This is getting annoying. Once again, the White House is floating the notion (on page A1, no less) that its soon-to-be-proposed tax deductions for health expenses are somehow "designed to help the uninsured." They are not. Making progress on the 45 million uninsured people in this country will cost about $80-100 billion per year. There's no getting around that number. Bush will not propose anything of the sort.

Tax deductions will do little to help those who currently pay no federal income taxes—or are in the 10 or 15 percent bracket—which includes the majority of the uninsured. Tax deductions will largely help those making over $50,000 who currently can afford insurance but just don't value it enough to get it. If the president's tax deductions look anything like what he proposed on the campaign trail, then, according to CBPP, they will actually increase the number of uninsured by 350,000 while costing tens of billions of dollars. That's all.

Marc Lynch raises some crucial questions about Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections yesterday:

Hamas winning and presumably moving to form a government is the first real instance of an Islamist movement on the brink of winning power democratically since 1992 [i.e., since the FIS won elections in Algeria, only to be denied power by a military coup].

If [Hamas takes] power, we are going to see some major political science propositions put to the test: does power moderate or radicalize Islamist groups? Will they be willing and able to work with non-Islamist parties in a coalition? Will they use their democratic victory to abolish democracy? Will Islamist groups concentrate on the pragmatics of rule or resort to foreign policy grandstanding? Will they use their position of power to pursue terrorism? Will they be willing to set aside doctrine and work pragmatically with Israelis and Americans? Will they use government power to impose unpopular sharia rule over their people? Will they oppress Christian and non-Islamist Muslims?I'm not sure anyone knows the answers for sure. A handful of reasons for optimism: Hamas has mostly adhered to the ceasefire over the past six months, certainly more strictly than Fatah has; at the local level, where it has previously won elections, Hamas has been dealing with Israel regularly and for the most part has focused solely on day-to-day governing and economic development, rather than talking up the virtues of a sharia state. And judging from recent polling, most Palestinians would support a compromise peace settlement with Israel, and increasingly are souring on Hamas' armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Popular opinion could prove a moderating force. On the other hand, this is Hamas, after all—it's still a terrorist group with extreme views, a bloody reputation, and clandestine wings ready to resume attacks against Israel at any time.

At any rate, here's an insightful—and I assume fairly firsthand—account of how and why Hamas actually won the elections, courtesy of a commenter on As'ad Abu Khalil's site:

It is only partially (and I stress partially) true that the vote for Hamas was a vote against [the largely corrupt] Fatah, but it was much more than a protest vote. The candidates that Hamas fielded were… by and large very qualified candidates who are well known and respected in their districts. They are well-educated professionals including doctors, professors, teachers, etc.

What struck me was the level of organization, dedication and quiet self-confidence of the Hamas campaign. In most polling districts Hamas volunteers, armed with computers, helped voters locate their names in the registries and their polling place. Early in the evening, most pollsters were predicting a Fatah win, but as early as 6 hours after the close of the polls, Hamas was quietly and confidently saying that their internal counts (based on volunteers at every polling station) showed them winning more than 70 seats (not far from the actual outcome). To me that was very impressive.

An interesting factor that could explain why the exit polls did not predict the outcome is that many voters (especially among police and security services) were afraid to tell the pollster that they had voted for Hamas.

A win like this does not come easy. Hamas worked hard in the face of large obstacles to achieve it. In the face of US and European financing for Fatah and some so-called "independents," Hamas financed its campaign (with a smaller budget) by asking for a 10% contribution from the salaries of its cadres. In addition, they received free support from thousands of volunteers. Hamas proved the value of its grassroots organization.One could also wonder how much Western support ended up hurting Fatah at the polls. Also note that if more than 6 percent of the some 250,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem had been allowed to vote, the election might have turned out differently. This bit, from the same commenter, is also interesting, and perhaps a sign of things to come:

