Saturday, May 14, 2005


Fast fact of the Day

Our share of the vote is the lowest ever scored in an election by the party that formed the government.
Robin Cook, British Labor Party MP, who resigned his post as Leader of the House of Commons the week before the Iraq invasion

Friday, May 13, 2005


Our little runaway

I'm a walkin' in the rain
Tears are fallin' and I feel the pain
Wishin' you were here by me
To end this misery and I wonder
I wa wa wa wonder
Why, why why why why why you ran away
And I wonder where you will stay
My little runaway, a run run run run runaway

—adapted from lyrics by Del Shannon

Yesterday I mentioned the odd sequence of events surrounding the White House terror alert, while Bush was out bike-riding, and happily I wasn't the only one to notice. Last night Jeffrey Brown of the PBS News Hour interviewed two homeland security experts—Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute, and David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies—concerning the incident.

For some reason PBS has declined to transcribe this one segment [audio, at 11:38] of last night's program, so I offer my transcription—

Jeffrey Brown: And, David, the other issue that came up was that the President had not been notified. Were you surprised by that?

David Heyman: I was shocked by that. It would seem after 9/11 that the first person who would want to know if there's a problem of a possible terrorist attack is the President. I was also hearing the White House explanation for that—that they were counting on the Secret Service's professionals to do the notification as needed and that they weren't worried about the President's safety.

Those aren't the issues.

If this was a real terrorist attack, who do we want to be in charge? We voted for the President to be in charge, not for the Secret Service, not for others to be ... other people to be in charge. If this had been a terrorist attack, we would want him making the decisions.

Jeffrey Brown: What do you think?

Daniel Kaniewski:1 I take a different view. I actually trust the chain of command, so to speak, that exists in the White House—whether that's the Secret Service or the political leaders that advise the President.2

Clearly they had very specific information. For them not to tell the President, I believe it's because they felt that it wasn't a significant threat, they knew the White House was evacuated, and they didn't see this small plane, again, flying as a significant threat.

So the judgment was made by someone in the White House. But I think that's a legitimate decision that can be made. And again, this would all be different if that plane was viewed as a very significant and imminent threat, which I don't believe anybody today is saying it was.

David Heyman: At the time though that this was taking place, you have literally 60 seconds—perhaps up to 3 minutes—to make a decision about what you're going to be doing, and the President should be notified that the White House is being evacuated, his staff is being evacuated, his wife is safe, who was sitting ... who was in the President's office.

I think we want our President to be in charge and not the Secret Service. And it just seems to me I think the White House is going to come out the next day or so and say "We fouled up on this" and the President's going to say "I want to know." [my transcription]

Brown noted that White House spokesman Scott McClelland has said "The process will be reviewed."

If you're a regular reader of Simply Appalling, you will know there's a recurrent theme—that George Bush is even more irrelevant to government decision-making in any matter that the Powers That Be consider important than was Ronald Reagan, who at least had the excuse of incipient senility. I mean, no one in his right mind would let George Bush run a mid-size corporation, much less the U.S. government. The terror threat response was just one more illustration of the truth of this.

But while I'm on the topic of Bush, I wanted to call your attention to a wonderful little character description that Sidney Blumenthal, whose specialty is Bushology, wrote in The Guardian yesterday—

In his relationship with Bush, Blair apparently misread the outward signs of American culture and interpreted them through British eyes. Bush can be so amiable and informal dressed in blue jeans that his manner can be mistaken for openness and cooperation, when it conceals a particular type of American class superiority and indifference. Bush, after all, seems so friendly compared with the glowering Cheney, who clawed his way upward. It's not easy for someone who's never travelled in America to grasp the evolution of the Bush family from north-east patricians into Texas Tories, and the dissolution of the New England character along the way, especially its sense of responsibility, duty and humility.

Bush's amiability towards Blair merely demonstrates his acceptance of the prime minister into his fraternity, his private club. But even if Blair got Bush exactly right in every nuance, the outcome remains the same. (Gordon Brown and Bush are a car crash waiting to happen. Bush has an instinctive revulsion for serious intellectuals who have little capacity for the locker-room banter that is his mode of condescension.)

Previous post
Bush not told till he finished his bike ride (5/12/05)

Related posts
The veep debate: Where was George? (10/6/04)
Pseudo-fascism? (10/8/04)
Suddenly there was an explosion—Our brave, macho President (10/30/04)
Bush joins the Jacobins (updated) (1/26/05)
George Bush: Cheerleader-in-Chief of Social Security "reform" (2/14/05)
In case you were wondering who is really behind Guantánamo (3/28/05)


1Kaniewski is one of those people who maintains a half-smile while on camera no matter what is being said à la Bill Frist. This identifies him immediately as a strong Republican supporter in my mind. [back]

2Vice President Cheney was in the White House at the time. Probably catching up on some paperwork in the Oval Office. [back]


Supreme Court prognostication (updated)

Knowing how the Supreme Court will rule before it rules could be very, very useful. Should you jump bond and head for the border? Should you sell that pharmaceutical stock before the company is notified of its billion-dollar-plus liability? Inquiring minds want to know. So a number of people have tried to find the key, with a modicum of success.

