2011 - %3, February

Textbook Colonialism

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 1:00 PM EST

Mission High School teacher Jenn Bowman has been trying to educate 10th graders about the Scramble for Africa using Belgian King Leopold II's brutal colonization of the Congo as a case study. Too bad the "Modern World History" textbook isn't helping. How can the textbook's "Imperialism" section end with a nearly equal number of both positive and negative consequences of terrible events? "At its core, Imperialism is an act of aggression. Finding positive impact in it is like looking for positive outcomes in a rampage of a serial killer," she says.

"If you were writing a letter to our textbook publisher, how would you review their treatment of Colonialism?" Ms. Bowman asks.

That's why she got up at 5 a.m. that morning to write a letter to the textbook publisher, Bowman tells her students. She reads her letter aloud, and then uses it to discuss the meaning of "Eurocentric Worldview," a new term for this class. She discusses writing too, asking students to critique the letter's thesis, evidence, and conclusions. "If you were writing a letter to our textbook publisher, how would you review their treatment of Colonialism?" she asks. "How would you organize your arguments? How many sentences do you need in the first paragraph?"

"Ms. Bowman, were you writing political letters in your punk-rock days too or just going to a bar and yelling at people?" Pedro asks at one point. "Both," she laughs.

"Ms. Bowman is so political!" Rina complains to me softly as she hunches over her desk. Suddenly she sits up straight and asks, "Ms. Bowman, in those protests in Egypt, were high school students on the streets too?" "Absolutely!" Bowman answers. "I wonder what they're doing in Egypt right now," a student at the front of the classroom asks. "I wonder," Bowman says, as she walks toward a student in the back.

Editors' Note: This education dispatch is part of an ongoing series reported from Mission High School, where education writer Kristina Rizga is embedded for the year. Read more: Mission High School students talk about education reform and grade the film "Waiting for Superman. Plus: Sign up for the weekly newsletter "In the Mix" to get all of the latest Mission High dispatches.

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Healthcare Ping Pong for the Poor

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 12:55 PM EST

Harold Pollack reports today on an issue with the healthcare reform law that seems trivial at first but turns out to be anything but on closer inspection. The problem is this: a certain number of poor and working class families have highly variable incomes, which means they might be eligible for Medicaid one month but healthcare exchanges the next. So do they ping pong back and forth between the two? Or what?

At first this might not seem like a big deal. How many of these kinds of families can there be? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. Nearly a third of all families have incomes less than 200% of the federal poverty level, and Benjamin Sommers and Sara Rosenbaum, using longitudinal survey data, conclude that a whole lot of them have highly variable incomes:

We estimate that within six months, more than 35 percent of all adults with family incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level will experience a shift in eligibility from Medicaid to an insurance exchange, or the reverse; within a year, 50 percent, or 28 million, will.

Harold comments:

States need to account for this in their design health insurance exchanges, and to allow a more permeable boundary between the new exchanges and Medicaid. Sommers and Rosenbaum provide some pretty sensible policy suggestions. I’ll let you read their take and decide for yourself.

The Affordable Care Act is pretty silent about how these issues should be handled. For all the juvenile criticisms of passing a many-paged bill, a few-thousand pages provides only a basic structure and roadmap for health reform. Much of the hard work resides in the yet-to-be-written administrative and regulatory Midrash that goes along with it.

The policy suggestions Harold alludes to are behind a paywall, so I can't comment on them at the moment. But I don't doubt that they're pretty sensible. Hopefully state-level administrators will start thinking about this, even if their political masters are busy covering their ears, shouting "la la la," and trying to pretend that the healthcare reform law doesn't exist and will never go into effect. It will, and this is a problem every state will need to address.

