Saturday, December 30, 2006
Friday, December 29, 2006
By David Walsh
29 December 2006
The Financial Times, Britain’s leading financial newspaper, published a remarkable editorial December 27 entitled “Seasonal cheers for new philanthropists.”
The piece praised wealthy individuals such as billionaire investor Warren Buffett, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Hank Greenberg as well as other executives at insurer American International Group, and Swiss millionaire Klaus Jacobs for donating large sums of money to various charitable and educational causes.
The Financial Times hailed Buffett, whom the newspaper called “an anti-Scrooge,” and the others for “getting rid of their wealth” and thereby offering an answer “to the inequalities caused by globalisation,” as well as “shaking up the cushy world of charitable foundations.”
After detailing what it considered the innovative strategies of Gates, Buffett and their wealthy fellow philanthropists, the editorial got to the heart of the matter, asserting that an “important effect of philanthropy by the rich is to make their wealth more acceptable to the rest of society. Globalisation and new technology that has displaced many white- and blue-collar jobs have led to rising inequality both within countries and across the globe. The richest 1 per cent of Americans now garner about 16 per cent of national income: double what they earned in the 1960s.”
In addition to the overall global figures on inequality, the FT editors were likely responding to hostile public reaction to the massive bonuses announced this month in New York and London by Goldman Sachs and other securities firms for their top traders—financial rewards that run into the tens of billions of dollars. Or to well-publicized cases such as Lee Raymond, former chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, who walked away at the end of 2005 with a $400 million compensation package.
Polls indicate that more than 80 percent of the US population thinks corporate executives are overpaid.
If only more of the super-rich would act in the farsighted manner of Buffett, and give away a portion of their riches, argued the Financial Times, the social chasm between the elite and the broad mass of the population would be “more acceptable” to the latter.
The editorial continued, “Plutocrats can spend all their money on mansions, yachts and servants, but if they do so, then pressure for higher taxes and collective labour bargaining will return and grow. Great wealth is often the result of great talent. But it is also a privilege granted by the rest of society and, if it is abused, society will not hesitate to take it away.”
The use of the word “plutocrat” is noteworthy, coming from vigorous defenders of capitalist “democracy.” The dictionary definition of a plutocrat is “a member of a wealthy ruling class” or “a person whose wealth gives him control or great influence.” A plutocracy means simply “government by the wealthy.”
The newspaper’s editors, whether they realize it or not, are acknowledging that Britain and America are societies ruled by financial oligarchies.
The warning—“society will not hesitate to take it away”—is stark, coming from one of the leading financial organs in the world. The newspaper is cautioning its own class that the grotesque accumulation and flaunting of wealth are generating resentment and anger, which, if not checked, will ignite a social upheaval, even a revolution, in which the upper echelons would lose everything.
Of course, the editors’ solution, greater philanthropy by the plutocrats, is no solution at all. There is something intrinsically demeaning, whatever the intentions of the donors, about the concept of philanthropy, since it tacitly accepts the existence of social and economic inequities and the subordinate position of the vast majority of the people vis-a-vis a moneyed elite.
The very fact that the newspaper feels obliged to lecture the modern-day financial aristocrats is indicative of a deeply unhealthy and dysfunctional state of affairs. Taking into account the social and moral makeup of the global nouveau riche, it is, moreover, safe to predict that the Financial Times’ recommendation will fall largely on deaf ears.
That a Buffett or Gates has tens of billions of dollars in private wealth to donate is an indictment of the existing social order. Their largess is possible only as the result of the build-up of poverty and misery at the other pole of society. Some 1.1 billion people in the world currently live on less than $1 a day, and some 3 billion on less than $2. Sixty million people in the US, the richest country on earth, subsist on less than $7 a day!
Far more perspicacious than the FT editors, who blandly suggest that great talent often produces great wealth, the novelist Balzac observed that behind every great fortune lies a great crime.
Oscar Wilde dissected the mechanism of charity and philanthropy in The Soul of Man Under Socialism. He noted that charitable “remedies are part of the disease... The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.” He added, “Charity creates a multitude of sins. There is also this to be said. It is immoral to use private property in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institution of private property. It is both immoral and unfair.”
The media spotlight on individual benefactors who control tens of billions of dollars, larger sums than many national budgets, grows in tandem with the relentless gutting of government social welfare programs. Pubic health, education and other elementary social needs are increasingly tied to the personal vicissitudes of a speculator, asset-stripper or high-tech ‘wizard.’ It is impossible to organize a modern, mass society on such a basis.
That the condition of masses of people should be dependent on the generosity of this handful of “plutocrats” is not something the Financial Times criticizes, but rather holds up as a model.
The Financial Times is not alone in its anxiety about the public response to the accumulation of vast personal wealth. The Washington Post editorialized December 22 in support of “Just Capitalism,” remarking, “Executive overpayment running into the billions sends a terrible signal about the justice of the capitalist system.” The newspaper warned that unless executive pay and the “industry of consultants [that] exists to legitimize super-sized executive pay” are reined in, “the growing material inequality in the nation will be compounded by the corrosive perception that the rules are unequal, too.”
Thursday, December 28, 2006
The New York Times
December 29, 2006
After first attempting to deny the scale of last month’s defeat, the apologists have settled on a story line that sounds just like Marxist explanations for the failure of the Soviet Union. What happened, you see, was that the noble ideals of the Republican revolution of 1994 were undermined by Washington’s corrupting ways. And the recent defeat was a good thing, because it will force a return to the true conservative path.
But the truth is that the movement that took power in 1994 — a movement that had little to do with true conservatism — was always based on a lie.
The lie is right there in “The Freedom Revolution,” the book that Dick Armey, who had just become the House majority leader, published in 1995. He declares that most government programs don’t do anything “to help American families with the needs of everyday life,” and that “very few American families would notice their disappearance.” He goes on to assert that “there is no reason we cannot, by the time our children come of age, reduce the federal government by half as a percentage of gross domestic product.”
Right. Somehow, I think more than a few families would notice the disappearance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and those three programs alone account for a majority of nondefense, noninterest spending. The truth is that the government delivers services and security that people want. Yes, there’s some waste — just as there is in any large organization. But there are no big programs that are easy to cut.
As long as people like Mr. Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were out of power, they could run on promises to eliminate vast government waste that existed only in the public’s imagination — all those welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But once in power, they couldn’t deliver.
That’s why government by the radical right has been an utter failure even on its own terms: the government hasn’t shrunk. Federal outlays other than interest payments and defense spending are a higher percentage of G.D.P. today than they were when Mr. Armey wrote his book: 14.8 percent in fiscal 2006, compared with 13.8 percent in fiscal 1995.
Unable to make good on its promises, the G.O.P., like other failed revolutionary movements, tried to maintain its grip by exploiting its position of power. Friends were rewarded with patronage: Jack Abramoff began building his web of corruption almost as soon as Republicans took control. Adversaries were harassed with smear campaigns and witch hunts: Congress spent six years and many millions of dollars investigating a failed land deal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair.
But it wasn’t enough. Without 9/11, the Republican revolution would probably have petered out quietly, with the loss of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. Instead, the atrocity created a window of opportunity: four extra years gained by drowning out unfavorable news with terror alerts, starting a gratuitous war, and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.
Yet the Bush administration failed to convert this electoral success into progress on a right-wing domestic agenda. The collapse of the push to privatize Social Security recapitulated the failure of the Republican revolution as a whole. Once the administration was forced to get specific about the details, it became obvious that private accounts couldn’t produce something for nothing, and the public’s support vanished.
In the end, Republicans didn’t shrink the government. But they did degrade it. Baghdad and New Orleans are the arrival destinations of a movement based on deep contempt for governance.
Is that the end for the radical right? Probably not. As a long-suffering civil servant once told me, bad policy ideas are like cockroaches: you can flush them down the toilet, but they keep coming back. Many of the ideas that failed in the Bush years had previously failed in the Reagan years. So there’s no reason to assume they’re gone for good.
Indeed, it appears that loss of power and the ensuing lack of accountability is liberating right-wingers to lie yet again: since last month’s election, I’ve noticed a number of Social Security privatizers propounding the same free-lunch falsehoods that the Bush administration had to abandon in the face of demands that it present an actual plan.
Still, the Republican revolution of 1994 is over. And not a moment too soon.
