Political MoJo

What Baby Boom Crisis?

| Mon Jan. 30, 2006 3:28 PM EST

Ezra Klein puts up a few nice charts and graphs showing that, relatively, the retirement of the Baby Boomer generation simply isn't going to be the devastating demographic shift that many pundits make it out to be. Good stuff; and as a bonus, here's my favorite way to put the so-called "old-age crisis" in context. As we've heard many times, the future unfunded increases in spending associated with the aging of the population are going to require a tax hike of about 6.5 percent of GDP to close the gap. (Personally, I think it will be much less than that, since the problems with both Social Security and Medicare are wildly overstated, but let's say 6.5 percent.)

That sounds like a lot, but it's hardly unprecedented. Between 1950 and 1952, note, the federal tax burden jumped suddenly from 14.4 percent to 19 percent as a result of the Korean War, a leap in defense spending that was more or less permanent for the duration the Cold War. Now that increase came in just a few years—rather than gradually over decades, as would be the case to pay for Social Security and Medicare—and it was entirely manageable. The economy didn't implode. Life went on.

It would be nice to figure a way to curtail the cost of health care in the future, and obviously a lower tax burden is better than a higher one whenever possible, but even in the worst case, we're not talking about Armageddon here. We wouldn't even be up to European levels of taxation. As Max Sawicky has gone over in gruesome detail, bringing federal revenues back up to around 20 percent of GDP—only slightly higher than the long-term historical average—is perfectly adequate to maintain current spending levels and keep our debt ratios sustainable. Beyond that, thanks to the magic of productivity, those "overtaxed" Americans of the future will still be much richer in real terms than people are today. Slicing up a bit more of all that extra pie to ensure that the workers who brought this country to where it is today can have a decent retirement is a perfectly sensible way to go.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Irrationality in Politics

| Mon Jan. 30, 2006 2:25 PM EST

Is there a neurological explanation for blind partisanship? According to this press release, scientists, using fMRI scans, have found that when "committed Democrats and Republicans" are faced with criticism of their favorite politician, they show no increase in activity of the parts of their brains associated with reasoning. (Incidentally, or not, the subjects of the study were all men.) That's not all that surprising, really, although I wonder whether this holds equally for all education groups, or whether it's possible to train oneself not to do this. At any rate, one could note that a good number of media types who worship at the altar of "non-partisanship" tend to turn off the rational bits in their brains fairly frequently…

On a related note, economists Sendhil Mullainathan and Ebonya Washington recently put out a paper suggesting that voters have an irrational preference for the candidates they've just voted for. They found that twenty-year-olds who had voted in a particular election two years prior showed more polarization in their opinions about the elected candidates than did nineteen-year-olds who, incidentally, missed the chance to vote that year. (Assuming, of course, that there's no other reason why twenty-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds should have such different political views.)

Meanwhile, Senators who are elected in high-turnout presidential years are more polarizing figures among the public than those elected in off-years. That could partially explain why incumbents keep winning, and suggests that term limits, perhaps, could inject a bit more rationality into politics. Although if that's the goal, we're a fair ways off.

Substantial amount of AIDS funding goes to religious groups

| Sun Jan. 29, 2006 6:37 PM EST

There was a time in America when the above headline would not have aroused suspicion;; we would have expected a certain number of religious organizations to apply for and receive grants to help fight a serious syndrome that causes devastating disease and death. Religious organizations have taken an active role in promoting a number of social programs, from the Vietnamese resettlement effort to providing food for the nation's poor.

What makes the headline different this time around is the conflict between what is needed to overcome the AIDS virus, and what is taught by many of the religious organizations receiving grants. Take, for example, Catholic Relief Services, which was awarded $6.2 million to teach "abstinence and fidelity" in three countries. The group claims it offers "complete and accurate" information about condoms, but does not promote, purchase, or distribute them.

