2005 - %3, May

Armchair Warriors Strike Again

Thu May 12, 2005 8:48 PM EDT

As if it wasn't enough that people like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were telling military interrogators how to do their jobs. That got us into the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo detainee scandals. But now it looks like politicians just can't get enough of telling the Army how to do its job. Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee passed a measure that will ban women from serving in units that would put them in a situation of direct ground combat.

According to the Washington Post, "Army leaders strongly criticized the legislation to Congress yesterday, saying women are performing 'magnificently'' in a wide range of units, where battlefields have no clear lines." This last part is the most important: where battlefields have no clear lines. Fighting an insurgency in Iraq doesn't lend itself to a clear concept of who will and will not encounter "ground combat." Add to this the fact that the passed legislation is distinctly broad in its definition of what positions that women will be prohibited from, and you've got a recipe for confusion. Not to mention a big question mark as to what positions women will and will not be able to take. Indeed, the Army's vice chief of staff, Gen. Richard Cody sent a letter to the House yesterday, noting, "The proposed amendment will cause confusion in the ranks, and will send the wrong signal to the brave young men and women fighting the Global War on Terrorism. This is not the time to create such confusion." This could very well translate into a situation where a competent and willing female soldier is deprived of a crucial job (or indeed, dissuaded from even enlisting to begin with) simply because the powers that be aren't sure whether she might encounter ground combat.

Considering that we have a very limited number of men and women who are currently fighting a pretty intense war, it's pretty crummy timing to be blocking the women we do have there from positions that they deserve and want. Note that this legislation comes at the same time as the House Armed Services Committee has pushed for the Army to declare a suspension of all recruiting on May 20th in order to retrain personnel in the laws and ethics of recruitment. After the Army has missed its target of enlistment for three months in a row, it has come to light that recruiters have been employing tactics that are at best highly unethical, and at worst, highly illegal. But many recruiters are skeptical about how successful this "retraining" will be. The underlying factor is that the Army desperately needs more conscripts.

Tell that to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter (R.-Calif.), who pushed for the recent legislation, noting, "The American people have never wanted to have women in combat and this reaffirms that policy." Beyond the immediate issue of this being an incredibly poor move for our already overstretched troops and low-recruiting capabilities, this is flat out sexism. As Phillip Carter writes,

Those who support this legislation will argue that they are, in fact, advancing military readiness by restricting combat billets to the men who can do the job. I couldn't disagree more. This is simply sex discrimination masquerading as readiness legislation. If you truly care about enforcing combat standards, then set a standard and enforce it. Once you sift through all the stereotypes and gender generalizations, there is nothing about sex per se which ought to make it a disqualifying condition for combat duty. It may be true that women cannot meet the standard-but that is also true of many men. I led female MPs and served with female soldiers who were more than capable of doing their duty. Let's put the focus on combat readiness, not on gender.

Let's hope the Senate listens to the people who actually know what they're talking about.

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GE Faces the Inevitable

Thu May 12, 2005 6:48 PM EDT

As reported in Greenwire (sub. only), some energy companies are now beginning to realize that there's money to made by increasing the efficiency of their utilities and reducing their carbon-dioxide emissions. General Electric—without even being spurred on by any sort of environmental law—has just announced plans to reduce emissions by 1 percent over the next seven years, and increase its energy efficiency by 30 percent. Their company claims that their emissions would otherwise grow 40 to 45 percent during that time. GE also plans to double its investment in and sales of new environmental technology. It's a substantial shift from a major and highly visible corporation.

Does this mean that the energy industry believes that global warming is inevitable and wants to avert that fact? Not quite. As we noted a few weeks ago, many investor groups and CEOs in the United States feel that it's just a matter of time before new emissions restrictions get put in place anyway. The Kyoto Protocol has already had a major impact on carbon trading in Europe, and in all likelihood, something similar can't be too far off here in America. Indeed, the behavior of GE suggests that some companies believe—whether or not climate change is occurring—that voluntarily preparing for new environmental laws may prove more profitable than resisting the regulation when it finally emerges.

