Mojo - June 2005

What Does Darfur Need?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2005 4:55 PM EDT

Mark Goldberg has one of the best takes on Darfur I've read in quite a while. There may not be a perfect solution for the region, as many have long argued. Indeed, stopping the genocide altogether might well take more troops and manpower than is either operationally feasible or politically realistic. But that said, there are a lot of good intermediate steps that could be taken to ease the catastrophe there—and the Bush administration is far, far from exhausting those possibilities.

Meanwhile, much has been made of Bush's recent decision to call what's going on in Darfur by its true name: genocide. But calling the crisis in Sudan "genocide" and then failing to act does nothing but cheapen the term, and ensures that future dictators will have reason to believe that they too can get away with massacring entire populations in the name of putting down a few rebel groups. Honestly, I never thought I'd pine for the days when conservatives were obsessed with the deterrent value of punishment.

UPDATE: See also Eugene Oregon, who argues that the mere credible threat of intervention in Darfur could force Khartoum to reign in its janjaweed militias. I don't know if that's true in this specific instance, but the general point is quite sound. If the international community was credibly committed to stopping genocide in all its forms, and never tolerated regimes that massacre civilians, then you'd be less likely to see the sort of thing that's happening in Sudan from even starting up. Likewise, a committed response to Darfur would not only stop the current genocide, but could deter genocides of the future. But that's not the international community we have, or the response we're getting, and so now there's little reason for any dictator to think twice about starting up genocide if need be.

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Where's the Consistency?

| Fri Jun. 3, 2005 2:13 PM EDT

Over at Democracy Arsenal, Michael Signer thinks through the logic of the Bush administration's approach to North Korea and wonders why we aren't considering military options against Kim Jong Il in the same way that we did during Saddam Hussein. Now I don't at all agree with Signer that we always need to have "some consistency to our foreign policy"—I'm perfectly happy with taking countries and crises on a case-by-case basis, and would warn against getting caught up in one single approach to every problem.

Nevertheless, it's a decent question: why is the military option off the table with respect to North Korea? Certainly there's concern about the country's 500 artillery tubes pointed at Seoul. Kim Jong Il could wreak havoc in the region if he wanted to. But it's often forgotten that in 1994, when North Korea was wavering on IAEA access to two of its nuclear facilities, the Clinton administration threatened military action against North Korea, pouring equipment and missiles into the country and drawing up plans to strike the nuclear facilities in Yongbyon. Robert Galluci, the chief American negotiator at the time, has said that the buildup was "essential" to getting North Korea to compromise. Meanwhile, it's not as if the risks of a strike against North Korea would be much more deadly than what we thought the risks of war against Iraq would be at the time. But despite all this, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said back in 2003 that the White House has not drawn up any "red lines" against North Korea. That's not to say we should be amassing troops along the border, but it's certainly worth asking how such a hawkish administration continues to insist on such a dovish position.

Here's one answer. Over at Duck of Minerva, a new foreign policy blog, Daniel Nexon points to a new paper suggesting that the White House got itself "discursively entangled" into negotiating with North Korea. In other words, rhetoric matters, and our early warmongering rhetoric against Iraq basically constrained our options and led to war—indeed, we often heard that it would be impossible for the United States to "back down" once we had amassed so many troops in neighboring Kuwait in early 2003—while the administration's cautious rhetoric against North Korea has led to yet more caution. That may be true. The problem here is that the White House hasn't yet established a norm of actually negotiating. What it's established is a pattern of rhetorical saber-rattling, from which it can't back down, coupled with an operative policy of not actually setting red-lines and allowing North Korea to do whatever it wants, from which it also can't seem to back down or change course.

Basically, the theory goes, the White House has got itself stuck on a particular foreign policy track and, perhaps because the president is so unwilling to make mistakes, can't change course. Now that's a bit odd since Bush may be stubborn, but the White House is perfectly able to change course on domestic issues. Bush was against Homeland Security before he was for it, for instance. And he even shifted his stance on China early in his presidential career—he was adamantly against apologizing for our downed spy plane in 2001, remember, before he was for it. So why can't Bush change course and start negotiating with North Korea—and I mean seriously negotiating, not waiting for China to take charge, which, as Joshua Kurlantzick reports, will probably never happen. It's a bit of a mystery, and the best explanations probably involve a mixture of indecision, infighting among foreign policy principles in the administration, and outright incompetence.

Class Struggle

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 5:39 PM EDT

Robert Gordon's cover story in this week's New Republic, about No Child Left Behind, really sums up nicely a lot of things we've been saying for awhile. Yes, yes, the act's far from perfect, and it is true that it needs better funding. But the overall goals of the act—from nationwide standards to accountability to an increased focus on minority students—are extremely laudable, and liberals too often lose sight of that when lambasting the Bush administration on education. The anti-NCLB trend that Gordon notices is nothing short of disturbing:

Resistance to federal power is now a progressive rallying cry in education. Democrats at the National Conference of State Legislatures recently helped draft a bipartisan report charging that NCLB infringes upon states' Tenth Amendment rights. Most Utah Democrats supported a new state law jeopardizing $76 million in aid to poor students on the grounds that the state's own assessment system should have priority over NCLB. But that state system does not even exist today; the real question, as the law's lead sponsor asked, was, "At what price is our sovereignty for sale?" The National Education Association (NEA) is now suing Washington for forcing states to spend more money on education. Connecticut's Democratic attorney general, Richard Blumenthal, has praised the suit and threatened to bring one of his own….

