Saturday, December 31, 2005

The WTO game

Some informative commentary from Laura Carlsen - director of the Americas Program at the International Relations Center. Reporting from the Hong Kong meeting of the World Trade Organization, Carlsen notes:

For over a decade, trade liberalization has been presented as the path to development and the goal of all civilized nations. Its terminology became the accepted language of economics and its concepts formed the backbone for restructuring entire societies.

Today, that consensus has broken down in both developed and developing countries. But the terms stubbornly persist, and thereby constitute an obstacle to devising new workable models of international trade rules and laying out viable alternatives to the arcane, dysfunctional free trade system.

That said, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for the WTO or any other multinational to re-think the terms of trade policy, or the reality of "free trade", if its outcome would be less favorable for the world's wealthiest corporations.

As Carlsen notes in one of her previous articles titled Playing the WTO Game:

The objective of this game is free trade for corporations—not development . The moment a playing country sits down at the table, other objectives are automatically subordinated or even cast aside by the globalization game as defined and imposed by the WTO. Despite the fact that the current round of negotiations is called “The Doha Development Round,” in practice, development and its pillars—national industrialization, food sovereignty, social welfare and equity—are discarded. Instead, market access, liberalization, international commerce and investment, and privatization become the guiding principles.

She goes on in the article to list the major players in the WTO "game", as well as the rules which govern the contest. In particular, she explains in detail just how stacked the deck is against developing countries, and the numerous advantages possessed by the US and EU. For example, the US has by far the largest market as well as the dominant export capacity. Carlsen points out that the US and EU share the basic strategies of "forcing open new markets for its goods, extending intellectual property rights, and transferring sectors from the public to the private realm" while at the same time doing as little as possible in terms of "reduc[ing] agricultural subsidies, eliminating protections for [their] economically and politically strategic sectors, and [making] real progress on . . . safeguards and exemptions for poor countries." On the other hand, she also harshly critiques both the strategy as well as the ascribed motivations of the G-20. Most importantly, she lays out in detail exactly what is at stake in this process.

I would highly reccommend closely reading both articles in their entirety to gain a better perspective of what exactly is being decided upon at the WTO meetings which are being assiduously ignored by the media. In my estimation, Carlsen is one of the most astute observers of the WTO and internation trade issues and her voice deserves to be heard by every person concerned with promoting economic justice.

Friday, December 30, 2005

What is going on with April Glaspie?

Some interesting speculation from a Pakistani paper.

For a more thorough treatment of Le Affaire Glaspie, check out The Fire This Time, which is now unfortunately out of print.

Howard Zinn at UC - Santa Barbara (Video)

Fantastic speech by eminent historian and progressive hero Howard Zinn at UCSB courtesy of Google Video.

The topic is "Truth in a Time of War".

Irresponsible tax cuts for millionaires to go into effect

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) lays out the sad implications of the new tax cuts in this extremely informative report released on December 28:

Sometime early next year, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the budget reconciliation legislation that the Senate passed on December 21 and the House passed in a slightly different version on December 19. That legislation would make significant cuts in a number of programs serving low- and moderate-income families and individuals, including Medicaid, child support enforcement, and student loans.

Supporters of the legislation defend the cuts as “tough choices” that need to be made because of large and growing budget deficits. These claims are undercut by the fact that, in the last six weeks, the House has passed four tax-cut bills that together cost more than twice what the budget reconciliation bill saves. The claims are further undermined by Congress’s unwillingness to rethink any previously enacted tax cuts as part of its supposed reevaluation of priorities in light of deficits.

In particular, Congress has chosen to allow two tax cuts that exclusively benefit high-income households — primarily millionaires — to begin taking effect on January 1, 2006. By 2010, these tax cuts will eliminate two current provisions of the tax code that limit the value of the personal exemptions and itemized deductions that people at high income levels can take (see box below for more detail).

Two importsnt points about these tax cuts:

1. They will be very expensive. In fact: "The cost of these two tax cuts between 2005 and 2010 exceeds the savings from all of the reductions in low-income programs in the reconciliation bill over the same period. In other words, if Congress halted the implementation of these two tax cuts and eliminated all of the low-income program reductions, there would be a net reduction in the deficit.


2. Only top earners will benefit. "More than half of the gains from the two tax cuts — 54 percent of them — will go to the 0.2 percent of households with annual incomes above $1 million, while 97 percent of the tax-cut benefits will go to the 4 percent of households with incomes above $200,000, according to the Urban Institute-Brookings Institution Tax Policy Center."

The link above is definately worth checking out, as it provides several informative tables and charts.

12/05 Harris Poll: Some Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had role in 9/11

You can see the results for the entire Harris Interactive poll here.
Of particular note:

1, Only a little over a half of respondents (56%) think Iraq is "better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein". (NB: this number has dropped significantly from 76% in the 2/05 poll)

2. Sizeable minorities of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein had "strong links to al Qaeda," though the number has fallen substantially this year. (from 33 to 24%)

3. Most disturbingly, approxiamtely 22% of U.S. adults believe Hussein helped plan 9/11, and 26% believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. Another 24% believe several of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqis, according to the online poll of 1,961 adults.

People need to stop watching Fox News and reading the New York Post. A quarter of Americans still think Iraq had WMD at the time of the 2003 invasion? Um, okay.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

NY Times: NYC Transit Deal Shows Union's Success

Read the whole article by Steven Greenhouse in today's New York Times.

Note: I copied the entire article, and the above link is not to the original-which will be behind a subscription only firewall soon enough-but rather to a separate section of my blog.

From the article:
Mr. Toussaint, whose back appeared to be against the wall last week, can boast of a tentative 37-month contract that meets most of his goals, including raises above the inflation rate and no concessions on pensions. Indeed, several fiscal and labor experts said yesterday that Mr. Toussaint and his union appeared to have bested the transit authority in their contract dispute.

Jonathan Tasini is not quite as impressed, in particular criticising the 1.5% employee contribution towards their health plan. I personally think that employees, including public employees, should contribute a part of their salaries towards their health care costs. The reason I think the strike was warranted is because of the illegal demand for pension give-backs thrown in at the last hour--a demand that would have created a two-tier scheme that sold out future transit workers.

All in all, I think the results of the new contract are proof positive that Toussaint and the leadership of TWU Local 100 were right to call a strike-sending a message that even public workers don't have to accept whatever unfair deal management tries to shove down its throat. They took a principled stand and were rewarded for it, and their success should be a lesson to those working-class Americans everywhere: management will financially punish their employees for the executives' own gross incompetence unless workers take advantage of their collective bargaining rights.

Corporate governance reforms facing resistance from companies and investors

There was an interesting article in the Financial Times on December 15th regarding SEC plans to make it much easier for foreign corporations to end their reporting duties to the regulator. This change was proposed in the wake of European complaints regarding the costs stemming from needing to continue adhering to Sarbanes-Oxley law on accounting and corporate governance (hat tip to David Sirota, who has a great run-down on his blog). The complete subscription-only article is archived on this blog and can be read in its entirety here.

In this case, the complaints that prompted this proposal were specifically in regard to the fact that "...even if [European companies] scrapped their US listings they might be saddled with reporting obligations with the SEC indefinitely." And corporations are not the only entities upset with having to comply with these new requirements. Indeed, institutional investors, (both domestic and foreign) seem to feel that by and large, Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) has gone too far and that the cost of complying with the legislation outweigh the benefits. But it is difficult to quantify the benefits accrued from enhanced reporting requirements and most of the SOX requirements seem to be common sense. In fact, an argument could be made that SOX doesn't go far enough in its reporting requirements for executive compensation.