Now Sarah Shullman, a law student, has done a study that revealed a very successful prognosticator: the side receiving the greater number of hostile questions is the side that's very likely to lose.

In hindsight that seems obvious, but some tea-leaf readers have been predisposed to interpret the hostile questions as a form of "playing the Devil's advocate." Not so. The Justices mean it.

Shullman had only a limited sample size—10 cases—but she hit 100%. According to Tony Mauro writing for American Lawyer,

... the methodology has already been tested since she did her study. John Roberts Jr., one of the masters of the trade before taking the bench in 2003, used her theory for a talk he gave on oral advocacy before the Supreme Court Historical Society last year. Picking 14 oral arguments from the 1980 term and 14 from the 2003 term, Roberts found that in fact the most questions went to the losing party in 24 of the 28 cases — an 86 percent rate of accuracy.

Her study also revealed the Supremes' proclivities to question—

Shullman ... found that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg asked the most questions — and the least hostile ones — of all the justices, and that Justice Stephen Breyer asked the most hostile questions. But his was equal-opportunity hostility, handed out in equal measure to both sides. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, often viewed as the mystery swing vote, turned out to be highly predictable using this method; she asked more than three times as many questions of the party she then voted against than the party she supported.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist was, oddly enough, one of the least predictable, according to his nearly equal questioning of both sides. What about Justice Clarence Thomas, who almost always remains silent on the bench? "Because Justice Thomas is rarely a swing vote, his silence should not pose an obstacle in most cases" to prediction, she writes.

If the Senate hearings on Justice Thomas' nomination are any indication, he's probably looking at girlie mags.

Mauro points out that—

The allure of the question-count method is not just that it is simple, but that it now will be incalculably easier to use. Since last October, transcripts of the Court's oral arguments have named the justices asking the questions. (Before, they were listed only as "question," with no identification of the justice asking it.) Now all you need do is to search the .pdf files of transcripts for the names of each justice, and you'll have the count.

Mike or Norm (I can't tell which), writing on a law blog, has predicted a ruling in favor of the government in Ashcroft v. Raich. If any of you would like to predict the outcome of this case using Sarah Shullman's method, I would be delighted to post your findings. Ashcroft v. Raich is not just about getting high in California, it's about state versus federal rights. Or how far the Court will extend the power of Congress under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

3:27 pm

Mike has kindly left a link in the comments to a post at The Volokh Conspiracy. It seems they've counted up the questions over there, and things look very bad for the home team. Oh, woe!

Related post
Marijuana: Better than faith-healing (1/3/05)

Thursday, May 12, 2005


Quote of the Day

Excepting drug activity for personal use or free distribution from the sweep of the CSA [Controlled Substances Act] would discourage the consumption of lawful controlled substances.
Solicitor General's brief in Ashcroft v. Raich

Related post
Marijuana: Better than faith-healing (1/3/05)


Bush not told till he finished his bike ride

Let's see. Your wife has just been hustled off to some unknown location because of an unknown but imminent threat; your (nominally) second-in-command likewise. Wouldn't you want to know? Wouldn't you want to be told as quickly as possible?

Not if you're "Incurious" George.

Yesterday the Capitol and White House were evacuated. There was a small plane flying in the restricted airspace around Washington, which produced what reporters Alan Levin and Mimi Hall called "a frantic 15-minute scene."

A government Black Hawk helicopter and small jet intercepted the single-engine plane shortly before noon and tried to signal the pilot to change course. (Related video: Scenes from the evacuation)

When that didn't work, two F-16 fighter jets circled the plane and fired signal flares until it veered away 3 miles from the White House, according to Lt. Jody Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).

The plane was diverted to Maryland, and the two men aboard were briefly taken into custody and questioned but were not charged, according to the Secret Service and FBI. The intrusion "appears to have been accidental," said Secret Service spokesman Tom Mazur.

Wednesday's incident was the third highly public evacuation in the past year. A plane carrying Kentucky's governor to Ronald Reagan's memorial service prompted a false alert on June 9. A cloud that appeared on radar screens prompted an alert April 27.

President Bush was away from the White House, biking at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Beltsville, Md. Vice President Cheney was rushed from the White House to another location. Mrs. Bush and White House guest Nancy Reagan were taken to an unidentified location.

Bush wasn't told of the threat until he finished his bike ride, said Scott McClellan, a White House spokesman.

"He was not in any danger," McClellan said.

What a guy!

It strangely recalls 9/11, doesn't it? Bush reading stories to children while the Twin Towers burned.

And it recalls 9/11 also by contrast. Yesterday's exercise shows just how quickly they can get those F-16s in the air—when they really want to.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Foreign adulterants

For a nation that likes to describe itself as "The Great Melting Pot" it is amazing how we Americans respond to things foreign. But I say that especially for our Republicans, who often seem of two minds.

