Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Spector's a Dem

Not quite sure how I feel about that, since a primary loss by Spector to Toomey would have made Penn. a relatively ironclad progressive pickup. But, on the other hand, He's really at the mercy of the Dems now; there's just no way he can return to the Republicans, so he's a Dem until he's out of politics.

Arjun Jaikumar at DK suggests that Snowe is next up. Perhaps. I'm more concerned about the Coleman/Franken thing. Now that the only thing between the Dems and sixty Senate seats is the resolution of that court case, Coleman will be under tremendous pressure to draw it out however he can. Above and beyond that, though, Franken is a progressive Dem. Progressives badly need that, because the Blue Dogs are going to try to assert dominance over the party's agenda now that they are the "swing vote".

They shouldn't get too comfortable. Progressive challengers are already being readied. But until then, progressives will need high-profile voices like Franken to ensure that the "centrists" don't take the helm.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Swine Flu

Yes, it's disturbing. Very much so.

Leaving that aside, it has to be TRULY terrifying for the Republicans. Not because their aging, beef-and-cigar addled immune systems are prone to cytokine storms, but because they not only blocked the appointment of Sibelius at HHS, they blocked $900 million in pandemic preparation. Even if Swine Flu turns out to be containable and contained (and we all hope it will), the ads the dems will cut slamming the Republicans for their obstructionism will make the Republicans feel none-too-pleasant either.

In the meantime, though, stay calm, stay safe, stay healthy and, yeah, probably stay indoors.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Old Market, New Market

I was struck by the juxtaposition of these two stories:

"Apple Helps Lift US Stock Futures"—which discusses how Apple's extraordinarily strong second-quarter earnings have helped boost the whole market;

and "GM Shutdown Could Begin Next Month"—which is about how GM demand is so slack that, in this economy, they can't keep their plants open.

Now, let's be honest: Apple's being driven by iTunes and the media players, not the laptops and desktops. (Particularly not the desktops.) What's driving this industry halo is online content, whether purchased, free, or "other". So what this combination is suggesting is that the "future economy" that everybody's talking about may be driven by a movement away from physical to digital transport.

We're used to getting work done over Stevens' famous series of tubes, and personal communication is just taken as a given, but now entertainment and amusement are moving online as well. We aren't buying CDs, we aren't renting movies, and the games and toys our children play with are not only increasingly digital instead of physical but delivered online as well.

No wonder we aren't as interested in driving.

One would think this is just another reiteration of Faith Popcorn's whole "cocooning" thing, then. Nothing new there. Except that Apple, again, is being driven by [i]portability[/i], rather than home delivery. People do use iTunes and iPods and the rest at home, but they're driven by the need and desire to "take it on the road." Except that they aren't buying cars. So I suppose they're "taking it on the bus" or "taking it on the train" or "taking it to their friend Jill's house". But even that doesn't quite explain the contradiction here, and I don't think "work everywhere" does either, since iPods aren't really that useful for that. It's a weird contradiction: a sort of mobile, digital cocooning.

Within that contradiction lies a great fortune. Somewhere.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Has Somebody Finally Knocked Sense Into His Head?

From the Star, here's The Count:

He said he opposes use of any information suspected of coming from torture.

"No agency of the federal government should have any truck, trade, traffic, engagement with any form of torture. The critical point for Canada is that we must never use information derived from sources where we believe torture has been applied and the critical point, and we've fallen foul of this once before in the Maher Arar issue, we must never send any person, let alone a Canadian national, to a country, in this case it was Syria, where we have reason to believe torture will be applied."

"It's a question of our position as a defender of human rights. But it's also a question of simple prudence: what is extracted by torture is never reliable.
As far as I can tell, this is the first time Ignatieff has made that all-important point that I bolded. Up until now he's always defended "coercive interrogation" as sometimes necessary, even if it makes him feel all squirmy about its anti-democratic nature. He's written page after page after chapter after chapter defending the practice against its critics. He says it's odious, yes, but he has always left the door wide open to the argument that "it may be odious, but we need to do it to Preserve Our Freedoms." Often quite deliberately so.

So it is with no amount of surprise that I read this. To say "it's wrong, and it doesn't work" is more categorical than I had ever expected, considering how wedded to the practice he's seemed to be. Maybe he's finally got some good advice from somebody who knows what they're talking about. And, yes, maybe he's just splitting hairs about the difference between "coercive interrogation" and torture again. But I'll grant credit where credit is due.

Now if he can just write about the 2002 Iraq buildup without spending more time attacking those who were right about the war, he might be able establish some daylight between himself and Harper on foreign affairs. He might even attract those Canadians who like Obama's progressiveness, and are faced with the choice between the NDP and his own merry band of apparatchiks.

Edit: Yes, I'm aware of the strong numbers Ignatieff is currently enjoying. He can pretend to be all things to all people, without even having to formulate a policy let alone take a stand. This was the gift Bob Rae granted him: being able to take the Liberal helm without having to clarify what he'd do with it, and which people he'd alienate along the way. It won't last. His enemies won't let it.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

CNN Surprisingly Critical

I don't think the teabaggers are really worth my time, or anybody else's. They're transparent astroturfing by Dick Armey, nothing more.

But I have to admit that I was very impressed when I saw CNN's Susan Roesgen absolutely carve them up over their excesses. An incoherent idiot repeating slogans about how Obama's a "fascist"—without being able to explain why—was probably the highlight, but she dished it out to all involved. It was a very brave act: you can see how they're attempting to vocally and physically intimidate her, but she wouldn't let herself be intimidated. All she had was contempt. And rightly so.

Here's the embed from media matters.

