Political MoJo

Where Did the Money Go?

| Wed Jul. 6, 2005 10:25 AM PDT

In the London Review of Books, Ed Harriman goes through the audits to tell the broader story of the looting-by-contractor scam that surrounded the reconstruction of Iraq. Notice that most of the money squandered—and we're talking about billions and billions of dollars here—was Iraqi, not American taxpayer, money. All filed under "financial irregularities."

Conservatives have spent so many years insisting that government bureaucracies are corrupt, inefficient, and wasteful. They finally decided to get off the couch and prove it in Iraq. Nicely done. And we wonder why they hate us!

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Liberals Against Africa

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 4:33 PM PDT

I'm still awaiting the day when New York Times op-eds will cost $50 to read; that way, we won't have to click on them accidentally. Today's "offering," by Nick Kristof, goes yard for nine paragraphs bashing liberals and praising Bush to high heaven for his, er, aid in Africa, only to stop in paragraph ten to say: "The divide I portray between the left and right is, of course, a caricature." Oh, thanks. Only after this wry admission do we learn, at the very bottom of the column, that Bush's anti-condom crusade in Africa has in fact cost untold lives, that his signature aid project, the Millenium Challenge Account, is a dud, and that the president is more concerned with tax cuts for the rich than helping Africa. But the headline to the column? "Bush, a Friend of Africa."

By the way, Bush has not boosted aid to Africa by two-thirds, as Kristof claimed—the figure is actually 56 percent, and drops to 33 percent if you discount money for food aid, which goes to American farmers. The two-thirds figure is in nominal dollar terms; presumably Kristof doesn't understand the difference. (Also, in what sense is Bush "setting in motion an eventual tripling of aid for Africa"?) But Bush is better than Bill Clinton? Well, then give the man a ribbon, but that's setting the bar awfully low. Meanwhile, Kristof offers up a "magnificent example" of the "standard conservative approach" to aid in Africa: the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital, which he claims is a missionary hospital set up by American conservatives. In fact, it is no such thing; the hospital is Australian in origin, has as its principle American sponsor a Quaker foundation, and works in partnership with... the United Nations Population Fund—precisely the sort of "weak-kneed" multilateral organization Kristof spends nine paragraphs insulting.

At any rate, this seems to be the disturbing new trend in the run-up to the G-8 conference: liberals making the "counterintuitive" claim that the "liberal" aid approach to Africa is doomed. Now on the one hand, it's true, it's time to rethink our approach to aid in Africa. But the relentless attacks on the United Nations and other aid organizations has a bit of the ol' baby-bathwater quality to it. So we have Slate editor Jacob Weisberg attacking Jeffrey Sachs' UN Millenium Project without, apparently, taking the time to actually read anything about the project. None of the "objections" Weisberg raises in the piece are things Sachs hasn't already thought and worried about. (Plus, Weisberg's proposed alternative here is the "free trade will eradicate world poverty" line; opening first-world markets is a good step, but not even close to a panacea.) And that's just it: if either Kristof or Weisberg took the time to read Sachs' proposal, or acquire even a passing familiarity with what these liberal aid organizations actually do, they'd see that many of their criticisms are, as Kristof sort of admits, mostly caricatures, which doesn't do anyone any good.

The Exaggerated Impact of Trade

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 2:04 PM PDT

I just stumbled on an old paper from the Center for Economic and Policy research arguing that the gains from trade liberalization are often overstated. One major reference, for instance, had indicated that trade liberalization by rich countries would lift 540 million people out of poverty worldwide. But as it turns out, the calculations here were slightly askew. The CEPR researchers find that the gains here are much more marginal: most of the people "lifted out of poverty" would see their incomes rise from just below $2 a day to just above that level.

Now that's not nothing, and the arguments in favor of trade liberalization are still quite good: the paper's not saying that it would be harmful for rich countries to reduce their barriers. What it does imply, though, is that this isn't a goal worth doing anything under the sun to pursue. Many liberal opponents of the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA)—me, for instance—have noted that the benefits from the trade provisions in the bill are often swamped by the harmful effects due to the various intellectual property protections—for instance, the restrictions on generic drugs that would make AIDS medication more costly—and the weakening of labor standards. (Not to mention the fact that the agreement gives serious trade protection to American sugar producers.) Indeed, economists like Richard Freeman have often argued that trade just isn't all that consequential in the grand scheme of things: certainly not as important as immigration, capital flows, or technology transfers. That applies to CAFTA too.

