Political MoJo

How to Avoid Cleanup Costs

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 7:37 PM EDT

Over at the Sierra Club site, Marilyn Berlin Snell has a story about how corporations use bankruptcy to discharge their environmental obligations. In particular, she follows the story of Asarco, a massive copper conglomerate whose smelters were poisoning towns. After being found guilty in court and racking up $500 million to $1 billion in environmental liabilities, the company declared bankruptcy in 2005—and the public was stuck with the bill for cleaning up the mess. It's not an uncommon tactic:

Reorganization under the Bankruptcy Code's Chapter 11 helps companies wipe the slate clean of environmental liabilities, giving them a fresh start. In the United States--a country that has based its keystone environmental laws on the principle that polluters, not taxpayers, should pay to clean up the poisons they spew--Asarco is just one example of how corporations use Chapter 11 to slough off massive environmental liabilities, reorganize, and then emerge leaner and meaner to operate another day.

Asarco's parent company, Grupo México, is benefiting too. A few months after Asarco filed for bankruptcy, Grupo México announced that net profits had doubled--largely because Asarco's environmental liabilities had been removed from its books. Of course, the liabilities remain, but now they are borne by U.S. taxpayers.

Last year, Congress cracked down on personal bankruptcy, making it harder for consumers to erase their debts. But legislators have done nothing to get tougher with the approximately 38,500 businesses that declare bankruptcy each year. A 2005 report to Congress spelled out steps the EPA could take to ensure such companies fulfill their environmental obligations. But as that study sits on a shelf, Asarco and an untold number of other polluting enterprises are getting a free pass.No one really knows how many companies do this. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) asked the GAO to look into it, and the agency found the following: " While more than 231,000 businesses operating in the United States filed for bankruptcy in fiscal years 1998 through 2003, the extent to which these businesses had environmental liabilities is not known because neither the federal government nor other sources collect this information." Companies with environmental liabilities don't always notify the EPA -- ostensibly a creditor -- when they file for bankruptcy. Snell, for her part, makes some guesses as to which companies are doing just this, however; it's worth reading her whole story.

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Armitage Says Talk With Iran

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 6:56 PM EDT

Well here's at least one semi-sane Republican voice speaking up (not that anyone needs to be a fan of Richard Armitage):

Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state during President George W. Bush's first term, has urged the Bush administration to hold talks with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Mr Armitage said Washington would benefit from talking to Tehran on a range of issues, including Iran's nuclear aspirations. The Bush administration has so far resisted calls from its European allies to engage Iran directly over its alleged nuclear weapons programme.

"It merits talking to the Iranians about the full range of our relationship... everything from energy to terrorism to weapons to Iraq," Mr Armitage told the Financial Times in an interview. "We can be diplomatically astute enough to do it without giving anything away."Yes, exactly. Why not try? At worst, talks with Iran fail, and the U.S. is right back where it is now, at an impasse. So why not? The Bush administration reportedly doesn't want to negotiate with Iran because that would amount to appeasement of an evil regime. But we already appease evil regimes. We send (innocent) terrorist suspects to Syria to be beaten with electrical cables. We give $1 billion a year to Egypt, home of "widespread and systematic" torture. Our dear friends in Saudi Arabia have 126 children on death row, among other atrocities. And let's not get started on Dubai. You can disagree with the decision to support these countries so strongly—I certainly do—but either way, it's not like appeasement is unprecedented for this administration. And there's a better case for making nice when it comes to Iran, because it could be the only way to avoid a very catastrophic war. So again: why not try?

Hawks Declare War on Iran

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 6:23 PM EDT

Matthew Yglesias points out that the Weekly Standard is gearing up for war with Iran. As he notes, the two articles he cites are a combination of fantasy (would air strikes actually destroy Iran's nuclear program? No one knows. Oh well…) and insanity (thousands and thousands of people could die? Oh well…) But for sheer nuttery, it's hard to top William Kristol's editorial on the subject:

