Thursday, March 29, 2007

US income inequality continues to grow

There are two interesting articles in the New York Times this week discussing the latest economic trends in the US - both of which deserve to be carefully read. Unfortunately, neither point toward a particularly happy development and both deal directly with the troubling fact that income inequality is not only at historically high levels right now (we're talking about income inequality as pronounced as it was during the Great Depression), but in fact getting worse.

The first article you need to read is by David Cay Johnson, bar none the best journalist covering the tax beat, appropriately enough entitled "US Income Gap Is Widening Significantly, Data Shows". There aren't any particularly shocking revelations contained in the article - but we see yet more evidence confirming the continuation of what in reality is a very dangerous phenomenon.

Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans - those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 - receiving their largest share of national income since 1928, analysis of newly released tax data shows.The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

The gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than $1.1 million each, an increase of more than $139,000, or about 14 percent.

The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

In case you just read the previous four paragraphs and don't see what the big fuss is all about, UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez spells it out for you in stark, black-and-white terms even a laissez fair fundamentalist should be able to discern: "Such growing disparities [are] significant in terms of social and political stability."

If you haven't studies modern European history, now might be a good time to go to the library and dust off some books on the French Revolution.

Not surprisingly, Bush's propaganda mouthpieces over at the Treasury Department are claiming that his regressive economic policies (i.e.: slashing taxes for multimillionaires, cutting government expenditures on programs relied upon by Middle Class Americans like health care, child care and education) are not the culprit for the continued growth of income inequality. It all has to do with "the rapid pace of technological change".

Of course, a logical question might be, if Bush's economic policymakers can't enact policies that help alleviate such radical maldistributions of wealth and can't help provide a baseline of economic stability for the working poor and Middle Class Americans because such problems are beyond the influence of economic policy, the why exactly do we evem need to spend out tax dollars paying their salaries? The answer of course is that progressive economic policies can ameliorate these distributional problems just as regressive policies can exacerbate them - it's just that the Bush administration cares more about helping its multimillionare campaign donors than the two-income family scraping by on minimum wage salaries.

The second article also deals with the rising income inequality in this country, but this one deals more with the (complicated) cause-and-effect relationships between inequality and the tax receipts. Daniel Gross's "economics view" column this week, entitled "Are Tax Revenues Flashing Red or Green?" offers up some pretty interesting food for thought.

As corporate profits have increased sharply, corporate income taxes soared to $353.9 billion in fiscal 2006 from $131.8 billion in fiscal 2003 . . . the incomes of the top 1 percent rose dramatically from 2003 to 2005, from 14.9 percent of the total to 17.4 percent.

The combination of rising corporate profits and rising income for those in high tax brackets has produced a gusher of federal revenue. Federal tax receipts rose 12.7 percent in 2005 and 11.75 percent in 2006, according to the Office of Management and Budget, far outpacing the growth rate of the economy, and of state tax revenues.

“Because the income tax is so concentrated, a shift in income to those in the higher brackets will boost revenues more than the economy as a whole will grow,” said Max Sawicky, economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington.

Be sure to read both articles in their entirety.

Update: For more on why it's important for us to concern ourselves with growing income inequality, see this UN report from 2005 and this report from The Century Foundation from 2004.

Also, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has a report on the reduction in productivity in the federal tax code (especially during the Reagan/Bush I administrations and the Bush II administration).

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Blinder, Summers realize "free" trade destroys US jobs

This is the front page story in today's Wall Street Journal (via MaxSpeak): three Establishment economists, Princeton economist and former Federal Reserve Board Vice Chair Alan Blinder, Nobel laureate Paul Samuelson and, along with his mentor Bob Rubin, charter member of the "Party of Davos", former Clinton Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, have all now publicly pronounced what the data has been showing for years, namely that "free" trade deals are responsible for hundreds of thousands of lost jobs and spiraling trade deficits in the US via outsourcing, the reduction of tariffs on foreign goods and/or elimination of import quotas.

