Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The latest change at the CIA is the dismissal of the Deputy Director of the Analysis Branch. The New York Times reports that the deputy director for intelligence, Jami Miscik, is stepping down. Yet it als mentions the fact that a former CIA official mentioned that it was not her decision.

The analysis unit has taken a considerable amount of criticism in the wake of revelations about the questionable nature of the intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. There have been numerous resignations in recent months including the former head of the unit responsible for tracking Osama bin Laden who also wrote the book Imperial Hubris, Michael Scheuer.

The new Director of Central Intelligence, Porter J. Goss, was appointed by President Bush and has pledged to "reform" the agency. Critics are concerned that Goss' reform efforts are actually efforts to create the sort of locked-down, leak-proof operation that the White House has managed.

In the past year, leaks have been coming from, the CIA critical of the Bush administration. They emphasize the political pressure the analysis division was under to produce intelligence promoting the administration's argument for war despite protestations from members of the unit who believed the information to be questionable and possibly manufactured.

Goss released a memo not long after his appointment defininf his vision of the CIA:
I want everyone in our workforce to know - I seek to encourage and expect the best from everyone in CIA. Our country demands it, our President needs it, and this institution deserves it. I also intend to clarify beyond doubt the rules of the road. We support the Administration and its policies in our work. As Agency employees we do not identify with, support, or champion opposition to the Administration or its policies.
Whether this recent departure of another senior official is retribution or simply a chance to create an opportunity for placement of more officials sympathetic to the administration's outlook will be seen in the coming months.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Over at Daily Kos, Kos has posted a copy of an article from American Conservative Magazine.

It reflects something I have been hoping to see more of; reasonable, intelligent evaluations of policy from the conservative side of the intellectual circles. Certainly allegations that conservatives are no longer members of the "reality-based community" has irked many of the seasoned conservatives who are more interested in talking about policy than getting on television to make sophomoric jokes about liberal policy ideas and the arab/muslism community. Many, I have come to understand, have become worried about the path the Bush Administration has taken in both economic and foreign policy areas. Many prominent conservatives have even begun to express their concerns to the public (George WIll, Pat Buchanan and Bill Kristol to name a few). Even the sometimes sniping National Review blog, The Corner, has been the format for some of the National Review crowd's worries.

This is not to say that there will be some great reconciliation between the left and right thinkers in this country. It is likely that last-minute praise of Bush by some of the same people who now express their discomfort acted as a salve to the consciences of the Republicans who were not comfortable with Bush, his war or his economy, but in the end decided to vote for him because he is not Kerry.

I talked to numerous Republicans who said they didn't want to vote for Bush, but would never vote for Kerry. Many of them in the end, however, decided to hold their nose and pull the lever for Bush, mostly in the hope that the future would be different.

I wonder if their optimism held past the first Cabinet changes.

While I was encouraged by the American Conservative article, I am not yet convinced of the staying power of their dissent. I am all for an open airing of ideas and I enjoy debating policy with conservatives, a healthy debate inside the Republican party may go a long way to easing the concerns of the world, as well as liberals in this country. Yet the slide from William F. Buckley (who recently stepped down as head of National Review) and George Will to Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Ann Coulter has put me in a pessimistic mood.

With the previous crowd of conservatives is was possible to disagree with their ideas while at the same time appreciate the thought that went into it. Now, the invective and juvenile behavior is at such a level that debate is no longer possible. It's as if the Know-Nothings dug themselves out of their 19th century graves and got jobs at the Washington Times and Fox News. The Know-Nothings seemingly only organizing principle was to oppose any and everything. They were anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, anti-poor and anti-alcohol. They were a thorn in Lincoln's side during his Presidency and managed to survive a while longer despite his efforts.

Today the Republican Party likes to refer to itself as the party of Lincoln, yet the Know-Nothings may be a more accurate forbearer to the modern Republican Party.

This is not to paint all Republicans with the same brush. As the author of the AC article (Realism Rebuffed) makes clear, there is more than one tent in the Republican party, it just so happens that the least thoughtful, more antagonistic and brash group is holding the reins at the moment.

I wait for the day when people such as my father would put down the Washington Times and turn off Rush Limbaugh and pick back up the National Review, American Conservative and the other thoughtful conservative outlets. This would help not only improve the dialogue between the left and right in this country, but hopefully improve the policies of this government.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

So what has happened to leadership in politics? When did Senators, members of what is supposed to be the more thoughtful and refined chamber of Congress, knuckle under to political gamesmanship. Certainly politics is part of the calculous, but the lack of thoughtful discussion or any type of dissent is a distressing indicator. The Senate used to be a place where the traditions and history tended to win out over small-time individual and party tendencies. There will always be party influences, but there was an independence and freedom granted to Senators that their colleagues in the House would never experience. The House has already been afflicted by an overly enthusiastic adherence to a party line, to the detriment of any form of dialogue. It would be disappointing to see similar tendencies develop in the Senate.

From Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo.
He's frequently talked up by the White House as someone who they think they can get to come across. And here's what the Journal said about him last week ...

Mr. Nelson says he is "not saying no to some level of privatization " and is spending the holiday recess assembling a template for overhaul. He says he won't support a plan that could destabilize the current system and says he will insist on "real accounting" in tracking the cost. Like Sens. Conrad and Graham, he doesn't rule out painful steps like cutting benefits. "It's always an option," Mr. Nelson says. "It's sort of the last thing you do."

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Merry Christmas Everyone!
I hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday with friends and family.
A couple of interesting overlapping developments that seem to help clarify the Republican position on how they intend to improve the economy and help give America a boost. The current fight over how to handle new developments in biotechnology, and wether Missouri will be participating in its future growth is going to be one that we will be watching during the coming months.

A larger problem for the future of research in sciences in the United States is one that has a direct impact on Missouri as well as posing a large, if underreported, problem for economic and technological growth in the U.S. Two policies enacted under the Bush administration are likely to cause Universities to see the level of new research as well as future financing decline in the coming years.

