Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Democrats sell out

Two depressing reports from SirotaBlog on the Democrats' continued efforts to sell out the people who elected them in November. First, Congressional Democrats are backing off on their earlier plans to make funding for the Iraq war conditional as well as preventing funding for the Bush administration's deeply irresponsible escalation

Additionally, we see what looks a hell of a lot like a total sellout of Middle Class Americans via a wholesale embrace of Corporate America's lobbyist-written "Free" trade legislation.

As Sirota notes: "Here we are, a few months after an election where Democrats won the majority thanks to a group of candidates running against lobbyist-written trade policy. Here we are a day after the Montana Senate tells Sen. Baucus it wants him to stop "fast track" trade authority. And yet here we see the Senate Democratic leadership join with Baucus to hold an official forum in the U.S. Capitol with the Big Money coalition pushing "fast track" and a slew of "free" trade agreements stripped of any labor, human rights or environmental provisions"

Both of these are truly disappointing developments and represent nothing less than the Democratic party's abdication of responsibility and failure to lfollow through with their campaign promises.

Iraq's past is prologue

Great post by Mark Schmitt over at TAPPED, which provides some interesting commentary on US foreign policy on Iraq and Iran in the 1980s and the depressingly predictable consequences of these decisions today.

Referring to a series of articles over at TomDispatch (see here and here by Roger Morris, Schmitt writes: "the rising neocons and the Israel lobby "cynically pushed both for Reagan administration aid to Iraq and for covert arms-dealing with Iran (later exposed in the Iran-Contra scandal), viewing the ongoing no-winners carnage of two Islamic states as a boon," and describes the episode as "Washington's furtive arming of one tyranny to bleed another, with untold casualties on each side." At the time Rumsfeld visited Baghdad, Iraq was at risk of losing the war and had already offered peace terms; we propped them back up."

Bringing this double-dealing up to our current war in the Middle East, Seymour Hersh discusses in a new column in The New Yorker an apparent "redirection" of U.S. policy toward a war on Shiites, despite the fact that we are supposedly on the side of the Shi'a government we very recently midwifed in Baghdad.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Washington Post's editorial board has lost all credibility

Think Progress reads the Washington Post's editorial page in order to spare you the pain. That's because, as TP notes, the same editorial page editors who threw their support between the 2003 invasion of Iraq is now blasting John Murtha's plan to block the Bush escalation of the same war.

The Washington Post, STILL on the wrong side of history.

Fortunately, as TP reports, public opinion is solidly opposed to the Bush escalation - with 58% polled by (ironically, and sadly) the Washington Post, saying they would support legislation blocking Bush’s plan by creating new rules on troop training and rest time that would limit the number of troops available for duty in Iraq? This is, of course, Murtha's goal.

67% of Americans, according to the poll, are opposed to sending additional troops to fight in Iraq. Not only are the Post's brain trust on the wrong side of history on this issue, but they are now staking out a position opposed by most of their fellow citizens.

A tale of two economies?

My book review of Jacob S. Hacker's The Great Risk Shift.

About a century-and-a-half ago, English novelist Charles Dickens began his famous book “A Tale of Two Cities” with the line “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” a phrase that elegantly describes the central thesis of Yale University Political Science professor Jacob Hacker’s “The Great Risk Shift”. In his meticulously researched book that is accessible to generalist readers without a background in policy analysis, he threads together a compelling case that the strength of the present-day US economy is to a large extent nothing but a mirage—with what appears to the untrained eye to be safe and full of limitless potential is in actuality being fraught with peril for most working families. Regardless of education, skills and work ethic, he paints a vivid picture of many workers walking a daily tightrope of trying to create a financial safety net for their families to replace the one their employers and government have quietly chipped away at in recent decades.

Hacker presents a flood of data indicating that economic insecurity is on the rise for all American workers, even the ones with graduate degrees and high tech skills. In the past, workers could rely upon the pension and health insurance plans that were provided by their employer; today, corporate America and a federal government asleep at the switch have turned to a new philosophy of “Personal Responsibility” where everyone is left to fend for his or herself. He documents how many apparently upwardly mobile, two-income families are just a single medical crisis or stretch of unemployment away from experiencing bankruptcy and financial disaster.

“The Great Risk Shift” unveils just how fragile the American Dream is in the 21st Century and analyzes the economic policy decisions made by the government that led to the social compact signed between government and the people generations ago to protect the vulnerable being torn to shreds, as well as offering up some common-sense prescriptions for policy changes that would help make the economy more stable and secure for average Americans.

In the opening pages of his book, Hacker presents evidence that economic instability, that is, the variability of a worker’s income from year to year, has grown rapidly and is much greater problem than economic inequality is. He notes that while “Americans have gotten richer in the last thirty years, they have also faced rapidly growing economic insecurity . . . over the past generation the economic instability of American families has actually risen much faster than economic inequality.” (Emphasis in original)

This is among the most important insights underpinning Hacker’s theory, because many liberal academics and policy advocates who have written and advocated for a fairer economy for the Middle Class have tended to focus on the unequal playing field, for example, the role tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and corporations as well as cuts in social spending have helped make the rich even richer and caused the rest to fall further behind in relative terms. While explicitly acknowledging this problem, Hacker chooses to highlight what is an even bigger problem for all workers regardless of where they fall on the income spectrum.

Another important point Hacker makes is that compared with other rich democracies, the US relies far more heavily on the private sector in order to provide its citizens with benefits like pensions and health insurance rather than offering them primarily through the public sector and government programs—a setup that significantly increases economic risk.

According to Hacker: “With the help of hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks, American employers serve as the US’s unique mini-welfare states—the first line of defense for millions of workers buffeted by the winds of economic change. The problem is that these mini-welfare states are coming undone, and in the process, risk is shifting back onto workers and their families. Employers want out of the social contract forged in the more stable economy of the past. And because they do not need to answer to the broader public that depends on the jerry-rigged systems of security they provide, employers are getting what they want.”

With these two sentences, he has effectively exposed the fatal flaw of “Personal Responsibility” advocates who argue we should look to Corporate America and a largely-unregulated free-market to protect workers. While privatization may be appealing for libertarians on the grounds that it can be cheaper and more efficient in its provision of goods and services compared with the public sector, private employers are motivated solely by the profit motive and the maximization of shareholder value and are not to the same extent accountable to the public for the decisions it makes.