Or World Relief, a group established by the Natonal Association of Evangelicals. World Relief receieved $9.7 million to do abstincence work in four countries. Samaritan's Purse provides community education about AIDS, though not without education about Christianity, and World Vision, also operates an educational prevention program which "may include" information on condom use.

In other words, 23% of the White House's $15 billion AIDS package has gone to groups who either do not even mention the word "condom," or who mention it only as a last resort.

It is important to point out that the use of condoms is not a tidy solution to the problem of AIDS in poor countries:

Many men in Africa, especially South Africa, believe that having sex with a virgin will cure AIDS. This belief (a 3-year study of 28,000 men in South Africa showed that 1 in 5 of them believed in this "cure") has led to a rise in infant rape.

In South Africa, a woman is raped every 20 seconds.

In poor countries, girls and women are often forced into prostitution by poverty or family coercion.

In many cultures, the use of condoms in marriage indicates a lack of trust, yet in these same cultures, there is often a lot of sex outside of marriage.

To solve these very serious problems, there must be massive education, and strong programs to empower women. Rape victims, prostitutes, and adolecent brides cannot expect to have any success in suggesting the use of condoms or--in the case of the latter two groups--providing condoms to their sex partners. But condoms are part of the answer for family planning, for marriages in which AIDS education has taken place, and among young men and women who learn about what causes the spread of AIDS.

Though condom use cannot solve the problems of rape (including sanctioned marital rape), forced prostitution, and female powerlessness, it is a vital part of the solution once AIDS education and female empowerment have begun to take hold. Teaching abstinence to hundreds of thousands of potential rape victims, on the other hand, does nothing but further endanger the people it is supposed to be helping.

Are Europeans Against the Death Penalty?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 6:10 PM EST

Also in yesterday's New York Times op-ed page, Felix Rohatyn says that the Supreme Court should abolish the death penalty in order to improve our standing in the world. Sort of. I certainly oppose the death penalty, but I want to nitpick something here:

During my four years as the American ambassador to France, I discovered that no single issue was viewed with as much hostility as our support for the death penalty... Contempt for the laws of our allies is a major factor in our increasing isolation in the world...

Taking the views of 450 million Europeans into account is not a sign of weakness on our part, nor is it a commitment to change our views. It is simply recognition that the laws of our most important allies, our biggest foreign investors, foreign employers, foreign customers and trading partners are worthy of our attention. But in all likelihood, we already are taking the views of "450 million Europeans" into account... by keeping the death penalty. International popular opinion, for the most part, is very much in favor of killing criminals. Canadians seem to love executions almost as much as Americans do—around 70 percent were in favor of capital punishment in 1995, although this support may be shallow. See similar results in Britain. And Italy. Even in Sweden and France the death penalty has close to majority support. It's just that their leaders disagree.

Admittedly, I don't think American political institutions are very democratic. Still, our politicians seem to have mirrored popular opinion on this issue, at least, better than parliaments in other countries. My guess is that this is because we vote for candidates rather than parties: a candidate can always use the death penalty debate to say something about him/herself as a person, so he or she is more likely to demagogue on the subject. In other words, candidate-centered systems may be more responsive to popular opinion on "moral" or "cultural" issues. (The downside is that the candidate-centric system also explains, in part, why we don't have universal health care—it's much easier for a centralized party to design, pass, and implement this sort of thing than it is a loose coalition of elected officials).

At any rate, it seems questionable that abolishing the death penalty would actually endear us to all Europeans. Of course, what Rohatyn really meant is that it will increase America's standing and respect—its "soft power," if you will—among European leaders. The sort of people that someone like Rohatyn would actually be talking to in his four years in France. Now that's an important goal, since it makes it somewhat more likely that those leaders will adopt American norms, or trust American intentions, or whatever. But respect among leaders and intellectuals isn't everything. Ideally we also want to increase our standing and respect among populations in other countries, since popular opinion constrains what those world leaders can do. And it's not obvious that abolishing the death penalty for minors will win us that many fans among the masses abroad.

How Many Innocent People in Prison?

