Mojo - November 2005

Out of Iraq

| Sun Nov. 27, 2005 8:31 PM EST

In the wake of the Bush administration's sort of announcement that it has plans to draw down troops from Iraq by the end of 2006, here are two worthwhile posts on the subject, by Dan Darling and Mark Safranski—both conservatives. It really does seem that the wretched state of the Reserves and the National Guard, along with GOP concerns about the 2006 midterms, is the main driver here.

As to what comes next, I won't try to predict. John Robb thinks the U.S. is going to stage a "controlled chaos exit," relying on Shiite and Kurdish paramilitaries to keep order as the Iraqi state dissolves. Ayad Allawi is worried that death squads will run rampant. Juan Cole reports that the U.S. may make a stronger push to negotiate with Sunni insurgents. And Seymour Hersh is reporting that the U.S. will continue to use massive airpower to bomb insurgents, and whoever else happens to get in the way, after the draw-down. Understandably, he—along with a number of Air Force officers, apparently—thinks this is a bad idea.

Well, maybe any or all of those things will come to pass. Nadezhda seems to have the best prediction here, though: "[F]or at least the next six months, it's hard not to predict a continued absence of a clear strategy. In turn, that means a continued reliance on messy improvisation, with the quality of outcomes in part dependent on the talents of various improvisers." How does the saying go? "I don't see any method at all here, sir."

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Underground Gun Markets

| Sat Nov. 26, 2005 11:00 PM EST

Two weeks ago San Francisco passed a ban on guns within city limits, the strictest such ban in the country: not only are all sales banned, but everyone must turn in his or her handgun by next April Fool's Day. The betting line, it seems, is that the new law won't survive a court challenge. From a practical standpoint, though, many opponents of the law have argued that at any rate these sorts of bans won't affect gun ownership, or gun violence, in the city, since criminals will still be able to buy guns from either the underground market or outside city limits. Only law-abiding citizens will be affected, etc.

That sort of logic usually makes sense—after all, bans on narcotics don't seem to have any appreciable effect on the drug market—but it's probably not quite right. Four economists—Philip Cook, Jens Ludwig, Sudhir Venkatesh, and Anthony Braga—have just put out a study looking at Chicago's underground gun market, and found that a ban on handguns in that city seriously increased the amount of "friction" in the gun market, making it much harder for the average person to get access to guns.

Unlike with drugs, the relatively small number of buyers, sellers and transactions in an underground gun market creates "thinness" in the market, which leads to serious transaction costs. Repeat business in the gun market is rare, since generally you just need one gun, so most buyers generally don't know where to go, or who to trust. It's hard to advertise, after all. Plus, many buyers in the underground markets don't know the first thing about guns, and will often buy guns that may not even work, just for show. (Ammo is even harder to find; for obvious reasons you're generally not allowed to load a gun and "test it" during a sale, and many youths don't even know what sort of ammo they need.) And friction creates more friction—a lack of sellers reduces the number of buyers, which in turn discourages sellers. (Moreover, many people who want a gun, especially for "unlawful purposes," don't ever end up leaving the city, so buying a gun legally from the suburbs isn't usually an option.)

Now here's the caveat: gangs, obviously, have readier access to gun markets, but for a variety of reasons gangs don't just start giving guns to anyone who wants one, and that includes low-level gang members. Not only are gangs wary of hostile takeovers, but gun violence is often bad for business—it scares customers and attracts the police. So regulation is very tight, especially within gangs, where only about 25 percent of all members even have a gun. But that's still a lot of people with access, which probably explains why Chicago doesn't have much lower levels of gun violence than other cities, even if it is harder for the average person to get a gun.

In that case, it's reasonable to think that increasing the friction in gun and ammo markets, coupled with some sort of collective-deterrence strategy against gangs—as happened in Boston's Operation Ceasefire—would reduce gun violence. It's hard to tell. But either way, it's an interesting study, and a useful corrective to the view that it's "impossible" to regulate the gun market.

Who is thankful today? The people of Jackson, Mississippi

| Thu Nov. 24, 2005 7:58 PM EST

By the time Hurricane Katrina reached Jackson, Mississippi, its winds were only 47 mph, with occasional gusts of up to 74 mph. These gusts knocked down trees and power lines, and damaged some roofs. Only 50 or 60 houses in the Jackson area were declared uninhabitable. Right after Katrina hit, the Bush administration declared 15 Mississippi coastal counties disaster areas. By September 7, at the request of the state of Mississippi, this disaster zone was extended 220 miles inland, and later, it was extended to include 47 counties, some 200 miles further north than the northernmost disaster area in Louisiana.

