May 22, 2007

Arming the World

Frida Berrigan has a good piece on one of the most lucrative businesses in the United States--selling arms around the world:
Just a few days ago, for instance, the "trade" publication Defense News reported that Turkey and the United States signed a $1.78 billion deal for Lockheed Martin's F-16 fighter planes. As it happens, these planes are already ubiquitous--Israel flies them, so does the United Arab Emirates, Poland, South Korea, Venezuela, Oman and Portugal, not to speak of most other modern air forces. ...In order to remain number one in the competitive jet field, Lockheed Martin, for example, does far more than just sell airplanes. TAI--Turkey's aerospace corporation--will receive a boost with this sale, because Lockheed Martin is handing over responsibility for parts of production, assembly, and testing to Turkish workers. The Turkish Air Force already has 215 F-16 fighter planes and plans to buy 100 of Lockheed Martin's new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as well, in a deal estimated at $10.7 billion over the next 15 years.
But she forgot to mention the best part! Right now, the Pentagon is paying Lockheed billions to build a new fleet of F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. The Air Force has justified the program, which has become something of a boondoggle, by pointing to the spread of U.S.-built F-16 and F-18 fighters around the world. Indeed, a few years back, Lockheed was circulating a promotional pamphlet for the F-22, which stressed the need to maintain U.S. "air superiority" by pointing to countries around the world that were either adversaries or potential adversaries. It turned out that most of those countries were worrisome because they had... fleets of U.S.-built F-16s. Arms sales really are the gift that keeps on giving.

In any case, Berrigan links to it in her piece, but the report she recently did with William Hartung deserves more attention. In 2003, the most recent year for which records were available, the United States sent weapons to 18 of the 25 countries involved in active conflicts around the world. I'm sure people can look through the list and come up with reasons why it was right to send weapons to this or that country, but I still think this deserves at least as much attention as the debate over whether or not armed humanitarian interventions should be a tool of U.S. foreign policy.

More fun facts: It's not uncommon for us to end up fighting against the same armies we equip. Everyone knows that the Iranian Air Force is basically made up of the same F-14s we sold to the Shah, but did you know that the last seven times the United States sent troops into conflict in substantial numbers (Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Somalia, Iraq, and Panama), its adversaries possessed weapons or military technology made in the USA? In the run-up to the civil war, 31 percent of weapons sold to Somalia came from the United States. Then we went in. When the Haitian military staged a coup in 1991, nearly a quarter of its arms had been made in the United States. Obviously peace wouldn't break out around the world if we curbed our weapons exports, but at some point, the pattern starts to look utterly insane.

P.S. Here's the view from Britain.
-- Brad Plumer 8:27 PM || ||

May 19, 2007

'08 And The Court

Tom Goldstein takes a look at what the '08 presidential election might mean for the Supreme Court. He figures that Stevens, Souter, and possibly Ginsburg are the only three Justices on their way out anytime soon, which means that a Democratic win would more or less entrench the status quo for the next decade, whereas a Republican win would have pretty far-reaching and radical consequences--even if the Senate stayed in Democratic hands.

Makes sense, although the fact that, say, Mitt Romney could nudge out Hillary Clinton by a percentage point or two and then bring about what would essentially be a constitutional revolution seems utterly absurd (not to mention terrifying), and a decent argument in favor of term limits for Justices, no? Or would that make things worse?
-- Brad Plumer 4:16 PM || ||
Poor Enforcers

Nathan Newman makes a good point here:
Here's the core reason why I think most (not all, but most) of those saying they oppose immigration because of its effects of lower-income native workers are not really serious or, worse, just covering straight-up nativism with a faux charitable concern.

In the Bush 2007 budget, a grand total of $177 million was appropriated to enforce our wage and hour laws. Compare that to the $13 billion in the 2008 Bush budget for border enforcement -- nearly ONE HUNDRED TIME AS MUCH spent for border enforcement as for wage enforcement.
It's become something of a cliché to point out that hands-down the most effective way to stem illegal immigration is simply to slap meaningful sanctions on businesses that hire undocumented workers. (That, combined with increasing the channels for legal immigration, it seems, would do far more to regularize the flow of immigrants than building more billion-dollar fences and hiring more guards, which seems to accomplish little save for preventing undocumented workers who are already in the United States from returning back home.