Given Iranian president Ahmadinejad's recent statements and actions, it should be obvious that it is not "a sign of humanity's moral progress"--to use Blum's phrase--to appease the mullahs. It is not "moral progress" to put off serious planning for military action to a later date, probably in less favorable circumstances, when the Iranian regime has been further emboldened, our friends in the region more disheartened, and allies more confused by years of fruitless diplomacy than they would be by greater clarity and resolution now.
Virtually no one, of course, thinks it's unequivocally moral or non-problematic to "appease the mullahs," as Kristol terms it. The people making the case for engagement just think it's the rational thing to do—the thing that will get fewer people killed and cause fewer catastrophes. (Plus, engagement is far more likely to help Iran eventually liberalize than bombs and sanctions will—we've seen how well that worked for Cuba.) Sometimes foreign policy just doesn't have a "pretty" choice that will make everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside. But notice also that Kristol says we need to act right this very instant. Bombs can't wait. Yet right before that, he says this:
That action would be easier if the situation in Iraq improved--which implies an urgent push to make progress there, with the deployment of more troops if necessary. Planning for action in Iran would be somewhat easier if the president finally insisted on a far-too-long-delayed increase in the size of the military. It would be easier, too, under the leadership of a new, not-discredited defense secretary in whom the president would have confidence, since he has surely (if privately) lost faith in the current one.
That's a nice fantasy. Set aside the fact that there aren't "more troops" we can magically send to Iraq, and even if they were, they likely wouldn't do much good—the ongoing civil war almost certainly isn't something that "more troops" can quell. But how on earth would an "increase in the size of the military" help with Iran? Training troops and expanding the active service takes years and years. If we need to act immediately, as Kristol demands, then any expansion of the military is completely irrelevant. Iraq isn't going to get better immediately. A newfound invasion force isn't going to materialize immediately. I can't tell if Kristol's truly insane or just badly confused, but either way, it's disturbing that this sort of stuff gets taken seriously.

Generals Speaking Out

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 3:19 PM EDT

Fred Kaplan has a good column about the recent spate of retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld's head. On the one hand, no one wants to see a repeat of the 1960s, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff, against their better judgment, failed to speak up and dissuade Johnson and McNamara from hurtling the country into Vietnam. If military leaders think something has gone badly awry in the Pentagon, the public should probably know.

On the other hand, it's perfect reasonable to get a bit leery when generals suddenly start speaking out against civilian government. During the 1990s the military became quite politicized—a development that Bill Clinton, ironically, helped start when he took the unprecedented step of getting endorsements from 20 retired generals in his 1992 campaign, to counteract his image as a pot-smoking draft-dodger. Just like they do now, Democrats made a fetish of men in uniforms. The flipside was that once in office, Clinton was loathe to challenge his generals—they had more credibility on security issues, after all.

A Happy Ending for Iran?

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 9:04 PM EDT

Down at the bottom of Knight Ridder's coverage of Iran's announcement that it has enriched uranium is this optimistic take:

Saeed Laylaz, a political analyst in Tehran, said he expects Tuesday's political fanfare will soon be followed by another announcement suspending all enrichment activities, as requested by the IAEA. Such a move, Laylaz said, would be a savvy way for all sides to save face and avoid escalating the crisis.

"They wanted this big ceremony to show that nuclear technology is not a goal - it's an achievement. This is enough, and now we can go back to negotiations," he said. Predicting anything when it comes to Iran is a mug's game, but that's a hopeful possibility. The UN Security Council has already given Iran 30 days, starting March 29, to suspend its uranium-enrichment program. Perhaps, as Laylaz says, the Iranian government just wanted to make an announcement, get people at home excited, and then comply with the UN to show that it had peaceful intentions all along. Who knows? It's just as likely, of course, that the situation will only continue to get worse, especially since, according to the Financial Times the Bush administration now seems to be rejecting overtures by Iran to negotiate. (Those reports, naturally, could well be false or mistaken.)

UPDATE: Okay, guess not.

Powell Comes Clean on WMDs

Wed Apr. 12, 2006 5:41 PM EDT

Robert Scheer recounts a recent conversation with Colin Powell, during which Powell admitted that neither he, nor top government officials, ever perceived Iraq as a nuclear threat. When asked why the President disregarded the State Department's conclusion to this effect, Powell responded that "the CIA was pushing the aluminum tube argument heavily and Cheney went with that instead of what our guys wrote."

According to Scheer, Powell affirmed that the President's State of the Union reference to Iraq's quest for uranium from Niger "was a big mistake." Adding, "it should never have been in the speech. I didn't need Wilson to tell me that there wasn't a Niger connection. He didn't tell us anything we didn't already know. I never believed it." Powell continued that it wasn't the President that wanted to premise the war on nuclear threat, but "all Cheney."

As Scheer points out, it's convenient for Powell to place the burden to Cheney and remain a Bush loyalist. "But it begs the question," he writes, "of how the president came to be a captive of his vice president's fantasies."

