liberal" than a leftist, but I have found a lot of the websites and magazines I respect--and link to on this site--are almost reflexively anti-Zionist. I wouldn't say anti-Semetic, because there doesn't seem to be antipathy towards Jews in general. Just the state of Israel and her right to exist.

One example is this article from In These Times, a magazine I think is great on domestic social and economic issues. And this article this self isn't anti-Zionist per se. It criticizes Derschowitz's The Case for Israel, a bokk I had some problems with myself. But the comments on the article display a real ignorance and hatred of Israel and its citizens. I have no problem with criticizing a particular government or politician in Israel--I haven't exactly shied away from criticizing Bush. But when people with user names like "israelisarefilth" start condemning most Israelis are uncaring butchers--and he is backed up by half the other commenters--I think there is a problem with the magazine's readership.

I'd love to see commondreams post an article, just once, on the victims of Palestinian suicide bombers, rather than reflexively identifying them as being the only victims. A quick search for Israel on The Nation's website shows about ten critical articles about Israel, none positive. Sure, these articles are criticizing government policies, but taken together it seems like to the nation's liberal magazine of record, Israel is a pretty bad place indeed.The titles: "What Israel has done", "Israel's failing wall", "The Israel lobby"...you get the picture.

And with almost all of the neocon architects being Jewish, and the whole AIPAC scandal and all, well critics of this administration are pretty much turning into critics of anyone who supports the Zionist movement.

In surfing the web, I came across the good article from Slate dealing with anti-semitism/zionism on the left and why it is so prevelant. The article refers to an article in Dissent Magazine which is well worth a read. I think it possible to be a liberal, a progressive, a leftist, whatever and still support the existance of a Jewish homeland.

Murtha: "A flawed policy wrapped in illusion"

John Murtha, an influential Democratic Congressman from PA who is known for his military service as well as being a big-time "hawk", has courageously "flip flopped" and is now calling for an "immediate troop withdrawl" from Iraq.

"It is time for a change in direction. Our military is suffering, the future of our country is at risk. We cannot continue on the present course. It is evident that continued military action in Iraq is not in the best interests of the United States of America, the Iraqi people or the Persian Gulf region," Murtha said.

The Nitpicker has great commentary and some good links on all this.

AFL-CIO develops online database

Great idea from labor: a new online database of employers who export jobs and violate workers' rights. Lets hope this provides an impetus for some of these employers to change their behavior.

Proof US energy policy was crafted by oil execs?

According to the Washington Post, we now have a smoking gun in the form of a White House document attesting to the fact that representatives from major oil companies met with Cheney's "Energy Task Force" in 2001 which was developing our national energy policy. This has been an open secret for years, but this looks like it closes the door on any debate as to whether it was only a rumor that had taken on a life of its own.

But how do we know that Cheney was influenced by the oil executives rather than just giving them a fair hearing? Well, the article makes clear that the execs have been lying to Congress about their roles, which would lead one to believe that they have something big to hide. Sen. Lautenberg is asking the Justice Dept. to investigate, which is a good move. But don't expect the Bush Justice Department to investigate this too hard.

No doubt some will argue that it makes perfect sense for our energy policy to be developed in consultation with the energy industry. But surely this is a conflict of interest, as these firms have little incentive to encourage the energy conservation or investing in the development of hybrid energy sources--in short anything that will depress domestic appetite for their product. We know that Cheney has had a hostile attitute towards conservation for a long time, which makes perfect sense in this context. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the energy lobby has contributed tons of cash to the GOP.

Our energy policy is intimately tied in to our national security, and there is no room for either of these policies being influenced by an industry that doesn't have our nation's best interests at heart. Corporations exist to maximize profits--their charters mandate this. Everything else is secondary. That is why our elected government representatives should be developing policy, and is why Cheney has fought so hard to keep these task force meetings under wraps.

UPDATE: Here's a good idea from Democratic Senators: Have the oil executives retestify under oath.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Klare: Expect more wag the dog scenarios

Michael Klare writes in Asia Times that we can count on the Bush administration to manufacture more crises in order to deflect attention from falling poll numbers and to justify more military interventions. Is he right? As Klare notes, only Karl Rove and a few key advisors to the President will ever know. But according to Klare:

It bears repeating that this administration - more than any other in recent times - has employed deception and innuendo to mold public opinion and advance its political agenda. Indeed, the very scandal now enveloping the White House - the apparent conspiracy to punish whistle-blower Joseph Wilson by revealing the covert Central Intelligence Agency identity of his wife, Valerie Plame - is rooted in the president's drive to mobilize support for the invasion of Iraq by willfully distorting Iraqi weapons capabilities. Why then would he and his handlers shrink from exaggerating or distorting new intelligence about other hostile powers, and then using such distortions to ignite an international crisis?

