2006 - %3, June

Back to "It's The Economy, Stupid?"

| Tue Jun. 20, 2006 2:30 PM EDT

Democrats in Congress seem to be running for cover in the face of a GOP rebound on the war, but a recent minimum-wage amendment introduced by Ted Kennedy could be the wedge issue they need for the upcoming election. The amendment, introduced June 19, would raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997, from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour. "A minimum wage worker who works 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, earns just $10,700 a year," Kennedy said in a floor statement. "That's $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three."

A recent Labor Department report shows that inflation is erasing wage increases. Weekly wages dropped 0.7 percent in real terms in May. In 50 percent of the 65 months since Bush took office, workers' pay either has remained unchanged or declined, Bloomberg reports. "People at the high end of the income scale are doing a lot better than people in the middle or low end, but there are a lot more people in the middle and low end,'' Douglas Lee, president of Economics From Washington, a Potomac, Maryland, consulting firm, told Bloomberg. "For those people, inflation is eating into their income gains.'' An AP poll of 1000 or so people in early June found 60 percent disapproved of Bush's handling of the economy, while 38 percent approved.

It's possible that Democrats could, as they did during the 2002 midterms, try to focus on the economy and refuse to make Iraq an election issue. Even though the civil war in Iraq is intensifying, Bush's PR performance after the killing of Zarqawi has brought the president a rebound of sorts—at least with the media. Meanwhile, Dems may rant and rave about Iraq, but they can't agree on what to do about it. Four Democratic senators—Jack Reed, Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and Ken Salazar, with support from Hillary Clinton, Pat Leahy, and Minority Leader Harry Reid—have introduced a non-binding "sense of the Senate" resolution asking Bush to begin a phased redeployment out of Iraq by the end of this year. But the measure doesn't say how fast the drawdown should go.

An alternative measure, sponsored by Russ Feingold, Barbara Boxer and John Kerry would order the President to withdraw troops by July 1, 2007. But a similar withdrawal measure flopped last week on a 93-6 vote in the Senate—and the House has passed a nonbinding resolution rejecting a date for withdrawing the troops on a 256-153 vote, with large numbers of Democrats joining the GOP votes in favor of indeterminate commitment to the war.

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Refusing to Abandon Roe

| Tue Jun. 20, 2006 2:25 PM EDT

Most people have heard the argument from various "contrarian" liberals that overturning Roe v. Wade would actually be a boon for abortion rights—not to mention the Democratic party—because it wouldn't make much of a difference anyway and it would rouse pro-choicers from their apathetic slumber. Examples are here and here. It's totally false, of course, but it's still an insidious idea that seems to have some staying power among well-to-do male pundits living in blue states. So I'm glad Scott Lemieux took the time to shred the argument in this American Prospect article.

But the other thing to note—and Scott sort of gets at this in his piece—is that Roe v. Wade is somewhat beside the point here. Don't get me wrong, I'm very glad Roe exists, and even seem to be one of the few people convinced it was correct as a legal decision. But barring John Paul Stevens dying or some similar catastrophe (and I'm not much for praying, but I could be persuaded to light a candle for Stevens), the Supreme Court isn't likely to overturn Roe anytime soon.

Rumsfeld's "Poor Memory"

| Tue Jun. 20, 2006 1:25 PM EDT

So back in April of last year, two investigators from the Pentagon's inspector general paid Donald Rumsfeld a little visit to ask him about "the largest defense procurement scandal in recent decades." Nothing major, just a few questions here and there. The usual. Here's how the interview went, according to the Washington Post:

Rumsfeld cited poor memory, loose office procedures, and a general distraction with "the wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan to explain why he was unsure how his department came to nearly squander $30 billion leasing several hundred new tanker aircraft that its own experts had decided were not needed…

[A] copy of the transcript [of the Rumsfeld interview], obtained recently by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act after a year-long wait, says a lot about how little of Rumsfeld's attention has been focused on weapons-buying—a function that consumes nearly a fifth of the $410 billion defense budget, exclusive of expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan.Yeah, what's a few billion dollars anyway? Lucky for us we have a "CEO President" at the helm to make sure everything's running smoothly…

Halliburton contracts up by 600%

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 9:06 PM EDT

A document compiled at the request of Rep. Henry Waxman of California, confirms that federal contracts are now the fastest growing component of federal discretionary spending. The Government Accountability Office and the Defense Contract Audit Agency were two of the agencies whose 500 reports, audits and investigations were used to compile the report.

Procurement spending increased by 86% between 2000 and 2005, meaning that it has increased more than twice as fast as other federal discretionary spending. According to Waxman, overcharging--in terms of both error and fraud--has occurred frequently. 118 contracts worth $745.5 billion have been found to include waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.

Last year alone, Lockheed Martin received contracts worth more than the combined budgets of the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior, the Small Business Administration, and the U.S. Congress. But the big winner, to no one's surprise, was Halliburton, whose contracts increased 600% from 2000 to 2005.

