Political MoJo

No Hospital For You

| Thu Aug. 18, 2005 3:41 PM EDT

Here's a statistic that may or may not be surprising: The number of hospitals in the United States has been declining over the past six years. (No one quite knows why; presumably because hospitals are consolidating.) But a new study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation points out something even more disconcerting: the decline of public hospitals has been most rapid in major cities—some 16 percent between 1996 and 2002—especially in areas with both the highest poverty levels and highest rates of the uninsured. Meanwhile, once you start stepping away from the cities, "high-poverty suburbs appear to be relatively underserved by hospitals, compared to low-poverty suburbs, which appear to have an abundance of hospital resources." Not good at all. Everyone harps on getting the uninsured covered; that's an important goal to be sure, but improving access to health care should get just as much attention when thinking about health policy here in the United States.

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Swapping Nightmares

| Thu Aug. 18, 2005 1:29 PM EDT

Harold Meyerson rightly fears that that's all the U.S. has accomplished in Iraq. Sure, a brutal dictator was deposed, but now we've brought massive unemployment, violence, set the stage for civil war, and perhaps an Iranian-backed mini-state. But he gets it wrong when he writes:

What neither Bush's critics nor defenders could foresee was his administration's mind-boggling indifference to establishing security in post-Hussein Iraq.

Of course, just yesterday we learned of pre-war State Department memos (which, depending on how you look at it, could be tallied as information from Bush's critics, defenders, or both) warning Central Command that its post-war plans were deficient. A flock of hawks—ex-generals, national security advisors, etc.—warned that planning wasn't being taken seriously. And as Bush worked up the nation for war, there were even those who said that regime change in Iraq wasn't a bad idea per se, but thought it was an awful idea as long as it was carried out by this negligent lot. Lots of people foresaw that post-war planning would be disastrous. And that of course makes the problems today all the more upsetting, and the administrations responsibility all the clearer.

Oh, This is Too Good

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 7:23 PM EDT

Jack Abramoff, before he (yeah, allegedly) made a career out of bilking Native Americans and bribing Senators, was an executive producer for Red Scorpion, a crappy shoot-em-up film. It was a Cold War allegory about a Soviet killing machine sent to fight in Angola, who after seeing the crimes of his adopted army switched sides.

It seems that Abramoff saw the movie as his contribution to amuch larger anti-Communist campaign by Ronald Reagan's "New Right." At the time Abramoff, an ex-Chairman of the College Republicans, was chummy (still is, actually) with anti-government activist Grover Norquist who was giving economic advice to Angola's murderous anti-government rebel group. Go read the Salon article, and see if you can't find a few chuckles amongst the details of a troubled production that likely relied on illegal Apartheid-era South African funding. And if you can take it, watch the theatrical trailer.

Follow the Money

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 5:34 PM EDT

Dan Kennedy has a great post wondering why journalists won't follow the money when it comes to checking up on industry-funded interest groups. In general, "follow the money" arguments aren't always quite as conclusive as many writers seem to think they are—a given politician, for instance, might be receiving industry money because he or she genuinely believes in X pro-industry position, rather than the reverse—but when a newspaper quotes some group as praising Wal-Mart, and that group happens to be funded by a financial arm of Wal-Mart, um, that seems rather important to note.

Penance for Earthly Sins

Wed Aug. 17, 2005 3:09 PM EDT

A friend recently bought a shiny new ride, and was ecstatic to be ditching her old car and its electrical system headaches. "The only thing I feel bad about," her voice lowering, "is that it's one of those... SUVs." Today Slate profiles a couple of companies that sell some peace of mind to people like her. If you hand over a bit of cash, they'll spend the money in a way that will offset the carbon emissions from your new SUV, house, or vacation air travel. The plans differ. One company, TerraPass, acts like a venture capital fund, providing cash to clean energy or carbon abatement efforts. Another buys up carbon credits at a small green-minded exchange, hopefully taking them off the market.