The bottom line is that study after study indicates that a strong corporate governance program is directly correlated with the long-term stock market returns for a publicly-traded company. Improving the practices at many recalcitrant companies entails a cost somewhere from these companies in order for them to be listed. But I'm not really sure what type of reforms other than SOX would offer the same safeguards at a lower cost. Perhaps the aforementioned proposal for foreign companes makes sense, but there seems to be a pervasive hatred for SOX that simply doesn't. This Journal article is just one more example of how companies are lobbying to weaken corporate governance regulations put in plact post-Enron.

For more background, Robert A.G. Monks (one of the world's foremost experts on corporate governance) wrote a short yet comprehensive analysis of the weaknesses of US and UK corporate governance programs, which can be read in its entirety here. In addition, another paper he wrote in 2004 entitled "Corporate Governance Reform: The Wrong Way and the Right Way" discusses more of his reccomendations on the topic. Monks himself argues that SOX is "a bit of a blessing and a bit of a curse" In a recent interview, he elaborated:

"It enables the business community to say 'there's too much regulation' and that 'we're tied down like Gulliver - the Lilliputians are killing us'".
In fact, he says, it is in large measures “just box ticking” but in some ways Sox is also hugely important. “Sox is the first time in 75 years that the federal government has got the political consensus strong enough to beat the state bar association to pass a federal law.”A critical provision is the creation of the federal whistleblower law, says Monks. “You can expect not to be sued, and not to lose your job, and that is critical.” Despite this, he admits, “nobody likes a snitch, and that’s too bad”.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

VA to Iraq & Afghanistan war vets: Screw You

Doug Ireland points out how our Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) is trying to screw over the men and women in our armed services by trying to decrease disability compensation for those suffering from PTSD. The VA in fact has asked the Institute of Medicine to conduct a study on how PTSD is diagnosed and treated. In other words, asking the Institute of Medicine to second-guess the American Psychiatric Association's criteria for diagnosing the disorder.

Ireland quotes from a Washington Post article linked to in his post:

"PTSD experts summoned to Philadelphia for the two-day internal "expert panel" meeting were asked to discuss "evidence regarding validity, reliability, and feasibility" of the department's PTSD assessment and treatment practices, according to an e-mail invitation obtained by The Washington Post. The goal, the e-mail added, is "to improve clinical exams used to help determine benefit payments for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder."

"What they are trying to do is figure out a way not to diagnose vets with PTSD," said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a veterans advocacy group. "It's like telling a patient with cancer, 'if we tell you, you don't have cancer, then you won't suffer from cancer.' ..." The article makes the politics of this administration effort clear: "The growing national debate over the Iraq war has changed the nature of the discussion over PTSD, some participants said. "It has become a pro-war-versus-antiwar issue," said one VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because politics is not supposed to enter the debate. "If we show that PTSD is prevalent and severe, that becomes one more little reason we should stop waging war. If, on the other hand, PTSD rates are low . . . that is convenient for the Bush administration."

A study from the New England Journal of Medicine found that 1 in 6 returning vets suffers from PTSD.

In other "War on Terror" news, apparantly lobbyists representing defense contractors like Halliburton have been successfully stalling the Pentagon from instituting a ban on human trafficking practices. This, of course comes on the heels of recent revelations that defense contractors have been engaged in exactly this type of abuse:

In a two-part series published in October, the Tribune detailed how Middle Eastern firms working under American subcontracts in Iraq, and a chain of human brokers beneath them, engaged in the kind of abuses condemned elsewhere by the U.S. government as human trafficking. KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary, relies on more than 200 subcontractors to carry out a multibillion-dollar U.S. Army contract for privatization of military support operations in the war zone.

The Tribune retraced the journey of 12 Nepali men recruited from poor villages in one of the most remote and impoverished corners of the world and documented a trail of deceit, fraud and negligence stretching into Iraq. The men were kidnapped from an unprotected caravan and executed en route to jobs at an American military base in 2004.

At the time, Halliburton said it was not responsible for the recruitment or hiring practices of its subcontractors, and the U.S. Army, which oversees the privatization contract, said questions about alleged misconduct "by subcontractor firms should be addressed to those firms, as these are not Army issues."

UPDATE: More on the PTSD story from The All Spin Zone.

Big Business and spychips

From Alternet. One more thing to worry about.

And this from War and Piece:Apparantly the NSAa has been illegally placing "cookies" on visiting computers. They admitted their "mistake" and stopped the practice after an inquiry by the Associated Press.

Minimum wage ballot initiatives

Looks like the Democrats are hoping to take a page out of the GOP playbook in a bid to boost voter turnout among their base. The idea: getting minimum wage initiatives on the ballot for 2006 elections.

Is think this is a winning idea? I think so. Who could be against raising the minimum wage, at least for cost of living increases? Hell, Congress voted itself pay raises this year (one of the few things members from both parties seem to agree on). This is the eighth year the federal minimum years has remained unchanged, and it has fallen to a 56-year low relative to the average wage. This is an issue that resounds loudly with an overwhelming majority of the voting public and is a "dinner table" issue that can be framed as both a pocket-books issue as well as a moral issue. Some helpful graphs and charts here.

And Matt Stoller points out that universal healthcare could be another winning issue for Democrats.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Superpower vulnerability

A long and winding history lesson on both superpowers and crusades from Henry Liu over at Asia Times. An excerpt:

The US is now pursuing a foreign policy that harks back to the medieval rite of trial by ordeal based on the principle of might is right. This militarized strategy of imposing US national values on alien societies by force is rationalized by the empty promise of permanent peace, since nations of similar values are supposed to be less likely to resort to armed conflict to settle their differences. This view has not been validated by actual events.

Throughout history, nations of similar faith and values have gone to war against one another not over ideological differences, but to engage in power struggles and to settle territorial or economic disputes, even after an external common enemy has been identified. The Christian Crusades against Islamic lands were clear examples. Even with Islam identified as a common enemy, the Crusades failed to unit the European Christians, who continued to war among themselves. The current US crusade to make the world safe for freedom and democracy in its own image is a dangerous delusion of grandeur. Like all crusades in the past, this one will also cause great destruction and misery for no redeeming purpose.

Doesn't bode well for Bush's endless "War on Terror" Instead of working to convert the Middle East to US-style democracy, maybe we should first work to secure the homeland and dismantle al Qaeda.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Surveillance-industrial Complex

It seems rhe telecom industry and the NSA. have been working hand in glove lately:

The New York Times on Saturday reported that the NSA has been monitoring "large volumes of telephone and Internet communications flowing into and out of the United States" -- a larger volume than previously indicated by the administration.

"NSA has gained the cooperation of American telecommunications companies to obtain back-door access to streams of domestic and international communications," the newspaper added.

(The original New York Times article is here, although it will be behind a TimesSelect firewall soon.)

And here's an article from the Chicago Tribune on how the telecom industry has given up the private info of its customers to the government.

The fact of the matter is, the ACLU has been concerned by the ongoing "privatization" of our spying activities for a few years:

In a report released this week, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) describes what it calls a growing "surveillance-industrial complex" in which the US government is increasingly relying on the private sector to collect personal information about US citizens and residents.

In response to its findings, the ACLU is embarking on a nationwide grassroots campaign to put pressure on private companies that readily collude with government agencies in violation of people’s privacy.

"The amount of direct surveillance that government security agencies can conduct, and the number of people they can hire, will always be limited," said report author Jay Stanley in a press statement. Stanley is the Communications Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program. "But leveraging the private sector," he continued, "vastly expands the government’s capacity to invade our lives."

