Mojo - June 2005

SCOTUS Replacements?

| Fri Jun. 24, 2005 4:12 PM EDT

Emily Bazelon and David Newman have a rundown of possible Bush nominees to the Supreme Court, should either William Rehnquist or Sandra Day O'Connor retire next week, as is expected.

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Sheer Insanity

| Fri Jun. 24, 2005 2:23 PM EDT

So at long, long last House Republicans have put forward an actual "plan" for Social Security, and lo, it does nothing, absolutely nothing, to address the "problem" that President Bush claims is going to crush this country under a swarming mass of senior citizens:

For six months, Republicans have traveled the country as fiscal Paul Reveres, sounding the alarm about the coming collapse of Social Security. Polls showed that although voters did not warm to President Bush's proposed solution, he made substantial headway in convincing them the retirement system is headed for insolvency.

But when House leaders finally rolled out their Social Security plan this week, it did nothing to address the problem that lawmakers and the president have convinced the public is looming as baby boomers retire.

You can read the gritty details of the House bill here. The main thing to keep in mind is that this McCrery-Shaw plan would expand deficits in the short term without even pretending to fix the long-term shortfall that Bush keeps hammering away on. As Chief Actuary Stephen Goss says, "The total debt held by the public is increased indefinitely." Indefinitely! It's not a serious solution. It's not even sane. The only possible purpose of passing such a thing, that I can see, would be to turn Social Security into such a debt-ridden morass that voters finally get sick of it some 10-15 years down the road and ask for the whole system to be abolished. But even that seems unlikely. No, I honestly can't understand why even the House GOP would even try to pass such insanity, unless the whole game here is to put forward a proposal so crazy that it gets Democrats to think, "Oh my god they're going to destroy the country," and hence forces them to come to the negotiating table.

And yet somehow, pundits are still insisting that Democrats need to come up with their own plan for saving Social Security. No. There is no problem with Social Security—it's plain that even the Republicans believe this, otherwise they'd be putting forward a serious proposal for fixing that problem. So the proper thing to do is to do nothing and go attend to more serious issues like health care or the soon-to-be-accelerating general budget deficit, and not, as the GOP House leaders would like to do, smash apart and destroy Social Security.

Update: The Middleman

| Fri Jun. 24, 2005 1:26 PM EDT

Back in April, as part of a joint investigation by Mother Jones, Frontline/World and the Center for Investigative Reporting, Mark Schapiro reported on Asher Karni, a "genius" in South Africa's military electronics trade, now in jail in Brooklyn awaiting sentence for orchestrating a nuclear black market deal. (See The Middleman.)

Schapiro recently spoke by phone with Karni's collaborator, Humayun Khan, an Islamabad businessman with close ties to the Pakistani military. In the interview, Khan, who has been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department but remains at large in Pakistan, protests his innocence but eventually admits that all the evidence "is pointing right at me." Listen to the phone interview at Frontline/World (where you can also read email exchanges between Karni and Khan in which the Pakistani, known as "the Guru," asks Karni to purchase items prohibited under nonproliferation laws.) This story is developing by the week, so stay tuned.

Eminent Domain

| Thu Jun. 23, 2005 6:05 PM EDT

Today the Supreme Court handed down its decision on Kelo vs. New London—the "eminent domain" case—ruling that local governments can use eminent domain to acquire property for private development, so long as it's in the public interest. For background, read Gary Greenberg's article on eminent domain from the January/February issue of Mother Jones, as well as Erik Kancler's defense of eminent domain from our online edition.

North Korea Clown Show

| Thu Jun. 23, 2005 5:20 PM EDT

Speaking of proliferation, Jeffrey Lewis of ArmsControlWonk has a long post dealing with the Bush administration's fractured and jumbled North Korea policy. As various news outlets have reported, the administration appears too wracked by disagreement and infighting to settle on a single course of action to stop North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons—although the oft-unmentioned elephant in the room here is the fact that it's the president's job to sort out these disagreements, and he, apparently, isn't up to the task.

The other explanation, though, is that the president is personally against negotiating with Kim Jong Il. Yes, the administration is now demanding new talks. On the other hand, Kim has told numerous sources he would return to the table only if the United States gave assurances that it wouldn't attack North Korea. For its part, the White House has gone out of its way to avoid declaring that it has "no hostile intent"—the three magic words Kim's looking for—towards the regime. Now that's all well and good, and Bush's steadfast refusal to limit his options or appease dictators is an admirable character trait, etc., etc., but it's not like there are a whole lot of other options here. Is the White House waiting for North Korea to collapse? Neither South Korea nor China would allow any such thing to happen. Is the president planning on attacking North Korea? Keep in mind that the Atlantic Monthly recently war-gamed this scenario and determined that in the best case, 100,000 people would be killed in the first few days.

