Political MoJo

"What you allowed to happen happened"

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 8:49 PM EDT

Jeanne of Body and Soul has, as one would expect, some of the best commentary on the recent detainee abuse reports, including this: "They have created a world in which it is not safe to go along, but neither is it safe to report a crime. The only people who can survive such a system are those who are ruthless enough to commit crimes, and smart enough to cover them up. Bush and Company have created a military that can't make room for decency. The astonishing thing is that the good people still keep raising their voices, even if it costs them a career."

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David Dreier, "Moderate"?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 4:54 PM EDT

Like Kevin Drum, I don't much care whether David Dreier, the GOP's "interim" House Majority Leader, is gay or not, but I do take exception to this profile of the guy from the Washington Post:

Dreier has a more moderate voting record on some social issues than DeLay, for example opposing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that DeLay supported.

That's what passes for moderate these days? Here's some better reporting, from the LA Weekly:

[Dreier's] voting record is strewn with anti-gay positions. To cite just a few: He opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would have banned discrimination against gay people in hiring; voted for the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act; voted for banning adoption by gay and lesbian couples in the District of Columbia (3,000 miles away from Dreier's district); voted to allow federally funded charities to discriminate against gays in employment, even where local laws prohibit such bias; and voted against the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

To be clear, I don't think that justifies digging into Dreier's personal life, or outing him. But it would be nice if the major papers didn't have to pretend he was a moderate guy on social issues. Here's more of his record—the guy's as conservative as they come.

UPDATE: Ah, now it looks like Dreier will just be sharing duties with GOP whip Roy Blunt and deputy whip Eric Cantor while DeLay's under indictment.

Now Is It Time for Higher Labor Standards?

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 3:36 PM EDT

Speaking of labor and globalization, Hassan M. Fattah of the New York Times had a stunning look a few days ago at the dismal labor practices in the United Arab Emirates:

Of the one million Dubai residents, fewer than 200,000 are citizens; two-thirds of the rest are from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines, the Dubai Development and Investment Authority said. A vast majority of the foreigners work in the service and construction sectors. Last year alone, Mr. bin Dimas said, the government granted 250,000 visas to laborers. The United Arab Emirates has earned the dubious distinction of having some of the worst labor conditions. Human Rights Watch has cited the country for discrimination, exploitation and abuse. Many foreign workers, especially women, face intimidation and violence, including sexual assault, at the hands of employers, supervisors, and police and security forces, the rights group said, while children are especially vulnerable to labor and sexual exploitation and denial of basic rights.

The end of the article notes that UAE is trying to enter into trade agreements with the United States and others. So the big question, of course, is whether the U.S. will try to tie those agreements to labor rights and standards—for instance, legalizing unions. Oftentimes free traders say that it's unfair to saddle developing countries with expensive regulations and labor standards that would deter foreign investment. Despite the fact that, as per the David Kucera study linked below, that doesn't seem borne out by the facts, there's no excuse to avoid putting pressure on UAE, which is one of the wealthiest countries on earth.

UPDATE: This Post story, from last week, might offer a sign of how the Bush administration handles UAE: "President Bush decided Wednesday to waive any financial sanctions on Saudi Arabia, Washington's closest Arab ally in the war on terrorism, for failing to do enough to stop the modern-day slave trade in prostitutes, child sex workers and forced laborers."

Reversing Labor's Decline

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 3:22 PM EDT

Katherine V.W. Stone, a professor at UCLA, has written a paper entitled, "Flexibilization, Globalization, and Privatization: The Three Challenges to Labor Rights in Our Time," that deserves a look. It gives a solid overview of the three main reasons why unions in the United States have withered over the past few decades. First, companies have increasingly sought greater flexibility in the workplace—often out of necessity—which has reduced the appeal, for them, of the old unionized workplace model, with its narrow job definitions and rigid hierarchies. Second, thanks to globalization, many companies now have the ability to shift operations abroad, thus weakening the leverage unions can wield. And third, active government policies dating from the Reagan era, including the privatization of labor arbitration, have decimated the strength of organized labor.

