Saturday, May 12, 2007

Earth to G.O.P: The Gipper Is Dead

The New York Times
May 13, 2007

OF course you didn’t watch the first Republican presidential debate on MSNBC. Even the party’s most loyal base didn’t abandon Fox News, where Bill O’Reilly, interviewing the already overexposed George Tenet, drew far more viewers. Yet the few telling video scraps that entered the 24/7 mediasphere did turn the event into an instant “Saturday Night Live” parody without “SNL” having to lift a finger. The row of 10 middle-aged white candidates, David Letterman said, looked like “guys waiting to tee off at a restricted country club.”

Since then, panicked Republicans have been either blaming the “Let’s Make a Deal” debate format or praying for salvation-by-celebrity in the form of another middle-aged white guy who might enter the race, Fred Thompson. They don’t seem to get that there is not another major brand in the country — not Wal-Mart, not G.E., not even Denny’s nowadays — that would try to sell a mass product with such a demographically homogeneous sales force. And that’s only half the problem. The other half is that the Republicans don’t have a product to sell. Aside from tax cuts and a wall on the Mexican border, the only issue that energized the presidential contenders was Ronald Reagan. The debate’s most animated moments by far came as they clamored to lip-sync his “optimism,” his “morning in America,” his “shining city on the hill” and even, in a bizarre John McCain moment out of a Chucky movie, his grin.

The candidates mentioned Reagan’s name 19 times, the current White House occupant’s once. Much as the Republicans hope that the Gipper can still be a panacea for all their political ills, so they want to believe that if only President Bush would just go away and take his rock-bottom approval rating and equally unpopular war with him, all of their problems would be solved. But it could be argued that the Iraq fiasco, disastrous to American interests as it is, actually masks the magnitude of the destruction this presidency has visited both on the country in general and the G.O.P. in particular.

By my rough, conservative calculation — feel free to add — there have been corruption, incompetence, and contracting or cronyism scandals in these cabinet departments: Defense, Education, Justice, Interior, Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development. I am not counting State, whose deputy secretary, a champion of abstinence-based international AIDS funding, resigned last month in a prostitution scandal, or the General Services Administration, now being investigated for possibly steering federal favors to Republican Congressional candidates in 2006. Or the Office of Management and Budget, whose chief procurement officer was sentenced to prison in the Abramoff fallout. I will, however, toss in a figure that reveals the sheer depth of the overall malfeasance: no fewer than four inspectors general, the official watchdogs charged with investigating improprieties in each department, are themselves under investigation simultaneously — an all-time record.

Wrongdoing of this magnitude does not happen by accident, but it is not necessarily instigated by a Watergate-style criminal conspiracy. When corruption is this pervasive, it can also be a byproduct of a governing philosophy. That’s the case here. That Bush-Rove style of governance, the common denominator of all the administration scandals, is the Frankenstein creature that stalks the G.O.P. as it faces 2008. It has become the Republican brand and will remain so, even after this president goes, until courageous Republicans disown it and eradicate it.

It’s not the philosophy Mr. Bush campaigned on. Remember the candidate who billed himself as a “different kind of Republican” and a “compassionate conservative”? Karl Rove wanted to build a lasting Republican majority by emulating the tactics of the 1896 candidate, William McKinley, whose victory ushered in G.O.P. dominance that would last until the New Deal some 35 years later. The Rove plan was to add to the party’s base, much as McKinley had at the dawn of the industrial era, by attracting new un-Republican-like demographic groups, including Hispanics and African-Americans. Hence, No Child Left Behind, an education program pitched particularly to urban Americans, and a 2000 nominating convention that starred break dancers, gospel singers, Colin Powell and, as an M.C., the only black Republican member of Congress, J. C. Watts.

As always, the salesmanship was brilliant. One smitten liberal columnist imagined in 1999 that Mr. Bush could redefine his party: “If compassion and inclusion are his talismans, education his centerpiece and national unity his promise, we may say a final, welcome goodbye to the wedge issues that have divided Americans by race, ethnicity and religious conviction.” Or not. As Matthew Dowd, the disaffected Bush pollster, concluded this spring, the uniter he had so eagerly helped elect turned out to be “not the person” he thought, but instead a divider who wanted to appeal to the “51 percent of the people” who would ensure his hold on power.

But it isn’t just the divisive Bush-Rove partisanship that led to scandal. The corruption grew out of the White House’s insistence that partisanship — the maintenance of that 51 percent — dictate every governmental action no matter what the effect on the common good. And so the first M.B.A. president ignored every rule of sound management. Loyal ideologues or flunkies were put in crucial positions regardless of their ethics or competence. Government business was outsourced to campaign contributors regardless of their ethics or competence. Even orthodox Republican fiscal prudence was tossed aside so Congressional allies could be bought off with bridges to nowhere.

This was true way before many, let alone Matthew Dowd, were willing to see it. It was true before the Iraq war. In retrospect, the first unimpeachable evidence of the White House’s modus operandi was reported by the journalist Ron Suskind, for Esquire, at the end of 2002. Mr. Suskind interviewed an illustrious Bush appointee, the University of Pennsylvania political scientist John DiIulio, who had run the administration’s compassionate-conservative flagship, the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Bemoaning an unprecedented “lack of a policy apparatus” in the White House, Mr. DiIulio said: “What you’ve got is everything — and I mean everything — being run by the political arm. It’s the reign of the Mayberry Machiavellis.”

His words have been borne out repeatedly: by the unqualified political hacks and well-connected no-bid contractors who sabotaged the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq; the politicization of science at the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency; the outsourcing of veterans’ care to a crony company at Walter Reed; and the purge of independent United States attorneys at Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department. But even more pertinent, perhaps, to the Republican future is how the Mayberry Machiavellis alienated the precise groups that Mr. Bush had promised to add to his party’s base.

By installing a political hack, his 2000 campaign manager, Joe Allbaugh, at the top of FEMA, the president foreordained the hiring of Brownie and the disastrous response to Katrina. At the Education Department, the signature No Child Left Behind program, Reading First, is turning out to be a cesspool of contracting conflicts of interest. It’s also at that department that Bush loyalists stood passively by while the student-loan industry scandal exploded; at its center is Nelnet, the single largest corporate campaign contributor to the 2006 G.O.P. Congressional campaign committee. Back at Mr. Gonzales’s operation, where revelations of politicization and cover-ups mount daily, it turns out that no black lawyers have been hired in the nearly all-white criminal section of the civil rights division since 2003.

The sole piece of compassionate conservatism that Mr. Bush has tried not to sacrifice to political expedience — nondraconian immigration reform — is also on the ropes, done in by a wave of xenophobia that he has failed to combat. Just how knee-jerk this strain has become could be seen in the MSNBC debate when Chris Matthews asked the candidates if they would consider a constitutional amendment to allow presidential runs by naturalized citizens like their party’s star governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (an American since 1983), and its national chairman, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida. Seven out of 10 said no.

We’ve certainly come a long way from that 2000 Philadelphia convention, with its dream of forging an inclusive, long-lasting G.O.P. majority. Instead of break dancers and a black Republican congressman (there are none now), we’ve had YouTube classics like Mr. Rove’s impersonation of a rapper at a Washington journalists’ banquet and George Allen’s “macaca” meltdown. Simultaneously, the once-reliable evangelical base is starting to drift as some of its leaders join the battle against global warming and others recognize that they’ve been played for fools on “family values” by the G.O.P. establishment that covered up for Mark Foley.

Meanwhile, most of the pressing matters that the public cares passionately about — Iraq, health care, the environment and energy independence — belong for now to the Democrats. Though that party’s first debate wasn’t exactly an intellectual feast either, actual issues were engaged by presidential hopefuls representing a cross section of American demographics. You don’t see Democratic candidates changing the subject to J.F.K. and F.D.R. They are free to start wrestling with the future while the men inheriting the Bush-Rove brand of Republicanism are reduced to harking back to a morning in America on which the sun set in 1989.

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Labor’s Love Lost

The New York Times
May 13, 2007


Gordon Brown’s smile does not look at home on his face. It sits there uneasily, like an uninvited guest at a party, until his features can resume their comfortably dour grooves.

The brooding Scot ended his decade-long run as a hefty Heathcliff to Tony Blair’s chatty Cathy, stepping out of the shadows Friday with visible relief to begin a campaign for prime minister that he has already won.

Grumpy Gordon is an enigma compared with Captain Showbiz, as the glib Mr. Blair is called by a morning TV host here. The 56-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister, with hooded eyes and frugal charm, will be hard pressed to compete on the European stage with Iron Frau Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, dubbed “Thatcher without petticoats.”

Mr. Brown’s school friends came on TV to say he was more fun than he looked. “He enjoys a good glass of wine,” said his pal Bill Campbell.

The chancellor has been striving to move beyond his reputation as a man so obsessed with the budget that he wouldn’t even share the details in advance with Tony Blair. He traded the green eyeshade for pastel ties. He told a women’s magazine that he liked the rock band Arctic Monkeys, but later couldn’t name any of their songs.

