Saturday, December 30, 2006

Study: IRS not enforcing tax laws on big corporations

The New York Times's David Cay Johnston (probably the best journalist in the country covering tax policy) has a very interesting, and extremely troubling report on how the IRS has basically abdicated its responsibility. Based on data recently made public, the federal agency under President Bush has dramatically cut the amount of time it spends auditing the nation's largest corporations. Specifically, "the I.R.S. had reduced the time spent on each audit by 21 percent in the last five years, to 958 hours from 1,210 hours. At the same time, the number of actual audits, which had increased in the last two years, has fallen back to the level of 2002."

At a time when the US is experiencing record budget deficits thanks to tax cuts for the rich, the continued prosecution of an illegal and immoral war in Iraq and necessitating the wholesale slashing of spending on the social "safety net" for the working poor - the fact that our government is not enforcing tax collection from multibillion dollar corporations that benefit from being based in this country is simply unconscionable. Put another way, at the same time the GOP is telling this country's most vulnerable citizens that they will have to do without much-needed government services, it is nodding and winking to corporate America that the tax laws don't need to be complied with. It also directly contadicts statements made by IRS commissioner Mark Everson that he has increased tax law enforcement during the past three years.

It is also a development that has not occurred in isolation. As I discussed on this blog back in August, Johnston had reported back in July that Bush eliminated the jobs of nearly half of the lawyers at the IRS responsible for auditing tax returns of some of the wealthiest Americans, specifically those who were subject to gift and estate taxes when they transfer parts of their fortunes to their children and others. The irony of this was exquisite - while trying to eliminate the estate tax the administration was simultaneously working to create a back door tax cut via lack of enforcement.

Discussing the most recent revelations about the IRS and its lack of enforcement, Johnston notes: "The nation's 12,137 largest corporations, with $250 million or more in assets, earn 87 percent of the profits reported by the nation's more than five million businesses.

About 4,000 of these companies were audited in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. If large companies were audited at the same rate as a decade ago, when the auditing staff was a third larger, more than 6,000 of these companies would have had their tax returns examined.

Auditors concluded that the 4,000 companies underpaid the government by $13.7 billion, accounting for three-fourths of all the individual and corporate tax cheating uncovered by I.R.S. examinations of returns that year."

A simply incredible and disgusting display of the Bush administration's continued war on the Middle Class.

The culture war canard: Do liberals really hate Bible believers?

According to Dennis Prager, liberals are amoral communist heathens. In an editorial so far off base, so hysterically unmoored from reality that it's almost impossible to understand how it could actually be published as anything other than as a dark parody of Right-wing paranoia, Prager essentially argues in Human Events that the difference between liberals and conservatives in modern day America is the former do not believe in the divinity of the Torah (i.e. the five books of Moses), while the latter takes on faith the fact that this document is indeed the received word of the Almighty.

According to Prager: "That a belief or lack of belief in the divinity of a book dating back over 2,500 years is at the center of the Culture War in America and between religious America and secular Europe is almost unbelievable. But it not only explains these divisions; it also explains the hatred that much of the Left has for Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Mormon Bible-believers.

For the Left, such beliefs are irrational, absurd and immoral.
(emphasis added)

Which is exactly how most conservatives regard most leftist beliefs, such as: there is nothing inherently superior in a child being raised by a mother and father rather than by two fathers or two mothers; men and women are not basically different, but only socially influenced to be different; Marxism was scientific; that the Soviet Union was not an evil empire; it was immoral for Israel to bomb Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor; morality is relative to the individual or society; there is no moral judgment to be made about a woman aborting a healthy human fetus solely because she doesn't want a baby at this time; material poverty, not moral poverty, causes violent crime, etc.

This divide explains why the wrath of the Left has fallen on those of us who lament the exclusion of the Bible at a ceremonial swearing-in of an American congressman. The Left wants to see that book dethroned. And that, in a nutshell, is what the present civil war is about."

Like his intellectual brother-in-arms and fellow blowhard hypocrite Bill O'Reilly, Dennis Prager would like us to believe that America is presently engulfed in some sort of a "culture war" between those who are basically moral relativists (i.e. liberals) and those who are moral absolutists who draw their moral code from the Torah (i.e. the Judeo-Christian conservatives). Conservatives believe in right and wrong, liberals are immature children who lead shallow lives without the benefit of a moral compass.

The great thing about this country is that there is no official religion. In fact, the Constitution specifically created a Chinese Wall between the Church and the State and prevents the government from establishing a connection between the two. Nevertheless, radicals like Prager would like to create a neat little dichotomy between those who believe in the Torah and those who do not, imagining the separate factions engaged in mortal combat for the soul of the nation. Forget the fact that there are in fact plenty of liberal Jews who believe in the moral precepts of the Torah, and plenty of conservative Hindus who don't believe in the Torah or accept Judeo-Christian theology at all. In fact, it would be interesting to see Prager try to support with, you know, actual evidence, his theory that liberals "hate" Bible-believers because such a gross generalization is simply not borne out by the facts.

If there is a culture war being waged in America in the 21st Century, it is a rather one-sided affair instigated by holier-than-thou hypocrites like Dennis Prager who endeavor to stereotype liberals as morally bankrupt and hostile to Judeo-Christian religious beliefs. Most liberals that I know feel no hatred in their hearts for anyone who sincerely believes in the sanctity of the Torah, and in fact many liberals hold genuine beliefs themselves. Then again, all of this should really be irrelevant in the first place as athiests, Hindus and Buddhists are just as American as religious Jews or Christians, and are capable of leading ethical, principled lives.

The issue is not whether the Torah ought to be removed from public life as Prager posits - it is about whether one can be a loyal, productive member of American society without necessarily hewing to the laws and principles advanced by the Torah, and there is a conspicuous absence of supporting evidence in the editorial to lead one to believe this is not the case.

Saddam and the execution in context

A lot of editorials have been written in the past week deconstructing the Saddam Hussein execution and analyzing the fallout from every conceivable angle. But probably the most astute observer of the sordid affair has been University of Michigan professor and blogging superstar Juan Cole, and as is the case with most things related to the US occupation of Iraq, when he writes something it is highly advisable to read it closely. His latest piece in Salon is no exception. It is absolutely worth reading in its entirety.

He has also been extensively covering development in Iraq at his blog here and here.

Update: The New York Times reports that Iraq's "Shiite-led government said on Tuesday that it had ordered an investigation into the abusive behavior at the execution of Saddam Hussein, who was subjected to a battery of taunts by official Shiite witnesses and guards as he awaited his hanging. Officials said a three-man Interior Ministry committee would look into the scenes that have caused outrage and public demonstrations among Mr. Hussein’s Sunni Arab loyalists in Iraq, and widespread dismay elsewhere, especially in the Middle East."

It should be interesting to see how this "investigation" turns out.

Update #2: Check out this must-read editorial by Matt Taibbi in Rolling Stone entitled "Hussein in the Membrane: Making Lemonade in Iraq". Taibbi is truly one of the best political writers on our side of the aisle, and his columns are madatory reading for progressives. Plus, he's a hell of a lot of fun to read.