The report, entitled "The Surveillance-Industrial Complex: How the American Government is Conscripting Businesses and Individuals in the Construction of a Surveillance Society," details the variety of ways government agencies go about enlisting the help of private individuals and businesses in efforts to monitor Americans’ behavior.

According to the report, federal and state governments have instituted a variety of programs to encourage individuals to monitor their neighbors and coworkers. Although the most publicized such program, Operation TIPS, was discarded by Congress due to privacy concerns raised at the grassroots level, the ACLU says many similar programs, including elements of the TIPS program, are employed nationwide.

Still trying to find a link to the full article. Some more background on domestic spying here and here, and some background on ESCHELON here.

This type of "public-private partnership" between the US intelligence community and private companies has been going on for a long time, for example with project SHAMROCK. And here's an old article from Bill Berkowitz on the similiar, now-defunct TIPS program that Bush had envisioned as a way to outsource spying, this time to private citizens.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Lobbyists' influence on the Opinion Page

A great piece of reporting from the New York Times.

The issue of whether supposedly independent writers and researchers are having their work underwritten - directly or indirectly - by lobbyists and other special interests is hardly new.

But the payments by Mr. Abramoff and a closer review of the work of the Institute for Policy Innovation, a group founded in 1987 by a former House Republican leader, Dick Armey of Texas, are evidence that the ties may be much closer than research organizations, conservative and liberal, would prefer to admit.

The Bush administration acknowledged this year that it had paid outside writers, including Armstrong Williams, the conservative columnist and television commentator, to promote the Education Department policy known as No Child Left Behind.

Executives in the public relations and lobbying industries say that the hiring of outside commentators to promote special interests - typically by writing newspaper opinion articles or in radio and television interviews - does happen, although it is impossible to monitor since the payments do not have to be disclosed and can be disguised as speaking fees and other compensation.

Todd Gitlin at calls out the Times and the MSM in general for being so slow and timid to report on an important issue that was actually quite "gettable" for a long time.

Another example of this intersection between lobbyist cash and the shaping of public opinion has been in the ongoing debate over global warming

It sure would be nice to know if the editorial you're reading is lobbyist-paid PR or the carefully considered, independent opinion of a critical mind. But I guess that's asking far too much.

Dispelling the myths of current US tax policy

The first chapter of the Urban Institute fellow C. Eugene Steuerle's new book provides a quick if understated primer for the layman on just how convoluted our tax code is, and how vulnerable it is to manipulation by "tax professionals".

He points out:

"The investment and business tax policy debate evolves toward ever more complex issues. Although tax policy is crucial for investment and saving policy, rules are neither always steadfast nor adhered to. Broad-based incentives, such as investment tax credits, eventually got abandoned in favor of lower rates, but selective incentives for such items as research and energy remained or expanded. One heated and unresolved debate concerns the ways that taxpayers "arbitrage" differences in the treatment of different assets, income sources, or taxpayers. Government seems to have limited ability to prevent new "tax shelters" born of complex forms of arbitrage, forcing Congress constantly to rewrite the law or the Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to reinterpret the regulations. Such shelter opportunities arise from many sources, including variations in tax rates by country, limitations on loss deductions that may be avoided when companies merge, the tax exemption for charitable activity, and the differential taxation of equity and debt. Tax professionals' growing skillfulness in exploiting every differential in the tax system, the computerization of tax accounting, and the emergence of split-second electronic transfers of billions of dollars all perpetuate the tax shelter crisis."

This from a former Treasury official under Reagan.

Some courageous politicians are trying to tackle the abuse by corporations who break the law to avoid paying their fair share of taxes, but manypoliticians, even Democrats are too bought-off to care.

More analysis on Iraqi elections

Robert Scheer explains:

Iraq, for all of its massive deficiencies, was not a center of religious fanaticism before the U.S. invasion, and the Islamic fanatics that are the president's sworn enemy in the so-called "war on terror" did not have a foothold in the country. Now, primitive religious fundamentalism forms the dominant political culture in Iraq and the best outcome for U.S. policy is the hope that Shiite and Sunni fanatics can check each other long enough for the United States to beat a credible retreat and call it a victory, albeit a pyrrhic one.

Richard Dreyfuss agrees, arguing that "The victory of the Shiite religious coalition in the December 15 election hands power for the next four years to a fanatical band of fundamentalist Shiite parties backed by Iran,". He adds: "[this] will create a theocratic bastion state in its southern Iraqi fiefdom and use its power in Baghdad to rule what's left of the Iraqi state by force." And according to an article in The Guardian, the Bush's administration's favored candidate Iyad Allawi is considered persona non grata among the new powers that be. Oh yes, and the new Iraq will probably not recongize the state of Israel. The neocons must be so thrilled.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Talking points on the economy

From EPI (via MaxSpeak):

1. Profits are up, but the wages and the incomes of average Americans are down.

2. More and more people are deeper and deeper in debt.

3. Job creation has not kept up with population growth, and the employment rate has fallen sharply.

4. Poverty is on the rise.

5. Rising health care costs are eroding families' already declining income.

And there's more bad news about the real estate market.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary John Snow is now on the record saying Bush has done a better job cutting the deficit than Clinton. Huh?

Meanwhile, in Iraq...

Pepe Escobar writes in Asia Times Online that not only has Bush lost control of the situation in Iraq, but that the recent elections are a disaster for the US. Makes for very, very depression reading.

Drutman nails the central problem in corporate governance

Great article by Lee Drutman at, explaining why SEC Chairman Cox's modest new proposal for increasing executive compensation transparency is a half-measure at best.

He really nails the main problem as far as corporate governance is concerned in the US:

"[S]hareholders have about zero say into who sits on the board of directors and how executive pay is set. The directors are typically nominated by management, and shareholders are given one and only one slate of directors to choose from—a Soviet-style election that guarantees that managers always get their trusted friends on the board of directors. This actually goes a long way to explaining why executive pay packages continue to defy the laws of gravity (and common sense). After all, what’s a few million among friends?

Unfortunately, Cox has demonstrated no interest in injecting even a modicum of accountability into the process by making it easier for minority shareholders to nominate candidates to the board of directors, something his predecessor, William Donaldson, unsuccessfully pushed for. (The Chamber of Commerce and other business groups vehemently opposed any suggestion of this “proxy access reform,” effectively killing the proposal.)"

Yep, that's one reason run-away executive compensation at US corporations is impossible to get a handle on is because most directors at these companies are corporate executives themselves! What motivation do they have to see executive compensation reigned in for corporate America?

This isn't the case in many other countries in Europe, in Germany and France for example, where many directors who sit on boards are representatives of labor unions or business professors.

Yes, its true that the US has one of the most transparent corporate government regimes in the world, and for the most part US corporate law provides for strong protections for shareholders. But at the end of the day, it's still a very incestous bunch of executives who tend to get named to the Board of Directors, usually by the senior executives they are supposed to be passing judgement on. One area the US is weakest in is in terms of so-called "director interlocks", or signigicant relationships between directors and the corporation on whose board they sit. These are mostly minor related-party transaction, but they are connections-and therefore conflicts of interest-nonetheless.

Remember, directors are supposed to be representing shareholders, not senior executives. This article goes a long way to explaining how this isn't always so in practice.

Strike ends

Great news for New York commuters, the TWU has voted to end the strike and go back to work. I'm glad the strike is over, but I respect that the
TWU local refused to negotiate on the pension issue.