The article explains the recent historical data that is leading mainstream, neoliberal economists to revisit their fundamentalist free-market philosophies:

Some trade critics are bothered by the disappointing performance of Latin America since it slashed tariffs in the 1980s and 1990s while more protectionist China and Southeast Asia sped ahead. Others are struck by the widening gap between economic winners and losers around the globe. The rethinking on trade issues is the most significant since the early 1990s when many in the U.S. worried that Japan would overtake the U.S., a fear that has since abated.

According to the article, Blinder says there's an urgent need to retool America's education system "so it trains young people for jobs likely to remain in the U.S." It isn't how many years one spends in school that will matter, he says, it's choosing to learn the skills for jobs that cannot easily be delivered electronically from afar.

He offers some interesting policy perscriptions, such as making changes to the tax code that encourage employers to create jobs that are harder to perform overseas, arguing that the focus should be on "jobs with person-to-person contact, regardless of pay and skill levels -- from child day-care providers to physicians."

Curiously, Blinder and the WSJ don't mention the fact that "free" trade deals without labor, environmental or human rights protections also lead to a race to the bottom as the US looks to exploit labor markets in the Global South, or the fact that "free" trade deals like NAFTA and CAFTA not only cause unemployment but also erode the wages of working Americans (and, of course, Mexicans.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Chomsky and Perle mix it up in foreign policy debate

No video, but check out the audio of the debate (which took place at Ohio State in 1988), which discusses America's foreign aid policies, human rights record and dealings with assorted foreign dictators and terrorists in Latin America and East Asia:

Part I is just an intro and isn't worth listening to . . .
Part II can be listened to here . . .
Part III is here . . .
Part IV is here . . .
Part V is here . . .
Part VI is here . . .
Part VII is here . . .
Part VIII is here . . .
Part IX is here . . .
Part X is here. . .

You can find parts XI through XVIII pretty easily by following this link, but be forewarned that unfortunately, the audio quality drops considerably after Part X.

If you are interested, you can buy the complete audio on either CD or MP3 here. (And unfortunately, after scouring the web for awhile, I haven't been able to locate a transcript which would really be invaluable.)

As you might reasonably expect, I think Chomsky soundly drubs the Prince of Darkness throughout, but regardless of who you think won the debate, there is lots of intriguing (if depressing) historical background in these audio files.

Go check it out.

Update: This editorial by Perle in The Guardian (UK) on the eve of the Iraq war - celebrating the "death" of the UN Security Council, should haunt him for the balance of his natural life.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Stiglitz discusses Iraq "sticker shock"

An interview from Mother Jones. The most interesting part of Stiglitz's model is the fact that it does not include the deaths of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died as a result of the Iraq war. So I think that to say his estimate of the final price tag of the war is conservative is quite an understatement,

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Will the ICC investigate Bush and Blair administations for War Crimes?

According to a report in the UK's Sunday Telegraph on March 17th, the International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor "would be willing to launch an inquiry and could envisage a scenario in which the Prime Minister and American President George W Bush could one day face charges at The Hague."

Of course, as the article makes clear, the US has refused to accept the court's jurisdiction since it was created, and it is simply unimaginable that it would hand over any of its citizens to face trial. The possibility of Bush, Cheney or Rumsfeld - or any US General sitting in the docks in the Hague is pretty much zero. On the other hand, the UK, the most prominent charter member of the so-called "Coalition of the Willing", has signed up and the Blair Government has "indicated its willingness to tackle accusations of war crimes against a number of British soldiers."

Apparently, a precondition for such an Iraqi war crime tribunal to take place would be Iraq's signing up as a member of the ICC, something the Telegraph quotes Hamid al-Bayati, Iraq's ambassador to the UN as saying it is "actively considering".

Specifically, "The court is restricted in what it can investigate. The UN Security Council can ask it to act - as in the case of Darfur - or the court can launch an investigation if it receives a complaint from a state which is party to the Rome agreement that established it. It can also look into alleged offences carried out by, or on the territory of, a party to the agreement."