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 5:25 PM EST

The main point of Joshua Marquis' New York Times op-ed seems to be that most people in prison are guilty—that is, contrary to the sorts of things you see on "In Justice" or "CSI," courts don't send an overwhelming number of innocent people to jail, and the handful of death row inmates whose convictions were overturned on DNA evidence represent a very small sample. Overall, Marquis calculates, the court system has an extremely high (99.97) percent accuracy rate: "most industries would like to claim such a record of efficiency."

Okay, even if those numbers are right—and if they are, that's still no reason to get complacent about the problems with the justice system—I'd add one other statistic here. According to a 2002 Department of Justice study on recidivism, 51.8 percent of all ex-convicts end up back in prison within three years. Of those, over half go back not for committing new crimes but for technical violations of parole—a missed appointment, a failed drug test, not landing a job. Most people in prison are guilty? Depends on how you define it.

A Quality Flip-Flop

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 4:58 PM EST

Kudos to the president, who looks like he's ready to do the right thing about Iran:

President Bush's endorsement of a plan to end the nuclear standoff with Iran by giving the Islamic republic nuclear fuel for civilian use under close monitoring has left some of his supporters baffled.

One cause for the chagrin is that the proposal, which is backed by Russia, essentially adopts a strategy advocated by Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent in the 2004 election, Senator Kerry of Massachusetts.Well, yes, this was John Kerry's strategy in 2004, and he was roundly ridiculed for it at the time, but who cares? Everyone should continue advocating craven appeasement of Iran until it actually starts happening. As I've said before, there's no reason not to try an offer like this. At worst, the Iranians reject it (they're wavering now) and everyone goes to Plan B or C or D or whatever we're up to. At best, war is averted.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Uninsured, Again

| Thu Jan. 26, 2006 4:27 PM EST

This is getting annoying. Once again, the White House is floating the notion (on page A1, no less) that its soon-to-be-proposed tax deductions for health expenses are somehow "designed to help the uninsured." They are not. Making progress on the 45 million uninsured people in this country will cost about $80-100 billion per year. There's no getting around that number. Bush will not propose anything of the sort.

Tax deductions will do little to help those who currently pay no federal income taxes—or are in the 10 or 15 percent bracket—which includes the majority of the uninsured. Tax deductions will largely help those making over $50,000 who currently can afford insurance but just don't value it enough to get it. If the president's tax deductions look anything like what he proposed on the campaign trail, then, according to CBPP, they will actually increase the number of uninsured by 350,000 while costing tens of billions of dollars. That's all.

Hamas Wins Palestinian Elections

| Thu Jan. 26, 2006 1:51 PM EST

Marc Lynch raises some crucial questions about Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections yesterday:

Hamas winning and presumably moving to form a government is the first real instance of an Islamist movement on the brink of winning power democratically since 1992 [i.e., since the FIS won elections in Algeria, only to be denied power by a military coup].

If [Hamas takes] power, we are going to see some major political science propositions put to the test: does power moderate or radicalize Islamist groups? Will they be willing and able to work with non-Islamist parties in a coalition? Will they use their democratic victory to abolish democracy? Will Islamist groups concentrate on the pragmatics of rule or resort to foreign policy grandstanding? Will they use their position of power to pursue terrorism? Will they be willing to set aside doctrine and work pragmatically with Israelis and Americans? Will they use government power to impose unpopular sharia rule over their people? Will they oppress Christian and non-Islamist Muslims?I'm not sure anyone knows the answers for sure. A handful of reasons for optimism: Hamas has mostly adhered to the ceasefire over the past six months, certainly more strictly than Fatah has; at the local level, where it has previously won elections, Hamas has been dealing with Israel regularly and for the most part has focused solely on day-to-day governing and economic development, rather than talking up the virtues of a sharia state. And judging from recent polling, most Palestinians would support a compromise peace settlement with Israel, and increasingly are souring on Hamas' armed wing, the al-Qassam Brigades. Popular opinion could prove a moderating force. On the other hand, this is Hamas, after all—it's still a terrorist group with extreme views, a bloody reputation, and clandestine wings ready to resume attacks against Israel at any time.