He also points out:

As Wag the Dog suggested, war itself is not the only way to distract public attention from the president's domestic woes. An atmosphere of crisis in which rumors of war or preparations for war come to overshadow all else might well do the trick - and administration officials don't need fresh armies to accomplish this, only plausible scenarios for the escalation of existing foreign troubles. These, unfortunately, are all too easy to find.

What then are the most promising scenarios at hand for such a purpose? Many such scenarios might be envisioned, but the most credible ones - barring a major new terrorist attack on the United States - would entail a military showdown with Syria, Iran or North Korea.

If Iran keeps calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map", it may manage to provoke a real war with the US and Israel, although I don't see this benefiting Bush or improving his popularity.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Bill O'Reilly: moron

This is f--king hilarious. It's the reason why watching O'Reilly is a guilty pleasure of mine...when he tries to be clever, he always manages to embarass himself without even realizing it.

More on "flattening" the tax curve

Following up on my last post, here is a great post by Matt Singer over at sirotablog discussing the downside to lowering taxes on the wealthy to spur growth...the classic supply side approach. He even refers to the income and substitution effects, displaying some actual understanding of the economic principles in play rather than being just another journalist spouting ideology dressed up as science.

In short, I think the post breaks things down nicely. I wish Matt would substitute blog for me some day.

UPDATE: Max Sawicky has a briefing paper over at the Economic Policy Institute discussing potential pitfalls the President's Tax Reform Panel will have for working families. It's relatively short, and well worth a read.

Restructuring the US tax code

Jack Rasmus has done some fine research over at zmag on the likely push for not only a fresh round of tax cuts for the superrich in 2006, but also a complete overhaul of the entire tax code.

Rasmus argues:

After more than four years of George W. Bush tax cuts it should now be abundantly clear that the U.S. is in the midst of a major, radical restructuring of the tax system. The direct consequence of that tax restructuring has been a shift in the federal and overall tax burden—a “Great American Tax Shift”—between classes in the U.S.
Before you discount the seriousness of the situation, at least skim through this important article. The key takeaway message:

A great theft of workers’ incomes by corporate America—and the ranks of the wealthiest 10 percent who stand behind those corporations and benefit directly from them in so many ways—has been underway in earnest since 1980. When it comes to tax policy benefiting corporations and the wealthiest Americans, George W. Bush is Ronald Reagan writ large— in this case a magnitude of at least five times. Whereas Reagan ensured the transfer of hundreds of billions of dollars through manipulating the tax system to the benefit of his prime constituency of the wealthiest corporations and individuals, George W. Bush has ensured the transfer of tens of trillions to that same constituency.

The economic class war now intensifying under George W. Bush is about to enter an even more aggressive phase. The conflict over the radical restructuring of the tax system, and its impact on shifting incomes between classes in the U.S., will be at the center of that continuing economic class war.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Out of chaos comes progress

Great editorial from The Guardian, tying together a number of different thoughts I have about the violence this month in France. The author Gary Younge notes that while it is easy to condemn the rioters for the damage they have done to life and property (as I have on this website), their high-profile means are producing tangible results.

Even as the French politicians talked tough, the state was suing for peace with the offer of greater social justice. The government unrolled a package of measures that would give career guidance and work placements to all unemployed people under 25 in some of the poorest suburbs; there would be tax breaks for companies who set up on sink estates; a €1,000 (£675) lump sum for jobless people who returned to work as well as €150 a month for a year; 5,000 extra teachers and educational assistants; 10,000 scholarships to encourage academic achievers to stay at school; and 10 boarding schools for those who want to leave their estates to study.
The Independent Online reports that Chirac has unveiled a number of new programs aimed at improving racial integration and fostering national solidarity.

Younge also notes:
Riots raise awareness of a situation, but they cannot solve it. For that you need democratic engagement and meaningful negotiation. Most powerful when they stem from a movement, all too often riots are instead the spontaneous, leaderless expression of pent-up frustration void of an agenda or clear demands. Many of these French youths may have had a ball last week, but what they really need is a party - a political organization that will articulate their aspirations.
Reaction to Chirac's progress so far has been mixed, but many seem to believe that as flawed as France's current government is, other political parties (for example, the Socialists) would not have necessarily been any more successful.

University study: weed good for the mind

Legalize it.

Researchers there at the University of Saskatchewan demonstrated that marijuana rejuvenates cells in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning and memory. Neuroscientist Xia Zhang and his team injected rats with a superpotent chemical synthesized to resemble a chemical found in a typical puff of pot. And, under the influence of this mega-marijuana, the rats started growing new brain cells.

