Thursday, July 29, 2004

Two Americas

NYT is reporting here that the total adjusted gross income listed on tax returns from 2000 to 2002 fell by 5.1 percent--9.2 percent if inflation is taken into account. (There are lots of good numbers in that article--definitely worth reading.)

Meanwhile, FT is reporting here that chief executive salaries have risen by 22.2 percent in 2003--double the rise from 2002.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Re: Scolding the Supreme Court

While adding little new content to the discussion, the Washington Post is showing surprising persistence by running another strongly-worded editorial urging the Supreme Court to act quickly to resolve the Blakely mess.

Sunday, July 25, 2004

Media and the Loss of a Deliberative Democracy

I have been thinking some more over the weekend about what to add to Ted Turner's comments I referenced in an earlier post, and I kept coming back to one of the quotes in that piece:

a hundred-person choir gives you a choice of voices, but they're all singing the same song.

That accurately illustrates for me the problem of distinguishing diversity of content from variety of content--most of what is available today is not original nor does it represent different interests. Rather, it just repeats the same bland message in different ways.

But yet I do find tremendous hope in the internet. To me, encouraging options for internet content is really where reformers should be putting their efforts. I recognize that most people probably would not seek out diverse content even if it is available, but it would be a huge leap forward if diverse content is more readily available (right now I don't think most people have access or know where to look).

Saturday, July 24, 2004

A Failure of the Press

Howard Kurtz's Media Notes for Friday the 23rd (link goes to the current day, you may need to scroll down) is a nice tie-in to Ted Turner's excellent column on media consolidation (as well as RJ Samuelson's July 14th column). Kurtz picks up on a little-noted comment from Tom Kean that there had only been one reference to terrorism in the 2000 presidential campaign. From this Kurtz concludes that in additions to failures on behalf of the Clinton and Bush administrations and various government agencies, the press also dropped the ball on terrorism. He finds one short article on this topic, but most of the major press does not appear to be covering it (which should be no surprise given Turner's comments). This drives home the seriousness of the issues brought up in Samuelson's critique of campaign news coverage. By allowing the candidates themselves to define the issues of the campaign, by not shooting down the obvious bullshit shoveled out by the campaign HQ's, by covering the election as a horse-race rather than an opportunity for political discourse, the press allows important issues to fall through the cracks. I recall that well prior to the 9/11 attacks a congressional investigation found that terrorism was clearly the greatest threat to American security in the post-Cold War era. How do we get through a presidential election without anyone asking the candidates about the most dire security threat facing our country? It is again worth noting that the media is not just another industry to be played for competitive advantage and profit margin. It plays a vital role in the healthy functioning of our system of government. Failures of the press can be just as costly as failures at the CIA.

Huntington on the Anti-American Left

A few months ago Samuel Huntington released a paper, which only recently came to my attention, entitled Dead Souls: The Denationalization of the American Elite. (I believe that highlights, underlines, and inflamatory comments in brackets were added by whoever posted it there. It was the only place I could find the full text on the internet.) In it he argues that American elites have become increasingly isolated from popular opinion on the subject of America's national identity, and, absurdly, that in doing so, their souls have died. It's a paper that contains a lot of data and raises many interesting points, but makes far too many broad-reaching, unsupported, and unintuitive assertions.

Huntington identifies three main categories of denationalized elites. There is the universalist who believes that America has become the universal nation and that all other societies have become, or are in the process of becoming, Americanized. This, to me, sounds a bit like neo-con philosophy. There is the economist who sees transnational business transcending and usurping national governments. And the moralist who believes international systems are morally superior to national systems. Into this group Huntington lumps intellectuals, academics, and journalists. While two of these three groups (the universal and the economic) appear to be substantially or primarily conservative, Huntington zeroes in on the unpatriotic left for most of the rest of the paper.

Some of the more interesting content in the article is in the "Unrepresentative Democracy" section, where Huntington surveys various polls that show large gaps between highly educated American elites (including policy leaders) and the public on a variety of foreign policy topics. He makes a convincing case that the public is considerably more isolationist, protectionist, and, interestingly, pacifist than the nation's political leadership.

In terms of interacting with the world, Huntington writes that the US is faced with three options: they can open themselves to other cultures and peoples, they can try to remake other cultures and peoples in our own image, or we can strive to maintain our own distinct culture. The first, he says, would lead to the replacement of national identity by other cultural and economic identities. In the second, America loses its national identity to become the "dominant component of a supranational empire". Only the third will maintain America's national identity.