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New at Mother Jones

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 4:25 PM EDT

One Dollar, One Vote
The evidence is clear: Massive income disparities are undermining democracy in America.
By Bradford Plumer

Iraqi School Kids: "They don't see why they should prepare themselves."
Students struggle to keep up amidst daily bombings and sectarian warfare.
By David Enders

The Poor Man's Air Force
A history of the car bomb (Part 1)
By Mike Davis

Out of the Shadows
Two million people marched for immigrant rights on Monday -- and taught us something about standing up for justice.
By Paul Rogat Loeb

Explaining Away Stagnant Wages

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 2:46 PM EDT

Every now and again, the Bush administration or some other booster of the current economy will argue that wages aren't really stagnating, as they appear to be to anyone who looks at the numbers. Rather, workers are just receiving more and more of their compensation in health care benefits.

Trouble is, that's not true, at least not for workers at the very bottom of the ladder. According to the Economic Policy Institute, between 2004 and 2005 the bottom 20 percent saw their wages decline 1.9 percent. Yet only 24 percent of those workers get health insurance through their employer. Basically, health care costs would have had to increase 39 percent during that year for this to be the primary explanation; in fact, it rose 9.2 percent. In reality, there's something badly wrong with an economic "recovery" that has a large number of workers seeing their paychecks shrink rather than grow.

Would the U.S. Nuke Iran?

| Wed Apr. 12, 2006 2:14 PM EDT

Over the past week, both Seymour Hersh and the Washington Post have published reports that the Bush administration is considering various plans to attack Iran—plans that may or may not include using "bunker-buster" tactical nuclear weapons to destroy Iran's underground nuclear sites. It's a bit alarming, to say the least, and there's been shockingly little follow-up in the media. Unfortunately, both pieces are frustratingly vague, so here are two follow-ups worth reading.

Jeffrey Lewis of Arms Control Wonk looks at Iran's main centrifuge plant in Natanz and says that, setting aside the rather obvious insanity of dropping a bunker-buster on Iran, there's no technical reason to use nukes to destroy Iran's nuclear program. The facility just isn't deep enough underground—conventional weapons will do. (Indeed, you could make an argument that "bunker buster" tactical nukes are never needed to destroy underground facilities, and that the entire program should be discontinued.)

Meanwhile, a while back William Arkin took a peek at Pentagon war games from the early 1990s, when the military tried to figure out what would happen if Iran went nuclear, allied itself with a breakaway Shiite republic in Iraq, and tried—for reasons unknown—to conquer the Middle East. Basically, the United States would have no trouble stopping it, so long as it had troops permanently based in the region (hint, hint), and didn't need to use nuclear weapons to do it. In fact, military leaders found that it was nearly impossible to incorporate the nuclear arsenal into their war plans.

Perhaps it's naïve to be (very slightly) comforted by these sorts of things, but both analyses sure make it seem like dropping a nuclear bomb on Iran is unlikely, whatever the chances of a conventional attack might be. (A conventional bombing raid against Iran would be a horrible idea, of course, but a nuclear attack would be catastrophic.) On the other hand, Billmon wonders what would happen if we did use nukes against Iran. The Bush administration is insane enough to do so, the corporate media is brainless enough to go along happily (mushroom clouds make for good ratings), and the country might be so jaded and used to watching unimaginable violence over TV that really, it's entirely possible we could turn parts of Iran into glass and no one would care.

IRS to Sell Tax Information

Tue Apr. 11, 2006 5:12 PM EDT

The IRS is planning to share tax return information with accountants and tax preparers. Under the new proposal, once you sign an authorization form, the third party preparer is free to sell the data contained in the filings to corporate marketers. That data includes everything from income figures to bank accounts, Social Security numbers, and other private information.

Nothing good can come out of this plan. Without regulations for how the data is used, identity theft will likely skyrocket. There is also nothing that would restrict tax preparers from offering people incentives to authorize the release of their personal data. With the mountains of paperwork being filled out at tax time, it would be easy enough for tax preparers to toss another form in there and get taxpayers to sign.

Interestingly, one of the companies that has opposed this change, H&R Block, has its own legal woes, facing a lawsuit charging that the firm violated fifteen separate state and federal laws when it marketed and sold Refund Anticipation Loans. But, Murray Walton, vice president and compliance officer at H&R Block, told the officials, "we find the idea of selling tax return information repugnant." It seems H&R Block is trying to rehabilitate its image.

Barack Obama (D-IL) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) are working to keep tax payers' information private and have introduced the Protecting Taxpayer Privacy Act which would prohibit tax preparers from disclosing taxpayer information to third parties. Republicans and Democrats alike are backing the Privacy Act. Hopefully this rare act of bipartisan support will help prevent the IRS from pushing its new policy.