The Commons is a weblog for concerned citizens of southeast Iowa and their friends around the world. It was created to encourage grassroots networking and to share information and ideas which have either been suppressed or drowned out in the mainstream media.

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place;' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection." (Henry V, Act V, Scene 4)

Friday, December 17, 2004

Bob Herbert - Fiddling as Iraq Burns

The New York Times
December 17, 2004
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Fiddling as Iraq Burns
By BOB HERBERT

The White House seems to have slipped the bonds of simple denial and escaped into the disturbing realm of utter delusion. On Tuesday, there was President Bush hanging the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on George Tenet, the former C.I.A. director who slept through the run-up to Sept. 11 and then did the president and the nation the great disservice of declaring that it was a "slam-dunk" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

It was a fatal misjudgment.

Another Medal of Freedom was given to Paul Bremer III, the chief civilian administrator of the American occupation, who made the heavily criticized decision to disband the defeated Iraqi Army and presided over an ever-worsening security situation. Thousands upon thousands have died in this unnecessary and incompetently conducted war, yet here was the president handing out medals as if some kind of triumph had been achieved. If these guys could get the highest civilian award, what honor is left for someone who actually does a good job?

A third medal was given to Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the invasion of Iraq, which Mr. Bush, in his peculiar way, has characterized as a "catastrophic success." It's an interesting term. Some people have applied it to the president's run for re-election.

By anyone's standards, terrible things are happening in Iraq, and no amount of self-congratulation in Washington can take the edge off the horror being endured by American troops or the unrelenting agony of the Iraqi people. The disconnect between the White House's fantasyland and the world of war in Iraq could hardly have been illustrated more starkly than by a pair of front-page articles in The New York Times on Dec. 10. The story at the top of the page carried the headline: "It's Inauguration Time Again, and Access Still Has Its Price - $250,000 Buys Lunch With President and More."

The headline on the story beneath it said: "Armor Scarce for Heavy Trucks Transporting U.S. Cargo in Iraq."

This administration has many things on its mind besides the welfare of overstretched, ill-equipped G.I.'s dodging bombers and snipers in Iraq. In addition to the inauguration, which will cost tens of millions of dollars, Mr. Bush is busy with his obsessive campaign against "junk and frivolous lawsuits," his effort to further lighten the tax load on the nation's wealthiest individuals and corporations, and his campaign to cut the legs from under the proudest achievement of the New Deal, Social Security.

So much for America's wartime priorities.

Even domestic security gets short shrift. During the Republican convention, Mr. Bush said, "I wake up every morning thinking about how to better protect our country." Try squaring that with the Bernard Kerik fiasco, in which the administration's background check of its candidate for the nation's ultimate domestic security post was handled with the same calamitous incompetence as the intelligence effort that led to the war in Iraq.

Mr. Bush's pick (at Rudy Giuliani's urging) for homeland security secretary turned out to be a slick character who had once ducked a required F.B.I. clearance, had a social relationship with the owner of a company suspected of business ties to organized crime figures and had rented a love nest that overlooked the ruins of the World Trade Center.

"I'm Not Perfect," said a headline next to Mr. Kerik's picture in Tuesday's New York Post.

You wonder, with so much at stake, where to look in the Bush constellation for the care and competence that the times call for. Colin Powell is heading toward the exit, to be replaced by Condoleezza Rice, who did her best to petrify the nation with loose talk about mushroom clouds. Dick Cheney would still have us believe in a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

The man who took the lead in vetting Bernie Kerik, the White House counsel Alberto Gonzales, was also the point person in the administration's bid to duck the constraints of the Geneva Conventions, and even to justify torture.

Mr. Gonzales is a favorite of the president, who has nominated him to be attorney general and may someday appoint him to the Supreme Court.

Medals anyone? The president may actually believe that this crowd is the best and brightest America has to offer. Which is disturbing.

E-mail: bobherb@nytimes.com

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Paul Krugman - Buying Into Failure

The New York Times
December 17, 2004
OP-ED COLUMNIST
Buying Into Failure
By PAUL KRUGMAN

As the Bush administration tries to persuade America to convert Social Security into a giant 401(k), we can learn a lot from other countries that have already gone down that road.

Information about other countries' experience with privatization isn't hard to find. For example, the Century Foundation, at www.tcf.org, provides a wide range of links.

Yet, aside from giving the Cato Institute and other organizations promoting Social Security privatization the space to present upbeat tales from Chile, the U.S. news media have provided their readers and viewers with little information about international experience. In particular, the public hasn't been let in on two open secrets:

Privatization dissipates a large fraction of workers' contributions on fees to investment companies.

It leaves many retirees in poverty.

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.

These fees cut sharply into the returns individuals can expect on their accounts. In Britain, which has had a privatized system since the days of Margaret Thatcher, alarm over the large fees charged by some investment companies eventually led government regulators to impose a "charge cap." Even so, fees continue to take a large bite out of British retirement savings.

A reasonable prediction for the real rate of return on personal accounts in the U.S. is 4 percent or less. If we introduce a system with British-level management fees, net returns to workers will be reduced by more than a quarter. Add in deep cuts in guaranteed benefits and a big increase in risk, and we're looking at a "reform" that hurts everyone except the investment industry.

Advocates insist that a privatized U.S. system can keep expenses much lower. It's true that costs will be low if investments are restricted to low-overhead index funds - that is, if government officials, not individuals, make the investment decisions. But if that's how the system works, the suggestions that workers will have control over their own money - two years ago, Cato renamed its Project on Social Security Privatization by replacing "privatization" with "choice" - are false advertising.

And if there are rules restricting workers to low-expense investments, investment industry lobbyists will try to get those rules overturned.

For the record, I don't think giving financial corporations a huge windfall is the main motive for privatization; it's mostly an ideological thing. But that windfall is a major reason Wall Street wants privatization, and everyone else should be very suspicious.

Then there's the issue of poverty among the elderly.

Privatizers who laud the Chilean system never mention that it has yet to deliver on its promise to reduce government spending. More than 20 years after the system was created, the government is still pouring in money. Why? Because, as a Federal Reserve study puts it, the Chilean government must "provide subsidies for workers failing to accumulate enough capital to provide a minimum pension." In other words, privatization would have condemned many retirees to dire poverty, and the government stepped back in to save them.

The same thing is happening in Britain. Its Pensions Commission warns that those who think Mrs. Thatcher's privatization solved the pension problem are living in a "fool's paradise." A lot of additional government spending will be required to avoid the return of widespread poverty among the elderly - a problem that Britain, like the U.S., thought it had solved.

Britain's experience is directly relevant to the Bush administration's plans. If current hints are an indication, the final plan will probably claim to save money in the future by reducing guaranteed Social Security benefits. These savings will be an illusion: 20 years from now, an American version of Britain's commission will warn that big additional government spending is needed to avert a looming surge in poverty among retirees.

So the Bush administration wants to scrap a retirement system that works, and can be made financially sound for generations to come with modest reforms. Instead, it wants to buy into failure, emulating systems that, when tried elsewhere, have neither saved money nor protected the elderly from poverty.

E-mail: krugman@nytimes.com

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Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Rumbling At Our Feet, by Pamela Troy - Democratic Underground

The Rumbling At Our Feet

December 15, 2004
By Pamela Troy

I keep having the same slightly mad conversation with moderates. By "moderate" I mean the people, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, who use words like "troubling" or "disturbing" to describe what's happening in this country, but laugh off any suggestion that stronger language might be appropriate.

"Oh, come on, don't be so melodramatic," I'm told, when the subject of the recent irregularities in our last election comes up. "If it gets to the point where we've truly lost faith in our system of elections, why, we'll march en masse on Congress, put the fear of God in 'em and demand that they do something about it!"

"And why would marching on Congress make them do this?" I ask.

"Because they're politicians," I'm informed with amused and exaggerated patience. "They want to be re-elected. They know if they don't listen to us, we're going to go to the voting booths and cast our ballots..."

It's like talking to a teenager who understands mortality on an intellectual level but is unable to associate it with drinking too much, driving too fast, or accepting rides from strangers.

Without a voting system that we can trust to reflect our will, we have no weapons but naked defiance. As Americans I'm afraid we are unaware of the terrible price such defiance can exact in a country where the government ascribes to itself the power to incarcerate citizens indefinitely, secretly, and without access to a lawyer, and where the word "torture" is being legally redefined into meaninglessness.

Perhaps much of this complacency lies in the fact that most of us are currently too low or too high on society's food chain to believe that there can be serious consequences for speaking out. We aren't insiders like Joe Wilson, high profile enough to be a genuine threat, or marginal individuals like Jose Padilla, too foreign and scary-looking to be accepted as "real Americans" by the majority.

But we have still gone further down the road to one party rule than I would have credited several years ago, in spite of almost every mainstream assurance we have been given for the past twenty years about the supposedly imminent demise of the religious right, the commitment of Democratic leadership to actually confronting the extremists who have taken over the Republican Party, and the status of the press as an independent watchdog over powerful interests. We seem cheerfully oblivious to the fact that every safeguard to freedom, every check and balance that we take for granted has been undermined.

While the assurances from the mainstream have been hollow, the rumblings of the right-wing Internet have proven to be a horribly reliable barometer of the direction we've been headed for the past twenty years. I've been online since the mid-eighties, was frequenting discussion boards when using the term "Internet" in a sentence generally required a detailed explanation. Back then, I used to encounter ridiculous arguments on the web about how the founders didn't really intend there to be separation of church and state, how liberals are all Communists and Joe McCarthy was right and those who opposed the Vietnam war were traitors.

The people who posted this kind of dreck considered the actual truth of a statement to be beside the point. Back then, such an approach to political discussion was regarded and treated as marginal, a joke to most liberals and an embarrassment to most conservatives.

Today I see those same arguments being seriously offered by pundits with their own national TV shows. Bill O'Reilly has warned us to shut up if we know what's good for us. Ann Coulter has labeled the Democratic Party as treasonous. That same level of dishonesty has become the norm in mainstream political discourse, in which high-ranking members of the administration rewrite history without a blush mere weeks after the fact.

And in the meantime the subterranean noises online have gotten even more extreme and more violent. Torture? It's not treated with shame or even lame denials and excuses, but embraced, positively lauded as a virtue, while the rhetoric towards those of us designated as "liberals" is increasingly crossing the border into violence. To oppose Bush's "War on Terror" is to be labeled as one of the enemy - and the enemy can be abused at will. Rational debate has become all but impossible as language is twisted to defend what was not so long ago regarded as indefensible by everyone but the most wild-eyed neo-fascist.

Offline, those of us who pride ourselves on our reason and moderation cluck our tongues ruefully over the recent voting "irregularities" in Ohio. We treat that, and the administration's claim that it has the right to label anyone in the world an "enemy combatant" and imprison them - and the administration's claim that torture isn't torture - and the administration's conviction that they have been appointed by God - as if they were separate issues.

Loudmouths like Michael Moore and Al Franken and Greg Palast make us wince. Goodness, couldn't they be a little less shrill? I mean, sure they have a point, but really they're just reducing their own credibility with all that arm-waving, all that unseemly anger! Disenfranchisement is something that happens to somebody else. Like torture, kidnapping, religious and political repression, it's something to disapprove of from what we imagine to be a safe distance.

I don't anticipate any serious personal consequences for posting this piece. A family member's career will not be ruined. I'm not going to be picked up at an airport and whisked into legal limbo. Even in the face of what's unfolding before me, I find it hard to grasp that I, an American, could at some point be harshly punished for speaking my mind. In that sense I'm like the nineteen-year-old who can remember Grandma's funeral but still can't believe that mortality also applies to me. After all, it never has before.

But as any mature adult knows, things change. At nineteen, I didn't understand how fragile is the human body, how easily it can die. Today, enough of my friends have been lost to avoidable car accidents, drug overdoses, and even just ordinary carelessness about their health for me to understand that little should be taken for granted.

Ten years hence, God only knows what Americans citizens may not just believe, but know as an ugly and undeniable fact about the health of our status as a free society.

Thomas Oliphant - What they don't tell you on Social Security reform

Boston.com THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
The Boston Globe
THOMAS OLIPHANT
What they don't tell you on Social Security reform

By Thomas Oliphant, Globe Columnist | December 14, 2004

WASHINGTON
IT'S WHAT politicians don't emphasize about their ideas that counts. Take Social Security.

For more than four years, President Bush has trumpeted the idea of personal investment accounts grafted onto the best retirement safety net we've ever had. He has yet to utter a syllable about how he would finance the transition once tax revenue intended to fund current benefits is diverted to create such accounts. He's happy to emphasize the free lunch aspects -- no benefit cuts for those 55 or younger, an all-voluntary scheme, a benefits floor, and even no increase in payroll taxes (though his spokesmen resist saying whether that applies to increasing the income ceiling of $87,700).

For this reason, Bush should be watched like a hawk at his domestic policy summit this week. If he doesn't start emphasizing what he has been ignoring all these years, it's a decent bet that he's more interested in the politics of Social Security than its actual repair.

Bush, however, is not alone. Not emphasizing the points that would cause American eyebrows to twitch is the defining feature of all the plans offered. Take the two best-known ideas from Bush supporters in the Republican Party -- one from Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire and the other from Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.

Sununu offers the ultimate free lunch -- no benefits cuts and no tax increases, ever. Down the road Sununu even offers the biggest tax cut in history -- knocking the worker-employer payroll tax down from 12.4 to barely 4 percent.