Now, there are creative ways to deter businesses--say, offering amnesty and cash prizes to undocumented workers who tattle on their bosses--and straightforward ways. But it goes without saying that any administration that's cavalier about enforcing wage and hour laws and willing to neuter agencies like OSHA won't take this approach seriously. Note, for instance, that 54 percent of contractors in the L.A. garment industry regularly violate minimum wage laws. The same goes for nursing homes and restaurants. Presumably those businesses aren't exactly deterred from hiring undocumented immigrants, either.
-- Brad Plumer 4:11 PM || ||

May 11, 2007

Faster than Predicted

Not good: In the latest issue of Science, a bunch of climatologists argue that climate models may actually be understating the rate of global warming.

One favored tactic of climate-change "skeptics," of course, is to argue that climate-change models are uncertain. Now, the models are far more accurate than the deniers imply, but to the extent that there is uncertainty, as Andrew Dessler points out, it can cut both ways. Things may actually be much worse than, say, the IPCC says. (And given the conservatism inherent in the IPCC process, the latter possibility seems more likely.)
-- Brad Plumer 12:44 PM || ||
Some Compromise

Speaking of trade, the labor and enviro protections in the recent "accord" between the White House and Congress look like pretty weak sauce. Some of the provisions are welcome--forcing Peru to crack down on illegal logging, say. Among other things, though the AFL-CIO wanted the right to sue in international courts for the enforcement of labor protections--just as corporations can sue to try and eliminate labor or environmental laws they find burdensome. That... didn't quite fly. Instead, the deal was largely conceived by K Street Dems like Charlie Rangel and Max Baucus, and there's probably a good reason why the Chamber of Commerce is so enthused about the whole thing.
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 PM || ||
Regulating Trade

James Galbraith and Jeff Faux debate trade over at TAP. I think I come down mostly on Galbraith's side of things, but I do have to take issue with some of what he wrote in his original essay. For instance:
Environmental standards also won't ever become major tools of a trade policy. The first problem is that regulatory differences have little to do with environmental impact in consumer good production (mining and oil are different stories, but we don't buy minerals or oil from China). Firms installing new plant and equipment usually use the latest technologies because that is also the cheapest way to produce; newer technologies also tend to be cleaner. It is therefore quite possible for a foreign firm to cost American jobs while improving environmental quality -- replacing an old and dirtier American factory with a new and cleaner Asian one. (China has lots of very dirty factories, but not generally in the export trades.)
Okay, a few things: It's true that slipping environmental standards into trade deals won't prevent American factories from moving abroad. Even the World Bank--hardly filled with tree-huggers--will admit "there is no evidence that the cost of environmental protection has ever been the determining factor in foreign investment decisions." But these protections are still worth promoting on their own terms. Using trade deals to force other countries to abide by international environmental agreements will improve the health of the planet without having terribly adverse effects.

And the flipside is that many trade deals actually weaken environmental protections. Take Costa Rica. Back in the 1990s, an oil company that was later bought by Harken Energy won a bid to drill along the Caribbean coast. In 2002, a national board ruled that the plan violated the country's environmental impact laws. Harken sued Costa Rica for $57 billion--three times the country's GDP. The Costa Rican courts have fended off the suit, but if the country ratifies CAFTA, those lawsuits would bypass the national courts and go to an international tribunal. Whether or not a suit like Harken's would succeed, the threat of a multi-billion dollar suit could be enough to convince many developing countries to back away from enforcing their environmental laws.

Stuff like this happens all the time in "free trade" deals. Depending on how they're crafted, environmental standards can make a big difference. Maybe not with China, but certainly elsewhere. This jibes with Galbraith's point later in his piece: The big problem with deals like CAFTA isn't that they steal jobs from the United States; it's that they're often predatory--or, at least, contain provisions that benefit large corporations at the expense of developing countries. Now, granted, trade-bashing Democrats don't always sell environmental standards as a way to protect developing countries--and often that's not even how they're designed--but the larger principle is sound on the merits.

