Mojo - July 2005

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.)

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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.

Signs of Withdrawal?

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 6:26 PM EDT

John Burns' New York Times piece on Iraq's slow slide into civil war had this tidbit near the end: "Despite these gloomy trends, American commanders have continued to hint at the possibility of at least an initial reduction of the 140,000 American troops stationed here by next summer, contingent on progress in creating effective Iraqi units. Some senior officers have said privately that there is a chance that the pullback will be ordered regardless of what is happening in the war, and that the rationale will be that Iraq - its politicians and its warriors - will ultimately have to find ways of overcoming their divides on their own." Meanwhile, Helena Cobban argues that the U.S. should be doing just that, although she's quite clearly wrong when she suggests that the U.S. wouldn't be morally responsible for the inevitable post-withdrawal bloodbath.

More on the AFL-CIO Split

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 6:19 PM EDT

Kim Fellner's essay on the split in the labor movement is very much worth reading. As is this piece by David Moberg, an editor at In These Times.

Rumsfeld's Revolution

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 3:29 PM EDT

Paul Light of Brookings takes a closer look at Donald Rumsfeld's "military transformation" project and concludes that the transformation is actually coming along better than people think, despite considerable obstacles, and Rumsfeld really is transforming the Pentagon's vast bureaucratic structure into something more agile, more able to adapt to threats of the future, and whatnot. I'll leave it to Fred Kaplan to explain why this might not actually be the case. For now, just a small nitpick.

Most of Light's examples to bolster his argument consist of dry personnel details—the number of senior executives has fallen from 361 to 284, for instance—but then there's a bit on private contracting. "Why is the Defense Department," asked Rumsfeld, "one of the last organizations that still cuts its own checks?" The idea is that outsourcing various tasks—like setting up camps or cooking meals—will free up soldiers to do fighting and other more important jobs. Fair enough, but no one seems to know whether outsourcing these tasks actually saves money. Contractors like KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, tend to operate on a "cost-plus" contract, meaning that they get covered for all expenses plus a guaranteed profit, so they have little incentive to keep things as efficient as possible. And the military often must pay extra for security and insurance, as they have in Iraq. Meanwhile, Peter Singer has discussed the various problems with relying to heavily on private contractors to do military tasks. That's not to say that private contractors are never a good idea, but the generally unquestioned sense that outsourcing is an inherently more "modern," and hence more efficient, way of doing business seems in need of a bit more scrutiny.

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Leave a Senator, Come Back a Lobbyist

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:54 PM EDT

According to Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post, former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists are exercising supreme power in Washington D.C. these days, especially since, unlike mere mortal lobbyists, they have the power to go anywhere they want in Capitol Hill. It's gotten to the point where lesser lobbyists, along with the usual good-government advocates, want to curtail their power. Russ Feingold wants to prevent former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from roving around the capital. But it's not likely to pass for obvious reasons: "The reason is pure self-interest. With each new election, more and more lawmakers retire early to join the lobbying ranks. So why would they throw away a commercial advantage?"

Civilian Deaths in Iraq

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:28 PM EDT

Jim Henley seems very right about this. In an effort to protect themselves from getting blown up, U.S. troops in Iraq have increasingly found themselves firing on unarmed civilians as a precautionary measure. Now in one sense, that's understandable. In another sense, it pretty clearly plays into the hands of Iraqi insurgents who want to drive a wedge between the broader population and their military occupiers. Meanwhile, it seems that the British troops in the south haven't made force protection nearly as high a priority as the American troops have, and as a result have gotten themselves entangled in fewer firing-on-civilian incidents. On the other hand, most reports seem to indicate that the South is less violent overall, in part because Shiite thugs and militiamen "keep the peace" and assassinate any Sunnis who get out of line (and some who don't).