This post over at DMI blog sums up my opinion pretty well, and makes some more good points. And Juan Guanzales points out that the MTA broke the Taylor Law as well by making pension funding cuts the deciding factor of negotiations. Pension givebacks that would amount to merely $20 million over three years, compared to a $1 billion surplus at the Authority. And despite the huge surplus, underfunded workers' pension and demands for these givebacks, Kalikow had no problem giving the executive director of the MTA a 22% raise last December. It's true that pension costs at MTA are rising, but maybe management should have worried about that while they were wasting $289 millions on politically connected, overpaid contractors.

And don't forget that the MTA was caught lying about their finances and previous surpluses two years ago after it raised fares .

But no, the transit workers are "thugs" for refusing to accept the last-minute, illegal pension giveback "deal" Kalikow tried to shove down their throats at the 11th hour. They're thugs for not accepting cuts in benefits while Kalikow refuses to negotiate on reducing disciplinary actions. The greedy union demanded a 6% annual pay raise a year. For someone making $50,000 a year on a transit worker's salary, that works out to $3,000pre-tax.Forget about the corruption, mis-management and greed at the MTA...they're the good guys. Forget the total lack of leadership shown by Pataki, who demanded the union end the strike before negotiations could continue. Thankfully, the MTA ignored his advice.

Plus, more from Sisyphus Shrugged, Lemeiux, Barab and Hirsch.

Another day, another revelation about our police state from the NY Times

At this point, news like this shouldn't even faze me, yet it still does. The title of the article is "New York Police Covertly Join In at Protest Rallies". The Times reports:

The officers hoist protest signs. They hold flowers with mourners. They ride in bicycle events. At the vigil for the cyclist, an officer in biking gear wore a button that said, "I am a shameless agitator." She also carried a camera and videotaped the roughly 15 people present.

Beyond collecting information, some of the undercover officers or their associates are seen on the tape having influence on events. At a demonstration last year during the Republican National Convention, the sham arrest of a man secretly working with the police led to a bruising confrontation between officers in riot gear and bystanders.


The pictures of the undercover officers were culled from an unofficial archive of civilian and police videotapes by Eileen Clancy, a forensic video analyst who is critical of the tactics. She gave the tapes to The New York Times. Based on what the individuals said, the equipment they carried and their almost immediate release after they had been arrested amid protesters or bicycle riders, The Times concluded that at least 10 officers were incognito at the events.

So NYPD is "inflitrating" protests to "influence" events? Like, I don't know, attempting to discredit organizations they don't like by provoking them?

Chillingly, the article notes; "[Today] the standard for opening inquiries into political activity has been relaxed, full authority to begin surveillance has been restored to the police and federal courts no longer require a special panel to oversee the tactic."

Murdoch's NY Post: Striking transit workers worse than al Qaeda

It was only a matter of time. In fact, I'm surprised it took three entire days, but Rupert Murdoch's beloved New York Post ran an editorial in today's "paper" comparing Toussiant and the TWU Local 100 to al Qaeda. Actually, to be more specific, the author compares them unfavorably to the terrorists who killed almost 3,000 people.

From the screed:

THE 9/11 terror attacks couldn't kill his business. No, the villains threatening to rob Jay Park of his livelihood are far more treacherous, selfish and insane.


How could a union that claims to represent the little guy screw the little guy? The terrorists made it their mission to kill the economy. This brand of homegrown enemy pretends to have the city's interest at heart, while it takes aim at the most vulnerable workers.

Why don't we ship the union off to Syria so we can torture them into submission?

Seriously, this is the most vile, dispicable, over the top piece of hate-speech I have ever seen published, even in the piece of used toilet paper they call the Post. That rag has dropped all pretenses of being a contributer to civilized debate.

Meanwhile, despite the local and national media's wall-to-wall anti-union coverage, New Yorkers nevertheless support the Toussiant and the TWU by a margin of 52 to 40.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NYC's two biggest rags weigh in on the transit strike--get your popcorn ready!

The New York Daily News:

"Roger Toussaint, we dare you to take to the Brooklyn Bridge this morning to tell the cold, walking throngs why you chose to disrupt the lives of millions, jacked up the expenses of tens of thousands, shuttered and crimped businesses, exposed the subway system to terrorism and generally threatened the public health and welfare.

It would be delicious watching you try to justify the reckless, lawless transit strike that you have inflicted on the city - assuming your fellow New Yorkers didn't hurl you over the railing into the icy waters before you got a word out."

The New York Post

" I SAID it three years ago, when last a subway strike threatened, and I'll say it again: Decertify the Transport Workers Union.

Maybe this time New Yorkers will listen. Maybe they'll begin to realize - as they struggle to get around New York - that the TWU has outlived its usefulness.

Its members' hourly wages are far higher than most New Yorkers'; their health benefits are the stuff of dreams in the private sector; and their pension programs are forcing every New Yorker to dig ever deeper into their pockets to support retirement after only 25 years of service. When is enough enough?

Where is it written that this acrimonious dance between management and labor, contract after contract, three-year cycle after three-year cycle, must continue?

We all know the union line by now: It's the under-paid, under-appreciated, hard-working union member vs. the hard-hearted city.

Try selling that to New Yorkers scuffling to get to work in the freezing cold. Try telling them that 45-plus grand a year - plus benefits - is an "insult," that a 1 percent increase in contributions to your own health programs is a "non-starter." You've over-played your hand this time, and nothing you can do will win ordinary New Yorkers to your "cause." But don't take my word for it: ask them.

Or better yet, try getting a comparable job in the private sector. Good luck.":

And another Post editorial:

"The judge had given Toussaint & Co. fair warning — ordered them, actually — not to strike. But they couldn't care less about the suffering they caused to millions of residents, workers and visitors.

And they have inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage on fellow New Yorkers, not to mention the physical and emotional toll.

But Toussaint says the MTA is insufficiently respectful of his members — whatever that means — so the strike is justified.

Respect, of course, is a two-way street.

The TWU is doing its best to earn the utter contempt of millions of New York straphangers, and their employers, during perhaps the most economically critical week of the year — the week before Christmas.

Connecting (more) dots

2005 has been a year of almost non-stop leaks, scandals, screwup and media propaganda campaigns from our dark overlords at the White House. From Bush/Cheney's weird defense of torture while claiming "the US doesn't torture" was, well creepy. Then we found out about extraordinary rendition and CIA plane flights to Syria where we force suspected terrorists confess to whatever Cheney wanted them to say in clandestine prisons. The Tom DeLay/Abramoff scandals were a little boring, if only because both men are such obvious liars, hypocrites and criminals that there has been almost a "death of outrage" on congressional corruption.

The Downing Street Memo leak was also pretty bad--basically laying out in cold detail that Bush was set on invading Iraq regardless of the reality on the ground, even as he told the American people with a straight face that war was a "last option:. Oh, and "Saddam Hussein had WMD and we know where they are hidden." Likewise, the Rove/Libby outing of Valerie Plame's undercover status as a CIA operative was fun for awhile, but we all knew that Bush had no problems intimidating his political opponents, even if it put America in real danger.

But revelations this week that Bush authorized the NSA to evesdrop on American citizens' domestic phone calls without getting even retroactive FISA warrants (which are almost never denied) seems like a new low to me. This is an administration that believes it is above the law, or at least whatever they do is legal (as long as their intentions, to protect us, are just). We see an administration that has operated with such secrecy that we literally have no idea anymore what our government is doing or not doing as part of the neverending "Global War on Terror".

I remember reading a book on COINTELPRO when I was in High School and being in shock that something like this could occur in our parents' day. Well, we no have something just as bad, maybe worse in the 21st Century.