Chertoff attempts to defend his incompetence to the Washington Post

Today's Washington Post has a well written article on Michael Chertoff and the criticism both he and the Department of Homeland Security has been garnering since his criminally incompetent job performance post-Katrina.

"I have not been impressed with anything new that he's brought to the department that's proven to work. . . . The problems that were pre-Chertoff are still there," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (Miss.), ranking Democrat on the same committee. "You don't get the feeling that the leadership is of the caliber necessary to really move Homeland Security to the robust, real-time agency that it has to be."

Chertoff is quick to blame others for the problems his agency has encountered, some of which is legitimate (for example, fuck-up extraordinare Michael Brown). But he shamelessly plays the game DC insiders love the most: partisan politics when he blames Democratic Senators for DHS's woes.

Chertoff said he and Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson have been "stretched" by having to perform multiple jobs, partly because of the slow pace of Senate confirmation of appointees. He singled out Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), although not by name, for delaying appointments as a protest over being denied a secret May 2004 e-mail from FBI agents about the questioning of terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Chertoff appears to be rather easily distracted, even during major catastrophes, and he is not the only person of questionable competence Bush has nominated for a leadership position at Homeland Security. Because for the Bush administration, it continues to be all about cronyism at the expense of capability.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

John Edwards' apology

The Nation has an interesting profile on John Edwards, discussing his recent political metamorphosi as well as his efforts to combat poverty in America. I'm a big fan of Edwards, and voted for him in the Democratic primary last year. While the samrt money seems to have Hillary pegged as the DNC presidential nominee in 2008, I think Edwards is a superior candidate. Yes he voted to authorize the President to launch the Iraq war, but he has publicly repented, which I think was a gutsy and honorable move. Chris Bowers at mydd.com thinks the move positions Edwards favorably against the hawkish Clinton, particularly with progressive netroots voters.

We're obviously very far away from 2008, but it's never too early to start analyzing the horserace. I just pray Kerry stays the hell out of the race.

Friday, November 11, 2005

"Protection Against Executive Compensation Abuse Act" bill introduced

A bit of good news for today...Sirotablog notes with appreciation that a new bill has been introduced by Democrat Barney Frank called "The Protection Against Executive Compensation Abuse Act".

The bill would require that public companies include in their annual report and accompanying proxy solicitations a comprehensive “Executive Compensation Plan.” This Executive Compensation Plan must be approved by shareholders and include:

Full Disclosure of Top Executive’s Compensation including any and all types of compensation paid (or to be paid) to top executives (such as pensions, golden parachute agreements, personal use of private jets/company apartments and other currently hidden compensation);
Full Disclosure of Compensation Policies for Top Executives including the short and long-term performance measures or targets that will be used to determine the top executive’s compensation (and whether such measures were met in the preceding year); and
Company Policy for Recapturing Any Form of Incentive Compensation That Subsequent Financial Results Show Are Unjustified such as when the company pays bonuses/grants stock options to executives for meeting performance targets only to later learn that these numbers were inaccurate and must be restated.

These measures are simply good corporate governance and from my background would probably improve long-term equity price returns to any corporation that implemented them. To wit:

While these numbers are themselves concerning, they also reflect real costs to shareholders and the economy. In a recent study Harvard’s Lucian Bebchuk and Cornell’s Yaniv Grinstein found that in 1993, the aggregate compensation paid to the top five executives of U.S. public companies represented 4.8% of company profits; by 2003 the ratio had more than doubled to 10.3% and the total amount paid to these executives during this period is roughly $290 billion. In addition to concerns about the sheer size, these compensation schemes may give executives a perverse incentive to shirk their duty to shareholders, for example:

Earnings Manipulation. Putting aside outright earnings fraud, because accounting standards like FAS 133 are not always clear, excessive compensation (particularly enormous bonuses based on meeting “Wall Street expectations”) give executives an incentive to use “aggressive” accounting methods that maximize his/her compensation. Years (or months) later, when the company is forced to restate its earnings - and shareholder value plummets - the executives retain their bonuses.

Unprofitable Mergers/Acquisitions. Because senior executives often receive additional compensation when they buy a new company or sell their current one (and are responsible for negotiating the overall deal), there is a natural conflict of interest between the executives’ interest (i.e. closing the deal and obtaining his/her “golden parachute”) and the company’s interest (i.e. maximizing shareholder value).

So instead of looking at this as an intrusive government regulation on how private industry compensates executives, it should be rightfully understood as a way of protecting the long-term maximization of shareholder value. After all, it's the shareholders that own the corporation, not management or the Board of Directors (who are supposedly in office to ensure shareholders' interests are being maximized).

Given its benefits to institutional investors and big business as well as its benefits to ordinary investors, this bill should receive strong bipartisan support, but lets just wait and see what happens.