At any rate, here's an insightful—and I assume fairly firsthand—account of how and why Hamas actually won the elections, courtesy of a commenter on As'ad Abu Khalil's site:

It is only partially (and I stress partially) true that the vote for Hamas was a vote against [the largely corrupt] Fatah, but it was much more than a protest vote. The candidates that Hamas fielded were… by and large very qualified candidates who are well known and respected in their districts. They are well-educated professionals including doctors, professors, teachers, etc.

What struck me was the level of organization, dedication and quiet self-confidence of the Hamas campaign. In most polling districts Hamas volunteers, armed with computers, helped voters locate their names in the registries and their polling place. Early in the evening, most pollsters were predicting a Fatah win, but as early as 6 hours after the close of the polls, Hamas was quietly and confidently saying that their internal counts (based on volunteers at every polling station) showed them winning more than 70 seats (not far from the actual outcome). To me that was very impressive.

An interesting factor that could explain why the exit polls did not predict the outcome is that many voters (especially among police and security services) were afraid to tell the pollster that they had voted for Hamas.

A win like this does not come easy. Hamas worked hard in the face of large obstacles to achieve it. In the face of US and European financing for Fatah and some so-called "independents," Hamas financed its campaign (with a smaller budget) by asking for a 10% contribution from the salaries of its cadres. In addition, they received free support from thousands of volunteers. Hamas proved the value of its grassroots organization.One could also wonder how much Western support ended up hurting Fatah at the polls. Also note that if more than 6 percent of the some 250,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem had been allowed to vote, the election might have turned out differently. This bit, from the same commenter, is also interesting, and perhaps a sign of things to come:

The second observation is that Hamas, before and after the election, is reaching out to all Palestinians, including Fatah. There is no gloating in their victory; instead they emphasize national unity and partnership. During the campaign, I tried to keep up with the pronouncements of both Fatah and Hamas. To Hamas' credit they did not engage in smear campaigns, dirty tricks, name calling, etc which Fatah used. I think that Hamas set a much better tone and an example, and that, no doubt, helped it.
In that vein, the International Crisis Group paper on how the U.S. and Europe can encourage a moderate Hamas-led government is interesting:
Western countries have not done the one thing that might have had a positive impact: try to shape Hamas's policies by exploiting its clear desire for international recognition and legitimacy. There is every reason for the West to withhold formal dealings at a national level, at least until it renounces attacks against civilians and drops its opposition to a two-state solution, but the current confused approach – boycotting Hamas while facilitating its electoral participation; facilitating its participation without seeking through some engagement reciprocal concessions – makes no sense at all.

Without conferring immediate legitimacy on Hamas, engaging its national officials or removing it from the terrorism list, the EU in particular – which has more flexibility than the U.S. in this regard – should encourage the Islamists to focus on day-to-day matters and facilitate a process of potential political integration and gradual military decommissioning. With Prime Minister Sharon's sudden incapacitation, an already impossibly perplexing situation has become more confused still. Using Western economic and political leverage to try to stabilise the Palestinian arena would be far from the worst possible investment.All of that seems sensible, worth trying, and hardly naïve about what Hamas is and what it's known for. As Marc Lynch points out, if the United States doesn't even give Hamas a chance, that will further undercut perceptions about its commitment to democracy in the Middle East. On the other hand, Israel may not prefer to try to moderate Hamas—after all, it's much easier to justify the security barrier and settlements in the West Bank if there's an extremist group on the other side. I guess we'll find out when the Israeli elections come around.

more: Jonathan Edelstein is, as always, endlessly informative.