For a time they wouldn't eat "French" fries. Democrat John Kerry was afraid to utter a simple "Bonjour" for fear of being called "Frenchified." Meanwhile George Bush was making speeches in an unknown tongue when he should have been studying Remedial Spanish.

But where the contradiction really comes into relief is between the Republican reaction to foreign influence on the courts versus foreign influence on the intelligence services.

There are so many articles on U.S. reliance on foreign intelligence in the lead-up to the Iraq war that my selection is random. Let's take this from a blog,

The Senate Intelligence Committee, in its report issued last week, blasted the Central Intelligence Agency for poor intelligence gathering and analysis, and concluded that the U.S. "intelligence community depended too heavily on defectors and foreign government services" to make up for America's lack of human intelligence in Iraq. The credibility of these outside sources was difficult to ascertain and, as a result, the United States was left open to manipulation by foreign governments, the Senate report concluded.

In particular, the Senate report claimed, America had become completely dependent on foreign sources to evaluate Saddam Hussein's ties to Hamas, Hezbollah and other Palestinian terrorist organizations. On this front, the Senate committee concluded that the foreign intelligence was "credible." On the issue of weapons of mass destruction, however, the Senate report concluded that the United States relied on incorrect intelligence to argue that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

Any direct references to Israel were blacked out of the published version of the Senate report, but an earlier report issued in March by a Knesset committee made it clear that U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies were working together and exchanging information.

Then there was the famous Colin Powell speech to the U.N. Security Council that relied upon ... British intelligence—which in turn was based upon "recycled academic articles."

You would think that for the tens of billions of dollars flowing into the CIA's coffers, they might produce something more than foreign hand-me-downs. But even more, you might suppose that the Republican Congress would be well and truly outraged. At the very least, you might have expected some heads to roll. But to the contrary, they were quite restrained, even sympathetic.

Now compare that with their reaction to foreign influence on the Supreme Court. Again, the Republicans have spoken on the matter so often that there is an embarrasment of examples, but I'll take this MSNBC account by Tim Curry from March 11—

.... Republican House members are protesting the court’s increasing use of foreign legal precedents in interpreting the Constitution.

Republican House members Tom Feeney of Florida and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia, joined by more than 50 co-sponsors, will propose a non-binding resolution next week that would express the sense of Congress that judicial decisions should not be based on foreign laws or court decisions.

While Feeney and Goodlatte, who are members of the House Judiciary Committee, can’t summon the justices before them to defend their use of foreign precedents, they hope to fire a rhetorical shot across the bow of jurists who increasingly look to foreign legal trends, especially in death penalty and gay rights cases.

Feeney even used the “I” word, impeachment, in an interview with in his House office Wednesday.

“This resolution advises the courts that it is improper for them to substitute foreign law for American law or the American Constitution,” Feeney said. “To the extent they deliberately ignore Congress’ admonishment, they are no longer engaging in ‘good behavior’ in the meaning of the Constitution and they may subject themselves to the ultimate remedy, which would be impeachment.”

So the Republicans were mildly disturbed when foreign intelligence services provided the basis for leading the nation into an illegal war at the cost of many lives and God-knows-how-much money, but find it unthinkable for the Supreme Court to take into consideration foreign jurisprudence out of—as Justice Breyer said, quoting from the Declaration of Independence—a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind."

Go figure.


In the propaganda war Taliban radio now operational (updated)

According to Amin Tarzi of the U.S.-sponsored Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the "Voice of Sharia" (Shari'a Zhagh)—the name of Radio Afghanistan under the Taliban—resumed broadcasting in April.
On 18 April, neo-Taliban spokesman Mufti Latifullah Hakimi told Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) that because foreign radio stations broadcasting to Afghanistan claiming to be independent and free are "not actually free," the neo-Taliban has established its own station.

According to Hakimi, the radio station began broadcasting on 18 April for one hour a day, from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., in Dari and Pashto. He said it would also resume broadcasting for another hour in the evening, between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Shari'a Zhagh was heard in Kandahar on 18 and 20 April, but no confirmation of its broadcast has been available since.

The radio station broadcasting to Kandahar is one of three owned by the neo-Taliban, Hakimi said. The other two stations will "start functioning soon," he added. In a separate interview with AIP on 21 April, Hakimi said the additional stations will broadcast in other local languages, namely Uzbek and Turkmen. The Afghan Constitution recognizes Pashto and Dari as the country's official languages, while several other languages enjoy official third-language status in areas where the majority of residents speak that language.

The pro-government "Kabul Times" daily wrote on 26 April that while the Afghan government has taken a casual attitude toward the Shari'a Zhagh based on the calculation that most Afghans suffered horribly under Taliban rule and therefore would not heed any message encouraging a return to such a system, the U.S.-led coalition has vowed to find and destroy the radio station. There is "no doubt that the coalition will locate...[the transmitter] with the help of advanced eavesdropping devices," the daily reported.

