Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Congress can stop war in Iraq (if they want to)

The Bush administration's has assumed a posture regarding the Iraq war that our President is the Commander in Chief, that he will be serving as such until January 2009. As far as they're concerned, the many Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress who are opposed to the idea of a surge in the occupation, as well as the 70% of the public with the same opinion, should just respect this fact and let the same people who got us into this mess take care of it themselves.

Besides the almost stunning arrogance this position reveals, it is also not how many legal experts believe our government was designed by the framers of the Constitution.

As Reuters reports in an article that ought to be read by every American concerned with his or her country, Congress has the power to end the war in Iraq according to some of this nation's top legal experts (including a former Bush administration attorney).

According to the article:

With many lawmakers poised to confront President George W. Bush by voting disapproval of his war policy in the coming days, four of five experts called before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee said Congress could go further and restrict or stop U.S. involvement if it chose.

"I think the constitutional scheme does give Congress broad authority to terminate a war," said Bradford Berenson, a Washington lawyer who was a White House associate counsel under Bush from 2001 to 2003.

"It is ultimately Congress that decides the size, scope and duration of the use of military force," said Walter Dellinger, former acting solicitor general -- the government's chief advocate before the Supreme Court -- in 1996-97, and an assistant attorney general three years before that.

Some legal experts do think that as CIC, Bush is ultimately the "decider", but others disagree. While the White House would love to simply end all discussion of this matter, the role of the Legislative Branch should really be heavily debated right now.

The Senate is set in the coming week to take up a resolution opposing Bush's recent decision to add 21,500 troops in Iraq. But as Reuters points out, unfortunately any resolution that were passed would not be binding on the president, while legislation to cut funds -- assuming it passed -- would be. In other words, passing a resolution or sense of Congress or any other such statement is pretty much worthless and a waste of time. Democratic lawmakers should be ashamed if this is all they are able to accomplish.

It's also important to keep in mind that the Democrats, do have plans for fixing the problem, namely offering a phased withdrawal (or re-deployment in military terms). And under the proposed Feingold plan, a limited number of troops would actually remain in Iraq in order to conduct "targeted counter-terrorism" and training missions under the Feingold plan. And there is plenty of historical precedent for Congress placing limits on military deployments and funding.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Making globalization work

Economic Policy Institute President and author Jeff Faux has penned an absolutely fantastic briefing paper this month on the impact of globalization and, as the report is titled, how this powerful phenomenon can be made to work for average Americans. It's a touch on the long side for a casual reader, but I highly recommend trying to read the whole thing if you want to understand the dynamics in play - as opposed to reading the garbage Tom Friedman regularly puts out.

In the opening paragraphs, Faux lays his cards on the table. His argument is that in the US, as well as in both the Global North (industrialized nations) and the Global South (the developing world), the benefits of globalization as it is currently structured have been concentrated among the super-wealthy captains of industry and finance, while the costs have been disproportionately shouldered by working families at the middle and the bottom. since the signing of "free" trade legislation like Nafta in 1994, for example, real wages and benefits for the majority of workers are flat, millions of jobs have been destroyed (especially in manufacturing) and income inequality has intensified.

But that's not the only deleterious impact globalization has had on workers. Faux notes: "[N]ew global economic constitution primarily protects and promotes the interests of only one category of citizen—the global corporate investor. The rules of the global economy now give corporate property rights priority over human rights, undercutting the hard-won domestic social contract that has supported broadly shared prosperity in advanced societies and in some developing countries as well.

The rules have encouraged and often imposed policies of privatization, deregulation, domestic austerity, and export-dependent growth on sovereign nations. They have denied governments the right to effectively regulate imported products produced by exploiting labor and the environment, while requiring governments to protect corporate patents and other intellectual property. And they give corporate investors extraordinary privileges to sue governments in secret tribunals."

But Faux doesn't stop at merely diagnosing the problems with globalization, or even measuring the impact it has had on ordinary Americans, but rather puts forward a bold, realistic plan for harnessing the power of economic integration so as to benefit society at large. His individual suggestions are not revolutionary on their own, but taken together they represent one of the most comprehensive agendas for refocusing US trade, tax, labor and education policy to address these challenges. His recommendations section is long, but go check it out and you'll realize that far from being a helpless bystander to the changing structure of the global economy, our government can play an active role in shaping the future of the economic landscape.

After you finish reading this brief, check out this op-ed by Faux in The Nation entitled "The Party of Davos". It's a classic and a lot shorter.

Monday, January 29, 2007

A moral disgrace: GOP Senators still trying to block increase in federal minimum wage

Just when I think I cannot be any more disgusted with the Republican minority in the Senate (or the Republican party in general), they go and pull a stunt so pathetically unbelievable that they succeed in reaching a new low in public policymaking. Just what exactly am I talking about? The new Democratic majority in the Senate made good on one of their high-profile campaign pledges and put forward legislation to increase the federal minimum wage for the firat time in almost a decade. Of course, this doesn't really represent any sort of meaningful "pay raise" for these workers: these workers would make only $4,200 more a year before taxes if the minimum wage was raised to $7.25. And as most readers of this blog are hopefully aware, there is a little concept in economics called "inflation" which, over time, eats up the purchasing power of a worker's salary unless it is periodically raised. And due to inflation, in the more than eight years since Congress passed the last increase, the buying power of the minimum wage has eroded over 17% since 1997.

The Democrats have suggested raising the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. Let's put this into some context. As the Economic Policy Institute notes in a recent brief, a full-time minimum wage worker (40 hours/week, 52 weeks/year) would earn $10,712 a year, falling nearly 40% below the $17,170 poverty level for a family of three. Additionally, "the minimum wage is at its lowest real value in over 50 years and has not been raised since 1997. This is the longest stretch of federal inaction since the minimum wage was first instated in 1938. As the basic income required to support a family has grown with inflation, the minimum wage has not kept pace with the rising costs of goods. As a result, federal inaction leaves minimum wage workers in an increasingly dire situation."

So what has been the reaction from the Senate Republicans to the Democrats' efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to take into account inflation? Well, as the AFL-CIO blog notes, first 43 Republican Senators voted to kill a clean minimum wage bill with no tax giveaways to business on January 24th, insisting any raise in the minimum wage contain tax giveaways for small businesses.

Such a stunt is completely unnecessary, as independent analysis has demonstrated that small businesses actually benefit from small increases in the minimum wage. Also, keep in mind that businesses have received tens of billions of dollars in tax cuts under the George W. Bush administration and the previously GOP-controlled Congress. On both efficiency and equity grounds, the minimum wage should be increased with no strings attached. In other words, there is no reason for Republicans to work against the Democrats' "clean" version of the bill passed on the 10th.

If only that were the worst news. As the AFL-CIO reports, 28 Republican Senators actually voted “yes” on an amendment from Wayne Allard (R-CO) that would completely eliminate the federal minimum wage. You read that correctly, these Senators voted to lower the minimum wage to nothing.

While they're at it, why don't these Senators go all the way and vote to outlaw unionization, OSHA laws, anti-sweatshop legislation and laws preventing child labor. Does Allard believe government should completely get out of the way of regulating business, and allow corporate America to bend their workers over a barrel and figuratively rape them repeatedly?Does he have such confidence in the free market and pure, unbridled capitalism that he believes that management will look out for their workers' best interest, even if it cuts down on their productivity and profit margins?

The whole thing is so nauseating that I would go so far as to say these 28 Senators are anti-American and anti-worker. They may be sheltered from the realities of working two full-time jobs just to get by (after all, they make $165,000 a year and give themselves a pay raise almost every year), but their lack of compassion and common sense is truly breathtaking.

Finally, not only do I support the necessity of passing legislation increasing the federal minimum wage without additional, and unnecessary tax breaks for business, but I also strongly support indexing the minimum wage to inflation to ensure the wages of workers rises to adjust for cost of living increases.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Hats off to Jim Webb

It probably won't be a big shock to anyone that I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Bush's speech, especially considering the reality that this lame duck President isn't known for actually achieving many of his State of the Union proposals. And with his approval rating currently in the toilet and 21 GOP Senators up for reelection next year, Bush has considerably less legislative pull than he once did.

Jim Webb, formerly a Republican (and Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan) and now a freshman Senator from Virginia, gave a great response which can be read in its entirety here.