Mr. Brown was considered the uncool half of the Cool Britannia team that swept into power on a wave of Champagne, celebrities and Cherie Blair’s New Age guru. But thanks to his role as W.’s interlocutor and translator, Tony Blair is uncool, too.

The first boomer prime minister got a blazing start in trying to make Britain more modern and tolerant. But he fell in with an American crowd of bullies who were turning back the clock on modernity and tolerance, and Tony abused Britons’ trust.

Growing fearful that he would inherit a bankrupt franchise, Grumpy decided this was his “nobody puts Baby in a corner” moment. The frowning apprentice gave the drowning prime minister a shove out of Downing Street. Maybe the last straw was the movie “The Queen,” chronicling Mr. Blair’s political finesse after Princess Diana’s death. It mentions Mr. Brown in passing, when Tony is too busy to take Gordon’s call and tells an aide to put him on hold.

Grumpy let Tony take the lead 13 years ago, believing Tony would hand off power to him eventually. While Mr. Brown felt intellectually superior, he knew his media skills were wanting. They still are. His debut was, as the BBC put it, “a bit of a hash.”

He got an uninspiring £100 haircut, which was “lost on everyone,” as one reporter dryly put it. Arriving for a photo-op breakfast at a supporter’s home in Southgate, the door slammed and locked on him, leaving him ringing the bell as cameras rolled. Once inside, he tried to talk to a blond little girl, but initially she froze him out. During his big speech, a teleprompter obscured his face, and he faded into a bland beige background. On top of that, Tony Blair chose that hour to attend a ceremony unveiling a statue of a soccer star, so news channels had to split the screens for part of Mr. Brown’s speech — a visual reminder of their tortured Lennon-and-McCartney partnership.

The Odd Couple had periods of not speaking, and Mr. Brown’s disdain for Mr. Blair’s style showed. “I have never believed presentation should be a substitute for policy,” he said. “I do not believe politics is about celebrity.” He dropped the New Labor logo from the Labor Web site. He promised to restore power to Parliament to rebuild trust in democracy — a knock on the way Mr. Blair ignored public opinion to invade Iraq — and to give more protection to civil liberties.

Mr. Blair’s defensive yet defiant resignation speech was elaborately stage-managed, with spinners fanning out afterward to puff up his legacy, even though, despite the remarkable achievements of Kosovo and Northern Ireland, his legacy will be buried in the blood and sand of Iraq with W’s. The speech set off a torrent of contempt about the era of spin he had introduced, with critics saying it had rotted discourse. The expert spin that helped him win three elections was also used to raise fears over Saddam’s phantom W.M.D. TV played the clip over and over in which Mr. Blair said Saddam had W.M.D. that could be activated in 45 minutes, but the former Blair consigliere Peter Mandelson asserted that Tony didn’t want an ally to have to go to war alone.

On Friday, the commentators began to fret that Mr. Brown needed more spin. How would he fare against the young conservative David Cameron, known as Blair Lite, if he couldn’t get the teleprompter out of his face, or keep his pant leg out of his sock?

Was he too old? Could he wear the bottoms of his trousers rolled?

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Only Halfway There

The New York Times
May 13, 2007

I’m glad Democrats are keeping the pressure on President Bush for a withdrawal date from Iraq. It’s the only way to keep him and Iraqis focused on the endgame. But if Democrats really want to be taken seriously on foreign affairs, they need to recognize that they have only half a policy on Iraq. And it’s the easy half.

You can’t be in favor of setting a date to withdraw from Iraq without also being in favor of a serious energy policy to radically reduce our dependence on oil — now. To call for withdrawing from Iraq by a set date, no matter what the situation is on the ground there — without a serious energy plan here — is reckless. All we would be doing is making ourselves more dependent on an even more unstable Middle East, because any U.S. withdrawal from Iraq is likely, in the short run, to be destabilizing.

The Middle East today is deeply troubled. If we determine that our efforts to tilt that region in a different direction — by building a decent Iraq — have failed, then our efforts to minimize our exposure to that region have to begin. But the last thing we can afford to do is walk away from the Middle East militarily while remaining chained to it economically.

More important, if Iraq totally fails, but we still believe it is in our interest to promote reform in the Middle East, a serious U.S. energy policy that permanently brings down the price of oil — by developing scalable alternative energies — is actually the best Plan B there is. You will see reform in the Arab-Muslim world only when regimes there can’t survive just by extracting oil, but have to extract the talents of their people by educating, empowering and connecting them.

But to hasten that day, Democrats have to be a lot more serious about energy than they have been up to now. Everyone has an energy plan for 2020. But we need one for 2007 that will start to have an impact by 2008 — and there is only one way to do that: get the price of oil right. Either tax gasoline by another 50 cents to $1 a gallon at the pump, or set a $50 floor price per barrel of oil sold in America. Once energy entrepreneurs know they will never again be undercut by cheap oil, you’ll see an explosion of innovation in alternatives.

“Right now we’re looking for solutions in all the wrong places,” argues the noted oil economist Philip Verleger. “The only way one can effectively address this problem today and get an immediate kick is by raising the price at the pump and keeping it there.” Some of the revenue could be used to buy back the most fuel-inefficient vehicles on our roads, he added. “The best monument to 9/11 we could erect would be a mountain of crushed gas guzzlers.”

There are some hopeful signs: Chris Dodd has just broken ranks and become the first presidential candidate to issue a serious, comprehensive energy plan that includes the “T word.” He has called for a “corporate carbon tax” that would both help fight global warming emissions and raise gasoline prices.

“You say the word ‘tax’ and people usually head for the hills,” Mr. Dodd told me. “But this is one where the American people can handle the truth. Unless you address the issue of price, you’re not serious about moving us from Point A to Point B.”

Barack Obama also just got right in Detroit’s face. He went to Motown, called for much tougher fuel economy standards and bluntly told automakers and autoworkers the truth: “For years, while foreign competitors were investing in more fuel-efficient technology for their vehicles, American automakers were spending their time investing in bigger, faster cars. Whenever an attempt was made to raise our fuel efficiency standards, the auto companies would lobby furiously against it, spending millions to prevent the very reform that could’ve saved their industry.” Those are fightin’ words!

Finally, in a move that also merits praise, General Motors announced that it was joining other major U.S. corporations, like General Electric, and signing on to the United States Climate Action Partnership (U.S.C.A.P.), which calls for a cap-and-trade program to control carbon dioxide emissions. G.M. is the first auto company to do so.

None of these go far enough, but they are all new positions and may be harbingers of a new competition in which companies and candidates try to outdo each other in being serious about energy rather than phony. That would be a big deal — and it might give the Democrats a more comprehensive Iraq policy just in the nick of time.

You can’t be serious about getting out of Iraq if you’re not serious about getting off oil.

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Please post news stories, opinion pieces, links to websites of interest and, of course, your own original commentaries.

"Let a hundred flowers bloom. Let the hundred schools of thought contend."


Friday, May 11, 2007

Bush stalling while Americans die

By Joseph L. Galloway
McClatchy Newspapers

When 11 Republican members of Congress trooped over to the White House this week to speak frankly to President Bush about the Iraq War, it may not have popped the bubble around The Decider but it did pry a few bricks out of the wall that has kept unpleasant truths at a distance.

It seems that the representatives let their leader know that there will be a public reckoning of both American military progress and Iraqi political progress at the end of this summer.

The underlying message is that bad news on either front this September - when the U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus has promised an assessment of how the surge, or escalation of U.S. troop strength, is working - could provoke further defections of Republicans on the Hill.

For the moment the Republicans will uphold the president's vetoes of Democratic war funding bills that set a timetable for beginning the withdrawal of American troops, but that could change.

It was hardly an accident that the president soon afterward signaled a new willingness to negotiate with congressional leaders on benchmarks for action by the Iraqi government and parliament to settle such issues as sharing of national oil revenue, tamping down sectarian violence, disarming murderous militias and ensuring that Iraqi army, police and parliament serve a nation and not their religious sects.

The president was quick to add that he was prepared to veto a second war funding bill if it comes to him with troop-withdrawal deadlines.

The news from Iraq was hardly encouraging. Iraqi parliamentarians are thinking about taking a 2-month-long summer vacation break from squabbling and doing nothing. The level of violence is rising, both in attacks on American troops and suicide bomber attacks against innocent Iraqis.

Four of the five U.S. Army brigades being added to the force in Iraq have already arrived. The fifth brigade is expected in June. Both the newly arrived and those soldiers who were already in Iraq have had their tours of duty extended from 12 months to 15.

On a recent day when improvised explosive device blasts killed a dozen American troops, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad said we could expect to see the carnage get worse in coming summer months.

If it wasn't for bad news, George W. Bush wouldn't have any news at all, and neither would the American and Iraqi peoples.

The president can't turn loose of some of his favorite talking points, however, and we will repeat them here and offer some alternative views and a small correction or two:

-We can't just withdraw our troops and leave Iraq for fear of a much worse sectarian bloodbath than the one the president's invasion and occupation provoked and sustains. If we leave the whole region will go up in flames.

