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Scapegoats Everywhere

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 9:17 PM EDT

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later: "Army recruits shortfall blamed on Iraq war critics." The scapegoat brigade, it seems, is spearheaded by Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) who notes that Senators who criticized the war "contributed to the propaganda of U.S. enemies." Uh-huh. Hey, I've got a good one: Senators who rubber-stamped and cheered on an incompetent war plan are contributing to the actual success of U.S. enemies. But enough of that; dropped at the very, very bottom of the article is some actually disturbing news:

 

In his testimony, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Michael Hagee said readiness for battalion and squadron-sized Marine units had dropped by 40 percent because of the priority put on sustaining units in Iraq at the expense of the units that had rotated out of the war.

 

For more on this, see this old Phillip Carter post, who argues that "the U.S. military will preserve itself rather than let the war tear it apart." That, it seems, is going to be the upper limit of our stay in Iraq.

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Actually Quite Popular

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 8:01 PM EDT

Here's an interesting poll item—and it's not that Zogby poll that shows Bush continuing to flop after his middling speech the other night. No, this is something else. The conventional wisdom on health care is that, while Medicare—the government-run health program for senior citizens—is wildly popular, Medicaid—the means-tested program for some low-income workers and children—was not. But that's false: a new Kaiser poll found that 74 percent of Americans think Medicaid is a "very important" government program, and another 74 percent either "strongly" or "somewhat" oppose Medicaid cuts. In fact, it's nearly as popular as the infamous "third rails" of politics, Medicare and Social Security.

One would guess that most people were just getting Medicaid confused with Medicare—indeed, this was the clever reason why Democrats decided to name these programs the way they did—but no, it seems that most of the respondents actually knew what they were talking about, at least on a basic level. So that's good news. Of course, Republicans in Congress don't quite see things the same way; the recently-passed budget takes $10 billion out of the program over the next four years.

One could argue that Medicaid ought to be expanded at any rate—as MIT economist Jonathan Gruber has shown, it's the most cost-effective way to cover those who are currently uninsured, short of a drastic health care overhaul. (Moreover, researchers have found that Medicaid's costs aren't rising any more rapidly than health care costs in general.) More to the point, many of the program's eligibility rules are so complex that poor families are often deterred from joining—or else aren't even aware that they're eligible. It doesn't even cover everyone it actually should be covering; fathers of families, for instance, may not be eligible whereas the kids or pregnant wife will be. And thanks to the wild income swings experienced by many Americans these days, families keep bobbing over and under the income threshold to qualify for the program, thus leading to erratic coverage. (Or the threshold line creates all sorts of weird incentives for people to sell off or hide their assets to qualify, as several news outlets have recently reported.) The ideal solutions to these problems would be some sort of national health insurance, but failing that, Medicaid is a perfectly sound program, and it's encouraging that most Americans realize that.

Truth Versus Spin

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 7:49 PM EDT

"This was not the honest speech Americans needed to hear." Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at Center for Strategic and International Studies, who just returned from the region, has a sobering report (pdf) that dismantles most of the key claims in Bush's speech the other night. Very much worth reading in full.

The Big Chill

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 4:59 PM EDT

Friends of the First Amendment (and lovers of media smut in all its forms) will recall 2004 as a year of retreat. The FCC upped its average fine for broadcast indecency sevenfold and brought to heel two media giants, Viacom and Clear Channel, with expensive settlements and draconian compliance agreements. (To give you a flavor: If, after appeals, the FCC rules that a broadcast is indecent, Clear Channel agreed that "…the offending employees will be terminated without delay.")

The effect of all this can be guessed at from the news, noted today by the Center for Public Integrity, that the FCC, which last year raked in upwards of $3.5 million in indecency fines, has yet to issue a fine for indecent broadcasting this year. Needless to say, this isn't because the agency has loosened up. Nor is it due, much, to changes at the top at the FCC. (Chairman Michael Powell has gone and another commissioner is on the way out, leaving a vacuum.) No, this seems the fulfillment of Powell's desire, expressed last year, "to make the decision to air indecent or profane language a bad business decision." It hardly needs pointing out that, threatened with huge fines and, individually, with loss of livelihood, broadcasters will tend to interpret "indecency" rather expansively. A clearer example of a chilling effect is hard to imagine.

Clap Louder!

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 2:50 PM EDT

The Washington Post's front-page account of Bush's public-opinion specialists is quite fascinating—and depressing. Why couldn't the president just level with the public in his speech the other night and explain what, exactly, our goals in Iraq are and how he plans to achieve them? Well, because expert upon expert has told him that that's just not very important for building popular support during wartime. Apparently it's far more important, poll-wise, to be "resolute" and not show any signs of pessimism than it is to be honest and practical. Sadly, it really does seem we get the leaders we deserve.

Has Bush Tripled Aid to Africa?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 1:48 PM EDT

Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution runs the numbers on President Bush's claim that he has "tripled" aid to Africa thus far during his presidency:

We thought that was an interesting claim and decided to get behind the numbers, and we have looked at all "spigots," to use the State Department terminology, for aid. That means every possible program through which aid could flow to Africa, from child survival programs and development assistance in USAID to economic support funds which are State Department security—often security-related funds, foreign military, financing, peacekeeping, AIDS, narcotics, non-proliferation, refugees, Peace Corps, the multi-lateral institutions like the African Development Bank, the Millennium Challenge Account Debt Relief, and, of course, food aid.

And when you do that, the numbers paint a different reality than the administration has claimed.

In the first instance, the number for FY 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, is considerably higher than the [Bush] administration's numbers would suggest. The total for FY 2000 in nominal dollar terms, was $2,034,269,000–$2,034,269,000. The actual total for FY '04, the last completed fiscal year of the Bush administration was $3,399,416,000. That is an increase in nominal dollar terms of 67 percent, or more importantly, in real dollar terms of 56 percent, which falls substantially short of a tripling. In fact, it's not even a doubling, either in nominal dollar terms or in real dollar terms over the period fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2004.

What is also interesting is, when you get behind those aggregate numbers and you look at what they consist of, you'll find that more than 53 percent of the total increase between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2004 consists of emergency food aid, which is important; obviously it meets a need. It meets a need that varies from year to year depending on the circumstances on the ground. But it is not development assistance; it is not the sort of resources that enables countries to embark on a path of sustainable development. In effect, it's important for life saving but it's, from a development point of view, a band-aid.

So the Bush administration hasn't even doubled aid, let alone tripled it—in fact, the increase has been exactly 56 percent. And half of that is emergency food aid, which is important, but not development assistance. So there's good reason to be skeptical of Bush's latest promise to "double" aid to Africa once again. This isn't to disparage the increases he's already pledged, and, among other things, his plan to double spending to fight malaria is surely welcomed. Still, as the president himself says, "Our greatest challenge is to get beyond empty symbolism and discredited policies and match our good intentions with good results."

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Wal-Mart in China

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 1:39 PM EDT

In the middle of its big cover package on China this week, Time is running an interesting bit about Wal-Mart's relationship with its suppliers in the country. Interesting because it doesn't include all the usual horror stories; far from it, Wal-Mart on this account seems to be beneficial to both Chinese businesses and workers:

 

It is not easy being a supplier to [Wal-Mart]. "In fact, it's very tough," concedes [managing director in charge of procurement, Andrew] Tsuei. Wal-Mart says it's trying to export its American-style standards and ethics to China's manufacturing sector too. In China, where sweatshops are alive and well, the company insists those measures make a difference. Suppliers, including those who sell to Wal-Mart indirectly through other companies, must limit the work week to 40 hours plus no more than three hours of overtime a day, meet safety requirements and provide decent accommodations for workers. Even those critical of Wal-Mart concede that the standards can make conditions at a Wal-Mart supplier's factory more bearable than they are at a lot of other low-wage factories in China. "When the standards are enforced," says [Alejandra] Domenzain [associate director of Sweatshop Watch], "I think they are a step in the right direction. The question is, How rigorously are they enforced?"

 

 

These days, Wal-Mart is concerned that suppliers are getting extremely sophisticated at faking records to show compliance, even coaching workers before inspectors show up. "Most Chinese manufacturers don't understand why we focus on ethical standards," says Tsuei. "They ask questions like, Well, if I do this, then I'll have to increase costs. We say these are things we have to have."

 

 

To enforce the standards, Andy Tang, Wal-Mart's Far East manager for ethical standards, travels across China, making unexpected visits to all of the company's suppliers. In 2004, more than 6,500 representatives of suppliers and factories underwent the standards training. When Tang visits a factory, he sticks a cardboard placard on the table announcing the company's policy: no gifts, no kickbacks. He won't even sit for the traditional Chinese banquet. Some "officials are pretty moved when they see that because they're used to a different way," says Hatfield.

