2005 - %3, April

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Apr. 13, 2005 6:44 PM EDT

Nuclear War Games: Each side in the filibuster debate is spinning its own version of history. By Michael Scherer.

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"Morning-after" pill delays

| Wed Apr. 13, 2005 4:35 PM EDT

Here's a study I haven't seen that seems important to get out there. Much of the carping by conservatives over infamous the Plan B "morning-after" pill—which still has yet to be approved for over-the-counter sale by the FDA—has focused on the assumption that the pill would make women more likely to engage in "icky" sexual activity. Now we can argue whether or not you think this is a reasonable argument—I certainly don't—but what would be nice to have are facts.

And now it looks like we do. According to researchers at the University of California, in a study done earlier this year, increased access to the pill does not affect sexual behavior. What the pill does do, of course, is help reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancies. More to the point, the pill helps reduce the number of abortions—which in theory should be exactly what conservatives would like to see. So file that alongside all the other mountains of evidence indicating that the pill is perfectly safe and effective for women.

Unfazed by the scientific method, however, the Bush administration is delaying yet again an FDA confirmation vote on approving the pill. So now the Senate is getting into the matter, as Hillary Clinton and Patty Murray have promised to hold up the nomination of Lester Crawford to FDA commissioner spot until the controversy gets resolved. And hopefully it does soon. By the by, Chris Mooney wrote a piece for Mother Jones about the holdup, and the controversy, surrounding the pill a few months back that's worth a read.

A new Middle East policy?

| Wed Apr. 13, 2005 2:42 PM EDT

Praktike stumbles on an interesting find. The deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, J. Scott Carpenter, recently announced that the U.S. would promote democratic reform in the Middle East whether or not radical Islamists would be likely to come to power as a result:

Addressing a session on "elections and their consequences" at the US-Islamic World Forum at Doha, J Scott Carpenter, the American deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour, reiterated US resolve to help pro-reform forces in the region.

"At the task force meetings of this forum, many raised the question whether America is prepared to accept the consequences of democracy in the region. "The answer is yes," he said, indicating to the possibility of Islamist forces coming to power in Arab countries through democratic elections.

"We didn't interfere in the election results in Iraq. The person who has now been elected president is an Islamist," Scott said in reply to a query from the audience about the US stance towards groups like Hamas and Hizb Allah.

As praktike points out, this is a far more unequivocal statement than anyone else in the administration has yet made. Usually it's: "Sure, democracy's cool… so long as it's someone we like who comes to power." So it's an interesting shift. Nonetheless, it's not entirely clear that Carpenter has thought this through. It's true that the U.S. didn't interfere, strictly speaking, with the election results in Iraq. But the CPA did structure the interim constitution precisely to prevent popular Islamist groups from dominating the new National Assembly—indeed, the supermajoritarian requirements were put in expressly to make it difficult to form a new government dominated by Islamists. And it's worked out in exactly that way; the Shiites have been forced to compromise with Kurds, Sunnis, and even secular groups.

But Iraq is a very different situation than, for instance, letting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt come to power via the ballot—it's not at all clear that the Brotherhood would treat, say, Egypt's Coptic Christian majority nicely, or endorse an independent judiciary or freedom of press, both of which have been long absent under the reign of current president Husni Mubarak. And then you have, say, the branch of the Brotherhood in Syria which is likely to be even more radical—in fact, no one knows what they would do if they came to power. Again, this is something to seriously consider. It's one thing to let the religious Shiites take over a largely U.S.-designed and constrained Iraqi government. It's another to say, "open the floodgates and bring on the Islamists!" Because in all likelihood, the Islamists would be the ones who take power, since they're the best-organized elements in the opposition.

Now, personally speaking, I'm of the view that it's all worth the risks. Open the democracy floodgates and bring on the Islamists! Perhaps the radicals will be tempered by taking power and navigating the thorny roads of mundane politics, rather than morphing into a Taliban-style government. Plus, it's far better to have some of these radical Islamist groups express frustration towards the United States through state action (say, through a boycott or through forcing us to abandon our military bases around the Middle East), then by blowing up tall buildings in New York City. That's the whole idea behind promoting democracy, isn't it?

Nevertheless, this is something that should be thought through carefully. Certainly many thinkers and scholars on the subject—like those at the Carnegie Foundation—have noted that years of Arab authoritarian rule have severely weakened liberal and pro-democratic forces in the Middle East. As a result, the Islamists are the only political game in town. As such, many experts think that the proper way to reform may be to take it slow, build up liberal organizations through foreign aid, NGO assistance, civil-society building, economic liberalization, etc., and then open the floodgates by pressuring Arab dictators to hold free elections. So there's a real debate to be had, and it's good to see officials in the State Department begin to think seriously about the various issues at stake here.