So a key issue is whether the new Iraq government will decide to become a party to the ICC - and whether the US will put political or economic leverage in order to dissuade it from joining. The Bush Administration has not shied away from employing such heavy-handed blackmail tactics in the past - for example, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor back in June 2003, initially the Belgian law of Universal Jurisdiction allowed for prosecution for cases involving both Belgians and non-Belgian citizens as victims. However, the law was amended in 2003—under pressure from the U.S. government—to cover only cases with a clear link to Belgium. According to the report, the law was amended against a “backdrop of a broad U.S. effort to persuade countries around the world to sign immunity agreements under which they pledge never to send U.S. citizens to the International Court of Justice at the Hague.”

The US was unhappy that a spate of war crime lawsuits filed in Belgium targeting the Bush administration were "frivolous", "politically motivated" and presented a threat of US officials being arrested in Belgium when attending NATO meetings.

The paper specifically cited then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as threatening to withdraw funding for a new NATO headquarters building in Brussels unless the universal jurisdiction law was rescinded.

In this context, it will be instructive to see whether the continuing US military occupation of Iraq presents an obstacle for the latter country's entrance into the ICC - and therefore blocks Iraqi victims of alleged US war crimes from seeking justice.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Trump on the Iraq War

Say what you will about the Donald, but he's no dummy and he's right on the money regarding Bush, Iraq and the administration's lies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hillary Clinton's presidential run, RIP

I really don't understand Hillary Clinton. I don't undersand Hillary Clinton the Senator who is still unwilling to apologize for her vote authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 2003 - as other Presidential candidates such as John Edwards have so courageously and eloquently done. I don't understand Hillary Clinton the Presidential candidate, either. For example, from ABC News' Jake Tapper, we are made aware of just how self-destructive her trianguating, posturing and hedging are for both the Democratic Party and her own candidacy.

Tapper asked her about Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Peter Pace's idiotic comment that homosexuality is "immoral", specifically asking for her opinion on the outrageous slur. Talk about a softball question, right. Well, she more than wiffed it, she swung, missed and and hit the catcher in the head with her bat, giving him a severe concussion.

Her response? "General Pace has clarified his remarks, but let's not lose sight of the fact that 'Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell' is not working," she said. "We are being deprived of thousands of patriotic men and women who want to serve their country who are bringing skills into the armed services that we desparately need, like translation skills. And one can argue whether it was a good idea when it was first implemented, but we know have evidence as to the fact that we are in a time of war -- when we really need as many people as we can to recruit and retain in an all-volunteer army -- we are turning people away or discharging them not because of what they've done but because of who they are."

Tapper redirected: He asked: "But is it immoral?"

"Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude," she said. "I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want make sure they can."

So Hillary Clinton, a putative Democratic candidate for the Presidency next year, isn't willing to go out on a limb and say, simply, "No, homosexuality is not immoral"? She is willing to alienate the tens of millions of gay American men and women - who predominantly vote for Democratic candidates - in order to do what? Secure the Evangelical Christian vote that she has no chance of getting? Or did she make a split-second calculation that the majority of independent, undecided voters believe that homosexuality is immoral? Where did she gain that brilliant political insight?

If Clinton wins the Democratic primary, I'll have to hold my nose pretty tightly and hold back my gag reflex in order to pull the lever for her. I truly don't understand where she's coming from.

Update: This Harris Interactive poll doesn't look good for Hillary:

Half of voting-age Americans say they would not vote for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) if she became the Democratic nominee for president in 2008, according to a Harris Interactive poll released Tuesday.
More than one in five Democrats that participated in the survey said they would not vote for Clinton. Overall, 36 percent say they would vote for the former first lady and 11 percent are unsure of their top choice.

Forty-eight percent of Independent voters also said that they would choose another candidate over Clinton, the poll, which surveyed 2,223 potential voters, states.