Mercury News Investigates the Justice System

| Wed Jan. 25, 2006 7:44 PM EST

Over the past week, I've been reading the San Jose Mercury News' massive and much-recommended five-part series, "Tainted Trials, Stolen Justice." Based on a three-year investigation, the report looks at 727 court cases in Santa Clara County over a five year period. In over a third of the cases, the paper found, trials were marred by questionable conduct that worked against the defendants—who, judging from the case studies, tended to be minorities and poor—and a number of cases led to wrongful convictions. Among the findings:

  • In nearly 100 cases, prosecutors engaged in questionable conduct, including withholding evidence, defying a judge's orders or misleading juries. "Experts say individual prosecutors reflect the dominant culture in their office, and too often it's all about winning rather than ethics and fairness." Often district attorney offices are extremely slow—taking years and years—to discipline prosecutors who overstep their bounds.
  • In about 100 cases, defense attorneys neglected to do even the most basic independent investigation—interviewing witnesses or gathering evidence—or to raise objections to questionable prosecution tactics. In some cases they didn't even appear to know basic criminal law. Note that this applies to both public defenders, who are notorious for this sort of behavior, and private attorneys, who will often take cases for relatively low fees and make profits by avoiding a time-consuming trial.
  • In over 160 cases, judges failed to oversee trials impartially—allowing improper evidence or improperly favoring the prosecution—and repeatedly failed to properly instruct juries. This may partly come from the fact that judges are elected, and no one wants to appear "soft on crime." (This also means that judges tend to come from the ranks of prosecutors, and the relationship between the two groups is fairly cozy.)
  • In more than 100 cases, the 6th District Court of Appeal upheld verdicts even while acknowledging trial errors, deeming them ``harmless.'' While that might have been true in some of the cases, judges devised questionable rationales to dismiss others.It's shocking stuff, even for those already cynical about the justice system. The 6th District Court, by the way, upholds 97 percent of all convictions yet publishes only 2 percent of its rulings, which is the lowest in the state, so a bit of transparency certainly seems in order here.
  • The Mercury News was "unable to determine" whether Santa Clara County was particularly dysfunctional or whether its problems mirrored those of justice systems elsewhere in the country. I'd note that Santa Clara, while relatively liberal in most things, is considered a "tough on crime" region, one of the six highest sentencing counties in California during the '90s, with law enforcement agencies that practiced "broken windows" policing and invoked the "Three Strikes" law at extremely high rates. Interestingly, in the 1990s, San Francisco under the "ultraliberal" DA Terrence Hallinan saw its crime rate decrease much more rapidly than Santa Clara's did. Go figure. At any rate, read the series, it's a good one.

    When have we heard this before?

    | Wed Jan. 25, 2006 6:22 PM EST
    There has been a near total lack of cooperation that has made it impossible, in my opinion, for us to do the thorough investigation that we have the responsibility to do.

    The Bush administration is stonewalling the Congress.

    We have been trying--without success--to obtain Secretary Rumsfeld's cooperation for months.

    Though these statements sound like statements made during the September 11 Commission's failed attempt to get the administration to cooperate with its investigation, they are, rather, statements recently made about the administration's failure to cooperate with two Congressional committees investigating the response to Hurricane Katrina.

    As before, the White House is citing executive branch confidentiality in refusing to turn over requested documents. These documents include Katrina-related emails and other communications among White House staff members. The administration has also refused requests for testimony from White House chief of staff Andrew H. Carrd Jr., deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin, domestic security advisor Frances Fragos Townsend, and her deputy, Ken Rapuano.

    Senator Susan Collins, says it is "completely inappropriate" that that witnesses "have told us when we begin to ask about any communications with the White House" that they cannot respond, even if the discussions are not related to specific advice given to the Bush that could "legitimately" be held back under executive privilege.

    The White House, for its part--and we've heard this before, too--maintains that it is thoroughly cooperating with the investigation and has handed over thousands of documents, as well as providing multiple witnesses.

    In the early morning hours of August 29, a memo was sent from the Department of Homeland Security to the White House situation room which warned of a possible breach of levees in New Orleans and a resulting crisis. A few days later, Bush said: "I don't think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees."