Mojo - March 2005

Schiavo spectacle

| Mon Mar. 21, 2005 1:06 PM EST

There's not much to say about the political firestorm over Terry Schiavo; it's sickening, and thoroughly depressing, but at this point it's about what you'd expect from the modern day GOP. What's that? Tom DeLay is under investigation for corruption? Never mind! He can always just use his bully pulpit to attack Michael Schiavo personally—a rather gross abuse of power, if you think about it. What's that? Gov. George W. Bush signed a Texas law in 1999 to "allow hospitals ... [to] discontinue life sustaining care, even if patient family members disagree"? Never mind! The Schiavo case is, um, different, and demands that president leave his ranch in Crawford and jet back to Washington. (Lindsay Beyerstein has much, much more.)

At any rate, for an extremely patient discussion of both the medical and ethical issues surrounding this case, see this post by hilzoy over at Obsidian Wings. By now, of course, there's really no sense in reasoning with the Schiavo fanatics—the whole goal here, after all, is to put on a gruesome little spectacle, and Republicans just want the chance to rally up the "base" with a bit of symbolism, since they have no intention of ever giving the Christian Right anything substantial (a ban on abortion, say, or an amendment against gay marriage). But read hilzoy's post anyway; it's important to note that this isn't about the "right to live" or other such nonsense, but about the right to refuse medical care. The latter right, if I'm not mistaken, is practically part of the Republican platform, so I'm not sure what the big deal is here.

UPDATE: Judd Legum has some poll numbers on this. Taking a family member off life support is a difficult issue, and one I've thankfully never had to go through, but it's safe to say that no choice will ever be free of pain or tragedy. Still, the whole point here is that the federal government should stay out of that decision. The overwhelming majority of Americans can see that—most people, it seems, would prefer not to have their comatose wife or son or mother trotted out before Congress for a big TV-focused political extravaganza. Though the cable news channels apparently think otherwise.

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Clay Shaw's "free lunch" compromise

| Mon Mar. 21, 2005 12:39 PM EST

Over the weekend David Broder, dean of Beltway insider-ism, unveiled his grand compromise plan for Social Security in the Washington Post. The details are a bit cryptic, but basically, Rep. Clay Shaw (R-FL) wants to borrow $3.7 trillion, have individuals invest it in the stock market, and earn such high rewards that a) they can give most of the money back so as to the government to bring the program into long-term balance, and b) hopefully keep an extra chunk of change for themselves.

No cuts, no tax hikes, no pain, it's perfect! Except for all the borrowing. Ah, the borrowing... It's worth explaining why all that borrowing is so horrendous. Right now, of course, the federal deficit is very large, and foreign central banks are already getting a bit full from munching on dollars to pay for it. So issuing $3.7 trillion in new debt could have a catastrophic effect on the bond markets. Economists like Brad Setser find that scenario quite plausible indeed.

But more to the point, the assumption undergirding all this borrowing money for Social Security is that eventually we can bring the program into long-term balance, fund the program's future obligations, and happily repay that debt later on. But that, too, ignores the price of borrowing now. So long as our debt doesn't grow any faster than the economy grows, it's fairly manageable. But at a certain point, when the deficit grows to a certain size, those borrowing costs start compounding and the national debt accelerates faster than the economy grows. Last week, Max Sawicky of the Economic Policy Institute released an important paper (PDF) showing that this is already likely to be the case under the existing Bush budget—the national debt will be 130 percent of GDP in 2055. Under this little Armageddon scenario, of course, Congress of the future will go into full panic mode and all Social Security benefits will be at risk of massive, massive cuts.

Clay Shaw's compromise plan only hastens Armageddon. There are no free lunches here, and pretending that we can get around benefit cuts or tax hikes merely by borrowing our problems away is, to be blunt, insane. Otherwise, why not borrow $10 trillion today, put it in the stock market, and use the returns to pay for health care, defense, apple pies, sports cars for everyone? But of course we don't propose that, and David Broder should no better.

New at Mother Jones

| Mon Mar. 21, 2005 12:09 PM EST

Playing the Democracy Card: How America furthers its national interests in the Middle East. By Dilip Hiro.