Josh Bivens, meanwhile, mounts a similar defense of including labor standards in trade deals. They may not necessarily help American workers in the short term, but they can help protect workers abroad. (Actually, I'd go further than that, but this post is already getting long...)
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 AM || ||
Over-Treated, Under-Insured

I can't really claim to be an expert on health-care policy. (Okay, I can't claim to be an expert on much of anything.) But Phillip Longman makes so many interesting points about the health-care industry in his Washington Monthly review of Jon Cohn's new book--which, by the way, is excellent--that I thought it might be worthwhile to try to sift through this stuff.

The fact that 47 million Americans don't have health insurance is, as we're all aware, a severe crisis. According to a recent RAND study, the uninsured only get about 53.7 percent of the care that experts say they should get. But what's stunning is that patients with private, fee-for-service insurance are "even less likely to receive the proper care." Likewise, it's true that lack of health insurance causes about 18,000 premature deaths annually. But about 98,000 people are killed each year by medical errors, and 126,000 die "from their doctor's failure to observe evidence-based protocols for just four common conditions: hypertension, heart attacks, pneumonia, and colorectal cancer."

The root problem here, Longman argues, is that doctors tend to perform lots and lots of unnecessary treatments--partly because they get paid per service, and have no real economic interest in their patients' long-term well-being. Dr. Elliot Fisher, a Dartmouth researcher, estimates that "30 percent of all Medicare spending goes for unnecessary operations and procedures." (Notably, an oversupply of specialists will often create its own demand: Per capita Medicare costs for terminally ill patients in Miami are $50,000 more per year than in Minneapolis, but patients in Miami don't live any longer--the city's high concentration of specialists are just providing more treatments that simply aren't needed.)

I've often wondered why insurance companies don't push back harder against unnecessary treatments. One answer, I think, would be that they tried once--with managed care in the early 1990s--and there was a huge public outcry. (That outcry was justified, mind you, since insurers were usually trying to manage costs, not care, and often to the detriment of patients--Jon Cohn's book illustrates this nicely.) So insurers have increasingly decided that it's not worth the effort, and instead they'll just cover whatever consumers want, pass along the costs in the form of higher and higher premiums, and try to turn a profit by refusing to cover sick people in the first place. (Or they'll try to weasel out of paying and stick the patient with the bill.) That's my sense, at least.

On the supply side, manufacturers certainly contribute to the over-treatment craze. After all, they spend millions marketing their products, pushing them on doctors, and lobbying the FDA to make sure they aren't scrutinized too closely. Drug-makers and device-makers, for instance, have prevented the FDA from doing head-to-head comparisons of different treatments. As long as the benefits of your product outweigh the risks when compared against a placebo, it's approved. There isn't really anyone pushing back, trying to figure out what treatments are most cost-effective and appropriate. (Conservatives, of course, have suggested that the patients themselves should be given incentives to push back, which seems unrealistic.)

Okay, back to Longman. His preferred solution would look much like the Veterans' Administration, in which the government would run the entire health-care system--rather than merely providing insurance. Because the VA has a lifetime relationship with its patients, it has "incentives to invest in prevention, disease management, and protocols of care that actually work--incentives that are weak or absent in the rest of America's fragmented health care system." There's the push-back. Doctors receive salaries rather than getting paid by the service, and the system uses evidence-based medicine and information technology. And studies show that the VA provides better care than the rest of the U.S. health care system, hands down.

I'd add two things. First, Longman says that universal health-care proposals such as "Medicare for All" wouldn't address many of the concerns raised above. After all, Medicare itself has fallen prey to the over-treatment craze, which has led to mistreatment and rising health-care costs. That may be true, but it's worth looking seriously at the MEDPAC reforms that are being proposed before Congress, which try to address some of these issues. Maggie Mahar has a nice piece covering MEDPAC here.

