Sunday, December 10, 2006

We Need Real Action on Iraq

Recently I received the followin group e-mail message from Dennis Kucinich. I don't think he'll mind if I share it with you:

Dear Friends,

I am on a quest for integrity in Washington this week. The Democratic leadership plan to continue the war in Iraq by supporting yet another appropriations bill that is likely to go to the floor early next year granting an estimated $160 BILLION, the largest appropriation so far for the Iraq war. You can read my comments in an interview with Truthdig yesterday.

There is $70 billion already in the pipeline that can be used to bring the troops home.

There is only one way to end the war in Iraq – by cutting off funds. In October this year, $70 billion was appropriated for FY 2007; the $160 billion supplement will take the budget for the war in 2007 to $230 billion. 2006 saw $117 billion spent on the war, 2007 will be almost double. This will expand war, increase the violence, send more troops to the region, and push our nation into even further indebtedness.

Already over 18% of our tax dollars goes to service the interest on our national debt and 28% to the annual military budget (not including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq), whilst only 2% goes on housing and 0.3% on job training.

Last week I published a series of articles on the web which analyze the responsibilities of congress, the Campbell v Clinton case, of which I was part, which rules that appropriating funds is implied consent for the war (i.e., voting for appropriations = voting in favor of the war), looks at the voting record in the House and Senate, and puts forth a plan for US withdrawal and UN handover. Click here to read the articles.

Yesterday the Iraq Study Group issued their Iraq report, which I read in full last night and spoke about on the floor of the house today.

The report cites how 500,000 barrels of oil are being stolen per day in Iraq. That is $11.3 billion worth per year. This is interesting, since the Ministry of Oil was the first place our troops were sent after the invasion of Iraq and we now have 140,000 troops there.

How can we expect the end of the Iraq war and national reconciliation in Iraq, while we advocate that Iraq's oil wealth by handled by private oil companies?

It is ironic that this report comes at the exact time the Interior Department's Inspector General says that oil companies are cheating the US out of billions of dollars, while the Administration looks the other way.

Is it possible that Secretary Baker has a conflict of interest, which should have precluded him from co-chairing a study group whose final report promotes privatization of Iraq oil assets, given his ties to the oil industry? Is it possible that our troops are dying for the profits of private oil companies?

What kind of logic is it that says we need to appropriate $230 billion in a single financial year? The largest appropriation for the war in Iraq? The money is there to bring the troops home now.

A defective logic has invaded Capitol Hill. Democrats won the election because the American people want to end the war in Iraq, yet members feel they can say they oppose the war in Iraq while at the same time support an appropriation of $160 billion. They say the appropriation is to "support the troops," yet will result in keeping them in Iraq for another two years.

We must work together to transform this destructive thinking.

I need your help.

Please contact your member of congress and the Democratic leadership, urging them to vote NO on the appropriations bill next year. An appropriation of $160 billion is enough to keep us in Iraq for another two years. In Government Oversight Committee hearings, I have personally questioned military officials, who state clearly that this war cannot be won militarily.

Would you buy a used war from this administration?

There is $70 billion already in the pipeline that can be used to bring the troops home and implement a real plan for stability in the region.

Dennis J Kucinich

I think Kucinich is absolutely right about this. If the Democrats want to have any long-term credibility with the American people, who want the U.S. troops OUT of Iraq, then we need to prove it with real action. This seems like the best way to do it. As he points out, we have money in the pipeline to bring the troops home, so the whole "support the troops" argument for spending obscene amounts of money to continue the occupation is simply wrong--and perhaps backwards, if you look at it from the point of view of the troops' well-being. We need to put pressure on Democrats and Republicans alike to support this approach.

This IS an issue of integrity. Some Democrats seem to want to make it look like we are doing something by demanding greater transparency. But this will DO NOTHING to get the troops home or end the occupation of Iraq. This is simply short-term self-serving behavior by elected politicians to avoid confronting the President or actually risking a gutsy move to actually force and end to the war. This is all about authenticity, and if we REALLY want to say we heard the American people in the last election--and polls show that 60% of people want the U.S. out of Iraq within six months, and even higher percentages say within a few years. We have to simply swallow hard and do it. Click here to read more of Kucinich's plan for getting out of Iraq.

On a different, but related, subject...the whole thing about "keeping impeachment off the table" (Pelosi) is starting to bother me more and more. How can we say that it is off the table? Like Iraq, this issue is also about long-term integrity and authenticity. If we truly believe that evidence suggests grave offenses against law and the American system of government by Bush and Cheney, then don't we have to pursue it? I wouldn't ever want to prejudge a process like that, but don't we have ample evidence to at least begin some inquiries? Sure, in the short term, the media will try to skewer us for going on the offensive. But don't difficult times call for courageous leadership? If impeachment is not warranted in situations like this (if facts are what they appear to be), then when would it ever be justified? We need to think about the long-term consequences, both domestically and internationally, for failing to do everything we can to hold Bush and Cheney responsible for what they have done. There are even Republicans now who are starting to recognize the illegality of what has happened.

This is not about short-term political gain, this is about the long-term health of America. If it were about politics, then we would follow Nancy Pelosi into table clearing mode, for it is certainly more expedient in the short term to avoid the inevitable charges of political Bush and Cheney will be gone in a few years they provide ample foils for the Democratic Party's PR efforts... Maybe we need to do a little positive legislation first (raising minimum wage, negotiating lower drug prices, etc.) just to get things moving a little in Congress but pretty soon we need to at least be willing to investigate wrongdoing by Bush-Cheney in a serious way. If the evidence is solid, the Democrats (and honest Republicans) should move quickly forward to impeach both of them. Here's my idea: Let's give them until Groundhog Day (Feb. 2nd). That's a week or two after Bush's state of the union, and it will give just a little time to immediately pass some consensus legislation and send it to Bush. Then we need to start agitating for accountability in our hallowed system of checks and balances. Let's face it: the members of Congress (except for a few courageous ones) aren't going to do it on their own--they need our prodding and encouragement to do what's right.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Why I am Not a Kossack

Wow, is this an amazing coincidence--yesterday I posted about Kucinich, for the first time in awhile, and now look: here's the most well-known member of the "progressive" blogosphere trashing him...and mocking those of us who support him as "the cranky left." What a heart-breaker. (I truly mean that, not being sarcastic.) I must say, what a crazy world we must live in for someone who claims to be a leader at the heart of new progressive movement to use the same kind of dismissive, unthinking language against one of our movement's most prophetic and courageous leaders--and a sitting House member and former chair of the Progressive Caucus, I might add--that the right-wing and the mainstream media regularly use against our movement as a whole.

I have to confess, I have an on-again, off-again relationship with the wildly popular Dailykos website. I've gone through various "down" phases before, but just lately, especially through the '06 campaign season, I was becoming a pretty regular reader. I never could quite bring myself to join, though. And now I'm starting to remember why.

Back in 2004, Dennis Kucinich was hope to me and many others who had grown disgusted with the corporate Democratic Party of the 1990s. Dennis Kucinich spoke out courageously and voted against the war and has been resoundingly (if tragically) proven right by subsequent events. He has stood for and with working people for his entire political career and has been calling for universal health care for years. Dennis Kucinich stands for all the right (or should I say "Left"?) things. He is an authentically spiritual man who articulates ethical values without pandering and in a common language that transcends sectarian labels. He may not be the most conventionally telegenic politician in the world, but he came up from poverty and speaks from the heart. I was already coming back into the Democratic Party in the early 2000s, but it was Dennis Kucinich who inspired me and made me enthusiastic about pursuing progressive change within the Party instead of going outside to a third party. I volunteered for the Kucinich campaign, went door to door on freezing winter nights in my neighborhood to get signatures and even got on the ballot as a Kucinich delegate (didn't win the election, but I felt proud to stand as a candidate for Kucinich to the Democratic Convention). So please don't disdain or ostracize me as the "cranky left" and call one of our greatest American progressive heroes--or our campaign for him and the ideals he stood for--a "joke".

I believe that the greatest danger of the blogosphere as a vehicle for progressive politics is that it does not evenly represent the working people of America (or, of course, even less the world as a whole). Sure, it's great that avid internet users, who skew middle and upper class, are getting together. And there are some sincere efforts on the part of some popular progressive blogs (mydd more than dailykos, for example) to cover labor issues and working-class perspectives, and link to people like David Sirota who are consistently talking about it. But the "netroots" is not equivalent to the "grassroots". As a professional-class, academic person myself, I have lately gotten too comfortable with the on-line community oriented around Dailykos and other such sites and start to believe it is articulating "my politics".

But it's not. And little jolting reminders like this help me remember where my heart should really be. Not wasting all my time reading "progressive" websites that care more about their influence and triangulating to some mythical center than their ideals (although I will probably not be able to completely give up reading commondreams, HuffPo, and other alternative news and views sources, nor should I), but giving my time instead to movements that aren't afraid to articulate their ideals that they truly believe in and fight for them regardless of how much they are ridiculed by talking heads, be they on Fox News or the proprietor of the most popular "progressive" website in the world.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Did He Actually Say "Hegemony"?

