Political MoJo

Floods, gales, glaciers crashing down! As not seen on US TV.

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 8:43 PM EDT

As we all know, global warming is a hoax foisted on a gullible world by vegetarians and others who hate America. And, look, it's claimed another dupe:

The chief executive of [the utterly massive British Telecom] has become the first boss of a British company to admit that climate change is already affecting his company, and that environmental damage could threaten the stability of the world's financial system.

Talking exclusively to The Observer, BT boss Ben Verwaayen reveals that extreme weather in the form of flooding and high winds has hit BT's British operations, and he fears that this is just the beginning.

He says: 'Since the beginning of the year, the media has been showing us images of Greenland glaciers crashing into the sea, Mount Kilimanjaro devoid of its ice cap and Scotland reeling from floods and gales. All down to natural weather cycles? I think not.

Well, I don't know what kind of media they have these days in Britain, but he didn't get those images from the US media. No Sir.

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Housing correction anyone?

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 6:20 PM EDT

From Sunday's New York Times:

The American housing boom in recent years is nothing compared with the price run-up in countries like France, Spain, Britain, Ireland, Sweden and Australia, even though markets in Australia and Britain have cooled in the last year.

Cooled? This from today's Guardian:

House prices [in Britain] fell in April and annual price inflation dropped almost 50% from March, according to official figures published today.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) said the average price of a UK property was £181,832 in April, down 0.8% on March's figure of £183,346.

Annual house price inflation across the UK fell from 12.6% in March to 6.9% in April, while in London the year-on-year price increase fell from 9.8% to just 2.7%. [emph. added]

"Shameful" Campaign Finance Reform

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 5:40 PM EDT

The New York Times editorial page today excoriates a new campaign finance bill percolating through the house:

A shameful bill that would undo much of the post-Watergate reforms is being rushed to the House floor. It would scrap a donor's current limit of $40,000 for candidates across a two-year cycle and let him give $2 million or more. Further, the bill would attack the more recent McCain-Feingold campaign controls by letting the national parties wheel and deal in unlimited amounts in supporting favored candidates.

Shameful? Yes, probably. At the same time, this little screed misses the larger point. The main flaw with McCain-Feingold is that it's near-impossible to restrict the supply of political money. Campaign spending will, for better or worse, always find its way into the hands of those who want it, whether by going to the candidates directly, or through 527s, or through increasingly shadowy organizations that nestle themselves into loopholes in the tax code; Nick Confessore documented a number of these groups sometime back, including 501(c)3's and other oddly numbered groups. If anything, all you get is a loss of accountability and transparency.

Proper campaign-finance reform would reduce the demand for political money, which involves better public financing for various political campaigns or reforms that set aside airtime for all candidates, along with full disclosure rules for giving. Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres have come up with one such approach with their "Patriot Dollar" idea. Fixing the money-in-politics problem isn't easy; but any starting point should recognize that putting the clamp down on private campaign spending, while laudable, doesn't get at the source of the problem.

Education Isn't Enough

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 3:25 PM EDT

In the Washington Post today, Sebastian Mallaby suggests that the key to solving America's income inequality problem is… better education:

Now, you want to hear something really bad? The poorest fifth of Americans has experienced a rise in incomes of just 3 percent over the past three decades. The real problem in America is not about the middle class. It's about the underclass; about Americans who lack the skills and habits to advance at all.

Now it is true that workers with less education have fared much, much more poorly over the past few decades. According to the Economic Policy Institute's ever-useful The State of Working America, from 1979-2000 real hourly wages declined by 1 percent for those with less than a high school education and 0.1 percent for those with only a high school diploma. (Wages climbed, albeit grudgingly, for those with some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree.) So Mallaby's claim seems plausible enough on the surface. The usual story proffered here is that the rapid technological transformation in America has meant that too many unskilled workers can't meet the demand for high-tech know-how, and hence, are being left behind. If we could only train these workers, the story goes, they could hop on the high-tech space-wagon and reap the massive returns of the knowledge economy. Then there would be candy for everyone.

It's an elegant story, sure, but it's probably not true. For one, according to the EPI book, the timing and rate of technological innovation don't quite line up with the rise and pace of income inequality. During the late 1990s, remember, a writhing, thrashing technology boom was sweeping the nation, but that was precisely the period of time when hourly wages were finally rising for the uneducated, and wage inequality was decreasing between groups of different education and experience. That doesn't quite jibe with Mallaby's story, eh? Second, according to EPI, over half of the growth in income inequality has occurred within groups of roughly similar education and experience. The gap between the educated and uneducated doesn't line up with the gap between the haves and have-nots. Many educated workers have been losing out too. How would more schooling alone solve that problem?

Meanwhile, it's not at all obvious that high-tech, high-skilled jobs are the only ones being created in this new economy: the demand for low-wage, de-skilled jobs is still quite high. A study by economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane has noted that both types of companies exist: "Some firms may choose to compete for larger shares of standardized products produced by low wage workers carrying out relatively simple tasks. Other firms may choose to tailor production to a high value-added, high quality product at the upper end of the market." Not to mention the fact that there are a whole host of low-skill service jobs that simply aren't going to disappear anytime soon—who's going to serve coffee at Starbucks? who empties the trash? who mops the floor?—and there's no reason to think that improving education will automatically improve working conditions for these particular workers. Something else needs to be done, whether that's strengthening unions, boosting the minimum wage, pursuing full employment policies, or some other measures. Education's a laudable goal, and I'm all for it, but education alone won't fix the worker inequality problem.

Oh, a Political Solution...

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 2:13 PM EDT

"A growing number of senior American military officers in Iraq have concluded that there is no long-term military solution to" the Iraqi insurgency. That was Tom Lasseter's lede to his Knight-Ridder story yesterday. That leaves, of course, a political solution to the insurgency, in which the Shiites try to lure mainstream Sunnis into the constitutional process and draw support away from the insurgents. That sounds like a brilliant idea, of course, but the problem here is that it's also completely and utterly obvious, and not just completely and utterly obvious to me and other latte-swilling liberals safe behind our computers here at home, but obvious to the White House, the Defense Department, the State Department, and just about everyone in Iraq for months now. It's not like no one's thought of this before. The idea that the Sunnis need to be drawn into the political process has become something of a truth universally acknowledged—as with the idea that we need to train the Iraqi security force—and yet no one has been able to make it happen. Today's New York Times brings word of more stalemate between the Sunnis and Shiites on the issue.

Again, safe behind our computers here at home, it's difficult to figure out just how intractable the disagreements here really are, but let's take a look. The Shiites recently tried to offer the Sunnis 15 seats on the 55-seat committee charged with drafting a new constitution, and that number roughly reflects the Sunni share of the Iraqi population (actually, it is overly generous). The Sunnis, for their part, want 25 seats, indicating that they are only willing to drop so far from their previously ruling roost. And so long as Sunni-related elements seem to be winning the battle of guns, knives, and IEDs on the ground—insofar as "winning" for them means disrupting the peace, fomenting sectarian tensions, and simply not being defeated—they're in a position to hold out for more concessions. After all, a while back no one was even considering handing the Sunnis anything more than scraps. But a few thousand dead Iraqi civilians later, suddenly the new government is willing to offer a group that boycotted the election a disproportionately high number of seats on the constitutional drafting committee. Guess who holds the cards here.

Now it's true that both the Sunni insurgency and the Sunni political "leadership" is highly fragmented, but surely there are enough groups here that see the potential gains from holding out, letting the killing continue, and reaping greater political power down the road. On the other hand, it's also extremely unlikely that the long-oppressed Shiite majority is ever going to let the Sunnis have anything even approaching a dominant role in Iraq. It's true that recently the Shiite governing majority backed off its demand for a strong role for Islam in the constitution, which, though not a terribly important issue in and of itself, does signal a willingness by the Shiites to try to be as accommodating as possible. But the important thing here is that they weren't giving up anything substantive. Meanwhile, Shiite militias, like the radical Badr Brigade, are wreaking havoc across the country, attacking Sunnis and enforcing their brand of Wild West-style law and order, making it clear that many hard-line Shiites don't intend to do any sort of appeasing anytime soon.

