Political MoJo

Aid and Pessimism

| Wed Nov. 23, 2005 4:16 PM EST

Sam Rosenfeld has a very good TAPPED post about aid to Africa, noting that while turning poor African countries into democracies with 10 percent GDP growth a year is very hard, spending a bit of money to provide them with bed nets for malaria is not. That's right. I think, though, he's attacking a straw man here. Very few "aid critics," even William Easterly, think that modest steps like sending malaria nets to Africa are useless. Easterly would probably laud it as the sort of thing we should be doing. But that's not what people like Jeffrey Sachs are proposing.

Sachs argues that you can't solve one poverty problem without solving a whole host of others, and wants to send nations not just malaria nets but trees that replenish nitrogen in the soil, rainwater harvesting, better health clinics, etc. etc. The UN Millenium Project is very broad, and as such, is open to the usual criticisms. In fact, critics of Jeffrey Sachs sometimes cite the Gates Foundation's malaria net work as their preferred, more modest alternative. See the end of this piece, for instance.

Now as it happens, I think Sachs' broad approach is a good one. Even if only an eighth of UN aid makes its way to those who need it, that's still a lot more than before. And as I reported here, aid to developing countries is generally more effective than it's given credit for, and much of the squandered trillions in African aid in years past can be explained away by the fact that there was a Cold War going on, and first world nations didn't exactly hand out aid with humanitarian ends in mind. Yes, there are a lot of sorely-needed ways to improve the aid process, and aid alone won't save any country, but on balance, it does more good than harm. (The benefits of increased trade, meanwhile, while certainly positive and worth reaping, are generally overstated.) Plus, at the margins, you get stuff like malaria nets that have concrete results.

But that's not to say aid—even very modest aid like providing malaria nets—won't do any harm whatsoever. Unless African countries can figure out how to grow, they'll remain dependent on humanitarian aid, which, while not the worst thing in the world, is dangerously tentative. And squandered aid—even if it's still doing some good—can discourage donors from working in Africa. It can even help prop up dictatorships. There are a lot of things to worry about. But it's true, the pessimists about aid to Africa sometimes go too far.

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The American Enemy Combatant

Wed Nov. 23, 2005 3:09 PM EST

Yesterday, the US government finally indicted the only American "enemy combatant" in the war on terror, Jose Padilla. But only after holding him for over three years, incommunicado, in a South Carolina military brig and denying him the basic legal rights guaranteed to all citizens.

The official charges are conspiring to commit murder and aid terrorists. According to Reuters, the indictment states that

The defendants…operated and participated in a North American support cell that sent money, physical assets and mujahideen recruits to overseas conflicts for the purposes of fighting a violent jihad.

Notably absent from the criminal accusation is any mention of his alleged plans to attack New York apartments or to detonate a "dirty bomb" within the US, both earlier advanced as primary allegations by Att. Gen. Gonzalez and Sec. of Defense Rumsfeld. In addition, there are indications that the evidence from a "top al Qaeda leader" was obtained though torture at the secret CIA "black-sites" abroad.

Yet, apart from the question of his guilt, is the legality of suspending a US citizen's right to habeas corpus indefinitely, holding him incommunicado without either formal charges or access to his lawyers. The indictment, even if it is not revoked—as it could be at any time, should not distract from the means used to achieve it.

Jennifer Daskal, Advocacy Director for U.S. Programs at Human Rights Watch, said:

This speaks to who we are as a nation and what we value, that we're still holding over five hundred detainees without charges for over three years. Padilla's indictment doesn't remove that. This is something that should concern all of us as Americans. We are a nation built on the rule of law. …Certainly, those who have engaged in terrorist activity should be held accountable. But like Padilla, these individuals should be charged, prosecuted, and given the opportunity to defend themselves.

Civil liberty and human rights groups have taken Padilla's case as a touchstone for the strikes against the fundamental protections that define U.S. citizenship. In a press release yesterday, Human Rights First issued a reserved welcome:

It is long past time for Mr. Padilla to have his day in court. [However,] it remains to be seen whether it is possible now to repair the damage done to the rule of law and the cause of justice by the past years worth of indefinite detention, incommunicado interrogation, and denial of the most basic due process rights.

Over the past three years, Padilla's case has gone through a series of courts that have flip-flopped in reconciling the Administration's demand for nearly-unlimited flexibility in the war on terror and a citizen's constitutional right to legal security. Rulings in his case concerning the legality of indefinitely detaining a US citizen incommunicado and without charges , have bounced between Federal Courts and US Appeals Courts, since he was seized from a Chicago airport as an "enemy-combatant" in 2002, and now sit before the Supreme Court.

