Political MoJo

Beyond GDP Growth

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 3:42 PM EST

The Economic Policy Institute has a short paper answering the question of why Americans might still be so dissatisfied with the state of the economy when GDP growth has been relatively strong for quite some time. Profits are up, but wages and incomes are down for the average worker; more and more people are sinking deeper into debt; the employment rate has fallen; poverty is rising; and health care costs are slowly getting out of control. Set in this context, of course, the figures for GDP growth really doesn't matter much at all, although that seems to be the big number everyone always talks about.

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What Abramoff Bought

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 3:26 PM EST

It's hard to improve on this point about the Jack Abramoff scandals by Jeanne of Body and Soul:

Yesterday Amy Goodman interviewed Brian Ross about his 1998 story on Tom Delay's fight to continue horrible labor conditions and forced abortions on U.S. soil in Saipan. The current news hook, of course, is that Delay got interested in Saipan when Jack Abramoff arranged a nice trip there for him.

I'm glad the corporate media is covering the corruption, but I wish there was more emphasis on what these inducements were in support of. But then that's why we call it corporate media, isn't it? A little scandal here and there can be fun to cover, but look into the effect of all this on people's lives? Not powerful people's careers and ambitions, but ordinary people's lives? That Ross covered the story in '98 proves it can be done. But it's never part of the big juicy stories.Right, right. The corruption and the process gets all the coverage, but ultimately the end result matters most. It's not like DeLay was taking a bit of money to do something that was good for the world—calling attention to the plight of the ongoing mess in the Congo at the behest of Congolese lobbyists, say. (Or whatever; it's just an example.) He was blocking legislation in Congress that would have prevented corporations from contracting with sweatshops in Saipan. He was trying to preserve what were essentially forced labor camps. All for a few bucks and a nice little trip abroad.

Bioshield Boondoggle

| Fri Jan. 6, 2006 2:52 PM EST

Time Magazine has a fantastic article on the massive boondoggle that is the world of BioShield. In 2003, President Bush asked Congress for nearly $6 billion to pay drug companies so that they could develop vaccines for exotic diseases that terrorists might unleash on the country: Ebola, smallpox, plague. It turns out that most of that money went… well, nowhere:

BioShield hasn't transformed much of anything besides expanding the federal bureaucracy. Most of the big pharmaceutical and biotech firms want nothing to do with developing biodefense drugs. The little companies that are vying for deals say they are being stymied by an opaque and glacially slow contracting process. The one big contract that has been awarded -- for 75 million doses of a next-generation anthrax vaccine -- is tangled in controversy.

With the industry's profits under pressure, none of the big firms are keen on diverting research from potential blockbusters to drugs for exotic germs like Ebola and plague, which may be stockpiled and used only in an emergency. …

Public-health experts are also worried that money is flowing into terrorism-related medicine at the expense of more basic needs like hospital beds and respirators, which may be just as critical to saving lives in a crisis. And they are concerned that the government's obsession with biodefense is distracting from research into infectious diseases. Last March, 758 microbiologists signed a petition to the NIAID, complaining about the "massive influx of funding" for bioterrorism agents like anthrax, tularemia and plague. The institute now spends nearly $1.7 billion on biodefense -- up from just $42 million in 2001 -- out of a $4.3 billion budget (although the biodefense funding hasn't detracted from other research, according to the agency). Meanwhile, hardly any new antibiotics have been approved by the FDA in recent years, despite the fact that scientists have grown more concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria. "The big challenge is how we deal with epidemic infectious diseases, not anthrax," says Dr. David Ozonoff, a professor at Boston University's School of Public Health.So pretty much useless all around. That's good to know. On the other hand, the threat of shadowy terrorists waging biological warfare on the United States has always sounded pretty implausible. If, say, some guy from Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria got ahold of smallpox and tried to spread it in the United States, he would almost certainly end up devastating Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Syria much, much more—poorer countries, after all, are poorly equipped to deal with plagues, far more so than the United States or other OECD countries are. Maybe the best defense against biological warfare is simply publicizing this fact far and wide…

Car Ownership and Poverty

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 7:15 PM EST

Margy Waller of Brookings has a modest suggestion for tackling poverty: Help low-income workers, especially those in urban and rural areas, buy their own cars so that they can actually commute to the suburbs, where most of the jobs are these days.

A recent GAO study determined that during the 1990s almost three-fourths of all welfare recipients lived in central cities or rural areas, while in over 100 metropolitan places three-fourths of all jobs were located in the suburbs. ...

Bridging this spatial mismatch is difficult. ... Employers report that transportation is a major barrier to retaining former welfare recipients, or even hiring them in the first place."Spatial mismatch," that's a good way of putting it. And Waller argues that better public transportation systems won't necessarily solve this problem, partly because even the best bus lines can't go everywhere:

[T]he effect of access to public transit on the likelihood of employment for welfare recipients is mixed at best. One recent study in six metro areas found that better access to public transit had no effect on employment for welfare recipients. Other research suggests that access to better public transit has a small effect on employment outcomes for welfare recipients who do not have access to a car.