An excerpt:

the U.S. and the news media "celebrated" the hanging of Saddam Hussein by wallpapering the planet with video images of the execution on New Year's Eve. The execution was a complete and utter fiasco. When what is supposed to be a P.R. coup for the United States devolves into a situation where a crowd of Shia fanatics is chanting "Moqtada! Moqtada! Moqtada!" under the swinging feet of a new Sunni martyr, something has gone horribly wrong.

Not only did Saddam's execution serve notice to the entire world that the United States has essentially become the easily manipulated muscle for Shiite extremists in Iraq, but it infuriated the entire Sunni world by its timing -- the execution coincided with the Islamic holiday Eid.

Moreover, the U.S. even managed to alienate Shiites around the world by intervening in the execution process -- not enough to stop or slow the execution, mind you, but just enough to take Saddam's body away from the Shiites and force them to deliver it back to Saddam's home city for a "decent burial."

Now we've pissed off both the Shiites and the Sunnis and gotten both sides markedly more pissed off with each other (not just in Iraq but around the world), and we've done so by accelerating the execution of a prominent Sunni politician whose fate was the one card the United States was really holding with a Sunni minority already deeply upset at being made the subjects -- at the end of an American bayonet -- to a Shiite-led government.

Not only that, but the execution put the finishing touches on the "democracy lesson" we've supposedly been giving the Iraqi people, who, thanks to this move, still have yet to experience a government where a leader can leave power without losing his life. That is some interesting-tasting lemonade, I must say.

Rhetorical question: if you're going to offend the earth's entire Sunni population by letting a Shiite mob hang a prominent Sunni politician on a Muslim holiday -- on television on a Muslim holiday -- why bother interfering in the burial question? Seriously, why? To curry favor with the Sunnis? Because it's "the right thing" to do? What kind of deranged lunatic hangs "the Sunni sword" at the end of Ramadan and then tries to make up for it with the world's Sunnis by allowing a "civilized" burial? "We will all become a bomb," is how one Palestinian responded to this latest act of decency and goodwill on the part of the United States.

I'm not saying Saddam Hussein deserved to live. Fuck Saddam Hussein. The point is that his execution is a symbol of America's cultural blindness. America has one gear in its head: Saddam was a monster and a mass-murderer, so he should be executed and everyone should love us for doing it. Right?

Friday, December 29, 2006

Ladies and gentlemen, Saddam has left the building

It seems like yesterday that I was in Heathrow Airport, London, flying back to New York from a business trip in Europe, when I saw on television that former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had been captured in a spiderhole by the US occupation. That was, of course, over three years ago and in the interim conditions in Iraq have continued to spiral out of control as a direct result of the Bush administration's war of choice directed at a country in the heart of the Arab world. Thousands of US soldiers have died needlessly in the past three and a half years, thousands more mortally wounded, untold tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians have lost their lives in the disastrous occupation.

Now, Saddam Hussein has been put to death. The obvious question to ask is whether or not his fateful trip to the gallows this evening will help lead to a more stable, secure Iraq and help its people move in the direction of a much-needed national reconciliation with the crimes of the Ba'athist regime. Unfortunately, the few observers who have taken the time to actually consider what practical impact the death sentance will have for the country have concluded that it will likely lead to more violence in the long-term, not less.

Sectatrian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites are already at a fever-pitch, and the killing of Hussein will exacerbate this centuries-old hatred even more, especially in light of the prevailing view that the trial was unfair and not conducted in a transparent fashion. Claims of "victor's justice" by Iraq's Sunni ethnic minority will only fuel jealousy, hatred and mistrust of the Shiite-controlled national government (and militias, and courts and police force). As the Associated Press reported, December has been the deadliest month for US forces and Iraqi civilians of this ongoing war, and I predict things will get even worse in the next year.

In his own way, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk illuminates the tragedy of Saddam Hussein's reign of terror, as well as the US's former complicity in keeping him in power and overthrowing his regime to further our own perceived self-interests.

A Dictator Created Then Destroyed by America

by Robert Fisk
The Independent (UK)

Saddam to the gallows. It was an easy equation. Who could be more deserving of that last walk to the scaffold - that crack of the neck at the end of a rope - than the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of the Tigris, the man who murdered untold hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis while spraying chemical weapons over his enemies? Our masters will tell us in a few hours that it is a "great day" for Iraqis and will hope that the Muslim world will forget that his death sentence was signed - by the Iraqi "government", but on behalf of the Americans - on the very eve of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the moment of greatest forgiveness in the Arab world.

But history will record that the Arabs and other Muslims and, indeed, many millions in the West, will ask another question this weekend, a question that will not be posed in other Western newspapers because it is not the narrative laid down for us by our presidents and prime ministers - what about the other guilty men?

No, Tony Blair is not Saddam. We don't gas our enemies. George W Bush is not Saddam. He didn't invade Iran or Kuwait. He only invaded Iraq. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead - and thousands of Western troops are dead - because Messrs Bush and Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister and the Italian Prime Minister and the Australian Prime Minister went to war in 2003 on a potage of lies and mendacity and, given the weapons we used, with great brutality.

In the aftermath of the international crimes against humanity of 2001 we have tortured, we have murdered, we have brutalized and killed the innocent - we have even added our shame at Abu Ghraib to Saddam's shame at Abu Ghraib - and yet we are supposed to forget these terrible crimes as we applaud the swinging corpse of the dictator we created.

Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls? And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbad any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him. Could he not have been handed over to the Iranians for sentencing for this massive war crime? Of course not. Because that would also expose our culpability.

And the mass killings we perpetrated in 2003 with our depleted uranium shells and our "bunker buster" bombs and our phosphorous, the murderous post-invasion sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, the hell-disaster of anarchy we unleashed on the Iraqi population in the aftermath of our "victory" - our "mission accomplished" - who will be found guilty of this? Such expiation as we might expect will come, no doubt, in the self-serving memoirs of Blair and Bush, written in comfortable and wealthy retirement.

Hours before Saddam's death sentence, his family - his first wife, Sajida, and Saddam's daughter and their other relatives - had given up hope.

"Whatever could be done has been done - we can only wait for time to take its course," one of them said last night. But Saddam knew, and had already announced his own "martyrdom": he was still the president of Iraq and he would die for Iraq. All condemned men face a decision: to die with a last, grovelling plea for mercy or to die with whatever dignity they can wrap around themselves in their last hours on earth. His last trial appearance - that wan smile that spread over the mass-murderer's face - showed us which path Saddam intended to walk to the noose.

I have catalogued his monstrous crimes over the years. I have talked to the Kurdish survivors of Halabja and the Shia who rose up against the dictator at our request in 1991 and who were betrayed by us - and whose comrades, in their tens of thousands, along with their wives, were hanged like thrushes by Saddam's executioners.

I have walked round the execution chamber of Abu Ghraib - only months, it later transpired, after we had been using the same prison for a few tortures and killings of our own - and I have watched Iraqis pull thousands of their dead relatives from the mass graves of Hilla. One of them has a newly-inserted artificial hip and a medical identification number on his arm. He had been taken directly from hospital to his place of execution. Like Donald Rumsfeld, I have even shaken the dictator's soft, damp hand. Yet the old war criminal finished his days in power writing romantic novels.

