Saturday, June 30, 2007

Free Speech—At a Price

From Dirty Truths by Michael Parenti

What does it mean to say we have freedom of speech? Many of us think free speech is a right enjoyed by everyone in our society. In fact, it does not exist as an abstract right. There is no such thing as a freedom detached from the socio-economic reality in which it might find a place.

Speech is a form of interpersonal behavior. This means it occurs in a social context, in homes, workplaces, schools, and before live audiences or vast publics via the print and electronic media. Speech is intended to reach the minds of others. This is certainly true of political speech. But some kinds of political speech are actively propagated before mass audiences and other kinds are systematically excluded.

Ideologically Distributed

In the political realm, the further left one goes on the opinion spectrum the more difficult it is to gain exposure and access to larger audiences. Strenuously excluded from the increasingly concentrated corporate-owned media are people on the Left who go beyond the conservative-liberal orthodoxy and speak openly about the negative aspects of big capital and what it does to people at home and abroad.

Progressive people, designated as “the Left,” believe that the poor are victims of the rich and the prerogatives of wealthy and powerful interests should be done away with. They believe labor unions should be strengthened and the rights of working people expanded; the environment should be rigorously protected; racism, sexism, and homophobia should be strenuously fought; and human services should be properly funded.

Progressives also argue that revolutionary governments that bring social reforms to their people should be supported rather than overthrown by the U.S. national security state, that U.S.- sponsored wars of attrition against reformist governments in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola, and a dozen other countries are not "mistakes" but crimes perpetrated by those who would go to any length to maintain their global privileges.

To hold such opinions is to be deprived of any regular access to the major media. In a word, some people have more freedom of speech than others. People who take positions opposing the ones listed above are known as conservatives or rightwingers.

Conservative pundits have a remarkable amount of free speech. They favor corporations and big profits over environmental and human needs, see nothing wrong with amassing great wealth while many live in poverty, blame the poor for the poverty that has been imposed upon them, see regulations against business as a bureaucratic sin, and worship at the altar of the free market. They support repressive U.S. interventions abroad and pursue policies opposed to class, gender, and racial equality.

Such rightists as Rush Limbaugh, William F. Buckley Jr., John McLaughlin, George Will, and Robert Novak enjoy much more exposure to mass audiences than left liberals and populists like Jim Hightower, Jerry Brown, or Ralph Nader. And all of them, conservatives and liberals, enjoy more exposure than anyone on the more “radical” or Marxist Left.

It is the economic power of the rich corporate media owners and advertisers that provides right-wingers with so many mass outlets, not the latter's wit and wisdom. It is not public demand that brings them on the air; it is private corporate owners and sponsors. They are listened to by many not because they are so appealing but because they are so available. Availability is the first and necessary condition of consumption. In this instance, supply does not merely satisfy demand; supply creates demand. Hence, those who align themselves with the interests of corporate America will have more freedom of expression than those who remain steadfastly critical.

People on the Left are free to talk to each other, though sometimes they are concerned their telephones are tapped or their meetings are infiltrated by government agents and provocateurs-- as has so often been the case over the years. Leftists are sometimes allowed to teach in universities but they usually run into difficulties regarding what they say and write and they risk being purged from faculty positions. Likewise, they are free to work for labor unions but they generally have to keep their politics carefully under wraps, especially communists.

People on the Left can even speak publicly but usually to audiences that seldom number more than a few hundred. And they are free to write for progressive publications, which lack the promotional funds to reach mass readerships, publications that are perennially teetering on the edge of insolvency for want of rich patrons and corporate advertisers.

In sum, free speech belongs mostly to those who can afford it. It is a commodity that needs to be marketed like any other commodity. And massive amounts of money are needed to reach mass audiences. So when it comes to freedom of speech, some people have their voices amplified tens of millions of times, while others must cup their hands and shout at the passing crowd.

The Freedom of Power

We are taught to think of freedom as something antithetical to power. And there is something to this. The people’s hard-won democratic rights do sometimes act as a restraint on the arbitrary power of rulers. But to secure our freedom we have to mobilize enough popular power to check state power. In other words, freedom and power are not always antithetical; they are frequently symbiotic. If one has no power, one has very little freedom to protect one’s interests against those who do have power. Our freedoms are realities only so far as we have the democratic power to make them so.

People on the Left have freedom only to the extent they have rallied their forces, have agitated, educated, and organized strikes, boycotts, and demonstrations, and have fought back against the higher circles. They have no freedom to reach mass audiences because popular power and iconoclastic opinion have not penetrated the corporate citadels that control the mass communication universe.

We were never “given” what freedoms we do have, certainly not by the framers of the Constitution. Recall that the Bill of Rights was not part of the original Constitution. It was added after ratification, as ten amendments. When Colonel Mason of Virginia proposed a Bill of Rights at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787, it was voted down almost unanimously (Massachusetts abstained). Popular protests, land seizures by the poor, food riots, and other disturbances made the men of property who gathered in Philadelphia uncomfortably aware of the need for an effective central authority that could be sufficiently protective of the propertied classes. But such popular ferment also set a limit on what the framers dared to do. Belatedly and reluctantly they agreed during the ratification struggle to include a Bill of Rights, a concession made under threat of democratic agitation and in the hope that the amendments would ensure ratification of the new Constitution.

So the Bill of Rights was not a gift from that illustrious gaggle of rich merchants, land and currency speculators, and slaveholders known as our “Founding Fathers.” It was a product of class struggle. The same was true of the universal franchise. It took mass agitation from the 1820s to the 1840s by workers and poor farmers to abolish property qualifications and win universal White male suffrage. Almost a century of agitation and struggle was necessary to win the franchise for women. And a bloody civil war and subsequent generations of struggle were needed to win basic political rights for African Americans, a struggle still far from complete.

During the early part of the twentieth century a nationwide union movement in this country called the Industrial Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) struggled for the betterment of working people in all occupations. To win gains, the Wobblies had to organize, that is, they had to be able to speak out and reach people. To speak out, they had to confront the repressive tactics of local police who would beat, arrest, and jail their organizers. The Wobblies discovered that if they went into a town with five hundred people instead of five, then the sheriff and his deputies could do little to stop them from holding public meetings.

The right to free speech was established de facto during the course of class struggle. The Wobblie free speech fights were simultaneously a struggle for procedural democracy impelled by a struggle for substantive economic democracy. This fight continued into the Great Depression, as mass organization and agitation brought freedom of speech to hundreds of local communities, where police had previously made a practice of physically assaulting and incarcerating union organizers, syndicalists, anarchists, socialists, and communists.

So it went with other freedoms and democratic gains like the eight-hour day, Social Security, unemployment and disability insurance, and the right to collective bargaining. All such democratic economic rights, even though they may be seriously limited and insufficiently developed, exist to some degree because of popular struggle against class privilege and class power.

Freedom for Criminal Intelligence Agencies?

Like other freedoms, free speech is situational. It exists in a social and class context, which is true of democracy itself. Once we understand that, we can avoid the mistaken logic of a news columnist like Nat Hentoff who repeatedly attacks left activists who commit civil disobedience protesting CIA campus recruiters and military recruiters. Hentoff says they interfere with the freedom of speech of those students who want to talk to the recruiters (as if students had no other opportunity to do so). Hentoff also is worried that the CIA was having its rights abridged.

Such a view of freedom of speech has no link to the realities of human suffering and social justice, no connection to the realities of class power and state power, no link to the democratic struggle against the murderous force of the CIA, no acknowledgment that the CIA routinely suppresses the basic rights of people all over the world in the most brutal fashion. With a $25 billion yearly budget, with its tens of thousands of operatives unleashing death squads and wars of attrition against democratic forces and impoverished peoples around the world, with its control of hundreds of publications, publishing houses, and wire services, with thousands of agents pouring out disinformation, the CIA has more “free speech” than all those who protest its crimes—because it is backed by more money and more power.

With his tendency to treat rights as something apart from socio-economic realities, Hentoff would have us think that the CIA is just another participant in a campus democratic dialogue. In fact, the CIA is itself one of the greatest violators of free speech both at home and abroad. Those who take the one-dimensional Hentoff approach say nothing about the freedom of speech that millions might gain by shutting down the CIA and all such agencies of violence and repression, nothing about the lives that would be saved and the freedom salvaged in Third World countries that feel the brunt of the CIA onslaught.

By coercively limiting CIA recruitment, the campus demonstrators made a statement that goes beyond discourse and becomes part of the democratic struggle. By dramatically—through direct confrontation—questioning the CIA's legitimacy on college campuses and thereby challenging (even in a small way) its ability to promote oppressive political orders around the world, the demonstrators were expanding the realm of freedom, not diminishing it.

Of course, this has to be measured against the violations these same protestors commit, specifically the inconveniencing of some upper- and upper-middle-class students who don't want to have to travel off campus in order to ask CIA recruiters about pursuing a career of political crime. This latter right seems to weigh more heavily in Hentoff's mind than all the attendant misdeeds perpetrated by the CIA.

If we take Hentoff's position, then there can be no direct actions, no civil disobedience by the powerless against the established powerful because these would constitute infringements on the recruitment efforts of the CIA. Hentoff’s failure to deal with the power and wealth context of most of free speech leaves him in the ridiculous position of defending the CIA's freedom of speech—and worse, its freedom of action. It is the same position that led to the overthrow of the Fairness Doctrine: the poor corporate media bosses were being limited in their free speech because they had to grant it to others.

