Mojo - January 2006

Cracking Down on Protests

| Tue Jan. 31, 2006 4:48 PM PST

The Secret Service will have a much easier time breaking up protests and arresting protestors if the latest version of the Patriot Act passes, according to Fox News:

A new provision tucked into the Patriot Act bill now before Congress would allow authorities to haul demonstrators at any "special event of national significance" away to jail on felony charges if they are caught breaching a security perimeter.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, sponsored the measure, which would extend the authority of the Secret Service to allow agents to arrest people who willingly or knowingly enter a restricted area at an event, even if the president or other official normally protected by the Secret Service isn't in attendance at the time.Just to be clear, the Secret Service already has the power to haul demonstrators away on felony charges if they breach a "security perimeter" while the president or other VIPs are around. But now, apparently, that power's being extended to occasions when no one important is in the area. From the looks of things, the Secret Service could name just about anything they wanted a "special event of national significance" and lock up anyone who crashes. Why? What possible security purpose does this serve, besides clamping down on dissent?

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State of the Union

| Tue Jan. 31, 2006 1:16 PM PST

Can't imagine why anyone would possibly want to watch the State of the Union, but it's tonight for those interested. Charlie Cook pointed out the other day that the only address in recent memory that was even remotely "important" was Bill Clinton's in 1998, when the president strode in after the Monica Lewinsky scandal had erupted and showed everyone that it was business as usual in Washington, life would go on, and there was no constitutional crisis in the offing. (Well, more specifically, the purpose of the speech was to show the media that life would go on; most of the rest of the country didn't actually think the affair was the end of the world.)

At any rate, E.J. Dionne has a great column today noting that whatever President Bush might say in his speech tonight about "boldness" and "vision" and "reform," it's been business as usual in the Republican-controlled Congress, where the upcoming budget vote will slash genuinely important programs for the poor while cutting taxes on the wealthy. (And increasing the deficit all the while—as it turns out, anti-poverty programs are relatively cheap, while tax cuts blow a big hole in the budget.) Dionne's right, there should be moral outrage over this.

There aren't really any new and dazzling ways to spin the GOP's disastrous budget, although we can note some of the consequences: among other things, the non-partisan CBO pointed out that as a result of recent Medicaid cuts, millions and millions of low-income Americans could lose their coverage or face higher payments. The indefatigable folks at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as usual, have the gory details.

Vets for Congress

Mon Jan. 30, 2006 4:01 PM PST

Eric Massa is an interesting character. He's a naval veteran running for Congress as a Democrat in New York's 29th district. He was profiled at Mother Jones, along with other vets running for Congress, back in October and since then the meme has really taken off. Yesterday Massa posted at TPMCafe (where he's a regular contributor) in an effort to let the world know the vets-for-congress movement has now reached 53 Democrats. Massa is extremely bright and his campaign website has lots of content on tough issues, all thought through and written by the candidate himself. (He even has a blog.) He's running against an incumbent who barely won his last race—this puts Massa in a different position than most of his fellow veterans. A lot of the Democratic veterans are running in solidly Republican districts, where they hope their military background will make voters comfortable with voting for a Democrat.

The Pentagon's Private Army

| Mon Jan. 30, 2006 3:57 PM PST

This seems like it should be bigger news. Congress has recently granted the Pentagon $200 million to aid foreign militaries, a sum which the executive branch can now spend without oversight from either the State Department or the legislature. That means the military can spend money training and equipping foreign armies without following constraints that require that the aid recipients meet certain standards, "including respect for human rights and protection of legitimate civilian authorities." And military leaders will now be able to set a small but potentially important aspect of foreign policy without input from the State Department.

Perhaps there's a case to be made that the old oversight rules were too byzantine, and, as administration officials argued to the Post, the old way of doing things was hindering U.S. attempts to provide security assistance in "crisis situations." But the opportunities for abuse here are pretty self-evident. Among other things, the Pentagon wants to use the funds for "fighting terror and bolstering stability" in Africa. But we know that the United States has fostered a "close intelligence relationship" with, for instance, the regime in Sudan that's currently responsible for genocide in Darfur, all in the interest of fighting terror. Is further assistance on the way? Is this really the sort of thing that demands less, rather than more, oversight?

What Baby Boom Crisis?

| Mon Jan. 30, 2006 1:28 PM PST

Ezra Klein puts up a few nice charts and graphs showing that, relatively, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation simply isn't going to be the devastating demographic shift that many pundits make it out to be. Good stuff; and as a bonus, here's my favorite way to put the so-called "old-age crisis" in context. As we've heard many times, the future unfunded increases in spending associated with the aging of the population are going to require a tax hike of about 6.5 percent of GDP to close the gap. (Personally, I think it will be much less than that, since the problems with both Social Security and Medicare are wildly overstated, but let's say 6.5 percent.)

That sounds like a lot, but it's hardly unprecedented. Between 1950 and 1952, note, the federal tax burden jumped suddenly from 14.4 percent to 19 percent as a result of the Korean War, a leap in defense spending that was more or less permanent for the duration the Cold War. Now that increase came in just a few years—rather than gradually over decades, as would be the case to pay for Social Security and Medicare—and it was entirely manageable. The economy didn't implode. Life went on.

It would be nice to figure a way to curtail the cost of health care in the future, and obviously a lower tax burden is better than a higher one whenever possible, but even in the worst case, we're not talking about Armageddon here. We wouldn't even be up to European levels of taxation. As Max Sawicky has gone over in gruesome detail, bringing federal revenues back up to around 20 percent of GDP—only slightly higher than the long-term historical average—is perfectly adequate to maintain current spending levels and keep our debt ratios sustainable. Beyond that, thanks to the magic of productivity, those "overtaxed" Americans of the future will still be much richer in real terms than people are today. Slicing up a bit more of all that extra pie to ensure that the workers who brought this country to where it is today can have a decent retirement is a perfectly sensible way to go.

Irrationality in Politics

| Mon Jan. 30, 2006 12:25 PM PST

Is there a neurological explanation for blind partisanship? According to this press release, scientists, using fMRI scans, have found that when "committed Democrats and Republicans" are faced with criticism of their favorite politician, they show no increase in activity of the parts of their brains associated with reasoning. (Incidentally, or not, the subjects of the study were all men.) That's not all that surprising, really, although I wonder whether this holds equally for all education groups, or whether it's possible to train oneself not to do this. At any rate, one could note that a good number of media types who worship at the altar of "non-partisanship" tend to turn off the rational bits in their brains fairly frequently…

On a related note, economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Ebonya Washington recently put out a paper suggesting that voters have an irrational preference for the candidates they've just voted for. They found that twenty-year-olds who had voted in a particular election two years prior showed more polarization in their opinions about the elected candidates than did nineteen-year-olds who, incidentally, missed the chance to vote that year. (Assuming, of course, that there's no other reason why twenty-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds should have such different political views.)

Meanwhile, Senators who are elected in high-turnout presidential years are more polarizing figures among the public than those elected in off-years. That could partially explain why incumbents keep winning, and suggests that term limits, perhaps, could inject a bit more rationality into politics. Although if that's the goal, we're a fair ways off.

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Substantial amount of AIDS funding goes to religious groups

| Sun Jan. 29, 2006 4:37 PM PST

There was a time in America when the above headline would not have aroused suspicion;; we would have expected a certain number of religious organizations to apply for and receive grants to help fight a serious syndrome that causes devastating disease and death. Religious organizations have taken an active role in promoting a number of social programs, from the Vietnamese resettlement effort to providing food for the nation's poor.

What makes the headline different this time around is the conflict between what is needed to overcome the AIDS virus, and what is taught by many of the religious organizations receiving grants. Take, for example, Catholic Relief Services, which was awarded $6.2 million to teach "abstinence and fidelity" in three countries. The group claims it offers "complete and accurate" information about condoms, but does not promote, purchase, or distribute them.

Or World Relief, a group established by the Natonal Association of Evangelicals. World Relief receieved $9.7 million to do abstincence work in four countries. Samaritan's Purse provides community education about AIDS, though not without education about Christianity, and World Vision, also operates an educational prevention program which "may include" information on condom use.

In other words, 23% of the White House's $15 billion AIDS package has gone to groups who either do not even mention the word "condom," or who mention it only as a last resort.

It is important to point out that the use of condoms is not a tidy solution to the problem of AIDS in poor countries:

Many men in Africa, especially South Africa, believe that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. This belief (a 3-year study of 28,000 men in South Africa showed that 1 in 5 of them believed in this "cure") has led to a rise in infant rape.

In South Africa, a woman is raped every 20 seconds.

In poor countries, girls and women are often forced into prostitution by poverty or family coercion.

In many cultures, the use of condoms in marriage indicates a lack of trust, yet in these same cultures, there is often a lot of sex outside of marriage.

