Political MoJo

Signs of Withdrawal?

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 6:26 PM EDT

John Burns' New York Times piece on Iraq's slow slide into civil war had this tidbit near the end: "Despite these gloomy trends, American commanders have continued to hint at the possibility of at least an initial reduction of the 140,000 American troops stationed here by next summer, contingent on progress in creating effective Iraqi units. Some senior officers have said privately that there is a chance that the pullback will be ordered regardless of what is happening in the war, and that the rationale will be that Iraq - its politicians and its warriors - will ultimately have to find ways of overcoming their divides on their own." Meanwhile, Helena Cobban argues that the U.S. should be doing just that, although she's quite clearly wrong when she suggests that the U.S. wouldn't be morally responsible for the inevitable post-withdrawal bloodbath.

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More on the AFL-CIO Split

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 6:19 PM EDT

Kim Fellner's essay on the split in the labor movement is very much worth reading. As is this piece by David Moberg, an editor at In These Times.

Rumsfeld's Revolution

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 3:29 PM EDT

Paul Light of Brookings takes a closer look at Donald Rumsfeld's "military transformation" project and concludes that the transformation is actually coming along better than people think, despite considerable obstacles, and Rumsfeld really is transforming the Pentagon's vast bureaucratic structure into something more agile, more able to adapt to threats of the future, and whatnot. I'll leave it to Fred Kaplan to explain why this might not actually be the case. For now, just a small nitpick.

Most of Light's examples to bolster his argument consist of dry personnel details—the number of senior executives has fallen from 361 to 284, for instance—but then there's a bit on private contracting. "Why is the Defense Department," asked Rumsfeld, "one of the last organizations that still cuts its own checks?" The idea is that outsourcing various tasks—like setting up camps or cooking meals—will free up soldiers to do fighting and other more important jobs. Fair enough, but no one seems to know whether outsourcing these tasks actually saves money. Contractors like KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton, tend to operate on a "cost-plus" contract, meaning that they get covered for all expenses plus a guaranteed profit, so they have little incentive to keep things as efficient as possible. And the military often must pay extra for security and insurance, as they have in Iraq. Meanwhile, Peter Singer has discussed the various problems with relying to heavily on private contractors to do military tasks. That's not to say that private contractors are never a good idea, but the generally unquestioned sense that outsourcing is an inherently more "modern," and hence more efficient, way of doing business seems in need of a bit more scrutiny.

Leave a Senator, Come Back a Lobbyist

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:54 PM EDT

According to Jeffrey Birnbaum of the Washington Post, former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists are exercising supreme power in Washington D.C. these days, especially since, unlike mere mortal lobbyists, they have the power to go anywhere they want in Capitol Hill. It's gotten to the point where lesser lobbyists, along with the usual good-government advocates, want to curtail their power. Russ Feingold wants to prevent former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from roving around the capital. But it's not likely to pass for obvious reasons: "The reason is pure self-interest. With each new election, more and more lawmakers retire early to join the lobbying ranks. So why would they throw away a commercial advantage?"

Civilian Deaths in Iraq

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:28 PM EDT

Jim Henley seems very right about this. In an effort to protect themselves from getting blown up, U.S. troops in Iraq have increasingly found themselves firing on unarmed civilians as a precautionary measure. Now in one sense, that's understandable. In another sense, it pretty clearly plays into the hands of Iraqi insurgents who want to drive a wedge between the broader population and their military occupiers. Meanwhile, it seems that the British troops in the south haven't made force protection nearly as high a priority as the American troops have, and as a result have gotten themselves entangled in fewer firing-on-civilian incidents. On the other hand, most reports seem to indicate that the South is less violent overall, in part because Shiite thugs and militiamen "keep the peace" and assassinate any Sunnis who get out of line (and some who don't).

After the Labor Break-up

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 2:12 PM EDT

Now that the split between the AFL-CIO and dissident unions seems all but official, it's time to make a few predictions. The New York Times suggests that the labor split will hurt the Democratic party, as the various unions will spend more time squabbling with each other and less time coordinating get-out-the-vote efforts come election day. The SEIU and other Unite to Win unions, meanwhile, think that electoral politics ought to come second to an intense focus on organizing. They have a point; labor density has gone down under both Republicans and Democrats, so it's not as if electing the latter to office has done them much good.

My more pessimistic take is this: neither organizing nor electoral politics will reverse labor's long slide. Politics for the reasons given above. Organizing, because the numbers are just too overwhelming. A few years ago, Harvard economist Richard Freeman ran the numbers on this:

To fund a massive organizing campaign would take, moreover, huge union resources. Turning Paula Voos's estimates of the marginal cost of organizing a new member into 2001 dollars, the cost of organizing a new member would appear to be on the order of $2,000 – though it could be as low as the $1,000 that is the rule of thumb for some unions and as high as $3,000. Adding half a million new members annually at $2,000 per member would then require spending $1 billion, or about 20 percent of total annual union dues. Adding 1 million members would take about 40 percent of total dues.

