A recent—and misleading—USA Today headline states: "Federal aid programs expand at record rate." The lede: "A sweeping expansion of social programs since 2000 has sparked a record increase in the number of Americans receiving federal government benefits such as college aid, food stamps and health care."

Sounds like out-of-control spending. But there are a couple particulars the article buries towards the bottom. Most notably, being that the expansion of services is actually due to "a rise in the poverty rate from 11.3 percent in 2000 to 12.7 percent in 2004, the most recent year." That's not quite how the newspaper presented the problem at first.

The Century Foundation explains why the entire article is a giant mess:

The front page graph shows enrollment in 25 "federal aid" programs is up 17 percent, increasing from 263 million to 307 million. That's quite something, considering that there are only 300 million U.S. citizens. Oh, right, there is a note in agate type to the effect that some people participate in multiple programs. But what then is the logic behind combining numbers for age-dependent universal programs like Social Security and Medicare, to which recipients have paid dedicated taxes, with means-tested safety net programs? And if one person falling into poverty can add three, four, or five to the enrollment count of safety net programs, disproportionately elevating percentage increases, how are readers supposed to begin to make sense of what that number means?
USA Today then concludes with a quote from conservative Minnesota Rep. Gil Gutknecht, who points out social services should, in fact, not be growing since unemployment is so low. The solution? Cuts! "It's probably time to revisit food stamps and its goals and costs," he said. But Gutknecht is basing his argument on faulty statistics—low unemployment is perfectly compatible with "growing" social services so long as growing means "people are signing up for multiple problems" rather than "more total people are signing up."

In a just world, Wal-Mart would have received the corporate death penalty long ago and we'd be done with it. (For reasons why: see T.A. Frank's piece here, or the essay "Inside the Leviathan.") But given that Wal-Mart's not going anywhere anytime soon, I should say I'm fairly persuaded by David Leonhardt's two-part argument as to why Wal-Mart should be allowed to open its own banks.

A Wal-Mart banking system that becomes insanely popular isn't likely to put low-wage workers out of work—it will just hurt other banks—and it is true that many low-income families don't have checking or savings accounts because, as I reported here, of steep fees and barriers to entry. Perhaps Wal-Mart could use its magic to lower those fees and barriers and help more people get savings accounts, which in the abstract would be a good thing. (No doubt the store could figure out ways to screw borrowers over, though.)

Perhaps progressive legislators can strike some sort of compromise: Wal-Mart gets the right to open its own banking services, but in return they'll be required to offer the sorts of not-entirely-profitable services that regular banks don't ever offer yet low-income families often need—such as payday lending—that would enable many poorer workers to escape the exorbitant fees they have to endure on the secondary lending market. That seems pretty unobjectionable.

The editor of the University of Illinois student paper, The Daily Illini, was recently fired for republishing the controversial Mohammed cartoons. Accusing the board of setting a "bad precedent," Acton Gordon called the cartoons newsworthy and stood by his decision to act quickly and publish them. "We had a news story on our hands, with violence erupting about imagery, but you can't show it because of a taboo, because of a taboo that's not a Western taboo but a Muslim taboo?" he said. "That's a blow to journalism."

Tim Johnson of Knight Ridder takes a look today at how China has been propping up the military junta in Burma (now, of course, called Myanmar by those who run the country) through trade and other economic ties:

China has a habit of coddling repressive regimes. In places such as Sudan, Iran, Zimbabwe and Myanmar, all under some type of international sanction, China has stepped in with diplomatic protection, usually in exchange for market access for its goods or a stake in oil fields or other natural resources.

Yet in remote corners such as this one, snug against the hilly frontier with the nation once known as Burma, China is resisting global efforts to end a decades-old military dictatorship. How China deals with Myanmar reflects how it wields its power in the early 21st century. It seems more than a little bizarre to refer to the Myanmar government as a "decades-old military dictatorship" without noting that the junta's currently carrying out genocide—or something very, very close to it—against ethnic minorities in the eastern part of the country. (See Nicholas Thompson's excellent report in Legal Affairs last year about one man's attempts to raise awareness about this issue.) All the same, this is a serious issue.

Can you say "permanent bases"? Gen. John Abizaid can.

The United States may want to keep a long-term military presence in Iraq to bolster moderates against extremists in the region and protect the flow of oil, the Army general overseeing U.S. military operations in Iraq said on Tuesday.

While the Bush administration has downplayed prospects for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq, Gen. John Abizaid told a House of Representatives subcommittee he could not rule that out.

..."Clearly our long-term vision for a military presence in the region requires a robust counter-terrorist capability," Abizaid said. "No doubt there is a need for some presence in the region over time primarily to help people help themselves through this period of extremists versus moderates."

Abizaid also said the United States and its allies have a vital interest in the oil-rich region.

"Ultimately it comes down to the free flow of goods and resources on which the prosperity of our own nation and everybody else in the world depend," he said.

Last year, Joshua Hammer, writing in Mother Jones, wondered why the U.S. government was spending billions of dollars to build "enduring" bases in Iraq if it didn't plan to occupy the country for any longer than necessary. And, more recently, Tom Engelhardt brought us up to date with this piece on the "massive and ongoing" U.S. base construction there.

Knight Ridder's Tom Lasseter confirms that, as predicted, the US has stepped up its air war in Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Iraq - American forces have dramatically increased airstrikes in Iraq during the past five months, a change of tactics that may foreshadow how the United States plans to battle a still-strong insurgency while reducing the number of U.S. ground troops serving here.