Americans to Bush: We don't trust you

A poll from America-hating, terrorist/commie loving AP/IPSOS confirms the obvious...the majority of Americans simply do not trust Bush.

Almost six in 10 — 57 percent — said they do not think the Bush administration has high ethical standards and the same portion says President Bush is not honest, an AP-Ipsos poll found. Just over four in 10 say the administration has high ethical standards and that Bush is honest. Whites, Southerners and white evangelicals were most likely to believe Bush is honest.

The Pew Research Center also reports that Bush's support among his conservative base is "eroding" as well.

Can the Democrats capitalize on this in next year's elections? I'm not counting on it.

This guy is sick

Pat Robertson strikes again.

I know I should stop paying attention to him, but it's scary that he's as influential as he is in the 21st Century.

The money quote: God is tolerant and loving, but we can't keep sticking our finger in his eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

My favorite Newsmax columnist

It amazes me that right-wing Newsmax continues to publish articles by former Reagan Assistant Treasury Secretary turned fierce antiwar Bush-hater Paul Craig Roberts. Roberts is quite controvertial, especially for conservatives, in part due to his skepticism of the consensus 9-11 story as reported by the 9-11 Committee. I also find his views on immigration restrictions to be quite absurd. His latest piece in Newsmax, however, is not controvertial at all, and in fact is quite good. It deals with the US's struggling manufacturing sector and the weak labor market under the current administration. I think it's worth a read.

Is US losing the Space Race?

To Americans who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon in 1969, it must sound ridiculous to claim that the US--by far the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world--could lose its dominant role in space exploration. This article from the Christian Science Monitor points out that NASA is struggling both financially and operationally, while China is in pole position for control of the heavens. As the article reports:

With a gross domestic output of $7.3 trillion, second only to the United States in economic terms, China is projected to move into second place in the global R&D sweepstakes this year, overtaking Japan, according to projections from Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and R&D magazine. On a continental scale, Asia is projected to overtake the Americas this year in total R&D spending and pull well ahead next year.

To a large degree, these changes are normal adjustments as economies devastated by World War II recovered and the communist economies gave way to more market-based approaches, analysts say.

Such a move has its benefits, says Kei Koizumi, director of the R&D budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. "It opens the door for expanded collaborations that didn't exist a decade ago."

Yet the question of who leads remains critical, many say.

Is the violent uprising in France racially-based?

Gwynne Dyer argues that they indeed are not, and says the past two weeks are actually "a splendid demonstration of the successful integration of immigrants into French culture (which has, after all, a long tradition of insurrection and revolution). The Paris riots are not a Muslim uprising. They are not even race riots. They are outbursts of resentment and frustration by the marginalized and the unemployed of every ethnic group."

If this is true, then reporting by AP is misleading at best. According to today's report, the rioters are described as being "disillusioned suburban youths, many of them French-born children of immigrants from France's former territories like Algeria. France's suburbs have long been neglected and their youth complain of a lack of jobs and widespread discrimination."

The point Dyer makes in her short editorial is that this is not an intifada (which I can buy) and that there is not a significant racial component to the violence. Either she is being way too politically correct or is outright wrong, or the reporting being done by the wire services is misleading readers into thinking that race is indeed a salient factor.

I'm not reporting at the scene, so I can't independently verify who is misleading and who is correct, but it seems that if these very important facts as to who are actually participating in the violence are in dispute, we are a long way from finding a workable solution to the chaos.

ADL warns of efforts to "Christianize" America

From Haaretz.

NEW YORK - Institutionalized Christianity in the U.S. has grown so extremist that it poses a tangible danger to the principle of separation of church and state and threatens to undermine the religious tolerance that characterizes the country, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, warned in his address to the League's national commission, meeting in New York City over the weekend.

"Today we face a better financed, more sophisticated, coordinated, unified, energized and organized coalition of groups in opposition to our policy positions on church-state separation than ever before. Their goal is to implement their Christian worldview. To Christianize America. To save us!" he said.

This of course must be seen as a total vindication by those conservative Jewish Americans who voted for Bush in 2004 on the basis that he was "the best candidate for Israel." Sometimes the enemy of your enemy is your friend, but sometimes he can be your enemy in other regards.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Avian flu and the Tamiflu conspiracy

Here's some fun for the conspiracy-minded

A as-yet-unconfirmed report is that Rumsfeld recently purchased additional stock in his former company, Gilead Sciences, worth $18 million, making him one of its largest if not the largest stock owners today. Whether that is true or not, earlier this year, when the Bird Flu scare was just heating up, according to a report in the November 14 Fortune magazine, the Defense Secretary decided not to sell his many shares in Gilead so as to ‘avoid being accused of insider trading.’ If true, that means Mr. Rumsfeld, apparently not one to shy away from turning a fast buck, has bagged an eye-popping windfall, as demand for Tamiflu worldwide explodes. Today it is the hottest drug in the world market. On October 6, the Pentagon announced it had stockpiled quantities of Tamiflu for members of the military.

