Tuesday, September 05, 2006

The End

The end is just a beginning. In order to remain anonymous, I can't disclose the reason for the ending of this blog. But it is ending and today the ending is official. I have ended this blog with regret, but it must end. I am now in an official position. The Thieving Monkeys was a one-man operation and is now dead. Fare thee well, thievingmonkeys, long live the thieving monkeys! That is all...

Friday, August 04, 2006

Hilary's Missing Link

"Mrs. Clinton has sought to cast her position on Iraq as part of a
broader and consistent approach to foreign policy and the use of
military force. She subscribes, in her words, to a doctrine of
“sensible internationalism, pragmatic internationalism” — a philosophy
that essentially calls for military intervention when it has broad
global support and is all but certain to succeed."  NY Times, August 5, 2006, "Clinton Dodges Political Peril for War Vote"

While the NY Times article on the differences between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Lieberman's defense of their votes for the Iraq war details many reasons for why Hilary has not seen the force of the war's opposition, despite her support of it, the quote above baffles me.  She defends her vote for war with a doctrine that demands "broad global support and is all but certain to succeed".  This condition is only met by the Bush rhetoric and a complete blindness towards what the data showed.  The war was unpopular worldwide and the U.S. went in largely on its own because the U.N. Security Council wanted to make sure that the existence of WMD in Iraq was true (the causus belli given initially by Bush).  While Bush claimed many international coalition partners, most were small countries with token contributions and most of the troops were not involved until well after the initial invasion.  Second, I do not understand how anyone could claim that the war in Iraq was "all but certain to succeed".  The Middle Eastern region is one rife with divisions, between Israel and Arabs (and Persians), between Arabs and Persians, between Shia and Sunni Muslims, and between the many countries.  The Middle East has become the powder keg of the world, just as the Balkans played that role in Europe in the 20th century (not to downplay the conflicts in the Middle East during the 20th century).  For one to act based on the doctrine she says she acted upon, the best move would have been to oppose the use of force resolution unless the weapons inspectors found WMD or the U.N. Security Council authorized military force, which would have been accompanied almost certainly by broad global support.  The latter pillar of the doctrine (the mission being "all but certain to succeed") fails in almost all cases of supporting war in the Middle East.  The region is so complicated that only the gravest crises, not American whim, are almost certain to be unsuccessful without a clear plan and international mandate.  Even with a mandate, the job is difficult.  Without a mandate, the U.S. should not have invaded Iraq and should have been very, very hesitant to do so even with broad global support and an international mandate.  Extricating U.S. troops as quickly as possible should be the highest priority for American national security and a timetable and a plan for internationalizing the mitigation of the damage caused by the U.S invasion should accompany this extrication.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Lieberman: Down and Out

There is a fascinating NY Times article about the Lieberman-Lamont race in Connecticut that suggests a move away from a rightist Democratic model of the Democratic Leadership Committee (DLC) and towards a more progressive face for the Democratic Party.  Ned Lamont is even or ahead of Joe Lieberman in the primaries in many polls.  I have been either neutral or opposed to Sen. Lieberman since he was the Vice Presidential candidate in 2000 because he brings the rightward movement of the Democratic party into focus for all its flaws: corporate whoring, religious pandering (Lieberman has been unapologetic about being a religious demagogue focusing on being ultra-religious for the sake of political appearances) and pandering to the right-wng poltics that have unfortunately dominated the country in the past 6 years (26 if you go back to Reagan's election as president).  While Ned Lamont is a wealthy corporate figure (he was a cable tv executive), the issues he is focused on are central to retaking the working-class: the economy, jobs, the minimum wage and more than anything for the press, ending the war in Iraq which has most affected the working class (the rich get tax cuts, the working-class deal with the loss of their children in Baghdad).  It is about time the Democrats move towards their natural base, the working class.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Brookings study

A note on my post on the Brookings Institution paper on reducing poverty from the expenditure side, there is a Barbara Ehrenreich article on Alternet summarizing the article very well.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Israeli Deception

