Mojo - September 2005

Analysis Time

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 1:21 PM EDT

This short item by Mark Hosenball in Newsweek seems encouraging:

Analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency have begun war-gaming scenarios for what might happen in Iraq if U.S. force levels were cut back or eliminated, say counterterrorism and defense sources. The officials, who asked not to be named because of the sensitive subject matter, declined to discuss specifics of the DIA analyses, which they indicate are in the preliminary stages.

Some officials say that people in the intelligence community are leery about engaging in speculative exercises for fear of being accused by conservatives of undermining George W. Bush's administration policy. However, others say that this analysis could support staying the course in Iraq if a U.S. pullout would result in greater insurgent violence or a religious civil war.

Of course, figuring out what would happen if the United States pulled out of Iraq or not is only one half of what people need to know to make the relevant policy choices. The second half is whether the U.S. remaining in Iraq would help to avert "greater insurgent violence" or "a religious civil war." (And yes, a minor civil war in Iraq does seem to be carrying on at the moment, but it could get so much worse: think Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s.) But if the worst case scenarios will happen no matter what the U.S. military does, then it's time to beat a hasty retreat. If not, then not. Also, this sort of intelligence report seems ripe for politicizing—especially if "people in the intelligence community are leery about engaging in speculative exercises"—but it's hard to think of a situation more in need of sober analysis at the moment.

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Thank you, Bill Clinton and Congress

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 5:37 PM EDT

Via Stone Court, I visited Happening-Here? for a review of how the Defense of Marriage Act affects the relationship between the government and American citizens who are victims of Hurricane Katrina.

It's a relationship that saves the government a lot of money. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, all benefits are denied--FEMA, Social Security, and state benefits. Parental rights and burial decisions are also removed from surving partners. The situation is made worse by the fact that Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have laws that deny legal status to same-gender partners.

During the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, we will hear a lot about compassionate conservatism. But we will also hear about the "real" compassion of the Democratic Party, and about how Americans take care of their own. Americans take care of their own, all right--if they are white, heterosexual, and not poor. It also helps to be able-bodied, male, and adult. The political and idealogical garbage washed up by the storm surges of Katrina is nothing new. But no matter how high it piles up, Americans will keep stepping over it, eyes closed, noses held, and hearts frozen.

Gouge and Counter-Gouge

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 4:59 PM EDT

First we had the conventional wisdom that price gouging of gasoline during national emergencies was a bad thing. Hence, twenty states have anti-gouging laws on the book. Then along came the counter-wisdom that, no, no, raising gasoline prices during supply shortages was actually a good thing, as it reduces demand and helps avoid rationing (which can hurt the poor even more than long lines do). But now Dave Hoffman brings us the counter-counter-wisdom, suggesting that those twenty states actually do have the right idea in passing anti-gouging laws:

In civil emergencies, markets don't work to clear information in rational ways. Even high prices will not serve to reduce demand for, say, water and gasoline, over the short term if folks think their lives are going to depend on having such commodities nearby. Price gouging regulations do two things to reduce panic and regulate demand. First, they increase trust in market transactions (an SEC-like role) and thus will act to reduce "panic demand" in emergencies without increasing price. Second, the regulations - when publicized appropriately - have the same information forcing effect as higher prices themselves, teaching people that there are supply interruptions and they should change their use patterns until conditions improve. In both ways, price gouging regulations use norms and soft-economics to accomplish market stabilization in a more satisfactory way than the market would, if left to its own devices.

Interesting argument, if true. On a related note, the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights has put out a new study trying to figure out the rise in gas prices, although "gouging" is obviously difficult to prove. In California, for example, the price of gasoline rose 65 cents between January and April of this year, while profits from refining operations rose 61 cents. Refinery profits seem to be outpacing the rise in price of crude oil, and "no public evidence exists" that the cost of a) refining oil, or b) transporting refined products has jumped over the past four years for these refineries. The steady uptick in the cost of California gas appears to be explained primarily by increased refinery exports of motor fuel abroad, which reduces domestic supply at a time of heightened demand. The state of California, of course, levies a 7.25 percent sales tax on every gallon of gas sold at the pump—a tax that brings in considerable revenue—so the legislature has every incentive to maintain high gas prices. (In Slate, Daniel Gross points out that refining industry has also benefited massively from various regulations, as well as the under-supply of refineries, and will reap big fat profits from Katrina.)

