November 28, 2006

Blind Audits

Let's recount. Wal-Mart contracts with Chinese factories and tells them to make stuff as cheaply as possible. The factories start violating labor laws in order to cut corners and keep costs down. People get upset at all the worker abuses. So Wal-Mart announces that it will start inspecting its factories. But in the end, the factories just find ever more creative ways to conceal their abuses:
Wal-Mart had already on three occasions caught Beifa paying its 3,000 workers less than China's minimum wage and violating overtime rules, Tang says. Under the U.S. chain's labor rules, a fourth offense would end the relationship.

Help arrived suddenly in the form of an unexpected phone call from a man calling himself Lai Mingwei. The caller said he was with Shanghai Corporate Responsibility Management & Consulting Co., and for a $5,000 fee, he'd take care of Tang's Wal-Mart problem. "He promised us he could definitely get us a pass for the audit," Tang says.

Lai provided advice on how to create fake but authentic-looking records and suggested that Beifa hustle any workers with grievances out of the factory on the day of the audit, Tang recounts. The consultant also coached Beifa managers on what questions they could expect from Wal-Mart's inspectors, says Tang. After following much of Lai's advice, the Beifa factory in Ningbo passed the audit earlier this year, Tang says, even though the company didn't change any of its practices.
The audits aren't working? Shocking. So now some American companies are experimenting with other methods, such as banding together to create a single set of labor standards, or giving factories more time to become compliant so as not to "drive violations underground," but the constant pressure to cut costs, along with the lack of decent labor enforcement in China, all but guarantees that these things will accomplish very little, although here's an interview with one official at the ILO who seems to think brand-name companies really can reform labor practices in China on their own. I don't buy it, but that's the pro-corporate side of things.
-- Brad Plumer 6:40 PM || ||
War and Peace in Darfur

Alex de Waal's London Review of Books article on the prospects for piece in Darfur is, quite appropriately, long and complex, with a few things worth pointing out. Right from the very start, de Waal writes, "Military intervention won't stop the killing. Those who are clamouring for troops to fight their way into Darfur are suffering from a salvation delusion." Sudan, on this view, is undergoing a civil war between rebel groups that want autonomy and a central government that isn't too keen on this idea. Only a political agreement can end what amounts to a genocidal counterinsurgency campaign.

The previous attempt at negotiations, revolving around the Darfur Peace Agreement, ended badly when several rebel groups refused to sign. But de Waal, who mediated those discussions, insists that "the political differences are small," and an agreement can still be reached. Importantly, though, some rebel leaders seem to have balked at signing back in 2005 and decided to continue the fight precisely because they believed that an international force would soon storm into Sudan and help them secure their independence. Why compromise, after all, when the cavalry is just over the horizon?

It's hard to tell whether any of the rebel groups still believe this, and are now sustaining the conflict mainly in the hopes that NATO will intervene on their behalf. That's plausible, though hardly certain. Still, if that's the case, and if there's exactly zero chance that NATO will ever intervene, then the current calls for Western military intervention may actually be, in a bit of grim and perverse irony, helping to prolong the conflict. But, again, there's not really enough conclusive evidence behind that charge.

Now as de Waal describes it, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir doesn't want to allow UN troops into the country because he's afraid that "would in effect bring about a separation of Darfur from the rest of the country." And that, in turn, could convince the pro-separatist factions in southern Sudan to restart their own fight for independence, after having just wound down an extremely bloody twenty-year civil war. Khartoum, meanwhile, is extremely suspicious of U.S. intentions in Sudan, with several officials believing that "the Americans want to give Darfur to Chad," even though this isn't actually true.

That obviously doesn't make it okay that the Sudanese government, using its state-backed militias, has been butchering women and children by the hundreds of thousands. No one should think that. But it does indicate that sending in NATO troops, without Khartoum's consent, to fight on behalf of Darfuri rebels seeking independence won't actually save lives and might actually cause even more chaos and deaths. De Waal thinks the United States should instead focus primarily on helping to resuscitate peace talks as the surest way to save lives. I'm curious what pro-intervention voices—including Eric Reeves, who has included de Waal on a short list of "those who know Darfur best"—have to say on this point.
-- Brad Plumer 12:14 PM || ||

November 27, 2006

Abolish the Stop Sign?

A few small European towns are abolishing their traffic signs and seeing a decline in accidents as a result, according to Der Spiegel. The theory is that drivers tend to ignore the vast majority of signs anyway, and going sign-free will encourage people to slow down, pay more attention, and be more courteous on the road. Note that this is the basic theory behind the libertarian approach to just about everything. But in this instance, it actually might work.

Now granted, my first thought was that this could only ever work in small towns, but maybe that's wrong, too. Here's a very interesting article from two years back on the movement to do away with stop signs and traffic lights here in the United States. Souzhou, a city of 2.2 million people in China, apparently has no traffic rules whatsoever, and, at least anecdotally, traffic accidents are relatively rare, although I don't know if that's the case for that rest of China. Maybe all that roadside chaos really does cause people to perk the hell up. Here's a mesmerizing video of a busy intersection in India, where, against all odds, traffic seems to flow without incident despite the absence of street signs.
-- Brad Plumer 4:43 PM || ||

Since the drive through Kansas is long and mostly eventless—save for a truly great record store in Lawrence—I managed to listen to a bunch of back-episodes of This American Life. Good stuff. Particularly good was a segment on Iraqi casualties, which featured a lengthy interview with Marc Garlasco, an analyst for Human Rights Watch. Garlasco used to do targeting for the Pentagon, and now he analyzes the fallout from those bombing runs, which makes him an interesting dude in his own right, but almost as an aside he brought up something that should really be a major story.

Basically, when Pentagon planners select targets to bomb, they figure out the value of the target and weigh it against the number of civilian casualties that might result. If, say, they want to take out a house where some suspected insurgent leader is sleeping, but there's a hospital next door, they might select a smaller bomb, alter the angle of attack, and basically fiddle with various factors in order to reduce the number of estimated casualties below a certain arbitrary number—I think thirty civilian deaths is the cutoff point for the occupation of Iraq. If the number is above the cutoff, then the Secretary of Defense and president need to sign off on the attack.

On some level, the military really does try to minimize casualties in these sorts of operations, but what's especially stunning is that the Pentagon never examines the aftermath of their attacks to see if their casualty projections actually panned out. So they have no way whatsoever of knowing whether their algorithms for estimating civilian deaths are accurate in the first place. They basically just guess. When the reporter asked military people why they didn't track civilian casualties, many of them seemed to shrug and say it was just their business to win wars. Maybe so, but then it's also quite clear that the United States isn't doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. Not even close. Recklessness would be a better word.

P.S. Garlasco, as it happens, was also the Human Rights Watch analyst who was widely cited because he supposedly dismissed the original Lancet study on Iraqi casualties. But according to TAL, what actually happened was this: Garlasco got a call from a Washington Post reporter while riding a train. He protested that he hadn't seen the study and didn't actually know much about the statistical methods involved. But the reporter was on deadline and really, really needed a quote, so Garlasco basically said he guessed that the casualties figures seemed kind of high. That quote ended up in the paper, under a paragraph noting that "experts immediately challenged the new estimate." Journalism, needless to say, is truly awesome.
-- Brad Plumer 2:59 PM || ||
Why Not a Plug?