Dismissing the idea of popular support for the Taliban in the South seems to be a form of "whistling in the dark." On March 11 Tarzi reported

Demonstrations rocked two of Afghanistan's five largest cities on 7 March -- Kandahar in the south and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. While the reasons behind these protests varied and the central government's response to them was markedly different, one factor connects the incidents: the presence of former warlords acting as governors of the two provinces.

The demonstrations, in which people chanted slogans against the United States and in support of the ousted Taliban regime, must have had a deja vu effect in Kabul's circles of power.

The current report hints darkly of Pakistani involvement in the radio set-up—

The "Kabul Times," however, also speculated that a foreign hand might be involved in the establishment of the neo-Taliban broadcaster. Calling the militants a "bunch of mullahs" who are "completely ignorant about engineering," the daily questioned who is supporting the radio venture technically and financially.

Without directly accusing Pakistan, the "Kabul Times" wrote that the country's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) "has been dealing with the Taliban since its inception." The daily added that "surely the ISI...[can] find answers" to the location, type of equipment, and funding for Shari'a Zha2gh. The "ISI is expected to fall into line and find out" the necessary information about the neo-Taliban broadcast venture, the commentary added.

But here's where it gets interesting—

The mere existence of the Shari'a Zhagh has fueled questions about the motives of not only Pakistan, but also the United States.

Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 21 April interviewed Kabul University Professor Nasir Ahmad. The Iranian broadcaster asked why the United States, which "utilizes modern technological equipment and could easily find the Taliban radio station,"1 has not done so. Nasir Ahmad responded that, since the United States has long-term strategic plans in Afghanistan, it needs the neo-Taliban to justify its presence in that country. Thus, he argued, the United States is not challenging the radio station.

Neo-Taliban spokesman Hakimi told AIP on 21 April that he believes that U.S.-led coalition forces are looking for the transmission station of Shari'a Zhagh. He said he believes, however, that they will fail in their efforts because the broadcasts are transmitted from a "mobile station." Furthermore, the programs are aired at dawn and dusk, when "no-one can detect the station's frequencies," Hakimi contended. He also said that "expert Afghan engineers" have designed the station in such a manner to safeguard it "against all possible risks."

So here we have a Kabul professor suggesting that permitting Taliban radio is deliberate on the part of the U.S. "to justify its presence in the country," and the Taliban spokesman supporting the notion that the U.S. is doing everything it can to destroy it. While the U.S. strategic goal of remaining in Afghanistan is hardly in doubt, the idea that it needs pirate radio to provide justification is ridiculous. Perhaps what is more significant is that the Afghan government, such as it is, is countenancing a great deal of anti-U.S. rhetoric.

May 12, 2005

File under: Winning hearts and minds

Musadeq Sadeq of the AP reports,

Shouting "Death to America!" more than 1,000 demonstrators rioted and threw stones at a U.S. military convoy Wednesday, as protests spread to four Afghan provinces over a report that interrogators desecrated Islam's holy book at the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay.

Police fired on the protesters, trying to stifle the biggest display of anti-American anger since the ouster of the Taliban 3-1/2 years ago. There were no reports of American casualties, but the violence left four dead and 71 injured in Jalalabad.

Mobs smashed car and shop windows and attacked government offices, the Pakistani Consulate and the offices of two U.N. agencies in Jalalabad. More than 50 foreign-aid workers were reportedly evacuated.

The protests may expand into neighboring Pakistan, where a coalition of hard-line Islamic parties said it would hold nationwide demonstrations Friday over the alleged desecration of the Quran.

Well, according to Pakistan's Daily Times, the protests appear to have already spread—
MIRANSHAH: Chanting slogans against America, thousands of mourners gathered in a Pakistani border town on Wednesday to bury an Islamic militant they claimed was killed in a clash between Taliban militants and American forces inside Afghanistan, witnesses said.

The US military, however, said it had no reports of fighting in the area of eastern Afghanistan where the Pakistani man, Akhtar Zaman, had purportedly died.

The funeral was held in Sarobi, a town in the North Waziristan tribal region, opposite the Afghan province of Khost. Mourners also chanted slogans in support Taliban-led militants that have stepped resistance in Afghanistan in recent weeks.

“Down with America! God is Great! We are with mujahedeen!” mourners shouted, according to residents of the town, who estimated about 6,000 people attended the funeral. There were no reports of violence.

Insulting the Koran or Prophet Mohammed is punishable by death in Pakistan.

In the AP's Afghan report, Kharzai adds his spin—

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who travels to Washington this month for talks with President Bush, played down the violence.

"It is not the anti-American sentiment, it is a protest over news of the desecration of the holy Quran," Karzai told reporters after talks with NATO officials in Brussels, Belgium.

