Mojo - June 2006

GOP Agenda Sputtering

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 3:44 PM EDT

It's great news by any measure that the Senate failed to repeal the estate tax today, although I'm shocked that it was so tough, seeing as how there are more Republican senators than there were in 2004, or 2002. Same thing with the vile gay marriage amendment; more Republicans in the Senate, but it failed by an even larger margin than it did the in 2004. Don't know what it means, but it's a good sign. One can only hope this ridiculous flag-burning amendment will get shot down as well.

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U.S. Military Kills Zarqawi

| Thu Jun. 8, 2006 2:24 PM EDT

I was just reading Mary-Anne Weaver's long profile of Abu Musab Zarqawi in the Atlantic Monthly and suddenly, the man gets himself killed in an airstrike. So, he's dead. Good riddance, and this does seem like genuinely good news for Iraq, although I guess the smart thing to say is that his death won't make a difference to the overall level of violence there. That's what Weaver's piece suggests. "If Zarqawi is captured or killed tomorrow, the Iraqi insurgency will go on," according to a "high-level" Jordanian intelligence official.

That's almost certainly right. The Sunni insurgency has mostly been run by Iraqis opposed to both the U.S. occupation and the prospect of Shiite rule of Iraq. Zarqawi played at best a supporting role. At one point, it seemed like Zarqawi's willingness to engage in big, bloody attacks against Shiites was genuinely exacerbating what was then a nascent sectarian war in Iraq. Maybe he was making a real difference then. But nowadays that sectarian war isn't so nascent anymore, and Sunnis and Shiites are capable of killing each other by the dozens each day without Zarqawi's help. One can hope that getting rid of Zarqawi will change things, but it seems unlikely.

Meanwhile, over at TNR's blog, Michael Crowley notes that some caller on the "Diane Rehm Show" wants to know how many civilians were killed in the raid. Seems like a fair question to me. There have been lots of airstrikes on "safe houses" thought to be harboring Zarqawi. Here's a failed strike on an al-Qaeda safe house that left 40 dead last November. Here's another one two years ago, on a wedding party, that left "40 dead, including children." Another missed attempt at an al-Qaeda leader, possibly Zarqawi. And that's just after a quick google search.

These all add up. Sure, it's easy to say that there's a moral difference between accidentally killing civilians while trying to track down mass murderers and the actual mass murderers themselves, but at some point the fact that we're doing counterterrorism by dropping "precision-guided munitions" on lots and lots of houses across the country should make people realize that there's not really a moral way to conduct this war. I guess that counts as insufficient cheerleading...

UPDATE: Steven Benen provides a bit of historical context, noting that the Bush administration had the opportunity to take out Zarqawi before the war, but needed him alive to preserve the fiction that Saddam Hussein was harboring terrorists. On the other hand, perhaps Zarqawi's death will give the White House the excuse it needs to declare "victory" and start pulling troops out of Iraq.

MORE: Fred Kaplan's piece on Zarqawi's death is (as usual) quite good.

John Bolton upset over U.N. official's criticism of U.S.

| Wed Jun. 7, 2006 6:42 PM EDT

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said today that a U.N. Deputy Secretary-General's remarks about the United States "can only do grave harm to the United Nations." Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch Brown said yesterday in a speech that the U.S. relies on the U.N as a diplomatic tool, but then does not defend the body before critics at home. Brown went on to say that news of the U.N.'s good work that reaches much of the U.S. has been "largely abandoned to its loudest detractors such a Rush Limbaugh and Fox News."

Bolton called Brown's remarks a "very, very grave mistake" that could undermine Secretary-General Kofi Annan's efforts to effect a reform agenda for the U.N. Bolton told Annan that his deputy's remarks displayed a "condescending, patronizing tone about the American people."

Are We "Tolerating" Syria?

