Political MoJo

On second thoughts

| Tue Jul. 12, 2005 4:04 PM EDT

The insta-reaction to last week's London bombings was long on speculation that the attacks, unimaginative and "small-bore" as they were (compared to 9/11), showed a falling off in terrorist capabilities. That theory looks ripe for at least partial revision, if this New York Times piece is to be believed.

Because of the small size of the bombs, some investigators initially said last week that they were relatively crude.

On Monday, a senior European-based counterterrorism official with access to intelligence reports said the new information on the material indicated that the bombs were "technically advanced." The official added: "There seems to be a mastery of the method of doing explosions. This was not rudimentary. It required great organization and was well put together."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Exxon Boycott

| Tue Jul. 12, 2005 3:23 PM EDT

According to the International Herald Tribune, various liberal and environmental groups are planning a major boycott of everyone's favorite climate-change skeptics at ExxonMobil. It's been about a decade since a major single-company boycott has gotten underway, but then, Exxon has probably done more to set back the environmental and scientific cause on global warming than any other single organization. On that note, it's worth dredging up Chris Mooney's big expose of Exxon from the last issue of Mother Jones, which looked at the phony science being peddled on climate change, along with the Exxon money behind it. Not to mention our chart version too.

Oh, and you can check out the boycott here.

CostCo vs. Wal-Mart

| Tue Jul. 12, 2005 2:18 PM EDT

The Financial Times has a nice article on the classic CostCo vs. Wal-Mart head-to-head. Most notably, the vast differences in average wage—$17.41 per hour at Costco, $12 per hour at Wal-Mart's Sam's Club—don't seem to be hurting the former any. And the resulting lower employee turnover—17 percent at Costco compared to 70 percent in the rest of the sector—has probably helped the company's productivity. As anyone who's worked at a large retail chain can attest, you don't tend to put in much effort if you're only sticking around for a few months. The other key factor here, as Nathan Newman points out, is that about a fifth of Costco's workers are unionized, which in turn has had ripple effects for the rest of the chain's employees. (Though I believe Costco paid decent wages, and treated its workers fairly, before it acquired the unionized Price Club in 1993.)

Anyway, this brings to mind an old-but-worthwhile Seattle Weekly article. In 2003, investors flipped out at Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal—he was treating his workers and customers much too well for Wall Street's tastes, you see. Sinegal held on, but he seems like the great exception here; most CEOs obviously won't rank "rewarding shareholders" as their fifth priority. The piece also quotes a number of experts squaring off on whether the CostCo model always makes good financial sense for companies to pursue on their own. Not every store can be like CostCo, after all, and consumers might be worse off if CostCo was all there was. The likely answer, then: it depends. If the federal minimum wage were raised, or if the country was running at full employment and wages started rising naturally, businesses like Wal-Mart might run into trouble, and companies such as CostCo would thrive. (Although, worth noting that Wal-Mart managed just fine during the tight labor market in the late '90s.)

Genocide or Jacko?

| Mon Jul. 11, 2005 2:25 PM EDT

Heard about the ongoing genocide in Darfur? If so, it probably hasn't been from television news. The Center for American Progress explains:

The vast majority of Americans continue to rely on broadcast and cable television as their primary source of information. No other source of information, including newspapers, radio and the Internet, comes close to the power of television. For many, if an event is not reported on television, it does not happen.

As the horror in Darfur continues, our major television news networks are largely missing in action. Last month, CNN, FOX News, NBC/MSNBC, ABC, and CBS ran 50 times as many stories about Michael Jackson and 12 times as many stories about Tom Cruise as they did about the genocide in Darfur. Whether it is coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s, the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, or recent coverage of the tsunami, television news can help stop grave injustices and end human suffering. Increased television coverage of the genocide in Darfur has the power to spur the action required to stop a devastating crime against humanity. In short, increased television coverage of the genocide in Darfur has the power to help save thousands of lives.

But, you know, the media market is such a wonderful thing, and if Tom Cruise is what the people are demanding...

