Political MoJo

Not Quite the Federalist Papers...

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 11:02 PM EDT

I suppose we'll just have to see what happens with the new Iraqi constitution over the next few days, as the legislature bickers over crossing t's and dotting i's, and getting the darn thing translated from English to Arabic. At this point, though, most commentary will be very tentative, since in the past most political negotiations in Baghdad have followed the same pattern—everyone maximalizing their demands, everything looking hopelessly gridlocked, and then at the last moment they all pull back for a big compromise and group photo op. Maybe that will happen again; maybe not. Right now, it seems that "federalism" still seems to be the big constitutional sticking point. Nathan Brown explains what this oft-bandied word actually means:

The disputed questions would probably even strike a veteran Israeli-Palestinian negotiator as complicated and difficult. How will Iraq be divided into regions and provinces? What will the authority of the various units be? Is the union a voluntary matter or one that is incontestable? What will be the role of regional security forces? Will the units have authority to reach agreements with foreign states and other actors, and, if so, in what areas? How will revenue be divided? What will be the relationship between federal and regional law? How will disputes be settled? Will other areas of the country be able to form units that are as autonomous as the Kurdish region?

I'm not a constitutional lawyer, so I can't make heads or tails of exactly how these issues were specifically resolved in the draft constitution (the text of which isn't even a "proper draft," as Washington Post's Ellen Knickmeyer tells us, but someone's scribbled notes), but apparently the Sunnis on the committee, "who had been shut out of the negotiations for much of the past week," don't like the end result. Spencer Ackerman gets at some of the dynamics involved here: If the Sunnis get locked out of the final draft, they may try to shoot the constitution down in referendum this fall, although Juan Cole and others have noted that they probably don't have the numbers to do it. (Maybe they can link up with Muqtada al-Sadr and other assorted rejectionists and disgruntleds.) What seems clear is that any constitution that truly angers the Sunnis will lead to a lot of bloodshed down the road: in addition to the diehard rejectionists and Sunni Islamists, even moderate Sunnis may now start aiding and abetting the insurgency.

Perhaps the Shiites aren't worried about all this, because they think that either the United States will stick around to defend them, or that their own militias will protect them against a Sunni onslaught. Ezra Klein says the Sunnis would be stupid to take on the Shiites in Iraq; they'd get trounced. Well, maybe. Then again, maybe not. The insurgency's pretty large and pretty sophisticated, it has plenty of officers experienced in war, and with enough money pouring in from Saudi charities, Sunni warlords could probably purchase a few tanks and other goodies on the open market. Or maybe they can hire out the services of those privatized military firms that are so hot these days. Either way, I wouldn't count the Sunnis out. Plus, whether they can survive an all-out butcher-fest or not seem pretty irrelevant; what matters is whether they're crazy enough to try—and in this case, the answer seems like "yes, they are".

So it's all fucked up. Withdrawal advocates have noted before that if the United States threatened to pull-out, say, right this very second, it might terrify the Shiite leadership into softening some of its constitutional demands, so as not to anger too many Sunnis. Up until now, I haven't been convinced that this was necessary—Ayatollah Sistani's men, at least, have always seemed liked they wanted to bargain. Now, it might be time for brinksmanship. As callous as it seems, at this point the U.S. owes the Shiites absolutely nothing. They owe the people of Iraq a stable state, if one can be produced, and if the Shiite leadership is intent on leading Iraq "into the abyss," as Ackerman puts it, then it's time to stop coddling and protecting them.

Meanwhile, on the question of women's rights, yes, the current constitution—at least what we can decipher of it from the early notepad doodlings—fails miserably. (Except, happily, in Kurdistan, where women's rights will be secure.) Echidne unleashes outrage and fury over this state of affairs far more eloquently than I ever could. Honestly, though, I don't know why people are getting so surprised now. Iraqi women were condemned to second-class status the day Sistani's fundamentalist party took power in January. Not to downplay how bad this all is, but I can't envision any scenario in which the Bush administration actually forced the Shiites to accept a non-Islamist constitution. Hopefully 20 years from now, mainstream Shiite jurisprudence will have evolved to the point where women get treated as equals. Or, since the constitution sets aside 25 percent of its seats for women, perhaps future elections will bring in a majority coalition of urban and secular Iraqis, including women, who have 20th century ideas about gender. Until then, we have what we expected: a fundamentalist American government sanctioned a fundamentalist Iraqi constitution. What a surprise.