Huntingon then proceeds to define what exactly America's national identity is, which I imagine is quite similar to what he has written in his recent book Who Are We? on the topic of immigration. According to Huntington the core of the American identity is that we are Anglo-Protestant with a strong religious commitment. He makes the case, similar to the book excerpt published in Foreign Policy Magazine, that previous immigrants have been assimilated and compelled to adapt to this Anglo-Protestant culture. Should this culture be lost, he warns, America will no longer be America.

I find this all rather confusing as Huntington fails to ground his basic values and assumptions with any compelling arguments. Besides the historical argument that America has, in fact, had an Anglo-Protestant culture, Huntington makes no arguments as to why this as opposed to, say a capitalist-democratic value system, is the core of the American identity. Nor does he make any substantial argument as to the inherent value of nationalism, although his language makes clear that he thinks there is one. Huntington also spends some time establishing how much political participation has declined in the US, only to make the completely unsupported assertion that the national identity gap between the public and politicians is a primary cause for this decline. And finally, although he repeatedly makes reference to the denationalized elite having lost their souls, he never gives any explanation as to what he means by this. Some of these lapses may be due to the limitations of the format, but if so, perhaps he should have set more modest goals for this paper which could have been accomplished within the bounds of the format.

Additionally the paper is filled with infuriating cheap-shots and inconsistencies. Some of his broad generalizations as to the intentions of moral transnationals, such as the desire to replace federal and state laws with a customary international law "not set forth in either statutes or treaties", appear to me to be the opinion of a small subset of moral transnationals, but Huntington is quite content to attribute these views to the group as a whole. Of course, he contradicts that position by asserting that the same group promotes the creation of institutions like the International Criminal Court, which it's true would supercede national laws, but would do so under a specific set of statutes laid out in the treaty. Similarly at one point Huntington attacks the moral transnationals for promoting actions taken through international systems such as the UN as being superior to those of individual nations. At another point Huntington contradicts this by stating that transnationals have a much higher preference towards the US acting alone (as opposed to acting with support from allies) in international crises than the public. At another spot, Huntington takes a shot at liberals by implying that they crassly use patriotism to achieve their own ends. In view of the last few years, to target such criticism at liberals seems ironic. There's a bit of irony as well in the poll numbers Huntington presents answering whether various people would be willing to fight for America. Whites scores much higher in their responses than blacks or hispanics. I would bet that the demographics of the US military would show the opposite trend. Huntington levels the charge that the end of the Cold War allowed liberals to engage in foreign policy goals such as nation building, as he calls it "foreign policy as social work" which compromised national security. But is our national security not most threatened by failed states, precisely the sort of states targeted by "foreign policy as social work"? It seems to me that the foreign policy objectives of liberals have been vindicated by the current security climate, and now even the consummate anti-nation builder, George Bush, has been forced to recant. Near the end, Huntington presents the absurd, but unfortunately common, idea that because America is a nation with stronger religious tendencies than other nations, its actions are more moral.

In all, it is an unfortunately weak effort by Huntington. However, while it is almost certainly the most shoddy piece I've read by him, it does share tendencies I've observed in his other writing. He does an excellent job of finding interesting topics, and finding strong research points to set the table for an insightful discussion. Unfortunately, all to often he abandons that discussion before it even starts to launch an unsupported attack on liberals.

Certainly there are points worth discussing here. I agree with Huntington's thesis that elites, academics, and intellectuals are becoming less nationalist over time. I'm willing to buy his assertion that this is opening up a gap between them and popular sentiment on nationalist issues. A fascinating discussion could be had as to the merits of the various views of the transnationalists and in analyzing why the sentiments of the public have not changed along with those of the elites. On the topic of national identity, what exactly is it that has made America great, and why? Where are the cultural boundaries beyond which we might see our greatness decline? Are there ways in which our culture might be improved or are we supposing that its historical state has been ideal? Huntington seemed to be approaching many of these points in his paper, but each time, at the last moment, diverted into something far less interesting or relevant. Well, at least he has provided some food for thought.

Friday, July 23, 2004

I've Got a Good Idea: Let's Invade Iran!

No cookie for Charles Krauthammer, who is clearly as retarded as ever. In his Washington Post column about Iran today Krauthammer makes the very good points that a) invading Iran would be an order of magnitude more difficult than it was to invade Iraq and b) Iran is a country ripe for revolution. His conclusion from these two points? Naturally, we need to invade, and thankfully our occupation of Iraq will just make it that much easier. Nevermind that our occupation of Iraq has overextended our budget and our military manpower to dangerous levels. And what he also doesn't discuss is the difference in occupying the two nations. If we're enjoying our occupation of Iraq, just wait until we get into a country with more people who hate the US more and have a stronger sense of national identity. Oh boy, that'll be fun.