Since early 2001 when Rumsfeld left the board of Gilead Sciences to become Defense Secretary, Gilead’s stock price has gone from around $7 per share to just a hair above $50 a share today. The future price direction? The stratosphere, especially since the President made it an explicit goal of the US ‘flu defense pre-emptive war’ on November 1. Gilead, which signed over the world marketing rights to Hoffmann-LaRoche, gets 10% of every dose of Tamiflu sold. Gilead is presently in a legal battle to retake 100% marketing control as well.

From $7 to $50 translates into a neat 720% profit for Mr. Rumsfeld’s Gilead stock holdings since he went to Washington four-and-a-half years ago. Since the start of the carefully orchestrated current Bird Flu hysteria this March, Rummy’s Gilead stocks have gained a neat 56% alone.

That might explain why, instead of dumping his shares as one might expect from an honest government official wanting to avoid a conflict of interest, he instead opted to buy another $18 million worth. Curiously, the Secretary waited until October 26, 2005 before issuing an official Department of Defense press statement that he had ‘recused’ himself from involvement in any future Pentagon decisions involving Gilead Sciences. By then, of course, the horse had long burst out of the barn door and the price of Gideon was racing at full gallop as the Pentagon and the Administration had already decided to stockpile millions of doses of Tamiflu..

Then again, maybe there's nothing to this.

On the riots in France

The ongoing riots...some are even terming it as a "rebellion"... is totally unbelievable. The only thing I can take away from all this is that it has been a long time in the coming, and the accidental electrocution of two teenagers who were alleged to be chased by police through an electrical depot (which the police have denied) was the proverbial spark that burnt down the house.

AP reports that curfews will now be imposed on towns "as needed" and that the French army will be called out to support the 8,000 police already trying to bring calm to the country. But the article also makes clear that it is looking increasingly unlikely that the police will be able to end the rioting, leaving the endgame in question.

Chirac himself has acknowledged:

[...]in a meeting Monday with Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga that France has not integrated immigrant youths, she said.

Chirac deplored the "ghettoization of youths of African or North African origin" and recognized "the incapacity of French society to fully accept them," said Vike-Freiberga.

France "has not done everything possible for these youths, supported them so they feel understood, heard and respected," Chirac added, noting that unemployment runs as high as 40 percent in some suburbs, four times the national rate, according to Vike-Freiberga.
Despite these conciliatory statementd 10 days after the riots began, much of the blame still belongs on the President's shoulders.

The Guardian has a great editorial here analyzing the civil unrest in France to similiar crises in the UK and the US.

With French politicians blaming immigrents for the violence, Doug Ireland--a former columnist at French newspaper Liberacion--puts the source of such incredible anger and alienation into some much-needed historical context. In an article entitled "Why is France burning?" he explains:

If France's population of immigrant origin -- mostly Arab, some black -- is today quite large (more than 10% of the total population), it is because there was a government and industrial policy during the post-World War II boom years of reconstruction and economic expansion which the French call "les trentes glorieuses" -- the 30 glorious years -- to recruit from France's foreign colonies laborers and factory and menial workers for jobs which there were no Frenchmen to fill. These immigrant workers were desperately needed to allow the French economy to expand due to the shortage of male manpower caused by two World Wars, which killed many Frenchmen, and slashed the native French birth-rates too. Moreover, these immigrant workers were considered passive and unlikely to strike (unlike the highly political French working class and its Communist-led unions.) This government-and-industry-sponsored influx of Arab workers (many of whom saved up to bring their families to France from North Africa) was reinforced following Algerian independence by the Harkis.

The Harkis (whose story is movingly told by Dalila Kerchouche in her Destins de Harkis) were the native Algerians who fought for and worked with France during the post-war anti-colonial struggles for independence -- and who for their trouble were horribly treated by France. Some 100,000 Harkis were killed by the Algerian FLN (National Liberation Front) after the French shamelessly abandoned them to a lethal fate when the French occupying army evacuated itself and the French colonists from Algeria. Moreover, those Harki families who were saved, often at the initiative of individual military commanders who refused to obey orders not to evacuate them, once in France were parked in unspeakable, filthy, crowded concentration camps for many long years and never benefited from any government aid -- a nice reward for their sacrifices for France, of which they were, after all, legally citizens. Their ghettoized children and grandchildren, naturally, harbor certain resentments.