Granted, it often depends on which industries we're actually talking about: the policy aspect seems more important for the service and retail industry—there's no good structural reason why Wal-Mart workers shouldn't be unionized, except that public policy works against this—while globalization seems more important for, say, some manufacturing. (Although even on this, I'm skeptical of her point that companies move to countries with lowest labor standards, thereby forcing nations to "compete" over deregulations; see David Kucera's work here.) Still, it's a hostile environment out there, and voting in a more labor-friendly government into Washington won't necessarily get rid of the economic reality here. The current union model, in some ways, has become obsolete.

So how to get around that? Stone, building off Edward Glaeser's work on cities, notes a striking fact: many industries tend to "agglomerate" in a single area, likely because they gain some benefit by being near each other. With tech industries, for instance, you can see why it would pay to find one specific region—Silicon Valley, say—where a large portion of skilled workers can live. Insofar as this actually happens, then, workers can form together in local "citizens unions" to put pressure on local companies concentrated in that area:

While training can help make a locality's workforce more flexible and skilled, no individual employer has an incentive to establish such programs unilaterally because it cannot capture all the benefits for itself, or preventing their capture by a competitor. However, if a group of workers, organized as a citizens association or a local union, pressures firms in an area to contribute, it would create a benefit from which all would share. Similarly, if enough corporations were induced to contribute to a locality's social infrastructure – its school system, hospitals, parks, cultural activities, and child care -- that would help attract a highly skilled workforce who want quality educational opportunities for their children. Such community investment would benefit all local firms in a locality.

Easier said than done, naturally, but she might be onto something. In essence, her idea takes advantage of the fact that many companies, especially those with high turnover, draw on the collective skills, knowledge, and experience of the broader local workforce, rather than just those specific workers working in the company at a given point in time. I don't know if that's always true—again, many retailers often draw on the collective lack of skill in a given locality—but it seems like a promising way to think about the structural obstacles unions face. Many local campaigns, such as Mass Global Action, or local "living wage" campaigns, or the Industrial Areas Foundation have all had a great deal of local success that bring many of the benefits of unionization without resorting solely on organizing within a specific company or industry (the campaigns usually combining local activists, church groups, community organizations, worker's groups, in addition to unions). I don't think this sort of thing can ever adequately replace a robust labor movement in this country, but they're definitely complementary in all sorts of crucial ways.

Investigation On Detainee Abuses Hindered

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 2:04 PM EDT

Andrew Sullivan has an important post on Ian Fishback, the Army Captain who spoke out against the systematic abuse and beating of detainees in Iraq:

My sources tell me that he has been subjected to a series of long, arduous interrogations by CID investigators. Predictably, the CID guys are out to find just one thing: they want to know the identities of his two or three NCO corroborators. The CID folks are apparently indifferent to the accounts of wrongdoing - telling him repeatedly not to waste their time with his stories. Fishback knows if he gives their identities up, these folks will also be destroyed - so he's keeping his silence, so far.

The investigators imply that he failed to report abuses, so he may be charged, or that he is peddling falsehoods and will be charged for that. They tell him his career in the Army is over. Meanwhile the peer pressure on him is enormous. I'm reliably told that he has been subjected to an unending stream of threats and acts of intimidation from fellow officers. He is accused of betraying the Army, and betraying his unit by bringing it into disrepute. His motives are challenged. He is accused of siding with the enemy and working for their cause. And it goes on and on.

The New York Times has more on the pressure against Fishback to speak out: "[W]hen he took his complaints to his immediate superiors, Captain Fishback said his company commander cautioned him to 'remember the honor of the unit is at stake.' He said his battalion commander expressed no particular alarm."

GOP Scandals Left and Right

| Wed Sep. 28, 2005 1:22 PM EDT

Okay, so let's see. The House Majority Leader, a Republican, has just been indicted on charges of conspiracy. The Senate Majority Leader, a Republican, is under investigation for insider stock trading. The president's right-hand man, a Republican, is under investigation for outing an undercover CIA agent and perhaps helped Tyco, a company whose CEO has been sent to prison for 25 years, gain a few special legislative favors in 2002. Then we have a top lobbyist, a key cog in the Republican network, possibly connected with a mob killing down in Florida.

