Political MoJo

IRS Strikes Back

| Mon Aug. 1, 2005 3:49 PM EDT

The news that the IRS is finally working up the gumption to crack down on high-income tax evaders is certainly welcome. After Republicans managed to demonize and castrate the agency all through the 1990s with bogus "scare stories," tax collectors decide to dedicate their increasingly meager resources on low-income families who squeaked through the system with an few hundred extra bucks from the Earned-Income Tax Credit, and shied away from confronting the high-rollers who could squirrel away millions in offshore shelters and then defend themselves with an army of lawyers. It was, as one might guess, totally senseless and utterly immoral. The thing is, there's real money to be made from smarter tax enforcement: unpaid taxes in 2001 came to some $353 billion. And most enforcement measures more than pay for themselves. Eventually, when it comes time to close the deficit—and that time will come, like it or not—people can choose: either we crack down on the deadbeats or else raise taxes on everyone else more than we'd otherwise have to. This shouldn't be a terribly difficult choice.

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Hard Bargain

Mon Aug. 1, 2005 3:37 PM EDT

The Los Angeles Times had a good piece over the weekend on foreign security contractors looking for and finding work in Iraq. Just as in any other "outsourcing" story, the invisible hand of the market is encouraging the U.S. government, and its contractors to look to cheaper labor markets abroad.

But how much of a deal are these mercenaries? According to a former Dyn-Corp manager, they go at the low end they go for about $2,500 a month. At DoD pay rates, a Sergeant Specialist would have to max out their seniority before they'd start making that much. And most soldiers make much, much less. In theory, the efficiencies of not having to train the contract fighters should make up some of the difference. But most of the American private security guys in Baghdad are ex-military. Some fought earlier in the conflict, went home, and came back at ten times their old pay. (And many of the South American fighters were trained by the U.S. to fight insurgency or narcotics producers in their home countries.) The government has already paid to train a lot of them, and now they're taking advantage of inefficiencies in a Pentagon-created market. The question is complicated, but I haven't seen anything that really demonstrates that the contractors, who are only outnumbered in the occupation by regular U.S. forces, are actually saving the Pentagon money.

More Danger in Sudan

| Mon Aug. 1, 2005 3:13 PM EDT

Mark Goldberg of the American Prospect reports on a rather stunning development in Sudan:

Grinnell College alumnus, University of Iowa–educated doctor of agricultural economics, and most recently vice president of Sudan's National Unity Government John Garang died in a helicopter crash in southern Sudan over the weekend.

The timing of his death could not have been worse. In January, Garang -- the long-time leader of the Christian and Animist rebels in South Sudan -- signed a peace deal with the Islamist government in Khartoum, effectively ending a 20-year civil war. Just a month ago the peace accord entered into force and Garang was installed as vice president of Sudan.

Sudan's north-south civil war—which Garang had helped to end—existed mostl yapart from the ongoing conflict in Darfur, and as Sudan expert Eric Reeves wrote a few weeks ago, it was highly unlikely that Garang's "National Unity Government" could do much to end the genocide-by-attrition going on in the west. So this may not affect Darfur one way or the other: the Sudanese government officials responsible for genocide were still going to be holding the levers of power no matter what.

On the other hand, Garang was in a strong position to oversee the reconstruction of southern Sudan, which has been utterly ravaged by twenty years of war. More critically, southern Sudan is still facing very serious threats by roving militias allied with the central government, militias that have still not agreed to the north-south peace treaty. Reeves suggests that many in Sudan's government have not yet accepted the treaty either, and may have been working to undermine or eliminate Garang. As such, the international community should certainly investigate to see whether any of these government elements had a hand in Garang's helicopter crash. The ongoing genocide in Darfur is bad enough; but a resumption of civil war in Sudan would transform an intolerable situation into something far, far worse. This, for instance, is exceedingly dangerous. The Christian right in the United States had a strong role in pressuring the Bush administration to broker peace between north and south; they need to resume that pressure now.

Back-Door Bolton

| Mon Aug. 1, 2005 2:36 PM EDT

So the president installed John Bolton as ambassador of the UN via recess appointment, thus getting around a Democratic filibuster in the Senate. (Bush's rationale? Bolton was denied an "up-or-down vote." Still don't understand why anyone deserves an up-or-down vote, ever, but okay.)