While I've been focusing on who to support for President in '08, look what my '04 favorite Dennis Kucinich just said in Part IV of his series on "There Is Only One Way to End the War in Iraq"...Seriously, the piece is great--very prophetic, not what you will usually hear from an elected politician in America--and he DOES actually use the word "hegemony" in the opening paragraph.

As I mentioned before, I think a central issue we need to start gradually building support for is to drastically cut military spending in this country, so we can have the money to take care of urgent human needs. Kucinich is out there on a limb, making these arguments. I'm still proud of him.

As for the academic jargon ("hegemony"), maybe he's been reading Noam Chomsky.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Freedom of Religion

I have a nomination for Media Idiot of the Week.

Some would say that whether a new Muslim congressman gives his oath on the Bible or the Koran is a one of those silly manufactured issues, such as the War on Christmas, that are pure bluster, lacking in substance. I would normally tend to agree--we are after all, in the middle of a terrible war right now, and have serious moral issues about poverty, health care, and the environment to address--except that it occurs to me we are on the verge of wasting a golden opportunity to show the Muslim world (not exactly filled with joy for what the USA has been doing lately, you know) that we really truly do respect their religion on an equal basis.

Alas, here we go, squandering our chance to show that we really do believe in pluralism and freedom, not a clash of civilizations. I happen to really like Keith Ellison, and I think he is going to be a great progressive member of Congress. But even if he were a crazy right-wing nut (we do have a few of those in Congress), I would still defend his choice to swear his allegiance to the Constitution on the Koran. We really do believe in that freedom of religion stuff, don't we?

Don't we? Maybe this is the chance for the vast majority of American to reaffirm our belief in the freedoms our country was founded on. If we repudiate the hateful politics that would enshrine the Christian Bible in a privileged position over the Koran, we will tell Muslims around the world that we don't hate their religion at all--we just oppose people twisting Islam to justify killings and violence (and, of course, we also oppose people twisting Christianity in the same way, as they unfortunately have...)

I fear that some conservative Christian groups are already circulating calls to action against Rep. Ellison being sworn in on a Koran. (But how would they react if they weren't allowed to use a Bible for oaths? If we can't use the Koran, then we can't use the Bible either, as far as I'm concerned. Maybe we can swear on a Dictionary...) What I really fear is that this is on the verge of being blown out of proportion, and that it will have serious negative consequences for the U.S. image among Muslims in the world (if we are not at rock bottom already in that category). So, at the risk of contributing to the blow-up--but in a contrarian manner--I have raised the issue here.

On a completely different subject, I'm glad that a few people on the Left are starting to speak out on what a stupid idea it is to reinstate the draft. I know it is a Democrat who has proposed this (Rep. Rangel of N.Y.), I know the whole idea is to make Bush-Cheney supporters think more about the cost in human lives for going to war, and I know that lots of Progressives are endorsing the idea on various grounds, such as shared sacrifice across class lines. But the whole idea is not only suspect on moral and pragmatic grounds (if we have to force people to go to war against their better judgment, should we really be fighting that war? And why give the war-mongers another tool to keep their immoral wars going?), it also flies in the face of history. As the linked columnist, Andrew Greeley of the Chicago Sun-Times concludes:
"One should ask Rangel if the draft created such racial and social equity in the 1960s, how the president and vice president managed to avoid combat. How could such draft dodgers be elected to high office? And don't tell me that the president served in the Texas Air National Guard. That's like serving in the Nebraska Navy."

As a child of Nebraska, I should note that there really is a Nebraska Navy, although serving in it didn't get you out of Vietnam, if indeed it even existed back then. As a card-carrying Admiral in the Nebraska Navy (really, though it is purely a paper organization having nothing whatsoever to do with actual military service, and my commission surely must have expired by now!) I think forcing people into the military is always a bad idea. Seriously, despite my humorous asides, this is no joke, and I do think that Progressives who support Rangel's crazy plan should reconsider their enthusiasm. To the best of my knowledge, every draft in American history has forced more working-class and poor people into military service than the well-to-do. We do have a sort of economic draft operating today, in part, due to the lack of other opportunities for many people. But reinstating the draft will not suddenly create new opportunities for anyone, nor will it change the basic dynamic making military service attractive (or not) for people differentially based on class.

I have the sneaking suspicion that many (though not all, mind you) of those Progressives clamoring for Rangel's draft are old enough to be exempt (or female: would women be subject to a draft?), and if those same people were in their twenties, many of them would protest vehemently against it. It really is incredible that people who lived through the Vietnam War can now turn around and say what a better deal it was back then when we had a draft. Oh, really, was that such a great way to do things? The draft may have helped spur the anti-war movement, but it sure took a long time to stop the bloodbath. How many thousands of American soldiers (to say nothing of Vietnamese) died after the draft really got cranked up? And what percentage of those fighting were from privileged families (hint: one of the most widely read scholarly works of the Vietnam War is titled _Working Class War_)?

Okay, enough on that. I just had to get that off my chest, and Greeley's op-ed column gave me the excuse.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Or Maybe Bill Moyers...

I know I said the other day that I want to support John Edwards in '08. But if Bill Moyers ever did jump in the ring (guess that is a long shot), I might have to support him instead. Wow--what an eloquent and graceful, yet razor sharp, speech maker he is!

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

What Will the Democrats Do About Trade?

In these days of horrifically escalating bloodshed in Iraq (i.e. “civil war”), I hesitate before raising a completely different issue. I am gratified by the media attention that the Iraq issue is receiving, even if way too much respect is still paid to the ridiculous assertions of the Bush-Cheney Administration. (In case you missed Michael Moore’s recent and refreshing diatribe on the subject--which is as blunt and un-sugar coated as usual--here it is.) But, acting on the theory that blogs should sometimes try to raise awareness about lower profile issues, I decided to write anyway. Also, I was at a dinner the other night talking to a European academic who sneeringly referred to the resurgence of “populism” in both the U.S. and Europe, as if that was something bad. So I had to write something, didn’t I?

American Prospect columnist Harold Meyerson calls the recent U.S. Congressional election the "Fair Trade Election". He points out that even the widely cited example of how "conservative" the new Democrats in Congress are--Heath Shuler of North Carolina--campaigned strongly against so-called free trade agreements that hurt American workers. More broadly, the ever sharp David Sirota proclaims: "We the populists won." I can't quibble with Meyerson and Sirota in their election analysis, given the widespread resonance of the economic populist message by new Senate Democrats such as Jim Webb, Sherrod Brown, Bob Casey, and Jon Tester. And, moreover, like them I celebrate this development.

It is worth reflecting though, on what will happen if the Democrats don't deliver on trade issues. (By "deliver", I don't mean to imply that they can get past a Presidential veto, or be held responsible for that, but merely that they get economically populist legislation passed...thereby forcing Bush to decide one way or the other, and thus either see it enacted or show the American people what they would enact with a better President.) I'm sure that action on getting the U.S. military out of Iraq, which is being so widely covered in the media, is a crucial priority. But I also wonder if many American voters will grow disenchanted with the Democrats if they don’t enact an economically populist agenda too. Trade is an especially tricky part of economic populism, because bipartisan elite opinion in Washington, D.C. and other centers of power usually opposes the populist position of restricting “free trade”.

The powerful forces that are enriching capital while sending well-paying U.S. jobs overseas will be hard to overcome.--even if the Democrats manage to push through strong labor and environmental protections on future trade deals. The exploitation of cheap labor overseas is a major dynamic of global relations. It is quite possible that Democrats will have a hard time building a large enough consensus to radically change the economic prospects of working-class Americans.

More pointedly, I worry about the global trade issue as a big negative for the ’08 presidential candiday of Hillary Clinton. Because the Bill Clinton years, while economically more prosperous than more recent times, did see continuing erosion in manufacturing jobs, along with several major “free trade” details, most notably NAFTA, that he supported. While it is perhaps unfair that she would be held responsible for the policies of her husband (although on the other hand, she unquestionably benefits from the name recognition), it is the reality of the Clinton legacy in many working people’s minds, for better or worse. I predict that a Hillary Clinton candidacy would have to overcome quite a bit of that legacy to become credible as someone who would fight for working people. Maybe that’s why I support someone with a stronger populist streak, such as John Edwards.

Returning to my European colleague at dinner, one of the reasons he gave for finding fault with the resurgence of populism in Europe and America is how much he associates it with nativist rhetoric and xenophobia, blaming immigrants, etc. But isn’t that in part why we need to advance an economically populist Democratic agenda that focuses more on the evils of big business interests rather than taking it all out on the poor, hard-working non-citizens (either immigrant workers or workers overseas) who are simply trying their best to make a living in tough circumstances? I told him that I have more hope for the populist Democrats in the U.S. because they are trying to provide an alternative to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric of the right-wing (strong Latino support for Democrats in ’06 seems to point out at least some success in holding together a working people’s coalition). Even in Europe, I don’t think populism is so bad. For some reason, my colleague doesn’t like France’s new presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, who has been derided by some as a “populist” (what’s wrong with that?) To me, she sounds like a great candidate. I am wondering if “populist” has different connotations in Europe and the U.S. (Okay, well maybe the economic elites everywhere all hate it!) In this time when the America is messing up so many things around the world, perhaps that’s one thing Americans can be proud of—our respect for the populist tradition?