AS THE AMERICAN EMPIRE CRUMBLES WHO WILL FIGHT THE WARS TO PRESERVE, PROTECT & DEFEND ITS POWER ELITE ? THE NEW MERCENARY ‘MAMLUKS’…
by Mark Hemingway
The Weekly Standard
12/18/2006, Volume 012, Issue 14
For obvious reasons, the location of the headquarters of Blackwater USA isn't well-publicized. Officially, the only public trace of the world's largest private military training facility is a post office box in Moyock, North Carolina, an unremarkable rib-shack pit-stop on the way to the Outer Banks.
But the place isn't hard to find. From Washington, D.C., head south. As soon as you cross the state line, follow the sound of gunfire until you find an armed compound half the size of Manhattan. Which is not to say the place sticks out--it's just very, very big. Blackwater is a company most Americans first heard of when four of its contractors were murdered in Falluja, Iraq, in March 2004, and their bodies desecrated on camera. It is the most prominent of the private security contractors in Iraq. You might think of the North Carolina facility as Blackwater's Fort Benning or Quantico.
Still largely subsumed by the swampland it occupies, the compound is mostly au naturel except for odd aircraft lying around. The company name sounds mysterious, but it's just the name of the region. If you dig a few feet underground, the hole will quickly fill with the thick, dark peat water just under the surface. The only building of any real size houses the company's brand new 60,000-square-foot corporate offices, a low profile building with a massive stone entryway that blends into the surroundings nicely. (The massive double-door handles made from .50 caliber machine gun barrels get noticed, however.) In fact, the company logo--a target sight superimposed over a bear claw--isn't entirely figurative. Black bears--at least one of which tops 800 pounds--roam freely all over the property.
Of course, running into a bear is probably the least of your safety concerns at Blackwater. Firing ranges abound on the property. For years, the company's bread and butter was its multimillion-dollar business designing and manufacturing targets and shooting ranges. From its original product--a patented, reactive, reinforced steel target--the company now makes everything from modular, endlessly configurable "shoothouses," with doors and rooms that simulate urban combat, to concrete, reinforced shipping containers that can be set up anywhere in the world as self-contained ranges. (A personal favorite is the "Dueling Tree"--an upright stand with three targets on each side. Hit the target and it gets knocked over to your opponent's side where he can knock it back. The first shooter with all six targets on his side loses. Think of it as tetherball with guns.)
But we're only scratching the surface. Though the company is less than ten years old, it's already become the alpha and omega of military outsourcing. The target systems remain a multimillion-dollar business, but now the corporate flagship is just one part of a very large fleet. Indeed, it would be hard to understate Blackwater's capabilities:
* A burgeoning logistics operation that can deliver 100- or 200-ton self-contained humanitarian relief response packages faster than the Red Cross.
* A Florida aviation division with 26 different platforms, from helicopter gunships to a massive Boeing 767. The company even has a Zeppelin.
* The country's largest tactical driving track, with multi-surface, multi-elevation positive and negative cambered turns, a skid pad, and a ram pad for drivers learning how to escape ambushes.
* A 20-acre manmade lake with shipping containers that have been mocked up with ship rails and portholes, floating on pontoons, used to teach how to board a hostile ship.
* A K-9 training facility that currently has 80 dog teams deployed around the world. Ever wondered how to rappel down the side of nine stacked shipping containers with a bomb-sniffing German shepherd dog strapped to your chest? Blackwater can teach you.
* A 1,200-yard-long firing range for sniper training.
* A sizable private armory. The one gun locker I saw contained close to 100 9mm handguns--mostly military issue Beretta M9s, law enforcement favorite Austrian Glocks, and Sig Sauers.
* An armored vehicle still in development called the Grizzly; the prototype's angular steel plates are ferocious-looking. The suspension is being built by one of Black water's North Carolina neighbors--Dennis Anderson, monster truck champion and the man responsible for the "Grave Digger" (the ne plus ultra of monster trucks).
And there's much, much more. Sitting in his second-story office with expansive views of the grounds, Black water vice president for strategic initiatives and former recon Marine Chris Taylor makes a sound business case for the Blackwater facility. "One of the single greatest factors that makes us who we are today is, one, we are always complete, correct, and on time with our services and, two, this facility--this is the greatest barrier to entry in the market of doing training and security operations; nobody else has this." Taylor continues: "To build this facility today--$40 or $50 million, and nobody's got that kind of coin. Nobody wants to invest that, especially if you are going into a market where there already is a big dog."
Still, at a certain point touring their facilities, the immensity of the place seems like, well, overkill. Of all the curiosities littered throughout the gargantuan property, it's hard not to be taken aback by "R U Ready High"--a firing range modeled after a high school, as well as an old school bus used for training in tactical hostage situations.
Taylor patiently explains that the company built it immediately after Columbine and that local police forces and SWAT teams often have woefully inadequate training for such situations even to this day. Sure enough, shortly after my tour of the facilities, there were two school hostage situations within days of each other, again in Colorado and in Pennsylvania. Neither ended well.
It may seem callous that Blackwater is making a buck preparing police to deal with such horrific events. But somebody has to be in the business of worst case scenarios. It's not their fault that everywhere--from Colorado to Iraq--business is so good.
While Blackwater's training and logistics operations might be the heart of their operation, that's not the reason the company is on the verge of becoming a household name. Among its initial government contracts was one for antiterrorist training in the wake of the USS Cole bombing. A single marksman could have taken out the approaching bomb-laden boat, but most soldiers on deck weren't even carrying loaded weapons at the time. Recognizing a major weakness, the Navy awarded an "urgent and compelling need" contract to Blackwater to train 20,000 sailors in force protection. The company still executes that contract to this day. And from that start, it gradually expanded its roster of services available to the military. Enter the war on terror, and the military began looking for something beyond training and support services--actual manpower.
Blackwater is now one of the largest and most respected suppliers of "private military contractors" in Iraq. The company has carried out high-profile assignments--such as their exclusive contract to guard Ambassador L. Paul Bremer when he was the top U.S. civilian in Iraq--whose performance by a private company would once have been unthinkable.
The company's work in Iraq has not been without incident. The four American contractors killed in Falluja in March 2004 were providing transport security for a Kuwaiti food service company under a Blackwater Security Consulting contract. Their bodies were dragged through the streets and the disfigured corpses were eventually strung from a bridge with an electrical cord. The families of the four men--one of them a revered former SEAL instructor--are suing Blackwater, alleging that they were rushed out on the mission without adequate preparation or protection.
Aside from providing one of the most demoralizing images of the war, the killing of the four Blackwater employees did two major things. It was the catalyst for the Battle of Falluja, a brutal but ultimately successful attempt to reclaim the city from insurgents, which resulted in 83 additional U.S. troops killed in action. And it drew national attention to the use of private contractors--"mercenaries" to their more vehement detractors--in Iraq.
In the first Gulf war, the ratio of private contractors to military personnel was one to sixty. This time it's approaching one to one. The Washington Post last week reported that the Pentagon counts about 100,000 contractors in Iraq. Private contractors are being used to supply everything from pizzas to porta-potties; still the decidedly larger ratio is no doubt the result of the 20,000 or so serving in a quasi-military role--almost three times the number of British military forces currently in Iraq.
Blackwater objects to the use of the m-word for its employees, preferring the term "private military contractors." For one thing, "mercenary" is not accurate. Private military contractors in Iraq do not execute offensive operations--they only provide security, and their rules of engagement are to use proportionate force only when attacked. Nonetheless, private military contractors in Iraq are known for their aggressive behavior. Retired Marine colonel Thomas X. Hammes is a vocal critic of Black water, having seen them guarding Bremer. "The problem is, in protecting the principal they had to be very aggressive, and each time they went out, they had to offend locals, forcing them to the side of the road, being overpowering and intimidating, at times running vehicles off the road, making enemies each time they went out," Hammes said in a PBS interview. However, Hammes noted, "Black water's an extraordinarily professional organization, and they were doing exactly what they were tasked to do."
In fact, Blackwater objects to its personnel being tarred as mercenaries mainly because they regard it as an assault on their character and their professionalism. "We're in nine different countries," says Chris Taylor, "probably have about 2,300 people deployed today, another 21,000 in our database, and these are people the majority of whom have already had a career in public service, either military or law enforcement, who are honorably discharged, who have any number of medals for heroism. Yet we still have to face critics who say everybody is a mercenary--they're only out for a buck."