An Ideal War

| Mon Jul. 11, 2005 1:58 PM EDT

Via Tapped, Noam Scheiber isn't impressed with the "buyer's remorse" argument that erstwhile Iraq hawks are now touting:

The problem with Kerry's argument is that there's a difference between expecting the administration to fight a war competently and expecting it to fight an entirely different kind of war than the one you signed onto. Kerry is essentially accusing the administration of botching democratization. And, to be fair, the administration did begin by touting democratization as its goal when it didn't find WMD. Prior to the war, however, there was simply no indication that the administration intended to pursue democratization seriously.

One other thing: The former hawks who are now reconsidering their support for the war, as neo-conservative historian Eliot Cohen did in the Washington Post on Sunday, are basically saying, "This would've all been a great idea if only it hadn't been carried out by such idiots." Well, the idiots do exist, but no, this argument isn't obvious at all, and the danger here is that people will believe that invading and occupying hostile countries is be a feasible thing to do if only we have a more competent administration doing it. Certainly that's the underlying premise of all the new "What went wrong?" books coming out now, such as Larry Diamond's Squandered Victory. If only we had gone in with more troops, Diamond implies. If only we hadn't disbanded the Iraqi Army so quickly. If only we had disarmed the Shiite and Kurdish militias. If only we had brought in the United Nations. If only. If only.

Well, no one wants to excuse the Bush administration for gross incompetence on these fronts, but it's not at all clear that Iraq would have turned out peachy and fine if the United States had invaded and just avoided the few key mistakes it made. Diamond, for instance, thinks the CPA should have remained in Iraq for several years, building up civil society and political institutions, before holding elections. But is it really likely that the Shiite majority, and Ayatollah Ali Sistani, would have put up with this sort of extended nation-building enterprise? And so on.

The whole point here is that reconstructing a fractious nation riven by ethnic and confessional tensions and held together by artificial boundaries is intrinsically daunting and unpredictable, as everyone with half a brain pointed out at the time, and doing one thing "right"—such as keeping Saddam's former Army employed—might well have created unforeseen problems elsewhere: a coup, perhaps, or Shiite backlash. On our side, meanwhile, occupation errors and mistakes are pretty much inevitable; it's a bit quaint to imagine some "ideal" invasion scenario where everything is foreseen and no bureaucracy does anything to screw up royally. The dominant "lesson learned" among hawks now reconsidering their stance on the war, however, seems to be: "Democratization by war is still a grand and sensible option; we just need some more competent administration to carry it out in the future." But to paraphrase Hayek: when thinking about a government policy in the abstract, assume that it will be executed not by enlightened leaders, but by fools and buffoons. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you'll be right.

The Iraq-London link that really matters

| Fri Jul. 8, 2005 4:14 PM EDT

Liberal bloggers have been at pains to point out that the connection between Iraq and the bombings in London isn't "simple" -- that is, the strikes aren't "strictly" retribution for Britain's supporting role in the war. (Who, by the way, is suggesting they are? And anyway, when did it become so easy to divine terrorists' motivations?) Spencer Ackerman at TNR takes a more instructive approach to the question of a link.

For months, counterterrorism officials across Europe have been noticing a disturbing phenomenon: Local Islamic extremists are showing up in Baghdad, Falluja, Ramadi, and elsewhere. ...

Iraq is closing the loop between terrorist desire and terrorist ability. David Low, a senior U.S. intelligence official, recently observed to Dana Priest of The Washington Post that Iraq provides "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills" to jihadists. In other words, a Parisian or Milanese jihadist wannabe can now learn online which mosque in Syria to visit in order to meet the right middleman to smuggle him into Iraq, where Anbar province-based terrorist cells are eager for new recruits. Once in Iraq, he can learn all about remote-detonated improvised explosive devices and urban combat--extremely valuable skills for him to take back home, where he can pass them along to his associates. In May, classified CIA and State Department analyses warned about the serious threat that such terrorist "bleed out" from Iraq poses to U.S. national security.

The scope of this is unclear. Iraq is not, or not yet, a jihadist proving ground on the order of Afghanistan in the 1980s. If the above is correct, though, it is beginning to resemble, as a terrorist finishing school, the Afghanistan of the late 1990s.

Another notion doing the rounds is that yesterday's bombings, however horrific, are evidence, in their small scale relative to 9/11 and even Madrid, of a weakening in terrorist capabilities. One would like to believe this, but it's a very large conclusion to draw from a very small sample of attacks. And anyway, if Ackerman is correct that a fresh supply of battle-hardened jihadists is rolling off the Iraqi assembly line, the inference begins to look a lot like complacency.

Last year in Madrid and, most likely, yesterday in London, we saw what destruction jihadists without Iraq experience can inflict; those with Anbar province on their resumes can almost certainly do worse. Barring a dramatic reversal of our fortunes in Iraq, the class of '05 may soon be ready to seek some horrific post-graduation employment.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Lighten Up

Fri Jul. 8, 2005 3:10 PM EDT

Today Paul Krugman writes on the overblown free-market rhetoric that is being enlisted by the food industry and its P.R. hacks to ensnare commonsense governmental efforts against obesity:

[T]he industry's companies proclaim themselves good guys, committed to healthier eating. Meanwhile, they outsource the campaigns against medical researchers and the dissemination of crude anti-anti-obesity propaganda to industry-financed advocacy groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom.

More broadly, the ideological landscape has changed drastically since the 1960s. (That change in the landscape also has a lot to do with corporate financing of advocacy groups, but that's a tale for another article.) In today's America, proposals to do something about rising obesity rates must contend with a public predisposed to believe that the market is always right and that the government always screws things up….

[O]nly a blind ideologue or an economist could argue with a straight face that Americans were rationally deciding to become obese. … Above all, we need to put aside our anti-government prejudices and realize that the history of government interventions on behalf of public health, from the construction of sewer systems to the campaign against smoking, is one of consistent, life-enhancing success. Obesity is America's fastest-growing health problem; let's do something about it.

Obesity and childhood obesity are, as studies have shown, a major problem in America—over 65 percent of adults are overweight, and just under a third of children 6 to19 years old are overweight or at risk to be overweight. As Krugman points out, the costs are born by all of us--thin or fat--through higher medical premiums and government expenditures on preventable health costs. But by offering up nary a word about what reasonable, constructive, government action on this issue might look like, Krugman is letting groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom set up ludicrous strawmen.

So what might a constructive governmental approach to food health look like? Well, if the government is going to run a farm subsidy program at all, at least it could try to bring them in line with its own food pyramid, rather than thrown billions to farmers producing unhealthy foods. Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee has gotten a lot of attention, both for his own dramatic weight loss (before and after) and for his state's steps like banning snack machines in public elementary schools and sending parents information on their child's Body Mass Index. The point is that there are many common sense efforts in education and prevention that government can take to fight the obesity epidemic short of dictatorial regulation.

Muslim Introspection

| Fri Jul. 8, 2005 2:53 PM EDT

Well, someone must carry on the "Put Tom Friedman behind a $50 subscriber wall, now!" campaign, so let's wade through today's column. As we'd expect, by turns atrocious and asinine, even though he's trying to make what should be a good point, but this bit gave me a mini-aneurysm:

The Muslim village has been derelict in condemning the madness of jihadist attacks. ... To this day - to this day - no major Muslim cleric or religious body has ever issued a fatwa condemning Osama bin Laden.

To this day!, says Friedman. But luckily, in a flat world connected by the internet and globalization, we can pull up this old news story in about three seconds:

Spain's leading Islamic body has issued a religious order declaring Usama bin Ladin to have forsaken Islam by backing attacks such as the Madrid train bombings a year ago. The Islamic Commission of Spain timed its fatwa on Friday to coincide with the first anniversary of the attacks, which killed 191 people and were claimed in the name of al-Qaida in Europe.