The Selective War on Terror

Thu May 12, 2005 12:58 PM EDT

Luis Posada Carriles, is, apparently, a very elusive character—at least to those who don't actually want to find him. The Cuban-born Venezuelan is the prime suspect in the 1979 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane. Venezuela is currently seeking his extradition. But Carriles doesn't have time to stand trial; he's too busy applying for asylum here in the U.S. And even though Carriles' lawyer has verified that he is here in America, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega remarked, "I don't even know that he is in the United States."

Why would the U.S. not want to pursue this suspected terrorist? Well, first off, he hates Castro. Which means Miami Cubans love him. Which likely means the President loves him too. And secondly, Carriles used to work for the CIA. Yup. Not only do declassified CIA and FBI documents reveal that Carriles worked for the U.S., they also reveal that an FBI informer "all but admitted" that Carriles was one of the two people who engineered the Cuban plane attack. In 1998, Carriles also had an interview with the New York Times in which he took responsibility for a series of hotel bombings in Havana. Judging from the dates in the documents, Carriles was no longer "working" for the U.S. government when he blew up the passenger flight or bombed hotels.

So the American government is going to send him to Venezuela stand trial, right? Well, not exactly. Apparently, they're still trying to find out whether or not Carriles is in the country, and after that, whether or not he should be granted asylum. According to the BBC, "U.S. officials say they have no evidence that Mr. Posada is in the country, and add that they would deal with an asylum application from him as they would any other." Any other? Any other terrorist who formerly worked for the CIA? But the government sure seems like it's stalling on the issue. Although if these officials are telling the truth and actually have no idea where Carriles is, that would be a disturbing comment on our ability to monitor terrorists at home. Terrorists who used to work for us, no less. You'd think we'd keep tabs on these guys.

And at the same, Congress is now ushering in ridiculous new rules that will make it that much harder for legitimate asylum seekers to enter the United States. It also seems intolerably ironic that Carriles is probably relaxing and drinking café cubano in Miami while this country is supposedly conducting a "war on terror." Last I heard, blowing up hotels and civilian aircrafts is still terrorism.

Darfur is a Security Issue

| Wed May 11, 2005 6:53 PM EDT

I don't really have an opinion one way or the other about the Huffington Post—Arianna Huffington's new mega-celebrity blog with some exponential number of posts each day. But I am glad that Sen. Jon Corzine (D-NJ) is blogging there, and raising awareness about Darfur. Here's a post from two days ago:

There are real, pragmatic reasons for intervening to ameliorate this situation, but first I want to make the moral case. That case is simple. Stopping the slaughter of an entire people is the greatest moral challenge of our time. Evil on this scale is unimaginable to most, which is why historically we do not act on genocide until it is too late. But this time we can act, and stop this new holocaust. And we should. In the wake of demanding democracy in the Middle East, our nation's value system requires it.

But even if you put aside the moral case for ending genocide for a moment, consider our own interests in the matter. The failed state that is being created in the wake of this horrific crime will be a hotbed for global instability. I was there, and I saw what's happening. As I stood in the refugee camps of Eastern Chad, into which hundreds of thousands of desperate people are pouring over the border, I realized how dangerous to America the situation has become. Not only is Darfur a lawless part of an unstable state, but the conflict there is destabilizing Chad.

Worth a repeat: There are real, pragmatic reasons for intervening. As we learned a couple of weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times' Ken Silverstein reported that the United States has been cooperating with Sudanese intelligence services to round up Islamist terrorists around the country. In part this may explain why, as Mark Goldberg first reported in the American Prospect, the White House has been quietly working to scuttle the Darfur Accountability Act, which, while hardly enough to stop genocide in Darfur, is a crucial first step towards serious action. But the way many people have been talking about it, this looks like a simple tradeoff between stopping genocide and national security. The White House, it seems, is choosing national security. What's so wrong with that?