Sirota puts together a whole lot of inconsistencies, lies and flat-out lawbreaking over at the Huffington Post blog. Yale Law professor Bruce Ackerman writes in Slate that "By keeping his decisions [to conduct surveillence on Americans] a secret, the president insulates himself from the last check and balance against excess."--Congressional oversight that is. Robert Parry lands some solid blows in this article at Consortium News, in particular pointing out Bush's hypocrisy at being angry at whoever leaked this story to the Times while defending Karl Rove, who did likewise.

Read this great post by Digby, wherein he calls the Bush administration a bunch of cowardly eight-year-old children, adding "the fact that they continue to win elections as being the tough guys perhaps says more about our puerile culture than anything else. They lash out like frightened children and too many people see that as courage or resolve."

Kevin Drum makes a similiar point:

The fact is, superhawks always claim their programs are vital to American security, and they almost always turn out to be wrong. We didn't need to intern Japanese-Americans during World War II, we didn't need Joe McCarthy's theatrics during the Cold War, and we didn't need COINTELPRO during the Vietnam War. And when the Church Committee outlawed the most egregious of our intelligence abuses in the 70s, guess what happened? The Soviet Union disintegrated a decade later. Turns out we didn't need that stuff after all. America is a lot stronger than its supposed defenders give it credit for.

Classic Michael Berube:

Forget Jesusland. Forget the War on Christmas. You don’t have to be a crazed theocrat to be a member of the radical right! All you have to do is support the right of the Leader to create secret torture and domestic spying programs, and vent your spleen at the few remaining journalists with the courage to report on them. That’s what a radical right does for a living. It’s what a radical right lives for.

My friends, we are living in troubled times indeed.

Reich on the importance of Medicade (for the Middle Class)

Robert Reich writes in The American Prospect that the Medicade program is as important for Middle Class Americans trying to stay out of poverty as it is for the already poor. Read the article here.

The NYC transit strike

Whoever you think is to blame, TWU 100, the MTA, Pataki, Bloomberg, the economic impact of the transit strike is very real, as this New York Times article makes clear. Not suprisingly, the world socialists support the union in this lengthy diatribe, arguing it is represents a "new stage in the class struggle". In a similiar vein, my former classmate David Sirota (with whom I usually agree on economic and political issues) supports the union in principle, if not in the specifics of this strike. He says:

'm not saying a strike is a desirable outcome either in New York or anywhere else. And I am no expert in whether what the transit workers are asking for is "fair" or "unfair" to the city – and I'm sure neither are many New Yorkers, as the media have, in typical fashion, provided near-wholesale anti-union coverage, as if this is a story of just people being inconvenienced in their commute to work, rather than a battle between thousands of hard-working, blue collar workers who sweep subways and a billionaire mayor and bought-off governor who have clearly never cared about workers or their demands for decent wages. You have to really dig deep into the coverage to find out that New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) is sitting on a $1 billion surplus, and yet the city is trying to reduce wages/benefits for future transit workers.

But whether the unions demands are "fair" or not is not the real point here – the point is that superlaws like the 1967 statute being used to break the workers' strike undermine the entire concept of unions and workers' rights. Ask yourself a question: what is the one tool that ordinary, blue-collar workers have that can really help them assert economic power in a way that can minimally compete with the massive economic institutions (corporate/government) that run our society? The answer is ultimately through the threat of a strike – whether a strike happens or not. Without a union having the power to strike, they cannot threaten to strike and that means there is no real reason an employer should listen to any union requests, because the employer knows the union can't back up its requests with any consequences.

Eric Alterman blames both sides:

"The problem in New York City is also power without responsibility. The strike is costing the city hundreds of millions in lost income and destroying the pre-Christmas holiday shopping spree that would have kept lots of peoples’ businesses afloat for another year—the frequently quoted figures of $400 million are meaningless, but the number sure is high—because neither the union nor the MTA has the responsibility to be held accountable. The MTA would not come up with $20 million in pension money to avoid this catastrophe and the union does not seem to care at all, going on strike against the wishes of its parent union. (I would feel differently if that weren’t the case.) Governor Pataki is entirely out to lunch, under the insane delusion that he is a credible candidate for president and Mayor Bloomberg lacks the power to force sanity on either side. As a result, stores are closed and chaos reigns. The strike doesn’t hurt me any; everything I need is within walking distance. I even gave my students their final on the day before it began. But it’s a crime against my city."

Liberal economist Max Sawicky, another pundit I have a lot of respect for, notes:

Why should an unconnected person in New York support this strike? As an economic matter, every hole punched in those sectors of the workforce where pay and benefits are relatively good puts downward pressure on the rest. An employer can always afford to pay you less, the fewer, superior alternatives you have. Smashing transit workers' pay would eliminate one important island of living wages in the city.

The political impact of a defeated transit union would have ripple effects on the strength of workers' bargaining position throughout the area. The threat effect implicit in off-shoring is magnified, even for things that cannot be offshored. In this sense, deunionization has effects identical to the export of manufacturing jobs.

The New York Times' Steven Greenhouse writes about the small impact the MTA's pension demands who actually have in terms of long-term savings for the authority:

"On the final day of intense negotiations, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, it turns out, greatly altered what it had called its final offer, to address many of the objections of the transit workers' union. The authority improved its earlier wage proposals, dropped its demand for concessions on health benefits and stopped calling for an increase in the retirement age, to 62 from 55.

Yet for all the rage and bluster that followed, this war was declared over a pension proposal that would have saved the transit authority less than $20 million over the next three years."

As Jonathan Tasini summarizes: "It can' t be more clear now that the M.T.A. forced a strike over a pittance to its coffers--but a 4 percent cut to workers."

No question about it thouh, both local and national media are squarely against the TWU. This makes sense as the union is the entity identified as the cause of the strike, ie: they called for it, and it is very easy to scapegoat them in that regard.

My opinion: I mostly blame the MTA. I think Bloomberg's comment regarding the union behaving "thuggishly" was WAY over the line and not helpful. (The Times has a great article on how the word "thug" was a particularly poor choice. Its Sharpton quote is on the money) I'm all for workers rights and subway conductors have a tough, dangerous job. Something about compensating for differentials. Bloomberg has no trouble giving hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to investment banks to keep them in the city, and somehow the city had enough money to pay for a new stadium. But $20 million for MTA employees is unreasonable? All this while the Authority is sitting on a $1 billion surplus and after revelations of fraudulent accounting practices being employed? Give me a break, I have NO sympathy for the MTA management. Instead of being jealous of the union's pension demands, other working-class (and white collar) New Yorkers should be trying to emulate th hardcore bargaining tactics of organized labor. That is, unless they don't care if their pensions are unfunded when they retire!

UPDATE: Bloomberg is going off on the TWU in a press conference--talking about people having to miss their chemo treatments because of the strike. The strike is "selfish and illegal"--he keeps saying. He is ordering an injunction that would make individual union employees personally liable for the damage being caused. He is a popular figure in the city, he was just reelected in a landslide.

Bloomberg is also arguing that the people being hurt the most are working-class people, busboys, garmet industry workers, etc. Transit workers make more than teachers, firemen and policemen (I'd like to see the figures). He just called Toussant and the union management "fraud". I have never seen him so angry. New Yorkers will "rise to the challenge". He also argues that the strike was "timed" for the holiday season, where it will cause the most damage. That's an outrageous claim as this is when their contract expired.

