Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Bell Just Tolled for New Orleans Too

Well since I lasted posted on Monday, a lot has changed in New Orleans. Monday night and Tuesday morning we all were breathing sighs of relief that, at least, the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans had been spared the worst of Katrina's wrath.

Back then, I tried to make a point that natural disasters and tragedies were not the wrath of some dyspeptic god, but were random acts with no rhyme or reason. That was in answer to all the many times that a small number of Evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham had made silly claims that either their prayer warriors had prevented a hurricane from ravaging their part of the country, or even worse, had claimed that areas which were severly damaged had brought it upon themselves because their citizens were: 1) not proper Christian believers; 2) were tolerant of gays, femininists, and liberals; or 3) had in some other way grievously offended God.

My point, earlier, was that the red-state Bible Belt certainly hadn't been spared by Katrina, while the French Quarter, long an oasis of tolerance to gays, political liberalism, and downright libertine fun had made out better than their more uptight, conservative neighbors.

Although that turned out not to be true, my basic point in that post, which was that nobody, regardless of their belief system or behavior, is immune to random catastrophe is still valid.

So, the only real question now is how do we help the victims in any way we can? Truly, in tragedy of this magnitude, it doesn't matter whether a person is from a blue state or a red state, is aDemocrat or Republican; or is a Christian or non-Christian. All that does matter is the fact that there are some hurting humans out there in desperate need. And the resources of all the major charities are going to be stretched very thin by this catastrophe.

There are many websites out there with information on where to give. And I also want to urge any reader who comes here to please give whatever you can to help others. This is the time to be united because in this international age, where we are connected everywhere by the Internet, we are all global citizens. We all share a basic humanity and that must include compassion.

The very best link that I could find is this one to The New York Times. It's the most comprehensive listing of charities and The Times is continually updating it. It has grown since I first looked at it this morning. So, you'll be able to pick which charity to donate to and know that your money is going to a reputable organization that you feel comfortable with.

Don't skip the first link to Charity Navigator, which gives good advice on how to pick a legitimate charity and avoid getting ripped off. Sadly, there will be a lot of con artists out there seeking to take advantage of others' misery. Giving to a scam artist just wastes your money because it doesn't go to the folks who really need it, so please avoid that by researching and arming yourself with knowledge. And please donate generously. I know I will.

Monday, August 29, 2005

For Whom The Bell Tolled This Time

Do you remember when Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Anne Graham Lotz all raised hackles by implying, or outright stating, that New York City had gotten what it deserved on September 11th because of gays, feminists and liberals?

And do you also remember some of the unseemly gloating by some Christianist websites after the tragic tsunami last winter?

Or even the way Pat Robertson claimed that some brush fires in drought-stricken Orlando, Florida a few years ago were caused by Disney World’s pro-gay policy?

Well, I wonder how these televangelists will explain Katrina.

If we were to accept their twisted logic that tragedies of this magnitude are the revenge of a wrathful God on sinners, how would we then explain that Katrina’s worst force was felt in all the red state areas? And even in those red states, the more urbane blue-state cities were spared the worst of the storm’s effects.

In Florida, Fort Lauderdale was brushed and had some power outages but western Broward County, especially the northwest area, which is the bluest of blue state areas in the country, with all its Jewish senior citizens and blacks, had the least damage, while Katrina ploughed into the parts of Miami-Dade that had voted for Bush.

And once Katrina moved into the Gulf of Mexico and regained strength, she headed for New Orleans, only to turn slightly at the last moment; and so it was the rural Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastal areas that took the brunt of her fury.

Oh it was bad in the Big Easy too. But that legendary frivolous hard partying, sinners’ town – and blue-state town to boot – didn’t get nearly the disaster that was predicted.

Where is the gloating of the Christianist fundamentalists now?

No, I’m not gloating either. I’ve got good friends in some of the harder hit areas in the suburbs outside New Orleans and in Alabama. In fact, my niece is riding out Katrina right now in Tuscaloosa. And frankly I don’t care what their politics or their religion is, I don’t want to see anybody perish tragically. All the people in those hard hit areas have my heartfelt prayers.

