2006 - %3, April

Powell Comes Clean on WMDs

Wed Apr. 12, 2006 5:41 PM EDT

Robert Scheer recounts a recent conversation with Colin Powell, during which Powell admitted that neither he, nor top government officials, ever perceived Iraq as a nuclear threat. When asked why the President disregarded the State Department's conclusion to this effect, Powell responded that "the CIA was pushing the aluminum tube argument heavily and Cheney went with that instead of what our guys wrote."

According to Scheer, Powell affirmed that the President's State of the Union reference to Iraq's quest for uranium from Niger "was a big mistake." Adding, "it should never have been in the speech. I didn't need Wilson to tell me that there wasn't a Niger connection. He didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. I never believed it." Powell continued that it wasn't the President that wanted to premise the war on nuclear threat, but "all Cheney."

As Scheer points out, it's convenient for Powell to place the burden to Cheney and remain a Bush loyalist. "But it begs the question," he writes, "of how the president came to be a captive of his vice president's fantasies."

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New at Mother Jones

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 4:25 PM EDT

One Dollar, One Vote
The evidence is clear: Massive income disparities are undermining democracy in America.
By Bradford Plumer

Iraqi School Kids: "They don't see why they should prepare themselves."
Students struggle to keep up amidst daily bombings and sectarian warfare.
By David Enders

The Poor Man's Air Force
A history of the car bomb (Part 1)
By Mike Davis

Out of the Shadows
Two million people marched for immigrant rights on Monday -- and taught us something about standing up for justice.
By Paul Rogat Loeb

Explaining Away Stagnant Wages

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 2:46 PM EDT

Every now and again, the Bush administration or some other booster of the current economy will argue that wages aren't really stagnating, as they appear to be to anyone who looks at the numbers. Rather, workers are just receiving more and more of their compensation in health care benefits.

Trouble is, that's not true, at least not for workers at the very bottom of the ladder. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2004 and 2005 the bottom 20 percent saw their wages decline 1.9 percent. Yet only 24 percent of those workers get health insurance through their employer. Basically, health care costs would have had to increase 39 percent during that year for this to be the primary explanation; in fact, it rose 9.2 percent. In reality, there's something badly wrong with an economic "recovery" that has a large number of workers seeing their paychecks shrink rather than grow.

Would the U.S. Nuke Iran?

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 2:14 PM EDT

Over the past week, both Seymour Hersh and the Washington Post have published reports that the Bush administration is considering various plans to attack Iran—plans that may or may not include using "bunker-buster" tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's underground nuclear sites. It's a bit alarming, to say the least, and there's been shockingly little follow-up in the media. Unfortunately, both pieces are frustratingly vague, so here are two follow-ups worth reading.

Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk looks at Iran's main centrifuge plant in Natanz and says that, setting aside the rather obvious insanity of dropping a bunker-buster on Iran, there's no technical reason to use nukes to destroy Iran's nuclear program. The facility just isn't deep enough underground—conventional weapons will do. (Indeed, you could make an argument that "bunker buster" tactical nukes are never needed to destroy underground facilities, and that the entire program should be discontinued.)

Meanwhile, a while back William Arkin took a peek at Pentagon war games from the early 1990s, when the military tried to figure out what would happen if Iran went nuclear, allied itself with a breakaway Shiite republic in Iraq, and tried—for reasons unknown—to conquer the Middle East. Basically, the United States would have no trouble stopping it, so long as it had troops permanently based in the region (hint, hint), and didn't need to use nuclear weapons to do it. In fact, military leaders found that it was nearly impossible to incorporate the nuclear arsenal into their war plans.

Perhaps it's naïve to be (very slightly) comforted by these sorts of things, but both analyses sure make it seem like dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran is unlikely, whatever the chances of a conventional attack might be. (A conventional bombing raid against Iran would be a horrible idea, of course, but a nuclear attack would be catastrophic.) On the other hand, Billmon wonders what would happen if we did use nukes against Iran. The Bush administration is insane enough to do so, the corporate media is brainless enough to go along happily (mushroom clouds make for good ratings), and the country might be so jaded and used to watching unimaginable violence over TV that really, it's entirely possible we could turn parts of Iran into glass and no one would care.

IRS to Sell Tax Information

Tue Apr. 11, 2006 5:12 PM EDT

The IRS is planning to share tax return information with accountants and tax preparers. Under the new proposal, once you sign an authorization form, the third party preparer is free to sell the data contained in the filings to corporate marketers. That data includes everything from income figures to bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and other private information.

Nothing good can come out of this plan. Without regulations for how the data is used, identity theft will likely skyrocket. There is also nothing that would restrict tax preparers from offering people incentives to authorize the release of their personal data. With the mountains of paperwork being filled out at tax time, it would be easy enough for tax preparers to toss another form in there and get taxpayers to sign.