I was driving from one coast to the other last week, and didn't really check the internet at all, but apparently TNR put up an article I did on the prospects for climate-change legislation in the new Congress. Here's a registration-free link if anyone feels like reading it.
-- Brad Plumer 1:24 PM || ||
Bloating Machines

Writing in Harper's, Ken Silverstein points out that Ike Skelton, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, will be just as addicted to feeding the already-overfed defense budget and spending billions on utterly worthless projects like the B-2 bomber as his predecessor was. If one is inclined to follow the money trail, one will also find that "Skelton's entire political career has been funded by the same assortment of defense contractors that footed the bill for outgoing chairman Duncan Hunter."

Now I had basically assumed that everyone on the House Armed Services Committee receives a lot of money from defense contractors, but, in fact, that's not always the case. It is true for, say, John Spratt, Jr., but not for Ellen Tauscher or Lane Evans--to pick two other random Democrats on the committee. So it would be theoretically possible for someone without extensive ties to the defense industry to head up the committee. It just never seems to happen.

Anyway, I tend to think that drastically shrinking the defense budget ought to rank up there with getting out of Iraq, taking action on global warming and shoring up organized labor as a top priority for the new Democratic Congress, but I'll admit, I haven't the first clue how that could possibly come about. As a first step, perhaps it would be nice to have an Armed Services Committee that conducts actual oversight (as opposed to, say, this), or an actual audit of the Pentagon. But, again, it never seems to happen. I suppose if op-ed writers spent as much discussing the deranged state of the military's finances as they do fretting about minor problems with Social Security that may or may not materialize a half-century from now, we might actually get somewhere.
-- Brad Plumer 1:12 PM || ||

November 14, 2006

Carbon Tax in Practice

Hmmm... there was a good discussion about the carbon tax in comments a few posts back, so I thought I'd mention that Boulder, Colorado just became the first city in the country to adopt the carbon tax. These things, obviously, tend to be more effective as federal policies, since people always have the option of leaving Boulder, but it will be interesting to watch what ends up happening there.
-- Brad Plumer 11:57 PM || ||
The Way of the Gun

Here's a new report: "Conventional Arms Transfers to Developing Nations, 1998-2005." Normally I assume that pulling fingernails is a more enjoyable activity than reading anything with a title like that, but it's actually fairly fascinating. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States sold $33.3 billion worth of arms to developing countries between 2002 and 2005, or a third of the world's total. Russia and France were the other leading suppliers. Last year, the United States delivered $8.1 billion in weapons to poorer countries—more than any other nation.

What's noteworthy here is what the CRS concludes: Whereas most arms deals during the Cold War were inked to help bolster various foreign policy objectives, many arms deals today are motivated more by "economic considerations"—that is, to help support weapons manufacturers at home. Arms are being sold in bulk to developing countries in large part to help defense contractors stay afloat. Good deal. There's just one itsy bitsy problem: Many of those surplus weapons tend to find their way to the black market, and from there, it's on to conflict-ridden regions, where lots of people end up getting gunned down and killed.

After the Gulf War in 1991, various countries talked about trying to limit sales of weapons to the Middle East, seeing as how it was such a volatile region. So much for that. Last year, CRS found, the United States signed $6.2 billion worth of arms deals to countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. And an earlier report by the World Policy Institute found that, in 2003, the United States transferred $1 billion worth of weapons to 18 of 25 countries involved in an ongoing war—including Ethiopia, Chad, Angola, the Philippines, and Colombia. Not exactly a recipe for world peace and stability. And yes, Russia—whose arms industry is really hurting—Europe, and especially China are often even worse offenders.

The connection between arms deals and Third World conflict isn't always so straightforward. It's not as if the United States sells arms to Chad and instantly they find their way into the hands of the general public, though that sort of leakage does occur quite frequently. More importantly, as an Amnesty International study earlier this year detailed, the network of dealers and middlemen that has emerged as a result of the massive legal arms trade has morphed into a network that also sustains the illegal weapons trade. That's what helps fuel all the minor conflicts that get people killed—some 300,000 a year. It's all quite murky. One could write whole books, etc.

Meanwhile, the United States and Europe are fond of selling weapons to non-democracies with histories of human rights abuses, and the United States has opposed efforts at arms control in the United Nations. But contractors are happy. I guess I've done this rant a few times before, and it's depressing, so I'll stop. I do wish I could say there was a major political party in this country that was "good" on this issue, but that's not really the case.
-- Brad Plumer 11:45 PM || ||
Hawk or Crook?

My colleagues at The New Republic are appalled by the fact that Nancy Pelosi plans to elevate Alcee Hastings (right) over Jane Harman to head the House Intelligence Committee. Hastings, recall, is a former judge who was impeached because he took a bribe from mobsters in 1981. Harman, on the other hand, was just under investigation by the FBI for, it seems, illegally enlisting AIPAC's help to lobby for the job (in return, she allegedly promised to help ease the pressure on two former AIPAC officials arrested for espionage). Now I'm not sure why a 20-year-old scandal makes Hastings vastly dirtier than Harman, who may have been breaking the law as recently as last year, but that's the standard line.

Okay, that's misleading. What Hastings did was wrong, and there's apparently more dirt on him than just that one incident—he's come under scrutiny by all sorts of bodies for various improprieties. Then again, corruption comes in all shapes. One might be concerned, for instance, that Harman is in the pocket of all the major defense contractors, having raked in over $500,000 in defense money since 1989. Hastings, for his part, has taken... virtually nothing, and is mostly beholden to labor groups. I guess much depends on whether one thinks the head of intelligence oversight should be tight with military contractors or not. I tend to think not.

More substantively, Harman knows a lot about intelligence. She's very experienced. Very smart. But she's also very hawkish. She strongly supported the war in Iraq, although she's since made some pointed criticisms of both the occupation and the administration's warrantless spy program. But hawkishness is the main theme. Hastings, on the other hand, is a dedicated war opponent, and has accused the White House of both fabricating intelligence in the run-up to the Iraq invasion and ignoring federal law in its surveillance program. Both are pro-Israel, but Harman has much closer ties with AIPAC, which, in addition to the espionage business, has, I tend to think, a pernicious influence on American foreign policy.