But, now, while it’s fresh in everybody’s minds, it’s important to point out an essential truth.

Storms, bombings, fires, tsunamis, deadly diseases are not necessarily God’s judgment on sinners. They are often random tragedies that affect the innocent and the good as well as the evil among us.

It was, in fact, Jesus who once observed that the “sun and rain fall on the sinner and the righteous alike.”

So do disasters. So, the next time Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell tries to tell you differently, remember Katrina, who was no respecter of righteousness. Katrina was just a dumb, brute, random force of nature, just as the tsunami in Indonesia was last winter. Those people didn’t suffer because they were Buddhists or Muslims. And the people of Alabama and Mississippi and rural Louisiana aren’t victims because they’re red-state Christians. And downtown New Orleans wasn’t spared because the French Quarter is charming and tolerant. The Big Easy just got luckier. This time.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Civil Politics and the Supreme Court

This Sunday’s Washington Post provides a good summary of the background and views of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts. It starts out by briefly describing his background.

Roberts attended high school at a prestigious private boarding school in the Midwest. He then graduated from a top Ivy League college and went on to clerk for Supreme Court Justice William Rehinquest. After this, he was one of a cadre of young conservatives who went to work for the Reagan Administration. As a special assistant to Attorney General William French Smith, he often was more conservative in his writings and opinions than his bosses. At that point in his life, he was one of the true believers in the Reagan Revolution. He was definitely part of the group who came to Washington to change the direction of the country.

The portrait painted of him is not that different from either the president who just nominated him or the other members of the conservative elite of the eighties who practiced the politics of resentment. Indeed, this elite mightily resented the barbarians at their gate who threatened their sense of entitlement and privilege by demanding social justice and equal opportunity.

These were the young men who looked at blacks, women, and other disenfranchised groups and saw not a democratic movement to redress past injustice but a mob seeking to crash the gates of privilege where they didn’t belong.

To focus on how Roberts views Roe v Wade to the exclusion of the total picture would be an incredibly short sighted mistake because there are even more troubling aspects of this man’s vision that will affect the lives ordinary Americans as much as Roe v Wade will.

John Roberts spent his whole professional life, with a very few notable exceptions, protecting and extending the rights of the privileged few at the expense of everybody else.

He wrote legal briefs on how to limit access to the courts to prevent groups from suing for discrimination. In fact, he applauded decisions limiting affirmative action and preventing the extension of opportunities to blacks and women. This man of so much privilege opposed laws that he claimed designated those society had often left behind as “privileged groups,” and fought against what he called “reverse discrimination” of whites. By the way, I do oppose genuine reverse discrimination or any discrimination that harms an individual. But too often this opposition was just a ploy to defend the privilege of the elite at the expense of those who had traditionally been excluded from true equal opportunity.

Also, even on Roe versus Wade, Roberts’ personal opinion of abortion rights are not as important as the legal views that helped him to arrive at his opposition to it. In one memo, he wrote about “the so called right to privacy…” Much more important than how he personally feels about abortion is his legal view of the constitutionally protected right of individual privacy. If indeed he does not think such a right exists – as many other strict constructionists don’t – that will impact not only a woman’s right to an abortion, but her right to even use contraceptives. It will impact how he views the rights of two consenting adults when it comes to certain sexual practices. This should be troubling to all gays.

It has been pointed out that he once helped coach some lawyers on a gay rights case. And that is encouraging. But if he truly believes there is no constitutional right to privacy, that legal view could spell trouble for other gay rights cases.

He also favored court rulings that limited the rights of convicted criminals to the appeals process. Given how many men and women on state death rows have recently been exonerated by DNA evidence, do we really want a Supreme Court justice with a bias against the criminal appeals process and one who is deferential to prosecutors, as he has been on the federal circuit court?

These are troubling aspects of the man’s viewpoint to consider during his Senate Confirmation hearings.