The most baffling and short-sighted policy, especially coming at this happy time of year, is the administration's decision to reduce financial support for college students. As Garance Franke-Ruta said over at Tapped:
You might think that reducing aid for young people to go to college would negatively impact the nation's economic future by reducing pathways into the middle-class and the number of skilled workers in the labor force. But it's quite essential to the ongoing Republican effort to re-educate the American public toward a more individualistic philosophy of government that the citizenry be taught early that they can expect no outside assistance and that as soon as they leave the parental nest, they are really and truly on their own.
Read the whole piece, the details are startling. Instead of investing in education, supposedly Bush's personal crusade and which could have a much larger long-term economic return, he is more interested in saving $300 million by reducing pell grants for over a million students. With a deficit of over $400 billion dollars, it is good to see some cots cutting by the supposedly fiscally responsible Republicans.

This type of emphasis on ideology over reality as well as common sense has been seen in Missouri often enough. The recent attempt to force biology textbooks to discuss alternative theories to evolution, as if these theories have any basis in science or any reason to be in a textbook other than to satisfy someone's ideological viewpoint.

The other perhaps more major problem is the declining number of foreign students coming to the U.S. to study and do research in fields such as biotech, computer science, engineering and most of the other "hard sciences". This is mostly due to immigration policies which make it increasingly tough for foreign students to come to the U.S. as well as policies that force many of the students that are here to leave the country after graduating their programs. From Kevin Drum at Political Animal:
I suspect that a lot of Americans have no idea just how dependent we are on foreigners to fill our graduate schools, especially in technical areas. Without Indian immigrants, for example, Silicon Valley would practically be a ghost town and the dotcom boom would have been stillborn. The biotech industry would be devastated. Engineering schools would be depopulated.

If we're lucky, this recent drop is a temporary reaction to 9/11. At the same time, though, the absolute decline in the number of native born Americans who are interested in graduate work in the sciences is kind of scary. One of these days we're going to have start pulling our own weight again. The rest of the world isn't going to be willing to subsidize us forever.
In the long run, nothing good will come from this. The United States' position in the world as a technological leader is threatened by developing industries in India and China (to name two). Unless this administration begins to put actual progress and growth ahead of political gain, we can expect it to become harder and harder for American technology and science-based businesses to compete and a slowdown in the area of the economy that has been the engine of growth since the early 90's.

On the local level, Missouri can help fight this trend by encouraging growth in the science sector and providing financial aid to offset the federal cuts, or it can sit back and tempt evolution. After all, even Republicans believe that the strongest survive.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Rachel Melcer explains the coming fight over the future of biotech in Missouri in today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Proponents of the biotech industry fear that Missouri could outlaw stem cell work, even as California and other states are enthusiastically and financially supporting it. The result would be a siphoning away of researchers and firms.

"There are lots of incoming legislators for whom this issue will be brand new, and that presents a tremendous educational challenge," said Donn Rubin, executive director of the Coalition for Plant and Life Sciences, which is working to build a biotech industry in St. Louis.

He spoke on behalf of the letter signers: William Danforth, chairman of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center; Elson Floyd, president of the University of Missouri system; Mark Wrighton, chancellor of Washington University; and William Neaves, president of the Stowers Institute for Medical Science in Kansas City.
This is only the beginning of a debate that will have an enormous impact on Missouri's future in the biotech field. As I noted in a previous post, there is a strong push by conservative legislators to restrict areas of exploration as well as encourage the teaching of bad science (e.g. intelligent design, which isn't science at all, but is being marketed as if it were). While the conservative argument is that they are on the morally correct side of the issue, the fact of the matter is that they may be pushing their agenda in an area in which they have little understanding.
Opponents say somatic cell nuclear transfer, the method that led to cloning Dolly the sheep, creates viable human embryos that are killed in the process.

"The end doesn't justify the means," Lembke said. "I don't believe in us building our economy on the backs of human embryos. I don't believe that to (sacrifice) the life of one human being for the sake of the life of another human being is an ethical or moral thing to do."

Most researchers agree that the procedure could lead to a human clone, but only if the process were taken well beyond the few days of growth allowed in stem cell research - including implanting the cells into a womb. Scientists almost universally agree that human cloning is wrong and won't engage in it.

Ursula Goodenough, a biology professor at Washington University and past president of the American Society for Cell Biology, said the cloning argument was "a red herring." Scientists are developing ways to create stem cells that could not survive or grow into a baby, even if that were tried.

"These slippery slope arguments are very dangerous," she said. "If I buy pounds of fertilizer, it could be used as a bomb to blow up a federal building - but that doesn't mean that's what I'm going to use it for."
While Goodenough's last comment is a bit strong, the point is well taken. There are multiple applications for all sorts of tools and techniques. The biotech community is already working to police itself and is working to find ways to improve health care techniques. It is not trying a new form of eugenics.

The question is, will Missouri be left behind and be marked as a backward-looking Luddites? A number of groups and companies have invested enormous amounts of money in Missouri with the idea of developing a bitoech program here. Will bad science and crafty politics put Missouri at the bottom of the list for future investment?

Monday, December 20, 2004

Atrios has a post that sums up my feelings on the upcoming fight over Social Security.
Right Idea

Josh Marshall has the right idea. Well funded primary challengers to right wing Democrats will beat them, even if they don't eventually win elected office. There are some issues about which I understand how geography dictates certain positions. Social Security is not one of them. And, frankly, who gives a shit if we lose a couple more seats.

The social security issue comes down to this: The Democrats should be able not only to beat the Republicans on this, but also to beat them over the heads with it. It needs to be the cornerstone of the identity of the Democratic party…

…I overheard someone in a restaurant the other day saying something along the lines of "Bush captured the center by running to the Right." I'm not be sure how true this is, but the idea was that by running to the Right, Bush proved he stood for "something" and voters approve of that, even if they don't approve of the policies themselves. I don't know how much this matters, but I do know a party has to stand for something.
This all ties in to the fact that the National Democratic Party needs new leadership. The current leadership is failing the party and has let the Republicans run roughshod over them. Democrats have made gains at the state level, so that indicates that there is support for the Democrats, and that there are capable organizers and leaders at those levels. Many people have pointed to Montana's Democratic Governor-elect Brian Schweitzer (David Sirota has an article in Washington Monthly on the election) as proof that there is more to the Donkey than meets the eye.