Well, everything. And Sen. Corzine makes that case nicely. Look, genocide breeds instability. Instability breeds terrorism. As we've recently learned, Darfur's going to become a big oil-producing region in the coming years. Hm, oil plus instability plus radical Islam. No, that doesn't seem like a national security problem, now does it? Furthermore, the man we are cooperating with in Khartoum, Salah Abdallah Gosh, head of the Sudanese intelligence services, is not only carrying out the genocide in Darfur, but he's something of a radical himself, a man who had regular contacts with Osama bin Laden during the 1990s. Who's helping who here?

Indeed, there have been a number of reports that Khartoum is presently wracked with infighting among radical Islamists, and it seems that, by backing Gosh, we're not actually cooperating with an ally against terrorism. No, we're simply backing one set of terrorists to fight and capture another set. Historically, this isn't the sort of strategy that's worked out very well for us. As I've written before, intervention will likely be a difficult task, but that's no reason to shy away from it, and certainly the argument that genocide in Darfur has nothing to do with our "national interests" is a specious one at best. And that's to say nothing of the overwhelming moral case.

Bad Move

Wed May 11, 2005 6:20 PM EDT

In his new book about his experience as a military translator at Guantanamo, Inside the Wire, Erik Saar writes,

My time in Cairo taught me that in the Middle East, for some people, the Crusades might have happened a short ten years ago. The Islamic radicals wanted to see the conflict with Israel and the West as a religious war. In its reaction to 9/11, I hoped the United States wouldn't give them any fodder. We couldn't let them turn the war on terror into a clash of civilizations.

Alas, there is fodder, plenty of it. Reports recently emerged noting that interrogators in Guantanamo were flushing Korans down toilets to break down prisoners, and in response, riots have been breaking out in Afghanistan.

Most disconcertingly, two United Nations guest houses and two international aid offices were targeted in the riots, which has resulted in the UN withdrawing everyone save for it's "essential" staff from Afghanistan. According to some eye-witnesses, the protestors were shouting, "Death to America" as well as anti-Bush and anti-Karzai slogans. A State Department spokesman responded, "Obviously the destruction of any kind of holy book…is something reprehensible and not in keeping with U.S. policies and practices." But it's not "obvious" that the United States actually considers this reprehensible. And it looks as though it is a practice. The Newsweek report noted that interrogators placed Korans on the toilet as a tactic to "rattle" detainees.

This, to put it mildly, sucks. The tense atmosphere has made crucial aid work in Afghanistan that much more difficult. Not to mention that this kind of thing just further endangers American soldiers. And it has put Afghanistan president Hamid Karzai in a position to look bad if he continues to cooperate with the U.S. The allegations also have Pakistan's government up in arms. These two countries are crucial U.S. allies in the war on terror. It would behoove the State Department to issue a formal apology for this affair, and a pledge to thoroughly investigate the tactics being used in Guantanamo. We're never going to win the war on terror if we look like we're fighting a war on Islam.

Is There a Danger Premium for Jobs?

| Wed May 11, 2005 1:21 PM EDT

Over at Alas, a Blog, there's yet another post in ampersand's marvelous series on the wage gap between men and women. This one attacks the myth, often touted by conservatives, that women earn less than men because they don't work in dangerous "manly" fields. But, amp finds, there's no actual wage premium for dangerous jobs.

From a free market point of view, that's unexpected; you'd think that in a perfectly functioning labor market employers would need to offer higher pay to attract workers into dangerous fields like mining or forestry, jobs where there's a chance of getting injured, maimed, or even killed. But no. Markets aren't working perfectly here, either because workers don't always get an optimal choice of what jobs to take, or because workers can't assess the risk involved in the work they're doing, or other factors. Not surprisingly, though, the "risk premium" reappears for unionized workers. Interesting post, worth reading in full.

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A Glitch of the Electronics?

Tue May 10, 2005 7:35 PM EDT

In today's Guardian, George Monbiot does a little investigative journalism to uncover the truth behind some remarkable claims published in New Scientist by David Bellamy, a renowned British Botanist, refuting the existence of climate change. Bellamy claims that contrary to widely held beliefs, "555 of all the 625 glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich, Switzerland, have been growing since 1980."