Related post
What's up in Afghanistan and why is Blair sending more troops? (4/5/05)


1 This faith in U.S. technology may be naive, if pirate radio in the U.S. is any measure. [back]

Tuesday, May 10, 2005


Fast Facts of the Day

Most expensive gasoline: The Netherlands at $6.48/gallon
Cheapest gasoline: Venezuela at $0.12/gallon

CNN table of gasoline prices

"Must-see TV"

Glenn Garvin of the Miami Herald has written a paean to Chris Wallace, son of Mike Wallace and host of "Fox News Sunday." Wallace took the job after he met with Roger Ailes, head of Fox News—
"The only vaguely political question he asked me was, 'Can you get up in the morning without immediately thinking that your country is at fault?'" says Wallace. "I had no problem doing that."

You bet!

To prevent any such thought from arising, Wallace apparently relies heavily on Republican guests—

There are still skeptics. "Anybody trying to make the case that Wallace is not a Fox company man will fail," declares Steven Rendell, a senior analyst for the lefty media-monitor group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. "This show is shot through with the Fox sensibility." The show's rightward tilt, Rendell declares, is obvious from the guest list: Over the last five months, Wallace's in-depth one-on-one interviews have featured Republicans over Democrats by a margin of more than seven to one.

But Marty Ryan, the show's producer, says the ratio simply reflects the current balance of power in Washington: The GOP controls the White House and both houses of Congress, so it has more newsmakers to appear on Fox News Sunday.

That's quite a power ratio.

It is amazing—and discouraging—what reporters think they're supposed to be doing.

Garvin recounts a Wallace interview with Sen. John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, who has developed an understanding of violence when it's provoked by federal judges—

Wallace played a clip of Cornyn's fiery speech on the Senate floor in which he warned that "political decisions" by judges trigger public anger that "builds up to the point where some people engage in violence." So, Wallace said to the senator, the career criminal in Atlanta who recently shot and killed the judge in his rape trial was just making a political statement?

No, no, Cornyn replied stiffly, his speech "was taken out of context and misinterpreted."

"Well, I don't understand how it was misinterpreted or taken out of context," Wallace reproved. "Judges are making political decisions unaccountably. And it builds up to the point where some people engage in violence. Sounds like it was precisely in context."

"Maybe unartfully stated," conceded Cornyn.

"Do you apologize for trying to make a link between that and acts of violence against judges?" Wallace continued.

"I didn't make the link," Cornyn insisted.

"You don't think you said anything wrong?" Wallace asked in astonishment.

"Well, I regret that I said it perhaps poorly," Cornyn said, finally caving in.

What a triumph! What a cave-in! What crap!

But Garvin is not alone in his opinion. Here's what Juan Williams of the liberals' cherished NPR had to say about it—

"It reminded me of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers," marveled Juan Williams, National Public Radio's senior correspondent, a regular on the roundtable discussions among reporters on Fox News Sunday. "Cornyn trying to dance out of it, Chris staying right with him and following up. It's stuff like that that makes for must-see TV."

Perhaps we may see journalist Garvin himself appearing soon in a newsmaker interview. With pancake makeup they should be able to hide those tell-tale brown stains around his mouth.


Falling wages

The Financial Times reports that real wages (when viewed against inflation) have suffered the sharpest decline since 1991—
Inflation rose 3.1 per cent in the year to March but salaries climbed just 2.4 per cent, according to the Employment Cost Index. In the final three months of 2004, real wages fell by 0.9 per cent.

The last time salaries fell this steeply was at the start of 1991, when real wages declined by 1.1 per cent.

Stingy pay rises mean many Americans will have to work longer hours to keep up with the cost of living, and they could ultimately undermine consumer spending and economic growth.

Many economists believe that in spite of the unexpectedly large rise in job creation of 274,000 in April, the uneven revival in the labour market since the 2001 recession has made it hard for workers to negotiate real improvements in living standards.

Even after last month's bumper gain in employment, there are 22,000 fewer private sector jobs than when the recession began in March 2001, a 0.02 per cent fall. At the same point in the recovery from the recession of the early 1990s, private sector employment was up 4.7 per cent.

For a little more perspective on how you're working harder for less, Christopher Swann writes

In the past economic cycle, companies have been extremely successful at capturing the lion's share of the gain from productivity improvements. Since 2001 productivity has been rising at an annual average of 4.1 per cent, while compensation growth has averaged just 1.5 per cent, leaving workers with just over a third of the benefit from rising efficiencies.

In the previous seven business cycles, by contrast, workers reaped about 75 per cent of the benefit of increasing efficiencies. “Businesses have clearly managed to gain the upper hand,” says Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think-tank.

For most middle- and upper-income families, disappointing wage growth has been more than offset by bumper gains in property values, which have increasingly been unlocked for spending.

Meanwhile, advocacy groups believe stagnating wages are starting to have a visible effect on low earners.

“We have been noticing that low earners are increasingly having to fall back on services intended for the unemployed,” says Marc Cohan, a director of the Welfare Law Center. “Even some full-time workers in light construction or factory work are finding themselves using food stamps and soup kitchens.”

