Thursday, August 31, 2006

Joe Lieberman channels Bob Roberts

I was pretty surprised by Joe Lieberman's latest TV ad, which as David Sirota noted is basically evidence that his campaign is in la-la land.

But I have to admit, despite it being one of my all-time favorite movies (and the inspiration for the title of this blog), I totally missed the Bob Roberts angle. David Weigel, writing at the blog Daily Dish, explains:

[I]n his 1992 film about a hollow, venal right-wing Senate candidate, Tim Robbins, there's a scene where the candidate's aides are screening a new TV ad. It's a mishmash of pretty images - flowers unfolding, the sun shining, grass blowing gently in the wind. After 30 seconds of this the message comes onscreen: "For a new day, vote Bob." It runs like a slightly less maudlin version of the film Edward G. Robinson watches in the suicide room in Soylent Green. The ad's a failure, and Bob doesn't start moving in the polls until he runs brutal attack ads against the incumbent Democrat, played by Gore Vidal.

Yes, Lieberman's team is cribbing plays from a fictional U.S. Senate campaign. I wonder, why do liberals have such low opinions of Democratic consultants?


Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Rumsfeld likens Iraq war critics to Nazi appeasers

First paragraph of the New York Times' report on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's speech yesterday to the American Legion:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said Tuesday that critics of the war in Iraq and the campaign against terror groups "seem not to have learned history's lessons" and compared them with those in the 1930s who advocated appeasing Nazi Germany.

You read that right. So now, if you are a critic of the Bush administration's Iraq war policy, you are a 21st Century Neville Chamberlain. This, despite the fact that 60% of Americans polled support the Lamont-Kerry-Feingold amendment calling for a "phased withdrawal over the course of the next year".

Watch the video, courtesy of Think Progress, here.

And here are some very important questions from Fred Kaplan in Slate Magazine regarding the questions posed by Rumsfeld in his speech.

Finally, Keith Olbermann gives us all a history lesson and shows how Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et. all are the ones behaving like Chamberlain.

Update: This is too rich. . .Rumsfeld is now complaining to the Democrats that he's been misunderstood.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New census figures show failure in fighting poverty and uninsured

Here are a couple of important posts from Think Progress as well as from the Center for American Progress regarding the newly releaed Census Bureau report on poverty and healthcare uninsurance in America.

Here are the report's findings:

Health Insurance Changes:

• The number of uninsured increased to 46.6 million in 2005, 1.3 million more than in 2004 and 6.8 million more than in 2000.

• The rate of uninsured children rose for the first time in five years; 8.3 million children lacked health insurance in 2005, 11.2 percent of all children. Over one in five (20.5%) of non-elderly adults lacked health insurance in 2005, up by 6.8 million since 2000.

• The rate of employer coverage dropped between 2004 and 2005. Since 2000, over 3 million people have lost employer-based insurance. People who work full time were hard hit: a million more full-time workers were uninsured in 2005, despite the drop in the number of full-year, full-time workers. The rate of uninsured, full-time workers has increased by 13 percent since 2000.

• Workers in small firms were most likely to lose health insurance: the rate of workers covered by their own employers dropped by 6 percent from 2000 to 2005, compared to a 3 percent drop among workers in large (1,000 or more employee) firms. In 2005, there were more uninsured workers in small firms than workers actually covered by those firms (13.5 versus 13.0 million).

• Since 2000, this Administration has created over 3 times as many uninsured Americans as new jobs: 6.8 million uninsured versus 1.9 million new jobs between December 2000 and 2005.

• In 2005, for every wealthy family that got a tax cut due to 2001 and 2003 legislation, there were 160 uninsured Americans who struggled to afford basic health care. The amount of the tax cut for millionaires averaged over $100,000 – enough to buy health insurance for roughly 50 children, at an average total cost of $2,000 per child.

• The increase in the uninsured is nearly three times the increase in new homeowners (6.8 million new uninsured versus 2.4 million more home owners in 2005 than 2000).

Income and Poverty Changes:

• The failure of wage and salary increases to cover inflation has meant a real reduction of median income between 2000 and 2005 of 2.7 percent for households.

• Through 2004, median incomes fell in each year since 2000 – falling by over $1,800. The increase of $509 in 2005 only makes up a fraction of this overall loss. While the recession in 2001 caused the majority of the overall drop, median income had continued to decline even after the official end of the recession
• The decline in workers’ real income was especially pronounced for full-time, year-round workers. For men, median incomes fell by $774 from 2004-2005 and for women, median incomes fell by $427. Incomes in this group fell to their lowest levels since 1997 for men, and lowest level since 2000 for women.

• The number of people in poverty has increased by 5.4 million since 2000, the number of children in poverty has grown by 1.3 million, and the poverty rate is up by 1.3 percentage points. The overall poverty rate was 12.7 percent in 2004, and 12.6 percent in 2005, which the Census Bureau indicated reflected no statistically significant change.

• The share of Americans living in extreme poverty – with incomes less than 50 percent of the poverty line – remained unchanged at 5.4 percent in 2005, compared with 4.5 percent in 2000. The number of Americans living in extreme poverty – 15.9 million – has grown by 3.3 million since 2000, and is now at its highest level since 1993.

• While poverty rates for most groups remained essentially flat in 2005, the poverty status of children in female-headed families deteriorated further. Among related children in female-headed families, the poverty rate rose from 41.9 percent to 42.8 percent between 2004 and 2005, compared with 40.1 percent in 2000. While the Administration has repeatedly highlighted the successes of welfare reform, the poverty rate for children in female-headed families is now at its highest since 1998.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The fallacy of Chait's "fallacy of zero-sum politics"

Jonathan Chait has a provocative op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, the thesis of which is that despite the failue of liberal Democrats to get its policy goals implemented in Congress, the conservatives / GOP are failing as well, specifically in regard to the traditional conservative goals of keeping government from playing a large role in society. He describes this current situation of lose-lose from the opposing political ideologies as a manifestation of the "fallacy of zero-sum politics".

In advancing his argument, however, Chait ( a columnist at the self-described "centrist Democratic" New Republic) blatantly mischaracterizes the true motives and agenda of the Bush administration and its sychophantic conservative bretheren. He states matter-of-factly:

In 1964, the federal government spent 18.5 cents of the American economic dollar. In 2005, it spent 20.5 cents. This is not what small-government conservatives would call progress. So, yes, the conservatives have amassed a lot of power in Washington. But I'm not sure their "success" is the sort that liberals really ought to emulate.

When conservatives see this same expansion of government, they see liberalism triumphant. [. . .] The Bush presidency has been rife with acts of big government, but nearly all of them have been the sorts of things liberals and centrists abhor. The Medicare giveaway, the corporate tax bill, the unprecedented pork, the tariffs — all were designed for no other purpose than to maximize the profits of pro-Republican business entities. [. . .] The mistake . . . conservatives make here is in thinking that because these policies were bad from a conservative point of view, they must be good from a liberal (or, at least, a moderate) point of view. In fact, they were awful from any point of view, save that of their direct financial beneficiaries.

The politics that has dominated Washington the last half-dozen years is a corrupt brand of right-wing corporatism. People who reside in the highest 1% of the income spectrum or have K Street lobbyists at their command have done very well. But the philosophical program that most conservatives advocate — and by "most" I'm excluding the small minority who value tax cuts over everything else — has lost.

Chait assumes here that the current generation of conservatives really care about keeping government small and efficient, as opposed to hypocritically trying to justify holding down federal outlays on social insurance programs (e.g. Medicare, education, Social Security, infrastructure, job training and microenterprise programs and the list goes on and on. . .) to fund the $2 trillion, illegal and immoral occupation of Iraq, the building of a pointless and expensive missile defense shield, and other assorted wastes of tax revenue. The paleoconservatives, those that believe that the government that governs least is the government that governs best, have been co-opted by the radical, reactionary and military-interventist neoconservatives in 21st Century America. Both of these groups have been conflated by Chait into being merely "conservatives", but I would argue the bottom line is that the GOP has fought a civil war between these two groups and the neocons have won in economic, social/religious and of course foreign/military policy.

In that sense, the conservatives haven't lost, as Chait presumes. More accurately, the neocons have continued to marginalize their paleoconservative colleagues. His argument that cutting taxes is the "the philosophical program that most conservatives advocate" ignores reams of empirical evidence to the contrary. "Conservatives", i.e. neocons, value a lot of other priorities beside tax cuts. And those holding these priorities, such as prosecuting war without end, government invasion of personal privacy and closing the separation between church and state, do not represent the minority of conservatism. . .evidence demonstrates that today they represent the majority and controlling interest of the movement.

