Political MoJo

Florida sued over voter registration law

| Fri May 19, 2006 6:00 PM EDT

A law passed in Florida last year that fines nonpartisan voter registration activities under certain circumstances, is being challenged in U.S. District Court by the League of Women Voters and several other nonpartisan organizations. The law has forced the League and similar groups to discontinue all voter registration drives, while permitting partisan groups to hold such drives.

In 2004, over half a million Floridians were assisted in voter registration by nonpartisan citizens groups. The 2005 law is described as a reform: A $5,000 fine is imposed for each voter registration application that a nonpartisan group fails to submit. There are less severe fines for missing registration deadlines, which are enforced even in the event of something as catastophic as a hurricane.

The plaintiffs, however, say that the severity of the law has forced them to shut down their voter registration efforts. The suit is being filed on the grounds that the law "violates U.S. free speech rights and disproportionately discriminates against low-income, minority, disabled, and other marginalized citizens in Florida who rely on plaintiffs and similar groups to help them overcome barriers to registering to vote."

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Is Sprawl Really That Bad?

| Fri May 19, 2006 5:00 PM EDT

Urban sprawl isn't so bad, it's just misunderstood. That's what Robert Bruegmann's arguing in a cover story for the American Enterprise Magazine. Needless to say, I totally disagree. The essay spends a lot of time fending off complaints that sprawl is ugly—"Class-based aesthetic objections to sprawl have always been the most important force motivating critics"—but then glosses over the really crucial objection here: namely, that sprawled-out cities use up a lot of energy. Bad news when we're burning up the planet.

No Troop Reductions After All?

| Fri May 19, 2006 1:49 PM EDT

Yesterday Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate that maybe the United States won't withdraw large numbers of troops from Iraq this year after all. Um, okay… but are there actually enough soldiers to keep around in Iraq indefinitely? Last June, retired General Barry McCaffrey said we can expect a "meltdown of the Army National Guard and Army Reserve in the coming 36 months" unless the military draws down from Iraq. At some point one would think we're not going to have enough soldiers to conduct an endless occupation. But it's okay: Rumsfeld says Iraq has entered a "hopeful new phase." Once again.

Lone Baghdad mortuary unable to handle all of the civilian corpses

| Thu May 18, 2006 11:52 PM EDT

Baghdad has only one mortuary, and the staff there was able to release bodies in about five hours, prior to the war. Now, there is not only a dramatic increase in the number of dead bodies being brought to the morgue, the nature of their wounds is such that exams can take many hours or even days to complete. Dr. Fa'aq Ameen, director of the health ministry's Forensic Medicine Institute, also cites lack of storage space and a shortage of doctors as problems at the Baghdad mortuary.

Every day, an average of seventry Iraqi civilians are killed, mostly as a result of sectarian violence. The mortuary receives 1,500 bodies a month, not counting the bodies of those killed in areas north and south of the country. The morgue has storage space for 120 corpses, and unless more refrigeration units are installed, the threat of disease looms in the community. Some bodies are buried before the family can idetify them, then they must be exhumed and re-buried. There is no government agency that helps people find the bodies of the dead, and there are a lot of angry people who cannot locate the bodies of their loved ones.

This scenario is similar to the one that occurred in Louisiana after the two hurricanes hit the state in August and September. Angry families demanded the bodies of their loved ones, but an overworked temporary morgue staff had to do the best it could in examining and identifying corpses. The situation in Baghdad, however, is made worse every day, and with only one mortuary, there is no sign that it will improve.

Causing Hamas to Collapse

| Thu May 18, 2006 8:34 PM EDT

For awhile now, various news outlets have reported that some administration officials apparently believe that the best approach to Israel/Palestine is to try to starve the Hamas government of funds—by imposing sanctions and withholding international aid—and force it to collapse, thereby allowing something better to take its place. That's the theory, anyway, and if it sounds goofy to you, you're not alone. In Lebanon's Daily Star today, Yossi Alpher lists several reasons why this is a really, really bad idea.

Chaos in Afghanistan

| Thu May 18, 2006 8:25 PM EDT

In the World Policy Journal, Carl Robichaud warns that the United States—and, for that matter, the rest of the world—is letting Afghanistan slowly slip into chaos. Insurgents have been gaining strength in recent months, and violence is on the rise. The country needs an estimated 200,000 peacekeepers to provide security, and it's about 80,000 short. And the international community has failed to bolster the central government's legitimacy by spending the money to rebuild the country—11 times as much has been spent on military operations as on reconstruction, humanitarian aid, and economic assistance.

Everyone knows the history here: After the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in the face of U.S.-backed resistance in the 1980s, the United States let the country go to hell. A decade later, among other things, it had to go invade Afghanistan. One would think this is a pretty good argument for not letting the country go to hell. Apparently not.

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Who's "Taking Our Jobs Away"?

| Thu May 18, 2006 5:12 PM EDT

One of the oft-cited arguments against allowing increased immigration is that all those immigrants will take jobs away from Americans. In the abstract, that's a somewhat misguided point. Immigration growth is very similar to having rapid population growth because of higher birthrates—both increase the number of working-age people in the United States—and we rarely hear calls for people to have fewer kids on the theory that all those youngsters will "take our jobs away." There isn't a fixed number of work in this country, and population growth means—again, in theory—more jobs for everyone.

Anyway, Mark Thoma has more on this point, and there's a good debate in his comments section (including people that don't agree that the two are exactly the same) that's very much worth reading.