Why hate the estate tax?

| Wed Apr. 13, 2005 2:25 PM EDT

The AP is reporting that not only will estate tax repeal pass in the House, but the new Republican majority may help push it through the Senate. If you want a good run down of why estate tax repeal is a terrible idea, especially in times of mass budget deficits, see the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Also, the Center for American Progress has the rundown on talking points.

That said, I want to put forward a brief note about the politics of all this. Yes, as Kevin Drum says, it's fascinating that the public overwhelmingly supports estate tax repeal even though it affects a tiny, tiny percentage of the population. Furthermore, Democrats are trying to raise the exemption to some $7 million for couples, which would ensure that the estate tax affected no more than the top .3 percent of Americans. So why isn't that enough? Why do Americans still favor repeal?

But here's the thing: It's never been a good argument to say that only the top percentage of Americans will be affected. Polls have often shown that over 20 percent of the population believes itself to be in the top 1 percent income bracket, and another 20 percent think they'll get there soon. Americans sympathize with the highest of earners because most of them think that sort of wealth is attainable. Conservatives are aware of this fact, which is why their arguments in favor of "death tax" repeal have such validity. Heck, it's why most of these "class warfare" arguments just don't work. Americans don't like to be told that they'll never reach the very top, even though in reality, most of them won't.

The "Paris Hilton" argument is a better moral case against the tax—namely, that the estate tax prevents the creation of a tiny and self-perpetuating overclass of lazy heirs and heiresses who have done nothing to earn their ludicrous sums of money. The estate tax, in other words, keeps America from degenerating into an aristocracy. Now that's the sort of thing that can inspire some real resentment! Nevertheless, even that argument might not be enough. There's a real asymmetry in the political forces at play here. Those who oppose the estate tax all feel very strongly about it, mainly since it affects them. Meanwhile, those who favor keeping the tax as a progressive form of revenue-creation have a hard time whipping up voter intensity about the matter. If the tax could be connected to some sort of popular program—if estate tax revenues were dedicated to Social Security funding—then voters would hesitate to approve that tradeoff. But it's not.

Thus, we're left with vague fiscal arguments against repeal—which don't seem to sway voters—and moral arguments. On the latter, conservatives have long been making their moral case against the estate tax, while liberals have mostly responded erratically, flinging about figures and percentages that don't persuade anyone.

Trust Fund: real? Um, yes.

| Tue Apr. 12, 2005 2:51 PM EDT

Oh, okay. Since it appears some of our commenters (well, just one really) are under the illusion that the Social Security Trust Fund doesn't exist, let me link once again to Dean Baker's excellent introductory essay on the subject. (PDF here, or HTML here.) We've written here on the subject many times, but the background essay will have to do for now. Yes, the Trust Fund exists. Yes, it can be paid back. (One thing that rarely gets mentioned is that Medicare has been redeeming its own Trust Fund bonds for the past year, with no problem at all.) Yes, "defaulting" on the thing will involve very high transfers of wealth from low- to high-earners.

Blame Paris Hilton!

| Tue Apr. 12, 2005 2:19 PM EDT

Let's get some numbers straight here. All workers who make $90,000 or less in wages pay 12.4 percent in payroll taxes. (Yes, technically it's split between employer and employee, but economists tend to agree that the tax falls largely on the worker.) This hard-earned money then goes into the Social Security Trust Fund, which is presently building up large surpluses so that it can pay our Social Security benefits when we all retire.

Now Congress seems intent on borrowing and spending this money. The president, even as he continues to take everyone's payroll taxes, glibly claims that the Trust Fund "doesn't exist," that it's a bunch of "mere IOU's." Hm. So what are Republicans spending all this money on? Oh, that's right. Paris Hilton!:

I refer to the fact that House Republican leaders have scheduled a vote this week to abolish the estate tax permanently. Under a wacky provision of the 2001 tax cut designed to disguise the law's full cost, Congress voted to make the estate tax go away in 2010, but come back in full force in 2011.

With so many other taxes around, it's hard to understand why this is the one Congress would repeal. It falls, in effect, on the heirs to the wealthiest Americans. Fewer than 1 percent of the people who died in 2004 paid an estate tax, and half the revenue from the tax came from estates valued at $10 million or more…. Counting both revenue losses and added interest costs, complete repeal of the estate tax would cost the government close to $1 trillion between 2012 and 2021.