Fifty-six percent of men said that they would not vote for Clinton, while 45 percent of women said that she would not be their pick. In addition, 69 percent of those 62 and older said that they would not vote for Clinton.

Nearly half of the respondents said that they dislike Clinton’s political opinions and Clinton as a person. Fifty-two percent of people also said that “she does not appear to connect with people on a personal level.”

Whose oil is it, anyway?

That's the question Antonia Juhasz poses in her latest Op-Ed in the New York Times. She's asking, naturally, about the massive oil reserves located in Iraq - thought to be the second largest in the world. She explains:

"Iraq’s oil reserves — thought to be the second largest in the world — have always been high on [oil companies'] wish list. In 1998, Kenneth Derr, then chief executive of Chevron, told a San Francisco audience, “Iraq possesses huge reserves of oil and gas — reserves I’d love Chevron to have access to.”

A new oil law set to go before the Iraqi Parliament this month would, if passed, go a long way toward helping the oil companies achieve their goal. The Iraq hydrocarbon law would take the majority of Iraq’s oil out of the exclusive hands of the Iraqi government and open it to international oil companies for a generation or more."

She notes that, what a coincidence, the invasion and occupation of Iraq has ended up yielding the exact result the 2001 Cheney Energy Task Force wanted: Opening up Middle Eastern countries' energy sectors for foreign investment.

As Juhasz notes, the new Iraqi oil law being pushed bt the Bush administration would transform Iraq’s oil industry from a nationalized model closed to American oil companies except for limited (although highly lucrative) marketing contracts, into a commercial industry, all-but-privatized, that is fully open to all international oil companies.

But the war had nothing to do with oil, right? The fact that Iraq is being pushed to privatize their oil reserves, as opposed to allowing them to keep a nationalized energy sector while still taking advantage of the services and expertise of foreign energy companies like its neighbors Kuwait and Saudi Arabia do, is just a amazing coincidence.

Update: Christian Parenti has an interesting article in The Nation taking a more skeptical view of Iraq's oil resources being successfully privatized in the near future. He argues the country is too much of a mess for the oil giants to turn a profit, and thinks the country's political elite won't allow such a selloff to foreign interests.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Stiglitz on patents, incentives and the pharmceutical industry

Thus sayeth Professor and Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz:

Part of modern medicine’s success is built on new drugs, in which pharmaceutical companies invest billions of dollars on research. The companies can recover their expenses thanks to patents, which give them a temporary monopoly and thus allow them to charge prices well above the cost of producing the drugs. We cannot expect innovation without paying for it. But are the incentives provided by the patent system appropriate, so that all this money is well spent and contributes to treatments for diseases of the greatest concern? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “no.”

The fundamental problem with the patent system is simple: it is based on restricting the use of knowledge. Because there is no extra cost associated with an additional individual enjoying the benefits of any piece of knowledge, restricting knowledge is inefficient. But the patent system not only restricts the use of knowledge; by granting (temporary) monopoly power, it often makes medications unaffordable for people who don’t have insurance. In the Third World, this can be a matter of life and death for people who cannot afford new brand-name drugs but might be able to afford generics. For example, generic drugs for first-line AIDS defenses have brought down the cost of treatment by almost 99% since 2000 alone, from $10,000 to $130.

But, despite the high price they pay, developing countries get little in return. Drug companies spend far more money on advertising and marketing than they do on research, far more on research for lifestyle drugs (for conditions like impotence and hair loss) than for lifesaving drugs, and almost no money on diseases that afflict hundreds of millions of poor people, such as malaria. It is a matter of simple economics: companies direct their research where the money is, regardless of the relative value to society. The poor can’t pay for drugs, so there is little research on their diseases, no matter what the overall costs.