The second observation is that Hamas, before and after the election, is reaching out to all Palestinians, including Fatah. There is no gloating in their victory; instead they emphasize national unity and partnership. During the campaign, I tried to keep up with the pronouncements of both Fatah and Hamas. To Hamas' credit they did not engage in smear campaigns, dirty tricks, name calling, etc which Fatah used. I think that Hamas set a much better tone and an example, and that, no doubt, helped it.
In that vein, the International Crisis Group paper on how the U.S. and Europe can encourage a moderate Hamas-led government is interesting:
Western countries have not done the one thing that might have had a positive impact: try to shape Hamas's policies by exploiting its clear desire for international recognition and legitimacy. There is every reason for the West to withhold formal dealings at a national level, at least until it renounces attacks against civilians and drops its opposition to a two-state solution, but the current confused approach – boycotting Hamas while facilitating its electoral participation; facilitating its participation without seeking through some engagement reciprocal concessions – makes no sense at all.

Without conferring immediate legitimacy on Hamas, engaging its national officials or removing it from the terrorism list, the EU in particular – which has more flexibility than the U.S. in this regard – should encourage the Islamists to focus on day-to-day matters and facilitate a process of potential political integration and gradual military decommissioning. With Prime Minister Sharon's sudden incapacitation, an already impossibly perplexing situation has become more confused still. Using Western economic and political leverage to try to stabilise the Palestinian arena would be far from the worst possible investment.All of that seems sensible, worth trying, and hardly naïve about what Hamas is and what it's known for. As Marc Lynch points out, if the United States doesn't even give Hamas a chance, that will further undercut perceptions about its commitment to democracy in the Middle East. On the other hand, Israel may not prefer to try to moderate Hamas—after all, it's much easier to justify the security barrier and settlements in the West Bank if there's an extremist group on the other side. I guess we'll find out when the Israeli elections come around.

more: Jonathan Edelstein is, as always, endlessly informative.

Over the past week, I've been reading the San Jose Mercury News' massive and much-recommended five-part series, "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice." Based on a three-year investigation, the report looks at 727 court cases in Santa Clara County over a five year period. In over a third of the cases, the paper found, trials were marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendants—who, judging from the case studies, tended to be minorities and poor—and a number of cases led to wrongful convictions. Among the findings:

  • In nearly 100 cases, prosecutors engaged in questionable conduct, including withholding evidence, defying a judge's orders or misleading juries. "Experts say individual prosecutors reflect the dominant culture in their office, and too often it's all about winning rather than ethics and fairness." Often district attorney offices are extremely slow—taking years and years—to discipline prosecutors who overstep their bounds.
  • In about 100 cases, defense attorneys neglected to do even the most basic independent investigation—interviewing witnesses or gathering evidence—or to raise objections to questionable prosecution tactics. In some cases they didn't even appear to know basic criminal law. Note that this applies to both public defenders, who are notorious for this sort of behavior, and private attorneys, who will often take cases for relatively low fees and make profits by avoiding a time-consuming trial.
  • In over 160 cases, judges failed to oversee trials impartially—allowing improper evidence or improperly favoring the prosecution—and repeatedly failed to properly instruct juries. This may partly come from the fact that judges are elected, and no one wants to appear "soft on crime." (This also means that judges tend to come from the ranks of prosecutors, and the relationship between the two groups is fairly cozy.)
  • In more than 100 cases, the 6th District Court of Appeal upheld verdicts even while acknowledging trial errors, deeming them ``harmless.'' While that might have been true in some of the cases, judges devised questionable rationales to dismiss others.It's shocking stuff, even for those already cynical about the justice system. The 6th District Court, by the way, upholds 97 percent of all convictions yet publishes only 2 percent of its rulings, which is the lowest in the state, so a bit of transparency certainly seems in order here.
  • The Mercury News was "unable to determine" whether Santa Clara County was particularly dysfunctional or whether its problems mirrored those of justice systems elsewhere in the country. I'd note that Santa Clara, while relatively liberal in most things, is considered a "tough on crime" region, one of the six highest sentencing counties in California during the '90s, with law enforcement agencies that practiced "broken windows" policing and invoked the "Three Strikes" law at extremely high rates. Interestingly, in the 1990s, San Francisco under the "ultraliberal" DA Terrence Hallinan saw its crime rate decrease much more rapidly than Santa Clara's did. Go figure. At any rate, read the series, it's a good one.