I disagree with his position on Iraq: I respect the fact that unlike me he was against the war even before it started, but I really wish now the former Marine would support a phased redeployment beginning tomorrow. His point about a withdrawal leading to chaos in the region is undercut by the fact that our continuing occupation of a Muslim country smack in the heart of the Middle East is already putting both our soldiers and our homeland at an increased risk of terrorist attack.

This is a problem I've been wrestling with, as an immediate troop draw-down will obviously lead to increased instability in Iraq, but maintaining our military presence there is doing nothing but fueling the flames of anti-American hatred among the Iraqi people, many of whom now explicitly support insurgent attacks against our troops. This is the natural result of a four-year military occupation that was fought in large part to secure that country's oil resources as opposed to, say, bringing freedom and democracy to the region or preventing Saddam Hussein from selling his imaginary WMD to terrorists.

This is truly a lose-lose proposition courtesy of the administration and the Senators from both parties who abdicated their constitutional responsibilities and gave Bush a blank check to overrun Iraq.

On the other hand, the domestic/economic part of Webb's speech was fantastic. Allow me to quote at length:

When one looks at the health of our economy, it's almost as if we are living in two different countries. Some say that things have never been better. The stock market is at an all-time high, and so are corporate profits. But these benefits are not being fairly shared. When I graduated from college, the average corporate CEO made 20 times what the average worker did; today, it's nearly 400 times. In other words, it takes the average worker more than a year to make the money that his or her boss makes in one day.

Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth, even though the productivity of American workers is the highest in the world. Medical costs have skyrocketed. College tuition rates are off the charts. Our manufacturing base is being dismantled and sent overseas. Good American jobs are being sent along with them.

In short, the middle class of this country, our historic backbone and our best hope for a strong society in the future, is losing its place at the table. Our workers know this, through painful experience. Our white-collar professionals are beginning to understand it, as their jobs start disappearing also. And they expect, rightly, that in this age of globalization, their government has a duty to insist that their concerns be dealt with fairly in the international marketplace.

In the early days of our republic, President Andrew Jackson established an important principle of American-style democracy ­ that we should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base. Not with the numbers that come out of Wall Street, but with the living conditions that exist on Main Street. We must recapture that spirit today.

This is a flashback to the op-ed he wrote for the Wall Street Journal right after he was elected, which sounded similar economic populist themes.

So in short, while I disagree with his position on redeployment in Iraq, I think he makes a powerful spokesman for the newly-empowered Democratic majority in Congress for critical issues like health care, economic inequality and globalization.

By the way, I think John Edwards had the critical importance of redeployment exactly right in this op-ed he wrote for the Washington Post way back in November 2005, one of the reasons why I'll be voting for him in the primaries. (He also gets kudos for admitting his vote for the war was a huge mistake. While some might argue that this was too little, too late, I am far more forgiving due to my own misguided initial support.)

Friday, January 19, 2007

China's "Star Wars" stoking the paranoid fantasies of Pentagon hawks

According to the AFP, the political elites in Beijing is currently going all-out in showing the hawks in the Pentagon that more than one country has the capability to blow things up in outer space. In this case, China has successfully shot down one of its orbiting satellites, just to prove to the sole remaining superpower that it can.

And the Financial Times notes the obvious: "The Chinese test may or may not lead to a new arms race in space. But it will certainly strengthen the hand of hawks in Washington who regard Chinese power as a strategic threat to the US,"

But someone should point out to the FT's editorial board that the hawks in Washington are not only eyeing China, but Russia as well. Because the hawks will never run out of enemies- their paranoid-delusional worldview and complete detatchment from the real world is their defining characteristic.

Also, as of today, please note that the new web address for Troubled Times is; be sure to bookmark it or update your blogroll. Actually, you really don't need to as the old web address ( and all of my previous posts will automatically forward to the new domain.

Many thanks to Windco Information Services for hosting me at my new URL.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

TALON program exposed: Pentagon spying on peaceful antiwar protesters

Walter Pincus reports in the Washington Post:

A Defense Department database devoted to gathering information on potential threats to military facilities and personnel, known as Talon, had 13,000 entries as of a year ago -- including 2,821 reports involving American citizens, according to an internal Pentagon memo to be released today by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Pentagon memo says an examination of the system led to the deletion of 1,131 reports involving Americans, 186 of which dealt with "anti-military protests or demonstrations in the U.S."

Titled "Review of the TALON Reporting System," the four-page memo produced in February 2006 summarizes some interim results from an inquiry ordered by then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after disclosure in December 2005 that the system had collected and circulated data on anti-military protests and other peaceful demonstrations.

Read the whole article, it's pretty mindblowing that forty years after the Cointelpro abuses, our government is spying on protesters again.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Bush: Congress "not responsible" for Iraq war, Iraqis insufficiently grateful for occupation

CNN has a report tonight on its website that is, frankly, quite troubling. Obviously, this blog is more or less dedicated to memorializing the troubling events that have transpired since it was launched in 2004, so this melodramatic warning might seem fairly trivial. But I think the cable news channel's report on the 60 Minutes interview with Bush which aired last night really does warrant some close attention. So, let's go through it in some detail.

First, according to CNN, Bush declared as a statement of fact that Congress cannot reverse last week's decision to send 21,000 more troops to Iraq. Forget the fact that Congress ultimately holds the power of the purse via the House and Senate Appropriatins Committees - both of which are now controlled by the Democratic Party. A quick trip to Wikipedia gives us this citation from the Constitution of the United States (Art. I, Sec. 9, Clause 7):

"No money shall be drawn from the treasury, but in consequence of appropriations made by law; and a regular statement and account of receipts and expenditures of all public money shall be published from time to time."

Conservatives style themselves strict constructionists when it comes to interpreting the Constitution, but apparently in the case of a Unitary Executive as envisioned by John Yoo, Bush has quasi-dictatorial powers when it comes to spending the American people's tax dollars to finance an escalation of a incredibly unpopular war - so incredibly unpopular that it played an instrumental role in dislodging the GOP from control of Congress last November. Not surprisingly, Bush's "surge" plan is about as unpopular according to a recent USA Today/Gallup Poll as the war itself.

Next, Bush makes the ridiculous assertion that: "Frankly, [the Iraq war] is not Congress's responsibility." This is truly an amazing statement, especially considering the fact that he goes on to state in the very next sentance that Congressional Democrats don't "have a plan" for Iraq. These two statements taken together form a non sequitor of mind-boggling proportions.

According to Bush: "I fully understand they could try to stop me from doing it . . .but I made my decision, and we're going forward." This from a President who recently wrote in an Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal that "Democrats will control the House and Senate, and therefore we share the responsibility for what we achieve."

Bush then goes on to display for the entire world just how detatched from reality he truly has become. He argues that the Iraqi people should be thankful for all the United States has done for them since the US's illegal, unprovoked invasion. According to Bush: "We liberated that country from a tyrant. I think the Iraqi people owe the American people a huge debt of gratitude. That's the problem here in America: They wonder whether or not there is a gratitude level that's significant enough in Iraq."

Actually, the "problem" in America has less to do with our concern over the level of "gratitude" expressed by the Iraqi for our continued occupation (at least half a million civilians have been killed since the country was "liberated" according to a seminal study by the prestigious British medical journal The Lancet, and over 34,000 were killed last year alone according to the UN) and more to do with the fact that it is now patently obvious that this was a war planned long before September 11 as part of an insane geopolitical gambit by the Project for a New American Century and had nothing to do with US national security or humanitarian aims. Few Americans now think victory is possible, but the government's own intelligence agencies have admitted that the war has actually increased the terror threat in the US.

By the way, if Bush is counting, public opinion polls show that Iraqi's are decidedly not grateful for our continued occupation of their country, and in fact have demanded our troops leave their country for the last two years.

Finally, Bush is quoted in the CNN report as rejecting the clear fact that the invasion has created more instability in Iraq than it has eliminated, despite the fact that Generals have been telling the Senate since last August that the violence in the country is spiralling out of control and conditions are on the verge of a civil war.

It is truly amazing how deranged and detatched from reality the current occupant of the White House is. The Democratic leadership in Congress clearly have their work cut out for them and they need to very quickly figure out how to defund this war and bring our troops home in the next six months.

Update: From Glenn Greenwald, we are reminded that technically The War Powers Act of 1973, passed over the veto of President Richard Nixon, requires the President to obtain authorization from Congress if military forces are to be deployed for greater than 60 days, which also can be understood to mean that the President is free to deploy the military for up to 60 days without Congressional approval.