Economy failing to provide increase in real wages

The New York Times reports that "the current expansion has a chance to become the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that fails to offer a prolonged increase in real wages for most workers."

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Until the last year, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by the rising value of benefits, especially health insurance, which caused overall compensation for most Americans to continue increasing. Since last summer, however, the value of workers’ benefits has also failed to keep pace with inflation, according to government data.

At the very top of the income spectrum, many workers have continued to receive raises that outpace inflation, and the gains have been large enough to keep average income and consumer spending rising. [. . .]

Economists offer various reasons for the stagnation of wages. Although the economy continues to add jobs, global trade, immigration, layoffs and technology — as well as the insecurity caused by them — appear to have eroded workers’ bargaining power.

Trade unions are much weaker than they once were, while the buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low. And health care is far more expensive than it was a decade ago, causing companies to spend more on benefits at the expense of wages.

Together, these forces have caused a growing share of the economy to go to companies instead of workers’ paychecks. In the first quarter of 2006, wages and salaries represented 45 percent of gross domestic product, down from almost 50 percent in the first quarter of 2001 and a record 53.6 percent in the first quarter of 1970, according to the Commerce Department. Each percentage point now equals about $132 billion.

Total employee compensation — wages plus benefits — has fared a little better. Its share was briefly lower than its current level of 56.1 percent in the mid-1990’s and otherwise has not been so low since 1966.

The article also looks at some of the factors that contribute to this trend of increasing income inequality and the stagnation of real wages among the working class:

In another recent report on the boom in profits, economists at Goldman Sachs wrote, “The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.” Low interest rates and the moderate cost of capital goods, like computers, have also played a role, though economists note that an economic slowdown could hurt profits in coming months.

For most of the last century, wages and productivity — the key measure of the economy’s efficiency — have risen together, increasing rapidly through the 1950’s and 60’s and far more slowly in the 1970’s and 80’s.

But in recent years, the productivity gains have continued while the pay increases have not kept up. Worker productivity rose 16.6 percent from 2000 to 2005, while total compensation for the median worker rose 7.2 percent, according to Labor Department statistics analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group. Benefits accounted for most of the increase.

“If I had to sum it up,” said Jared Bernstein, a senior economist at the institute, “it comes down to bargaining power and the lack of ability of many in the work force to claim their fair share of growth.”

DailyKos diarist "thereisnospoon" has some trenchent political analysis on the phenomenon which can be read here.

And CAP's Jason Furman discusses the fiscal costs of Bush's tax cuts for the rich in Slate here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Instapundit is a total jackass

Glenn Reynolds, the self-styled "Instapundit" has a post up at his blog arguing that the US military death toll in Iraq isn't so bad after all. Referring to a recent report in the Washington Post, Reyonolds writes:

How likely are you to die while serving in Iraq? About half as likely as Americans back home, reports the Washington Post. Yeah, there are some caveats -- read the whole thing -- but it's hard to look at these numbers and see the catastrophe that the "527 media" [what he argues is the so-called liberal mainstream media] are proclaiming.

He is drawing this spurious conclusion from a few paragraphs of the Washington Post article, specifically:

Between March 21, 2003, when the first military death was recorded in Iraq, and March 31, 2006, there were 2,321 deaths among American troops in Iraq. Seventy-nine percent were a result of action by hostile forces. Troops spent a total of 592,002 "person-years" in Iraq during this period. The ratio of deaths to person-years, .00392, or 3.92 deaths per 1,000 person-years, is the death rate of military personnel in Iraq.

How does this rate compare with that in other groups? One meaningful comparison is to the civilian population of the United States. That rate was 8.42 per 1,000 in 2003, more than twice that for military personnel in Iraq.

The comparison is imperfect, of course, because a much higher fraction of the American population is elderly and subject to higher death rates from degenerative diseases. The death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000 -- 39 percent of that of troops in Iraq. But one can also find something equivalent to combat conditions on home soil. The death rate for African American men ages 20 to 34 in Philadelphia was 4.37 per 1,000 in 2002, 11 percent higher than among troops in Iraq. Slightly more than half the Philadelphia deaths were homicides.

The death rate of American troops in Vietnam was 5.6 times that observed in Iraq. Part of the reduction in the death rate is attributable to improvements in military medicine and such things as the use of body armor. These have reduced the ratio of deaths to wounds from 24 percent in Vietnam to 13 percent in Iraq.

Let's stipulate that the US military death toll in Iraq is lower than the rate of deaths of African-Americans in inner city Philadelphia, and less than the comparative rate of deaths during the Vietnam War? There are some logical problems with this; it compares the population as a whole, including eighty- and ninety-year olds to the frequency of teenage and twenty-something soldiers dying in Iraq. In fact, the death rate for U.S. men ages 18 to 39 in 2003 was 1.53 per 1,000 — 39 percent of that of troops in Iraq. But here's the bigger problem: The death rates of Iraqi civilians aren't factored in to the discussion at all; as long as American soldiers have less chance of dying than an 85 year-old with cancer, everything is okay.

(h/t Atrios, The American Street and Lawyers, Guns & Money.)

Update: Speaking of jackasses, Republican Senator Richard Lugar is on the record arguing that "if", not when civil war breaks out in Iraq, the US should maintain our troop presence because "Iraq’s physical integrity is important.” Why US soldiers standing in the middle of a civil war between Sunni and Shi'a Muslims in a country halfway around the world that presented no threat to the US-and how our continued presence in the country is helping us win the war on terror are questions Lugar doesn't feel compelled to answer for some reason.

Update #2: John Hawkins claims: "Despite everything we've heard about, "breaking the military," and how we can't sustain the sort of losses we've taken in Iraq, the truth is that our losses have been extremely light. That's certainly no consolation if you've had a friend or relative killed fighting for freedom in Iraq, but it does show you how negative and warped the mainstream media's coverage of Iraq has been."

No mention is made of the 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed in our "fighting for freedom". And thousands of US troops killed and maimed (to fight a war based on lies) cannot reasonably be described as "light" casualties. Unless, of course, you're a psychopath.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Weekend reading

Here are some articles my kitten Ella highly recommends:

"How a housing slowdown will cause a recession", Bonddad
Housing, housing and more housing - that has been the dominant economic story for the last few weeks. The news has been universally bad: inventories are rising to 10-year high levels, buyers are already saddled with massive amounts of debt, homebuilders are cutting profit projections and overall investment is negative. And here is more from Nouriel Roubini: housing is already in free fall and will cause a recession by the summer of 2007.

"The Death of Doha", David Moberg
The Doha collapse is good for the poor mainly because it thwarts an expansion of a global economy built around opening markets for multinational corporations and protecting their interests. As a result, the collapse also signals a turning point for regulation of the global economy, even if it provides no tangible gain for the poor.

Bits and pieces of an alternative that promotes a broader vision of social and economic development have emerged, but there is still no consensus (for example, over ways to protect workers’ rights), let alone enough powerful governments willing to push for it. Until governments—especially the United States—accept the need for a alternative, perhaps developed outside the confines of the WTO, the best that can be achieved is gridlock.

Although the comatose WTO talks may eventually be revived, in the meantime countries will accelerate negotiation of bilateral trade agreements, like the pending agreements between the United States and both Peru and Colombia. In most cases, developing countries and especially their poor will likely suffer more in such lopsided negotiations than they would in the multilateral WTO talks.

"Don't look away", Ezra Klein
To weep and wail over the genocide that AIDS is wreaking on Africa has become somewhat unfashionable -- relegated to the purview of hemp-clad college activists and shrill scolds. That the epidemic has done incalculable damage is well known; to reiterate its toll is to waste the speaker’s energy and spoil the listener’s mood. The crisis is so huge, its impact so devastating, that we who look away can’t help but quietly resent those whose (self-righteous?) devotion reminds us of our cowardice. Like the slaughter in Sudan or the tsunami in Indonesia, the horror is so huge that to fully confront it would demand a commitment we can’t imagine furnishing. Or so we think.

In fact, the AIDS epidemic is not like foreign massacres or God’s ugliest acts. It is, instead, a public-health issue, one that already draws a significant (though still inadequate) amount of international funding with a mature infrastructure for aid delivery, in addition to a broadly accepted and well-studied set of best practices and effective prevention, treatment, and harm-reduction strategies.