(A majority of Iraqis say that it is long past time for U.S. troops to leave their country, a sentiment shared by a majority of Americans as well. And as long as we are doing "if's" what if our leaving shocks the Iraqis into a real effort to find some way to live together peacefully just as they did before we invaded? What if our costly and deadly experience in Iraq doesn't inflame the neighbors but convinces them it's a good place to avoid?)

-We are there in Iraq to fight al-Qaeda - the people who murdered thousands of Americans on 9/11 - and it's better to fight them there than here at home.

(The terror group the president refers to is, to be precise, an outfit that calls itself "al-Qaeda in Iraq." It is homegrown Iraqi and came into being well after we invaded Iraq. The real al-Qaeda terrorists - none of them Iraqi - who hatched the plot that killed more than 3,000 Americans on 9/11 don't live in Iraq. They live along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. We once had them and their boss, Osama bin Laden, in our sights but let them get away because we didn't have enough U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The president then turned his attention to Iraq and diverted 90 percent of the resources from trapping the real al-Qaeda where they live. He chose to invade the one place where al-Qaeda didn't live or work and where, under the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, they weren't really welcome.)

The whole thing gives rise to serious doubt that President Bush can achieve anything more than a larger disaster by hanging tough and stalling for time in Iraq.



Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national best-seller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young." Readers may write to him at: P.O. Box 399, Bayside, Texas 78340; e-mail:

The Millions Left Out

The New York Times
May 12, 2007

The United States may be the richest country in the world, but there are many millions — tens of millions — who are not sharing in that prosperity.

According to the most recent government figures, 37 million Americans are living below the official poverty threshold, which is $19,971 a year for a family of four. That’s one out of every eight Americans, and many of them are children.

More than 90 million Americans, close to a third of the entire population, are struggling to make ends meet on incomes that are less than twice the official poverty line. In my book, they’re poor.

We don’t see poor people on television or in the advertising that surrounds us like a second atmosphere. We don’t pay much attention to the millions of men and women who are changing bedpans, or flipping burgers for the minimum wage, or vacuuming the halls of office buildings at all hours of the night. But they’re there, working hard and getting very little in return.

The number of poor people in America has increased by five million over the past six years, and the gap between rich and poor has grown to historic proportions. The richest one percent of Americans got nearly 20 percent of the nation’s income in 2005, while the poorest 20 percent could collectively garner only a measly 3.4 percent.

A new report from a highly respected task force on poverty put together by the Center for American Progress tells us, “It does not have to be this way.” The task force has made several policy recommendations, and said that if all were adopted poverty in the U.S. could be cut in half over the next decade.

The tremendous number of people in poverty is an enormous drag on the U.S. economy. And one of the biggest problems is the simple fact that so many jobs pay so little that even fulltime, year-round employment is not enough to raise a family out of poverty. One-fifth of the working men in America and 29 percent of working women are in such jobs.

Peter Edelman, a Georgetown law professor who was a co-chairman of the task force, said, “An astonishing number of people are working as hard as they possibly can but are still in poverty or have incomes that are not much above the poverty line.”

So the starting point for lifting people out of poverty should be to see that men and women who are working are adequately compensated for their labor. The task force recommended that the federal minimum wage, now $5.15 an hour, be raised to half the average hourly wage in the U.S., which would bring it to $8.40.

The earned-income tax credit, which has proved very successful in supplementing the earnings of low-wage working families, should be expanded to cover more workers, the task force said. It also recommended expanded coverage of the federal child care tax credit, which is currently $1,000 per child for up to three children.

A crucial component to raising workers out of poverty would be an all-out effort to ensure that workers are allowed to form unions and bargain collectively. As the task force noted, “Among workers in similar jobs, unionized workers have higher pay, higher rates of health coverage, and better benefits than do nonunionized workers.”

In a recent interview about poverty, former Senator John Edwards told me: “Organizing is so important. We have 50 million service economy jobs and we’ll probably have 10 or 15 million more over the next decade. If those jobs are union jobs, they’ll be middle-class families. If not, they’re more likely to live in poverty. It’s that strong.”

The task force made several other recommendations, including proposals to ease access to higher education for poor youngsters, to help former prisoners find employment, to develop a more equitable unemployment compensation system, and to establish housing policies that would make it easier for poor people to move from neighborhoods of concentrated poverty to areas with better employment opportunities and higher-quality public services.

Mr. Edelman, an adviser on social policy in the Clinton administration, stressed that there is no one answer to the problem of poverty, and that in addition to public policy initiatives, it’s important to address the “things people have to do within their own communities to take responsibility for themselves and for each other.”

But he added, “It is unacceptable for this country, which is so wealthy, to have this many people who are left out.”

Bad Medicine, Sneaking In

The New York Times
May 12, 2007

As I read about the melamine-tainted pet food, and about the hundreds in Panama killed by phony glycerin from China, I remembered a patient I once saw. She was a dancer in her 40s who had hobbled into the emergency room one October night with a painful, bulging mass in her groin. I gently put my fingers to it. It was beet-sized and firm. When I placed my stethoscope on it, I heard gurgling. This was, I told her, a strangulating hernia — a rent in her abdominal wall had trapped a loop of intestine. The swelling was the knot of bowel; the gurgling, the fluid inside.

She was at risk of gangrene and agreed to an emergency hernia operation. It’s not a complicated procedure. But there are still plenty of ways it can go wrong. Inside her, I found the hernia defect — a one-inch gap in her muscle wall — and, protruding through it, a choked-off, purple, six-inch length of bowel. I opened the gap wider, pushed the bowel back in, and thankfully it pinked back to life. We’d gotten there in time. I closed the hernia with a polypropylene mesh cut to size. It was like sewing a patch onto a torn couch cushion. The next day, she went home. I saw her two weeks later. No infection. No troubles. She’d done beautifully.

Then I got an e-mail notice. The mesh manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson, was reporting that the mesh I’d put in was counterfeit. It was fake.

Someone had infiltrated the supply chain somewhere between Sherman, Tex., where the authentic mesh was manufactured, and Boston, where I’d operated on the patient. Apparently, mesh can travel through many hands. The original lot had gone to a Memphis warehouse, and then through at least two hospital goods distributors, which sell and trade medical supplies on what turns out to be a worldwide market, like oil. Somewhere along the way a counterfeiter replaced the lot with fake mesh packaged exactly like Johnson & Johnson’s, right down to the lot number. It is believed this happened someplace in Asia. But no one really knows.

The material looked like ordinary mesh to me. But according to the alert from the Food and Drug Administration, it wasn’t sterile. And although it seemed to be polypropylene, the fibers and weave were different from the manufacturer’s. It wasn’t clear what should be done. I called the patient to come see me.

I also began to wonder how I could trust anything I use. My sterile gloves come from the Philippines, surgical sponges from China, devices and instruments from Taiwan to Texas. The ingredients for medications come from all over the world.

This is how it is now. That’s not bad, I know. But it’s not all good, either. In the effort to get the best possible results for people, it seems hard enough to make sure one’s decisions are right. I’d never considered that I had to worry about my supplies, too.

So what to do?

In the name of safety and simplicity, we could try to restrict medical manufacturing and distribution networks to our borders. This is, for example, the argument for blocking the sale of medications from Canada. It’s folly, though. Medicine’s success and affordability already critically depend on materials and distribution from around the globe. Yet market forces aren’t weeding out the shady operators, either.

So we’re left only with vigilance — police work. Put enough F.D.A. inspectors on the ground and tracing technology on the goods and we actually could block those who would put an industrial solvent in children’s cough medicine and fake, unsterile material in our surgical supplies.

This we don’t do, though. The number of F.D.A. inspectors has actually been cut — partly because of small-government ideology and partly because of tight budgets. And still they’re finding more cases than ever. (In recent years, they’ve found counterfeit Lipitor, Viagra, Botox, Zyprexa and birth control pills, among others.) We need many times more inspectors. But nothing like it has been considered. That is no longer acceptable.

I saw my patient and told her about the fake mesh. She was stunned. We then considered what to do. It wasn’t clear the mesh would hold; and in many other patients, it became infected and had to be removed. But she’d done all right so far, and redoing the repair is major surgery. So she decided to wait and see what happened.

Given the alternative, doing nothing and hoping for the best was a wise choice for her. But it’s a bad choice for the rest of us.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blair’s legacy: Militarism abroad, social devastation at home

Statement by the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)
11 May 2007

On Thursday, Tony Blair announced the timetable for his departure as leader of the Labour Party and therefore as prime minister. He will not formally leave office until the end of June so as to enable the party to select his successor, which will almost certainly be Chancellor Gordon Brown.

Blair’s announcement is probably the most long-awaited resignation in living memory. Ever since the 2005 general election there has been much talk that Blair’s departure was imminent.

For a man who has made so much of the “hand of history” being on his shoulder and of his “legacy”—a word now being bandied about by Downing Street and the media—there was no good time to announce he would stand aside.

Even more detested in Britain than his mentor Margaret Thatcher—officially the most hated prime minister in recent history—opinion polls record that his legacy is one soaked in the blood of the preemptive war and occupation of Iraq. Some 50 percent of the population believe it is for this ignominious reason that Blair will find his place in the history books. The next highest numbers believe it will be due to his alliance with President George W. Bush.