Watchdog Wants Probe of Gov. Walker's State Patrol Visit

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 12:20 PM EST
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Flickr/theaudi0slave

[UPDATE: Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent another letter to the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board on Thursday morning, demanding an investigation into Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker's use of state troopers. After state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald ordered troopers to the houses of all 14 Senate Democrats currently hiding in Illinois, CREW called on the accountability board for the second time in two days to probe Walker and Fitzgerald's use of troopers. "Governor Walker is doubling down on a bad bet," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan said in a statement. "Wisconsin law is clear: state troopers cannot take part in any dispute between an employer and employee over wages, hours, labor, or working conditions."]

Another government watchdog group is demanding an investigation into whether Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker abused his power in the fight to pass his controversial "budget repair bill." Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, a Washington, DC, outfit, asked Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board in a letter sent Wednesday to probe whether Walker broke state law when he sent State Patrollers to locate state Senate Democratic leader Matt Miller. CREW's demand comes on the same day as the Public Campaign Action Fund announced it was looking into whether Walker engaged in illegal political coordination with who he thought was right-wing billionaire David Koch, but in reality was Ian Murphy, the editor of a alternative magazine in Buffalo, New York.

The 14 Democrats in Wisconsin's state Senate fled to Illinois on February 17 to prevent a vote on Walker's bill, which would eliminate collective bargaining rights for many public-sector unions and allow for no-bid auctions of state-owned power plants, among other provisions. (By leaving, the Democrats left Senate Republicans without the 20-vote quorum needed to vote on the budget bill.) A day later, two state troopers were sent by Walker to Miller's home in suburban Madison at the request of state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald. Here's video of the troopers showing up at Miller's house:

That's where Walker violated the law, CREW alleges. "Nothing in the agency's mission indicates WSP officers may be sent on political errands by the governor or members of the state legislature," CREW executive director Melanie Sloan writes. In particular, CREW points to Wisconsin law that says state troopers "may not be used in or take part in any dispute or controversy between an employer and employee concerning wages, hours, labor, or working conditions." CREW's Sloan concludes, "By abusing his position as governor to ask the WSP to send a message to Sen. Miller, Governor Walker obtained an unlawful benefit—the use of the troopers—in an effort to gain an advantage in his wage dispute with the state's public employees."

It's also worth noting that the head of the Wisconsin State Patrol is Stephen Fitzgerald, father of state Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald and state Assembly speaker Jeff Fitzgerald. The elder Fitzgerald was tapped for the position by Walker's administration.

Read CREW's letter in full:

02_23_11 Letter to Wisconsin Government Accountability Board

Cutting the Fat in Healthcare

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 12:08 PM EST

Matt Yglesias is basically right about the overall shape of the river when it comes to healthcare spending:

I think there’s a lot of waste in our health care sector. That said, I think discussion of health care costs sometimes ignore the fact that something has to go up as a share of GDP. Americans are getting richer, agriculture is becoming more efficient, apparel is increasingly made by Bangladeshis or robots, etc. At the same time, computers and other electronic gadgets are getting cheaper in real terms. And if some things shrink as a share of our income, other things need to grow. The biggest of those things has been health care. And that makes perfect sense.

As GDP goes up, and we have more collective income to spend on things other than the basics, we're going to spend that extra income on whatever we most value. And for a lot of us, that something is healthcare. Put simply, as GDP per capita goes up, we'd expect healthcare spending not just to go up, but to go up even as a percentage of GDP.

However, there's evidence that the U.S. is an outlier even when you take this into account. You'd expect America to spend a higher percentage of GDP of healthcare than most countries because America is richer than most countries. But if McKinsey Consulting is to be believed, that number probably ought to be about $5,000 per person, not the $7,000 per person we actually spend. Put another way, you'd expect a country as rich as the U.S. to spend 13-14% of GDP on healthcare, but in reality we spend more like 17-18%. You can read the McKinsey conclusions here, or you can read Aaron Carroll's multipart blog series explaining it here. (Note that these are 2006 numbers. They've gone up a bit since then.)

Why do we spend so much? Some is pure waste, some is because our system is so inefficient, and some is because the healthcare industry is far more profitable in the U.S. than in most other countries. Somebody has to pay for those country club memberships, after all.