Make no mistake, these two things are pretty directly related. After all, the reason why Bush thinks the government "can't" pay back the bonds owed to Social Security is because there are huge budget deficits. Congress, the story goes, needs those payroll tax receipts to paper over the huge budget deficits. And the huge budget deficits are being created by things like… the estate tax repeal, so that heiresses like Paris Hilton don't have to pay taxes on an inheritance they have done nothing to earn. Once again: People working at, say, Wal-Mart put their taxes in. Taxes go out to… the likes of Paris Hilton, who, until recently, didn't even know what Wal-Mart was. Fantastic!

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Ineffective drug programs

Tue Apr. 12, 2005 2:01 PM EDT

President Bush has declared this Thursday to be National D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Day. For someone so keen on slashing funding for ineffective social programs, this endorsement of D.A.R.E. is awfully perplexing.

Consider that in January of 2003, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) found "no significant differences in illicit drug use between students who received D.A.R.E. and students who did not." Even back in 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General allocated D.A.R.E. to the "ineffective programs" category. The Drug Policy Alliance points out that mayors in many major cities—including New York and Los Angeles, have actually removed the program from public schools.

Why is it so ineffective? It's an abstinence-only program that assumes that the main reason a youngster would use drugs or alcohol is due to rampant peer pressure and drug dealers obsessively pushing their wares on unsuspecting youth. So, D.A.R.E. focuses its curriculum on ways of saying "no," rather than offering scientific information regarding drug and alcohol usage, or holding an open dialogue on why some people choose to use or misuse drugs and alcohol. Instead of trying to present a "just say no" message in a "hip" way, drug and alcohol education might do well to revolve more around, well, education. A brief look at a government website (linked through the D.A.R.E. website) dissuading middle-schoolers from drinking alcohol reveals the shortcomings. www.coolspot.com points out that only 18 of 100 kids aged 12-17 drank alcohol in the past month. A creepy Japanime-esque character pops out and declares "Get it? If you choose not to drink, you're not alone."

It's true. But by that same logic, if you choose to drink, you're also not alone. If we want teenagers to eschew drugs and alcohol, perhaps we should focus less on pounding the work "no" into their psyches and more on how we can equip them with the knowledge to make their own decisions.

Who knew what about Abu Ghraib?

Tue Apr. 12, 2005 11:48 AM EDT

"It's hard to believe that I didn't know what was going on." So said Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski as she addressed members of the audience during a recent talk here in San Francisco. Karpinski, recall, was the officer in charge of Abu Ghraib while members of her unit, the 800th MP Brigade, took part in detainee abuse. During the lecture, Karpinski depicted a situation in which higher-ups—particularly Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez and Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller—purposely kept Karpinski in the dark about what was going on.

Karpinski's task of overseeing Abu Ghraib was a daunting one, given that she was in charge of ten other prison facilities in Iraq. As she told it, this task was made even more difficult when higher-ups forbade her from visiting Abu Ghraib at night. Karpinski went on to describe one incident in which the Red Cross alleged that prisoners were forced to wear women's underwear on their heads. Karpinski claims that the Red Cross memo describing the abuses didn't make it to her desk until a month after it had been sent. When Karpinski asked why it took so long to reach her, higher-ups told her that other people were already working on a response to the allegations. One person, she notes, quipped, "I told them this is what would happen if they kept giving the prisoners Victoria's Secret catalogues."

If we take what Karpinski says at face value, she was indeed very much out of the loop. Miller and Sanchez, she claims, held meetings about the abuses without even informing her. As she put it: "They knew me well enough to know that had I known what was going on, I would not have let it continue."

But it's safe to assume that she probably knew more than she claimed in the talk. After all, there's enough evidence against her that she's the focus of legal action by the ACLU. Indeed, it's ironic that Karpinski repeatedly made reference to ACLU documents made available online. She told the audience that much of the information now being released has helped her put together pieces of the puzzle that she had hitherto not understood. For instance, she claimed she hadn't seen any official approval of the extreme interrogation techniques used in Iraq until her discovery of Sanchez's memo online.

Towards the end of her lecture, Karpinski said she was most concerned that the abuse was still going on. "Some soldiers have been quietly in touch with me," she said, "And I have strong reason to believe the abuse is still going on." Hmm. You'd think someone with such extensive "ear-to-the-ground" contacts would have been able to figure out that prisoners were being abused by the soldiers literally under her nose. Clearly Karpinski deserves a portion—arguably large—of the blame for what went on in Abu Ghraib. But it's important to take note of the fact that her claims largely bolster allegations by the ACLU and other human rights groups that detainee abuse was systematic and was set by policies that came from the top of the military chain, further up than even her. cknowledging that she was aware of "ghost detainee" policies that violated the Geneva Conventions, Karpinski noted that she, and others, were told that a resolution would be reached in order to address the issue, but that until then, no one should publicly disclose any information regarding "ghost detainees," at the risk of jeopardize the war on terror. Not surprisingly, no resolution ever came.