Isn't it time for the U.S. to abolish slavery? A rise in the minimum wage would be a start.

Cutting Social Security benefits for the working wealthy

I guess it's "Corporate Governance Day" at Simply Appalling.

President Bush, repeatedly challenged to offer some solution to the "Social Security problem" that he sees looming before us, has finally given birth to an idea: He would index benefits. The wealthy and the middle class would have their benefits cut; the poor would go on as usual (being poor).

It's a simple idea, as you would expect from anything that the President might be able to articulate. And it's a destructive idea,1 as you also might expect.

I worry about the working rich, because they are more deserving than the rest of us, and the thought of them suffering in their retirement years is almost more than I can bear. To make matters worse, I've just discovered that their Social Security benefits may need to be cut even more than Bush is letting on.

Lucian Bebchuk & Robert Jackson of Harvard Law School have released what The Economist calls an "extraordinary paper on executive pensions [that] reads like a piece of investigative journalism." The study is called "Putting Executive Pensions on the Radar Screen." This is from the abstract—

Because public firms are not required to disclose the monetary value of executives’ pension plans in their executive pay disclosures, financial economists and the media alike have generally analyzed executive pay using figures that do not include the value of such pension plans. .... For the set of [S&P 500] companies whose executives had a pension plan (68% of companies), our findings are as follows:
  • The executive’s pension plan provided an annual payment with an average value of $1.1 million (ranging from $360,000 to $2.3 million) and had an average actuarial value of $15.1 million (ranging from $3.3 to $41.3 million).
  • The pension value was on average nearly three times the total salary the executives earned during their tenure as CEO, and it was equal on average to 44% of the total compensation (including both equity and non-equity pay) the executives received during their service as CEO.
  • Including pension values increased the fraction of compensation made of salary-like payments (salary during service as CEO and pension payments afterwards) from 16% to 39%, and reduced the fraction of pay that is equity-based from 57% to 42%.

We conclude that the standard omission of pension plan values by researchers and the media leads to:

  1. Significant underestimation of the magnitude of executive pay,
  2. Severe distortion of comparisons among executive compensation packages, and
  3. Significant overestimation of the extent to which executive pay is linked to performance and the fraction of compensation that is equity-based.

I fear that neither The Economist nor the study authors have paid sufficient attention to executive privacy. They disclose, for instance, the case of Hank McKinnell, "chief of Pfizer since 2001, chairman of the powerful Business Roundtable, and a former co-chairman of its corporate governance task force"—

Mr McKinnell has received total compensation of about $67m to date—but the value of his pension plan is even greater than that. At present, say the authors, he stands to receive an annual pension of $6.5m on his retirement in three years’ time.

Well, if this isn't a fine kettle of corporate larceny. If this is allowed to continue executive Social Security benefits will be reduced to zero.

I'm seriously considering the launch of a petition to "Save Social Security for the Wealthy." They may have to take a cut in their corporate pensions to make it work, but no way would I see them deprived of what the rest of us get.

Related post
George Bush: Cheerleader-in-Chief of Social Security "reform" (2/14/05)


1By including the "middle class" in the cuts, it wouldn't be long before Social Security would be viewed as a "welfare program"—and you know what happens to welfare programs. A few years down the road, the Right will "ramp up" their usual class-warfare activities, convince the middle class (such as will be left) that their problems stem from the undeserved Social Security benefits that the poor receive. And the Roosevelt "New Deal" will finally be dead.

NY Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman did some calculations on Bush's indexing plan—

[D]efenders of Mr. Bush's Social Security plan now portray benefit cuts for anyone making more than $20,000 a year, cuts that will have their biggest percentage impact on the retirement income of people making about $60,000 a year, as cuts for the wealthy.

These are people who denounced you as a class warrior if you wanted to tax Paris Hilton's inheritance. Now they say that they're brave populists, because they want to cut the income of retired office managers.

Let's consider the Bush tax cuts and the Bush benefit cuts as a package. Who gains? Who loses?

Suppose you're a full-time Wal-Mart employee, earning $17,000 a year. You probably didn't get any tax cut. But Mr. Bush says, generously, that he won't cut your Social Security benefits.

Suppose you're earning $60,000 a year. On average, Mr. Bush cut taxes for workers like you by about $1,000 per year. But by 2045 the Bush Social Security plan would cut benefits for workers like you by about $6,500 per year. Not a very good deal.

Suppose, finally, that you're making $1 million a year. You received a tax cut worth about $50,000 per year. By 2045 the Bush plan would reduce benefits for people like you by about $9,400 per year. We have a winner!

.... Repealing Mr. Bush's tax cuts would yield enough revenue to call off his proposed benefit cuts, and still leave $8 trillion in change.

.... Now that tax cuts have busted the budget, they want us to accept large cuts in Social Security benefits as inevitable. But they demand that we praise Mr. Bush's sense of social justice, because he proposes bigger benefit cuts for the middle class than for the poor.