According to Wikipedia's article on the Act: "The purpose of the War Powers Resolution is to ensure that Congress and the President share in making decisions that may get the U.S. involved in hostilities. Portions of the War Powers Resolution require the President to consult with Congress prior to the start of any hostilities as well as regularly until U.S. armed forces are no longer engaged in hostilities (Sec. 3); and to remove U.S. armed forces from hostilities if Congress has not declared war or passed a resolution authorizing the use of force within 60 days (Sec. 5(b)). Following an official request by the President to Congress, the time limit can be extended by an additional 30 days (presumably when "unavoidable military necessity" requires additional action for a safe withdrawal)."

This would seem to discredit Bush's claim that Congress is impotent to stop his escalation of the war, even if in practice I can't imagine the Democrats actually being willing to invoke this law.

Update #2 From Progressive States Network, here are two more must-read articles regarding the surge strategy. First, from Fox News of all places, we learn that "Several former military officers warn that [a surge in troops] could place an almost fatal strain on an already stressed [military] force."

Second, check out this .pdf from the Center for American Progress that details "Congressional Limitations and Requirements for Military Deployments and Funding". Indeed, Congress is not powerless to play a role in setting Iraq policy.

John Edwards for President

It is probably way too early for any rational observer to start picking favorites for the 2008 Presidential race, but I am not your typical, or rational, political observer. I am a lot less concerned with what potentially embarassing social gaffes the Democratic hopefuls will commit at campaign ralllies or on Meet the Press. No, I am primarily interested in the policy positions and political leadership experience held by a particular candidate. Bill Clinton oozed brains and charisma, and he ended up being a great president, but it were the political philosophies he held and the courageous political battles he fought that defined his eight years in office, not his slick persona. (And no, when I mention the courageous battles he fought, I'm not talking about his abandonment of the working class by helping push through the twin abominations of NAFTA or "Welfare Reform")

But if you have a candidate with a sincerely-held progressivepolicy agenda, and a candidate who is tenacious enough to defend his positions even when his opponents attempt to marginalize them - and a candidate with good looks and charisma to boot - then you have a Presidential candidate I can get behind. I truly believe John Edwards embodies all of these traits and more, which is why at this time I fully support his run for the White House.

This post from hid blog commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. Day is a great example of why I am pulling for the former Senator. More than any other politician or political candidate, I think Edwards really captures the essence of Dr. King's political legacy. King was an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war as well as a strong advocate for progressive social and economic policies, something the Right Wing is only too-happy to sweep under the rug when discussing the assassinated civil rights leader. Sure, they're happy to talk about his religious convictions, but not the fact that the FBI spied on him because his demands for economic and social justice were considered to be communist and subversive. If he were active today, the Right would happily be slandering him as a terrorist-sympathizer and anti-American.

One criticism of Edwards' background, which some believe might derail his chances of becoming the next President, is the fact that yes, he was a ridiculously successful trial lawyer. I think being a trial lawyer, and representing the interests of the powerless and disenfranchised against the multimillion dollar corporations that have hurt them through their negligence, is a noble calling - especially compared to the previous professions of George W. Bush (failed oil company CEO and professional baseball franchise owner) and Dick Cheney (head of a military contractor that has profited immensely from the illegal invasion and destruction of Iraq).

Nevertheless, the business media is replete with predictably depressing reports that Wall Street and Big Money interests are joining hands to smear and slander Edwards as somehow being a threat to America's business community. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. The irony of course is that Edwards is a genuine economic populist and social progressive, although he clearly has proven his ability to succeed wildly in the business world without the countless advantages afforded to the silver-spooned George W Bushes of the world, who never met a piece of corporate welfare he didn't support.

At the end of the day, Edwards has been a strong, principled opponent of the Iraq war and a foreceful and eloquent champion of the need for the US to begin immediately withdrawing its military forces from the country. (And yes, based on his apology for initially supporting the war I don't hold his previous position against him.) And equally important for me is his strong, unqualified support for organized labor, as this blog post from the Washington Post back in May of last year clearly demonstrates.

And he has the right position on "free trade", in other words, he opposes trade deals like NAFTA that ensure corporations' and the elites' economic interests (such as intellectual property) are carefully protected while leaving working Americans and most citizens of the Global South to twist in the wind without the benefits of labor, human rights or environmental protections. In 2004, he challenged his eventual running mate John Kerry on the latter's support for "free" trade deals, and as John Nichols writing in The Nation's blog noted back in February of 2004:

"Edwards has not been so consistent a foe of free trade policies as Feingold, or Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who is also seeking the Democratic nod. But the North Carolinian has cast votes in the Senate against a number of trade agreements, and he has made opposition to the FTAA and calls for a reworking of NAFTA an important part of his message in the presidential campaign."

Closer to Kucinich than Kerry on trade? I like those odds, especially considering that Feingold is not running.

Will this year see the beginning of a globalization offensive?

Writing at The Nation (subscription required), William Greider notes with some optimism that the new Democrat-controlled Congress may present an opening for critics of corporate-led globalization to slow down the harmful effects of this ubitquous economic phenomenon. Globalization is not an inevitable force of nature, after all, and what man creates man can also stop.

Greider starts off his piece by noting the poor track record would-be reformers have tallied up in criticizing the global system of economic integration: "For decades, the critics of the global system have been pinned down by multinational business and finance and reduced to playing defense. Labor, environment and other reform advocates have mostly tried to block new trade agreements negotiated by Republican and Democratic Presidents. Their efforts usually have fallen short."

But he wants us to believe that 2007 may represent a new page in the historical battle against the currently existing economic order. Some of these challenges may represent critiques of the inequities in the structure of the global order, others may simply be legislative responses to obvious human rights abuses by multinational corporations exploiting "free" trade deals with Third World nations that are conspicuously barren of any labor or human rights protections. For example, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH) have jointly introduced first-of-its-kind anti-sweatshop legislation that "[would[ bar imports produced under internationally defined "sweatshop" conditions and holds companies accountable for using forced labor or denying basic human rights to workers, including the right to organize. The sweatshop measure could be amended to include well-defined terms requiring safe workplace construction, thus outlawing the conditions that lead to the factory fires that have killed thousands of young workers making garments and toys in Asia."

Greider notes some other important globalization-related challenges that the new Congress ought to address, especially if the American citizens these legislators represent make it clear that these represent serious concerns. For example, there is the free-rider problem that exists when American companies move more and more of their manufacturing offshore. These corporations simultaneously enjoy all the benefits of being "American"--government services and subsidies, the protection of the US military--while discarding reciprocal obligations to the country: creating jobs for citizens, making economic and infrastructure investment and paying a fair share of the tax burden.

There are also the cataclysmic record trade deficits the federal government is continuing to rack up with our trading partners. In fact, as Greider notes, the entire global trading regime itself is "deeply out of whack and unstable, in need of major structural reforms." To ameliorate these structural problems, Dorgan and Feingold have put forward the "Balanced Trade Restoration" Act.

Here's the key insight from the entire piece (which, if you already have a subscription to The Nation I highly recommend you read in its entirety) is this: "[According to Dorgan], other nations will not accept the need for such moderating changes--new international financial rules, new protections for labor and environmental rights--until they see that the United States is prepared to act on its own. If Washington does act, US multinationals would be compelled to bring some production back home, the United States would resign as buyer of last resort and major exporting economies like China would have to stimulate their own domestic consumption. These are all healthy steps toward balance and equity.

BearingPoint under the microscope

The Independent's (UK) Stephen Foley reports on the connection between the White House and Iraq's billions of dollars worth of petroleum reserves:

The American company appointed to advise the US government on the economic reconstruction of Iraq has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars into Republican Party coffers and has admitted that its own finances are in chaos because of accounting errors and bad management.

BearingPoint is fighting to restore its reputation in the US after falling more than a year behind in reporting its own financial results, prompting legal actions from its creditors and shareholders.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, BearingPoint employees gave $117,000 (£60,000) to the 2000 and 2004 Bush election campaigns, more than any other Iraq contractor. Other recipients include three prominent Congressmen on the House of Representatives' defence sub-committee, which oversees defence department contracts.

One of the biggest single contributors to BearingPoint's in-house political fund was James Horner, who heads the company's emerging markets business which is working in Iraq and Afghanistan. He donated $5,000 in August 2005.

The company's shares have collapsed to a third of their value when the firm listed in 2001, and it faces being thrown out of the New York Stock Exchange altogether. Despite annual revenues of $3.4bn, the company made a loss of $722m in 2005. Those figures were released only last month, nine months late, and the company has not yet been able to report any fully audited figures at all for 2006.