Blackwater insists the money is exaggerated. "The thing that gets all the attention is that it's a business, a going concern. But there are nowhere near the profits that everybody thinks," Taylor says. They are quite serious about the moral importance of their work, a message that starts at the top. Blackwater CEO Erik Prince, the company's founder, "believes to his core that this is his life's work," says Taylor. "If you're not willing to drink the Blackwater Kool-aid and be committed to supporting humane democracy around the world, then there's probably a better place" to go work, "because that's all we do."
Though his military career was brief, as a former Navy SEAL platoon commander, Prince is no dilettante. He attended officer candidate school after finishing college in 1992, and the next year he joined SEAL Team 8 based out of Norfolk. Prince eventually deployed to Haiti, the Middle East, and Bosnia, among other assignments. He is blond, handsome, and ridiculously all-American looking. His posture is ramrod straight, and his clipped sentences are true to his martial roots. At only 37, he remains in impeccable shape and looks as ready to step onto the battlefield as into a boardroom.
He hardly fits the soldier of fortune archetype. He is a staunch Christian--his father helped James Dobson found Focus on the Family--and his politically conservative views are well known in Washington, where Prince supports a number of religious and right-leaning causes. He attended Hillsdale College in Michigan, a font of conservative ideology, where he is remembered for being the first undergraduate at the small liberal arts school to serve on the local volunteer fire department. (The only book on the shelf in the boardroom of Blackwater's Northern Virginia offices is a copy of the eminent conservative historian Paul Johnson's A History Of The American People.)
Nobody can say Prince is in it for the money, either. His father Edgar started a small die-cast shop in Holland, Michigan, in 1965. Along the way he patented the now-ubiquitous lighted vanity mirror in automobile visors; a year after his 1995 death, the family company sold for over $1 billion, an enormous inheritance for Erik and his sisters.
The next year Erik left the Navy and founded Blackwater. It was the end of the Cold War. The Clinton administration and Congress had been eagerly downsizing military facilities and training--much to the consternation of many officers, Prince included. Prince knew there would be a market for the kind of training Blackwater would provide; his initial purchase of 6,000 acres in Moyock does not suggest his vision for the company was modest. (It's currently 7,500 acres; the company has plans to relocate the Florida aviation division to North Carolina near its headquarters, as well as open training facilities in California and the Philippines.)
Regardless of his inheritance, Prince's subsequent shepherding of Blackwater has proved him as adept a businessman as his father. And there you have it. Erik Prince--mercenary mogul and liberal America's worst nightmare. Not only can he buy and sell you, he can kill you before you even know he's in the room.
For a conservative like Prince, you can't make the world a better place without harnessing the power of free markets. He sounds more like an MBA than a mercenary. Prince believes that an entrepreneurial spirit and the military go naturally together: "This goes back to our corporate mantra: We're trying to do for the national security apparatus what Fed Ex did for the postal service," Prince says. "They did many of the same services that the Postal Service did, better, cheaper, smarter, and faster by innovating, [which] the private sector can do much more effectively."
Of all the charges leveled at Blackwater, one of the most damning is that they are war profiteers. And it's a charge the company is eager to defend against, especially in light of the fact that it has been awarded numerous CIA and other no-bid "urgent and compelling need" contracts by the government, the terms of which are often shrouded in secrecy.
Blackwater prides itself on its cost-effectiveness. "The DoD has lots of great people trapped in it. They are trapped in between stratified layers of bureaucracy that destroy innovation and efficiency. The private sector can do many of those things, whether it's training or logistics or airlift--a lot of those kinds of peripheral issues. And we do it in a market-based manner and drive those efficiencies. So when they say 'Ah, we need about 100 guys to do that job,' we say, 'Actually, you only need about 10 to do that job,'" Prince explains.
Proving cost-effectiveness is nearly impossible as there are no comprehensive data on private military contractors and institutional savings. "It is not clear that outsourcing always saves money," Brookings Institution scholar Peter Singer states in his book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry. In fact, as Singer pointed out in a cover story in Foreign Affairs, military contracts are seldom set up to achieve cost-effectiveness. "Too often, the 'cost plus' arrangement has become the default form for all contracts. But this setup, in effect, gives companies more profit if they spend more. When combined with inadequate oversight, it creates a system ripe for inefficiency and abuse," Singer says.
Blackwater's position on expensive military contracts seems to be that they didn't start the fire. It seems that stratified layers of bureaucracy in military contracts are found both within and outside the DoD. A cursory examination of the circumstances surrounding Blackwater's infamous Falluja casualties shows why. On the surface, it looked like a simple contract to protect a Kuwaiti food service company transporting food and kitchen supplies. But as outlined in journalist Robert Young Pelton's thorough new book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, here's how the financial arrangement really worked.
Blackwater was contracted to provide transport security for Regency Hotel and Hospitality. The Kuwaiti food service company itself was a subcontractor of a German company, Eurest Support Services. ESS in turn was a subcontractor of Kellogg, Brown and Root, which is itself a subsidiary of Halliburton. KBR has an exclusive $7.2 billion contract with the military for managing the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program, or LOGCAP, which handles global support functions for the military, e.g., food. How much anyone gets paid at any point along this long and winding paper trail is unknown, as KBR considers all LOGCAP billing confidential, something each of its subcontractors must agree to in writing. Violation of this privacy clause is punishable by $250,000 in fines. However, it can be safely assumed that at each level of subcontracting, the companies mark up their costs, bloating the price to the taxpayer. These massive contracts are easier for the government to manage than multiple smaller ones. Prince says that's a problem.
"One of the best ways the U.S. government overall, particularly the DOD, can get better value for the taxpayers is by improving the training, standards, and competence of their own contracting officers," he says. "When you go to sell to a Fortune 500 company, their purchasing officer knows more about your process than you do--they really drill down; they know the best value and they expect execution complete, correct, and on time. With government contracting officers that's not always the case; that's seldom the case. There's a lot more shortcomings that are allowed that go unpunished."
So if private military contractors are considered cost effective, that's no doubt partly because they're being graded on a curve set by the Department of Defense--home of the $200 hammer and $500 toilet seat. Black water has earned $505 million in publicly identifiable contracts since 2000--it's no wonder private military contractors jokingly refer to themselves as the "Coalition of the Billing."
As for the individual contractors on the ground, pay varies, but $600-$700 a day would not be out of line for a qualified armed guard, and higher figures are commonplace, depending on qualifications and experience. The good pay is a bit of a joke within the industry. Circulating on the message boards and email lists of contractors for some time has been this tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless revealing "Contractor's Creed": I care not for ribbons and awards for valor. I do this job for the opportunity to kill the enemies of my country, and to finally get that boat I've always wanted. In any combat zone, I will always locate the swimming pool, beer, and women, because I can. I will deploy on my terms, and if it ever gets too stupid, I will simply find another company that pays me more.
Despite the ethical perils inherent in such work, Prince insists not just that the future of warfare depends on private companies driving market efficiencies, but that this is the way of the world. "I would go back to a deeper view of history. The idea of private contractors doing this kind of work is not a recent phenomenon," he says. He can rattle off any number of examples of mercenaries being used throughout history--many of whom were beloved figures in U.S. history, from Revolutionary hero Lafayette to the Flying Tigers in World War II.
That may be the "deeper view" of history--but it glosses over the recent history of mercenaries, which is horrifying. Blackwater is trying to emerge as a credible and ethical company in an industry with a reputation of being anything but. Most notorious in this respect is Executive Outcomes, a mercenary company that started in South Africa in 1989, drawing personnel from the remnants of the outgoing apartheid regime's shady military and internal intelligence operations.
Clients included Texaco and DeBeers, but Executive Outcomes wasn't exactly discriminating about whose money it took. In 1996, one of EO's principals, Simon Mann, a former SAS officer and heir to a substantial brewing fortune, created a subsidiary called Sandline. Mann recruited a former lieutenant colonel in the Scots Guards, Tim Spicer, to head up the operation. Creating a subsidiary with a different name was also an attempt in part to remove the stink that Executive Outcomes had acquired in its seven years of existence. It was Spicer and Mann who came up with the term Private Military Company and began rebranding mercenaries in earnest.
Sandline's first big contract came in January 1997--$36 million from the government of Papua New Guinea, to help it regain control of a copper mine that had been seized by rebels. This did not go well; Spicer was arrested as soon as Sandline forces attempted to enter the country and freed only after the British government intervened. Public outcry over Sandline's contract very nearly destabilized the Papuan government, forcing the prime minister to resign.