Frist tacks immunity provision for Pharma on to defense spending bill

So reports Public Citizen (via House of Labor):

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A 45-page rider tacked on to the Defense spending bill conference report by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is far more generous to drug companies than an earlier version, because it absolves drug makers of responsibility even for gross negligence or recklessness when making tainted, defective or deceptively labeled products. Worse still, legal immunity under the bill would extend to already available commercial drugs if they are used to prevent, treat or cure a designated epidemic or pandemic disease. The measure will reduce the incentive for drug makers to make safe pandemic vaccines or drugs, and will deter people from being vaccinated, Public Citizen warned today.

Why isn't this front page news?

Brutal budget bill passes

This is what the GOP-controlled House's campaign of massive tax cuts for his rich friends gets you--huge budget cuts for social programs benefitting working-class Americans that at the same time ignores the challenge of mounting budget deficit. As Robert McIntyre from Citizens for Tax Justice notes: "As many have noticed, the $51 billion cost of the House’s 2009 and 2010 capital gains and dividends tax cuts is almost exactly equal to the $50 billion that the House wants to cut from low-income health care programs, student loans, and so forth over the next five years. But don’t suppose that Republican politicians are even slightly embarrassed about taking money from the poor to pay for tax cuts for the rich. Or that they’ve woken up to the disastrous fiscal consequences of their tax-cutting zeal. On the contrary, they’re in total denial."

But not to worry, there are still massive giveaways to Big Pharma contained in the bill. According to the Washington Post:

"Tens of thousands of low-income Americans are likely to lose health coverage under the measure, and many millions will face premiums, deductibles and co-payments for the first time, said Jocelyn Guyer, senior program director of the Georgetown University Center for Children and Families.

Budget savings that lawmakers had initially sought from pharmaceutical companies and private insurers in the Medicaid and Medicare programs were dropped from the final deal.

"Instead of asking for shared sacrifice to achieve budgetary savings, this agreement hands an early Christmas gift to the pharmaceutical and managed care industries at the expense of beneficiaries," the AARP statement said."

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Police state

Great new editorial from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette sums things up:

The White House needs to tell the Pentagon promptly to destroy the records of protesters as required, within three months. It also needs promptly to tell the NSA to return to following the rules, to get the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court before monitoring Americans' communications. The idea that all of this is being done to us in the name of national security doesn't wash; that is the language of a police state. Those are the unacceptable actions of a police state.

And here's a great post from Kevin Drum on the logical/legal problems with Bush's evesdropping program. He basically makes the point that Bush has assumed "permanent" wartime powes while breaking the law. Besides which, no one has been able to explain yet how the FISA laws are inadequate for the task at hand. If they allow the President to get a retroactive warrant, I don't understamd how they are "too slow" as many conservative pundits are arguing.

To be sure, Bush has given the American people every reason to distrust him, as each new week seems to bring with it a fresh scandal involving lawbreaking, lying and misusing government agencies. Just yesterday, the New York Times reported that the FBI has "conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief". And John Aravosis makes a good case that this new, illegal wiretap scheme could just as easily be (mis)used by a paranoid president to spy on journalists he doesn't like. Of course, he is trying to intimidate and fear-monger the US public into giving him such omnipotent powers, as well as by raising terror alerts timed to achieve maximum political benefit.

Bush is just a modern-day Sun King and should be impeached immediately if we lived in anything resembling a democracy that respected the rule of law.

Friday, December 16, 2005

US eyes Bolivian elections

Great article in the Christian Science Monitor discussing the prospects for a Morales victory in Bolivia's elections. One consequence would be Bolivia pursuing an economic agenda very much at odds with US interests in the region:

In Bolivia, democracy is now set to collide with the economic policies Washington prefers. American oil and gas companies doing business there reaped substantial profits from privatizing the country's gas industry in the early 1990s, and they had high hopes of being able to increase their windfalls by exporting Bolivia's gas to the energy-hungry US market. Corporate gains did not trickle down to Bolivia's poor, however, and massive protests against privatization have forced the resignation of two presidents in two years. They have also made a political star of Morales, a candidate who promises to redirect gas industry profits toward Bolivia's social needs.

The Bush administration has watched Morales's rise to prominence with a sense of quiet hysteria. Morales has been slandered by conservatives who label him a drug trafficker, a charge that has never been substantiated. He and other coca farmers point out that although coca is used to produce cocaine, the natural plant leaves have ancestral importance for Bolivia's indigenous people. State Department officials regard him as a puppet of Mr. Chávez and Fidel Castro. If their regular stream of insults has been muted of late, it is only because the administration is aware that its past criticism has boosted Morales's popularity in a region where Washington's policies are viewed with skepticism.

Nevertheless, US efforts for "democracy promotion" and "electoral reform" continue in the region. Given our nation's recent track record in that regard, and the fact that an increasing amount of US aid to the region is flowing through the Pentagon, I think their skepticism is understandable.

The Monitor reports that US troops presence in Paraguay, ostensibly as part of the War on terror, is further alientating many in the region.

UPDATE: Found two great articles from zmag and IPS Online with more details on the Bolivia elections.

UPDATE (12/21): Morales won a landslide victory and celebrated by branding Bush as a "terrorist". Can't you feel the love?

The (unreported) continuing air war in Iraq

Asia Times Online reports on the continuing US air campaign against Iraqi insurgents, and the Vietnam-like civilian casulaties that are the inevitable result. It really amazes me that with the possible exception of the heroic Seymour Hersh at the New Yorker, this story has been been completely embargoed by the Western media.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Bush: "WMD irrelevant"

Amazing. Scary. Ridiculous. How is this possible? Bush admits he still would have invaded Iraq in 2003, even if he knew at the time that they didn't possess WMD. In addition, Bush's claim that Congress saw the same pre-war intelligence on WMD that he and his advisors did is flat wrong, according to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service (CRS). Kudos to Sen. Feinstein for requesing the report.

Another day, another blatant Bush administration lie exposed.

Spying on the enemy within

You can't trust those sneaky Quakers, with their Meeting for Worships and pacifism and all.

Seriously, what the hell has happened to this country?

Also, according to the NY Times, the NSA has been spying on Americans without getting bench warrants. How were Bush's orders to this government agency--which clearly violate the law--not an impeachable offense while Clinton's perjury was?

Meanwhile, Bush is ducking the issue, despite calls from Congress for an investigation into the matter.

UPDATE: TPM Cafe has some info on the FISA Court, along with its agreeing to allow surveillence for almost all domestic spying cases brought before it. As Aravosis notes "Between 1979 and 2002 every request was agreed upon and most of the very few that were rejected since 2003 were later modified and accepted. So why did Bush have to go beyond the rule of law? With a court that showed a willingness to go along with this policy, why did they need to deviate from the FISA Court 30+ times? Just who were they targeting if they felt that they could not even get FISA to agree to their request?"

And Yglasias asks some pointed questions of his own: "in what sense is it in his power, under our laws, to override laws by executive order? If there's time for the president to personally review these requests before authorizing them, why isn't there time for the FISA court to do so? And what kind of law enforcement operation is undertaken on the personal say-so of the president anyway? This seems backwards. Why not take these requests direct from the agencies to the court, rather than to the White House and then nowhere? And how much time does our famously reading-averse chief executive really spend contemplating the justifications for these requests?"

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The benefits, and pitfalls of taxing pollution

From Tom Paine, a sensible argument for taxing pollution. Not sure how big an impact it would have, considering the huge chasm left by Bush's obscene tax cuts. It is also extremely difficult in practice to effectively tax the pollution, rather than the pollutant, as numerous economic studies make clear.