At some point, the only way out of this stalemate may be, as praktike notes, getting the Sunnis to see the Americans as their guardians and protectors against the roving hordes of fanatical Shiites. But enough Sunni negotiators would have to believe that they can't get any more leverage out of the looming threat of the insurgency. Surely some politicians might believe that, and deals can be struck with or without popular support, but the logic of the situation very much militates against compromise at the moment.

More British Memos

| Mon Jun. 13, 2005 1:53 PM EDT

ThinkProgress has the complete roundup of British documents related to the decision to go to war. One brief correction, though, to the New York Times reporting on these memos:

"A memorandum written by Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet office in late July 2002 explicitly states that the Bush administration had made 'no political decisions' to invade Iraq, but that American military planning for the possibility was advanced."

That's not true, or at best misleading. The memos clearly state that the Bush administration had already decided to go to war by July 2002, but it simply had yet to make the decision politically palatable, had yet to find legal justification for war, and had yet to scrounge up the sort of intelligence that could sell the war to the broader public. As one of the memos describes it, by July of 2002 the Bush administration had not yet figured out how to "creat[e] the political conditions for military action." But the decision for war itself had certainly been made.

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Fixing the Pension System

| Fri Jun. 10, 2005 5:53 PM EDT

Will the new GOP bill to reform the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency that insures employer pensions, create more problems than it solves? Jon Lackow reports.

What Corner?

| Fri Jun. 10, 2005 5:50 PM EDT

This front-page report on Iraq in the Washington Post—which notes that it's proving exceedingly difficult to train Iraqi forces, a task which may take years and years—is today's big splash of cold water on the idea that we're somehow turning the corner and getting blinded by all that end-of-tunnel light. A few conservative blogs have suggested that the Post's report was biased and chose to focus on training failures. But how is that? U.S. military commanders chose the Iraqi unit the Post could accompany. Presumably, we're getting a picture of one of the better functioning Iraqi units around. Anyway, to show that bad news from Iraq isn't just a liberal media thing, read this report on Basra from the National Review's Stephen Vincent. Or this report that insurgents in Iraq are making "bigger and better bombs." Or this report that the Sunni minority is rejecting political compromise. As Juan Cole pointed out in Salon yesterday, at some point endless optimism about Iraq, when unwarranted, ends up becoming a security concern in and of itself.

Attracting Teachers: Two Ideas

| Fri Jun. 10, 2005 4:47 PM EDT

Now here's a program every college ought to have. Tom Friedman explains:

Every year, in addition to granting honorary degrees, Williams also honors four high school teachers. But not just any high school teachers. Williams asks the 500 or so members of its senior class to nominate the high school teachers who had a profound impact on their lives. Then each year a committee goes through the roughly 50 student nominations, does its own research with the high schools involved and chooses the four most inspiring teachers.

Each of the four teachers is given $2,000, plus a $1,000 donation to his or her high school. The winners and their families are then flown to Williams, located in the lush Berkshires, and honored as part of the graduation weekend.

Meanwhile, Britain is taking it's own, um, unique approach to convince people to become teachers.

Around the Internet

| Fri Jun. 10, 2005 2:53 PM EDT

This post at Bitch PhD on abortion, along with all the related links, is very much worth reading. Especially her point that different women arrive at a pro-choice position from different premises, a fact that doesn't often get much attention, it seems.

Also, this post by Astarte at Utopian Hell, on advertising that condones violence, is a good one.

Columbia Journalism Review, two interesting media pieces on Life After Rupert Murdoch and the future of canned news and conservative commentary.

And finally, Salon is holding a round-table debate over whether the Downing Street Memo is grounds for impeaching Bush or not.