If Spicer and Mann were chastened by the incident, they didn't show it. By 1998 Sandline was embroiled in a much bigger scandal--allegedly violating a U.N. arms embargo in Sierra Leone on behalf of an Indian client accused of embezzling millions from a Thai bank. Executive Outcomes dissolved in 1999 in response to anti-mercenary legislation introduced in South Africa, but Sandline operated until 2004.
Sandline's closing in 2004 was not incidental. That same year, Mann was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in Zimbabwe. He had been arrested along with a planeload of mercenaries and former EO and Sandline colleagues en route to foment a coup in Equatorial Guinea, a tiny despotic country in the armpit of Africa that happens to have substantial oil reserves off the coast.
Mann's failed coup made a huge splash internationally, in part because one of the people allegedly bankrolling the operation was Mark Thatcher, son of the former British prime minister. Weirder still, the coup attempt was likely inspired by Frederick Forsyth's 1974 bestseller The Dogs of War, about a band of mercenaries who attempt to overthrow the government of a fictional African country clearly modeled after Equatorial Guinea. As if that weren't enough, it is quite credibly reputed that Forsyth himself bankrolled an unsuccessful 1972 coup attempt in the same country with funds from his first novel, The Day of the Jackal, and that Forsyth's real-life exploits were the basis of his allegedly fictional Dogs of War published two years later. The pièce de résistance to this whole saga? Forsyth is one of a small number of private investors in the current business venture of Mann's good friend and former business partner, Tim Spicer.
While Mann began rotting in jail, Spicer was busy positioning himself and his new company, Aegis Defense Services. Despite the fact that he was called in for questioning by the British government and suspected of being involved in some capacity with Mann's 2004 coup attempt, in May of that year Aegis was awarded a $293 million contract from the U.S. government to provide security for the Army Corps of Engineers and the Iraq Project and Contracting Office, the two U.S. agencies most directly responsible for Iraqi reconstruction. This despite the fact that the company had no previous experience in Iraq and clearly didn't have the resources to fulfill the contract. The contract is shrouded in controversy; as head of security for the Project Management Office (precursor to the Project and Contracting Office), British Brigadier General Tony Hunter-Choat wrote the terms of the contract. Hunter-Choat and Spicer were contemporaries in the British military and are known to have worked together previously in the Balkans. Another British general, James Ellery, who worked with Hunter-Choat at the Project Management Office and on the contract specifications, now works for Aegis.
The Aegis contract got the attention of Congress, and eventually the Pentagon admitted that its contracting officer was completely unaware of Spicer's background. Aegis's first DOD audit in 2005 was damning, including the charge that the company was trying to ramp up so fast to meet the contract requirements they were hiring poorly vetted Iraqis and giving them passes to the Green Zone. The company also came under scrutiny when videos of Aegis contractors indiscriminately firing at civilian cars surfaced on the Internet. Despite this, Aegis is carrying out extensive contracting operations in Iraq to this day.
The larger question for Erik Prince and Blackwater has to be: How to remove the stink that clings to their industry? How can they convince the world that they are "committed to supporting humane democracy" when everyone else in their industry has been eager to sell it out? With a Democratic Congress and talk of withdrawal from Iraq, most private military contractors are wondering what's next.
Blackwater thinks it has the answer. "I just got back from Darfur," says Chris Taylor, the vice president for strategic initiatives. "I called Erik on my sat phone and said, 'I was in Juba; there's 300 U.N. vehicles in a motor pool, there's any number of NGOs driving within a one-mile radius within Juba, and nothing's getting done. The only time you see people in their vehicles is when they were going to the tent cities, because there's a bar in every tent city."
Prince and other key Blackwater leaders have also visited war-torn Darfur. While there may be other private military contractors that are larger, most of them support and conduct operations through a patchwork of subcontracts. By contrast, Blackwater can offer every conceivable service its people might need, so when they go into an area their resources are entirely self-contained, making them ideally suited to humanitarian work in difficult conditions--they have the resources to provide both supplies and security with military precision. "We're not big outsourcers, which is kind of ironic because we play a big role in the outsourcing market. The more layers of subcontracting, the harder it is for you to get a straight answer and get something corrected," Taylor says.
Blackwater vice-chairman Cofer Black, a former CIA agent and State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, made waves at a conference in Amman, Jordan, earlier this year saying the company is ready to provide brigade-size forces (1,500-3,000 soldiers) for peacekeeping missions around the world. Reflecting on his experience in Darfur, Taylor says the solution to the situation is obvious. "I'm not really good at math but it seems like a pretty simple equation to solve. Get more people, skilled people, in there. Even in Darfur today, [there are only] 7,000 African Union troops in a place the size of France," Taylor says. "So why not send us?"
Well, for one thing, the humanitarian world has seen the ravages of mercenary activities in Africa for decades, and they have reason to be suspicious. Even Sandline hid behind the excuse of humanitarian work. When it was shuttered in 2004, the official reason given was that, owing to a lack of governmental support, "the ability of Sandline to make a positive difference in countries where there is widespread brutality and genocidal behaviour is materially diminished."
Blackwater insists it is different. Prince and Black water have been involved in charities on the margins of the humanitarian world for some time now. But the resistance is fierce. "Cofer and I have been speaking about our ability to help in Darfur ad infinitum, and that just pisses off the humanitarian world," Taylor says. "They have problems with private security companies, not because of performance but because they think that in some cases it removes their ability to cross borders, to talk to both sides, to be neutral. And that's great, but the age-old question--is neutrality greater than saving one more life? What's the marginal utility on one more life?"
It would also require the humanitarian world to come to terms with one of its greatest failings. Time and again humanitarian efforts are foiled and set back because of the inability to provide the security that enables relief efforts to go forward in dangerous areas.
Currently the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations has an annual budget of $7 billion, to say nothing of the billions in private charities and foreign aid pouring in to the world's worst places. Even those suspicious of Blackwater's motives must realize it makes good business sense that they would be interested in the work. Why chase after shady corporate clients when the mother lode is in helping people?
It's true there may be no good way to calculate the marginal utility of one more life. But just in case the world needs them, in the swamps of North Carolina, a few thousand rough men stand ready--for a price.
Mark Hemingway is a writer in Washington.
Wednesday, December 27, 2006
The New York Times
December 28, 2006
It would not be easy to find two men more different than Gerald Ford and James Brown. But I had a similar reaction to each of their deaths — a feeling of disappointment at some of the routes the nation has traveled since their days of greatest prominence.
Both men were important figures, symbolically more than substantively, at crucial periods in postwar American history — Mr. Brown at the crest of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s and Mr. Ford in the trough of the “long national nightmare” of Watergate.
Both were unlikely harbingers of the new. Mr. Brown, with his gleaming (and anachronistic) pompadour, became the very embodiment of black pride, a troubadour exhorting his followers to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” at a time when schoolhouse doors were opening and unprecedented opportunities were beckoning to black Americans after centuries of almost unimaginable degradation.
Mr. Ford was more than just the designated healer after Watergate. The U.S. was also in the final throes of the long national nightmare of Vietnam. And it was stuck in a protracted energy crisis. The nation was looking for a way forward.
My disappointment stems from the opportunities never seized and the lessons never learned from those two periods, which were all but bursting with possibilities.
Mr. Brown’s message was relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. Despite the continuing plague of racism, there were dreams in the 1960s of fabulous days ahead for black Americans, days in which the stereotypes and degradation of the past would be erased by a new era of educational, professional and cultural achievement.
Those dreams did not include visions of an enormous economically disadvantaged population that would continue to live in poverty, or near-poverty, more than 40 years later; or a perennially ragged public school system, largely segregated in fact, if not by law, that would turn out generation after generation of educationally deprived children; or a black prison population so vast and so enduring it would come to seem normal to legions of black youngsters, actually dictating to a great extent their tastes in fashion, art and music; or a level of sustained violence that has condemned thousands upon thousands of black youngsters to an early grave.
Oh, there have been plenty of strides since the mid-1960s. That’s undeniable. But one would have to be blind not to notice that there is much cause for disappointment, as well.
James Farmer, who helped create the Congress of Racial Equality on Gandhian principles of nonviolence, once told me that even as the civil rights movement was racking up its stunning successes, its leaders made a grave error.