"US may bypass UN on Iran", Reuters
The Bush administration has indicated it is prepared to form an independent coalition to freeze Iranian assets and restrict trade if the U.N. Security Council fails to penalize Tehran for its nuclear enrichment program, The Los Angeles Times reported on Saturday.

"The top ten corporate-Democrats for hire", Russ Baker
Lieberman and his defenders have tried to portray his brand of politics as "centrism." But it has little to do with mainstream voters and much to do with the money culture of Washington of which many Democrats have become a part. And yet, Ralph Nader is wrong in his blanket condemnations of Democrats: You still are more likely to find someone willing to stand up to the big money boys among Democrats than Republicans. But the gap is narrowing. Voters sense it.

"Whitewash", Katrina Vanden Heuvel
In June, Robert Jay Lifton, esteemed psychiatrist and author of many books including Crimes of War: Iraq, wrote in Editor and Publisher of the corrupting nature of the occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq: "To attribute the likely massacre at Haditha to ‘a few bad apples' or to ‘individual failures' is poor psychology and self-serving moralism. To be sure, individual soldiers and civilians who participated in it are accountable for their behavior, even under such pressured conditions. But the greater responsibility lies with those who planned and executed the ‘war on terrorism' of which it is a part, and who created, in policy and attitude, the accompanying denial of the rights of captives (at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo) and of the humanity of civilians (at Haditha)."

"No one left for Joe (Lieberman) to lie to", David Sirota
Joe Lieberman is spinning so many lies and so completely embracing the Republican Party establishment its becoming nearly impossible to keep track of it all. In all honesty, I have never seen a politician - any politician - lie so brazenly and with such open disdain for the public he is lying to. Usually, the lies come packaged with the veneer of truth - but in desperation, Lieberman has stopped even pretending he's being consistent or telling the truth.

"Clintonista urges Dems to use caution …", Joshua Holland
There are serious charges against this Whitehouse -- charges that go way beyond lying us into a war -- that need to be addressed, and [Robert] Reich is dangerously close to suggesting that issues like circumventing the 1978 FISA law or international and domestic bans on torture are a matter of ideological or partisan preference not fundamental questions about the rule of law or the separation of powers -- he's saying: "vote for us and we won't choose to spy on you." They have, indeed, become partisan fights, but they never should have been.

Reich might have urged Democrats to pick their fights carefully, and I would have agreed. But at the end of the day, either you're for accountability or you're not. Saying we should let bygones be bygones and look forward is taking a stand against holding officials to account for their actions. We're supposed to be a nation of laws, not men, right?

"Iraq war has Bush Doctrine in tatters", San Francisco Chronicle
Analysts across the political spectrum say the Bush Doctrine -- preventive war, choking the roots of terrorism by planting democracy, and brandishing power to force others into line -- has failed. Bush's lofty goals, shared even by his critics, have been set back, perhaps decades, by the Iraq occupation.

Yet for all the criticism, neither the Democratic Party nor the foreign policy elite has devised an alternative for the post-Sept. 11 world, leaving U.S. foreign policy adrift.

Investigation over IDF's use of cluster bombs on civilians areas

The US is investigating Israel's reported use of cluster bombs against Lebanese civilians. Without missing a beat, blogger Billmon notes the rank hypocrisy of the US--with its own checkered past of using cluster bombs during war in the past--leading this investigation.

CPS missing large share of non-employed adults

The Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) has a new report out that reveals the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, or CPS, is undercounting the number of unemployed adults--a result of a methodological error that has far-reaching consequences for economic policy-making. In particular, unemployment rates for males, African-Americans and Hispanics are undercounted at a higher rate than the general population. The study's authors, John Schmitt and Dean Baker, report:

In earlier research, we established that the nation's most important survey of labor-market activity ― the Current Population Survey (CPS) ― may be systematically missing a large share of non- employed adults. According to our estimates, based on a comparison of responses to the 2000 Decennial Census and corresponding months of the CPS, the undercounting of non-employed workers in the CPS raises the measured employment rate for adults in the CPS by about 1.4 percentage points. If our estimate is correct, the official employment rate for June 2006, for example, would have been 64.8 percent rather than the 66.2 percent reported by the BLS (2006: Table A-1). Since employment typically falls 1.5 to 2.0 percentage points in a recession, the magnitude of this measurement problem is of substantial economic significance.

In this paper, we provide additional estimates of the impact of undercounting in the CPS. For the most recent period where the analysis is possible, we produce estimates of the impact of the undercounting of the non-employed on national poverty rates and health-insurance coverage. More importantly, since the problems with undercounting appear to have become more severe over time, especially over the last decade, we also report simple estimates of the impact on employment rates of this deterioration in the representativeness of the CPS over time.

Our findings suggest that undercounting in the CPS has a substantial impact on our national measures of employment, poverty, and health-insurance coverage, and that the extent of the impact is likely to be growing over time.

• According to our earlier estimates, in 2000, the CPS appeared to miss about 1.4 percent of the adult population, or over 2.5 million non-working adults.

• If we assume that the non-workers who are not represented in the CPS have the same likelihood of being in poverty and have the same family structure as the non-working adults that do appear in the CPS, the official national estimate of poverty would have underestimated the actual number of adults and children in poverty by about 600,000 people (about 0.2 percentage points).

• If we assume that the non-workers who are not represented in the CPS have the same likelihood of being without health insurance and have the same family structure as the non- working adults that do appear in the CPS, the official national estimates of the population lacking health insurance coverage would have underestimated the number of adults and children without health insurance by about 350,000 people (about 0.1 percentage points).

• The impact on poverty estimates for blacks and Hispanics are proportionately much greater. In 2000, the CPS underreported the poverty rate for blacks by 0.5-0.7 percentage points and for Hispanics by about 0.4 percentage points.

• Since the undercounting has become more severe in the CPS in recent years, estimates of employment rates from the CPS are biased and the bias is growing over time. For all adults, we estimate that the CPS overstated employment by about 1.1 percentage points in 1986, growing to 1.3 - 1.4 percentage points in 2000, and about 1.7 percentage points by 2005.

• The size and the increase over time in the bias in the CPS are largest for black men. Weestimate that the CPS overstated black male employment by about 2.5 percentage points in 1986, rising to 3.0 percentage points in 2000, and reaching 3.5 percentage points in 2005.

The consequences of this mismeasurement are significant from a policy perspective since they end up making it appear that poverty and unenployment figures are more favorable than they actually are, which in turn leads to these structural problems receiving less priority and funding than they should. The actual figures would reflect a much bigger prevelance of these challenges in the US. The report concludes:

Non-participants in the CPS appear to have a substantially lower employment rate than CPS participants. As a result, the CPS systematically overstates employment rates of the adult population. Our estimates suggest that in 2000, the CPS overstated the adult employment rate 1.3 to 1.4 percentage points. Since non-employed adults are more likely to be poor and less likely to have health insurance, the CPS failure to capture a large group of non-working adults also leads to undercounting the poor and those without health insurance. Simple calculations suggest that the 1.3 to 1.4 percentage point bias in the CPS employment rates corresponds to missing about 600,000 people in poverty and 350,000 people without health insurance.

The bias in the CPS is of particular concern because it appears to be getting worse over time. The coverage rate of the CPS has been declining since the mid-1980s, particularly for black men. As a result, the degree to which the CPS overstates employment has almost certainly increased. For the population as a whole, our calculations suggest that the CPS bias was about 1.1 percentage points in 1986, but rose to 1.7 percentage points in 2005. For black men, the group that has seen the biggest drop in coverage rates, the bias has increased from 2.5 percentage points in 1986 to 3.5 percentage
points in 2005.

Friday, August 25, 2006

The ripple effect from minimum wage laws

The Political Economy Research Institute at UMASS (PERI) released an interesting report (.pdf) back in May that I have just now had the chance to read. It was written by research fellow Jeannette Wicks-Lim and is entitled "Mandated Wage Floors and the Wage Structure: New Estimates of the Ripple Effects of Minimum Wage Laws". To determine whether this is something you would be interested in perusing--seeing as it weighs in at 22 pages), here is the abstract:

Minimum wage laws have become a key political issue, following on the heels of over 130 successful living wage campaigns around the country. In the debates surrounding these mandated wage floors, one recurring issue has been whether the legislation has wider-ranging impacts on wages than the legally-required raises alone. Advocates on both sides of the debate dispute the potential magnitude of 'ripple effects'- the non-mandated raises given by employers to maintain a similar wage hierarchy before and after a change in the wage floor.