And here’s something else that should be troubling to all progressives. Democrats, who may have already resigned themselves to losing the battle over John Roberts’ nomination, aren’t planning to fight it much at all. So far, there have been few commercials on either side of the battle. And whatever opposition may just be perfunctory battles over the release of Roberts’ writings and not a real fight over his legal and personal viewpoint.

That’s the wrong tactic.

As I’ve said before, I don’t believe Senate Democrats should break their previous agreement not to invoke the filibuster. Yes, I realize that means Roberts will ultimately serve on the Supreme Court. Because we are the minority, short of a major scandal (which I don’t foresee) the Democrats will lose the straight up or down vote when his name comes up for a vote.

And that’s okay. Senate Democrats should both honor their previous agreement and allow the straight up or down vote on this particular nominee.

They don’t have to succeed in preventing Roberts from reaching the Supreme Court. But they have to put up a good fight that explains to the American people what it is they oppose, why they oppose it and (even more important) what it is they stand for instead.

In a civil and professional manner, they must be the loyal opposition and make their case to the American people that Roberts may be the most decent man in the world. But his values are not the right values for this nation.

This is the great opportunity for the Democrats to have the discussion they say they want on values, ours versus theirs.

To do this successfully, they have to be willing to spend money and run ads that explain their differences with the Republican Party. They need to illustrate why their values are more in step with the mainstream than those of their Republican opponents.

In addition, they ought to put some of their moderate Republican colleagues on the spot. Are those Republicans such as Lincoln Chafee, Olympia Snow, Susan Collins, and Arlen Spector true moderates? What does being a moderate Republican mean? How valuable is it for feminists and blacks to support those Republican moderates who say they are for abortion rights or affirmative action but then support their own party’s extremists in what is one of the most important votes – that of a Supreme Court judge?

Finally, no Democrat who truly opposes John Roberts should vote for confirmation just because he thinks it’s a done deal or because he thinks it’s a way to restore civility to the Senate. It isn’t

Civility is not rolling over and playing dead on important issues. It’s standing up for what you believe with dignity, restraint and respect. I think it’s possible to oppose the confirmation of John Roberts and to build a reasoned and logical case against him without attacking the man personally. It is possible to respectfully disagree with somebody and to politely decline to support his nomination.

The Democrat who does that will get the attention and respect of his or her fellow Americans and will strengthen his or her party and his or her country.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

And It's One, Two, Three, Four: What're We Fighting For?

I originally started to write this post a few days ago but had to put it aside because real life obligations intruded. Now, I 'm grateful for the delay because this article, with its astounding admission from some Bush Administration officials, just came out in today's Washington Post. It validates what I've been saying for a very long time.

The invasion of Iraq was the most bungled action of a generally incompetent administration. Indeed, George Bush will probably go down as one of the most failed presidents in the nation's history. His administration has had one of the most lackluster economic recoveries in modern times. It's a recovery that has increased the profits of corporations and wealthy investors while failing to provide good jobs or benefit the middle class at all. It's the most profoundly anti-science administration in modern times. And nowhere has its bias for ignoring facts in favor of its cherished ideological fantasies hurt us more than in our foreign policy and national security.

First of all, its intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, which was the original reason for invading Iraq, was completely wrong. I doubt many Americans would ever have supported an invasion if not for the compelling case that the Bush Administration laid out that Saddam Hussein was close to having nuclear capability and the means to deliver deadly weapons to his targets. Not only was that not true, but there also were no chemical weapons and no sophisticated biological weapons. The Bush Administration cherry picked its intelligence sources to get exactly what it wanted to hear. Indeed, even before 9/11, according former Secretary of the Treasury, Paul O'Neill, the Administration was obssessed with finding a way to invade Iraq.

Bush, for reasons of his own, wanted desperately to find a link between Hussein and the al Queda terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center. Even when it was proven that the link wasn't there, various Administration spokesmen insisted on insinuating a tendentious linkage between the two.

After finally being forced to admit the WMDs were not there (they still have not given up linking Hussein to 9/11 even though most people now know that's not true either), the Administration's fall back was that America invaded Iraq to create a secular, democratic government for Iraqis, which would be a model for the many failed Arab states in the region. Well, like most things on a desert, a liberal, secular Western style democracy isn't exactly blooming there either.