Many people think that Pelosi only chose Hastings so as to placate black Democrats and settle a personal score with Harman. Maybe so. On the other hand, if people want an aggressive intelligence committee that will hound the White House at every turn—and, most critically, push back on whatever intelligence the administration tries to peddle to justify an attack on Iran—Hastings might actually be a better fit. He's more left-wing on foreign policy, a good deal more confrontational, and he doesn't have to answer to hawkish constituents like Harman does. But... at the end of the day, there's still the corruption. Republicans will have a field day with Hastings. A third option would be nice, but it's not clear that there even is one.
-- Brad Plumer 10:19 PM || ||

November 13, 2006

Water for Sale

The Economist wants to know: Should people be required to pay more for their water? Currently, a large number of developing countries massively subsidize water on the idea that water is a right, not a commodity. The neo-liberal argument in favor of pricing sounds fairly persuasive on its face:
Whether or not water is a right, it is also a commodity which... is costly to provide. If those costs are not covered, water will not be supplied. Moreover, unlike most human rights, a litre of H2O enjoyed by one person cannot be consumed by anyone else. If some people underpay and overconsume the stuff, there will be less of it for others.
The United Nations Development Programme has gotten on board with this idea, in its most recent report, which notes that 1.1 billion people lack access to clean water, that 1.8 million children die each year from diarrhea, and increasing prices in some places would lead to better rationing and fairer distribution. The Economist goes even further, suggesting that private companies should be allowed to manage water supplies. Governments, of course, would have to offer subsidies for the poor so that they could afford all this newly-expensive water. No word on whether this would actually happen, though.

There are two different issues here—pricing and privatization. The second has been a disaster in the past. Private water-management companies aren't always more efficient than public utilities, for one. When Bechtel and Suez, a French company, won contracts to manage the abysmal waterworks in Manila in 1997, everyone hoped they would take care of the filthy pipes and rampant shortages. At first, there were some improvements. In more recent years, shortages have returned, pipes are dirty again, and the corporations have jacked up water rates dramatically. It's all quite mixed: Things got better for some people, worse for others.

Overly rapid price increases are the biggest problem with privatization. In 2001, the government of Ghana agreed to sell off its water supply in order to receive an IMF loan. Water rates bolted upwards, and in some cases reached $110—this in a country where the annual income was less than $400. Advocates of price increases will claim that taxpayer money that had once been spent subsidizing the utilities can now be given to the poor, to let them afford water. Sort of like how the winners of free trade can "theoretically" compensate the losers. In the real world, that doesn't always happen. Same thing in Bolivia.

Chile seems to be one exception. Water has been privatized, and poor households receive a check from the government that covers up to 85 percent of the monthly water bill. By the UNDP's account, it works pretty well. (Here's a strong dissent.) But "such an approach requires a government that can identify the poor, and a firm that can meter their consumption." In places such as Ghana, or Bangladesh, or even India, that's not always feasible. More common is the horror story in South Africa, where, after privatization, corporations shut off the water in millions of households to force people to pay. Most of those people didn't get subsidies; they got a massive cholera outbreak instead.

Water is, of course, a big business. According to a useful Fortune article on the topic, the private water industry is already half as large as the oil industry—and only about 5 percent of the world's water has been turned over to private owners so far. Intentionally or not, the IMF has helped corporations get their hands on some of this business, by telling countries like Ghana to sell off their water utilities if they want to receive loans. Sometimes certain regions benefit—as with Buenos Aires. Sometimes it's quite the opposite.

The way I see it, governments don't need to sell off their water supplies to put perfectly good conservation programs in place. Here's a list of alternatives to privatization, all of which focus on providing universal access to water and sanitization, and none of which require auctioning off water utilities to private companies or raising prices to painful levels. Foreign aid would help too. It's a tricky issue, though. And while I'm at it, I may as well recommend Michael Specter's excellent New Yorker piece on the prospect of a global water shortage, although he doesn't really discuss privatization.
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 PM || ||
Murtha? Really?

I'm all for getting the United States out of Iraq, the sooner the better. And it's nice that an outspoken war opponent like Jack Murtha wants to become the House Majority Leader, it really is. But, you know, my antiwar heart isn't exactly swooning over statements like this one:
"The big problem in the Middle East is Iran," Murtha said. "We went to the wrong place."
That was less than a month ago. Maybe I'm misinterpreting him and he's not really saying that we ought to be attacking Iran instead, but it sure sounds like that. Murtha has, in the past, always planted both feet firmly in hawk territory, consistently voting yes on war and yes on outsized Pentagon budgets. More recently, a bunch of officers turned against the war in Iraq, so he turned against the war too. But his instincts are still very much militaristic. There's also his history of undermining Democrats, as seen in this New York Times profile :
As the top Democrat on the House military spending subcommittee, [Murtha] often delivers Democratic votes to Republican leaders in a tacit exchange for [defense] earmarks for himself and his allies.

In the last year, Democratic and Republican floor watchers say, Mr. Murtha has helped Republicans round up enough Democratic votes to narrowly block a host of Democratic proposals: to investigate federal contracting fraud in Iraq, to reform lobbying laws, to increase financing for flood control, to add $150 million for veterans’ health care and job training, and to exempt middle-class families from the alternative minimum tax.
So the House Majority Leader will either be Steny Hoyer, who plans to rekindle the long-lost love affair between the Democratic Party and corporate lobbyists, or Jack Murtha, whose foremost priority appears to be an expansion of the national-security state, at the expense of all else. Quite the choice!

Ezra Klein argues that liberals shouldn't worry too much about Murtha's conservative record—or his scandal-filled past—because he'll mostly take his marching orders from Nancy Pelosi. Ezra may be right, but that's not what the Times profile suggests. Now granted, many of Murtha's right-wing stances—say, his "F" rating from NARAL—while horrendous, might not matter much in practice, because Pelosi will set the domestic policy agenda in the House, not Murtha. But on national security, he likely would have inordinate influence, because of Pelosi's relative lack of experience there, and that, ironically, could be the most troublesome thing about him.
-- Brad Plumer 1:05 PM || ||

November 12, 2006

Cave Graffiti or Art?

Right, let's settle this once and for all. What are those cave paintings about? The ancient ones, I mean. What do they say? Why were they done? What the deuce? William McNeill recounts one explanation in the New York Review of Books—that of zoologist R. Dale Guthrie, who says that most of the paintings were probably scrawled on the walls by young adolescents, and are mostly pretty puerile:
The other evidence Guthrie offers is the subject matter of the graffiti that survive abundantly but have attracted scant attention since they lack significant artistic value. Crude, sometimes unfinished or corrected outlines of animal forms are numerous; so are images of male and especially of female sexual organs—exactly what adolescent boys would be most acutely interested in.

Guthrie then devotes an entire chapter to explaining the effects of testosterone on human consciousness and behavior and imagining how small groups of boys, emancipated from their mothers' supervision, spent surplus energy and spare time in risky, scary caves, leaving behind innumerable scratch marks and painted images that expressed their adolescent hopes and fears.
Hmmm. Or maybe cave paintings were the equivalent of modern-day bathroom graffiti: you're taking a leak, you're bored, you've got a bit of chalk, might as well scribble something with your free hand. Most of the paintings were done in relatively remote caves, small and dark, after all. Paleolithic latrines? But no, okay. Here's what seems to be McNeill's preferred explanation, a bit more high-minded:
Everyone agrees that many of the masterworks of cave art were constructed around preexisting marks and curves on natural surfaces. In that sense, we can say that human intervention did not create the animals. Instead, it assisted them to emerge from the stone, just as newborns emerged from their mothers' wombs, ready to provide a disembodied spirit with a new home.