The indictment was issued just six days before the Department of Justice was supposed to submit its arguments to the Court defending its anomalous procedures in detaining the American "enemy combatant." Padilla's lawyers assert that the timing of the indictment is intended to make moot the Supreme Court's decision to review the legality of those actions.

Stanford Professor Jenny Martinez, who is part of the legal team representing Padilla, told the Washington Post, "If I were the government, I would not have expected to win in the Supreme Court. I think the government is clearly trying to evade Supreme Court review.

Martinez told the Post that they will be arguing for the Court to proceed with its review because his indictment is revocable and he his "enemy combatant" status is not yet officially removed. In previous cases, the Court has ruled to continue a review when an indictment was judged an act of "evading review" and that, therefore, the situation was "capable of repetition." Naturally, Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, denies any political strategy in the sudden indictment.

Al-Jazeera memo leak heats up in U.K.

| Tue Nov. 22, 2005 8:38 PM EST

It is always dangerous to be a news reporter during a war, but it has been especially lethal during the Iraq war. Today, the British government confirmed what was rumor--that when George W. Bush met with Tony Blair in the spring of 2004, he talked about targeting the headquarters of Al-Jazeera. A source for The Daily Mirror insists that Bush was joking, while another source claims he was quite serious.

A British civil servant has now been charged with leaking the government memo that claims that Bush expressed a desire to destroy Al-Jazeera headquarters, and that Blair talked him out of it. Cabinet office employee David Keogh is accused of passing the memo to Leo O'Connor, who used to work for former British lawmaker Tony Clarke.

It is not as if this were an isolated incident. A year before Bush and Blair met, an American tank opened fire on the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad. The Palestine was known to be housing journalists from throughout the world; it was common knowledge. U.S. forces made two hits on the hotel within a two-hour period, killing two cameramen and seriously wounding five reporters. The Pentagon claimed it had reports of Iraqi snipers stationed at the hotel who shot at U.S. forces, but there have also been numerous reports that no one fired from the Palestine. It does seem clear that the Pentagon knew that reporters were housed there, but what actually happened will never be known.

Perhaps most shocking of all was the fact that the Palestine Hotel attack was a non-story in the United States. The alleged investigation of the incident, if it took place at all, was never reported by the news media. Perhaps if someone had bothered to take a closer look at what happened, we wouldn't be having a discussion today about whether George W. Bush intended to launch an attack on Al-Jazeera.

Would National Health Insurance Help GM?

| Tue Nov. 22, 2005 1:56 PM EST

Conventional wisdom in this country has it that American businesses are uncompetitive partly because they have to spend so much on health insurance for their workers. Here's a common variation, from Dean Bakopoulos:

[W]e must implement a system that guarantees universal healthcare. American industry — from National Steel to Starbucks — would benefit from having the burden of health insurance lifted off its back. Why else would GM be aggressively investing in nationalized-healthcare Canada while U.S. plants shut down?
Why indeed? I certainly don't know. But I'm not convinced that the conventional wisdom is entirely right. At least let's hash it out. There's reason to think that national healthcare wouldn't necessarily make American businesses more competitive.

Say each year GM paid each worker $40,000 and spent $5,000 per worker on health insurance. That's a major drag, right? Well, look. Say national health insurance is then created, some system that doesn't rely on employers. Depending on how it's financed, GM could still be on the hook for that $5,000, so long as total worker compensation doesn't change—which it shouldn't, so long as it's set by the market. Maybe companies will now pay that $5,000 in wage form, to attract the same caliber workers (or because unions demand it). Or maybe the new system will be financed by payroll taxes or individual mandates, in which case the company might have to pay each worker $45,000 to cover the cost. But total compensation wouldn't change.

Alternatively, those companies that are currently paying nothing for health insurance can help share the load with companies like GM. But then you're just taking from one company to help out another—American businesses overall don't necessarily become more competitive. There are probably ways to redistribute the load that make sense, and that's why we have policy wonks, but the point is there's nothing prima facie business-friendly about this.

In reality, of course, things would look far more complicated. The current tax system makes things complex. And some health insurance systems are more efficient than others. National health insurance might be cheaper, on aggregate, than our current system, in which case everyone would be paying less, and businesses obviously become more competitive. But what if the new system was more expensive—given that 45 million new people would need to be covered? GM's fortunes would depend largely on how the system was financed and how good it was at controlling costs. European companies are more competitive on this front presumably because Europe rations its health care and so spends less (with similar, if not better health outcomes). If we could do that, it wouldn't matter quite as much how health care was delivered—cutting costs is where the benefits to business would lie, primarily.