Thanks to NCLB, many schools are now offering those students help they desperately need. If the NEA's suit prevails in court, it won't even yield more money; it will just yield precedents limiting federal power and enable states to ignore the law's demands. That would be sad: One of the NEA's plaintiffs told The New York Times that NCLB had forced her district to offer longer school days and Saturday classes for low-achieving students. Progressives should celebrate that fact, not complain about it.

Other proposals from the left would dash inner-city hopes to placate suburban anxieties. Many parents at better schools now worry that rote "teaching to the test" has crowded out better teaching. Much of that problem could be addressed by spending more on complex assessments worth teaching to. That would preserve the accountability so critical in the worst schools, which, at least now, are teaching to something. Yet many progressives, including state legislators and Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd, would allow student performance to be counterbalanced by academic indicators of states' choosing. In some iterations, these measures could include parental satisfaction or student attendance. This regime would replace the clear demand for student achievement with a malleable nonstandard. It would be fine for most students in Greenwich, but a step backward for Bridgeport and New Haven.

This sort of thing really needs to stop—and indeed, one perverse effect here is that much of the carping is undermining parent and teacher support for NCLB, which only increases the chance of failure. As Gordon notes, the answer to too much "teaching to the test" isn't to end all accountability, and shrink back into our decentralized school-control shells, but to create better tests. Today's New York Times has a good bit of reporting on how standards and accountability have reaped positive gains in New York City. That's the sort of thing that should always be embraced, period.

Meanwhile, Gordon suggests that liberals ought to focus more on improving teacher quality. Agreed. I was always rather surprised that John Kerry never made more hay over his excellent plan to institute pay-for-performance standards for teachers in underserved areas. It's a genuinely good idea, and as Gordon notes, many of the worries about "arbitrary merit bonuses" on this issue are a bit overblown—teachers would be evaluated just like employees at many other companies, all across the nation, are evaluated. That's no terrible thing, especially if it comes with an overall hike in pay and assurances that the most talented teachers will get ahead. Fortunately, some liberal think tanks, like the Center for American Progress, are starting to hop on this bandwagon—let's just hope they stay with it rather than succumbing to NCLB-bashing all for the sake of scoring points against the White House. There are a million of other Bush initiatives to roast alive; this one should be treated with more caution.

UPDATE: Of course, no one wants to go too far in the other direction. Teach and Learn worries that Democratic education reformers concerned with performance could grow too intolerant of teacher's unions. Good cautionary note.

Big Tobacco Marches On

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 4:45 PM EDT

Speaking of perverse incentives, there's a fascinating Washington Times piece today about how large tobacco companies have used court settlements to their advantage and muscled out small businesses:

Critics say the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement has not turned out as expected as big players accused of wrongdoing wound up with market protections while small businesses were forced to pay up….

Under the deal, the big cigarette companies agreed to restrict their marketing, fund stop-smoking efforts and make annual payments to the states for 25 years.

But attorneys on both sides knew the large companies would raise cigarette prices to make their payments, so they built in protections to prevent companies outside the agreement from taking too much market share.

The states that are enforcing these protections argue that yes, maybe it's sad that smaller tobacco companies are getting squeezed out of the business, but the ultimate effect here is to reduce cigarette consumption. Of course, the counterargument here is that so long as a number of large tobacco companies have unduly large wealth and influence, the prospects for further tobacco regulation will continue to look bleak, both now and in the future. On the other, other hand, regulations on smoking—from advertising restrictions to bans on smoking in bars—seem to be picking up in recent years regardless. Basically, it's hard to say whether Big Tobacco's beating a retreat or still charging strong.

Things That Need to Be Said

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 4:35 PM EDT

Astarte lays it down: "In California, while our lawmakers wrestle with legislation to ban video game sales to minors – something that many, many retailers ALREADY DO, our children can't go to the libraries at their schools and check out books because the schools can't afford to staff librarians." She also notes something interesting while taking a stroll through the history of great Democrats who like to make a fuss about censoring silly stuff. The 'G' rating for movies, as we know, denotes good, clean fun. It also denotes the sort of movie that no one ever wants to go see. As a result, filmmakers have incentive to sprinkle in a bit of violence, or sex, or swearing, just to bump up to a PG rating and boost sales. Fair warning to be careful before you get into high dudgeon over "offensive" media.

Chris Cox, Powder Keg

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 2:17 PM EDT

Oops! So much for corporate accountability! Think Progress has the goods on Bush's nomination for chairman of the SEC, Chris Cox who, not surprisingly, is soft on fraud. My very short take on this is that good corporate governance relies on sound rules and regulations only up to a certain point; ultimately, though, it depends on the personal integrity of the people in management and those sitting on the Board of Directors of a given firm. Even the most vigilant of SEC chairmen is unlikely to prevent a CEO who really, really wants to trash investor wealth and screw over employees from doing so. On the other hand, rules and regulations aren't meaningless, either, and Cox's history of gutting safeguards against fraud is, to put it mildly, deplorable.

One other note, and this gets down to dirty, dirty politics—although it's grounded firmly in virtue! Democrats won't, but if they knew what was good for them, they would make a colossal fuss about this during the confirmation hearings. The fact remains that corporate governance issues have the potential to rend the GOP right down the middle. According to the latest Pew poll, 88 percent of social conservatives and 83 percent of "pro-government" conservatives think that "too much power is concentrated in the hands of a few large companies." That's a good chunk of the Republican base right there. On the other hand, as Noam Scheiber recently noted, pro-business Republicans are getting awfully sick of social conservatives stealing the show and hijacking Bush's agenda. In fact, the Republican business community has gotten very little of its wish list ticked off thus far—no Social Security phase-out, no tort "reform", no tax reform. Chris Cox is one of the few bones that President Bush can throw them at this point. There's a lot of tension here just waiting to be exploited by a bloody confirmation hearing.

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A Variable Minimum Wage?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 1:57 PM EDT

Over at the newly-opened TPMCafe, Senator John Edwards is talking about raising the minimum wage. As he should be. We've done posts before on why the minimum wage should be raised (here, here) and why it needs to be done in conjunction with the Earned Income Tax Credit (here), but one of Edward's commenters brings up another very good point: An effective minimum wage would vary from community to community, based on area food and rent costs. That certainly makes sense—a decent living wage in Manhattan, KS, wouldn't get you very far here in San Francisco—and it doesn't seem like the implementation should be all that difficult. The danger, of course, is that businesses would start shifting around to avoid high wages, but I'm not sure how big of an effect that would be, since there are certainly other reasons to sit a business in, say, San Francisco besides the minimum wage levels. (Besides, if enough businesses left a given area, rents would go down, so wages would go down and then businesses would move back in…) Something to consider.

Worse Than Watergate?

| Thu Jun. 2, 2005 11:53 AM EDT

With Watergate back in the news, it's time to dust off a video interview we did just before the 2004 election with John Dean, special counsel to Richard Nixon from 1970 to '73. Dean's book, "Worse Than Watergate," argues that the current Bush administration makes Nixon's gang look like a bunch of spineless moderates, lacking the full courage of their corruption. Take it away, John Dean:

I barely recognize the Republican Party today. In the Republican Party that I was active in, it was really a party of moderation. What I think the party is dominated by now is a radical philosophy.

This is a good government issue, not a right-left, Republican versus Democrat [issue]. Therefore in the book, I cite one Republican after the other who are complaining about Bush's secrecy. Now these people don't think this is good Republican politics, they don't think it's good conservative politics; they think it's bad government. ...

I wouldn't use the title, "Worse than Watergate," if I didn't truly believe that what's happening in this presidency is far worse than anything that did happen during the Nixon presidency.

And he should know. Watch the full, 10-minute interview here, and pine for Richard Nixon.

"Polarizing Trade"

| Wed Jun. 1, 2005 3:03 PM EDT

Over at Tom Paine, Harley Shaiken says something that badly needs to be said: much opposition to CAFTA simply isn't a case of "protectionism" vs. "free trade." (Although some is.) Indeed, it's perfectly possible to make a free trade case against CAFTA. But I like these closing paragraphs:

The issue is not free trade versus protectionism, but "smart trade" versus "polarizing trade." Smart trade creates balanced development, while polarizing trade rewards a small circle of winners at the expense of the many.

Smart trade requires two key provisions: core labor rights, backed up by tough enforcement and a development fund targeting infrastructure and education to boost competitiveness. DR-CAFTA does neither. Instead, it condemns Central America to carry its dismal past far into the future. Rejecting it opens the possibility for freer markets and faster income growth in Central America, as well as healthier democracies.

Rising Stakes of Job Loss

| Wed Jun. 1, 2005 1:56 PM EDT

This came out last week, but the Economic Policy Institute recently took a look at the unemployment picture in America today and concluded that it was different in both degree and kind from previous recovery periods. In particular, more and more people are kept out of the job market over the long term: one in five of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or more. Meanwhile, women are representing an increasing share of the long-term jobless, far more than in previous recoveries, which means that this also becomes a problem for families—especially those headed by single mothers.

At a certain point, the ravages of unemployment cease to be a pure economic issue and starts becoming a policy issue. After six months, most workers have exhausted their unemployment benefits and start to rack up debt and/or tap into their retirement savings. (Which is why Social Security is still so damn important, even in the modern economy; one might say especially in the modern economy.) EPI recommends, at the bare minimum, an automatic extension of unemployment benefits under certain economic conditions. The longer term challenge, though, will be to figure out why this recovery has lagged so much compared to previous ones; no one seems to have figured that out yet—though Barry Ritholz has offered a variety of potential explanations here.