It is the government, not the private sector, who should be responsible for ensuring the existence of an economic safety net for all Americans, not employers. Reliance on the private sector for this function has led to such developments as previously guaranteed “defined benefit” employee pensions being supplanted by riskier “defined contribution” 401(K) and an increase in number of people who lack health insurance due to employers cutting back on coverage.

Hacker peels back the carefully constructed mythology presented by those who argue against an activist, interventionist government and instead claim market forces ought to determine the economic fortunes of American workers. While conservative pundits claim that the US has been experiencing a “miracle” economy where anyone who works hard enough and invests in education and job skills—in other words, a “responsible” worker—has the opportunity to increase their income. The only problem with this narrative, however, is that it is contradicted by the facts.

He notes: “Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, but social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap.”

He points out the troubling reality that in the US, income mobility across generations is currently lower than in other affluent nations. And education, even for those workers earning graduate degrees, does not provide protection from economic risks like unemployment, lack of health insurance, being unable to pay their mortgage or being forced to declare bankruptcy. While economic volatility is about twice as high for less-educated workers than more educated workers, Hacker explains, volatility has nevertheless risen by roughly the same amount for all workers in the past three decades.

A vivid illustration of this seemingly counter-intuitive phenomenon is the computer programmer who went from having her services highly in demand by employers and commanding a six-figure salary with high job security in the 1990s to being forced to work several part-time temporary jobs without benefits after the dot-com crash of 2001. The evidence demonstrates that insecurity is in fact rising for skilled workers, and according to Hacker, “the previously most-insulated white collar workers are actually the ones who have seen the greatest erosion of their workplace preeminence over the past thirty years.” Increasingly, even the most educated workers are riding what he describes as an “economic roller coaster” that was once faced only by the working poor.

The prevalence of economic risk faced by working Americans and their dependants is higher than the public is aware, and poverty affects far more workers during some point of their lives than even a knowledgeable policy analyst might anticipate: For example, about 59% of Americans will spend at least a year living below the national poverty line during their working years (between the ages of twenty to seventy-five) and the probability of this occurring has, in Hacker’s words “increased substantially” in the past thirty-five years.

The most useful and thought-provoking section of the book is left for the end, when Hacker has finished diagnosing the current state of economic security for the working poor and middle class Americans today, and turns to offering up some practical and common-sense economic policy prescriptions for addressing this critical challenge. Reminding us that “economic security is a cornerstone of economic opportunity”, he suggests ensuring a simplified, progressive income tax code and cracking down on corporations that don’t fully fund their employees’ pension plans.

He is also clearly against privatizing Social Security or Medicare via private accounts as proposed by the Bush Administration and other Republican lawmakers, concluding: “Allowing companies to underfund their defined-pension plans, as new pension ‘reforms’ now on the agenda would, does harm. Piling tax break after tax break permitting wealthy and healthy Americans to opt out of our tattered institutions of social insurance, does harm.”

And make no mistake, he is making a passionately argument for government to get involved immediately, claiming that waiting for the private sector to address this problem is an “unfounded hope, not a realistic aspiration.” This would involve passing legislation creating “portable savings accounts” for workers, in order to help their families handle any temporary shocks to their income and savings. But the key, according to Hacker, is ensuring that the accounts are separate from the job benefits being provided by their current employer and are able to move seamlessly to their next job. Funding such social spending is absolutely essential, as is believing job-based private insurance can somehow replace it. Whether this is politically feasible in Congress is not a topic that is addressed here head-on, and any such discussion would have been irrelevant as the book was written before the Democratic Party’s November 2006 takeover of Congress. But not only would it help workers, he argues, it would also help corporations dealing with enormous financial strain for providing their employees with health coverage and other benefits.

Such government spending at the state level on unemployment insurance, which has declined in the past few decades, would even pay for themselves, he asserts, due to higher worker productivity, and he cites a National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) study to back his claim. It is worth noting that the benefits flowing from investment in human capital is currently a much-contested debate among economists.

Other suggestions he offers include taking the current focus of our social insurance policies on the elderly and shifting it to the young adults and families with children that are at greater risk, surely an idea that would meet with strong resistance from the American public and AARP, as well as taking into account the reality of workers facing longer layoffs in unemployment benefits. He also suggests offering job retraining vouchers as part of long-term unemployment benefits, probably a politically viable reform.

He believes the solution for reforming Social Security revolves around funding the projected future shortfall by making both the benefits as well as the payroll taxes that fund it more progressive, tying benefits to the increased longevity of employees in the future and shifting the financing burden from payroll taxes toward wage-based levies and capital income. He similarly proposes radical reforms for Medicare, creating what he calls “Medicare Plus” and finally puts in a pitch in for universal insurance, where all workers would be covered with portable benefits that provide relief from “severe economic shocks”. This would certainly be a difficult sell for conservative lawmakers, a fact Hacker seems to implicitly acknowledge by placing this section at the end.

One area his proposals conspicuously do not address is the growing income inequality in the US, as the wealthiest Americans continue to see their salaries and assets rise as the lower and middle classes tread water thanks to tax cuts, a flat minimum wage and slashed expenditures in social welfare programs. He seems to recognize in the beginning of the book that it is a troubling feature of our current economy, so a reader can only presume he believes that addressing the growing economic risk is such an important short-term priority that dealing with this will address the profound issue of poverty in this country.
This may have also been a conscious decision to avoid his argument being framed by conservatives as instigating a “Class War” between the wealthy and Middle Class; rather than focusing on the radical differences among American workers’ prosperities, he chooses instead in his book to concentrate on the common risk facing all Americans.

Indeed, several of his proposals, such as ensuring a progressive tax code, would address both economic inequality as well as insecurity, although he doesn’t note this. However, it is probably advisable that he constrained this book to insecurity, as his current policy proposals are certainly politically ambitious enough for the near-term.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

New York Times called on the carpet

Why does the New York Times do such a terrible, biased job when covering health care policy?

Economist Dean Baker points out that "according to the NYT, President Bush's health care plan would 'provide tax breaks for low- and moderate-income workers to buy insurance.' Put this line in the big HUH? category.