A review of military data shows that daily bombing runs and jet-missile launches have increased by more than 50 percent in the past five months, compared with the same period last year.

In addition to the obvious and extremely serious moral downside here--air strikes obliterate civilians in large numbers--the piece notes some practical drawbacks to relying on aerial bombings at the expense of combat patrols.

In the town of Samarra, for example, insurgents last month were able to spend several hours rigging explosives in the dome of a Shiite shrine that they later destroyed, in part because American troops patrolled less. The shrine's destruction triggered a week of sectarian violence that killed hundreds. U.S. soldiers interviewed in Samarra three weeks earlier said patrols in the city had been significantly reduced because the number of troops had been reduced by two-thirds.

(Not that the combat patrols were working out that great.) And then there's the hearts-and-minds dimension.

A tribal sheik who lives on the outskirts of the troubled Anbar town of Ramadi, who asked that he be identified as Abu Tahseen instead of by his full name out of fear of possible retribution, said that the strikes create more insurgents than they kill because of the region's tribal dictates of revenge.

"They (the Americans) think: `As long as there are resistance fighters operating in this spot, we will wipe it out entirely,'" Abu Tahseen said, using the term for insurgents favored by Iraqis sympathetic to their cause. "As you know, our nature is a tribal one, and so if one from us is killed, we kill three or four in return."

Good for Knight Ridder for taking the elementary trouble to compile the statistics from press releases provided by the U.S. Central Command. Though the U.S. air war in Iraq has gained a bit more media attention since Seymour Hersh took it up in the New Yorker last December, the topic is generally little covered--except by the likes of Dahr Jamail and Tom Engelhardt.

Crazy talk on Iran by way of the Jerusalem Post:

The Pentagon is looking into the possibility of Israel launching a strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. In the past months there were several working-level discussions trying to map out the possible scenarios for such an attack, according to administration sources who were briefed on these meetings.

...One of the questions Pentagon analysts are grappling with is how an Israeli attack - if launched - would affect the US and its forces in the region and whether it would force the US to follow with further strikes in order to complete the mission. The US is also discussing what could be the possible avenues of retaliation Iran would take against US's forces and interests in the region.

Well, I don't think you have to grapple very long before concluding that the Iranian response--in Israel as in Iraq--would be fairly robust; and that the Iranians are not apt to make any great distinction between Israeli and U.S. aggression. (Why start now, after all?)

Elsewhere, in congressional testimony, an expansive Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy recently considered loopy options short of all-out airstrikes.

If force were to be necessary, the options are much broader than an air raid like that which Israel mounted in 1981 against Iraq's Osiraq reactor. For instance, Israel put a stop to Egypt's missile program in the early 1960s by arranging the sudden premature death of German scientists working on those missiles in Egypt. Iran's nuclear program is a series of sophisticated, large industrial plants which could encounter industrial accidents.

Women, Men, and Money

According to this month's Money Magazine, finances still cause strife in many marriages.

Okay, so this shouldn't be news to anyone. But what is notable is that the majority of the couples surveyed divide their financial responsibility along very traditional gender lines. Women tend to be responsible for determining daily spending while their husbands plan long-term investments, retirements etc. According to the magazine, dividing duties up this way doesn't necessarily foster communication:

If you're one of those (totally awesome) people who are obsessed with improving our electoral system, this should come as good news. The New York Times reports on an innovative new state-level campaign to abolish the electoral college:

Past attempts to abolish the Electoral College by amending the Constitution have run into difficulty. But National Popular Vote, which includes several former members of Congress, is offering an ingenious solution that would not require a constitutional amendment. It proposes that states commit to casting their electoral votes for the winner of the national popular vote. These promises would become binding only when states representing a majority of the Electoral College signed on. Then any candidate who won the popular vote would be sure to win the White House.
Come to think of it, had John Kerry won 60,000 extra votes in Ohio in 2004—or not been robbed by Diebold, if that was, you know, the case—and won the presidency while losing the popular vote, there finally would have been a serious bipartisan push to abolish the electoral college. (Okay, that wouldn't have been the only upside to a Kerry victory, but still.) Now no one seems to care, though.

Bear in mind, the possibility that a popular-vote winner could lose an election isn't the only downside to having an electoral college. (Among other things, it forces presidential candidates to pander only to a few select "swing" states.) I tried to lay out the full case against our totally outdated and arbitrary way of picking presidents a while back and still think most of that still holds up. It's not the biggest problem in the world, but it would be nice to fix it finally.

The bodies of 87 people were discovered in Iraq over the last twenty-four hours. All were killed execution-style, with 29 of them found partially naked in a stacked grave. This is the second wave of mass killings since the bombing of the Askariya Shiite shrine in Samarra several weeks ago. Sectarian violence continues to rage, and Shiites living in primarily Sunni areas are abandoning their homes in fear for their safety.

President Bush, unlike Donald Rumsfeld, is starting to acknowledge the threat of civil war. "I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth," he said. "It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle, and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come." As civil unrest continues to take its toll on Iraqi civilians, the Iraqi government is still struggling to adapt to the new distribution of power, as the Sunnis (once powerful under Saddam Hussein), are now governed by the Shiites. And the Shiites, who have been shut out of power for the past 14 centuries, are not about to give that up just yet.

Meanwhile, the CNN/Gallup poll found today that the war in Iraq has driven Bush's approval rating to the lowest of his presidency—36 percent. With approval ratings so low, the pressure is on the administration to try to pull out some of the 130,000 troops in Iraq, before the midterm elections.