Political MoJo

Truth Versus Spin

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 6:49 PM EDT

"This was not the honest speech Americans needed to hear." Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at Center for Strategic and International Studies, who just returned from the region, has a sobering report (pdf) that dismantles most of the key claims in Bush's speech the other night. Very much worth reading in full.

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The Big Chill

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 3:59 PM EDT

Friends of the First Amendment (and lovers of media smut in all its forms) will recall 2004 as a year of retreat. The FCC upped its average fine for broadcast indecency sevenfold and brought to heel two media giants, Viacom and Clear Channel, with expensive settlements and draconian compliance agreements. (To give you a flavor: If, after appeals, the FCC rules that a broadcast is indecent, Clear Channel agreed that "…the offending employees will be terminated without delay.")

The effect of all this can be guessed at from the news, noted today by the Center for Public Integrity, that the FCC, which last year raked in upwards of $3.5 million in indecency fines, has yet to issue a fine for indecent broadcasting this year. Needless to say, this isn't because the agency has loosened up. Nor is it due, much, to changes at the top at the FCC. (Chairman Michael Powell has gone and another commissioner is on the way out, leaving a vacuum.) No, this seems the fulfillment of Powell's desire, expressed last year, "to make the decision to air indecent or profane language a bad business decision." It hardly needs pointing out that, threatened with huge fines and, individually, with loss of livelihood, broadcasters will tend to interpret "indecency" rather expansively. A clearer example of a chilling effect is hard to imagine.

Clap Louder!

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 1:50 PM EDT

The Washington Post's front-page account of Bush's public-opinion specialists is quite fascinating—and depressing. Why couldn't the president just level with the public in his speech the other night and explain what, exactly, our goals in Iraq are and how he plans to achieve them? Well, because expert upon expert has told him that that's just not very important for building popular support during wartime. Apparently it's far more important, poll-wise, to be "resolute" and not show any signs of pessimism than it is to be honest and practical. Sadly, it really does seem we get the leaders we deserve.

Has Bush Tripled Aid to Africa?

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 12:48 PM EDT

Susan Rice of the Brookings Institution runs the numbers on President Bush's claim that he has "tripled" aid to Africa thus far during his presidency:

We thought that was an interesting claim and decided to get behind the numbers, and we have looked at all "spigots," to use the State Department terminology, for aid. That means every possible program through which aid could flow to Africa, from child survival programs and development assistance in USAID to economic support funds which are State Department security—often security-related funds, foreign military, financing, peacekeeping, AIDS, narcotics, non-proliferation, refugees, Peace Corps, the multi-lateral institutions like the African Development Bank, the Millennium Challenge Account Debt Relief, and, of course, food aid.

And when you do that, the numbers paint a different reality than the administration has claimed.

In the first instance, the number for FY 2000, the last year of the Clinton administration, is considerably higher than the [Bush] administration's numbers would suggest. The total for FY 2000 in nominal dollar terms, was $2,034,269,000–$2,034,269,000. The actual total for FY '04, the last completed fiscal year of the Bush administration was $3,399,416,000. That is an increase in nominal dollar terms of 67 percent, or more importantly, in real dollar terms of 56 percent, which falls substantially short of a tripling. In fact, it's not even a doubling, either in nominal dollar terms or in real dollar terms over the period fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2004.

What is also interesting is, when you get behind those aggregate numbers and you look at what they consist of, you'll find that more than 53 percent of the total increase between fiscal 2000 and fiscal 2004 consists of emergency food aid, which is important; obviously it meets a need. It meets a need that varies from year to year depending on the circumstances on the ground. But it is not development assistance; it is not the sort of resources that enables countries to embark on a path of sustainable development. In effect, it's important for life saving but it's, from a development point of view, a band-aid.

So the Bush administration hasn't even doubled aid, let alone tripled it—in fact, the increase has been exactly 56 percent. And half of that is emergency food aid, which is important, but not development assistance. So there's good reason to be skeptical of Bush's latest promise to "double" aid to Africa once again. This isn't to disparage the increases he's already pledged, and, among other things, his plan to double spending to fight malaria is surely welcomed. Still, as the president himself says, "Our greatest challenge is to get beyond empty symbolism and discredited policies and match our good intentions with good results."

Wal-Mart in China

| Thu Jun. 30, 2005 12:39 PM EDT

In the middle of its big cover package on China this week, Time is running an interesting bit about Wal-Mart's relationship with its suppliers in the country. Interesting because it doesn't include all the usual horror stories; far from it, Wal-Mart on this account seems to be beneficial to both Chinese businesses and workers:

 

It is not easy being a supplier to [Wal-Mart]. "In fact, it's very tough," concedes [managing director in charge of procurement, Andrew] Tsuei. Wal-Mart says it's trying to export its American-style standards and ethics to China's manufacturing sector too. In China, where sweatshops are alive and well, the company insists those measures make a difference. Suppliers, including those who sell to Wal-Mart indirectly through other companies, must limit the work week to 40 hours plus no more than three hours of overtime a day, meet safety requirements and provide decent accommodations for workers. Even those critical of Wal-Mart concede that the standards can make conditions at a Wal-Mart supplier's factory more bearable than they are at a lot of other low-wage factories in China. "When the standards are enforced," says [Alejandra] Domenzain [associate director of Sweatshop Watch], "I think they are a step in the right direction. The question is, How rigorously are they enforced?"