But so long as the White House refuses to negotiate, that seems to be the working plan. As Lewis says, "I am beginning to understand how the Bush Administration is creating an impressive cadre of Republicans who think their policy is fucked."

70 Percent Chance of Attack...

| Thu Jun. 23, 2005 2:10 PM EDT

Sen. Richard Lugar's (R-IN) office has just released a new report on proliferation that makes some massively important points. The most eye-opening stat here is that a survey of proliferation experts suggested that the chances of a WMD attack on a city somewhere in the world—radiological, nuclear, biological, chemical—could be as much as 70 percent over the next ten years. Obviously the plural of opinion isn't fact, but 70 percent is pretty appallingly high, no? Meanwhile, those same experts say we can expect about two to five countries to join the nuclear weapons club over the next ten years—they don't say which countries, but it's safe to assume that the Bush administration won't stop Iran and North Korea from arming, and I've got a hunch that we might well see Saudi Arabia, Japan, and possibly even Taiwan in that club.

Meanwhile, those proliferation experts are more or less in consensus on what is to be done here: strengthen arms control treaties, boost funding for the Nunn-Lugar initiative to destroy "loose" Russian nukes, placing controls on nuclear fuel cycles, etc. etc. Most of which has not been done, although now that John Bolton's out of the State Department there have been a few encouraging steps. Oh, and they all think it would sure be nice to try and stop Iran and North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons, although the White House's utter inability even to talk to Pyongyang makes the latter a non-starter. Now the policy recommendations here are all eye-glazing stuff, it's truel; perhaps not nearly as exciting for Karl Rove as, say, accusing one-third of the country of treason. Still, nuclear proliferation's almost as big a threat to our country as Dick Durbin—lest we forget, President Bush did claim it as his number one priority during the presidential debates—and as always, it would be awfully swell if someone in charge was thinking seriously about this stuff.

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Al-Jazeerah Once More

| Wed Jun. 22, 2005 7:58 PM EDT

No interest in talking about Dick Durbin anymore, sorry, but I do want to highlight a comment found over at Instapundit by one of our typically "clever" conservative friends:

The damage is done, and al-Jazeera isn't likely to tout Dickie's retraction with much vigor.

The idea here, as is common around conservative parts, is that al-Jazeerah, in its never-ending quest to undercut and undermine the United States, went full throttle with Durbin's original Gitmo remarks, but won't air the apology. The slander here—that al-Jazeerah exists solely to support a vast network of anti-American insurgents and terrorists—is fairly brainless. Look at recent events: Marc Lynch points out here that al-Jazeerah was earlier playing up an offhand comment by Condoleeza Rice giving support to protestors in Egypt. Lynch also has an account here of a recent al-Jazeerah show in which various scholars and thinkers were invited to respond to and criticize the latest video from al-Qaeda's #2, Ayman al-Zawihiri.

What we have here, of course, is a (mostly) free press and lively political debate going on, exactly the sort of thing that's going to spur dialogue and reform around the Middle East. Now it's understandable that the right-wingers who would prefer not to have an open debate about Guantanamo here at home also despise al-Jazeerah for doing the same thing abroad, but they could at least be open and honest about what they're objecting to. The idea that al-Jazeerah is in bed with Islamic terrorism just doesn't stand up—especially in light of news like this.

Gender Wage Gap Revisited

| Wed Jun. 22, 2005 5:50 PM EDT

"Give me a break," John Stossel quips about the difference in wages between men and women. There's no sexism here, he claims, citing a new book on the subject, it's all about choices:

"Women themselves say they're far more likely to care about flexibility," says author Warren Farrell. "Men say, I'm far more likely to care about money." … His research found that the wage gap exists not because of sexism, but because more men are willing to do certain kinds of jobs.

Well gee, I wonder why women need to be more concerned about flexibility when thinking about jobs. Surely not because they don't get much support raising children, eh? And surely not because this country has wholly inadequate provisions for family leave. No, surely not. At any rate, Farrell may well be right that the wage gap isn't due to gender discrimination—I haven't read his book—although here's an in-depth look at the issue that argues that the wage gap persists even after one accounts for all the usually-cited factors: job choice, hours worked, etc. etc. That's very much worth a read. And even if Farrell's right that job preferences account for the gap, it's unlikely that this is because men are somehow "hardwired" to care more about money. The modern workplace, especially in the United States, isn't exactly accomodating for women who want to try to raise a family. And pregnancy discrimination is still very much alive and kicking. Now Stossel claims that this is all "just." But presumably he believes that the country also needs children if it wants to, you know, not run out of people. Ah, therein lies the problem.

