Political MoJo

Kristof Defends Sweatshops

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 9:48 PM EDT

Normally I wouldn't link to a Times Select column, partly because I have no intention of paying for it and partly because most of the Times' columnists are rather dull. But I picked up the paper today and found Nick Kristof writing what must be his fiftieth or sixtieth column praising Third World sweatshops. Paul Krugman likes this argument too. It's "cute". It's also wrong. Here's an excerpt:

Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program....

The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.That last sentence is insane. Campaigns against sweatshops may be a lot of things, but one thing they're not is omniscient. For every Gap and Nike they expose and vilify, there are ten other manufacturers who escape bad publicity altogether. If companies thought it was profitable to set up sweatshops in Africa, student campaigns couldn't deter them all. Clearly there are other reasons.

Kristof then talks about a garment factory in Namibia which was forced to close because it was cheaper to import clothes from China. But that's an argument for trying to raise labor standards in China, where working conditions are famously dismal, rather than for trying to force Namibia down to China's level. Writers such as Kristof—and Krugman—seem to be under the impression that critics of neoliberalism are all idiots and don't realize that if you raise labor standards in, say, Namibia, manufacturers might flee to some more brutal country where working conditions are even worse. But of course we realize this. That's what the criticism is all about.

At any rate, it's not clear that manufacturers always and everywhere move to where wages are the lowest. Wages in Mexico are four times what they are in Indonesia, yet Nike has factories in both countries. There are specific reasons for that, of course, but it goes to show that countries don't necessarily need the lowest wages and worst working conditions on the planet to attract investment. Here's a good study by David Kucera finding a weak relationship between labor standards and foreign investment. And it's not at all obvious that specializing in low-wage garments is the only way for Namibia to develop (it might be one of the worst, in fact).

There's also the argument that industrialized countries had to go through their own sweatshop phase to get to where they are. Well, sure, some places did, but those places also saw serious fights for better working conditions at the same time. New York's garment workers battled against sweatshops for most of the 20th century—remember the Triangle Shirtwaist fire?—and consistently made gains until they were undermined by the Mafia and corrupt union bosses in the postwar period. Now sweatshops are flourishing in the city, which only goes to show that labor standards tend to worsen unless someone, somewhere, is fighting for them.

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Conservatives Against the Gay Marriage Amendment

Tue Jun. 6, 2006 6:56 PM EDT

The Center for American Progress is not the only group laying into the President for his support of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, up for discussion in Congress this week. A new report by Dale Carpenter of the libertarian Cato Institute—tellingly titled, "The Federal Marriage Amendment: Unnecessary, Anti-Federalist, and Anti-Democratic"—also takes a scathing, 20-page swipe at the amendment.

Self-Reliance, Idaho-Style

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 4:42 PM EDT

Mark Schmitt's post here isn't to be missed. A number of self-described conservatives in this country, especially out West, are under the impression that they're all highly self-reliant and don't need government assistance for anything. Idaho's governor recently said: "Here in Idaho, we couldn't understand how people could sit around on the kerbs waiting for the federal government to come and do something." But he then goes on to cite an example—a dam breaking in 1976—in which, as Schmitt explains, the federal government did have to come in and do something. Curious delusion, that.

Religion in the Public Sphere

Tue Jun. 6, 2006 4:13 PM EDT

A new report from the Center for American Progress says that religion and morality are deeply important to the vast majority of American voters—but with different political implications than one might think. While more than two-thirds of voters report praying at least once a day and over half say they attend religious services weekly, only a minority of them think that their own religion's teachings ought to shape public policy.

More surprisingly, most respondents said that the values behind religion should underlie broader debates on poverty and hunger, homelessness, and government corruption. Yet fewer than half think the same about hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Those numbers, at least, should come as little surprise. Americans are on the whole a pious bunch and, especially after the 2004 election, Democratic pundits argued that to win the confidence of those voters, the party needs to do a better job staking out the moral high ground. What makes the CAP findings compelling is their suggestion that there might be other ways to do this than simply touting one's religious devotion.

According to the study, only 7 percent of Americans think that being a moral person requires "honoring religious tradition and faith," and only 20 percent approve of politicians "using the political system to turn religious beliefs in actions." Of course, many more probably consider church-going a good indicator of morality, even if it isn't requisite. Progressive themes may resonate with voters, as the study's authors contend—now we just need to get politicians who expound them to do the same.