Analysts in the US claim the reason is a culture of poor management controls stretching back to before the company was carved out of KPMG, the global accounting giant, at the start of the decade. A litany of failings included invoices going astray, poorly trained accounting staff and a failure to work out the tax implications of having so many employees working in foreign countries.

The chaos is not the result of malfeasance, but is "embarrassing and inexcusable" none the less, according to Harry You, a former computer company finance chief brought in to head BearingPoint in 2005 after it fired its long-standing previous chief executive, the former US army captain Randolph Blazer. BearingPoint did not return calls asking for comment yesterday.

BearingPoint is being paid $240m for its work in Iraq, winning an initial contract from the US Agency for International Development (USAid) within weeks of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. It was charged with supporting the then Coalition Provisional Authority to introduce policies "which are designed to create a competitive private sector". Its role is to examine laws, regulations and institutions that regulate trade, commerce and investment, and to advise ministries and the central bank.

Last week The Independent on Sunday revealed that a BearingPoint employee, based in the US embassy in Baghdad, had been tasked with advising the Iraqi Ministry of Oil on drawing up a new hydrocarbon law. The legislation, which is due to be presented to Iraq's parliament within days, will give Western oil companies a large slice of profits from the country's oil fields in exchange for investing in new oil infrastructure.

BearingPoint's first task in Iraq in 2003 was to help to plan the introduction of a new currency, and it was hoped that it would eventually organise small loans to Iraqi entrepreneurs to stimulate a significant market economy. The contract award was immediately criticised by public integrity watchdogs and by the company's rivals, because BearingPoint advisers to USAid had a hand in drafting the requirements set out in the tender. It spent five months helping USAid to write the job specifications and even sent some employees to Iraq to begin work before the contract was awarded, while its competitors had only a week to read the specifications and submit their own bids after final revisions were made.

USAid's independent inspector ruled that "BearingPoint's extensive involvement in the development of the Iraq economic reform program creates the appearance of unfair competitive advantage in the contract award process". The company said it was selected through a transparent and competitive bidding process.

Across the world, BearingPoint has become, thanks to USAid funding, a part of the US government's strategy of spreading free-market reforms to developing countries and America's allies. Elsewhere in the Middle East it is advising the government of Jordan on how to minimise the regulation of business and reform its tax policies in order to attract foreign investment; in Egypt it is advising on customs reform and respect for international companies' patents.

It has won more than $100m of business in Afghanistan since American troops invaded in 2002, and has been helping to build a banking system, training civil servants in the finance ministry and offering advice on economic policy.

Its economic reconstruction work grew out of early work in eastern Europe after the fall of communism, and became a significant contributor to the business after it won contracts in the former Yugoslavia following US intervention there.

The company changed its name to BearingPoint from KPMG Consulting in 2002, shortly after separating from its parent company. In the years since, contracts with the US government have proved the highlight of the business, while its work for private company clients has failed to live up to hopes. In part because of its reliance on the US federal government - which accounts for about 30 per cent of revenues - BearingPoint has dramatically stepped up its attempts to buy influence in Washington. Its contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan coincide with a big increase in its lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. In 2005, the latest year for which figures have been collated, BearingPoint paid $1m to lobbyists, equalling the record total it paid in 2003. That is five times its average annual bill for lobbyists prior to the war in Iraq.

It also dramatically increased its political contributions in the run-up to the midterm elections, distributing $120,000 to candidates and campaign groups from its employee-sponsored political fund. That compares with $61,000 in the 2004 elections.


Sunday, January 14, 2007

US airstikes in Somalia accidentally kills scores of civilians

The Independent (UK) reports on the latest Pentagon-led war crimes committed in the name of "The War on Terror" in a Third World Nation. The headline says it all: US strikes on al-Qa'ida chiefs kill nomads (emphasis added).

From the newspaper's report: "Oxfam yesterday confirmed at least 70 nomads in the Afmadow district near the border with Kenya had been killed. The nomads were bombed at night and during the day while searching for water sources. Meanwhile, the US ambassador to Kenya has acknowledged that the onslaught on Islamist fighters failed to kill any of the three prime targets wanted for their alleged role in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. [. . .]

The operation, which opened a new front in Washington's anti-terror campaign, seems to have backfired spectacularly in the five days since it was launched. In addition to the scores of Somali civilians killed, the simmering civil war in the failed state has been rekindled.

Yesterday concern was mounting at the high number of civilian casualties, despite a claim by the US ambassador, Michael Ranneberger, that no civilians had been killed or injured and that only one attack had taken place. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, reported that an estimated 100 people were wounded in Monday's air strikes on the small fishing village of Ras Kamboni launched from the US military base in Djibouti after a mobile phone intercept."

The indispensible Stephen Zunes from Foreign Policy In Focus has some expert commentary over at Common Dreams' website entitled "Somalia as a Military Target", and the key paragrahs from his editorial are:

As with Afghanistan, which suffered from similar chaos following the ouster of its Communist government in 1992, stability [in Somalia] came through puritanical Islamist elements. The system of Islamic courts had become increasingly popular since they – unlike the TFG or anyone else – had brought peace and stability in areas where they ruled. This past summer, they came together to form the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) and set up a government. Unlike the Taliban, however, which was heavily influenced by al-Qaida and hard-line elements of Pakistani intelligence, the ICU was a purely homegrown movement. While it included some extremist elements that may have indeed had some affinity with radical jihadists, U.S. charges of al-Qaida affiliation appear to have been grossly exaggerated. They were also not nearly as repressive in their interpretation of Islam as the Taliban, such as barring women from employment, education, or health care. Within months, they controlled most of the country outside the Baidoa region.

The ICU limited civil liberties -- such as strongly discouraging Western dancing, music, and films – but it also disarmed militias and banned the widespread and debilitating use of the narcotic qat. It publicly executed two convicted murderers, though this was just one-twelfth of the number of people executed in Texas in 2006. Indeed, the ICU was not nearly as repressive or as extremist in its interpretation of Islam as the U.S.-backed government of Saudi Arabia. And despite the dangerous intentions and connections of some of its leadership, the ICU had finally brought stability and peace to a country that had suffered the lost of over one million people over the past sixteen years of violent chaos.

The Bush administration could not tolerate the existence of an Islamist regime it could not control, however. The United States began arming, training, and financing the armed forces of the Ethiopian dictatorship in preparation for an invasion of Somalia, despite the fact that such an act of aggression is a clear violation of the UN Charter, which – as a signed and ratified international treaty – both Ethiopia and the United States are obliged to uphold.

After weeks of clashes on Somali territory, Ethiopian forces launched a full-scale invasion on December 24. Four days later, Ethiopian forces advanced to Mogadishu, installing the TFG in government offices. Since that time, violence and lawlessness have returned to the Somali capital. Fighting between various armed factions has reignited, roadblocks manned by various militias have sprung up to extort money from passing motorists, and the peace enjoyed under ICU rule has come to an end.

As ICU forces retreated southward, the U.S. Navy tightened its blockade of the Somali coast. On January 8, the United States launched a series of strikes in southern Somalia. Despite initial claims by U.S. officials that the air strikes killed senior al-Qaida officials implicated in several notorious terrorist attacks in East Africa, it now appears that the scores of people killed were primarily civilians, along with some ICU militiamen. The attacks have set off waves of anti-American anger in Mogadishu and elsewhere.

By January 12, the last ICU stronghold had fallen. To have the first government that brought any semblance of stability to Somalia in seventeen years ousted by military operations of its historic rival Ethiopia and the United States, both predominantly Christian nations, will likely play into the hands of radical Islamists who hope to stir up religious hatreds. No longer in power, the Islamists could indeed start engaging in terrorism and – like other Muslim countries under occupation by non-Muslim powers – could become the center of a global jihad.

Furthermore, what al-Qaida operatives may have indeed found their way to Somalia were there not as a result of an Islamist-identified central authority but because of the chaos and instability from the lack of a central authority. While the Bush administration has long obsessed over alleged state-sponsored terrorism, it is failed states like Somalia and Iraq where extremist movements and terrorism is allowed to flourish. The recent interventions by the United States and Ethiopia have only made matters worse.

Great historical analysis by Zunes here, read the whole thing.