Struggle for More Democracy

If the Reagan-Bush-Clinton years have taught us anything, it is that our freedoms are neither guaranteed nor secure—unless we agitate and show our strength. If democratic struggle has taught us anything, it is that our rights are not things that must be "preserved." Rather, they must be vigorously used and expanded. As with the physical body, so with the body politic: our capacities are more likely to grow if exercised and developed. Freedom of speech needs less abstract admiration and more militant exercise and application. Use it or lose it.

Democracy is not a “precarious fragile gift” handed down to us like some Grecian urn. Rather, it is a dynamically developing process that emerges from the struggle between popular interests and the inherently undemocratic nature of wealthy interests. Rather than fear an “excess of democracy” as do some of our media pundits and academic mandarins, we must struggle for more popular power, more victories for labor and human services, more victories against racism, sexism, and militarism, and against capitalism's apparent willingness to destroy the environment. And we need to muster more opposition to U.S. interventions around the world.

We must push for more not-for-profit economic development, more democratic ownership of productive forces and services, more ideological variety and dissidence in the mainstream media, more listener-controlled access to radio and television stations. In every field of endeavor we must learn to see the dimensions of the struggle that advances the interests of the many and opposes the interests of the outrageously privileged, overweening few; in other words, a struggle for more democracy, of the kind that brings an advance in social conditions for everyone, a socially conscious allocation of community resources for the sake of the community rather than for the greed of private investors, and an equalization and improvement of life standards that in effect brings less freedom for the CIA and the interests it serves but more freedom for the rest of us. Essential to such an agenda is a freedom of speech that is not limited to media moguls and their acolytes but is available to persons of all ideological persuasions.

When the Vice President Does It, That Means It’s Not Illegal

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 1, 2007

WHO knew that mocking the Constitution could be nearly as funny as shooting a hunting buddy in the face? Among other comic dividends, Dick Cheney’s legal theory that the vice president is not part of the executive branch yielded a priceless weeklong series on “The Daily Show” and an online “Doonesbury Poll,” conducted at Slate, to name Mr. Cheney’s indeterminate branch of government.

The ridicule was so widespread that finally even this White House had to blink. By midweek, it had abandoned that particularly ludicrous argument, if not its spurious larger claim that Mr. Cheney gets a free pass to ignore rules regulating federal officials’ handling of government secrets.

That retreat might allow us to mark the end of this installment of the Bush-Cheney Follies but for one nagging problem: Not for the first time in the history of this administration — or the hundredth — has the real story been lost amid the Washington kerfuffle. Once the laughter subsides and you look deeper into the narrative leading up to the punch line, you can unearth a buried White House plot that is more damning than the official scandal. This plot once again snakes back to the sinister origins of the Iraq war, to the Valerie Wilson leak case and to the press failures that enabled the administration to abuse truth and the law for too long.

One journalist who hasn’t failed is Mark Silva of The Chicago Tribune. He first reported more than a year ago, in May 2006, the essentials of the “news” at the heart of the recent Cheney ruckus. Mr. Silva found that the vice president was not filing required reports on his office’s use of classified documents because he asserted that his role in the legislative branch, as president of the Senate, gave him an exemption.

This scoop went unnoticed by nearly everybody. It would still be forgotten today had not Henry Waxman, the dogged House inquisitor, called out Mr. Cheney 10 days ago, detailing still more egregious examples of the vice president’s flouting of the law, including his effort to shut down an oversight agency in charge of policing him. The congressman’s brief set off the firestorm that launched a thousand late-night gags.

That’s all to the public good, but hiding in plain sight was the little-noted content of the Bush executive order that Mr. Cheney is accused of violating. On close examination, this obscure 2003 document, thrust into the light only because the vice president so blatantly defied it, turns out to be yet another piece of self-incriminating evidence illuminating the White House’s guilt in ginning up its false case for war.

The tale of the document begins in August 2001, when the Bush administration initiated a review of the previous executive order on classified materials signed by Bill Clinton in 1995. The Clinton order had been acclaimed in its day as a victory for transparency because it mandated the automatic declassification of most government files after 25 years.

It was predictable that the obsessively secretive Bush team would undermine the Clinton order. What was once a measure to make government more open would be redrawn to do the opposite. And sure enough, when the White House finally released its revised version, the scant news coverage focused on how the new rules postponed the Clinton deadline for automatic declassification and tightened secrecy so much that previously declassified documents could be reclassified.

But few noticed another change inserted five times in the revised text: every provision that gave powers to the president over classified documents was amended to give the identical powers to the vice president. This unprecedented increase in vice-presidential clout, though spelled out in black and white, went virtually unremarked in contemporary news accounts.

Given all the other unprecedented prerogatives that President Bush has handed his vice president, this one might seem to be just more of the same. But both the timing of the executive order and the subsequent use Mr. Cheney would make of it reveal its special importance in the games that the White House played with prewar intelligence.

The obvious juncture for Mr. Bush to bestow these new powers on his vice president, you might expect, would have been soon after 9/11, especially since the review process on the Clinton order started a month earlier and could be expedited, as so much other governmental machinery was, to meet the urgent national-security crisis. Yet the new executive order languished for another 18 months, only to be published and signed with no fanfare on March 25, 2003, a week after the invasion of Iraq began.

Why then? It was throughout March, both on the eve of the war and right after “Shock and Awe,” that the White House’s most urgent case for Iraq’s imminent threat began to unravel. That case had been built around the scariest of Saddam’s supposed W.M.D., the nuclear weapons that could engulf America in mushroom clouds, and the White House had pushed it relentlessly, despite a lack of evidence. On “Meet the Press” on March 16, Mr. Cheney pressed that doomsday button one more time: “We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.” But even as the vice president spoke, such claims were at last being strenuously challenged in public.

Nine days earlier Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency had announced that documents supposedly attesting to Saddam’s attempt to secure uranium in Niger were “not authentic.” A then-obscure retired diplomat, Joseph Wilson, piped in on CNN, calling the case “outrageous.”

Soon both Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Congressman Waxman wrote letters (to the F.B.I. and the president, respectively) questioning whether we were going to war because of what Mr. Waxman labeled “a hoax.” And this wasn’t the only administration use of intelligence that was under increasing scrutiny. The newly formed 9/11 commission set its first open hearings for March 31 and requested some half-million documents, including those pertaining to what the White House knew about Al Qaeda’s threat during the summer of 2001.

The new executive order that Mr. Bush signed on March 25 was ingenious. By giving Mr. Cheney the same classification powers he had, Mr. Bush gave his vice president a free hand to wield a clandestine weapon: he could use leaks to punish administration critics.

That weapon would be employed less than four months later. Under Mr. Bush’s direction, Mr. Cheney deputized Scooter Libby to leak highly selective and misleading portions of a 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq to pet reporters as he tried to discredit Mr. Wilson. By then, Mr. Wilson had emerged as the most vocal former government official accusing the White House of not telling the truth before the war.

Because of the Patrick Fitzgerald investigation, we would learn three years later about the offensive conducted by Mr. Libby on behalf of Mr. Cheney and Mr. Bush. That revelation prompted the vice president to acknowledge his enhanced powers in an unguarded moment in a February 2006 interview with Brit Hume of Fox News. Asked by Mr. Hume with some incredulity if “a vice president has the authority to declassify information,” Mr. Cheney replied, “There is an executive order to that effect.” He was referring to the order of March 2003.

Even now, few have made the connection between this month’s Cheney flap and the larger scandal. That larger scandal is to be found in what the vice president did legally under the executive order early on rather than in his more recent rejection of its oversight rules.

Timing really is everything. By March 2003, this White House knew its hype of Saddam’s nonexistent nuclear arsenal was in grave danger of being exposed. The order allowed Mr. Bush to keep his own fingerprints off the nitty-gritty of any jihad against whistle-blowers by giving Mr. Cheney the authority to pick his own shots and handle the specifics. The president could have plausible deniability and was free to deliver non-denial denials like “If there is a leak out of my administration, I want to know who it is.” Mr. Cheney in turn could delegate the actual dirty work to Mr. Libby, who obstructed justice to help throw a smoke screen over the vice president’s own role in the effort to destroy Mr. Wilson.

Last week The Washington Post ran a first-rate investigative series on the entire Cheney vice presidency. Readers posting comments were largely enthusiastic, but a few griped. “Six and a half years too late,” said one. “Four years late and billions of dollars short,” said another. Such complaints reflect the bitter legacy of much of the Washington press’s failure to penetrate the hyping of prewar intelligence and, later, the import of the Fitzgerald investigation.

We’re still playing catch-up. In a week in which the C.I.A. belatedly released severely censored secrets about agency scandals dating back a half-century, you have to wonder what else was done behind the shield of an executive order signed just after the Ides of March four years ago. Another half-century could pass before Americans learn the full story of the secrets buried by Mr. Cheney and his boss to cover up their deceitful path to war.

Tears on My Pillow

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 1, 2007

“I miss Albania!” W. wails. “They know how to treat a president there. Women were kissing me and men rubbed my hair. The crowd kept yelling, ‘Bushie!,’ and they almost grabbed the watch right off my wrist trying to get at me.”

The concerned group huddling outside the president’s closed-bedroom door in Kennebunkport can barely hear him. His voice is muffled because he has his face buried in his feather pillow, which the Secret Service has carefully transported from Washington to Maine for the weekend, knowing that it would be needed. They guard it so conscientiously that they have even given it a code name. Since the president’s Secret Service name is Tumbler, his agents christened his beloved pillow Slumber.