Give the Man A Cookie

This op-ed in defense of reading is probably the least retarded thing George Will has ever written.

Big Media Sucks, Says Ted Turner

This Washington Monthly article is an interesting read. As a sidenote, witness testimony at trial is considered more reliable when it is a statement against one's own interest.

My take on the story (and another big media rant) later this weekend.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

Re: Twisting the Story

In a Washington Post op-ed today, Thomas Davis III, the chairman of the House Government Reform Committee claims that the Valerie Plame leak is not worth investigating in part due to the fact that the Butler report "casts serious doubt on the credibility of Joseph Wilson". That's quite a leap in logic. I fail to see how Wilson's credibility should even enter the picture. What does Joe Wilson have to do with the fact that someone leaked the identity of a covert intelligence agent, which, if I recall correctly, is a federal felony? The Butler report is not a get out of jail free card for anything that vaguely involves Joe Wilson.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Who Needs Judicial Review?

Along the lines of our discussion of judicial review over the weekend, it seems Tom DeLay has also decided that the judiciary should not have the power to deem legislation unconstitutional. The Washington Post has an editorial criticizing DeLay's efforts to remove various bills from judicial oversight. DeLay is currently focusing on wedge issues such as gay marriage and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Post believes that ruling on constitutionality is a "central function of the federal judiciary". As per our discussion, I agree.

Following up on that discussion, I believe that if the legislature is given the right (or duty) to determine constitutionality it would almost certainly follow that they would not deem the laws they themselves write and pass to be unconstitutional, which would necessarily put the power of laws passed by congress on a level footing with the constitution itself. Aside from the fact that this seems a bad idea on the face of it, it seems clear that it was not what was intended in the constitution. Why state that the constitution is the supreme law of the land and make the process for ammendment to the constitution much more difficult and convoluted than the process of passing legislation if there was to be no substantive difference between the two?

Further, the history of judicial review does not start and end with Marbury v. Madison. Even in 17th century England, Chief Justice Edward Coke determined that both the King and the Parliament were subject to the laws of the land. He wrote: "in many cases, the common law will controul Acts of Parliament, and sometimes adjudge them to be utterly void: for when an Act of Parliament is against common right and reason, or repugnant, or impossible to be performed, the common law will controul it, and adjudge such Act to be void." This concept bubbled up in a few other cases prior to US independence, including one case, Lechmere's Case which was quite influention with John Adams and other revolutionaries. This would suggest that the founders were familiar with the concept of judicial review when they created teh constitution. There were also a number of cases in which judicial review was invoked in US courts even prior to the ratification of the constitution which challenged constitutionality of legislation on the state level (Holmes v. Walton, Commonwealth v. Caton, Rutgers v. Waddington, Trevett v. Weeden, Baryard v. Singleton). Regarding the last case, the plaintiff's attorney, James Iredell (later a Supreme Court justice) wrote: "Either the fundamental unrepealable law must be obeyed, by the rejection of an act unwarranted by and inconsistent with it, or you must obey an act founded on authority not given by the people. ...It is not that the judges are appointed arbiters... but when an act is necessarily brought in judgment before them, they must, unavoidable, determine one way or another... Must not they say whether they will obey the Constitution or an act inconsistent with it?"

Although not explicitly elaborated in the constitution, the power of judicial review was discussed by the framers. Elbridge Gerry wrote that "the Judiciary... by their exposition of the laws [would have] a power of deciding on their Constitutionality." The Anti-Federalist letters attacked the constitution on the issue of judicial review, an d Alexander Hamilton, in The Federalist, defended judicial review as a necessary element of the constitutional structure. The Federalist No. 78 is probably the single most critical document to consider in any discussion of judicial review. In it Hamilton established both the right of the court under the constitution to review constitutionality, and the necessity of their doing so. It is my understanding that much of the Marbury v. Madison decision was based on The Federalist No. 78. On judicial review, Hamilton wrote the following, which I'll leave as the final words on the subject:

Some perplexity respecting the rights of the courts to pronounce legislative acts void, because contrary to the Constitution, has arisen from an imagination that the doctrine would imply a superiority of the judiciary to the legislative power. It is urged that the authority which can declare the acts of another void, must necessarily be superior to the one whose acts may be declared void. As this doctrine is of great importance in all the American constitutions, a brief discussion of the ground on which it rests cannot be unacceptable.

There is no position which depends on clearer principles, than that every act of a delegated authority, contrary to the tenor of the commission under which it is exercised, is void. No legislative act, therefore, contrary to the Constitution, can be valid. To deny this, would be to affirm, that the deputy is greater than his principal; that the servant is above his master; that the representatives of the people are superior to the people themselves; that men acting by virtue of powers, may do not only what their powers do not authorize, but what they forbid.