Greener Car Insurance

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 3:19 PM EDT

In Harper's this week, Dean Baker has a rather elegant proposal to reduce the amount people drive—simply change the way car insurance is calculated:

Currently, auto insurance is viewed as a fixed expense. People pay the same amount for their insurance no matter how much they drive. This means that when someone is comparing the cost of driving to work with the cost of carpooling or public transportation, they won't factor in the cost of insurance, because they will pay the same whether they make any particular trip or not.

This would change if drivers paid for insurance by the mile. Taking rough numbers, the average person drives her car around 10,000 miles a year and pays a bit less than $1,000 each year for insurance. This means that the cost of insurance is approximately 10 cents per mile. If for each mile they drive drivers paid 10 cents for insurance, then on average they would pay the same amount for insurance as they do now—but they would have much more incentive to cut back their driving. Quite clearly this is preferable to a simple gas tax, which penalizes people who can't cut back on their driving, because it rewards people who can cut back instead. (That's not to say gas taxes still won't be necessary to reduce carbon emissions down to sustainable levels; they almost certainly would be.) Oregon has already started doing pay-by-the-mile insurance, so presumably it's pefectly possible nationwide.

Do the Toronto Arrests Prove Bush Right?

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 2:49 PM EDT

Obviously the big news in Canada is that 17 terrorism suspects were recently rounded up in Toronto. Jeffrey Imm of the Counterterrorism Blog has a good news round-up, if you're so inclined. But I've seen a couple of right-wing blogs suggest that this "proves" that Bush was right to sidestep FISA and engage in warrantless wiretapping—because it's the sort of thing that could catch terrorists. Just like in Canada!

Er, but as Glenn Greenwald points out, virtually no one opposed to Bush's various surveillance programs are opposed to legal wiretapping and surveillance, which is what, as far as we know, the Canadian government appears to have done. The whole point is that Bush went outside the law. Now it also seems, if I understand things correctly, that Canada's surveillance laws are somewhat less libertarian than our own. Notably, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 allows the government to eavesdrop on phone conversations without a warrant if one party is overseas (and the means of ensuring privacy seem rather meager), although electronic surveillance still requires judicial approval.

Again, what Canada has in place looks a bit more Big Brother-ish than even the Patriot Act—and there's a legitimate debate as to whether that sort of thing is necessary or not—but that's still very different from having the executive branch sidestep courts and laws and all that business to authorize wiretapping whoever it feels like.

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Junkets for Politicians

| Tue Jun. 6, 2006 2:29 PM EDT

Private groups are paying for members of Congress to see the world. Too shocking. And it's all on page A1 of the Washington Post:

Over 5 1/2 years, Republican and Democratic lawmakers accepted nearly $50 million in trips, often to resorts and exclusive locales, from corporations and groups seeking legislative favors, according to the most comprehensive study to date on the subject of congressional travel.

From January 2000 through June 2005, House and Senate members and their aides were away from Washington for more than 81,000 days -- a combined 222 years -- on at least 23,000 trips, according to the report, issued yesterday by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity. About 2,300 of the trips cost $5,000 or more, at least 500 cost $10,000 or more, and 16 cost $25,000 or more.Hmm… paid travel seems to be the holiday gift of choice nowadays. The Post did some stories a while back about corporations that paid for federal judges to fly to some resort or other and attend various seminars. It all looked rather suspicious to the innocent eye. But then again, surely we'd like members of Congress—and maybe even judges—to travel around the world, no? Maybe not to "resorts and exclusive locales" or half-day "seminars" at sunny golf courses paid for by arms dealers, but at least to other countries for genuine fact-finding purposes. Once upon a time a rumor made the rounds that only 10 percent of House members even had passports. Maybe someone made that number up, but it was a bit unnerving, and it's probably no way to govern.

So maybe the answer is to create some sort of public travel fund for Congress, and ban all private junkets. That would mean that taxpayers would be paying for politicians to go travel the globe, and that's a bit unseemly, but it would also put a dent in all this legalized bribery. That might even be cheaper in the long run, seeing as how—according to the Post's account—all these junkets paid for by Boeing and General Atomics and Northrup Grumman are going to result in Congress buying more and more useless yet expensive high-tech weaponry in the future.