Here's the money quote from today's Washington Post article:

"The United States no longer expects to see a model new democracy, a self-supporting oil industry or a society in which the majority of people are free from serious security or economic challenges, U.S. officials say.

" 'What we expected to achieve was never realistic given the timetable or what unfolded on the ground,' said a senior official involved in policy since the 2003 invasion. "We are in a process of absorbing the factors of the situation we're in and shedding the unreality that dominated at the beginning.'

"But the realities of daily life are a constant reminder of how the initial U.S. ambitions have not been fulfilled in ways that Americans and Iraqis once anticipated. Many of Baghdad's 6 million people go without electricity for days in 120-degree heat. Parents fearful of kidnapping are keeping children indoors.

"Barbers post signs saying they do not shave men, after months of barbers being killed by religious extremists. Ethnic or religious-based militias police the northern and southern portions of Iraq. Analysts estimate that in the whole of Iraq, unemployment is 50 percent to 65 percent.

"U.S. officials say no turning point forced a reassessment. 'It happened rather gradually,' said the senior official, triggered by everything from the insurgency to shifting budgets to U.S. personnel changes in Baghdad.

"The ferocious debate over a new constitution has particularly driven home the gap between the original U.S. goals and the realities after almost 28 months. The U.S. decision to invade Iraq was justified in part by the goal of establishing a secular and modern Iraq that honors human rights and unites disparate ethnic and religious communities.

"But whatever the outcome on specific disputes, the document on which Iraq's future is to be built will require laws to be compliant with Islam. Kurds and Shiites are expecting de facto long-term political privileges. And women's rights will not be as firmly entrenched as Washington has tried to insist, U.S. officials and Iraq analysts say.

This indeed is consistent with reports we've been receiving since last week from other major media articles about the failure of the Iraqis to support a constitution modeled on secular Western values.

In fact, as this piece from The New York Times earlier in the week shows, America's defeat of Saddam Hussein has brought more chaos to Iraq and danger to America than during Hussein's reign. A radical Shiite faction ousted the secular mayor of Baghdad, replacing him with a religious leader who is most noted for forcing women to wear veils.

As the reasons for our incursion into Iraq keep changing from finding weapons of mass destruction to avenging the U.S. for the 9/11 attacks to building a secular democracy, there is also word that still another radical Shiite clerical leader is opposed to the constitution because he favors an autonomous Shiite region in southern Iraq. So, it's safe to say that none of our strategic goals have been met in this region. Our military and political efforts have all failed.

In addition to the fact that the Administration completely misread how dangerous "nation building" would be in Iraq, Bob Hebert of The New York Times criticizes the Bush Administration in this article for failing to provide an exit strategy and for essentially remaining clueless to the great tragedy that this war has caused as the casualties are ramped up by the day.

Hebert's main point is that, like the war in Vietnam years ago, cluelesss leaders have failed miserably to achieve any known goal and the American people are rapidly turning against the Iraqi military action. Hebert knows that it is shameful to send American soldiers to die for a cause that this country is not willing to support. And it is worse to not have an exit strategy.

Not only have the Bushies mismanaged the war, failed in all their strategic objectives, and neglected to provide an exit strategy that would protect American lives, even worse, they have gone after the wrong enemy in the first place, and made us all more unsafe for it.

The truth is if you want to defeat radical Islamist extremists, you have to go to the heart and soul of their movement. And that never was Iraq. Deposing the Taliban from Afghanistan was a good start. But we've even lost interest in aiding that nation, which, after all, is the country that harbored the al Queda group that attacked us. The Karzai regime needs economic and military assistance. And we've failed to finish the job there where there was a far more logical case for military intervention in the first place.

But to really defeat radical Islamists you must go to Saudi Arabia. The vast majority of the terrorists, thus far, have come from there. Most of the inflammatory clerics also are from that country. Saudi Arabia has exported the madrassas - religious schools - that have trained the homegrown terrorists in other countries. And Saudi money still generously funds terrorists and their operations all over the world. Plus - and this is most important - Wahhabbism, the radical form of Islam that fuels the terrorist movement, is a Saudi import. It's not standard Islam but Saudi Islam to start with.

And it now turns out that a huge threat to not only U.S. security but to international safety is looming with Iran's genuine nuclear capability, which unlike our ridiculous claims in pre-war Iraq, actually have been verified by international bodies. But we are now so over committed in Iraq that there is no way we could mount an adequate defense against any Iranian threat. Or, for that matter, the nuclear threat in North Korea.

So while we've wasted an incredible amount of resources and lives in Iraq, we've allowed the countries that harbor and support the real terrorists to flourish. And worse, we've allowed those nations that are a true international nuclear threat to thrive.

What we've done is beyond mere incompetence. It borders on treason.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Democrats Drink Gin...

...and Republicans drink bourbon. Did you know that? If you were a Republican campaign strategist, you would. And if you want to be a Democratic strategist, you should too.

According to this LA Times article, the Republican Party is light years ahead of their Democratic counterparts at targeting its core voters and tailoring its message to them. The Republicans are efficient. They don’t waste a lot of time, effort or money going after voters to whom they are never going to appeal. And despite the “Big Tent” crap, they don’t usually put their expensive ad campaigns and Get Out the Vote efforts into New York’s inner cities or Beverly Hills’ gated communities.

Back to the gin and bourbon. It makes perfect sense. Bourbon is more popular in the South – think Jack Daniels and George Dickel. And the South, demographically, is more receptive to the Republican Party’s message. Gin, on the other hand, is traditionally favored by urban blue collar voters, the Democrats’ core constituency. Marketers know this. So should Democratic political operatives. They should also know the other buying and consuming habits of their core Democratic voters, the better to target them and tailor their message to them.

Republicans, for instance, know that Republicans-leaning voters are more apt to buy Fords while Democrats purchase Volvos. People interested in military history tend to be more socially conservative.

All this information on marketing habits is there for the taking. Republicans have just utilized that knowledge more effectively than Democrats have in identifying their core voters and getting out their message to them.

But, according to this article, we are finally catching up.

And here’s another positive sign that Democrats may be getting serious about winning elections.

According to this story in yesterday's Washington Post, a group of wealthy liberal Democrats have agreed to contribute $80 million over a five-year period to fund some new liberal think tanks. These wealthy liberals are pledging their own money and also promising to get their friends to donate so they can set up a web of new policy shops to compete with older, more established conservative groups, such as The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, and The Hoover Foundation, which have been funneling ideas and policies to the Republican Party for decades.

This is not only good news; it's long overdue!

For at least several decades, the Republicans have been reaming Democrats with a plethora of policies and ideas while Democrats have struggled from campaign cycle to campaign cycle just to define themselves. And the one thing we hear constantly from voters, despite our efforts, is that they don’t know where our candidates stand on issues.

Whether it’s actually true or not, these voters perceive Republicans, such as George Bush, as strong minded candidates who stand up for what they believe. In last year’s presidential race, the public viewed Bush not as stubborn or arrogant, but as honest and principled. On the other hand, they saw John Kerry as wishy-washy and weak. And worse, they thought that he’d say anything to get elected. And voters claimed they didn't know where he stood on the major issues.

Part of this, of course, was due to the poor campaign run by his managers who were not quick enough to end attacks against their candidate. The Republican Party and their conservative allies spent a lot of money to paint an untrue picture of Kerry’s character. But Shrum, Devine and Cahill certainly made the Republicans' job easier by not answering those attack ads rapidly enough.

But Democrats have got to face the truth that they are better at telling the public what they oppose than they are at saying what it is they stand for. And that does make them look negative and whiny.

A more effective strategy would be to state what it is they oppose in the Republicans' platform and then to follow that with statements of what they would do instead if they were elected.These contrast and compare ads are more effective than totally negative attack ads because they criticize the Republican opponent and also give voters a reason to vote for the Democratic candidate instead.