France's other immigrant workers were warehoused in huge, high-rise low-income housing ghettos -- known as "cit├ęs" (Americans would say "the projects") -- specially built for them, and deliberately placed out of sight in the suburbs around most of France's major urban agglomerations, so that their darker-skinned inhabitants wouldn't pollute the center cities of Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Lille, Nice and the others of white France's urban centers today encircled by flames. Often there was only just enough public transport provided to take these uneducated working class Arabs and blacks directly to their jobs in the burgeoning factories of the "peripherique" -- the suburban peripheries that encircled Paris and its smaller sisters -- but little or none linking the ghettos to the urban centers.

Now 30, 40, and 50 years old, these high-rise human warehouses in the isolated suburbs are today run-down, dilapidated, sinister places, with broken elevators that remain unrepaired, heating systems left dysfunctional in winter, dirt and dog-shit in the hallways, broken windows, and few commercial amenities -- shopping for basic necessities is often quite limited and difficult, while entertainment and recreational facilities for youth are truncated and totally inadequate when they're not non-existent. Both apartments and schools are over-crowded (birth control is a cultural taboo in the Muslim culture the immigrants brought with them and transmitted to their children, and even for their male grandchildren of today -- who've adopted hip-hop culture and created their own French-language rap music of extraordinary vitality (which often embodies stinging social and political content) -- condoms are a no-no because of Arab machismo, contributing to rising AIDS rates in the ghettos.

Of course this does not excuse the brutal beating last night that left a man in a coma which led to his death. Nor do I condone the wanton destruction of both public and private property. I think all rioters engaged in violent activities who are caught and found guilty should be appropriately punished. I would be more sympathetic to some form of civil disobedience (but that's just wishful thinking). But as was the case in the race riots in the US during the 1960s, there are underlying socio-economic roots to this violence that have been ignored and must be understood and dealt with.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

How good is the economy in creating "good" jobs?

Not very, according to this report from economist John Schmitt at the Center for Economic Policy Research. The report defines "good jobs" as those that pay at least $16 an hour ($32,000 a year) and provide health insurance and a pension. The author finds:

In both 1979 and 2004, about one-fourth of workers were in jobs that
qualified as “good” by the definition used here. The basically unchanged
good jobs rate across the two years suggests that the economy has failed to
convert long-term economic growth into an expanding supply of good jobs.

The report's findings are pretty depressing and put Bush's boasts of an expanding economy into much-needed perspective.

In addition, AP reports that the labor market is struggling to create new jobs, noting that September actually saw a net decline in employment--the first time this occurred in two years. So what good is the much-trumped GDP growth if working Americans can't find employment.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Annan "dismayed' by Iran comments

Kofi Annan has decided to call off a trip to Iran, saying it is not "an appropriate time" in light of it's president's "controversial" statements. Sorry, I didn't realize that calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map" was considered controversial by the Secretary General. What is the controversy. Are diplomats split on whether calling for the destruction of a member nation of the UN is "inappropriate"?

So what would a country have to do to get immediately sanctioned by the UN (which to my knowledge has NOT happened here)? I guess following in the footsteps of Hitler and calling for the death of 5 million Jews in their homes is enough for Annan to be "dismayed" but not much else.

Again, I'm not agreeing with right-wing neocon chickenhawks who insist we must overthrow the Iranian government now before the hard-line mullahs get their hands on nukes, but actually that is starting to sound like a sensible idea. Maybe Ahmadinejad should be tried for crimes against humanity, as a professor at Hebrew University suggests. The Iranian leader may have had political motivations for his genocidal rants, but these comments ought to have real diplomatic consequences.

EPI: Continued decline in employer-provided insurance coverage

Just finished reading a briefing paper by the Economic Policy Institute on the continuing trend of Americans receiving their health insurance coverage from the government rather than their employers. This development has profound public policy repercussions, as the paper notes:

This phenomenon of replacing employer-provided health insurance with public-sector health coverage begs the question: is this a positive way to meet the United States' health care challenges? On a positive note, this trend demonstrates that the safety net is working for a small share of the population. Workers and their families at the low end of the income distribution have limited if any access to employer-provided insurance. During a weak labor market, millions of workers lose their jobs or are forced to take jobs without benefits and lose their already tenuous connection to the employer-provided health insurance system. Medicaid and SCHIP have saved millions from financial ruin or untreated illness.

On the down side, the government did not pick up coverage for everybody who lost insurance. Current public insurance programs are particularly strong at covering children, the elderly, and people with disabilities, but many Americans have been left out, including many in the middle class who lost coverage at a time when such workers already face the challenges of a weak labor market and stagnant wages. While most children were able to make up their losses in employer health coverage through the public system, many prime-age working adults were left stranded by the drop in coverage and fell into the ranks of the uninsured. Middle-income Americans between the ages of 25 and 54 were 26.7% more likely to be uninsured in 2004 than in 2000.