So what else can be done, besides threatening to withdraw and hope the Shiites try to appease the Sunnis out of fear? Some observers have pointed out that Iraq might be best served if the parliament dissolved itself and held new elections—Juan Cole finds an az-Zaman report noting that Allawi's more urbane list, along with some Kurds, might try to band with the Sunnis to pursue this option. That seems like an awful idea. It would prolong the occupation even further, and whether or not one thinks that a "stay the course" approach could just barely dodge the "manpower meltdown" bullet that's approaching 36 months from now, it seems wholly unlikely that the US could stay through yet another round of parliamentary elections. Also, it might not change anything. The Shiite and Kurdish militias have an increasingly iron grip on their respective regions, while violence in the Sunni provinces has only worsened since January. My guess: hold another election, and thugs from SCIRI, the Mehdi Army, and the peshmerga would, um, "persuade" people to vote their way, insurgents would intimidate Sunnis from voting, and you'd get essentially the same cast of characters back in power. Perhaps not, but that's my guess. All in all, a real mess.

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A Coup in Baghdad

Tue Aug. 23, 2005 10:59 PM EDT

The estimable Juan Cole puts the failure of the Iraqi assembly to complete the constitutional process today in clear terms:

The rule of law is no longer operating in Iraq, and no pretence of constitutional procedure is being striven for. In essence, the prime minister and president have made a sort of coup, simply disregarding the interim constitution. Given the acquiescence of parliament and the absence of a supreme court (which should have been appointed by now but was not, also unconstitutionally), there is no check or balance that could question the writ of the executive.
What the future holds for Iraq remains to be seen…

Remember Afghanistan?

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 7:34 PM EDT

This morning, during Donald Rumsfeld's news conference, a reporter asked him to comment on the Pentagon's reopening of the investigation into Pat Tillman's death in Afghanistan. He knew nothing about it--he didn't even know the investigation had been reopened.

Because Afghanistan is so 2001. While women and girls struggle once more to stay out of the way of the resurgent Taliban, American troops have mobilized to keep the Taliban from wreaking havoc during the upcoming elections. Though there are reports that the Taliban has agreed not to interfere with the September 18 elections, there are also conflicting reports indicating that they might.

In the meantime, Taliban militants have bombed the house of a cleric who is known to be friendly toward the U.S., and jsut two days ago, four U.S. soldiers were killed and three wounded by a bomb blast in Zabul province.

Members of the Taliban are now emptying Islamic boarding schools and recruiting teenage boys in preparation for the disruption of the elections which perhaps are not going to be disrupted. It's very confusing, and one way to avoid getting confused over the issue is to not talk about it at all. That option is brought to us generously by the American news media, who appear to see the people at Camp Casey as the real enemy.

Over 230 American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year, and about 700 have been seriously injured. There have also been many deaths and injuries of other coalition troops. There is no accurate count of how many Afghan civilians have died this year. The soldiers who die or are injured in Afghanistan are conveniently forgotten by the White House, the Pentagon, the news media, and the American people. Dying in Afghanistan is just not sexy anymore. Neither is dying in Iraq, unless you are George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, or one of the able-bodied who prefers to stay home and "fight the culture wars."

Judge Roberts's race problem

Tue Aug. 23, 2005 6:41 PM EDT

Publius writes a brilliant post that takes an impressionistic look at Roberts's past writings and paints a pretty ugly picture of his approach to race issues.

Judge Roberts has some splainin' to do. As more of these old documents come out, it's getting harder to come up with a satisfactory explanation for his uniform hostility to any and all efforts to protect civil rights, and to help minorities more generally. At best, I'm thinking that the early Roberts was a product of boarding-school privilege who was unaware and isolated from the reality of racial discrimination. At worst, he was someone who didn't like minorities. This is a serious criticism, and I would be hesitant to raise it if the troubling theme didn't arise again and again – and on every single position involving issues implicating race. Because this is not a charge to toss out lightly, it's important to lay out the basis for my criticism. After I do so, I'd welcome people to respond and tell me why I might be wrong.