“Son, I know how you feel,” Poppy calls in to him, trying to sound positive. “Riding high in 2002, shot down in 2007. That’s life, as Sinatra says. You were a puppet and a pawn to King Dick and it screwed up your presidency and our party and the Middle East and the Atlantic alliance and the family legacy and Jeb’s future, not to mention the fate of the planet. But you can’t just roll yourself up in a big ball and die, George. Your friend Vlad the Impaler is here, and I think you should come out and talk to him. You invited him and he came all the way from Russia, and you don’t want to be rude.

“I’ve already taken him to Mabel’s Lobster Claw and out on the boat. He scared all the fish away. I don’t know what else to do with him, George. He brained the Filipino manservant, the little brown one, with a horseshoe.”

Putin steps forward. “Let me try,” he tells Poppy.

“George, hey, it’s me, Ostrich Legs, Pooty Poot. Remember when you gave me those nicknames? Come out, and I show you my real soul. Dark, dark, dark. I put the Putin back in Rasputin. Listen, Albania stinks. Maine much nicer. I saw Moose and Squirrel in the woods. Let’s throw horseshoes at them! I love this American sport.”

Tumbler burrows into Slumber. “Why doesn’t anybody like me anymore, Daddy?” he keens. “Man, I miss Tony. My Iraq poodle left me with a porcupine. And I can’t believe my own Republicans crossed me on the immigration bill. Now my Mexican buddies from Midland are saying, ‘Adiós, Jorge.’ Vice doesn’t even want to be in the same branch of government as me. Where is Dick, by the way?”

His mother steps briskly up to the door. “Now listen, Georgie,” Barbara says. “We didn’t invite Dick. He’s not our kind. He has utterly ruined your presidency. There’s a Washington Post series I want you to read. I’ve put it in the kitchen by your bowl of Cookie Crisps. It explains all about how Dick played you for a fool on everything from Iraq to capital gains. He set up the West Wing paper flow in a way that undermined your goals and advanced his. He let you act like you were the Decider, dear, when you were really just the Dupe.”

W. howls, “Dick promised me I would never be a wimp and now I’m a wimp!”

Putin intervenes. “No, George, don’t blame Dick,” he says. “Dick good man. Shoots friend in face. But Dick too soft. Friend lived. He needs put more people in your Gitmo gulag, shut down newspapers, kill more critics. I’ll send you some of my special polonium-210 pellets. They just like Altoids, curiously strong.”

Clarence Thomas rushes up to the door, black robes flapping. “I got here as fast as I could,” he assures Poppy, before yelling in to W.: “I’m sorry about the Guantánamo decision. I don’t know what my brethren were thinking, applying the Constitution to Cuba. What’s law got to do with it? I should have fought harder. I was a little distracted by our decision to stop race from being a factor in making schools racially diverse. I needed to make sure that black children all over America would have none of the advantages I had.”

Henry Kissinger oils his way across the floor. “Mr. President,” he rumbles through the door, “it’s not so bad bungling a war. I got to date Jill St. John.”

Condi joins the group, and wrinkles her nose at Putin. He puts his arm around her and gives her head a noogie. “When I said U.S. aggression is like Third Reich,” he tells her, with his most charming K.G.B. smile, “I meant it in a good way.”

Condi ignores him and coos to W.: “There’s bad news and good news, sir. Or maybe it’s Vice versa. Cheney’s going to pardon Scooter. And the Albanians have agreed to put your presidential library in Tirana.”

Dog Paddling in the Tigris

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
July 1, 2007


It’s too early to pronounce the U.S. military’s surge in Iraq a failure. It’s not too early to say, though, that there’s no sign that it’s succeeding — that it’s making Iraqi politics or security better in any appreciable, self-sustaining way. At best, the surge is keeping Iraq from descending into full-scale civil war. At best we are dog paddling in the Tigris. Which means at least we should start to think about what happens if we have to get out of the water.

We have to start by taking stock — honestly — about where we are. President Bush talks about Iraq as a country where the vast majority of the people are longing to live with each other in peace, harmony and freedom, and where only a tiny minority of terrorists and die-hard Baathists are standing in the way.

I wish. If that were really the case, how could it be that after four years, hundreds of billions of dollars, tens of thousands of U.S. troops and thousands of casualties, we and our Iraqi allies have not been able to defeat this tiny minority? It doesn’t add up. No minority could be that powerful.

The truth is we have a majorities problem in Iraq, not just a minority problem. For too many Iraqi leaders and too many of their followers, America’s vision of Iraq — a unified, pluralistic, democratizing, free-market — is actually their second choice, at best.

The first choice for many Shiites is a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated religious Iraq, where Sunnis have little say and little power. The first choice for many Sunnis is a return to the good old days of Sunni minority rule over the Shiite majority. The first choice for many Kurds is an independent, democratic Kurdistan. In too many cases, the violence that is bedeviling Iraq today — while carried out by a minority of people — reflects the broad aspirations or fears of the respective majorities.

In short, our first-choice soldiers are dying for Iraqis’ second choice. That is wrong, terribly wrong. It has to stop.

What to do? Most of the options being floated by Democrats and Republicans talk about abandoning the whole idea of trying to implant democracy in Iraq and focusing instead on America’s core “national interests.” Those are described as getting as many of our troops out of Iraq as possible, while preventing the inevitable Iraqi civil war — which would follow any U.S. withdrawal — from spreading around the region. Such proposals are only half right.

Some things are true even if George Bush believes them. And one thing that remains true (maybe the only thing) about Mr. Bush’s strategy toward Iraq is that it is still in our national interest to try to create a model of decent, progressive, pluralistic politics in the heart of the Arab world.

You need to only look at Gaza and Lebanon, not to mention Baghdad, to see how badly this region needs a different model of governance. But I just said earlier that we have a majorities problem in Iraq. So what to do? Build on the minority.

“Go for the Kurdish option,” says Hazem Saghiyeh, the noted columnist for the London Arabic daily Al Hayat. “You can’t build a democratic example in all of Iraq today, but you can build it in Kurdistan. That is where you should go.”

He’s right. If the surge fails to pave the way for a Sunni-Shiite power-sharing agreement in Iraq, then we have to remove our troops from their areas and relocate them to the border to contain their civil war. But we should also talk to the Kurds about setting up a base in Kurdistan and buttressing its development. Kurdistan is not Switzerland (still too much corruption). But it does have the cultural and institutional foundations — including an active Parliament, vibrant newspapers, open universities and free markets — for a decent democratizing example in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world. Many Iraqis have already fled to Kurdistan to find safety or even vacation in its thriving hotels. A U.S. base in Kurdistan would protect it from invasion by Turkey, and assure Turkey that an autonomous Kurdistan will not be a problem for it.

Nothing could justify the staggering cost of the Iraq war anymore, but if we could get one decent example implanted in the neighborhood, even a small one, at least it wouldn’t be a total loss. The example set by little, progressive, modernizing, globalizing Dubai has had a big impact on other countries in the Gulf. A thriving, progressive Kurdistan could do the same. If such an example doesn’t make Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites come to their senses, it will at least be a mirror that shows them every day how utterly wasteful, senseless and self-destructive their civil war is.

Risk-Aversion Therapy on Wall St.

Fair Game
The New York Times
July 1, 2007

THE bloom came off the Blackstone Group’s rose last week as the share price of this celebrated private equity firm fell below its June 21 offering price of $31. Investors have some nerve to dump Blackstone’s shares — don’t they know who Steve Schwarzman is?

The mighty deal maker atop Blackstone, Mr. Schwarzman is. The man of the moment in le tout New York, whose already sizable fortune was augmented by his $7.7 billion stake in newly public Blackstone shares.

Blackstone declined to comment about its faltering stock — it closed on Friday at $29.27 — and it may still rally, of course. But its downward drift seems part of a shift in investor sentiment — away from risk — that looks anything but temporary.

This mood change was visible across Wall Street last week. In the corporate bond market, investors’ risk aversion was evident when at least eight companies decided to postpone or pull their planned sales of securities.

One example was Kia Motors, the South Korean carmaker, which canceled a $500 million bond sale. Another was U.S. Foodservice, a unit of Royal Ahold, the Dutch supermarket company. It postponed a planned sale of $650 million of senior notes on Wednesday; the securities were intended to finance a proposed buyout of the company by two other private equity titans, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Clayton Dubilier & Rice.

Risk aversion is also showing up in the derivatives market, where the issuance of collateralized debt obligations is slowing. Last year, issuance of collateralized debt obligations — which include commercial and residential mortgages, corporate loans and small-business loans — approached $500 billion, up from $235 billion in 2005, according to Thomson Financial. But that flood is subsiding: global issuance of these pools of debt securities came in at around $46 billion in June, well down from the $62 billion issued in March.

The mortgage market, meanwhile, continues to reel. Last week, the Carlyle Group, a big private equity firm, reduced by 25 percent the size of a fund backed by mortgage securities that it plans to offer to investors. The firm also cut the offering’s projected price.

A retrenchment on risk is not surprising, given that the anything-goes mentality among investors has lasted for the past three years. The mortgage market’s woes were the first to tip the balance, but corporate bonds, stocks and private equity will also feel the effects of a pullback in risk-taking.

“Until now we were in a period where risk was underpriced,” said Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business and chairman of Roubini Global Economics. “Debt was so cheap that anybody could take a semiprofitable company private and leverage it. Now the price of this is going to be more expensive.

“There are some $200 billion of L.B.O.’s in the pipeline,” he added. “I think some of them might not be done or they will be done at a higher cost.”