Wed Jun. 7, 2006 3:32 PM EDT

This week's issue of The Weekly Standard features a classic bit of neoconservative logic. David Schenker, a former Defense Department advisor and resident scholar at the Near East Policy Institute in Washington, argues that the Bush administration is "in effect tolerating the Baathist dictatorship" in Syria. Now it's been just over three months since the US imposed its harshest-ever sanctions on the country; two years since the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act; and a mere three years since the Syrian government was deemed a "top target" for regime change at the hands of the US military. Yet in Schenker's view, all this shows is the administration's faintheartedness.

One thing Mr. Schenker seems to be short on is alternatives. What should the Bush administration be doing? While many experts agree that this administration's Syria policy has been uninspired, even ambivalent, the more frequent conclusion among scholars is that "diplomatic engagement," or at least constructive dialogue, is the best way to handle Syria. Chiding the Bush administration for "tolerating" Bashar Assad implies that we ought to do to Syria what we did to Iraq. Unfortunately for Mr. Schenker, that would be a tall order for the US military at present. So somewhere amidst all that lambasting of Damascus, it would be helpful if he could provide us with some other, more productive ideas.

After gays and flag-burning, what's next for GOP?

| Wed Jun. 7, 2006 3:18 AM EDT

With the President and his panicky Republican allies seeking to rally the base with constitutional amendments against gay marriage and flag-burning, what else can they do to win support? They're betting that the rural, Midwest and Southern voters who fell for their pandering before will respond again, even if they lose on those red-meat issues in Congress. But to shore up their support, here are some other measures under consideration by the Bush Administration:

1. Mandating that all grade-schoolers learn to read directly from the Bible -- with chapbooks just like in colonial days.

2. Administration supporters are working with the Fox News Network to launch MolestTV, a 24/7 cable network highlighting coverage of trials, arrests and in-depth profiles of accused and convicted child molesters, mostly focusing on gays (even though critics of the new network note that a majority of pedophile cases involve heterosexuals.) Bill O'Reilly will anchor an hour show on the network, "Fighting for Our Kids," focusing on politicians, liberal journalists and judges who are "soft on crime" while featuring regular appearances by representatives of the North American Man-Boy Love Association (NAMBLA)

3. Executing a few scary-looking accused terrorists with "funny-sounding" Arabic names who have been held at Guantamano Bay.

4. Cracking down on all that cursing on HBO, once and for all.

5. Having Attorney General Gonzales order the arrest of mostly Jewish reporters for publishing leaked classified information about our secret intelligence-gathering and interrogation (i.e., domestic spying and torture) operations.

Kristof Defends Sweatshops

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 9:48 PM EDT

Normally I wouldn't link to a Times Select column, partly because I have no intention of paying for it and partly because most of the Times' columnists are rather dull. But I picked up the paper today and found Nick Kristof writing what must be his fiftieth or sixtieth column praising Third World sweatshops. Paul Krugman likes this argument too. It's "cute". It's also wrong. Here's an excerpt:

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program....

The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.That last sentence is insane. Campaigns against sweatshops may be a lot of things, but one thing they're not is omniscient. For every Gap and Nike they expose and vilify, there are ten other manufacturers who escape bad publicity altogether. If companies thought it was profitable to set up sweatshops in Africa, student campaigns couldn't deter them all. Clearly there are other reasons.

Kristof then talks about a garment factory in Namibia which was forced to close because it was cheaper to import clothes from China. But that's an argument for trying to raise labor standards in China, where working conditions are famously dismal, rather than for trying to force Namibia down to China's level. Writers such as Kristof—and Krugman—seem to be under the impression that critics of neoliberalism are all idiots and don't realize that if you raise labor standards in, say, Namibia, manufacturers might flee to some more brutal country where working conditions are even worse. But of course we realize this. That's what the criticism is all about.