It was my colleague, Tom Friedman - now a messianic columnist for The New York Times - who perfectly caught Saddam's character just before the 2003 invasion: Saddam was, he wrote, "part Don Corleone, part Donald Duck". And, in this unique definition, Friedman caught the horror of all dictators; their sadistic attraction and the grotesque, unbelievable nature of their barbarity.

But that is not how the Arab world will see him. At first, those who suffered from Saddam's cruelty will welcome his execution. Hundreds wanted to pull the hangman's lever. So will many other Kurds and Shia outside Iraq welcome his end. But they - and millions of other Muslims - will remember how he was informed of his death sentence at the dawn of the Eid al-Adha feast, which recalls the would-be sacrifice by Abraham, of his son, a commemoration which even the ghastly Saddam cynically used to celebrate by releasing prisoners from his jails. "Handed over to the Iraqi authorities," he may have been before his death. But his execution will go down - correctly - as an American affair and time will add its false but lasting gloss to all this - that the West destroyed an Arab leader who no longer obeyed his orders from Washington, that, for all his wrongdoing (and this will be the terrible get-out for Arab historians, this shaving away of his crimes) Saddam died a "martyr" to the will of the new "Crusaders".

When he was captured in November of 2003, the insurgency against American troops increased in ferocity. After his death, it will redouble in intensity again. Freed from the remotest possibility of Saddam's return by his execution, the West's enemies in Iraq have no reason to fear the return of his Baathist regime. Osama bin Laden will certainly rejoice, along with Bush and Blair. And there's a thought. So many crimes avenged.

But we will have got away with it.

See also, "Insurgency set to outlive Saddam", BBC News.

Update (12/30): Unfortunately, as predicted, the uptick in violence didn't take long at all: at least 80 Iraqis killed in bombings and other attacks on Saturday.

Update #2 (1/1) : More from Digby.

Update #3 (1/2): A diaryist at DailyKos reports on the growing backlash here, including a discussion of the newly-launched investigations and the sadly predictable mob violence spilling over in Iraq. Check it out - it's rather sober reading to be sure.

Staggering income inequality

Journalist Jerry White notes:

Incomes in 2004 rose by an average 6.8 percent but the vast bulk of the increase went to the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of all Americans—living in some 130,500 households with an average income of $4.9 million—who saw their incomes rise by 27.5 percent over the course of one year. During the same period the income of the poorest one-fifth of the population—some 60 million people—rose by only 1.8 percent. . .

The sharp rise in income for the wealthiest Americans—due in large measure to the Bush administration’s cuts in capital gains taxes, corporate profit rates not seen in nearly 40 years and the recovery of the stock market—has led to a further concentration of wealth in the hands of the super-rich. According to a separate study by University of California-Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, the richest one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans took in 9.5 percent of all pretax income, or about $679 billion in 2004, excluding unreported income.While the portion of national income controlled by America’s corporate and financial elite declined in the aftermath of the Great Depression and stabilized during the postwar period, over the last 25 years a massive social transformation has occurred and the share of the national income now controlled by America’s social oligarchy is at the highest levels since 1929.


A (depressing) review of fiscal policy in 2006

This has not only been an exceedingly bad year in terms of US foreign policy (or a lack thereof); the GOP-occupied Congress and White House have also made a disastrous mockery of this country's fiscal policies as this retrospective by the fantastic OMB Watch makes clear. As the progressive think tank correctly notes, "the regular budget process broke down almost entirely, increasingly urgent issues were neglected, and much time and attention were devoted to consideration of items and priorities seen by many as insignificant and misguided."

One of the saddest things about 2006 was the fact that despite granting its own members a pay raise, Congress refused for the ninth consecutive year to raise the federal minimum wage. With the Democrats taking over the Senate and House in just a few weeks, hopefully the new leadership will make good on their campaign promise of raising the minimum wage - a development that is desperately needed and long overdue.

Thanks to the GOP's insistance on regressive tax cuts, this year has also seen a continuation of the troubling trend of a growing chasm between the fortunes of this nation's superrich and Middle Class. According to OMB Watch, "The gap between the rich and the middle class widened again this year. Key economic indicators showed that income for high earners vastly outpaced everyone else. Expanding wages showed up in unexpected bumps in federal tax receipts that were driven by high-earners, corporate profits, and a banner year on Wall Street. But average workers' wages were held stagnant as the median wage failed to keep up with productivity gains. Average pay for corporate chief executive officers is now 369 times that of average workers (up from 36 times in 1976)." (emphasis added) It's important to realize that growing income inequality is not a coincidence but rather the product of consciously made economic policies implemented by our government.

On top of this, Congress voted to increase the country's debt limit for the fourth time in the last five years to almost $9 trillion and the FY 2006 Reconciliation Bill was pushed through - a bill that "allow[s] for special fast-track protections for $34 billion in cuts to mandatory programs and more than twice that amount in additional tax cuts, primarily for the wealthy."

In all, out-of-control spending for the already-lost Iraq War, unsustainable tax cuts for multimillionaires and the slashing of funding for social programs geared toward the working poor, 2006 was a very sad year for proponents of the Middle Class. There were a few bright spots, such as the GOP's failure to repeal the Estate (AKA Paris Hilton) tax, but I'm definately hoping next year brings with it a return to fiscal sanity and the institution of a moral economic policy agenda, or at least represents a step in that direction.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Justice . . . Do You Want It?

In his latest editoral in Tom Paine, Mark Engler argues that:

Arguments for trade and development policies that truly address poverty and serve working people have moved from the left margins into the mainstream of international debate. The paradigm of "neoliberalism" that dominated world development for two decades has been steadily losing legitimacy. And, in its wake, some important spaces for building alternatives have appeared.

Whether in the Democratic sweep of the midterm elections, in the eruption of domestic protests supporting immigrant rights, in the leftward realignment of Latin American politics, in the collapse of the Doha round of talks at the World Trade Organization, or in extended victories in issues like debt relief, these trends continued in exciting ways in 2006.

Who knows, maybe it's the holiday season, but I'm actually feeling cautiously optimistic politics-wise for 2007 - at least relative to the relentless disaster the last two and a half years have represented. The reason for this is best summed up by Engler's next paragraph:

Given that Bill Clinton’s Democrats were the party of NAFTA, and that the Dems continue to rely on big money from corporate America, many global justice activists have long grown skeptical that a push for real change can be led from Capitol Hill. While this view has merit, the Democratic landslide nevertheless represented a serious blow to the reactionary Bush administration, and you would have to be unusually jaded not to see any bright spots in the electoral sweep. In fact, in terms of trade and development issues, the midterm elections helped foster a major realignment within the Democratic Party away from a corporate globalization agenda.

But the Wall Street Wing, AKA "Centrist" Democrats will not go quietly into that good night, as can be witnessed by the recent birth of the Robert Rubin-inspired "Hamilton Project". Thankfully, now progressive forces are planning a new policy project to launch next month to serve as a counter-weight. I'm looking forward to finding out more about this latter project, as well as following what is shaping up to be what Harold Meyerson referred to in the Washington Post as the "Democrats' Economy Wars".

