Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Bankruptcy Bill is a sham

Michelle Singletary reports in the Washington Post:

In what will undoubtedly be the first of many "I told you so" reports, the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys has found that, overwhelmingly, people who file for bankruptcy protection aren't deadbeats who went on shopping sprees with the intention of shirking their debts.

That's quite contrary to what was being claimed by supporters of the new federal bankruptcy law that went into effect last October.

For years, those proponents argued that billions of dollars were being lost because people were simply being allowed to walk away from their debts.

Four out of five filers felt forced to seek bankruptcy protection because of a job loss, catastrophic medical expenses or the death of a spouse, according to the report, "Bankruptcy Reform's Impact: Where Are All the Deadbeats?"

One in 30 consumers (3.3 percent) was a candidate for paying off what he or she owed under a debt management plan (DMP), the report indicated. With a DMP, a debtor makes one monthly payment to a credit-counseling agency. The agency then distributes the funds according to a payment schedule it has worked out with the person's creditors.


True, NACBA clearly has an agenda in all this (being bankruptcy lawyers, it behooves them for individuals to be able to file for bankruptcy), but even with the requisite grain of salt, the study should really trouble the lawmakers who gave birth to this regressive piece of legislation.

Meanwhile, in Iraq...

Professor Juan Cole has all the gory details on his blog. The "highlights"? Well, for starters, it looks like the country we invaded a few years ago is on the verge of erupting into a civil war. Yes, journalists and pundits have been warning about this threat for almost two years, but the latest violence appears to be both widespread (over 1300 killed in the past week) and being committed on a secterian (religious) basis.

The details are just too disturbing for me to report on in detail, so if you're interested in seeing how our efforts at democracy building in the Middle East art going, visit Professor's blog.

Interestingly, he links to a Los Angeles Times article that in the wake of this violence, some Neocons in the Pentagon and various right wing think tanks (i.e. the AEI) are arguing that now is not the time for us to draw down our troop levels. This of course makes no sense, as the Professor notes:

Someone should explain to me why last week's events are an argument for keeping US troops in Iraq. What did they do? Did we hear about any US military units guarding Sunni mosques as they were being attacked by Shiite mobs? The LA Times reports on how US troops were caught between two sides in the rioting, and because they could not enter mosques, were often not able to investigate violent attacks against them.


Even my kitten knows the situation in Iraq is an unmitigated disaster, and our troop presence is not succeeding in combatting foreign terrorists or the home-grown insurgency. The simplistic and deranged "if we leave, we lose" argument is all the poor, deluded neoconservative chickenhawks have left. Of course, following this wisdom would entail our utterly demoralized troops staying in Iraq for a generation, and at this rate hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Faux laments lack of DNC's economic policy leadership

Jeff Faux has a new editorial up on the Economic Policy Institute's website (although it was originally published in Dissent Magazine). He takes to task the party leadership of the DNC, from Clinton's first term to present day, for failing to respond to the opportunities the GOP have provided them to advance their own pro-worker economic agenda.

Faux spends some time critiquing Gene Sperling's new book, and argues that for the last 14 years or so the Democratic establishment--incuding Clinton, Robert Rubin and Gene Sperling--has sold out their party's labor base to appease the interests of their corporate contributors. Importantly, he ties the party's lack of a progressive economic agenda to the string of electoral defeats it has suffered in both the presidential and congressional races in the past decade.

Until the party's Neoliberal establishment (i.e. the DLC, or "New Democrats") stop trying to ram through a pro-corporate, free-trade economic platform that further destroys what's left of the social contract between the government and the citizens of America, Faux argues, the Democrats will continue to live in political exile.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dubai: Friend or Foe?

The rationale behind blocking a firm owned by the Dubai government (i.e.: the Emir of Dubai) from taking over management of 22 of our ports seems to hinge on concerns that the country has connections to terrorism and that they are somehow our enemy in the "War on Terror". This may or may not be true (I think the reality is much more complicated than such a black or white answer), but as this article from InterPress Service makes clear, UAE (which Dubai is part of) is the recipient of over $6 billion worth of military equipment sales from the US alone--mostly in the form of fighter jets.

The UAE is clearly an important market for the US's arms sales, and if that country is really as dangerous as the public and most politicians are now arguing it is, shouldn't we should stop arming them with billions of dollars of arms?

Update: It appears that the Coast Guard has some serious reservations about the Dubai company taking over control of the ports. This is significantly different than arguing that a UAE government owned firm shouldn't be allowed to complete the deal because UAE is "bad" or "not our friend"; this points to a specific, serious potential security threat. If true, the deal should absolutely not be allowed to go forward.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Bill O'Reilly calls for immediate withdraw from Iraq

Bill O'Reilly, apparantly, has become a traitor and hates America. He was for the invasion and occupation of Iraq before he was against it.

My question for any O'Reilly fans out there is: when has he ever been right about anything important?

CBPP report detail regressive tax policies in states

The new Progressive Legislative Action Network blog links to this new, must-read report. Key findings include:

In Alabama, families with two children owe income tax when their earnings reach just $4,600.

Six other states — Hawaii, Indiana, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, and West Virginia — also tax the incomes of three- or four-person families earning less than three-quarters of the poverty line.


A few states -- Kentucky, Montana, Ohio, the District of Columbia, and Rhode Island -- have reduced the tax burden on the poor in recent years, but others like Alabama have actually increased the tax burden on poor families since the early 1990s.

A supposely "high-tax" state like California imposes no income tax until a married couple with two children make at least $42,700.

Which illustrates a key point. Watch out when you hear corporate conservatives talking about the "average" tax burden in any state, since they are usually ignoring the actual tax burden on working families. Since wealth is so skewed, states that tax wealthier citizens often increase their "average" tax rate without increasing the burden on your average taxpayer.