Deconstructing Iraq: Year Three Begins: Two years after the US mission in there was declared "accomplished," mayhem reigns in Iraq. By Tom Engelhardt.

Budget shell game

| Fri Mar. 18, 2005 4:48 PM EST

In the Washington Post today, E.J. Dionne has a must-read column about, of all things, arcane budget details. Republicans in the House and Senate are trying to fiddle with their schedules so that they don't have to consider tax cuts and spending cuts at the same time—precisely so that the two don't get linked in the public eye. The reasoning goes like this: tax cuts get made because, well, that's what happens, and then much later on, spending cuts must be made because of that huge, yawning deficit that somehow magically appeared out of nowhere. It's a neat trick, and this way the trade-off between dividend tax cuts for investors on the one hand, and cuts in health care for low-income mothers and children on the other, never gets made explicit.

Meanwhile, Mark Schmitt points out the odd hypocrisy of some of the so-called "responsible Republicans" who are voting for free tax cuts one moment, but then refuse any unpopular spending cuts the next. Precisely where do they think the money comes from?

Criticizing the Arab media

| Fri Mar. 18, 2005 4:15 PM EST

The pseudonymous Abu Aardvark has an important essay today about the Bush administration's criticisms of the Arab media. It's crucial to note that many of the Arab media stations that are most helpful for promoting reform throughout the Middle East—like Al Jazeerah—are usually the ones targeted by the United States for expressing "anti-American" views. Of course, the whole point of free and healthy dialogue is that sometimes unpopular things get said, but that point seems to be lost on the White House.

At any rate, Abu Aardvark notes that the net effect of such criticism is that, paradoxically, it promotes the essentially anti-democratic media voices that are largely controlled by Arab despots:

The vast majority of the Arab media remains in state hands… and those regimes will probably do what America tells them and clamp down on their own media. Most of the Arab satellite television stations… are becoming copies of [the American-sponsored] Al Hurra - indeed, he argues, "we do not exaggerate if we say that the margin of freedom on al Hurra is wider than in most of its Arab counterparts." The American ambassadors in Arab capitals are becoming the real censors and editorial advisers for most of the Arab media, he argues, pointing out how American embassies have filed complaints when these stations have hosted guests who expressed anti-American views…

Atwan [an editorial writer] continues with these troubling words: America "is rivaling the dictators of the Arab world in its repression of competing opinions, and in its financing of television stations to distort the truth, and in funding propaganda and false news reports."

Rest assured, people in the Middle East are noticing, and the whole affair ends up blunting the effect of all that pro-democracy rhetoric tossed around by the White House. This isn't something that can be fixed simply by trotting out a better public relations campaign; the actual policies at work here—not to mention our hazy understanding of Arab media—are the primary problem.

Medicaid saved... for now

| Thu Mar. 17, 2005 4:49 PM EST

Round of applause for Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR) for leading the charge and passing a budget amendment shielding Medicaid—which provides health care for low-income mothers, children, and seniors—from cuts, at least for the time being.

I've talked about this before, but here are the quick facts: Medicaid's costs aren't rising any more rapidly than health care in general, it's one of the most cost-effective ways to cover some of the most vulnerable Americans, and it's become more expensive over the past few years mostly due to expanded enrollment—thanks to the awful job market—and not because of "inefficiency" or "waste." Again, kudos to all those Republicans who voted sensibly here.

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Is Afghanistan in danger?

| Thu Mar. 17, 2005 3:18 PM EST

Small-but-important news item: Afghanistan is delaying its parliamentary elections once again, this time until September:

The government and its international backers have also argued for a delay to allow for more time to disarm irregular militias and reduce the influence of the so-called jihadi, or Islamic militant, parties and of powerful regional commanders. International peacekeepers from the 5,000-strong, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force ruled out elections in July or August, when there will be a change of command.

Afghanistan's initial presidential election went smoothly, mainly because there was a good deal of shrewd horse-trading among the country's various warlords, and a wide consensus cropped up around current president Hamid Karzai. As a result, minor discrepancies in the polls didn't really matter all that much—it wasn't like Karzai's victory was ever in serious doubt.