Here's to fighting the good fight in 2007.

Pardon me?

What Atrios says:

As we all know, because everybody on the teevee will keep repeating it, Gerald Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon was perhaps the wisest and awesomest thing anyone has ever done in the history of presidenting. Never mind that it wasn't popular at the time. Never mind that it set an awful precedent which led to the pardoning of the Iran Contra figures and transformed corrupt Nixonites into distinguished elder statesmen and Bush administration officials.

We are told again and again that what they nation needed was "to heal." That "the turmoil" needed to be over. That it was necessary to move on.

But these are the Wise Old Men talking, not of the country but of their beloved Washington. The turmoil was in their city, not in the country. While they speak as if they know what's best for us, in truth they simply know what's best for them.

That pretty much sums up my feelings on the matter, although Yglesias and Juan Cole have more thoughts on the former president's legacy.

Gerald Ford, RIP.

Update: Some insightful commentary, with links, from Mitchell Freedman, who unlike me is not too young to remember Ford's presidency. And Stephen Zunes discusses Ford's foreign policy legacy here.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Tort costs and the US economy: An analysis

In case you were wondering, no, tort claims in our civil justice system are not screwing up the US economy. A new briefing paper by the Econmic Policy Institute finds that claims from those opposed to victims of malpractice, etc. getting compensated for their suffering that the system is putting an undue burden on our society - and these wild claims are nothing more than the wild, self-serving exaggerations you would expect from the Chamber of Commerce and the Big Business lobby:

The legal system for adjudicating tort claims in the United States delivers important beneļ¬ts to the American people. Most notably, these benefits include the compensation of injured persons (including people harmed by giant corporations and other powerful interests), the deterrence of wrongdoing, greater investments in product innovation and safety, and the civilized, non-violent settlement of disputes. These benefits are rarely quantified, and critics generally focus exclusively on the system's costs, whose magnitude and impact they tend to exaggerate, claiming that job growth, productivity, health care, and corporate profits suffer under the current system. Although a full review requires an examination of both the costs and benefits of the system, this briefing paper reviews only the tort system's most commonly alleged economic costs and impacts and shows that most have little or no basis in reality.

Despite evidence that the cost of tort insurance, litigation, and damage claims is lower now as a share of the economy than it was 20 years ago, various interest groups continue to claim there is a tort crisis and that the economy would benefit if the rights of tort plaintiffs were limited. According to insurance industry consultant Towers Perrin,1 tort costs as a percent of GDP fell from 2.28% in 1986 to 2.22% in 2004, the most recent year for which there are data (Tillinghast-Towers Perrin 2006, 15). Towers Perrin predicts tort costs will remain below 2.28% of GDP at least through 2007 (Tillinghast-Towers Perrin 2006, 15). Yet business groups and others advocating changes in U.S. tort laws often claim that our tort system hurts U.S. competitiveness and employment. The 2004 Economic Report of the President, for example, claimed that, “Tort liability leads to lower spending on research and development, higher health care costs, and job losses” (Executive Office of the President 2004, 203). In addition, the Economic Report suggested that tort costs hurt the economy by slowing productivity growth. Yet the Economic Report made no real attempt to substantiate these claims, and the available evidence indicates that each of these assertions is false.

Go check out the whole report to see how demonstrably false Big Business's anti-consumer, anti-American scare tactics truly are. For example, tort costs have been shown not to be a drag on job growth, lead to an increase in unemployment, discourage corporate R & D spending, lower productivity, increase health care costs or even significantly impact on corporate profits (not that this should be an overwhelming consideration when we are talking about bringing justice to a victim of corporate malfeasance in the first place).

Spend the (imaginary) surplus while you can

Shorter Paul Krugman: Dems should spend any theoretical budget surplus on social welfare goodies as opposed to saving it for deficit reduction, because otherwise the Republicans will squander the money on stupid wars and tax cuts for the rich, etc. I agree.

My basic thinking goes something like this is. After six years of the regressive social and economic policies emenating from the bowels of GOP-Controlled Washington, it's going to take at least a decade to begin stitching together some rough sembelance of a safety net for working American non-millionaires. Besides, fixing huge entitlement programs that have completely unsustainable funding streams like, say, Medicare, is going to need to be looked at before our society can start fantasizing about how to spend a budget surplus that would more-than-likely be temporary anyway.

It would be nice if everyone could agree to at least not spend our children and grandchildren's savings on unnecessary tax cuts that don't come close to paying for themselves, but that seems to be a key philosophical underpinning of the Bush administration's Neoconomy, where the lower and middle class workers struggle to stay afloat.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Dealing with Iran

The Century Foundation has released a 25 page study which argues that the Bush administration should engage in a "Grand Bargain" with Tehran in order to forestall the necessity of dealing with a nuclear-armed enemy in the heart of the Muslim world. It is entitled "Dealing with Tehran: Assessing US Diplomatic Options with Iran" and it offers up a fairly comprehensive framework for engaging with what is surely the most critical foreign policy challenge currently facing our country.

As the report makes clear, however, time is of the essence in dealing with Iran: "As a result of the Bush administration’s reluctance to develop a comprehensive diplomatic approach to dealing with the Islamic Republic during the past five years, the chances that the United States and its allies will be able to reach this kind of strategic understanding with Tehran and forestall Iran’s effective nuclearization are decreasing.

Already, the quality of the package that might be negotiated has declined in some respects: three years ago, when Iran offered to negotiate a grand bargain with the United States, it probably would have been possible to conclude a deal prohibiting the enrichment of uranium within Iran; at this point, any agreement acceptable to Tehran would almost certainly have to permit operation of a closely monitored pilot facility for enrichment in Iran. More generally, the window of opportunity for achieving a diplomatic breakthrough is closing because of Iran’s progress in developing its fuel cycle capabilities, a perceived increase in Iran’s regional standing and capacity to withstandinternational pressure, and changes in the Islamic Republic’s power structure—especially the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005.

If the administration does not move purposively and soon to pursue a broad-based strategic rapprochement with Tehran, the United States will, in relatively short order, need to begin crafting a strategic framework for coping with Iranian nuclearization and managing the negative consequences of this development." (emphasis added)

There are some interesting suggestions made in this report, and it's worth perusing if you are interested in understanding what issues are in play and just what is being risked by the current administration's failing gambit of refusing to engage with the Mullahs. There is a lot at stake, and this is a problem that needs to be engaged with immediately.

*Note that this study is published on the website of the "radical centrist" think tank The New America Foundation. While I think the study has some merit, I do not in any way endorse NAF or its policy positions.

Haditha update: US soldiers charged for murder while media yawns

In a tragic scandal that most of America has forgotten about, there are some legal developments worth noting for the record. As reported by the Associated Press, eight Marines were charged in the killing of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha last year - four were directly implicated in the murder and the other half for failing to investigate and report the deaths.

In a coverup echoing the My Lai massacre in Vietnam (albeit on a smaller scale), the squad leader Staff Seargent Frank Wuterich was charged with murdering 12 Iraqi civilians and then ordering other Marines to murder six people in the hours after a roadside bomb killed one Marine and injured two others as a sick form of retaliation. As with the My Lai massacre, not only was the cold blooded murder in response to retaliation for casualties suffered on the US side, but there was also the requisite cover up. The only thing missing was an official whitewash by Colin Powell.