Blair leaves office as an unindicted war criminal and the first sitting prime minister in history to be interviewed as part of a police investigation (the “cash for honours” scandal). It is no coincidence that Lord Levy had earlier announced that he would stand down as the prime minister’s special Middle East envoy. In his capacity as Blair’s chief fundraiser, Levy has been arrested and questioned under caution by police investigating the alleged sale of peerages in return for party loans.

The prime minister has reportedly been planning his retirement for some time in discussions with the likes of Rupert Murdoch and the then-chief executive of British Petroleum, Lord Browne. It has been suggested that out of concern that he not be seen to be cashing in too quickly, his first project will be to establish a global foundation to foster “greater understanding” between the three “Abrahamic faiths” of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

This is an obscene conceit in itself, considering his role in the Middle East. But no doubt Blair will once again be able to utilise his skills in soliciting donations from rich benefactors. His real money-making venture is expected to be speaking tours of the United States. Estimates as to what he can expect to earn in his first year out of office range between a conservative £5 million and £10 million, and a book deal is estimated to be worth between £5 million and £8 million.

There is no question that Blair will be feted in right-wing circles, especially in the US. This is first of all for his record of unbridled militarism in alliance with Washington. He is also valued in these circles because, just as in the US, his “war on terror” rhetoric has been used to justify the most antidemocratic and authoritarian measures.

Just as importantly, his reputation has been built on the huge transfer of wealth from working people to the global financial corporations and the super-rich that he helped engineer in the UK.

Last month’s Sunday Times Rich List recorded that the richest 1,000 people in Britain more than trebled their wealth under Blair. Their fortunes grew by 20 percent last year alone, to a combined £360 billion.

London has been described as a “magnet for billionaires,” attracted by the UK’s reputation as an “on-shore tax-haven” in which the wealthy—many of whom earned their fortunes through asset-stripping, privatization and financial speculation—pay next to nothing on their incomes.

In contrast, the number of people living in poverty in Britain last year rose from 12.1 million to 12.7 million, a rise of 600,000 people, whilst the number of poor children increased by 200,000 to 3.8 million between 2005 and 2006.

It is his role in enriching a small minority of the population that has also earned him kudos from Britain’s media, including the nominally liberal press. The Observer editorialised April 29, “Britain is better off after a decade with Tony Blair in charge. Wealth has been created, and wealth has been redistributed. That is what Labour governments have always hoped to do. It has happened without a brake on global competitiveness.”

To the extent that commentators have been forced to acknowledge Blair’s role in Iraq, it is portrayed as a tragic and isolated mistake that mars an otherwise enviable record. This conceals the fact that Iraq is part of a resurgence of imperialist militarism that has included sending Britain to war in Kosovo, Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, and which continues with the current provocations against Iran.

That the media should reduce Iraq to a mere detail is bad enough. That it does so in the aftermath of the devastating losses suffered by Labour in the elections on May 3—in which the war played a key role—is testament to the gulf between the ruling elite and their political apologists and the mass of working people.

The elections saw Labour lose control in Scotland for the first time in 50 years, and delivered the party its worst result in Wales since 1918. In England, where Labour was already at an unprecedented low, it was wiped out in 90 local authorities and lost almost 500 councillors. Overall, its share of the vote stands at just 27 percent, under conditions in which turnout never went much beyond 50 percent.

There has been much discussion on the elections revealing the extent to which the coalition that brought Blair to power in 1997—between Labour’s traditional support in the major cities and towns and a layer of former Conservative voters in marginal constituencies—has broken down.

Andrew Rawnsley in the Observer May 6 noted that “to non-tribal voters, his detachment from his party was always central to his electoral appeal. It was his ability to reach out to parts of the country not touched by previous Labour leaders that has kept him in Number 10 for such a remarkably long span.... Tony Blair has proved that an UnLabour prime minister leading a Labour government can be electorally very potent.”

Like Margaret Thatcher, Rawnsley continued, “he won by creating a coalition that gathered support from beyond his party’s core vote. Like her, his electoral triumphs at Westminster were accompanied by a hollowing-out of the party beyond it. And as with her, his coalition has eventually fractured.”

Rawnsley’s reference to the “hollowing-out” of Labour is telling, but it is one that he skips over and other commentators completely ignore. This is because, like much of the pro-Labour media, the Observer is involved in a concerted effort to rescue New Labour from oblivion under a Brown leadership. The lesson, Rawnsley continues, is that “the chancellor must remember that New Labour won power in the first place by appealing to affluent and aspirational middle-class voters.”

The excited chatter about New Labour’s “coalition” is bogus. In the final analysis, all parliamentary majorities depend on such combinations, including Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 that was secured on the basis of a programme of significant social reforms. In New Labour’s case, however, its electoral victory was built on the monumental fiction that it was possible to marry the concerns of working people with an unbridled big business agenda.

No amount of repackaging can conceal the fact that this perspective has been proven to be little more than a smokescreen behind which the rich have become even richer while the vast majority have been reduced to a precarious and debt-ridden existence.

The real pro-Blair coalition—the one that dare not speak its name—was between big business and the super-rich and the Labour and trade union bureaucracy.

It was because of its past association with the working class that Labour was able to complete Thatcher’s abandonment of the welfare state model—the “mixed economy” of nationalised industries and public service provision—and, with it, all the gradualist notions that were essential to securing social peace in the postwar period.

The trade unions not only played an essential political role in fashioning New Labour’s right-wing agenda, but also in preventing any resistance to it, whilst the government cut public spending, held down wages and privatised health and educational provision.

Nothing epitomises the invidious character of the trade union bureaucracy more than its refusal to back the mass protests against the Iraq war, on the grounds that to do so would jeopardise a Labour government. Indeed, the fact that Blair can expect to make a graceful exit from Downing Street at a time of his own choosing, rather than being forced out of office as he deserves, is primarily the responsibility of the Trades Union Congress.

At the same time, the manner of Blair’s departure is eloquent testimony to the absence of any principled opposition to Blair within the Labour Party itself. He never faced a serious challenge on the left. Rather the party’s official left wing dwindled to a rump, while Blair’s inner coterie was staffed by a host of former “lefts”—many with a Stalinist pedigree.

Big business and the trade unions are now attempting to build support for a continuation of this alliance under Brown. In an effort to salvage Labour, even the bitter hostilities between the Blair and Brown factions of the party have been temporarily set aside, with the chancellor’s succession to leadership more of a coronation than a contest.

The fundamental problem they face, however, is that Blair’s “success” was built on the corpse of the Labour Party. With big business having monopolised all the official parties, in the process transforming Labour into a neo-conservative rump, any possibility of social tensions finding safe release has also been eliminated.

Brown—the joint architect of New Labour—can no more turn back the clock than he can jump out of his own skin. Much of Brown’s claims to be setting out a different agenda to Blair’s are about presentation and securing the support of Parliament—something made necessary by Labour’s dwindling majority and the widespread belief that parliamentary democracy has been eviscerated by a sleazy, corrupt and unaccountable clique. Of the agenda of militarism and war, he has nothing to say other than an indication that he will allow Parliament a vote when a future war is declared.

There can be no return to the old political setup, when millions of workers looked to Labour as “their party.” It is a party of the financial oligarchy, bitterly hostile to any measures that encroach on the interests of capital and the rich—a fact made plain by the derision within its ranks at the prospect of a “left” leadership bid by Michael Meacher or John McDonnell. So antithetical is the Labour Party to even the tamest support for social reforms that it is questionable if the chosen “left” candidate will be able to muster the backing of 45 members of Parliament necessary to make such a bid.

The disenfranchising of the working class is a European and international phenomenon. Across the continent, the former social democratic parties have adopted the policies of the right. Their names are the only remaining vestiges of their origins as mass organisations of the working class, retained only in order to sow political confusion in an attempt to impose their deeply unpopular policies on a hostile electorate.

This presages enormous class and political conflicts. But, as recent elections here and in France and Germany have shown, if right-wing social democrats are not to be simply replaced by right-wing Conservatives, and social inequality and the dangers of new wars are to be overcome, workers and youth must establish their political independence from the bourgeoisie and its “left” appendages through the building of a genuine international socialist party.

See Also:

Britain’s elections: a debacle for Labour and an indictment of nationalism [5 May 2007]

Election manifesto of the Socialist Equality Party of Britain [27 March 2007]

The Human Community

The New York Times
May 11, 2007

The conventional view of Tony Blair is that he was a talented New Labor leader whose career was sadly overshadowed by Iraq. But this is absurd. It’s like saying that an elephant is a talented animal whose virtues are sadly overshadowed by the fact that it’s big and has a trunk.

Blair’s decision to support the invasion of Iraq grew out of the essence of who he is. Over the past decade, he has emerged as the world’s leading anti-Huntingtonian. He has become one pole in a big debate. On one side are those, represented by Samuel Huntington of Harvard, who believe humanity is riven by deep cultural divides and we should be careful about interfering in one another’s business. On the other are those like Blair, who believe the process of globalization compels us to be interdependent, and that the world will flourish only if the international community enforces shared, universal values.