In 2004, Department of Defense Inspector General's auditors were removed from Iraq, so as of the end of 2005, $140 billion worth of spending was not being monitored. You may recall that Halliburton lost $9 billion, which has yet to be accounted for.

Homeland Security's Revolving Door

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 4:36 PM EDT

On Sunday, Eric Lipton of the New York Times had an astonishing story about the legions of Homeland Security officials who were leaving their jobs to work as lobbyists for companies selling technology to DHS. Now technically, there are rules about what officials can and can't do:

The law that governs the so-called post-employment life for federal officials was enacted in 1962. It prohibits senior officials from "any communication to or appearance" before their former government department or agency on behalf of another for one year from the date they leave their job. There is also a lifetime ban on communicating with anyone at the department in connection with "a particular matter" in which the former official "participated personally and substantially."

A separate law prohibits certain former federal employees, like program managers or contracting officers, from accepting a job with a company they supervised for a year afterward if a contract involved exceeded $10 million. But as one would expect, there are all sorts of loopholes here. Michael J. Petrucelli, who was formerly acting director of citizenship and immigration services, apparently left his job and was hired within months as a lobbyist for GridPoint, which was trying to sell power-supply devices to the Coast Guard. Since the Coast Guard is technically a different department of DHS, Petrucelli was allowed to take the job. Another official—Tom Blank, the former number 2 at the Transportation Security Administration—seems to have skirted around ethics regulations simply by declining to sign official documents.

At this point, it's hard to believe that the Department of Homeland Security has accomplished much besides transfer billions of dollars to private corporations. Back in 2002, Brendan Koerner wrote a piece for this magazine on the corporations lining up outside DHS with their arms outstretched for "the biggest government bonanza since the Cold War." In itself, that's not a bad thing—so long as all these contracts are going to good use. But if contracts are being handed out on the basis of convenient connections and legalized graft, how likely is that? (Here's a partial answer.)

MORE: Justin Rood says that Lipton probably took some major risks in publishing this story—namely, he'll likely have a hard time finding sources among former DHS officials from here on out. Kudos to Lipton for writing the story anyway.

"It's a very sad day for whales."

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 4:08 PM EDT

Okay, scratch the premature anti-whaling triumphalism. Turns out Japan, having lost several four separate votes on related matters, got a majority on the International Whaling Commission to oppose the 1986 ban on commercial whaling. "[I]t's a very sad day for whales," notes a conservationist. On the upside, a 75 percent majority is needed to overturn the moratorium, and this vote was a squeaker (33-32).

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Photo: Greenpeace

Over at the Greenpeace blog, the organization's guy on the scene puts the latest vote in perspective:

But wait a minute, what does it actually mean, what will it actually deliver for the whalers? [N]othing in real time in the real world. They already lost the first four votes, ones that actually would have changed things now, they wanted to end any IWC work on dolphins and porpoises, they wanted secret ballots, they wanted an exemption from the commercial whaling ban to kill minke Whales and Brydes whales inside their territorial waters, not for science but for sale, and they wanted the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary harpooned: these were real things that would have made a real difference.

For more on whaling and other oceans-related news, see here.

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An Alternative 'Official' View of Iraq

| Mon Jun. 19, 2006 3:00 PM EDT

Greg Mitchell reports on a memo obtained by the Washington Post that was sent out by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq. Not surprisingly, things are horrible, regardless of what Bush might be telling everyone. Real horrible. "[D]aily-worsening conditions for those who live outside the heavily guarded international zone: harassment, threats and the employees' constant fears that their neighbors will work for the U.S. government." And those who work in the "heavily guarded international zone" have to fear for their life when they go home for the night:

  • Two of the three female Iraqis in the public affairs office reported stepped-up harassment since mid-May...."some groups are pushing women to cover even their face, a step not taken in Iran even at its most conservative."
  • Embassy employees are held in such low esteem their work must remain a secret and they live with constant fear that their cover will be blown. Of nine staffers, only four have told their families where they work. They all plan for their possible abductions. No one takes home their cell phones as this gives them away.
  • The overall environment [in Iraq] is one of "frayed social networks," with frequent actual or perceived insults. None of this is helped by lack of electricity. "One colleague told us he feels 'defeated' by circumstances, citing his example of being unable to help his two-year-old son who has asthma and cannot sleep in stifling heat," which is now reaching 115 degrees. [In many places, electricity is only available for a few hours a day.
  • "Another employee tell us that life outside the Green Zone has become 'emotionally draining.' He lives in a mostly Shiite area and claims to attend a funeral 'every evening.'"The full memo is here. If there was anything positive in it, I must have missed it. No doubt it's the media's fault for suppressing all the "good news".
  • Proof That Iran Wanted Peace in 2003

    | Mon Jun. 19, 2006 2:04 PM EDT

    Over the weekend, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post apparently got his hands on the official overture that Iran made to the United States back in 2003, shortly after the fall of Baghdad. Iran, apparently, was full ready to agree to safeguards on its nuclear program, work with the United States to stabilize Iraq, take "decisive action" against terrorists, end "material support" for Palestinian militias and accept a Saudi proposal for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in exchange for negotiations and economic cooperation. These are the sorts of concessions U.S. diplomats would eat their hats for today.