At any rate, it's not clear that manufacturers always and everywhere move to where wages are the lowest. Wages in Mexico are four times what they are in Indonesia, yet Nike has factories in both countries. There are specific reasons for that, of course, but it goes to show that countries don't necessarily need the lowest wages and worst working conditions on the planet to attract investment. Here's a good study by David Kucera finding a weak relationship between labor standards and foreign investment. And it's not at all obvious that specializing in low-wage garments is the only way for Namibia to develop (it might be one of the worst, in fact).

There's also the argument that industrialized countries had to go through their own sweatshop phase to get to where they are. Well, sure, some places did, but those places also saw serious fights for better working conditions at the same time. New York's garment workers battled against sweatshops for most of the 20th century—remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?—and consistently made gains until they were undermined by the Mafia and corrupt union bosses in the postwar period. Now sweatshops are flourishing in the city, which only goes to show that labor standards tend to worsen unless someone, somewhere, is fighting for them.

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Conservatives Against the Gay Marriage Amendment

Tue Jun. 6, 2006 6:56 PM EDT

The Center for American Progress is not the only group laying into the President for his support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, up for discussion in Congress this week. A new report by Dale Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute—tellingly titled, "The Federal Marriage Amendment: Unnecessary, Anti-Federalist, and Anti-Democratic"—also takes a scathing, 20-page swipe at the amendment.

Self-Reliance, Idaho-Style

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 4:42 PM EDT

Mark Schmitt's post here isn't to be missed. A number of self-described conservatives in this country, especially out West, are under the impression that they're all highly self-reliant and don't need government assistance for anything. Idaho's governor recently said: "Here in Idaho, we couldn't understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something." But he then goes on to cite an example—a dam breaking in 1976—in which, as Schmitt explains, the federal government did have to come in and do something. Curious delusion, that.

Religion in the Public Sphere

Tue Jun. 6, 2006 4:13 PM EDT

A new report from the Center for American Progress says that religion and morality are deeply important to the vast majority of American voters—but with different political implications than one might think. While more than two-thirds of voters report praying at least once a day and over half say they attend religious services weekly, only a minority of them think that their own religion's teachings ought to shape public policy.

More surprisingly, most respondents said that the values behind religion should underlie broader debates on poverty and hunger, homelessness, and government corruption. Yet fewer than half think the same about hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Those numbers, at least, should come as little surprise. Americans are on the whole a pious bunch and, especially after the 2004 election, Democratic pundits argued that to win the confidence of those voters, the party needs to do a better job staking out the moral high ground. What makes the CAP findings compelling is their suggestion that there might be other ways to do this than simply touting one's religious devotion.

According to the study, only 7 percent of Americans think that being a moral person requires "honoring religious tradition and faith," and only 20 percent approve of politicians "using the political system to turn religious beliefs in actions." Of course, many more probably consider church-going a good indicator of morality, even if it isn't requisite. Progressive themes may resonate with voters, as the study's authors contend—now we just need to get politicians who expound them to do the same.

Greener Car Insurance

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 3:19 PM EDT

In Harper's this week, Dean Baker has a rather elegant proposal to reduce the amount people drive—simply change the way car insurance is calculated:

Currently, auto insurance is viewed as a fixed expense. People pay the same amount for their insurance no matter how much they drive. This means that when someone is comparing the cost of driving to work with the cost of carpooling or public transportation, they won't factor in the cost of insurance, because they will pay the same whether they make any particular trip or not.

This would change if drivers paid for insurance by the mile. Taking rough numbers, the average person drives her car around 10,000 miles a year and pays a bit less than $1,000 each year for insurance. This means that the cost of insurance is approximately 10 cents per mile. If for each mile they drive drivers paid 10 cents for insurance, then on average they would pay the same amount for insurance as they do now—but they would have much more incentive to cut back their driving. Quite clearly this is preferable to a simple gas tax, which penalizes people who can't cut back on their driving, because it rewards people who can cut back instead. (That's not to say gas taxes still won't be necessary to reduce carbon emissions down to sustainable levels; they almost certainly would be.) Oregon has already started doing pay-by-the-mile insurance, so presumably it's pefectly possible nationwide.