By comparison, people with cars are more likely to work, and car ownership is positively associated with higher earnings and more work hours.Car ownership, though, tends to be out of reach for many of these workers, especially since owning a car is usually much more expensive for low-income families than it is for everyone else (the poor need to pay, on average, $500 more to buy a car; they usually pay higher interest rates through subprime financing and the like; and insurance premiums are generally higher). Both President Clinton and, to some extent, Bush, have proposed a few very basic measures to help promote car-ownership—getting rid of rules that make it difficult for low-income car owners to qualify for food stamps, for instance—but Congress hasn't done anything about it yet.

Anyway, the last thing this world probably needs is more cars, but Waller makes a good point, even if this is a Band-Aid approach to urban poverty. About a decade ago, when William Julius Wilson wrote about the flight of jobs from the cities, he suggested that the federal government create large-scale public works programs to turn things around. Handing everyone a car so that they can commute seems to be the low-budget version.

Oh, and there's a flip-side to all of this. A lot of low-income urban workers can obviously still find jobs in the inner city. They could very much benefit from better public transportation, but that's not always available. Urban policymakers these days have become fond of slashing funds for, say, the bus systems that everyone uses in favor of rail services that subsidize the costly commute from the suburbs for middle-class workers. About a decade ago, before being shot down in court, the Los Angeles transit system wanted to spend about 70 percent of its funds on rail services when 94 percent of its riders, mostly at the lower end of the income scale, used the bus system. That's an extreme example but not, as far as I can tell, an aberration.

That Recent Congressional Agreement...

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 3:17 PM EST

This came in over the holidays, but the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has put out a handful of extremely thorough reports looking at Congress' recent budget legislation, which will likely pass sometime early this year. The first report notes that the agreement would cut Medicaid services and increase fees for low-income families who can't otherwise afford health care by some $16 billion. At a time when the quality of Medicaid care has been slowly eroding for years, these cuts come at the worst possible time. Child-support enforcement and foster care aid also get chopped up.

A second report notes that Congress also imposed stunning new mandates on state welfare programs, and slashed funding for child care. In fact, the new welfare provisions are so strict that states many almost certainly won't be able to comply. But the thing is, Congress knew that many states wouldn't be able to comply. That was the point. Republicans intentionally designed the bill so that states would fail and hence be forced to pay fines to the federal government, which would in turn make it look like they were "trimming" the federal deficit. Clever trick, and the only downside is that, as the non-partisan CBO noted, "the number of children in deep poverty is likely to rise." But that's nothing to get too worked up about, no doubt.

And finally, the Center notes that the budget deficit isn't really going to get any smaller after these cuts, because Congress also allowed two new tax cuts for high-income families to begin taking effect in January 2006. How skewed are these new cuts towards the upper brackets? The chart in the middle of this report is particularly telling: workers making $100,000 to $200,000 will receive an average tax cut of $25. Enough for a movie and popcorn, almost. Workers making $75,000 to $100,000 get a whole buck, on average. On the other hand, those Americans making over $1 million will receive an average tax cut of $19,234, so it's not all bad.

Ariel Sharon's Stroke

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 2:44 PM EST

In the wake of Ariel Sharon's "significant" stroke, a number of commenters are discussing what this means for the future of Israel. Jonathan Zasloff tries to figure out what this means for the major parties—Labor, Likud, and Sharon's recently-formed Kadima party—in the upcoming Israeli elections. Jonathan Edelstein, meanwhile, wonders what Sharon's illness means for the upcoming Palestinian elections (if there are elections, of course):

Sharon's disability is bound to affect the Palestinian electoral balance; the only question is how. The Palestinians might view the situation as a political opening – they remember Sharon less for the Gaza withdrawal than for the settlements and Sabra-Shatila, and a conciliatory centrist like Olmert or an unknown quantity like Livni might carry less emotional baggage and spur the hope of a return to negotiations. In that event, Fatah might benefit at the polls. On the other hand, if the Palestinian electorate sees a moment of Israeli weakness, or if it looks like Kadima is collapsing and Netanyahu is gaining the upper hand, then the spoils might go to Hamas.
And Helena Cobban lays out a few additional concerns here. See also Shmuel Rosner's piece in Slate.

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Housing ads for Katrina victims violate federal fair housing law

| Thu Jan. 5, 2006 12:21 PM EST

It is a violation of federal law to publish ads that restrict housing applicants by race, sex, color, religion, or national origin. However, such ads have popped up on several post-Katrina-related websites, including nola.com, the official website of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Other sites that violate the law are dhronline.org and katrinahousing.org, Katrinahousing.org, in fact, was singled out by FEMA for praise for its contribution in helping with the housing crisis.