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

For the PowerPoint Ranger in each of us

Behold, for the combatants of 4GW:
The US Army uniform board has just released a new patch for those trapped in staff positions and who have served above and beyond the call of duty in making time consuming POWERPOINT presentations day after day, week after week, month after month without recognition.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Fall and Rise (and continued increase) of M3

Anyone with an interest in conspiracy theories and the geekier aspects of economics, and with a instinctive distrust of anything the government does (especially during the Bush administration) will just *love* this item. Last year the Federal Reserve nonchalantly announced that as of March, 2006, it would no longer report the broadest measure of the nation's money supply, known as M3. Certain economists were appalled, and suspicious, that the Fed would suddenly end reporting of a useful economic statistic with a lengthy historical baseline. Coincidently, M3 also happens to be the fastest growing component of the money supply, and, we have recently learned, the Treasury Department has been quietly circumventing the Fed's public attempts to tighten the money supply. As John Crudele of the NY Post explained,

Last Thursday [Nov. 2], for example, the Fed executed $2.5 billion in overnight repos and $8 billion in 14-day repurchase agreements. These were reported on the financial wires. // The Treasury completed a $5.5 billion repo operation on the same day under what it calls the Term Investment Option. There was no mention of the Treasury operation on the wires. In the Fed's repo deals, the banks temporarily turn over securities to the central bank in exchange for cash.

The result of these agreements is to increase the money supply, even as the Fed steps up interest rates, keeping financial institutions flush with credit to loan. Even more so since the Fed stopped reporting M3. Thanks to new sources of M3 reporting, Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture can tell us that
M3 is growing quite rapidly, with the annual rate of change now over 10%. Prior to the announcement of M3's demise, its growth was in the range of 3 - 7%. // Anytime a government agency stops reporting about their goings on, it should raise a few eyebrows. Now we see what happened once the reporting of M3 was killed -- that measure of money supply spiked much higher -- a rate of change that's even greater than 10%+.

I'm not knowledgeable enough about the nation's banking system to hazard much of a guess at what's up here, but it looks like the Treasury has been stimulating an economy already floating on a credit bubble. Was this an election year gambit to stave off a recession until after the mid-terms? Is it a less cynical attempt to engineer a soft landing? Or is it just a way for people at the treasury to shovel more money towards the financial sector? I don't know, and it could, of course, have a more benign explanation as well. But it seems pretty fishy to me.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Next steps in Iraq

I would like to write more about my own ideas on Iraq in the near future, but for now I recommend (with one reservation) this post from Suzanne Nossel at Democracy Arsenal. It's a good summary of various policy options that ends up with this prescription:

In short, develop a withdrawal scenario that includes whatever steps can reasonably be taken to minimize the chaos in our wake. A regional conference, talks with Syria and Iran, improved training and reconstruction efforts, political mediation and efforts to bolster the security of less violent regions should all be part of the package. To the extent we can engage Iraq's neighbors as well as any other global powers who are willing to step up to the plate and help us and Iraq, we should. We should be honest with ourselves and with the Iraqis about what we are doing and why, acknowledging all of the above rather than pretending that we're handing off a country that's in better shape than it is. But we should commit to getting out of there regardless of how the diplomacy and mediation progress. //Our exit should be as responsible and forthright as our entrance was wanton and misleading.

It's difficult to say if that's really a policy prescription at all--be honest and talk to people, get our troops out and hope for the best--but it might be the best that's possible at this point.

Nossel's point #7, however, I would like to take issue with:

7. Folding Iraq into a broader quest for Middle East peace won't solve the crisis any quicker
Okay--it might not lead to an immediate decrease in tensions in Iraq, but for the long term (and any policy with the goal of a stable and free Iraq will have to look at the long term) a comprehensive overhaul of our policies toward the Palestinians, and the Muslims in general, is one of the best things we can do to help our position in the Middle East. We need to recognize that the US does not have a mere public relations problem in the Middle East. We need to change our policies, not just the perception of our policies, in order to play a more constructive role in the Islamic world, and to start reducing the fuel of religious fanaticism.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Leaning Toward Edwards

Now that my favorite '08 Democratic presidential candidate (Sen. Russ Feingold) has announced he won't run, I've been thinking about who else I might want to support instead. Well, it only took a few days. I was already leaning towards former North Carolina senator (and vice-pres. nominee) John Edwards, but hearing him interviewed on NPR sealed the deal. I love his positions on economic populist issues, and he is a great advocate of working people. But the thing I always hesitated about was his earlier pro-war stance. I am reassured by how frank and open he has been about making a mistake in voting for the Iraq war. He now seems very pragmatic and anti-war, stating quite simply that we need to withdraw from Iraq soon--and that the best way to show the Iraqis we are serious about that is to simply start doing it! I think he is absolutely right that Iraqis will not take our proclamations seriously and start taking full ownership of their own country until we make it clear by our actions that we are not staying indefinitely. We will still bear some major responsibility for aid and support given how much we have wrecked Iraq, but right now things are just getting worse and worse under U.S. occupation. My sense is that John Edwards really understands that, and he is willing to do what it takes.

And of course, he has wonderful and inspiring views on so many other issues, especially ones that strongly affect ordinary Americans, like jobs, health care, and trade policy. So I'm leaning towards John Edwards now, and (of current likely candidates) he is most likely the one I will support in the campaign.

Any other thoughts out there about '08 candidates?

Friday, November 10, 2006

The Most Important Thing for Democrats To Do

Here I am posting yet again; I guess being stuck overseas during the most exciting election outcome of my life is making me a temporarily prolific blogger.

Anyway, I want to offer my suggestion for "the most important thing for Democrats" to do right away, now that they have taken control of both houses of Congress. I agree with all the items in the 100 hours plan announced by Nancy Pelosi (reform of corruption and ethics, raise the minimum wage, negotiate lower drug prices, cutting subsidies to oil companies, etc.), and I just want to elaborate on something related to the first of those items: strenuously resisting the corporate lobbyist agenda. I can hear the vultures circling already, showering the newly powerful Democrats with cash and even qualified praise ("we can work with them"). Elite insider pundits and talking heads use code words like "moderate", "centrist", and "bipartisan" (as Stan Goff so eloquently puts it: "Any time you hear the term bipartisan, check 'your six' and check your wallet. It means the ruling class is united and on the move."). What they are really trying to do is mask policies they advocate that are, in fact, not popular with most people, but only with big donors.

"Move to the center" often means "do what big business wants you to do."--i.e. favors for big pharma, big oil, big finance, and all the rest. I'm all for being cautious on currently non-majority ideas such as legalizing gay marriage, non-draconian immigration reform, and impeaching the President. But that's not what 95% of the commentators are talking about. They are talking about killing populist ideas that big business doesn't like, such as cracking down on excessive CEO pay or reforming trade policy. (Just yesterday, I heard someone on the radio from The Economist predictably moaning about how we need to avoid radical ideas like rewriting NAFTA and other free trade deals--hey, didn't you notice that the majority of working people in America are demanding change in our trade policy? And, another thing, do you think Eliot Spitzer stormed into the New York Governor's office by going easy on Wall Street?) If Democratic legislators allow corporate money to shape policy--just as they did during the Clinton Administration--then the Democratic Congress's honeymoon with the American people will be short indeed.

I want to see serious campaign finance reform, right now, immediately. I want to see serious proposals for publicly financed elections. I want to see EVERY SINGLE MEMBER of the Democratic delegations in both houses pledge to enact tough rules to ensure that corporate lobbyists and big donors have as little influence as possible over how our Congress conducts the American people's work. Everything else we want to do depends on getting the big-money special interests out of politics (or at least dramatically decreasing their influence). I realize that many Democrats are already severely compromised by corporate donors (maybe that would be a reason to have John Murtha as House majority leader instead of Steny Hoyer?) but they are just now coming back into power--so now is also the perfect time to pledge and commit to MAJOR, TRANSFORMATIVE CHANGE. This is the chance to set a dramatic new tone--going from basically no power at all (esp. in the House) to running the entire Congress. It may be a long time before we get another fresh start like this.

This is a STRONG MAJORITY issue for the American people. It doesn't divide neatly by the left-right dichotomy, at least in the way that ordinary working people see it. That's why it's both strategic and essential to run with it immediately. In many ways it cuts to the very core of why so many of us like to call ourselves "progressives." It's the hard-working people of America vs. the powerful corporations--the people vs. the interests, as the original Progressives of the early 20th century put it. (As a historian, of course, I must point out that we are different in some crucial ways--which I won't get into here--from the earlier Progressives...maybe we are "neo-Progressives"?) Whatever the slogan's historical validity, it is one we would do well to reclaim today and put in practice. Otherwise we'll be back to the old slogan: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Let's lock out the old sleazy corporate lobbyist boss(es) and secure a long-term Democratic majority by demonstrating that the people are the true boss.

