Political MoJo

Hispanic post-Katrina workers said to be living in terrible conditions and cheated out of pay

| Sat Nov. 19, 2005 2:13 PM EST

Hispanic workers who went to the Mississippi Gulf Coast to do hurricane recovery work after Katrina report that their employers sometimes disappear without paying them, that they sometimes have to wait a long time for a complex web of contractors to pay them, that their paychecks are sometimes smaller than promised, or that those paychecks never arrive at all.

Though the contractors are violating federal law, many of the workers do not know their rights, and they cannot afford attorneys. Mississippi, for some reason, does not have a department of labor, and nonpayment for work is not classified as a crime in the state. Because they have little or no money, Mississippi's Hispanic immigrant workers are living in tent cities which provide minimal protection from the elements, and now that the weather is getting cold, they are in trouble.

According to state representative Jim Evans, the problem is not a new one in Mississippi--Katrina recovery has just magnified it. Evans wants the state attorney general to enforce laws that are already on the books--it is a crime to commit fraud and a crime to hire someone under false pretenses in Mississippi. Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group, was in Gulfport Friday, investigating the workers' claims. She was joined by members of the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance.

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Day Care Capitalism

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 9:38 PM EST

One big policy question that comes up now and again is whether the government should subsidize child care to a greater extent than it does—and if so, how? Gary Becker gives us a lecture on the virtues of so-called free markets:

I believe it would be a mistake for the US, Germany, or other countries to emulate the Swedish approach [which subsidizes day care for all working mothers]. For starters, middle class and rich families can pay for their own childcare services for young children, such as preschool programs, whether or not the mothers are working. … It is much more efficient to have better off families buy childcare services in a private competitive market than to spend tax revenue on preschool government-run programs for the children of these families. [But poorer families should get greater day-care subsidies, says Becker.]
Okay, but let's ask why Sweden has a government-run day care system while the United States has a "private competitive market." Because the Swedes love their socialism, and damn the consequences? No, it's because Swedish child-care workers are actually paid more than dirt—a substance that in turn makes more than American child-care workers—and hence, very few Swedes could actually afford day care in the private market. Child care workers make, on average, 66 percent of the median female wage in America; in Sweden it's 102 percent. If American child care workers were ever able to unionize or get paid a decent wage, the "free market" for day care in American would break down completely.

At any rate, my guess is that in the future, child care is going to become more and more unaffordable no matter what country we live in, since it's not an industry that will go through major productivity growth or cost reductions. The price will keep rising of its own accord—no matter how much immigration and American-style capitalism manage to slow wage growth in the sector, they can't stop it. So once child care becomes as unaffordable for the middle classes as it currently is for the lower classes, the government will be forced to step in and offer serious child care subsidies. (At the moment, families below the poverty line pay on average 28 percent of their income for child care; for middle-class families, it's 6.6 percent and rising.) It's inevitable, even in this country. Good, I say.

That won't necessarily mean complete socialism for child care; the government could always offer families vouchers and let them choose their own day care center or whatever, but the vouchers will have to be generous. Another clever innovation is to foster the private "family care" sector—i.e., those stay-at-home mothers taking care of other kids as well—which France has been trying to do in order to rein in public child-care spending. This wouldn't substitute for a publicly-funded child care system, but it could complement it. I'm too lazy to look up the details, though.

Personally, I've always liked ideas that put an actual price on "non-market" activities like informal child care. One nonprofit group, Time Dollar USA, has created "service banks" that allow community members to pay each other in "time dollars" for "volunteer" activities. Say Grandma Nellie looks after your kids each day, and you pay her in time dollars. Then she uses those dollars to get someone to take care of her if she ever gets ill. Or whatever. It's an interesting system, although "professional" social service agencies tend to look down on it, and I think in Florida back in the '80s a pilot program for service banking was looted by a skeptical legislature. But other than that...

Votes on Withdrawal

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 6:41 PM EST

Ah, Republicans. So Rep. John Murtha proposes an amendment getting the United States out of Iraq "at the earliest practicable date." The Republican leadership completely rewrites the amendment to declare that the occupation shall "be terminated immediately," and then brings it before the House for a vote, to force the Democrats to take a stand on the war. Except, of course, the GOP rewrite sounds much worse, and Democrats might end up splitting over whether to vote for it or not. Hey, it's a clever stunt. If Hastert and friends spent even half this much energy thinking about the actual mess in Iraq, we might actually get somewhere...

Oh, and this is wrong in so many ways.

Where's That Iraqi Army?

| Fri Nov. 18, 2005 12:47 PM EST

Yesterday, Dan Senor and Walter Slocombe, two former CPA officials, wrote a New York Times op-ed defending the Bush administration's decision to disband the Iraqi army in early 2003. It's a bit like having Oliver North write an essay on why using Iran to sell arms to the Contras was actually a pretty clever scheme (oh, hell, it's a bit like hiring Oliver North as a commenter for your news network), but in this case, these two are probably right. Had the U.S. kept Saddam's old army in place in Iraq, it could have very easily alienated the Shiites and Kurds, and in that alternate universe, who knows what kind of insurgency the U.S. may be facing right now.

