Reform Thyself!

Wed Jul. 27, 2005 9:05 PM EDT

Robert Kuttner has a good piece in the Boston Globe today on the break-up of the AFL-CIO. There's no real new information, but after the obligatory conceit that the split is in part about Andy Stern's ego, Kuttner wisely compares the break-up to other understandable, if risky, efforts by progressive radicals to knock down massive and old-line liberal establishment organizations—i.e. Nader going after the Democrats, and Shellenberger and Nordhaus' iconoclastic missive against the Washington based environmental movement.

Kuttner got me thinking about what other big players in the liberal coalition might need a retooling, and where the initiative might come from. Feminist groups? Civil Rights? Must the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of whippersnappers and burnt out bureaucrats? A Common Cause employee once told me that the average age of it members were something like 72. She (or my memory) is probably overstating the case, but the signpost seems right. When the reform organizations founded in the 60s and 70s run out of gas be replaced, or will they do something that you'd hope they'd be good at and, you know, reform for a new generation?

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Hurry Up Please It's Time

| Wed Jul. 27, 2005 6:36 PM EDT

In a surprise visit to Iraq today, Donald Rumsfeld told the drafters of the new Iraqi constitution to get a move on: "We don't want any delays. They're simply going to have to make the compromises necessary and get on with it." Well, sure, but a constitution needs to be done right or it won't be worth the scrap of paper it's printed on. Reports indicate that former Afghan ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is now exhorting the Iraqi leaders to draft a decent constitution, something along the lines of what South Africa created in 1994, to end apartheid. Well, fair enough, but let's not overlook the fact that Mandela, de Klerk, and other groups had been negotiating over that constitution as far back as 1991. Hashing all the relevant disagreements out can take time, and it seems unnecessarily foolish to hold the Iraqi framers to an artificial deadline if they're not yet ready. Otherwise, any unsatisfactory compromises now, glossed over in haste, will resurface as armed disputes later on.

Ehrenreich on Labor

| Wed Jul. 27, 2005 5:05 PM EDT

Barbara Ehrenreich has some advice for labor organizers in her latest Progressive column, including this tidbit: "More than once, union organizers have told me that goals like universal health insurance are irrelevant because the union can win health insurance for its members, or at least those who survive the organizing drive." Indeed, that's not just true now, but it's been true historically; as Jill Quadagno writes in One Nation Uninsured, one of the reasons—though not the only reason—why the United States didn't get universal health care in the 1950s while nearly every other Western democracy did was that labor was somewhat divided on the subject. Union leaders like Samuel Gompers and George Meany preferred to negotiate health benefits through collective bargaining agreements rather than go through Congress. (During World War II, the wage freeze meant that labor could only negotiate for better health benefits, so that's the route they took, and then just sort of stuck with it after the war.) In the end, infighting over tactics meant that there was never a strong, unified labor push to get universal health care on the table. Union leaders would be ill-advised to make the same mistake again.

Ralph Nader Agrees

| Wed Jul. 27, 2005 2:28 PM EDT

Anne Appelbaum suggests a few changes to the United States' public diplomacy towards the Islamic world: "[W]e need to monitor the intellectual and theological struggle for the soul of Islam, and we need to help the moderates win. This means making sure that counter-arguments are heard whenever and wherever [radical] Muslim clerics and intellectuals are talking, despite the impact of Saudi money." Huh. Nothing clever to add, except that change a few adjectives here and you'd have a grand little argument in favor of publicly-financed election campaigns, the sort of thing lefty groups like Common Cause and Public Citizen have been championing for years. Suffice to say, it's a good idea.

CAFTA at Midnight

| Wed Jul. 27, 2005 1:31 PM EDT

This certainly isn't good news—Mark Goldberg of the American Prospect reports that the House leadership plans to ram CAFTA through the House late tonight, despite the fact that a majority of the chamber opposes to the treaty. That squares with what Reuters is reporting: "[House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay said Republicans would gavel the CAFTA vote to a close "when we get 218," the number of votes needed for approval."

Now DeLay can certainly do what he wants, even if this is a bit thuggish—Lyndon Johnson once showed that some good can come of thuggery, after all—but what's troublesome is that he'll probably get the votes he needs to pass CAFTA by including all manner of pork, protectionism, and industry giveaways that will bog down a treaty already bogged down by pork, protectionism, and industry giveaways. (A longer critique of CAFTA's bogged-down-ness can be found here.) But that seems to be the natural outcome of a party less concerned with crafting good trade policy and more with getting some sort of industry handout passed, with as few Democratic votes as possible, so as to deprive the opposition party of corporate donations. (After all the GOP could have included a few worker protections and won over enough free-trade Democrats to get CAFTA passed without all that craven and harmful pandering to the sugar industry.) If it seems petty, it is.

The Roberts Effect

| Tue Jul. 26, 2005 7:48 PM EDT

A few days ago, Yale's Jack Balkin wrote an important Newsday op-ed on why having someone like John G. Roberts on the Supreme Court could severely curtail abortion rights, even if the Court still wouldn't be enough votes to overturn Roe v. Wade: "Courts now enjoin new abortion laws as soon as they are passed if they burden some women's right to abortion. But next term the court will decide whether to change that rule. If it does, states could pass stringent restrictions on abortion; these could remain on the books for years until lawsuits knock away the most blatantly unconstitutional features. That is not the same as overturning Roe v. Wade, but its practical effect is very similar."