Interestingly, one of the companies that has opposed this change, H&R Block, has its own legal woes, facing a lawsuit charging that the firm violated fifteen separate state and federal laws when it marketed and sold Refund Anticipation Loans. But, Murray Walton, vice president and compliance officer at H&R Block, told the officials, "we find the idea of selling tax return information repugnant." It seems H&R Block is trying to rehabilitate its image.

Barack Obama (D-IL) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) are working to keep tax payers' information private and have introduced the Protecting Taxpayer Privacy Act which would prohibit tax preparers from disclosing taxpayer information to third parties. Republicans and Democrats alike are backing the Privacy Act. Hopefully this rare act of bipartisan support will help prevent the IRS from pushing its new policy.

California Considers Minimum Wage Hike

| Tue Apr. 11, 2006 2:34 PM EDT

In the Los Angeles Times today, Tom McClintock, a Republican state Senator, says that California shouldn't raise the minimum wage. It will destroy jobs! People will be unemployed! Misery and poverty to follow! Anyone who thinks otherwise has fallen victim to the "smarmy rhetoric of leftist populism," you see:

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"E-Waste" Polluting Poor Communities

Mon Apr. 10, 2006 6:32 PM EDT

Technology is improving faster than we can get our hands on it, and little thought is being given to the mountains of discarded electronics that are accumulating. Salon is currently tackling the question of electronic waste, and reports that the majority of old electronics are shipped off to poor countries across the globe, for cheap recycling.

Despite the fact that the recycling of highly toxic materials has been banned in China since 2000, the practice of environmentally-unsound recycling continues. And the reality of these dangerous procedures isn't pretty:

In Taizhou's [China] outdoor workshops, people bang apart the computers and toss bits of metal into brick furnaces that look like chimneys. Split open, the electronics release a stew of toxic materials -- among them beryllium, cadmium, lead, mercury and flame retardants -- that can accumulate in human blood and disrupt the body's hormonal balance. Exposed to heat or allowed to degrade, electronics' plastics can break down into organic pollutants that cause a host of health problems, including cancer. Wearing no protective clothing, workers roast circuit boards in big, uncovered wok like pans to melt plastics and collect valuable metals. Other workers sluice open basins of acid over semiconductors to remove their gold, tossing the waste into nearby streams. Typical wages for this work are about $2 to $4 a day.
According to the EPA, only about ten percent of electronics are properly recycled, accounting for approximately 2 million tons of e-waste dumped in U.S. landfills each year. And despite claims by companies that they recycle old parts, it's difficult to determine where the materials actually end up, leading to a growing U.S. problem—which isn't helped by the absence of a national system for handling the waste. However, for now, you can find a list of responsible e-cyclers here.

How to Pay Your CEO

| Mon Apr. 10, 2006 5:00 PM EDT

Can we call it corruption?

In other words, the very firm that helps Verizon's directors decide what to pay its executives has a long and lucrative relationship with the company, maintained at the behest of the executives whose pay it recommends.
No, we'll call it corporate capitalism. The New York Times has a fantastic story today looking into the process by which corporations pay their CEOs. Arrangements like the above are hardly uncommon. And executive compensation often bears no relation to the actual performance of the company. Among other things, the story cites one study identifying 11 major companies "whose shareholder returns had been negative for five years, but whose chief executives' pay had exceeded $15 million during the last two years combined." Lucky them.

MORE: See this story for more. "The average pay for a chief executive increased 27 percent last year, to $11.3 million." This at a time when median wages have stagnated.

Tolerance Policies and... Intolerance

Mon Apr. 10, 2006 4:25 PM EDT

Tolerance policies on university campuses are now becoming the subject of scrutiny, as radical Christians increasingly consider them an infringement on their freedom of speech. Ruth Malhotra, a 22-year-old senior at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is demanding that her university revoke their tolerance policy because it prohibits her from condemning homosexuality, a belief she claims her Christianity compels her to share. The Christian Legal Society has already formed a national group to challenge tolerance policies in federal court. Well-funded ministries, like Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ are financing several non-profit law firms to begin taking cases such as Malhotra's for free.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

Gonzales Stonewalls on Eavesdropping

Fri Apr. 7, 2006 9:39 PM EDT

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales expressed further support for expanding presidential power yesterday, when he claimed that President Bush may have been within his legal limits when he circumvented Congress and ordered domestic wiretaps in the name of national security. Gonzales' responses to questions by the House Judiciary Committee have been vague, frustrating Republicans and Democrats alike.

Of course, you won't catch Bush issuing an apology anytime soon. "You can come to whatever conclusion you want [about domestic surveillance]," the president said. "The conclusion is I'm not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) pointed out that the extent of executive power is limitless so long as congressional oversight is no longer necessary. "No one in Congress would deny the need to tap certain calls under court order," he added. "But if the administration believes it can tap purely domestic phone calls between Americans without court approval, there is no limit to executive power. This is contrary to settled law and the most basic constitutional principles of the separation of powers."