2006 - %3, June

Polls Aren't Always Trustworthy

| Fri Jun. 16, 2006 5:09 PM EDT

I don't know many people who take opinion polling on policy issues as definitive in any way, but James Fishkin's piece in the Boston Review on polling had two interesting anecdotes on just how unreliable polling can really be:

Sometimes the "opinions" reported in polls do not exist. Because respondents do not like to say "I don't know," they often pick an answer more or less at random. When George Bishop of the University of Cincinnati asked in surveys about the "Public Affairs Act of 1975," the public offered opinions even though the act was fictional…

The second problem with conventional polling is that sometimes the responses to questions do not express real opinions but simply the first thing that comes to a respondent's mind. This phenomenon was first described by the eminent political scientist Philip Converse. A National Election Studies panel was asked the same set of questions each year from 1956 to 1960. The questions included some low-salience items about such subjects as the government's role in providing electric power.

Converse noticed that some of the respondents offered answers that seemed to vary almost randomly over the course of the panel. They cared so little about the issue that they could not even remember what they had said the previous year in order to try to be consistent. Converse concluded that significant numbers of people were simply answering randomly.The Fishkin piece, by the way, advocates "deliberative polling," a process which would gather a representative group of people together on some weekend retreat or other, poll them on an issue, let them talk it out, and then poll them again to see what they think after some thought, discussion, and, well, deliberation. It's an interesting idea, but either way, the piece is a good reminder that people can say all sorts of things about various intricate policy programs, but that's no indication as to what they really might think about something if they gave it some actual thought.

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Hyping the China Threat

| Fri Jun. 16, 2006 2:44 PM EDT

Well, this is disturbing. As we all know, the Pentagon has a rather alarmist view of China. But where does this view come from? Careful analysis? Maybe not. Gregory Kulacki reports in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that the United States' appraisal of China's intentions and military capabilities is often based on dubious sources—an essay from tabloid newspaper in one case, the writings of an amateur weapons enthusiast in another—that are then wrongly attributed to the Chinese government and deemed cause for concern.

In 2001, for instance, a U.S. commission warned that China was preparing for, quote, a "space Pearl Harbor" and probing for weaknesses in our high-tech infrastructure that could be exploited in a possible war over Taiwan. But much of this assessment was based on an essay written in China by a junior military officer freelancing for an "outlook" magazine, who wrote a piece on U.S. vulnerabilities that exclusively cited U.S. sources, including various Pentagon reports. In no way did the essay reflect China's official intentions, much less its ability to probe for weaknesses. It was just misinterpreted by whatever analyst read it. As Kulacki says, it's "a game of telephone gone horribly wrong."

Now China might in fact be planning some colossal space war against the United States. Or planning to dominate all of Asia. Or whatever nightmare scenario we're supposed to worry about. It's possible. But there's no reason to take the U.S. intelligence community's word on this as final—not least because, according to Kulacki, most of people gathering intelligence on China don't even speak Chinese very well, and so are quite prone to misunderstandings and mistranslations.

Even worse, though, is that a needlessly hawkish view on China can create a dangerous feedback loop. Chinese analysts read U.S. government reports, and in turn write their own analyses for Chinese military journals, which are in turn read by U.S. analysts, and so on. A bit of excess alarmism in those initial reports can be amplified over time, as both sides get increasingly alarmist, and hawkishness can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Already we have a military-industrial complex that has every incentive to hype the Chinese threat in order to justify expensive new weapons systems; we hardly need Chicken Little intelligence based on shoddy translation on top of that.

Minnesota company never charged with theft of 45 tons of Ground Zero disaster relief supplies

| Fri Jun. 16, 2006 12:47 PM EDT

Following the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Kieger Enterprises of Minnesota sent trucks to a warehouse in Long Island and proceeded to steal hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of donated bottled water, clothes, tools, and generators, which were then moved to Minnesota, where the company planned to sell the items for profit. Dan L'Allier, a Kieger employee, witnessed the trucks being loaded. He and disaster specialist Chris Christopherson told a Kieger executive, who told them to keep quiet about the theft. They then told the FBI.