There's another aspect here. Right now, when insurance premiums go up each year, GM usually has to cover the increase, which goes up faster than wages do, unless it wants to shift some of the cost onto workers—a move that usually causes a big stir and is somewhat hard to do. But if GM was paying its workers entirely in wages, and the government handling health insurance, then GM might be able to get away with avoiding the "necessary" wage increases whenever there was a premium hike. In that case, GM would save money and become more profitable by giving its employees a pay cut—who get, say, a payroll tax increase or premium hike from the government, but not enough of a corresponding wage increase from GM to cover it. But who knows.

I certainly think a national health insurance system is necessary in this country, one not tied to employment. It would help workers move from job to job more easily while remaining insured, and would guarantee that everyone had insurance. It's fair, moral, decent, etc. And it would likely be progressive, which the current tax deductions for employer-backed insurance certainly aren't. And so on. In theory reform could even help control costs, although I'm not as orthodox about that particular faith as some. But would it be a boon for American businesses? It really depends.

Emulating Japanese Schools

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 5:23 PM EST

Brent Staples has an interesting New York Times piece today that looks at one of the hidden strengths of the Japanese educational system—the fact that it actually takes the time to train and develop teachers:

[There is] growing interest in the Japanese teacher-development strategy in which teachers work cooperatively and intensively to improve their methods. This process, known as "lesson study," allows teachers to revise and refine lessons that are then shared with others, sometimes through video and sometimes at conventions. In addition to helping novices, this system builds a publicly accessible body of knowledge about what works in the classroom.

The lesson-study groups focus on refining methods that improve student understanding. In doing so, the groups go step by step, laying out successful strategies for teaching specific lessons. This reflects the Japanese view that successful teaching is the product of intensive teacher development and self-scrutiny. In America, by contrast, novice teachers are often presumed competent on Day One. They have few opportunities in their careers to watch successful colleagues in action. We also tend to believe that educational change would happen overnight - if only we could find the right formula. This often leaves us prey to fads that put schools on the wrong track. This seems so commonsensical that one wonders whether American schools really are so deficient in this regard. A Google search brings up an old Joanne Jacobs post with an excerpt from a subscriber-only Education Week piece that suggests, if I'm reading it right, that American teacher development too often focuses on "generic teaching techniques" rather than more valuable specifics—"what teachers must cover and [how] students think about that content." It goes on: "[R]esearchers also have a hunch that it's important for teachers to engage in learning sessions collectively—maybe with other teachers from the same department or grade—so that they can meet later to reflect on what they learned." Okay, so this probably doesn't go on.

This very short policy brief, meanwhile, points out some of the problems with the Japanese school system, including the oft-heard critique that Japanese schools turn their students into robots and stifles their creativity and individuality. Interestingly, in the 1990s, Japan's Ministry of Education adopted a "loose education" system, which trimmed textbooks, reduced workloads, and gave kids Saturdays off from school. But the country's test scores started slipping and pretty soon parents and teachers were rebelling, putting stricter standards back in place. Rote-intensive learning's making a comeback. So there seem to be serious trade-offs here.

Base Politics

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 3:23 PM EST

In Foreign Affairs this month, Alexander Cooley has a good piece on the politics of American basing agreements that's worth a read. He does make the good point that the U.S. often seeks out basing agreements with authoritarian regimes, apparently on the theory that these countries will be more reliable allies from a military standpoint. But in fact, dictatorships can be unreliable, as Uzbekistan showed a few months ago, and Cooley argues that the U.S. is less likely to criticize a non-democratic regime for bad behavior if it has bases there, making reform less likely. (On the other hand, one might argue that, unless the United States has some sort of working relationship with an authoritarian country, whether it be military or economic ties, there's no hope of encouraging any sort of reform in those countries.)

Cooley then argues that democracies are in fact much more reliable footholds for our vast basing empire, and since agreements are negotiated openly, those bases are less likely to aggravate extremists or provoke a backlash. And they're actually more stable, since opposition leaders are less likely to campaign against an American presence negotiated by an authoritarian regime, as is now happening in South Korea. From a strategic standpoint, that's valuable. It's true, bases in democracies get a bad name because Turkey wouldn't let itself be used as an invasion platform in 2003, but that was something of an exception.