Conversely, states like Alabama can claim to be low-tax states even as they impose some of the steepest taxes on lower-income families.


But you really have to read the whole report to get a sense of just how bad tax policy is in this country on the state level.

NRA pushing "vigilante justice" legislation in all 50 states

Read this and be disgusted.

Apparantly the geniuses at the NRA think the way to combat gun violence is by giving anyone who thinks he may be a victim of a crime the green light to pop a cap in their possible assailant's face.

From a Christian Science Monitor article quoted by the above blog post:

"Stand Your Ground” laws could also change the way Americans deal with each other, some experts say.

“If you’re in a state that’s passed one of these laws, any time you’re in a potential confrontation you’ll have to think about the fact that, ‘Will the fellow on the other side misunderstand my anger and pull out a gun?’ ” says Robert Batey, a law professor at Stetson University in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Bush Administration also wants to allow foreign ownership of airlines

With the wall-to-wall coverage and outrage by the mainstream media and political pundits of all ideological stripes over the UAE ports deal, no one seems to be up in arms about a similiar long-standing push by the Bush Administration's Department of Transportation to change the "Open Skies" legislation barring foreign ownership of US airlines. Such a move is being contemplated as a way to effectively bail out this country's airline industry, which has hemmoraged tens of billions of dollars since the September 11th attacks (NB: these huge losses are also due to non-terrorism issues like the collapse of high-yielding business travel demand).

From the conservative MichNews:

Currently, U.S. law requires that U.S. airlines must be under the “actual control” of U.S. citizens in order to be licensed for operation. And for corporations, 75% of the voting interest must be held by U.S. citizens and 66% of its board of directors and officers must also be U.S. citizens. But Secretary of Transportation, Norman Mineta, in a statement in November 2005 said that the rule change would be an “historic opportunity to increase travel, reduce fares, expand commerce and bring two continents closer together than ever before. It provides new opportunities for U.S. and European airlines, healthier competition for a growing travel market and greater connection between cities and towns of all sizes on both sides of the Atlantic.”


A statement, with a link to a full report ( .pdf), was posted on the Department of Transportation's Website on November 4, 2005. It essentially frames the issue in terms of economic efficiency, completely sidestepping any sort of security concerns.

So the question remains: is any type of foreign ownership (specifically state-ownership in the UAE port case) a legitimate security concern? Or is the concern about a Middle Eastern country owning part of our ports? If the country in question is not recognized by the Department of State as a sponsor of terror, should that be enough, or is there a different criteria we should rely upon?

I don't know where I come down on this yet, but the issue of foreign ownership of our infrastructure is obviously a pretty big deal.

By the way, to get a critique of this foreign-ownership policy in terms of its implications for labor, see this old report from the AFL-CIO.

No, Hamas is not the Palestinian people's best hope

Writing in the Japan Times, Cesar Chelala argues that the West's and Israel's attitude of trying to isolate Hamas does not advance the cause of peace in the region.

Chelela first attempts to draw a moral equivilence between the assasinations of Hamas leaders and the suicide bombings of Israeli buses, nightclubs and restaurants. But the fact of the matter is that the Hamas not only does not recognize the state of Israel as being a Jewish homeland (as set forth by the UN), but its charter openly calls for its destruction. It's true Israel does not "recognize" the Palestinian homeland envisioned by Hamas, but the bottom line is that Hamas claims the land of Israel has all been given to Islam by Allah.

From Article 13 of the Hamas Convenant:

There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors. The Palestinian people know better than to consent to having their future, rights and fate toyed with. who are double-faced among them should prosper over the faithful. They will certainly die out of grief and desperation."


Chelela goes on to state: "Israel and the U.S. claim that Hamas is not a valid interlocutor. Was Fatah a really valid one? Ultimately, there were no negotiations between Fatah and Israel leading to a more peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. If Hamas is not a valid interlocutor then who is? Not even a blind person could deny the Palestinians' overwhelming support for Hamas."

Sorry Chelea, Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the US. Therefore, the US cannot look to them as a "valid interlocutor" any more than they could look to al Qaeda as being one in Afghanistan. The people's "overwhelming support" for Hamas is far from evident, the election result was a fairly close one (Hamas won 76 seats to Fatah's 43) and Hamas is sharing legislative power with Fatah. And the election was less about support for Hamas than it was about anger and disappointment with the corrupt and disorganized Fatah.

Finally Chelela concludes: "Although not the one envisaged by the West, Hamas is the leadership that best represents Palestinian goals. It is up to the Western powers to respect the results of the election and accept the truce offered by Hamas as a start of negotiations between the two sides."

Um, if the Palestinian goals are best represented by an militant Islamist terror organization that demands the destruction of the state of Israel and rejects negotiations and compromises, I don't see why it is incumbent on the Western powers or Israel to accept a temporary, meaningless "truce" offered to them.

My question to Chelela and other Hamas apologists is why can't Hamas' recognition of the existance of Israel be a necessary precondition for the beginning of any sort of negotiation process for a permanant peace deal?

What an idiot!

I think Rush Limbaugh is back on drugs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Three different takes on "Portgate"

Kevin Drum makes a good case, in my opinion,that Bush is actually right about allowing the UAE-port deal to go through. Specifically, the deal (already being called "Portgate") would involve the sale of shipping operations at six major U.S. seaports to a state-owned business in the United Arab Emirates. While Bush is threatening a veto of any legislation being threatened by lawmakers from both parties, Congressmembers seem to be digging in their heels as well.

David Sirota, on the other hand, argues that the deal is all about the US trying to push for a "free" trade agreement with the UAE and a effort by the Administration to further the interests of Big Business.