This is not art as we know it. Nor was the most impressive cave painting the work of adolescent boys. Rather, it seems to me likely that adult hunting parties sought to make peace with dispossessed animal spirits by bringing all those surprisingly accurate images of horses, bison, and mammoths to birth in the warm darkness of the caves, so the spirits of animals they had slain could find safe and lasting homes.
Here's an earlier news account of Guthrie's theory, which sounds plausible enough, although it's not like I would really know one way or the other.
-- Brad Plumer 11:33 PM || ||
Coal-Mine Massacres

By any standard, this is a stunning report:
Almost every single one of the 320 workers killed in U.S. coal mines in the last decade didn’t have to die, according to a six-month investigation of coal mine safety in America.

Nearly nine of every 10 fatal coal-mining accidents in the last decade could have been avoided if existing regulations had been followed, according to a Sunday Gazette-Mail study of MSHA reports.
But I guess it's not surprising. Coal mine operators have no incentive at all to follow "existing regulations," because they face only minor penalties if they fail to do so. Both OSHA and its mining counterpart, MSHA, are notoriously lax: In 2003, a New York Times investigation found that OSHA declined to seek criminal prosecution in more than 93 percent of cases, between 1982 and 2002, in which a worker died due to a "willful" violation of an OSHA standard. Manslaughter, one might say. At least 70 employers who got off scot-free then violated the standards again, resulting in even more worker deaths. Willie Horton had nothing on these folks.

So instead, the regulatory agencies hand out fines. A fine here. A fine there. The maximum fine levied by OSHA or MSHA comes to about $70,000. In practice most penalties are much, much smaller. Sago Mine, where 13 miners died in an explosion last year, had had 273 violations on the books. $100 per fine, on average. A pittance. Coal mine operators don't even need to bother following safety rules—it's cheaper to pay the fine. About 6,000 workers die in workplace accidents each year—presumably a large portion of employers in those cases decide it's cheaper to pay the fine, too. And the agencies are understaffed anyway. Can't catch everything.

In the old days, coal miners could strike if workplace standards weren't being enforced. Then—if I'm not mistaken—the Supreme Court ruled in 1974 that courts could enjoin workers who walked out of the job because of unsafe working conditions. They had to go to "arbitration," which is about as effective as it sounds. So now it's up to a few hapless agencies in Washington to handle worker safety. Pay no attention to the fact that the White House has repeatedly tried to cut MSHA's budget, put a top coal executive in charge of the agency, and withdrawn seventeen mining safety standards since 2001.

And it's funny, over 90 percent of Americans favor "enforcing workplace safety and health regulations." You can't get 90 percent of Americans to agree on anything. But they agree on this. Yet the Bush administration made the repeal of OSHA's ergonomics standards one of its first orders of business after ascending the throne in 2001. How'd they get away with it? Probably because most people don't have a clue what OSHA even is, and without a healthy labor movement, there's not really a focused voice in favor of ergonomic standards. That's my guess.
-- Brad Plumer 6:24 PM || ||

November 11, 2006

Fun with Carbon Taxes

Mark Kleiman argues that we need a carbon tax to avert global warming and give people incentives to adopt less energy-intensive lifestyles. But because new taxes are such a radioactive thing to propose, and because a gas tax would be fairly regressive, Kleiman says Congress should push to replace Social Security taxes with carbon taxes. "Kill two birds with one stone." Back when Al Gore proposed the same thing, Nick Beaudrot did a rough estimate about what this would entail:
The US produced roughly 6 million metric tons of CO2 last year. Social Insurance taxes brought in $733 Billion in revenue. A gallon of gas produces 20 pounds of CO2. The math says ... $.06 per pound of CO2, or $1.20 per gallon of gas. Pre-2004, gas was about $4.50/gal US in Europe, and below $2.00/gal in most of the States.
Most workers would see a $5,000 per year raise alongside all that. That sounds reasonable, and it probably would be a decent sell politically, although note that Nick's only making calculations for the first year. If the carbon tax works as it should, then, at some point in the future, it will cause a reduction in emissions, which means, at some point in the future, revenue from the carbon tax would start shrinking—and that could put Social Security and Medicare on a rickety footing. So I'd like to see a long-run estimate done.

Plus, as a general rule, it seems sloppy to connect two totally unrelated policies in this way. Assume we need to raise carbon taxes by X amount to stave off global warming. There's no reason whatsoever why X will also be the exact same amount needed to finance Social Security. So the government could end up either raising too much money for one purpose or too little for the other if it wants to stay "revenue neutral." Why not instead just combine a carbon tax with a refundable tax credit and leave Social Security alone. The effect could be roughly the same, no?

Solvency aside, I'd also be worried about severing the connection between payroll taxes and Social Security—as we saw two years ago, the current "pay as you go" financing structure makes the program extremely hard to hack up or mess with, since it helps foster the idea that Social Security is a universal social insurance program, paid for more or less equally by all. Not so with a carbon tax. It wouldn't take long for conservatives to point out that the retirement funds for latte-sipping MUNI-riders in San Francisco are being paid by pickup-truck drivers in the "heartland." They'd sort of be right. Anyway, I'm not saying Gore's idea is terrible, I'm just pointing out some issues.

Update: Hmm... Gar Lipow points out that, in any case, a carbon tax won't necessarily lead to dramatic carbon emissions, because that's something that will take "fundamental infrastructure changes," which need to be directed by the government, rather than price signals. "Carbon taxes will have their place," he says, "after infrastructure is in place, and people have real alternatives available." Along those lines, I should note, Nancy Pelosi has promised that one of Congress' first acts will be to cut oil subsidies and spend the money on alternative energy research and production.
-- Brad Plumer 12:31 PM || ||

November 10, 2006


Okay, in general I have no intention of offering "advice" to the Democratic Party, but it seems like Dick Morris (of all people) is making a shrewd point here:
The Democrats, for their part, will use their new House majority to plague the administration with investigations. While the left would be appeased by investigations into why we invaded Iraq in the first place, it is financial scandals that will do the greatest damage to Bush and the Republicans.

Democratic committee chairmen will examine Halliburton contracts in Iraq, royalty deals for offshore oil drilling, defense procurement scandals, and resource leases in national forests and wilderness areas. They will examine the nexus between campaign contributions and favors from the trough of the executive branch.
From a pragmatic standpoint, this advice seems quite sound. Yes, it would be nice to have hearings right away on the administration's conduct in Iraq, or on its warrant-less spying program. But the Bush administration will almost certainly, as Jeffrey Rosen has argued, resist any and all Democratic subpoenas, claiming executive privilege and the like. A constitutional crisis could ensue. Some liberals might welcome such a showdown—I could be convinced—but then again, the courts, stacked as they are with Bush appointees, might well favor the executive branch. It could turn into a disaster.