While it is true the Democratic party is far more diverse and capable than many give it credit for, Democrats can not afford to lie back on the surprise successes of today and expect it to carry them through what I am sure many Democrats believe to be merely a "dark period" for the party.

Democrats can not simply hang their hats on folks like Obama and Schweitzer and expect to make it through. Every victory for the Democrats, for the foreseeable future is going to have to be fought for tooth and nail.
Sam Rosenfeld over at Tapped sums up President Bush's Q&A style. Now that the White House press corps is finally feeling a little feistier, we can expect more and more of this. (Via Political Animal):
BUSH AND SOCIAL SECURITY....Over at Tapped, Sam Rosenfeld provides a play-by-play of George Bush's responses to questions about Social Security at today's press conference:

The president got a tad petulant when fielding questions on Social Security. His emphatic response to any and all queries about his position on the subject was an indignant, righteous refusal to answer: “You’re not going to get me to negotiate with myself,” he repeatedly told the perplexed reporters. “I know what you’re trying to get me to do. You’re trying to get me to answer ‘Why this,’ ‘why that,’ to take positions — don’t bother to ask me.” Rather than merely dodge the questions, Bush seemed intent on staking out an explicit, principled position in favor of dodging the question.

That's our president! A man of principle in all things.

—Kevin Drum 3:34 PM Permalink| TrackBack (1)| Comments (22)

What I would like to see more of from the press is a focus on the fact that this administration, and the President in particular, refuse to answer any question above a 3rd grade level. Any pointed question asking for an explanation or further details of a policy are either dismissed in the above manner or are returned with sarcastic non-answers.

While the President may feel complete abhorrence for the media, he still has a responsibility to explain his policies to the American public, or at least demonstrate that he understands the policies he is enacting. Yet due to the few and far between public addresses that rise above the level of campaign speech, the press corps is the only body in place to get these answers from the administration.

Careful and complete control of the administration's message of the day is a hallmark of this administration. Discipline is not a bad thing, however, when it results in an under-informed populace that is lied to by the leaders of this country, its time for the press to take a stand.

While is may be extreme, the press either needs to force coherent and substantial answers from the President, or refuse to cover his remarks with anything more than the perfunctory nature the President treats his questioners.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

There are efforts all across the globe to achieve greater means of deomcratic and economic freedom. One of the most potentially explosive situations exists between Taiwan and China. As of a few days ago, the Chinese raised the bar for Taiwanese independence.
BEIJING, Dec. 17 - The Communist Party-controlled legislature has indicated that it is preparing to enact a law against secession, possibly mandating military action if Taiwan were to declare independence.

A draft law forbidding secession by any part of China, announced Friday by the New China News Agency, suggests that President Hu Jintao is seeking to eliminate any lingering doubts that the Chinese military would attack Taiwan if the island formally severed ties with the mainland.

"This is a step the people have been demanding for many years," says Yu Keli, a Taiwan expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. "There can be no ambiguity that China will fight Taiwanese independence no matter what."
This all comes on the heels of an electoral victory by the Taiwanese Nationalist Party which supports better relations with China and opposes the pro-indepenedence Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian.

Despite a seeming decrese in interest in independence, the fact remains that,
The United States has pledged to defend Taiwan if the mainland attacks…
Any future pro-independence actions on part of the Taiwanese contains the inherent danger of draging the United States in as well. Holding back concerns for serious action in the Taiwanese Straight is the fact that the U.S., China and Taiwan are all locked in a trade relationship. The disruption of such a relationship could have economic reprocussions that none of the countries involved wants to see happen.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Social Security privatization (elimination) has become a big fixture for me lately. It has already been the subject of countless speeches loaded with questionable statements and part of an economic conference which, if one reads the more objective (i.e. non-administration sources) reports of the conference, had so little basis in actual economic theory that Roosevelt High's math club could have torn through their estimates.

Paul Krugman weighs in on the subject by pointing out the results of some other privatization attempts that have been made in other countries:
Privatization dissipates a large fraction of workers' contributions on fees to investment companies…

…Decades of conservative marketing have convinced Americans that government programs always create bloated bureaucracies, while the private sector is always lean and efficient. But when it comes to retirement security, the opposite is true. More than 99 percent of Social Security's revenues go toward benefits, and less than 1 percent for overhead. In Chile's system, management fees are around 20 times as high. And that's a typical number for privatized systems.
The most consistently ire-provoking aspect of this whole fiasco is the lack of critical coverage from most of the mainstream press. The Bush plan, flawed though it is, has a chance of going through mostly due to a lack of accurate information given to the public. The Republicans so far control the ground this debate is standing on.

Unless the Democrats can understand that and work to change the playing field, Bush will, over the objections of every economist and policy expert not on the GOP payroll, destroy one of the few government plans that _actually_ works the way it is supposed to.

Update: From Josh at Talking Points Memo
It turns out that there is at least one House Democrat who's coming out for ending the Social Security program. That would be Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida. He recently signed on as the cosponsor of Jim Kolbe's phase-out bill.

So, as long as we know where Boyd stands, let's find out where everyone else stands on the issue too.

The only way the Democrats are going to survive this is through complete and total party discipline. All it takes is a few Democrats crossing the isle and the Republicans will have all the PR they need. As someone else said (I can't remember at the moment, but I can't take credit for this idea), this needs to be completely on the Republicans, win or lose (and it will be lose). Any shadow of bipartisanship will simply give the Republicans political coverage in the long run.

Killing Social Security is the Republican's baby, let them take all the credit.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

From the New York Times: House's Author of Drug Benefit Joins Lobbyists
WASHINGTON, Dec. 15 - Representative Billy Tauzin, a principal author of the new Medicare drug law, will become president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the chief lobby for brand-name drug companies, the trade group announced Wednesday.

"This industry understands that it's got a problem," Mr. Tauzin, a Louisiana lawmaker who is retiring from Congress, said in an interview. "It has to earn the trust and confidence of consumers again."

Miles D. White, chairman of Abbott Laboratories and of the trade association, sitting next to Mr. Tauzin, said he agreed that the industry had lost the trust of millions of Americans.

…Drug makers said that the job was not a reward for Mr. Tauzin's work on the Medicare bill, which followed the industry's specifications in many respects. The law was signed by President Bush on Dec. 8, 2003, a few weeks before a lawyer for Mr. Tauzin began talks with the drug trade group.

So...the industry has an image problem, I can't imagine why?
Hmmm....providing political cover for a possible Rumsfeld release? This from Laura Rozen over at War and Piece.
Who's the real audience of this (welcome and belated) dump-Rumsfeld campaign by Kristol, Donnelly, Senators Coleman, Collins, Trent Lott, McCain, etc.? I can't help but think, Rumsfeld's old boss, Dick Cheney. When will he see the tipping point has been reached?
The Democrats have been critical of him for quite a while. Now with top Republicans stating no-confidence in Rumsfeld, will it give Bush needed cover? Or will Bush's lauded loyalty factor keep Rumsfeld safe?
Just when you thought Alabama was no fun, the judiciary come back to liven up the party!
McKathan told The Associated Press that he believes the Ten Commandments represent the truth "and you can't divorce the law from the truth. ... The Ten Commandments can help a judge know the difference between right and wrong."

He said he doesn't believe the commandments on his robe would have an adverse effect on jurors.

"I had a choice of several sizes of letters. I purposely chose a size that would not be in anybody's face," he said.
The lawyer who was trying a case in front of this judge, Attorney Riley Powell, objected to the robe. The judge unsurprisingly overruled the motion. But before anyone worries that the judge might be alone in his fashion crusade, another biblically inclined judge stepped in to offer support.
"I applaud Judge McKathan. It is time for our judiciary to recognize the moral basis of our law," [former Alabama Chief Justice Roy] Moore said.
Moore was removed from the Alabama Supreme Court in 2003 for refusing to remove a 2+ ton monument of the ten commandments he had installed in the court house rotunda.

If he loses the case, Powell will include the robe in his appeal.
Martin Ven Der Werf's column in today's paper hit on a specific example of what I was trying to say in my previous post, as well as my earlier post on State Rep. Cynthia Davis's backing of a pro-intelligent design bill (which Archpundit also commented on and was nice enough to link my post to).

There has been an effort to make Missouri an "incubator"' for health-science and biotech companies, but there are some concerns as well.
When Dr. John W. McDonald, the Washington U. neurologist who treated the late actor Christopher Reeve, announced over the summer that he was decamping for Johns Hopkins University, he partly blamed the Missouri political atmosphere.

The perception is growing that the state is inhospitable to some medical research, just as the life science industry is starting to gain some momentum.
Saint Louis University is in the process of trying to build a new research building both to expand its own research departments as well as to attract new talent from across the country. Washington University is world-renowned in the biotech and health sciences. Governor-elect Matt Blunt has talked about helping make Missouri a leader in this area.

All of this means Missouri, and other states, need to find a way to counter offers like California's $3 billion dollar pledge to stem cell research. It doesn't have to be stem cells, but options have to be considered. If not, Missouri will find the money, talent and prestige going elsewhere.

One of the first steps to improving Missouri's chances is to immediately shoot down counter-productive ideas such as Davis' "evolution alternative" requirement for biology books sold to Missouri schools. No company will settle in a state that officially refuses to understand the definition of "scientific theory".
Does the administration really have an interest in the future of this country, or are they simply short-sighted? Steve Clemmons over at the Washington Note talks about the recent FCC decision.
Today, the FCC ruled in a contentious battle to deny wholesale rate access to competitors of regionally monopolistic Baby Bell firms, like Verizon. Why is this important?

Because we are going to see rates to businesses and household consumers rise. We are going to see incumbents entrench themselves in old technologies with slower rates of innovation. The powerful forces that were driving costs down while at the same time generating new and bold innovations in information technology are being strangled.

The problem is that collusive interests are undermining the will of the U.S. Congress which tried to make absolutely sure that facilities that the Baby Bells inherited after the break-up of AT&T were made available at fair rates to competitors who could not be expected to create massive new regional and national facilities to reach consumers.

This regime has been collapsing for some time. The bottom line, in my view, is that Michael Powell knows his days are numbered at the FCC and he's going to need a job soon.

Not only is Powell not protecting the country from the nefarious consequences of concentrated media power, he is driving it. He has exploited Janet Jackson's boob-stunt to create fear throughout the broadcast media on the viability of provocative educational and political content. And now, he is stifling America's broadband-rich potential and taking us back to a time of oligopolies in technology firms.

There has been continuing concern on the part of business and universities that the current policies of the Bush administration are driving away talented individuals (foreign students and emigrees), as well as reducing American competitiveness in the global marketplace by reducing investment in technology and a growing anti-science mentality. The Washington Monthly had an article last year by Nicholas Thompson on just this issue (Science Friction July/August 2003). The article isn't available on-line, but the basic idea is that there are a number of areas including immigration, health care and research that the U.S. is falling behind on. Charlie Rose had a round-table discussion on this topic a few months ago and the general consensus is that other countries are investing more into science education and modernizing technology.

The U.S. will take its future in its own hands unless it deals with these issues. While many laughed at Al Gore's tech/science wonkishness and Clinton's electronic superhighway to the future, they were putting in place policies that would keep America on the leading edge. There are already several countries now with a higher penetration of broad band access than in the U.S. The Bush administration, in contrast, seems more concerned with posh board positions (Michael Powell) and appealing to an anti-science base (conservative christians).

Actions like California's recent approval of $3 billion for stem-cell research might be controversial, but it will bring further investment as well as an immigration of capable minds. President Bush needs to take similar steps on the national level, if not stem-cell research, than in other areas such as gene therapy and fossil fuel alternatives (not even for environmental reasons, but because someone is going to do it, why not us?). An aggressive courting of cutting edge scientists and tech specialists can help keep the U.S. at the forefront.
St. Louis business leaders and builders seem to be worried by the construction shutdown at St. John's two worksites. Union construction workers stopped work yesterday to honor the St. John's nurses walkout. The construction shutdown is actually illegal according to federal law and rarely occurs. Alberici and McCarthy construction companies gave their workers a day pass, but expect them back to work today.
The local construction industry has cited strong labor-management relations as a way to lure new businesses to the St. Louis area. A construction work stoppage at St. John's could undercut that message, [Leonard Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors] said.

"It gives the region a black eye when we're looking at the positives of bringing work here and bringing jobs here," he said.

One of the major issues in the St. John's nurses strike is the hospital's insistence that it be an "open shop". In other words, that employees be allowed to opt-out of joining the union. The non-union workers are still required to pay a fee to the union for the collective bargaining services they provide because their wages are higher because of the efforts of the union.

The problem with the open-shop requirement is the union's fear it could drive the union out of the hospital. Indeed, a number of nurses crossed the picket line to continue working alongside the temp nurses brought it to fill vacancies.

The history and current status of unions in St. Louis is a tumultuous one. Unions are trying to find their way in an economy with high turnover and a loss of traditional strongholds. The unions sometimes still play a controversial role in many situations here in St. Louis, and as a result have lost some support and even earned some negative images. Yet the contributions of unions to the present standard of living for workers is undeniable and there is still an effort to drive unions out of business, whether through legal means or through intimidation.

Unions have their own problems, as do businesses. The most important part in this current conversation is that everyone keep perspective. People want to work on their own terms, businesses usually want people to work on their terms. Everything else is a matter of negotiation.
But [Kevin Kuntz, McCarthy's senior vice president of operations] was relatively confident that construction would resume today at the hospital in Creve Coeur.

"We've been talking to the unions," he said. "We're getting positive feedback."
Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo sums up the President's Social Security priority far more concisely than I have:
As Paul Krugman, Kevin Drum and many others have been making clear in recent days, the entirety of the president's argument is based on a series of well-constructed lies. The president's advisors were never more truthful than they were when they compared the coming round of disinformation and fear-mongering to their public campaign in support of the Iraq war in 2002.

The Social Security "crisis" is manufactured; there is no crisis. To the extent there are long-term financing problems, the president's plan will gravely worsen them. The problem we face isn't over Social Security, which continues to run up huge surpluses (just as it was intended to under the early-80s reform), but that our non-Social Security budget continues to run massive structural deficits. Or rather, it has returned to running massive structural deficits after getting into the black in the late 1990s through the combined exertions of a Democratic president and a Republican congress. Social Security isn't the problem, but rather George W. Bush's reckless fiscal policy.
What also should be noted is Josh's reference to the 80's reform. The essence of that reform (as I understand it, I could be wrong) is that the payroll taxes would be increased and the surplus funds would be used to buy bonds. Then in 2015 or so, as payroll tax income falls below the payout level, the bonds would be cashed in to support payouts and income tax would be bumped up to ensure the bonds could be covered. The idea is that the working-class would take a heavier burden for new, and it would then switch to the wealthier among us.

There are several issues surrounding this "reform" push: 1. GOP desire to kill Social Security, 2. Refocus attention away from the administration's fiscal policy, 3. Ensure that if the system must remain, that changes will be made on their terms.

Any and all of these are issues that have to be considered when considering administration plans for social security. As Josh points out, the truly pressing economic issues facing this country revolve around Medicare, a weak dollar and an enormous and mounting debt.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch carried an article written by Joel Havemann of the L.A. Times on the growing scepticism concerning the President's focus on the "coming collapse" of Social Security. The economists referred to in the article all say that the fear-mongering pushed by the Republicans at the moment is off-base, that Social Security will be okay well into the future.

A number of people have been trying to get more focus on the actual math concerning the future of Social Security which shows that, even untouched, the system will be okay well past 2050, and with a bit of tinkering could be solvent for the foreseeable future. Much of the focus on "reform" has mostly been to reframe the public perception so that the Republicans can achieve what they have longed to do for decades, eliminate Social Security.

Devin Drum at Political Animal has an excellent article on what we can expect in the coming weeks concerning the discussion over Social Security.
One of the things that's slowly becoming clear in the Social Security debate is that President Bush's advisors are probably not going to risk what's left of their professional reputations by pretending that private accounts can fix Social Security's future funding shortfall. Instead, they're going to propose benefit cuts in order to balance the books.
What Kevin points out, which is also mentioned in the L.A. Times article, is the alternative plan of changing the benefits index from wage inflation to price inflation (Consumer Price Index, CPI). Currently, as wages increase, the paid-out-benefits also increase. Instead the new system would increase benefits as prices increase. Given that wages have risen at twice the rate that prices have in the past 50 years and that barring an economic collapse wages are likely to outpace prices, this change in the index equals a benefit cut. If this passes the Republicans can cut benefits while blaming it on economic effects, thus achieving deniability.

In the long-term, if this happens, people will see benefits decrease and thus it will seem that Republican cries of SS insolvency were true, thus laying the stage for a re-emergence of private accounts and the dissolution of the SS system.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

On Monday, the post ran an article reflecting on Holden's time as governor. The article takes a rather downbeat look at Holden's tenure in the Governor's Mansion. It focuses more on the problems Holden faced and what he attempted to do to overcome those difficulties.
Holden's four years in office were marked by political battles with Republicans, unrelenting budget problems and challenges from within his own party. He says now that if he had to do it all over again, he would make the same policy decisions. And he adds that if he had survived the primary against McCaskill, he believes he could have beaten Blunt in the general election.

Holden faced a series of setbacks - some not of his own making - almost from the moment he took office. In his first few weeks as governor, American Airlines acquired St. Louis-based TWA, financial problems forced him to cut millions from the state budget and Republicans took control of the state Senate for the first time since 1948.

There was one positive note from a former Holden appointee, 'Steve Roling, who was director of the Department of Social Services under Holden, said he would be remembered by those who cared about education, health care and jobs "as someone who stood up for them in really difficult times and wouldn't back down."'

Many people I talk to who have been involved in Missouri politics had a great deal of respect for Holden as governor and respected the strength of his convictions. Certainly a significant factor in Claire McCaskill's victory in the primary was Holden's "nice-guy" attitude and a certain lack of style in public speaking. Some voters felt that McCaskill's more aggressive style (honed during her career as a prosecutor) would be more effective against Governor-elect Matt Blunt.

While I agree that a more aggressive campaign would be more effective, after listening to Holden's concession speech on election night I think that if Holden could have spoken more about his ideals than letting himself get bogged down in details (as he did during the primary debates) the voters may have responded better. Holden certainly had the baggage of an incumbent, but McCaskill's reformist campaign also failed to create enough support.

At this point Missouri Democrats are going to have to work with a Republican dominated state government, and decide how and with whom they will challenge Republican control.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

With control of legislative investigations in the hands of Republicans, the Democrats (outnumbered though they may be) are doing something smart. While their new investigative committee has no authority whatsoever, the key to getting an investigation really moving is to get some press coverage, which is exactly what they are trying to do.

One of the advantages the Republican's have in controlling both houses of Congress is not only that they get to set the legislative agenda, they also get control over the possibility of hearings and investigations that so plagued Clinton's two terms. With the Republicans in control of all three branches, the chances of any actual investigation into any malfeasance is slim to none. The Congress was even able to gloss over the President's initially staunch opposition to the 9/11 commission and any implementation of suggested changes. They were able to make the President's grudging acceptance of reality look like an open-armed embrace.

While there may be some grumbling by Republicans in the Congress, any defection or free enterprise is likely to be squashed early. The GOP leadership is ruling with an iron fist, the efforts to pass the intelligence reform bill in the House were a clear example of that. The GOP refused to let it pass unless every needed Republican vote was in. The bill could have passed with bipartisan support, plenty of Democrats supported it, but the leadership refused to let go to a vote until they had enough Republican votes to make any Democratic support unnecessary. The couple Republican holdouts eventually had their concerns heard and even a couple were responded to (tougher immigration laws for example), but it must have been a tough stand.

Most of the grease that moved the intelligence bill through the congress against the wishes of the White House was the overwhelming public pressure. It was too public and too tough a subject to drop the ball on. The Democrats hope to tap into public opinion to pressure Republicans into looking into subjects they should already be investigating.
In another move destined to increase public consternation over the handling of school reform here in St. Louis, the school board voted to spend $60,000 to hire a public relations consultant,
"services included creating "a supportive environment for our recent reform efforts."
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also reported the fact that the consultant company, Unicom ARC is headed by Ed Finkelstein a long-time ally of former Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. who was one of the board members who voted to hire the consultant.

If that isn't interesting enough, Unicom ARC was investigate by the Board of Alderman in 2001 for not producing an ad campaign after spending several hundred thousand dollars. Unicom also recently helped pass a $70 million bond issue for the Hazelwood school district this past election.

The problem is not so much that there are long-standing connections between the company and one of the board members. This particular board member is a former mayor and this company has been working for major groups and governments around the metro area. The problem is that this is yet again another coat of paint on a broken down building.

No amount of message massaging and focus grouping will improve the quality of the public school system in St. Louis. The system is broken from the bottom to the top, starting with inadequate materials and space for students, right up to school board members who act worse than the kids they are attempting to help.

There have been positive steps taken, as well as faltering ones, yet to make such a move which the board has to know will infuriate the boards most vocal opponents makes little sense. In a situation in which even slight changes can provoke challenges that can slow any process down to a crawl, it is even more important to pick your battles carefully.

The board needs to focus on effecting positive change. There has been some progress, the recent edition of the Arch City Chronicle (print edition) has an article on a new attempt to make some changes to the curriculum that has drawn some praise. Progress is slight these days for the school board so any, even a little, is welcome. They should focus on more real world solutions than in covering their corporate communications.
Dave Drebes handicaps the upcoming St. Louis Mayoral Race in The St. Louis Business Journal. Drebes also runs the excellent and indispensable Arch City Chronicle. It looks like this may be shaping up into another standard South vs. North vote split. It would certainly be nice to see a mayoral candidate that people on both sides of the divide could support. Instead we get the white/black split. Even Mayor Harmon, who garnered a good deal of support from South City and the white community, was seen by the black community as a bit of a sell-out, picked by the powers that be to put a good face on things.

Perhaps one day.

Although a bit of good news, perennial Mayoral Candidate, outspoken School Board Member, and former candidate for Showtimes American Candidate, Bill Haas is out running again.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Well, it was bound to happen here. There have been plenty of allusions by those on the right that the left leaning individuals in this country are helping our "enemies". Now, however, at least one member of the legislature from here in Missouri has equated the liberal groups in this country with the September 11th highjackers. From State Representative Cynthia Davis (District 19):
"It's like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn't want to go," she added. "I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don't want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we're going to take it back."
Davis made that statement to the New York Times in an article on Christian Conservatives growing focus on gaining power in statehouses. In particular Davis was pushing an agenda to remove state support for any sex-ed programs that taught anything other than abstinence only as well as requiring publishers selling biology textbooks to Missouri to include at least one chapter on alternative theories to evolution.

There are two issues here of course. Deciding which is more problematic is not so easy. Inflammatory rhetoric such as Davis' is not only out of line, as an elected official she holds a position which may help to legitimize such hateful characterizations. This line of attack has been in use since 9/11, when Pat Robertson, founder of the 700 club, stated that the country had brought the attack upon itself by tolerating gays, abortion and other "liberal" ideas. While it is easy to dismiss Robertson and his ilk who have a significant financial incentive to keep their membership agitated, when public officials espouse such ideas in the service of their work, it raises concerns that are not so easily dismissed.

The second problem is, of course, the effect that such flawed educational programs like the ones proposed by Davis will have on Missouri's future.

Scientific data has pretty much blown the idea that abstinence only works in reducing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. While the basic point is true, if you don't have sex there is no chance of pregnancy or STDs. However, the whole of human history is a testimony to the fact that, well, people have sex. The responsible position is to educate individuals in the realities of sex while instilling a sense of personal respect so that they treat the issue with the seriousness is deserves. Simply giving a kid a condom doesn't solve anything, nor does simply telling them not to have sex.

The idea of introducing "alternative theories" to evolution has been tried on several occasions before here in Missouri. The pro-alternative ideas are mostly couched in the "intelligent design" rhetoric which basically states that life is to complex to occur by chance and that there must have been a hand guiding the development of life. The argument is that it is a theory and so therefore is just as qualified to be used in a biology program. What the "intelligent design" folks overlook is that their theory is not a scientific theory, but a philosophical/religious theory, inappropriate for a biology class. A scientific theory is a theory that explains phenomena, make predictions and can be tested. Evolution only attempts to explain scientifically by what process life has progressed on earth. If science were to develop a %100 error-free explanation of the development of life from the emergence of amino acids to how the brain communicates with itself, none of it would be in conflict with the idea of a creator. Recently a long-time proponent of atheism, British philosopher Antony Flew stated that after decades of study and thought, he believes there is a creator. While such a statement from a prominent atheistic scholar may have brought cheers from the religious, he followed his statement be saying that a creator may exist but he's not working in our live on a day to day basis.

The result of the success of such an anti-science agenda would be the downgrading of Missouri as a source of educated graduates to work in the increasingly technical fields of science and medicine. Theories in science are tools for better understanding. The greatest characteristic of a theory is that if something comes along to disprove it, its dismissed and a better theory is constructed and used until new evidence forces further change.

Change is not something many of these conservative groups desire. They often believe it threatens their very existence. Yet without progress and development we will be left behind. In addition, not using our faculties to the best of our abilities kind of removes the point of having them in the first place.

Thursday, December 09, 2004

I have to take the time to point out a post by Kevin Drum over at Political Animal. He runs down the basic fallacy of the argument for privatization of social security put forward by the administration.
"This growth is lower than we're used to, but that's because GDP growth = population growth + productivity growth. Since population growth is slowing down, so will GDP growth.

Still, what if you assume that things will be a little more robust than this? If you project GDP growth of around 2.6% per year, you end up with Estimate I, and in that scenario Social Security never runs out of money. In fact, if you project GDP growth just a few tenths higher than 1.8%, Social Security stays solvent for the next century.

In other words, if GDP growth averages, say, 2.2% over the next 75 years, Social Security is in fine shape and we don't have to do anything. We only need to "fix" it with private accounts if GDP growth is less than that.

So here's the puzzler: for private accounts to be worthwhile, they need to have long-term annual returns of at least 5%, and 6-7% is the number most advocates use. But are there any plausible scenarios in which long-term real GDP growth is less than 2% but long-term real returns (capital gains plus dividends) on stock portfolios are well over 5%?"
I recommend checking out the whole post as well as going through some of the comments on Kevin's post. This is an extension of a point he has been trying to make for awhile, that Social Security is not in danger of imminent collapse and that small, rational changes can keep the program running for a good long time. Drum is not the only one who makes this argument of course, Berkley Economist Brad DeLong and Princeton Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman have been poking holes in the administration and GOP's bad economic policy for years.

If you want an excellent explanation of modern economics and a helpful guide to avoiding the pitfalls of public statements of economic "facts" (often cited by the GOP and Bush administration to lure people to back their haphazard programs), Krugman's book, Accidental Theorist is something you have to pick up.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Michael Sheuer, former CIA analyst and author of the controversial "Imperial Hubris" has a commentary in yesterday's L.A. Times about the CIA and why he resigned recently.

In the piece he cites frustration over good work and opportunities to get bin Laden in the late 90's being wasted. He is also frustrated that the intelligence service as a whole is getting the blame for what the decision-makers at the top decided. His frustration echoes some of Thomas Powers' commentary on the tendency to point fingers at the intelligence community as the source of the failure when, in general, they were getting it right.
Also via TPM, a worrisome editorial about the falling dollar:
"…This time round, it is a bad sign that everybody is trying to point the finger of blame at somebody else. America says its external deficit is mainly due to sluggish growth in Europe and Japan, and to the fact that China is pegging its exchange rate too low. Europe, alarmed at the “brutal” rise in the euro, says that America's high public borrowing and low household saving are the real culprits.

There is something to both these claims. China and other Asian economies should indeed let their currencies rise, relieving pressure on the euro. It is also true that Asia is partly to blame for America's consumer binge: its central banks' large purchases of Treasury bonds have depressed bond yields, encouraging households in the United States to take out bigger mortgages and spend the cash. And Europe needs to accept, as it is unwilling to, that a weaker dollar will be a good thing if it helps to shrink America's deficit and curb the risk of a future crisis. At the same time, Europe is also right: most of the blame for America's deficit lies at home. America needs to cut its budget deficit. It is not a question of either do this or do that: a cheaper dollar and higher American saving are both needed if a crunch is to be avoided.

Simple but harsh

Many American policymakers talk as though it is better to rely entirely on a falling dollar to solve, somehow, all their problems. Conceivably, it could happen—but such a one-sided remedy would most likely be far more painful than they imagine. America's challenge is not just to reduce its current-account deficit to a level which foreigners are happy to finance by buying more dollar assets, but also to persuade existing foreign creditors to hang on to their vast stock of dollar assets, estimated at almost $11 trillion. A fall in the dollar sufficient to close the current-account deficit might destroy its safe-haven status. If the dollar falls by another 30%, as some predict, it would amount to the biggest default in history: not a conventional default on debt service, but default by stealth, wiping trillions off the value of foreigners' dollar assets.

The dollar's loss of reserve-currency status would lead America's creditors to start cashing those cheques—and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession. Americans who favour a weak dollar should be careful what they wish for. Cutting the budget deficit looks cheap at the price."

The chances of any real attempt to reduce the deficit are slim under the current administration. The administration is set on cutting taxes and increasing borrowing. Most if not all commentaries regarding the dollar look to reducing the deficit as a necessary step to reduce the dollars slide, yet the administration is set on increasing the deficit by financing its social-security debacle by borrowing the money, to the tune of billions of dollars. The idea of keeping the transition costs off the books entirely has been floated, which would put the Arthur Anderson slight-of-hand to shame.

The administration needs to change its fiscal policies and focus on the realistic solutions to the looming problems.
Josh Marshall over at Talking Points Memo reports on a piece in the Financial Times:
Thank President Bush (from the FT...)

Oil exporters have sharply reduced their exposure to the US dollar over the past three years, according to data from the Bank for International Settlements.

Members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries have cut the proportion of deposits held in dollars from 75 per cent in the third quarter of 2001 to 61.5 per cent.

Middle Eastern central banks have reportedly switched reserves from dollars to euros and sterling to avoid incurring losses as the dollar has fallen and prepare for a shift away from pricing oil exports in dollars alone.

Private Middle East investors are believed to be worried about the prospect of US-held assets being frozen as part of the war on terror, leading to accelerated dollar-selling after the re-election of President George W. Bush.

Thank you, thank you, a thousand thank yous.

-- Josh Marshall

Monday, December 06, 2004

Thomas Powers has a great article in the recent issue of the New York Review of Books on the role of the intelligence community in the lead-up to 9/11, the lead up to the Iraq war and the CIA's potential future.
"The fate of the agency is no minor matter to intelligence professionals who have spent their careers trying to serve both presidents and the nation; all know that these two masters are often at odds, and many have been forced to hire lawyers, face grand juries, and risk jail for what they did, or for failing to describe truthfully what they did, for presidents unable or unwilling to take the stand themselves. There is no easy way to reconcile these divided loyalties. But there are good reasons for trying to understand what has now brought the stresses to breaking point, especially for the analytical side of the CIA."

Here I think Powers hits on a point that has been often left unmentioned in public discussions, that the CIA and the intelligence community in general was correct in its assessment of the Iraq threat and the threat posed by bin Laden and Al Qaeda. In the rush to lay blame the CIA became the public whipping boy because the lop-level administrators went along with the President's wishes. Public and classified reports have long since backed up the point that the analysts were passing up good information, it just wasn't what the administration wanted to hear.
" But too little in my opinion has been said about what the CIA and Richard Clarke in the White House both got right—the numerous warnings delivered to the President and his national security advisers. Condoleezza Rice has said that these warnings were too vague and the President has said that he would have moved heaven and earth if he had only known when and where the terrorists planned to attack. The White House was paralyzed, the official version goes, because the intelligence organizations of the United States had failed to connect the dots....

But the fact is that the intelligence analysts who provided warnings to the White House connected a great many dots—they anticipated the use of commercial aircraft, they knew that al-Qaeda cells were operating inside the United States, they knew that Ramzi Yusef, the field commander of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, had hoped to bring the towers down, and had promised an FBI debriefer after his arrest that another attempt would be made. They knew that al-Qaeda wanted to strike inside the United States, and they knew that al-Qaeda was approaching the operational climax of a new effort. In a sense all the most important dots had been loosely connected except for the last two or three.

The question then is whether an alert administration, anxious to protect the country, knew enough to do something—to give a dynamite charge to intelligence chiefs, or summon the officials responsible for public safety and disaster relief, or prod the Federal Aviation Administration to beef up security at airline gates, or ask the Immigration and Naturalization Service if borders were secure, or suggest to the FBI that suspected terrorist cells should be put on notice that they were being watched. Best might have been an attempt to put all those officials in a windowless room for a day with orders to report to the President personally before the sun went down. Presidents do not normally find it hard to get the attention of government offices, and bureaucrats all know how to put on a show of frantic activity. That, at the very least, is what we should have found when the lights went on after the attacks of September 11."

The difficult truth of the matter is that the administration failed to act on intelligence it was given. A year before Bush's inauguration, an attempted terrorist attack on L.A.'s airport was broken up (the so-called "millennium" plot) through good intelligence and a sharp-eyed border guard. To try and say, as the administration did, that they were unaware of the threat posed by these groups or that the information they did have means they were either unconcerned or incompetent. Deciding which is worse is hard to say. Since the top-level anti-terror specialists were all concerned and tried to make their voices heard, we can conclude that the information was right at their fingertips.

I don't think it would be fair or just to say that the administration's failures allowed 9/11 to happen. There is no way they could have predicted the time and place of the attack. Yet due to the existing threats and compelling intelligence their should have been some sort of plans in action, FAA warnings, greater surveilance, etc. As Powers points out, none of this was the case. Terrorism simply wasn't on the administrations to-do list.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Why the dollar is remaining fairly stable and there has been no general dumping of the dollar remains a mystery to Brad DeLong and, I assume, everyone else.
(1) Given all the reasons for the dollar to decline, who in their right mind is buying the current flow of dollar-denominated securities held overseas needed to finance America's current-account deficit? (2) Given all the reasons for the dollar to decline, why haven't all the private-sector overseas holders of the enormous stock of dollar-denominated assets dumped them yet? Kash provides an answer to question (1): his answer is, "Asian central banks." But the answer to question (2) remains a mystery to me--and to everyone else.

Perhaps the larger question is why has the administration not made any real attempt to forestall the coming dollar dive? There was some speculation that the administration was secretly hoping the weakened dollar would help its account deficit. Yet the largest deficit is in trade with China whose denomination is pegged to the dollar, so no help there. The general thought seems to be that the Asian countries have so much tied up in the dollar that even a slightly weaker dollar is better than a more volatile alternative. Yet the Financial Times is reporting continued talk by Asian banks considering trading in dollars for Euros or Sterling.

The dollar rebounded a bit today, so talk of a crashing dollar may be premature. Yet until the administration starts working on paring down the deficits, investors will continue to shy away from the dollar. Given the President's stated goals for Social Security and the creative accounting they are going to use to achieve their ends, its doubtful there will much of a rally.