There is — as there always is — a historical parallel here. Go back to the late 1980s and you will see another easy-money era when a real estate bubble and takeover mania was fueled by the issuance of risky securities, in that case junk bonds. Back then, the firm at the center of the profits — and later, the plunge — was Drexel Burnham Lambert. Michael R. Milken, its brilliant bond impresario, figured out how to raise money for companies that investors had previously shunned (the corporate version of subprime mortgages).

Savings and loan institutions, using insured deposits, were the manic lenders 20 years ago. Commercial real estate development and multifamily housing projects were the favored investments. When that party ended, the United States taxpayer had to foot the bailout bill. It cost $140 billion.

Back then, as now, the public watched with dismay as big players in the takeover game pocketed enormous sums. (Remember Mr. Milken’s $500 million payday? It was in 1987.) The takeover titans’ gains were especially distasteful when viewed against mass firings at companies that had been taken over in leveraged buyouts financed by junk bonds.

TODAY we have subprime mortgages being financed by hedge funds, pension funds, insurance companies and other institutional investors. But these same investors have also been lax in their lending to corporations issuing debt, often at the behest of private equity managers who hope to take those companies private.

“In both the L.B.O. market and collateralized loan markets there are practices that are the equivalent of the reckless lending in subprime mortgages,” Mr. Roubini said. “Subprime people will say it was a niche problem. That’s nonsense.” And the correction of those freewheeling ways has only just begun.

Mr. Milken’s successors on the big money front are hedge fund managers and private equity guys, and their ostentatious displays of wealth have started to attract unwanted attention from lawmakers in Washington — concerned about such mundane things as taxes.

But what may be most unseemly about all this is that many of the lucrative fees being generated by these managers — the money that finances their lavish lifestyles — are coming out of the pockets of pensioners. Police officers, firefighters, teachers, sanitation workers — hard-working people who just want to be able to retire comfortably someday — are the pension fund investors paying enormous fees to get into hedge funds and private equity deals.

There will always be haves and have-nots. But that doesn’t make the ever starker contrast between the two any more desirable.

Point Is Made on Grass Court, No Amplification Needed

Sports of The Times
July 1, 2007

Wimbledon, England

There is nothing quite like the intimate, unpretentious but still intense tennis theater of Wimbledon after a long, cacophonous sports year in America.

I was reminded of that yesterday after arriving at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on Church Road in London, SW19, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived after an overnight above the Atlantic, not at all minding the rain that made for a slow day and especially relishing the silence between points during Maria Sharapova’s 6-3, 6-3 victory over Ai Sugiyama.

Respectful silence, that is. It happens to be a concept that doesn’t only work for the players.

My first day at Wimbledon has become a Zen-like sportswriter experience — reacquainting myself with a rare and cherished clatter-free zone — that dates to a 1994 visit after the Knicks’ long run to the N.B.A. finals that ended with a seventh game in Houston.

Three days later, hours off the plane, I stretched out in a press seat a couple of rows from the old, cozy Court 1 and fell into a sound, peaceful sleep to the continuous thwack of the ball during a Boris Becker match. It struck me later on — that couldn’t have happened at Yankee Stadium or Madison Square Garden without wearing a pair of noise-canceling headphones or downing half a bottle of NyQuil.

Wimbledon may reek of royalty and rigidity, but it is the preferable extreme compared with the ever-worsening assault on our senses that games have become, for the most part, back home.

So it was a pleasure again yesterday to have left behind the exploding scoreboards and ear-splitting music of the playoffs spring and the baseball summer, the clown mascots, the busty cheerleaders and the wanton juvenility that have become America’s sporting trademark. And, yes, those United States Open fans who think nothing of vacating their seats in the middle of a point when the irresistible urge for nachos kicks in.

On the expanded Court 1, a smaller version of Center Court, Sharapova’s shrieks, grunts and motivational cries of “come on” were audible to all, the only soundtrack to the 1-hour-14-minute match.

The English fans also seemed to be having a good time with Wimbledon’s bold step into the high-tech era, the replay on the colorful screen that determines player challenges to line calls. But at least that innovation is directly related to the competition, as opposed to the nonsense that makes it impossible to hear yourself think from the moment you step inside an American arena.

Increasingly, authentic noise and artificial noise are indistinguishable, ultimately numbing. Too often lost are the subtleties of drama, which occasionally occur when you least expect it, as in a match yesterday dominated by Sharapova with the exception of an early second-set break of service by Sugiyama that didn’t hold up for long.

In her much-discussed white swan dress that belies her rhinolike approach of tattooing the backcourt with powerful winners, Sharapova broke back for 3-all and proceeded on a run that brought her to 5-3, 40-0, triple match point, just as a light drizzle was turning to a more appreciable rain.

On the first match point, Sharapova double-faulted. Then she hit a deep forehand off a short return that was called out by the linesman but was overruled by the chair umpire, Lynn Welch. The point was replayed. Sharapova hit a forehand into the net for 40-30.

Now the rain was falling harder. The pressure was mounting on Sharapova to finish a match she believed should have been over.

“It’s the third call that the guy, you know, got wrong,” she said. “You look at him and he’s wearing sunglasses. He loses all credibility at that point.”

Also at that point, Sugiyama was asking herself what she had to lose by asking for play to be suspended.

“The last two games were really slippery,” she said. “Of course, it’s not easy to stop right there. But at the same time, I didn’t want to, like, give it away.”

Welch agreed to step down from the chair, checked the grass for herself. Play on, she said. Off a short return by Sugiyama, Sharapova stepped into a forehand, rifled it crosscourt for a clean winner, then had to scamper away to avoid being swallowed up in the tarp as it was being spread across the court.

The close call was worth it. Sharapova has two days off now. Meanwhile, Venus Williams, possibly her fourth-round opponent Tuesday, won the first set yesterday against Akiko Morigami but was down by 1-4 in the second when play was suspended for the day. Advantage, Sharapova, in what became a quirky, compelling battle against the elements as well as the respective opponents.

Today, all of Wimbledon sleeps. Tomorrow, the second week begins and we will all be rooting for less rain, tighter matches and more authentic noise the rest of the way from Center Court.

Not Much Left to Say, but Much Left to Do

Sports of The Times
July 1, 2007

It’s always nice when the players seem to be watching the same games we are. Jorge Posada tends to agree with vox populi that this is not the most intense Yankees team he has ever seen.

After the Yankees were victimized by a one-hitter from Chad Gaudin and Rich Harden yesterday in a 7-0 loss, Posada said firmly, “It seems like, at times, we just go through the motions, and today is one of those cases.”

Because Posada is a Yankees insider and not one to point fingers, his observation carries a bit of gravitas. When somebody told Posada that his words could be construed as a red flag to those who see a breakdown in leadership or attitude, he replied, “I think everybody knows what I’m talking about.”

Many of the 54,150 fans at Yankee Stadium knew what he was talking about. After the Kate Smith bottom of the seventh inning, they turned their backs on the field and vanished into the pleasant Saturday afternoon sunlight to pursue other diversions. The Yankees followed soon afterward.

Nobody else in the clubhouse would match Posada’s strong observation, but Johnny Damon — the Yankees’ only authority on how to hit Gaudin safely yesterday — said he could understand the exodus.

“They have the right to be upset,” Damon said of the fans.

If not for Damon’s hard single up the middle in the sixth inning, the Yankees would have been vastly more embarrassed, as no-hitters are epic events.

Asked if Gaudin had no-hitter stuff, Derek Jeter said, “He had one-hitter-type stuff” — meaning, one assumes, that there wasn’t much difference between what was and what almost was. The Yanks are 37-40 and looking listless.

“Joe and Cashman, it’s not their fault,” Damon volunteered about the malaise that seems to grip the Yankees. He was talking about Joe Torre, the manager, and Brian Cashman, the general manager who put this team, you should pardon the expression, together.

The Yankees do seem lethargic at times, or maybe this is just a bad team, overexposed, over the hill, with no Gary Sheffield, no Jason Giambi and, in total hindsight, no Bernie Williams, either. Yesterday, the Yankees hacked away at Gaudin, a modest-sized right-hander without much power. They looked extremely mediocre in the process, a throwback to the bad old days of 1965-67, when the entire organization hit bottom.

“We’re obviously not hitting to our ability,” Torre said.

Don’t expect any Lou Piniella-style tantrums from Torre. That’s just not his fashion, for one thing. A public flash of anger may work for a patchwork team trying to discovery its identity, but the Yankees almost have too much identity. Does Torre yell in a clubhouse with old pros like Jeter, Posada, Damon, Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui? He would never insult their intelligence or professionalism, even when it is not producing the results Yankees fans would like.

Torre clearly knows how to handle the temper tantrums of the marginal, like the antics of Kyle Farnsworth when he was taken out Friday night in favor of the best relief pitcher in the history of baseball, Mariano Rivera. Whatever happened in the clubhouse overnight, Farnsworth seemed chastened yesterday, and Torre praised him for being “passionate,” as he called it. Torre added, “He’d like a chance to do it over.”

But straightening out one fringe relief pitcher is one thing. Getting a whole team to start hitting is another.

Torre said the mood of the team was good after a sign of nerves early in June. He said the hitters were well prepared to be patient, but not too patient, and he just couldn’t understand the absence of production. “Puzzling,” he called it.

“There are games going off the schedule that we can’t get back,” Torre said.