Update: John Judis writes in The New Republic (free access via ZMag) that the Bush administration's "active support" for Ethopia's recent invasion of Somalia is clearly a violation of international law as well as yet another example of rank hypocrisy emanating from the State Department:

"[L]ast month, the Bush administration actively supported Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia. It provided money, advisers, and, finally, U.S. warplanes. And there was no justification for Ethiopia's invasion. It was a clear violation of the U.N. charter. The neighboring people have been feuding for centuries, but Ethiopia's Christian government could not cite a significant provocation for its attack on the Muslim country and its Islamic government. If anything, Ethiopia's invasion closely resembled Iraq's invasion in August 1990 of Kuwait. But, instead of criticizing the Ethiopians, the United States applauded and aided them."

According to Judis' analysis, the US's backing of Ethopia represents a "net loss of freedom", noting that "the U.S.-backed Ethiopian government of Meles Zenawi has been widely accused of human rights violations. After the Ethiopian opposition protested that the 2005 election was rigged, the Meles government killed 193 demonstrators and arrested about 80,000 others to quell the protests," and that "[w]th the ouster of the Islamic Courts, the warlords are likely to return to power. Somalia will probably be plunged into another guerrilla war, as the Islamists try to retake power. And the United States will once again ally with these warlords and with a weak, corrupt regime."

Judis' chilling conclusion deserves to be closely scrutinized by the warmakers and foreign policy apparatus of the current corrupt Bush administration: "In the 1990s, foreign policy experts, eager to identify a new enemy, hit upon the concept of a "rogue state." A rogue state operated outside the bounds of international norms and had to be restrained. The obvious candidates at the time were Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But the Bush administration has turned the United States itself into a rogue state. Tough-minded conservatives, flexing their "muscular" inclinations from comfortable sinecures in Washington, may dismiss concerns about international law and war crimes as inventions of silly panty-waist liberals. But these inventions, which, in the modern era, were championed by Theodore Roosevelt, were meant to protect Americans as well as other peoples from the wars and the inhumanity that prevailed for thousands of years. We ignore them at their peril, whether in Haditha or Ras Kamboni." (also, be sure to check out Noam Chomsky's recent magesterial work "Failed States", parts of which areavailable free online via Google Books. Also, see this review of the book byStephen Lendman and this interview with Chomsky by Amy Goodman at Amy Goodman.)

Friday, January 12, 2007

New report: Wars, Disasters and Corporations

A rather long report (.pdf) from Focus on the Global South detailing Iraq's new neoliberal constitution, how the US is attempting to gain control of Iraq's oil and how the US is pushing Iraq to join the WTO.

Lots of important information in here, but I may need several days to make my way through the whole thing - it's 90+ pages!

A Democratic "Populist Caucus" in the Senate is a great idea

Over at The American Prospect Online, Ezra Klein reports that:

[Virginia Senator Jim Webb], along with Byron Dorgan, Jon Tester, and Sherrod Brown, created a sort of Populist's Caucus in the Senate, which would seek to restore intellectual vibrancy and legislative energy to the economic left.

This is a very welcome development, and one I look forward to covering in the coming months. It is about time that the economically progressive Senators developed a caucus to help organize their policy positions into a coherent voice. Hopefully, the members of this new caucus will be successful in enacting legislation that matches the strong ideals its members clearly possess. The Economic Policy Institute's Agenda for Shared Prosperity, which has already held a conference with keynote address delivered by Webb, is an excellent example of what direction these populists should be looking toward.

Joe Lieberman: The lowest of the low

Check out this atrocious Lieberman flip-flop courtesy of Sirotablog and Newsweek. It seems Joltin' Joe is no longer content to just lie about his policy position on Iraq - now he is busy lying and backtracking on his previous commitments to the victims of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. From Newsweek:

“Sen. Joe Lieberman, the only Democrat to endorse President Bush’s new plan for Iraq, has quietly backed away from his pre-election demands that the White House turn over potentially embarrassing documents relating to its handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster in New Orleans…the decision by Lieberman, the new chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, to back away from the committee’s Katrina probe is already dismaying public-interest groups and others who hoped the Democratic victory in November would lead to more aggressive investigations of one of the White House’s most spectacular foul-ups.

Last year, when he was running for re-election in Connecticut, Lieberman was a vocal critic of the administration’s handling of Katrina. He was especially dismayed by its failure to turn over key records that could have shed light on internal White House deliberations about the hurricane, including those involving President Bush…But now that he chairs the homeland panel—and is in a position to subpoena the records—Lieberman has decided not to pursue the material, according to Leslie Phillips, the senator’s chief committee spokeswoman…Asked whether Lieberman’s new stand might feed complaints that he has become too close to the White House, Phillips responded: ‘The senator is an independent Democrat and answers only to the people who elected him to office and to his own conscience.’”

I just don't understand how the majority of Connecticut residents voted for this guy. I wasn't exactly bowled over by Ned Lamont, but Lieberman is one of the worst Senators of any party, including his own "party of one". Truly pathetic.

Update: A new low for the Junior Senator from Connecticut: Lieberman now threatening to filibuster, (with the GOP, of course), the Senate resolution opposing the escalation of troops in Iraq.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Washington State proves raising the minimum wage doesn't hurt small businesses

The New York Times has some good reporting on how an increase in the state minimum wage in Washington ten years ago has led to "the growth of jobs and personal income", increased prosperity for small businesses and is causing a flood of job applicants from Neighboring Idaho - which has a minimum wage $3 an hour lower ($7.93 vs. $5.15, respectively).

Interestingly, the NYT reports that "[T]he state's major business lobby, the Association of Washington Business, is no longer fighting the minimum-wage law, which is adjusted every year in line with the consumer price index.

''You don't see us screaming out loud about this,'' said Don Brunell, president of the trade group, which represents 6,300 members.

''It's almost a no-brainer,'' Mr. Brunell said, that the federal minimum should go higher. Association officials say they would like to see some flexibility for rural and small-town businesses, however.

Washington's robust economy, which added nearly 90,000 jobs last year, is proof that even with the country's highest minimum wage, ''this is a great place to do business,'' Mr. Brunell said.

The states, as usual, are the labratories where economic policy are tested - and by comparing the benefits Washington businesses and employees have reaped from raising their minimum wage (especially compared with those states that are still sitting at the $5.15 federal minimum) should really be a clarion call for action on Capital Hill.

And for some (qualified) good news, the House has voted to approved a $2.10-an-hour increase in the federal minimum wage on Wednesday, in a vote that Democrats hailed as "overdue and a symbol of new leadership on Capitol Hill." I'll feel better knowing that this increase won't be offset by more tax cuts for small business.

The Economic Policy Institute's Jared Bernstein, in testimony given to the Senate Finance Committee, explains exactly why these tax cuts being demanded by the Republican minority are both unnecessary and counterproductive:

[M]inimum wage policy is a simple, direct way to help lift the earnings of those whose limited ability to bargain for a fair wage has precluded them from sharing in the prosperity they themselves help to generate. High-quality research and the uniquely positive experiences of low-wage workers following the last federal increase has revealed that the policy leads to few of the distortions cited by opponents. And while targeting concerns have also been raised, the evidence shows that most of the benefits from the increase flow to workers who need the raise.

Finally, there is little rationale for adding any tax cuts to this bill. Businesses both large and small have enjoyed hundreds of billions of such cuts over the past decade, as the value of the last federal minimum wage increase has evaporated. The wage increase under consideration is a small one in historical terms, and it is very likely that any tax cuts intended to offset its costs to businesses will swamp it in magnitude. And while the wage increase has no fiscal costs, the same cannot be said for tax cuts. They must either add to the federal budget deficit or, under the new PAYGO rules, be paid for by revenue additions and spending cuts elsewhere.

It will be interesting to see how this battle shakes out.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Bush's latest Iraq speech full of lies and idiotic thinking

The Associated Press drops the pretense of straight reporting and drops a slam dunk of an editorial tearing apart Bush's ridiculous speech (transcript and video here) on a "new way forward" in Iraq last night. The cornerstone of Bush's plan is to send 20,000 more troops to Iraq, mostly to be stationed in Baghdad, to help pacify the country.

The first paragraph of the article delivers a savage blow to Bush's speech, and his utter failure to propose a plan to deal with Iraq that is based on, you know, reality. The author, AP writer Larry Margasak (who deserves praise for his reasoned skepticism) notes: "Winning support among Middle Eastern countries is part of President Bush's revised strategy for Iraq. But he pitched the new plan by leaving out a pertinent fact: Anti-U.S. rhetoric in those nations has grown increasingly hostile since the execution of a man Bush never mentioned — Saddam Hussein."