A million new members is nothing to sneeze at, and this is precisely the strategy SEIU and the other dissident unions are going for. Nonetheless, even a million new members—and this falls in the "optimistic" category—won't fundamentally reverse the long decline in labor density. A million new members would only add a point in density; 500,000 new members would simply balance the loss of members due to workplace changes. So the Unite to Win unions are doing the noble thing, but ultimately they're highly unlikely to pull off a structural shift in the layout of the labor land; at most they'll stop the earth from being scorched.

I know I keep harping on this, but the historical record is instructive. Unions have traditionally exploded in size not because of a commitment to organizing, and not necessarily because of labor-friendly legislators in Washington, but largely because of historical accidents. Labor density has grown in "spurts," due to factors that were often difficult to predict. Unions went forth, multiplied, and prospered during World War I, for instance, because developed Allied countries needed the full cooperation of labor to mobilize and fight their splendid little war, and a slew of labor-friendly compromises ensued. Likewise, union density grew during the Great Depression for obvious reasons—people saw the need for unions—and during World War II because the government yet again needed cooperation. It's worth noting, though, that legislative compromise and popular support weren't the only reason for labor's success during the 1930s and 1940s—the rise of the industrial union, and the opening up of an entire new sector to organize, really fueled the surge in density.

So for those asking "What will save Labor?," the answer probably isn't "more commitment to organizing" or "elect more Democrats." Presumably the answer will involve some new way of organizing—structured around the internet, perhaps—or the rise of a new sector of unions. Perhaps white-collar programmers angry about outsourcing will provide fertile new ground. Perhaps the Bush administration will drive the economy into the ground and the public will flock to unions. Still, the politicking vs. organizing debate going on right now seems much too narrow, and, sadly, a bit hopeless.

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North Korea Kabuki

| Mon Jul. 25, 2005 1:00 PM EDT

I, for one, am glad to see the Bush administration finally holding bilateral talks with North Korea, even if they're just "discussions" and not actual "negotiations." In the good old days, this was known as the "John Kerry plan," and in those good old days it was the only feasible idea anyone had for dealing with Kim Jong Il and his budding nuclear program. Why the White House decided to wait years and years before facing the inevitable and pursuing this route is anyone's guess.

More annoyingly, though, there's so much smoke being thrown out in the article that it's all one can do to grope around and try to figure out what's going on. We hear that "Condoleeza Rice has repeatedly assured the North that the United States accepts North Korean sovereignty and is not seeking to invade it," but in the intricate language of this particular chess game, that's not quite true: as far as I know, the United States still has not uttered the three magic words Kim Jong Il wants to hear—"no hostile intent." Then you have a Chinese "policy commentator" suggesting that China and North Korea don't "get along well," and Chinese involvement in negotiations would prove useless, which could be true, or it could be an excuse for China to continue to do nothing. And only in the very last sentence do we learn that, oh yes, North Korea may well have returned to the negotiating table because their neighbor to the south offered up 2,000 megawatts of electricity as a bribe. That would seem rather relevant, no?

Help DeLay!

| Fri Jul. 22, 2005 3:03 PM EDT

Speaking of fundraising, it seems that not everyone is doing quite as well as Howard Dean. Public Citizen reports:

For the first time, DeLay's legal defense contributions did not keep pace with his legal fees. In the past three months, DeLay's legal defense fund raised only $42,900 – $13,311 less than his legal expenses for the same period, which totaled $56,211.92. DeLay's legal defense fund has spent a total of $90,216 this year.

What's interesting here is that DeLay's own congressional colleagues are backing away slowly, no longer contributing quite as much to their majority leader's defense fund. Meanwhile, still no word on whether the newly formed House ethics committee is going to undertake a formal investigation of DeLay.

And the Money Kept Rolling In...

| Fri Jul. 22, 2005 2:56 PM EDT

Well, for all the concerns and hand-wringing of various Democrats over the past half-year, it seems that Howard Dean is performing just fine as chief fundraiser for the DNC. Here is the FEC report:

During the first six months of 2005, federally registered Republican party committees raised $142.7 million and spent $98.1 million, while the Democratic committees raised $86.3 million and spent $60.2 million. This is a 2% increase in receipts for Republicans when compared to the same period in 2003 and a 53% increase for Democrats. When compared to the same period in 2001, the last non-presidential cycle, Republicans registered a 50% increase in federal receipts, while the Democrats showed a 113% increase.

The Republican party, quite clearly, has a huge lead in fundraising, but Democrats are closing the gap decently enough. Interestingly, the gap used to be much, much larger—poking around through the charts, back in 1989 the RNC was raising six times as much money as the DNC ($18 million to about $3 million.) This despite the fact that the party is out of power and presumably gets fewer donations from corporate donors. (Although, Democratic votes for the recent bankruptcy bill no doubt helped peel off a few bucks from MNBA and other financial companies.) Anyway, a lot of money sloshing around there…

New at Mother Jones

| Fri Jul. 22, 2005 2:01 PM EDT

Iraqi Casualties: Unnamed and Unnoticed
By Judith Coburn
An in-depth look at how we have treated Iraqi civilian deaths

The Spies Who Came in From the Hot Tub
By Tom Engelhardt
The CIA's war on terror meets La Dolce Vita – courtesy of the US taxpayer.

The Memo, the Press, and the War
An exchange between Michael Kinsley and Mark Danner