The real action, though, is watching Bush supporters rationalize this rather sleazy move—yes, sleazy; it would be hard to believe that we wouldn't hear conservatives grinding their teeth if, say, Bill Clinton pulled off this sort of stunt—over at the National Review. Here's Mark Levin: "I agree about the questionable constitutionality of these kind of recess appointments, but they have been made since our first president." So what Bush did isn't exactly constitutional, but hey, everyone's done it! Now that argument seems persuasive to me, but isn't this precisely the sort of deviation from the original meaning of the Constitution that the writers of the National Review have been so up in arms about over the years? Didn't Mark Levin just write a book blasting the Supreme Court for endorsing this kind of logic? This all gets very confusing.

At any rate, the possible silver lining to this Bolton appointment is that he won't be hanging around at the State Department any longer, where he would very likely go out of his way to sabotage the ongoing nuclear disarmament talks between the United States and North Korea. [EDIT: Or not; Clint points out that it looks like Bolton may be spending lots of time in D.C...] Plus, Bolton's so likely to say something brash, obnoxious, or even dangerous at the UN, that he might well embarrass the Bush administration and cause the White House to "over-correct" by taking a more modest foreign policy course or engage in smarter diplomacy. One can hope. Who knows? For super-thorough Bolton analysis, the Washington Note has much, much, much more.

Southern Strategy Rises Again?

Fri Jul. 29, 2005 8:24 PM EDT

In one of the opening shots of the 2006 Senate campaigns, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has started running an attack against Senator Robert Byrd on West Virginia television stations. Go watch the ad, or read my transcription:

1952. War in Korea. And Robert Byrd went to Congress. Much changed since then. Byrd voted for soldiers in the 50s; today against body armor in the war on terror. Then he stood with working families; today he votes higher taxes for the middle class. Then Byrd protected our flag; now he votes to allow flag burning. Senator Byrd. We all agree he's changed. But is it good for West Virginia?

Forget the ludicrousness of finding a few votes that if stretched might appear to be contradictory across a five decade Washington career. Forget the ludicrous attacks that come in the middle. The unseemliness of this ad is much more subtle. Agreed: a lot has changed since 1952, and so has Robert Byrd. And what change is he perhaps best known for? For being an ex-Ku Klux Klan leader, who (eventually) repudiated his repugnant civil rights record. So when the ad says "We all agree he's changed. But is it good for West Virginia?" I can't help but hear the ghost of the Southern Strategy whistling Dixie. And didn't the Republicans just sort of apologize for this sort of thing?

Life Beyond College

| Fri Jul. 29, 2005 4:21 PM EDT

Matthew Yglesias points out that John G. Roberts appointment to the Supreme Court could have serious consequences for affirmative action:

I'm not much of an affirmative action advocate (see, e.g., this), which explains why I haven't been ringing the alarm bells on this. But surely we have some shrill affirmative action fans here on the left who should be yelling and screaming. But where? Perhaps the feeling is that this is a losing political issues, so people had best keep quiet about it, but the relative silence strikes me as odd since affirmative action is supposed to be one of our legendary "hot button" issues.

Sure, I'll take on the shrill challenge. The Gregg Easterbook article Matt links to makes the case that attending an elite university really matters less for a person's career prospects and lifetime earnings than one would think—i.e., not at all. Fair enough. There's also a just-burgeoning debate over whether affirmative action at law school can hurt the chances of minority students for passing the bar. It's not a settled debate by any means, but worth considering.

One should note, though, that there's more to life than college, and more to affirmative action than making sure X number of black students get into the University of Michigan, or whatever. Under affirmative action laws, federal agencies are required to set aside a certain percentage of contracts of minority-owned small businesses. As the Washington Post today reports, that practice seems to be fueling a boom in those sorts of businesses. Then you have affirmative action hiring practices, which, one would think, actually do have a fair impact on a person's career prospects and lifetime earnings. Whether this is a losing issue or not is a separate debate, but yeah, it's important.

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Fri Jul. 29, 2005 3:09 PM EDT

C-SPAN's Brian Lamb recently interviewed Ken Tomlinson, the Chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's board of directors. Tomlinson has been using his position to find and root out supposed "liberal bias" at the PBS and NPR—good pieces on his crusade and its fallout can be found here and here.