Appeasement Watch

| Thu May 18, 2006 4:02 PM EDT

I remember when this sort of thing was denigrated as "John Kerry's foreign policy," but frankly, I'm glad to see the Bush administration acting like a bunch of grown-ups:

President Bush's top advisers have recommended a broad new approach to dealing with North Korea that would include beginning negotiations on a peace treaty, even while efforts to dismantle the country's nuclear program are still under way, senior administration officials and Asian diplomats say.
Why, it seems only a few years ago that Dick Cheney's approach to North Korea was "We don't negotiate with evil, we defeat it.'' Of course, refusing to negotiate didn't really accomplish anything, apart from giving Kim Jong Il time, opportunity, and reason to further North Korea's nuclear program. It's at least worth trying to talk (after all, if nothing comes of it, what's been lost?). Maybe Cheney finally figured that out. Hopefully he'll realize the same thing about Iran sooner or later.

Fade-Out: Jazz Fest and the African-American Future of New Orleans

| Wed May 17, 2006 10:10 PM EDT

Following Tuesday night's contentious debate between incumbent Mayor Ray Nagin and white challenger Mitch Landrieu, yesterday's Washington Post had a disturbing story about the changing face of New Orleans: whiter, richer and with far fewer blacks. African-Americans' neighborhoods are still devastated and too often they can't afford to return. It's not only a personal tragedy for those who lost their loved ones and for those who now can't return home, but a cultural and economic tragedy for our nation as well.

Just over a week ago, I returned from Jazz Fest, and all the infectious music in the clubs and at the festival couldn't hide the ongoing ruination of New Orleans. Yes, the reviews are in for the New Orleans Jazz Fest that finished on Sunday May 7th, with the media arriving at a consensus story-line: "New Orleans Jazz Fest emerges triumphant," as USA Today reported. But even as the musical outpouring from stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon to Irma Thomas and other local treasures provided a sense of joy and hope to enormous crowds, the memory of the lost lives and devastation of Katrina was never far from the surface. The glorious music or the crowds of young revelers packing Bourbon Street with their beers and hurricanes in hand couldn't mask the underlying desolation of a city with large swaths still in ruins, whether it was the crushed roofs planted atop cars in the Lower Ninth Ward or the block after block of abandoned and ruined homes, eerily quiet with a few white FEMA trailers scattered among them, even in the more affluent, recovering Lakeview area.

Outside of a few tourist sites, parts of the city were like a ghost town, having lost more than 60 percent of its population, mostly African-Americans – from 455,000 to about 150,000 people. Even in the once-bustling Jackson Square section of the French Quarter, where brass bands, solo musicians and street-vendors once plied their trade (and where George Bush promised to "do what it takes" to restore New Orleans), the place was nearly empty. Hotels and restaurants, the backbone of the city's essential tourism industry, were severely understaffed, scrambling to find workers because potential employees – and those who want to return -- can't find a place to live.

"Make Levees, Not War" was a slogan featured on T-shirts and buttons at Jazz Fest, but it was a viewpoint that hadn't had any impact on government policy or the city's fortunes. Less than half of the city's 3,000 restaurants have reopened. Convention business has plummeted, and the lost revenue won't be recouped by the new Gray Line tour, "America's Worst Catastrophe," that takes busloads of tourists through lakeside areas devastated by Katrina – although they're barred by city law from touring the wrecked black slums of the Ninth Ward. And even if the Army Corps of Engineers manages to repair the levees to a pre-Katrina level in time for the hurricane season that starts in June, there's no assurance that it will be enough to protect the city from future flooding.

"Don't let nobody fool you," a cab driver warned me. "After Jazz Fest, everything will be dead."

But for now, the still-struggling city could put on its best musical showcase, the French Quarter tourist mecca remained largely unscathed by the flooding, and there were oases of life and music scattered throughout the city that could make you believe, at least for a few hours, that New Orleans was back. Here are some snapshots from New Orleans you may have missed:

Sex, Swedish-Style

| Wed May 17, 2006 6:28 PM EDT

The Washington Post has a good article about how European countries with healthy attitudes towards sex—or, let's say, the sorts of attitudes that least resemble Focus on the Family's—have fewer problems with STDs and unwanted pregnancy than, say, we do here in the United States:

A 2001 Guttmacher Institute report, drawing on data from 30 countries in Western and Eastern Europe, concluded: "Societal acceptance of sexual activity among young people, combined with comprehensive and balanced information about sexuality and clear expectations about commitment and prevention childbearing and STDs [sexually transmitted diseases] within teenage relationships, are hallmarks of countries with low levels of adolescent pregnancy, childbearing and STDs." The study cited Sweden as the "clearest of the case-study countries in viewing sexuality among young people as natural and good." …

In Sweden, compulsory sex education starts when children are 10 to 12. Without parental consent, teens can get free medical care, free condoms, prescriptions for inexpensive oral contraceptives and general advice at youth clinics. Emergency contraceptives (the so-called morning-after pill) are available without a prescription.
Shocking! Think of the children! But then again, lower rates of pregnancy and STDs… Hm, tough trade-off. Of course, this sort of thing would never fly in the United States, where 35 percent of schools teach abstinence-only and don't so much as discuss contraception. Here's why:
Religion tends to insert itself less in government policy on sex education, contraception and abortion in Western Europe than in the United States, says Michaud. The Catholic Church exerted minimal influence in Switzerland's AIDS prevention campaign, he said. "All in all, the church has been very tolerant and does not really get involved in sexual matters," Michaud wrote in an e-mail.
The article also notes, interestingly enough, that European parents don't really have to worry quite as much about their children seeing sex and nudity on TV, partly because "[s]traightforward messages on how to prevent STDs and teen pregnancy help offset the impact on teens of sexually explicit ads, movies and other mass media." Wow, just think, with better education we could halt the country's long march towards total moronification. Wouldn't that be nice.