Blair’s worldview began to take shape when he was 11 and his father suffered a debilitating stroke. That sent him off on an intellectual journey that led him to the theologian John Macmurray. “If you really want to understand what I’m all about, you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray,” Blair once said. “It’s all there.”

Blair absorbed from Macmurray a strong communitarian faith. As prime minister, he tried to remove the class and political barriers that divide the British people. Abroad, his core idea was also communitarian: “Globalization begets interdependence, and interdependence begets the necessity of a common value system to make it work.”

In April 1999, Blair delivered a speech in Chicago in which he ran down all the features of the globalized world that cross borders and unite humanity: trade, communications, disease, financial markets, human rights and immigration. “Today the impulse towards interdependence is immeasurably greater,” he argued. “We are witnessing the beginnings of a new doctrine of international community.”

This meant moving away from the Westphalian system, in which the world and its problems were divided into nation-states. “The rule book of international politics has been torn up,” he argued in a speech last year. What’s needed instead are multilateral institutions that act “in pursuit of global values: liberty, democracy, tolerance, justice.” The economics of globalization are mature, he concluded, but the politics are not.

In his 1999 speech, Blair maintained that the world sometimes has a duty to intervene in nations where global values are under threat. He argued forcefully for putting ground troops in Kosovo and highlighted the menace posed by Saddam Hussein.

He saw the terrorists of Sept. 11 as extremists who sought to divide humanity between the Dar al-Islam and the Dar al-harb — the House of Islam and the House of War. “This is not a clash between civilizations,” he said last year in the greatest speech of his premiership. “It is a clash about civilization. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction, between those who embrace and see opportunity in the modern world and those who reject its existence.” He concluded that Britain had to combat those who would divide the human community, even without the support of the multilateral institutions that he cherished.

The crucial issue now is: Is this human community real? Is Iraq merely an intervention that was botched? Or are interventions inherently doomed because people in other cultures don’t want what we want, and will never see the world as we do?

Over the past three years, people on the left and right have moved away from Blair and toward Huntington. There has been a sharp rise in the number of people who think it’s insane to try to export our values into alien cultures. Instead of emphasizing our common community, people are more likely to emphasize the distances and conflicts between cultures. Whether the subject is immigration, trade or foreign affairs, there is a greater desire to build separation fences because differences in values seem deeply rooted and impossible to erase.

If Huntington turns out to be right, then Blair will be seen as one of the most naïve communitarians of all time. But I wouldn’t count him out just yet. It could be that over the long term, and despite the disaster in Iraq that he co-authored, his vision of a human community will be vindicated. Or it could be that Blair’s vision of that community was right — except in the Middle East, the region where he most aggressively sought to apply it.

The Roots of Ethnic Violence

By Mark Buchanan
Our Lives As Atoms
On the Physical Patterns that Govern Our World
The New York Times
May 9, 2007

One week ago, the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued arrest warrants on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity for Ahmad Muhammad Harun, Sudan’s former interior minister who oversaw the Darfur Securty Desk, and Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-al-Rahman, a leader of the Janjaweed militia. Mr. Harun is now Sudan’s minister of humanitarian affairs. The two men seem to be rather small fry compared to Omar Hassan al-Bashir, the Sudanese president, but it’s a step in the right direction. Too little, too late, of course, for the hundreds of thousands who’ve been tortured, raped and murdered in the Darfur region over the past four years.

The question, as always, is why African and Western governments have been so painfully slow in bringing pressure against the Sudanese government, which might have stopped the killing years ago. Unfortunately, the pattern is all too familiar: as Samantha Power documented in her powerful book “A Problem From Hell,” the history of genocide in this century is one of governments, including the United States, responding almost habitually with denial and delay, with excuses and inaction.

Why? Governments, no doubt, have their own secret and not always admirable reasons for staying out. Most people, I suppose, find it hard even to imagine these things happening, as they lie so far outside our personal experience.

But the failure also stems, I suspect, from a deep misunderstanding of the origins of ethnically-targeted violence – and of the way individuals in the right positions can exploit the power of social patterns for their own selfish ends.

From the Turkish slaughter of Armenians in the early 20th century through Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, genocide has erupted almost never as a spontaneous orgy of mass killing, but always a result of political calculation and orchestration. Before the massacre in Rwanda, for example, radio stations and newspapers owned by a handful of government officials began referring to the Tutsi as “subhuman.” The government funded and organized radical Hutu groups that amassed weapons and trained people as killers.

There was no spontaneous social uprising. The fate of one million Tutsis had been planned and prepared by April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying the Rwandan president and the Hutu president of Burundi was shot down in Kigali.

Ten years ago, a group of noted experts in sociology and psychology met in Northern Ireland to discuss the roots of genocide, and they concluded that most of the ethnopolitically motivated killings in the 20th century could be traced not to “spontaneous popular actions,” but to “dominant state elites trying to maintain their nations’ unity and their own monopoly on power.”

But this understanding is complete only if we see that leaders aren’t able to do anything they like. They wield power by stirring up social patterns and directing them for their own ends. Unfortunately, we humans are in many ways almost pre-programmed to make this possible.

In natural ethnic groups, of course, ethnocentrism is a universal phenomenon, with people everywhere convinced in no uncertain terms that their culture is superior. This isn’t just a characteristic of the uneducated; ethnocentrism presumably finds its roots in the structure of the human mind, and in the evolutionary experience of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived in small groups.

More surprising yet, a readiness for group-level prejudice may also be linked to the collective mechanisms that support human cooperation. On the basis of computer simulations in recent years, political scientists Ross Hammond of the Brookings Institute and Robert Axelrod of the University of Michigan suggest that in especially primitive social conditions – when people have limited opportunities to use reputation or character as a guide to someone’s trustworthiness – raw prejudice, based on crude ethnic markers, can actually be beneficial.

Roughly speaking, Hammond and Axelrod found that ethnic prejudice – again, only in these primitive conditions – helps to organize people into homogeneous ethnic groups within which interaction is easy and mostly cooperative, while minimizing the more difficult and often costly interactions between groups. Without prejudiced behavior, you would not get as much cooperation.

The conclusion is that ethnocentrism, while it may be ugly, also may be effective. The researchers suggest that it may be no coincidence that ethnic divisions and tensions tend to become enhanced and more influential in conditions of economic collapse or when war tears apart the social fabric.

Sadly, it is our innate preparedness for ethnocentric behavior that politicians such as Slobodan Milosevic – or President Bashir today – use so effectively. In 2003, when various African tribes began rebelling in Darfur, Bashir responded by arming irregular militias and directing them to attack black civilians indiscriminately. Many of the militiamen were of Arabic descent, driven and motivated by powerful ethnic prejudice.

Historians once argued over whether individuals or social forces control history. The truth is that both are important. An individual can “pluck the strings” of a social pattern much as a musician would those of a guitar, and wield power far beyond his own personal being.

This abstract understanding does nothing to lessen the unspeakable suffering of the millions of people with names and faces and dreams whose lives have been and are being ruined or cut short. But it should alert us that genocide is not the direct consequence of unstoppable age-old hatreds, but that of people in power who use their influence to stoke hatred for strategic purposes.

It is only these people who need to be stopped.

Genocide Intervention Network

Save the Darfur Puppy

The New York Times
May 10, 2007

Finally, we’re beginning to understand what it would take to galvanize President Bush, other leaders and the American public to respond to the genocide in Sudan: a suffering puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.

That’s the implication of a series of studies by psychologists trying to understand why people — good, conscientious people — aren’t moved by genocide or famines. Time and again, we’ve seen that the human conscience just isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter.

In one experiment, psychologists asked ordinary citizens to contribute $5 to alleviate hunger abroad. In one version, the money would go to a particular girl, Rokia, a 7-year-old in Mali; in another, to 21 million hungry Africans; in a third, to Rokia — but she was presented as a victim of a larger tapestry of global hunger.

Not surprisingly, people were less likely to give to anonymous millions than to Rokia. But they were also less willing to give in the third scenario, in which Rokia’s suffering was presented as part of a broader pattern.

Evidence is overwhelming that humans respond to the suffering of individuals rather than groups. Think of the toddler Jessica McClure falling down a well in 1987, or the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 (which Mencken described as the “the biggest story since the Resurrection”).

Even the right animal evokes a similar sympathy. A dog stranded on a ship aroused so much pity that $48,000 in private money was spent trying to rescue it — and that was before the Coast Guard stepped in. And after I began visiting Darfur in 2004, I was flummoxed by the public’s passion to save a red-tailed hawk, Pale Male, that had been evicted from his nest on Fifth Avenue in New York City. A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than two million homeless Sudanese.

Advocates for the poor often note that 30,000 children die daily of the consequences of poverty — presuming that this number will shock people into action. But the opposite is true: the more victims, the less compassion.

In one experiment, people in one group could donate to a $300,000 fund for medical treatments that would save the life of one child — or, in another group, the lives of eight children. People donated more than twice as much money to help save one child as to help save eight.