 

Hmm. So that's the official Wal-Mart line—but is it true? The Washington Post ran a report back in February 2004 with one labor organizer noting that the inspection system wasn't effective: "The factories are usually notified in advance, and they often prepare by cleaning up, creating fake time sheets and briefing workers on what to say." It's not clear whether Tang's surprise visits are getting around this problem. Meanwhile, the Post discovered that Wal-mart doesn't regularly inspect its suppliers' subcontractors, or the Chinese manufacturing operations of U.S. multinationals like Mattel or Dell. The day after the Post's story, meanwhile, the National Labor Committee put out a report criticizing Wal-Mart for ignoring poor working environments, docked paychecks, and forced overtime in its Dongguan City factories. As best I can tell, sure, Wal-Mart is having a positive effect in some regions, and on certain suppliers; but this is quite far from the idyllic picture painted by Time.

CAFTA Report Suppressed

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 6:16 PM EDT

Hm, I'm not sure this AP report is news exactly: "The Labor Department worked for more than a year to maintain secrecy for studies that were critical of working conditions in Central America, the region the Bush administration wants in a new trade pact." Didn't we have this story around these parts months ago? Oh well. The key to note here is that, not only would DR-CAFTA give Central American countries free reign to keep their atrocious labor standards in place, but those countries would be allowed to weaken those standards if they felt like it.

Anyway, also thought I'd link to this article by Richard Rothstein, disputing the argument that developing countries "need" dismal labor standards in order to be competitive on the global market. Besides, it's not like the "standards" crowd is calling for $10 an hour wages and health benefits for all Central American laborers. The bare minimum, though, should be the right to organize and the right to speak out in the workplace. If higher standards or wages means a country will be uncompetitive, well, that should be the decision of the workers in the country, a decision negotiated with business. This isn't unreasonable. I'm also not sure I'd oppose CAFTA on labor-rights grounds if the deal simply kept in place the current provisions under the Generalized System of Preferences, which pressures Central American governments to "afford internationally recognized labor rights." That system isn't perfect, obviously, but it was still something, and was actually useful for pressuring several countries to reform their labor laws. CAFTA, however, would junk the Generalized System of Preferences, which has the misfortune of being both unnecessary and unconscionable.

Fish? What Fish?

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 5:28 PM EDT

Seems that Philip Cooney isn't the only Republican in favor of, um, "nudging" scientific evidence in a more favorable direction:

Sen. Larry Craig [R-ID] is illuminating the debate around saving fish. The Idaho Republican is making it clear that the opponents of salmon protection feel no need for the light of facts.

Indeed, Craig is trying to eliminate scientific evidence of what is happening to fish in the Columbia River system.

A Senate appropriations bill includes report language intended to kill an agency that has been collecting data on the survival of salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The effect of Craig's language would be to make it difficult or impossible for the Bonneville Power Administration to continue funding the vital work of the tiny, 11-person Fish Passage Center in Portland.

Inconvenient facts? Eh, just change 'em!

Privatization Returns

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 4:17 PM EDT

Like Ezra Klein, I was a bit surprised to see that House Republicans are pushing ahead with their Social Security privatization bill, even going so far as to plan a vote on the bill. The danger here seems obvious: the Senate might not end up passing anything, and then all of those House Republicans will be on the record as having voted to gut Social Security and explode the deficit with nothing substantial to show for it in the end. (Luckily, the bill under discussion by the House is so insane that it doesn't even bother with benefit cuts; it just borrows all the money to create private accounts. In other words, the way to fix a program that will someday be "bankrupt," according to the president, is to borrow more money.)

So it's odd. But the key sentence in the story seems to be this: "GOP leaders said the measure would be incorporated into a broader bill making changes in pensions and other areas relating to retirement." The full bill will likely be packed full of various goodies to bail out corporate pensions; a ploy, mostly, to force Democrats to vote against their organized labor supporters, many of whom really do want the government to take action on all those rickety corporate pensions. Well, if that's the game, it's quite devious. The thing to note, however, is that few, if any, of these labor-friendly pension provisions would ever make it past the Republican-dominated conference committee if this bill were ever in actual danger of passing. Again: It's a ploy. The real issue here is that, despite having a majority in Congress, Republicans are too afraid to slash Social Security on their own, so they're engaging in a bit of maniacal brinksmanship to try and force the Democrats to give them some political cover. No one should be taking them seriously at this point. Democrats aren't the party of ideas? Please. When someone's standing around holding a grenade, the only proper "idea" in this instance is to refrain from going over and pulling out the pin.