But keep in mind that this is actually good news if you look at things from a certain point of view. If our healthcare sector were super efficient, there wouldn't be much scope for reducing its size. But if there's lots of fat in it, there is. It won't be easy, since one man's fat is another man's dividend check, but at least there's fat to cut.

Down the Drain With the Tea Party

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 11:28 AM EST

Here's the latest from those well-known socialists at 85 Broad Street:

Spending cuts approved by House Republicans would act as a drag on the U.S. economy, according to a Wall Street analysis that put new pressure on the political debate in Washington. The report by the investment firm Goldman Sachs said the cuts would reduce the growth in gross domestic product by up to 2 percentage points this year, essentially cutting in half the nation's projected economic growth for 2011.

....A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio said the Goldman Sachs report represented "the same outdated Washington mind-set," comparing it to the thinking behind the 2009 Recovery Act that released federal funds to counter the effects of the recession.

I don't know about Goldman, but Boehner sure seems to have the traditional GOP mindset down pat: if inconvenient evidence is at hand, pretend it doesn't exist.

In fairness, I have to say that two percentage points seems pretty high to me for $100 billion in budget cuts. Still, even Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who sold his soul for the cause years ago, agrees that the tea party-inspired cuts in the House bill would cut 0.2 percentage points off of GDP growth. That's probably too low, but it almost doesn't matter: if even Republican house economists agree that the cuts would slow economic growth at all, tell me again why Republicans are insisting on them?
 

Tired of Right-Wing Extremism? Some Arizonans Want to Secede

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 10:22 AM EST

Arizona is charging ahead with legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants in the state. As I reported last month, legal mastermind Kris Kobach—who helped author the state's sweeping 2010 immigration law—has spearheaded a new push to repeal birthright citizenship at the state level. This week, the Arizona Senate appropriations committee approved a bill doing just that, becoming the country's first state legislative panel to support overturning birthright citizenship. The committee also passed a bill that would prohibit "undocumented children from attending public or private schools and colleges and universities, bar illegal immigrants from buying or driving a car and forbid them from getting a marriage certificate in the state," Politico reports

It's unclear whether such extreme measures will become law in Arizona—and even if they do, they could end up in the same legal limbo as Arizona's anti-immigration law. But as Arizona legislators continue their push rightward on immigration, health care, and a host of other issues, some residents are beginning to chafe under their leadership—and consider their own radical alternatives. 

In Arizona's Pima County along the southern border, a group of attorneys—including the former chair of the county's Democratic Party as well as a self-described Libertarian—has created a political committee aimed to help southern Arizona secede from the rest of the state. According to the Facebook page for "Save Our State," the group's goal is "to establish a new state in Southern Arizona free of the un-American, unconstitutional machinations of the Arizona legislature and to restore our region's credibility as a place welcoming to others, open to commerce, and friendly to its neighbors." The group's members say their effort is no joke, reports the Arizona Daily Star:

But Paul Eckerstrom, co-chair of Save Our State…said the state Legislature has gone too far to the right. In particular, a round of legislative measures challenging federal supremacy "really does border on them saying they don't want to be part of the Union any longer," he said…

The group's treasurer, Libertarian and public defender David Euchner…said Republicans were swept into office nationwide on a promise of helping to fix the economic and spending problems. "Meanwhile, every bill we've heard about here is either anti-abortion laws or anti-Mexican laws. These are not laws that are geared toward solving the real problems that we have."

The odds of their effort succeeding, of course, are dim indeed. The group is having trouble even getting the county board of supervisors to put their proposal on the ballot—much less winning the approval from the state legislature, Congress, and the president. But it's certainly an attention-grabbing proposal.

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Libya’s Exports to Europe: Oil and Immigrants

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 9:46 AM EST

Muammar Qaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi have more in common than their tastes for lavish parties and sexy young women, or even their notorious 2009 “friendship pact.” Despite being the buffoons of their respective regions, each wields considerable power. And they share a common destiny that revolves around two types of Libyan exports: fossil fuels, which Italy desperately wants, and migrants, which it decidedly doesn’t.