A “me-too” drug, for example, which nets its manufacturer some portion of the income that otherwise accrues only to the company that dominates a niche, may be highly profitable, even if its value to society is quite limited. Similarly, companies raced to beat the human genome project in order to patent genes such as that associated with breast cancer. The value of these efforts was minimal: the knowledge was produced just a little sooner than it would have been otherwise. But the cost to society was enormous: the high price that Myriad, the patent holder, places on genetic tests (between $3,000 and $4,000) may well mean that thousands of women who would otherwise have been tested, discovered that they were at risk, and taken appropriate remediation, will die instead.

There is an alternative way of financing and incentivizing research that, at least in some instances, could do a far better job than patents, both in directing innovation and ensuring that the benefits of that knowledge are enjoyed as widely as possible: a medical prize fund that would reward those who discover cures and vaccines. Since governments already pay the cost of much drug research directly or indirectly, through prescription benefits, they could finance the prize fund, which would award the biggest prizes for developers of treatments or preventions for costly diseases affecting hundreds of millions of people.

Especially when it comes to diseases in developing countries, it would make sense for some of the prize money to come from foreign assistance budgets, as few contributions could do more to improve the quality of life, and even productivity, than attacking the debilitating diseases that are so prevalent in many developing countries. A scientific panel could establish a set of priorities by assessing the number of people affected and the impact on mortality, morbidity, and productivity. Once the discovery is made, it would be licensed.

Of course, the patent system is itself a prize system, albeit a peculiar one: the prize is temporary monopoly power, implying high prices and restricted access to the benefits that can be derived from the new knowledge. By contrast, the type of prize system I have in mind would rely on competitive markets to lower prices and make the fruits of the knowledge available as widely as possible. With better-directed incentives (more research dollars spent on more important diseases, less money spent on wasteful and distorted marketing), we could have better health at lower cost.

That said, the prize fund would not replace patents. It would be part of the portfolio of methods for encouraging and supporting research. A prize fund would work well in areas in which needs are well known – the case for many diseases afflicting the poor – allowing clear goals to be set in advance. For innovations that solve problems or meet needs that have not previously been widely recognized, the patent system would still play a role.

The market economy and the profit motive have led to extremely high living standards in many places. But the health care market is not an ordinary market. Most people do not pay for what they consume; they rely on others to judge what they should consume, and prices do not influence these judgments as they do with conventional commodities. The market is thus rife with distortions. It is accordingly not surprising that in the area of health, the patent system, with all of its distortions, has failed in so many ways. A medical prize fund would not provide a panacea, but it would be a step in the right direction, redirecting our scarce research resources toward more efficient uses and ensuring that the benefits of that research reach the many people who are currently denied them.

This just goes to show the "Free" trade fundamentalists who condemn those of us who call for a strategic pause in new trade deals until the laws contain human rights, environmental and labor protections by calling them "protectionists" are totally disingenuous. What could be more protectionist, really, than in ensuring patent and intellectual property rights for the multibillion dollar pharmceutical industry at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable people on the planet? Especially, as Stiglitz explains here, considering how inefficient these protections really are.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

WSJ follow-up report: "Corporate execs profited from 9/11 attacks"

From the front page of yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

Amid the stock-market swoon that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, dozens of companies granted stock options to top executives or other employees. Now, some of those companies are saying the grants were in fact made weeks later -- and backdated.

The disclosures are the latest wrinkle in a backdating scandal that involves more than 140 companies and has resulted in more than 70 firings or resignations of corporate officials. The new information suggests some executives profited from the market's plunge following Sept. 11 by manipulating options grant dates.

Stock options give the recipient the right to buy shares at a set price, typically the stock's closing price on the day the options were granted. If the stock later rises, the recipient can cash in the option for a profit. The lower the exercise price, the greater the potential gain.

Backdating options involves looking for past low points for a stock, then pretending the options were granted on those favorable dates. The post-Sept. 11 period was an attractive time for backdaters. The market had its worst week in more than 60 years, then rebounded sharply in the fourth quarter.

See also this previous post at Troubled Times from July 16 of last year: "WSJ reports on suspicious timing of 2001 stock option grants" and this article from the Wall Street Journal "The Perfect Payday" (from March 18, 2006).