The parliamentary elections, by contrast, should be far, far more contentious, since every vote counts, and many observers worry that they'll only grant legitimacy to the regional rule of the various Afghan warlords, who will be much better organized and able to influence the election than anyone else. Understandably, then, the government wants to disarm those militias before they enter politics and cement their rule once and for all, but the catch is that disarmament hasn't gone well thus far. (Polls show that Afghans consider the still-feuding warlords a greater threat to peace than the now-marginalized Taliban.)

Meanwhile, this was a while ago, but it's worth noting that Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is moving to Iraq, where he'll replace Ambassador John Negroponte. Odd move, since by all accounts Khalilzad has done very well in Afghanistan, though he's been criticized for meddling too heavily in Afghan affairs. Meanwhile, I've heard it suggested that Iraqis will sniff at receiving an envoy from a "less-important" country like Afghanistan, but whether they'll actually feel disrespected is anyone's guess. More significantly, though, Khalilzad had the ear of the White House, and was fairly adept at getting people to pay more attention to Afghanistan. Perhaps not the best of moves at a time when Afghanistan's future still remains quite precarious.

The joys of self-interest

Thu Mar. 17, 2005 2:38 PM EST

I think we can all agree that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people who would make a better candidate for World Bank president than Paul Wolfowitz. But, this doesn't necessarily mean a doom and gloom scenario for the future of world poverty. Wolfowitz, in his initial interview since the nomination, pushed a humble, ready-to-listen approach to the Bank job: "I know that in this job, I would be working for them as members of the Bank. I think they'll find me a good listener, and I know I have a lot that I need to hear and understand."

He's no humanitarian, but Wolfowitz may have something many humanitarians don't: a distinctly selfish drive. Wolfowitz today told the AP>, "I really believe in the mission of the bank, which is reducing poverty. It's a noble mission and a matter of enlightened self-interest." If our new World Bank president is noting the concrete connection between the safety and prosperity of the United States and the reduction of poverty worldwide, things might not be as bad as they seem. Perhaps this acknowledgment of self-interest will induce Wolfowitz to push poverty reduction that extra mile. And, if it doesn't, at least we can selfishly enjoy one less neo-con in the Pentagon.

Measuring the grassroots

| Thu Mar. 17, 2005 1:39 PM EST

ABC's The Note reports that the AFL-CIO, the large umbrella group for organized labor, is using its clout to push financial service firms away from phasing out Social Security:

Previous AFL-CIO protests led two firms, Waddell and Reed and Edwards Jones, to drop out of the Alliance for Worker Retirement Security, which is linked closely with the Business Roundtable and the Chamber of Commerce's efforts to promote personal retirement accounts. AWRS is funded in part by the Security Industries Association.

This is to some extent of course a publicity stunt, but it will probably be somewhat effective because these companies don't like the publicity and take pains already to distance themselves from endorsing any particular Social Security reform legislation.

AFL-CIO's biggest targets are Wachovia, with its millions of every-day customers, and Charles Schwab with its legions of small investors. They hope that by linking Schwab's name with Social Security privatization in the press, Schwab will disaffiliate from AWRS. Same thing with Wachovia. The marches will also target the credit card company MBNA and insurances companies who aren't part of the coalition but who have expressed support for personal accounts, like Cigna, MetLife and Prudential. …

The AFL-CIO's clout here is somewhat unusual for an organization in decline, but the President's allies haven't found a way to combat this particular tactic yet.

Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about the Social Security battle is that, unlike in any number of other battles, the Republicans don't have a populist group ready to battle hard for phase-out. This New York Times article yesterday claimed that "both sides" were planning "extensive grassroots efforts," but I didn't see mention of anything substantive from the phase-out side of the debate, besides a few groups planning immature smear campaigns against seniors.

Evangelical groups have never been particularly keen on doing away with the program, and the larger business groups would just as soon not draw attention to themselves. As best I can tell, this website is the GOP clearing-house for grassroots efforts, and it's not any more impressive than MoveOn.org or other progressive "netroots" movements. On the other side, the unions and AARP have been doing very impressive work of late.

Booing Congress

| Thu Mar. 17, 2005 1:09 PM EST

Now this is an interesting poll finding: Only 37 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is handling itself, a lower number than at any point since the Republicans impeached Bill Clinton. Seems like a plum time for the Democrats to start conducting their little "reform insurgency," as the DLC likes to call it.