Moving right along, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that most states shouldn't suspend their gas tax right now—taxes that are usually a fixed amount, rather than a percentage sales tax as in California—since that tax cut will likely be passed on to refiners rather than consumers. Plus, states need the revenue right now, especially since the high price of gas is hurting local governments as well, and there are more effective ways of easing the strain on consumers' pocketbooks (such as low-income heating assistance).

Loopholes Gone Wild

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 4:17 PM EDT

The SEIU has put out a new report on Wackenhut, a private security firm that won a contract to guard Army bases in Alaska, noting that the new guards have performed dismally at their job. Guards are using old and rusted weapons and often receive insufficient training; felons gain access to the bases without security clearances; no one has any radio equipment. It's a disaster. The slightly glossed-over story here, though, is how Wackenhut got the contract. Michael Scherer did some reporting on this for Mother Jones earlier this year: Wackenhut—like Halliburton, Vance International and other large multinational corporations—took advantage of a loophole to "team up" with a local tribal company, Alutiiq, that received a no-bid contracts; a common phenomenon whereby tribal companies take advantage of minority set-aside programs in Alaska, and then fork over the profits to large corporations:

A Mother Jones analysis of federal contracting records shows that no-bid, or "sole-source," awards to native companies have risen dramatically since the late 1990s (see chart). Back in 1999, the largest tribal firms received just $195.5 million worth of no-bid work, or roughly 3 percent of the awards under the federal government's program to assist small and minority-owned companies. By 2003, however, large tribal companies were getting $1.3 billion worth of contracts without any competition, accounting for nearly 15 percent of the minority program. …

[I]n many cases, the biggest winners from the contracting exemptions are non-native companies. Under the federal rules, between 15 and 50 percent of the work must be done by employees of the tribal company. But tribes can also form joint ventures with other firms, allowing them to classify many of the non-native companies' employees as their own. In some of the largest contracts, native corporations have simply taken over services the federal government wanted to privatize. In one $2.2 billion project to run part of the military's mapmaking division, two Alaska tribes brought in their own managers to rehire and oversee hundreds of federal employees, a process in which many workers lost their civil service benefits. "Very little changes," says Peter Fagan, a contracting consultant who has worked with tribal companies. "You just get new hats and business cards."

This isn't affirmative action so much as a spigot that runs from Congress directly to business coffers. And at the head of this entire scam sits Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK), the president pro tempore of the Senate, who has extensive ties to several native companies in the state, as well as a number of defense and security contractors. Last month, Benjamin Wallace-Wells of the Washington Monthly did some additional reporting on the ways in which Stevens has used "sole-source" Eskimo contracts to funnel money to the defense industry. The GAO and other Senate and House Committees have begun investigating, so it's entirely possible that this could turn into a major scandal of some sort or other. For the moment, though, GOP welfare—along with Wackenhut's poor performance—has put Army bases at risk. Anecdotes like these are exactly why it's worth getting jittery over the billions of dollars now being shoveled down south for post-Katrina reconstruction—with, as far as anyone can tell, little to no oversight.

Accountability Moment

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 1:45 PM EDT

That John Dickerson essay mentioned below proved quite prescient: FEMA chief Michael Brown is "being removed from his role managing Katrina relief efforts," but not, you know, actually fired.

Human Waste

Fri Sep. 9, 2005 11:14 AM EDT

The latest edition of the Bonehead Compendium is up, this week focusing exclusively on the tragedy of Katrina and the federal mismanagement it has exposed:

It now appears that when presented with some 1400 firefighters and paramedics from around the country and who possessed expertise in search and rescue and hazmat operations, FEMA saw fit to assign this regiment of life-saving men and women to wander around the devastated regions of the south and hand out information fliers to already rescued hurricane victims. But within this frustrating waste of human capital an even more egregious abuse of these good people occurred. As Bush made his way to New Orleans for some priceless footage of him hugging black people, FEMA had 50 of these firefighters flown to Louisiana to walk around with the President while he toured the wreckage.
Maybe the government figures rescue and cleanup personnel have been overcommitted to operations since, as former first lady Barbara Bush so tactfully stated this week of the underprivileged victims, the hurricane "is working very well for them."

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Who's Fired?