 

 

These days, Wal-Mart is concerned that suppliers are getting extremely sophisticated at faking records to show compliance, even coaching workers before inspectors show up. "Most Chinese manufacturers don't understand why we focus on ethical standards," says Tsuei. "They ask questions like, Well, if I do this, then I'll have to increase costs. We say these are things we have to have."

 

 

To enforce the standards, Andy Tang, Wal-Mart's Far East manager for ethical standards, travels across China, making unexpected visits to all of the company's suppliers. In 2004, more than 6,500 representatives of suppliers and factories underwent the standards training. When Tang visits a factory, he sticks a cardboard placard on the table announcing the company's policy: no gifts, no kickbacks. He won't even sit for the traditional Chinese banquet. Some "officials are pretty moved when they see that because they're used to a different way," says Hatfield.

 

Hmm. So that's the official Wal-Mart line—but is it true? The Washington Post ran a report back in February 2004 with one labor organizer noting that the inspection system wasn't effective: "The factories are usually notified in advance, and they often prepare by cleaning up, creating fake time sheets and briefing workers on what to say." It's not clear whether Tang's surprise visits are getting around this problem. Meanwhile, the Post discovered that Wal-mart doesn't regularly inspect its suppliers' subcontractors, or the Chinese manufacturing operations of U.S. multinationals like Mattel or Dell. The day after the Post's story, meanwhile, the National Labor Committee put out a report criticizing Wal-Mart for ignoring poor working environments, docked paychecks, and forced overtime in its Dongguan City factories. As best I can tell, sure, Wal-Mart is having a positive effect in some regions, and on certain suppliers; but this is quite far from the idyllic picture painted by Time.

CAFTA Report Suppressed

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 5:16 PM EDT

Hm, I'm not sure this AP report is news exactly: "The Labor Department worked for more than a year to maintain secrecy for studies that were critical of working conditions in Central America, the region the Bush administration wants in a new trade pact." Didn't we have this story around these parts months ago? Oh well. The key to note here is that, not only would DR-CAFTA give Central American countries free reign to keep their atrocious labor standards in place, but those countries would be allowed to weaken those standards if they felt like it.

Anyway, also thought I'd link to this article by Richard Rothstein, disputing the argument that developing countries "need" dismal labor standards in order to be competitive on the global market. Besides, it's not like the "standards" crowd is calling for $10 an hour wages and health benefits for all Central American laborers. The bare minimum, though, should be the right to organize and the right to speak out in the workplace. If higher standards or wages means a country will be uncompetitive, well, that should be the decision of the workers in the country, a decision negotiated with business. This isn't unreasonable. I'm also not sure I'd oppose CAFTA on labor-rights grounds if the deal simply kept in place the current provisions under the Generalized System of Preferences, which pressures Central American governments to "afford internationally recognized labor rights." That system isn't perfect, obviously, but it was still something, and was actually useful for pressuring several countries to reform their labor laws. CAFTA, however, would junk the Generalized System of Preferences, which has the misfortune of being both unnecessary and unconscionable.

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Fish? What Fish?

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 4:28 PM EDT

Seems that Philip Cooney isn't the only Republican in favor of, um, "nudging" scientific evidence in a more favorable direction:

Sen. Larry Craig [R-ID] is illuminating the debate around saving fish. The Idaho Republican is making it clear that the opponents of salmon protection feel no need for the light of facts.

Indeed, Craig is trying to eliminate scientific evidence of what is happening to fish in the Columbia River system.

A Senate appropriations bill includes report language intended to kill an agency that has been collecting data on the survival of salmon in the Columbia and Snake rivers. The effect of Craig's language would be to make it difficult or impossible for the Bonneville Power Administration to continue funding the vital work of the tiny, 11-person Fish Passage Center in Portland.

Inconvenient facts? Eh, just change 'em!

Privatization Returns

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 3:17 PM EDT

Like Ezra Klein, I was a bit surprised to see that House Republicans are pushing ahead with their Social Security privatization bill, even going so far as to plan a vote on the bill. The danger here seems obvious: the Senate might not end up passing anything, and then all of those House Republicans will be on the record as having voted to gut Social Security and explode the deficit with nothing substantial to show for it in the end. (Luckily, the bill under discussion by the House is so insane that it doesn't even bother with benefit cuts; it just borrows all the money to create private accounts. In other words, the way to fix a program that will someday be "bankrupt," according to the president, is to borrow more money.)