After the Labor Break-up

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:12 PM EDT

Now that the split between the AFL-CIO and dissident unions seems all but official, it's time to make a few predictions. The New York Times suggests that the labor split will hurt the Democratic party, as the various unions will spend more time squabbling with each other and less time coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts come election day. The SEIU and other Unite to Win unions, meanwhile, think that electoral politics ought to come second to an intense focus on organizing. They have a point; labor density has gone down under both Republicans and Democrats, so it's not as if electing the latter to office has done them much good.

My more pessimistic take is this: neither organizing nor electoral politics will reverse labor's long slide. Politics for the reasons given above. Organizing, because the numbers are just too overwhelming. A few years ago, Harvard economist Richard Freeman ran the numbers on this:

To fund a massive organizing campaign would take, moreover, huge union resources. Turning Paula Voos's estimates of the marginal cost of organizing a new member into 2001 dollars, the cost of organizing a new member would appear to be on the order of $2,000 – though it could be as low as the $1,000 that is the rule of thumb for some unions and as high as $3,000. Adding half a million new members annually at $2,000 per member would then require spending $1 billion, or about 20 percent of total annual union dues. Adding 1 million members would take about 40 percent of total dues.

A million new members is nothing to sneeze at, and this is precisely the strategy SEIU and the other dissident unions are going for. Nonetheless, even a million new members—and this falls in the "optimistic" category—won't fundamentally reverse the long decline in labor density. A million new members would only add a point in density; 500,000 new members would simply balance the loss of members due to workplace changes. So the Unite to Win unions are doing the noble thing, but ultimately they're highly unlikely to pull off a structural shift in the layout of the labor land; at most they'll stop the earth from being scorched.

I know I keep harping on this, but the historical record is instructive. Unions have traditionally exploded in size not because of a commitment to organizing, and not necessarily because of labor-friendly legislators in Washington, but largely because of historical accidents. Labor density has grown in "spurts," due to factors that were often difficult to predict. Unions went forth, multiplied, and prospered during World War I, for instance, because developed Allied countries needed the full cooperation of labor to mobilize and fight their splendid little war, and a slew of labor-friendly compromises ensued. Likewise, union density grew during the Great Depression for obvious reasons—people saw the need for unions—and during World War II because the government yet again needed cooperation. It's worth noting, though, that legislative compromise and popular support weren't the only reason for labor's success during the 1930s and 1940s—the rise of the industrial union, and the opening up of an entire new sector to organize, really fueled the surge in density.

So for those asking "What will save Labor?," the answer probably isn't "more commitment to organizing" or "elect more Democrats." Presumably the answer will involve some new way of organizing—structured around the internet, perhaps—or the rise of a new sector of unions. Perhaps white-collar programmers angry about outsourcing will provide fertile new ground. Perhaps the Bush administration will drive the economy into the ground and the public will flock to unions. Still, the politicking vs. organizing debate going on right now seems much too narrow, and, sadly, a bit hopeless.

North Korea Kabuki

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 1:00 PM EDT

I, for one, am glad to see the Bush administration finally holding bilateral talks with North Korea, even if they're just "discussions" and not actual "negotiations." In the good old days, this was known as the "John Kerry plan," and in those good old days it was the only feasible idea anyone had for dealing with Kim Jong Il and his budding nuclear program. Why the White House decided to wait years and years before facing the inevitable and pursuing this route is anyone's guess.

More annoyingly, though, there's so much smoke being thrown out in the article that it's all one can do to grope around and try to figure out what's going on. We hear that "Condoleeza Rice has repeatedly assured the North that the United States accepts North Korean sovereignty and is not seeking to invade it," but in the intricate language of this particular chess game, that's not quite true: as far as I know, the United States still has not uttered the three magic words Kim Jong Il wants to hear—"no hostile intent." Then you have a Chinese "policy commentator" suggesting that China and North Korea don't "get along well," and Chinese involvement in negotiations would prove useless, which could be true, or it could be an excuse for China to continue to do nothing. And only in the very last sentence do we learn that, oh yes, North Korea may well have returned to the negotiating table because their neighbor to the south offered up 2,000 megawatts of electricity as a bribe. That would seem rather relevant, no?