These articles are really little more than hard proof of the cataclysmic consequences of the unchecked, endless greed of CEOs and Boards of Directors. There literally is no shame in exploiting a national tragedy in order to make already wealthy executives even wealthier, while at the same time laying off tens of thousands of non-management employees (and blaming the same national tragedy for these layoffs, which further enrich the executives by raising the share price).

I'm not a socialist, nor am I trying to claim that capitalism is a less desirable way of ordering our nation's economy. But the capitalism this country pledges allegience to is like some sort of runaway cancer and is really nothing more than an excuse to make the rich even richer at the expense of everyone else. Unchecked capitalism is destructive and immoral, and with many executives clearly believing that making money represents the ultimate end goal of all business, our country seems headed toward a disastrous future.

In short, I dont think this sensationalist story really represents some sort of extreme abberation in our society - I think in many ways it is par for course and becoming even moreso as time goes on.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Democratic Congress and the Iraq War

David Swanson, writing at TomDispatch posits that thanks to the failure of leadership in Congress, the continuing US-occupation of Iraq could become the Democratic party's responsibility, or at least perceived as such.

Update: Also worth considering is David Sirota's post supporting David Obey's Supplemental Appopriations Bill, seeing it as a more pragmatic approach to ending the war compared with the Barbara Lee Amendment that doesn't appear to have enough supporting votes to pass.

Sirota concedes this much on the Supplemental's merits: "You can argue whether his tactics right now are smart. You can have a reasoned disagreement about whether he should be pushing a supplemental appropriations bill that includes new money for veterans medical care and binding language to end the war by March of 2008. There is a very legitimate case to be made that Democrats shouldn't support any money to continue the war and that the supplemental appropriations bill that Obey is carrying does also do that."

Update #2: Swanson responds to Sirota.

Update #3: The debate continues. Sirota issues a full court press urging the Congressional Progressive Caucus to vote for the Supplemental on the eve of the Iraq vote.

Real wage growth missing despite increasing worker productivity

From the Center for Economic Policy Research's latest report "Behind the Gap between Productivity and Wage Growth" by Dean Baker:

The basic numbers on wage and productivity growth in the current business cycle tell a striking story. In the five and one quarter years from the peak of the last cycle in the first quarter of 2001 to the second quarter of 2006, productivity increased by an impressive 17.9 percent, an average growth rate of 3.2 percent per year. By contrast, real wages have barely moved over this period, with the average hourly wage for production and nonsupervisory workers increasing by just 1.2 percent, an average annual growth rate of just over 0.2 percent.

This extraordinary gap between wage and productivity growth demands an explanation. The simplest and most obvious explanation is that there has been redistribution from wages to capital income (primarily profits plus interest). While this is in partly true, the story is a bit more complicated. To date, it appears that the redistribution from wages to capital income is typical for the early stages of a business cycle and does not suggest a structural break with the patterns from past cycles. The current cycle may not have yet reached its profit peak, but unless the capital income share continues to grow, the peak share of capital income in the current cycle will be no larger than the peak share in the nineties cycle.

A second major cause of the gap between wage growth and productivity growth is the fact that productivity is measured against gross output, while income must come from net output ― no one can eat depreciation. There has been a substantial increase in the gap between gross and net output in recent years, as the share of GDP going to replace worn out and obsolete equipment has increased. As a result, the rate of growth of “usable productivity” is considerably slower than the productivity growth numbers reported by the Labor Department. When these factors are taken into account, the missing wage growth is considerably less of a mystery.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Corporate PR watch

In his latest Op-Ed in the Boston Globe, Bob Kuttner reminds us that corporate PR is nothing but self-serving bullshit meant exclusively to fatten profit margins and distract the public from inconvenient facts that might not put the firm in the most favorable light.

True, none of this is revelatory, but he does provide us with some helpful recent examples of corporations pretending to be good citizens, and then quickly exposes the public relations machine working in high gear.