    There has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have the responsibility to do.

    The Bush administration is stonewalling the Congress.

    We have been trying--without success--to obtain Secretary Rumsfeld's cooperation for months.

    Though these statements sound like statements made during the September 11 Commission's failed attempt to get the administration to cooperate with its investigation, they are, rather, statements recently made about the administration's failure to cooperate with two Congressional committees investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina.

    As before, the White House is citing executive branch confidentiality in refusing to turn over requested documents. These documents include Katrina-related emails and other communications among White House staff members. The administration has also refused requests for testimony from White House chief of staff Andrew H. Carrd Jr., deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, domestic security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend, and her deputy, Ken Rapuano.

    Senator Susan Collins, says it is "completely inappropriate" that that witnesses "have told us when we begin to ask about any communications with the White House" that they cannot respond, even if the discussions are not related to specific advice given to the Bush that could "legitimately" be held back under executive privilege.

    The White House, for its part--and we've heard this before, too--maintains that it is thoroughly cooperating with the investigation and has handed over thousands of documents, as well as providing multiple witnesses.

    In the early morning hours of August 29, a memo was sent from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House situation room which warned of a possible breach of levees in New Orleans and a resulting crisis. A few days later, Bush said: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."

    Here's a great headline from the AP:

    U.S. says Venezuela spending too much for military items.

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- Venezuela is planning a "buying spree" for military equipment that goes beyond the country's legitimate needs, the State Department said Friday.

    In recent days, the United States has sought to block proposed sales of military planes and other equipment to Venezuela by Spain and Brazil.

    The transactions are part of what "we would consider an outsized military buildup in Venezuela," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. In other news, the Pentagon's latest Quadrennial Defense Review is out, and as Noah Schachtman notes, it's chock full of proposals for multi-billion dollar weapons systems to prepare for some future war or other with China…

    According to UPI, ministers from 25 "major trading powers" are now trying to resuscitate the Doha round of WTO trade talks that stalled in Hong Kong last month. The EU, it seems, wants to see more concessions from developing countries to reduce their tariffs before it will agree to open its own agricultural markets. Okay, fair enough. But I still don't see what incentive developing countries have to make large concessions, or how, as The Economist put it by way of chiding those stubborn holdouts, "the Doha round… is geared specifically to help poor countries." How much help are we talking here?

    Not very much, it seems. Two months ago, an extensive study from the World Bank found that under "likely Doha scenarios" for cuts to agricultural subsidies and tariffs, and reductions in industrial tariffs, liberalization would provide the world a one-time gain of between $17.9 to $119.3 billion by 2013. Not a whole lot, when it comes down to it, and most of those gains go to the developing world. An analysis of the World Bank study by Frank Ackerman the Global Development and Environment Institute suggested that the "most likely scenario" would boost the world's income by a mere $96 billion. Of that, $80 billion would go to developed countries, and $16 billion to poor countries—less than a penny per day per capita.1

    Meanwhile, the World Bank found that the vast majority of those gains would go to eight nations: Argentina, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Thailand, Turkey, and Vietnam. Other developing countries will likely be hurt by the reduction in agricultural subsidies, especially those that are net food importers. The Middle East, parts of Africa, Bangladesh and Mexico would be all net losers from "likely Doha scenarios," and those are already countries that have the most difficulty attracting investment and growing.

    Now in a sense, this is an overly dire picture. A "mere" $16 billion to the developing world is still better than nothing. And surely lifting 2.5 million people out of poverty, as the Bank estimates for "likely scenarios," is worth doing. Even if these gains aren't huge, why not take them? (Although it does reaffirm the fact that trade can only be a small part of any poverty-reduction agenda.) Plus, these numbers may well understate the side benefits that supposedly come with trade liberalization: like "better institutions," or increased foreign investment, or whatever sort of magic free trade is supposed to create. (cf. "New Evidence" that trade liberalization "has robust positive effects on growth," etc.)