But consumers already have many good, effective ways of reducing their carbon impact. (Take public transport, buy a smaller house, etc.) While kicking a few dollars towards abatement of the carbon sins of others will help, there are many other tools at our immediate disposal. It's only because the impacts of any single individual's actions to reduce carbon impact are hard to observe that people think this is a solution. Warning, imperfect analogy ahead: If I routinely dump garbage on the street, does an annual check to a highway beautification fund absolve me? Sure, my donation can't hurt, but it ignores my responsibility for the original problem.

Clinton and al-Qaeda, Once More

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:53 PM EDT

The New York Times reports on newly declassified documents noting that, back in 1996, the State Department's intelligence shop warned the Clinton administration about Osama bin Laden's move from the Sudan to Afghanistan:

In what would prove a prescient warning, the State Department intelligence analysts said in a top-secret assessment on Mr. bin Laden that summer that "his prolonged stay in Afghanistan - where hundreds of 'Arab mujahedeen' receive terrorist training and key extremist leaders often congregate - could prove more dangerous to U.S. interests in the long run than his three-year liaison with Khartoum," in Sudan.

Doesn't look good, does it. On the other hand, whether or not the Clinton administration took this warning seriously, it's impossible to imagine that the U.S. could've gone to war against Afghanistan prior to 9/11. Clinton's suggestion in New York magazine this week, that he would have "launched an attack on Afghanistan early" if only he had known that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the U.S.S Cole, is pretty laughable. Clinton's trying to make himself look good—please, pray tell, why would that particular attack be a cause for war, but not the 1998 embassy bombings?—but even if he was serious, a war against Afghanistan in 2000 would've been opposed by the Republican Congress, which was then against any adventures abroad, as well as the media, which would've had a field day calling any such attack a "wag the dog" maneuver. Sad but true.

More to the point, Clinton's reluctance to attack wasn't his biggest mistake. If we really want to criticize with hindsight, then in fact, Clinton's failed missile attacks on Afghanistan in August 1998 probably did more to help al-Qaeda than anything else. Not because they "emboldened" the enemy, as many conservatives have suggested. Rather, as Jason Burke reports in his book, Al-Qaeda, up until that point Mullah Omar and the Taliban were getting sick of their Arab "allies" running rampant around the country, and were ready to extradite bin Laden. But after the attack, the Taliban felt that they couldn't look weak and give up bin Laden in response to Western aggression, and at that point, the ties between Mullah Omar and bin Laden firmed up considerably. Meanwhile, bin Laden's cachet increased immeasurably around the Arab world—up until that point he had just been seen as a two-bit financier; now, he was an international mastermind, and an inspiration to other young jihadists. The rest of the story is pretty well known, but the missile attacks were an oft-overlooked turning point.

At any rate, it's pretty obvious that Clinton dropped the ball on al-Qaeda in many respects (as did George W. Bush, as did countless others). Hindsight is brutal, and always unforgiving. A bitch, one might say. Moving forward, however, Kevin Drum asks the right question: why is the State Department's intelligence unit, INR, so much better than all the others? And, by the way, where is Osama bin Laden these days?

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Time for a Wall?

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:32 PM EDT

Immigration's becoming a hot topic around these internet regions. John Derbyshire argues we could completely seal off the border for less than $18 billion, by building an Israeli-style barrier. Well, even assuming illegal immigration is a problem that requires a brick-and-mortar response, would this actually stop people from trying to get in? Wouldn't new smuggling markets simply arise: packing migrants in crates, say, and shipping them from Mexico to the United States? So long as the benefits outweigh the costs—and the benefits of immigrating are very high—I have a hard time thinking you can put more than a finger or two in this particular dike. Maybe, though.