As a result, the two whistleblowers lost their jobs, received death threats, and were blackballed in the disaster relief industry. They each received $30,000 (after expenses) from the government, their share in a civil suit against Kieger. Some of the company's executives were charged with fraud by the federal government, but the September 11 theft of 45 tons of needed goods was not included in the government's case.

The former U.S. Attorney in Minnesota said it was never his intention to charge Kieger for the theft--that he had referred the September 11 part of the case to New York prosecutors. The government's explanation for excluding the theft was that fraud was at the core of the case and "we didn't need the theft." The whistleblowers say they were never even contacted by New York prosecutors.

However, there is evidence that suggests the government was preparing to bring theft charges against Kieger. That evidence is in the form of a March, 2002 memo from the U.S. Attorney's ofice in Minnesota. However, according to an investigator for the FBI and FEMA, plans to go ahead with the theft charges were curtailed when it was discovered that an FBI agent in Minnesota had stolen a crystal globe from Ground Zero. An investigation then revealed that sixteen government employees, including a top FBI executive and and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, possessed Ground Zero or September 11 Pentagon artifacts.

Jane Turner, the lead FBI agent, says that the FBI attempted to fire her because she brought the stolen artifacts to light. She retired in 2003.

An attorney representing Kieger called the accusation of theft "much ado about nothing," claiming that Kieger employees tooks some water and T-shirts, and that they had permission from FEMA to do so. The FEMA official in charge says that no such permission was given.

Fraud charges against Kieger have not been limited to the September 11 event, but also involve the June, 2000 flood in Eagan, Minnesota and the June 2001 tornado in Siren, Wisconsin.

Where's the Food Aid?

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 6:06 PM EDT

Let's rattle off some numbers here: The Pentagon is currently spending $300 million on a propaganda program to sneak stories favorable to the United States into foreign newspapers. In May, meanwhile, the United Nation's emergency food agency had collected only $14 million of the $37.3 million needed to continue its feeding programs. Across Africa, 16 million people are "facing starvation of debilitating malnutrition. And so on.

You can see where this is going. Those figures come from this Salon piece by Samuel Lowenberg on the dire need for food aid to stave off world hunger. It's become fashionable to say that "aid doesn't work," but food aid works perfectly well—it's just underfunded. And what aid there is usually pours in long after a famine has struck, when it's too late. (Famine insurance might help alleviate this problem, however.) Most food aid from the United States, meanwhile, must be used to purchase U.S. crops, a subsidy to agribusiness that causes delays in aid delivery and usually undercuts local markets. No doubt "local corruption" makes some food aid ineffective, but there are more immediate problems that can be addressed first.

There's also the argument that emergency food aid is just a stopgap measure. Give a man a fish and all that. True, but Africa has never received the sort of long-term agricultural development assistance that Latin America and Asia received during the Cold War—currently, only a small fraction of U.S. food aid to Africa is set aside for this purpose. This is stuff that's extremely doable. It's just not done. And people really are dying unnecessarily.

Wal-Mart Can Afford a Pay Raise

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 4:13 PM EDT

You often hear that Wal-Mart simply can't afford to pay its workers more than it does, because then it would have to raise those "always low prices" for which it's so famous. Now I have a problem with the whole concept of "always low prices", but a new study by the Economic Policy Institute points out that the argument's wrong in any case.

According to EPI, Wal-Mart could have raised the wages and benefits of each of its non-supervisory employees in 2005 by more than $2,000 without raising prices a penny and still maintaining a profit margin almost 50 percent greater than Costco (although lower than it is now). So really, there's no excuse.

Crisis in America's ERs

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 3:31 PM EDT

Whenever people talk about instituting a national health care system to the United States, opponents cry foul and fret about "waiting lists" and the like. Well, as it turns out, the health care system in France—which allows people to purchase private health care on top of a universal public insurance system—has no waiting lists. Neither does Germany, another national health care system. On the other hand, we certainly have waiting lists here in the United States:

Emergency medical care in the United States is on the verge of collapse, with the nation's declining number of emergency rooms dangerously overcrowded and often unable to provide the expertise needed to treat seriously ill people in a safe and efficient manner.