Franco Frattini, the Italian foreign minister, warned on Wednesday that the Libyan uprising could result in 350,000 unwanted immigrants landing on the European continent. According to the Italian news site Adnkronos, Italy asked the EU for support in stopping the migrants, who most often enter through Italian shores.

”We ask that Europe do its duty,” he said during a Wednesday address to parliament in Rome. We want Europe to do more managing the flow of migrants because countries cannot be left alone.”

Italy in May 2009 agreed to begin controversial joint patrols with Libya, turning back thousands of illegal immigrants aboard boats in the Mediterranean.

Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi hinted that he may unilaterally scrap cooperation, warning that he would allow thousands of migrants to pass through his country on the way to Europe if the EU sided with opponents of his embattled rule.

Qaddafi knows all too well how to frigthen European leaders–especially Berlusconi–who have right-wing, nationalist, anti-immigrant movements at their backs. And in normal times, this sort of scare tactic might have been enough to push Europe into aquiescence as differences were papered over in some sort of “reform.” But it is too late for that. Qaddafi totters, and no one can predict what will happen in the region. Emerging politics might at best result in some version of an Indian-style democracy, at worst chaotic Somali-style warfare with faction pitted against faction.

What may be even more frightening to Italy–and to much of Europe as well–is the prospect of losing Libya’s supply of oil and natural gas. Italy gets one third of its oil from Libya by way of the big oil company ENI. The company has already pulled out most of its employees and cut back the flow of natural gas through the pipeline that connects Libya and Italy.

ENI is the sixth largest oil company in the world. It is 30 percent owned by theItalian government, which has special rights to block mergers and sharply limit holdings of other investors. About 11 percent of the company securities are held by institutions including such big American mutual funds as Vanguard and Fidelity, along with Wellington Management, the big Boston investment management concern. The top 10 institutional holders control about 8 percent of the stock. Unlike the other majors, it has most of its reserves in politically volatile North Africa, which as the oil industry goes, remains relatively underdeveloped.

In turn, as Al Jazeera reports, several other international energy giants have stakes in Libyan oil and gas. Following the 2003 rapproachment with Qaddafi,

European energy firms were quick to invest in the holder of Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, the eighth-largest in the world, while many others signed lucrative arms and construction deals.

Tony Blair, Britain’s former prime minister, signed a so-called “Deal in the Desert” in March 2004, which paved the way for oil contracts worth billions, leading to a close relationship that has come under increasing criticism.

It included Anglo-Dutch company Shell signing an agreement worth up to $1bn and three years later BP agreeing its largest exploration commitment to date, in a deal worth at least $900m in Libya.

A historical footnote: Both Libya and Italy have been important but little-known players in the evolution of Middle East oil. In March 1951 the nationalist government of Mohammad Mossadeq in Iran took over the oil industry from the Anglo Iranian Oil Company, which became BP. The CIA conpired to overthrow Mossadeq and installed the Shah. Then the U.S. stepped in with Herbert  Hoover, Jr., dispatched by President Eisenhower to reinstate the international cartel of big companies that for years had dominated the industry. Iran’s oil reserves were carved up amongst British, Dutch, French and for the first time, American interests. But it did not include Italy, which was entirely dependent on imported oil.

Angered at being cut out of the competition, Enrico Mattei, head of the Italian state company now known as ENI, went to war against the cartel, and after Suez in 1956 he persuaded the Iranian parliament to rewrite the country’s petroleum law to make way for a new sort of production system known as joint ventures. Under this arrangement the company and country became partners, and they replaced the old concessions. In short order, the joint venture opened the way for direct nationalization and the birth of OPEC.

This post originally appeared on Jim Ridgeway's blog, Unsilent Generation.