I do wish Kuttner's editorial was a bit longer, and I think it would have been great if he had tackled head-on the entire farce that is "Corporate Social Responsibility", or "CSR". When I used to work for the pro-Wall Street think tank The Conference Board I had to edit a whole series of research reports on CSR, and I remember being amazed at how much of a sham the whole concept was. Of course, some large corporations have set up foundations and give a lot of money for charitable giving, but it is rarely more than a tiny blip on the radar screen and is done almost exclusively as a public relations booster.

Think I'm overly cynical? First, check out this helpful article from the Center for Media and Democracy. Also, CMD's PR Watch website is a pretty good resource for tracking corporate Americas PR spin and propaganda campaigns.

Homeless vets

Heartbreaking story from the Washington Post on the many combat vets from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan living in homeless shelters. The article notes that the number of homeless veterans from these two wars is difficult to measure, but according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 2004 to 2006 the government has provided shelter to some 300 veterans

However, critics note that this figure is a lowball estimate because it doesn't bother to include the many other vets who are forced to sleep in buses, cars and on the streets.

The Post reports: "As in the Vietnam War era, when thousands of vets ended up homeless, there are already signs that the recent conflicts are taking a traumatic psychological toll on some service members. Many veterans' advocates said that despite unprecedented attempts by the military and Veterans Affairs to care for veterans, increasing numbers of the new generation of warriors are ending up homeless."

This is the tragic consequence of war that is often swept under the rug, as the media understandably focuses on the thousands of casualties that result from IEDs, ambushes and helicopter crashes. But beyond the death toll and beyond the men and women who have their limbs blown off, there are the psychological scars that are invisible to the naked eye, but just as destructive to the individuals who are being afflicted.

Friday, March 02, 2007

A real class act

Ann Coulter, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot,’ so I — so kind of an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards.”

Disgusting. Would you be surprised to hear that the conservative footsoldiers in the audience responded with thunderous applause? I wasn't.

By the way, lest you think the CPAC Conference going on in DC is some fringe affair wholly disconnected from the Administration and big-name Republican lawmakers, here are some of the other speakers at the event: Dick Cheney, Sen. Mitch McConnell, "Presidential Advisor" Tony Snow and John Bolton as well as '08 hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rudy Guiliani.

Also, this isn't exactly the first time Coulter has made outrageously homophobic remarks, claiming to be joking but of course kidding on the square. Who can forget this interview with Chris Matthews where she "jokingly" referred to Gore as a "total fag"? (In case you're wondering, Matthews didn't register even a hint of outrage at this slur).

Update: This public letter denouncing Coulter and requesting she not be invited to future CPAC engagements from conservative bloggers and writers is a welcome development. One might claim that such a move is nothing more than an inevitable PR stunt to limit the fallout from her noxious comments and that the fact that she was invited back to CPAC after her infamous "raghead" comments last year demonstrates that outrage on the right on this issue is more manufactured than real.

This may very well be true, but the only way Ann's fellow-travelers on the far right can even come close to redeeming themselves is for them to publicly demand Coulter not be invited back to the event. This is what these conservatives are doing, so in the spirit of giving credit where it's due, I would say this is a positive first step - even if it is basically a calculated, self-serving gambit on the part of those involved.

Necessary compromise

It's great that House has finally, thanks to the Democratic takeover in January, proposed raising the federal minimum wage after almost a decade of declining in real value. But unfortunately, Senate Republicans insisted yesterday on tacking on totally unnecessary taxes for small business in order to let the bill pass the closely divided chamber. I hope - but am not expecting - that a clean bill can still get passed. Basically. the Democrats need to win more senate seats next year.

And while they're at it, indexing the minimum wage for inflation should be another top priority for Congress, although clearly additional rate increases will be necessary in the coming years as well.

