Mojo - February 2007

"Economic Man" = Boring Old White Man

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 3:30 PM PST

In another last-one-to-say-"Not me"-when-somebody-farts move, George Bush announced last week that income inequality was a problem in the United States. (Mother Jones has reported on the problem here, here, and here to take but a few examples.) Today, the Washington Post reports, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also acknowledged the income-inequality problem. Like Bush, he blamed the increasing value of education.

Bush and his Fed chief don't want to admit that tax breaks for the wealthy might have something to do with the increasing income gap. But the education claim is not just an excuse; it's a big fat lie. It's false even if all kinds of education are lumped together; breaking education down by field (i.e., business or science vs. anything in the humanities) reveals even more clearly that education itself is no passkey into the upper, upper class to which the concept of "income inequality" refers.

Bernanke's proposed solutions are fascinating, because they suggest that the Fed chief knows that a true free market screws the poor. He concedes that

the U.S. economy "creates painful dislocations," such as factory closings and layoffs of workers with obsolete skills. "If we did not place some limits on the downside risks to individuals affected by economic change, the public at large might become less willing to accept the dynamism that is so essential to economic progress."

There have been some very revealing articles lately about the assumptions that economists make to be able to argue that the free market is best for everyone. Bascially, they assume everyone is the same. They call that everyone "Economic Man," and assume that he is informed and rational in all of his economic decisions. Nobel-winning economist George A. Akerlof argued recently that Friedman's free market approach, which champions Economic Man, rather oversimplifies human behavior. As Louis Uchitelle reported in the NYT:

For example, [Akerlof] says, people don't automatically insist on raises that keep their pay on par with inflation. They often are happy with smaller raises, considering them a compliment from the boss for valued work. That makes pressure for higher pay less inflationary than the Friedman approach would assume.

Has there ever been a better example of how a bunch of affluent white men sitting around pontificating will completely block out what real life is like for real people?

Last week, Salon's Andrew Leonard profiled the emerging field of neuroeconomics, which, it turns out, explores the same oversights Akerlof is talking about by way of brain scan. Leonard worries that brain scans, too, will become standardized. On the up side, maybe they'll have to use poor people as guinea pigs and the assumptions will begin favor the needy.

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Specter Remorseful About Role in U.S. Attorney Purge

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 9:47 AM PST

We've written in the past about the Bush Administration's purge of trouble-making U.S. Attorneys nationwide. In you don't know the story, read up, because it is some legitimately scary stuff. Talking Points Memo, who has been following the story more closely than anyone, uncovered the fact that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) enabled the purge by slipping a small provision into the Patriot Act reauthorization at the Bush Administration's request that gave the administration increased control over Attorney hirings and firings.

Democrats have pressed the White House on this and in a hearing on the subject today, Specter defended his action as having reasonable intentions and unintended results. From TPM:

According to the original law, the Attorney General could appoint interim U.S. Attorneys, but if they were not nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate within 120 days of being appointed, the federal district court would appoint a replacement. Justice Department officials apparently didn't like that judges were able to appoint U.S. Attorneys, members of the executive branch, so the new language removed the court's involvement in the process. But in doing that, the change also allowed the administration to handpick replacements and keep them there in perpetuity.

Specter, who has been one of only a few Republicans to regularly challenge the administration's overreach of power in the past, said today that he hopes to change the law back to its original version.

Bush Continues Pattern of False Promises on Education

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 8:46 AM PST

Spotted on ThinkProgress:

"Bush's proposal to increase the maximum Pell Grant for lower-income undergraduate students was greeted with fanfare when it was announced last week. But his FY08 budget released Monday contains no new money to pay for it," CongressDaily reports.

This is hardly the first time President Bush has made a promise on education and then failed to follow through come budget time. He eliminated funding for Even Start after calling the program "incredibly important" in 2002, he underfunded No Child Left Behind by $30 billion, and screwed a whole series of educational programs after making education reform a major domestic priority.

More details? Sure. At an elementary school in Maryland in 2003, the president said [pdf], "We want Head Start to set higher ambitions for the millions of children it serves.... There needs to be a guarantee that the federal money spent on Head Start, only go to Head Start." The White House then attempted to hand control of Head Start over to state governments by blocking federal funding. States could use a portion of their Head Start funds for other state needs.

In September 2003, President Bush said [pdf] "Our economy demands new and different skills. We are a changing economy. And therefore, we must constantly educate workers to be able to fill the jobs of the 21st century. And so, therefore, I went to Congress and asked for increased funding for Pell Grants for higher education scholarships." Later that year, Bush revised the information used to determine financial aid eligibility, leading to 84,000 students losing their right to a Pell Grant. Additionally, Bush's FY2004 budget cut minimum Pell Grant awards.

It's a matter of priorities, not fiscal discipline. If Bush tried to balance the budget every year and cutting benefits to education was the only way to do so, he could make the case that it is all part of the conservative credo. But Bush has created and maintained massive deficits, mainly because he insists on tax cuts for the wealthy and huge defense expenditures. The rich and the armed come before the nation's children.

Good Intelligence Reporting Making a Comeback

| Tue Feb. 6, 2007 7:20 AM PST

As everyone knows by now, good journalism was late to the party on the Iraq War. Many very, very good books have come out in the last two years that detail how intelligence was twisted, how reconstruction was bungled, how sectarian violence was inflamed instead of dampened, and on and on, but all of them came several years too late to nip support for the war in the bud or to end it in its early stages. There was some serious work done before the invasion that examined the Bush Administration's justifications for war, often finding -- like in the case of the aluminum tubes that Iraq allegedly was using for a nuclear program -- that the evidence was flimsy, but stories of that nature were frequently overshadowed by front-page reporting by people like Judy Miller that put incorrect evidence into the public realm and helped the administration make its case.

Journalists know this sordid history, and one of the positive consequences of it has been a robust skepticism on their part about the Bush Administration's claims about Iran. A good example comes from Newsweek, where Mark Hosenball is asking difficult questions and his sources, more so than before the Iraq invasion I would wager, are willing to answer. Hosenball looked at the administration's claim that Iran is inflaming violence in Iraq, and then at the recent NIE's claim that foreign actors are actually playing a relatively small role in the Iraq turmoil, and went to some people in the know to see who was telling the truth. The results:

...three U.S. officials familiar with unpublished intel (unnamed when discussing sensitive info) said evidence of official Tehran involvement is "ambiguous," in the words of one of the officials. For example, U.S. troops have been attacked by homemade bombs triggered by infrared sensors (like ones used on American burglar alarms). U.S. agencies know Iranian purchasers have made bulk orders for the sensors—which cost as little as $1 each—from manufacturers in the Far East. Some analysts think most of the sensors are used for innocent purposes: they note that the devices are so widely available that would-be supporters of Iraqi militants could simply buy them in an Iranian store and smuggle them to Iraq; high-level government involvement wouldn't be necessary.
Last week U.S. military officials in Baghdad were set to brief reporters about evidence American forces had assembled about Iran's interference in Iraq. But the briefing was canceled; one of the U.S. officials suggested it had been put off because intel officials couldn't agree about the info.

The simple fact that the press is reporting skepticism as a major story in itself is a big improvement from the pre-Iraq period. And the Christian Science Monitor reports today that even the White House realizes it has to back down on the tough talk with Iran. As we wrote in the Iraq War Timeline, truth was a casualty of war long before we invaded Iraq. Looks like it's making a comeback.

How Many Politicians Does it Take to Outlaw a Lightbulb?

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 10:40 PM PST

Read my post on The Blue Marble for the answer, and for more about California's "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act," which, if passed, would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

—Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Congressional Republicans Polled On Global Warming, Slam Al Gore

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 4:18 PM PST

Via Think Progress, we find out that the National Journal has just released a "Congressional Insiders Poll," which surveyed Congress' position on global warming. Think Progress thinks the results are startling. Unfortunately, I think they are fairly predictable. Just 13 percent of Republicans in Congress say they "believe that human activity is causing global warming." Some of the comments that follow though, are fairly amusing, like this choice one zinging Gore:

"The only Inconvenient Truth is that anyone can be a movie star, even someone as boring as Al Gore."

Ha. So that's some really pertinent insight. Thank you, Congressmen and women. The thing is, global warming is most definitely a product of human behavior and apparently, it's just the beginning of an even larger problem. According to Julia Whitty, writing today on our new environmental blog, The Blue Marble, "climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease scientists call global environmental change (GEC). Global warming is the rash. GEC is the bubonic plague."

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New, Improved Environmental Destruction!

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 3:48 PM PST

BP and the University of California Berkeley announced on Thursday a public-private partnership agreement to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute will focus on developing biofuels.

Besides just firming up BP's reputation as the most earth-friendly of the oil companies (an honor no greater than being the most Jew-friendly member of the SS) and Berkeley's reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, the announcement marked biofuels' entry into the mainstream.

I should be dancing, but I'm not. First of all, public-private partnerships: Ick. Secondly, biofuels advocates keep missing the point. Prime example: Ethanol--at least the corn-based ethanol Bush is pushing--requires an absurd amount of fossil fuel to produce. The European Union recently made a similar gaffe when it required that biodiesel be used as an additive. The Houston Chronicle reported in September that production of soy in Argentina is expanding so rapidly that environmental groups fear deforestation and anti-poverty groups fear the food supply will be jeopardized.

Meanwhile, Craig Venter, formerly of Celera Genomics—the company that wanted to patent the human genome—is trying to manufacture, as in from scratch, an organism that would break down crops such as switchgrass that could provide ethanol more sustainably if they could be processed more efficiently.

These approaches miss the forest for the trees. Nature has its own very functional system, of which we are but a part. We do not fully understand that system, or else we would have no more need for science. We have to learn how to respect it and stay out of its way.

Men Are From Mars, But Only If They're Straight

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 3:34 PM PST

Today, AmericaBlog reported on the offensive SuperBowl commercial that aired yesterday. In it, two men, nibbling from both ends of a Snickers bar, wind up accidentally kissing, and then have to do something "manly" to neutralize the incident. Three alternate endings to the commercial were posted on a special Snickers website created by Mars, Inc. Also posted was a video of Bears and Colts team members reacting to the commercial, saying things like "That ain't right" and making faces of disgust.

Mars didn't stop there. They also posted commercials planned for the airing of the Daytona 500. In one, a man mocks what is supposed to be a gay mannerism, in another, the kissing men have to drink toxic substances in order to destroy the effects of a man-on-man kiss, and they scream and vomit while they do so. And in another, when the men decide they must "do something manly," one of them picks up a giant wrench and attacks the other, and the second man puts the first man's head under the hood of a car, and then slams the hood on his head. The Raw Story suggested this ad be named "Matthew Shepard."

The Human Rights Campaign has called on Mars, Inc. (which is owned by billionaire Republican activist families) to pull all of the ads from its website. As of now, you can get to the page, but when you click on the videos, they do not appear.

In a related story, Colts coach Tony Dungy is the honored guest at the gay-hating Indiana Family Institute's Friends of the Family banquet. Tickets for the fundraiser are $75 apiece, and it is expected to be a sell-out.

Iraq More Expensive than Vietnam

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 12:48 PM PST

According to the Washington Post, Bush will ask Congress today for a quarter of a trillion dollars in additional funding to cover the cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The president wants $100 billion added to the $70 billion already allotted for this year, and $145 billion for next.

As the costs in Iraq spiral upward, once provocatively high estimates of the Iraq War's costs—like the one [PDF] offered late last year by Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard's Linda Bilmes, which predicted the war would cost more than a trillion dollars—are beginning to look too conservative.

WaPo notes:

The new war spending would bring the overall cost of fighting to about $745 billion since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States -- adjusting for inflation, more than was spent on the Vietnam War.

And don't forget that what Congress earmarks for Iraq and Afghanistan only reflects a fraction of the wars' true economic burden. (See an article Stiglitz and Bilmes' penned for the Milken Insitute Review explaining their assessment of the future and human costs of the Iraq war broken down, as best they can be, into dollar and cents).

--Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

Nowhere To Run To

| Mon Feb. 5, 2007 12:37 PM PST

This weekend, the Washington Post reported on the ever-worsening refugee crisis in Iraq. Through the profile of a once-famous singer from Baghdad, the story of nearly 2 million refugees is told. Saad Ali, who has to disguise his Iraqi accent with a Jordanian dialect while living in Jordan's shadows, "teeters on the fringes of life." I have written on this crisis many times before. One of the biggest issues facing Iraqi refugees is the dearth of safe havens. Jordan and Syria have handled a disproportionate amount of this exodus, but after the 2005 bombing in Amman, Jordan essentially shut its borders and increased its surveillance of its Iraqi refugees, hence Sali's life in the shadows. Right now, the Bush administration only allows 500 Iraqi refugees to enter the country. Yup, just 500. So, really that just leaves Syria. Hence the Post's narrative:

"On Jan. 13, knots of Iraqis waited to board 14 buses to Syria...Humfash (the travel agent) makes all his passengers sign waiver forms that read: 'I am traveling on my own responsibility and God is the only one that protects us.'"

As the United Nations tries to determine what can be done, and the United States dutifully ignores the thousands of Iraqis banging down its door, Sali and his fellows Iraqi citizens are left with little hope. The U.S. can hardly get a handle on Iraq's security. The Bush administration is hoping that Petraeus will be a quick fix or an easy out, at the very least. So, if the administration can't even put in the effort, time or resources into staving off a potential proxy war or complete chaos in the Middle East (which would really be in its best interest), I highly doubt that it has any intention of saving refugees. Not to mention the political repercussions. Because if you let Iraqi refugees into our country in droves, then you are admitting their country is not safe for them. If their country isn't safe, then I think it is safe to say, we failed our mission. And this is an even more dire situation for the Shi'ites who face the most persecution in Syria and Jordan, which are both predominantly Sunni and you can be sure they'd be the very last to be granted asylum here.