Could Bellamy, president of the Conservation Foundation, and former senior lecturer at the University of Durham be right? He is a reputable scientist. Monbiot decided to run the results by the World Glacier Monitoring Service, whom one might assume would know a thing or two on the subject:

I don't think the response would have been published in Nature, but it had the scientific virtue of clarity: "This is complete bullshit."

Okay, so where then did Bellamy get his data? After prompting the botanist a few times, Monbiot had his answer:

The data, he said, came from a website called www.iceagenow.com ... constructed by a man called Robert W Felix to promote his self-published book about "the coming ice age". It claims that sea levels are falling, not rising; that the Asian tsunami was caused by the "ice age cycle"; and that "underwater volcanic activity - not human activity - is heating the seas".

Felix, a former architect, had written:

"Since 1980, there has been an advance of more than 55% of the 625 mountain glaciers under observation by the World Glacier Monitoring group in Zurich."

Did Bellamy simply mistype? To this question Monbiot applied his powers of deduction:

On the standard English keyboard, 5 and % occupy the same key. If you try to hit %, but fail to press shift, you get 555, instead of 55%. ... When I challenged [Bellamy], he admitted that there had been "a glitch of the electronics"

To make a long story short, the statement in question – which Felix had found in the latest edition of 21st Century Science and Technology – was first printed by Fred S. Singer, the grandfather of climate misinformation, who cites a 16 year old issue of Science as his source. After scouring all editions of Science from 1989, not only did Monbiot fail to find the figure, but he concluded that Science hadn't published anything regarding glacier advance or retreat that year.

So there you have it – a 16 year old article that was never written, fraudulently cited by a climate skeptic, re-printed in a publication owned by Lyndon Larouche which was cited by a former architect, and finally misrepresented by a credible scientist. One can only wonder what Bellamy was thinking.

Phase-Out by the Numbers

| Tue May 10, 2005 4:40 PM EDT

Jason Furman is doing some grand number-crunching over at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As it turns out, the president's "progressive price indexing" plan for Social Security would cut benefits for low-income people, contrary to White House claims. Three different groups, in fact: 1) Elderly widows with low incomes, provided their husbands aren't in the bottom 30 percent of wage-earners; 2) Divorced elderly spouses, under similar conditions; 3) Children with low incomes, under similar conditions. Now obviously "save the widows and children" won't gain much traction among conservatives, but it would be nice if pseudo-intellectuals like David Brooks stopped pretending that Bush's phase-out scheme is something that people who care about reducing poverty should support.

Oh, and another good Furman study here, noting that the president's proposed benefit cuts would only eliminate about 59 percent of the long-term funding gap in Social Security. In fact, under the president's plan the Trust Fund would be exhausted in 2047, only six years later than the so-called "crisis" date of 2041. At that point benefits would then need to be cut another 15 percent, on top of the cuts Bush has already proposed. So the president's trotting out benefit cut after benefit cut, and they even his own proposals won't be enough to patch up the "crisis" that supposedly exists. Why? Wasn't this supposed to be the biggest crisis that this country has ever confronted? So why is the White House unveiling a plan that only eliminates about half of the shortfall? Is there any reason to take this clown show seriously? (Hint: no.)

The other thing to note here is this: If we were to do nothing about Social Security, and the economy keeps growing the way it has for the past 50 years, we won't need to cut benefits at all. Not one cent. But under the president's price-indexing plan, even in the best-case scenario, in which the system becomes fully solvent because of high growth, we'd still have to have benefit cuts. The president wants cuts no matter what happens. No thanks. I'll endorse the do-nothing plan any day of the week over this.

In Praise of Obstructionism

| Tue May 10, 2005 1:26 PM EDT

The New York Times outlines Bush's strategy for phasing out Social Security today. He needs Democrats. He doesn't need Democratic ideas. He doesn't want Democratic ideas. No, what he needs are Democratic patsies to provide "political cover for his party."