Nevertheless, the idea has its supporters. An old article by Paul Krugman, where the economist lends support to such a Piglovian tax and dispels several objections to it in theoey.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Fed: Jump in consumer debt rate is largest in 18 years

According to the Federal Reserve's quarterly flow of funds report, Americans increased their household debt at an annual rate of 11.6% in the third quarter, the fastest growth in 18 years.

DEMblogs has some informed anaylsis here:

In order to finance their lifestyle, most people use vast amounts of debt. Total mortgage debt outstanding has increased from 4.8 trillion in January 2001 to 8.2 trillion in the third quarter of 2005.

And people aren’t saving at all. Economists define savings as the money left over after someone spends for their monthly expenses/items. The number has been negative for the last 7 months. In addition, contributions to retirement plans are very low. Of 401(k) plans, IRAs and defined benefit plans, only IRAs are growing over 1% of GDP for the last 4 years, and then the largest annual contribution is around 2%.

In short, low-wage growth and low-interest rates are inflating an asset class’ value, increasing borrowing and provide a disincentive to saving.

Economist Dean Baker from the Center for Economic Policy research has a paper worth reading entitled "Dangerous Trends: The Growth of Debt in the U.S. Economy"

I came across this American Prospect article (from 2000) Deeper in Debt it's a must-read on the topic.

CNN warns: US consumers are hooked on spending.

Meanwhile, the US trade deficit hit a historic high in October.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

NY Times: Newly bankrupt raking in piles of credit card offers

The cycle of poverty continues. Not surprisingly, the credit card/banking industry lobbyied fast and furious for this Bankruptcy Bill that they now hope to turn a fat profit on. Read the article before it disappears behind a "TimesSelect" firewall.

Execs target shareholders with "Orwellian tactics"

Kudos to David Sirota for this long, detailed post analyzing efforts of corporate executives to protect themselves from "activist" shareholders. As I've repeatedly argued here, progressive activist shareholder blocks are the key catalyst of reform for corporate governance and encouraging good corporate citizenship. The shareholders are the owners of the corporations, not the executives or the government or the employees.

Regulation can indeed be a step in the right direction, and it is the responsibility of Congress to ensure that corporations are operating in the public interest (or at the very least not operating in a manner counter to the public interest). And while the Board of Directors are supposed to serve as representatives for the shareholders at board meetings, the high degree of interlocks and conflicts of interests often make directors the handmaidens of the execs. For example, since most directors are execs at other public corporations, it is not in their interest to push for limits in executive compensation.

In reality, public corporations exist for one reason: to increase their shareholders' profits. Everything else is secondary. That is why we're seeing executives threatening shareholders in these ways, because shareholders are all that stand in the way of endless perks and bonuses.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Tax cuts approved by House


Voting 234 to 197, almost purely along party lines, the House approved $56 billion in tax cuts over five years, one day after it passed other tax cuts totaling $39 billion over five years. The biggest provision would extend President Bush's 2001 tax cut for stock dividends and capital gains for two years at a cost of $20 billion.

[. . .]

The budget that the House passed just before Thanksgiving, would cut $51 billion over five years from programs like Medicaid, food stamps, farm subsidies and child-support enforcement.

And Greenspan was his usual jackass self last week, making noise about the dangers of our current federal budget deficit while failing to point out that Bush's out-of-control tax cuts for millionaires and their dividends are a major source of the problem. Instead, he argues that we need to save money by raising the age at which retirees could draw SS benefits.

Friday, December 09, 2005

CEIP: LDCs faring very poorly in "globalization"

Here's a well-researched paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace creatively titled "Why Did the Poorest Countries Fail to Catch up?" It has something to do with a rising tide not lifting all boats, corruption being bad, etc.

About the paper:

Despite the promises made by globalization, in the last twenty years the world’s poorest countries have fallen further behind the rich. In a new Carnegie Paper, Branko Milanovic debunks current development theories that explain why poorer countries have not reaped the rewards of global economic integration. Using statistical analysis, Milanovic finds that the higher likelihood of poor countries to be involved in wars and civil conflicts is the most important determinant for their lack of growth while, surprisingly, the effects of domestic reforms or international lending were minimal.

DURING THE PAST TWENTY YEARS, THE POOREST COUNTRIES of the world have fallen further behind
the middle-income and rich countries. The median per capita growth of the poorest countries
was zero. This is an unexpected outcome because, from the perspective of economic theory, both
globalization and economic-policy convergence imply that poor countries should grow faster than the
rich. The main reasons why this has not happened lie in poor countries’ much greater likelihood of
being involved in wars and civil conflicts. This factor alone accounts for an income loss of about 40
percent over twenty years. Slower reforms in poor countries compared with faster reforms in middleincome
countries played some, albeit a minimal, role. Increased flows from multilateral lenders did
not help either because the net effect of the flows on growth rates is estimated to have been zero.
Finally, neither democratization nor better educational attainment of the population can be shown to
have had any notable positive impact on poor countries’ growth. Reducing the prevalence of conflict
seems to be the first and most important step toward restoring growth

GOP, the party of fiscal irresponsibility

This short post by Sawicky pretty much sums it all up.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Feingold vows filibuster of PATRIOT Act

But it looks like the Bush administration will get its way on this one:

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., announced that the negotiating committee had reached an agreement that would extend for four years two of the Patriot Act's most controversial provisions authorizing roving wiretaps and permitting secret warrants for books, records and other items from businesses, hospitals and organizations such as libraries. Those provisions would expire in four years unless Congress acted on them again.

Aren't you feeling safer already?

The White House applauded the agreement.

"The Patriot Act is critical to winning the war on terrorism," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "The president urges both houses of Congress to act promptly to pass this critical piece of legislation."

Well, that and slashing federal revenue by $94.5 billion over five years. It's a one-two punch certain to bring al-Qaeda terrorists borrowing library books to their knees.

UPDATEJohn Nichols has more on Feingold's courageous stand.

Update (12/16): Looks like I was totally wrong on this one. Feingold won a major legislative victory and beat Bush in the battle for the PATRIOT Act. Here's the video from Think Progress.

Is George W. Bush the worst president ever?

Is water wet?

But seriously, according to a few hundred historians polled by George Mason University, the answer is hell yes.

From the article:

This is what those historians said -- and it should be noted that some of the criticism about deficit spending and misuse of the military came from self-identified conservatives -- about the Bush record:

-He has taken the country into an unwinnable war and alienated friend and foe alike in the process;
-He is bankrupting the country with a combination of aggressive military spending and reduced taxation of the rich;
-He has deliberately and dangerously attacked separation of church and state;
-He has repeatedly "misled," to use a kind word, the American people on affairs domestic and foreign;
-He has proved to be incompetent in affairs domestic (New Orleans) and foreign ( Iraq and the battle against al-Qaida);
-He has sacrificed American employment (including the toleration of pension and benefit elimination) to increase overall productivity;
-He is ignorantly hostile to science and technological progress;
-He has tolerated or ignored one of the republic's oldest problems, corporate cheating in supplying the military in wartime.

What do you think?

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Our tax dollars at work

New revelations that the Pentagon will request $100 billion for the Iraq war for next year. That would bring our spending on the war to almost half a trillion dollars, not to mention over 2,100 US casualties and unknown Iraqi casulaties. Yes, if the Bush administration sticks to its promise to stay in Iraq until we declare "victory", the cost of this war would begin to approach Vietnam.

Well, at least Iraq's economy is improving (says Bush).

The terrorism president

Well at least Bush is doing a great job improving our defenses against terrorist attacks, right? I mean, that's why all the Republicans hated Kerry, because he was soft on terror. Bush, on the other hand, is single-mindedly focused on winning the war on terror and defending the homeland against future attacks.

Well, according to the bi-partisan 9/11 commission, Bush gets poor marks for his terrorism preperations. Remember, this is not Howard Dean on Michael Moore criticizing Bush's national security record, it's a pretty well respected bi-partisan committee (even though its report contained many glaring omissions, such as why it took so long for NORAD to respond).

So much for keeping us safe.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Baker: Eliminate tax loopholes for investing

Dean Baker argues that the Senare should demand a tax code that treats the income of workers and wealthy shareholders the same way, similiar to the reagan 1986 tax cuts. To wit:

The key idea behind the ‘86 reform was not to lower tax rates, but to eliminate loopholes. It also took a key step that stands in opposition to the current flavor of Republican tax breaks. The ’86 tax reform treated all types of income—wage income, capital gains, dividends and rents—the same way. This meant that a person who earned $70,000 from working would pay the exact same tax as someone who got $70,000 in dividend checks or who made $70,000 in profit on stocks.

Taxing all income the same way meant that there was no money to be made by gaming the system—for example, by disguising wage income as capital gains income. Reagan proudly boasted when he signed the bill that people would now make money by working and investing, not gaming the tax code.

This spirit behind this approach to taxes runs counter to the current tax cuts being pushed by President Bush and the Republicans in Congress. Sen. Frist, in particular, has pledged that he won’t bring back a conference committee on the tax cuts to the Senate floor without the capital gains and dividends provision. Frist and his colleagues think it’s unfair that people who get money from dividends or profits on stock pay the same tax rate as people who earn their living working as truck drivers or schoolteachers. The Republicans want to extend their tax breaks from 2003, under which the maximum tax rate on dividends and capital gains would be just 15 percent. This compares to the 25 percent rate paid by many middle-income workers.

Well worth a debate I think.

Syriana and Big Oil's takeover of Iraq

After seeing Syriana last weekend,I've been trying to learn more about the implications of the US's dependence on foreign oil and Bil Oil's dependence on securing Middle East oil drilling rights. I came across this article from
commondreams which makes you realize that the world we live in is a lot more complex that we choose to believe. The article references a study by advocacy group INSIGHT (the full study can be seen here) that provides a pretty damning view of US foreign policy vis-a-vis our demand for oil. I highly recommend the movie, although it's difficult to follow the storyline. By the way, I found this interview with Robert Baer, who wrote the book on which the movie was based, and it provides some interesting context. Someday, I want to read Baer's book "See No Evil".

UPDATE:Digby has some more insights on Syriana.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Behind Medicare Part D

Speaking of big corporations having too much power in Washington, Medicare Part D is a travesty.

New Harris Poll: Big Corporations and Lobbyists have too much political power

Via the Wall Street Journal:

Americans overwhelmingly believe that certain groups have too much power in the nation's capital, according to the latest Harris Interactive poll.

Large majorities of Americans believe big U.S. companies have too much influence on government, the poll shows, and that sentiment has risen in recent years, to 90% in 2005 from 80% in 2003.

This year's telephone poll of 1,011 adults also found nearly three-quarters of Americans say political lobbyists have too much influence in the nation's capital and 68% feel the news media have too much power, down from 79% in 1994.

At the same time, more than a third of those polled feel religious groups have too much influence, up from 27% in 2000, while the percentage who feel racial minorities have too much power has fallen 10 percentage points to 28% this year.

Large numbers of U.S. adults also believe certain groups have too little power in Washington, according to the poll. These include small businesses (92%), public opinion (78%) and nonprofit organizations (67%).

Americans were most divided when judging the influence of labor unions. About 43% of those polled say they have too much power, compared with 46% who say they have too little power.

Public opinion has less influence on policy than big corporations and lobbyists. Sounds like democracy to me!

Depressing news on the (lack of) urban job growth

From MotherJones:

Bruce Katz, former HUD secretary from 1993 to 1996, wrote in a 2003 paper that it is primarily the "metropolitan areas without strong central cities…[that] are having so much difficulty making the transition to a higher road economy." Katz also points to "anti-metropolitan" federal policies that retard economic growth. For example:

Transportation funds generated in cities funneled for spending in rural areas
Concentrating poverty by housing the poor in segregated city blocks
Creating prohibitively high costs to new businesses by designating environmental "brownfield" sites in polluted cities
While the 1990s saw some corrections on these distorting policies, Katz told Mother Jones that the Bush administration reversed reformative progress in his first term.
Bush is talking about cutting grants which enable cities to deal with the basic infrastructure issues. What Bush is talking about cutting are the basic community health programs that are not specifically targeted on job creation but create the climate for job creation to occur.

Nevertheless, for the short term urban development will be shaped by the Bush administration, who earlier this year proposed to cut billions from HUD's buget, which may be a fine stroke against the deficit, but bad for inner city growth after all.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Why does Bush refuse to enforce environmental protection laws?

This article from Tompaine makes a good point: Why won't the current administration's EPA enforce environmental protection laws and regulations. Why are they so opposed to holding big polluters accountable? As the author states: "Whether it’s dealing with coal-burning electric plants in the Midwest or auto emission inspections in Ohio and Kentucky, the administration has decided it won’t even attempt to enforce the law if it seems inconvenient to big polluters or to Republican-controlled state governments."

So that's the criterion for enforcement: if it's inconvenient to big business, then the Bush administration will close its eyes and ignore the violations.

The author goes on: "Some big polluters have become so encouraged that they’ve gone to court to seek dismissal of pending charges. It’s as if someone awaiting trial for murder sought freedom on the grounds that prosecutors were going to look the other way in future murder cases. "

The analogy is apt, and disturbing.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Demand for SRI funds at "all time high"

At least according to this article at Alternet:

The public demand for SRI is at an all-time high. By Invested Interests' estimates, over $2 trillion (roughly one out of every nine dollars invested) in investments are already screened, as compared to only eight years ago, when screened investments totaled $529 billion. This recent rise in screened investments is all the more remarkable, considering the SRI movement began forty years ago based on religious principles.

SRI is the best way to ensure corporations operate in a socially conscious manner--by providing management with the financial incentives to do so. The CEOs of big public corporations are not necessarily greedy or evil individuals; they are following a mandate to maximize the profits of the company's owners (mostly institutional shareholders and high net worth individuals). Once you align the interests of management with socially responsible "activist" investors, you are on the road to responsible corporate behavior. CSR (corporate social responsibility), on the other hand, is merely a diversionary tactic and a bunch of self-serving PR nonsense that cannot work due to the structure of corporations.

For more background, go read Joel Bakin's classic book "The Corporation".

LA Times: US Military covertly pays to run stories in Iraqi "press"

Kudos to the Los Angeles Times for the scoop. Not exactly sure what to say about all this--the headline kind of says it all. I will note, however, that this doesn't reinforce in my mind an image of a triumphant US army winning the war in Iraq, having to pay for positive coverage, etc. Also gives a whole new meaning to "freedom of the press". As the article notes: "It comes as the State Department is training Iraqi reporters in basic journalism skills and Western media ethics, including one workshop titled "The Role of Press in a Democratic Society."

In a related story, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff told reporters today that the problem is not that we're losing the war, it's that we're not bragging about it enough:

Military and civilian defense personnel, he said, could do a better job spreading the word about the progress in Iraq, and he called on the students -- military and civilian defense leaders along with some international officials and personnel returning from Iraq -- to talk about the issue both among themselves and in the community at large.

I'm not making this stuff up.