Corporate affairs

Spain's Comisión Nacional del Mercado de Valores (National Commission on the Stock Market) or CNMV, which regulates the Spanish stock market, is putting in some new disclosure rules for corporations. Beginning in July, according to Leslie Crawford of the Financial Times, corporate directors will be required to report transactions that—
affect spouses, children, parents, siblings and other "persons with whom directors hold analogous affectionate bonds". Most analysts have interpreted this to mean lovers.

The organization representing corporate boardrooms doesn't like it—

The Institute of Board Directors, a lobby group for encouraging best practises in Spain's board rooms [right!], says the guidelines on "affectionate relationships" are unprecedented. The Institute is in favour of measures that improve transparency, but questions whether requiring board members to disclose related party transactions with lovers is not going "a little too far".

The CNMV responds that it is only producing regulations to conform with a 2002 financial transparency law "by spelling out who ought to be included in related party transactions."

The Spanish disclosure rules are thought to be the most comprehensive in the world. But the CNMV says it is important that legislation on good corporate governance remain up to date with "new forms of human relationships" to avoid conflicts of interests that might affect companies and their shareholders.

And the corporations offer the obligatory red herring—

The guidelines have caused alarm in business circles as they may infringe the right to privacy of directors. "We would have to compile a database with the relatives1 and sentimental partners of our board members, and I doubt we could do this without the consent of the interested parties," says the legal counsel of a leading Spanish bank.

The requirement of full disclosure says nothing about "compiling a database of relatives and sentimental partners." If a corporation does this, it is the corporation that is "infringing the privacy" of its directors, not the government. It is sufficient that the directors be alerted to the guidelines (which I'm sure they figured out long ago).

American investors, take note.


1 Many American corporations acquire this information routinely at the time of application for employment. No concerns about privacy that I've heard recently. [back]


Commandments of the Day

Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors’ oil.
Thou shalt not murder thy neighbors in order to steal their oil.
Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbors, accusing them of illicitly harboring weapons of mass destruction, in order to justify killing them in order to steal their oil.

—David Ray Griffin, theologian, speaking at the University of Wisconsin at Madison

Monday, May 09, 2005


Lower education in Iraq

The International Leadership Institute (ILI), a part of the United Nations University, has issued a report finding that 84% of Iraqi institutes of higher learning have been destroyed and 48 professors assassinated.

According to Aljazeera,

There are 20 universities in Iraq, in addition to 47 technical institutes and 10 private institutes offering courses in information technology, administration and economy, the study said.

As a result, the UN is urging international donors to mobilize millions of dollars in aid for Iraq's colleges and universities warning that failure to rehabilitate them will set back efforts to heal the war-torn country.

According to the study, only 40 percent of infrastructure destroyed now is being rebuilt, the study said, and water and electricity supplies remain unreliable. raqi higher education's teaching staff also has been depleted by more than a decade of international sanctions, imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and by persistent security threats against academics and institutions.

As many as four out of 10 of Iraq's best-trained educators have fled for other countries since 1990, leaving behind faculty whom the report described as "long-isolated and under-qualified." One-third of remaining professors hold only a bachelor's degree, despite rules requiring a master's degree; 39 percent have a master's degree and 28 percent, a doctorate, the study said.

But why worry about the universities?
Iraq's primary and secondary education systems also have been ruined, according to the U.N. children's fund, UNICEF.

In a report released last October, the agency said that school attendance had increased as students, parents, and teachers began to take in stride frequent reports of bombings, attacks, and kidnappings but that the school system--once one of the finest in the Middle East--was overwhelmed.

There weren't enough desks, chairs, or classrooms and most schools lacked even basic water or sanitation facilities, it said, adding that millions of Iraqi students had to brave raw sewage to get into and around their schools.

UNICEF attributed the school system's fall to three wars and more than a decade of neglect and insufficient funding during sanctions, which remained in effect from 1990-2003.

U.S. officials often have highlighted their renovation of schools as a success story of Iraq under occupation. The UNICEF report said that as of last October, some 18 months after the U.S.-led invasion, the rehabilitation was limited.


Quote of the Day

[To the news media]

Your continual focus on, and reporting of, missing, young, attractive white women not only demeans your profession but is a televised slap in the face to minority mothers and parents the nation over who search for their own missing children with little or no assistance or notice from anyone.
Douglas MacKinnon, former press secretary to former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole


Spy in the White House?

Via Xymphora, who finds the tale "colorful", there is a most interesting account in (run by an ex-Republican, by the way) of Guckert/Gannon's rise in right-wing Republican circles culminating (perhaps?) in the accident/suicide/murder of Edward von Kloberg III. Kloberg fell/jumped/was pushed from the wall of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome Sunday a week ago.

The site of von Kloberg's demise was surely by intent. The Castel Sant'Angelo was originally constructed to be the gay emperor Hadrian's tomb and also used by Puccini as the point of departure for his heroine Tosca.

