Mojo - January 2006

Clueless in Africa

| Tue Jan. 17, 2006 8:37 PM PST

While touring Africa and defending her husband's use of international AIDS funds to market abstinence, First Lady Laura Bush said: "I'm always a little bit irritated when I hear the criticism of abstinence, because abstinence is absolutely 100% effective in eradicating a sexually transmitted disease."

She went on to say: "In many countries where girls feel obligated to comply with the wishes of men, girls need to know that abstinence is a choice."

We cannot even get middle-class American girls to understand that abstinence is a choice, yet Bush is suggesting that girls whose only source of income involves having sex, and women whose husbands have never heard of equality in marriage just say no. Many young girls are forced to marry their husbands, and part of that obligation is sex; many other girls are forced into prostituion. A popular belief in Africa, especially South Africa, is that having sex with a virgin cures AIDS, and the men who opt for this "treatment" are not asking the virgins' permission.

The Bush administration has already endangered the lives of thousands of women and girls by restricting the counseling and educational activities of family planning clinics. Laura Bush's advice to African girls truly adds insult to injury.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

War with Iran?

| Tue Jan. 17, 2006 3:45 PM PST

Over the weekend, Atrios among others wondered whether the Bush administration was going to gear up for an attack on Iran—if not for the purpose of actually doing something about Iran, which seems unlikely, then at least for the purpose of putting the Democratic Party in a corner. Atrios is probably right to say that thinking about this in terms of actual policies—i.e., "What should the U.S. do about Iran?"—is fairly useless and thinking about this in terms of politics is the only reasonable way to go. But there are more than enough clever folks out there spending all their time pondering how the Democrats can "outflank" the Bush administration, so I'll stick with policy talk, I guess.

The Trouble With 'Guest Workers'

| Tue Jan. 17, 2006 1:45 PM PST

Nathan Newman links to a new report by the Drum Major Institute noting that the easiest way to deal with the economic problems from illegal immigration is simply to give immigrants more rights, rather than trying—unsuccessfully—to immigrants from entering the country:

As long as a cheaper and more compliant pool of immigrant labor is available, employers are all too willing to take advantage of the situation to keep their labor costs down and are less willing to hire U.S.-born workers if they demand better wages and working conditions. So, U.S.-born workers are left to either accept the same diminished wages and degraded working conditions as immigrants living under threat of deportation or be shut out of whole industries where employers hire predominantly undocumented immigrants.

The solution is to eliminate the second-class labor market in this two-tiered system and allow immigrants and U.S.-born workers to compete on an even playing field by guaranteeing immigrants—including undocumented workers—equal labor rights and making sure that employers cannot use deportation as a coercive tool in the labor market.In theory, that's right. Immigrants end up "dragging down" wages and working conditions for other workers precisely when, as is the case now, businesses are given free rein to abuse "guest workers" who can't speak out for fear of being deported. Now in practice, it's debatable whether immigrants actually take jobs from native workers or pull down wages in predominantly native industries—there's certainly decent evidence that immigrants do the jobs no native worker will accept, as the saying goes.

But the larger point here is a good one, and it's exactly why any humane immigration policy, ideally, should allow immigration but discontinue "guest worker" policies. At best, guest worker programs don't work—immigrants who want to stay in the country after their allotted time expires simply slip away and become "illegal" residents—and at worst they create a large underclass of indentured servants who can't change jobs or protest their often-dismal working conditions for fear of being kicked out of the country.

SWAT Teams Everywhere

| Thu Jan. 12, 2006 6:35 PM PST

Are SWAT teams and other forms of "paramilitary" policing becoming much too common in the United States? I ask because in Slate today, Daniel Engber writes as an aside that "By the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of American cities had active teams, as did more than half of all law enforcement agencies in the country with more than 50 officers." He links to a 1997 study by Peter Kraska, who found that the number of SWAT teams in America has not only risen dramatically since the 1980s, but that they've been used much more frequently:

No Corporate Oversight Necessary?

| Thu Jan. 12, 2006 4:02 PM PST

As short overviews of the problems with corporate governance in America go, you could do worse than Clive Crook's piece in this month's Atlantic. But after pointing out that shareholder oversight is often ridiculously lax, that many mangers and CEOs have had carte blanche to loot and pillage the companies they're supposed to be running, and that the "division of capitalism's spoils has become more lopsided in recent years," Crook strangely argues that we shouldn't worry too much:

Beyond [Sarbanes-Oxley], what [should be done]? "First, do no harm" is a good rule. Modern American capitalism has charges to answer, but it is best to keep a sense of proportion. The U.S. economy remains the most productive—and by almost any measure the most successful—in the world. …. America's economic pre-eminence must have something to do with its distinctive business model, the very model many people now question—which in different ways continues to reward success more generously and punish failure more brutally… than the milder systems to be found in, for instance, Europe and Japan.
And then says "it all comes down to traditional values," whatever that means. No major reforms necessary. The system that produced Enron and Tyco basically works and we should leave it in place.