Likewise, remember how people were asked to save Rokia from starvation? A follow-up allowed students to donate to Rokia or to a hungry boy named Moussa. Both Rokia and Moussa attracted donations in the same proportions. Then another group was asked to donate to Rokia and Moussa together. But donors felt less good about supporting two children, and contributions dropped off.

“Our capacity to feel is limited,” Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon writes in a new journal article, “Psychic Numbing and Genocide,” which discusses these experiments. Professor Slovic argues that we cannot depend on the innate morality even of good people. Instead, he believes, we need to develop legal or political mechanisms to force our hands to confront genocide.

So, yes, we should develop early-warning systems for genocide, prepare an African Union, U.N. and NATO rapid-response capability, and polish the “responsibility to protect” as a legal basis to stop atrocities. (The Genocide Intervention Network and the Enough project are working on these things.)

But, frankly, after four years of watching the U.N. Security Council, the International Criminal Court and the Genocide Convention accomplish little in Darfur, I’m skeptical that either human rationality or international law can achieve much unless backed by a public outcry.

One experiment underscored the limits of rationality. People prepared to donate to the needy were first asked either to talk about babies (to prime the emotions) or to perform math calculations (to prime their rational side). Those who did math donated less.

So maybe what we need isn’t better laws but more troubled consciences — pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears. Once we find such a soulful dog in peril, we should call ABC News. ABC’s news judgment can be assessed by the 11 minutes of evening news coverage it gave to Darfur’s genocide during all of last year — compared with 23 minutes for the false confession in the JonBenet Ramsey case.

If President Bush and the global public alike are unmoved by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of fellow humans, maybe our last, best hope is that we can be galvanized by a puppy in distress.

Genocide Intervention Network

Curing the System

The New York Times
May 10, 2007

The American health insurance system is a slow-creeping ruin, damaging people and increasingly the employers that hire us. Yet there is another truth as well: the vast majority who have decent coverage are happy with the care we get — I am writing this, for instance, as I sit with my 11-year-old son waiting for an M.R.I. to check the cardiac repair that has saved his life for a decade. So most have resisted large-scale change, fearing that it could make some lives worse, even as it makes others better.

And the truth is it could.

There are two causes of human fallibility — ignorance and ineptitude — and health system change is at risk of both. We could err from ignorance, because we have never done anything remotely as ambitious as changing out a system that now involves 16 percent of our economy and every one of our lives. And we could err from ineptitude, underestimating the difficulties of even the most mundane tasks after reform — like handling all the confused phone calls from those whose coverage has changed; ensuring that doctor’s appointments and prescriptions don’t fall through; avoiding disastrous cost overruns.

Health systems are nearly as complex as the body itself. They involve hospital care, mental health care, doctor visits, medications, ambulances, and everything else required to keep people alive and healthy. Experts have offered half a dozen more rational ways to finance all this than the wretched one we have. But we cannot change everything at once without causing harm. So we dawdle.

We don’t need to, though. It is possible to alter our system surgically enough to minimize harm while still channeling us onto a path out of our misery.

Option 1 is a Massachusetts-style reform, which follows a strategy of shared responsibility. Enacted statewide last year, the law has four key components. It defines a guaranteed health plan that is now open to all legal residents without penalty for pre-existing conditions. Using public dollars, it has made the plan free to the poor and limited the cost to about 6 percent of income for families earning up to $52,000 a year. It requires all individuals to obtain insurance by year end. And it requires businesses with more than 10 employees to help cover insurance or pay into a state fund.

The reform gives everyone a responsibility. But it leaves untouched the majority with secure insurance while getting the rest covered. As a result, it has had strong public approval. Experience with delivering the new plan is accumulating. And best of all, it offers a mechanism that can absorb change. The guaranteed health plan may cover 5 percent of the state at first, but as job-based health care disintegrates, the plan can take in however many necessary.

The reform has its hurdles, no question. Some residents are angry about being made to buy health coverage — 6 percent of income is not nothing. Next April, when the tax penalty kicks in (refusers will lose their personal tax exemption), you will hear about it. As enrollment and costs in the guaranteed plan rise, there will also be intense public pressure to increase the minimum employer contribution (currently just $295) and clamp down on the costs. But this is what a real system is for: gathering everyone in and enabling the hard choices.

The approach is not just a crazy Massachusetts idea (though Mitt Romney is running from parts of it). Reform plans recently put forward by everyone from the Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to the Democrat John Edwards to a major new business coalition take the same tack. People don’t want the mess we have — not families, not employers and not health professionals. This offers a viable way forward.

If it’s still too much for people to accept, however, there is a second option, a fallback: we could guarantee coverage for today’s children — for their lifetime. It could be through private insurance or through a Medicare plan that families must enroll them in. Either way, the subsidies required are very much within our means.

We might even pass the fallback plan first. Then, while we are stymied fighting about how to fix the rest, there’d be at least one generation that could count on something more.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Sarkozy’s electoral victory and the bankruptcy of the French “left”

By Peter Schwarz
9 May 2007

The election of right-wing Gaullist politician Nicolas Sarkozy as French president has shocked many people in France and Europe.

One recalls the mood of euphoria two years ago when French voters rejected the European constitution. The same population forced the withdrawal of the unpopular “First Job Contract” (CPE) through a series of protests and demonstrations just one year ago.

At the time various petty bourgeois “left” organisations declared that these movements had rendered the policies of the Chirac government “illegitimate and disavowed.” Now was the time to develop “a common movement which is able to take on the employers directly and question the entire neo-liberal policy” (Statement by the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire [LCR—Revolutionary Communist League])

Now, less than a year later, a man is taking over as president whose right-wing convictions are beyond dispute—he is an ideological ally of US president George W. Bush and the former Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar. Sarkozy wants to revive the values of order, performance and reward, and regards himself as the man to deal once and for all with the heritage of the 1968 protest generation. The international business press has enthusiastically welcomed his election. They expect him to finally dismantle the French welfare state, slash the jobs of many of the country’s five million civil servants, cut pensions, make the labor market more ‘flexible’—and contrary to his predecessors—not give way to pressure from the streets.

How was it possible for this noxious politician to collect 19 million votes and emerge as the victor in an election characterized by an extraordinarily high voter turnout?

For the Socialist Party (PS) and media the answer is clear: French voters are to blame. The latter, so goes the argument, have moved to the right and Socialist Party candidate Ségolène Royal did not follow them fast and far enough. As former Finance Minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn put it on the evening of the election, the Socialist Party had so far missed its chance to carry out a “social-democratic renewal” along the lines of the German Social Democratic Party at its notorious Bad Godesberg conference. In particular, the PS had neglected voters from the “centre”

This explanation ignores social reality and fails to identify the profound social contradictions behind the election result. The “voters of the centre” are an abstraction. The middle classes in France, as elsewhere, are enormously polarized. For a long time they constituted the social glue which bound together social extremes. However, under the effects of the globalization a majority has descended into the proletariat, while a small minority has been able to climb its way upward.

The classic member of the middle class—the craftsmen, farmer, landlord and little businessmen—confronts many of the same problems today as the average worker. The same applies to the urban middle class. The days when a university degree guaranteed a career and a regular income are long gone. Now it is common in France to encounter the temporary worker with a university degree, or the academic who moves from a work placement center to a part-time job and then a short-term contract.

There is no reflection of this social polarization in official politics. While broad sections of workers and young people have been radicalized and have protested time and time against social ills, the Socialist Party and its allies have intervened to sabotage their struggles, spread disappointment and demoralization and thereby paved the way for Sarkozy. His success has far less to do with his own strengths than it does with the bankruptcy of the “left,” its abject inability to present a progressive social alternative.

Strauss-Kahn notwithstanding, the French Socialist Party has long since put its ‘Bad Godesberg conversion’ behind it. It is a bourgeois party, which defends the capitalist order. Into the 1970s, it did this through the means of social compromise, or rather, the promise of social compromise.

Since then, however, pressure from international financial markets and the effects of globalization have wiped out the basis for any policy based on social compromise. Under the presidency of François Mitterrand and the government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin one promise after another was broken Social gains were slashed, unemployment stagnated at around ten percent, incomes sank and living conditions in the suburbs became increasingly intolerable.

The first to profit was the extreme right National Front led by Jean-Marie Le Pen. With the help of an electoral reform introduced by Mitterrand, his party was regularly able to notch up two-digit election results.

The recent election campaign of Ségolène Royals represented a new low-point for the Socialist Party. Groomed by her public relations advisors, the PS candidate posed as a mixture of a female version of Sarkozy and Alice in Wonderland. She competed with Sarkozy when it came to professions of loyalty to national identity and tough action against juvenile offenders, while at the same time making all sorts of windy promises. She began every second sentence of her speeches with the words “I want”: “I want France tomorrow to be calm country, which believes in itself, where all Frenchmen have a place, and love it,” “I want to take the best from each epoch, to reinvent the France of tomorrow,” and so on.

Royal did not care to explain how her wishes were to be fulfilled. Why should anyone have believed her? 1.6 million unfilled voting cards from a total of 36 million voters indicates that many took part in the election, though they doubtless found it hard to decide between the candidates Some chose to elect Sarkozy, whose program was not attractive, but at least promised change.