The Corruptible "Free Market"

| Wed Jun. 22, 2005 3:47 PM EDT

The Washington Post has a front-page report on the growing number of lobbyists thronging the nation's capital. But here's an important passage that, I think, misleads:

In the 1990s, lobbying was largely reactive. Corporations had to fend off proposals that would have restricted them or cost them money. But with pro-business officials running the executive and legislative branches, companies are also hiring well-placed lobbyists to go on the offensive and find ways to profit from the many tax breaks, loosened regulations and other government goodies that increasingly are available.

"People in industry are willing to invest money because they see opportunities here," said Patrick J. Griffin, who was President Bill Clinton's top lobbyist and is now in private practice. "They see that they can win things, that there's something to be gained. Washington has become a profit center."

Judging from the way the Post tells it, the story goes like this: In the good old noble days—i.e. the 1990s—corporations and other business groups were simply interested in preserving the "free market" and fending off those meddlesome government regulators and pesky bureaucrats. But now, alas, businesses have abandoned their good old conservative ways and have decided that taxpayer dollars are just one big cookie jar to be raided as quickly and as greedily as possible. Whereas once we had free markets, now we have businesses strewn about, pale and withered, hooked on corporate welfare and hiring legions of lobbyists to help them get another fix.

It's a depressing little tragedy, but it's also not entirely true. There was never a hallowed time when business interests were just trying to avoid the burden of government regulation and enjoy the free market. They've always, since the dawn of time, viewed Washington as a "profit center," where they can "win things," where there's "something to be gained."

Take the oil industry. Oil executives, Dick Cheney among them, love to rail nowadays against government regulation and/or funding for alternative energy sources, arguing that if an industry can't earn its way in the marketplace, it doesn't deserve to live. Sadly, that was never true for the oil industry: government, not markets, created oil's success. As Paul Sabin has described in Crude Politics, the oil boom essentially started when the federal government started granting oil rights to whoever can reach it from their lands. Fearing that their neighbors would start slant drilling, owners of oil-lots tried to pump out as much oil as they could reach from their land as quickly as they could, thus flooding the market with cheap crude. Low prices and thin profit margins then spurred oil industry leaders in the 1930s to beg the California government to set statewide production limits, which were granted. They clamored for tax breaks on drilling; granted. Meanwhile, vast government spending on highways ensured that demand for oil would continue to rise. (Not to mention the hundreds of billions we now spend stabilizing oil-producing regions of the world.) Washington has long been a "profit center" for the industry. Corporate handouts have always been with us.

This is why the so-called Gingrich "revolution" in 1994 was always a fraud. That fresh generation of conservative Republicans—who claimed to champion free markets and small, out-of-the-way governments—simply didn't understand how business works. Industries have always thrived off heavy-handed regulations and government intervention, and so long as businesses exist, lobbyists will flood the capital. It's not that the GOP philosophy of government has been "corrupted" by high-spenders and corporate welfare hounds like George Bush and Tom DeLay; that philosophy was corruptible right from the start. What we're seeing now is, sadly, the only logical conclusion to "free market" conservatism.

Frist's Legacy

| Wed Jun. 22, 2005 1:17 PM EDT

Josh Marshall's mocking Bill Frist, which is always fun. Reading through his posts, though, I sometimes wonder if the Democrats—no, add the whole country here—might have been better off if they had never ousted Trent Lott from his Senate Majority Leader spot in late 2002. After all, the fact that new figurehead Frist owed his job to Karl Rove ushered in an era in which the Senate GOP became a faceless extension of the president's will and command, refusing to compromise with the minority party, and passing bills that reward key campaign contributors. Lott, for all his warts, would have never let that happen, at least not to the degree we're seeing now.

Frist's incompetence as a leader, meanwhile, and his inability to get much of the Republican "agenda" passed, seems to have driven the Senate GOP into such a fury that the party gave up the business of governing and decided instead to transform itself into a non-stop campaigning machine. Frist couldn't get an energy bill through Congress back in 2004, so the GOP decided that the solution was to bring up gay marriage and flag-burning votes to try to trap the Democrats. Frist couldn't get leaders to agree on a budget that year, so votes were manipulated to play "gotcha" games with Kerry and Edwards. Frist can't get John Bolton confirmed, so Republicans have taken to attacking Dick Durbin for speaking out on torture. And so on. On a substantive level, I can't imagine either party prefers this state of affairs—though Republicans might enjoy the election-day victories and cheap point-scoring that come with it.