Another revelation from the investigation is that the previously reported civilian death toll in Haditha of 15 was grossly underestimated. According to AP: "The Marine Corps initially reported that 15 Iraqis died in a roadside bomb blast, and Marines killed eight insurgents in an ensuing fire fight. That account was widely discredited and later reports put the number of dead Iraqis at 24."

Not surprisingly, many Iraqis are skeptical that justice can be served by having the GIs tried in the US, and are demanding the charged soldiers be put on trial in Iraq. You can forget about that happening, though. AP confirms the obvious: A spokesman for the Iraqi Defense Ministry said the Iraqi government supports the decision of the U.S. military to prosecute the troops. Also not surprising in the least is the fact that the US media has shown a complete disregard for the serious nature of these crimes committed by the presumptively heroic Marines. It is assumed, naturally, that this represents nothing more than the proverbial "few bad apples".

Meanwhile, the AP reports that "A parallel military investigation examined whether officers in the Marines’ chain of command tried to cover up the events. Results of that probe have not been made public."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

When racist conservatives can't keep their mouths shut

It's hard for me to believe sometimes the utter depravity and ignorance that afflicts your run-of-the-mill conservative pundit. Take, for example, Right Wing blogger and pseudo-journalist Debbie Schlussel who actually wrote in an article idiotically titled "Barack Hussein Obama: Once a Muslim, Always A Muslim": "So, even if [Barach Obama] identifies strongly as a Christian ... is a man who Muslims think is a Muslim, who feels some sort of psychological need to prove himself to his absent Muslim father, and who is now moving in the direction of his father's heritage, a man we want as President when we are fighting the war of our lives against Islam? Where will his loyalties be?"

Sorry, I didn't realize the US was now at war with the world's 1.4 billion Muslims. For some reason, I thought this was a war on "terror", and so far no one has established that every Muslim on the planet is a terrorist.

But it's not just the pundit-class that is getting off on racist tirades. As Think Progress reports, in a letter to his constituents Congressman Virgil Goode (R-VA) attacked freshman Congressman Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim elected to Congress by stating: "The Muslim Representative from Minnesota was elected by the voters of that district and if American citizens don’t wake up and adopt the Virgil Goode position on immigration there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office…"

Think Progress further notes that In his letter, Goode repeatedly justifies his attack as being somehow related to immigration policy.

According to Goode:

"We need to stop illegal immigration totally and reduce legal immigration and end the diversity visas policy pushed hard by President Clinton and allowing many persons from the Middle East to come to this country. I fear that in the next century we will have many more Muslims in the United States if we do not adopt the strict immigration policies that I believe are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped."

There's only small problem. Besides the fact that there's absolutely nothing wrong with a qualified Muslim being elected by the American public to serve in Congress (isn't that how Democracy is supposed to work?), Ellison isn't even an immigrant! Goode traces his American ancestory back to 1742 and identifies himself as an African-American.

Really pathetic.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The ISG and Iraq's oil reserves

As Antonia Juhasz, author of the indispensible book The Bush Agenda explains in her column in the Los Angeles Times, James Baker and his colleagues on the ISG (Iraqi Study Group) are very much interested in making sure that US oil companies are able to maximize their profits from Iraq's oil reserves:

Page 1, Chapter 1 of the Iraq Study Group report lays out Iraq's importance to its region, the U.S. and the world with this reminder: "It has the world's second-largest known oil reserves." The group then proceeds to give very specific and radical recommendations as to what the United States should do to secure those reserves. If the proposals are followed, Iraq's national oil industry will be commercialized and opened to foreign firms.

The report makes visible to everyone the elephant in the room: that we are fighting, killing and dying in a war for oil. It states in plain language that the U.S. government should use every tool at its disposal to ensure that American oil interests and those of its corporations are met.

In particular, Juhasz reports that the ISG's views on turning control of Iraq's oil reserves to the US occupation is contained in Recommendation No. 63, which she notes calls on the U.S. to "assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise" and to "encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies." This recommendation would turn Iraq's nationalized oil industry into a commercial entity that could be partly or fully privatized (read: taken over) by foreign firms.

While the recommendation, surely not so "radical" to the current inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, is an explicit call for permanent economic colonization of the Third World Nation, the thinking is apparantly not so new. In fact, the State Department's Oil and Energy Working Group, meeting between December 2002 and April 2003, also said that Iraq "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war." Its preferred method of privatization was a form of oil contract called a production-sharing agreement. These agreements are preferred by the oil industry but rejected by all the top oil producers in the Middle East because they grant greater control and more profits to the companies than the governments.

The far Right Wing Heritage Foundation, apparantly afraid of being left out of the fun, also released a report back in March 2003 calling for the full privatization of Iraq's oil sector. Juhasz points out that one high profile member of the think tank, Edwin Meese III, is a not coincidently a member of the ISG and another, James J. Carafano, assisted in the study group's work.

According to Juhasz: "For any degree of oil privatization to take place, and for it to apply to all the country's oil fields, Iraq has to amend its constitution and pass a new national oil law. The constitution is ambiguous as to whether control over future revenues from as-yet-undeveloped oil fields should be shared among its provinces or held and distributed by the central government.

This is a crucial issue, with trillions of dollars at stake, because only 17 of Iraq's 80 known oil fields have been developed. Recommendation No. 26 of the Iraq Study Group calls for a review of the constitution to be "pursued on an urgent basis." Recommendation No. 28 calls for putting control of Iraq's oil revenues in the hands of the central government. Recommendation No. 63 also calls on the U.S. government to "provide technical assistance to the Iraqi government to prepare a draft oil law."

It appears that the final step is in fact already underway--the Bush administration has hired BearingPoint to "advise" the Iraqi Oil Ministry on drafting and passing a new national oil law.

Again, from the article: "Plans for this new law were first made public at a news conference in late 2004 in Washington. Flanked by State Department officials, Iraqi Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (who is now vice president) explained how this law would open Iraq's oil industry to private foreign investment. This, in turn, would be "very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies." The law would implement production-sharing agreements.

Much to the deep frustration of the U.S. government and American oil companies, that law has still not been passed.

In July, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced in Baghdad that oil executives told him that their companies would not enter Iraq without passage of the new oil law. Petroleum Economist magazine later reported that U.S. oil companies considered passage of the new oil law more important than increased security when deciding whether to go into business in Iraq." (emphasis added)

So the ISG's report released this week states that continuing military, political and economic support is contingent upon Iraq's government meeting certain undefined "milestones." It's apparent that these milestones are embedded in the report itself.

Further, the ISG suggests extending our military occupation of Iraq for several more years to, among other duties, provide security for Iraq's oil infrastructure. Finally, the report unequivocally declares that the 79 total recommendations "are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation."

So, Juhasz concludes: "All told, the Iraq Study Group has simply made the case for extending the war until foreign oil companies — presumably American ones — have guaranteed legal access to all of Iraq's oil fields and until they are assured the best legal and financial terms possible."

