Political MoJo

Is Bush Right about Pensions?

| Fri Jun. 2, 2006 2:58 PM EDT

Robert Reich says that George Bush is doing the right thing by demanding laws that would require companies to "fully fund their pension obligations to employees," something that corporations have opposed. Call me cranky, but I have a hard time believing that Bush would ever stand up to corporations to do something that would benefit workers and future retirees, so I'd like to see the fine print here. Surely there's a catch, no?

For background on the pension crisis in the United States, Roger Lowenstein wrote a terrific piece for the New York Times Magazine last year describing how companies have managed to skirt accounting rules and underfund their pension obligations, which means that unless something changes, a lot of companies are going to have to welch on pension promises made decades ago.

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Attack on the Estate Tax

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 6:50 PM EDT

A link that's sort of buried in Kevin Drum's (very good) post on the estate tax is worth dredging up and highlighting. According to a recent report by Public Citizen and United for a Fair Economy, the campaign to repeal the estate tax has been largely financed over the past ten years by some 18 families worth $185.5 billion. The families have spent $490 million on lobbying efforts, and stand to gain some $72 billion from a permanent repeal, which is currently being considered by the Senate. Clever way to invest, I'd say.

Anyway, about a year ago I looked at the actual campaign to repeal the estate tax, which has always been short on facts and long on emotional appeals. Indeed, it's not even clear that facts—such as the idea that only a handful of small businesses and millionaires pay the tax, or the fact that repealing it would cost the treasury a staggering $1 trillion over the next decade—play much of a role in this debate. There are modest ways to reform the estate tax, such that, as Kevin says, "the Paris Hiltons of the world would still end up paying no more on their inheritances than most middle-class workers pay on their ordinary income." The people behind the repeal, of course, would rather pay nothing at all, and are certainly willing to spend the money to get there.

Chavez' Heating Program

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 5:55 PM EDT

William Fisher examines Hugo Chavez' program to sell discounted heating oil to poor communities in the United States. On the merits, it's hard to tell whether this program is a good idea or not—arguably Chavez could make better use of that money by spending it on poor communities in Venezuela—but it is true that all the sniping at Chavez from various corners of this country is, as Fisher puts it, "petty." Whatever one might think of Chavez—hero of the oppressed or crazed authoritarian, take your pick (or both)—he's in no sense a real security threat to the United States.

It's also worth pointing out that if Republicans and others disapprove of Chavez trying to win friends and influence people by selling heating oil to the poor, they could always stop him by reversing the cruel and gratuitous budget cuts that have been leveled at LIHEAP, the federal low-income heating assistance program, over the past five years. Just a thought.

Bush's Mixed Record on HIV/AIDS

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 3:49 PM EDT

Heather Hurlburt has a good post on the state of funding for international programs to combat AIDS/HIV. Apparently global spending has risen from $1.6 billion in 2001 to $8.3 billion in 2005, but that will need to climb further—to $20 billion in 2008—in order to provide AIDS "prevention, treatment, and care to everyone who needs it."

There are some things to take issue with though. Hurlburt wants to give the Bush administration, along with various "religious groups" credit for boosting AIDS funding. Yes, and it's hard to understate the effects of that. But some of these groups have also done a good deal of harm on this front. Everyone should read Helen Epstein's investigation into the fight against AIDS in Uganda—a country often touted as a success story. Religious conservatives in the U.S. have fought to suppress funding for contraceptives there, and have pushed abstinence-only education—which doesn't work—over programs that have proved to be successful, such as Uganda's "zero grazing" campaign. People are dying because of it.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has refused to link HIV/AIDS prevention programs with existing reproductive rights networks around the world, even though many public health experts believe that doing so would make these prevention programs much more effective. Antiabortion groups, of course, oppose any such link because they fear it would mean that the U.S. was funding abortion providers, however indirectly. And then there's this:

Critics of the administration say the so-called "gag rule" it imposed on even mentioning abortion in the context of US-funded reproductive-health programs has confused private groups on the limits for using US funding. They say a provision that at least one-third of American AIDS prevention funding be spent on abstinence-only programs has added to the confusion to a point where some successful AIDS prevention programs have decided to turn down US funds.
The "global gag rule"—which Bush reinstated on his first day in office, and which has consigned millions of women to misery or death—obviously has had a lot of horrible effects, but this is an under-mentioned one, I think. So yes, a good deal of praise is in order for the administration's efforts on AIDS. But that certainly doesn't excuse the things that deserve criticism.

Rice's Offer to Iran Is No Breakthrough

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 3:38 PM EDT

The press is heralding Condoleezza Rice's offer of direct talks with Iran as a signal of a new, more moderate, US approach to the standoff between the two nations, but there is little in her words to suggest any real change in Bush administration policy. What Rice actually said was: "[A]s soon as Iran fully and verifiably suspends its enrichment and reprocessing activities, the United States will come to the table."