To solve these very serious problems, there must be massive education, and strong programs to empower women. Rape victims, prostitutes, and adolecent brides cannot expect to have any success in suggesting the use of condoms or--in the case of the latter two groups--providing condoms to their sex partners. But condoms are part of the answer for family planning, for marriages in which AIDS education has taken place, and among young men and women who learn about what causes the spread of AIDS.

Though condom use cannot solve the problems of rape (including sanctioned marital rape), forced prostitution, and female powerlessness, it is a vital part of the solution once AIDS education and female empowerment have begun to take hold. Teaching abstinence to hundreds of thousands of potential rape victims, on the other hand, does nothing but further endanger the people it is supposed to be helping.

Are Europeans Against the Death Penalty?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 4:10 PM PST

Also in yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Felix Rohatyn says that the Supreme Court should abolish the death penalty in order to improve our standing in the world. Sort of. I certainly oppose the death penalty, but I want to nitpick something here:

During my four years as the American ambassador to France, I discovered that no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty... Contempt for the laws of our allies is a major factor in our increasing isolation in the world...

Taking the views of 450 million Europeans into account is not a sign of weakness on our part, nor is it a commitment to change our views. It is simply recognition that the laws of our most important allies, our biggest foreign investors, foreign employers, foreign customers and trading partners are worthy of our attention. But in all likelihood, we already are taking the views of "450 million Europeans" into account... by keeping the death penalty. International popular opinion, for the most part, is very much in favor of killing criminals. Canadians seem to love executions almost as much as Americans do—around 70 percent were in favor of capital punishment in 1995, although this support may be shallow. See similar results in Britain. And Italy. Even in Sweden and France the death penalty has close to majority support. It's just that their leaders disagree.

Admittedly, I don't think American political institutions are very democratic. Still, our politicians seem to have mirrored popular opinion on this issue, at least, better than parliaments in other countries. My guess is that this is because we vote for candidates rather than parties: a candidate can always use the death penalty debate to say something about him/herself as a person, so he or she is more likely to demagogue on the subject. In other words, candidate-centered systems may be more responsive to popular opinion on "moral" or "cultural" issues. (The downside is that the candidate-centric system also explains, in part, why we don't have universal health care—it's much easier for a centralized party to design, pass, and implement this sort of thing than it is a loose coalition of elected officials).

At any rate, it seems questionable that abolishing the death penalty would actually endear us to all Europeans. Of course, what Rohatyn really meant is that it will increase America's standing and respect—its "soft power," if you will—among European leaders. The sort of people that someone like Rohatyn would actually be talking to in his four years in France. Now that's an important goal, since it makes it somewhat more likely that those leaders will adopt American norms, or trust American intentions, or whatever. But respect among leaders and intellectuals isn't everything. Ideally we also want to increase our standing and respect among populations in other countries, since popular opinion constrains what those world leaders can do. And it's not obvious that abolishing the death penalty for minors will win us that many fans among the masses abroad.

How Many Innocent People in Prison?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 3:25 PM PST

The main point of Joshua Marquis' New York Times op-ed seems to be that most people in prison are guilty—that is, contrary to the sorts of things you see on "In Justice" or "CSI," courts don't send an overwhelming number of innocent people to jail, and the handful of death row inmates whose convictions were overturned on DNA evidence represent a very small sample. Overall, Marquis calculates, the court system has an extremely high (99.97) percent accuracy rate: "most industries would like to claim such a record of efficiency."

Okay, even if those numbers are right—and if they are, that's still no reason to get complacent about the problems with the justice system—I'd add one other statistic here. According to a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, 51.8 percent of all ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years. Of those, over half go back not for committing new crimes but for technical violations of parole—a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job. Most people in prison are guilty? Depends on how you define it.

A Quality Flip-Flop

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 2:58 PM PST

Kudos to the president, who looks like he's ready to do the right thing about Iran:

President Bush's endorsement of a plan to end the nuclear standoff with Iran by giving the Islamic republic nuclear fuel for civilian use under close monitoring has left some of his supporters baffled.

One cause for the chagrin is that the proposal, which is backed by Russia, essentially adopts a strategy advocated by Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts.Well, yes, this was John Kerry's strategy in 2004, and he was roundly ridiculed for it at the time, but who cares? Everyone should continue advocating craven appeasement of Iran until it actually starts happening. As I've said before, there's no reason not to try an offer like this. At worst, the Iranians reject it (they're wavering now) and everyone goes to Plan B or C or D or whatever we're up to. At best, war is averted.