That's the grim conclusion of three reports released yesterday by the Institute of Medicine, the product of an extensive two-year look at emergency care.

Long waits for treatment are epidemic, the reports said, with ambulances sometimes idling for hours to unload patients. Once in the ER, patients sometimes wait up to two days to be admitted to a hospital bed.This despite the fact that the United States pays more for health care than any other country in the world. (In fact, per capita the U.S. government alone spends more on public health care than countries with supposedly "socialized" systems—and that's before all the private spending is included.) And yet the U.S. still endures waiting lists and rationing—not to mention the 46 million people who don't have insurance at all.

In fact, the large number of uninsured people in this country contributes heavily to the hospital crisis—since the uninsured often can't afford preventive care, they tend to wait until problems get really bad and require hospitalization, which then puts a burden on the emergency medical care system. (By law, emergency rooms must at the very least evaluate and stabilize everyone who comes in.) But for some reason we're told we shouldn't change anything. Right.

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George W. Bush: Environmentalist?

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 2:27 PM EDT

Here's a headline to make brows furrow: "Bush Plans Vast Protected Sea Area in Hawaii." Bush plans what now? The man with the worst environmental record in history wants to protect what? No, apparently it's true: he'll designate as a national monument a 1,200 chain of small Hawaiian islands, along with the surrounding waters and reefs, creating the world's largest protected marine area. But here's the backstory:

Some environmentalists noted yesterday that the extra protection was an easy call for the administration, in part because there was little significant opposition in Hawaii or Washington. The move could also help the re-election prospects of Linda Lingle, Hawaii's first Republican governor, who last fall banned commercial activities in state waters in the area and endorsed the federal sanctuary plan.
Now we're getting somewhere. I was worried there was a totally non-cynical explanation for all of this. But surely bailing out a Republican governor isn't enough to spur Bush into helping the environment, right? I mean, wasn't there some sort of business or commercial interest opposed to protecting the reefs that he needed to kowtow before? Apparently not:
[Environmentalists] noted that there were only eight commercial fishing boats licensed to fish in the remote islands, and that rising fuel costs had made such trips less and less profitable.
Gotcha. Fishermen don't really care about this sanctuary, not much harm was being done to the reefs anyway, so Bush may as well go ahead and protect the damn thing, especially since he can now claim that he has "accomplished the single largest act of environmental conservation in history." Our hero. Well, it's good news regardless, although there are countless other reefs and coastal regions that still need actual protection. What are the odds of Bush acting on those? No, let's not answer that. By the way, it's come to my attention that I get paid by the shameless plug, so do check out Mother Jones' new Ocean Voyager site, which takes an in-depth look at all the ocean stuff being neglected these days. It's really quite amazing.

More Zarqawi Questions

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 2:05 PM EDT

Okay, I'm a bit confused as to why it's perfectly acceptable to alert every single member of al-Qaeda in Iraq that we have a "huge treasure" of information about them, but somehow it's not okay to discuss the details of a warrantless domestic eavesdropping program in court because doing so would cause "grave harm to United States national security." Never mind, I guess this is the rhetorical question section.

Anyway, it also seems a bit suspicious that Zarqawi just happened to be carrying files on hundreds and hundreds of his associates—especially since he was traveling with such minimal security at the time of his death—and that that explains why the Iraqi government is now, today, killing so many "insurgents." George Friedman of Stratfor thinks that what's really going on is that the native Sunni insurgents who are really running things have agreed to sell out foreign fighters like Zarqawi in exchange for some sort of political deal with the Iraqi government. Who knows, really?