According to a report in the New York Times, the only "damage" sustained by 30,000 households receiving aid was food spoilage caused by power outages. There have been around a thousand reports of fraud in the Jackson area, but most of the money was provided by legal means. One Jackson resident, who was unafraid to provide her name to a Times reporter, lost power during Katrina and collected $900, which she claims was her right as a citizen of Mississippi. Since FEMA and Red Cross money was provided, there has been a steady increase in the purchase of guns, jewelry, and electronic equipment in the Jackson area.

FEMA and the Red Cross have responded to this situation by saying that time was of the utmost importance--that they could not make the kinds of checks that were needed because people urgently needed aid after the storm. This is true. The question is: Why did the federal government allow a minimally affected region of Mississippi to be declared a disaster area?

It wasn't a new mistake, if indeed, that's what it was. After Hurricane Frances hit Florida last year, FEMA gave $31 million to residents of Miami-Dade, where there was hardly any damage. $62 million was distributed by FEMA this year in and around Jackson; the Red Cross distributed $32 million.

Larry Fisher, director of the Hinds County emergency department, says he did receive a call from FEMA, who was curious as to why so much money was being poured into a region in which a total of about 50 houses were uninhabitable. "You are going to increase your number," a FEMA spokesperson allegedly told Fisher. Fisher refused to change the records, and invited the agency to conduct an investigation. FEMA officials say they are not aware of the phone call.

Though the focus of the legal fake claims is Jackson, there was a also a situation in Iberia Parish, Louisiana, in which three mobile homes were damaged, but 403 families received FEMA emergency checks of $2,000 each.

While the people of Jackson, Mississippi wore their Rolexes and watched movies on their new DVD players, many of the residents of Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Long Beach never even collected their $2,000 emergency checks because the federal government "ran out of money," a circumstance which occurred at exactly the same time the national news media vacated the area. In Louisiana, people cannot get FEMA trailers and therefore cannot return to the city, garbage is still piled on the street, and several areas have no power.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine said a week ago that "It is frustrating to me that FEMA seems incapable of paying legitimate claims quickly and effectively and yet reimburses fraudulent claims without asking any questions." For weeks, we were all bombarded by images of looters in New Orleans, and harsh words about putting money in the hands of Louisiana officials. However, the media has yet to address the looting of taxpayers by people in north Mississippi, who--in partnership with FEMA and the Red Cross, and possibly their state government--have intact houses, debris-free yards, and some extra cash for the holidays.

Thanksgiving Break

| Wed Nov. 23, 2005 9:46 PM EST

Posting will be light and sporadic at Mojo Blog for the next two days. We'll be back on Monday. In the meantime, go enter Swopa's holiday-themed caption contest.

Life of Caesar

| Wed Nov. 23, 2005 6:43 PM EST

In the L.A. Weekly, Vince Beiser has an article on the life of a Caesar salad, looking at all the underpaid labor and overtoxic chemicals that go into making one, from start to finish. Good piece. It's also worth quoting Mark Krikorian's bit on the economics of immigrant farmworkers: "Foreign labor is concentrated in the harvest of fresh fruits and vegetables. And if you look at the actual numbers, you'd see that since labor accounts for such a small part of the retail price fruits and vegetables, giving farm workers a 40 percent raise would increase grocery costs for the typical American consumers by $8 a year. Eight dollars. A year." Okay, then.

Distorted Intelligence

Wed Nov. 23, 2005 6:21 PM EST

President Bush and Vice President Cheney have gone on the offensive recently, calling out Democrats and moderate Republicans who dare to question the administration's actions in the run up to the Iraq War. Some of Cheney's comments were timed poorly, coming out at the same time as Congressman and veteran John Murtha was making his case for a pull out (or a quasi-pull out, or whatever). Several days later, Cheney spoke at the American Enterprise Institute and said that he respected debate and disagreement, and that Murtha was "a good man, a Marine, a patriot" who was "taking a clear stand in an entirely legitimate discussion."

But Cheney went on to say this: "What is not legitimate—and what I will again say is dishonest and reprehensible—is the suggestion by some U. S. senators that the President of the United States or any member of his administration purposely misled the American people on pre-war intelligence."