Alternatively, Democrats could tackle Republican corruption by first going after those corporations that have bankrolled the party and basically controlled the policy process for the past six years. Oil companies, after all, can't claim executive privilege and refuse to turn over their records or stop by for a nice little chat about Cheney's energy task force. Ditto for contractors in Iraq. First the little guys get subpoenas, and then the trail leads to the White House. And politically, one assumes it will be difficult for Republicans to tar Democrats for going after their corporate allies too aggressively.

Democrats might also consider investigating some of the faith-based groups that have, possibly, been laundering government funds for partisan purposes. They can't run and hide, either. Again, eventually the investigations will lead to the White house, but in the meantime, serious financial investigations—alongside lobbying reform legislation—could help smash up "the nexus between campaign contributions and favors from the trough of the executive branch." The K Street Project, in other words. On the other hand, my understanding is that a number of pro-business Democrats—the faction led by Steny Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel, for instance—are actually interested in feeding from that same K Street trough, rather than tearing it apart. So that could be one obstacle here.

Update: Looks like some people have much the same idea:
It is unclear how far chairmen like Mr. Rockefeller may push the administration to obtain more information about secret programs. The committee, like many others, has often degenerated into partisan rancor over the past two years, and Mr. Rockefeller, like other incoming chairmen, has told colleagues that one of his priorities is to restore the committee’s historic bipartisanship.

But there is unlikely to be much downside for the Democrats in going after waste and fraud in government contracting, particularly in the Iraq war, which is not only unpopular with the American public but also where corporate giants like Halliburton, Parsons and Bechtel have committed highly publicized missteps in the rebuilding program.
That via in an article about how Democrats are planning to restore the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which had been in charge of rooting out waste and fraud before Republicans decided to shut the whole thing down. Mind you, it seems unlikely that vigorous investigations into waste and fraud will actually improve the situation in Iraq, especially at this point, but that doesn't mean it's not worth doing.
-- Brad Plumer 7:05 PM || ||
First on the Agenda

Like Ezra Klein, I think the top of Congress' to-do list should include passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which will make it easier for unions to organize by authorizing card-check elections. (Jon Cohn made the case for card check here.) Granted, I'm not holding my breath, but if it does happen, then the follow-up move would be to find some way to reverse the National Labor Relations Board's recent Kentucky River ruling about when to classify workers as "supervisors," which, if it's allowed to stand, could easily annul whatever positive effects card check might have.

A brief recap: The Taft-Hartley Act, passed by Congress in 1947, aimed to cripple organized labor by, among other things, declaring that only workers who weren't "supervisors" could join unions. At the time, corporations were genuinely terrified by the onrush of factory foremen who were starting to organize, and so their cronies in Congress declared that any worker with the authority to "hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward or discipline other employees" couldn't join a union. As a result, millions of white-collar "middle management" workers who might have swelled labor's ranks were prevented from organizing.

Anyway, the supervisor clause makes it relatively simple for companies to thwart unionization drives—they can, for instance, offer certain employees a modicum of "supervisory" duties and make them ineligible. I've seen it done many times. To facilitate this, corporations have tried for years to broaden the definition of "supervisor," so that more and more workers would become ineligible to join unions. The recent decisions by the Republican-dominated NLRB do just that, basically allowing employers to make a supervisor out of any worker who assigns or directs other workers and exercises independent judgment. There's loads of flexibility in that definition, and EPI estimates that the ruling could prevent some 8 million new workers from joining unions, maybe more.

In a card-check election, a workplace would become unionized if a majority of eligible workers sign a card saying they want a union. Simple. (The current process involves NLRB-run elections that can take years and are vulnerable to employer manipulation.) But if employers can "promote" workers out of the union at will, or reduce the number of union-eligible workers in the first place, then card-check elections become much less effective. Personally, I'd like Congress to repeal most of Taft-Hartley—if middle-managers want to unionize, there's no reason why they shouldn't—but in the immediate future, dealing with the Kentucky River decisions would make for a nice start. I honestly don't know if Democrats have the votes to pull that off, though.
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||

November 09, 2006

Lame Duck

Okay, then. From the looks of things, the president wants the lame-duck Congress to ram through as much legislation as humanly possible over the next few weeks, while Republicans still control the House and the Senate:
THE PRESIDENT: ... First order of business is for Congress to complete the work on the federal spending bills for this year, with strong fiscal discipline, and without diminishing our capacity to fight the war on terror.

Another important priority in the war on terror is for the Congress to pass the Terrorist Surveillance Act. We also need to pass the bipartisan energy legislation that's now before Congress. And on the foreign policy front, we need to complete the work on legislation that will allow us to cooperate with India on civilian nuclear technology and pass trade legislation that will enable us to recognize Vietnam as a member of the WTO.
That's right--voters thoroughly reject their Republican overlords at the polls and those overlords get... a few more months to pass all the bills they can, without fear of retribution. Needless to say, a large number of outgoing politicians who will vote for, say, that "bipartisan energy legislation" (read: corporate bonanza) will never face any sort of accountability for their vote, save, of course, for whatever lobbying jobs await them when they leave. Whatever else one wants to say about the Constitution, surely the provision for a long lame-duck session is its most senseless feature.
-- Brad Plumer 5:47 PM || ||

November 08, 2006

Viva, Las Vegas

Lately, I've been looking for signs of organized labor trying to increase its influence within the Democratic Party. The Los Angeles Times has noticed another. Now that Nevada has become an early state in the revamped presidential primary schedule, the hotel and service unions in Las Vegas will almost certainly play an outsized role in the 2008 Democratic primaries. I imagine this bodes well for labor-friendly candidates such as John Edwards and Tom Vilsack, but it certainly means that union issues will get as much attention as ethanol subsidies traditionally do.

Nevada, interestingly enough, has a fairly high union density—15.1 percent, higher than the national average of 12.5 percent—despite having "right-to-work" laws on the books, which allow an employee to quit the union at her workplaces or refuse to pay dues without losing her job. Businesses love these laws; unions rightly claim that they weaken collective bargaining. All of the other 21 right-to-work states have low union densities, and many of them are in the Deep South, where organized labor is practically non-existent. Strangely enough, Nevada—and only Nevada—has bucked this trend, and it's still adding members at a healthy clip.

I've always supposed that this is because service industries are expanding rapidly in Las Vegas and Reno, and most of the incoming hotels and casinos are companies that had already been unionized elsewhere. But Harold Meyerson reports that unions such as HERE were especially innovative about pressuring hotels to agree to "card check" elections during the 1980s and 90s. I imagine, too, that Nevada's union density would be much, much greater in the absence of right-to-work laws—according to the BLS, fifteen states still have higher densities than Nevada, although on first glance many of them seem to be places where public-sector unions are relatively powerful.
-- Brad Plumer 10:08 PM || ||
Robert Gates, Moderate?