So it's odd. But the key sentence in the story seems to be this: "GOP leaders said the measure would be incorporated into a broader bill making changes in pensions and other areas relating to retirement." The full bill will likely be packed full of various goodies to bail out corporate pensions; a ploy, mostly, to force Democrats to vote against their organized labor supporters, many of whom really do want the government to take action on all those rickety corporate pensions. Well, if that's the game, it's quite devious. The thing to note, however, is that few, if any, of these labor-friendly pension provisions would ever make it past the Republican-dominated conference committee if this bill were ever in actual danger of passing. Again: It's a ploy. The real issue here is that, despite having a majority in Congress, Republicans are too afraid to slash Social Security on their own, so they're engaging in a bit of maniacal brinksmanship to try and force the Democrats to give them some political cover. No one should be taking them seriously at this point. Democrats aren't the party of ideas? Please. When someone's standing around holding a grenade, the only proper "idea" in this instance is to refrain from going over and pulling out the pin.

Racism Rebooted

| Wed Jun. 29, 2005 1:40 PM EDT

Gary Younge has an important article in the Nation whose ostensible theme is the recent spat of re-trials in the South for racist murders during the 20th century that have gone unpunished. The larger underlying theme, though, is that while many of these trials do offer much in the way of purging the South's dark past, they do nothing to address the broader systemic racism that still haunts the region:

[W]hile the crimes that occurred during segregation were rarely systematic--the individuals who carried them out and the manner in which they carried them out were far too crude for that--they were systemic. They were born from a system of segregation that worked to preserve white privilege in the face of a concerted progressive onslaught--a system in which the white community had to collude in order for it to function.

While the scale and nature of those privileges may have changed, the privileges themselves still exist. You can see them in the racial disparities in health, employment and poverty; you can watch their physical incarnation in the segregated academies to which so many whites send their children; and you can observe them on death row, where so many black parents see their children being sent.

Indeed, there seems to be an ongoing attempt across the nation to single out these murders, the Ku Klux Klan, the lynchings that went on for centuries, and atone for them, in an effort to purge the racist ghosts of old. The North has been doing this to the South for years, as if there's only one backward region in the country that still has to overcome racism. Yet, as Younge notes, "the top five residentially segregated metropolitan areas in the United States are Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis and Newark … [Y]ou will find higher rates of black poverty in Wisconsin, Illinois and West Virginia than Mississippi." That's not to say Mississippi's in the clear—far, far from it—but it's also not even close to being the sole source of racial inequity in the United States today.

This brings to mind Howard Dean's speech last year about wanting his party to appeal to the guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks was right. Insofar as he was suggesting that racism is something that can be overlooked, as many believed, there was something troubling about his speech, certainly. But insofar as he was pointing out that "northern" whites have no real basis for feeling morally superior to Southerners over race issues, as tends to happen, he was exactly right.

UPDATE: In a similar vein, more reflections on the trial of former Ku Klux Klan leader Edgar Ray Killen here, from David Cunningham in the Boston Globe.

From Public Use to Public Benefit

Wed Jun. 29, 2005 12:52 PM EDT

Justice Clarence Thomas' scorching dissent in Kelo, the Supreme Court's case on eminent domain, is worth a closer look. As those who have been following the issue know, the takings clause of the U.S. Constitution reads, "Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." It's long been understood that taking private property out of one person's hands and putting it into the hands of another, without "a public use" justification, is unconstitutional. But the meaning of "public use" remains a topic of debate. The Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling in Kelo—that economic development is sufficient justification to invoke eminent domain— rests on a long history of court cases in which the definition of "public use" has been something along the lines of "public benefit."

Thomas argues that if the framers had really intended the powers of eminent domain to be used for "public benefit" rather than "public use", they would have said so. In many founding-era documents, Thomas writes, care was taken to distinguish primarily between "general welfare" and "public use," with general welfare suggesting the equivalent of "public benefit." The fact that the frames did not use this phrasing in the takings clause, Thomas believes, is a sure indication that the more literal definition of "public use" is exactly what they intended.

Early eminent domain cases bear this philosophy out. But in 1896 in Fallbrook Irrigation Dist. Vs. Bradley, the term "public purpose" was introduced into the vernacular, to justify the condemnation of private property in order to build an irrigation ditch. Introducing the term, Thomas argues, was unnecessary: the presiding justices themselves had already noted that "all landowners have the right to a proportionate share of the water," and Justice Peckham had declared the condemnation was concededly for a direct public use. As a result, this set a precedent the far broader definition of "public use" as "public benefit" that rules the courts today.

Thomas also contends that another common practice, that of deferring decisions of what justifies "public use" to legislators, is ultimately baseless as well. In the case of United States vs. Gettysburg Electric R. Co. (1896) in which the Federal government sought to take land to build the Gettysburg Memorial—another obvious example of public use—the Court ruled, "When the legislature has declared the use or purpose to be a public one, its judgment will be respected by the courts, unless the use be palpably without reasonable foundation." Thomas argues that the Bill of Rights says nothing about deference to legislatures, and that none of the bill's other fundamental rights have ever been granted such privilege.

With obvious distaste, he concludes:

The court relies almost exclusively on this Court's prior cases to derive today's far reaching, and dangerous result… but the principles this Court should employ to dispose of this case are found in the Public Use Clause itself, not in Justice Peckham's high opinion of reclamation laws… When faced with a clash of constitutional principles and a line of unreasoned cases, wholly divorced from the text, history, and structure of our founding document, we should not hesitate to resolve the tension in favor of the Constitution's original meaning.