But it's doubtful that "leaving well enough alone" is the best option. We don't even need to get into "business model" comparisons with Europe and Japan. (These things tend to go back and forth anyway—in the 1980s, it seemed like the bank-centered system of financing business as seen in, say, Germany, was the better model; nowadays the Anglo-Saxon "stock-market centered" model is held in higher regard. Perhaps in a few years the pendulum will swing back again. Who knows?) It's far more instructive to compare companies within the United States.

A 2003 Harvard University/Wharton School paper entitled "Corporate Governance and Equity Prices" ranked 1,500 companies in terms of management power, sorting firms into a Democracy Portfolio (firms in which shareholder rights were strongest) and a Dictatorship Portfolio (firms in which managers were subject to less oversight). Shockingly—or not—the democratic firms outperformed the dictatorship firms by 8.5 percentage points per year throughout the 1990s.

If you believe that's a good thing, then stronger corporate governance doesn't just make things "nicer" or "fairer" and stick it to "greedy" CEOs—it actually makes better economic sense in many cases. It's hard to believe, as Crook suggests, that "lower standards of corporate governance" is the price we simply must pay for high productivity growth in the United States. The two can go together.

Now obviously from a left-liberal perspective, reform is never as easy as simply making sure that shareholders—or the mutual funds that vote most of the proxies today—are exercising oversight. This country also went through a "shareholder revolution" in the 1980s, driven in part by public funds like CalPERS, that forced managers to focus heavily on short-term profit maximization, and what we got was a wave of useless mergers and endless "restructuring"—laying off workers, busting unions, slashing wages—that may or may not actually boost profits (it's surprisingly hard to tell) but is certainly a nightmare for everyone else. (Fun tidbit: A British Medical Journal study found that those workers who survived major "restructuring" campaigns vastly increased their risk of cardiovascular disease.) But it seems like somewhere along the line a decent balance can be struck, and we're almost certainly not at that point right now.

"Start takin' it to the streets..."

| Thu Jan. 12, 2006 12:31 PM PST
Start takin' it to the streets. Boom, boom, boom, boom. There's twenty! Cha-ching.

That is what Marrero, Louisiana pastor Grant Storms said to a group of anti-gay activitists at the International Conference on Homo-Fascism in 2003 in Milwaukee. But when Action Wisconsin pointed out that Storms was advocating the murder of gay people, Storms sued the group for defamation of character.

Action Wisconsin has now been awarded $87,000 in attorneys' fees by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Patricia McMahon, who declared the group's interpretation of Storms' remarks "reasonable," and who went on to say that the lawsuit lacked merit. She also chewed out Storms' attorney, James Donohoo of Milwaukee, for filing a lawsuit she called "a waste of time."

Donahoo plans to appeal the award.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

PDA on Exiting Iraq

| Thu Jan. 12, 2006 12:06 PM PST

The Project on Defense Alternatives has put together a very useful collection of all the various proposals, official statements, and commentaries that have come out over the past year or so talking about whether and how the U.S. should get out of Iraq. Hours of fun. I'd only add that they forgot Daniel Byman's incisive "Five Bad Options for Iraq," which is one of the few analyses that doesn't even try to imagine that anything good could come of this war.

A look at Judge Alito's decisions on law enforcement

| Wed Jan. 11, 2006 6:39 PM PST

The Yale Report on Alito examines thirteen categories of decisions rendered by Judge Samuel Alito throughout his career. One of those categories, "Responsible Law Enforcement," provides a summary of Alito's decisons regarding the powers of law enforcement agencies and the rights of the accused:

Doe v. Groody--Alito dissented from the majority in that he would have allowed the strip search of a ten-year-old girl and her mother, even though neither of them was named in the search warrant. Alito wrote that he was aware of "no legal principle that bars an officer from searching a child (in a proper manner) if a warrant has been issued and the warrant is not illegal on its face."

U.S. v. Stiver-- Alito interpreted the content of a search warrant that permitted the law enforcement agency to "seize all drug paraphanalia" to include allowing the law enforcement authority to answer the suspect's telephone and pretend to be him.