Watching the cable channels this afternoon, everyone seemed to think Robert Gates will make a more "moderate" defense secretary than Donald Rumsfeld, and that President Bush has finally managed to muscle Dick Cheney aside in various intra-administration disputes on foreign policy. I'll believe it when I see it--it's probably way too early to write Cheney's obituary. But here are a few semi-encouraging tidbits: Michael Rubin has complained that Gates, from his perch on the Baker-Hamilton Commission on Iraq, is recommending engagement with Iran. Good. Also, there's this anecdote, courtesy of an old Prospect piece by Jason Vest:
In 1995 the CIA reported in a national intelligence estimate that a nuclear missile threat from a new foreign power was at least 15 years away. At this point, Rumsfeld acolyte Frank Gaffney, Jr., of the Center for Security Policy (CSP), mounted a campaign against the CIA's estimates; with the aid of right-wing congressional Republicans, he successfully pushed for the establishment of an outside group to provide an alternative assessment to the CIA's--in effect, another Team B.

This time, however, the team--headed by ex-CIA Director Robert Gates--essentially concurred with the national intelligence estimate. So Gaffney prevailed upon the minions of Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich for yet another assessment. Thus the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States was born, with Donald Rumsfeld as chair. Widely characterized as "bipartisan in its conclusions," the final Rumsfeld commission report was, for all intents and purposes, a Team B redux: The CIA, the report concluded, was wrong, and the very real threat of ICBM attack from a "rogue state" was at most five, not 15, years off. Such an event, said the report, could occur with "little or no warning."
"Gates: Less Wrong than Rumsfeld." I like it. Neoconservatives have long been obsessed with creating "Team B"s--shadow intelligence shops tasked with providing a more alarmist worldview than that on offer by the CIA. During the Ford administration, Cold War hawks created the original Team B, which concluded that the Soviet Union was spending a staggering amount on its military, that the CIA was downplaying the threat, and recommended a corresponding arms increase in the United States. There was only one problem: Their findings were totally wrong. Both Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz were associated with that earlier effort.

Years later, of course, Rumsfeld's Pentagon set up its own Team B during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq--the Office of Special Plans, charged with "aggressively questioning" the CIA's assessment of Saddam Hussein's weapons capacities. We know how that turned out. Alarmist intelligence has always been the hallmark of Rumsfeld--and Cheney's--foreign policy. I won't pretend I'll agree with Gates' foreign policy views, and I'm of the old-fashioned opinion that Iran-Contra figures should be permanently discredited rather than welcomed back into government, but at the very least, it's comforting to see that he's somewhat less interested in playing the threat inflation game.

Update: Or... maybe not. Here's a snippet from a 1991 Time profile of Gates:
But those who oppose the Gates nomination say much of the evidence of book cooking is in the reports themselves -- and Gates read and approved all reports issued during his tenure as deputy director. Indeed, the Gates period produced a rash of complaints that, on controversial issues like Nicaragua, El Salvador and Iran, the agency tailored its reports to fit White House policy rather than providing objective conclusions. In the world of intelligence analysis, that is the ultimate sin.
Right, that will teach me to say anything nice about a Bush appointee. He's a bad dude. Big on the Contra war. Big on El Salvador death squads. (In his memoirs he concedes only that the CIA did "cross the line" on a few occasions, page 395.) And he was an opponent of détente with Gorbachev in the late 1980s. But it is still true that he favors direct talks with Iran, as evidenced by this 2004 task force he co-chaired with Zbigniew Brzezinski. A lighter shade of war criminal, I guess.
-- Brad Plumer 3:32 PM || ||
Bye-Bye Pombo

So. Obviously last night was a great night for Democrats. I'm particularly pleased to see that Richard Pombo of California—the chair of the House Resources Committee who enjoyed: drilling in ANWR, auctioning off national parks, gutting the Endangered Species Act, weakening protections for fisheries, and handing over public lands to private owners—has been voted out. Environmental groups have been trying to get him ousted for years, but the DCCC's preferred candidate lost in the primary, his district is mostly comprised of conservative ranchers and farmers, and I'd be curious to know the story behind his defeat.

Anyway, the Democrats have the House now. It's, naturally, a thin margin of victory. It does seem that the realignment of the Northeast—the last few "moderate" Republicans giving up their seats for Democrats—has basically left the two parties with near parity in Congress. Presumably the GOP has a not-unreasonable shot at winning back the House at some point in the near future. I wonder if that fact will scare Democrats away from running the chamber the way DeLay and Hastert did—consigning the minority party to utter irrelevance—or if the knowledge that House majorities are fragile will end the era of parliamentary rule.

Part of me agrees that Democrats won't get much accomplished unless they're as ruthless as DeLay was, although the case for putting an end to some of DeLay's nastier, sleazier, and more undemocratic tactics in the House seems much stronger.
-- Brad Plumer 9:09 AM || ||

November 07, 2006

Election Day!

No reports from me. I'm stuck in the office doing some number-crunching for other writers. It's about as scintillating as it sounds. In the meantime, here's a piece I have up at TNR today, reporting on talk within the labor movement of adopting a Club for Growth-style approach to elections and the Democratic Party. Feel free to read it if you're sitting around totally bored, waiting for the returns to come in, or something.
-- Brad Plumer 4:58 AM || ||

November 06, 2006

Block the Vote

Tomorrow, as we know, is Suppress the Vote Day, when political parties the country over—Republicans in particular—spend millions trying to keep people, especially minorities, from making their way to the voting booths and electing their representatives. It might seem like an odd tradition to some, but hey, at least it's never dull. In the September issue of Mother Jones, Sasha Abramsky listed some of the dirtiest tricks used in past years to prevent people from voting. Here's one gem, from 2004:
[In] Franklin County, Ohio, fliers purporting to be from the county Board of Elections announced that because of high voter registration, Republicans would be voting on Election Day, and Democrats would cast their ballots the next day; they ended with the inspired line, "Thank you for your cooperation, and remember voting is a privilege."

In the same county, a group of out-of-state Republicans known as the Mighty Texas Strike Force made phone calls from a hotel warning ex-prisoners that they could be returned to the slammer if they dared to vote, and reportedly telling other voters that their polling places had changed. Congressional investigators later discovered that the Ohio Republican Party had paid the Strike Force's hotel bills.
Their mothers must be so proud. This year, the media won't bother reporting that Republicans are calling people up in New Hampshire at 3 in the morning and pretending to be Democrats ("But John Kerry flubbed a joke!!!). In Arizona, meanwhile, new GOP-backed photo ID laws are making it difficult for people to register; Missouri voters are being forced to show IDs at the polls even though that requirement has been declared unconstitutional; and that's without diving into the buckets of bullshit slopped about, intended to deter minorities from voting. There's nothing clever or insightful to say about any of this except to point it out (oh, and volunteering to be a poll-watcher is a very good use of one's time).
-- Brad Plumer 10:16 PM || ||
Even More Wartime Socialism

Earlier this year, the economists at EPI noticed a grim bit of irony: Roughly 1.5 million of the jobs created in the United States since 2001 have owed their existence to increased defense spending. The Pentagon, it seems, is carrying the economy on its back. Just don't call it socialism.