President Bush's plan gives people who buy their own insurance the option to deduct the cost from their taxable income. This provides the biggest tax breaks for higher income workers who are in the highest tax bracket.

In fact, it is no tax break at all for tens of millions of moderate income workers who pay no income tax. These families could take the option of paying less in Social Security taxes, but this would be at the price of large reductions in future Social Security benefits, not necessarily a good deal."

The other casualties

I've been harping on this for a while, so it's nice to see the Associated Press finally giving some much-needed attention to this problem:

Americans are keenly aware of how many U.S. forces have lost their lives in Iraq, according to a new AP-Ipsos poll. But they woefully underestimate the number of Iraqi civilians who have been killed.

When the poll was conducted earlier this month, a little more than 3,100 U.S. troops had been killed. The midpoint estimate among those polled was right on target, at about 3,000.

Far from a vague statistic, the death toll is painfully real for many Americans. Seventeen percent in the poll know someone who has been killed or wounded in Iraq. And among adults under 35, those closest to the ages of those deployed, 27 percent know someone who has been killed or wounded.

For Daniel Herman, a lawyer in New Castle, Pa., a co-worker's nephew is the human face of the dead.

"This is a fairly rural area," he said. "When somebody dies, ... you hear about it. It makes it very concrete to you."

The number of Iraqis killed, however, is much harder to pin down, and that uncertainty is perhaps reflected in Americans' tendency to lowball the Iraqi death toll by tens of thousands.

Iraqi civilian deaths are estimated at more than 54,000 and could be much higher; some unofficial estimates range into the hundreds of thousands. The U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq reports more than 34,000 deaths in 2006 alone.

Among those polled for the AP survey, however, the median estimate of Iraqi deaths was 9,890. The median is the point at which half the estimates were higher and half lower.

Christopher Gelpi, a Duke University political scientist who tracks public opinion on war casualties, said a better understanding of the Iraqi death toll probably wouldn't change already negative public attitudes toward the war much. People in democracies generally don't shy away from inflicting civilian casualties, he said, and they may be even more tolerant of them in situations such as Iraq, where many of the civilian deaths are caused by other Iraqis.

"You have to look at who's doing the killing," said Neal Crawford, a restaurant manager in Suttons Bay, Mich., who guessed that about 10,000 Iraqis had been killed. "If these people are dying because a roadside bomb goes off or if there's an insurgent attack in a marketplace, it's an unfortunate circumstance of war — people die."

Gelpi said that while Americans may not view Iraqi deaths through the same prism as American losses, they may use the Iraqi death toll to gauge progress, or lack thereof, on the U.S. effort to promote a stable, secure democracy in Iraq.

To many, he said, "the fact that so many are being killed is an indication that we're not succeeding."

Friday, February 23, 2007

Memo to Obama and Clinton camps

Just shut up already.

E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post: "Geffen, a Hollywood mogul who co-hosted a $1.3 million fundraiser for Obama, trashed Bill and Hillary Clinton to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who gets the powerful to say the darnedest things. The Clinton and Obama camps went to war, rocking computers all over the country with incendiary e-mails.

The Clinton side insisted that Obama -- the let's-end-negative-politics candidate -- disown Geffen. The Obama forces trashed Clinton for accepting support from a South Carolina Democrat who suggested that Obama would doom the ticket because he's black.

[. . .]

Oh, but health care is so boring compared with a Hollywood big shot who drops hints about Bill Clinton's love life. Yeah? Tell that to the family of someone who died of cancer because she had no insurance and couldn't afford a screening test.

Clinton, Obama and their brilliant staffs don't own the Democratic Party, no matter how much money they raise in Hollywood. If they think this is all about their personal drama, they should quit politics and go into the movies. Geffen can put up the money."

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Justice delayed

From the New York Times, a federal appeals court today voted to uphold the constitutionality of a new law that strips federal courts of the authority to review the cases of foreign prisoners held by the military at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba.

By a 2-to-1 vote, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia found that the law, the Military Commissions Act of 2006, did not violate a provision in Article 1 of the Constitution that prevents the government from suspending habeas corpus — the right of a detained person to challenge the legality of the detention — except in “cases of rebellion or invasion.”

The case will be appealed to the Supreme Court (as long as they grant Cert), and Democratic lawmakers are promising to introduce new legislation that would all federal courts the ability to consider habeas petitions by detainees.

This is a very important development, and it will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court ends up throwing the smack down on this ridiculous travesty of justice.

Check out this synopsis from the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights. And be sure to check out this old Keith Olbermann rant on the Military Commissions Act.

Is Glen Reynolds recommended the US commit war crimes?

Glenn Reynolds, a Right Wing University of Tennessee professor of law and the self-styled "Instapundit", seems to be encouraging Bush to kill Iranian civilians. Referring to reports that Iran is arming the Iraqi insurgency, Reynolds argues:

"This has been obvious for a long time anyway, and I don't understand why the Bush Administration has been so slow to respond. Nor do I think that high-profile diplomacy, or an invasion, is an appropriate response. We should be responding quietly, killing radical mullahs and iranian atomic scientists, supporting the simmering insurgencies within Iran, putting the mullahs' expat business interests out of business, etc. Basically, stepping on the Iranians' toes hard enough to make them reconsider their not-so-covert war against us in Iraq. And we should have been doing this since the summer 2003. But as far as I can tell, we've done nothing along these lines."

So assasinating Iranian civilians isn't a war crime according to Professor Reynolds, it's just "stepping on their toes". In case you think he was only being flip with this completely insane prescription, he goes on to confirm:

"I think it's perfectly fine to kill people who are working on atomic bombs for countries -- like Iran -- that have already said that they want to use those bombs against America and its allies, and I think that those who feel otherwise are idiots, and in absolutely no position to strike moral poses. We may wind up doing so via airstrikes, but it would be better to do it in a more selective manner."

Um, when exactly did Iran treaten to use an atomic bomb against the US? The answer is never.

Fortunately, some blogger named Blue Texan brutally exposes how completely batshit-insane such a foreign policy "strategy" is, especially as we are not at war with Iran.