It's very important that you go read this post.

Domestic violence, gender and guns

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 1:57 PM EDT

Via ACSBlog, the North Carolina House and Senate have passed a bill that will require courts to give battered spouses information on how to apply for a concealed weapon when they seek a restraining order.

The president of the gun-rights group that pushed for the measure said it's more about helping victims of domestic violence help themselves.

"We're not interested in them shooting their abusers," said Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina. "We're interested in delivering a message: When police can't protect these people, they are capable of protecting themselves."

The measure becomes law Oct. 1 unless Gov. Mike Easley decides to veto it. His office declined Wednesday to comment on his plans.

The bill, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses of the legislature, would also add protective orders to the evidence a sheriff can consider when determining whether to issue an emergency permit to carry a concealed weapon. Normally, an applicant must wait 90 days for such a permit.

Talk about sending mixed messages. If a battered woman who's been subjected to unspeakable emotional and physical abuse, and even threatened with death, sneaks up on her abusive husband and kills him in his sleep, she commits first degree murder under the law of most states because the act was not spontaneous and she was not faced with imminent bodily harm that would require self-defense. A vague, ever-present threat of death is not enough, as in the case of Shelley Hendrickson which was the subject of an article in Mother Jones this month.

One day in the fall of 1994, he threatened her with a hunting knife. Afterward she hid the knife; Rodney became furious. "He had me up against the wall, choking me, telling me that I better have his knife when he got home from work or he was going to kill me," she says. Shelley pleaded with him to let her leave with the kids, but her words only made him more angry. "None of you are leaving," he said. "I'd rather see you all dead than leave."

Their 11-year-old daughter, Ashley, overheard this argument. After Rodney left the house to go to work, Ashley said something Shelley found very disturbing. "She told me that he would come in and go to the bathroom when she was in the bathtub and watch her," Shelley says.

The following week, on October 29, Shelley drove to Kmart and bought a 12-gauge shotgun.

I am not sure how the situation would have been improved by easy access to a concealed weapon, to be honest.

It's sort of like comparing apples and oranges, but I think there's something to the argument that it's a little unfair that battered woman have no mitigating defense if they murder under conditions of extreme psychological stress, but men who kill in the "heat of passion" are guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder. (Women are as well, but the argument is that men primarily use this defense.) Findlaw gives this example:

For example, Dan comes home to find his wife in bed with Victor. In the heat of the moment, Dan picks up a golf club from next to the bed and strikes Victor in the head, killing him instantly.

Another inequity in the law--women tend to kill their spouses with weapons more often which, if a judge applies the sentencing guidelines, can lead to a higher sentence.

Perhaps reforming these aspects of the criminal code would have been a better use of the legislature's resources than encouraging people in volatile situations to buy firearms.

Moral Hazard Myth

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 12:29 PM EDT

In the New Yorker this week, Malcolm Gladwell takes on health insurance in America. Needless to say, it's awful—especially for those who can't afford it. In particular, this vivid description of what it's like not to have health insurance deserves the full blockquote treatment:

Gina, a hairdresser in Idaho, whose husband worked as a freight manager at a chain store, had "a peculiar mannerism of keeping her mouth closed even when speaking." It turned out that she hadn't been able to afford dental care for three years, and one of her front teeth was rotting. Daniel, a construction worker, pulled out his bad teeth with pliers. Then, there was Loretta, who worked nights at a university research center in Mississippi, and was missing most of her teeth. "They'll break off after a while, and then you just grab a hold of them, and they work their way out," she explained to Sered and Fernandopulle. "It hurts so bad, because the tooth aches. Then it's a relief just to get it out of there. The hole closes up itself anyway. So it's so much better."