“We did not do any long-range planning,” he said. “So we were stuck without a program after the success of our efforts, which included passage of a civil rights bill and voting rights legislation. We could have anticipated the backlash that followed. We could have asked ourselves what the jobs prospects would be for blacks in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and later on. By and large we didn’t do that, except for affirmative action. We should have had a plan.”
It would be foolish to suggest that the United States as a whole hasn’t made tremendous progress since the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s impossible to reflect on the presidency of Gerald Ford, who formally ended U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, and fail to notice that his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and chief of staff, Dick Cheney, were among the chief architects of the current calamity in Iraq. There were lessons galore to be learned from Vietnam. But Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney, like frat boys skipping an important lecture, managed to ignore them.
The trauma of the 1973 oil embargo actually spooked the country into action on the energy front. Fuel economy standards for automobiles were ratcheted up and improvements were made in the energy efficiency of refrigerators, air-conditioners and other household appliances. But those successful early efforts, instead of being strengthened, were undermined by the conservative political tide of the past several years.
Now we’re confronted with the dire threat of global warming, and as usual there is no plan.
If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history. We could have stepped back from the war in Iraq, and stepped up to the challenge of global warming. We could have learned something when James Brown was on the charts and Gerald Ford was in the White House.
Maybe next time.
Bob Herbert Politics Rumsfeld News Cheney Gerald Ford Race Civil Rights Iraq Vietnam
J. Lee Rankin became chief counsel for the Warren Commission. He then appointed Norman Redlich as his special assistant. Redlich began investigating the relationship between Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby. He was especially interested in why Oswald appeared to be heading towards Ruby's apartment after the assassination.
Gerald Ford, who had been providing J. Edgar Hoover with information about the activities of staff members of the commission. Hoover ordered that Redlich's past should be investigated. He discovered that Redlich was on the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, an organization considered by Hoover to have been set-up to "defend the cases of Communist lawbreakers". Redlich had also been critical of the activities of the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
This information was leaked to a group of right-wing politicians. On 5th May, 1964, Ralph F. Beermann, a Republican Party congressman, made a speech claiming that Redlich was associated with the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Beermann called for Redlich to be removed as a staff member of the Warren Commission. He was supported by Karl E. Mundt who said: "We want a report from the Commission which Americans will accept as factual, which will put to rest all the ugly rumors now in circulation and which the world will believe. Who but the most gullible would believe any report if it were written in part by persons with Communist connections?"
Gerald Ford joined in the attack and at one closed-door session of the Warren Commission he called for Redlich to be dismissed. However, Rankin and Earl Warren both supported him and he retained his job. However, after this, Redlich posed no threat to the theory that Oswald was the lone gunman.
[Read complete article at: Spartacus ]
By David Walsh
28 December 2006
Gerald Ford, the 38th president of the United States, died December 26 at the age of 93 at his home in Rancho Mirage, California.
Ford, the only occupant of the White House who was never elected to national office, assumed the presidency at a time of intense political crisis, in August 1974 following the resignation of Richard Nixon.
One month later, in the act for which he is best known, Ford pardoned Nixon for crimes he committed in the Watergate scandal, contrary to the wishes of the vast majority of the American people. In the 1976 presidential election Ford was narrowly defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter, a loss generally attributed to his decision to allow the hated Nixon to go scot-free.
Besides his pardon of Nixon, other major events of Ford’s administration include his denial of federal aid to New York City in 1975 when the city hovered on the brink of bankruptcy—which prompted the famous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City; Drop Dead”—and the fall of Saigon to North Vietnamese troops in April of the same year.
Adhering to a pattern that has become standardized and entirely predictable, the American media and political establishment has fallen to eulogizing Ford in the most fulsome manner. The dead politician is remembered as a healer of the nation’s wounds, a selfless leader, a man gifted with the “common touch,” an individual of unimpeachable integrity, and so forth.
According to George W. Bush, Ford “reflected the best in America’s character.” The current president, whose father served in the Ford administration as CIA director, asserted that the deceased man “stepped into the presidency without ever having sought the office. He assumed power in a period of great division and turmoil. For a nation that needed healing and for an office that needed a calm and steady hand, Gerald Ford came along when we needed him most.”
Vice President Dick Cheney, who, along with former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, also served in the Ford administration, praised the former president in equally improbable terms, claiming that when Ford “left office, he had restored public trust in the presidency, and the nation once again looked to the future with confidence and faith.”
Former President Carter weighed in, calling Ford “an outstanding statesman” who “wisely chose the path of healing during a deeply divisive time in our nation’s history.” Bill and Hillary Clinton issued a statement praising Ford for having “brought Americans together during a difficult chapter in our history.”
The tumultuous episode to which the various politicians refer—without, however, illuminating any of its essential features—was the Watergate scandal of 1972-74 and, beyond that, the explosive state of American political life in the early years of that decade.
The immediate incident involved a break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices at Washington’s Watergate complex in June 1972. One of the five individuals apprehended was an official of the Committee to Re-Elect the President (i.e., Nixon), James McCord. The others were Cuban exiles with longstanding connections to American intelligence. The evidence ultimately pointed to the involvement of White House officials and Nixon himself.
The background to the scandal which unfolded over the next two years, culminating in Nixon’s resignation in disgrace in August 1974, was a growing political and economic crisis of the postwar American and world order.
By the early 1970s, US engagement in Southeast Asia was proving disastrous. Despite the infusion of massive numbers of troops and savage bombings, the American military and the army of the South Vietnamese stooge regime were steadily losing ground to the Vietnamese national liberation forces. Opposition within the American population was growing, as the proliferation of anti-war demonstrations, some of them vast in size, demonstrated. The eventual withdrawal of US troops in March 1973 represented a humiliating defeat for the American ruling elite.
Hostility to the war nourished social conflicts in the US. The civil rights movement had mobilized millions of blacks, including some of the most oppressed layers of the working class. In the late 1960s, virtually every major American urban center witnessed rioting and upheavals. Militant labor struggles shook various industries and services. Major strikes occurred at General Motors, General Electric, the US Postal Service, and on the docks. American workers were not prepared to see their living standards sacrificed to the overseas ambitions of the corporate and political elite.
The global position of American capitalism, which had seemed so unassailable in the immediate postwar years, was visibly deteriorating. Powerful economic challenges were emerging in Asia and Europe. The “American Century,” proclaimed by Henry Luce on the eve of US entry into the Second World War, was threatening to be remarkably short-lived.
The postwar economic arrangements, anchored by the American dollar as the basis of international exchange, threatened to unravel as the US economy was gripped by a balance of payments crisis, worsened by budget deficits and the cost of the Vietnam War. Vast foreign dollar holdings dwarfed US gold reserves and obliged Nixon in August 1971 to remove the gold backing from the dollar, which had been established at the 1944 Bretton Woods conference, inaugurating a system of floating currencies. By the end of that year, the value of imports exceeded that of exports and the US registered its first balance of payments deficit in the twentieth century.
In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 between Israel and various Arab powers, the Arab embargo on shipments of oil to Europe and the US wreaked economic havoc. Drivers lined up for hours at gas stations in the US as prices (and tempers) soared. Thousands of independent truckers went on strike, blocking the highways. Factory output fell by 10 percent in 1974 and joblessness nearly doubled. The country teetered on the edge of political and social chaos.
Under these conditions, with the Watergate scandal spreading like a “cancer on the presidency,” the American ruling elite lost confidence in Nixon and the decision was taken to remove him, or at least prepare for that eventuality. The first step was the removal of Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, a former governor of Maryland and Nixon’s hatchet man in attacking anti-war opponents. He was forced to resign his office in October 1973 after charges of tax evasion and money laundering were brought against him.
Veteran Michigan Congressman Gerald Ford, a Republican politician little known beyond the confines of the capital, but one deemed a more dependable and less polarizing figure than either Agnew or Nixon, was appointed vice president by Nixon and confirmed by Congress in December 1973.
Ford had proven his reliability and loyalty to the ruling elite over the course of decades of undistinguished service in the House of Representatives. Born in Nebraska but raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Ford was first elected to Congress from a conservative district in western Michigan in 1948. He was elected 12 more times, eventually rising to the position of Republican leader in the House in 1965. In 25 years in Congress his name was not attached to one major piece of legislation.
A fairly typical Eisenhower Republican, a narrow representative of Midwestern business interests, Ford opposed public housing, the minimum wage and repeal of the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. However, he also voted against the poll tax, which kept African-Americans and the poor from voting, and he voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He was an early supporter of the Vietnam War, calling for the bombing of North Vietnam and a naval blockade.