Meanwhile, John Nichols, writing at The Nation, argues that the fact that the company in question happens to be owned by the UAE is besides the point--the real problem is that the US is privatizing its infrastructure. It is preferrable for ports to be owned and managed by public authorities that are accountable to elected officials and the people those officials represent.

While I agree that obviously this Administration is slavishly loyal to advancing corporate interests, I still would argue that the deal should at this point go through. We approved the deal, and there is nothing specific about UAE that I've heard that would indicate that they are openly hostile to the US. If anything, they are one of the more moderate, pro-Western countries in the Middle East. But Nichols is right, privatizing our national security makes no sense; why should our collective safety have to compete with the corporate profit motive?

UPDATE: I still think Drum's points are well-taken, but personally I'm less than crazy about the UAE's hostility to Israel.

Also, while I'm normally loath to link to the Neoconservative Weekly Standard, this analysis is actually pretty informative.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The clear and obvious limits of using GDP as a proxy for success

A new article in The Economist argues the obvious: GDP is a flawed method for measuring the economic "success" of a given country. For starters, it doesn't measure such important indicators such as leisure time, income inequality (which continues to be very much a problem in the US) or the quality of the environment. In fact, the article notes, GDP was not intended to be the definitive yardstick of economic welfare--it was actually developed as a planning tool to guide the huge production effort of WWII.

The editors at the bastion of neo-liberal conventional wisdom known as The Economist go on to note that longer holidays and shorter working hours increase an individual's well-being, yet conventional national accounts completely overlook such benefits,"

Following GDP as a guide, America is clearly the world's richest country, yet its workers toil longer hours than those of any other country. As a result, the article argues, adjusting GDP for leisure would also narrow the gap between America and Europe.

Former director of World Bank calls for "privatizing" IBRD

Well, the former Executive Director in question (Jessica Einhorn) doesn't do so explicitly, but as Chan Chee Khoon argues in Z-Net, her calls in Foreign Affairs magazine for "targeted development financing" would have pretty much the same effect. Khoon argues that Einhorn, now the dean at Johns Hopkins' SAIS, seeks to essentially disband the IBRD (International Bank for Reconstruction and Development) and "...extend the neo-liberal agenda to the World Bank itself (in effect, outsourcing the IBRD’s lending activities to private capital markets)."

The Z-Net article offers some detailed analysis of Einhorn's article, and concludes that while the IBRD is deservedly castigated by social activists for its many failings, her proposals for privatizing development financing fail to address the needs of the people of the developed world. Instead, Khoon argues, they merely "pander to the priorities and dictates of global finance capital."

Monday, February 20, 2006

"Less Butter, More Guns"

The editors at The Nation have a short new editorial up on their website called "Less Butter, More Guns". It argues that the Bush budget proposal points to a quest for a war without end. It poses this question:

"The question citizens--joined by courageous politicians-- should examine is this: Why does the Pentagon need so much money, now that the Iraq War is supposedly winding down?"

Quoting the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review, the editors note that military spending is not just for assymetric warfare against terrorist groups but also to serve as a "hedge" against future challenges against US military hegemony (i.e., China).

Sounding a cautionary note, the editors declare that Bush is determined to convert America into a "permanent war economy". Only if we, the American people reject his priorities can we perhaps turn back a national disaster before it's too late.

Despite continued growth, income inequality continues to grow in US

The Economic Policy Institute has a new report out that analyzes the continued trend towards income inequality in the US. It also notes that a large part of this phenomenon is due to the falling real value of the federal minimum wage. According to the authors, "Barring a minimum wage increase, we are poised to break a record in 2006 for the greatest inequality between minimum wage and average wage workers since the end of World War II."

The chasm between the middle class and superrich is well-known and heavily reported on by the major media, but one trend that is also very disconcerting is the fact that the gap between the low-wage and middle class is growing as well.

Additionally, a joint study between EPI and CBPP (Center for Budget and Policy Priorities) called "Pulling Apart: A State-By-State Analysis of Income Trends" found that in 38 states, the incomes of the bottom fifth of families grew more slowly than the incomes of the top fifth of families between the early 1980s and the early 2000s. In these 38 states, the incomes of the richest grew by an average of $45,800 (62 percent), while the incomes of the poorest grew by only $3,000 (21 percent) .

In other words, the poorest families — who saw an increase in purchasing power of only $143 per year — have not fared nearly as well as the richest families during this period.

Between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, the incomes of the country’s highest-income families climbed substantially, while middle- and lower-income families saw only modest increases in income. During the late 1990s exceptionally low unemployment rates did yield significant gains for low-wage workers and relatively broad-based wage growth. But even the positive trends of the late 1990s were not enough to reverse the tide of growing inequality.

The report identifies several factors that have contributed to the large and growing income gaps in most states. The growth of income inequality is primarily due to the growth in wage inequality. According to the authors:

"Wages at the bottom and middle of the wage scale have been stagnant or have grown only modestly for much of the last two decades. The wages of the very highest-paid employees, however, have grown significantly. Several factors have contributed to increasing wage inequality, including long periods of high unemployment, globalization, the shrinkage of manufacturing jobs and the expansion of low-wage service jobs and immigration, as well as the lower real value of the minimum wage and fewer and weaker unions. These factors have led to an erosion of wages for workers with less than a college education, who make up approximately the lowest-earning 70 percent of the workforce. More recently, even those with a college education have experienced real wage declines, in part due to the bursting of the tech bubble in high-wage industries, but also due to the downward pressure on wage growth from offshore competition.

Only in the later part of the 1990s was there a modest improvement in this picture. Persistent low unemployment, an increase in the minimum wage, and rapid productivity growth fueled real wage gains at the bottom and middle of the income scale. Yet those few years of more broadly shared growth were not sufficient to counteract the two-decade-long pattern of growing inequality. Today, inequality between low- and high-income families and between middle- and high-income families is greater than it was either 20 years ago or ten years ago.