The health insurance crisis

Big story of the day, in my own humble opinion, ought to be this article in the New York Times regarding US public opinion on the relative importance of various domestic policy agendas. The number one priority, according to a hot-off-the-presses Times/CBS News poll (.pdf with cross-tabs), is that besides the ongoing disaster that is the war/military occupation in Iraq, the number one issue on people's minds is fixing the health care crisis - particularly the scourge of almost 50 million Americans being uninsured. And while there is division in terms of support for government vs. private sector coverage, the lead paragraph says it all:

"A majority of Americans say the federal government should guarantee health insurance to every American, especially children, and are willing to pay higher taxes to do it."

To be precise, 55% overall are calling to make health insurance available to everyone, and 70% overall acknowledge this as a serious problem. The reason for this divergance? 52% of Republicans don't seem to think that this government's responsibility to solve (I guess we just need to wait for insurance companies to fix it?) and 49% of Republicans wouldn't be willing to sacrifice $500 in taxes a year to see this serious problem fixed.

Here's another interesting fact people should keep in mind: Only 24 percent said they were satisfied with President Bush’s handling of the health insurance issue. I'm curious what proposals the Rupublican candidates for '08 will run on, It will clearly be a pivotal issue.

On Iraq (from the same poll but not referenced in the Times article):

Bush's overall approval rating is 29%. To say that is exceedingly bad is a major understatement. He hasn't broken 40% in a year and a half according to the poll. This is one loser of a president, and yes I'm aware he doesn't "decide based on polls". To him and his administration, the only poll that matters is the one on election day. It's very pathetic, albeit highly predictable, that the Democratic leadership in Congress has to this point threatened only token opposition to Bush's hugely unpopular war in Iraq. A clear majority of Americans are calling for setting a deadline and withdrawing from Iraq, yet it is obvious Bush will never agree to withdraw before his resignation, seeing Iraq as a perpetual open-ended commitment. It is clear that Congress must vote to limit appropriations based upon small things like

Also, check out this very interesting recent PIPA poll of the Iraqi public. For example, did you know 70% of Iraqis favor setting a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces, and almost half (47%) approve of attacks on US troops. Yes, this is not a popular occupation over there either.

Update: I realize that if I am going to cynically slam Democratic lawmakers, also give credit where its due. Check out this Los Angeles Times piece that reports on some of the good work they are doing on the labor rights front. Very encouraging.

Update #2: Be sure to check out this must-read report from the New York Times on the precarious lives of working men and women without health insurance.

As the article explains:

It is well known that the ranks of the uninsured have been swelling; federal figures show an increase of 6.8 million since 2000.

But the surprise is that the uninsured are not necessarily the poor, the unemployed and the undocumented. Solidly middle-class people like Ms. Readling are one of the fastest growing subgroups.

And that is one reason, according to a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, that the problems of the uninsured have jumped to the top of the domestic political agenda in Washington and on the campaign trail.

Today, more than one-third of the uninsured — 17 million of the nearly 47 million — have family incomes of $40,000 or more, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization. More than two-thirds of the uninsured are in households with at least one full-time worker.

Update #3: David Sirota takes the New York Times to task for this article, specifically its claim that "many voters still oppose the idea of a government-run health care system". As noted above, this is, strictly speaking, an accurate statement as far as public opinion polls are concerned - although Sirota does make a good point that providing universal coverage is indeed considered a top priotity according to respondents.

Unfortunately, funding such a program and determining who would manage it are issues that the public is very much split on, making forward progress on implementation pretty much non-existant.

For example, Sirota quotes from a previous article in the Times that "Sixty percent, including 62 percent of independents and 46 percent of Republicans, said they would be willing to pay more in taxes. Half said they would be willing to pay as much as $500 a year more." He then goes on to argue that "public opinion polls show that most voters, in fact, support the concept of a government-sponsored . . . universal health care system."

But I think an objective observer would agree that between 50-60% is decidedly not a strong majority. This remains an issue that people are pretty evenly divided on, based on party-affiliation.