Jeter agreed that time was moving quickly on the Yankees. Somebody tried to console him by noting that at least the Yankees have now left June behind them. Jeter responded dryly: “It’s a new month. There you go. We played the first three. Now we’ve got a new one.” He didn’t sound very cheered by this logic, but he tried to avoid the big picture that the Yankees have stopped hitting.

“You’ve got to stop grouping games together,” Jeter told reporters, adding, “It doesn’t work that way.” He noted that the Yankees had won Friday night and he praised Gaudin for pitching well yesterday. Good pitching very often modifies or disproves so-called trends, but these losses are coming too quickly to be taken as one-shot wonders.

Damon is the most resilient of players, the one who calmly said, without boasting, that the Red Sox could win four in a row when he played for them against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series. He has the World Series ring, and the personality, of a star player who has learned to bounce back. But Damon, when asked yesterday if he thought the Yankees could dig themselves out of this hole, said, “I’m not sure.” Then he added, “We’re going to have to walk with our heads up and play hard.”

The core of this team has played too long at the top level to be susceptible to rage or bullying. A younger, newer version may very well need a whip. But as Jeter and the rest know, there are three months left in this season. If Posada says the Yankees sometimes go through the motions, they all know he is right.


The Opinionator

June 29, 2007, 4:47 pm
Let’s Play the Blame Game
By Chris Suellentrop

Don’t like Bush? Blame Reagan. It’s 40’s fault that 41 and 43 became presidents, says Michael Barone on his U.S. News blog. Barone writes:

The way we pick vice presidents is crazy. We spend lots of time and money and psychic energy on picking our presidents, with millions of people in one way or the other involved. But we let one man (or, quite possibly this time, one woman) select the vice presidential nominee. And this is considered by just about everyone as the way it should be. Yet, as [Times of London columnist Gerard] Baker points out, vice presidents have a tremendous advantage when it comes to running for president. So the decision of Ronald Reagan at something like 3 in the morning in a Detroit hotel room to pick George H.W. Bush as his running mate leads directly to Bush’s election as president in 1988 and his son’s election as president in 2000 and 2004. Had Reagan picked someone else, it is extremely unlikely that either Bush would have been president.”

Don’t like Alberto Gonzales? Blame Cheney — and more important, “Cheney’s Cheney,” David Addington. The Washington Post recently reported that Addington was the real author of a memo that Gonzales signed and that called the Geneva Conventions “quaint.”

Laura Rozen writes at her blog, War and Piece: “Without any apparent opinion or conviction on these matters that out of some circumstance ended up in his inbox, Gonzales lightly signed off on these grave issues of killing, torture and subverting the Constitution, perhaps out of no greater motivation than to please his bosses and advance his career.”

As a closed platform, the iPhone is antithetical to the nature of the Internet and personal computing, writes Columbia law professor Tim Wu in Slate:

Unlike your Macintosh computer, which can run whatever software developers write for it, the iPhone will, in native mode, run only whatever Apple (and AT&T) approve of. While there are some technical and security reasons to do things this way, there’s an ideological point here, too. The closed iPhone stands in contrast to the open-platform design that has been the bedrock of both the personal computer and Internet revolutions. By design, the iPhone embodies the opposite of what made the Apple II so successful.


June 29, 2007, 9:31 am
Fear of a ‘Non-White’ School District
By Chris Suellentrop
Tags: ,

Writing on his blog, Is That Legal?, North Carolina law professor Eric Muller explains why he thinks Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s concurrence in the Supreme Court decision about the Seattle and Louisville school systems isn’t as impenetrable as some find it. Kennedy wrote that Seattle “failed to explain why, in a district composed of a diversity of races, with fewer than half of the students categorized as ‘white,’ it has employed the crude categories of ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ as the basis for its assignment decisions.”

“Under Seattle’s plan, a school that was 40 percent white and 60 percent Asian would be just as ‘diverse’ as a school that was 40 percent white and 60 percent African-American. That’s nonsense,” Muller writes. “It appears that what Seattle was really after was not ‘diversity,’ but ensuring that no school would be excessively non-white.” Muller also writes:

A very significant percentage of the enrollment in Seattle’s high schools is neither white nor black. (Think about it: Seattle is a major city on the Pacific Rim; lots of folks in the Seattle schools are of Asian ancestry.) So it is very hard for me to take seriously the claim that the Seattle school district was seeking to achieve genuine “diversity” by making school assignment decisions with a “white/non-white” system of categorizing students.

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne isn’t so sanguine about the decision. Dionne wants the Democratic majority in the Senate to block any future judicial nominees — for the Supreme Court or for lower courts — unless President Bush engages in “serious consultation” with the Senate. Dionne writes:

And if conservatives claim to believe the president is owed deference on his court appointees, they will be — I choose this word deliberately — lying. In 2005 conservatives had no problem blocking Bush’s appointment of Harriet Miers because they could not count on her to be a strong voice for their legal causes. They revealed that their view of judicial battles is not about principle but power. When they went after Miers, conservatives lost the deference argument.

Splashing the Art World With Anger and Questions

The New York Times
June 30, 2007

Until the pranks turned ugly, it was heartening to follow the dust-up between a bunch of street artists and their nemesis or nemeses, identity unknown. As The New York Times reported this week, for some time works of stenciled graffiti art and wheat-pasted posters slapped onto walls in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan have been splashed with paint and scrawled with messages of protest.

Anonymous claimants have distributed various communiqués taking responsibility for the sabotage, citing the Situationists of the 1950s and ’60s as inspiration. One manifesto declared street art “a bourgeois-sponsored rebellion,” politically impotent, facilitating gentrification.

It was, if nothing else, good to hear that art was still being contested in the streets, not just marketed and sold in Chelsea. But then, earlier this month, as the summer silly season started, somebody lobbed a stink bomb into the opening of a show by Faile, a Brooklyn street art collective, on the Lower East Side. Everybody was forced to leave after fire engines arrived.

On June 21 at Shepard Fairey’s opening in Dumbo, Brooklyn, a tall, 24-year-old Harry Potter look-alike named James Cooper was arrested after witnesses said he, along with another man, who got away, tried to light a similar bomb in a metal coffee canister. The police charged Mr. Cooper with reckless endangerment, criminal possession of a weapon, harassment and other crimes. He has denied the charges.

Guy Debord, the Situationist writer and spokesman who, before he died in 1994, couldn’t resist responding to anybody who barely mentioned him, would no doubt be exercised by this latest invocation of his legacy. A Situationist in Paris did once dress up as a Dominican priest and read an anti-theist tract to a baffled congregation at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. In Copenhagen, in the ’60s, members of a group calling itself the Movement for a Scandinavian Bauhaus Situationniste were suspected by the police of being responsible for the decapitation of “The Little Mermaid,” the city’s famous symbol, and absconding with the head.

Still, Situationist pranks were pointedly political. Across nearly half a century of random art world mischief, they seem almost scientific in their focus, by comparison with young people who toss stink bombs at gallery openings or splash paint on street art. The current agitators, although they’ve got some of the revolutionary patter down, seem to lack clearly defined targets or priorities. Is the problem gentrification or the art market or artists or late capitalism? What’s troubling them — the street art they’re defacing or the fact that some of the street artists might also show in galleries?

And, by the way, what’s wrong with artists, even street artists, making a buck? The spectacle, as Debord might have said, of the present art world in thrall to Mammon is incredibly depressing. But selling art isn’t selling out, necessarily, and making art for people on the street doesn’t preclude showing (a different sort of) art in galleries. Physical endangerment in the form of bombs, stinky or otherwise, then crosses the line from mischief to mayhem.

I suspect the agitators have read history books about the 1980s, which for Mr. Cooper’s generation must seem like the Dark Ages. The art market back then scooped up graffiti artists, a co-optation entailing, as the Princeton art historian Hal Foster has said, an element of racial appropriation.

The demographics are different now. Most graffiti artists of the ’80s, Keith Haring aside, ultimately flopped as commercial painters because context is everything. A subway car is not a living room. Failure derived from a lack of private initiative and visual sense, not from anything to do with making public art, which during the ’80s art market craze was, despite the blight of many public spaces by graffiti and the criminal act itself, a useful counterpoint to all the lunacy of spending and hype.

Does street art gentrify neighborhoods? Graffiti didn’t gentrify SoHo. Wall Street did. It didn’t gentrify subways. From West Philadelphia to East Los Angeles, much of the best street painting is in poor neighborhoods that have resisted change. It’s hard to feel sympathetic with vandals splashing paint on posters or stenciled pictures, notwithstanding that some of the splashes look kind of aesthetic.

All that said, public space and civic justice are difficult issues to which the brouhaha returns our attention. New York neighborhoods are indeed changing, not all for the better, as the city becomes more affluent and homogeneous, and art shouldn’t exist in it simply as a symbol of wealth and privilege. It should seize public spaces where it can, to make itself more part of daily life, more relevant in the world, and to become a source of serendipity, pleasure, trouble, controversy and interest to people outside the art world, not just inside it.

Minus the incendiary devices, this latest little flap is proof that art can still matter.

US Senate Republicans block union-sponsored bill

By Patrick Martin
30 June 2007

In a near party-line vote Tuesday, the Senate rejected a proposal to take up the Employee Free Choice Act, an AFL-CIO-sponsored bill that would have removed some of the procedural obstacles used by corporations to thwart union organizing drives. The 51-48 vote fell nine short of the 60 required to end debate and force a vote on the legislation. Only one of 49 Senate Republicans, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, voted for cloture, along with 48 Democrats and two independents.