In other words, Bush cynically portrayed average citizens in the Middle East as being supportive of our continued military occupation of Iraq. Nothing could be further from the truth, with most Iraqi civilians favoring the US set a timetable for withdrawal and in fact want US forces to "immediately withdrawal from the country" based on polling by the US State Department.

As Margasak notes: "In contrast to Bush's view about Middle East opinion, the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia, which is rooted in the hard-line Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam, has stepped up its anti-Shiite rhetoric. Last month, about 30 clerics called on Sunnis around the Middle East to support their brethren in Iraq against Shiites and praised the insurgency. In Friday prayers in the Qatari capital, influential Sunni cleric Sheik Youssef Qaradawi accused Iraq's Shiite government of "a genocide" against Sunnis and appealed to the Sunni world to intervene."

Another significant problem with the speech mentioned include the fact that Bush confirmed he is refusing to engage either Syria or Iran diplomatically, as many U.S. allies and the independent Iraq Study Group urged him to do. This didn't stop him from citing the ISG report to buttress his argument that withdrawal could lead to chaos. I guess he gets to pick and choose from the menu of suggestions the pointless ISG report offers to suit his political agenda. Or as Bush said: "Failure in Iraq would be a disaster for the United States" a proposition not only Bush and the ISG believe to be true, but every sentinent being on the planet. But someone should explain to Bush that increasing the number of US soldiers in Iraq represents a failure much larger than beginning a withdrawal."

Crooks and Liars has Keith Olbermann's reaction to the flagrant dishonest and cynicism of the speech, and as usual he is right on the money. In fact, his monologue is so good, I just have to republish the whole thing for the record:

President Bush makes no secret of his distaste for looking backward, for assessing past results. [But in our third story on the Countdown tonight] … too bad.

Any meaningful assessment of the president's next step in Iraq must consider his steps and missteps so far. So, let's look at the record: Before Mr. Bush was elected, he said he was no nation-builder; nation-building was wrong for America. Now, he says it is vital for America.

He said he would never put U.S. troops under foreign control. Today, U.S. troops observe Iraqi restrictions. He told us about WMDs. Mobile labs. Secret sources. Aluminum tubing. Yellow-cake. He has told us the war is necessary…Because Saddam was a threat; Because of 9/11; Osama bin Laden; al Qaeda; Because of terrorism in general; To liberate Iraq; To spread freedom; To spread democracy; To keep the oil out of the hands of terrorist-controlled states; Because this was a guy who tried to kill his dad.

In pushing for and prosecuting this war, he passed on chances to get Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Muqtada al-Sadr, Osama bin Laden. He sent in fewer troops than recommended. He disbanded the Iraqi Army, and "de-Baathified" the government. He short-changed Iraqi training. He did not plan for widespread looting, nor the explosion of sectarian violence. He sent in troops without life-saving equipment. Gave jobs to foreign contractors, not the Iraqis. Staffed US positions there, based on partisanship, not professionalism.

We learned that "America had prevailed", "Mission Accomplished", the resistance was in its "last throes". He has said more troops were not necessary, and more troops are necessary, and that it's up to the generals, and removed some of the generals who said more troops would be necessary. He told us of turning points: The fall of Baghdad, the death of Uday and Qusay, the capture of Saddam, a provisional government,the trial of Saddam, a charter, a constitution, an Iraqi government, ¤elections, purple fingers, a new government, the death of Saddam.

We would be greeted as liberators, with flowers. As they stood up–we would stand down, we would stay the course, we were never 'stay the course', The enemy was al Qaeda, was foreigners, terrorists, Baathists.

The war would pay for itself, it would cost 1-point-7 billion dollars, 100 billion, 400 billion, half a trillion dollars. And after all of that, today it is his credibility versus that of generals, diplomats, allies, Republicans, Democrats, the Iraq Study Group, past presidents, voters last November, and the majority of the American people.

The New York Times reports that: "In promising to stop Iran from meddling in Iraq, President Bush returned Wednesday night to a strategy of confrontation in dealing with Tehran, casting aside what had been a limited flirtation with a more diplomatic approach toward it."

And Editor & Publisher reports that according to a CNN poll released on Monday, only 11% of Americans support Bush's "surge" idea, and fully one-third of the public still support the war with more than half stating they want US troops out of the country within a year.

Finally, from Think Progress we learn that despite Bush's supposed calls for bipartisanship and working with the new Democratic leadership in Congress, the troop surge actually had already begun before Bush even gave his speech.

The bottom line is that the Democratc leadership can write as many pointed letters to the White House - as Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have already done - but at the end of the day, talk is cheap and the only thing that will make a real difference is if Congress can withold the funds necessary for Bush to launch his escalation.

As journalist Patrick Martin bluntly put it: "The two top congressional Democratic leaders have publicly opposed the Bush administration’s plans to dispatch more troops to Iraq, while signaling to the White House that there will be no serious effort to prevent an escalation of the slaughter as the bloodbath in Iraq heads towards its fifth year. . .The Democrats’ differences with Bush revolve around whether military victory is achievable, not about the legitimacy of Bush’s initial decision to invade and occupy Iraq, which the congressional Democratic leadership largely supported, and which nearly every Democrat in Congress has backed materially by voting to fund the military budget."

On the other hand, the legislation being put forward by Senator Ted Kennedy would prevent funds from being allocated to send additional troops to Iraq unless Congress approves the President’s proposed escalation of American forces. Getting behind this bill would represent the absolute minimum the new Democrat-controlled Congress could do to stop Bush from moving forward with his mad scheme.

How the Democrats handle this crisis will have major consequences for the course of American history in the 21st Century, and it represents the first major test of how seriously they plan to use their majority status to shut down this war.

Update: McClatchy's nail's Bush's ass to the wall, in an article (not an op-ed) titled "Administration leaving out important details on Iraq".

Proving the Washington Pundit has no clothes

Check out this article in the new RADAR Online that is sure to get your blood boiling. In an unscientific analysis of eight pundits - four who supported the war in Iraq during the runup, and four who opposed the war - the author finds that the prescient critics of the war have actually seen a decline in their fortunes and are writing and speaking to small audiences of dedicated lefties. Not surprisingly, the four cheerleaders pushing for the 2003 invasion (Tom Friedman is a prominent example) have seen a surge in their speaking fees, published bestselling books and are being relentlessly hounded by television producers to appear and express their views on the most popular programs.

In other words, hack pundits like Tom Friedman and Peter Beinhart are currently being lavished with attention and book deals instead of being called to account for their errors of judgement an having their credibility to analyze US foreign policy closely scrutinized. At the very same time, liberal (and in one case, a conservative) pundits who predicted the disaster an invasion of Iraq would represent and thus argued against it have in some cases - such as Robert Scheer at the Los Angeles Times - been fired, and in other places are having an increasingly difficult time getting a fair hearing from the mainstream media gatekeepers and opinion-makers in New York City and Washington DC.

As a side note, as I have previously admitted on this blog I was supportive of an invasion of Iraq from the Fall of 2002 until the late Summer / early Fall of 2003, based more on humanitarian grounds than concerns over claimed stockpiles of WMD. I have admitted to this in the most public of forums, and if one would like to call into question my credibility in terms of writing about foreign and or security policy, then that's a fair charge I suppose.

Check out Digby's take on the article, including this wise insight: "Evidently, the difference between the Hollywood and DC star systems is that Hollywood stars' salaries go down precipitously when they make a string of flops. In DC you get higher billing and even more money. Nice racket."

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The case for public financing of elections

With the Democratic Party running the Legislative Branch, the public financing of elections ought to be implemented immediately. If the government is truly serious about campaign finance reform, public financing is truly the only policy solution - everything else is merely a fig leaf meant to make politicians look courageous all the while allowing them to continue participating in the current regime of legalized bribery.

But even if one wants to take a more cynical view of campaign finance reform, a view that looks more to the political advantage that could be derived from implementing the public financing of elections rather than the benefits our system of democratic participation in government would accrue from curtailing the monopoly of power Big Business lobbyists hold on Capitol Hill, a strong case can be made for moving ahead with this policy. And Zachary Roth has written a fantastic article for Washington Monthly (the liberal magazine he edits) which makes a self-described Machiavellian case for public financing.