The employer market has been the primary method of obtaining health insurance in this country. Its strength lies in the effective sharing of risk among individuals. Unfortunately, market pressures are exacerbating the problem. During periods of weak labor demand, workers do not have the bargaining power to bid up their wages or benefits. During a period of simultaneous weak bargaining power and rising health costs, employers demand that workers pay for higher premiums or pay more out-of-pocket for their care. Furthermore, by pushing workers out of the employer system and into the public one, employers are shifting the cost of insuring their workers onto taxpayers.

While some employers have transferred the responsibility of insuring their employees onto the public system (or have simply let these workers drop into the ranks of the uninsured), some local governments have begun to adopt a "pay-or-play"* strategy to keep employers accountable to their workers' needs.1 However, these helpful policies currently exist only in very select areas at the local level. On the federal level, policies are actually making such accountability measures harder. Sweeping cuts in the tax benefits of employer-provided health insurance are being considered by President Bush's tax advisory commission,2 changes that could substantially destabilize an already weakened health insurance system.

To add insult to injury, Congress appears poised to cut Medicaid and other related safety net programs by $35 billion.3 Policy measures that cut holes in the safety net even as employer-provided coverage is declining will be detrimental to the health care of this country. Limited access to affordable health insurance markets will cause the number of uninsured to rise, leading to inadequate access to health care. More people will continue to fall through the cracks if the employer-system is weakened without a sufficient replacement.

Other significant findings from the paper include:

The number of uninsured Americans rose by over six million, from 39.8 million in 2000 to 45.8 million in 2004. This increase was due primarily to the precipitous decline in employer-provided health coverage for workers and their families.

* The downward trend in the rate of employer-provided health insurance continued from 2003 to 2004, during a period in which the economy created 1.5 million jobs—either many of these new jobs did not include health coverage or existing jobs shed coverage during the year (or both).

* Jobholders experienced a significant decline in health insurance coverage from 2000 to 2004. In 2000, 58.9% of workers had employer-provided coverage, whereas only 55.9% of workers had coverage in 2004.

* No category of workers was insulated from loss of coverage. Even full-time, full-year workers and workers with a college degree experienced declines in coverage between 2000 and 2004. Full-time, full-year workers' coverage rates fell by 2.3 percentage points and college graduates' coverage rates fell by 2.8 percentage points.

* Workers among the bottom 20% of hourly wage earners were the least likely to have employer coverage; 24.4% of the bottom quintile were covered compared to 77.5% for workers in the highest wage quintile.

* Children experienced the sharpest declines in employer-provided health insurance coverage. In 2000, 65.6% of children had employer-provided coverage, whereas in 2004 only 60.8% did, a fall of nearly five percentage points. Fortunately, existing government insurance (i.e., Medicaid and State Children's Health Insurance Programs) increased coverage to children by six percentage points, enough to offset the sharp decline in employer coverage for this group.

* Unlike the trend with children, the fall in employer-provided coverage for prime-age working adults was not accompanied by a sufficient increase in public coverage.

* The decline in employer coverage was pervasive and felt throughout the country. When comparing the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 periods, Maryland, Maine, Missouri, North Carolina, and Wisconsin all experienced losses in coverage rates in excess of 6.0 percentage points. Not a single state experienced a statistically significant increase in coverage.

The severity of the loss in coverage is more pronounced for men than women and for those workers who did not earn a college degree. But the paper points out that even college graduates have not been insulated from the trend.

Additionally, according to the Washington Post, Americans are paying more for their healthcare and getting poorer treatment than patients in other western countries.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Fed warns on budget deficits

Good night and good luck Dr. Greenspan. The soon to be retired maestro warns that "easy choices are long gone" in dealing with budget deficits in testimony to Congress. Interestingly, maestro says he does not regret supporting Bush's tax cut disaster of 2001. This will likely be seen by historians as the single biggest mistake of his career.

The changing face of organized labor

In These Times' David Moberg has a great, albeit short profile on the Change to Win Foundation, a new labor federation. With the break up of the AFL-CIO this summer, it will be interesting to see how these two big federations partner with each other to further their common goals. But it's also important to understand how CWF will differ from AFL-CIO. One of the key issue:

The debate about whether Change to Win needed to leave the AFL-CIO to pursue its laudable organizing objectives is over. Now the question is whether the two federations can cooperatively pursue separate strategies toward a common goal. Stern says that CTW unions will never return to the AFL-CIO, but leaves open the possibility for a new unified labor organization. In the meantime, it appears that at least unity on the local level may be preserved, and that will make leaders like John Ryan a little bit happier.

As the article makes clear, the changes Big Labor is experienced this year are the most significant in thirty years. Go read it now.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

DNC Momentum on Iraq?