Remember, the US could have taken Zarqawi out years ago.

| Thu Jun. 15, 2006 1:43 PM EDT

In the oceans of ink produced following Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi's death, there's been little more than a trickle on one of the most memorable elements of the Zarqawi saga: the fact that, as the Wall Street Journal and NBC News reported years ago, the Pentagon had plenty of chances to take Zarqawi out before the war even began, but didn't, in part to assuage the Europeans and in part because his presence in Iraq served the administration's purposes as proof of an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. The irony, of course, is that while Zarqawi was already training terrorists back then, he had not yet formalized his ties to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. That would occur after the war, when the insurgency began to grow. From the WSJ piece:

The Pentagon drew up detailed plans in June 2002, giving the administration a series of options for a military strike on the camp Mr. Zarqawi was running then in remote northeastern Iraq, according to generals who were involved directly in planning the attack and several former White House staffers…. Gen. Keane characterized the camp "as one of the best targets we ever had."

Also worth a look is a report from Australian news program Four Corners, from May of this year, in which former CIA agent Mike Scheuer says this:

"Mr Bush had Zarqawi in his sights almost every day for a year before the invasion of Iraq and he didn't shoot because they were wining and dining the French in an effort to get them to assist us in the invasion of Iraq."

In the post-bombing stories, very few have so much as mentioned the prewar opportunities; Newsweek's cover story is an exception, with two short paragraphs that hit all the right notes.

Some American intelligence determined that Zarqawi and his cohorts were manufacturing crude chemical weapons [at Ansar Al-Islam]. The Pentagon developed plans to bomb the Ansar camp in 2002, but the White House withheld its approval. "He was up there, we knew where he was, and we couldn't get anybody to move on it," said a former US intelligence official who had worked on the plans to take out Zarqawi, but who refused to be identified discussing military secrets. "We were told they didn't want to disrupt the war planning. It was a real opportunity lost.

The Bush administration wanted to exploit Zarqawi in a different way. When Secretary of State Colin Powell went to the United Nations to make the case for going to war against Saddam in February 2003, he charged that Saddam "harbors" a "deadly terrorist network" headed by Zarqawi, whom he described as a "collaborator of Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants."

Obama offers vision, while Dems offer laundry list

| Wed Jun. 14, 2006 9:10 PM EDT

On the final day of a largely inspiring Take Back America progressive conference, Sen. Barack Obama offered, in a powerful, well-received speech, a searing critique of Bush administration policies, borrowing from Newt Gingrich's recommended attack phrase, "Had enough?" Yet at the same time he provided reassurance and hope for progressives. He told us that we know who we are and we stand for goals that appeal to the best in Americans: "The time for our identity crisis as progressives is over. Don't let anybody tell you that we don't know what we stand for."

He won applause, though, without providing a specific plan for withdrawal from Iraq. Divisions over Iraq among Democratic leaders became the focus of much of the mainstream coverage of the event, missing the broader "Common Good" agenda for change offered by some Democratic leaders and activists at the conference.

Obama captured that uplifting theme well and showed in a smart way how to put forward a positive program for Democrats. Here's some excerpts from a transcript, picking up after his critique of the Administration's failures on health care, Iraq and Katrina, and its underlying Social Darwinism:

Yes, our greatness as a nation has depended on self-reliance and individual initiative and a belief in the free market.

But it's also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, our sense that we have a stake in each other's success.

(APPLAUSE)

You know, that everybody should have a shot at opportunity.

Americans understand this. They know the government can't solve all their problems, but they expect the government can help because they know it's an expression of what they're learning in Sunday school, what they learn in their church, in their synagogue, in their mosque, a basic moral precept that says that I have to look out for you and I have responsibility for you and you have responsibility for me; that I am your keeper and your are mine.

That's what America is.

And so I am eager to have this argument with the Republican Party about the core philosophy of America, about what our story is. We shouldn't shy away from that debate.

The time for our identity crisis as progressives is over. Don't let anybody tell you that we don't know what we stand for.

(APPLAUSE)

On the same day that Obama was giving his speech, the Democratic leadership offered a litany of ideas, billed as a "New Direction" for America, such as lowering the cost of prescription drugs, raising the minimum wage, etc.