Lamb played a video clip of Bill Moyers, whose newsmagazine Now is receiving the brunt of conservative hostility, questioning the CPB's decision to fund the Journal Editorial Report--a show featuring round table style discussions between members of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board. (A public broadcasting insider recently told me that most people in PBS find the show "uninteresting," describing it as a bunch of people who "all think the same, and are all in the same organization." In some markets, the show only airs way out of primetime—like at 4:30 A.M.) So how did Tomlinson, who likes to portray himself as a misunderstood man merely in search of moderation respond?

Well, in the first place, you have to recognize for close to two years, the Moyers program stood almost alone as liberal advocacy journalism on Friday night. Public television, in my opinion, suffered mightily not having a center-right equivalent of the Moyers show.

And we undertook, just as it costs a lot of money to produce the old "Bill Moyers Now," that was an hour-long show, we undertook to fund a conservative counterbalance to that show to fulfill the war -- to fulfill the law.

Emphasis: mine. Freudian slip: his.

"Stolen" Election Revisited

| Fri Jul. 29, 2005 3:03 PM EDT

Echidne gets advance wind of a new Harper's magazine article that supposedly gives evidence that there was a lot—a lot—of funny business with the vote-counting in the 2004 election. Was there enough funny business that the election could be considered "stolen"? I have no idea—the article's not out yet. (Even if the election was stolen, would it even matter? The Democratic Party seems perfectly content with their minority status, which, after all, makes it easier to go on vacation, no?) What is very clear, though, is that this paper trail-less Diebold nonsense has to end. The Century Foundation has a new report on reforming the election process that deserves to be read and distributed far and wide. This shouldn't be a debate that falls along partisan lines, although we all thought the same thing about torture and that expectation didn't exactly pan out.

Reforming Food Aid

Fri Jul. 29, 2005 1:46 PM EDT

When American officials are forced to defend the relatively stingy portion of the federal budget that goes to international aid, they often point to the country's large military expenditures in humanitarian missions. (Of course this rang a little less hollow before all "peacekeeping" efforts turned to Iraq.) But they rarely mention food aid, where the U.S., which contributes 56 percent of the world's total, far outstrips all other nations. And, according to a recently published report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, perhaps that's for good reason. According to the report, the U.S. approach to food aid, while adequate at stemming famine in targeted emergencies, does far more harm than good in the long run. And there's a sadly predictable cause: the programs are set up just as much to help U.S. business as they are to prevent starvation.

The vast majority of government funds allotted to purchase food aid must be spent on American producers. So even if another country—perhaps one closer to the famine site— can produce cheaper food, their products are locked out. Local producers in poorer countries have less incentive to grow sustenance crops, and instead produce crops for export that are priced beyond the reach of domestic markets. It's a policy that produces subsistence and dependence rather than food independence. The report has a few suggestions that might clear up the mess—but as long as the programs are run as a backdoor subsidy program to U.S. farmers, change will be a tough row to hoe.

Energy Bill Madness

| Fri Jul. 29, 2005 11:29 AM EDT

Good catch from the New York Times:

With Congress poised for a final vote on the energy bill, the Environmental Protection Agency made an 11th-hour decision Tuesday to delay the planned release of an annual report on fuel economy.

But a copy of the report, embargoed for publication Wednesday, was sent to The New York Times by a member of the E.P.A. communications staff just minutes before the decision was made to delay it until next week. The contents of the report show that loopholes in American fuel economy regulations have allowed automakers to produce cars and trucks that are significantly less fuel-efficient, on average, than they were in the late 1980's.

Let's see: cars are getting less and less fuel-efficient as time goes by, the government knows this perfectly well, the country is facing a potential oil shortage in the coming years, gas prices are rising... and Congress now has to decide whether or not to pass a bill that seems to exist solely for the purpose of enriching Tom DeLay's corporate sponsors. Will it pass? No, really, the suspense is killing me.

For the record, the Center for American Progress has some good ideas as to what a national energy policy should actually look like. Heck, even the Heritage Foundation's proposal would be better than Congress' version. A sobering thought.