This all sounds too ridiculous to be considered even remotely credible, right? Surely, the wise men of the bi-partisan ISG would not spend all of that taxpayer money to basically come out and say that control of Iraqi's oil wealth is a more pressing concern than stemming the nonstop bloodshed and chaos in the streets of Baghdad.

Update: For some more background, check out this article by Linda McQuaig in the Toronto Star from two years ago here.

Update #2: Check out this excellent diary from Dailykos entitled "30 Year Oil Contracts in Iraq for BP, Exxon, Shell". It's eye-opening to say the least.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Global South and "Economic Imperialism"

Left-wing economist Samir Amin has a rather long (and densely written) think-piece in the December issue of The Monthly Review that I believe offers tremendous insights for the reader willing to invest the requisite time and effort to try and absorb his ideas. He confronts a key issue in future Global North-South relations, specifically analyzing whether the South will be able to effectively "push back" against the predatory economic perscriptions held by elites in the US State Department, the IMF, The World Bank, etc. He argues:

The collective imperialism of [the North]. . . has already managed to reduce the powers in almost all countries of the South to the status of compradore. In this context, because it is spearheading this offensive, the United States is in a position to implement its specific hegemonic project. This project depends on the implementation of “military control of the planet” (the very terms in which Washington unabashedly states its ambitions).

In order to accomplish its project, Washington has chosen the Middle East as the first region in which to strike for various reasons that I have presented elsewhere. [. . .] Nonetheless, the aims of the project stretch far beyond the Middle East: the entire South, meaning all of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

The present is characterized, in general, by the break up of the South and the growing contrast between a group of so-called emerging countries (such as China, India, and Brazil but also smaller countries such as Korea) on one hand, and a stagnating, even regressing, “fourth world,” on the other.

Can we conclude from this that the emerging countries are developing in the sense of catching up? My analysis, which is concerned with the characteristics of a new centers/peripheries system, leads me to respond negatively to this question.

In this analysis, the decisive new advantages that define the dominating postures of the centers are no longer made up of the monopoly of industry as in the past when the centers-peripheries contradiction was almost synonymous with industrialized/non-industrialized countries, they are defined by the control of technologies, flow of funds, access to natural resources, information, and weapons of mass destruction. By these means, the imperialist centers effectively control the industries that have relocated to emerging peripheries—the real peripheries of the future.

Further down, Amin goes into even greater detail, discussing the future of Latin American economic independence (or a lack thereof) and what may be necessary for Third World nations to defend themselves against economic imperialism:

In Brazil, for example, but also often elsewhere in Latin America, major segments of the left imagine it will be possible to construct hegemonic blocs managed according to good social-democratic tradition (that of the welfare state of the European post-war period, not the one we know today that is aligned with liberalism). They forget the entirely exceptional conditions that enabled the social-democratic welfare state to come about. The Western societies in question were more advanced than others, which made possible both the commitment of capital to domestic employment and the pursuit of their imperialist domination of the rest of the world.

Social democracy was social-imperialist and even social-colonialist to the very end of the liberation movement struggles. The threat posed by the communist alternative was a decisive factor in this shift of power toward the historic capital-labor compromise that characterizes this exceptional moment in history. [. . .]

The fate that the imperialist project reserves for the peoples of the non-emerging peripheries is even more dramatic. The marginalized regions of the world are in fact subject to the systematic implementation of policies by dominant forces that I consider to be strategies of programed exclusion of the peoples concerned, which facilitate the more rapid integration of their natural resources which are intensively plundered. The implementation of this project relies on aggression and military occupation (as in the case of Iraq) and supervision because of debt (in the case of African countries). [. . .]

Faced with this challenge of unequaled brutality, the response of the South is either extremely timid or inappropriate. The governments, like those of the protectorates before them, have only a limited range of movement and are careful not to question the economic liberalism their countries are paying for. Having been abandoned, large sectors of the popular classes are caught up in para-religious or para-ethnic rhetoric that aggravate the divisions among the peoples of the South.

Rebuilding the united front of the South against the collective imperialism of the triad [i.e. US, Europe and Japan] and the militarist offensive of the United States is the challenge currently facing the peoples of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Another interesting essay (actually, a speech) that I came across by Amin is Imperialism and Globalization, and it provides a bit of an introduction to his critical views of globalization and the history of "economic imperialism", as well as his thoughts on the role democracy plays in economic development.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Jimmy Carter is no progressive hero

In light of the publication of his error-laden, misleading and downright disgustingly libelous* tract "Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid" (even the title is revolting), I remembered an excellent piece written by Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes for Common Dreams analyzing Carter's real foreign policy legacy.

To wit:

President Carter, who came to office in early 1977, not long after Indonesia invaded and annexed the tiny island nation of East Timor, increased military aid to the Indonesian dictatorship by 80%. This equipment including OV-10 Bronco counter-insurgency aircraft that was crucial in the rounding up of much of the country’s civilian population into concentration camps. Most of the 200,000 East Timorese deaths as a result of Indonesia’s occupation took place during the Carter Administration, in large part as a result of this military aid.

Carter also dramatically increased military aid to the Moroccan government of King Hassan II, whose forces invaded its southern neighbor, the desert nation of Western Sahara, barely a year before the former Georgia governor assumed office. Carter fought Congress to restore military aid to Turkey that had been suspended after their armed forces seized the northern third of the Republic of Cyprus in 1974. Carter promised that the resumption of aid would give Turkey the flexibility to withdraw. Turkish occupation forces remain there to this day.

All three of these U.S. allies were in violation of repeated demands by the UN Security Council that they unconditionally withdraw from these occupied territories.

Under President Carter, the United States vetoed consecutive UN Security Council resolutions to impose sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Ignoring calls from the democratic South African opposition to impose such pressure, Carter took the line of American corporate interests by claiming U.S. investments – including such items as computers and trucks for the South African police and military – somehow supported the cause of racial justice and majority rule. (Barely five years after Carter left office, the United States imposed sanctions against South Africa by huge bipartisan Congressional majorities and no longer vetoed similar UN efforts.)

When the people of the African country then known as Zaire rebelled against their brutal and corrupt dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Carter ordered the U.S. air force to fly in Moroccan troops to help crush the popular uprising and save the regime.

Carter sent military aid to the Islamic fundamentalist mujahadeen to fight the leftist government in Afghanistan in the full knowledge that it could prompt a Soviet invasion. According to his National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, it was hoped that by forcing the Soviets into such a counter-insurgency war would weaken America’s superpower rival. This decision, however, not only destroyed much of Afghanistan, but the entire world is feeling the ramifications to this day.

As president, Carter opposed Palestinian statehood, refused to even meet with Palestinian leaders, and dramatically increased military aid to the right-wing Israeli government of Menachem Begin. When Israel violated an annex to the Camp David Accords by resuming construction of illegal settlements on the occupied West Bank, Carter refused to enforce the treaty despite being its guarantor. Carter also dramatically increased military aid to the increasingly repressive Egyptian regime of Anwar Sadat.

Meanwhile, Carter ordered that the evidence his administration had acquired of a joint South African-Israeli nuclear test be covered up to protect their governments from international outrage.