Considering the National Journal piece by Murray Waas released today, you would hope Vice President Cheney would feel some shame. Citing "government records and current and former officials with firsthand knowledge of the matter," Waas says that President Bush was told only 10 days after the 9/11 attacks that there was no evidence linking Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. In fact, if there was any connection between the two, it took the form of reconnaissance Saddam was doing over the terror group, because he saw it as a threat to his secular regime. Yet the Bush Administration said repeatedly that Al Qaeda and Iraq had significant ties when they were making the case for war. Bush, on September 25, 2002: "You can't distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror." Rumsfeld, the next day: "We have what we consider to be credible evidence that Al Qaeda leaders have sought contacts with Iraq who could help them acquire…weapons of mass destruction capabilities."

Perhaps the worst was Cheney. He made the charge that Mohammed Atta had met with a senior official in the Iraqi intelligence service several times, even after the September 21st brief indicated no general connections existed and another briefing (perhaps several) indicated that the specific rendezvous he kept mentioning between Atta and the intelligence officer was discounted by the FBI and CIA. The 9/11 Commission would later write, "We do not believer that such a meeting occurred." More generally, they said, "We have no credible evidence that Iraq and Al Qaeda cooperated on attacks against the United States."

So claims from Democratic senators that the Bush Administration misled the America people and misrepresented evidence are not "dishonest and reprehensible." They are 100%, completely, absolutely true.

The Waas article does further work. It knocks down a couple of the Bush administrations claims about the prewar situation:

(1) The intelligence was to blame. The contents of the report Bush saw on September 21 made their way into a lengthy CIA analysis of Iraq's ties to terrorism. In the end, the information was seen by Bush, Cheney, the national security advisor, the deputy national security advisor, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and others. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the intelligence cannot shoulder all the blame for America's missteps. Some of the intelligence was accurate, but useless to an administration that would have war whether the facts supported it or not.

(2) The Democrats saw the same intelligence that the White House did. The Senate Intelligence Committee has asked the White House for the September 21st report, the lengthy CIA analysis that followed, and several other briefings the President received. The Administration has refused to provide these documents, even though Bush and Cheney trumpet, over and over and over, the false claim that Congressional Democrats saw the same evidence that the White House did before they voted to go to war.

Cheers to Murray Waas. Good investigative reporting like this makes me (I hope others as well) proud of the press in this country. Bloggers, politicians and just about everyone dogs the media, and yet in the face of an cabalistic power structure headed by George "More Secretive Than Nixon" Bush, we get reporting that reveals the truth. In the end, the second major rational for war has fallen. The first was WMDs (remember those?), the second was that Saddam harbored and conspired with terrorists. Too bad, George. I guess we'll see you in the history books. Your headshot will someday be next to a picture of a helicopter pulling the last evacuee off an embassy rooftop in Iraq.

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Aid and Pessimism

| Wed Nov. 23, 2005 4:16 PM EST

Sam Rosenfeld has a very good TAPPED post about aid to Africa, noting that while turning poor African countries into democracies with 10 percent GDP growth a year is very hard, spending a bit of money to provide them with bed nets for malaria is not. That's right. I think, though, he's attacking a straw man here. Very few "aid critics," even William Easterly, think that modest steps like sending malaria nets to Africa are useless. Easterly would probably laud it as the sort of thing we should be doing. But that's not what people like Jeffrey Sachs are proposing.

Sachs argues that you can't solve one poverty problem without solving a whole host of others, and wants to send nations not just malaria nets but trees that replenish nitrogen in the soil, rainwater harvesting, better health clinics, etc. etc. The UN Millenium Project is very broad, and as such, is open to the usual criticisms. In fact, critics of Jeffrey Sachs sometimes cite the Gates Foundation's malaria net work as their preferred, more modest alternative. See the end of this piece, for instance.

Now as it happens, I think Sachs' broad approach is a good one. Even if only an eighth of UN aid makes its way to those who need it, that's still a lot more than before. And as I reported here, aid to developing countries is generally more effective than it's given credit for, and much of the squandered trillions in African aid in years past can be explained away by the fact that there was a Cold War going on, and first world nations didn't exactly hand out aid with humanitarian ends in mind. Yes, there are a lot of sorely-needed ways to improve the aid process, and aid alone won't save any country, but on balance, it does more good than harm. (The benefits of increased trade, meanwhile, while certainly positive and worth reaping, are generally overstated.) Plus, at the margins, you get stuff like malaria nets that have concrete results.