Bizarre Arguments Against the Estate Tax

| Mon Jun. 5, 2006 9:05 PM EDT

Brad DeLong wants to know if there are any "serious" economists willing to argue that repealing the estate tax, as Republicans in Congress are trying to do, is actually a good thing. Apparently Ed Prescott believes it. But his Wall Street Journal piece is pretty silly. First, we're told that the estate tax—which currently only hits estates worth over $4 million—is somehow unfair:

What is fair, for example, about telling someone that he will be unable to distribute his hard-earned money, which has already been taxed once, to his heirs as he sees fit?
Er, okay. The idea that the estate tax amounts to "double taxation" and therefore is somehow unfair is baffling. For starters, plenty of income subject to the estate tax includes capital gains which have never been taxed. But even if the estate tax does amount to "double taxation," so what? Plenty of "hard-earned" money is subject to double taxation. I, for one, paid income taxes last year and then the other day went out for dinner and bought a burrito, which was subject to a sales tax. If that's not double taxation I don't know what is; somehow, people manage. Next up is the argument that the estate tax doesn't amount to that much money anyway, so why bother with it:
Besides, even if estate taxes were not inefficient and could be construed as fair, they would still do little to address the budget deficit. In 2003, net estate taxes accounted for $20.7 billion, a drop in the bucket of an $11 trillion economy. Clearly, we are not going to balance the budget by grave robbing.
Of course. If a single tax increase can't eliminate the deficit all by itself, it's not worth doing. Nonsense. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has already calculated that repealing the estate tax after 2010 will cost the federal government $1 trillion between 2012 and 2021. That's a lot of money. Robert Ball, the Social Security Commissioner under Kennedy, has estimated that if the estate tax was kept at its (already-reduced) 2009 rates, it could, for instance, be dedicated to funding Social Security and be used to close up to half of that program's actuarial imbalance (which is almost certainly overstated anyway, but you get the point…) Useful? Of course. I understand why billionaires who couldn't care less about the state of the country's finances want to see the estate tax repealed, but it's baffling why actual economists who should know better would get on board.

UPDATE: For those so inclined, here's a good paper on the estate tax. Actual facts and stuff.

U.S. said to be providing clandestine support to Somalian warlords

| Sun Jun. 4, 2006 10:29 PM EDT

According to The Herald, Scotland's independent daily newspaper, American security officials are providing clandestine support to the Somalian warlords who mutilated American soldiers in 1993. The American operation, which is in breach of the United Nations' arms embargo on Somalia, is controlled, according to The Herald, through the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and through Washington's Combined Joint Task Force in Djibouti, on Somalia's northern border.

The article goes on to describe Somalia as having a weak transitional government; indeed, it is ruled by a group of competing warlords. The American response to this chaos, according to the article, is to turn to warlords as allies in the so-called war on terror.

In its latest edition, Africa Confidential, a London-based intelligence newsletter, reports that "CIA staff certainly helped to organise the [Somali warlord] Alliance, with, we hear, the involvement of at least one National Intelligence Support Group....If what is happening now in Somalia was happening in Latin America, it would be a new Iran-Contra scandal."

According to The Herald, the U.S./Somalian warlord alliance has not resulted in the capture of any terrorists. The report states that arms have arrived from the United Arab Emerates, Ethiopia and Yemen.

Man who made up yellow ribbon story invited to White House as an Iraq expert

| Fri Jun. 2, 2006 9:38 PM EDT

Many of you will recall that, a few weeks ago, there was a "news report" released stating that Iran had passed a law that would require Jews to wear yellow ribbons and othe ron-Muslims to wear various ribbons or badges. After the story made the rounds of blogs and message boards, it was revealed that it was a fabrication of Amir Taheri, who started the rumor in an op-ed piece in a Canadian newspaper.

The upshot? Taheri was invited to the White House as an "expert" to give his opinions to George W. Bush on Iraq. According to White House Press Secretary Tony Snow, the group held an "interesting discussion that touched upon cultural issues, on political issues, on the state of affairs in Iraq." Snow stressed that the experts gave Bush "honest opinions."