Second: Longman says the VA currently practices "evidence-based medicine" and steers clear of unnecessary or unproven treatments. But I assume this is possible because manufacturers and drug companies don't bother lobbying the VA to peddle their products. But if the VA covered all Americans, obviously you'd see more of that kind of lobbying. These are, after all, the same people who now control the FDA. So if over-treatment is a major problem, and over-treatment stems from manufacturers pushing their products too aggressively, that needs to be dealt with. But presumably you don't want to go too far, since not all marketing is bad. That... seems tricky.
-- Brad Plumer 8:08 AM || ||

May 08, 2007

Obama Takes on Detroit

The knock against Obama is that he often shies away from confrontation, but yesterday he did waltz into a room full of Detroit businessmen and lecture them about the need for stricter fuel-economy standards. (The speech itself was pretty harsh, and he didn't exactly draw applause with lines like this: "Even as [automakers] shed thousands of jobs... over the last few years, they've continued to reward failure with lucrative bonuses for CEOs.")

To put this in context, the Senate transportation committee has just agreed to take up a bill that would increase CAFE standards to 35 mpg by 2019 (with no exemption for light trucks and SUVs, as Ted Stevens wanted), and raise them by 4 percent each year thereafter. Even though there's a "safety valve" that would allow the Department of Transportation fiddle with the standards if they don't prove "cost effective," many domestic automakers are reportedly planning to oppose the bill anyway. So it's nice to see Obama use his star-power to pick a fight and push for something substantive.

On the policy side, GM's complaint that CAFE standards have been "ineffective over the past three decades" is weak. When the National Academy of Sciences looked into it in 2002, it found that between 1975 and 1984--the last time CAFE standards were raised--fuel economy "improved 62 percent without any loss of performance." And: "If fuel economy had not improved, gasoline consumption... would be about 2.8 million barrels per day greater than it is." (Indeed, there's evidence that CAFE standards might even be more effective at reducing gasoline consumption than a gas tax alone, since gasoline demand is fairly inelastic.)

So at this point, U.S. automakers are left griping about the cost, and the Senate bill has a loophole for that. Detroit still has plenty of powerful allies--especially John Dingell in the House--but it's hard to see how they can fight this forever.
-- Brad Plumer 11:34 AM || ||

May 04, 2007

Feeding the Pentagon

The Hill takes a look at where various presidential candidates stand on military spending. Among Democrats, only Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson have said they would actually cut the Pentagon's budget. Most of the rest plan to expand the end-strength of the Army and Marine Corps (for what purpose, though, no one seems to know). Some Dems, like Chris Dodd and John Edwards, are already warning that pulling out of Iraq won't actually free up money in the budget, since, to quote Edwards, "Undoing the damage that George Bush has done to our military will require substantial costs." No peace dividend here.

On the Republican side, everyone this side of Ron Paul agrees that $800 billion a year isn't nearly enough. Mitt Romney, in particular, has pledged to peg the Pentagon's budget to at least 4 percent of GDP, because hey, picking an arbitrary number and sticking with it is what leadership's all about. (That, or he's following this Heritage Foundation playbook, which, tellingly, describes China as a "looming threat.")
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 PM || ||
Nuance is for Sissies

If you think the main problem with the Bush administration is that its approach to the Middle East is too nuanced, you'll love Mitt Romney. Here's Shadi Hamid on last night's debate:
One thing kind of bothered me. [Romney] was talking about the jihadist/terrorist threat, and listed Hezbollah, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Iran... and then the Muslim Brotherhood? Huh? The Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence in the 1970s and represents the leading opposition bloc in the Egyptian parliament (with 88 members). The group has publicly committed itself to the rules of the democratic game.