Blue Texan also links to, and cites extensively from, a great editorial by columnist Paul Campos in the Rocky Mountain News.

Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, helpfully point out that:

"[Reynolds' argument] involves certain time-tested rhetorical techniques. First, make a provocative claim that happens to be false. In fact, no Iranian government official has ever said Iran wants to use nuclear weapons against the U.S. Then use this claim to defend actions, such as murdering civilians, which would remain immoral and illegal even if the claim happened to be true. Finally, condemn those who object to using lies to justify murder as "idiots," who don't understand the need to take strong and ruthless action when defending the fatherland from its enemies."

Can you imagine what the international outcry would be if hard line Iranian clerics openly advocated assassinating US government workers and religious leaders here in the United States? Reynolds would be the first to demand Iran be referred to the Security Council.

Please note, I in no way support or excuse the horrific human rights record, or virulently anti-semitic platform of the Mullah of Iran or their insane head of government. But targeted assassinations of civilians, besides being flagrantly illegal under the Geneva Conventions the US is a signatory of, would be th surest way to enflame the already perilous military occupation next door in Iraq.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neuromarketing 101

A very interesting and scary article from the January 29th issue of Time magazine - "Marketing to Your Mind". Ever hear of the term "neuromarketing"? I hadn't before I read the piece, but apparently US corporations invested $8 billion in market research for the burgeoning science last year alone.

Neuromarketing is defined as the use of brain-scanning techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging to "probe, analyze and influence consumers' purchasing decisions. I'm not really sure how big of a deal $8 billion in R&D really is in the world of marketing, but it's kind of interesting to think that PR executives may soon be utilizing cutting-edge discoveries from the world of neuroscience in order to determine how best to manipulate their target audience's emotions (i.e. fear and greed) to improve product sales.

Its not a long piece and worth the five minutes it takes to read it, in my opinion. But if you are not so inclined, the takeaway is:

"[B]rain scientists are asking volunteers to ponder purchasing choices while lying inside high-tech brain scanners. The resulting real-time images indicate where and how the brain analyzes options, weighs risks and rewards, factors in experiences and emotions and ultimately sets a preference. "We can use brain imaging to gain insight into the mechanisms behind people's decisions in a way that is often difficult to get at simply by asking a person or watching their behavior," says Dr. Gregory Berns, a psychiatrist at Emory University.

To scientists, it's all part of the larger question of how the human brain makes decisions. But the answers may be invaluable to Big Business, which plowed an estimated $8 billion in 2006 into market research in an effort to predict--and sway--how we would spend our money. In the past, marketers relied on relatively crude measures of what got us buying: focus-group questionnaires and measurements of eye movements and perspiration patterns (the more excited you get about something, the more you tend to sweat). Now researchers can go straight to the decider in chief--the brain itself, opening the door to a controversial new field dubbed neuromarketing.

For now, most of the research is purely academic, although even brain experts anticipate that it's just a matter of time before their findings become a routine part of any smart corporation's marketing plans."

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Media obsesses over possibility of war with Iran

Interesting cover article for this week's Newsweek replete with an alarmist tone, high octane headline ("Blowup? America's Hidden War with Iran") as well as unsourced rumors from administration officials. So what is the actual likelihood of the US launching a military attack against Iran? I would have to say, even after reading this sensationalist reporting, that the odds are still pretty low.

Of course, Bush and Cheney will keep pointing an accusatory finger at the country's leaders, blaming them for arming the insurgency next door in Iraq (a totally BS claim, as Asia Times Online's excellent reporting proves) and will continue to claim it cannot be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons, but at the end of the day our military forces have been stretched too thin, Bush's approval rating is hovering around 30% and the Neoconservatives have been proven to be inveterate liars and incompetents. So there's no way we're going to go after Iran next, right?

From the article: "At least one former White House official contends that some Bush advisers secretly want an excuse to attack Iran. "They intend to be as provocative as possible and make the Iranians do something [America] would be forced to retaliate for," says Hillary Mann, the administration's former National Security Council director for Iran and Persian Gulf Affairs. U.S. officials insist they have no intention of provoking or otherwise starting a war with Iran . . . but the fact remains that the longstanding war of words between Washington and Tehran is edging toward something more dangerous."

Sounds pretty damning to me.

There is also some helpful retracing of the recent history between the US and Iran that has already been heavily reported and accepted by Western audiences: the financial and political support Iran's leaders gave the coalition to help stabilize Afghanistan in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban, the Bush administration's slap in the face to the regime just a few months later by labeling it part of the "Axis of Evil" and Cheney's refusal to allow then-Secretary of State Colin Powell from engaging with the regime diplomatically.

I don't really consider Newsweek to be a particularly credible source of intel regarding Bush's plans for dealing with Iran, and would feel more comfortable relying on the reporting of, say, Seymour Hersh over at the New Yorker, but even he seems to have jumped the gun regarding Iran. For example, check out this article in New Yorker over two years ago that claimed a war against the regime was inevitable (I suppose he might unfortunately be vindicated in the next two years, but I think it is increasingly unlikely). Amy Goodman, interviewed the reporter over at AlterNet, lending credence to his claims of a secret Neocon cabal aimed at launching an invasion on the sly.

Look, I'm just as guilty of jumping the gun regarding the imminent and "inevitable" US military attack on Iran, writing about the topic off and on for the past two and a half years.

If you are actually interested in what former governmental and regional experts think about the prospect of war with Iran, you can gain some further insight by this article by Ken Silverstein. It's part one in a three-part series evaluating the possibility of war. And for more mainstream media coverage of the US's naval buildup off the shores of Iran, and its likely impact, check out this pieve from NBC News written last December.

According to one of the regional experts Silversrein interviewed; "There is a real possibility that George Bush will order a military strike on Iran before he leaves the White House. The signs include: the build-up of Navy forces in the Persian Gulf, the capture of Iranian diplomats in Iraq, and the appearance of Undersecretary of State Nick Burns and Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England at a security conference in Israel with pro-war elements of the Israeli military. Also, the administration has armed Iran's Arab neighbors with Patriot missiles. The Pentagon halted all sales of spare parts from its recently retired F-14 fighter jet fleet because of concerns they could be transferred to Iran. Moreover, the U.S. military has accused people at the highest levels of Iranian government of supplying increasingly sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraqi insurgents. All signs point to a coming confrontation between the United States and Iran."