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 3:06 AM EDT

Slate's John Dickerson is making a lot of sense in his piece on Michael Brown, the FEMA chief who has borne the brunt of the blame for the Bush administration's slow response to Katrina. Dickerson suggests that Brown: a) probably wasn't the head guy responsible for the mess; b) will serve as a convenient lightning rod to deflect blame away from those who were responsible; and c) probably won't be fired, no matter how loudly the media calls for his head:

If Brown hasn't yet packed up his "me" wall, it may be because of his political utility as a scapegoat. As a focal point of public rage, Brown remains useful to Bush as a fall guy. But can we really believe that ultimate blame for the rescue debacle resides in a man who ended his memo to Chertoff asking for assistance with a simpering plaudit: "Thank you for your consideration in helping us to meet our responsibilities." Someone who had to write that memo wasn't powerful enough in the first place to have caused the system to fail at the federal, state, and local levels.

Of course, Washington has seen this piñata phenomenon before: the controversial government figure who walks upright while the steady drumbeat of damaging details heralds his inevitable undoing....

What's different in this administration is how seriously Bush '43 takes loyalty—and how much he resents the consensus view of the permanent government in Washington. When the elites start calling for a firing, the president usually rescues his top aides and allies from the delusion and upset of public limbo. That's why past diagnoses of terminal conditions have so often been wrong. Washington wise men have declared Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld finished many times. They were certain Dick Cheney would never be kept on the ticket in 2004. It was a widespread assumption that John Bolton would never make it to the United Nations.

Bush has often privately told those under fire that such noises from the chattering class are actually a sign that "they must be doing something right." To send the same message in public, he takes the wounded on a stroll before the cameras.

That seems about right. Besides, Michael Brown has $51.8 billion worth of federal relief money to dole out friends, allies, and major Bush donors in the coming days. Why would the White House fire him? He's certainly going to do a heck of a job.

Equipment requested by Governor Blanco nearly a week ago still hasn't arrived

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 10:52 PM EDT

On September 2, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco asked George W. Bush for portable radios that would enable emergency personnel to communicate with one another. She also asked for 175 generators and for emergency crews to restore communication towers. None of these things has ever arrived in Louisiana.

FEMA officials say they are "checking on the status of the request," and FEMA director Michael Brown is assuring Blanco that what she has requested is on the way.

This afternoon, on the way home from our evacutation site, I heard a sympathetic radio station host listen to a caller who was outraged that Blanco had "failed Louisiana." His real reason for calling, it turned out, was to tell everyone how much better things would have gone if Blanco's opponent for the governorship, right-wing extremist Bobby Jindal, had been elected governor.

This is the way it is going to go: Take the focus off of the White House and put it on Governor Blanco, who has been begging for help since we first learned that Katrina was heading toward New Orleans. Followers of Bush will believe anything rather than believe that he hired a failed two-bit executive to direct the nation's disaster relief operations, then spewed embarrassing cliches when he learned that huge parts of Louisiana and Mississippi were destroyed, and that thousands were either homeless or dead.

Katrina and Section 8

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 4:32 PM EDT

Alex Tabarrok suggests expanding the Section 8 housing voucher program to assist the newly homeless victims of New Orleans—allowing them to take advantage of the historically high vacancy rate among rental units in the area. It's a fantastic idea, and much easier than building public housing. One quick policy note, though: landlords are not at all required to accept Section 8 tenants, and in recent years the market price for rental units has exceeded the "Fair Market Price" bestowed on the vouchers. In other words, the voucher recipients could still be priced out of the local rental market (or landlords may just choose not to accept them). Plus, Congress would be handing out vouchers to Katrina victims ahead of many families that have been waiting in "line" for years—which is obviously understandable, but could still cause a bit of resentment or political bickering. Otherwise, though, it's really a good idea.

Meanwhile, large natural disasters aren't the only time that people need places to live, and Katrina would offer a good excuse for restoring the deep cuts made to the Section 8 program in last year's budget. It's not likely, but who knows?

New at Mother Jones

| Thu Sep. 8, 2005 4:26 PM EDT

Choose to Make a Difference
By Arthur I. Blaustein
The disaster in New Orleans makes at least one thing clear -- the importance of serving our communities and being there for one another.

Whoopsi Gras
Cartoon By Mark Fiore
It's a carnival of ineptitude! Come join the parade!

Surviving New Orleans
By David Enders
Residents still stranded in the city -- many of them poor, many of them minorities -- find ways to scrape by.