Although Israel declared at the start of the bombing of Lebanon that it would not seek to occupy parts of Lebanon, its actions have changed.  On the day when Israel "accidentally" bombed the U.N. monitors (accidentally like the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade because of 'bad maps'), they also announced that they would occupy parts of Lebanon, although according to the NY Times, less than they occupied for 22 years until 2000.  While Israel claimed to occupy it "until an international force could take its place," it is unclear whether the U.S. will allow an internation force to step in.  The U.N. has had monitors in southern Lebanon for decades, but these forces have not had the power to enforce a ceasefire and the Bush administration doesn't seem willing to step in and support one.  While they officially, according to their vague statements, support a ceasefire, in actuality, they do not support an unconditional ceasefire, but rather one that justifies the Israeli human rights violations (e.g. retribution on civilian populations).  Until the Bush administration grows morals and cojones enough to force an immediate, unconditional ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, the Bush administration is morally responsible for every civilian death on both sides of the current war.  Furthermore, while the Bush administration supported the Lebanese government in expelling the Syrians after the assassination of Rafik Hariri (the right move), they are unwilling to be a neutral broker when Israel has invaded Lebanon.  This is callous and unjust and makes the U.S. hypocrites.  The Lebanese Army is not fighting Israel and in fact, the Lebanese government that the Bush administration loved so few months ago has become destabilized by Hizbollah's actions.  If nothing else, the administration should show some consistency by pushing for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah in order to preserve the Lebanese government and then work for a negotiated settlement demilitarizing Hizbollah, expelling Israel from the territory they are occupying and settling the long-standing differences between Israel and Lebanon (primarily over the Israeli-occupied and Lebanese-claimed Sheba Farms area.

Democrats take a step forward

Several Democratic House members have proposed the PROGRESS Act, an act designed to reduce America's energy consumption.  Most of what the bill would do would be create regional energy strategies, help fund research into alternative-fuel-powered cars, increase the biofuels infrastructure (which increases the economic viability of biofuels) and promotes public transit and commuter rail.  These are laudable goals (and I am proud that my local Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is one of the sponsors, along with Steny H. Hoyer (MD), Rep. John Dingell (MI), Rep. Jim Oberstar, Rep. Mark Udall (CO), Rep. Stephanie Herseth
(SD), Rep. Adam Schiff, and Rep. Rush Holt), which will create long-term benefits to the economy while lowering energy consumption.  What is missing, unfortunately, are short-term plans to reduce energy use.  The two biggest policies that could be implemented immediately to reduce energy use would be to increase the CAFE standards (governing average fuel economy across an entire company's line of automobiles) and to increase the gas tax by $0.50 per gallon.  The former would be more politically acceptable, as the sales of large, gas-guzzlers has fallen (although the big automobile manufacturers would fight it), and more equitable in spreading the costs.  The latter would be effective (raising gas prices higher would increase pain, particularly for low- and moderate-income people who have not seen wages rise much in the past 5 years), but could be most effectively implemented by targeted tax credits to these income groups and not increasing the tax, but committing to a price floor at $3.00 per gallon.  The only major cost of implementation would be to ensure that oil companies do not continue to charge $3.00 per gallon if oil prices fall.  Both of these programs will bring much more short-term energy reduction, but also be complementary with the PROGRESS Act by encouraging people to switch to alternative fuels and use public transportation more often instead of driving.  While I commend the sponsors of the PROGRESS Act, if they want the act to be more effective in the short-term the two policies I outlined above would be essential.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Union rights in the crosshairs

The Economic Policy Institute has a paper, "Supervisor in name only" that highlights the Kentucky River cases, which, depending on the outcome, could result in millions of workers with no responsibility for hiring, firing and disciplinary actions being classified as supervisors and therefore "be denied the right to form unions or engage in collective bargaining".  The case is a test of how anti-labor the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has become after 6 years of Bush.  Examples of some of the occupations where the ruling has the power to affect includes Registered Nurses, Cooks, Secretaries, and even Chemistry Teachers, hardly jobs expected to have significant supervisory roles as they are currently thought of under the National Labor Relations Act.  In fact, the act defines supervisors as:
Any individual having authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or responsibly to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend such action, if in connection with the foregoing the exercise of such authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment. (29 USC 152 (11))