Roth notes that exit polls from last November's elections found that more voters named corruption as an extremely important issue than any other, including Iraq. In his article, he gets down to eloquently stating the obvious truth of the matter: "Democratic leaders have announced that, in their first 100 hours in office, they’ll introduce an ethics- and lobbying-reform package that would ban lobbyist-financed gifts, meals, and travel; mandate disclosure of all member contacts with lobbyists; and address the problem of earmarks by requiring that the sponsors of funding for home-state pet projects be identified, among other steps.

These measures are a clear improvement on the toothless approach embraced by congressional Republicans in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal last year. But few seriously believe that they get to the heart of Washington’s influence problem. That problem will exist as long as elected officials must raise large amounts of money to run for office from the organized economic interests they’re supposed to be regulating. That’s why any serious effort to clean up Washington must break the connection between money and elections. The only way to do that is to provide candidates for office with public revenue to run their campaigns."

He also runs down a laundry list of reasons why moving toward a system of public financing would create a strong advantage for Democrats against Republicans. First, he documents how the current private system favors Republicans both ideologically and financially, as well as preventing Democrats from taking principled stands due to the constant need to make sure they are not biting the hand that feeds them. As Roth notes: "Currently, Democrats—especially the more progressive ones—must ask for votes by claiming they’ll stand up for working people, while at the same time, though more subtly, keeping one eye on the interests of their corporate benefactors."

Also, establishing a public system of financing would allow Democrats to claim a higher moral ground against the GOP, who can reasonably be expected to reject such a meaningful reform due to the fact that the current system provides them with a fundraising advantage (and, to a lesser degree, their aversion to non-military government spending).

Roth explains how the current system works in such a way as to make clear that it must be replaced with public financing: "[The current lobbying] machine works as follows: First, Republican leaders pressure major K-Street lobbying shops to hire loyal GOP lieutenants—usually former congressional aides—in place of the pragmatic corporate executives who used to be in charge. That allows the party to subsume K Street’s vast resources—its lawyers, lobbyists, PR professionals, and, most important, its money—into the Republican political operation. Through their allies on K Street, GOP leaders can ensure that lobbying firms give the lion’s share of their donations to Republicans—helping to perpetuate the party’s political dominance. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1993, when Democrats controlled Congress and the White House, 19 key industries—including accounting, pharmaceuticals, and defense—gave roughly evenly between the parties. By 2003, they gave twice as much to Republicans as to Democrats."

Finally, Roth explains how implementing public financing would help Democrats pass their agenda. He points out that in recent years, the party has "at times failed to stay united on major economic votes like the bankruptcy bill of 2005, in part because some members have caved to their corporate backers." On the other hand, "If Democrats hope to fix the Medicare drug plan or repeal some of the Bush tax cuts, they’ll need to reduce these defections. Ending the link between corporate money and elections will make it easier for Democrats to side with their constituents, not their contributors. And creating a record of legislative accomplishment is perhaps the most effective way for Democrats to boost their political prospects."

Roth is not politically naive enough to think that this type of extensive reform can be passed in the next two years. Rather, he envisions a strategy of Democrats using their newly found legislative power to lay the ideological and political groundwork necessary to implement the policy in 2008. He also recognizes the fact that the public would probably be reluctant to foot the bill for such an expensive new taxpayer subsidy, regardless of the clear benefit of democratic empowerment it would provide every citizen with. So he suggests levying a tax on lobbyists, PACs, political consultants, and government contractors to fund the program. Needless to say, every lobbyist outfit in Washington would join forces to block this, and it's hard to underestimate the combined clout K Street holds right now over Congress.

For a case study in the disastrous results pay-for-play politics currently represents, check out this report from Common Cause on how the cable industry leveraged $100 million in campaign donations to get Congress to pass favorable legislation.

Update: Apparently, Dick Durban (D-IL) - who just so happens to be the second most powerful man in the Senate - is paying heed and is now on the record as not only favoring public financing but also working on new legislation to accomplish just that. And it is being reported that this legislation would likely be based on public campaign finance laws in Arizona and Maine.

More on the folly of "escalation"

When polled by Gallup, 36% of the US public supports Bush's completely insane "escalation" plan for Iraq, while 61% - a solid majority - oppose it, reports Editor & Publisher. Perhaps because Bush's plan represents little more than pouring additional kerosene onto the bonfire that is occupied Iraq. And you know it's an incredibly bad idea when no less that disgraced felon Col. Oliver North admits that based upon his recent trip to the region, nearly all US troops are "opposed to escalating the war in Iraq."

For some must-read commentary on the folly of Bush's plan, be sure to check out Ramzy Baroud's latest editorial in Asia Times Online. He argues that any US escalation in troop strength in Iraq has "more to do with [a confrontation with] Iran than repairing the damage done in Iraq," as war against Tehran would by necessity rely heavily on carrier-based aircraft and missiles launched from the Persian Gulf. Adding troops to the region makes perfect sense when viewed from this perspective. For more on Israel's potential plans for a "nuclear strike" on Iran, see this short article in the Independent (UK).

According to The Independent, "Israel is said to have identified three prime targets south of Tehran, including Nantanz, where facilities are being installed for uranium enrichment underground. Israeli pilots are believed to have flown to Gibraltar recently to train for the 2,000-mile round trip to Iran." Note that I would take this reporting with a large grain of salt as its claims haven't been independently collaborated by a credible news source.

By the way, serious kudos to Senator and Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards for calling out the GOP for their support of escalating the Iraq war. He brilliantly has dubbed Bush's "surge" strategy as the "McCain Doctrine". It's high time Democrats start holding to account those politicians who would like to add more boots to the ground in a failed enterprise and put additional lives at risk to salvage the reputations of those who advocated for this war in the first place.

And other than Bush and Cheney, no one has been banging the drum louder for an escalation of force than John McCain, and if he and Edwards are going to face each other on the campaign trail next year, it's good to nail down the positions each of them hold on Iraq.

Update #1: And much respect to Ted Kennedy for dropping the Q-word and evoking the Vietnam War, which has been long overdue.

Update #2
: Great article by Helene Cooper in the New York Times that asks a rather provocative question: Whether Iraq can really be considered a "sovereign nation" if the Bush administration is "thrusting new strategy" on its leadership. The answer, by the way, is no.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Taking Kudlow to the woodshed

Ezra Klein does a fairly effective job of exposing the sheer mindlessness of uber-hack Larry Kudlow's claims that the rich are paying more than their fair share in taxes. As Kudlow states: "The top 1 percent of income earners paid about 37 percent of all federal income taxes—a big jump from prior years."

But there's a reason for this jump in the wealthy's share of the tax burden that Klein helpfully explains to his readers: "The top 1% saw their incomes jump by 18 percent in 2004, for a total of 53 percent of the income growth. That means one out of every two dollars in higher wages that year went to a member of the top percentile. And, it turns out, when you make all the money, you pay more of the taxes -- though not proportionately so. In 2004, the rich paid more because they made more."

In addition, financial blogger extraordinaire Bonddad explains in his DailyKos diary how the wealthiest Americans (i.e.: those with an annual income in excess of $1 million) have in fact received most of the Bush administration tax cut benefit, analyzing a recent non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report. Another very important detail: tax rates for middle-income earners edged up in 2004, the most recent year for which data was available, at the same time rates for people at the very top continued to decline. (For more on this, see this article from the Washington Post written back in August 2004 appropriately titled "Tax Burden Shifts to the Middle".)

Folks, this is the definition of class warfare, and the Larry Kudlow's of the world are winning it.

Update (7/17): Matthew Yglesias brings yet another ridiculous Kudlow claim to light - that somehow Wall Street is giving the Bush administration's foreign policy a "vote of confidence" - and subjects it to the public humiliation he deserves. As Yglesias says, Kudlow doesn't understand very basic economics, despite the fact that the man presents himself as a conservative pundit, journalist and business economist. Very confusing . . .

Sunday, January 07, 2007

On balancing fiscal priorities

Here's a great new blog post by Daily Kos front-pager "Miss Laura" on how the Democrats should use their control of Congress to both address the budget deficit and help restore the social safety net decimated by six years of Bush administration and GOP Congressional misrule. The post is entitled "Fix the Deficit, yes, but Fix the Country Too" and the author cites an excellent editorial by Robert Kuttner, editor and co-founder of the American Prospect, appearing in the Boston Globe.