With the election of Nixon in 1968, Ford became a loyal spokesman and advocate for the Republican president’s policies. In 1970, in retaliation for Democratic blockage of several of Nixon’s Supreme Court nominees, Ford launched an effort to impeach William O. Douglas, the most liberal of the Supreme Court justices, on trumped up charges.
After the Watergate break-in, Ford worked assiduously to prevent an investigation into the episode—a fact not mentioned in any of the glowing obituaries this week.
Ford and one of his protégés from Michigan led the effort to prevent Democrat Wright Patman’s House Banking and Commerce Committee from conducting hearings into the burglary at the Democratic Party headquarters. It has been suggested that Ford’s nomination as vice president was a payoff for his work in preventing a full investigation of Watergate prior to the 1972 presidential election, easily won by Nixon.
Despite a growing body of evidence, Ford continued to vigorously defend Nixon in late 1973 and early 1974, a fact also not mentioned in the obituaries.
On January 15, 1974, for example, speaking at a convention of a conservative farmers’ organization, Vice President Ford accused “the AFL-CIO, the Americans for Democratic Action and other powerful pressure organizations” of “waging a massive propaganda campaign against the president of the United States.” Ford went on to declare ominously, “If they can crush the president and his philosophy, they are convinced that they can dominate the Congress and, through it, the nation.” He denounced what he called “the relatively small group of activists who are out to impeach the president.”
As late as July 6, 1974, the vice president told a news conference that “I have detected a movement in the House that is favorable to the president... No impeachable offense has been found... the case has not been made.” Even after the House Judiciary Committee voted for a third article of impeachment against Nixon on July 30, Ford continued to argue for his innocence.
Ford claimed that only when he was presented with incontrovertible evidence by White House Chief of Staff Alexander Haig on August 1, in the form of damning taped conversations between Nixon and his aides pertaining to Watergate, was he convinced of the president’s guilt.
According to journalist Bob Woodward, Haig asked Ford that afternoon, “‘Are you ready, Mr. Vice President, to assume the presidency in a short period of time?’ New Watergate tapes, he said, would show Nixon had ordered the cover-up of the burglary. Ford was stunned.”
Woodward writes that Haig presented Ford with a number of options, including three involving pardon: Nixon pardoning himself and resigning, pardoning his aides and stepping down or resigning in return for an agreement that the new President Ford would pardon him.
In Woodward’s account, “Haig handed Ford two pieces of paper. The first sheet contained a handwritten summary of a president’s legal authority to pardon. The second sheet was a draft pardon form that only needed Ford’s signature and Nixon’s name to make it legal. ‘It’s my understanding from a White House lawyer,’ Haig said, ‘that the president does have authority to pardon even before criminal action has been taken against an individual.’”
Ford later claimed that no deal with Haig or Nixon on a pardon had ever been reached. There is good reason to doubt this.
In any event, Nixon resigned a week later and Ford took the oath of office August 9, 1974, promising that “our long national nightmare is over.” Thirty days later, on September 8, Ford granted the disgraced former president a full pardon for all federal crimes he committed or might have committed while in the White House.
Popular opposition to the pardon was massive. As the Washington Post noted in its obituary, “Every opinion poll showed a large majority of Americans opposed the pardon.” Ford’s press secretary resigned in protest against the decision.
Within forty eight hours of the pardon, the White House received 17,000 telegrams and mailgrams, which ran 6 to 1 against the new president’s action. The Post comments, “By January 1975, his [Ford’s] approval rating had plummeted to 36 percent.”
Ford claimed, and the claim finds its echo in all of the media accolades following his death, that he was merely attempting to heal the national divisions produced by the “poisonous wounds” of Watergate. In fact, he was engaged in damage control at the highest levels. The prospect of placing a former president on trial frightened large sections of the ruling elite.
The thorough discrediting of the White House and its gangster methods—break-ins, illegal wiretaps, “dirty tricks” against political opponents, mass arrests of anti-war demonstrators—threatened to transform a political crisis into a massive social and political movement potentially directed against the entire political establishment, something neither party had any desire to see. The crisis had to be contained, the legitimacy and credibility of the country’s highest institutions restored—and Ford’s future political career was a small price to pay.
Even in 1974, the ruling elite was prepared to go only so far in defending democratic norms. Ford’s pardoning of Nixon was a deeply undemocratic and reactionary act. In its fashion, it foreshadowed the outcome of the following decade’s Iran-Contra scandal, in which Ronald Reagan and his officials got off with a slap on the wrist for their illegal activities.
Moreover, it encouraged and facilitated the later operations of the political underworld around George W. Bush (including former Ford aides Cheney and Rumsfeld). These include the theft of the 2000 election, an assault on democratic rights that goes far beyond that of the Nixon administration, and the launching of an illegal invasion of Iraq, for which, if the establishment has its way, no one is to be held accountable.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Former President Gerald R. Ford said in an embargoed interview in July 2004 that the Iraq war was not justified, the Washington Post reported Wednesday night.
Ford ''very strongly'' disagreed with the current president's justifications for invading Iraq and said he would have pushed alternatives, such as sanctions, much more vigorously, the Post's Bob Woodward wrote. The story initially was posted on the newspaper's Internet site.
''I don't think I would have gone to war,'' Ford told Woodward a little more than a year after President Bush launched the invasion.
In the tape-recorded interview, Ford was critical not only of Bush but also of Vice President Cheney -- Ford's White House chief of staff -- and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as Ford's chief of staff and then his secretary of defense.
''Rumsfeld and Cheney and the president made a big mistake in justifying going into the war in Iraq. They put the emphasis on weapons of mass destruction,'' Ford said. ''And now, I've never publicly said I thought they made a mistake, but I felt very strongly it was an error in how they should justify what they were going to do.''
Woodward wrote that the interview took place for a future book project, though the former president said his comments could be published at any time after his death.
In another interview released after his death, Ford told CBS News in 1984 that he initially was against using the phrase ''long national nightmare'' in his first speech as president following Richard Nixon's resignation, concerned that it was too harsh.
Ford said he reconsidered and sought his wife's advice. ''After thinking about it and talking to Betty about it, we decided to leave it in and, boy, in retrospect, I'm awfully glad we did,'' he said.
On the Net:
Washington Post: www.washingtonpost.com
CBS News: http://www.cbsnews.com/
From the KOMMIE KARMA files
R.I.P. MR. PRESIDENT
Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jr. (July 14, 1913 – December 26, 2006) was the 38th President (1974–1977) and 40th Vice President (1973–1974) of the United States. He was the first person appointed to the Vice-Presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment; and, upon succession to the presidency, he became the only president in U.S. history to fill that office without having been elected either President or Vice-President. He was also the longest-lived United States president, having surpassed Ronald Reagan's record on November 12, 2006.
The Ford administration saw the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam, the execution of the Helsinki Accords, and the continuing specter of inflation and recession. Faced with an overwhelmingly Democratic majority in Congress, the administration was hampered in its ability to pass major legislation, and Ford's vetoes were frequently overridden. Ford was criticized by many for granting a pre-emptive pardon to President Richard Nixon for his role in the Watergate Scandal, and was subsequently defeated by Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election.
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
The American healthcare system is, simply put, a mess, but we may finally be ready to fix it.
By Ezra Klein
The Los Angeles Times
EZRA KLEIN is a writing fellow at the American Prospect and a blogger at EzraKlein.com
December 26, 2006
THE STATISTICS, by now, are well known. Forty-seven million uninsured Americans. Premium increases of 81% since 2000. Small businesses failing, big businesses foundering, individuals priced out and, amid all this, skyrocketing profits for insurers, hospitals and pharmaceutical manufacturers.
The American health system, put simply, is a mess. An expensive one. Indeed, in 2002, we spent $5,267 per capita on healthcare — $1,821 more than Switzerland, the nearest runner-up. And yet we had higher infant mortality, lower life expectancy, more price inflation and an actual uninsured population, a phenomenon virtually unknown in the rest of the developed world, where universal healthcare is, well, universal.
These are unsustainable trends. The U.S. healthcare system cannot, in its current form, go on forever, or even for very much longer — employers can't afford it, individuals can't handle it and the country's conscience won't countenance it.
And change may come sooner than most think. Across the country there are unmistakable signs that the gridlock and confusion sustaining our sadly outdated system are coming to an end and that real reform may finally emerge, possibly even starting in California, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is promising to spend his upcoming State of the State speech explaining how he will push the Golden State closer to universal healthcare in the coming year.