Urban Homestead™?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Via Change.org's Sustainable Food blog, I just learned that the phrase "urban homestead" (think chickens, canning, and vegetable beds) is no longer up for grabs. A Pasadena-based group called the Dervaes Institute has trademarked it:

In what can only be described as a blatantly capitalistic move, the Dervaes Institute has successfully registered as trademarks such generic terms as "urban homesteading," "freedom garden," and "grow the future." Despite the claim on the Institute's Web site that the Dervaes "believe in giving freely to others," they recently sent out a barrage of letters to Web sites, bloggers, and authors that use these terms, informing them that they are legally required to either attribute these terms to the Dervaes Institute or replace them with supposedly more generic terms like "modern homesteading" or "urban sustainability projects."

Dervaes has forced Oakland's Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers fascinating-sounding classes on topics like cheesemaking, quail farming, salami making, and coffee-bean roasting, to disable its Facebook page. Another one of the group's targets was a homesteading class at offered at the Santa Monica Public Library.

The weirdest part? Aside from the trademarking shenanigans, the Dervaes Institute seems like a pretty cool organization. The people behind it appear to be a family that decided to grow their own vegetables, and got hooked. Now they maintain a useful blog and website and run workshops geared toward urban homesteader (that's right, I said it!) wannabes.

Anyway, the irony of these folks claiming to have invented, and now own, the concept of self-sufficiency is just too blatant even to comment on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to my backyard where I'm planning to build a chicken coop so I can have some eggs .

 Via OC Weekly.

The Palm Oil PR Offensive Is Gathering Pace—But Not Weight

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Last week, I received an email from the Adam Smith Institute alerting me to a new briefing paper it is publishing this week. The ASI must have known that the title would catch my eye—and indeed it did: "Dispelling the myths: Palm oil and the environmental lobby."

The ASI bills itself as the "one of the world's leading thinktanks" and says that its aim is to "promote free markets, limited government, and an open society". It is known for being one of the chief policy architects of privatisation and the poll tax during the Thatcher era.

With this kind of pedigree, I was intrigued to see what the ASI's views on palm oil might be. I already had an inkling what its views on the "environmental lobby" might be (clue: not positive), but I wasn't aware that it had ever passed judgment on the merits of south-east Asia's highly controversial palm oil plantations.

Why Won't the UN Do Anything About Libya?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Whether you believe the body count of the Libyan government (300), the Italian government (1,000), a French doctor-witness (2,000), or a member of the International Criminal Court (10,000), one thing remains undisputed: terrible, terrible things are happening in Libya.

Yesterday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made a statement condemning the violence, saying that "Those responsible for brutally shedding the blood of innocents must be punished."

Those are pretty strong words. But what they are not is a resolution. If you're thinking that the UN is theoretically supposed to actually do the punishing the secretary general is referring to, you would be correct: In 2005, its member nations agreed to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which stipulates that if a government starts slaughtering its own people the UN is responsible for taking "timely and decisive" action. I've blathered at length about cases where the UN has failed to do this, but the Guardian's Carne Ross puts it fantastically in regards to Libya:

What is happening in Libya is the true test of such declarations, and it is for every UN member, including the UK and US, in their positions as permanent members of the council, to declare loud and clear—and now—that this principle must be respected, and if it is not, that consequences will follow.

A possible UN resolution could say that if dictator Muammar Qaddafi doesn't stop the slaughter, the international community will freeze his regime's assets, resort to sanctions, or even force. It must be really hard, though, to get something like that together; with all the states involved and China and Russia predictably pulling the old "we shouldn't interfere with other people's business, especially people who sell oil" card, it certainly takes a super long time to pass a resolution. Right, Ross?

I spent four and a half years negotiating resolutions on the Middle East at the UN Security Council. When it wishes, the council can make decisions in hours. We agreed a resolution condemning the 9/11 attacks in less than an hour, the morning after the attacks took place.

Alright, well, there's that. When it comes to the lack of meaningful UN action on Libya, it's not disorganization, or excessive bureaucracy to blame—just a healthy dose of sacklessness.