Anyway, it's unfortunate that Romney did the standard Republican mistake of thinking that all Islamists are a monolithic terrorist threat, when there are clear, obvious distinctions within Islamism, between radical Islamists (those who operate outside the political system and use violence) and mainstream Islamists (those who operate within the system and renounce violence).
Right. The Muslim Brotherhood is a large, complex organization. Some of its radical wings may engage in various unsavory activities. But the bulk of the movement has renounced violent jihad and, in places like Egypt, made a point to participate in elections (for which they've earned the wrath of Ayman Al Zawahiri). Not only that, but they represent a broad swath of "mainstream" Islam. Lumping them in with Al Qaeda is a terrible idea. See, for instance, Marina Ottaway in TNR, or Robert Leiken and Steven Brooke's recent look at the group in Foreign Affairs.

Even the Bush administration is starting to catch on--in the past few months, according to Newsweek, the State Department "cleared" at least one high-level contact with the Muslim Brotherhood. "That doesn't mean we are embracing the group," one official said. "It means we recognize that we have to listen to a range of voices." Does Romney think that's wrong? Should we just start blasting away at random? Do tell.

Update: See also Spencer, who notes that Romney seems to be under the impression that Sunni and Shia are working together to "cause the collapse of all moderate Islamic governments and replace them with a caliphate." Basically, he has no idea what he's talking about, which, I guess, makes him only slightly more qualified than Giuliani.
-- Brad Plumer 10:45 AM || ||

May 03, 2007

Hate Crimes, Continued

Ramesh Ponnuru says I'm being unfair and that the White House really opposes the hate-crimes bill because of concerns over federalism, not because the bill would add sexual orientation to the list of protected categories. That could well be true. In the past, people like Barney Frank have claimed that the Republican leadership scuttled versions of the bill mainly because it included protections for gays and lesbians, but hey, it's possible that Frank's wrong and they really were doing so out of a principled concern for federalism. Somehow I doubt it, but I'm no mind reader.

I'm not quite as convinced, though, by Ponnuru's claim that there's "no evidence" that local governments "have a special problem funding work against hate crimes." To take one example, which Dave Neiwert discusses in Death on the Fourth of July, many law-enforcement agencies--especially in smaller towns or rural areas--offer little or no training for hate crimes. (Only 31 percent offer more than two hours worth.) And there's evidence to suggest that this makes a big difference.

One major Justice Department study published in 2000 found a correlation between the reporting of hate crimes and the level of training provided in a given agency (p. 77). According to the authors, the single biggest factor causing hate crimes to go unreported was the level of trust between minorities and local law enforcement (p. 29). And nearly 6,000 agencies likely experienced at least one hate crime that went unreported (which, if true, would seem to contradict Dale Carpenter's argument that there's no "evidence of widespread, systematic underenforcement"). One major aim of the current hate-crimes legislation is to offer training grants to local agencies on this front. That, at the very least, seems quite warranted.
-- Brad Plumer 7:13 PM || ||
Hate Crimes

Okay, I'd honestly like to know if any of the arguments against the hate-crimes bill that just passed the House actually hold up. (The bill would add gender and sexual orientation to the categories covered by federal hate-crimes laws, and enable the FBI to work more closely with local officials on these matters.)

Here's a sample: Christian right groups claim that the bill will prevent Tony Perkins from gay-bashing every Sunday. That's doubtful. The National Review argues that "[T]here is no evidence that local law enforcement has a special need for federal resources to help it combat hate crimes." That's not true. Republicans complain that the bill wouldn't protect senior citizens and members of the military. But when John Conyers offered to add those protections to the bill, the GOP refused. NR, again, says that it could "open the door to legal punishment for harboring incorrect thoughts." That doesn't seem right, either: The bill pretty clearly states that a defendant's past statements or associations can't be used as evidence unless they "specifically relate to the offense."

So what else is there? (The National Review may be right to say that these laws wouldn't actually deter hate crimes, but I'd be surprised to see them argue that deterrence should be the only consideration when setting crime policy.) On the other side of the ledger, I've always thought Dave Neiwert has made a persuasive case for going hard after hate crimes. His analogy to anti-terrorism laws seems apt, though I'd be curious to know what other people think.

More: Andrew Sullivan notes that the administration has a particularly noxious position on this issue--"that hate crimes laws are fine for all targeted groups except gays."
-- Brad Plumer 2:39 PM || ||