Sometime over the weekend, I'm hoping to post again about something I think is crucial for Democratic success (and the country's well-being) for the long term, even though it seems unpopular in the short term: dramatically cutting defense spending. This is something we need to start working on and talking about slowly, gradually, to make it an acceptable idea among American voters, who are currently so used to the endless "I'm strong/I'm tough/I'm not weak on defense" bluster from both parties that it will take a little while to change the climate of discussion. But I think now is the time--notwithstanding the current wartime, pro-military mood and my endorsement earlier of Pentagon hawk John Murtha for majority leader--to build on the disenchantment with the waste of money and precious lives in Iraq to have an honest look at the larger fiscal realities. Once you think about it, obscenely high military spending is the golden thread linking together all the long-term problems that the American government will face if it is to do what the American people want it to do: balancing the budget, keeping taxes on American workers low, preserving social security, and having the money to deal with important and popular domestic priorities such as health care, education, jobs, and the environment. So sacrosanct high military spending is the sacred cow that I will propose we slay (obviously not tomorrow, but over the next few years). But I'll shut up about that now and leave that for my next blog post.

Anyway, back to short term priorities: any responses or alternative suggestions about what the Democrats need to do FIRST?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What's the Matter with Jim Wallis?

I already posted something today, but I just can't resist posting an addendum: A gigantic "huh?" response to the brief election commentary by Jim Wallis, one of the best known Christian leaders attempting to pose a more thoughtful alternative to the religious right, on Beliefnet (cross-posted on HuffPo) just now. In a reflection entitled "A Defeat for the Religious Right and the Secular Left," Wallis claims: "In this election, both the Religious Right and the secular Left were defeated, and the voice of the moral center was heard. A significant number of candidates elected are social conservatives on issues of life and family, economic populists, and committed to a new direction in Iraq."

I respect Jim "vote all your values" Wallis, and I admire all that he's done as an alternative voice for Christianity in the public sphere. Yet although I agree with Wallis's Christian perspective on the specific issues he cites--economy, poverty, Iraq, etc.--I have two serious objections to his argument:

#1) How exactly was "the secular left" defeated in this election? The shift in favor of Democrats was across the country in just about every demographic category. It was a resounding victory for the secular left by getting rid of some of its most odious persecutors (e.g., Rick Santorum) and drastically diminishing the power of the Republicans in Congress. To be sure, some Democrats elected are conservative on cultural issues (what else is new? remember the Old Solid South? I doubt you could find a Democratic rep today that wouldn't pale in comparison as a cultural conservative!) Yes, many Democrats were willing to talk about their faith in a wider sense. But in most cases they did so in such a way that I doubt any secular people could have been at all offended, or felt that their victories were in some way a "defeat" for them. (Or correct me if I'm wrong: Do Jon Tester, Claire McCaskill, and Jim Webb seem like a "defeat" to you secular leftists out there?) Moreover, the most high-profile candidate to try out-Christian-ing the Republicans, Harold Ford Jr., himself went down to DEFEAT--although I will grant that also had to do a little bit with racist TV commercials and veiled code language used by his opponent. For so many others, though, it was simply a victory for the whole progressive left--Christians, Jews, Muslims, secular people, and others--all together. (If you want to be picky about it on a quantitative level, exit polls showed that secular people were the demographic group most voting in favor of Democrats, and more Democrats won, so I guess that they fared the BEST, if anyone did!) I just don't see any way you can spin this recent election as a "defeat" for the secular left.

#2) Why are we demonizing the "secular left" at all? This is what really gets me. I am an unabashed Christian and an unabashed Leftist (to me, the former basically implies the latter!) As far as I'm concerned, I want to be in a political coalition with EVERYONE who believes in the same ideals and values, not just United Methodists, or Protestants, or Christians, or "people of faith" in general. Widen the circle one more step, please! One thing I cherish about being an American is that we don't establish religion through the state; instead, we give people religious freedom and separate religion from the state. Both can flourish better this way. And we then have to make better arguments in the public sphere, because we can't just fall back on some unreasoned appeal to religious authority. In fact, in my experience, I can say that many secular people I have known have more deeply thought and deeply ethical convictions than many religious people in our society. So please, Jim Wallis, don't demonize and exclude secular people from your vision of our progressive future.

What's really at the heart of my discontent with Jim Wallis's version of "progressive Christianity" is that it seems like a game of strategic Clinton-esque triangulation. It is a problem I've had with his public statements (I heard him talk in person once, and I do heartily recommend his books, such as _God's Politics_) many times before. He likes to talk about the "moral center" and decries the language of "right" and "left." He always tries to balance criticism of one group ("the religious right") with an equal and parallel criticism of the other side ("the secular left," so it sounds). That way he can appear even-handed and can perhaps appeal more easily to self-avowed evangelical Christians who may be more open to listening to someone who is claiming the center, who identifies both "left" and "right" as problematic, etc., etc.

The problem with this view is not just that it might sound like a typical politican trying to have it both ways to win votes, but more simply that it is a false parallelism. (Or maybe I should leave open the possibility that it reflects Wallis's sincere belief that both right and left are equally misguided?) It is my deeply felt belief, informed by study of the Bible, my religious tradition, my own experience, and my reason, that the Christian Gospel's true home is on the Left. The Christian message is not just some bland "moral center" but a bold and prophetic call to action against the principalities and powers that rule the world today. It is a call to solidarity with the poor, to the equality of all people in the world (e.g., an Iraqi life is equally and infinitely precious in God's eyes to an American's life), to resist materialism and greed, which along with the glorification of violence are the real sinful idols of our modern world. If Jesus were alive today, I submit to you, wouldn't he be on the Left?

I respect the sincerity and faith devotion of people who think they are doing God's work by trying to ban all abortions, even in the case of rape; or who are trying to stop stem cell research, even if the embryos are already being thrown away; or who want to bar gay and lesbian people from having the same rights as everyone else. But as much as I respect the fact that they are willing to have convictions about something greater than themselves, I absolutely, positively, sincerely, from the bottom of my heart DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THEY ARE ACTUALLY DOING GOD'S WORK. I believe they are good people, and many of them are in fact quite committed to doing other good things, but in this case they are being misled by duplicitous, hypocritical church leaders (e.g., Pastor Haggard in Colorado), as well as scheming and designing business and political leaders, who see that getting people all worked up about these issues is an effective way to divert them from the powers-that-be in modern society (at last, I now refer to Thomas Frank's argument in _What's the Matter with Kansas?_, which inspired the title of this post!)

If Wallis's real target is people like Richard Dawkins--i.e. militant atheists who are just as fundamentalist and dogmatic in their own beliefs as the extreme Christian Right in the USA who want to make it a theocracy, or the Jewish extremists in Israel who want to expel all Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, or the various Muslim religious extremists in the Middle East and elsewhere whose fanatical designs are too well known to need mentioning--then I am totally in agreement with him that these people's views are problematic in parallel ways. But in my experience, very, very few secular leftists would fit into this category. They probably wouldn't even fit on the head of a pin. And even if they did, they have very little power in the world, as far as I can tell. And I certainly don't see any of them starting wars lately.

I have had many secular friends over the years. Most of the people I hang out with on a daily basis are secular people. I have experienced nothing but respect for my religious views from all of them. Even the most energetically atheist ones just made it more fun to debate with them and dispel their misconceptions about Christianity formed by seeing its public face presented by the Religious Right. In theory, I can imagine a completely secularized world where materialistic, completely hedonistic, secular people dominate absolutely everything--a world filled with selfish, individualistic people just trying to help themselves and not caring about other people or behaving ethically. But that is not the world we DO live in. And based on my experience with secular people, it is not a world I predict we will EVER live in.

On the contrary: One of the saddest things to me as a Christian in the last few years was during the debate (such as it was permitted to occur) before the invasion of Iraq. I remember that a poll showed that the more likely someone was to go to Church, the more likely they were to support bombing and invading Iraq. Let me quote the shortest sentence in the Bible: "Jesus wept."

A Win for the Grassroots and Economic Populism

I've been reading some of the ways that people are trying to spin the Democrats' big election victory on Tuesday (which, if course, I am also still celebrating!) My sense is that it is a big win for grassroots candidates and for economic populists. I heartily welcome both of these outcomes.

I should begin, however, with a response to the pessimism/realism exhibited by ambivalent_maybe of this blog in his comment on my last post. I agree with him that many good D's did not win, and that in some parts of the country, Democrats still faced an uphill battle, even against awful Republican opponents. Like him, I come from a very conservative Republican dominated part of the country. But this year, even Nebraska 3rd district of the 100% rural and small town western and central part of the state--where I grew up, often rated one of the Top 5 Republican districts in the whole country!--had a surprisingly competitive election, ending 55-45 (this is far closer than I recall a Democrat ever getting since I was born!) If you look all across the country at different races, Democrats ran stronger ALMOST EVERYWHERE than thay have since I can remember. They not only took the House and more amazingly the Senate, but they took 6 governorships, state houses all across the country (they now apparently control 15, as many as the Republicans in 1994!) Pending the outcome of one final close race in Georgia, where the Democrat leads, the Democrats lost not even ONE SINGLE SEAT nationwide in the U.S. Congress, an almost unprecedented (or is it completely unprecedented?) achievement. Thus, while we would be well advised to be realistic that this is only the beginning of the Progressive revival in America, we also need to recognize that it is real, dynamic shift, which we should celebrate and run with. Carpe diem!

The real battle, as many of us pointed out before the election, is what the Democratic leaders will do now. Will they re-trench and be over-cautious, or will they boldy lead forward with progressive changes? I'm not saying they should issue articles of impeachment in January (although through careful and methodical hearings over time on various matters, that might emerge as a real possibility in due course), but we should not be hesistant about pushing the envelope on series issues such as health care, Iraq, trade policy, education, the environment, etc., etc. As movement progressives, we need to fight for an enduring, bold agenda.