    But Bush administration officials turned it down, because they were "convinced that the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse." The war in Iraq, it seemed, made some hawks a bit too giddy for diplomacy (remember, this was back in the "Mission Accomplished" days, when neoconservatives thought Baghdad had been conquered and were dreaming of marching troops into Tehran and Damascus next). So now the administration finds itself in the present situation, in which Iran is in a strong position to make demands, the U.S. is in a much weaker position to urge a halt to its nuclear program, and negotiations are still sluggish (though certainly hopeful). Nicely done.

    Exploitation of the oceans "rapidly passing the point of no return."

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 7:43 PM EDT

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    Okay, enough already with the good news. Via the Guardian, here's some of the other kind:

    Damage to the once pristine habitats of the deep oceans by pollution, litter and overfishing is running out of control, the United Nations warned yesterday. In a report that indicates that time is running out to save them, the U.N. said humankind's exploitation of the the deep seas and oceans was "rapidly passing the point of no return."

    Last year some 85 million tonnes of wild fish were pulled from the global oceans, 100 million sharks and related species were butchered for their fins, some 250,000 turtles became tangled in fishing gear, and 300,000 seabirds, including 100,000 albatrosses, were killed by illegal longline fishing.

    Into the water in their place went three billion individual pieces of litter - about eight million a day - joining the 46,000 pieces of discarded plastic that currently float on every square mile of ocean and kill another million seabirds each year. The water temperature rose and its alkalinity fell - both the result of climate change. Coral barriers off Australia and Belize are dying and newly discovered reefs in the Atlantic have already been destroyed by bottom trawling.

    The piece has a U.N. official saying, "Humankind's ability to exploit the deep oceans and high seas has accelerated rapidly over recent years. It is a pace of change that has outstripped our institutions and conservation efforts," and notes by way of example that mining could soon spread to the sea floor for the first time, with a Canadian company planning to dig for deposits of gold and copper off Papua New Guinea.

    For a full inventory of the woes afflicting the oceans see Julia Whitty's excellent piece from the March/April Mother Jones. And if you want to do something about this mess--and you can--click here.

    "It's a big vote for small cetaceans."

    | Fri Jun. 16, 2006 4:44 PM EDT

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    Welcome news for dolphins, porpoises, and all who wish them well: Japan today lost a vote to have the so-called "small cetaceans" (mini-whales) removed from the protective purview of the International Whaling Commission, which just began a five-day meeting in St. Kitts in the Caribbean.

    If you haven't been following this closely, Japan is pushing hard to persuade members of the 70-country IWC--whose remit is essentially to conserve whale populations--to agree to ending a 20-year old moratorium on commercial whaling. The 2/3 majority the Japanese need to overturn the ban outright seems beyond their reach for now, but there are plenty of proposals coming up for a vote short of full repeal that will loosen restrictions on whale hunting. The small-cetacean measure was one of these--another would ban groups like Greenpeace from snooping around whaling vessels--and the fact that Japan's push failed suggests it lacks the strength to win on the others. (This despite Japan's allegedly having bought the support of other countries with foreign aid.)

    Three countries have kept on hunting whales despite the 1986 moratorium: Norway, which has ignored the ban entirely; Japan and Iceland, which have exploited a loophole that permits whaling for purposes of "scientific research." (See photo below.)

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    Why is Japan so hot to overturn the ban? Not clear. Whale meat from the "scientific" hunts is sold commercially and, thanks to the Japanese government, is a staple in school lunches; fact is, though, Japanese people don't much care for whale meat, and the industry subsists in large part on government subsidies. Puzzled outsiders apparently put Japan's whaling jihad down to "a small caucus of politicians who have turned the issue into one of 'culinary imperialism,' in which Japan is defiantly asserting that it will not be told what to eat, any more than Australians should be told not to eat kangaroo." (LAT)

    For more on whale-, dolphin-, and ocean-related developments, see Mother Jones' recent special report on the state of our oceans, which includes this article on Japanese scientific whaling and this interview with filmmaker Hardy Jones, aka the "Dolphin Defender." For up-to-the-minute coverage of the IWC meeting, see Greenpeace's "Ocean Defender" blog. And to find out what you can do to protect our oceans and the critters and plants that live in them check out "Ocean Voyager", Mother Jones' interactive online journey (video! photos! ocean sounds!) to defend our seas.