These ripple effects have the potential to greatly expand the overall impact of mandated wage floors. This study uses data from twenty years of the Current Population Survey to assess the magnitude of ripple effects in the context of variations in minimum wage laws, and looks specifically at the retail trade sector to model the potential magnitude of ripple effects under living wage ordinances, where the 'bite' of the legislation would encompass a larger share of the workforce.

So what exactly are these ripple effects anyway? The author explains:

Ripple effects are the raises that employers feel compelled to give workers beyond those legally required when a mandated wage floor is increased. Consider this basic scenario: If the current $5.15 federal minimum is increased to $6.15, employers are legally required to raise the wages of all covered workers earning less than $6.15. However, without a ripple effect, workers earning $6.15 prior to the minimum increase will fall in their relative wage position: their wage position falls from $1.00 above the bottom of the wage structure to the bottom of the wage structure. Moreover, these workers will be earning the same wages as workers who had previously earned inferior wages. Such a fall in relative wage position could damage worker morale, and therefore, productivity. To avoid this, employers extend raises above the wage floor to maintain a consistent wage hierarchy. As a result, workers earning $6.15 prior to the increase may receive a “ripple effect” raise to keep their wage position above the bottom of the wage structure.

Ripple effects may alternatively be caused by employers substituting low-skilled workers with high-skilled workers. In response to an increase in the wage floor, employers may increase their demand for high-skilled workers who typically earn wages above the minimum. This increased demand for high-skilled workers can push their wages upwards. Consequently, not only are the wages of workers earning the minimum receiving raises but so too are workers at higher wage rates.

Regardless of the cause, minimum wage increases have the potential to raise the wages of more jobs than those bound by the minimum through ripple effects.

If you don't have the time or inclination to read the whole thing, here are the author's conclusions:

In the case of minimum wage laws, ripple-effect raises can as much as triple the costs associated with a minimum wage increase and nearly quadruple the number of workers who benefit from such an increase. However, because the cost of legally-required raises—as measured as a percentage of businesses’ sales revenue—is so small, adding ripple-effect raises to the overall costs associated with minimum wage increases still generally represent a very small cost burden for employers. Ripple effects do tend to make minimum wage laws somewhat better targeted. With ripple effects, the pool of minimum wage beneficiaries includes more low-wage adult workers and fewer teenage and traditionally-aged student workers.

The minimum wage ripple effect estimates suggest that the case of living wage laws—with their much higher wage floors—is different. In particular, the analysis of minimum-wage ripple effects within the low-wage retail trade industry provides a look at what happens when a change in the mandated wage floor has a more dramatic impact on the wage structure through mandated raises alone—similar to living wage laws—than the general case of minimum wage laws. I find that the minimum wage does not produce a more dramatic ripple effect even though it has a stronger “bite” in retail trade. In fact, in retail trade, mandated wage raises are more prevalent than ripple-effect raises. Consequently, the ripple-effect multiplier is smaller when the minimum wage has a stronger “bite.” This result implies an even smaller ripple-effect multiplier in the case of living wage laws which have an even stronger “bite” among covered employers than in the case of minimum wage laws and retail trade employers.

In other words, living wage laws should be expected to generate cost increases for employers, as well as the wage benefits for workers, mainly through mandated wage increases rather than ripple-effect raises, converse the general case of minimum wage laws.

Fixing our intel on Iran

As a follow-up to my post yesterday on Iran, check out this article by John Prados at Tom Paine:

What is it with this administration? Bush seems consistently to resist hearing what U.S. intelligence can tell him about the issues that are central to his own foreign policy. In the case of Iran, it seems that the White House is uncertain what it will learn from an intelligence estimate. The consensus among U.S. intelligence analysts--as reflected in annual threat reports to Congress and briefs on worldwide acquisition of technology for weapons of mass destruction--has waxed and waned.

In 2001 the CIA was sure Iran had the intention of seeking weapons but conceded a limited capability. Over the next two years, during which the agency learned of Pakistani exports of nuclear technology to Iran, the view became more alarming. A report at the end of 2003 declaimed, “The United States remains convinced that Tehran has been pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program.” But CIA director George Tenet in February 2004 acknowledged that Tehran had admitted its covert nuclear activity and agreed to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), retreating to the posture that Tehran was “trying to preserve its WMD options.”

The CIA’s technology acquisition report for 2004, actually released shortly before Porter Goss became the agency’s director, posited only that Iran “may have” a clandestine nuclear weapons program. In fact, the initial IAEA inspections had weakened the WMD charge by finding no conclusive evidence of mass production of the highly enriched uranium necessary for nuclear weapons. [. . .]

The staff paper released by Hoekstra [the GOP chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence] was not considered by the full committee, which took no vote on releasing it. Its lead author was Frederick H. Fleitz, who in 2002 was John Bolton’s henchman in his attempted ambush of the intelligence analysts, and is now on the committee’s majority staff. Fleitz’s substantive expertise at CIA, it should be added, was in peacekeeping operations, not weapons of mass destruction. Hoekstra publicized this report unilaterally. That act sends the message that any NIE which takes a less alarming view will be deemed suspect.

All this should be read as fresh politicization of intelligence, the very “Boltonization” that crippled efforts to prevent war in Iraq. The fact that this act has been perpetrated by a congressional committee whose job it is to oversee U.S. intelligence is further evidence that intelligence oversight has become part of the problem, not the solution.

Look, it may very well be that Iran is looking to develop a nuclear weapons program (although succeeding in developing such a capability would not represent the first Central Asian or Middle Eastern program, e.g. Pakistan, Israel, India and possibly Saudi Arabia all are members of the nuclear club). Of course it is incredibly suspicious that a country with the amount of oil Iran has would need to rely on nuclear power for its energy needs, although it should be noted that Iran does not currently have the refining capacity necessary to ensure gasoline supplies for its citizens.)

In my judgement, it would be best if all countries, including the US, Israel, France, etc., disarmed their nuclear weapon stockpile that they built up during the Cold War. But with Israel in effect maintaining a clandestine nuclear weapon program in the Middle East and the US having by far the largest stock of nuclear weapons in the world (as well as being the only country to actually use a nuclear weapon in wartime), it is easy to see how Ahmadinejad's populist rhetoric has found a sympathetic ear among his countrymen. They are not stupid and are as angry about the hypocrisy of the US's position as you would expect?

What is the solution? Damned if I know, seeing as how a military strike is not going to work (the nuclear program is more spread out that Iraq's was when it was destroyed by the IDF in 1981, for example). Economic sanctions will hurt the people of Iran but probably won't weaken the mullahs' control of the country, and they would probably have to be unilateral US sanctions anyway, as Security Council member China has already ruled them out. Maybe it will fall to Israel again to deal with this sort of crisis, although they are dealing with enough of a threat to their security that they certainly wouldn't relish the opportunity, Then again, they probably reckom they can't afford not to take action.

But one thing is for sure: Bush ought to let the CIA and other intelligence-gathering organizations due their job and report their findings as opposed to telling them what he wants them to tell him and threatening them with punishment if they respond otherwise. But I certainly wouldn't get my hopes up on that.

More reporting from Jim Lobe.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hawks angry CIA won't rubber-stamp their Iran invasion

It's looking like Deja-Vu all over again. Just as Bush and Cheney strong-armed the CIA to present selective evidence pointing to a WMD program being developed by Iraq in 2002-3, the existance of which we all quickly found out was bogus, the GOP-controlled House "Intelligence" Committee has issued a report criticizing the CIA's apparantly insufficient zeal in finding Iran as a threat to the US, joining critics of the spy agency among administration officials.

The New York Times reports:

Some senior Bush administration officials and top Republican lawmakers are voicing anger that American spy agencies have not issued more ominous warnings about the threats that they say Iran presents to the United States.

Some policy makers have accused intelligence agencies of playing down Iran’s role in Hezbollah’s recent attacks against Israel and overestimating the time it would take for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. [. . .]

The House Intelligence Committee report released Wednesday was written primarily by Republican staff members on the committee, and privately some Democrats criticized the report for using innuendo and unsubstantiated assertions to inflate the threat that Iran posed to the United States.

The report’s cover page shows a picture of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran speaking at a lectern that bears the message “The World Without Zionism.”