So it's an interesting piece, but it's not clear how much this advice applies to the current American basing empire. The Pentagon controls at least 725 military bases in about 130 countries around the world, valued at some $118 billion and employing half a million people. From a foreign policy standpoint, some of the bases seem to serve good purposes, some of them serve dark purposes—the ring of bases in Central Asia certainly have an "it's all about oil (and gas)" feel to them—but most of them seem to exist just to exist, and grow, and expand, as all bureaucracies tend to do. In time they create their own rationale for being there.

And few people have really taken the time to figure out whether this basing madness is all necessary for foreign policy—whether we actually need listening stations and covert operations in every corner of the earth, or whether they just exist for their own sake, because the military and its intelligence agencies are, for lack of a better phrase, addicted to control, addicted to seeking military and intelligence solutions to every problem, addicted to expanding their budgets every year. I certainly don't know. (Donald Rumsfeld seems to believe that the footprint of the empire needs to be reduced, but not its omnipotence.) If that's the case, then democracy, non-democracy, whatever; policymakers won't much care where the bases go, just so long as they're pervasive. Indeed, Cooley's piece seems to be searching for the right basing arrangement to carry out a preferred foreign policy, but it seems just as plausible that the reverse is how things tend to work, and the bases end up driving foreign policy.

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Is Withdrawal Inevitable?

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 1:53 PM EST

Christopher Dickey, who seems to have a good ear for goings-on in the Middle East, has this twist on the debate over when and how the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq. Basically, he says, the United States is no longer in the driver's seat:

So topsy-turvy is the policy at this point that we're not going to imagine leaving until the Iraqi government demands that we go—and you can be sure the Iraqis who are now taking power will do just that. When? As soon as they and their Iranian allies have consolidated their hold on the southern three fourths of the country and its oil. [n.b. And not, as the Pentagon prefers, when a national Iraqi army can take over security.] ...

The Bush administration no longer sets the agenda in Iraq, in fact, and hasn't for at least two years. The watershed came in November 2003 when there was a dramatic spike in U.S. casualties and Washington suddenly scrambled together a policy for transferring sovereignty back to Iraqis instead of pocketing it indefinitely for the Pentagon and the oil companies, as originally intended. The American invasion, which was supposed to be proactive, has led to an occupation that is entirely reactive, and it's clear—or ought to be—that the castles in the air constructed by Wolfowitz and his friends have been blown away by facts on the ground.There's certainly evidence that that's the case. Ahmad Chalabi, who is almost certainly an Iranian ally of some sort—if only a temporary ally—and may well become prime minister in December elections, has already suggested a tentative deadline for withdrawal, telling Congress that 2006 should be a "period of significant transition" for the United States, echoing language in a recent Senate defense bill. Moqtada al-Sadr is uniting Sunni and Shiite radicals in Iraq in support of U.S. withdrawal. The Pentagon even has a plan to do so, if necessary, drawing down to about 80,000 troops by 2006. (On the other hand, maybe Chalabi won't be prime minister after all: polls show that Ibrahim Jaaferi, who seems to want the U.S. to stay, is still pretty popular.)

It's hard to say what the end result would be of a forced drawdown plus the pro-Iranian Shiites "consolidat[ing] their hold on the southern three fourths of the country." Chaos, probably. War, maybe. Ezra Klein argues that if the United States got out in front on this and pre-empted the Shiites by withdrawing before said consolidation happened, it would force Chalabi and his belligerent Shiite allies to play nice with the Sunni insurgency. That's certainly possible. On the other hand, a troop drawdown could just as easily spur each and every Iraqi party to panic, grab whatever gun or armed ally they can find, and make war more, rather than less, likely. Sabrina Tavernise reports today that already "20 cities and towns around Baghdad are segregating" by sect, an ominous sign. Trying to predict how Iraqis will react to our future American actions seems pretty dubious. It's much safer to predict that whenever the troop drawdown comes, it will be conducted no less incompetently than every other aspect of the war so far.

Poll shows people in Britain still believe rape victims "ask for it"

| Mon Nov. 21, 2005 11:07 AM EST

A poll commissioned by Amnesty International reveals that British attitudes toward women who are raped have not changed over several decades. One third of those responding to the poll believe that a woman is "partly or completely responsible" if she is raped after she has been flirtatious or if she is drunk. More than one quarter believe that she is partially responsible if she is wearing sexy or revealing clothing.