Part of that fight begins right now as we argue over the meaning of the election: who won and how they won. I've already heard several conservative establishment types say that so many of the Democrats are "conservative" that we cannot push for anything bold. Yet even as many pundits use cultural issues as a crude gauge for labelling certain Democrats as liberal, moderate, or conservative, under the radar screen many of them ran successfully on economically populist and progressive themes: Brown in Ohio, Casey in Pennsylvania, Tester in Montana, Webb in Virginia, and countless House races (including even a Democratic-establishment-recruited but strong anti-NAFTA winner in western North Carolina!) Voters also approved minimum wage increases in every single state where they were on the ballot. Even the tricky issues that didn't necessarily go the traditional liberal way, such as ballot questions on immigration in Arizona or on affirmative action in Michigan, reveal discontent that is based in large part on economic struggles that Democrats should be paying attention to. If Democrats run with a bold working-class economic agenda, we just might keep far-right Republicans from luring white working-class people--who have absolutely legitimate concerns about how the system is treating them--with racist appeals to blame immigrants and minorities for their plight. THIS IS THE MOMENT for restoring the center of the Democratic party as the party of ALL working people in America.

The other big issue for interpreting the results is to note how well many of the grassroots candidates did. Bloggers are screaming to take credit for all the "netroots" candidates--Sen. Tester, Sen. Webb, Pa.'s Rep. Sestak, Pa.'s Rep. Murphy, and many more--who came through despite either initial indifference or outright opposition from the Democratic establishment. Detractors argue that many of the netroots targets didn't win, and that many establishment candidates did. I am inclined to agree mostly with the bloggers (of course, we ourselves are bloggers, but I'm talking here about big-name ones). They were often taking on races that were completely ignored, with long odds, or candidates who came from the grassroots without tons of outside cash. It is really quite amazing that so many did so well at all. I do think that grassroots and netroots activism played a key role in this year's successes, and I almost wish now that I had done more to support their efforts. The blogosphere should also be credited--along with Howard Dean--for supporting a 50-state strategy, which gave the Democrats chances in districts that might not have even had credible candidates otherwise; when the political winds blew strong, the Democrats were ready to ride them. The role of grassroots candidates was also important on the ground, perhaps even more than on-line. This development is wonderful, because it means that the election represents more than just the success of one focus-group tested, triangulating, fake candidate over another. The progressive tide will only continue as long as it represents a grassroots effort by American voters across the country.

To a lesser extent, there was also evidence of moderate backlash against hard-core, far-right social conservatism. Anti-gay-marriage and anti-abortion laws in the "red" (in 2000 & 2004) states of South Dakota and Arizona were defeated. Both were such extremist proposals--the one in South Dakota banned abortion even in the case of rape, and the one in Arizona would have banned even domestic partner benefits for gay or straight couples. Still, like Tess over at Arch Words, I find some hope that right-wing extremism can be (narrowly) defeated at the polls even in conservative heartland states like Missouri. To the extent that Democrats can reclaim an economic populist heart, I think these cultural conservative issues will become less of a problem for the Democratic coalition (and, hey, some of them, such as opposition to stem cell research and abortion, are not majority issues anyway).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A New Direction for America

Well, the preliminary election results are in. A resounding victory for the Democrats. (What a relief, after the last few heartbreaking election cycles!) Now maybe America can begin to take a new direction.

As of this writing, it appears that Democrats won the two remaining Senate contests: Montana and Virginia. Of course, the margins are close, so we may have to wait for recounts. But, after the first night's dust settles, it looks like they won the House by an even greater number of seats than expected, and (incredibly) possibly also the Senate, by one seat.

I've just wasted (no, make that enjoyed!) the last half hour or so browsing around the CNN election website's wonderful interactive national map of House districts. Some pleasant discoveries include:

The come-from-behind, underdog winner in IA-02 is Dave Loebsack: international relations professor at Cornell College, progressive Democratic activist, and United Methodist to boot!

Yet another (nonlumpen) logocrat to defeat a Republican incumbent, in PA-10, is Chris Carney, Penn State professor and University of Nebraska Ph.D recipient (and, coincidentally, he got his undergraduate degree at Cornell College--he's just young enough that maybe Loebsack was one of his teachers?)

Also, out in CA-11, Jerry McNerney has a Ph.D in math and engineering and works on alternative energy, specifically wind turbines...this one is especially nice because he defeated the infamous environmentally retrograde Republican incumbent, Richard Pombo.

Just one more: congratulations to Nancy Boyda, former 7th grade chemistry teacher (and another United Methodist!), in KS-02, who also beat out a Republican incumbent to take this seat.

Looks like we're going to have some well educated and thoughtful new members of Congress, to not just stand up to Bush but help us start solving our country's pressing social, economic, and environmental problems! Congratulations one and all.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Don't Vote Republican

Not now. Not this year.

I don't know if any of this blog's readers are even thinking of voting for Republicans tomorrow--after all, the party of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have gotten us into so much trouble on so many issues, it is hard to believe anyone would.

But I can't resist one day-before-Election-Day plea, on the remote chance that anyone is undecided or thinking of staying home (and assuming you would consider taking advice from one lowly person like me): Vote for Democrats.

A vote for Republicans is a vote...

for more of the same.

for NOT holding our leaders accountable when they totally mess things up.

for allowing human beings to be tortured in our custody.

for launching unprovoked wars against countries that pose no significant threat that will kill thousands of human beings, both soldiers and civilians.

for showering tax cuts on the rich while allowing our federal budget to swell.

for absurdly scapegoating gay people for our problems while shamelessly protecting Republican sexual predators in Congress.

for taking away time-honored American freedoms such as habeus corpus.

for keeping wages low, leaving millions of people without adequate health care, less money for education, and no genuine compassion for the poor.

for an economy that mainly benefits big oil companies and weapons makers.

for using our troops as a rhetorical shield against failed policies and then failing to fully support them materially when they return home (or even in wartime).

for political corruption on a grand scale.

for ignoring serious problems, such as global warming, that will have catastrophic consequences for all of humanity.

for tolerating lies and deceptions that lead us into unwinnable and immoral wars.

Let me also speak as a Christian (sorry for those who don't resonate with my frequent references to my faith--it's just who I am) to other Christians. When you are alone in that election booth, thinking and praying about who to vote for, you will be thinking deeply about where God is calling you. Where does the message of Jesus Christ lead us in today's world? Does it lead us to support the Republicans, a party that talks a lot about "sharing our values" but then launches massive wars and violence, and that takes away from the poor and middle class (and our children) to give to big corporations and the rich? Or does it lead us to vote for a new direction by supporting Democrats, who may not be perfect, but they are far better than the Republicans at enacting our core values in the world.

Now is not the time for subtle distinctions between "moderate" and "crazy" Republicans. Now is not the time for cutting some slack to the local Republican who doesn't seem quite so bad as the rest. (And, for those of us so inclined, it isn't really the year for independent and third-party candidates either, I'm afraid.) This year's election is a referendum on the direction of our country. The more Democrats we elect to Congress (and to state legislatures, governorships, etc.), the more likely that we will be able take a new direction, which we so desperately need to do.

So if you value the continuation of American democracy, if you value accountability in government, if you cherish your liberties and freedoms, if you want to see this country start to take a new direction, and (for those who share my Christian faith) if you want leaders with Christian values: DON'T VOTE REPUBLICAN!

(And if you live in Connecticut, don't vote "Connecticut for Lieberman" either. Ned Lamont is the true--and properly nominated--Democrat who will effectively stand up to the Bush-Cheney Administration.)

See also ILJ's recent posting on his experience phone-banking to get people to the polls, for some interesting perspective on cynicism and hope in the upcoming elections.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Employment and recessions

Listening to the news this morning, I heard several commentators note that things were bad for the Republicans, despite the economy being in good shape and unemployment very low. I won't repeat here all the evidence that the economy is not in great shape for middle- and lower-income Americans--that's it's being buoyed by record levels of debt, a frothy housing market, and Gilded Age tax policies for the wealthy. (Though if you'd like to read some of that, you might start here or here.) But I did want to highlight a chart from a recent post at Calculated Risk and its demonstration that low unemployment figures usually precede recessions:

They're not predictive indicators, as the post makes clear, merely coincident. But it's a striking chart, nonetheless, and certainly puts all the shouting about low unemployment in a different light.

In fact, as economists and Wall Street types have historically been very bad at predicting recessions, it is possible that we are in a recession already. Last quarter's GDP growth officially was an anemic 1.6%, but probably closer to 0%. If Q4 is as poor, and Q3 revised downward--ta-da! A recession.

Update: Finally found a couple things I wanted to include in the post earlier. First is a link to September 8, 2006 post by Nouriel Roubini, in which he notes that "in March 2001 in a survey 95% of US economic forecasters predicted that there would not be a recession in 2001; 95% of them! Too bad that the recession had already started exactly in March of that year!" Second is an April, 2000 paper (PDF) by Prakash Loungani of the IMF, which Dr. Roubini cites, that looked at economists' predictions of GDP growth from 1989 to 1998. It concludes that "the record of failure to predict recessions is virtually unblemished."