More on Haditha

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 2:37 PM EDT

Gary Farber has a roundup of coverage of the (alleged) Haditha massacre, including reports that some officers may have lied about the incident to their superiors. This Los Angeles Times story, meanwhile, is one of the better newspaper attempts I've seen to try and reconstruct what actually went on that day. Both are worth reading.

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Department of Homeland Security snubs Statue of Liberty

| Thu Jun. 1, 2006 2:17 PM EDT

Flying over Manhattan and seeing the Statue of Liberty has always been a thrill for me. It is difficult to think of New York--or for that matter, the United States--without thinking of the beautiful Lady Liberty. Unless, of course, you are the Department of Homeland Security. According to DHS, New York has no national icons or monuments, which is why DHS funding was cut for the city.

New York City funding was cut by 40%, from $207.5 million to $124.4 million. In addition to dismissing the Statue of Liberty as a monument or icon, DHS similarly dismissed the United Nations Building, the Empire State Building, and the city's library and major museums. Oh, and the New York Stock Exchange.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has asked DHS secretary Michael Chertoff to explain how the agency arrived at the conclusion that New York had no notable icons or monuments. I can't wait to hear his reply.

The Case for Intervention

| Wed May 31, 2006 5:26 PM EDT

For awhile now, all sorts of liberals, conservatives, and other concerned parties have been calling for the United States and Europe to "do something" about the ongoing genocide in Darfur. It's an understandable plea. But I'm somewhat sympathetic to the counterargument that intervening in Darfur would be extremely difficult.

For one, it's doubtful that the United States has the troops to intervene, what with our quagmire in Iraq and this recent news about sending more reserves into Anbar Province to fight a never-ending war against a bottomless supply of Sunni insurgents.

For two, it's possible that a Western intervention could make things worse. How many troops would need to be sent in? Would NATO—or whoever—simply end up siding with the Darfur rebel groups in a war against the central government? Would it get bogged down in yet another drawn-out and bloody war that killed more people than it saved? Would yet another invasion of a predominantly Muslim country cause problems around the world? Aren't there practical considerations here?

Anyway, Eric Reeves, who knows more about Darfur than most observers, has an essay today taking on these objections in detail. His reading of Sudan politics suggests that the Khartoum government would stop the genocide in the face of a robust Western intervention rather than engage in a war, and that an intervention, while difficult, has a better chance of stopping the genocide than creating another Iraq-like situation, although better intelligence and analysis—on the part of the West—is obviously a necessary precursor to any sort of military action.

I obviously can't judge if he's right—although historically, most interventions tend to prove much bloodier and more problematic than their most sanguine proponents predict—but the long essay is certainly worth reading in full. I'd also like to hear a reply to the argument that there are a variety of measures short of military intervention that could potentially pressure the Khartoum government into stopping the genocide.

Is Rice Extending an Olive Branch?

| Wed May 31, 2006 2:25 PM EDT

It sure seems like Condoleezza Rice is finally ready to do the right thing about Iran:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said today that the United States would be willing to change course and join multinational talks with Iran over its nuclear program if it suspends all nuclear activities.

Ms. Rice said that the move was meant to "give new energy" to a European effort to develop a package of incentives or potential punishments to convince Iran to rein in its nuclear program, and to give Iran a "clear choice."Sounds like what we've been calling for all along, right? Direct negotiations? Well, maybe. But before getting too effusive, this is the Bush administration we're dealing with—a pack of lying war-mongers and all—so maybe a bit of skepticism is in order. It's not clear that Iran should be required to "suspend all nuclear activities" before talks can even begin. Isn't that something that the talks should work toward? Isn't that the whole point? Isn't Rice setting the bar too high?

So yes, it certainly seems like the Bush administration has decided to make unreasonable demands on Iran—only if you give us everything we demand will we sit down to talk—in order to sabotage negotiations before they even begin. Via Laura Rozen, Chris Nelson says that the Bush administration's main goal is to ensure that, if talks falter, Iran is seen as the "stumbling block," rather than the U.S. Rice's offer might be more for appearances sake than for any meaningful attempt to avoid war.

On the other hand, who knows, maybe good sense really has broken out unexpectedly in the White House and the administration wants to resolve this peacefully. We'll see. I should note that if the U.S. reached a détente with Iran before November, gas prices would probably go down and the Republican Party's midterm electoral prospects would probably brighten a bit. So maybe Karl Rove and friends should think about it...

Poison Ivy Epidemic on the Way

| Wed May 31, 2006 2:04 PM EDT

I can't honestly say this is the most important reason to worry about global warming, but hey, if it convinces people to pay attention:

Rising levels of carbon dioxide—a so-called greenhouse gas that traps heat within Earth's atmosphere—can fuel booming poison ivy growth, a new study reports.

Even worse, the rash-inducing vines may become more potent.Poison ivy is no fun. Here are some great pictures of poison ivy rashes. Here's Mother Jones' (slightly less painful) cover package on global warming from last year. Hot office gossip has it that Al Gore gushed about this article on Fresh Air the other day. Do listen to Al.