Page 3 of the report lists several public comments from Mr. Ahmadinejad, including his statement, “The annihilation of the Zionist regime will come. . . . Israel must be wiped off the map.”

This type of castigation of the CIA when their findings don't support the agenda that has already been pre-determined by the administration (i.e. attack Iran, through economic or military means), while eager to selectively trumpet their advice when it does support their agenda is exactly parallel to the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003. This is brilliantly detailed in former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine.

From a week after 9/11, Bush and Cheney let CIA director George Tenet know in no uncertain terms that his agency was to marshall evidence to support a justification for overthrowing the Saddam Hussein regime. When such evidence was not readily forthcoming, the administration hawks cherrypicked the CIA's findings, including making outright false claims that the CIA has cast aspersions on (such as the phoney Niger-enriched uranium claims). Cynically, Bush left Tenet out to dry after the non-existance of WMD became obvious after the 2003 invasion.

Not to excuse Tenet from responsibility--he allowed himself to be used by Bush, partly due to a misplaced loyalty to the president for not firing him after 9/11. But it was the administration's use of the agency to further it's agenda as opposed to utilizing it for it's intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities--the reason for it's existance--that was chiefly responsible for providing the administration with cover to conduct his war.

It looks like much the same is happening now, only with Iran as opposed to Iraq in the hawks' cross-hairs. Check out the entire NYT article, it's worth a read.

Newt Gingrich provides a perfect illustration of this hypocritical, self-serving and frankly dangerous thinking prevelant among the neoconservatives who have already decided Iran is a grave threat:

The consensus of the intelligence agencies is that Iran is still years away from building a nuclear weapon. Such an assessment angers some in Washington, who say that it ignores the prospect that Iran could be aided by current nuclear powers like North Korea. “When the intelligence community says Iran is 5 to 10 years away from a nuclear weapon, I ask: ‘If North Korea were to ship them a nuke tomorrow, how close would they be then?” said Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The intelligence community is dedicated to predicting the least dangerous world possible,” he said.

My question is, if former Congressmen like Newt Gingrich know so much more about the threat posed by Iran to the US than the CIA, why doesn't he argue dismantling the spy agency. Of course he would never do so, because if the agency were to present evidence that aided the hawks in making the case for invading Iran, he would be quick to trumpet them just as Colin Powell was asked to do when he infamously addressed lied to the UN before the invasion if Iraq.

For the neoconservatives, it's facts be damned, evidence be damned, analysis be damned. "Inconvenient facts" are to be ignored, or manipulated to fit into the case these zealots are trying to put forward. They know what they want and they want to do it now. And as Bush intoned in the days after the tragic attacks of 9/11, "You're either with us or against us."

(FYI, I will try to post a book review of The One Percent Doctrine sometime in the next week or so.)

Update: Leah Rozen (editor of the indispensible foreign policy blog has a post at Washington Monthly analyzing the administration's "marketing campaign" against Iran, which seems to be continuing apace.

Update #2: More commentary, and a link to a must-read NYT editorial, by Rosen.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

The ignorant American

Scott Winship, writing in the new periodical The Democratic Strategist, cites a recent study by Stephen Earl Bennett examining the extent of political knowledge among US voters.

The findings aren't pretty. Winship notes:

[H]ow ignorant is the electorate? Bennett found that nearly one-third of adults were unaware that the Republican Party is more conservative than the Democratic Party. And lest the reader think that this is an expression of cynicism rather than a lack of knowledge, Bennett found that whether or not respondents knew there were major differences between the two parties was associated with the amount of knowledge they had of major politicians and the parties but not with their levels of governmental trust.

Only one in ten adults knew who Denny Hastert is. Out of eight similar questions about politicians and the two parties, the average adult got just 4.5 right. One-third of adults said they follow politics “hardly at all” or “only now and then”.

Bennett uses a Gallup question asking which party controls the House and Senate to argue that political knowledge has only slightly declined since the mid-1940s. But it has become more associated with age – through the 1970s, young people were just as well informed as older Americans, but today’s twenty-somethings know less than their elders about politics and government. Bennett attributes this change to the decline in newspaper readership and in the influence of political parties.

Finally, in an intriguing finding, Bennett shows that consistency in positions taken across issue areas increases as political knowledge increases. Those who have little knowledge tend to have unconventional combinations of issue positions. If it is also the case that those with little political knowledge are less consistent in their positions on individual issues over time than other people are, then the result might be a sizeable constituency for demagoguery and misdirection.

I'd like to read the entire study, but unfortunately it's subscription-only. But the significance of such ignorance among voters is hard to discount. As Winship notes: "If voters are generally uninformed, then we might hesitate to craft public policies around those preferences. Furthermore, uninformed voters might be vulnerable to deceptive framing of policy debates, such that their preferences may be quite malleable, which of course renders polling data problematic as a guide to strategy. "

Very sad. People should really pick up a paper every once in a while, that is, if they care about the future of their country.

(h/t Matthew Yglesias at Talking Points Memo.)

Debate: What role does government policy play in increasing income inequality?

Max Sawicky has gathered together a couple of very interesting blog posts, articles and letters on his blog MaxSpeak regarding the debate among liberal economists on what role various government policies, as well as other factors, play in terms of increasing income inequality. It's well worth a read in my view if you're in the least bit interested in understanding some of the different views economists hold as to the role economic policy can play in creating these disparities in wealth among Americans. Specifically, is inequality the result of government intervention via tax policy/enforcement, etc. or rather due to some mix of technology/demography/globalization?

There are links to articles by many high-profile economists including Brad DeLong, Andrew Samwick, Paul Krugman, Greg Mankiw, Dean Baker, Mark Thoma and others.

According to Krugman, who espouses the more liberal view that government policy does in fact play a significant role in generating inequality:

[I]t seems likely that government policies have played a big role in America's growing economic polarization — not just easily measured policies like tax rates for the rich and the level of the minimum wage, but things like the shift in Labor Department policy from protection of worker rights to tacit support for union-busting.

And if that's true, it matters a lot which party is in power — and more important, which ideology. For the last few decades, even Democrats have been afraid to make an issue out of inequality, fearing that they would be accused of practicing class warfare and lose the support of wealthy campaign contributors.

That may be changing. Inequality seems to be an issue whose time has finally come, and if the growing movement to pressure Wal-Mart to treat its workers better is any indication, economic populism is making a comeback. It's still unclear when the Democrats might regain power, or what economic policies they'll pursue when they do. But if and when we get a government that tries to do something about rising inequality, rather than responding with a mixture of denial and fatalism, we may find that Mr. Paulson's "economic reality" is a lot easier to change than he supposes.

Roubini predicts recession in 2007

NYU finance professor and editor of the RGE Monitor Nouriel Roubini argues that based on the macroeconomic indicators published last week, "the US economy will fall in to a recession by early 2007." He cites a number of factors for this prediction, including plunging consumer confidence (University of Michigan survey), a housing sector slowdown, slowing demand for credit from firms and households, a decline in car sales as well as other declines in other leading economic indicators.

[T]he flow of economic indicators from the last ten days has only confirmed my view that the economy is experiencing a sharp slowdown that will bring a significant reduction in growth – relative to Q2 – in H2 and an outright recession by early 2007. The bulls and apologists for a soft landing are clearly on the defensive as consumer confidence, housing indicators, car/auto sector indicators, credit/lending indicators and other macro measures signal that a strong growth slowdown is underway. Compared to a few weeks ago when consensus was for a H2 with 3% plus growth and the policy debate was on whether the Fed will keep on hiking in the fall, the current debate is now on how rapid the US slowdown will be, whether the landing will be soft or hard and when will the Fed start cutting rates; chatter on Fed hikes is now mostly forgotten.

Barry Ritholtz, hedge fund manager of RCP Partners and editor of The Big Picture blog has some more analysis of the slowing housing market here.

And Dean Baker wonders why economists are so surprised with the housing slowdown, which he sees as a "bursting of a bubble", considering the huge run-up in values in the last ten years:

House prices have stayed even with the overall inflation rate from 1950-1995. Since 1995 they have risen by more than 50 percent in real terms. There has been no remotely comparable increase in rents. As a result, home building has been hugely outpacing the rate of household formation and vacancy rates are at record levels. Given this information, economists should see a bubble in the housing market and expect prices to plummet. Instead, when they see bad news on sales, they are surprised.

The news should be, "why are economists surprised by the collapse of a housing bubble?" Of course, the news five years ago should have been "why are economists surprised by the collapse of a stock bubble?" Unfortunately, the media never wrote that story five years ago, and they seem determined not to write the story about surprised economists this time either.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The lies of Michael Gerson

Former Bush speechwriter and policy advisor and current senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Michael Gerson has penned a particularly offensive op-ed in this week's issue of Newsweek, ostensibly to commemorate the upcoming five year anniversary of 9/11 but really to drum up support for an attack on Iran. Herein, I will deconstruct some of the numerous lies, half-truths and distortions he puts forward to the American people regarding US foreign affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia.

From [the events of 9/11], President Bush drew a fixed conclusion: as long as the Middle East remains a bitter and backward mess, America will not be secure. Dictators in that region survive by finding scapegoats for their failures—feeding conspiracy theories about Americans and Jews—and use religious groups to destroy reformers and democrats. Oil money strengthens elites, buys rockets, funds research into weapons of mass destruction, builds radical schools across Africa and Asia and finds its way to terrorist organizations.

Middle East autocratic regimes also survive from the financial and military backing of the George W. Bush administration, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and in Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan. As Stephen Zunes notes:

The growing movement favoring democracy and human rights in the Middle East has not shared the remarkable successes of its counterparts in Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. Most Middle Eastern governments remain autocratic. Despite occasional rhetorical support for greater individual freedoms, the United States has generally not supported tentative Middle Eastern steps toward democratization. Indeed, the United States has reduced -- or maintained at low levels -- its economic, military and diplomatic support to Arab countries that have experienced substantial political liberalization in recent years while increasing support for autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt and Morocco. Jordan, for example, received large-scale U.S. support in the 1970s and 1980s despite widespread repression and authoritarian rule; when it opened up its political system in the early 1990s, the U.S. substantially reduced -- and, for a time, suspended -- foreign aid. Aid to Yemen was cut off within months of the newly unified country’s first democratic election in 1990.

Despite its laudable rhetoric, Washington's real policy regarding human rights in the Middle East is not difficult to infer. It is undeniable that democracy and universally recognized human rights have never been common in the Arab-Islamic world. Yet the tendency in the U.S. to emphasize cultural or religious explanations for this fact serves to minimize other factors that are arguably more salient -- including the legacy of colonialism, high levels of militarization and uneven economic development -- most of which can be linked in part to the policies of Western governments, including the United States.

There is a circuitous irony in a U.S. policy that sells arms, and often sends direct military aid, to repressive Middle Eastern regimes that suppress their own people and crush incipient human rights movements, only to then claim that the resulting lack of democracy and human rights is evidence that the people do not want such rights. In reality, these arms transfers and diplomatic and economic support systems play an important role in keeping autocratic Arab regimes in power by strengthening the hand of the state and supporting internal repression.

There is no question that democratic societies are more likely to respect human rights, less susceptible to ideological extremism, more respectful of neighboring countries, more easily trusted with nuclear technology. [. . .] It is certainly true that democracy means more than voting. Successful democracies eventually require the rule of law, the protection of minorities, the defeat of corruption, a free press, religious liberty and open economies. Any democracy agenda worthy of the name will promote all these things.

I'm surprised Gerson doesn't take the opportunity to praise Bush's self-serving efforts at democracy promotion in the region. He also fails to discuss how true democracy promotion can be pursued by the US when it may mean, in practical terms, the creation of governments in the Middle East that pursue agendas contrary to our geopolitical interests in the region. Of course, the region he doesn't address these issues is because he knows full well that the US "pursues democracy" only in limited circumstances in which it serves to benefit the US's narrow interests.

Some commentators say that America is too exhausted to confront [the threat from Iran]. But presidential decisions on national security are not primarily made by the divination of public sentiments; they are made by the determination of national interests. And the low blood-sugar level of pundits counts not at all. Here the choice is not easy, but it is simple: can America (and other nations) accept a nuclear Iran?

Actually, seeing as how presidents in the US are elected representatives of the public as opposed to dictators or monarchs last I checked. So I would say that the opinions of the American people should count for quite a bit. But it's nice to hear a neoconservative pundit come right out and express what the right wing fanatics in this country really think about the American people and democracy.

In foreign-policy circles, it is sometimes claimed that past nuclear proliferation—say, to India or Pakistan—has been less destabilizing than predicted. In the case of Iran, this is wishful thinking. A nuclear Iran would mean a nuclear Middle East, as traditional rivals like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey feel pressured to join the club, giving every regional conflict nuclear overtones..

Someone should tell Gerson that Israel has nuclear weapons (an entire book has been written on the subject), although I'm pretty sure he knows this and is simply being disingenous.

The war in Iraq, without doubt, complicates our approach to Iran. It has stretched the Army and lowered our reservoir of credibility on WMD intelligence.

"Lowered our reservoir of credibility on WMD intelligence". I like that. Gerson should get a job writing jokes for David Letterman.

As these events unfold, our country will need a better way of doing business, a new compact between citizens and their government. Americans have every right to expect competence and honesty about risks and mistakes and failures. Yet Americans, in turn, must understand that in a war where deception is the weapon and goal of the enemy, every mistake is not a lie; every failure is not a conspiracy. And the worst failure would be a timid foreign policy that allows terrible threats to emerge.

The fact that the Bush administration deliberately lied to the American people about the (non) existance of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq has been extensively documented, but if Gerson wants to give the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt, I guess that's his perogative. But at least it's nice to know he thinks the American people should expect competence and honesty from their government.

There are still many steps of diplomacy, engagement and sanctions between today and a decision about military conflict with Iran—and there may yet be a peaceful solution. But in this diplomatic dance, America should not mirror the infinite patience of Europe. There must be someone in the world capable of drawing a line—someone who says, "This much and no further." At some point, those who decide on aggression must pay a price, or aggression will be universal. If American "cowboy diplomacy" did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it.

I'm not sure what to say, except by referring to diplomacy as a "dance", he lets us know exactly how seriously he takes this path, as opposed to, say, all-out military invasion. Also, Europe's "inifinite patience" turned out to be a lot more on the mark than Bush's insistance on war at any cost. And exactly what authorizes the US to be the country that gets to draw the line in the sand and declare the way things are going to be?

Five Augusts from 9/11, in a summer of new fears, in a war on terror that has lasted longer than World War II, public weariness is understandable. And that exhaustion is increasingly reflected in our politics. In a conservative backlash against the president's democratic idealism. In a liberal backlash that has moved from the fringes to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Ned Lamont, in his primary victory over Sen. Joe Lieberman, summed up the case this way: "We are going to get our troops out of Iraq ... we're going to start investing in our own country again." Lamontism—the elevation of flinching to a foreign policy—is McGovernism, and a long way from "bear any burden, pay any price."

Actually, Lamont's calls for a set timetable for withdrawal of US forces from Iraq is far from representing the "fringe" of mainstream opinion, Democratic or otherwise. To wit, a recent Gallop poll found that "[R]oughly 2 in 3 Americans urge a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, with 31% wanting this to start immediately. [. . .] Results showed that almost 1 in 3 want to "pull the troops out and come home," as soon as possible. About the same number seem to wish for a gradual pullout. The remaining one-third back the present course or want to "finish what we started." Additionally, the New York Times reports that "[51% of] Americans see the war in Iraq as distinct from the fight against terrorism, and nearly half believe President Bush has focused too much on Iraq to the exclusion of other threats, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll."

But I forgot, none of that matters in Gerson's tortured logic anyway since public opinion is irrelevant.

Was Lebanon invasion Bush's idea?

It sure looks that way, if credible journalists such as Seymour Hersh and reports in mainstream newspapers like the San Francisco Chronicle and the Jerusalem Post are to believed. Stephen Zunes, writing at Common Dreams, explores the evidence, consisting mostly of anonymous Bush administration officials as well as a PowerPoint presentation, the plans for the Lebanese invasion were instigated by the US and have been in the works as far back as 2004.

In his May 23 summit with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, President George W. Bush offered full U.S. support for Israel to attack Lebanon as soon as possible. Seymour Hersh, in the August 21 New Yorker, quotes a Pentagon consultant on the Bush administration’s longstanding desire to strike “a preĆ«mptive blow against Hezbollah.” The consultant added, “It was our intent to have Hezbollah diminished, and now we have someone else doing it.” [. . .]

According to a July 21 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, Israel had briefed U.S. officials with details of the plans, including PowerPoint presentations, in what the newspaper described as “revealing detail.” Political science professor Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University told the Chronicle that “[o]f all of Israel’s wars since 1948, this was the one for which Israel was most prepared. In a sense, the preparation began in May 2000, immediately after the Israeli withdrawal…”

Despite these preparations, the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties tried to present the devastating attacks, which took as many as 800 civilian lives, as a spontaneous reaction to Hezbollah’s provocative July 12 attack on an Israeli border post and its seizure of two soldiers.

In addition to these revelations, there is mounting evidence that the invasion was viewed in the context of US military strategy in the Middle East region, specifically Syria and Iran.

On July 30, the Jerusalem Post reported that President Bush pushed Israel to expand the war beyond Lebanon and attack Syria. Israeli officials apparently found the idea “nuts.”

This idea was not exactly secret. In support of the Israeli offensive, the office of the White House Press Secretary released a list of talking points that included reference to a Los Angeles Times op-ed by Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. The article, “It’s Time to Let the Israelis Take Off the Gloves,” urges an Israeli attack against Syria. “Israel needs to hit the Assad regime. Hard,” argues Boot. “If it does, it will be doing Washington’s dirty work.”

Iran, too, was in the administration’s sights. The Israeli attack on Lebanon, according to Seymour Hersh, was to “serve as a prelude to a potential American preemptive attack to destroy Iran's nuclear installations.” But first, the Bush administration needed to get rid of Hezbollah’s capacity to retaliate against Israel in the event of a U.S. strike on Iran, which apparently prompted Hezbollah's buildup of Iranian-supplied missiles in the first place.

Just how serious were these plans?

Starting this spring, according to Hersh, the White House ordered top planners from the U.S. air force to consult with their Israeli counterparts on a war plan against Iran that incorporated an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Hezbollah. Lieutenant General Dan Halutz, the chief of staff of the Israeli military and principal architect of the war on Lebanon, worked with U.S. officials on contingency planning for an air war with Iran.

The Bush administration’s larger goal apparently also included an alliance of pro-Western Sunni Arab dictatorships – primarily Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan – against a growing Shiite militancy exemplified by Hezbollah and Iran and, to a lesser extent, post-Saddam Iraq. Though these Sunni regimes initially spoke out against Hezbollah’s provocative capture of the two Israeli soldiers that prompted the Israeli attacks, popular opposition within these countries to the ferocity of the Israeli assault led them to rally solidly against the U.S.-backed war on Lebanon.

Zunes argues:

given Israel’s enormous military, economic, and political dependence on the United States, this latest war on Lebanon could not have taken place without a green light from Washington. President Jimmy Carter, for example, was able to put a halt to Israel’s 1978 invasion of Lebanon within days and force the Israeli army to withdraw from the south bank of the Litani River to a narrow strip just north of the Israeli border. By contrast, the Bush administration and an overwhelming bipartisan majority of Congress clearly believed it was in the U.S. interest for Israel to pursue Washington’s “dirty work” for an indefinite period, regardless of its negative implications for Israel’s legitimate security interests.

Finally, he concludes with a sober assessment of what Israel's failed bid to destroy Hezbollah likely means for the Bush administration's reported plans to attack Iran in the near future.

Given the lack of success of the Israeli military campaign, U.S. planners are likely having second thoughts about the ease with which a U.S.-led bombing campaign could achieve victory over Iran. However, the propensity of the Bush administration to ignore historical lessons should not be underestimated. A former senior intelligence official told Hersh that “[t]here is no way that Rumsfeld and Cheney will draw the right conclusion about this. When the smoke clears, they'll say it was a success, and they'll draw reinforcement for their plan to attack Iran.” Indeed, on August 14, President Bush declared that Israel had achieved “victory” in its fight against Hezbollah.

The outspoken support of congressional Democrats for Bush’s policies and Israel’s war on Lebanon portends similar support should the United States ignore history and common sense and attack Iran anyway. Both the Senate and House, in backing administration policy, claimed that, contrary to the broad consensus of international opinion, Israel’s military actions were consistent with international law and the UN Charter. By this logic, if Israel’s wanton destruction of a small democratic country’s civilian infrastructure because of a minor border incident instigated by members of a 3000-man militia of a minority party is a legitimate act of self-defense, surely a similar U.S. attack against Iran – a much larger country with a sizable armed force whose hard-line government might be developing nuclear weapons – could also be seen as a legitimate act of self-defense.

From the very start, I supported Israel attempts to crush Hezbollah's military capabilities so as to protect Northern Israeli cities from missile attacks, as well as to return the Israeli soldiers captured by Hezbollah guerillas in a cross-border raid. But from the very first signs of war crimes being commited by the IDF against the Lebanese population in what amounted to collective punishment--destruction of civilian infrastructure such as bridges, hospitals, airports and apartment buildings--I criticized Israel's tactics if not their legitimate right to take offensive military actions to defend its civilians. And I was far from alone among staunch supporters of Israel in criticizing Israel's methods.

Israel has the right to defend her borders and protect her citizens from terrorist groups like Hezbollah, financed and armed by Syria and Iran with the destruction of Israel as its raison d'etre. But such legitimate ends don't justify means such as committing war crimes, leading to the displacement of almost one million Lebanese from their homes, killing 800 civilians and setting that country's infrastructure back decades. The politicians or generals who ordered such horrific attacks against innocent civilian targets should be held to account. Of course, it is also well-known that Hezbollah's classic guerilla tactics include using civilians as "human shields", either with or without these non-combattent's knowledge and support. This complicates these issues greatly, although the bottom line is that Israel's actions need to be further investigated.

Iraqi war crimes revisited

Readers of this blog are aware that I have repeatedly written about the strong evidence of war crimes committed by the US military in Iraq since our overthrow of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship and subsuquent invasion, as well as the need to investigate this evidence and hold potential wrongdoers to account. Of course, since the US does not recognize the soverignty of the International Criminal Court, it seems that meting out justice--if violations of humanitarian law were found to have been committed as they likely would be--probably would be impossible at least in practical terms.

But even if the US cannot be held to account, it is the responsibility of citizens of good conscience to remember the actions committed by our government, actions that can reasonably be construed to be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and other international norms of human rights. And in remembering and chronicaling these actions, perhaps those responsible for them will be held to account by the history books.

To that end, former US military interrogator David Irvine, writing in the Salt Lake Tribune, does a masterful job in his op-ed framing the deviant conduct of US armed forces and explaining how it harms the US's image abroad as well as putting the lives of our soldiers deployed overseas at an increased risk of torture and death if captured by Iraqi insurgents. He also reports on the shameful efforts of the Bush administration to attempt to shield Americans from prosecution:

Alberto Gonzales is now urging Congress to water down the War Crimes Act of 1996 and carve out its Geneva Convention prohibitions against inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners.

As proposed by Mr. Gonzales, everything that has been done at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib (except murder and rape) would not be a war crime. However, since the exact language is still evolving, the true objective is unclear. Is this a back-door attempt to nullify the McCain anti-torture amendment which received overwhelming congressional support last year? Is it an effort to shield top military commanders and Cabinet officials from prosecution for war crimes?

Irvine goes on to explain just how dangerous this posturing would be for the US's efforts to successfully prosecute the "war on terror":

What makes this misguided project so dangerous is that whatever its purpose, the legislation takes center stage at a moment when America's Middle East foreign policy is teetering on the edge of disaster. At this delicate moment, the attorney general, who seems to be speaking for the White House, is announcing to the world that the United States intends not to be bound by Common Article 3 (so-called because it appears in all four Conventions) to which we previously bound ourselves and which most other nations accept as international law.

In the wake of the Hamden v. Rumsfeld decision, as well as last week's decision by US District Judge Taylor, it should be clear to all Americans that the Bush administration is not free to decide that prosecuting the war on terror relieves it of any obligations to follow the law--nothing gives the US carte blanche to act as it chooses because of some twisted belief that any ends justify the means.

Just last week, the New York Times reported that a "high-level military investigation into the killings of 24 Iraqis in Haditha last November has uncovered instances in which American marines involved in the episode appear to have destroyed or withheld evidence, according to two Defense Department officials briefed on the case." So this is more than just the US refusing to take responsibility for crimes they have been caught committing, or even trying to manipulate the law in order to protect perpetrators from punishment. There is now evidence pointing to conspiracies and cover-ups in order to prevent the world from learning the truth about our military's actions in Iraq.