If it be said that the legislative body are themselves the constitutional judges of their own powers, and that the construction they put upon them is conclusive upon the other departments, it may be answered, that this cannot be the natural presumption, where it is not to be collected from any particular provisions in the Constitution. It is not otherwise to be supposed, that the Constitution could intend to enable the representatives of the people to substitute their will to that of their constituents. It is far more rational to suppose, that the courts were designed to be an intermediate body between the people and the legislature, in order, among other things, to keep the latter within the limits assigned to their authority. The interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts. A constitution is, in fact, and must be regarded by the judges, as a fundamental law. It therefore belongs to them to ascertain its meaning, as well as the meaning of any particular act proceeding from the legislative body. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable variance between the two, that which has the superior obligation and validity ought, of course, to be preferred; or, in other words, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.

Nor does this conclusion by any means suppose a superiority of the judicial to the legislative power. It only supposes that the power of the people is superior to both; and that where the will of the legislature, declared in its statutes, stands in opposition to that of the people, declared in the Constitution, the judges ought to be governed by the latter rather than the former. They ought to regulate their decisions by the fundamental laws, rather than by those which are not fundamental.

This exercise of judicial discretion, in determining between two contradictory laws, is exemplified in a familiar instance. It not uncommonly happens, that there are two statutes existing at one time, clashing in whole or in part with each other, and neither of them containing any repealing clause or expression. In such a case, it is the province of the courts to liquidate and fix their meaning and operation. So far as they can, by any fair construction, be reconciled to each other, reason and law conspire to dictate that this should be done; where this is impracticable, it becomes a matter of necessity to give effect to one, in exclusion of the other. The rule which has obtained in the courts for determining their relative validity is, that the last in order of time shall be preferred to the first. But this is a mere rule of construction, not derived from any positive law, but from the nature and reason of the thing. It is a rule not enjoined upon the courts by legislative provision, but adopted by themselves, as consonant to truth and propriety, for the direction of their conduct as interpreters of the law. They thought it reasonable, that between the interfering acts of an EQUAL authority, that which was the last indication of its will should have the preference.

But in regard to the interfering acts of a superior and subordinate authority, of an original and derivative power, the nature and reason of the thing indicate the converse of that rule as proper to be followed. They teach us that the prior act of a superior ought to be preferred to the subsequent act of an inferior and subordinate authority; and that accordingly, whenever a particular statute contravenes the Constitution, it will be the duty of the judicial tribunals to adhere to the latter and disregard the former.

Twisting the Story

The Washington Post has an editorial today with their take on the new updates to the Niger uranium story. They, like most coverage of the issue are missing the point. The editorial cites the Butler report as saying that intel was reasonable until October 2002 and that Joe Wilson's report did not change their assessment. While it may be true that it did not change the assessment of the British intelligence, that was not the case with the CIA. As you may recall George Tenet accepted responsibility for the charge being included in Bush's state of the union, and said the CIA should not have allowed him to say that. Previous to Tenet's statement there were numerous reports that various people in the CIA had attempted to contact the administration to warn them off of this intel, but those efforts were ignored. These claims, to my knowledge, have never been satisfactorily explored. The point is that regardless of what data has come up now, at the time of the speech, George Bush was presenting data that US intelligence believed to have been discredited.

This is not to say that the new light that has been cast on the issue is meaningless. If it is the case that Saddam Hussein was actively trying to acquire nuclear materials, that would certainly support the administration's claims that Saddam was, in fact, still pursuing nuclear weapons and it will bolster their claims that the war was necessary. What it does not do is have any impact on whether the administration was out of line in pumping the uranium claims when the US intelligence community thought those claims were bogus.

Unfortunately much of the press coverage seems to suggest that maybe Bush was right to include the famous 16 words in his speech, because now evidence justifies it. Whether or not the accusation ultimately proves to be true, the administration promoted it at a time when it was believed to not be true which demonstrates dubious judgment and ethics on their part. Nothing that happens now will change that.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Need to Adapt

Returning again to The Atlantic Monthly, Rand Corporation analyst Bruce Hoffman has written an article on the need for the US intervention in Iraq to adapt to the realities of combatting an insurgency. The unwillingness to acknowledge that the old rules of conventional warfare do not apply against guerrilla insurgents has been a frequent criticism of mine, and Hoffman does an excellent job of assessing the situation, finding similarities and differences with past insurgencies and pointing out areas in which the US needs to make adjustments.