But that's not to say aid—even very modest aid like providing malaria nets—won't do any harm whatsoever. Unless African countries can figure out how to grow, they'll remain dependent on humanitarian aid, which, while not the worst thing in the world, is dangerously tentative. And squandered aid—even if it's still doing some good—can discourage donors from working in Africa. It can even help prop up dictatorships. There are a lot of things to worry about. But it's true, the pessimists about aid to Africa sometimes go too far.

The American Enemy Combatant

Wed Nov. 23, 2005 3:09 PM EST

Yesterday, the US government finally indicted the only American "enemy combatant" in the war on terror, Jose Padilla. But only after holding him for over three years, incommunicado, in a South Carolina military brig and denying him the basic legal rights guaranteed to all citizens.

The official charges are conspiring to commit murder and aid terrorists. According to Reuters, the indictment states that

The defendants…operated and participated in a North American support cell that sent money, physical assets and mujahideen recruits to overseas conflicts for the purposes of fighting a violent jihad.

Notably absent from the criminal accusation is any mention of his alleged plans to attack New York apartments or to detonate a "dirty bomb" within the US, both earlier advanced as primary allegations by Att. Gen. Gonzalez and Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld. In addition, there are indications that the evidence from a "top al Qaeda leader" was obtained though torture at the secret CIA "black-sites" abroad.

Yet, apart from the question of his guilt, is the legality of suspending a US citizen's right to habeas corpus indefinitely, holding him incommunicado without either formal charges or access to his lawyers. The indictment, even if it is not revoked—as it could be at any time, should not distract from the means used to achieve it.

Jennifer Daskal, Advocacy Director for U.S. Programs at Human Rights Watch, said:

This speaks to who we are as a nation and what we value, that we're still holding over five hundred detainees without charges for over three years. Padilla's indictment doesn't remove that. This is something that should concern all of us as Americans. We are a nation built on the rule of law. …Certainly, those who have engaged in terrorist activity should be held accountable. But like Padilla, these individuals should be charged, prosecuted, and given the opportunity to defend themselves.

Civil liberty and human rights groups have taken Padilla's case as a touchstone for the strikes against the fundamental protections that define U.S. citizenship. In a press release yesterday, Human Rights First issued a reserved welcome:

It is long past time for Mr. Padilla to have his day in court. [However,] it remains to be seen whether it is possible now to repair the damage done to the rule of law and the cause of justice by the past years worth of indefinite detention, incommunicado interrogation, and denial of the most basic due process rights.

Over the past three years, Padilla's case has gone through a series of courts that have flip-flopped in reconciling the Administration's demand for nearly-unlimited flexibility in the war on terror and a citizen's constitutional right to legal security. Rulings in his case concerning the legality of indefinitely detaining a US citizen incommunicado and without charges , have bounced between Federal Courts and US Appeals Courts, since he was seized from a Chicago airport as an "enemy-combatant" in 2002, and now sit before the Supreme Court.

The indictment was issued just six days before the Department of Justice was supposed to submit its arguments to the Court defending its anomalous procedures in detaining the American "enemy combatant." Padilla's lawyers assert that the timing of the indictment is intended to make moot the Supreme Court's decision to review the legality of those actions.

Stanford Professor Jenny Martinez, who is part of the legal team representing Padilla, told the Washington Post, "If I were the government, I would not have expected to win in the Supreme Court. I think the government is clearly trying to evade Supreme Court review.

Martinez told the Post that they will be arguing for the Court to proceed with its review because his indictment is revocable and he his "enemy combatant" status is not yet officially removed. In previous cases, the Court has ruled to continue a review when an indictment was judged an act of "evading review" and that, therefore, the situation was "capable of repetition." Naturally, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, denies any political strategy in the sudden indictment.

Al-Jazeera memo leak heats up in U.K.

| Tue Nov. 22, 2005 8:38 PM EST

It is always dangerous to be a news reporter during a war, but it has been especially lethal during the Iraq war. Today, the British government confirmed what was rumor--that when George W. Bush met with Tony Blair in the spring of 2004, he talked about targeting the headquarters of Al-Jazeera. A source for The Daily Mirror insists that Bush was joking, while another source claims he was quite serious.