In May 1980, pro-democracy protestors seized the center of the South Korean city of Kwangju, challenging the U.S.- backed dictatorship of Chun Doo Hwan. Carter ordered the release of South Korean troops under U.S. command at the request of the dictator in order for them to re-take the city for the regime, massacring thousands. (When former South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee made a similar request that his troops be released from U.S. command two decades earlier, President Dwight Eisenhower refused.)

President Carter ignored pleas from Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero to not send arms and advisors to the junta whose forces were massacring many hundreds of peasant leaders, trade unionists, priests, human rights workers and other dissidents. Carter continued his military support of the junta even after Romero himself was assassinated while saying Mass, a shooting carried out under the orders of a top Salvadoran general. One of Carter’s last acts as president was to approve a record level of arms transfers to the junta just weeks after Salvadoran troops – under orders from high-ranking officers – raped and murdered four American churchwomen.

Carter was the president who enacted Presidential Directive 59, which authorized American strategic forces to switch to a counterforce strategy, targeting nuclear weapons in their silos, indicating a dangerous shift in nuclear policy from deterrence to one of a first-strike.

He supported the Shah of Iran to the end, even as the dictator ordered his forces to fire onto thousands of unarmed demonstrators. Carter dismissed Iranian anger at the 1953 U.S.-led overthrow of the country’s constitutional government by saying that it was "ancient history," a particular ironic comment in reference to a 4000-year old civilization.

Carter was also a strong supporter of Philippine dictator Fernando Marcos, Pakistani General Zia al Huq, Saudi King Faud and many other dictators. He blocked human rights legislation initiated by then-Congressman Tom Harkin and others. He increased U.S. military spending, militarized the Indian Ocean, and withdrew the SALT II Treaty from the Senate before they even took a vote.

And of course, don't forget the Carter Doctrine and its tragic role in leading to the Iraq War. Or the role Carter and his National Security Advisor played in funding and arming bin Laden and the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan.

*I'm not a fan of Dershowitz, especially his defense of torture on "enemy combatants", but the man is right in this case.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Great Wealth Transfer

A new article in Rolling Stone by Paul Krugman on the consequences of the GOP's regressive economic policies.

The piece starts: "Why doesn't Bush get credit for the strong economy?" That question has been asked over and over again in recent months by political pundits. After all, they point out, the gross domestic product is up; unemployment, at least according to official figures, is low by historical standards; and stocks have recovered much of the ground they lost in the early years of the decade, with the Dow surpassing 12,000 for the first time. Yet the public remains deeply unhappy with the state of the economy. In a recent poll, only a minority of Americans rated the economy as "excellent" or "good," while most consider it no better than "fair" or "poor."
Are people just ungrateful? Is the administration failing to get its message out? Are the news media, as conservatives darkly suggest, deliberately failing to report the good news?

None of the above. The reason most Americans think the economy is fair to poor is simple: For most Americans, it really is fair to poor. Wages have failed to keep up with rising prices. Even in 2005, a year in which the economy grew quite fast, the income of most non-elderly families lagged behind inflation. The number of Americans in poverty has risen even in the face of an official economic recovery, as has the number of Americans without health insurance. Most Americans are little, if any, better off than they were last year and definitely worse off than they were in 2000.

But how is this possible? The economic pie is getting bigger -- how can it be true that most Americans are getting smaller slices? The answer, of course, is that a few people are getting much, much bigger slices. Although wages have stagnated since Bush took office, corporate profits have doubled. The gap between the nation's CEOs and average workers is now ten times greater than it was a generation ago. And while Bush's tax cuts shaved only a few hundred dollars off the tax bills of most Americans, they saved the richest one percent more than $44,000 on average. In fact, once all of Bush's tax cuts take effect, it is estimated that those with incomes of more than $200,000 a year -- the richest five percent of the population -- will pocket almost half of the money. Those who make less than $75,000 a year -- eighty percent of America -- will receive barely a quarter of the cuts. In the Bush era, economic inequality is on the rise.

Rising inequality isn't new. The gap between rich and poor started growing before Ronald Reagan took office, and it continued to widen through the Clinton years. But what is happening under Bush is something entirely unprecedented: For the first time in our history, so much growth is being siphoned off to a small, wealthy minority that most Americans are failing to gain ground even during a time of economic growth -- and they know it.

Check out the whole piece, it's worth reading.

Will "free" trade orthodoxy finally be challenged by Congress?

Mark Engler is one of the greatest journalists working today on covering globalization and US-Latin American trade policy, and his beat is one that is unfortunately too-often neglected by major media outlets like CNN and The New York Times. His latest piece for TomPaine is no exception: He addresses the key political/economic question of trade that the Democratic-controlled Congress must address next month.

He charts out how the previous conventional wisdom regarding the necessity for free-trade-at-any-cost is now up for grabs as the American public has become far more skeptical of our trade deals brokered with countries in the Global South - specifically with Vietnam, Colombia and Peru. Of course, these deals were the obvious continuation of our neoliberal agenda with Mexico in 1994 (i.e. NAFTA) which has cost both the US and Mexico millions of jobs, as well as with Central American nations in 2005 (i.e. CAFTA).

His perscription for the new leaders of Congress is clear: "Today, the Democrats who have taken back control of Congress have an opportunity to chart a different course for the global economy. Undoubtedly, they will reject the Bush administration’s bellicose unilateralism in foreign affairs. But supporting a more democratic globalization involves going one step further: It requires them to reject a return to the “free trade” boosterism of the Clinton era and forge a new consensus in favor of fair trade policies that value small producers, workers’ rights and the environment."

The failures of Washington's "free" trade policies and its aggressive neoliberal economic agenda is evident in the failures of NAFTA, the collapse of the Doha Development round of trade negotiations, economic meltdowns in the East Asian "Tiger Economies" as well as in Argentina that were largely the result of IMF structural adjustments, failed World Bank development policies and perhaps best underscored by the significant swath of new progressive-populist faces in Congress who campaigned for and won office by offering principled criticism of the prevailing "free" trade orthodoxy.

Let's see whether the new Congress listens to the voices of their working-class constituents and puts an end to authorizing trade pacts with developing countries without labor, human rights or environmental protections. This is not protectionism, this is common sense and good, moral and publicly-supported economic policy.

Update: David Sirota makes a good point regarding the folly of reauthorizing so-called "Fast Track" authority for the President to negotiate trade deals:

"no one has explained how reuathorizing the president’s right to negotiate trade deals without any congressional input could be modified to include labor/environment/human rights standards. The whole point of fast track is to give a president maximum latitude to negotiate trade agreements - latitude to not have to listen to congressional concerns about things like labor/environment/human rights standards. The whole point of not having fast track authority - as we didn’t have for decades - is so that Congress is involved to make sure these standards are put in trade deals, and that when a president negotiates trade agreements, both he and our trading partners know that Congress has the power to insist on such standards.

I mean, sure, Congress can attach nonbinding resolutions urging the president to include such standards when he uses fast track powers. But I’ve never seen Congress try to pass a model where fast track forces such standards because again, the whole point of fast track - the whole reason it ever was created - was to give the president the right to avoid such standards in the first place. I guess I’m open to the idea that you could craft a fast track that has mandatory standards - but I’m really not holding my breath that K Street would allow Congress to even consider such a proposal.

