Mojo - November 2005

Cheney's Torture Kick

| Tue Nov. 8, 2005 4:41 PM EST

Dick Cheney is truly insane. The vice-president is now off making impassioned pleas in defense of torture:

Last Tuesday, Senate Republicans were winding up their weekly luncheon in the Capitol when the vice president rose to speak. Staffers were quickly ordered out of the room—what Cheney had to say was for senators only. Normally taciturn, Cheney was uncharacteristically impassioned, according to two GOP senators who did not want to be on the record about a private meeting. He was very upset over the Senate's overwhelming passage of an amendment that prohibits inhumane treatment of terrorist detainees. Cheney said the law would tie the president's hands and end up costing "thousands of lives." He dramatized the point, conjuring up a scenario in which a captured Qaeda operative, another Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, refuses to give his interrogators details about an imminent attack. "We have to be able to do what is necessary," the vice president said, according to one of the senators who was present.
Andrew Sullivan has been particularly eloquent about the wrongness of torture and the wrongness of forcing our military officers to carry it out and the wrongness of our archipelago of secret CIA prisons around the world. Consider too that Elliot Abrams, the man who covered up the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador during the Reagan years and called the U.S.-backed death squads in that country a "fabulous achievement," is now trying to dissuade Cheney from his views on torture. Once again: Cheney's now too extreme for Elliot Abrams.

Now some people might be tempted to think that yes, Cheney's moral compass is a bit askew, but he is vice-president, he does know a lot that we don't know, and maybe we should give him the benefit of the doubt that the executive branch really does need to "be able to do what is necessary." Sorry, but no. Cheney doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt, ever. Throughout his time in Washington he's shown himself to be, frankly, a strategic moron with exceedingly poor judgment, as seen in this anecdote from his tenure during Bush I:

Following one White House meeting at which he'd asked for more time and more troops, Stormin' Norman reports; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell called to warn the Desert Storm commander that he was being loudly compared, by a top administration official, to George McClellan. "My God," the official supposedly complained. "He's got all the force he needs. Why won't he just attack?" Schwarzkopf notes that the unnamed official who'd made the comment "was a civilian who knew next to nothing about military affairs, but he'd been watching the Civil War documentary on public television and was now an expert."

And then, twenty pages later, Schwarzkopf casually drops the information that he got an inspirational gift from Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney right before the air war finally got under way. Cheney was presenting a gift to a military man, and he chose something with an appropriate theme: "(A) complete set of videotapes of Ken Burns's PBS series, The Civil War."

But that wasn't the only gift that Dick Cheney had for Norman Schwarzkopf. Having figured out that the general was being too cautious with his fourth combat command in three decades of soldiering, Cheney got his staff busy and began presenting Schwarzkopf with his own ideas about how to fight the Iraqis: What if we parachute the 82nd Airborne into the far western part of Iraq, hundreds of miles from Kuwait and totally cut off from any kind of support, and seize a couple of missile sites, then line up along the highway and drive for Baghdad? Schwarzkopf charitably describes the plan as being "as bad as it could possibly be... But despite our criticism, the western excursion wouldn't die: three times in that week alone Powell called with new variations from Cheney's staff. The most bizarre involved capturing a town in western Iraq and offering it to Saddam in exchange for Kuwait." (Throw in a Pete Rose rookie card?) None of this Walter Mitty posturing especially surprised Schwarzkopf, who points out that he'd already known Cheney as "one of the fiercest cold warriors in Congress.This is not a man worth trusting.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

On the Backs of the Poor

| Tue Nov. 8, 2005 3:17 PM EST

According to the Washington Post, the Republican Congressional leadership is having trouble finding enough moderate Republican votes to agree to the 2006 budget, which would shave a mere 0.002 percent of federal spending—yes, that's all—by hacking apart important programs for the poor and middle classes. Those cuts would include making Medicaid recipients pay more, hacking student loans, weakening child support enforcement, and limting food stamps. The president, compassionate guy that he is, has promised to veto the Senate's alternative cuts, which would instead save $10 billion by getting rid of a "slush fund" for insurance companies buried in the 2003 Medicare bill. In fact, despite what the Post's headline says, this isn't even fiscal discipline on the part of Congress—the full Republican budget would increase the deficit by $16 billion over five years, due to $70 billion in new tax cuts that were passed separately.