The same expert offers readers the following sober prediction: "If the United States attacks Iran, the consequences would be disastrous. It would produce a wave of patriotic solidarity with the theocratic regime in Iran, even among those young Iranians who are fiercely critical of the mullahs, and another tidal wave of reaction around the world, especially among Muslims. Within Iraq, Bush's policy has led to an increase in sectarian fighting, so an attack on Iran would be seen as anti-Shiite as well as anti-Iranian. As of last year, for the first time, a majority of Iraqi Shiites support armed attacks on U.S.-led forces, and if the United States attacks Iran, Iraqi Shiite militias will direct their anger at American soldiers and military personnel."

Writing at, journalist Deniz Yeter speculates Bush plans on triggering an "accidental conflict" as a pretext to justify "limited strikes" against Iran (see update below). As far as conspiracy theories go, this one is backed up with pretty solid research and is semi-plausible in my opinion. As part of its evidence, the article cites Hillary Mann, the former National Security Council Director for Iranian and Persian Gulf Affairs under the Bush Administration from 2001 to 2004, eho claims Bush is looking to provoke a conflict. Yeter aso offers some historical examples where the US has similarly goaded and provoked conflicts, including the Mexican-American War (1846), the Spanish-American War (1898), the Gulf of Tonkin (1964) aming many others.

Finally, Reuters reports that a senior government official is calling Condi Rice on the carpet for lying about her supposedly never seeing a proposal offered by Iran to begin talks with the US back in 2003. The official, former National Security Council member under Rice Floyd Leverett, stated that this offer was serious and similar to Nixon's famous offer to China to hold diplomatic talks back in 1972.

According to Leverett, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a discussion about the Iranian proposal, was frustrated at the time because he "couldn't sell it at the White House", demonstrative evidence the offer in fact had been discussed by Bush and/or Cheney.

Update: Deniz Yeter was kind enough to forward me the link to an updated version of his excellent article. I highly recommend it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Financial "liberalization": Benefits less than expected

As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik explains in this essay, financial "liberalization", or "globalization", or whatever inocuously-sounding name neoliberal cheerleaders and elitist policymakers in our nation's capital like to call it, has not exactly produced the wonderful benefits proponents claimed it would almost two decades ago.

As Rodrik notes, financial globalization is relatively new phenomenon in global economics, with its real origins dating back to the early Nineties. Or, as the essay puts it: "[I]t was only around 1990 that most emerging markets threw caution to the wind and removed controls on private portfolio and bank flows. Private capital flows have exploded since, dwarfing trade in goods and services."
Freeing up capital flows had an inexorable logic – or so it seemed. Developing nations, the argument went, have plenty of investment opportunities, but are short of savings. Foreign capital inflows would allow them to draw on the savings of rich countries, increase their investment rates, and stimulate growth. In addition, financial globalization would allow poor nations to smooth out the boom-and-bust cycles associated with temporary terms-of-trade shocks and other bouts of bad luck. Finally, exposure to the discipline of financial markets would make it harder for profligate governments to misbehave.

But things have not worked out according to plan. Research at the IMF, of all places, as well as by independent scholars documents a number of puzzles and paradoxes. For example, it is difficult to find evidence that countries that freed up capital flows have experienced sustained economic growth as a result. In fact, many emerging markets experienced declines in investment rates. Nor, on balance, has liberalization of capital flows stabilized consumption.

Most intriguingly, the countries that have done the best in recent years are those that relied the least on foreign financing. China, the world’s growth superstar, has a huge current-account surplus, which means that it is a net lender to the rest of the world. Among other high-growth countries, Vietnam’s current account is essentially balanced, and India has only a small deficit. Latin America, Argentina and Brazil have been running comfortable external surpluses recently. In fact, their new-found resilience to capital-market shocks is due in no small part to their becoming net lenders to the rest of the world, after years as net borrowers.

Read the article to get an explanation as to what is really going in here. It's a complicated story, more complex in fact that Rodrik gives credit for. But he at least provides a basic outline - and a decent start to understanding the downside of globalization.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Deconstructing the AJC's charges of the "new anti-Semitism"

Last December, the American Jewish Committee released a scathing new 28 page study (.pdf) entitled "Progressive Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism" by Alvin Rosenfeld, an English and Jewish Studies professor at Indiana University. It is one of the most obnoxious, manipulative pieces of pseudo-research I have read in a long while, and that is coming from someone who considers himself a supporter of the important work the AJC normally does in addressing real anti-Semitism in the US.

As you have probably surmised from its title, the argument Rosenfeld and the AJC are making here is that Jewish progressives (which I consider myself to be) are really self-hating anti-Semites who represent a "fifth column" that are conspiring to destroy the Jewish people from within. In other words, to criticize the policies of a particular Israeli government is tantamount to anti-Zionism, and thus anti-Semitic. A quick thought experiment proves the utter vacuity of this line of argument: an American who sees fit to criticize the policies of the Bush administration under this conceptualization would be tarred as an “anti-American” and thus an internal enemy of the American people.

From the study’s foreword, written by the Executive Director of the AJC:

Perhaps the most surprising—and distressing—feature of this
new trend [toward anti-Zionism] is the very public participation of some Jews in the verbal onslaught against Zionism and the Jewish state. Here, too, the vociferous denunciators are to be found at both ends of the political-religious spectrum [. . .]

But when it comes to getting noticed by the media and getting “traction” for their views, it is the so-called “progressive” Jewish anti-Zionists who receive the lion’s share of the attention. These leftist Jewish critics challenge not just Israel’s policies, but “its legitimacy and right to an ongoing future.”

So here we see the battle lines being drawn: “Leftist” Jewish critics are seeking to undermine the Jewish state by bringing it down with their critical rhetoric. The study goes on to mention a handful of these offensive Jewish critics and chronicles their offending remarks. And from these handful of critics, we are expected to extrapolate from this that all leftist Jewish critics are by their nature anti-Zionists and anti-Semites.