Meanwhile, David Card's study—"Is the New Immigration Really All That Bad?"—answers, "Not really." He does find that the influx of low-skilled immigrants since 1965 have increased the supply of "high-school dropout" labor in various cities. (It's not obvious that this should always be the case: Say a bunch of low-skilled immigrants move to a city, but more and more natives graduate from high school; then the supply of low-skill labor could stay constant or even decline.) On the other hand, he does find that wages for native low-skill workers doesn't really correlate with the supply of workers. So even in those cities where immigrants are flooding the low-skill market, the natives aren't always worse off, for whatever reasons. (One theory: firms in cities with an influx of low-skill immigrants "innovate" to take advantage of the new supply of labor, even in the absence of wage changes.) This pattern has held for awhile now—the gap between dropouts and high-school graduates is roughly the same as it was in 1980.

So that's good news, although I'm not sure whether Card factored the effects of illegal immigration into his calculations (it's difficult to figure out), which may or may not matter. Oh, wait; that's the good news, here's the better news: Immigrants seem to assimilate just fine. Most of the studies on this have tried to measure whether immigrants can come here and then close the wage gap with natives. Card says, no, they don't and usually can't, but that's the wrong question to ask. Look at second-generation sons and daughters of immigrants to measure assimilation—and those kids have, on average, higher education levels and wages than children of natives. Even children of the least-educated origin groups manage to narrow the gap considerably. Granted, it's all well and good for a college graduate living in San Francisco—and working in a field with considerable "protectionist" barriers, no less—to shrug his shoulders at immigration, but Card's study makes things seem less dire than thought, even if this is hardly the last word on the matter (he doesn't touch on, for instance, the cost of public services).

New at Mother Jones

| Wed Aug. 17, 2005 2:03 PM EDT

Saving the U.S. Army Can Help Save Iraq
Even if we wanted to keep ground troops in Iraq at current levels, we can't do so without breaking the Army.
By Lawrence Korb

Cindy Sheehan's War
Cindy, Don, and George: On Being in a ditch at the side of the road.
By Tom Engelhardt

Plame in the Courtroom
Is the Intelligence Identities Protection Act really impossible to prove?
By Elizabeth de la Vega

Has Time Run Out?
On the monster at the door—the coming flu pandemic
By Mike Davis

Iraq Q&A: Andrew Arato

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 11:13 PM EDT

Yesterday, the headlines were all abuzz over the Iraqi parliament's decision to give itself another week to haggle over the draft constitution, which will, if finished, go before the Iraqi voters for a referendum sometime this fall. (It can be defeated by either a majority "no" vote or a "no" vote from two-thirds of voters in any three provinces.) To get a bit more context on what's going on with the ongoing negotiations, and what they portend for the future of Iraq, I recently spoke with Andrew Arato of the New School University, who has written extensively on the subject. The interview's transcribed here:


Mother Jones: What are some of the dangers in the United States the Iraqis to finish the constitution so quickly? Rumsfeld originally told them to stick to the August 15th deadline, and now they've been given an extra week.

Andrew Arato: There are some advantages, to be fair. If the principals can all strike a deal on a constitution, it's important to get it through quickly, because so many actors can bring a deal down. Just over the past few weeks, it just took [Ayatollah Abdul-Aziz] Hakim, [who has recently made demands for an autonomous Shiite "super-province" in the south, along with control of the oil resources there], which was probably motivated by Iran, and suddenly the constitution was in danger. So there are advantages to pushing for a quick deadline.

The big disadvantage, though, is that the principals in this constitutional committee all met only a very short time ago, August 6th, and so now they're rushing, and might not even reach an agreement. Even if they do, another danger is that parliament might just have to rubber-stamp whatever document comes out of committee, because they won't have time to debate it. Ideally, there should be a full parliamentary discussion about this constitution, with debate and amendments; ideally it would be shown on TV for the public to watch. That's really crucial. But with this rush to finish a draft in committee, parliament might have to discuss the final draft in as little as a day, next week. That's no good: then you get a situation similar to what happened with the EU referendum in France and Netherlands, where the public debate is foreshorten, and the constitution is essentially seen as an elite-driven process, which could spur a democratic "no" by the public.