A British civil servant has now been charged with leaking the government memo that claims that Bush expressed a desire to destroy Al-Jazeera headquarters, and that Blair talked him out of it. Cabinet office employee David Keogh is accused of passing the memo to Leo O'Connor, who used to work for former British lawmaker Tony Clarke.

It is not as if this were an isolated incident. A year before Bush and Blair met, an American tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The Palestine was known to be housing journalists from throughout the world; it was common knowledge. U.S. forces made two hits on the hotel within a two-hour period, killing two cameramen and seriously wounding five reporters. The Pentagon claimed it had reports of Iraqi snipers stationed at the hotel who shot at U.S. forces, but there have also been numerous reports that no one fired from the Palestine. It does seem clear that the Pentagon knew that reporters were housed there, but what actually happened will never be known.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the fact that the Palestine Hotel attack was a non-story in the United States. The alleged investigation of the incident, if it took place at all, was never reported by the news media. Perhaps if someone had bothered to take a closer look at what happened, we wouldn't be having a discussion today about whether George W. Bush intended to launch an attack on Al-Jazeera.

Would National Health Insurance Help GM?

| Tue Nov. 22, 2005 1:56 PM EST

Conventional wisdom in this country has it that American businesses are uncompetitive partly because they have to spend so much on health insurance for their workers. Here's a common variation, from Dean Bakopoulos:

[W]e must implement a system that guarantees universal healthcare. American industry — from National Steel to Starbucks — would benefit from having the burden of health insurance lifted off its back. Why else would GM be aggressively investing in nationalized-healthcare Canada while U.S. plants shut down?
Why indeed? I certainly don't know. But I'm not convinced that the conventional wisdom is entirely right. At least let's hash it out. There's reason to think that national healthcare wouldn't necessarily make American businesses more competitive.

Say each year GM paid each worker $40,000 and spent $5,000 per worker on health insurance. That's a major drag, right? Well, look. Say national health insurance is then created, some system that doesn't rely on employers. Depending on how it's financed, GM could still be on the hook for that $5,000, so long as total worker compensation doesn't change—which it shouldn't, so long as it's set by the market. Maybe companies will now pay that $5,000 in wage form, to attract the same caliber workers (or because unions demand it). Or maybe the new system will be financed by payroll taxes or individual mandates, in which case the company might have to pay each worker $45,000 to cover the cost. But total compensation wouldn't change.

Alternatively, those companies that are currently paying nothing for health insurance can help share the load with companies like GM. But then you're just taking from one company to help out another—American businesses overall don't necessarily become more competitive. There are probably ways to redistribute the load that make sense, and that's why we have policy wonks, but the point is there's nothing prima facie business-friendly about this.

In reality, of course, things would look far more complicated. The current tax system makes things complex. And some health insurance systems are more efficient than others. National health insurance might be cheaper, on aggregate, than our current system, in which case everyone would be paying less, and businesses obviously become more competitive. But what if the new system was more expensive—given that 45 million new people would need to be covered? GM's fortunes would depend largely on how the system was financed and how good it was at controlling costs. European companies are more competitive on this front presumably because Europe rations its health care and so spends less (with similar, if not better health outcomes). If we could do that, it wouldn't matter quite as much how health care was delivered—cutting costs is where the benefits to business would lie, primarily.

There's another aspect here. Right now, when insurance premiums go up each year, GM usually has to cover the increase, which goes up faster than wages do, unless it wants to shift some of the cost onto workers—a move that usually causes a big stir and is somewhat hard to do. But if GM was paying its workers entirely in wages, and the government handling health insurance, then GM might be able to get away with avoiding the "necessary" wage increases whenever there was a premium hike. In that case, GM would save money and become more profitable by giving its employees a pay cut—who get, say, a payroll tax increase or premium hike from the government, but not enough of a corresponding wage increase from GM to cover it. But who knows.

I certainly think a national health insurance system is necessary in this country, one not tied to employment. It would help workers move from job to job more easily while remaining insured, and would guarantee that everyone had insurance. It's fair, moral, decent, etc. And it would likely be progressive, which the current tax deductions for employer-backed insurance certainly aren't. And so on. In theory reform could even help control costs, although I'm not as orthodox about that particular faith as some. But would it be a boon for American businesses? It really depends.