In the end, it seems likely that Hastert and company will get their budget passed, even if they have to twist moderate arms and resort to all the legislative gimmickry in the books. They've done it before. They might even have to jettison ANWR drilling from the bill in order to make it palatable to "moderates"—who will bravely vote to limit food stamps and health care for the powerless—and just sneak it back into the budget later on. Republicans are good at this. Nevertheless, "liberal activists"—at least that's what the Post calls them; one might also say "people with decency"—are putting up a strong fight against the cuts, trying to pressure moderate Republicans:

"It's a different group every week, coming in here, making calls," said John Gentzel, communications director for Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), whose suburban Philadelphia district has been "saturated" with budget protests. "It's just one group after another."…

This week, Democrats will hold a conference call with a Wisconsin college student to talk about student loan cuts and will serve lunch at a District school to highlight the budget's impact on subsidized school lunches. They will also stage a mock hearing to tar the entire budget as an effort to finance tax cuts for the rich on the backs of the poor.Note the Post's language—it's the Democrats who are going to "tar the entire budget." What exactly does this mean? The budget quite obviously is an effort to finance tax cuts for the rich on the backs of the poor. What else would you possibly call it? Who benefits from tax cuts? Who benefits from Medicaid? Which one is getting passed, and which one hacked? The New York Times, refreshingly, actually saw through this budget nonsense, and tore it apart, but the Post can't seem to do anything other than give friendly cover to the Republican Party. No doubt they think it's more "objective" that way.

Europeans have it better?

| Tue Nov. 8, 2005 1:55 PM EST

Today at Mother Jones:

James K. Galbraith knocks a few holes in the notion that Europeans have it better than Americans. (LINK)

Bill McKibben explores the Brazilian city of Curitiba, a global model for development that both respects the earth and delights its inhabitants. (LINK)

Sara Catania profiles hellraising Ukrainian journalist Olena Prytula, whose newspaper keeps the Orange Revolutionaries honest. (LINK)

Nick Turse considers who had the real intel about the war -- the protesters who knew it would be a disaster and that, in any case, it was wrong. (LINK)

Tova Andrea Wang and Jonah H. Goldman argue that requiring voters to present a nationally uniform driver's license at the polls compromises voter rights and won't solve the problem of electoral fraud. (LINK)

The Truth About Free-Riders

| Mon Nov. 7, 2005 9:44 PM EST

The latest issue of the British Medical Journal has an excellent article on American drug companies. To put this in context, recall that of late, the pharmaceutical industry has been lobbying the U.S. government to sign "free" trade deals with other countries that would: raise prices on patented drugs; extend patent protection to delay the introduction of generics; and block "re-importation" to the United States. Why would they do such a thing? Because, says Big Pharma, the rest of the world hasn't been paying its "fair share" of research expenditures, and it's time for them to stop free-riding. Which brings us to the BMJ article, which basically screams "Liar!"

The United States government is engaged in a campaign to characterise other industrialised countries as free riding on high US pharmaceutical prices and innovation in new drugs...

The campaign, strongly backed by the pharmaceutical industry, seems to have started in the late 1990s as a response to a grass roots movement started by senior citizens against the high prices of essential prescription drugs. This issue was the most prominent one for both parties in the 2000 elections and has since been fuelled by a series of independent reports documenting that US drug prices are much higher than those in other affluent countries...

We can find no convincing evidence to support the view that the lower prices in affluent countries outside the United States do not pay for research and development costs. The latest report from the UK Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme documents that drug companies in the United Kingdom invest proportionately more of their revenues from domestic sales in research and development than do companies in the US.

Prices in the UK are much lower than those in the US yet profits remain robust. Companies in other countries also fully recover their research and development costs, maintain high profits, and sell drugs at substantially lower prices than in the US.Interestingly, the U.S. pharmaceutical industry's claim that European countries "free ride" seems to be based primarily on a 2004 report produced by Bain & Company, a consulting group in Boston. (The AARP passed it widely around.) But that report doesn't provide any evidence for its claim that "innovative drugs" are somehow less available in Europe as a result of overly-low prices. Perhaps American pharmaceutical companies aren't marketing their absolute latest and flashiest patented drugs in Europe, true. But considering how many of these are "me-too" drugs with little to no significant medical benefit, perhaps it's no surprise that Europeans aren't suffering much for the loss.

The IRS finally looks at church/state separation

| Mon Nov. 7, 2005 7:50 PM EST

After Justice Sunday passed this year, some of us were wondering whether the Internal Revenue Service would ever investigate blatantly political churches like Two Rivers Baptist in Nashville.

Now, we learn that the IRS is indeed going after a church for political involvement: All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena may lose its tax-exempt status because its rector, J. Edwin Bacon, preached an anti-war sermon two days before the 2004 election.

In all fairness, it should be noted that in 1992, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of a Binghamton, New York church because it ran ads opposing the candidacy of Bill Clinton. The tax code explicitly prohibits churches from becoming involved in campaigns and elections. Though an argument can be made that opposing the war in Iraq was a campaign issue in 2004, the same argument can be made that August's Justice Sunday, which involved many churches, was a direct promotion of the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts. Then there is the matter of large tax-exempt church-related organizations such as Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition, which routinely involved themselves in election matters.

I am opposed to the tax exempt status of churches because I perceive them as primarily as private clubs at the least, and agents of social control at their very worst. But if the tax-exempt status is to remain in place--and we know it is--how odd that, after thirteen years, the only target is a liberal institution in California.

Wal-Mart in the Sights

Mon Nov. 7, 2005 4:38 PM EST

The latest issue of the American Prospect features a piece reiterating charges of cruel working conditions at those Central American plants where Wal-Mart sources a good deal of its clothing. So what's new? The source of the charges. Harold Meyerson profiles Jim Bill Lynn, who in 2002 took over the company's internal labor monitoring program. And after being drummed out on an unrelated violation of the company's fraternization policy, he's not happy. According to Lynn, the company undermined his findings of actual malfeasance and sought to limit his investigatory powers after he reported back to the behemoth's Bentonville headquarters and agitated for genuine accountability.

But more interesting than the charges, is how the article is coordinated with the upcoming release of Robert Greenwald's (the director of Outfoxed and Uncovered) new film WAL-MART: The High Cost of Low Prices. It's the newest evidence of the growing coalition of labor, human rights, community, and environmental groups that are questioning Wal-Mart's business model. It will be quite interesting to watch the groups at work over the coming months (and indeed years) to see what sort of concessions they may be able to win from America's largest corporation, while still holding a diverse group of partners—with differing short term goals—together.

 

Taken on its own, it will surely be a big battle. But if successful, it could provide the blueprint for a bigger coalition that might be able to emerge to take bigger underlying questions about the nature of today's corporate capitalism. In any case, it seems to have Wal-Mart quite scared; last week The New York Times explained how company has drawn a page—and staff members—from the political world, to set up its own rapid-response war room.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Lie Factory

| Mon Nov. 7, 2005 4:11 PM EST

New at Mother Jones:

On Mother Jones Radio Robert Dreyfuss explains how in the run-up to war the Bush administration—with Scooter Libby a major player—set up a "lie factory" in the White House to push bogus intelligence about Iraq. (LINK)

Gary Greenberg details how a pulverized, liquefied, and doctor-prescribed form of marijuana could transform the drug-war landscape. (LINK)

Tom Engelhardt proposes a "Wall of Shame" to honor the Bush administration for having "heaped favor, position, and honors on those who have blundered, lied, manipulated, and broken the law (not to say, cracked open the Constitution and the republic)." (LINK)

Montana's Governor Brian Schweitzer makes the case for synthetic fuels—including gasoline derived from coal; they might just give us a push down the road to energy independence. (LINK)

Forcing People to Save

| Mon Nov. 7, 2005 3:26 PM EST

I shouldn't really discuss Sperling's book any more until I actually, um, read it, but here's another point he brings up. One consistent plank of Democratic economic policy is the idea of "forced savings." Liberals rebelled, rightly, against privatizing Social Security and replacing social insurance with individual stock portfolios. Nevertheless, most Democrats believe that we should still have some sort of "add-on accounts" that would force short-sighted Americans to save for retirement. Some economists even believe that a higher savings rate will lead to higher economic growth, and exhort us so. Seems fair, but let's look at the numbers here more closely.

Looking at the BLS's 2003 Consumer Survey, the people who save in this country are overwhelmingly wealthy. The bottom income quintile pulls home $8,201 a year before taxes, and spends $18,492. Meanwhile, the top quintile hauls home $127,146 a year before taxes, and spends $81,731. The poor are borrowing to the hilt and the rich are happy to oblige them. At the end of 2004, the amount of after tax income that went towards debt service was roughly 16 percent, and those numbers are much higher for low-income families. Bankruptcies are skyrocketing. So why are these families borrowing so much? Robert Pollin of EPI put out a study in 1990 arguing that the bottom 40 percent of Americans were borrowing to compensate for stagnant or falling wages. More recently, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Tyagi's Two-Income Trap compiled similar evidence—the 6,000 percent increase in credit card debt between 1968 and 2000 didn't come about because people were buying frivolities; they're simply trying to tread water.

Now obviously if you're in the creditor class, this state of affairs looks pretty damn good. Not only do you earn interest on your surplus funds, but mass borrowing among low-income Americans reduces pressure for higher wages, by letting them buy stuff they couldn't otherwise afford, and it certainly makes America look like a middle-class consumer society, thus staving off the angry hordes. (For neoliberals who believe that society will be "fair" when everyone can own a prom gown, this state of affairs looks very good. Ditto for those who think we should measure poverty by whether or not a person can afford a refrigerator.) One might also note that workers with their Visas maxed out are much, much less likely to go on strike, agitate for social change, or do anything dangerous. As they say, it's a feature, not a bug. Foucault would be proud.

The downside, of course, is that among the lower classes, very few people have much wealth to speak of. The richest 10 percent of Americans own 79.8 percent of all financial assets. The bottom 40 percent, collectively, own as much in liabilities as in assets. (Average wealth among the bottom 10 percent has been consistently declining since the 1960s.) Among minorities, especially African-Americans and non-white Hispanics, the disparities are even worse. In 2001, the average black household had a net worth equal to about 14 percent of the average white household. It's a real problem.

So the answer, then, is forced savings, right? Well, I don't know. If real wages had been growing at a decent clip these past three decades, households might have saved much more than they did. So that's one leftist solution, along with Edward Wolff's idea of a wealth tax. Government-funded savings incentives, tax shelters and the like, ultimately work as a subsidy to the wealthy, who as we've seen are the lucky few who can truly afford to save. Having the government drop extra pennies in the accounts of the poor will help, but barely cancel out the staggering liabilities among the poorest 40 percent. And what about the larger economic benefits to savings? Will boosting the savings rate in this country increase growth? Hard to say. In this congressional testimony, James K. Galbraith noted that increasing the savings rate—by government fiat, say—could just as easily depress consumption. Traditionally, economists haul out graphs showing that higher savings rates are associated with periods of higher economic growth, but it might just be that it's the latter causing the former (i.e., wages rise so people can save more). A bit of skepticism never hurts.

Pro-Growth Progressives

| Mon Nov. 7, 2005 2:17 PM EST

Needless to say, liberals have been way too fond of agreeing with each other since Bush came to office, so it's time for a bit of ideological bickering. Over at TPMCafe's BookClub this week, Gene Sperling is discussing his new book, The Pro-Growth Progressive, which apparently tries to reconcile liberal and policies to promote economic growth. So, for instance, we get calls for "fiscal discipline," and individual forced savings, along with plans to strengthen health and education, which policies will supposedly make our workforce more "competitive." Oh yeah, and free trade uber alles. (By which I assume he means ending protectionism for blue-collar workers, and not for professionals or pharmaceutical companies.) In other words, DLC policies are the real pro-growth platform; accept no substitutes!

Now I haven't read Sperling's book yet—it's sitting on my desk and looks good—but color me unconvinced so far. At most, this looks like tinkering at the margins. Yes, yes, as a country we should certainly be investing in universal health care, strengthening public education, and providing other support services for working families and individuals—though not because these policies will definitely boost economic growth, but because they're the bare minimum requirements of a decent society. Any benefits that accrue from acting decent—IWPR, for instance, has argued that providing seven days of sick leave to workers would save companies $21 billion a year—are mere niceties. If they were a drag on growth, we should still do them.

Would better education be good for economic growth, and help people get the jobs they need, as Alan Greenspan would argue? Perhaps at some level, but that's not the core problem here; read "The Job Ghetto" by Katherine D. Newman and Chauncey Lennon and it becomes clear that educated workers in Harlem are being turned away from work they're perfectly qualified to do. Or read this old post. A lack of jobs and wage support, rather than a lack of education, is the thorny brush here. Meanwhile, a single-payer health care system will, of course, relieve businesses of the burden of dealing with health insurance, and that will give GM, Ford, and the rest a tidy boost in profits—and might even make them competitive, as Tom Friedman loves to say—but so long as globalization continues to further inequality, and workers see little of the benefits of economic growth, there's not much reason to care.

So here's where we part ways. Ultimately, the Democratic Party is still toeing the old Newt Gingrich line on macroeconomic policy, which is roughly: let the Fed do its job crushing inflation—and raising rates when unemployment gets "too low"—and get the budget back into balance. Then fiddle with progressive policy. This has been the ideal despite the fact that the late '90s showed that unemployment can go much, much lower than previously thought, and the Fed's rigid enforcement of 6-7 percent unemployment during the Reagan, Bush I, and early Clinton years was a swindle of colossal proportions, keeping wages stagnant. Jared Bernstein and Dean Baker are a must read on this. Meanwhile, the "fiscal discipline" obsession I don't get; if we repealed the Bush tax cuts and spent all of that money on health and education, we would still have those big deficits, but that wouldn't be a problem. Take care of people and our kids will be smart enough to figure it out. After that, it's time to reduce inequality and ensure that any future gains in productivity are shared with workers, rather than fattening corporate profits. There are other ideas but we're running out of space.

Not that the DLC platform—which, as best I can tell, is what Sperling's supporting—isn't worth fighting for. It's good. Great, even. Things like the EITC make a real difference in people's lives. I'd canvas for it. It's probably "good politics" too, for all I know. But what I'd prefer, as I wrote in a book review back in April (which has a lot more examples of the sort), is for the Democratic Party to come up with an actual economic vision, rather than an array of wonky policies to tack onto the current structure of American capitalism. As Jack Kemp always said, if you're going to go for it, you should really go for it. Especially if you're not even running for election.

In Guantanamo for... Satire?

Fri Nov. 4, 2005 7:03 PM EST

Roughly one hundred prisoners in U.S. custody are sitting in undisclosed locations across Eastern Europe. There are hundreds more at Guantanamo Bay. There many more in Iraq and Afghanistan. There could be many others elsewhere. And no one really knows how many are guilty or innocent, because the administration and the military have continually refused to grant the vast majority of detainees anything resembling a trial.

From Tom Tomorrow comes this Newsday report about two innocent brothers who were lucky enough to be set free. As is often said to be the case, the pair thinks an old rival took advantage of the United States' "imprison first, ask questions later" mentality and turned them in to settle his grudge. Three years of detention followed. And for what nefarious act were the brothers repeatedly questioned? Read on:

Badr Zaman Badr and his brother Abdurrahim Muslim Dost relish writing a good joke that jabs a corrupt politician or distills the sufferings of fellow Afghans. Badr admires the political satires in "The Canterbury Tales" and "Gulliver's Travels," and Dost wrote some wicked lampoons in the 1990s, accusing Afghan mullahs of growing rich while preaching and organizing jihad. …

For months, grim interrogators grilled them over a satirical article Dost had written in 1998, when the Clinton administration offered a $5-million reward for Osama bin Laden. Dost responded that Afghans put up 5 million Afghanis—equivalent to $113—for the arrest of President Bill Clinton.

"It was a lampoon ... of the poor Afghan economy" under the Taliban, Badr recalled. The article carefully instructed Afghans how to identify Clinton if they stumbled upon him. "It said he was clean-shaven, had light-colored eyes and he had been seen involved in a scandal with Monica Lewinsky," Badr said.

The interrogators, some flown down from Washington, didn't get the joke, he said. "Again and again, they were asking questions about this article. We had to explain that this was a satire." He paused. "It was really pathetic."

Badr's right. The detentions, the lack of trails, the unbelievably poor work of the interrogators and analysts… it is really pathetic.