According to election analyses Sarkozy received the same number of votes from workers as Royal, with 53 percent of workers in the private sector voting for the Gaullist candidate. He also won 57 percent of those between 25 to 34 years. He had the support of 77 percent of all self-employed, as well as 68 percent of pensioners over the age of 70.

Royal, on the other hand, was only able to win a majority amongst young voters under 24 (60 percent) and those voters who will be directly affected by Sarkozy’s election. In the public sector, where Sarkozy has announced plans for substantial job cuts, 57 percent voted for Royal, who also had the support of 75 percent of unemployed persons. Some 58 percent of students also voted for the SP candidate.

Do the millions of votes from workers and young voters for Sarkozy mean agreement with his program? It would be absurd to draw this conclusion. The election was characterized by a fundamental contradiction. On the hand, there is a broad interest and urge to participate in political life—expressed in the well-attended election meetings and the high voter turnout. On the other hand, the electorate was confronted with two candidates with right-wing bourgeois programs, who differed from one another much more in style than in substance.
The bankruptcy of the official “left” has created a dangerous situation. Sarkozy is the most reactionary politician to assume the post of French president since the end of the Vichy regime in World War II. There can be no doubt that he takes the threats he has made seriously. This is not just bound up with his notorious fiery temperament, but also the enormous pressure being exerted by the employer’s federations and financial circles.

Sarkozy has already announced that he intends to reintroduce the rejected European constitution in a slightly modified form and without a new referendum. On May 17 he is expected to name the former labor minister François Fillon as his prime minister. Fillon’s attempts to ‘reform’ the French pension system four years ago brought millions of public and private sector workers into the streets in protest. Two years later, in his role as education minister, Fillon provoked renewed protests from students.

According to the head of his election campaign team, Claude Guéant, Sarkozy is also contemplating bringing “left” ministers into his cabinet to draw the Socialist Party into his attacks on the working class.

For its part, the working class must prepare for inevitable clashes with Sarkozy and his government by drawing the lessons from the bankruptcy of the Socialist Party and its allies. It must take up the struggle against Sarkosy on the basis of an international socialist program, which proceeds from the incompatibility of the existing forms of capitalist relations with the basic needs and requirements of working people. To this end workers require a new independent socialist party.

The French left radical parties—the LCR and Lutte Ouvrière—systematically seek to prevent such a development. Both organizations called for a vote for Royal in the second round and have now reacted to her defeat in the manner of shocked opportunists. Both act as if nothing significant has happened, refuse to make a political balance sheet of the elections and return to business as usual.

In her statement on the election result, Arlette Laguiller of Lutte Ouvrière blithely declares, “For the next five years the broad masses will have to put up with the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy and one or more governments, which carry out social policies in line with those of the government of the last five years.” She does not dream of questioning the legitimacy of a presidency who owes his post entirely too the bankruptcy of the official left.

She calls upon her supporters to “Keep their heads up,” and comforts them with the thought that “we would have had to fight if Ségolène Royal had been elected, to ensure that things perhaps changed even a little in our favor. It will be the same with Nicolas Sarkozy and the struggle will be the same.”

On election night Olivier Besancenot (LCR) made the call for a “united front of all social and democratic forces” In the name of unity such an alliance—in reality, the LCR in a pact with the Communist Party, the trade unions and other reliable props of the bourgeois order—would sabotage any struggle against Sarkozy and his government. Any serious confrontation would inevitably develop into a struggle for power and such a struggle is firmly rejected by both LO, LCR and the trade union bureaucracies they support.

See Also:

The French “far left” learns nothing from the presidential election [8 May 2007]

Nicolas Sarkozy wins French presidential election [7 May 2007]

Class issues in the French presidential election [4 May 2007]

Get Off the Chaise Lounge

The New York Times
May 9, 2007


Beauty has been chased off by the Beast.

Now France waits to see just how feral and domineering Nicolas Sarkozy will be.

The lovely Ségolène Royal — more phenomenon than politician — ran a maternal, Manichaean campaign painting her intense, Napoleon-sized opponent as an immoral political animal and a brute whose election would spark riots and “a sort of civil war.”

The luminous Sego did not even deign to address the “dark” Sarko by name, either in the debate or in her concession speech Sunday night.

Cartoonists have depicted the tough guy — who bullies rivals, betrays mentors and calls young troublemakers in low-income housing in the Paris suburbs “scum” — as a gargoyle, Dracula, an evil sorcerer and a devil.

The imagery of the presidential duel tapped into mythic Gothic tales of France, like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

With Hungarian, Greek and Jewish roots, with a father who deserted and belittled him, with his jittery ambition and pugnacious talk, Sarko is jolting the inbred, insular and introspective world of elite French politics. The far right has called him “a foreigner with an unhappy marriage,” and a Sego adviser scorned him as “an American neocon with a French passport.”

“He’s an arriviste,” said Bruno Ract-Madoux, the owner of a vintage shop in Paris. “From the beginning, he was someone who would sell his mother as fast as possible to get ahead.”

Or as an elegant Parisian woman who voted for Sego warned guests at a postelection dinner party, “He’s like a little Donald Trump.”

Sego was serene and protective — but vague; Sarko was kinetic and pushy — and concrete. As it turned out, the French wanted to be prodded even more than they wanted to be pampered. Perhaps they have decided they have to stop being sluggish so they can continue to be supercilious.

Liberals mocked Sarko’s campaign theme: “A France that wakes up early.” Gérard Biard wrote a piece in the far-left weekly paper Charlie Hebdo: “At dawn, I ripped myself out of bed. ... I took a cold shower, put on some mismatched socks and downed eight espressos, as I headed out to meet France in the morning. ... The France that wakes up early would rather stay in the sack.”

But even some who voted for the woman who would have been the first La France Présidente admitted that they did not want their country to calcify. “Who has a 35-hour workweek?” said Phillippe Rosenthal, who sells leather chairs.

Sarko wrote in his political book “Testimony” that France “is not a museum” and “must find the energy” to succeed. In his acceptance speech, he said he would “rehabilitate” work, and an adviser promised he would be “a presidential entrepreneur.” (Just as soon as he comes back from his yachting vacation.)

One expatriate friend of mine observed that the French are not lazy, they just want a leisurely lunch.

At a Paris flea market on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the vendors did not eat fast food or takeout at lunchtime. They set up tables with tablecloths, china and crystal and joined other vendors to dine on whole roasted chicken, fresh salad, bread and wine. And some would not interrupt their meal even for shoppers who wanted to buy their wares.

When I was reading newspapers during lunch at a Left Bank hotel, the maître d’ approached. “You’re a journalist,” he pleasantly accused me, implying that only such a robotic American creature could work while eating. He had a point. Nearby, in the lobby, Catherine Deneuve was having fun, smoking and drinking wine with girlfriends surrounded by Chanel bags full of Chanel bags.

They do not want the joie to go out of de vivre, but the French are not averse to being whipped into shape by drill sergeant Sarko. They want the fireplug to plug France into modern capitalism. The French sphinx should bound past the Celtic tiger.

“He wants to make people work and make more money,” said one French professional woman I know. “The French are like children who love to be beaten. Sarkozy is saying, ‘Go do your homework or I’ll beat you.’ The French need to be told that.”

It will be fascinating to watch Sarko try to discipline the French, and change their psychology about work. Or will they discipline him, burrowing into their Camembert cocoon, chasing him away as he did Sego?

The mood here was best summed up with a take on an old Bette Davis line. Jean d’Ormesson, a commentator in Le Figaro, advised: “Fasten your seatbelts. This will be quite a ride.”

The Arab Commission

The New York Times
May 9, 2007

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, made a remarkable statement last week. He praised Israel for conducting an inquiry into last year’s war with Hezbollah — an inquiry that accused Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of “serious failure in exercising judgment, responsibility and prudence.”

Mr. Nasrallah was quoted by the BBC as saying Israelis “study their defeat in order to learn from it,” in contrast with the Arab regimes that “do not probe, do not ask, do not form inquiry commissions ... as if nothing has happened.”

One has to be impressed by his honesty, but he did not take it all the way, since the Arab leader who most needs to be probed is Mr. Nasrallah himself. He started the war with Israel, which was a disaster for both sides. If there were an honest Arab League Inquiry Commission into the war, here is what it would say about him:

On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah fighters directed by Mr. Nasrallah abducted two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others in an unprovoked attack across the Lebanon-Israel border, on the pretext of seeking a prisoner exchange. This triggered a war that killed about 1,200 Lebanese and 160 Israelis. After interviewing all relevant parties, the Arab League Commission finds Mr. Nasrallah guilty of a serious failure of judgment, responsibility and prudence — for the following reasons.

1. Mr. Nasrallah demonstrated a total failure to anticipate Israel’s response to his raid. He assumed Israel would carry out the same limited retaliation it had with previous raids. Wrong. He failed to take into account the changed circumstances in Israel. The kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in Gaza a few weeks earlier, plus the fact that a new chief of staff of the Israeli Army, a new prime minister and a new defense minister had just taken office and all felt they were being tested, triggered an enormous Israeli response. Some 1,200 Lebanese died because of this gross error in judgment.