Praising Welfare Reform

There's a column on Christian Science Monitor by a couple of Harvard professors praising the 1996 welfare reforms based on an extensive study they've done of the results. Not to say that I haven't seen plenty of Harvard folks pushing questionable agendas, but this looks like a fairly well done study, although I haven't read through all of it (there's a link at the bottom of the article). It's always nice to see relatively unbiased research on hot-button political issues. The authors feel that the government did a nice job of supplementing the reduction in welfare support with new programs to provide support for low-wage working people, creating a carrot and stick effect. While they feel the 1996 bill has been a success, they are wary of any further efforts to reduce welfare supports.

Joe Lieberman Is the Devil

So it seems Joe Lieberman has decided to spend his free time attempting to reinvent the Red Scare, this time rebranded for the war on terrorism. Great, because more paranoia and fear-mongering are just what we needed... Just as a matter of record, the first two iterations of the Committee on the Present Danger provided such valuable services to the US as: ran a television ad blitz to promote military spending and aggressive engagement and eradication of the Soviet threat, attempted to torpedo the SALT II arms agreement with the Soviets and to convince the US to reneg on the SALT I agreement, and heavily promoted the Strategic Defense Initiative. Members of the organization have included such political luminaries as Dick Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Irving Kristol, and Donald Rumsfeld. Senator Lieberman, you've outdone yourself this time. Congrats.

Re: Scolding the Supreme Court

Slate is back with another column, this one by Douglas A. Berman, host of the Sentencing Law and Policy Blog, on the topic of the SC's Blakely decision. Berman's column ties together the editorial by the Washington Post and Dahlia Lithwick's Slate column, both mentioned here previously. He weighs in on the side of the Post against Lithwick, calling Blakely the most significant criminal case in Supreme Court history and elaborating on the immediate need for clarification.

Monday, July 19, 2004

Iraq In Depth

The Atlantic Monthly published a pair of articles in their January issue investigating the two biggest gaffes of the Iraq war: the faulty analysis on the WMD's, and the lack of preparation for the post-war period. These are admittedly somewhat dated by now, but both provide excellent in-depth analysis and provide a strong framework into which to place these issues.

The story of the WMD's is written by Kenneth Pollack, a former analyst for the Clinton administration and author of The Threatening Storm, a book written prior to the war, in support of invading Iraq. Pollack goes over mistakes made in analyzing Iraq's weapons capabilities that led himself and others to wrong conclusions, and also spends some time constructing a convincing case as to what really happened with Iraq's weapons programs between the two gulf wars in light of the evidence we now have. I found this latter part of the article particularly insightful.

While Pollack splits blame on the WMD question between the intelligence agencies and the promotional tactics of the administration, the second article, Blind Into Baghdad is a damning account pointing blame directly at the administration. The author James Fallows finds that not only were extensive studies done on the subject of a post-war Iraq (by the State Department, the CIA, the Army War College, and various NGO's), but that these studies clearly identified nearly all of the major issues that later came back to haunt us. The administration buried all of these studies in order to avoid awkward questions that might diminish enthusiasm for invading Iraq. We were unprepared for the aftermath of the Iraq war, not because the administration was too stupid to think of it beforehand, but because they didn't want anything to come to the public attention that might interfere with their carefully contructed propaganda campaign. It is a very impressive and well-investigated article, and probably the strongest criticism of the actions of the administration related to Iraq that I have seen to date.

Jon Stewart's Commencement Address

Just a quick link here, since this came up over the weekend. It's a good one.

Brewing Scandal in Iraq?

As if we needed another one... A couple of Australian papers have run stories claiming that shortly before being named Prime Minister, Iyad Allawi personally, summarily executed as many as six prisoners at a prison southwest of Baghdad. The Christian Science Monitor has a roundup of the coverage. At this point the story appears to have a high probability of being BS, but investigations will almost surely follow. Obviously if anything were to come of this is would be a heavy blow to the US occupation.

Friday, July 16, 2004

More Criticism For the Supreme Court

The Washington Post is running a column from former Illinois congressman, chief judge of the DC federal appeals court, and White House counsel, Abner Mikva. Thirty years ago Mkva co-sponsored the Non-Detention Act, which figured significantly in the court's decision on Yaser Hamdi. Mikva reiterates the principles behind the act, and takes issue with the vague decision of the Supreme Court which passed off much of the responsibility on this issue to lower courts (this is starting to be a theme), and urges all three branches of the government to take to heart the important principles embodied in the NDA.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Re: Scolding the Supreme Court

Slate's Dahlia Lithwick has this article that summarizes the chaos that has erupted from the Supreme Court's Blakely decision.