But that's just to say that the prospects for success in Iraq always looked bleak, and the country isn't a mess now merely because the Bush administration botched the execution. The war hawks certainly did just that—especially when they didn't even bother to plan for the occupation—but even if the planners had done all their homework, "victory" was always a pretty remote possibility, and the real lesson in retrospect is that we should have only invaded if we had to, which we didn't.

On a related note, James Fallows has a good cover story in this month's Atlantic on why the U.S. still hasn't yet created a new army for Iraq yet. Basically, the task hasn't ever been a priority for the administration—it's not sexy enough, apparently, certainly not for Donald Rumsfeld—and for the most part it's not really a glamour job within the military, which means that top officers aren't usually assigned to the job. (Although Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, the guy who helped turn training around in 2004, became something of a mini-celebrity.) Things are going better now, but the training's still too sluggish and new insurgents are cropping up faster than new forces can be trained. As long as the army remains too small, and too unequipped, and too fractured by ethnic and sectarian divisions, there won't be order in Iraq.

So the U.S. needs to either 'magically' figure this problem out, or else it needs to start recognizing that "it has no orderly way out of Iraq, and prepare accordingly." That's the basic logic of it, not overly difficult to grasp, and it was pretty much John Murtha's point when he came out in favor of withdrawal yesterday, although the usual lunatics are accusing him of wanting to "retreat".

Remember Afghanistan?

| Thu Nov. 17, 2005 9:23 PM EST

Via Patriot Daily, a report from USA Today reveals that U.S. Special Forces soldiers say that a more organized enemy than they faced last year. The report of the 1st Batallion, 3rd Special Forces Group, is that includes the fact that this year in Afghanistan has been the bloodiest since 2001. 87 troops have died, and the insurgency is not about to collapse, as predicted by Army Lt. Gen. David Barno.

This week alone, there were three suicide bombings in Kabul, in which ten people were killed, including one U.S. soldier. U.S. forces are supposed to be significantly reduced next year, when they will be replaced by NATO forces. According to Afghanistan's defense minister, al Qaida has smuggled cash, weapons, and explosives into the country in preparation of an insurgency against the government. He also said that the recent suicide bombings in Afghanistan were done by foreigners.

Children at War

| Thu Nov. 17, 2005 6:21 PM EST

War is on the decline around the world, for the most part. The statistics are here. But that ignores the fact that the conflicts that do still exist are reaching new levels of general gruesomeness. Civilians are much more likely to die in today's wars, limbs are more likely to be hacked off, women are more likely to be raped. And, Caroline Moorehead writes, children are more likely to serve as soldiers

As P.W. Singer points out in his new study, Children at War, child soldiers, some of whom are no older than six, are to be found in three quarters of the world's current fifty or so conflicts. In Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), 80 percent of the fighters were aged between seven and fourteen. Twenty thousand children are reported to have served in Liberia's protracted civil wars, and there were many children among Rwanda's génocidaires. As if to make their use more palatable, many of these children were given childlike names. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a Baby Brigade and called their girl soldiers "Birds of Freedom"; there were "Little Bells" and "Little Bees" in Colombia and "Brave Sprouts" in Myanmar. Saddam Hussein called his child warriors "Lion Cubs."….

If you have recruited and trained so many children —there are now veterans aged fourteen who have far more experience of soldiering than most Western soldiers do—what do you do with them when a conflict ends? Uneducated, lawless, violent, druggy, often infected by venereal disease, these young soldiers are, as one psychiatrist put it, "ticking time-bombs." Reeducation and rehabilitation programs are woefully underfunded and inadequate, and most former child soldiers, unable to go home, either because their home no longer exists or because, as killers, they are no longer welcome there, often have little choice but to live on the streets or seek employment with other rebel forces. Many emerge from these conflicts severely traumatized and suicidal, having been forced to witness and perform acts that they cannot afterward forget. "Some children sit and look at running water and just see blood," an aid worker reported to Human Rights Watch.

Singer estimates that there are some 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, although, as the 2005 Human Security Report notes, this number is over a decade old and has probably decreased somewhat during that time, given that the total number of conflicts has also decreased. Still, it's a problem. Note that it's already illegal to recruit child soldiers; the main problem is that the international community rarely enforces sanctions on countries where child soldiers are used, and doesn't prosecute it as a war crime. You'd think if anything could get people to act, it would be children with AK-47s, but not yet, apparently.

Meanwhile, Moorehead points out that child soldiers exist largely because the global arms trade in light weapons makes it so easy for children to wage war: "You no longer have to be rich enough or strong enough to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken." But there hasn't been much effort to clamp down on that trade, despite calls from Kofin Annan. It's easy to see why. Russia's military-industrial complex is in decline, still has massive excess capacity, and depends (partially) on continued light arms sales to sustain itself; not much interest in regulation there. The American arms industry has never shown much interest in regulating the arms trade either—even in the black market. Not surprisingly, Bush hasn't shown much interest either, but this is one of the major roots of the problem here.