Most likely what will happen is that any new fast track proposal will include a nonbinding throwaway line or two about labor/enviro standards that a faction of Democrats looking to sell out will use to claim that they’re really for fair trade, when in fact all that’s really happening is Congress once again taking a dump on workers."

Friday, December 01, 2006

The case against the Op-Ed page and "objective" reporting

A couple of weeks old, which in the blogosphere might as well be centuries, but I came across this provocative piece by Eric Alterman in The Nation and I realized I needed to start reading his columns more frequently.

He advances a number of good arguments, but unfortunately I doubt they have much of a chance of getting implemented. First, he theorizes that when newspapers become recognized by their readership to have a political/ideological bias on their editorial page, most casual consumers tend to assume that such a philosophy permeates throughout the entire paper (i.e. the New York Times is known for its center-left editorial page, and thus many people assume its political reporting to be biased to the left as well.)

What this in effect does, he argues, is place a burden (conscious or subconscious) on that paper's reporters to bend over backwards in order to appear to be fair in their analysis. To carry the theory forward, reporters at the Wall Street Journal would have more leeway to report the truth because of their employer's conservative bona fides (due to its insanely Right Wing opinion pages), while Times journalists have to uncritically report administration talking points (think Judith Miller).

He also argues that even major papers' political endorsements dont carry much weight anymore, again because of the perceived (and usually actual) bias that dominates the editorial staff. These endorsements can also create perverse incentives for the paper's reporters to tilt their coverage in order to convince their readers that they are not part of the so-called liberal media. The same holds true for papers with conservative editorial pages-- Alterman opines that the Journal's reporters are "apparently less terrified than their NYT colleagues of appearing to confirm suspicions of 'liberal bias' in their stories, so they feel slightly freer to tell the truth.

His solution is as elegant as it is unlikely to even be put in place, although I would fully support it:

Why not heed the examples of Britain's universally admired (liberal) Guardian and (conservative) Economist and drop the frequently phony distinction between "fact" and "opinion"? Why not just let reporters tell us what they know to be true and how and why they know it? Such a solution would borrow what's most engaging from the blogosphere without sacrificing the crucial function of newspapers in a democratic society. What's more, it would offer the potential to re-engage people in a (Deweyite) discussion and debate without dumbing down their sources of (Lippmann-like) information.

Duncan Black once made a very similar suggestion about following the UK style and he got some positive feedback (I'll poat a link if/when I find the post). Also, here are some fairly recent posts on the subject by Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias. My own opinion? If one allowed journalists to stop pretending to be "objective" in their reporting, I wager the American public would become even better informed about world events. What do you think?

Reframing the Debate on US Troop Withdrawal

Jack A. Smith has authored a long editorial that the Democrats who find themselves in control of Congress in a few weeks ought to take quite seriously. I think it successfully re-frames the debate over the future of the US's military occupation of Iraq and points out that the debate raging in the major media outlets, led by "scholars" and pundits from think tanks representing various ideological positions is missing the most important issue of all: the fact that our invasion was not merely "incompetent" but rather a war crime and an invasion of the sovereignty. It also draws attention to the fact that the most powerful lever the anti-war Democrats have to affect an immediate withdrawal of our troops from the battlefield is to use their "power of the purse" to cut off funding for Bush's sick military adventure in the Middle East. He notes:

The new Democratic Congress will have a chance to vote for legislation to cut off funds for the war introduced by Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) and strongly supported by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), but few will dare venture to join them. In February Congress will vote on another supplementary request for some $125 billion to keep the war going. Soon after that will be debate on the new half-trillion dollar-plus annual military budget. It will be interesting to observe how the newly elected peace candidates respond to these opportunities. On a previous supplementary war funding bill in September, fewer than two dozen House members, out of nearly 400, voted in opposition at a time when the Congressional Out of Iraq Caucus had some 70 members.

Smith raises some very important facts that the mainstream media in this country (and most other Western countries) have studiously ignored. For example, he correctly points out that the primary emphasis of the current debate is "not upon the unjust, illegal and immoral nature of the war, but upon the Bush Administration's failure to secure a decisive victory. In his only direct reference to Iraq war policy so far, Robert Gates, President George W. Bush¹s nominee to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, was critical this week of the Pentagon¹s failure to 'prepare adequately' for suppressing resistance to the occupation."

In other words, Smith is noting that the parameters of the current debate is not about Washington's unauthorized use of violence and mass murder in order to extend its "economic, political and military hegemony over the entire Middle East and its abundant oil resources", but rather has artificially limited itself to retrospectively analyzing President Bush¹s failures in handling the invasion and occupation, and Rumsfeld's stubborn refusal to send enough troops to get the job done properly. Focusing on the latter, of course, presupposes that initiating the 2003 invasion was morally justified and consistent with the principles of international law--a presupposition that couldn't be further from the truth--it was a mistake onto to the extent that it was executed sloppily by the technocrats at the Pentagon and poorly envisioned by the Neoconservative architects at various right-wing Washington think-tanks.

Smith continues: "The arguments about if and when to withdraw do not mention America¹s violation of Iraq's national sovereignty and independence, or the tragic toll of Iraqi civilian deaths, but concentrate instead on the possible loss of U.S. political influence, military credibility and geopolitical dominance. They certainly do not touch upon imperial aggression. Instead, it¹s about honorable intentions gone wrong through miscalculation and ignorance. (emphasis added)

He argues, and to an extent I agree, that for the most part the horrors taking place in Iraq are the forseeable consequence of our predetermined decision to invade and occupy the country, not a result of the political failures of Maliki, al-Qaeda, Saddam Hussein, Iraq or Syria. And it is certainly not due to a cultural predisposition the Iraqi people might have toward violence and tyrrany, as Tom Friedman and the latest crop of Wall Street Journal editorial page contributors are now try to claim so as to avoid an personal culpability due to their initial cheerleading for the invasion.

Go read the whole editorial and make up your own mind.

Update:The worthless ISG report is out, and the heroic Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) calls it like it is:

The fact is this commission was composed apparently entirely of people who did not have the judgment to oppose this Iraq war in the first place, and did not have the judgment to realize it was not a wise move in the fight against terrorism. So that's who is doing this report. Then I looked at the list of who testified before them. There is virtually no one who opposed the war in the first place. Virtually no one who has been really calling for a different strategy that goes for a global approach to the war on terrorism.

So this is really a Washington inside job and it shows not in the description of what's happened - that's fairly accurate - but it shows in the recommendations. It's been called a classic Washington compromise that does not do the job of extricating us from Iraq in a way that we can deal with the issues in Southeast Asia, in Afghanistan, and in Somalia which are every bit as important as what is happening in Iraq.

This report does not do the job and it's because it was not composed of a real representative group of Americans who believe what the American people showed in the election, which is that it's time for us to have a timetable to bring the troops out of Iraq.

I'm having a hard time deciding whether I would support an Edwards or Feingold candidacy for 2008 . . .

Update #2: More from Tom Engelhardt here. Read the whole thing.

Must read article of the day

The Nation on Wall Street, M&A and deregulation.

Must read article of the day