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Powerful Statement of Faith Witness

I have a few times before mentioned my admiration of Robert Jensen's courageous articles and commentaries, which so often go against the "conventional wisdom" of American political culture. But, wow! Jensen has really struck a chord with a recent meditation entitled "Finding my way back to church -- and getting kicked out: The struggle over what it means to be Christian today." I am a Christian myself, so maybe Jensen's words resonate especially with me. But I think even non-believers and adherents of other religious traditions will find some powerful messages in what Jensen says.

Though he is a Presbyterian, Jensen's experience could have been taken place within my own wonderfully progressive local United Methodist Church. (And, moreover, this particular commentary was delivered to the Methodist Federation for Social Action, a wonderful haven for progressive social witnessing in the UMC!) My own faith experience has been somewhat different from Jensen's: I have never really left the Church, and I am perhaps more traditional about divinity issues than him. But his statement of his belief that he issued to the committee deciding on whether to kick him out of the larger Presbyterian Church (not his local church, who support him) is a powerful statement of faith in a modern age, I think:

"On God: I believe God is a name we give to the mystery of the world that is beyond our capacity to understand. I believe that the energy of the universe is ordered by forces I cannot comprehend.
On Jesus: I believe Christ offered a way into that mystery that still has meaning today.
On the Holy Ghost: There are moments in my life when I feel a connection to other people and to Creation that rides a spirit which flows through me yet is beyond me.
I believe that Holy Spirit can only be nurtured in real community, where people make commitments to each other. I have found that community in St. Andrew’s. I have tried to open myself up to our pastor’s teaching, to the members of the congregation, and to the church’s work in the world."

(And some people want to kick this guy out of the Church?)

One more quote to chew on from Jensen's think-piece, on the relevance of the churches of Christianity, which he provocatively calls "the dominant religion of the empire, the contemporary United States":

"I’m also afraid because most of the organic institutions that could help people confront the political, economic, cultural, and ecological crises we face have been destroyed, undermined, or co-opted by a sophisticated system of domination achieved through the unholy alliance of a powerful state and predatory corporate capitalism. The dominant political parties are impediments to progressive change; unions have been gutted and marginalized; and universities serve mostly as comfortable shelters for timid intellectuals working in duck-and-cover mode. The institutions in which people traditionally have come together to learn about the world and organize to change it have mostly checked out -- except for, possibly, the church."

Just go read the whole thing; it is well worth it.

I was going to post something about the upcoming elections, but reading Jensen's statement made me realize that speaking with clarity about current events sometimes requires thinking about the bigger picture.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Big Picture on Iraq

Whatever the micro-scale realities of local calm and order in Iraq, this widely circulating image is a sobering reminder of the general trajectory under U.S. occupation.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bad reporting from NPR, good news from Iraq (no, really)

Listening to NPR recently I heard two stories that are evidence 1) that media outlets such as NPR can be careless in their reporting, seemingly too eager these days to report the latest example of misconduct and malfeasance by the US in Iraq; and 2) that US forces are accomplishing some good things in Iraq.

Yesterday NPR featured a story by Tom Bowman with the headline (on their website): "Thousands of U.S.-Bought Weapons Lost in Iraq." The lede seems to confirm that at least 300,000 weapons purchased with US money have gone missing: "The U.S. military can't account for hundreds of thousands of weapons purchased to arm some 325,500 Iraqi security forces..." The written version of the report is somewhat more alarming than the original audio, however. Bowman's report was introduced by Melissa Block who told listeners that a new report indicates "...only a small percentage of the Iraqi weapons paid for by US taxpayers are registered by their serial numbers. That means, they could easily end up in the hands of insurgents." That's still pretty alarming, but not being registered by serial number is a far cry from being missing.

In fact, it doesn't appear they're missing at all. As quickly made clear in Robert Siegel's interview with Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the agency that performed the audit of the weapons procurement program, the audit found that although only 2.7% of the 370,000 weapons purchased were properly registered by serial number in a DOD database, the vast majority of those weapons were accounted for as issued to Iraqi units or in warehouse. Property books did show a discrepancy of 14,000 weapons, almost all 9mm pistols, that were purchased but not in warehouse or with Iraqi units. 14,000 missing pistols is bad, but it's less than 4% of the total number of weapons purchased, and not 300,000 as the lede claims. The fact that most of the weapons, missing or not, were not registered by serial number also seems like a mistake, but it's unclear from either NPR's reporting or the SIGIR report how having a serial number in a database would prevent a weapon from, as Melissa Block said, "easily end[ing] up in the hands of insurgents." NPR's reporting in this case was very sloppy, and painted a dire picture of a program that in fact doesn't seem to be working that bad at all, all things considered (no pun intended).

(NPR is also guilty in this case of sloppy webmastering: the link they give on their site to the SIGIR report takes you to a quarterly report, which contains only a short summary of the weapons procurement program audit. If you want to read the entire audit report--where you will find all the information in the NPR piece--you need to go here, and download report SIGIR-06-033.)

Second, there's this NPR report by Jamie Tarabay on the Iraqi town of Saab al-Bur. US forces moved out of the town last month and handed security operations there over to the Iraqi police. A wave of sectarian violence broke over the town in a matter of days, and 90% of the town's residents packed up and left. This month US troops are back in the town, and the violence appears to have settled down. I'm a staunch opponent of the war, and believe that the presence of US troops in Iraq is doing more harm than good. I have no idea of the larger context of the events described in the report, or how the reporter found the story, but assuming the facts are as presented in the report, here's an example of Iraqis better able to live normal lives because US troops are there to keep order. Proponents of a US withdrawal from Iraq need to keep such stories in mind. The US has a moral obligation to the people of Iraq to help them out of the mess we've played such a large role in creating. A moral policy toward Iraq cannot begin and end with bringing US troops home.

Let me end this over-long post by bringing up one more NPR story--one that I found very informative. Guy Raz is doing a series of reports on rhetoric of the Global War on Terror (Global Struggle Against Violent Extremism [GSAVE], World Conflict Against Islamo-Fascism [WCAIF], Clash of Civilizations [CoC], Armageddon [OhCrap]). His first report was on the word 'jihad,' and how its use to describe terrorists almost automatically puts the US at a disadvantage in convincing Muslims that the war on terror is not a war on Islam. A political scientist at Johns Hopkins, Mary Habeck, has been urging politicians to use the term 'jihadists' to describe Islamic terrorists, arguing that today the term means only one thing: "Violence and violence alone to attain their ends." It will not surprise anyone familiar with the background of most Bush administration foreign policy types that Prof. Habeck's background is in studies of Russian and the former Soviet Union, not the Middle East or Islamic studies. Other experts, such as Douglas Streusand, Islamic historian and professor of military history at American Military University, UCLA law professor Khaled Abu El Fadl, and NPR's own commentator Anisa Mehdi (way back in January, 2005) disagree. They propose a different word--'hirabis,' which translates as 'brigands' or 'sinful warriors'--instead of 'jihadists' to refer to terrorists. It's a good idea, I think. Raz's report is quite interesting, and deserves a listen (or a read).

After doing some Googling of her name, Habek seems to me like another in a long line of 'experts' on the Middle East who have the ear of American policy makers, but who do not have sufficient training in Islamic history and languages to warrant their status as experts. And my cynical thought is that focus groups have told the Bush administration that 'jihadists' works best at scaring the American public, and that they'd much rather do that than use a word more likely to make the interests of the country clearer to Muslims. I would go a step further and say that there's something about the conservative Republican ideology that revels in the gratuitous insult, even if its counterproductive to the policies they claim to support, but that's another post.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Peace-niks must fight on

This article from the New York Times this morning, ''Antiwar' and Other Fighting Words,' repeats a theme common in media coverage these days: that Democrats are haunted by ghosts of their 1970s anti-war activism:
Democrats are torn between two visions of their history. Some potential candidates in the 2008 Democratic primary and many liberal activists argue that the Republican responsibility for the Iraq war has, in effect, freed the Democrats from Mr. McGovern’s legacy. They say the 2006 elections will provide a mandate for a new antiwar argument: that troops can be pulled from Iraq in order to shore up American security elsewhere in the world.

Other strategists and political scientists argue that the Iraq war has given the Democrats a different opportunity to lay to rest their McGovernite image, in part by rejecting calls for a quick withdrawal in Iraq.
There are two things wrong with this. The first is idea that the Democrats actually have a peace-nik hippie legacy. While it's true that modern-day peace-niks, if they choose to endorse one of the major parties, generally choose the Democrats over the Republicans, the major conflicts of the 20th century all began under Democratic administrations: Wilson in WWI, FDR in WWII, Truman in Korea, Kennedy and LBJ in Vietnam. Republicans for most of the twentieth century were the party of isolationism--leaving to the Old World to fight on its own the conflicts that were the product of its own moral turpitude. Indeed, as the article notes, peace-loving pre-Reagan Republicans tried to win votes by disparaging all those "Democrat wars." The McGovernite ghosts the party struggles with today are not the product of its actual history. Rather they were conjured up by years--a couple decades--worth of Republican rhetoric and media activism, at first carried on mostly under the radar of major media outlets, but eventually seeping into the national political consciousness to such an extent that their existence can be taken for granted by, for example, political writers from that paragon of the liberal media, the New York Times.