Democrats say they are ready to take on the Bush administration on the Iraq war. The Los Angeles Times analyzes the political landscape. As I've said before, I'm pessimistic but hope to become cautiously optimistic in the near future.

Scalito and abortion

No, he is not "moderate" when it comes to a woman's right to choose. UVA Law Professor Richard Schragger lays to rest the myth that Alito somehow has taken a middle-of-the-road approach on the issue. GW Law Professor Jonathan Turley has also pointed out that Alito would be the MOST conservative Justice on SCOTUS if appointed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More on the NYC mayoral race

I watched the Bloomberg/Ferrero debate this evening and I think Freddylanded some solid blows against the incumbent. I know the race is over, but I'm still not crazy about Bloomberg. On one hand, I think the fact that he is a billionaire is an advantage in that the mayor's office is clearly not for sale to any special interest group. But on the other hand, he has spent over$63 million on his campaign and accepted only two debates with Ferrero--that's pathetic. And his support for the Bush administration's splendid little war in Iraq and his fight to maintain a veil of secrecy regarding 9/11 are to my mind real negatives for any politician.

Schelling: No way to stop Iran from developing nukes

Scary interview in which the Harvard economist and nobel laureate basically says the debate isn't whether Iran will get nukes. Rather, he says the debate is heading towards whether the US should provide them with technology to help them prevent these weapons from falling into the wrong hands (in the case of a civil war, etc.)

Sleep tight.

Scalito and Corporate America

Think the religious right is psyched with the Alito nomination? Well, yes Robertson is happy as a pig in shit...but so is Corporate America. Sirotablog has an informative post here. And Nathan Newman over at House of Labor has a post analyzing Alito's not-so-hot record on workers' rights.

Democrats appear to have grown a pair, but I'm still skeptical

Today's big news from WaPo:

The U.S. Senate went into a rare closed session today after Democrats invoked a seldom used rule to back their demands for greater oversight by the Republican-controlled body, particularly on the Bush administration's use of intelligence in taking the country to war in Iraq.


The Senate's Democratic leader, Harry M. Reid of Nevada, initiated the closed session by invoking Rule 21, which was seconded by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the minority whip. In a floor speech, Reid declared that "a cloud hangs over this Republican-controlled Congress for its unwillingness to hold the administration accountable" on a variety of issues.

He was particularly incensed about what he said was the refusal of the Senate Intelligence Committee under Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to follow up on an investigation of the intelligence that led to the war in Iraq. A report was issued in July last year, but a "phase two" inquiry into how the Bush administration used that intelligence has not been held. Reid accused Roberts of breaking a promise to conduct that investigation in an effort to "provide political cover for this administration," which he said had "consistently and repeatedly manipulated the facts" in making its case to invade Iraq in 2003.

"I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations are not being conducted," Reid said. He then demanded the closed session.

Frist angrily denounced the move, charging that "the United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership." He told reporters that he has never as majority leader "been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of this grand institution."

Frist called the closed session "a pure stunt" by Reid, Durbin and the Democratic leadership.

"This is an affront to me personally," he said. "It's an affront to our leadership. It's an affront to the United States of America. And it is wrong."

Frist sharply criticized Reid personally, saying he could never trust the Democratic leader again.

Boo hoo, you're breaking my heart. My sense is that Reid sees an opening for a sneak attack and he went for it. There's no question the GOP is both vulnerable and distracted right now with Bush's approval ratings hovering around 40%. Not surprising with over 2000 soldiers dead in Iraq, who are there because of a WH push to war based on "faulty intelligence" (lies, that is) and no exit plan in sight. Then there is the small matter of Cheney's Chief of Staff being indicted (while morons like the Powerline bloggers claim that somehow Bush "dodged a bullet" because only Libby was indicted, not rove!.)

I'm still bearish on whether the Dems can keep the pressure on...my guess is they don't have the guts to see this through. The American people have known that the President knowinglyled us into war based on lies and the DNC still was not able to make this a campaign issue and somehow lost the election to Rove.

The GOP managed to get Clinton impeached over his lying to a grand jury about consensual sex. Now we have a President who started a war under false pretexts and his party has still not explained how it happened two years later.And the Democrats have barely made a peep until now.

So color me skeptical, for now. I do hope the next few months will prove me wrong, though.

UPDATE: As always, Billmon has much better analysis on today's action than I do, and he is similiarly cautious (although for strategic purposes, not just lack of faith).

Cheney speech on oil

As a result of a google search on a related topic, I came across this interesting transcript, circa 2000 (I think) of a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney to the UK's Petroleum Institute.

There are some interesting nuggets contained in the speech, which is interesting by virtue of the fact that Cheney is speaking here as a representative of Halliburton as opposed to the Bush administration - so be sure to peruse it if you have the time.