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The Gray Area of Torture

Thu Nov. 17, 2005 5:25 PM EST

While a national debate rages over whether the United States should ever torture detainees in its custody, there is still no consensus on what torture actually is. This gray area has allowed the Bush administration to condemn the practice while simultaneously justifying practices that at the very least approach torture. Despite broad evidence to the contrary, President Bush has asserted "we do not torture." But the President's systematic obfuscation of the extent to which his operating definition of torture encompasses the Geneva Conventions' prohibition on "inhumane, degrading and humiliating" actions, misdirects the public debate away from the real issue: Does the US torture?

Goodbye Ted Stevens?

Wed Nov. 16, 2005 2:07 PM EST

Ted Stevens, Republican Senator from Alaska and one of the top porkers in Congress, went berserk in late October when the Senate tried to take $125 million designated for a "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska and use it to repair a bridge in New Orleans damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

In addition to calling the move "a threat to every person in the state," Stevens said, "I will put the Senate on notice -- and I don't kid people -- if the Senate decides to discriminate against our state, to take money only from our state, I'll resign from this body."

Now the Sierra Club is reporting that the whole $223 million earmarked for the bridge -- which would link the small town of Ketchikan (pop. approx 7,000) to an island with 50 people -- will still go to Alaska, but not necessarily to the bridge.

Take a stand, Ted Stevens! Resign from this body!

The CIA's Secret Budget

| Wed Nov. 16, 2005 1:23 PM EST

How big is the intelligence budget? Usually we don't know because it's classified. Except this year we do know—it's $44 billion. How do we know? Because someone accidentally let it slip a few days ago:

At a public intelligence conference in San Antonio, Texas, last week, Mary Margaret Graham, a 27-year veteran of the CIA and now the deputy director of national intelligence for collection, said the annual intelligence budget was $44 billion.
Big mistake? No, not at all. That $44 billion number shouldn't have been a secret in the first place. Several former CIA directors have already come out and said that the overall intelligence budget figures should not be classified, that publishing these numbers wouldn't harm national security so long as individual budget items were kept secret. The Brown-Aspin Commission in 1996 concurred. Indeed, from time to time I do wonder why no one ever takes article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution seriously:
No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.
Yet this statement has obviously never applied to either the Department of Defense or the Central Intelligence Agency. So why don't constitutional orginalists ever start complaining about this? One explanation is that this clause has been violated almost continuously since the country's founding. In 1790, Congress appropriated $40,000 for "intercourse between the U.S. and foreign nations," but didn't require George Washington to account for how he actually spent the money. In 1794, Congress gave the president $1 million in a similar fashion—the money ended up being used as ransom money for American hostages in Algiers. Regardless of how useful these moves were, they were clearly unconstitutional, allowing Congress to decide willy-nilly when and where it gets to spend money without public oversight.

My preference would be to make everything related to intelligence and defense fully public, and carve out exceptions only if absolutely necessary, after long debate. Excessive secrecy has rarely served the country well. Now that the CIA is getting in the business of running a secret network of gulags around the world, and who knows what else, that holds doubly true. But this will never happen, especially since Democrats seem to place a premium on CIA secrecy these days. More realistically, Congress should at least publish overall figures for the intelligence budget and the basic purposes for which they're spent.

Meanwhile, the GAO, the government's auditing arm, still has only limited access to reviewing CIA programs. At the time of the Pike Commission in the early '70s, the agency had no access to any budgetary information whatsoever. Today, the GAO has "broad authority to evaluate CIA programs," but it still faces limitations: it lacks access to the CIA's "unvouchered" accounts, and has no way to "compel" access to foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information. As I said, we're not likely to get sunlight anytime soon, but giving the GAO increased access would be a good start.

Congress takes back September 11 aid money

| Tue Nov. 15, 2005 9:35 PM EST

For some time now, New York officials have done their best to hold on to $125 million in aid that was originally intended to help cover increased worker compensation costs originating from the September 11 attacks. The city was saving the money to use for the first responders who are likely to develop long-term lung problems from working around the debris, as well as mental health problems from working at the disaster site.

When the White House learned the money had not yet been spent, administration officals decided to try and take it back. The Senate voted to let New York keep the funding, but the House of Representatives did not follow. Senate and house budget negotiators have now decided to take the money back

A week after the September 11 attacks, EPA director Christine Todd Whitman announced to the nation that the air around the World Trade Center was safe to breathe, despite the fact that no one had enough information to make such a statement. In the weeks following the attacks, the Bush administration suppressed warnings by the Environmental Protection Agency that that there were health hazards associated with the toxic debris around the World Trade Center. Later, it was discovered that countless New Yorkers had developed lung problems. It is still unknown what the ultimate effect of the pollution will be, but it is more than reasonable to think that $125 million would help deal with it.