According to Rosenfeld, the study seeks to answer a profound question: “In what ways might Jews themselves, especially so-called ‘progressive’ Jews, be contributing to the intellectual and political climate that helps to foster such hostility, especially in its anti-Zionist forms?” He goes on to state that before proceeding to examine these issues, though, he will first review “some of the developments that give rise to them in the first place.”
He notes that “intellectual elites on the European left have become increasingly outspoken in their hostility to Jews and the Jewish state and are voicing a kind of animosity to both that has not been heard in Europe for years.” Specifically, Rosenfeld advances the claim that a number of Jews, through their speaking and writing, are feeding a rise in virulent anti-Semitism by questioning whether Israel should even exist.

Some of the other points made include:

“At a time when the de-legitimization and, ultimately, the eradication of Israel is a goal being voiced with mounting fervor by the enemies of the Jewish state, it is more than disheartening to see Jews themselves adding to the vilification. That some do so in the name of Judaism itself makes the nature of their assault all the more grotesque.”


"Their contributions to what’s becoming normative discourse are toxic. They’re helping to make [anti-Semitic] views about the Jewish state respectable - for example, that it’s a Nazi-like state, comparable to South African apartheid; that it engages in ethnic cleansing and genocide. These charges are not true and can have the effect of delegitimizing Israel."

Rosenfeld goes on to libel a number of people by name, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner, the historian Tony Judt, the poet Adrienne Rich and the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, as well as a number of academics, basically because they dare to criticize Israeli policies in a way Rosenfeld believes lends support to anti-Zionists.

Readers of this blog may be aware that last year I wrote a lengthy, critical post on Tony Judt’s editorial on the Mearsheiemer-Walt paper on the “The Jewish Lobby”, so it is fair to say I am not necessarily a member of Judt’s fan club. But I specifically noted that I don’t consider Judt to be an anti-Zionist or anti-Semite for the arguments he makes, even though I disagree with them. I would argue that this is the position Rosenfeld should have taken in the report as well.

If there are a handful of leftist Jews who argue that Israel should cease existing, then fine, go ahead and call them out. But to then make the fantastical (and wholly unsupported) claim that these voices are representative of leftist Jews and a new, dangerous and widening trend of anti-Semitism is factually incorrect, albeit a sensationalist claim that will certainly ensure the report gets a lot of mainstream media news coverage.

Another logical sleight-of-hand that Rosenfeld attempts to pull off, part of Israeli critics’ regular stock in trade, is to conflate anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. So not only does he advance the false claim that anti-Zionism (or, the belief that Israel lacks the legitimacy to exist as a Jewish state) runs rampant among Leftist Jewish circles, but then he tries to claim that such sentiments are anti-Semitic as well. This is, of course, so far from the truth that it barely survives intellectual scrutiny.

To pick one example, Rosenfeld attacks the Jewish UC Berkeley Talmudic professor Daniel Boyarin’s statement that "Just as Christianity may have died at Auschwitz, Treblinka and I fear that my Judaism may be dying at Nablus, Deheishe, Beteen (Beth-El) and El-Khalil (Hebron)." Boyarin is clearly drawing a historical analogy between the Church’s failure to prevent the genocide of Jews during the Nazi Holocaust and the Israeli government's conduct toward the Palestinians (and the Israeli people’s tacit acceptance of such measures). Now, you can argue that such an analogy is off the mark, you can argue that the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians in refugee camps is wholly justified, you could even argue that the Israeli people are not complicit in the mistreatment of Palestinians. But it is intellectually dishonest, I believe, to argue that simply drawing the analogy is in itself evidence of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

In the final analysis, it appears that Rosenfeld is using this stud as a blunt instrument of intimidation against any writer, Jewish or otherwise, who dares to question the policies of an Israeli government, by dangling the anti-Semitism charge over his or her head. Of course, such a charge succeeds only in stifling and shutting down the possibility of an intellectually honest debate occurring on the merits of a policy, which I assume is precisely Rosenfeld’s and the AJC’s primary goal in the first place.

Rabbi Michael Lerner really nails the central problem with the study writing in the Baltimore Chronicle :

"[I]nstead of seriously engaging with the issues raised (e.g. to what extent are Israel's current policies similar to those of apartheid and to what extent are they not?), the Jewish establishment and media responds by attacking the people who raise these or any other critiques--shifting the discourse to the legitimacy of the messenger and thus avoiding the substance of the criticisms. Knowing this, many people become fearful that they too will be labeled 'anti-Semitic' if they question the wisdom of Israeli policies or if they seek to organize politically to challenge those policies.
When this bubble of repression of dialogue explodes into open resentment at the way Jewish Political correctness has been imposed, it may really yield a 'new' anti-Semitism. To prevent that, the voices of dissent on Israeli policy must be given the same national exposure in the media and American politics that the voices of the Jewish establishment have been given."

For some thoughtful criticism of the study, make sure to read Matthew Yglesias’ Op-Ed in The Guardian, ”Are We All Anti-Semites Now?”, as well as this article by Patricia Cohen that appeared in the New York Times as well as the International Herald Tribune.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Bush's Iraq speech - and the implications for an Iran attack

Vanity Fair's Craig Unger has a troubling report on the Neoconservatives' twisted plans for provoking - and then attacking Iran. Is this even possible given the disastrous consequences of the continued quagmire in Iraq, or is this just more crazy talk from the fundamentalists that have heretofore had Bush and Cheney's ear regarding their War on Terror?

This article delves deep into Bush's January 10th speech on the war in Iraq and finds ominous tidings for our future plans for Iran. But one can never tell with Bush - is he just bluffing in an attempt to get the Mullahs to back down and agree to cease their nuclear program and cease supporting attacks against coalition troops in Iraq? Or is he serious - saying what he means and meaning what he says.

Regardless of what you believe to be the answer to this question, Unger's piece has some great original reporting in it and is worth the time to read.

Iraq air war

Over at TomDispatch, Nick Turse has some must-read coverage of the unreported (by the MSM at least) aerial campaign in Iraq.

An excerpt:

"Statistics provided to Tomdispatch by the Iraq Body Count Project show that since the U.S. invasion in 2003, coalition air strikes have, according to media sources alone -- which as we know have covered the air war poorly -- caused between 15,593-17,067 Iraqi civilian casualties, including 3,625-4,093 deaths. Last year, media reports listed between 169-200 Iraqis killed and 111-112 injured in twenty-eight separate coalition air strikes, according to the IBC project.