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Leak Away

| Tue Jul. 26, 2005 6:30 PM EDT

Christopher Hitchens gets it right on in Slate today: The Intelligence Identities Protection Act needs to go. Sadly, it's Hitchens, and for some reason the voices inside his head forced him to end the essay by insisting that Iraq actually did have a deal to buy uranium from Niger. Er, whatever. It's Hitchens. About the IIPA, though, he's absolutely right. The CIA, given its sordid history, shouldn't be exempt from the sunlight of public perception, and that means that both journalists and virtuous government officials should be allowed to expose covert agents. Reading the law itself, it seems that journalists are exempt from prosecution unless they start uncovering agents with a mind to "impair or impede the foreign intelligence activities of the United States." Okay, but again, one doesn't have to think very hard to come up with intelligence activities of the United States in the past that should have been impaired or impeded.

At any rate, the main issue in this Plame case is that, in this case, the Bush administration was wrong about Iraq's WMD capabilities, and when those errors were exposed, Karl Rove and others decided to wreak havoc on the very agency that had been pushing back against the march to war. What matters is why he was leaking Valerie Plame's name—if it was Rove, of course—and not the fact that agents' names were leaked. It's nice and very convenient that the Plame leak triggered Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation, but as a general principle, less rather than more government secrecy is always a good idea.

Moral Clarity Lives On

| Tue Jul. 26, 2005 3:25 PM EDT

Okay, this is going to get shrill, but I honestly can't believe what I'm reading here. Glenn Reynolds is daydreaming about a possible Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq, and some of what he says makes analytic sense, but then he includes this little quote: "It would be ugly to watch and bad for America's reputation, but few could say, in this scenario, that the Sunnis had not brought it on themselves." Yeah, and the hundreds of thousands of Sunnis who aren't part of Zarqawi's merry band of lunatics, who just want to get on with their lives, but who would almost certainly get caught in the crossfire of a full-scale civil-sectarian war? What about them? Brought it on themselves, perhaps?

Now it's not always pleasant to contemplate the idea that wars are often started by a handful of lunatics who end up getting lots and lots of innocent bystanders killed, but that's what would be going on here. I have no idea whether a sectarian war in Iraq is inevitable, or ultimately necessary for stability, or what have you, but it's well beyond appalling to say that the Sunnis have "brought it on themselves." Meanwhile, you have Helena Cobban arguing that if the United States withdrew from Iraq, there might be some bloodshed, but at least the U.S. will no longer be "morally responsible." Right. I for one can't wait until we invade the next country on our little list, fail to provide security, squander reconstruction funds, purge the government and military of one ethnic or sectarian group, stock the army with militiamen from an opposing group, and then tell everyone it's their own damn fault when civil war breaks out. Not our problem.

UPDATE: Okay, okay. Reading through the post again, to say that Glenn Reynolds was "daydreaming" about a civil war was extremely unfair. Slimy even. "Thinking through" would be more apt. Apologies. (I'm serious.)

Last Chance to Privatize

| Tue Jul. 26, 2005 2:36 PM EDT

Browsing through news reports over the past few days, it seems that the Republicans still aren't giving up on their push to privatize Social Security: "[Sen. Chuck] Grassley said he wasn't ready to abandon efforts to pass Social Security legislation -- President George W. Bush's top domestic priority -- though he acknowledged it would be an uphill battle. 'I'm not going to give up on personal accounts until the last minute,' he said." Are they serious? They really want to have this battle again? This fall? Why?

One theory might be that Bush thinks that a smooth confirmation process for John G. Roberts will help him gain some of that "momentum" he reportedly believes is so important to governing and passing legislation. I'll leave that conjecture to those better equipped to probe the devious inner workings of Karl Rove's mind. Alternatively, though, one should note that 2005 is really the last, best chance for privatizers to act and gut Social Security. Why? It's all in the numbers, and Bruce Webb explains it well over at his blog. Basically, the Social Security Trustees have been consistently predicting low productivity growth over the past four years, which has in turn helped them write annual reports that predict massive actuarial imbalances for the program 30 years down the line. Happily, though, here in the real world we've had very high productivity growth over the past four years, which suggests that the long-term outlook for Social Security is in reality much better than the Trustees' "Intermediate Cost" projections imply. (And the administration knows this—in fact, the FY2006 budget predicted much rosier growth numbers for the future than even the Social Security Trustees' most optimistic numbers.)

At some point, and probably as soon as next year, the Trustees' will have no choice but to revise their projections to reflect the robust growth we've actually had. When that time comes, the public will be able to see very clearly that the long-term outlook is better than we've been led to believe and Social Security is not, in fact, in the throes of a crisis requiring drastic measures or privatization. The alarmists will all be exposed come 2006 or so, and it really is Custer's Last Stand right now. That may well explain why Grassley's aiming for a big push come October.

Random? Or Just Useless?

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 10:02 PM EDT

Not to pile on New York City's new "random" subway bag-check, but one New York Times letter-writer points out a pretty fatal flaw in the whole thing. Here's how the system works: "Riders will be asked to open their bags for a visual check before they go through the turnstiles. Those who refuse will not be permitted to bring the package into the subway but will be able to leave the station without further questioning." Um, so if I'm a terrorist with a bomb, and I get pulled over for random inspection, I can just refuse the search, leave the station, try another station, and hope the police don't pull me aside me next time around. Says the letter-writer: "Somehow this does not make me feel safer." Somehow indeed.