Then of course, this rush makes it look like America's behind all of this. Because there's no Iraqi reason to rush the constitution, after all; instead, it looks like this process is being driven by poll numbers, being rushed for political reasons in America, just like the interim constitution was rushed for political reasons. So [U.S. Ambassador to Iraq] Zalmay Khalilzad now looks like he's imposing on the whole process—and even if it's not true, it seems so.

Watch the Polls

| Tue Aug. 16, 2005 8:40 PM EDT

This weeks "Off to the Races" column by Charlie Cook has an interesting theory on voters and Iraq:

For a month or two, there has been a theory circulating among those that watch polls that the American public can be broken down into four distinct groups: those that have always been against the war; those who were for it but now believe we've blown it and should pull out; those who supported the war, believe the invasion was successful but think that the aftermath has been completely blown, yet would hate to see us withdraw immediately and lose all we've invested; and those that have always been for the war.

Pollsters say that the first group -- always against -- makes up about 30 percent of the electorate, while the second group -- those that started off in favor of the war but now see it as a lost cause -- includes about 20 percent. … The third group -- those that are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed and casualties increasing, yet still hate to see us 'cut and run' -- makes up another 25 percent. The last 25 percent remains supportive.

Looking at things from a political standpoint—and with this administration, you can't go too awry looking at things that way—these numbers put the GOP in a bit of a bind come the 2006 midterms, don't they? As far as the war is concerned, those first two groups may never look kindly on Bush and his party for getting us into this Iraq debacle. (That doesn't mean they'll look kindly on Democrats who got us into this war either, but save that for later.) At this point, even a serious draw-down of troops early next year, as Gen. George Casey has suggested, even that might not bring Cooks' group two—"those who were for it but now believe we've blown it"—back into the Republican fold. Although a draw-down might defuse enough anger and anxiety over the war that perhaps some voters from that group two could be persuaded to vote Republican over "moral values," or whatever it is the kids are voting on these days. So who knows? Maybe the administration's looked at the polls and is plotting a hasty withdrawal come 2006.

On the other hand, Bush has recently been suggesting that there will be absolutely no cutting and running on his bold and resolute watch. Now that means either three things: 1) he's lying, and the administration's already planning a hasty retreat come mid-2006, right in time for the elections; 2) Bush doesn't care about the polls and really wants Iraq to succeed, and thinks he's doing the right thing; or 3) deep in his secret lair, Karl Rove's been running the numbers, and he truly believes that the only way to eke out a Republican victory in 2006 is to win over that third group of voters on Cook's list—those that "are conflicted because they see the effort as doomed… yet still hate to see us 'cut and run'"—by getting the president to stand firm. None of these options would surprise me, quite frankly, but I don't think 3) is so outlandish that it's not worth thinking about. To pretend that polls and popular opinion won't effect what goes on in Iraq over the coming months seems, I think, a bit naive.

Meanwhile, as Billmon points out, all of those hawkish, pro-war Democrats you see on TV—Sen. Joseph Biden comes to mind—may be inadvertently undercutting this strategy by suggesting that the president isn't really doing everything in his power to win the war in Iraq. So Biden's call for more troops in Iraq may be wholly impractical, but if it puts Cook's "group three" at ill-ease, then it's not unwise politically. Of course, some of us have suggested that Bush wasn't serious about this war from day one, but then, we're not really the swing voters here, are we? At any rate, then there's the question of how the Democrats are going to handle the 2006 elections; at the moment, they seem to be opting for neocon-lite, and as Billmon says, given the choice between neocon and neocon, voters will probably just pick the genuine article. And meanwhile, once we put the polls away and start thinking about more serious matters, no one seems to have any idea what to do on a policy level to stop Iraq from imploding. (Here is the most serious and considered suggestion I've heard, but it's suitably bleak, so fair warning.) All in all, quite the disaster.