Scolding the Supreme Court

A Washington Post editorial today takes issue with the vague decision the Supreme Court recently rendered on Blakely v. Washington. The decision casts doubt on the entire federal sentencing procedure. The Post discusses the confusion and various responses taken by federal courts, and urges the Supreme Court to clarify the issue.

Obama Keynote Speaker at Democratic Convention

Another bit of Illinois news here. The Washington Post has a column highlighting John Kerry's efforts to win the black vote, and mentions among other things that the Democrats have selected Barack Obama to deliver the keynote address at their convention. I wholly approve. As I've stated previously I really like Obama, and barring anything stupid happening, think that he could become a major figure in the party over the next 5-10 years. Between Jack Ryan's candidacy going down in flames and this added national exposure, I'd say things are looking good for Obama.

Illinois: Bastion of Liberalism

The Crhistian Science Monitor is running a series of articles analyzing the political situations in various states as an election year feature. Today they covered Illinois. I was a little surprised by their findings, as I was not aware of any strong trend towards liberal values around here. I also find it interesting that their analysis points towards changes in the voting paterns of the suburbs as the cause for the shift. They also did a recent feature on Georgia, and found that it was the massive growth of suburbs around Atlanta, and the strong conservative tendencies of folks living in them, that pushed the state toward the Republicans.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Where's the Beef?

Washington Post columnist Robert J. Samuelson is usually good for injecting a shot of reality into popular political rhetoric. He has a column today taking issue with the preposterous statements of our presidential candidates which ignore reality, but are treated by pundits at "respectable statements that ought to be analyzed and debated". He points out campaign discussions of job creation, fiscal policy, and medical plans as particularly egregious. He also notes that other critical issues are being completely ignored by the candidates and that the press pays no heed to these omissions. I've blogged similar columns on this topic from Samuelson before, as well as written a few diatribes of my own noting this problem. It can make the presidential race difficult to stomach at times.

Score One For the Propagandists

The Washington Post has an editorial on recent trade agreement legislation that demonstrates that the Post has swallowed the standard line of the pro-trade lobbies hook, line, and sinker. Since the beginning of the popular movement against the WTO, proponents of the current trade system have tarred all opposition as being against trade in all forms and situations. I'll grant that there is a radical fringe that would support that position, and further that indeed, mobs of protesters don't do nuance well. But the position of trade reformers has always been more nuanced than the Post suggests. Their claim that "Oxfam, and more broadly the coalition of organizations that campaigned for Third World debt relief under the banner of the Jubilee movement, have largely abandoned their old skepticism about trade in favor of campaigns against egregious rich-world protectionism" demonstrates their ignorance of what Oxfam has been preaching on this subject for some time. They have always been asking for "fair trade", not "no trade". Oxfam first launched its Fair Trade program some 40 years ago. It should be noted that protests are generally focused at the IMF and the WTO, organizations which Oxfam persuasively argues have consistently promoted unfair trading systems. The clear misinterpretation on the part of the Post, a respected mainstream observer, of what this debate has been about signals a victory on the part of anti-reform lobby in their campaign to smear their opposition.

Poor Ralph Nader...

Nader seems to sound more paranoid and marginal by the day.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Pitbull Fitzgerald, What's Taking So Long?

I'm getting tired of waiting for US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to come out with some news of an indictment in the Valerie Plame Affair. It's been some time since he had a rather long sit-down with the President, and one might imagine that was at the tail end of his investigation. There have been rumors floating around for some time that a grand jury has been impaneled--and a grand jury will indict a ham sandwich. So what's the hold-up?

Well, I suspect it might be that Mr. Fitzgerald is not stopping with the Valerie Plame business--I think he is going after big fish on the forged uranium documents. Remember, the two stories are integrally related, because Valerie Plame was outted as a spy immediately after former Ambassador Joseph Wilson spilled the beans about the unsupported tale that Iraq was seeking uranium from Niger. After some documents turned out to be really bad forgeries, the FBI began an investigation and nothing more has been made of that investigation. It is entirely possible that the same people involved in releasing Valerie Plame's name were the same people who forged the documents in the first place--or at least knew they were forgeries but tried to sell them on the street as real Rolex watches. And President Bush bought 'em.

I raise this issue because today there is supposed to be a big report coming down from the other side of the Atlantic that suggests there is other intelligence (not related to the forged documents) that supports the Niger-Iraq uranium claims. I must admit that I am dubious. But we will know shortly.