We might all be better off today if the Democratic party actually had a McGovernite policy legacy, as opposed to the faux-history created by the conservative backlash movement. American wars since WWII have all been fiascos on various scales: the failure to take seriously the threat of Chinese intervention in Korea; the quagmire of Vietnam; the various deployments against leftish governments in Central America that combined brief and poorly executed (yet ridiculously triumphed) uses of US troops with decades of 'low intensity' tragedy for citizens of the regimes we supported or sought to undermine; the invasion of Iraq in 1991 that left Saddam in power, the oil wells burning, and the shiites in the south, who we had urged to rebel, to die unaided.

The fiasco of the current Iraq war has been bad enough long enough that it has allowed Democrats an opportunity to get out from under the stereotype of effete hippiedom the conservative backlash has saddled them with. But the equation 'Democrat = Hollywood liberal, Taxachusetts, latte-drinking snob, flower child not serious about national security' is an irrational collection of cultural talismans, and it cannot be countered through rational argument and carefully calibrated policy positions. Only a movement similar in duration and sophistication to the one that created that equation, and plastered it all over the nation's public sphere, can do that. We may be seeing the beginning of such a movement recently, but it will probably take a long time--or a major national crisis--to reform the nation's political consciousness. If the Dem's win control of one or both houses of Congress in the upcoming election, even if they win the White House in 2008, their media campaign has to continue well beyond those points.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"Dominant Capital" and Mid-Eastern Conflict

While browsing a recent issue of Fernand Braudel Center's quarterly REVIEW, I came across an intriguing article by scholars Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, which led me to the extensive website of their writings: They write a lot about global capitalism, arguing that far from endangering the profits of large capitalists, the Iraq War and other Mid-Eastern conflicts have been engineered to raise oil prices and generate economic stagflation. In their view, the interests of "dominant capital" (i.e. the most powerful capitalists at any given time) can sometimes be directed towards "breadth" (expanding production or mergers/acquisitions) and at other times towards "depth" (squeezing the economy to gain differential power by losing less while everyone else loses even more, especially through oil price spikes). They identify a "petrodollar-weapondollar" coalition, which they have been writing about for a few decades now, while today this might seem quite a bit more plausible given world events. Anyway, I do recommend their writings, especially if you like lots of charts and graphs (cue ambivalent_maybe?) and enjoy following a fairly dense analysis that is quite insightful and original. I haven't made up my mind yet about their point of view, but it is making me think a lot, and I would be interested to know how others react to their work. On their website, they have a wide variety of writings, some brief articles from widely-read periodicals (see this Tikkun article for a brief overview of their perspective) to lengthier outlines of their theory of capitalism and power, as well as its application to real-world cases (including an entire book on the Global Political Economy of Israel), and even an angry reaction to what they see as the plagiarism of their work by the left-wing Retort collective. For those readers who are interested in theorizing capitalism--or just want to understand the crazy world we live in--I highly recommend the work of Bichler and Nitzan as food for thought.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Democrats? Hello?

So the horrific torture bill has passed, with some last-minute changes that make it more horrific still. Bush claims a victory, and McCain and Specter get to tout their willingness to stand up the chief executive, yet still give him basically all he asked for. That's how the legislation played out on the coverage I heard and read, anyway. Democrats were absent from the whole debate. I am not the first person, I'm sure, to howl at the continued cowardice of the Dems, as exemplified in this most recent episode. And I'm aware that the Democrats may have held press conferences and issued critical papers that the press I read didn't cover. Out of power in all branches of government, Democrats have few means at their disposal to substantially affect legislation favored by Republicans. So the press may have just ignored their bleatings. But it's more likely that Dems made a conscious choice to lay low, content to let the Republicans fire on one another before eventually arriving at the current bill. How clever, some may have thought--we've avoided taking a position on a bill that could be used to portray us as soft on terrorism. But if that was the thinking, it's completely, disasterously wrong. Democrats won't be taken seriously on national security issues by aping Republican positions in an attempt to appear 'tough.' They will be taken seriously when they start trying to play an active role in shaping national security policy. They may not have the ability to push through their own legislation, but the American people should damn well know that the Democrats *have* legislation they'd like to pass. (They do, don't they?) Holy flurking schnit! This whole torture bill affair was a completely Republican show. Anyone paying attention, whether they favored the bill, didn't favor it, or had no real opinion one way or the other, gained the correct impression that Republicans are running things down in Washington. Fine; it's their mess, let them have it. But media consumers also got the impression that the Democrats simply aren't interested in running things, at least things related to national security. I know that's not a correct impression, but I can't blame anyone for thinking it right. And to those tounge-cluckers who say things like, 'just a few weeks before an important election might not be a good time be perpetuating the idea that Democrats aren't serious about national security,' I would say that now, just a few weeks before an important election, is not a good time to run and hide from debates about critical issues of the moment! For God's sake, stand up in front of some cameras and microphones and at least act LIKE YOU ACTUALLY WANT TO DO SOMETHING FOR THIS COUNTRY!

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Scary News

Since I'm based in Berlin, I like to pay special attention to news about Germany. In this case, I was alarmed, but not completely surprised, to read the latest political news out of Mecklenburg-Lower Pomerania, which is the German province north of Berlin (formerly part of East Germany). The scary news is the continuing resurgence of the neo-Nazi party, officially called the "National Party of Germany" (abbreviated NPD in German). This is one of several German regions experiencing massive out-migration and lack of employment in the wake of deindustrialization (the region called Saxony-Anhalt, southwest of Berlin, is another, and in my own observation looked even bleaker on a trip through...As another scary point to add, these were the same regions labelled by some on both sides as containing "no-go zones" for people-of-color coming to the World Cup.) Of course, there are many complex reasons behind why people join these neo-fascist, xenophobic, and ultra-nationalist movements. But my own general theory--shared by many others, including some historians and social scientists--is that economically depressed areas tend to lose faith and confidence in moderate political parties. In such times, they turn to further Right or Left politics that more vigorously critique the existing system. (This happened on a large scale across the industrialized world during the 1930s.) I fervently hope that the Leftist parties in Germany can grow strong enough to provide a visible way of critiquing the system that depends on the quite valid (in my view, as a Leftist, of course) basis of the concentration of power in the hands of wealthy people and corporations, instead of ceding the ground of theorizing economic disaffection to the intellectually and morally toxic far-right fascists who stir up hatred of whole groups of people. Unfortunately, the German Left is divided at the moment. The center-left party (SDP, the traditional party of labor), who enacted a moderately pro-business, Clinton-style regime under Gerhard Schroeder, now have joined with the leading center-right party in a "grand coalition" government under Angela Merkel. The new "Left" party (PDS), formed from an alliance of dissident SDP members disgruntled with its pro-business turn and the former East German socialist party, espouses many worthwhile ideas but is distrusted by much of mainstream Germany because of its unsavory associations with the East German regime. (In any event, SDP and Left party leaders seem to hate each other's guts.) The Greens are perhaps the best alternative, but their commendable positions on working-class issues were often subordinated to environmental priorities when they negotiated their part in the previous coalition government with the SDP. Now it would be folly to think that support for neo-Nazis would suddenly evaporate if a viable left-wing alternative came to the fore, but I do think it is essential to offer a credible and vigorous critique that focuses on the injustices of the system itself and not particular groups of people, such as non-whites, immigrants, Jews, or Muslims. Extreme nationalism and fascism are scary things, and in the world today they are experiencing a very worrisome revitalization.

One final comment on a completely different scary subject: spinach contaminated with E. coli in the USA. Here's the latest: "Federal health officials last night linked a deadly E. coli outbreak in bagged spinach products to a California farm company that sells organic produce in 74 percent of the country's grocery stores." If this is true, I wonder if this means that the industrialization of organic agriculture is finally coming home to roost. Observers of the organic-food scene (and I'm a strong supporter) have been noticing the trend of the increasingly popularity of organic food leading to much larger scale operations. As Julie Guthman points out in her sharp sociological study of California organic agriculture, Agrarian Dreams, organic agriculture is coming more and more to resemble conventional agriculture in its bigness, capital intensivity, labor exploitation, etc. The big agribusiness producers and supermarket chains have gotten in on the game. The organic ideal of the small family farmer using sustainable practices that are good for both people and the land seems to be fading, unfortunately. Maybe this is a wake-up call for the organic sector and those of us who support it?

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Focusing on the Big Picture: Wallerstein's Commentaries

As the 5th anniversary of 11 September 2001 approaches, lots of bloggers and other commentators are writing either in proper commemoration of the sacrifices made by so many on that fateful day or, alternatively, criticizing the disgusting way that the Bush-Cheney Administration has tried to gain political benefit from the September 11th attacks. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these approaches, but I feel that I have little to add that isn't being said elsewhere.

Therefore, I wonder if I can offer something a little different, something to draw our attention to the bigger picture. One of my favorite intellectuals of the late 20th century is Immanuel Wallerstein, whose multi-volume series on "The Modern World-System" begun in the 1970s has been enormously influential in the halls of Academia. Wallerstein has challenged us to think about major developments in world history--especially concerning the rise and spread of capitalism--not as events happening within national boundaries but as part of a larger, interconnected world-system that links together people from very different places and in very different economic circumstances.