Now some free-traders acknowledge that those are bad aspects of CAFTA, but think we should just ignore those objections because the upside to reduced tariffs is so high. But if CEPR's figures are right, the upside to reduced tariffs, while decent, isn't that high, and piling on concessions to the pharmaceutical and telecommunications industry really do, on average, make the bill a net negative. This applies to the recently-signed US-Australia free trade deal, which had a lot of harmful non-trade provisions, and it's going to continue to happen so long as people believe that liberalization is such a good deal for poor countries that it should be pursued at all costs.

Let Them Eat Airfare!

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 1:37 PM PDT

Ah, back to everyone's favorite Congressional corruption mini-scandal. Now it turns out that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has a few delinquent travel reports in her closet. Tsk tsk. Now as far as I can tell, this isn't even remotely in the same league as Tom DeLay's little shenanigans, but hey, if it turns out that Democrats also deserve a slap on the wrist for ethics violations here, then fine, slap away. What's interesting, though, is this little bit on the "scandal" of Congressional travel:

The data firm PoliticalMoneyLine calculates that members of Congress have received more than $18 million in travel from private organizations in the past five years, with Democrats taking 3,458 trips and Republicans taking 2,666.

$18 million dollars? Really now, this isn't a lot of money in the context of total government spending. On the other hand, it's a lot of money when considered as the sum of private favors from lobbyist to politician. The obvious thing to do, then, is to pool together an $18 million kitty and let members of Congress take trips out of public funds instead. There's a decent case to be made, after all, that these congressional "fact-finding" trips abroad are sometimes valuable, and more often a fun and decent perk to the job.

The better argument, though, is to say: look, members of Congress are going to go travel abroad one way or another; they can either do on the dime of some trade organization or corporation looking for a favorable hearing on some pro-business bill, or they can do it using taxpayer money, which, in the grand scheme of things, isn't all that much taxpayer money. Which would be a better state of affairs? I, for one, am more than happy to bribe politicians to stop skirting around the bounds of corruption!

When Senates Said No

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 1:24 PM PDT

Speaking of Akhil Reed Amar, he's got an op-ed in the Washington Post today about confirming judicial nominees that's got this little bit:

In the give and take between the president and the Senate, the executive has the upper hand. Though the document speaks of senatorial "advice," only the president makes actual nominations, and once this happens, it is hard for the Senate to say no.

Well, that's more true than not in the aggregate—although throughout history, about 20 percent of all presidential picks for the Supreme Court have not been confirmed—but it brings to mind the mother of all Senatorial denials. In 1866 when Justice John Catron retired, and then the next year when Justice James Moore Wayne retired, the Radical Republicans in the Senate simply abolished those seats rather than let Andrew Johnson nominate anyone else. Fun times. It's also a healthy reminder that no matter how vicious the battle over Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement may get, there's been far, far worse in the past.

Why Originalism?

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 12:13 PM PDT

With the confirmation battle over Sandra Day O'Connor's replacement looming—and remember, no fair asking questions about the new nominee!—conservative commentators have taken to insisting that they just want someone who will interpret the Constitution as it was "meant" to be interpreted. As Sen. John Cornyn puts it, someone who "reveres the law." And what, pray tell, does that mean? One popular view, originalism, takes it that potential Supreme Court nominees should figure out what the Founding Fathers meant by the Constitution and apply the law thusly.

No one, of course, with half a brain believes interpretation is that easy—especially in light of the fact that Supreme Court justices today need to figure out how to apply a 230-year-old document to clearly modern issues as diverse as Internet pornography, homosexual marriage, intellectual property, automobile searches, campaign financing, etc. The very idea that there's one true "original" meaning of the Constitution is an odd fiction that has somehow persisted over time. But one question to consider is why originalism, even if it was possible, would be such a good thing. Why is it better to adhere to a 230-year-old document than to update it and revise it—in some fashion—over time? I've been clicking around the internet this morning, and as best I can tell, here's a list of the most common justifications (in italics; my responses in plain):

1) Since the Constitution is approved by the authority of the people, originalism is required to maintain their sovereignty.

Obviously not. I, for one, was never allowed to approve or disapprove of our Constitution. Nor, for that matter, were most people, even in the 18th century. The theoretical debate on this issue actually gets sort of thorny, but suffice to say that reconciling Locke's theory of the social contract with the idea of a constitution that's inherited, and hence unratified by all current citizens, isn't nearly as easy as it sounds.