I would readily accept the suicide explanation given most of the facts. Von Kloberg was in poor health, had purportedly returned to Rome for a failed reconciliation with his Lithuanian lover Darius Monkevicius, left a suicide note referring to the affair and chose an apt location. Nevertheless, how could a man of such flair die with a 1997 photo cover of Prime magazine featuring him with George H.W. Bush?

I mean, who the hell ever heard of Prime magazine? And why go out pictured with someone of so little distinction? Oh... That's right. G.H.W. Bush was formerly head of the CIA. Was the magazine cover a "calling card"? A gentle reminder to those who may have embarked on nefarious adventures similar to von Kloberg's? (Just kidding, I hope.)

Adam Bernstein of the Washington Post gave von Kloberg a Page-One obituary last Tuesday—

Von Kloberg embraced the slogan "shame is for sissies" as well as an unabashedly Edwardian style of living. He arrived at balls and galas wearing black capes, and he traveled with steamer trunks. He added the "von" to his name because he thought it sounded distinguished.

In a life full of flamboyance, his end followed form: The District resident, 63, leapt to his death Sunday from "a castle in Rome," a State Department spokeswoman said. Von Kloberg's sister said a lengthy note was found on the body, and U.S. Embassy officials in Rome told her that he committed suicide.

Epithets abounded. The authors of "Washington Babylon," a muckraking book about powerbrokers, wrote: "Even within the amoral world of Washington lobbying, [he] stands out for handling clients that no one else will touch." Washingtonian magazine once named him one of the city's top 50 "hired guns."

By far the most outrageous and lasting public impression of von Kloberg came from a notorious "sting" operation by Spy magazine. For a story the satirical journal titled "Washington's Most Shameless Lobbyist," a staff writer posed as a Nazi sympathizer whose causes included halting immigration to the "fatherland" and calling for the German annexation of Poland.

According to the magazine, von Kloberg expressed sympathy for the fake client -- and her $1 million offer. And then he was drubbed in print. Shortly afterward, he showed up at the opening of Spy's Washington office with a first-aid kit and sported a trench helmet, "so I can take the flak," he announced.

Friends of von Kloberg saw the article as a revolting caricature of a man whose grace and charm were displayed at intimate dinner parties he threw to unite disparate voices -- 3,500 dinners, each with 12 guests, he estimated.

His voice, said one friend, was marked by an "almost Rooseveltian, high-class accent." He drove enormous black cars and draped foreign medals (Zaire's Order of the Leopard among them) across his tuxedo. At night, he sported one of two favorite black capes: one with red lining, the other with prints of doves.

Well, you can see why Guckert/Gannon would have been attracted.

One of my favorite accounts of von Kloberg is given in a July 2001 issue of The Washington Diplomat

Donning black slippers embroidered with a devil holding a pitchfork, international publicist and lobbyist Edward J. von Kloberg III greeted guests at his double-penthouse apartment on Cathedral Avenue in NW Washington on May 30.

The group of more than 100 diplomats, government officials and socialites came to watch the investiture of von Kloberg by the exiled Rwandan King, Kigeli V and to bid farewell to Clinton administration Deputy Chief of Protocol Fred DuVal.

The seven-foot-two-inch king touched the tip of a sword—once owned by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie—on each of von Kloberg’s shoulders after conferring on him the Chevalier Grand Croix of the Royal Order of the Intare. "The Intare means the Lion," explained the king as he praised von Kloberg as, "a great friend of Africa and a true aristocrat."

I fear that all those tourists who drop by their Representative's office in the Capitol, perhaps to pray, are missing the real charm of Washington. But Guckert/Gannon obviously had more than just a nose for it.

Related post
The juiciest speculation yet (2/2/05)


Statistic of the Day

In 1991 there were just 10 [closed-circuit television] systems in Britain. Now there are four million, more than any other country in Europe.
—Suzanne Gupta, writing in Deutsche Welle

Sunday, May 08, 2005


Virgin defaced, restored

Remember the Virgin of the Underpass? Well, the image was defaced with shoe polish, then the police had it painted over with brown paint. But happily some volunteers have restored it to its pristine condition.

According to the AP,

A man had scrawled the words "Big Lie" in shoe polish on the image Thursday night, and authorities charged Victor Gonzalez of Chicago with criminal damage to state-supported property, a misdemeanor.

Gonzalez, 37, told relatives he believed visitors were worshipping a graven image in violation of the Second Commandment, said Mandy Gonzalez, who identified herself as Gonzalez's niece.

I'm going to hazard a guess here that Mr. Gonzalez is one of those souls whom the evangelicals (or more likely, the pentacostalists) have won over from the Roman Catholics.

Right-wing Catholics really don't realize what they're in for if the right-wing Protestants get their theocracy. Just because their Protestant counterparts don't wear condoms and oppose abortion doesn't mean they're compatible above the waist. The more irreligious among us may have to move to Northern Ireland just to get some peace.

Previous post
Another spotting of the Virgin (4/20/05)

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