The expansion of investment income (such as dividends, rent, interest, and capital gains) during the 1990s also contributed to increased income inequality, since investment income primarily accrues to those at the top of the income structure. The large increase in corporate profits during the recent economic recovery has also contributed to growing inequality by boosting the incomes of investors.

Government policies — both what governments have done and what they have not done — have contributed to the increase in wage and income inequality over the past two decades in most states. For instance, deregulation and trade liberalization, the weakening of certain aspects of the social safety net, the lack of effective labor laws regulating the right to collective bargaining, and the declining real value of the minimum wage have all contributed to growing inequality. In addition, changes in federal, state and local tax structures and benefit programs have, in many cases, accelerated the trend toward growing inequality emerging from the labor market."

Of course, Bush's obsession with tax cuts has not led to the level of economic growth promised. As John Irons writes in Mother Jones, " Gross Domestic Product (GDP), grew only 13.5% since the first round of tax cuts were passed in early 2001, averaging 2.7% per year. The average for similar periods in the past was far better – growing 16.3% or 3.2% per year."

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether a different tax policy would create more favorable incentives for businesses to increase hiring, leading to lower unemployment and higher median salaries. And it is unclear to me whether this would lead to the type of structural changes that would decrease inequality.

Irons argues that the tax cuts in fact have led to sluggish wage growth for middle class workers as well as weak job growth:

"[T]he tax cuts have also failed to create substantial wage and salary growth. Most Americans depend on their wages and salaries for their standard of living. In a healthy economy, wages and salaries should rise along with rising national income and productivity. A record long period of job decline followed by sluggish job growth has created slack in the labor market and pulled down wage growth below inflation growth in the last two years. Last year, middle income wages grew less than inflation (2.4% vs. 3.4%), reducing their buying power.


But with wage inequality growth being a phenomenon that has existed in this country for decades, I am not sure how large of a role the tax cuts play in all this. Any economists reading this, I would appreciate your insight.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Bush Administration continues to wage war against regulatory protections

The latest news on one of our president's less trumpeted campaigns, against American citizens, is documented in this Los Angeles Times article.

As Democratic Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky from Illinois notes: "It appears that there may have been an administration-wide directive for agencies to limit corporate liability through the rule-making process and without the consent of Congress."

The article goes on to note the "revolving door" between industry lobbyists/participants and the Bush Administration. as well as the efforts of our president to provide industries such as automobile manufacturers, banks and drug makers with an "unprecedented degree of protection at the expense of an individual's right to sue and a state's right to regulate."

Until Congress actually begins to take their oversight responsibilities seriously again, Bush's war against the American consumer will continue.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Foreign Policy watch

SusanG, a diarist over at DailyKos, points out in a short post another glaring inconsistency in our foreign policy efforts, ripped from the headlines of our major media.

The real question posed by all this nonsense is: When is propaganda diplomacy? And when is diplomacy really interference? I guess it depends on which country you are talking about. Specifically, it is not only acceptable but desirable for our State Department to be actively involved in propaganda efforts in regions where we are trying (unsuccessfully) to win the battle of heart and minds. But when the leader of a country we don't happen to like (in the case of Venezuela's Chavez, I would argue, with some measure of justification), that is seen as completely intolerable.

All of this, of course, is precisely the philosophical difference I see between neoconservatives and those on the far left--on the matter of nationalism. Neocons seem to believe that the most important thing is to further the interests of the US, regardless of the moral principals involved in maximizing this goal. Invasion, propaganda, human rights violations, bribery...all of these things are not only acceptable but actually laudable if they are means toward the end of strengthening the US's hand against other countries. Foreign policy is a zero sum game, and the goal of diplomacy is for your country to prevail.

On the other hand, those on the left seem to see themselves as being more committed to doing what is morally defensible (in a Kantian Categorical Imperative way), regardless of whether it will benefit Washington or one of her geopolitical rivals. Of course, many on the left would argue that doing the morally-justifyable thing is precisely in this country's best long-term interest in that it would create an international norm for behavior that would be amenable for democracy-promotion and stability from our perspective. Neoconservatives would counter that this is unrealisticly idealistic, pie-in-the-sky fantasyzing, and that all countries' foreign policy considerations are driven by furthering national interests, and that only by ensuring the hegemony of one's nation can one guarantee it will be in the position to establish order in the world.

Is it "might makes right", where as American citizens we should be cheering on the home team as if we were at a college football game, or should the US be working to establish a framework under which all countries are acting in a way that maximizes the security and order of the entire world?

Whose vision is more idealistic?

UPDATE: Asia Times Online has the run-down on Bush's "democracy promotion" initiative for Iran, and how it will not only be a waste of money but likely backfire on the US as well.

And Reuters has the details of the State Department's "inoculation" strategy for Hugo Chavez.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Can you say "permanent bases"?

Tom Englehardt sure can.

How can anybody tell if the Bush administration is actually withdrawing from Iraq or not? Sometimes, when trying to cut through a veritable fog of misinformation and disinformation, it helps to focus on something concrete. In the case of Iraq, nothing could be more concrete -- though less generally discussed in our media -- than the set of enormous bases the Pentagon has long been building in that country.

[...]

There are at least four such "super-bases" in Iraq, none of which have anything to do with "withdrawal" from that country. Quite the contrary, these bases are being constructed as little American islands of eternal order in an anarchic sea. Whatever top administration officials and military commanders say -- and they always deny that we seek "permanent" bases in Iraq -– facts-on-the-ground speak with another voice entirely. These bases practically scream "permanency."

Unfortunately, there's a problem here. American reporters adhere to a simple rule: The words "permanent," "bases," and "Iraq" should never be placed in the same sentence, not even in the same paragraph; in fact, not even in the same news report.

[...]

One of the enduring mysteries of this war is that reporting on our bases in Iraq has been almost nonexistent these last years, especially given an administration so weighted toward military solutions to global problems; especially given the heft of some of the bases; especially given the fact that the Pentagon was mothballing our bases in Saudi Arabia and saw these as long-term substitutes; especially given the fact that the neocons and other top administration officials were so focused on controlling the so-called arc of instability (basically, the energy heartlands of the planet) at whose center was Iraq; and especially given the fact that Pentagon pre-war planning for such "enduring camps" was, briefly, a front-page story in a major newspaper.

[...]

Since the invasion of Saddam's Iraq, those bases -- call them what you will -- have been at the heart of the Bush administration's "reconstruction" of the country. To this day, those Little Americas, with their KBR-lands, their Pizza Huts, their stop signs, and their miniature golf courses remain at the secret heart of Bush administration "reconstruction" policy. As long as KBR keeps building them, making their facilities ever more enduring (and ever more valuable), there can be no genuine "withdrawal" from Iraq, nor even an intention of doing so.


Along with failing to report on the US's ongoing air campaign, this is one of the biggest scandals in the mainstream media's coverage of the Iraq war.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Taking a closer look at the '07 budget

The Center for American Progress has a new report out which takes a magnifying glass to the Bush Administration's 2007 Budget proposal.

According to the Executive Summary:

The budget proposes to continue the downward spiral from record surpluses to massive deficits. In 2000, the federal government was running a surplus of 2.4 percent of GDP, or $236 billion. In just a few short years, deficits have returned, and for 2006 deficits are estimated to be 3.2 percent of GDP, or about $423 billion, according to the president's budget.

The president proposes to reduce Medicare funding by $36 billion through provider payment cuts and through increasing premium payments for some higher-income Medicare beneficiaries. The budget also calls for further reductions in Medicaid funding.

The budget proposes to cut $276 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention budget, eliminating the $99 million block grant for preventive health and health services and cutting $34 million in funds for health promotion.
The president's budget proposes a 3.8 percent cut in the Department of Education's fiscal year 2007 budget. While the president has proposed several new education initiatives, they are more than offset by the underfunding of No Child Left Behind and other important programs.

The president's budget proposes to cut funding for science and technology by approximately $600 million; to cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency by more than $300 million; and to short-change renewable energy funding.


The budget also proposes a number of tax changes that would reduce revenue by $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years. Extending the tax cuts from 2001-2004, including those that overwhelmingly benefit people at the top of the income distribution, represents the majority of these changes.

The overall outlook would be significantly worse if necessary changes were made to the Alternative Minimum Tax and if additional spending for Iraq were included in the final projections.


This preliminary report by the non-partisan and highly respected American Association for the Advancement of Science demonstrates just how draconian the proposed budget is for scientific research and development--something countries like China are investing heavily in.

And for information on how the Administration is proposing two new rule changes to help obfuscate the costs of some of its tax cuts, see this CBPP report here.

Incidentally, it appears the Administration has billions to fund its PR campaign aimed at making Americans think they know what they're doing, but no money for things like health care for the elderly. Pathetic.

Oil companies look forward to $7 billion windfall

This week has been totally surreal so far. First, VP Cheney accidentally shoots his hunting partner in the face, giving him a heart attack and after four days has yet to apologise or even comment. Meanwhile at today's gaggle, Press Secretary Scott McClellan advised the media that it was time to move on to other topics, "forgetting" to mention that his victim had a minor heart attack and was back in ICU. (Not to worry, Republicans are having a good laugh about the whole thing.)

Then there's this story, which frankly has me scratching my head.

The New York Times reports:

WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 — The federal government is on the verge of one of the biggest giveaways of oil and gas in American history, worth an estimated $7 billion over five years.

New projections, buried in the Interior Department's just-published budget plan, anticipate that the government will let companies pump about $65 billion worth of oil and natural gas from federal territory over the next five years without paying any royalties to the government.

[...]

Moreover, the projected largess could be just the start. Last week, Kerr-McGee Exploration and Development, a major industry player, began a brash but utterly serious court challenge that could, if it succeeds, cost the government another $28 billion in royalties over the next five years.

In what administration officials and industry executives alike view as a major test case, Kerr-McGee told the Interior Department last week that it planned to challenge one of the government's biggest limitations on royalty relief if it could not work out an acceptable deal in its favor. If Kerr-McGee is successful, administration projections indicate that about 80 percent of all oil and gas from federal waters in the Gulf of Mexico would be royalty-free.

"It's one of the greatest train robberies in the history of the world," said Representative George Miller, a California Democrat who has fought royalty concessions on oil and gas for more than a decade. "It's the gift that keeps on giving."

Republican lawmakers are also concerned about how the royalty relief program is working out.

"I don't think there is a single member of Congress who thinks you should get royalty relief at $70 a barrel" for oil, said Representative Richard W. Pombo, Republican of California and chairman of the House Resources Committee.


This after Exxon booked a record $36.1 billion profit for 2005, a record for a U.S. corporation.

In light of record profits and sky-high gas prices, can anyone say windfall profits tax?

E.J. Dionne on "tax cut lunacy"

Great editorial from a week ago by E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post on the "fiscal madness" evident in Bush's new budget proposal.

Dionne explains the GOP obsession with tax cuts as being "theological" and notes its origins go back to 1990 when President George H.W. Bush went back on his campaign promise not to cut taxes (which Dionne argues was one of his greatest long-term achievements).

Says Dionne:

"Ever since Bush 41's defeat in 1992, Republicans -- especially Bush 43 -- have committed themselves to the proposition that they will never, ever cross the tax-cutting Republican right. Taxes will be cut in good times and in bad. They will not be raised, no matter how much the government decides to spend. If preserving Republican unity requires throwing the entire cost of the war in Iraq onto the next generation, go for it. Does the Pentagon need big spending increases? Fine, but don't even think about paying for them with new taxes.

Tax cutting is now the idol of the Republican shrine."


And it's hard to argue with this assessment after perusing the 2007 budget proposal.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Bush's health care budget priorities

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' Jason Furman has some interesting analysis of the president's 2007 Budget that ought to be front page news. Specifically, Furman notes: "Bush's budget includes $156 billion in tax cuts over the next ten years (2007-16) to promote Health Savings Accounts and associated high-deductible insurance policies, with the large majority of this money going to more affluent households."

At the very same time, Bush has proposed scaling back refundable tax credits for low- and moderate-income families to purchase health insurance in the individual market--from $77 billion to $24 billion over the next five years.

"In other words," says Furman, "the size of the health tax proposal for lower-income households has been scaled back by two-thirds from last year, while the health tax proposals disproportionately benefiting high-income households have more than quadrupled in size."

Compassionate conservatism in action. Push a policy that will likely hurt lower and middle class Americans and increase the number of people without health insurance while at the same time providing more tax cuts for the rich, and giving Big Pharma a $2 billion windfall.

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Permanent Energy Crisis

When Michael Klare writes an article about peak oil, I read the whole thing. The title of his latest piece is about as ominous as it gets, and the article itself is enough to make one lose sleep.

"There will still be adequate supplies for well-heeled consumers who can afford higher fuel bills. But much of the world's easy-to-acquire petroleum has already been extracted and significant portions of what remains can only be found in places that present significant drilling challenges like the hurricane-prone Gulf of Mexico or the iceberg-infested waters of the North Atlantic -- or in perennially conflict-ridden and sabotage-vulnerable areas of Africa, Central Asia, and the Middle East."

Meanwhile, despite his State of the Union rhetoric, Bush's 2007 budget calls for over $100 million in cuts for energy efficiency research.

Bush knew

Question: How do you know when Bush is lying?
The answer: When his lips are moving.

Another week, another lie the Bush Administration is caught in. Apparantly, Bush lied when he said the White House wasn't informed about a key levee break when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. No question there was negligence all around, but the federal response to the disaster is worse than piss poor, it's downright nauseating.

Some solid reporting by The New York Times.

White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm

By ERIC LIPTON

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 — In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush administration officials said they had been caught by surprise when they were told on Tuesday, Aug. 30, that a levee had broken, allowing floodwaters to engulf New Orleans.

But Congressional investigators have now learned that an eyewitness account of the flooding from a federal emergency official reached the Homeland Security Department's headquarters starting at 9:27 p.m. the day before, and the White House itself at midnight.


The Federal Emergency Management Agency official, Marty Bahamonde, first heard of a major levee breach Monday morning. By late Monday afternoon, Mr. Bahamonde had hitched a ride on a Coast Guard helicopter over the breach at the 17th Street Canal to confirm the extensive flooding. He then telephoned his report to FEMA headquarters in Washington, which notified the Homeland Security Department.

"FYI from FEMA," said an e-mail message from the agency's public affairs staff describing the helicopter flight, sent Monday night at 9:27 to the chief of staff of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and recently unearthed by investigators. Conditions, the message said, "are far more serious than media reports are currently reflecting. Finding extensive flooding and more stranded people than they had thought — also a number of fires."

Michael D. Brown, who was the director of FEMA until he resigned under pressure on Sept. 12, said in a telephone interview Thursday that he personally notified the White House of this news that night, though he declined to identify the official he spoke to.

White House officials have confirmed to Congressional investigators that the report of the levee break arrived there at midnight, and Trent Duffy, the White House spokesman, acknowledged as much in an interview this week, though he said it was surrounded with conflicting reports.

But the alert did not seem to register. Even the next morning, President Bush was feeling relieved that New Orleans had "dodged the bullet," he later recalled. Mr. Chertoff, similarly confident, flew Tuesday to Atlanta for a briefing on avian flu. With power out from the high winds and movement limited, even news reporters in New Orleans remained unaware of the full extent of the levee breaches until Tuesday.

The federal government let out a sigh of relief when in fact it should have been sounding an "all hands on deck" alarm, the investigators have found.

This chain of events, along with dozens of other critical flashpoints in the Hurricane Katrina saga, has for the first time been laid out in detail following five months of work by two Congressional committees that have assembled nearly 800,000 pages of documents, testimony and interviews from more than 250 witnesses. Investigators now have the documentation to pinpoint some of the fundamental errors and oversights that combined to produce what is universally agreed to be a flawed government response to the worst natural disaster in modern American history.

On Friday, Mr. Brown, the former FEMA director, is scheduled to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. He is expected to confirm that he notified the White House on that Monday, the day the hurricane hit, that the levee had given way, the city was flooding and his crews were overwhelmed.

[...]

Among the findings that emerge in the mass of documents and testimony were these:

Federal officials knew long before the storm showed up on the radar that 100,000 people in New Orleans had no way to escape a major hurricane on their own and that the city had finished only 10 percent of a plan for how to evacuate its largely poor, African-American population.

Mr. Chertoff failed to name a principal federal official to oversee the response before the hurricane arrived, an omission a top Pentagon official acknowledged to investigators complicated the coordination of the response. His department also did not plan enough to prevent a conflict over which agency should be in charge of law enforcement support. And Mr. Chertoff was either poorly informed about the levee break or did not recognize the significance of the initial report about it, investigators said.


[...]

Representative Thomas M. Davis III, Republican of Virginia, chairman of the special House committee investigating the hurricane response, said the only government agency that performed well was the National Weather Service, which correctly predicted the force of the storm. But no one heeded the message, he said.

"The president is still at his ranch, the vice president is still fly-fishing in Wyoming, the president's chief of staff is in Maine," Mr. Davis said. "In retrospect, don't you think it would have been better to pull together? They should have had better leadership. It is disengagement."

One of the greatest mysteries for both the House and Senate committees has been why it took so long, even after Mr. Bahamonde filed his urgent report on the Monday the storm hit, for federal officials to appreciate that the levee had broken and that New Orleans was flooding.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

GOP rigs drug bill for pharma industry

Gannett Newspapers reports that Bill Frist claims he absolutely did not engineer a legislative backdoor deal to help his campaign donors in the drug lobby. At issue is langauage providing drugmakers with immunity from vaccine liability.

The relevant language, which was tucked into a Defense Department appropriations bill at the last minute (without the approval of members of a House-Senate conference committee, according to a GOP staff member) is part of the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, and incredibly it allows the secretary of Health and Human Services to declare a "public health emergency", which then provides the immunity for companies that develop vaccines and other "countermeasures" from prosecution.

Trial lawyers and other groups are rightfully condemning the law, saying it could make it "almost impossible" for victims of a new vaccine to hold drug manufacturers accountable and force them to pay for their injuries.

As horrible as this is from a purely legislative perspective (apparantly the lanaguage was added surreptitiously after the conference committee had adjourned), it is even worse from a policy perspective. Is there anything GOP lawmakers won't do to help out their drug lobbyist benefactors?

Up next, Congress will be voting on Fairness in Asbestos Injury Resolution Act , an attempt to screw over victims of asbestos exposure. This is a piece of legislation that, while potentially saving huge corporations like W.R. Grace billions of dollars, is completely unnecessary according to a report by Public Citizen.

According to Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook, FAIR is "an industry plan to wipe out tens of billions of dollars in corporate liability under the guise of helping victims." Let's see how Congress votes on this.

Is Israel worse off without Saddam?

The current head of Shin Bet (Israel's security force) says his country might have been better off if the US and UK hadn't invaded and bombed Iraq and overthrown dictator Saddam Hussein after all. As Yuval Diskin said: ""When you dismantle a system in which there is a despot who controls his people by force, you have chaos. You get what happened in Iraq. I'm not sure we won't miss Saddam." Well, so much for Bush's foreign policy being good for our close ally in the Middle East.

I think I just heard a Neocon head explode.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Paying the Iraq bill

Nobel Prize winning economist and American hero Joseph Stiglitz discusses the true cost of the Iraq War. He concludes by asking a rhetorical question: "One cannot help but wonder: Were there alternative ways of spending a fraction of the war’s $1 to $2 trillion in costs that would have better strengthened security, boosted prosperity and promoted democracy?"

New Jobs Come with Shrinking Paychecks

While plenty of Wall Street analysts reacted to last month's jobs numbers with fears of inflation, a new report released by the U.S. Conference of Mayors a few weeks ago found these new jobs are usually coming with smaller paychecks than those that were lost during the 2000-2001 recession.

The Metro Economy Report found jobs created after the recession have paid working Americans about $9,000 less annually than the jobs lost during the recession. The report, released at the organization's annual winter meeting, showed that the 10 sectors that lost the most jobs through the end of 2003 paid an average wage of $43,629, while the 10 sectors with the largest increases in employment in 2004-2005 paid only $34,378, a staggering 21 percent decline.

The wage gap has resulted from the combined effects of the loss of high-paying jobs, especially in the durable manufacturing industries, and post-recession employment growth that has been concentrated in services sectors that have lower wage levels.

While the report indicates that the nation as a whole has regained the jobs it lost during the recession, labor markets have failed to improve uniformly across the country. By the end of 2004, 220 of the nation's 361 metros had regained jobs lost in the recession. In 2005, an additional 24 metros are projected to have reached their peak employment. Yet only 18 will regain employment levels in 2006, including the major metro areas of Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Kansas City, New York, Seattle, and St. Louis, leaving 99 metros slated to regain their lost jobs during the 2007-2015 period.

Read the whole report here. It presents a mixed picture on what is going on in terms of workforce development in the cities post-recession and puts to the lie Bush's claims of a booming economy.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Does Bush budget call for eliminating SIPP funding?

So says Max Sawicky:

"Remember welfare reform that imposed strict work requirements and time limits on welfare beneficiaries? Remember how some of us warned that this bill could lead to rising poverty and hardships among the families affected?

Well, no one is going to have to hear about whether or not these warnings prove to be right. The folks in the Bush administration came up with the brilliant idea of eliminating funding for the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) in the 2007 budget. This survey is the government's main tool for tracking the well-being of families receiving TANF, food stamps, and other income supports.

You have to give these people credit. It would be difficult (hard work) and possibly expensive to design policies that facilitate upward mobility for low income families. It is much easier to just eliminate the main government survey, and then we longer have to hear about the problem. (And, it saves money too.)"

For some reason, I'm having trouble getting independent confirmation of this, but if it's true it's truly amazing. It's bad enough pushing through welfare "reform" that has hurt the the working poor, but to eliminate the very program that tracks the success or failure of these reforms just doesn't make sense on any level.

UPDATE: This is pretty horrendous as well.

US continues to promote democracy abroad (when it is convenient to do so)

ThinkProgress had a great post today highlighting the rank hypocrisy of US foreign policy. Notice I say US foreign policy--NOT George W Bush's foreign policy. This has been a bipartisan problem for a long time.

What am I talking about? Our leaders continually trumpet our unwavering commitment to promoting "democracy", "economic development", "freedom" and all the rest for countries or regions that are important to us, either geopolitically or economically. In other cases, where it is in our interest to do so, we actually prop up sadistic, dictatorial regimes (e.g.: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan). And in still other cases, we just don't concern ourselves about the lack of these rights: this includes Haiti (which is holding its presidential elections this week), the Sudan and other troubled spots across the globe. In these cases, we manage to tolerateit somehow.

No doubt, the US does not have unlimited resources and needs to act strategically in promoting democracy abroad. But when Bush says in his State of the Union Address: "Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer — so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause." and then does nothing to support democracy in Haiti, the rest of the world rightly wonders why we are so interested in state building in certain resource-rich parts of the world and not other, poorer regions.

UPDATE: It appears I was giving Bush far too much credit vis a vis Haiti. Apparantly, the US did more than just ignore Haiti...it actually worked to subvert democracy via our good friends at the International Republican Institute.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Why are we surprised by election results abroad?

Robert Kuttner has an important editorial up at the Boston Globe wherein he asks a simple, pointed question: "Should anyone be surprised when the democratic elections [in the Middle East and Latin America] produce a string of repudiations? Or that America dare not foment democracy in its faithful despotic allies, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, lest the people vote in two more radically Islamist regimes?"

As Kuttner notes, this anti-American backlash, or at the very least the repudiation of US interests, goes back long before the Bush Administration. But our current foreign policies are in many ways the crystalization of the worst aspects of America's imperialistic instincts and much of the world that has not yet been strongarmed into joining the "Coalition of the Willing" is starting to wake up to that fact.

As I've argued previously, the changing political environment in Latin America is due more to economic and trade issues and dissatisfaction with quality of life rather than being about hatred of George Bush. And the recent Palestinian elections were more about the corruption of Fatah than an acceptance of Hamas' Islamist social agenda. But I think the fact that we are contining to push for democracy, more and more frequently it seems at gunpoint, and seeing less tangible results of the kind of political transformations we are hoping for should be a signal that our approach may be doing the US, and the world more harm than good. The elections last December in Iraq, which has produced four possible candidates for that country's next Prime Minister that are all distasteful to Washington due to their Islamist backgrounds is really just one dramatic example of this.

Democracy does not, it appears, guarantee a world we are all that happy with in the end.

Friday, February 03, 2006

The Party at Davos

A new piece by Jeff Faux in The Nation that is a bit longer than his similarly-titled previous article, but well worth the time if you are so inclined.

Pharma industry is real beneficiary of new Medicare program

Even though no one understands how the new Medicare drug benefit plan actually works, two things are becoming clear. First, poor and elderly Americans will be paying more for their medicine under the new system than they were under Medicaid, and up to 48% more than prices at the VA.

Second, and equally outrageous, according to analysts the new plan will result in $40 billion in extra profits for the pharmaceutical companies. If there was any doubt as to why Pharma maintains the largest lobbying presence in Washington, this is a prefect reminder of how our current legislative system of legalized bribery works. Legislation is written by corporate lobbyists, for their clients. How a policy or piece of legislation will impact the thousands of individuals that need to rely on it for their very survival is irrelevant.

The new plan will result in a windfall for the Pharma industry because unlike Medicaid, which forces drug manufacturers to charge their lowest rate for medications, the new Medicare program relies on competition among private drug plans to keep prices low. By eliminating the need to discount drugs for the government, the industry can now pocket the savings.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Deconstructing Bush's call for "tort reform"

Must-read post by E.J. Graff over at TPMCafe about why Bush wants to pass "tort reform" so badly. For Bush and the GOP, the word "reform" is used in a number of different contexts, but in any event it is usually employed as a euphemism for "Middle class Americans are going to get screwed to financially reward corporate contributors to the party."

As Graff puts it, "[Tort reform] is not about healthcare (or trial lawyers) at all. It's about helping corporations plan how much they'll have to spend when they violate federal regulations. It's about killing off gov't regulations, once and for all."

The idea is that corporate executives, frustrated with the amount of money they need to spend because of regulatory violations want a way to predict their losses. They want to be able to look at these violations and fees as "the cost of doing business". They want to"reform" the system and cap awards, removing any financial incentive they might have to follow the regulations,

The Bush Administration is infamous for its "market-friendly" stance on regulations--they may be on the books but in many cases they are not enforced. The Sago mining disaster, where the mine didn't address its horrendous safety record because of the samll fines imposed and the lax regulatory environment, is just one painful, recent example of the problems associated with a lack of regulatory enforcement for the federal government. Another horrendous example is the FDA's recent decision to recommend so-called "federal preemption" for drug tort cases--essentially meaning potential victims would no longer have standing to sue drug makers in state court for damages.

Says Graff: "Enforcing gov't regulations (equal employment regs, environmental regs, workplace safety, you name it) has been privatized. Since the gov't won't enforce them, trial lawyers have stepped in."

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"A Formula for Slaughter: The American Rules of Engagement from the Air"

Check out this article published last month b Michael Schwartz at TomDispatch.

Some thoughts on Iran

First, unless there is a Neocon conspiracy at the IAEA, it is pretty clear Iran is not trying to develop a peaceful nuclear program to satisfy their energy needs. Second, from their perspective they are completely justified in pursuing a nuclear bomb as they live in a nuclear neighborhood (Russia, India, Pakistan and Israel), the US has hundreds of thousands of troops in two bordering countries and the very countries demanding they end their program have the bomb themselves.

I think the Security Council must curb Iran's nuclear ambitions. I also think the world has to get serious about non-proliferation in general, and the nuclear club needs to set a good example by living up to their treaty obligations and scaling back their programs as well.

A US-led war against Iran is being seriously contemplated and would be a disastrous outcome.

Norman Solomon writes that while the US is pretending to be engaged in "diplomacy", it is all just a pretext for a soon-to-come military assault. He also debunks several publically-held misconceptions, for example that Bush won't confront Iran militarily because our military is too bogged down in Iraq.