2) If the Constitution no longer meets the exigencies of society's "evolving standard of decency," and the people people wish to amend or replace the document, there is nothing stopping them from doing so in the manner which was envisioned by the Framers.

That's not an argument for originalism; at best it might lead to a debate over whether the threshold for amending the Constitution is too high. (Yes, it is.) But then the argument becomes circular: why is the threshold we have for amendment, the one set by the framers, so indisputably good in itself?

3) Originalism prevents judges from gaining unfettered discretion to inject their personal values into the written Constitution.

But it doesn't! There have been conservative originalists, like Antonin Scalia, and liberal originalists like former Justice Hugo Black or Yale professor Akhil Reed Amar. As you'd expect, Scalia's version of originalism somehow almost always lines up with Scalia's pre-existing values, and those values are very different from those of Amar, whose conclusions in For the People are often quite radical (his originalist scholarship suggests that the Constitution can be amended on a simple majority vote, and that the Constitution may well contain the right to education and welfare.) Values cannot help but intrude, even among originalists.

4) Originalism helps ensure predictability and protects against arbitrary changes in the interpretation of the Constitution.

As legal commentators such as Jeffrey Rosen and Mark Tushnet have noted, the Supreme Court's interpretation of the Constitution generally tracks closely with the prevailing popular opinion—or, at the very least, the prevailing elite popular opinion. Now there may be reason to prefer the elite opinion of the Founders to the elite opinion of the modern day, but it's hard to say that judicial doctrine has unfolded in an "unpredictable" way. Moreover, judges are bound by convention, to some extent. In Europe, where the courts have far stronger judicial review power, judges avoid overly heavy or arbitrary bouts of activism, for fear of losing their popular legitimacy.

The other point to make is that at this point in time, a Court filled with Clarence Thomas clones would likely strike down a good number of current laws, which, to say the least, would be exceedingly unpredictable. And presumably arbitrary too, since they would be struck down according to Thomas' and friends' values. Meanwhile, what if new documents were suddenly unearthed or new scholarship emerged that changed what we know about the framer's intentions? (Hardly impossible.) Well, then originalist interpretations would have to change, and that could happen in a very haphazard and unpredictable fashion.

5) If the Constitution is to be interpreted in light of "the evolving standards of decency," why should the Supreme Court - nine lawyers - be the ones to have the final say over its interpretation?

Now this is a question I like! But it has more to do with the validity of judicial review than the merits of originalism per se. If we think that nine lawyers should not have the final say over what "evolving standards of decency" truly are, then the answer isn't to hand the Constitution over to nine other lawyers who think standards of decency must never be taken into account. The answer is to abolish judicial review—or give Congress veto power over the Court. This is in the realm of things that will never, ever happen, but liberal legal scholars have slowly been coming around to this case for years now.

Perhaps there are other principled reasons for nominating originalist judges, or strict constructionists, but I haven't found any. (As it happens, I think that Bush will prefer to nominate a business-friendly justice rather than an "originalist," but we'll see.) Now obviously when Republicans go on TV and say they want a judge who "interprets the plain meaning of the Constitution" or what have you, it makes a lovely soundbite, and it sounds intuitively good, but there's no reason this line should go unchallenged.

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Mobilizing Evangelicals

Tue Jul. 5, 2005 11:10 AM PDT

Bush's previous U.S. Ambassador at the United Nations, ordained minister and former Missouri Senator John Danforth, recently told a BBC television crew that the Administration's decision to recognize the atrocities in Sudan as genocide was made largely for "internal consumption." In other words, as a pre-election sop in the wake of a House resolution, unanimously passed after heavy lobbying by evangelicals, invoking the g-word.

Danforth's admission is only one more signal that to get the administration to take action on the Darfur crisis, left-leaning humanitarians must enlist the support of those who have Caesar's ear—conservative Christians primarily concerned about the conflict's element of religious persecution. Even though most observers peg the Darfur conflict to a combination of racism, factionalism and old grudges, human rights activists must forge relief or intervention strategies that will energize this single-issue ally.

Strategy Change? Prove it.

| Tue Jul. 5, 2005 10:04 AM PDT

Changes to the United States' military strategy are afoot in the Pentagon, reports the New York Times:

The Pentagon's most senior planners are challenging the longstanding strategy that requires the armed forces to be prepared to fight two major wars at a time. Instead, they are weighing whether to shape the military to mount one conventional campaign while devoting more resources to defending American territory and antiterrorism efforts.