And it's about time. Few mention this, but the American healthcare system is something of a mistake. It blossomed out of a World War II tax reform meant to guard against corporate war profiteering. Liberals, with their usual combination of good intentions and inadequate foresight, imposed massive marginal tax rates on corporations, effectively freezing their profits at prewar levels. But the law had a loophole: Corporations could funnel their wartime riches into employee benefits, such as healthcare, thus putting the cash to use within their company. And so they did, creating the employer-based healthcare system.
But healthcare was simpler in the 1940s, and far less expensive. In the 21st century, it's not simple at all. Once a perk of employment, health insurance is now a necessity, and a structure that dumps such power, complexity and cost in the laps of employers is grotesquely unfair to both businesses and individuals. There's no logic to an auto manufacturer running a multibillion-dollar health insurance plan on the side; it should stick to making cars. There's no excuse for pricing the self-employed and entrepreneurial out of the market. And there's no reason the owner of a three-employee start-up should have to go to bed with a heavy conscience because his coffee shop can't pay for chemotherapy.
But health insurance is not only the inexplicable responsibility of business; it is a big business, which is why the system survives. The medical-industrial complex is a massive, remarkable beast, consuming a full one-ninth of the American economy and offering astonishing profits to many of the participants (indeed, Big Pharma was the most profitable industry in the U.S. from the 1980s until 2003, when energy companies wrested away the top spot). As with any lucrative industry, the winners are resistant to reforms, and they have a formidable army of politically lobbyists, PR specialists and image consultants helping to preserve their position, to preserve a mistake.
But there is evidence, finally, that their castle is being stormed. Massachusetts has passed the nation's first near-universal healthcare plan, creating a structure that should cover 95%-plus of its citizens by making healthcare as mandatory as car insurance. Nationally, the Democratic resurgence has returned universal healthcare to the agenda and its advocates to power. In the House, Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont), a staunch Medicare-for-all advocate, is expected to be chairman of the health subcommittee.
Surrounded by an unlikely array of union leaders and corporate chief executives, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has unveiled an inventive, comprehensive reform plan that would end the employer system forever. What businesses pay in employee premiums would be redirected to employee raises; insurers would offer their plans through state associations that would no longer allow price discrimination for reasons of health or job status; and everyone would have to buy in. Universal coverage would be achieved in under two years.
The most compelling evidence that resistance to reform is futile, however, is coming from the insurers themselves. Cognizant that Congress and the nation are tiring of the current dystopia, the insurance industry recently released its own plan for universal healthcare.
It's a bad plan, to be sure. Its purpose is more to preserve the insurance industry's profits than improve healthcare in this country. But the endorsement of universality as a moral imperative, and the attempt to get in front of the coming efforts at reform, mark the emergence of a distinct rear-guard mentality within the insurance industry. Their game is up, and they're turning some of their attention to shaping their future rather than betting that they can continue protecting their present.
SOME OF THE industry's more enlightened members are going even further. In California, the heads of Kaiser Permanente — a historical "good cop" insurer amid the almost cartoonish villainy of the industry — have proposed a serious, albeit extraordinarily complicated, plan for achieving universal coverage in the Golden State. The details of the plan are unimportant; it's the constructiveness of the proposal that matters.
And joining them in calling for reform is Schwarzenegger, who recently seized on a report by the New America Foundation showing that cost-shifting caused by the uninsured population costs each family in the state the equivalent of $1,186 in annual premiums. His plans for reform will be announced at the State of the State address Jan. 9.
The work is not done, of course. There are arguments yet to be had, wars yet to be fought.
Insurers want to retain their ability to discriminate against the ill and the old; conservatives want individuals to assume more risk and expense in order to force wiser health decisions; liberals want the government to guarantee universality and utilize its massive market power to bargain prices down to levels approximating those paid by other developed countries.
What's important, though, is that for the first time since the early years of the Clinton administration, these arguments are being made, and employers, insurers, politicians and, most crucially, voters are making their way back to the table.
The realization that our illogical, mistaken healthcare system can't go on forever has dawned, and so it will end. The question now is what replaces it.
Health Care California Schwarzenegger Universal Health Care Pro-Family Policy U.S. Republicans Democrats
Monday, December 25, 2006
The New York Times
December 26, 2006
In the 1970s, the cultural critic Lionel Trilling encouraged us to take seriously the distinction between sincerity and authenticity. Sincerity, he said, requires us to act and really be the way that we present ourselves to others. Authenticity involves finding and expressing the true inner self and judging all relationships in terms of it.
Authenticity now dominates our way of viewing ourselves and our relationships, with baleful consequences. Within sensitive individuals it breeds doubt; between people it promotes distrust; within groups it enhances group-think in the endless quest to be one with the group’s true soul; and between groups it is the inner source of identity politics.
It also undermines good government. James Nolan, in his book “The Therapeutic State,” has shown how the emphasis on the primacy of the self has penetrated major areas of government: emotivist arguments trump reasoned discourse in Congressional hearings and criminal justice; and in public education, self-esteem vies with basic literacy in evaluating students. The cult of authenticity partly accounts for our poor choice of leaders. We prefer leaders who feel our pain, or born-again frat boys who claim that they can stare into the empty eyes of an ex-K.G.B. agent and see inside his soul. On the other hand we hear, ad nauseam, that Hillary Clinton, arguably one of the nation’s most capable senators, is “fake” and therefore not electable as president.
But it is in our attempts to come to grips with prejudice that authenticity most confounds. Social scientists and pollsters routinely belittle results showing growing tolerance; they argue that Americans have simply learned how to conceal their deeply ingrained prejudices. A hot new subfield of psychology claims to validate such skepticism. The Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and her collaborators claim to have evidence, based on more than three million self-administered Web-based tests, that nearly all of us are authentically bigoted to the core with hidden “implicit prejudices” — about race, gender, age, homosexuality and appearance — that we deny, sometimes with consciously tolerant views. The police shootings of Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, they argue, are simply dramatic examples of how “implicit prejudice” influences the behavior of us all.
However well meaning these researchers, their gotcha psychology is morally invasive and, as the psychologist Philip Tetlock has cogently argued, of questionable validity and use. It cannot distinguish between legitimate apprehension and hateful bigotry as responses to identical social problems. A fearful young black woman living in a high-crime neighborhood could easily end up with a racist score. An army of diversity trainers now use Banaji’s test to promote touchy-feely bias awareness in companies, which my colleague Frank Dobbin has shown to be a devious substitute for minority promotions.
I couldn’t care less whether my neighbors and co-workers are authentically sexist, racist or ageist. What matters is that they behave with civility and tolerance, obey the rules of social interaction and are sincere about it. The criteria of sincerity are unambiguous: Will they keep their promises? Will they honor the meanings and understandings we tacitly negotiate? Are their gestures of cordiality offered in conscious good faith?
Scholars like Richard Sennett and the late Philip Rieff attribute the rise of authenticity to the influence of psychoanalysis, but America’s protestant ethos and its growing intrusion in public life may be equally to blame. Whatever the cause, for centuries the norm of sincerity presented an alternate model of selfhood and judgment that was especially appropriate for non-intimate and secular relations. Its iconic expression is the celebrated passage from Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage,/ And all the men and women merely players./They have their exits and their entrances,/ And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Shakespeare’s “self” is inescapably public, fashioned in interaction with others and by the roles we play — what sociologists, building on his insight, call the looking-glass self. This allows for change. Sincerity rests in reconciling our performance of tolerance with the people we become. And what it means for us today is that the best way of living in our diverse and contentiously free society is neither to obsess about the hidden depths of our prejudices nor to deny them, but to behave as if we had none.
* Speedy withdrawal of US and coalition forces from Iraq.
* No permanent US military bases and installations.
* Support for an Iraqi-led peace process, including a peace conference to shape a post-occupation transition and an international peacekeeping presence if mandated by this peace process.
* Return of Iraqi sovereignty and control over its oil resources and the political and economic life of the nation.
* Funding for compensation and reconstruction to address the destruction caused by the US war and over a decade of sanctions.
* Investment of US taxpayer money away from war and into job creation, health care, education, housing, and other vital social needs.
* Increased support for US veterans of the Iraq and other wars.
* No “preventive/preemptive” war against Iran or any other nation.