There also seems to be evidence that gender issues were at play in the Abu Ghraib scandals. When asked how the allegations against her would affect the future of women in the military, she looked genuinely pained. "It's bad," she said. As the first female general leading soldiers in a combat zone, Karpinski said she knew quite a few men in the military who still see the institution as strictly male territory. The fact that the decision-making process in the prisons side-stepped Karpinski arguably had sexist roots, especially if, as she claims, they believed she would raise a ruckus if she became aware of everything that was going on.

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba's widely publicized report on Abu Ghraib has quite a few negative things to say about Karpinski, and they almost all revolve around her lack of oversight. But she also felt that Taguba's depiction of her as "extremely emotional" was a sexist mischaracterization. As Karpinski described it, she was being interviewed in a room with about five other guys who, she says, were the only ones tears in their eyes. She argues that Taguba made her an "irrational female" scapegoat in order to get a pat on the back for an investigative job well done.

There's no excusing the lack of oversight that led to the abuses in Abu Ghraib. But there does seem to be more to the story in terms of who was kept in the know, and why. It's of course important to hold the soldiers who are guilty of the abuses accountable. But, it's even more important to look up the chain of command, and Brigadier General Karpinski appears to be pointing straight at the top.

Secret Guantanamo trials revealed

Mon Apr. 11, 2005 7:08 PM EDT

Ever wonder what goes on in the review boards that decide whether a Guantanamo detainee should be released or not? Well, the BBC has finally found out, after one of its journalists was allowed to observe an unclassified portion of the review proceedings. The journalist, Adam Brookes, noted that there wasn't a lawyer in sight and that the actual sources of the evidence against the detainee were never revealed. The questioning of the detainee was apparently quite short, including such productive exchanges as:

Question: "Who did you fire your rifle at?"
Detainee: "I never fired a rifle."
Question: "Why were you firing?"
Detainee: "I never fired."

The disturbing part is that this was the unclassified portion of the review. The BBC correspondent didn't even get to see the really unsubstantiated evidence. Consider, if you will, the two forms of recourse currently available to detainees: These review boards—which decide if detainees should be released because they no longer pose a threat to the U.S.—or the military commission that tries those detainees whom the U.S. claims to have committed crimes. Both processes presume guilt often based on evidence that is never even shared with the detainees. This presumption of guilt stands in contrast to military claims (PDF) that the majority of the detainees possess no useful intelligence.

So how can the Pentagon release innocent prisoners while still saving face? According to Secretary of the Navy Gordon England, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's appointed civilian official for the Detainee Administrative Review Processes at Guantanamo,

It should be emphasized that a…determination that a detainee no longer meets the criteria for classification as an enemy combatant does not necessarily mean that the prior classification as enemy combatant was wrong.

Impeccable logic.

Drudge gets desperate

| Mon Apr. 11, 2005 5:10 PM EDT

Via the Center for American Progress:

The Drudge Report (a popular website run by right-wing activist Matt Drudge) has posted an image of an offensive t-shirt, along with a headline "Liberals Sell 'DeLay Suicide T-shirt'." It's clearly a vicious, organized effort to demonize Tom DeLay.

Or not.

The "liberals" selling the shirt are actually ... just one random guy named Christopher Goodwin. Christopher runs "Ye Olde Christopher Goodwin Art Shoppe" an online store (hosted for free by CafePress.com) where he sells drink coasters, tote bags, and throw pillows emblazoned mostly with images of his own "abstract and representational art"; only two of his featured items are political in nature, the DeLay shirt and a set of shirts that say "Bush Vile". Christopher's profile explains that he lives in Washington and "enjoys attending Small Claims Court hearings, interrogating his cats, and taking brisk walks on the roof." According to Alexa.com, Christopher Goodwin's website is the 2,071,537th most visited site on the Internet; to put that in perspective (and to make clear Goodwin's profound obscurity) consider that the homepage for Chicken of the Sea tuna is ranked 163,081.

In other words, Drudge made a concerted attempt to find absolutely anything to take the heat off Tom DeLay's various corruption charges, and the very best he could come up with was a stupid t-shirt from "Ye Olde Christopher Goodwin Art Shoppe." Lame.


What he said.