So that's the game, and no doubt lots of pundits with sprawling op-ed real estate are going to implore the Democrats to stop being such obstructionists and start coming up with their own ideas. Needless to say, Democrats do have an idea for a retirement program. It goes a little something like this: Let's have a universal pension system, financed with payroll taxes, that insures against outliving your savings, disability, death of a spouse or parent, and provides a minimum guaranteed benefit upon retirement. It's a pretty good plan! The only weird thing about it is that it already exists, but I don't see why that's a flaw.

So let's dispense with the "Democrats have no ideas" charade. They have a great idea. But there's another point to make here: obstructionism simply isn't a losing tactic. Recall back to the health care battles in 1993-94. In the early days, Republicans did have their own reform alternatives to the Clinton plan, but slowly retracted them, and beginning in January of 1994, decided it was in their best interest to obstruct the president at all costs. Minority Leader Bob Dole even voted against a health care proposal he had earlier co-sponsored. Meanwhile, Republicans started chanting over and over again, at every turn, that there was no health care "crisis" in America, even though most Americans disagreed. I trust the parallels are obvious.

Searching through Nexis, it's not hard to find all sorts of examples of TV talking heads chastising the GOP for it's head-in-the-sand approach. On February 13, 1994, Howard Kurtz slammed the Republicans for offering "no alternative." On February 2, William Schneider got on CNN to say that if the Republicans kept digging their heels in the dirt, they'd run the danger of looking like "obstructionists." (Said Schneider: "So they're in a bind.") And here's a great passage from U.S. News and World Report, February 7:

Yet Clinton himself enjoys some significant political advantages as the battle begins. As he demonstrated last week, the president can command public attention in ways that no opponent can begin to match. And his sympathy for the fears of ordinary Americans connects with voters and echoes their own concerns. For that reason, many Republican strategists are aghast at the new line of some GOP leaders that there is ''no crisis" in the health care system. That argument, says Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman, ''just reinforces the image of flint-hearted Republicans," the same image that helped cost George Bush the 1992 election. Celinda Lake agrees: ''I hope we get every Republican candidate saying there is no crisis -- on tape."

And yet the Republicans won that battle. Granted, they won for a number of reasons—not least that the Clinton administration made a number of missteps—but the point is that they didn't pay a price for their obstructionism, even when every single pundit in the world was warning them about their "no crisis" line and demanding that they offer an alternative. Democrats are in an even stronger position today. Social Security is healthy, successful, and popular. As BusinessWeek recently reported, voters of all demographics like having a safety net that mitigates the most severe risks of a market economy. No Democrat should ever provide "political cover" to a president who wants to destroy a program that has enjoyed wide bipartisan support for 70 years.

Health Insurance and Mobility

| Tue May 10, 2005 12:05 PM EDT

The Commonwealth Fund has a new study out on a topic near and dear to my heart: young adults. In particular, most of them don't have health insurance, since after they pass the tender age of 19, they either get booted off their parents' dependent coverage, or booted off Medicaid, or booted off CHIP. Meanwhile, many graduates lose coverage immediately after leaving college. And hey, we may look healthy, but not always—pregnancies, emergency room visits, diabetes—and young adults are less able to handle catastrophic costs than are, say, older adults who have saved up the money.

At any rate, the paper notes that it's relatively easy to cover young adults, but as with most such studies, merely makes the moral case for doing so. Hey, I love the moral case; it's a great case. But I figure most people either believe that millions of uninsured Americas are a moral scandal or they don't. Fortunately, the paper hints at an economic case for covering young adults as well:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, young adults do not so easily dismiss the risks of not having health coverage. When the Biennial Health Insurance Survey questioned young workers about their desire for health insurance, seven of 10 of those between 19 and 29 years of age said that health insurance was very important to them in deciding whether or not to take a job, a rate similar to that for older workers.

In an ideal labor market, people would take the job they were best-suited for, so that we could properly harness everyone's productive and creative capabilities and launch our way into the 21st century. Etcetra. But this survey suggests that a lack of coverage may be skewing the employment choices young people make. It's possible that this affects older adults to, where, say, a parent might remain in a job she isn't best suited for because she's afraid of losing coverage for her family. In theory, the economy of the future should have a lot of labor mobility and people switching from one job to the next quite frequently; but a lack of health insurance will only gum up the works.