This case could help put the nail in the coffin of organized labor, something the Republican party and the business interests which fund it have dreamed about for a long time.  If the NLRB has any decency and respect for labor unions and the fundamental right of workers to unionize, it will uphold the rights of nurses, chemistry teachers, cooks and many other non-supervisory workers to unionize and overturn a bogus attempt by anti-labor business interests to subvert the intent of the National Labor Relations Act.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Reducing Poverty on the Household Expenditure Side

There is a great Brookings Institution report by Matt Fellowes, "From Poverty, Opportunity," that highlights many ways in which poverty can be reduced by helping even out the costs faced by low-income families and individuals with higher-income families and individuals.  The report starts by identifying the key areas on the expenditure side where those with low-incomes are charged more than those with higher incomes: morgages and house insurance, car payments and insurance, short-term lending, appliance purchases and groceries.  He systimatically goes through each area detailing how lower-income people are charged more than higher-income people, for example, by the prevalence of payday lenders in lower-income areas, whereas higher-income people are more likely to use a bank.  Furthermore, much of the pricing difference in the insurance market is due to murky and non-existent insurance disclosure and reporting requirements.  Beyond these, there are five areas where local policymakers can help reduce costs to lower-income people:
  • Alert business of opportunity - There is a tremendous area for companies to add consumers if they enter low-income neighborhoods.  Many have been hesitant because of higher actual and perceived risks.  However, there are many ways in which local governments can facilitate their entry, particularly by restricting the growth of the exploitative loan/rent-to-own companies in lower-income neighborhoods
  • Eliminate unscrupulous businesses and high-fee/interest rate lending institutions - Many state and local governments have capped the rates of interest and fees payday loan, auto title loan and check-cashing companies can charge.  Other governments have either banned them entirely or issued a moratorium on issuing licenses for these companies.  With regards to rent-to-own stores, many states and localities have restricted the interest and fees to a percentage of the total worth of the item being purchased. 
  • Encourage companies to develop products designed for low-income consumers that undercut payday loan institutions - With their tremendous financial resources, if banks open branches in low-income neighborhoods, they could increase their profitability by offering services that compete and undercut the existing payday loan companies and therefore reduce their presence and increase the experience of lower-income consumers with mainstream financial institutions, as well as saving consumers money.
  • Increase grocery store sizes in lower-income neighborhoods - The data show that smaller grocery stores, which are more likely to predominate lower-income neighborhoods, charge higher prices than larger stores.  Often zoning regulations restricts their presence.  In most areas, consumers want larger stores, but not supercenters like Wal-Mart.  Therefore, policymakers can alter zoning regulations to allow larger grocery stores, while still restricting or preventing the growth of supercenters in these areas. 
  • Assist low-income consumers in financial education and price comparison - The internet is a powerful tool for price comparison and the spread of information like financial education, both of which would allow lower-income consumers to save money on the necessities.  If the internet is made available in lower-income areas for free with publicity about the areas in which consumers can compare prices and get financial education, the positive impact would be quick and meaningful.
This report demonstrates how a series of policy changes can reduce excess expenditure of lower-income consumers and free up resources to allow them more flexibility in terms of savings, which will help them increase their income in the long-term by increasing their skills and education, increasing their savings or allowing them to buy a car or a home.  It is an invaluable report and although it's long (80 pages), it is very illuminating. 