People without health insurance have bad teeth because, if you're paying for everything out of your own pocket, going to the dentist for a checkup seems like a luxury. It isn't, of course. The loss of teeth makes eating fresh fruits and vegetables difficult, and a diet heavy in soft, processed foods exacerbates more serious health problems, like diabetes. The pain of tooth decay leads many people to use alcohol as a salve. And those struggling to get ahead in the job market quickly find that the unsightliness of bad teeth, and the self-consciousness that results, can become a major barrier. If your teeth are bad, you're not going to get a job as a receptionist, say, or a cashier. You're going to be put in the back somewhere, far from the public eye. What Loretta, Gina, and Daniel understand, the two authors tell us, is that bad teeth have come to be seen as a marker of "poor parenting, low educational achievement and slow or faulty intellectual development." They are an outward marker of caste.

How did we get to this point? Gladwell points out that one idea more than any other has taken hold of American policymakers when it comes to health care and thwarted real reform: namely, the idea of "moral hazard." People will do unhealthy things, the theory goes, if health insurance becomes universal. Instead Americans need to be buried in co-payments and deductibles and gatekeepers so that they only get the care that they absolutely need and no more. But, as an old RAND study pointed out, when people are forced to pay more out of pocket, they tend to cut back on care they really need. (Although Gladwell neglects to point out that, on average, health did not deteriorate among those who had higher copayments in the RAND experiment—the problem is that looking only at "averages" can obscure some real casualties; also, this result remains fairly controversial.)

Meanwhile, as the horrifying tooth anecdote above reveals, patients aren't always the best judge of what constitutes "necessary" care. So the uninsured cut back on dentist visits, thinking that those at least are expendable, and as a result, their health and life deteriorates. (By the way, this is also a pressing argument for dental coverage, which is even rarer than health insurance, but no less important.) The conservative idea—lauded by, among others, George W. Bush—that people don't pay enough for their own care is fundamentally flawed. As Gladwell nicely puts it, these are people "who regard health insurance not as the solution but as the problem." America, as a whole, will get increasingly richer and richer in the future. There is no reason why we shouldn't spend that wealth in making sure that this isn't a country where people are pulling out their own teeth with pliers down in the basement.

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NWA Woes

Tue Aug. 23, 2005 11:18 AM EDT

I am very upset today over the Northwest Airline debacle. That Northwest could bust a strike by bringing in scab mechanics was bad enough. But now it seems that they are also simply going to eliminate 1,200 plus union jobs. Indeed, the airline's spokesperson said,

the airline is considering the legally thorny question of whether to make the 1,200 replacement mechanics it hired to keep flying through the strike into permanent employees.
In short: if you are a worker you have no right to freedom of speech, freedom to collectively bargain, or freedom to protest working conditions – your company can simply dismiss you, eliminate your union job, and hire someone else.

I suspect the NLRB will let them get away with it, too. Under Bush, the NLRB has been extremely pro-strike-busting and anti-workers' rights. They even recently upheld a company rule that banned employees from "fraternizing" away from the job, denying workers the freedom of assembly.

The corporate heads want to keep workers down, want to keep them separate and isolated, and want to keep them from collectively asking for fair wages and benefits.

Although my money is with Change to Win's focus on organizing new workers, its events like the Northwest strike that remind us how much new labor legislation we need and that perhaps there is room for Sweeny's agenda as well.

By the way, Curly Tales of War Pigs who has been extensively covering the NWA strike points the way to the Star Tribune's strike photo gallery. I highly recommend it.

A different kind of national defense

| Tue Aug. 23, 2005 9:39 AM EDT

Excerpts from the message boards:

Let her give these speeches from Canada--I surely hope not a penny of my tax dollars ever goes to this misguided, delusional woman.

Come on. She is obviously delusional....She is a disgrace.

...deranged individuals should be quietly led to treatment, not encouraged to dramatize their delusional ideas for the evening newscast.

I hope she wakes up from her delusional dream world before her life is entirely destroyed.

I see her as just another delusional lefty, of no major political significance.

The woman is obviously delusional with grief and is being used.

She's a liar and getting more delusional by the minute.

His [Casey] mother on the other hand is a self-serving, delusional, anti-semetic *#@! who's so covered in her own mud that we don't need to sling any.

Perhaps...the media whores supporting and encouraging a grieving mother in her delusional thinking truly believe that they are on a mission from God.