The roll-call vote drew an unusual 99 out of 100 senators, all but Democrat Tim Johnson of South Dakota who is still recuperating from a near-fatal stroke. With tens of million of dollars in campaign contributions at stake for senators on both sides, from business interests and the trade union bureaucracy, even the senators currently running for president set aside campaign fundraising to make their appearance and cast their votes.

In terms of legislative action, Tuesday’s vote only confirmed the obvious fact that the bill will not be enacted this year. The House of Representatives passed the Employee Free Choice Act March 1 by vote of 241-185, a margin far below the two thirds required to overturn the certain Bush veto. Even if the Senate had decided to take up the bill, there are not 66 votes to override a veto.

The vote was scheduled by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for political reasons, to demonstrate that a Senate majority, however narrow, favored passage of the bill, and to provide a basis for the Democratic Party to appeal for union campaign contributions and organizational support in the 2008 elections. It was an exercise which allowed this big business party to proclaim its rhetorical support for the rights of workers, at least for one day.

The legislation is the top of the wish list for the AFL-CIO and other unions, whose membership has declined steadily in numbers for nearly 40 years. The bill has three major provisions: increasing the penalties against employers for violations of labor laws during union organization campaigns, such as discriminatory firings; providing for mediation and mandatory binding arbitration in cases where employers fail to negotiate a first contract with a newly formed union; and providing for immediate recognition of a new union if a majority of workers sign authorization cards (“card check”), without a secret ballot election.

The campaign against the bill, spearheaded by the US Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies, has focused entirely on misrepresentation of the card check provision, which corporate spokesmen invariably describe as taking away the right of workers to vote. This posturing as defenders of democracy is entirely spurious. In practice, union organization efforts generally confront thoroughly anti-democratic attacks by the employers, including systematic intimidation of workers to pressure them into voting against the union even after they’ve signed cards. Half of all union organization drives fail even after winning majority support from the workers in a card check, in part because employer threats sway the outcome of the subsequent balloting.

The World Socialist Web Site defends the democratic right of workers, on the basis of free and open methods, to decide for themselves whether or not to obtain union representation.

However, no one should believe the claims by the trade union bureaucracy and its Democratic Party allies that a purely card check process would lead to a revival of the American labor movement and an improvement in the conditions of life for working people. There are numerous examples, in auto and other industries, of unions obtaining the agreement of companies to recognize them as bargaining agents for the work force on the basis of assurances from union leaders that they will hold down wages and enforce onerous working conditions.

The collapse of the AFL-CIO cannot be explained by employer hostility or the provisions of current labor law—otherwise, how was it possible for workers to build mass industrial unions in the 1930s, under conditions of widespread employer and state violence that turned many labor struggles into pitched battles?

The vast majority of working people see the AFL-CIO and the other bureaucratized trade unions as irrelevant, impotent, or downright reactionary, and for good reason. The last half century has seen an almost uninterrupted decay of the labor movement, to the point where an entire generation of the working class has grown to maturity without ever witnessing a serious and militant national strike by a major union—something which is true of no other period in US history since the American Civil War.

Over the past three decades, in particular, the official unions have carried out one betrayal of the working class after another. They have abandoned any, even defensive, policy of class struggle, and instead sought to integrate themselves into the structure of corporate management, functioning to suppress resistance to plant closures, mass layoffs, speedup and wage-cutting, and boost the international competitiveness of American corporations. On the basis of corporatism and nationalism, the unions have become instruments for the defense of the privileges and perks of the trade union bureaucracy, at the direct expense of union members and the working class as a whole.

The World Socialist Web Site has analyzed the objective causes of this collapse. It is rooted in the globalization of the world economy, which has rendered unviable all of the nationally-based traditional organizations of the working class (see “Marxism and the Trade Unions”).

While this is a worldwide phenomenon, affecting “labor,” social-democratic and Stalinist parties, as well as trade unions of every stripe, it must be said that nowhere have the intrinsic limitations of trade unionism been revealed with such pernicious effect as in the United States.

The very formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955 definitively prefigured the decline of the industrial labor movement, as the CIO unions, formed in response to the militant upsurge of the working class during the Great Depression, made their peace with the conservative establishment of the AFL. The CIO and AFL bureaucracies merged on the basis of a common political orientation: purging all socialist and radical elements from their ranks, subordinating themselves to the Democratic Party, and aligning themselves with the State Department and CIA in Cold War provocations against the international working class.

Despite this proven record of collaboration, there remains a powerful section of big business that regards the services of the union bureaucracy as unnecessary overhead, and declines to pay the price. Incapable of any struggle, except against its own members, the union leadership has pinned its hopes entirely on the Democratic Party and the federal and state governments, seeking new sources of funding under conditions of plummeting membership rolls and falling income from union dues, for the salaries of the tens of thousands of functionaries who make up the bureaucratic apparatus. Hence the “Employee Free Choice Act,” which amounts to appealing to Congress to bail out the AFL-CIO for its own inability to mobilize the working class.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney sought to bolster illusions that the Democratic-controlled Congress would ultimately take “pro-labor” action, declaring, “Today’s vote shows that a majority of the United States Senate supports changing the law to restore working people’s freedom to make their own choice to join a union and bargain for a better life.” The president of the US Chamber of Commerce, Thomas Donahue, countered, “Secret ballots protect the rights of the individual and prevent coercion, and that’s worth fighting to preserve.”

This debate between representatives of the trade union bureaucracy and the corporate hierarchy is something of a farce. Both institutions are thoroughly anti-democratic.

For all the paeans from big business about the Senate upholding the right to vote, every major corporation functions as an absolute dictatorship, in which the employees give up all democratic rights in return for a paycheck. They have no say over pay, benefits or working conditions, let alone decisions about hiring, promotion, production methods, business organization or long-term strategy, all of which are reserved entirely for top executives.

The business lobbyists and congressional Republicans who solemnly invoked the right of workers to vote on union representation would be horrified at a proposal that workers should elect their own workplace managers or vote on corporate policy—so, for that matter, would the Democrats, the second party of the American financial oligarchy, who are equally committed to corporate interests.

As for the American trade unions, they are thoroughly bureaucratized institutions that suppress both rank-and-file dissent and socialist criticism with equal ferocity, in order to play their role as adjuncts of corporate management. Contract votes, particularly in the large, established unions, can be re-run again and again until the rank-and-file “gets it right,” i.e., votes to approve what the union bureaucracy dictates.

Only a handful of unions allow their rank-and-file to vote on their leadership. Most hold conventions in which delegates are hand-picked by top officials and resolutions are rubber-stamped. Union members who challenge the bureaucracy’s collaboration with management face systematic harassment and the danger of being fired from their jobs with employer collusion, or physically assaulted.

These realities of working-class life are concealed, not only by big business politicians and most of the corporate-controlled media, but also by the liberal and “left” organizations which cluster around and defend the trade union bureaucracy. These groups have hailed the Employee Free Choice Act as an indication of rising labor militancy and a signal of the union leaders’ determination to fight.

Nation contributor David Sirota wrote last month, “I am optimistic that we are about to see a major resurgence of organized labor, and thus a reversal of the hostile takeover of our government. As I travel the country meeting with union organizers and union leaders, I see all sorts of signs that the labor movement is experiencing a resurgence.” Sirota cited as an example “my good friend Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers,” a pillar of the conservative AFL-CIO bureaucracy.

An on-line contributor to the Nation, Peter Rothberg, wrote that despite the bill’s defeat, it was one of many “encouraging signs of civic engagement,” adding that “the labor movement is seeming more vibrant of late.”

There is no doubt that the American working class is moving into historic struggles, driven by mounting attacks on jobs and living standards and political catastrophes like the war in Iraq. But the attitude of the trade union bureaucracy to an upsurge from below will be entirely hostile. The strategy of the bureaucracy is to win the favor of the corporate oligarchy by demonstrating its usefulness at keeping the working class under control, in the workplace, but even more importantly, in the field of politics.

As Unrest Rises, China Broadens Workers’ Rights

The New York Times
June 30, 2007

BEIJING, June 29 — China’s legislature passed a sweeping new labor law on Friday that strengthens protections for workers across the booming economy, a response to increasing signs of restiveness among tens of millions of migrant laborers.

The law, enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress over the objections of foreign investors, requires employers to provide written contracts to their workers, restricts the use of temporary laborers and helps give more employees long-term job security.

The law, which is to take effect in 2008, also enhances the role of the Communist Party’s monopoly union and allows collective bargaining for wages and benefits.

It softens some provisions that foreign companies said would hurt China’s status as the leading low-wage manufacturing base, but retains others that American multinationals had lobbied vigorously to exclude.

In the past, workers have had to negotiate wages with their employers individually, and China’s state-run union has had almost no involvement in setting wages and benefits.

“This is the biggest change in Chinese labor law in the reform and opening period,” said Qiu Jie, a labor law expert at People’s University in Beijing. “It gives legal protection to the vast majority of workers, who had no way to protect their rights under the old system.”

In recent years, President Hu Jintao and other leaders have sought to increase worker protections because discontent among migrant workers has contributed to a surge in social unrest and violent crime.

But the new measure may not improve conditions for low-wage workers unless it is enforced more rigorously than existing laws, which already offer protections that on paper are similar to those in developed economies.

Urban workers may also see little change unless the state-run union, which in the past generally represented management over workers, decides to play an active role in defending worker rights, which many analysts consider unlikely.

Passage of the measure came shortly after officials and the state news media unearthed the widespread use of slave labor in as many as 8,000 brick kilns and small coal mines in Shanxi and Henan Provinces. It was one of the most glaring labor scandals since China began adopting market-style economic policies a quarter century ago.