Executive Power Increased - The New Line-Item Veto

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has a new report analyzing the effect of a proposed new line-item veto that would increase executive power (while fixing the aspects of the 1996 line-item veto that caused it to be struck down in the courts).  The proposed bill would allow the president to send four veto packages back to Congress to be voted upon with no amendments or filibusters.  Since there are 11 appropriation bills passed each year, each veto packages would contain items from a number of spending bills.  The president would have one year from when the bills are passed to veto line-items.  Even if the Congress over-ruled the president's veto, the president could withhold funding for up to 45 days.  If the veto was made in late August, for example, and the Congress voted upon the veto immediately (there is a 13 day maximum window from the veto until the vote), the President could withhold funds until after September 30, the end of the fiscal year, which would cancel the appropriations even though the Congress struck down the veto.  Because the president has a year to make a veto package, he could use it to blackmail legislators on many unrelated issues by promising not to veto pork barrel legislation of a Congressman if he votes the president's way on another bill.  One need only to recall the Congress holding the highway bill vote until after the vote on the Central American Free Trade Area (CAFTA) in order to pressure wavering Congressmen to vote the Administration's way.  Furthermore, tax cuts are treated differently than spending.  Spending can be vetoed in all cases, cannot be partially reduced and automatically reverts to deficit reduction.  Tax cuts can only be vetoed if they are 'limited' in scope, defined by the Senate bill as applying to less than 100 people and by the House bill as applying to one individual or company.  All other tax cuts are exempt from a veto and the determination of whether tax cuts are 'limited' is up to the Congress to decide.  If the line-item veto is passed in this form, the executive branch would gain an immense amount of political leverage over the legislative branch, a point made by conservative columnist George Will (quoted in the CBPP report), "The line-item veto's primary effect might be political, and inimical to a core conservative value. It would aggravate an imbalance in our constitutional system that has been growing for seven decades: the expansion of executive power at the expense of the legislature."  Furthermore, as Norm Ornstein of the conservative American Enterprise Institute notes (again, quoted in the CBPP report) , "The larger reality is that this gives the president a great additional mischief-making capability, to pluck out items to punish lawmakers he doesn’t like, or to threaten individual lawmakers to get votes on other things, without having any noticeable impact on budget growth or restraint."  The new line-item veto hurts the constitutional separation of powers, doesn't lead to spending restraint, particularly when pork projects are involved, and favors tax cuts over spending. 

Tracking Tax Incentive Effectiveness, continued

As I have looked through the database in Illinois, I have come across two possible problems with the system, one for which there is an easy remedy and one which appears somewhat intractable.  The first is that companies are able to forecast their future employment increases.  For example, looking at the first entry for Advance International, Inc., the company forecasted an increase in employment of 150 jobs but only 3 materialized (and at only $14,040 per year salary).  In the final section of the report (available in pdf), the company reports the number of jobs it expects to create over the next year.  For Advance International, Inc., the company expects to start 147 new employees on June 1, 2006 (at $14,040 average salary per year), exactly the amount needed to make up for their deficiency from the projected employment creation upon signing the agreement to receive tax credits.  This allows companies to delay accountability by forecasting employment growth up to their "quota" for the next year.  However, as long as the database remains available, the public can keep informed about the compliance of various companies with their agreements.  In addition, to control the incentive to produce just enough employment to comply with agreements for awards, the governments may be able to extract higher promised employment increases in new tax credit agreements.  The other problem, however, is not so easily solved.  The problem is that state-by-state databases do nothing to diminish the inter-state competition for jobs and the tax credit shopping behavior of companies.  Unless either the databases are shared between states before awarding new tax credits for companies (which could use threats of withholding future tax credits unless jobs are created), companies can still pit states against each other in the competition for jobs.  States still need to not only account for whether jobs are moved within the state (like the Illinois system does), they need to assess whether the jobs are actually new jobs or are just jobs transferred from another state.  This is a difficult problem because state government's primary goal is to demonstrate that they are bringing jobs into the state and the movement of jobs out of other states into the home state are not judged differently than newly created employment.  $1 used to create a new job is far better money spent than $1 spent moving a job from Ohio to Oregon for the national economy.  State tax credits should be focused on creating new employment, not moving jobs from one state to another.  The state-to-state movement via tax cuts will only increase the power of companies to lead a race-to-the-bottom in terms of state taxes and leave all the states in a worse budgetary state.  The best way to deal with this would be to not only ask whether the employment created is the result of moving jobs within a state, but also to require reporting on whether the jobs created are moving in from other states, rather than being created.  The Illinois system benefits Illinois, but may harm Maryland.  For the system to benefit America as a whole, it must also have a national reporting focus.