The NYT article adds:

The investigation found that an official company logbook of the unit involved had been tampered with and that an incriminating video taken by an aerial drone the day of the killings was not given to investigators until Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the second-ranking commander in Iraq, intervened, the officials said.

Those findings, contained in a long report that was completed last month but not made public, go beyond what has been previously reported about the case. It has been known that marines who carried out the killings made misleading statements to investigators and that senior officers were criticized for not being more aggressive in investigating the case, in which most or all of the Iraqis who were killed were civilians. But this is the first time details about possible concealment or destruction of evidence have been disclosed.

Our credibility to criticize the gross human rights violations of Islamic regimes such as Iran is in the toilet, and unfortunately, since the Bush administration seems not only unwilling to address the serious evidence of US war crimes having been committed as well as efforts to cover those crimes up, but seems hellbent on creating some sort of legal justification for the crimes themselves, our moral standing in the rest of the world will only get worse before it gets better.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Economic snapshot

The Center for American Progress has released their August report analyzing US economic conditions, and their findings are mostly in line with previous trends. A quick summary:

In the current business cycle that began in March 2001, middle-class families borrowed record amounts of debt to manage in a slow-moving labor market, which now further declines. Amid sharp price increases, the federal government has piled on massive budget deficits, and the trade deficit has hit record highs. These debt burdens jeopardize future economic opportunities. Consider that:

Wages stagnate: Factoring in inflation, hourly wages were 1.0% higher, and weekly wages were 0.5% greater in July 2006 than in March 2001. And wages were lower in May 2006 than in November 2001, when the recovery started.

Benefits disappear. The share of private sector workers with a pension dropped from 50.3% in 2000 to 46.3% in 2004, the last year for which data are available, and the share of people with employer-provided health insurance
dropped from 63.6% to 59.8%.

Family debt is on the rise. In the first quarter of 2006, families had to spend 13.9% of their disposable income to service their debt — the largest share since 1980.

Savings plummet. The personal savings rate of -1.5% in the second quarter of 2006 was the lowest since the Great Depression. Also, by March 2006, household debt rose to an unprecedented 126.4% of disposable income.

Job growth is the weakest for any business cycle. Despite the 2003 tax cut, job growth averaged only
1.3% — the lowest growth increase than any recovery of the same length. Monthly job growth since March 2001 has averaged an annualized 0.4%.

The unemployment rate overstates the strength of the labor market. Since the employed share of the population has remained low, millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. If the employed share of the population had not dropped since March 2001, there would be 2.7 million more jobs, or the unemployment rate would be 6.5%.

The poverty rate climbed to 12.7% in 2004, the last year for which data are available, from 11.3% in 2000.

Government deficits are soaring. For 2006, the deficit is expected to approach $350 billion. Goldman, Sachs & Co. predicts $4.7 trillion in deficits over the next decade, a figure that includes the extension of President Bush’s tax
cuts, a fixed Alternative Minimum Tax, and the costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

These deficits won’t shrink. In 2011, the costs of the tax cuts, if extended, and the prescription drug bill will add more than $500 billion to the deficit, including added interest payments, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

This endangers our economic independence. Foreign investors bought 78% of new Treasury debt between March 2001 and March 2006. The quarterly interest payments from the federal government to foreign lenders increased to $33 billion from $20 billion; over the same period, the share of U.S. foreign-held debt grew to 48% from 32%.

Energy prices soar. Prices at the pump have risen from $1.40 in March 2001 to $3.00 at the end of July 2006. By the end of July 2006, oil prices per barrel were $75 — more than double the level in March 2001, when oil cost less
than $27 per barrel.

Record trade deficits mount. In the first quarter of 2006, the trade deficit stayed at 5.9% of the Gross
Domestic Product.

Conclusion? The last five and a half years of the Bush administration's economic policies have been an unmitigated disaster for the US and its citizens. While some pundits on the left argue that there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties when it comes to foreign policy, the difference in policy in the economic realm are significant, making it critically important to gain seats in (and hopefully control of) both chambers of Congress.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Live free or die?

David Corn has written an extremely provocative article over at Tom Paine that analyzes the latest justification for the invasion of Iraq (you know, after the WMD thing didn't pan out). Namely, is it worth the death of an estimated 100,000 Iraqi civilians to bring "freedom and democracy" to the country? While Corn claims he is not arrogant enough to know the answer to the question, he suspects the logic behind the neoconservatives dictum "it's better to die than live in slavery" has some serious philosophical limitations in this case. After all, it's George W. Bush and his foreign policy enablers who have decided it's better for Iraqis to give their life to advance the cause of freedom—not the Iraqi civilians who are being forced to make the sacrifice. He argues:

I imagine that hardheaded advocates of the [Iraq] war will say that [100,000 deaths] is the price of liberty, that eggs must be broken. Yet here's the rub: The Iraqi people did not decide that such a cost was worth bearing. They had it imposed upon them. In the examples of anti-communist rebellions [. . .] freedom fighters in those countries were willing to take the risk and put their own lives at stake. They could determine if they wished to be dead rather than red. In Iraq, there was no such indigenous calculation. People in another country decided they knew what was best for Iraqis. And they then botched the job.

The Saddam regime is gone; that's true. But given what has taken its place, it would not be an irrational choice for many Iraqis to prefer the Iraq of 2002 rather than the Iraq of 2006. Think about it. Most Iraqis before the invasion—like most citizens in most repressive states—managed to get by. They may not have had freedoms, but they had their friends and relatives. They still fell in love, had sex, had families, played with their kids, followed sports. The lucky ones—like the lucky ones in all countries—had meaningful work. Now millions of Iraqis have lost a loved one. And in return, they have a country that is unstable and on the brink of collapse, and their daily lives are marked by crime and deep uncertainty involving life and death. It's a different sort of terror than what George W. Bush speaks of.

Is it better to be free in an environment of violent chaos than safe in circumstances without freedom? I'm not arrogant enough to say that I know the answer. I might well choose a life without political freedoms rather than lose my wife or children. Live free or die, they say in New Hampshire. But how many people really believe that? In any event, that choice should be left to those who are actually willing to die to make the point. The 100,000 or so dead Iraqis cannot tell us what they would prefer.

Corn posits the question of whether it would be an irrational choice for the Iraqi people to prefer the Iraq of 2002 rather than the Iraq of 2006. Of course, it is not for the American people or our elected government to make that determination in the first place. It should be up to the citizens of a free and soverign nation to determine under what conditions they choose to live under, and not have it imposed by a benevolently despotic occupying army.

If our motivation is really to make Iraq into a free and democratic state (as opposed to, say, advance US geopolitical interests in the Middle East), perhaps we should listen more closely to what the Iraqi people themselves think. Scientific public opinion polls show that the Iraqi people want the coalition forces to leave the country immediately, and view the US forces as occupiers, not liberators. On the central question of whether the 2003 invasion had made the country better off or worse off, public opinion was closely split. Significantly, these polls were conducted two years ago, when the death toll was much lower.

The paternalistic notion that we in the US know whats best for the people of Iraq, and that we are morally justified in imposing this view of the world on them by force, is dangerously anachronistic and misguided as well as transparently self-serving to the rest of the world. And the fact that Bush is "frustrated" at the lack of public support his experiment in democracy promotion has garnered from the very people he is ostensibly trying to help illustrates how unbelievably out of touch he really is.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

How Hezbollah won

From the Washington Post:

As the declared U.N. cease-fire went into effect Monday morning, many Lebanese -- particularly among the Shiites who make up an estimated 40 percent of the population -- had already assessed Hezbollah's endurance as a military success despite the devastation wrought across Lebanon by Israeli bombing.

Hezbollah's staying power on the battlefield came from a classic fish-in-the-sea advantage enjoyed by guerrillas on their home ground, hiding in their own villages and aided by their relatives. Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, summed up the guerrilla strategy in a televised address during the conflict when he said, "We are not a regular army and we will not fight like a regular army."

The group's battlefield resilience also came from an unusual combination of zeal and disciplined military science, said the Lebanese specialist with access to intelligence information, who spoke on condition he not be identified by name. [. . .]

One reason for the sharp difference [between the current invasion and the military campaign/occupation of 1982 is] that Israeli intelligence had much less detail on Hezbollah forces, tactics and equipment than it had on the PLO, which was infiltrated by a network of spies, said Trabulsi, now a political science professor at Lebanese American University. "Hezbollah is not penetrated at all," he said.

Well, that will do it every time.