More info on The Declaration of Peace
The New York Times
December 25, 2006
It’s the season for charitable giving. And far too many Americans, particularly children, need that charity.
Scenes of a devastated New Orleans reminded us that many of our fellow citizens remain poor, four decades after L.B.J. declared war on poverty. But I’m not sure whether people understand how little progress we’ve made. In 1969, fewer than one in every seven American children lived below the poverty line. Last year, although the country was far wealthier, more than one in every six American children were poor.
And there’s no excuse for our lack of progress. Just look at what the British government has accomplished over the last decade.
Although Tony Blair has been President Bush’s obedient manservant when it comes to Iraq, Mr. Blair’s domestic policies are nothing like Mr. Bush’s. Where Mr. Bush has sought to privatize the social safety net, Mr. Blair’s Labor government has defended and strengthened it. Where Mr. Bush and his allies accuse anyone who mentions income distribution of “class warfare,” the Blair government has made a major effort to reverse the surge in inequality and poverty that took place during the Thatcher years.
And Britain’s poverty rate, if measured American-style — that is, in terms of a fixed poverty line, not a moving target that rises as the nation grows richer — has been cut in half since Labor came to power in 1997.
Britain’s war on poverty has been led by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and Mr. Blair’s heir apparent. There’s nothing exotic about his policies, many of which are inspired by American models. But in Britain, these policies are carried out with much more determination.
For example, Britain didn’t have a minimum wage until 1999 — but at current exchange rates Britain’s minimum wage rate is now about twice as high as ours. Britain’s child benefit is more generous than America’s child tax credit, and it’s available to everyone, even those too poor to pay income taxes. Britain’s tax credit for low-wage workers is similar to the U.S. earned-income tax credit, but substantially larger.
And don’t forget that Britain’s universal health care system ensures that no one has to fear going without medical care or being bankrupted by doctors’ bills.
The Blair government hasn’t achieved all its domestic goals. Income inequality has been stabilized but not substantially reduced: as in America, the richest 1 percent have pulled away from everyone else, though not to the same extent. The decline in child poverty, though impressive, has fallen short of the government’s ambitious goals. And the government’s policies don’t seem to have helped a persistent underclass of the very poor.
But there’s no denying that the Blair government has done a lot for Britain’s have-nots. Modern Britain isn’t paradise on earth, but the Blair government has ensured that substantially fewer people are living in economic hell. Providing a strong social safety net requires a higher overall rate of taxation than Americans are accustomed to, but Britain’s tax burden hasn’t undermined the economy’s growth.
What are the lessons to be learned from across the pond?
First, government truly can be a force for good. Decades of propaganda have conditioned many Americans to assume that government is always incompetent — and the current administration has done its best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the Blair years have shown that a government that seriously tries to reduce poverty can achieve a lot.
Second, it really helps to have politicians who are serious about governing, rather than devoting themselves entirely to amassing power and rewarding cronies.
While researching this article, I was startled by the sheer rationality of British policy discussion, as compared with the cynical posturing that passes for policy discourse in George Bush’s America. Instead of making grandiose promises that are quickly forgotten — like Mr. Bush’s promise of “bold action” to confront poverty after Hurricane Katrina — British Labor politicians propose specific policies with well-defined goals. And when actual results fall short of those goals, they face the facts rather than trying to suppress them and sliming the critics.
The moral of my Christmas story is that fighting poverty isn’t easy, but it can be done. Giving in to cynicism and accepting the persistence of widespread poverty even as the rich get ever richer is a choice that our politicians have made. And we should be ashamed of that choice.
The New York Times
December 25, 2006
Spike Lee, who has made a stunning six-hour documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, was telling me the other day about his first visit to the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was annihilated by the flood that followed the storm.
After more than a year his voice was still filled with a sense of horrified wonder. “To see it with your own eyes,” he said, “and you’re doing a 360-degree turn, and you see nothing but devastation …. I wasn’t born until 1957 but I automatically thought about Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Berlin after the war.
“It looked like someone had dropped a nuclear bomb. It was all brown, and there was the smell, the stench. It was horrible.”
His words echoed the comments of a woman I had met on a recent trip to New Orleans. She remembered standing in the Ninth Ward after the waters had receded. “Everything was covered in brown crud,” she said. “There was nothing living. No birds. No dogs. There was no sound. And none of the fragrance that’s usually associated with New Orleans, like jasmine and gardenias and sweet olives. It was just a ruin, all death and destruction.”
Said Mr. Lee: “You couldn’t believe that this was the United States of America.”
The film, which was produced by HBO and has been released in a boxed set of DVDs, is called “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” It’s Mr. Lee’s best work, an informative, infuriating and heartbreaking record of a cataclysmic historical event — the loss of a great American city.
What boggles the mind now is the way the nation seems to be taking this loss in stride. Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.
As Mr. Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)
“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.
“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”
Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.
There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”
For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”
There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.
“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”
If you don’t have anything good to say about anybody…
Sunday, December 24, 2006
The New York Times
December 24, 2006
Three years ago, I purchased two teenage girls from the Cambodian brothels that enslaved them and returned them to their families. Plenty of readers promptly wrote to say: “Buy one for me, too.”
Those readers had honorable intentions (I think) and simply wanted to do something concrete to confront global poverty and sex trafficking. But buying enslaved girls isn’t a general solution — partly because it raises the market price and increases the incentive to kidnap other girls and sell them to brothels.I’m still in touch with the two girls and visited them on this trip (video of them is at nytimes.com/kristof); one is back in the brothel, and the other is now married and pregnant with her first child in her village. They are wonderful young women and powerful reminders of the need to do more to address human trafficking — but the conventional tools to do so are wrenchingly inadequate.
So in this holiday season let me share the (happy!) story of a group of kids who have found a way — from Washington State, no less — to fight illiteracy and sex trafficking here in this remote and squalid town of Pailin in western Cambodia.
I stumbled across their effort by chance as I visited an elementary school here that bore an English sign with the name “Overlake School.” Rural Cambodian schools normally are dilapidated and bare, but astonishingly this one had an English teacher who ushered me into a classroom in which sixth-grade students were pecking away at computers connected to a satellite dish.
“Many of my students have e-mail addresses,” said the teacher, Tay Khy. “They e-mail students in America.”
This remarkable scene — barefoot students with Yahoo accounts — came to pass because Francisco Grijalva, principal of the Overlake School in Redmond, Wash., read about an aid group called American Assistance for Cambodia (http://www.cambodiaschools.com/) that builds schools in rural Cambodia. He proposed that his 450 students, in grades five through 12, sponsor construction of an elementary school in Cambodia.
The students responded enthusiastically. They held bake sales and talent shows and gathered the $15,500 necessary to build a school.
In 2003, Mr. Grijalva led a delegation of 19 from his school for the opening of the one in Cambodia. Overwhelmed by the experience, the American students then decided to sponsor an English teacher and an e-mail system for the school. This year, a dozen of the American students came to teach English to the Cambodian pupils.
Kun Sokkea, a sixth grader at the Cambodian school, keeps a picture that the Americans gave her of their school and marvels at its otherworldly beauty. She inhabits a world that few American pupils could envision: Her father died of AIDS, her mother is now dying as well, she has never been to a dentist and she has just one shirt that she can wear to school.
She led me to her home, a rickety wooden shack with no electricity or plumbing. Kun Sokkea fetches drinking water from the local creek — where she also washes her clothes. When I asked if she ever drank milk, she said doubtfully that she used to — as a baby, from her mother.
Neither of her parents ever had even a year of schooling, and if it hadn’t been for the American students, she wouldn’t have had much either. That would have made her vulnerable to traffickers, who prey on illiterate girls from the villages.
Building schools doesn’t solve the immediate problem of girls currently enslaved inside brothels — that requires more rigorous law enforcement, crackdowns on corruption and outspoken diplomacy (it would help if President Bush spotlighted the issue in his State of the Union address). But in the long run no investment in poor countries gets more bang for the buck than educating girls. Literate girls not only are in less danger of being trafficked, but later they have fewer children, care for their children better and are much better able to earn a decent living.
Meanwhile, the Americans insist that they have benefited just as much from the relationship. “After going to Cambodia, my plans for the future have changed,” said Natalie Hammerquist, a 17-year-old who regularly e-mails two Cambodian students. “This year I’m taking three foreign languages, and I plan on picking up more in college.”As for Mr. Grijalva, he says: “This project is simply the most meaningful and worthwhile initiative I have undertaken in my 36 years in education.”