A well done contrast and compare ad that attacks one’s opponent and offers a better position on the issues, or a better candidate, is a very effective campaign strategy. And having surrogate groups to do your negative attacks also is effective, as the Republicans have proven.

However, strategy with no new ideas won’t win elections. It’s like any other ad campaign that depends on style with no substance. People eventually catch on and stop buying your product no matter how clever your ad campaign. Products like Alka-Seltzer, which tanked even though their ads consistently won awards for originality, prove that even the best ad campaign a marketer can come up with is no substitute for a quality product when it comes to actually selling your goods to the public.

Although creating think tanks, encouraging scholars to come up with great policy statements, and finding fresh ideas are all part of the solution, Democrats also have to know how to market their message.

To compete effectively in elections we’ve got to have fresh ideas, sound policy, a coherent and consistent message and the means to get it out to an audience that we have effectively targeted as receptive to our ideas.

And we have got to get competitive with Republicans so that voters have a real choice and real Americans, once again, have a chance to realize the American Dream that has been slowly slipping away from us under the Bush Administration.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

There's Good News, and Bad News

So, which do you want first?

The New York Times has a great editorial on the most recent employment report from the U.S. Department of Labor. First, the good news.

According to the latest economic report on job growth, released Friday, the government is reporting that 200,000 new jobs have been created for July and the unemployment rate is now a relatively low 5 percent.

But as The New York Times points out - and this is the bad news - in previous economic recoveries job creation has averaged 250,000 a month, which makes this recovery still anemic for workers. As The Times acknowledges, any time job growth picks up, it's a positive development. And the increase in job creation is welcome for those who have managed to get some of those positions, including groups that are tradtionally the last to benefit from an improved employment picture, such as black and Hispanic youth.

However, there has not been much job growth in the manufacturing sector, once a source of well paying jobs. And wages are barely keeping up with inflation, so though more people are working, they're still not earning good enough salaries to benefit from the economic recovery in the same way that investors and corporations have benefitted from it. While companies are making large profits and investors also are increasing their earnings in this roaring economy, most ordinary employees have yet to see any of those gains trickle down to their paychecks.

And no economy stays hot forever. Just as the economy of the nineties hit a recession, many factors could prove to be a headwind that slows down the latest growth. And unlike in the nineties, when workers experienced real growth, a hot job market, and healthy wage gains, when the economy slows down again - as it must, at some point - workers will have been passed by during the good times.

And that's the real bad news.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Penny Wise and Pound Foolish Economics

In this op-ed piece in The New York Times, today, Pankaj Ghemaway, a Harvard professor of business administration, and Ken A. Mark, a Toronto-based business consultant, offer a novel defense of Wal-Mart's avaricious tactics. According to them, Wal-Mart has contributed to the overall productivity of the nation and provided a real value to consumers because of its low prices, regardless of the fact that the only way it can continue to offer such deep discounts is by paying its employees the miniumum wage and denying them adequate health and pension benefits.

But these two business apologists make a flawed argument.

Since most of Wal-Mart's customers are poor - especially the rural poor - their benefit from sharply discounted prices comes at a huge expense to themselves and their families because in order to keep prices so low while also maintaining profitability, Wal-Mart drives out competition, which includes other stores that actually pay higher wages. Wal-Mart also guts communities, leaving formerly thriving downtowns bereft of their retail centers. In the place of once prosperous stores are loan shark operations and bail bondsmen. Thus, the towns where the rural poor used to seek economic opportunity have become destabilized high crime centers.

Here's the money quote:

"These kinds of savings to customers far exceed the costs that Wal-Mart supposedly imposes on society by securing subsidies, destroying jobs in competing stores, driving employees toward public welfare systems and creating surban sprawl. Even if these offenses could all be ascribed to Wal-Mart their costs wouldn't add up to anything like $16 billion." Note: $16 billion is the amount these authors claim Wal-Mart saves consumers every year.