It doesn't get better. 20% believe that a woman is partly to blame for her rape if she has had several sexual partners, and more than a third believe she is responsible if she fails to "clearly" say "no." A little over 20% believe that if a woman is walking alone in a deserted area and is raped, she is partly to blame for the crime. Of the 1,095 Britons who took the survey, men were somewhat more inclined to blame women for being raped, except in the case of intoxication. In that case, more women were inclined to blame the victim.

Last year, 85% of rapes in Great Britain went unreported. Most Britons are unaware of the number of women who are raped each year, and in fact, most police are also unaware. 96% of poll respondents said they did not know how many recorded rapes were committed in 2004-2005, or they estimatd the number to be significantly lower than it was (almost 13,000).

There are 43 police forces in England and Wales, and fewer than 10 have dedicated rape investigation teams. The investigations move slowly, and police do not always use forensic kits to gather evidence.

Hispanic post-Katrina workers said to be living in terrible conditions and cheated out of pay

| Sat Nov. 19, 2005 3:13 PM EST

Hispanic workers who went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to do hurricane recovery work after Katrina report that their employers sometimes disappear without paying them, that they sometimes have to wait a long time for a complex web of contractors to pay them, that their paychecks are sometimes smaller than promised, or that those paychecks never arrive at all.

Though the contractors are violating federal law, many of the workers do not know their rights, and they cannot afford attorneys. Mississippi, for some reason, does not have a department of labor, and nonpayment for work is not classified as a crime in the state. Because they have little or no money, Mississippi's Hispanic immigrant workers are living in tent cities which provide minimal protection from the elements, and now that the weather is getting cold, they are in trouble.

According to state representative Jim Evans, the problem is not a new one in Mississippi--Katrina recovery has just magnified it. Evans wants the state attorney general to enforce laws that are already on the books--it is a crime to commit fraud and a crime to hire someone under false pretenses in Mississippi. Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, was in Gulfport Friday, investigating the workers' claims. She was joined by members of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

Day Care Capitalism

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 10:38 PM EST

One big policy question that comes up now and again is whether the government should subsidize child care to a greater extent than it does—and if so, how? Gary Becker gives us a lecture on the virtues of so-called free markets:

I believe it would be a mistake for the US, Germany, or other countries to emulate the Swedish approach [which subsidizes day care for all working mothers]. For starters, middle class and rich families can pay for their own childcare services for young children, such as preschool programs, whether or not the mothers are working. … It is much more efficient to have better off families buy childcare services in a private competitive market than to spend tax revenue on preschool government-run programs for the children of these families. [But poorer families should get greater day-care subsidies, says Becker.]
Okay, but let's ask why Sweden has a government-run day care system while the United States has a "private competitive market." Because the Swedes love their socialism, and damn the consequences? No, it's because Swedish child-care workers are actually paid more than dirt—a substance that in turn makes more than American child-care workers—and hence, very few Swedes could actually afford day care in the private market. Child care workers make, on average, 66 percent of the median female wage in America; in Sweden it's 102 percent. If American child care workers were ever able to unionize or get paid a decent wage, the "free market" for day care in American would break down completely.

At any rate, my guess is that in the future, child care is going to become more and more unaffordable no matter what country we live in, since it's not an industry that will go through major productivity growth or cost reductions. The price will keep rising of its own accord—no matter how much immigration and American-style capitalism manage to slow wage growth in the sector, they can't stop it. So once child care becomes as unaffordable for the middle classes as it currently is for the lower classes, the government will be forced to step in and offer serious child care subsidies. (At the moment, families below the poverty line pay on average 28 percent of their income for child care; for middle-class families, it's 6.6 percent and rising.) It's inevitable, even in this country. Good, I say.

That won't necessarily mean complete socialism for child care; the government could always offer families vouchers and let them choose their own day care center or whatever, but the vouchers will have to be generous. Another clever innovation is to foster the private "family care" sector—i.e., those stay-at-home mothers taking care of other kids as well—which France has been trying to do in order to rein in public child-care spending. This wouldn't substitute for a publicly-funded child care system, but it could complement it. I'm too lazy to look up the details, though.

Personally, I've always liked ideas that put an actual price on "non-market" activities like informal child care. One nonprofit group, Time Dollar USA, has created "service banks" that allow community members to pay each other in "time dollars" for "volunteer" activities. Say Grandma Nellie looks after your kids each day, and you pay her in time dollars. Then she uses those dollars to get someone to take care of her if she ever gets ill. Or whatever. It's an interesting system, although "professional" social service agencies tend to look down on it, and I think in Florida back in the '80s a pilot program for service banking was looted by a skeptical legislature. But other than that...