Can you say "delusional"? The Cindy-haters sure can, and do, all over the Web. "Delusional" is a psychiatric term which refers to having a false belief that is held in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Some examples would be: The world is safer since we invaded Iraq; The war is going really well and Iraq is on the way to stability; George W. Bush cares about your children...that sort of thing.

Anyway, as long as we're getting psychiatrtic (which I like to do--I'm a psychotherapist), this is as good a time as any to look at the unconscious defense mechanisms, as defined by Drs. Sigmund and Anna Freud. The two defense mechanisms that are considered the most primitive (that is, they are developed in very early childhood) are denial and projection.

Denial is an unconscious refusal to accept a reality. It is often used in the service of the ego, in order to protect us from overwhelming pain. For example, it is denial that causes us to go about our business in a robotic daze after we have experienced a tragedy. But it is also the an unconcious inability to acknowledge that the tragedy even occurred. Projection is the attribution of our undesirable characteristics onto others. An angry parent, for example, may accuse her child of hostility. Troubled marriages are sometimes based on projective identification by both partners.

I believe that the emergence of Cindy Sheehan has triggered in many a deep need to defend against what she represents. She is not a politician. She is not a talking head. She is a woman whose son is dead, and he is dead because Cheney, Wolfowitz and their pals want to take over the world, and because an alarming number of Americans really hate dark-skinned people and love SUVs. These are not suitable reasons for Casey Sheehan to have died at the age of 24. And the simple truth is: If Cindy Sheehan's son can die in Iraq or some place like it, Betty Bushlover's son or daughter can die there, too. And if that happens, Betty Bushlover and her countrywomen need to believe that their kids died for freedom and democracy and honor and all the abstract things we go on about when we have a war, even if that war is really about something ese.

Ms. Sheehan is called "delusional" every time she speaks. Sounds like denial and projection to me.

Pat Robertson calls for assassination of Hugo Chavez

| Mon Aug. 22, 2005 8:07 PM EDT
We have the ability to take him out, and I think the time has come that we exercise that ability. We don't need another $200 billion war to get rid of one, you know, strong-arm dictator. It's a whole lot easier to have some of the covert operatives do the job and then get it over with.

This is the latest from the Nicaragua Contra-supporting, Charles Taylor-supporting founder of the Christian Coalition of America, which calls itself "the largest and most active conservative grassroots political organization in America."

According to its website, the 700 Club gets a million viewers a day, which isn't that many, but Robertson' sphere of influence is much wider than the numbers indicate. The Christian Coalition distributed 70 million voter guides prior to the 2004 election, and it actively lobbies both Congress and the White House. Its main goals appear to be the destruction of women's rights, the destruction of gay rights, and the further blurring of the line between church and state.

In a 700 Club commentary, Robertson talks about the unpardonable sin (which, for non-Christians, is the blaspheming of the Holy Spirit), and says that the one who has committed it is "the one who has turned against Jesus, reviled Him, and become so depraved that he would claim that God's spirit is Satan."

Could someone please give Robertson the offering of a mirror?

Calling for violence has become common among Christian extremists such as Robertson. Jimmy Swaggert said he would kill any gay man who looked at him "that way" (in his dreams). The remark was followed by applause from his congregation. James Dobson advocates the harsh physical punishment of children and brags about beating his dog. Christian extremists picketed Matthew Shephard's funeral with signs that read AIDS Cures Fags. Women's health clinics are bombed. In a community twenty miles from my home, a cross was burned in front of a yoga clinic. Christians gave comfort and shelter to Eric Rudolph.

Extremists will always be with us, and they will always have followers. But while Americans are constantly asking mainstream Muslims to please denounce Islamic extremists, no one is asking mainstream Christians to do something about Robertson, Falwell, Dobson, Rudolph, and their ilk.

Predatory lending laws and federalism

Mon Aug. 22, 2005 7:50 PM EDT

Carlos Watson's opinion piece for CNN on predatory lending does raise much needed awareness about a serious problem that, as he rightly argues, gets little attention from national politicians and the media. However, his call for national legislative action, not to mention political posturing, is misguided.