These numbers also appear to be on the rise. In an email message to Tomdispatch last month, John Sloboda, the co-founder and spokesperson for the IBC Project, notes that the "vast majority [of lethal air strikes] have been in the last half of the year."

Make sure to read the entire article - it is a truly troubling tale of mass media indifference to mass civilian casualties.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Common sense does not equal anti-Semitism

It seems these days, there really is no limit to which some will stoop in order to intimidate their opponents into silence. Exhibit A is one Paul Savad, the lawyer representing the Brooklyn-based Congregational Rabbinical College of Tartikov, which has proposed taking an undeveloped 100-acre tract of land in the village of Pomona in suburban Rockland County and building a rabbinical college. As reported in the New York Times:

"On a property zoned for single-family homes on one acre, drawings and plans developed by the group show as many as 10 buildings with space for at least 4,500 residents, parking for 1,000 cars and buildings as high as six stories. Given the size of the families in nearby Hasidic communities, the population estimate is probably low. All this in a village with a population of around 3,200."

Yes, you read that right. The plan is to develop this college, which will be used to train 1000 new Rabbinical judges over the next 15 years, and will involve building a six-story adult student housing complex (with each unit consisting of 3-4 bedrooms) in the middle of what is currently a wooded area. And of course, the housing and traffic will not merely result from the 1000 students or the unknown number of instructors, but also from the wife and many children of each student.

As you might expect, the village of Pomona, NY is less than thrilled with this proposition.

Mr. Savad offers two lines of defense to justify building this massive complex literally in the middle of a quiet town that is zoned for single-residence homes on one-acre plots. Both of them are revealing.

First, he tells the Times: "We need 100 acres, and we need access to Orthodox communities, businesses and yeshivas,'' he said. ''I can find land upstate, but I can't find places with kosher butchers, with mikvas, with yeshivas.'' In other words, the requirements of his clients outweigh the needs of the current residents of the village. Little things these residents value, like not having their sewer systems overloaded, their neighborhood overdeveloped and their streets congested with an unknown number of cars and buses.

As bad as that line of argument is, his next claim is far more offensive. As reported by the local newspaper The Jewish Week, Savad made the incendiary claim that the village's reasonable efforts to limit the size of this development is somehow evidence of “overt, direct, anti-Semitic discrimination”.

One could level legal arguments against the village's position (a position which, based upon the reporting in both the Times and The Jewish Week, seems to reflect the views of their constituents); for example the federal R-LUIPA statute provides some protections for religious institutions looking to build new houses of worship or related facilities. I'm not an attorney, but based on my reading of the statute, it does not provide a blank check to religious institutions to do whatever they want regardless of local zoning laws. However, to claim that the people and elected representatives of Pomona, which incidentally has a significant Jewish population, are somehow anti-Semitic simply because they have objections to the scope of the development is truly disgusting. Of course, Savad makes no attempt to substantiate his bombastic allegation of bigotry, and because of the utter frivolousness of his statements he goes a long way toward diminishing the seriousness of real anti-Semitism that plagues the world.

Let's review: Universities instituting quotas of how many Jewish students they will accept in a given year, that's anti-Semitism. Refusing to hire a Jewish person simply because they are Jewish, that's anti-Semitism. Rounding up millions of Jewish men, women and children for mass extermination, that's anti-Semitism. But challenging the building of a huge residential complex in the middle of a suburban village that will more than double its population - that is not anti-Semitic (unless there is some further evidence that has not been made public).

So I would suggest Savad save the verbal bomb-throwing for one of the many instances where there really is anti-Semitism in this country and around the world. Because in this case, he is not only embarrassing himself but also the Jewish community by tossing this very serious accusation around with no supporting evidence simply to further his career and intimidate his opponents into silence.

Media biased in coverage of Edwards' campaign

John Edwards is facing an uphill battle in his quest for the White House, a challenge exacerbated by a biased media intent on distorting the former senator's background and policy positions. Exhibit A is brought to you courtesy of the blog Facing South, which picks up on an Associated Press report on Edwards' healthare plan.

According to the AP, the most salient detail is not that Edwards has put forward a comprehensive, practical and morally defensible plan to institute universal healthcare, nor are the particular benefits that would derive from implementing such a plan examined. No, the AP thinks the headline for this story is that the plan is going to -gasp! cost taxpayers money, in this case an estimated $120 billion a year. No context for the size of this figure is provided, since healthcare spending is in the trillions of dollars a year in this country and would make this a far less compelling narrative. Why not, you know, focus on the details of the plan itself, such as how many people would be covered? Instead of titling the piece "Edwards puts tax hike in mix for health care; Universal plan's cost could hit $120 billion", why not title it "Edwards Calls for Universal Health Coverage" (as does the Seattle Times)?

Facing South also notes that in covering other policies such as the disastrous Iraq war, there is no similar emphasis place on the price tag. For example, in its reporting on the Iraq war the very same day as the Edwards hit piece, the lede is not the cost of prosecuting the war and its impact on the federal budget but rather the detalis of the war itself.

Is it just too much to hope that the media will give Edwards the greedy ambulance chaser a fair shake in its coverage? For instance, why do pundits at major newspapers like the Washington Post insinuate that Edwards must be a hypocrite for building a palacial mansion for himself while at the same time working to alleviate poverty in America? Since when has this represented some sort of mutually exclusive arrangement, where advocates for the working poor must somehow lead an austere lifestyle to avoid being protrayed as a selfish jerk?

Meanwhile, John Aravosis notes over at AmericaBlog that the AP has no trouble quoting Right Wing bigmouth Bill Donohue's claims that Edwards has anti-Catholic bloggers working for his campaign - without noting the fact that Donohue himself has made explicit anti-Semitic statements on numerous occasions. Again, the mainstream media is caught red-handed displaying a shocking bias against Edwards. Check out this report from Media Matters on the AP's wildly unfair handling of the cynically manufactured blogger "controversy".

Edwards is an impressive candidate with some great ideas for making the American economy fairer for low-income workers. Just don't expect him to get balanced coverage from a hostile media intent on protraying him in the mst unflattering of terms.