The old "two-war" model may be on its way out, the news goes (though that model was, in fact, heavily modified four years ago), and counterterrorism is in. Now a number of defense-policy wonks have been calling for these sorts of changes for awhile: more resources devoted to fighting counterinsurgency campaigns and fewer resources devoted to Cold War-style "conventional" wars. Whether this approach is right or wrong can be set aside for the moment—though it's important! The more interesting question, though, is whether any of these changes would actually take place, and to what extent changes in strategy are constrained by existing military bureaucracies.

Back in 2001's Quadrennial Defense Review, Rumsfeld was hyping the "revolution in military affairs": his vision of a smaller, lighter force that would use the latest technology to deploy quickly and fight battles rapidly. In retrospect, the idea was pretty ill-suited for the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, both of which continue to hover somewhere between peacekeeping and war. Nevertheless, the point is that the "revolution in military affairs" never came about. As Andrew Krepinevich noted, Rumsfeld's 2004 programs "fairly closely resemble those of previous years and the plan … inherited from the Clinton administration." Only a few useless big-ticket items in the Pentagon's budget—like the Comanche helicopter—were canceled, while plenty of other useless items—like our ever-growing fleet of nuclear subs—continue to expand.

In part this standstill came about because defense contractors have powerful allies in Congress, and Congress isn't too thrilled with canceling job-creating (and campaign coffer-filling) defense contracts, no matter how useless. And meanwhile, the three services—Army, Navy, Air Force—don't like giving up their resources. As Fred Kaplan has pointed out, the three services still command roughly the same share of the budget as they did back in 1984; not because their relative needs have gone unchanged, but because the service chiefs have a longstanding, if implicit, agreement not to trample on each other's toes.

Both factors will almost certainly prove important for the latest review. A shift from conventional war to "antiterrorism efforts" means fewer expensive helicopters and tanks and subs. Good luck getting Congress to agree to all that. It would also mean a shift in resources from the Air Force and Navy to the Army. Again, good luck. Expect to see Navy and Air Force officials slowly hype up, say, the "inevitable" war with China, so as to help justify larger expenditures for the Navy and Air Force. (For Exhibit A of this strategy, read Robert Kaplan's Atlantic super-alarmist piece on "How We Would Fight China." As praktike observed long ago, it's an advertisement for a bigger Navy budget from start to finish.) That's not to say this is an active process. It's more the case that military analysts who foresee a dire China threat, one that demands lots of expensive new ships and aircraft to fight or contain, are more likely to have their PowerPoint briefings passed around the Pentagon. It's natural selection at it's finest. And it could sharply curtail what might potentially be a much-needed shift in military strategy.

Party of Ideas

| Sat Jul. 2, 2005 10:10 PM PDT

Bill Clinton has a Social Security reform idea that I can really get behind:

Legalizing more immigrants would help bolster the Social Security system, former President Bill Clinton told the nation's largest Hispanic-rights organization Friday.

"Those of you who want immigration reform should use Social Security more," Clinton said to about 1,300 members of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "If we legalize just 250,000 more immigrants a year, it would solve half of the shortfall in the Social Security Trust Fund."

Indeed. Now I'm not sure about his numbers, but besides actually being good policy, this seems like the perfect idea to start banging on at every opportunity, no? It's a clear alternative to privatization, it's easy to understand, and it's a horrific wedge issue for Republicans but not so much for Democrats. Well, maybe I'm wrong about that last bit. But I assume Bill Clinton knows what he's doing.

Friedman Goes to Ireland

| Fri Jul. 1, 2005 3:03 PM PDT

Henry Farrell's post on leprechauns is not to be missed. Well, okay, it's not quite about leprechauns. A couple of days ago Tom Friedman gushed over Ireland, arguing that the country's rapid economic growth of late came all thanks to it's bold and innovative "Anglo-Saxon" model—which, as you might guess, is a putdown of the Franco-German welfare state and a sly encomium to the stripped-down labor laws, low wages, and low income taxes here in America. The only problem is: it's not true. Not only does Ireland have all sorts of nifty labor and employment protections much-bemoaned by free-marketeers, but many economists believe that it's those very non-"Anglo-Saxon" features that have contributed to Ireland's success. Friedman's wrong yet again; I for one can't wait until I have to pay $50 a year to read his columns online.