That was three months ago, by the way. Anyway, for those who are actually interested in this topic, do read Marc Lynch's post: "Over the last six months or so, the radical jihadists have seemed to be on the political and intellectual defensive in the Arab and Muslim worlds." Is it happening fast enough? No, perhaps not. But the picture is far different from the one Friedman's using his column space to peddle. Meanwhile, both Sarah Wildman and Garance Franke-Ruta are taking a more in-depth look at the Muslim diaspora over at Tapped, both of which are worth reading.

Westar Names Names

| Fri Jul. 8, 2005 2:30 PM EDT

The Dallas Morning News unearths a bit of damning Tom DeLay news:

A company indicted in a Texas campaign fundraising case says it was told that by giving a Tom DeLay political committee $25,000, company officials would get access to the U.S. House majority leader to influence legislation.

In court documents, Westar Energy of Kansas says that to meet with Mr. DeLay in 2002, company officials "were told they needed to write a check for $25,000" to Texans for a Republican Majority, known as TRMPAC.

It's the first time a company has said it donated to the Texas committee created by Mr. DeLay in exchange for a meeting and legislative help.

Uh-oh. I do believe that's against federal law. Although I'm surprised that DeLay actually needed to spell out this probably-quite-common quid pro quo to what seems like a reasonably well-connected company. Isn't it usually just assumed that large donations will guarantee some form of access? The big news might not be why DeLay was so corrupt but why he was so dumb about it. The unhappy news is that a crackdown on DeLay for his TRMPAC activities isn't likely to end the intimate connection between corporations and politicians. Future Tom DeLays will just have to be a bit more discreet about handing out legislative favors to major donors, no?

The China-Russia Alliance

| Thu Jul. 7, 2005 3:10 PM EDT

From the Jamestown Foundation, it appears that Russia and China are sneaking around trying to dream up ways to contain the United States:

In a joint statement on "the international order in the 21st century," which was issued after a three-hour-long summit between [Chinese President] Hu [Jintao] and counterpart Vladimir Putin on July 1, both leaders took a thinly veiled swipe at the U.S. The document stressed the opposition of the two "strategic partners" to attempts by any country to "monopolize and dominate international affairs." Hu and Putin criticized efforts by unnamed countries to "divide states between leaders and led," which appeared to refer to alleged attempts by the U.S. to "destabilize" dictatorial regimes in Central Asia and to spread democracy worldwide. The Chinese leader added in a press conference that both countries agreed to "further strengthen strategic cooperation, expand military exchanges and cooperation, and enthusiastically do well in the first China-Russian joint military exercise [due next month]."

Well, that sounds scary. The thing to note here, though, is that Russian involvement or no, there's still no good reason for us to fight China, or for China to fight us. Maybe the old party hands in Beijing don't like they way the Bush administration has been trying to spread democracy around Central Asia (it's hard to tell whether that's what Hu's saying or whether that's a Jamestown paraphrase), but the downside, for China, of war with the United States would vastly, vastly outweigh whatever gains they might get from less American meddling in the region. Conflict of any sort would be a disaster. As Daniel Starr says, the only conceivable reason China might try to risk this sort of disaster is if a) China's leaders need a war to whip up patriotic fervor and divert attention away from economic problems within the country, or b) Chinese leaders believe they can get some political gain from war. So the essence of a strategy to contain China should really be to make sure neither of those things need to happen. See Brad DeLong for more on this.

Unfortunately, the China-hawk faction within the Pentagon has persisted for quite some time, and shows no danger of abating. In a quote in a Wall Street Journal story a few weeks ago, Thomas Barnett contrasted the economic engagement strategy popular in Wall Street and Pentagon thinking: "the Wall Street participants concluded, 'When I think of the security issues I realize how a strategic partnership with China is all the more imperative,' and the military guys would say, 'Wow, realizing all the economic competition, war with China is that much more inevitable.'" One would hope that on this matter at least, Wall Street will continue to exert a stranglehold on White House thinking long, long into the future. (Ironically, prior to World War I many businessmen predicted, rightly, that great-power war would be a disaster and tried to avert it at any costs. Unfortunately they didn't quite have the ear of government.)