Recent studies from Harvard and the University of North Carolina, as well as reports from other financial experts, estimate that each year more than 10 million poor and elderly Americans are being scammed out of $50 billion in exorbitant fees and unconscionably high interest rates imposed by unscrupulous lenders.

...Surprisingly, no national politician is holding a primetime national press conference to discuss this epidemic. In an era in which steroid use and Terry Schiavo have taken center stage in politics and the media, it is noteworthy that no senator is threatening a filibuster, and no elected official has suggested a hunger campaign to protest the injustice of predatory lending.

...According to various studies, while most middle-class Americans borrow money at rates ranging from 5 to 15 percent, many poor and elderly people are being charged exorbitant fees and annualized interest rates of 50 to 100 percent -- or more -- when they buy televisions or homes, cash their paychecks or take out small loans.

The concept of high-interest loans is nothing new, but unscrupulous check cashing stores, payday loan facilities and rent-to-own facilities have grown dramatically over the last decade -- perhaps fourfold.

And significantly, it is not just corner shops in low-income neighborhoods that specialize in this practice. Indeed, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer recently announced that he is investigating some of the biggest names in global banking -- including Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and HSBC -- for steering minorities and others toward high-interest loans.

Especially with Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, national legislation would be weak at best, if not a boon for predatory lenders. I can almost hear the violins mewling in the background while the more bank-friendly members of Congress tell the sad tale of how hard it is to make a good profit off high interest loans to the working poor these days. The bank lobby would certainly make sure it had as many sympathizers as possible.

In California, for example, where state and local governments passed laws regulating the high-interest loan industry, one mortgage company in particular funneled enough money to pay off dozens, if not hundreds, of loans into both political parties' coffers.

A giant Orange County mortgage company accused of duping low-income homeowners has pumped more than $7 million into California politics since 2002, including contributions to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer and dozens of other state legislators, members of Congress and political committees.

Ameriquest's top executive, Roland Arnall, also has been one of President Bush's top fundraisers, generating $12 million for the president's political efforts during the past four years. On July 28, Bush nominated Arnall, a billionaire who was ranked No. 106 in the 2004 Forbes magazine list of the wealthiest Americans, as ambassador to the Netherlands.

Since Schwarzenegger took office in 2003, he alone has pulled in more than $1.5 million from Ameriquest, Roland Arnall and his wife, Dawn. Ameriquest also has given $1.5 million to groups backing the governor's political efforts and, along with the Arnalls, has contributed $1.5 million to the California Republican Party.

The development of California's current predatory lending laws reveals another reason why national legislation could create a legal regime that's more lenient towards high-interest money lenders. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court of California, in a 4-3 opinion drafted by Janice Rogers Brown, struck down a local Oakland ordinance prohibiting predatory lending on the theory that a state anti-predatory-lending law preempted it. In American Financial Services Association v. City of Oakland, Brown disregarded express legislative intent to not include a preemption clause in the state legislation, which was more favorable to predatory lenders than Oakland's ordinance, and ruled that the state law was so expansive, it implied an intent to preempt any local legisation on the topic. Janice Rogers Brown's legal philosophy is a story for another post, but her approach to the law is the prevailing one on the Supreme Court right now. National legislation would by necessity fail to address the specific local loopholes predatory lenders have found and used to their advantage.

The amazing thing about predatory lending is that the transactions happen in the open and are usually completely legal. Plenty of legitimate businesses have cropped up in urban areas across the country whose sole purpose is extract crushing interest rates from poor, elderly debtors. These businesses adapt to lax laws, and exploit any loophole they can. Far be it from to predict how broadly the Court's going to interpret the Commerce Clause in any given situation, but even the Lopez five (or four plus Roberts) will have hard time arguing that predatory lending does not have a substantial effect on interestate commerce. This would allow them to hold that broad, vague national legislation preempts tighter state and local ordinances, which would ultimately not help your average American in need of a loan with manageable interest payments.

All this is to say, the laws surrounding high-interest lending beg for reform, but it is probably more effective at the state or local, rather than national, level.

UPDATE...Brad Plumer points out in comments that Mother Jones Magazine had an article about national predatory lending chains earlier this summer. He challenges my preference for leaving regulation to the states. What do you think?