But back to these forged documents for a moment, the Financial Times reported at the end of June that the guy who apparently sold the documents to an Italian newspaper has come forward and told his story to an American televion network. Apparently the tipper has some interesting news about where he got the documents. (By the way, the recent Senate Intelligence Committee report notes that the tipper apparently requested that the Italian newspaper, Panorama, pay $15,000 euros in exchange for the documents.)

Why the network is sitting on the story (if FT has it right) is beyond me. Now would seem to be the perfect time to come out with the story--unless the network is waiting for indictments to come down, or waiting to see what is in the British report.

Or unless this is all just a crock of shit. It's always a possibility...
(Sorry for the lack of links. I'm just too lazy right now. But if anyone wants back-up for anything in here, just let me know. I'll find it. Eventually.)

Saturday, July 10, 2004

Not Worth the Effort

This isn't our usual fare, nor Howard Kurtz's, but Kurtz, a Washington Post regular, is running a column in which he trashes the level of customer support offered by many of the companies we deal with on a daily basis. It can often seem like a small thing, but really it touches our lives on a regular basis and can make for some painful experiences. He makes a strong case, backed up by experiences we have all shared. But while he scores points for well-deserved indignation he misses the deeper analysis. The universal degree to which large companies short-change their customer service represents the voice of the market, and the voice says it is simply not worth the money to provide the support. The profits lost by poor service are obviously not a large a figure as the cost to provide good service. No venting of frustration changes that. Even service-conscious consumers have little option to vote with their pocketbook. What phone company can I choose that provides good customer service? None that I know of. It seems the die has been cast and businesses have responded and little avenue remains for consumer choice. And even if the choices were better, there are few channels for communication of this information by which a consumer can make an informed decision. Certainly self-reporting can't be relied upon, as most of these companies claim to have wonderful customer service. Further, most customers don't have any contact or personal experience with a company's service department until after the company already has their money. Is this poor service an expression of the preferences of consumers? Would we rather save the money? Or is this a market failure where consumers are not armed with the knowledge necessary to make choices in line with their preferences?

I know for my part I would, at least some of the time, be willing to pay more for better service. It would help to know how much it would really change the price, and would be nice to be given the choice. But as in many of these cases I think a trusted third party (be it private or public) would be needed to referee this market.

And, on the other hand, there may be a case to be made that the free market works, and this really is our choice. There recently was an article on Slashdot about companies trying to rein in the costs associated with "abusive" customers (which is sort of an interesting topic in itself). Aside from supplying a lot of fodder to support Kurtz's point, the ensuing discussion contained a number of posts from foreigners who visited the US and were absolutely appalled by the quality of service they found there. Obviously things work differently in other markets. Is this simply a cultural difference? Or have companies in those places simply not maximized efficiency to the point that they eliminated funds for customer service? Or have customers in those markets demanded good support by their purchasing decisions? I have little basis by which to answer these questions.

I suspect that at least in the case of the US market, aggressive cost-cutting during market downturns led companies to slash service expenses. Then when they saw that the world didn't come to an end, and that consumers, despite a lot of whining, mostly took it in stride, they didn't bother to pump the funding back up later, or even proceeded to cut it further.

Perhaps more fodder for our free market discussions...

A CIA Analyst Punches Back

After the release of the damning report on prewar intelligence by the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, it seems at least one CIA agent is not comfortable with intelligence analysts taking all the blame. The Washington Post reports that an analyst has revealed to them that he tried to warn his superiors that much of the content that Colin Powell was about to report the UN Security Counsel was of dubious quality. He mentioned that one major intel source nicknamed "Curve Ball" had supplied data that was especially unreliable. He said his superior responded that "This war's going to happen regardless of what Curve Ball said or didn't say, and . . . the Powers That Be probably aren't terribly interested in whether Curve Ball knows what he's talking about". This seems to be a contradiction to the report's contention that pressure from the administration did not affect the output of the CIA's assessments. In a discussion between DIA official Bruce Hardcastle and the Post mentioned in the article, Hardcastle says that he was not pressured to change his assessments on Iraq, but adds that "Generally it was understood how receptive [Defense policy officials] were to our assessments and what kind of assessments they would not be receptive to." That sounds like pressure to me...

Mercenaries Run Amok

It's no secret that the third largest military force in Iraq is the army of military contractors, essentially ex-military personnel carrying guns for private companies. The BBC is reporting on a crew of former Special Forces soldiers recenlty arrested by Afghan authorities in Kabul, for reasons unknown, possibly at the request of the US military. The report says they found eight people illegally detained by the men at a house in Kabul. One wonders at the implications of this widespread use of mercenaries. How is their conduct governed? Certainly they ought to be subject to international law, but what of the codes of conduct of the US military? What sort of oversight is tracking the actions of these people? The article mentions that they frequently wear standard issue military uniforms and carry standard military weaponry, and that it is difficult to tell who is who and under what authority these various groups of armed men are operating. It seems a prime opportunity for confusion and lawlessness. And what of the concept of the government (whether domestic or that of an occupying nation) maintaining a monopoly on the use of force? I know that privatization is all the rage with current administration, but have we really thought this through?

In the Bubble

I have previously expressed discomfort with the scope of efforts employed to separate President Bush from the public, foreign or domestic. BBC Washington correspondent Matt Frei accompanied Bush on his recent trip to Istanbul and wrote on his experience inside the bubble. Constantly trapped in a zone of privilege and isolation it's little wonder that many administration officials seem to be living in an alternate reality.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Warmongers With Short Memories

So Sir Jeremy Greenstock, British representative to the UN during the runup to the war, finally admitted on BBC that the weapons for which Britain went to war don't actually exist. Then he had to go and botch this admission with the statement that "It's only, again with hindsight, when we saw that probably the Iraqis were cheating Saddam as well as misleading us, that the evidence is just not there." Only with hindsight? I'm sorry, but weren't there a whole lot of people who found the evidence presented by the US and UK considerably less than convincing even before the war? I'm pretty sure there were, because I think I was one of them. And about the Iraqis cheating Saddam, where did that come from? All evidence that I've read suggests that Saddam had his weapons program stand down in order to get the sanctions lifted. The only misleading going on here is the bill of goods Sir Greenstock is trying to sell us. Greenstock's comments came in advance of July 14th release of the Butler report on intelligence failures related to Iraq. Hopefully some of the fallout from that report can find its way across the Atlantic...

The IAEA Gets Serious With Israel

In a great editorial today, CSM supports Mohamed ElBaradei's shot across Israel's bow over their nuclear arsenal. ElBaradei, director of the IAEA, during a visit to Jerusalem this week warned Israel that their nuclear weapons are damaging the credibility of his agency in trying to deal with Iran. CSM makes the case that it is unlikely that Iran will abandon their pursuit of a nuclear deterrent without Israel agreeing to eliminate their arsenal as well. They further argue that if Iran were to succeed in gaining an arsenal it would discredit the IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty and would likely lead to further nuclear destabilization.

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Steamrolled By the Bush Machine

Foreign Policy Mag is running a short editorial noting how easy everyone made it for Bush to have his way on Iraq. Thanks to Howard Dean and others, liberals are beginning to come back to life and have done a decent job of vilifying Bush. However, it should not be forgotten how many people rolled over and played dead in order for Bush to create all of the mayhem that we now need to clean up. Reading this column and thinking about it have brought to mind (again) a couple of internal conflicts that I frequently struggle with.

First, is the conflict between wanting to hold people accountable, and wanting to take back control from Bush and his cronies. This was thoroughly discussed here and elsewhere in the context of Howard Dean (and to a lesser extent Ralph Nader). The Democrats who voted for Bush's war should be held to account. But how can this be done without further aiding Bush and friends? In the presidential race Dean and Clark offered good opportunities for this, but both are now out of the picture. Additionally, in races for the House and the Senate, due to the way elections are structured it is nearly impossible to beat incumbents in the primary, leaving the only real opportunity to inflict penalties through the ballot box at the general election, at which point you would obviously be aiding Republicans in the process. In a strongly partisan environment, it seems that accountability goes out the window. A viable third party would certainly help in this regard..

My other conflict is also between principle and patisanship, but of a slightly different nature. Ideally there should be politicians who are pragmatic and moderate, but who still retain the courage of their convictions. In practice, there are vanishingly few of these people (Feingold and McCain are the only ones who pop into my head, and I think Dean could have been one as well). And with the increasingly severe problem of gerrymandering, these people will grow increasingly rare. More often the choice is between "moderates" who are spineless, calculating political hacks who will roll over to anything that polling supports on a given day, or fire-breathing partisan zealots, who can be counted on to oppose stupid things proposed by the other party, but who will never achieve anything useful through moderation and compromise with the other party. I'm generally fairly moderate myself, and I used to think I preferred the former, but having witnessed what these "moderates" did in the context of the Bush administration I've found myself wishing for more of the latter. But truthfully I despise them both. It makes me ever more worshipful of a Feingold, who has the courage to be the only person in the Senate to vote against something stupid, but the good sense to be cooperative and bipartisan to achieve important results. Unfortunately, like my other conflict, it leaves precious few good choices for voters to make. It is difficult for a person of principle to know what to do. Even more unfortunately it seems that on both issues, the trends are getting worse as time goes on.