People will no doubt use the "this is an emergency" excuse to let the offending websites get by, but if we do not protect people's rights during an emergency, what is the point of protecting them at all? FEMA is so out of touch that it comes as no surprise it would praise a site without taking a closer look at it. For the Times-Picayune to publish a site that violates federal fair housing laws, however, is inexcusable and a further embarrassment to New Orleans.

The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center
has filed a complaint, and at least one of the sites has closed down.

Coal Mines and Safety

| Wed Jan. 4, 2006 3:17 PM EST

This mining accident in West Virginia is, needless to say, a serious tragedy. Even more appalling is the Washington Post's report today that the coal mine in question, Sago Mine, had previously been cited some 273 times by the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration for safety violations, a third of those "significant and substantial." 42 workers and contractors have been injured there since 2000. So why didn't the mine operators heed MSHA's warnings, or try to fix things? Ah, here we go:

The mine is contesting some of the violations, while agreeing to pay more than $24,000 in penalties to settle others.
Right: Sago Mine, on average, paid out less than $100 per violation. That's not enforcement. That's not even a slap on the wrist. The mine just folded that $24,000 into the cost of doing business—paying a nominal fee for "significant and substantial" safety violations is presumably cheaper than actually fixing the safety problems in question.

Meanwhile, over the past five years the Mine Safety and Health Administration has been seriously weakened. According to the AFL-CIO's 2005 Death on the Job report, the White House's FY2006 budget proposed a $4.9 million cut for MSHA in real dollar terms, and proposed budget freezes for MSHA enforcement programs. Since President Bush took office in 2001, seventeen MSHA safety standards for miners have been withdrawn, including the Air Quality, Chemical Substances and Respiratory standard. And from 2001 to 2004, the top job at MSHA was held by David Lauriski, a coal industry executive, who seemed, shall we say, less than interested in investigating problems. (See this 2002 Mother Jones story for more.)

Obviously those cuts, freezes, and appointments didn't cause the West Virginia accident. It's not like this is the president's "fault". And, although the statistics are sometimes murky, mine fatalities have decreased over the past few years, so MSHA's not a total failure.

But the larger picture is the thing to look at. Sago Mine isn't the only workplace accident that's ever occurred. According to BLS, in 2003 there were 5,703 workplace deaths, up from 5,575 in 2003, up from 5,534 in 2002, and so on. At the same time, Labor Department inspections have been declining, as budget cuts do their work, and fines for violations are getting lighter and lighter. According to the AFL-CIO, in 2004 "serious" violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act incurred an average fine of only $873. Quite predictably, these trends are all going to converge on very severe accidents where people die, and it would be nice if we could deal with them beforehand, rather than react after the fact.

Bush crosses fingers, issues "signing statement" regarding ban on toruture and inhumane treatment of detainees

| Wed Jan. 4, 2006 1:46 PM EST

From the Boston Globe comes news that after approving a bill outlawing the torture and inhuman treatment of detainees, George W. Bush issued a "signing statement," a document which contains his interpretation of the bill. Not surprisingly, that interpretation is a declaration that he intends to view the torture ban within the context of his "broader powers" to protect national security.

In other words, the ban on torture on cruel and inhuman treatment of detainees means about as much as the law forbidding electronic surveillance without warrants of persons suspected of engaging in terrorism. Bush's signing statement was posted on the White House website; it is not a secret document, merely one--another one--that is floating by unnoticed.

A senior White House official is quoted as saying: "Of course the president has the obligation to follow this law, [but] he also has the obligation to defend and protect the country as the commander in chief, and he will have to square those two responsibilities in each case. 'We are not expecting that those two responsibilities will come into conflict, but it's possible that they will."

CIA Leaks to Iran

| Tue Jan. 3, 2006 9:22 PM EST

Um, what? This CNN story previewing State of War: the Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration, by New York Times reporter James Risen, contains this little tidbit:

Several U.S. agents in Iran were rounded up after the CIA mistakenly revealed clues to their identities to a covert source who turned out to be a double agent, according to a book that hit shelves Tuesday.
Intelligence sources told CNN that the mistake did in fact happen, but that no CIA agents had been rolled up as a result:
The message to the double agent in Iran was sent in a high-speed encrypted transmission from the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, former officials said. It did not include names or identities of the other agents, but it did contain information that could help Iranian counterintelligence agents identify them.
Other CIA sources, however, apparently told Risen that several agents were "arrested and jailed" as a result. CNN says this all happened "last year," which one assumes means 2005, although if it means 2004, that's somewhat significant, since that would place the gaffe right around the time that the CIA was accusing Ahmed Chalabi of passing U.S. intelligence to contacts in Tehran. At the time, Chalabi's intelligence chief, Aras Karim Habib, was also accused of being a "double agent"—although the odds that he would be the CIA's "covert source" mentioned above seem virtually nil, since by 2004 the CIA had long since cut its ties with Chalabi. The two stories are probably just coincidental, though it seems like an awful lot of CIA secrets are being leaked to Iran these days…