It must be said that Wallerstein's scholarship--a kind of hybrid historical social science that attempts to erase boundaries between sociology, economics, and politics--initially appealed mainly to university scholars who (at least in part) could follow his dense, probing, and sophisticated analysis. Over the years, however, Wallerstein has written increasingly for a wider audience. Hallmarks have included his recent, slim introduction to world-systems analysis for the novice, and especially his biweekly series of "Commentaries" on current events, often placing them in historical perspective, which appear on the website of the research institute he founded and directed (until very recently) at Binghamton University in New York, the Fernand Braudel Center (FBC).

For this blog, it is these Commentaries that I wish to commend to readers, since they are easily available on-line (click here for a direct link) at the FBC website. Every two weeks, he offers a new brief but thoughtful Commentary, roughly the length of an op-ed piece. He writes with a kind of knowing, detached omniscience that may at first seem strange. They have a certain "realpolitik" quality to them, which seems to say "this is what is really happening whether you like it or not." His ideas are often against the mainstream grain, but they are almost always well informed about the big picture.

Many of Wallerstein's recent Commentaries have focused on the role of the U.S. in world affairs, which seems a fitting big-picture theme for thinking about the larger context of 9/11. His latest one, "The Tiger at Bay: Scary Times Ahead," considers the declining influence of the U.S., which he has long seen as predictable but now accelerated by Bush-Cheney policies and actions. He then ruminates on the likely reaction of the "Cheney cabal" to the increasingly likely Democratic electoral success in 2006, ending with the following provocation: "Everyone worries about civil war in Iraq. How about in the United States? Scary times ahead!"

Thursday, August 24, 2006

"Dance like a Caucasoid girl!"

Osama bin Laden is not only the shadowy leader of a world-wide network of ruthless terrorists, he is also a big fan of Whitney Houston, Van Halen, and the TV series "The Wonder Years." This according to Kola Boof, who has just published her autobiography in which she recounts her year as the captive lover of OBL. You can read an excerpt in Harper's, and catch a few more details from the coverage in the Daily Mail. Osama bin Laden expert Peter Hagen has tried to poor cold water on Boof's allegations by, for example, pointing out that two of the people Boof supposedly had a group sexual encounter with were dead at the time. But Boof's publisher assures the public that she and Boof "happen to know they're very much alive."

But what's really got me worried is what Osama's favorite TV shows are. No, not the 'Wonder Years'--I mean the other one: MacGyver! The thought of Osama bin Laden learning the explosives secrets of MacGyver means that no airliner in the world is safe until all fire extinguishers, wooden spoons, bamboo shoots and mud (and a whole lot of other stuff) is banned from carry-on luggage. Probably it should all be banned from checked baggage, too, just to be safe.

Until these modest, completely sane steps are taken, I, like Kola Boof, will be hearing "Rock Lobster" in my sleep. For me it will be a constant, hard-rock warning that we're not safe as long as MacOBL is out there.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Signing statements: Have they had any effect on law enforcement?

The NPR show Fresh Air this evening had an interview with Boston Globe reporter Charlie Savage, revisiting his April, 2006, article about president Bush's unprecedented use of signing statements. You can listen to that segment of the show on I was waiting for the interviewer to ask what effect the signing statements have had on federal law enforcement. But he didn't, and so I'm left still wondering whether these statements matter or not.

Bush's signing statements are clearly another way he has attempted to greatly expand the powers of the president, and another aspect of his administration's 'unitary executive' theory, which holds that the president's powers as head of the executive branch and as commander in chief of the armed forces cannot be limited by Congress, and that the president has the authority to judge the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress. In effect, some argue, Bush's signing statements are like a line-item veto that cannot be overturned by Congress nor reviewed by the courts.

Well, maybe... I certainly don't like the signing statements, and believe the 'unitary executive' theory as it's been construed by this administration is a grave threat to the constitution. What the statements can and cannot do need to be clearly defined by Congress and the courts. But can anyone point out an example of where a federal agency has not enforced a law passed by Congress because of a signing statement? And if any agency did that, couldn't they be sued for not enforcing the law, thereby bringing the signing statement (and perhaps the whole principle of signing statements) before the courts?

Without any examples of the detrimental effects of these statements, they seem pernicious more for the principle they embody than for any real force they have in law.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

MPG and MPH, 1973-98

This should actually be a comment on Christian_Left's previous post on speed limits, but Blogger won't let me embed an image in a comment (dammit). So go back and read his post and its other comments before you read this, okay?

Looking again at the web page CL linked to in his post, I noticed that they do give sources for their data at the bottom of the page. For fuel efficiency they cite a study published in 1999, which I could not find online. But data from one done by the same authors, with the same title, in 1997-8 was available (probably it's the same study; you can download a PDF of the data here [chapter 7, p. 26], or see an image of the relevant table by clicking here). Using that data I constructed this graph:

So studies on peak efficiency have been regularly repeated, but the most recent data is probably from 1997-98 model year cars. The peak efficiency for that year is 32.4 mpg in the 50-55 mph range. So 55 is still the peak, as far as we know, though peak efficiency speeds have been increasing: it was the 35-40 range in 1984, and 30-40 (the lowest speeds tested) in 1973.

It's also depressing to note, however, that the fuel efficiency at peak speeds has decreased from 33.6 mpg in 1984, to 32.4 in 1997-8.

The one good thing about Israel's second invasion of Lebanon

Just when you thought the Bush administration couldn't possibly screw up US foreign policy in the Middle East any more than they already had, they surprise you once again by abetting the Israeli invasion of Lebanon (with some neo-cons encouraging them to widen the war by attacking Syria and maybe Iran, too). As bad as the US position in the region before the Israeli invasion, it's now worse. Arab extremists have one more example of US/Israeli aggression to use as a recruiting tool, and Hezbollah, by virtue of not only surviving the invasion but by putting up surprisingly stiff resistance to the Israeli army, has increased its prestige in the Arab world.  I certainly hope that the ceasefire agreement voted by the UN holds, and that the bombs, shells and rockets will no longer be killing people in Israel and Lebanon. But war has been a disaster for the already dim prospects for peace in the region.

One good thing though: The brazen hypocrisy of US policy toward Lebanon--hailing the newly elected government as proof that the invasion of Iraq had indeed ushered in a new phase of democratic development in the region, and then hurrying to ship to Israel bombs and missiles to destroy the country, while publicly delaying diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire--might have finally knocked Condoleeza Rice off the pedestal the US press had put her on since her ascension to Secretary of State. She had been portrayed as bringing a new realism and pragmatism to Bush foreign policy, but her absurd comments and diplomatic dithering after the Israeli air strikes began have severely damaged her image. She had somehow emerged from the White House without the taint of failure from the Iraq misadventure, blame for which was largely heaped on Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their cronies. Now she’s knee-deep in the Big Muddy along with the rest of them. If only they weren't dragging the rest of the country along with them.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Maybe We Should Lower the Speed Limit

I'm back in my old home state, Nebraska, right now. As I was driving on the central expressway corridor, Interestate 80--commonly called "I-80" by locals, not "The 80" as locals might say in southern California--I was thinking about how much gas people (including me) were wasting driving the 75-MPH which is the posted speed limit. Now, estimates vary, but it seems that most auto efficiency websites claim that fuel efficiency for most cars decreases above 55 or 60 MPH, and especially above 65 MPH.

Back when I was growing up, I remember that speed limits were raised from 65 to 75 MPH. Even though the change was popular, I remember being opposed at the time on the basis of safety considerations. To the best of my knowledge, such safety concerns are still valid: it is not so much that people have more accidents, although perhaps they do, but the higher speed inevitably makes such accidents more deadly. But now I wonder if it may be the high gas prices--and, more fundamentally, worries about dwindling oil supplies and global warming--might lead us to reconsider our love affair with high speed limits in America.

I experimented a little yesterday, driving between 60 and 70 MPH whenever possible, but I found that I often had to increase my speed temporarily to 75 in order to avoid creating a traffic bottleneck. Much as I believe in fuel efficiency, I am not willing to make a total pest out of myself on the road, nor am I willing to risk being rear-ended by some extra large pick-up truck or SUV. So that makes me wonder if it is time to broach the taboo topic of LOWERING speed limits. Now, I know that flies in the face of the American entitlement for high consumption and speed...but I still think maybe this time of high and rising gas prices might be a good time to raise the issue.

For its part, the government's own fuel efficiency website has a nice graph showing the huge fuel wastage that usually occurs as you approach 75 MPH. (If you've ever paid attention when going really fast on expressways, you must have noticed this too--I couldn't fail to notice when I had to refill my gas tank after 350 as opposed to 450 miles when driving on high-speed interestates!) However, I do find it somewhat comical that the website places this information under the heading "Observe the Speed Limit." They must not have been to Nebraska (or Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Utah, or Wyoming--and those are only the ones with 75 MPH) lately. If one drove the speed limit in these states, one would be quite on the far right edge of that disastrously plunging graph. Now I realize that many of these states have long, "boring" expanses of open highway, but will it really kill us all to get where we are going a little bit later? Especially considering that we could save a lot of money on gas by slowing down a bit? I suggest that we consider lowering our speed limits to 65 MPH to save energy, money, and lives.