2. In unilaterally launching a war against Israel, without a vote of the Lebanese cabinet — of which Hezbollah is a member — the militia did grievous harm to Lebanon’s fragile democracy and democratization in the Arab world. All the fears that if you let an Islamist party into government it will not respect the rules of the game were fulfilled by Hezbollah.

3. Iran and Syria gave Hezbollah its rockets for their own deterrence. Hezbollah was their long arm to pressure Israel into political compromises and to threaten Israel if it attacked Iran or Syria. By launching all these rockets prematurely, without strategic purpose, Hezbollah has diminished its capability and Syria’s and Iran’s. The commission can’t find a single strategic gain from Mr. Nasrallah’s actions.

4. When the war started, Hezbollah’s fighters were sitting right on the border with Israel, operating freely. This was a real threat to Israel. As a result of the war, Hezbollah was pushed off the border by Israel and, in its place, the U.N. inserted a new peacekeeping force of some 10,000 troops, including a big European contingent, led by France and Italy. Yes, Hezbollah still has fighters in the area, but it has lost its military infrastructure, and can’t attack Israel now without getting embroiled with France and Italy — a huge strategic loss for Hezbollah.

5. Israel had allowed its ground forces to be degraded in order to invest more money in its air force’s ability to deter Iran and into policing the West Bank. Hezbollah’s attack exposed just how degraded Israel’s army had become. As a result, Israel has embarked on a broad upgrade of its military. In any future war Arab armies will meet a much better trained and equipped Israeli force.

6. Hezbollah claims that its Shiite militia, in attacking Israel, was serving the security needs of Lebanon. But Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s attack has resulted in billions of dollars of damage to Lebanese homes, factories and roads, with Shiite areas the worst hit and with zero security benefit to Lebanon.

Lebanon has had to rely on Arab and Iranian charity to rebuild. Israel, by contrast, suffered relatively minor damage and, after the war, its economy enjoyed one of its greatest growth spurts ever, as foreigners invested a record amount in Israel’s high-tech industry.

In sum, Mr. Nasrallah may have won popularity for himself and Hezbollah by fighting Israel. But so what? Today, less than a year after a war that Hezbollah called a “divine” victory, Lebanon is weaker and Israel is stronger. That’s what matters. And that is why, if the Hezbollah leader had any honor, he would resign.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Media Advisory: Democratic Excess

Media find too many candidates—at only one debate

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)

In the wake of the first candidates' debate among the Democratic contenders for the White House (4/26/07), many media outlets and commentators seemed annoyed that the so-called "second-tier" candidates are even bothering to run. Oddly, similar complaints about a surplus of GOP contenders in the first Republican debate (5/3/07) were hard to find in the corporate media.

As FAIR noted recently (4/26/07), early election polls are a terrible way to predict the likely nominee. So using them to determine which candidates are viable and which campaigns are merely a nuisance is unwise. What's more, because the electoral process is about more than who takes office, but is also a chance to debate national priorities and policies, it's healthy to allow as many legitimate candidates as possible a chance to make their case directly to the voters.

That's not the way it's seen by many Washington pundits, though—at least when it comes to Democrats. The Washington Post's David Broder declared (4/27/07) that "six of the eight declared candidates" at the Democrats' debate in South Carolina "showed themselves to be both substantive and direct in their responses." That left two—former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio—who did not measure up to Broder's standards, as they "provided a counterpoint of left-wing ideas that drew rebukes for a lack of seriousness from [Delaware Sen. Joe] Biden and [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama."

"Left wing" ideas such as Kucinich and Gravel's opposition to the Iraq War are shared by a majority of the U.S. population; it's telling that this is insufficient to make them "serious" for Broder. By contrast, after the Republican debate, the Post reported (5/4/07) that "the three candidates who top most national polls—Giuliani, McCain and Romney—made forceful presentations, but those struggling for attention also generally acquitted themselves well." In response to three of the candidates expressing support for creationism, the Post noted their public support (5/6/07): "But a look at public polling on the issue reveals that the three men aren't far from the mainstream in that belief."

Describing the Democratic debate, the Los Angeles Times argued (4/27/07) that the wide debate format "allowed each candidate a total of 11 minutes to talk—giving Kucinich and Gravel, both of whom have a negligible showing in polls, equal time with the front-runners, which they used to take aggressive hits at [New York Sen. Hillary] Clinton and Obama." At this point, more than half a year before the first actual voters have a chance to weigh in, poll numbers should not be the prime determiner of who gets to participate in a debate; even so, Kucinich and Gravel are in what amounts to a statistical dead heat in many polls with candidates treated more seriously by the corporate media, like Biden and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

While Kucinich and Gravel were asked only eight questions in the April 26 debate, Biden received 11 and Richardson 10—nearly as many as the 12 each answered by "front-runners" Clinton, Obama and former vice presidential candidate John Edwards. This despite the fact Kucinich was tied with Richardson and Biden in the latest Pew poll (4/18-22/07) and actually beat Biden in the latest Fox poll (4/17-18/07).After the GOP debate, the Los Angeles Times editorialized in favor of the wide debate (5/4/07): "The breadth of small-fries in the field makes it hard to define a coherent Republican message, but that's a sign of intellectual ferment in the troubled GOP. The silver lining for a party on the verge of the wilderness is the need to go 'off message' and entertain a variety of ideas."

CNN's Larry King blurted out (4/26/07) to his panel of political journalists discussing the Democrats: "We were talking around in agreement. I mean, a lot of people were saying, 'Boy, if Dennis Kucinich were 6'2.'" It's unlikely that the media would give Kucinich different treatment if he would only manage to grow a few inches; the disdainful treatment of Kucinich and Gravel seems motivated by their politics.

As CBS Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer complained (4/29/07): "Is it fair to have all these people out there? I mean, it is a free country. Everybody wants to run for president should have that opportunity and does. But clearly, somebody like senator—former Sen. Mike Gravel is not going to be a serious candidate, and yet he gets equal time, and... I would just say it honestly: In my view, it just wastes time."

ABC host George Stephanopoulos sounded a similar note (4/29/07): "Setting aside Mike Gravel, who provided the comic relief, everyone else seemed credible, seemed intelligent, seemed like they knew what they were talking about. That has to bring the front-runners down a bit." CNN's Howard Kurtz seemed annoyed (4/29/07) that Gravel was being paid any attention at all by the media: "He was sort of a bomb thrower on that stage. Why should a network allow somebody with, say, zero chance of becoming president into these debates?"

Expressing precisely the sort of cynicism that turns millions of Americans off the electoral process, Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza responded to Kurtz that money, not popular support, ought to be all that mattered: "The reality is...two candidates raise about $25 million, one candidate raises $100,000 or less. At some point you need to say, this is not us making a subjective decision. This is an objective analysis of what it takes to win a campaign." (NY1, Time Warner's local cable news channel, actually instituted such a debate policy, refusing to hold a debate for the New York Democratic Senate primary because Hillary Clinton's opponent Jonathan Tasini, who had reached 13 percent in the polls, hadn't raised enough money—FAIR Action Alert, 8/4/06.)

Time magazine's Karen Tumulty, though, dissented: "Could I argue that...that same criterion would be used to eliminate Dennis Kucinich, who on the other hand does in fact have a coherent worldview that represents a significant segment of the Democratic party base and, therefore, he should be on the [stage]."

Some pundits made the political argument more explicit. After the debate, MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod (4/26/07): "Do you think that [Obama] was hampered by the fact that you had a radical critique going on of all mainstream Democrats and elected officials by Mike Gravel, and to some extent, by the congressman from Cleveland, that it made your guy seem more like he was part of the establishment than he would like to have seemed?"Matthews' comment is, in a sense, remarkably honest. Often reporters and pundits act, when they're trying to winnow the field, as if they're only aiming to improve the democratic process (Extra!, 9-10/03). But Matthews' observation makes clear that he is aware that there is a sizeable segment of the population whose opinions are hardly included at all in the national political debate. Whether the subject is withdrawal from Iraq, impeaching Republican officials, or single-payer healthcare, journalists seem to bristle at the thought of having to listen to such talk from the more progressive candidates. It stands as a reminder of how little time such ideas are given in the national media.

By contrast, MSNBC viewers tuning in before the GOP debate could hear network analyst Pat Buchanan declare his fondness for the lesser-known GOP candidates—precisely because they are closer to representing "classic conservatism" than the front-runners. Buchanan singled out representatives Ron Paul (R-Texas), Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.).

And in an online column, Newsweek's Howard Fineman declared (5/3/07), "Let's hear it for the 'second-' and 'third-' tier presidential candidates.... But if you know, as I do, some of the other, putatively lesser, GOP contenders, you have to be impressed with the depth of their political passion, their knowledge, and even their track records. They represent, in undiluted form, the vivid primary colors of the conservative movement."

The disparity is striking: The lesser-known (and generally more conservative) Republican candidates are cheered for participating in the process, and a cable commentator like Buchanan can use his perch in the media to support those candidates. Progressive voices have no similar presence in the media debate—and the Democratic candidates that most represent progressive ideals are derided for taking up the time of other, more worthy candidates.

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