In that editorial, Kuttner correctly argues that repealing the Bush tax cuts should be a paramount priority for the new Democratic majority in the Congress, and he notes that while "[i]t is virtuous of the Democrats to resurrect pay-as-you-go, it's a little like closing the barn door after the horse escaped. In this case, the horse got away with about $3 trillion of deficits -- for tax breaks, military escalations, and special-interest spending for Republican clients like the drug companies."

In other words, while terminating the unstustainable tax cuts for the superrich and restoring fiscal discipline to the federal government are important concerns, it is important to preserve social spending on programs such as Medicare, Head Start and affordable housing programs.

Miss Laura puts it well: "This is what Democrats need to stand for. Yes, the United States needs to be fiscally responsible - but it is not responsible to continue to spend $195 million per day on a war the country was lied into, it is not responsible to shift the tax burden in this country away from the wealthiest to the middle class, it is not responsible to cut social spending programs that have been proven to work, exchanging long-term benefits to huge numbers of people for short-term savings. Responsibility means standing up for the people of this country, defending the good that government can do."

I agree wholeheartedly with that, and only hope that the New Bosses of the Hill remember that government is not the enemy of the people, as George W. Bush and his neocon advisors argue, but instead recognize that government exists to provide a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society. It's a noble pursuit, and based on the elections in November it's clearly what the American people want. Just because Bush has wasted billions on a war-of-choice with Iraq and tax cuts for the wealthy, there are still programs that need their funding restored - or even increased.

Jamil Hussein and the Wingnutosphere

This is actually quite amusing. As Editor & Publisher reports, the Right Wing blogosphere - especially Powerline, Little Green Footballs, Hugh Hewitt and Michelle Malkin - has egg all over its face after the existence of Iraqi police officer Jamil Hussein was confirmed by Iraq's Ministry of the Interior.

This whole sordid affair is too long and inconsequential to get into here (Wikipedia has a good run-down here and Greg Sargent at the American Prospect's Horse's Mouth blog provides some good commentary as well), but basically this became a gambit for some on the Right to challenge the credibility of Associated Press and the mainstream media overall in regads to their Iraq coverage, The Wingnuts, you see, in an all-too typical wave of hysteria and conspiratorial thinking tried arguing that Hussein "didn't exist", and now that his existence has been proven, they are not quite sure how to respond.

Clearly, apologizing and clearing the record to their readers is definately not on their radar screens.

Update: As Sargent reports, yet another wingnut conspiracy has gone down in flames, this one involving John Kerry supposedly being snubbed by the troops in a cafeteria in Iraq. Turns out that the wingers' fantasies of Kerry being forced to sit by himself at the lunch table - an experience many of these fringe right wing bloggers surely faced in High School - the Senator was engaged in an off the record interview with the New York Times.

Look, I think Kerry is a loser and I voted for him in 2004 mainly because my other choice was George W. Bush. But it really doesn't matter whether I like Kerry or not. The argument floated by the likes of Michelle Malkin, Powerline and their idiot fellow-travellers was pathetically disingenuous and indicative of their low regard for the truth when it gets in the way of their punchline. Next time they want to claim that Kerry is hated by the troops, they should do a little more legwork and check their sources. Otherwise, as was the case with Jamil Hussein, they end up looking like assholes.

George Will hates the working poor

The title of this post pretty much sums it up, I'm afraid. I know it's not some great revelation - Will has made this type of class war rhetoric his stock in trade for decades, but as Daniel Gross explains, his latest editorial in the Washington Post is laden with disingenuous arguments and factual inaccuracies on a depressingly large scale. For example, Will claims that "the New Deal . . . failed to end and perhaps prolonged the [Great] Depression." As Gross, an authoritative historian of US economics, this is flat out wrong. But it is instructive to note that Will relies on this canard in order to advance his prejudice against government interventions in economic policy, in the case of this editorial by raising the minimum wage.

You may or may not be surprised to learn that in his editorial, Will advocates lowering the minimum wage to - you guessed it - $0. His rationale? "Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities' prices. Washington, which has its hands full delivering the mail and defending the shores, should let the market do well what Washington does poorly. But that is a good idea whose time will never come again."

So I guess that Will would say that the federal government should limit its interference in the lives of the public to delivering the mail and "defending the shores". You know, because the market is perfect, there are never "market failures", etc.

I didn't realize Gross has a new book coming out on economic bubbles. I'll definately pick that one up.

Some additional thoughta on Will's column by Seth Sandronsky here. Som interesting ideas are put forward, including this one:

[T]rade pacts protect some highly-paid U.S. workers such as syndicated columnists like Will. Thus he does not need to fret about a journalist from a developing country happily applying for his job at a much lower wage. Will’s protected wages thanks to government intervention are nice work if you can get it.

Thus he writes: “the minimum wage should be the same everywhere: $0. Labor is a commodity; governments make messes when they decree commodities' prices.”

Well, turnabout is fair play, right? Try this thought experiment. Reject a mandated increase in the federal minimum wage to $7.25 an hour from $5.15.

Meanwhile, make Will and other high-paid U.S. workers such as medical doctors compete with lower-paid journalists and physicians from developing nations for paid employment in the USA. Maybe then Will’s blind faith in the marketplace would change if/when his employer becomes the Wal-Mart Post or some such named low-price and low-wage paper.

Such an outcome is possible. Daily newspapers are losing ad revenue and readers. Meanwhile private equity firms flush with cash are potential buyers for these papers, and as such would have the power vested in them as owners to reduce an unclear number of American journalists to the status of workers laboring for hourly pay that hovers near the federal minimum wage, of which $7.25 an hour sure beats the current rate of $5.15.

Nice work.

Blood and oil: How the West will profit from PSAs with Iraq

From the Independent (UK):

The Independent on Sunday has learnt that the Iraqi government is about to push through a law giving Western oil companies the right to exploit the country's massive oil reserves.

And Iraq's oil reserves, the third largest in the world, with an estimated 115 billion barrels waiting to be extracted, are a prize worth having. As Vice-President Dick Cheney noted in 1999, when he was still running Halliburton, an oil services company, the Middle East is the key to preventing the world running out of oil.

Now, unnoticed by most amid the furore over civil war in Iraq and the hanging of Saddam Hussein, the new oil law has quietly been going through several drafts, and is now on the point of being presented to the cabinet and then the parliament in Baghdad. Its provisions are a radical departure from the norm for developing countries: under a system known as "production-sharing agreements", or PSAs, oil majors such as BP and Shell in Britain, and Exxon and Chevron in the US, would be able to sign deals of up to 30 years to extract Iraq's oil.

PSAs allow a country to retain legal ownership of its oil, but gives a share of profits to the international companies that invest in infrastructure and operation of the wells, pipelines and refineries. Their introduction would be a first for a major Middle Eastern oil producer. Saudi Arabia and Iran, the world's number one and two oil exporters, both tightly control their industries through state-owned companies with no appreciable foreign collaboration, as do most members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Opec.

Critics fear that given Iraq's weak bargaining position, it could get locked in now to deals on bad terms for decades to come. "Iraq would end up with the worst possible outcome," said Greg Muttitt of Platform, a human rights and environmental group that monitors the oil industry. He said the new legislation was drafted with the assistance of BearingPoint, an American consultancy firm hired by the US government, which had a representative working in the American embassy in Baghdad for several months.

Read the whole article here.

Additionally, check out this article by blogger Chris Floyd analyzing the Hydrocarbon Law and the reporting in The Independent. Here's the key paragraphs:

"The American "surge" will be blended into the new draconian effort announced over the weekend by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki: an all-out war by the government's Shiite militia-riddled "security forces" on Sunni enclaves in Baghdad, as the Washington Post reports. American troops will "support" the "pacification effort" with what Maliki says calls "house-to-house" sweeps of Sunni areas. There is of course another phrase for this kind of operation: "ethnic cleansing."

The "surged" troops - mostly long-serving, overstrained units dragooned into extended duty - are to be thrown into this maelstrom of urban warfare and ethnic murder, temporarily taking sides with one faction in Iraq's hydra-headed, multi-sided civil war. As the conflict goes on - and it will go on and on - the Bush administration will continue to side with whatever faction promises to uphold the "hydrocarbon law" and those profitable PSAs. If "Al Qaeda in Iraq" vowed to open the nation's oil spigots for Exxon, Fluor and Halliburton, they would suddenly find themselves transformed from "terrorists" into "moderates" - as indeed has Maliki and his violent, sectarian Dawa Party, which once killed Americans in terrorist actions but are now hailed as freedom's champions.

Update: More from journalist Jerry White.