What he doesn't emphasize are the assumptions on which this nirvana is based. To make it work, the scheme assumes that federal spending growth is cut by more than a third across the board, on average, for each of the next eight years. It then assumes that every dollar of what is now a surplus is kept within Social Security to help fund the transition costs for each of the next 14 years -- instead of being in effect embezzled to mask the true size of the government's massive and growing operating budget deficits. Needless to say, Sununu doesn't emphasize the debt explosion that will occur on the operating side.

Sununu also doesn't emphasize his proposal's assumptions about the explosion in general revenue in the form of higher corporate tax collections that are in turn based on assumptions about economic and asset value growth that are counted on simply because of all this "new" retirement investment.

Finally, Sununu doesn't emphasize that his proposal assumes that the government will increase the national debt by still more in order to raise the money to pay off the intragovernment notes issue when the Social Security surplus is raided to help fund the operating deficit mess. It is a proposal (his House GOP ally is Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and his Senate allies include Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum) whose assumptions up front are more important than its promises.

Graham gets credit for being willing to discuss raising the ceiling on income subject to the payroll tax to help fund transition costs, which he says should not be funded with additional debt. In general, he has been suggesting a willingness to talk about a near-doubling of the ceiling to around $150,000.

However, Graham does not emphasize that the proposal he made at the end of 2003 does not include this at all. Moreover, he has used a figure of $1 trillion for the transition costs over a decade, not emphasizing that all current discussions involve estimates double that figure.

Graham also does not emphasize that he is assuming, without specifics, major federal spending cuts to make his idea financially workable. In particular, he doesn't emphasize that his legislation assumed cuts in spending to the tune of tens of billions of dollars every year (at least 1.5 percent of payroll revenue) to be identified by a commission.

Finally, while Graham like all would-be "reformers" stresses voluntarism as a key selling point, he does not emphasize that his proposal would increase payroll taxes for those who choose not to play the equities markets with any of their Social Security tax dollars. There would be a 2 percentage point increase in the payroll tax that would escalate over time.

All these things are not emphasized because they detract from the attractiveness of partially privatizing the system. These nonemphasized facts have one thing in common: They impose hidden costs that may be greater socially, and are certainly greater politically, than the benefits of privatizing.

They also emphasize how assumption is central to the privatizers. The rest of us know that assumptions are the mothers of something unpleasant.

Thomas Oliphant's e-mail address is oliphant@globe.com.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

The Fake "Social Security Crisis"

Crisis Is The New Threat

President Bush, our leader, took to the radio on Saturday to sell his plan to head off "a crisis in Social Security." Administration mouthpieces have been dutifully parroting crisis ever since, and the media has followed suit. Even Tim Russert, the host of Meet The Press, opened a question for Howard Dean with the statement, "Social Security faces a crisis."

This "crisis," however, exists mostly in the minds of those who want an excuse to kill Social Security. Plenty of reputable people think that the trust fund is years away from trouble -- if then -- and that it is certainly nowhere near a "crisis."

The justification for "crisis" comes from a prediction by the Social Security trustees, that full benefits -- not all benefits, just full benefits -- will no longer be available in 2042. That is, of course, assuming that nothing is done between now and 2042 to fix Social Security, which is a silly assumption unless you're George W. Bush, who sees this as he sees all things, as black or white; the way it is now, forever, or obliteration.

In 1994 the Social Security trustees predicted that doomsday was 35 years away. Now, ten years later, doomsday is 38 years away. What kind of doomsday is it that retreats?

The answer is that the trustees base their predictions on assumed future economic performance, population growth, and demographic changes. When those assumptions change, so do the predictions. The assumptions are also skewed to the conservative -- as they should be. Thus the Social Security doomsday of 2042 is a worst case scenario based an a prediction that will only come true if none of its assumptions change and no fixes -- such as tax increases -- are made. That is not a "crisis," but that is not the way that President Bush wants us to see it.

Remember 2002, when President Bush scared us into war with Iraq with the words threat and link? He's pulling the same trick again, scaring us into "preemption" against Social Security with the word crisis.

WP: Detainee Abuse by Marines Is Detailed

The Commons

Detainee Abuse by Marines Is Detailed
Variety of Units In Iraq Involved

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2004; Page A01

Marines operating in Iraq over the past two years committed a variety of abuses against Iraqi prisoners, including burning a detainee's hands by igniting alcohol-based cleanser in August 2003, according to internal Defense Department documents released yesterday.

Several other incidents, most of them previously undisclosed, are described in investigative reports and legal summaries. In Karbala in May 2003, one Marine held a 9mm pistol to the back of a bound detainee's head while another took a photograph. Two months later, in Diwaniyah, four Marines ordered teenage Iraqi looters to kneel alongside holes and then fired a pistol "to conduct a mock execution."

Full Article