Too many scandals to keep track of...

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The Voice of a Gay Iranian Torture Victim

Tue Sep. 27, 2005 8:27 PM EDT
"The situation of gays in Iran is dreadful. We have no rights at all. They would beat me up and tell me to confess to things I hadn't done, and I would do it. The gays and lesbians in Iran are under unbelievable pressure -- they need help, they need outside intervention. Things are really bad. Really bad! We are constantly harassed in public, walking down the street, going to the store, going home...anywhere and anywhere, everyone, everyone! One of my dear friends, Nima, commited suicide a month ago in Shiraz. He just couldn't take it anymore. I don't know what's going to happen to me. I've run out of money. I don't know what to do. I just hope they don't send me back to Iran. They'll kill me there."
These are the words of Amir, a 22-year-old gay man from Iran who has recently escaped brutal torture and who is now currently seeking asylum in Turkey. Amir, like many gays and lesbians worldwide suffers from the criminalization of homosexuality.

Recent attention was drawn to Iran's suppression of gay when two teenage boys were executed by hanging.

The estimable Doug Ireland has been bringing continuous up-to-date information on the situation, including an exclusive phone interview with Amir as he awaits his fate in Turkey. If Amir is denied asylum and sent back to Iran, he will most certainly be killed.

For more information, read Doug's article in the latest edition of GayCity News as well as his post at his blog.

Here is an excerpt:

Amir, who grew up with his mother, an older brother and two sisters, says "I've known I was gay since I was about 5 or 6 -- I always preferred to play with girls. I had my first sexual experience with a man when I was 13. But nobody in my family knew I was gay." Amir's first arrest for being gay occurred two years ago. "I was at a private gay party, about 25 young people there, all of us close friends. One of the kids, Ahmed Reza -- whose father was a colonel in the intelligence services, and who was known to the police to be gay -- snitched on us, and alerted the authorities this private party was going to happen. Ahmed waited until everyone was there, then called the Office for Promotion of Virtue and Prohibition of Vice, headed in Shiraz by Colonel Safaniya, who a few minutes later raided the party. The door opened, and the cops swarmed in, insulting us -- screaming 'who's the bottom? Who's the top?' and beating us, led by Colonel Javanmardi. When someone tried to stop them beating up the host of the party, they were hit with pepper spray. One of our party was a trans-sexual -- the cops slapped her face so hard they busted her eardrum and she wound up in hospital. Ahmed Reza, the gay snitch, was identifying everyone as the cops beat us up.

"The cops took sheets, ripped them up and blindfolded us, threw us into a van, and took us to a holding cell in Interior Ministry headquarters -- they knew us all by name," Amir recounts. Iranians live in fear of the Interior Ministry, which has a reputation like that of the former Soviet KGB's domestic bureau, and whose prisons strike fear in people's hearts the way the infamous Lubianka once did. Amir says that, "I was the third person to be interrogated. The cops had seized videos taken at the party, in one of which I was reciting a poem. The cops told me to recite it again. 'What poem?' I said. They began beating me in the head and face. When I tried to deny I was gay, they took off my shoes and began beating the soles of my feet with cables, the pain was excruciating.Read the rest...

Trust Busters

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 6:42 PM EDT

The other day, discussing Bill Frist's stock scandals, I was all agog that legislators in the United States are allowed to "own or even trade stocks directly" during their time in office. Turns out that Mother Jones ran a story about this very issue just last month:

In June, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) introduced legislation designating September as Life Insurance Awareness Month. "Losing a family member is painful enough without encountering new financial difficulties," Biggert said, adding that she hoped her congressional decree would "draw attention to the importance of life insurance to the economic security of all Americans."