    On the other hand, these projections may not be dire enough. The World Bank study, for instance, presumes that developing countries will instantly make up the revenue they'll lose from slashing tariffs by raising domestic taxes. Is that realistic? According to UNCTAD, for developing countries, tariff collection accounts for 20 percent of government revenue in some developing countries. Quite the tax. UNCTAD predicts that tariff revenue losses could amount to up to $60 billion for these countries (I assume annually), dwarfing the estimated benefits from trade, and would lead to either cuts in social services or domestic taxes that would create their own distortions, just like tariffs do now.

    It's also not clear what the effect of the new agreement on intellectual property will be, although allowing developing countries to import generic drugs more easily seems like an obviously good idea (here's a more in-depth look by the Asian Development Bank that I haven't read). Still—and I'm willing to be convinced otherwise—the idea that there's so much at stake for poor countries in the Doha rounds that they can't afford to see this fail seems a bit overstated.

    [1] The summary of the World Bank study claims a $287 billion one-time gain by 2013, but that's an estimate for complete trade liberalization, which isn't under discussion right now. At any rate, only 40 percent of that gain would go to the developing world; less than 7 cents per day per capita.

    Can This Palestinian Election Succeed?
    By Mark LeVine

    A win for Hamas could be the best hope for peace.

    The Rise of Political Islam
    By Dilip Hiro

    The Palestinian election and democracy in the Middle East

    A Man's World
    By April Dembosky

    A review of Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man

    Back to the Future: Economics for the Real World
    By Thomas Palley

    A progressive economics for the 21st century

    Glenn Greenwald has a must-read post eviscerating NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden's defense of the NSA domestic spying program. From all appearances, the NSA wasn't doing any sort of data-mining, as previously thought (although Hayden's denial is vague enough that this could still be a possibility). Instead, it was, apparently, illegally lowering the standards required for monitoring U.S. citizens and circumventing the FISA Court by refusing to get warrants, which are required by law. It's hard to see how this isn't illegal.

    Meanwhile, in his Q&A session, Gen. Hayden never really gave any indication that the new program—or the new, illegal criteria for monitoring domestic suspects—actually works, or has led to arrests or any sort of tangible domestic security success. And no one seems to have really pressed this point. Granted, this sort of pales beside the issue of whether the administration broke the law or not, but it's still a pretty crucial question.

    Winslow Wheeler, a former staffer for Sen. Pete Domenici, has an article in Counterpunch explaining how Congress can secretly add $12 billion in pork projects to the last defense appropriations bill while simultaneously reducing the apparent size of the bill by $4.4 billion. (Answer, they hide the money rather than cutting anything.) It's one of the better explanations around of how Congress fiddles with bills to sneak in projects here and there. Wheeler, after all, helped design some of these tricks—for instance, "cutting" programs only to stuff them later into "emergency" spending bills, so that the money is spent but doesn't show up on budget projections.

    If that's all that was going on, that would be bad enough (mind you, usually pork is just pork; a small waste, sure, but things wouldn't get done without it—but the ever-inflating Pentagon budget is far more disconcerting, I think). But Wheeler points out a few places where actually crucial funds seem to have been cut in the appropriations bill—for instance, $1.3 billion for "Peacetime Training" and "Operations Support"—and then weren't put back in the emergency bill, as they were presumably supposed to be. A bit of a morass, to say the least.

    So the president, as we know, wants to "do" health care in his upcoming State of the Union address. Any talk of reform would, ideally, begin by addressing the 45 million Americans who go uninsured each year. There are several things that make the United States a second-rate nation, but one of the biggest, I think, is that 11.2 percent of all children in this country—8.3 million—lack even basic health insurance. Judging from Peter Gosselin's overview, President Bush has no interest in tackling this little problem next Tuesday, although there's some talk that his "Health Savings Accounts" will lower the cost of health care so dramatically that many more people will be able to afford insurance.

    Is this even remotely plausible? Well, no. Not really.