Similarly, the savings to customers also exceed the total surplus the company generates for its shareholders - a surplus that would be wiped out if Wal-Mart's million-plus employees were to receive a $2 per hour pay increase, modest though that sounds. Such a possibility would unacceptable to Wal-Mart's shareholders, who include not only Sam Walton's heirs but also the millions of Americans who invest in mutal funds and pension plans. Instead, the more than 100 million Americans who shop at Wal-Mart would most likely just end up paying higher prices."
Mr. Ghemawat and Mr. Mark are two business people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Wal-Mart can only offer poor people its low prices because it pays its employees, who are often the very same people who are its customers, such low wages. And because it stints on health benefits and pension plans, many of Wal-Mart employees are also on Medicaid and they put a huge strain on other taxpayers in their communities.

There's also domino effect at play here.

In order for Wal-Mart to sell cheap and also make a profit it buys deeply discounted products from suppliers. Most suppliers, in fact, hate to do business with Wal-Mart because the company plays such hard ball on prices. But because Wal-Mart is the 500 pound gorilla in the retail sector, the suppliers have no choice but to sell to Wal-Mart.

And in order for those suppliers to keep their own prices so low and still maintain their profitability - you guessed it - they too have to pay cutthroat low wages to their workers. In fact, most of the products that Wal-Mart stocks comes from overseas, usually from low wage countries like China.

So while in the short run Wal-Mart's cheap prices are good for the rural poor, in the long run those cheap prices are exactly what keeps them poor. It's a vicious circle. And, yes it's also a race to the bottom of the barrel.

Frankly, I couldn't care less about Wal-Mart and what its greedy investors would stand for in the way of profit if the workers got a two dollar raise at the expense of their mutual funds and pension plans.

Although the authors are implying that those mutual funds and pension plans also benefit ordinary middle class workers, the truth is most middle class workers would improve their own lives with better job security and higher wages. They're losing good pension plans and with low wages they will be able to afford neither mutual funds nor savings accounts, anyway.

The middle-class is desparately losing ground as good jobs disappear. And the poor have less of a chance to reach middle-class status precisely because of Wal-Mart and its tactics.

In the past, the only thing that turned factory workers from being impoverished, living in steaming tenements and toiling in sweatshops into middle class suburbanites was a strong union movement that fought against robber barons and greedy factory owners and forced them to share the wealth that they and their investors were making off the sweat equity of workers in the first place.

And that's what it will take to expand the middle class again. Poor people don't need dirt cheap, shoddy products produced by those who are even worse off than they are. They need decent jobs, a living wage, and health and pension benefits. I'm sure that given a chance, most of Wal-Marts' employees would be delighted to be able to afford to pay a higher price for a better quality good. No worker needs a vicious cycle where they can only buy cheap goods because their own wages keep going down.

To suggest otherwise is indeed to be penny wise and pound foolish.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

With Friends Like These

It's true, you don't really need enemies with radical Islamist Muslims like these as friends. Nicholas Kristoff, in The New York Times, has done a masterful job of exposing the problems facing women in most of the Third World. In the past, he has written movingly about teenage prostitutes in Southern Asian countries, and here he documents the very real oppression of female victims of rape in a Muslim society.

As Kristoff writes, rape victims are usually expected to kill themselves to preserve their honor while their assailants go free. Indeed, the perpertrators are often celebrated for their acts of rape. And if a woman isn't willing to commit suicide (which, by the way, Muslims claim is against the law in the Koran - I guess except where brutalized women are concerned) her family is often more than willing to commit an "honor killing."

Except, this time, in Pakistan, they picked on the wrong woman.

Dr. Shazia Khalid is a well-educated physician, as well as a devout Muslim. But when she was sexually molested, she did not crawl into a hole, commit suicide, or just go away. And her husband, rather than go along with an honor killing, actually is supporting her.

After her vicious attack, she was devastated. He was the one who convinced her that she had done nothing wrong and encouraged her to go to the authorities and to confront her attacker. He stood beside her in her insistence on real justice.

But that's not what Pakistan wants. Just as its not what Saudi Arabia wants.

The sad truth is that the very worst part of our misadventure in Iraq is that we went after the wrong villains.