The police have freed nearly 600 workers, many of them teenagers, held against their will in factories owned or operated by well-connected businesspeople and local officials.

Abuses of migrant laborers have been endemic in China, where millions of temporary workers have faced unpaid wages, unsafe working conditions and collusion between factory owners and local officials.

Party-run courts and local labor bureaus often fail to enforce the legal rights of migrant workers, many of whom never seek remedies.

While the new law will do little to eliminate violations of existing laws, it does require that employers treat migrant workers as they do other employees. All will have to have written employment contracts that comply with minimum wage and safety regulations.

It also moves China closer to European-style labor regulations that emphasize employment contracts. It requires that employees with short-term contracts become full-time employees with lifetime benefits after a short contract is renewed twice.

Perhaps most significant, it gives the state-run union and other groups representing employees the power to bargain with employers.

Many multinational corporations had lobbied against certain provisions in an earlier draft of the new labor law. An early draft gave unions greater powers and made it more difficult to fire workers.

Companies argued that the rules would substantially increase labor costs and reduce flexibility, and some foreign businesses warned that they would have little choice but to move their operations out of China if the provisions were enacted.

International labor experts said several of the most delicate clauses had been watered down. But lawyers representing some big global companies complained that the new law still imposed a heavy burden.

“It will be more difficult to run a company here,” said Andreas W. Lauffs, head of Baker & McKenzie’s employment law group, which represents many of America’s biggest corporations in China.

The National People’s Congress released only a summary of the legislation, and officials did not detail how they had changed it from the many earlier drafts.

The summary said companies must “consult” the state union if they planned layoffs, suggesting a softening from earlier drafts that would have given unions the right to approve or reject layoffs before they could take place.

But the summary retained language that limits the “probationary contracts” that many employers use to deny employees full-time status. It tightens conditions under which an employee can be first, while requiring severance packages for the first time. High salaried workers would face caps of severance, however.

Moreover, the law empowers company-based branches of the state-run union or employee representative committees to bargain with employers over salaries, bonuses, training and other benefits and duties.

The Communist Party’s monopoly union, known as the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, is a legacy of China’s socialist planned economy. It is an official state organization charged with overseeing workers, that in practice has tended either to play no role whatsoever or to help managers monitor and control workers. The state union rarely if ever presses for higher wages or enhanced benefits. It does not permit strikes.

Workers are not allowed to form independent unions.

But as Mr. Hu has pressed the state union to take a more active role, it has demanded greater representation in private Chinese and foreign-financed companies. Some foreign company executives say that if the union takes part in wage and layoff negotiations, that could greatly complicate labor relations.

Foreign executives said they were especially worried about new labor regulations because their companies tended to comply with existing laws more rigorously than some Chinese competitors do. This disadvantage could increase sharply, they said, if the new rules produce fresh burdens that local counterparts ignore.

Chinese legislative officials said Friday that such concerns were overblown, and that many local governments bent the rules to favor foreign investors over local companies.

“If there is some bias in the application of the law, it would tend to be in favor of foreign investors because local governments do so much to attract investment,” Xin Chunying, deputy chairwoman of the legislature’s law committee, said at a news conference announcing the new measures. “The only people who will suffer under the new law are those who violate the law.”


‘Every Communist must grasp the truth: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” ’ -- Mao Tse Tung, concluding speech at the sixth plenary session of the Central Committee, Communist party, China, November 6, 1938.—Mao, Selected Works, vol. 2, p. 272 (1954).

When Is Enough Enough?

Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 30, 2007

Chances are you didn’t hear it, but on Thursday night Senator Hillary Clinton said, “If H.I.V./AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.”

Her comment came on the same day that a malevolent majority on the U.S. Supreme Court threw a brick through the window of voluntary school integration efforts.

There comes a time when people are supposed to get angry. The rights and interests of black people in the U.S. have been under assault for the longest time, and in the absence of an effective counterforce, that assault has only grown more brutal.

Have you looked at the public schools lately? Have you looked at the prisons? Have you looked at the legions of unemployed blacks roaming the neighborhoods of big cities across the country? These jobless African-Americans, so many of them men, are so marginal in the view of the wider society, so insignificant, so invisible, they aren’t even counted in the government’s official jobless statistics.

And now this new majority on the Supreme Court seems committed to a legal trajectory that would hurl blacks back to the bad old days of the Jim Crow era.

Where’s the outcry? Where’s the line in the sand that the prejudiced portion of the population is not allowed to cross?

Mrs. Clinton’s comment was made at a forum of Democratic presidential candidates at Howard University that was put together by Tavis Smiley, the radio and television personality, and broadcast nationally by PBS. The idea was to focus on issues of particular concern to African-Americans.

It’s discouraging that some of the biggest issues confronting blacks — the spread of AIDS, chronic joblessness and racial discrimination, for example — are not considered mainstream issues.

Senator John Edwards offered a disturbingly bleak but accurate picture of the lives of many young blacks: “When you have young African-American men who are completely convinced that they’re either going to die or go to prison and see absolutely no hope in their lives; when they live in an environment where the people around them don’t earn a decent wage; when they go to schools that are second-class schools compared to the wealthy suburban areas — they don’t see anything getting better.”

The difficult lives and often tragic fates of such young men are not much on the minds of so-called mainstream Americans, or the political and corporate elites who run the country. More noise needs to be made. There’s something very wrong with a passive acceptance of the degraded state in which so many African-Americans continue to live.

Mr. Smiley is also organizing a forum of Republican candidates to be held in September. I wholeheartedly applaud his efforts. But if black people were more angry, and if they could channel that anger into political activism — first and foremost by voting as though their lives and the lives of their children depended on it — there would not be a need to have separate political forums to address their concerns.

If black people could find a way to come together in sky-high turnouts on Election Day, if they showed up at polling booths in numbers close to the maximum possible turnout, if they could set the example for all other Americans about the importance of exercising the franchise, the politicians would not dare to ignore their concerns.

For black people, especially, the current composition of the Supreme Court should be the ultimate lesson in the importance of voting in a presidential election. No branch of the government has been more crucial than the judiciary in securing the rights and improving the lives of blacks over the past five or six decades.

George W. Bush, in a little more than six years, has tilted the court so radically that it is now, like the administration itself, relentlessly hostile to the interests of black people. That never would have happened if blacks had managed significantly more muscular turnouts in the 2000 and 2004 elections. (The war in Iraq would not have happened, either.)

There are, of course, many people, black and white, who are working on a vast array of important issues. But much, much more needs to be done. And blacks, in particular, need to intervene more directly in the public policy matters that concern them.

In the 1960s, there were radicals running around screaming about black power. But the real power in this country has always been the power of the vote. Black Americans have not come close to maximizing that power.

It’s not too late.

Courage Without the Uniform

Guest Columnist
The New York Times
June 30, 2007


Every time a soldier from Oregon dies in the Iraq war, Senator Gordon Smith calls up the mother or surviving spouse, and commiserates. His son killed himself four years ago, he tells them. He knows what it’s like to lose a boy.

He has made this call 103 times. Inevitably, after the tears and the awkward pauses, they ask him this question about their lost loved one in Iraq: was it worth it?

“I wish I could tell them what they want to hear,” said Senator Smith, a Republican. “I wish I could tell them something else. I say, ‘I hope history proves me wrong, but...’ ” and then he trails off.

Senator Smith woke up one morning last December with the alarm set to news and traffic — another day, another dozen American soldiers dead. He had his Groundhog Day moment, he says. “I just went from steamed to boiled.”

Later, on the floor of the Senate, he said the words that are still echoing around the political world:

“I, for one, am at the end of my rope when it comes to supporting a policy that has our soldiers patrolling the same streets in the same way, being blown up by the same bombs day after day. This is absurd. It may even be criminal.”

It was that last word that set people on fire. Conservatives called him a traitor — to the party, the country. Liberals embraced him. Bring on impeachment!

If anything, the senator feels stronger today than he did then, though he said he would change one word in his speech. “If I could take back any word, it would be ‘criminal,’ ” he said. “I’d replace it with the word ‘insane.’ ”

At the time, Smith was one of only two Republicans in the Senate — the other being the maverick, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — to come out against the president’s war policy. This week, Richard Lugar of Indiana joined other Republican senators who have since broken ranks, making at least six who are calling for a new policy.

By the time Congress takes up the postsurge failures of the war in September, there may be a dozen or more Republicans in the Senate ready to defy the president, said Mr. Smith.

The war has started to resemble a postapocalyptic sci-fi film like “Blade Runner.” Here is a troubled superpower headed by a pair of delusional men, with a rag-tag army fighting a constant low-grade insurgency. The cause has long since been forgotten, the slogans are hollow, death lurks around every shadowy corner.

But if we are to retrieve our honor, to restore our place in the world, to make good on those lost Oregon lives, it may be because people like Gordon Smith couldn’t take it any more, that he finally said enough — bring the kids home.

Smith is a Mormon who did his mission abroad and an Eagle Scout from the eastern Oregon town of Pendleton — one of the West’s most authentic places, part Indian, part cowboy. A senator for 10 years, he is up for re-election next year.

His reading of World War I, when Europe’s finest were thrown up against machine guns day after day, and a more recent book, “Fiasco,” Tom Ricks’s devastating account of American blunders in Iraq, left him sleepless and angered.

After visiting Iraq three times, he has concluded that those in power “are more focused on revenge than reconciliation — it’s a quicksand of ancient hatreds.”