Life insurance is certainly important to Biggert's own economic security. According to financial disclosure data filed with Congress, her husband has invested a chunk of the couple's net worth in companies that sell life insurance, among them Aflac, Legg Mason, M&T Bancorp, Wells Fargo, and Synovus Financial Corp. It's impossible to know exactly how much money the Biggerts have invested in the insurance and financial-services sectors, because lawmakers need only list their assets in broad ranges (such as $15,001-$50,000) rather than specific amounts, but the total falls between $502,024 and $1,455,000.

Biggert has another connection to the financial industry: She serves on the House committee in charge of regulating it. Isn't that a conflict of interest? In most government agencies it would be. Federal agency officials are generally prohibited from buying and selling stock in the companies they oversee. But Congress long ago exempted itself from ethics rules regarding investments. At one time this exemption made sense: Farmers wanted to be able to serve on the Agriculture Committee without selling their farms, for example. But many lawmakers now interpret this exception as carte blanche to invest after taking office.

Frist—supposedly—placed his stocks in a "blind trust" for political reasons, because that's what he had promised voters in Tennessee, and not for ethical reasons. Apparently there aren't any ethical requirements to avoid conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Frist's "blind trust" may not have been so blind after all. (The SEC is investigating whether inside information prompted Frist to dump his HCA stock weeks before the share price tumbled.)

The Art of the Cover-Up

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 5:10 PM EDT

Marcia Angell gets at the major plot flaw in the Constant Gardner: "Yet the story is based on the premise that a pharmaceutical company would be so threatened by disclosures of its activities that it would have someone killed. That is what is fantasy. In fact, many of the practices that so horrified le Carré's heroine are fairly standard and generally well known and accepted. They seldom provoke outrage, let alone murder. A company like KDH would not kill someone like Tessa even if it were willing to do so; it wouldn't have to. Her concerns would have seemed isolated and futile, and the companies would hardly have taken notice of them."

Good one. The rest of the review is also worth reading.

Structure or Strategy?

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 3:11 PM EDT

Matthew Yglesias touches on some of the issues raised in Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's new book, Off-Center, on why congressional elections are so uncompetitive:

As a general matter, gerrymandering is less important to the declining competitiveness of congressional elections than is generally believed. State boundaries haven't changed at all in decades, but Senate races are becoming less competitive, too. The main problem here is that elections are becoming increasingly expensive. Since the parties have only so much cash to spread around, they tend to target only a few races, leaving most of the country grossly uncompetitive.

Well, I'm for public financing, and gerrymander reform, on principle, but one can't rule out a third factor here: namely, that the parties have plenty of cash to spread around, but they spread it around counter-productively. Here's a recent paper by Jonathan Krasno and Donald Green of Yale:

[P]arty campaign committees generally take charge in identifying the hottest races. They interview candidates, evaluate their chances of victory, and establish funding priorities. Their allies among interest groups and private donors follow their lead, opening their wallets for contenders in targeted races while rebuffing less likely candidates. The results of this targeting process are evident in FEC reports. In 2004, 33 challengers spent over $2 million while nearly 200 spent less than $100,000….

Doing so leads, Krasno and Green argue, to diminishing returns:

[I]t is hard to peg the exact point at which the returns from campaign spending become so negligible as to be worthless. Still, it is safe to say for the vast majority of candidates that the impact of expenditures beyond $1 million is heavily attenuated. What that means is simple: spending past $1 million gains far fewer votes (and maybe none at all) than does earlier spending.

Seventy challengers in 2004 spent between $100,000 to $500,000, and 19 of them won at least 40 percent of the vote. Boosting their spending by as little as $50,000 or $100,000 would have a discernable effect on their chances, while increasing expenditures by $500,000 in an expensive race would likely have little effect. Parties ignore long shots because viewed individually no single candidate has a particularly good chance of winning. But as a group, long shots are ripe with possibility because of their numbers and because their low spending gives parties a chance to influence their chances. Targeting overlooks many potential winners....

To be clear, I do think gerrymandering and a lack of publicly-financed campaigns stand in the way democracy, but it also seems likely that Democrats aren't doing all they can to stay competitive in the current system.