Anyway, Jamie Galbraith and J. Travis Hale have followed up by looking at regional inequality—which regions have done well, which not so well—in the Bush era. The countries that have made out like bandits, not surprisingly, are all places that have benefited from the surge of defense contracts since 2001. "[G]overnment spending (especially for the military) provides the main thread linking the economic winners of the Bush administration."

Not that this is anything new—the postwar U.S. economy has always been propped up, to a stunningly large extent, by defense largesse—although it does suggest that even a Democratically-controlled Congress will be very, very, very unlikely to reduce the current, insanely high levels of military spending. (Obviously one should still vote Democratic in the midterms tomorrow—there are a near-infinite number of reasons why—but this is just one thing that won't change no matter who our rulers are.)
-- Brad Plumer 9:54 PM || ||
Busting Up Wal-Mart

I've been meaning to write about Barry Lynn's Harper's piece on Wal-Mart for months now, and seeing as how I'm entirely burned out from doing election-related research at work (for what it's worth, my office pool predictions were very dire), now seems like a good time. As others have noted, Lynn makes the antitrust case for breaking up Wal-Mart, on the grounds that the retailer has used its inordinately massive purchasing power to create a monopsony that allows it to dictate terms to its suppliers and, among other things, forces manufacturers to slash their labor costs. It's a thoughtful piece and well worth reading.

Lynn looks to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 as inspiration for busting up Wal-Mart—he calls this the true "path of the free market." And indeed, Wal-Mart's striking ability to set terms for the economy resembles nothing so much as the old Soviet central planners. What strikes me, though, is that Lynn sounds much more like the progressives during the New Deal who railed against the Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company (A&P), whose efficiency and low prices threatened to destroy a number of family-owned and smaller businesses. I think there's a useful distinction to make here.

The Sherman Act had "efficiency" as its primary rationale—the fear that monopolies would become sluggish and survive purely by gouging customers. It wasn't until the New Deal that progressives started worrying about protecting smaller firms from larger, more efficient big firms. Among other things, thinkers such as Adolf Berle fretted about the effects of a few corporations dominating the political landscape and amassing too much power. The immediate result was the short-lived National Industrial Recovery Act, which allowed companies some measure of collusion to prevent the sort of price-cutting that was leading to a rash of bankruptcies.

The NIRA died a quick death at the hands of the Supreme Court, but the idea that government should regulate industry to control entry and exit, and fix prices, survived well through the New Deal. Regulations required utilities to sell their services for close to the price of production, while the Interstate Commerce Commission and Civil Aeronautics Board set prices for transportation. Stability and "fair competition" came at the expense of efficiency. The regulated firms in question, of course, could afford to pay above-competitive wages, coddled as they were by full-cost pricing and regulated entry.

One immediate effect was that the most heavily-regulated industries unionized the rapidly—a staggering amount of the growth in unionism can be attributed to this sort of government meddling in the economy (along with the nationalization of industry during World War II). By 1973, according to the CPS, private sector union density across mining, construction, durable goods manufacturing, transportation, and utilities industries—all heavily regulated during the New Deal and after—averaged 41 percent, as compared to the national average union density of 24 percent.

At any rate, the economic landscape has much changed since the early 1970s. The Carter administration began the deregulation of the airlines, transportation, utilities, and telecommunications. After Reagan broke the PATCO strike, businesses no longer had to fear the political fallout of hiring replacement workers—scabs—during strikes. (Even during the 1960s, Kennedy was wading into labor disputes, as when he forced U.S. Steel to agree to a wage hike without a corresponding price increase.) From an economist's point of view, the economy was becoming more "efficient," as free competition was allowed to flourish. But unions were dying en masse.

Wal-Mart is sort of the apotheosis of all these trends. As Charles Fishman's The Wal-Mart Effect describes, the retailer certainly makes parts of the economy hyper-efficient, forcing suppliers to wring the waste out of their production process (on the other hand, the stores monomaniacal quest for low prices does reduce the profit margins of its suppliers, which can stifle innovation and long-term corporate growth). That efficiency, however, drives down wages and forces companies to resort to ever more creative tactics to avoid unionization.

One could argue that if all these suppliers were unionized—say, if card-check legislation was enacted—that would act as a counterforce against the relentless drive to low prices. On the other hand, companies might just move to China, or find ways around card check (obviously that doesn't hold as strongly for the service industry). There's a bit of a chicken-egg problem here: In the past, it was essentially government-mandated inefficiency—serious industrial meddling that far exceeded the tweaks recommended by most liberal policymakers today—that allowed unions to flourish. We're talking price controls and nationalization of industry and the White House stepping in to mediate labor disputes, things very far from Lynn's modest vision of "freer" markets through antitrust law.

Economists might look at the movement away from New Deal industrial policy and say "good". But, of course, as nearly every liberal in the country is pointing out these days, all this "efficiency" gained since the 1970s mainly seems to be benefiting the upper classes, at least if you look at the way wage growth has been distributed. And even if, on balance, all this greater efficiency benefits consumers more than the accompanying loss of bargaining power hurts (some) workers—a debatable point—that's a purely economic issue. The shift in political power that has come alongside the decline of organized labor is, from a social-democratic view, much more troublesome.
-- Brad Plumer 8:18 PM || ||

November 03, 2006

The Military Fetish

At the end of Rosa Brooks' column on the demographics of the military today, she drops in this little tidbit:
Duke University researchers Peter Feaver and Christopher Gelpi analyzed data from the period between 1816 and 1992 and found that "as the percentage of veterans serving in the executive branch and the legislature increases, the probability that the United States will initiate militarized disputes declines by nearly 90%."
On one level, this makes intuitive sense—veterans seem less likely to romanticize war and all that. But I don't really know how Feaver and Gelpi arrived at those numbers, or how significant this result really is. Also, looking at the book's first chapter, it seems Brooks left out the next sentence:
At the same time, however, once a [militarized interstate dispute] has been initiated, the higher the proportion of veterans in the government, the greater the level of force the United States will use in the dispute.
Again, I don't know how much stock to put into this—the level of force used in a military conflict would seem to depend on many more factors than the makeup of Congress, but like I said, it has some surface plausibility. Meanwhile, Ben Adler argues today that liberals ought to shy away from valorizing military critics of the Bush administration. William Arkin said the same thing a few days ago, so did I back in April, and it still sounds right to me. Making a fetish of military officers and soldiers is a dangerous road to travel down—even though a 90 percent decline in "militarized disputes" would be nice (then again, it seems doubtful that veterans in Congress would vote to reduce the bloated defense budgets and sprawling network of overseas bases that help motivate so many military conflicts in the first place).
-- Brad Plumer 11:40 AM || ||

November 01, 2006

Climate Change and... Gender?