Some people question the timing of the senator’s change of heart. Smith is vulnerable in this blue state, they say, and his conversion is just a ploy to save his seat. But there is something else at work here. Smith has the seat once held by Senator Mark Hatfield, another Republican who defied his party on matters of war and peace. Hatfield was a Navy man, a veteran of Iwo Jima and one of the first Americans to see Hiroshima after the atomic bomb was dropped. All that carnage changed his world view.

Smith was never in the armed forces. His biggest regret in life, he says, is that he never wore his country’s uniform. But unlike some chicken-hawks who did not serve — chief among them, Vice President Cheney, with his numerous draft deferments — he is not trying to make up for lost courage.

Not long ago, Hatfield called up the junior senator from Oregon and brought up the fact that Smith, once a vigorous booster, had changed his mind on the war.

“I’m proud of you for that,” he said. It meant a lot, coming from Hatfield, who is a giant in Oregon politics. But it meant even more that he was an ex-warrior.

Timothy Egan, a former Seattle correspondent for The Times and the author of “The Worst Hard Time,” is a guest columnist.

iPhone Spin Goes Round and Round

Talking Business
The New York Times
June 30, 2007

By Wednesday morning, the iPhone tom-toms were beating in earnest.

They’d been building for some time, even before Apple’s chief executive, Steven P. Jobs, announced at the Macworld conference that his company was months away from unleashing its “revolutionary” hand-held device, a machine that combined cellphone, music and Internet.

It sounds so prosaic when I phrase it like that, but on the Macworld stage that January morning, Mr. Jobs screened an iPhone demo, and it was dazzling — so beautiful and elegant it could have been designed by the gods. Who had ever seen such a gorgeous screen? Or such amazing functionality in so slim a package? Or so many sweet new touches?

Yesterday evening, the “Jesus phone,” as some technology bloggers call it, finally went on sale, with a hefty price tag of $499 or $599, depending on whether you buy a 4-gigabyte or an 8-gigabyte iPhone. But it was Wednesday, really, that the iPhone hype began building to its Jobs-orchestrated crescendo. That was the day the first reviews were published. There were only four of them, for Apple had allowed only four select reviewers, including Walter S. Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal and David Pogue of The New York Times, to take iPhone test drives.

They all raved. “A beautiful and breakthrough computer,” wrote Mr. Mossberg and Katherine Boehret, his Wall Street Journal aide de camp. “It does things no phone has ever done before,” wrote Mr. Pogue.

But Mr. Pogue also pointed out that “it lacks features found even on the most basic phones,” and in the course of his review he listed a number of drawbacks. It didn’t have voice dialing. AT&T’s cellular network was so slow for Internet access it made you long for dial-up. Mr. Mossberg wrote that you have to switch to a different keyboard view — the iPhone has two — every time you want to insert a comma or period. How annoying is that?

But deep in Mr. Pogue’s review came the paragraph that stopped me in my tracks. Pointing out that the iPhone, unique among cellphones, doesn’t have a removable battery, Mr. Pogue wrote: “Apple says the battery starts to lose capacity after 300 to 400 charges. Eventually, you’ll have to send the phone to Apple for battery replacement, much as you do now with an iPod, for a fee.”

Huh? That couldn’t be, could it? Did Apple really expect people to mail their iPhones to Apple HQ and wait for the company to return it with a new battery? It was bad enough that the company did that with the iPod — but a cellphone? Cellphones have become a critical part of daily life, something we can barely do without for an hour, much less days at a time. Surely, Mr. Jobs realized that.

Didn’t he?

When you do what I do for a living, this sort of question is usually pretty easy to clear up. You ring up a company spokesman, and get an answer. But at Apple, where according to Silicon Valley lore even the janitors have to sign nondisclosure agreements, there is no such thing as a straightforward answer. There is only spin.

“Apple will service every battery that needs to be replaced in an environmentally friendly matter,” said Steve Dowling, an Apple spokesman. He went on: “With up to 8 hours of talk time, 6 hours of Internet use, 7 hours of video playback or 24 hours of audio playback and more than 10 days of standby time, iPhone’s battery life is longer than any other smartphone.”

This response didn’t even attempt to answer the question I’d asked him, which was how Apple planned to service its batteries. But never mind. This is another Apple innovation: the robotic spokesman, who says only what he’s been programmed to say.

With Apple taking the position that the battery replacement issue was not something it needed to share with reporters — much less buyers of the iPhone — I went elsewhere in search of answers. I talked to design experts, battery wonks, technology geeks, and Mr. Mossberg of The Journal, the dean of technology reviewers.

One thing I wanted to know was why Apple had made a cellphone without a removable battery in the first place; it seemed like such an extreme act of consumer unfriendliness. If the iPod was any guide, batteries were inevitably going to run down. With most cellphones, when the battery has problems, you take it to a store, buy a new battery, let the salesman pop it in, and start using it again. Why wasn’t Apple willing to do that?

“It is about assured obsolescence,” said Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group, a technology consulting firm. “That is why they don’t have a replaceable battery in the iPod. But the problem here is that the iPhone will run out of battery life before the two-year service contract runs out.”

“Steve Jobs has always worshipped at the altar of closed systems,” mused Mark R. Anderson of Strategic News Service, a technology newsletter. “Go back to the original MacIntosh. To get into the Mac computer required factory-only tools.” He added, “I don’t think it serves the consumer.”

Larry Keeley, the president of the innovation and design firm Doblin Inc., had another theory.

“The real issue is that Steve and Jonathan Ive” — Apple’s design chief — “have decided to emphasize sexiness and a different basic experience” over such ho-hum consumer needs as a replaceable battery. He was convinced that it was primarily a design issue; indeed, he thinks Apple is using a lithium polymer battery in the iPhone, which can be stretched into different shapes — and thus can be tucked into an extremely thin space.

The iPhone, Mr. Keeley said, “has been designed with a lot of consumer sacrifice problems,” not just the battery but AT&T’s sluggish network, which Mr. Jobs chose because a faster network would — how’s this for circular logic? — drain the battery too fast.

On the other hand, those who have drunk from the iPhone Kool-Aid were not remotely bothered by the removable battery issue. My assumption was that if the battery does indeed last for 300 to 400 charges, it will probably start to lose its capacity in about a year, at least for heavy users. Of course the iPhone warranty also lasts a year, so if my calculation is right, it means that the batteries will need to be replaced just as the warranty runs out. Meaning that iPhone customers will have to pay for a new battery instead of getting it free — just like the iPod.

But maybe I’m being too conspiratorial. Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, a well-respected technology consultant, told me, “I think this is much ado over nothing.” Yes, he said, there would be heavy users who had to recharge their iPhones every day, but most people would get two full years out of their batteries. So it would at least last as long as the service contract.

“All I can tell you,” Mr. Mossberg said, “is that 100 million people bought an iPod without a replaceable battery.” He quickly added, “If they had made it with a replaceable battery, it would have been better.”

Still, Mr. Mossberg was knocked out by what he has seen of the iPhone battery so far — “I watched ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,’ which runs two and a half hours, three times! On a phone! Can you imagine doing that on a Treo?” (What I really can’t imagine is watching “Pirates of the Caribbean” three times.)

One of the battery experts I talked to, Robert L. Kanode, the chief executive of Valence Technology, a small company that is developing a new kind of lithium battery, said that the technology has advanced so much — as has the ability of companies like Apple to manage power inside their devices — that it was “perfectly possible that it will get you to two years.”

So maybe it will get two years. But let’s think about what that means. Those who are dismissive of the battery issue are saying, essentially, that when the two years are up, and the battery needs to be replaced, customers will purchase a new and improved iPhone instead. That’s why it is a nonissue for them — they are buying into the idea of assured obsolescence. If all you want is a new battery after two years — and don’t lust after whatever new phone gadget Mr. Jobs has come up with by then — then you’re just not with it.

Besides, don’t most cellphone users get a new phone within two years? The answer, of course, is yes. But most cellphone purchases are heavily discounted — costing $100 or less — and are tied to an extension of the service contract. Is Apple really going to play that game? I’m betting the answer is no. Buying a new iPhone is going to be an expensive proposition for the foreseeable future — which of course is great for Apple’s bottom line, but not so great for its customers.

And what about the people who have early battery problems? Or those who are such heavy users of their iPhone that they need a new battery after a year? The question remains, What are they supposed to do? Go without a cellphone while Apple is replacing the battery? From where I’m sitting, this is classic Apple behavior. It is perfectly happy to sell you the coolest $599 device you’ve ever seen. Just don’t expect them to be especially helpful when it runs into problems.

Then again, maybe there is a different explanation. Maybe Apple itself hasn’t figure out what to do about the battery replacement issue — and is avoiding admitting that by not saying anything. Yesterday morning, when I got into the office, I found a voice message from an Apple public relations hand named Jennifer Bowcock. Mr. Dowling was away, and she wanted to see if she could answer my battery questions.

So I asked her the same question I’d been asking Mr. Dowling: how was Apple going to handle battery replacement? “I’ll look into that and get back to you,” she said cheerily. I could hear someone standing next to her say: “We’re not talking about that.”

An hour later, she sent me an e-mail message. “You asked why the iPhone does not have a removable battery,” it began. “With up to 8 hours of talk time, 6 hours of internet use, 7 hours of video playback, 24 hours of audio playback and 10 days of standby time, iPhone’s battery life is longer than any other smartphone.”

I give up. Have a great launch, Mr. Jobs.

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