I won't defend Saddam Hussein, who was a brutal dictator - no question about that. But if we're going to be honest, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The sanctions and the UN investigations were working there. The U.S. villified the chief UN inspector, Hans Blitzer, but he was vindicated in the end.

Not only were there no WMDs, but nobody has been able to link Hussein to Al Qeda.

But I could have told you that. It's not because I know anything about intelligence. I just know a rudimentary amount about Islam. You can learn it too, if you're willing to hang around Beliefnet and other religiously oriented websites and read a few books - it's really not that hard to learn about religion, including Islam.

Immediately after 9-11, Beliefnet ran an article explaining Wahabbiism, which is the form of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. It's an extremely puritancal and fundamentalist sect that would like to see the old Caliphate restored to political power. In that respect, the nearest Western equivalent to it would be Fundamentalist Christian Dominionism, which seeks to establish a nation based on Biblical law. Dominionism would abolish church-state separation and politically would set up a society that would be ruled by Old Testament Biblical morality.

Wahabiism is also expansionist. Since it looks back to the good old days of the Caliphate, it's followers are dedicated to the spread of Islam, and an Islamic empire, by the sword, just like in the twelfth century.

Saddam Hussein for all his many faults was never a follower of Wahabiism. Nor was he an Islamist. Hussein was an old-fashioned, garden variety, secular dictator. He was vicious in his use and abuse of power. This is a man who executed his own sons-in-law - nobody was truly safe around him. But he was also a secularist who was not willing to die for his cause. He wasn't looking for 72 virgins in heaven, just a good glass of Chardonay here on earth (that's important because Islam forbids the use of any alcohol - something even moderate Muslims observe - and it means Hussein was really not all that into religion, let alone religious fanaticism).

I can't say Hussein wasn't an enemy. Only that he wasn't the most dangerous enemy we had. With limited resources and fanatics really dedicated to destroying us, he's not the one I'd have picked to launch a major war against. We've squandered our precious resources and the even more precious lives of Americans, both the military and civilian contractors, to defeat the least of our threats in an increasingly dangerous world.

So, who should we have actually gone after?

Need you ask. Osama bin Laden would have made a nice start. If we had used even half the resources we squandered in Iraq to mount a serious campaign in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we would have him in custody now, rather than the rather worthless (to us) Saddam Hussein.

But the truth is, to really stop the threat of radical Islam you have to go to the heart and soul of Wahabiism. And that's Saudi Arabia.

It's not an accident that most of the terrorists, thus far, are Saudi citizens, including bin Laden. The Saudis also are the major fundraisers for the Islamist revolution through their money laundering to suspect charities. And it's mainly fiery Saudi clerics in worldwide madrassas who fuel the ideology and rhetoric of this incendiary brew of Islam.

It's very important to mention that not all Muslims are part of the Wahabbi sect. But most right now are intimidated by it.

Invading Iraq as a reaction to Wahabbi terrorists is a lot like attacking New Jersey rather than Russia or China, during the Cold War, to fight communists. It's the wrong target and the wrong place.

The one person who knew this and tried to warn us was former Senator Bob Graham (D-Florida) when he was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. At that time, much of the material which implicated the Saudis in al-Qeda was classified. So, Sen. Graham did not name the names. But he was extemely upset at the way the Bush Administration was conducting the war on terrorism, which is a misnomer. As somebody pointed out, terror is the means of the enemy, not the enemy itself. What we're really engaged in is a war on radical Wahabbi Islamists terrorists.

When it looked like Graham would not make it through the Democratic primaries, he dropped out and the Democrats dropped the ball on the most important criticism of the Bush White House. Which was that they had badly bungled the War on Islamist Terrorists. Nobody else truly picked up on it and challenged Bush.

The war in Iraq did not make us safe from terrorists and it never will for simple reason that Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism, except for the terror that Hussein wreaked on his own countrymen.

If you want to strike at the heart of terrorism, you must strike at the heart of Wahabbiism, and that's in Saudi Arabia. And also in Pakistan, which still harbors and coddles radical Islamists while failing to protect its own women citizens.

But these folks are also still Bush's allies and friends.