The Stern Report, on the potential effects of impending climate change, makes for fascinating reading. I wonder how likely all this stuff is. As media accounts have rightly noted, it's a seriously dire assessment, concluding that global warming will cause an untold number of catastrophes in the coming years. Some of the specific catastrophes discussed are things I've never thought of before. For instance:
Gender inequalities will likely worsen with climate change. Workloads and responsibilities such as collecting water, fuel and food will grow and become more time consuming in light of greater resource scarcity. This will allow less time for education or participation in market-based work. A particular burden will be imposed on those households that are short of labour, further exacerbated if the men migrate in times of extreme stress leaving women vulnerable to impoverishment, forced marriage, labour exploitation and trafficking.

Women are 'over-represented' in agriculture and the informal economy, sectors that will be hardest hit by climate change. This exposure is coupled with a low capacity to adapt given their unequal access to resources such as credit and transport. Women are also particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters with women and children accounting for more than 75% of displaced persons following natural disasters.
On the grand sliding scale of very bad things, this probably isn't as bad as the millions of people who could die for lack of food, or because of the spread of disease, or due to increased flooding in places such as Bangladesh, but it's still bad, and a reminder that rapid change could have all sorts of unexpected adverse effects. (Link courtesy of Tim Dunlop.)
-- Brad Plumer 7:36 PM || ||
Buying Votes

According to the Washington Post, there's decent evidence that the United States has often tried to curry favor with poor countries on the UN Security Council by sending an influx of aid their way. "A two-year seat on the Security Council... can generate a 59 percent spike in U.S. assistance." Such legalized bribery was well-documented in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when the United States was fishing for the Security Council's blessing. Other examples abound: During the Cold War, Tanzania enjoyed a number of sweet IMF loans while serving on the Security Council until the country started voting against U.S. interests in 1976.

Obviously one could make a number of points about U.S. imperialism here—or point out once again that the IMF largely exists to shore up American power—but the Tanzania example brings to mind a point about foreign aid. The "sophisticated" liberal thing to say these days is that development assistance has worked very poorly in the past, so we should be skeptical of it. And, indeed, the aid-industrial complex has plenty of problems. But it's also true that Western aid has often been used to advance geopolitical goals rather than to help poor countries develop, and one shouldn't merely look at the Cold War and conclude that foreign aid is hopelessly ineffective.

UPDATE: For a fun variation on the theme, check out this story in the Times about how foreign aid is being used to support American factories: "Behind the scenes, politicians have ensured that companies in Alabama won federal contracts to make billions of condoms over the years for AIDS prevention and family planning programs overseas, though Asian factories could do the job at less than half the cost." Note, by the way, that the Alabama plant owners, and not the workers, are the primary beneficiaries here.
-- Brad Plumer 5:31 PM || ||
All Signs Point to Get Out

The grim CENTCOM briefing that got leaked to the New York Times today, the one in which the military admits that Iraq is sliding towards "chaos," is attracting all the headlines, but a number of reports and studies released lately have reached similar conclusions. For a good long while now I've been predisposed to the idea that Iraq is an unsalvageable mess, and that the United States should leave as soon as possible before it makes things even worse, but what the hell, I figured I'd read through some of those recent studies anyway and see what they had to say.

First up comes this report from the United States Institute of Peace, which, if I recall correctly, was one of the few think tanks that actually predicted the difficulties of the occupation—which, I guess, says more about the dismal state of D.C. think tanks than the infallibility of the USIP. Anyway, the institute got "twenty Iraq experts" together to try to imagine possible outcomes for the country. Here's the lone positive scenario they dreamed up:
Shia and Kurdish leaders make concessions to the Sunni for the sake of preserving a chance for a unity government. The key concessions are agreements not to form a large Shia region, a more equitable distribution of oil revenues, maximization of production from current oil fields for the benefit of all, and relaxation of strict de-Baathification. Other major elements of the concessions are acceptance of an autonomous Kurdistan and recognition that Sunnis and Shia need each other to create any semblance of a united Iraq (or even Iraqi Arabistan). The parties find common ground in opposing the foreign fighters, who are on a mission of disruption.

A positive feedback loop is created when the UN mission returns in force and the World Bank offers substantive assistance. As conditions improve, the interest of investors increases.
As I said, that's the bright and sunny scenario. Of course, just a few weeks ago, Iraq's ruling Shiite alliance rammed legislation through parliament that will enable the creation of a semi-autonomous Shiite superstate in the south. Even though officials have agreed to postpone the implementation of the law for 18 months, and even though most Iraqis oppose partition, this state of affairs is so far removed from the "positive feedback loop" described above that the optimistic scenario doesn't even seem worth discussing any further.

So that leaves the various nightmare scenarios. The USIP report looked at a number of ways the disintegration of Iraq could occur. In one, Iraq undergoes de facto partition, as a "self-directed ethnic cleansing of the regions take place"—Sunnis move to Sunni-dominated regions, Shiites to Shiite regions, and so forth. It's bloody. The USIP recommends that, if this happens, the United States should retreat to "remote bases" and offer vague assistance to try to prevent Baghdad from resembling Beirut in the 1980s, and try to "improve the relative position of the Sunnis," so as to maintain a balance of power in Iraq. I very much doubt the U.S. could do any of this competently, but that's what the experts suggest.

At any rate, I'd say this scenario is already underway. Via Marc Lynch, a new Brookings paper by Ashraf al-Khalidi and Victor Tanner describes the "self-directed ethnic cleansing" going on right now, as various Iraqi sects consolidate their territory through internal migration: "people flee to areas where they feel safer". In his case for partitioning Iraq—as if the country was America's to break apart as it pleases—Peter Galbraith says that partition won't be too bloody, since cities such as Baghdad have already become effectively segregated. That doesn't seem to be the case yet, but things are certainly heading in that direction.

Now both Jim Fearon and Chaim Kauffman have said that the United States ought to stay in the region long enough for precisely this ethnic sorting to finish, so that when the Army does eventually leave—which won't come until 2008 at the earliest—the ensuing sectarian bloodletting will be somewhat less than if we leave immediately. Of course, as the Brookings paper details, much of the violence comes from armed militias and criminal gangs of the same sect fighting it out, a problem the United States is, arguably, exacerbating. Shiite regions won't suddenly become secure and stable just because there are no Sunnis around. And, Marc Lynch points out, some evidence shows that "greater territorial concentration of ethnic groups actually significantly increases the prospects for violence."

Fearon, who has studied civil wars in a number of countries, concluded in his congressional testimony last month that Iraq is headed towards political disintegration regardless of whether the United States stays or goes, and that the ensuing civil war could last up to a decade. Maybe we could get Iraq's neighbors to help keep things stable, although as the USIP's Iraq experts noted, that would require major concessions to Iran and Syria, and a complete reversal of six years of policy. No doubt we can all guess the likelihood of that.

Meanwhile, according to today's Los Angeles Times, Sunni insurgents are increasingly focusing their attacks on U.S. troops, rather than Shiites. Rush Limbaugh says they're just trying to get Democrats elected, those clever bastards. Or perhaps they really don't enjoy living under a bloody military occupation. Either way, I'm having difficulty finding evidence in any of the above reports that staying in Iraq will make things better. Maybe sharper-eyed readers will have better luck.
-- Brad Plumer 5:18 PM || ||