If you are actually interested in finding out more about Edwards' excellent "Health Markets" proposal, check out this must-read editorial in the New York Times by economist Paul Krugman. As Krugman notes: "This is a smart, serious proposal. It addresses both the problem of the uninsured and the waste and inefficiency of our fragmented insurance system. And every candidate should be pressed to come up with something comparable."

Also, Dean Baker has a piece worth reading titled "Edwards Steps Out Front on Health Care", which analyzes Edwards' plan and concludes it represents a good first step.

He notes: "While no one expects a finely detailed plan [for reforming health care], it is reasonable to ask that the candidates produce some meat on this issue, rather than just a vague commitment to universal health-care coverage. The last time a Democratic president was elected based on such a vague commitment, he produced a hopelessly complex plan that proved to be such a political disaster that it knocked health-care reform off the agenda for a dozen years. We can't afford to see a repeat of this disaster."

Supposedly liberal BBC News buries the lede

The headline from this report by the BBC on February 4th screams "Iraq fire downed US helicopters". The first three graphs:

Four US helicopters lost in Iraq in recent weeks appear to have been downed by ground fire, the US military has admitted publicly for the first time. A US spokesman in Iraq said that as a result, tactics were being adjusted and mission procedures modified.

Three army helicopters and a private aircraft have come down since 20 January,with the loss of 20 US lives.

20 dead US soldiers is truly a travesty, especially as their deaths were in the service of a war based on lies.

But you have to scroll down to the 13th paragraph (the middle of the article) to learn this apparantly insignificant fact:

An [Iraqi] interior ministry official told Associated Press news agency about 1,000 Iraqi civilians, security personnel and militants had died in the past week alone.

Of course, we are not given any sort of breakdown of how many of the 1000 or so dead Iraqis are "civilians" as opposed to "militants", so one could arguably claim that most of the dead were simply the "terrorists", right? That way, Americans can sleep well at night knowing that we are defeating the "enemy".

But what if, say, 600 or so of these dead Iraqis were civilians killed as "collateral damage"? And who ultimately decides whether a dead Iraqi is classified as a "terrorist" or just a "civilian"? Maybe that's why they don't even bother breaking these numbers down.

For a wrap-up of the interminable chaos raging in Iraq, check out Juan Cole and Salon's "War Room" blog.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Understanding Obama's redeployment plan

Sen. Barack Obama took a courageous and principled stand by introducing legislation that will commence redeployment of US forces in Iraq no later than May 1, 2007 with the goal of removing all combat brigades from the country by March 31, 2008. The plan allows for a limited number of US troops to remain as "basic force protection, to engage in counter-terrorism, and to continue the training of Iraqi security forces." Kevin Drum takes a close look at Obama's proposal over at Washington Monthly.He makes the reasonable point that although it sounds like a great proposal (which on its merits it is), but that it is more for show than anything else.

How so? As I have been saying over and over again on this blog, Congress has the power to de-fund the war by exercising its control of the appropriations process. Not only does Congress have the power to do this, but this is literally the only thing the Democratic majority can do to put the breaks on Bush's insane plan to get us even more trapped in a Middle East quagmire.

Nonbinding resolutions that call for this, that and the other thing are totally worthless. As the post makes clear, Congress simply doesn't have the power to manage specific operational aspects of a war, no matter how great the strategies from Obama and others are. As Drum argues: "I realize that in one sense this is all meaningless since George Bush will veto legislation of any kind that mandates an end to the war, whether it includes a funding cutoff or not. Still, I can't help but get the feeling that this bill is carefully crafted to sound a lot more agressive than it really is. If Obama is serious about getting us out of Iraq, why not include the one thing that everyone agrees is a bulletproof way of accomplishing his goal (i.e. introduce legislation to de-fund the war)?"

So at the end of the day, Obama deserves credit from progressives for taking a principled stand on opposing the administration's "surge" plan. But his proposal seems to be mostly informed by a political calculus to sew up support from the Democratic base, as opposed to putting forward a pragmatic solution that might actually make a difference. While Drum feigns confusion over Obama's motivations in putting forward this legislation, I think the truth is pretty straightforward and disappointing.

Meanwhile, David Sirota delivers a much-needed broadside against Senate Democrats who have gone from demanding a phased redeployment from Iraq last July to now simply settling for an Iraq resolution that simply states non-binding opposition to escalation.

As Sirota points out, "[T]he Democratic caucus [in the Senate] was almost fully unified six months ago in support of ending the war completely, [but] now the Democratic caucus is billing as a “step forward” a resolution that merely (and meekly) criticizes expanding the war. That’s a legislative retreat, and one that comes after an anti-war election mandate."

So far, the new Democratic leadership of the Senate is spectacularly failing its first significant test - it was given an electoral mandate by the US public that is demanding an end to the war and instead it is offering up meaningless, nonbinding fluff.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Putting the war on terror in a historical perspective

History Professor David Bell wrote a very insightful editorial for the Los Angeles Times that in my opinion offers some food for thought. His thesis is that in historical perspective, the US's military response to the 9/11 tragedy was an "overreaction". Or, as he says: "But it is no disrespect to the victims of 9/11, or to the men and women of our armed forces, to say that, by the standards of past wars, the war against terrorism has so far inflicted a very small human cost on the United States. As an instance of mass murder, the attacks were unspeakable, but they still pale in comparison with any number of military assaults on civilian targets of the recent past, from Hiroshima on down." I actually agree with him - I think while it is difficult to put our current fight in perspective, it is possible to do so in Bell's analytical manner.

Not surprisingly, right-wing bloggers have reacted to the editorial not with historical evidence rebutting his case, but rather sarcastically claiming that Bell doesn't seem to believe that al Qaeda is to blame for the attacks - a completely unsupported claim. Pajamas Media's take on the editorial is that Bell is arguing that there is "nothing to worry about" and that the American people should just "relax". Again, even a cursory glance at Bell's piece would reveal that he is claiming nothing of the sort. But read his whole editorial and make up your own mind.

Also, check out my previous post Romanticizing War. And for another provocative blog post, check out this gem from William Arkin which set off a shitstorm of protest from the Right.