United States v. Lee--The FBI, without a warrant, hid a video camera in the room of a man whom they suspected would be discussing bribery payments with an informant. The camera ran twenty-four hours a day, yet Alito found no evidence of the suspect's Fourth Amendment privacy rights.

Leveto v. Lapina
--Alito ruled that the government agents had violated the rights of a wealthy couple who was accused of tax evasion. Alito declared the suspects had been detained without probable cause, had not been read their Miranda rights, and that the wife had been given a body pat-down when she was dressed in only a nightgown.

United States v. Zimmerman--The majority reversed a district court denial of a defendant's motion to suppress evidence found in his house. The reversal was made because the panel found that the information used to obtain the warrant was too old to construct probable cause. Judge Alito dissented, citing a police "good faith" exception to excuse what had happened.

These are only a few of the cases. There are numerous others described in the Yale report. In fact, in the more than fifty cases involving criminal procedure issues for which Judge Alito wrote opinions, he ruled in favor of the government 90% of the time.

The Air War in Iraq

| Wed Jan. 11, 2006 2:23 PM PST

Seymour Hersh predicted it a few months ago, but today Knight Ridder is reporting that the air war in Iraq, which has involved hundreds of strikes over the past few years on a variety of targets, could "intensify" in the coming months as U.S. troops draw down. Today in Mother Jones, Michael Schwarz argues that "The new American strategy, billed as a way to de-escalate the war, is a formula for the slaughter of Iraqi civilians." His argument's well worth reading.

And anyway, even if Schwarz' estimates—he says up to 20,000 civilians could, in theory, be killed as "precision bombs" continue striking suspected insurgent "safe houses"—are too pessimistic, there are still very obvious problems here.

Even a "precision bomb" that doesn't kill any civilians can still level or damage, say, the house of the Sunni family next door, or else cut off their already-sporadic electricity and water, or disrupt their life in other very serious ways, and Sunnis that saw the insurgents next door as a dangerous but acceptable annoyance will naturally be extremely pissed off at the United States and the newly elected Iraqi government. Especially since the Bush administration has decided to cut off any further funds for reconstruction to the country it smashed to bits. One could argue that an air campaign is "necessary" in the long-run to defeat the insurgents in Iraq and make the country free and democratic, but in the short run, try telling that to the family whose house was just demolished. And not surprisingly, Knight Ridder quotes a number of military and intelligence analysts who don't think an air war is a good way to wage counterinsurgency anyway.

In related news, meanwhile, one of the leading Shiite clerics, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, announced today that he wasn't interested in making concessions on the constitution to the Sunnis, as had been vaguely promised before the election. Maybe he'll change his tune in a day or two, but that pretty much puts a knife in any hope at reconciliation in Iraq. Roughly, it looks like the Shiites in power are ready for a gunfight, and are happy to use American airpower to do the fighting for them. A casual observer might suggest that this isn't really a good way for the new government to build legitimacy, or end the war anytime soon, but that's where all signs are pointing.

Auditing the Poor

| Wed Jan. 11, 2006 12:51 PM PST

David Cay Johnston of the New York Times reported yesterday that the IRS has been freezing tax refunds for hundreds of thousands of poor Americans—most of them involving the EITC, a tax credit for the working poor—by labeling their tax returns "fraudulent." About 66 percent of the people whose records were frozen were found to be owed all of the money they claimed or more.

Now tax fraud is tax fraud, and it's nice that the IRS is pursuing it, but tax fraud by the working poor amounts to some $9 billion a year, if that—and many of these supposed "fraud" cases involve people who filled out the wrong form or somehow couldn't afford a tax accountant to jigger the numbers just right. About 40 percent of low-income Americans have never even heard of the EITC. Meanwhile, as Max Sawicky points out, corporations and wealthy Americans manage to dodge some $340 billion in taxes each year And not surprisingly, the IRS tends to spend a disproportionate amount resources going after the poor, in part because it's easier—there are fewer lawyers to deal with, the poor tend not to complain, etc.

This partly comes out of the fact that the IRS has become seriously underfunded, especially after taking a beating from the right throughout the '90s. So the agency has focused more and more on "easier" targets. But what's happening is also conscious policy. In 2000 House Republicans tried to cut the EITC, which, in the tiny world of small-bore anti-poverty policies, has been one of the most successful. They failed. So instead they decided to use the IRS as a means of attacking the program. And last September, the House Republican Study Committee proposed even more "intensive" audits of EITC filers, although they were apparently uninterested in that $340 billion sitting around. In fact, the IRS won't even release its "records on how thoroughly [it] audits big corporations and the rich." Wonder why.