As others have pointed out, it's incredible that the right has been able to get away with such clear and unmistakable attempts to call Obama a Nazi, whereas the faintest intimation of the same from the left a few years ago was met with media outrage. Digby believes that it's because the right works the media better, and I think there's something to that. I think there's something to that.

But I also believe it's a dog-bites-man scenario. Everybody has become so used to the right projecting its own fascist tendencies—and lets not mince words, the rhetoric of the right these days is fascist as hell—that they don't really pay much attention to it anymore. Sure, they could get mad, but they won't apologize, won't stop doing it, and have a series of pat answers if confronted with it. Even if it's as weak as Glenn Beck's "I'm just an entertainer" line, they know it'll be repeated often enough and strenuously enough that it'll simply become boring. They're not in the business of informing or confronting, they're in the business of keeping people from being bored. So they move on to whatever else is interesting, and leave Glenn and his ilk to their tirades.

The problem is that the Obama presidency is less than four months old, and they're already at this stage. What the hell is America going to look like by this time next year?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Did Roberts Gates Really Just Kill the F-22?

Well, I was expecting Naval/Air Force assets to be reduced in the wake of Gates' announcement that he wants to focus on asymmetrical threads. But I wasn't expecting him to kill the F-22. It takes an Act of God to stop something like that at this stage.

It ain't the only thing getting cut; he's getting rid of the C-17 and a lot of the crazy future weapons stuff as well.

And apparently there's a good reason he's not terribly happy with things as they stand: he's "alienated" from military procurement.

In calling yesterday for "a dramatic change in the way we acquire military equipment," Gates showed his slow but palpable alienation from the so-called iron triangle of defense contractors, lawmakers and military service executives that has long promoted building the best weapons systems, no matter what the price. In the future, he said, weapons should be engineered to counter "the actual and prospective capabilities of known future adversaries," not what a potential adversary might create with "unlimited time and resources."

Gates has signaled his frustrations with the broken and "rigid" purchasing system for months, and in a January article in Foreign Affairs magazine, he noted that the pursuit of perfect solutions combined with a lack of flexibility and innovation had made it "necessary to bypass existing institutions and procedures to get the capabilities needed to protect U.S. troops and fight ongoing wars."

But Gates sees this year as a rare opportunity to pursue politically controversial ideas, one of his top aides said, largely because of two factors. First, President Obama's repeated claim that procurement reforms can increase efficiency and save expenses across the government will provide "top cover" for Gates in his head-butting with a group of service chiefs that proposed last year to alleviate their woes by adding tens of billions of dollars to the budget instead of making hard choices or undertaking major reforms.

Second, Gates feels the nation's woeful economic status will give him added leverage in beating back attempts on Capitol Hill to continue financing weapons that troops don't need or want. "It is important to remember that every defense dollar spent to overinsure against a remote or diminishing risk, or in effect to run up the score" is a dollar that might otherwise be spent on troops or winning the wars we are in, Gates said yesterday.
Translation: stop worrying about China, it's the security of failing or rogue states that is the issue here.

I can't say I didn't see this coming, and having a Defense Secretary take on the crazy American procurement machine is a welcome change. But the pushback is going to be tremendous, and probably all on the Dems. Being a Dem in a defense-industry town ain't gonna be easy.

Edit: He's also shifting away from contractors.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates' Pentagon budget includes a shift to pull contracted work in house, especially in the area of weapons acquisitions.

Contracted defense work has grown to 39 percent of the Pentagon's workforce, The Washington Post reported Tuesday. Gates, however, said he is aiming to reduce that to 26 percent, approximately where it was before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

To cover work now under contract, the Pentagon would hire up to 39,000 full-time civil servants in the next five years, beginning with a hiring of 13,000 this year.

To companies that lean on the Pentagon for much of their work include CACI and SAIC, which do many administrative tasks, the move is earth-shattering, defense consultant Loren Thomson told the Post.

"The reduction of nearly one-third of the contractor workforce at the Pentagon is going to be a mortal blow to companies that have built their businesses through outsourcing," Thomson said.
Cry me a river.

Tragedy in Dubai

I'd heard stories about the dark side of Dubai; about how underneath all that desert glitter, there was a lot of ugliness, especially amongst the workers who were building the city.

But I wasn't expecting this. From the Independent:

Sahinal Monir, a slim 24-year-old from the deltas of Bangladesh. "To get you here, they tell you Dubai is heaven. Then you get here and realise it is hell," he says. Four years ago, an employment agent arrived in Sahinal's village in Southern Bangladesh. He told the men of the village that there was a place where they could earn 40,000 takka a month (£400) just for working nine-to-five on construction projects. It was a place where they would be given great accommodation, great food, and treated well. All they had to do was pay an up-front fee of 220,000 takka (£2,300) for the work visa – a fee they'd pay off in the first six months, easy. So Sahinal sold his family land, and took out a loan from the local lender, to head to this paradise.

As soon as he arrived at Dubai airport, his passport was taken from him by his construction company. He has not seen it since. He was told brusquely that from now on he would be working 14-hour days in the desert heat – where western tourists are advised not to stay outside for even five minutes in summer, when it hits 55 degrees – for 500 dirhams a month (£90), less than a quarter of the wage he was promised. If you don't like it, the company told him, go home. "But how can I go home? You have my passport, and I have no money for the ticket," he said. "Well, then you'd better get to work," they replied.

Sahinal was in a panic. His family back home – his son, daughter, wife and parents – were waiting for money, excited that their boy had finally made it. But he was going to have to work for more than two years just to pay for the cost of getting here – and all to earn less than he did in Bangladesh.

He shows me his room. It is a tiny, poky, concrete cell with triple-decker bunk-beds, where he lives with 11 other men. All his belongings are piled onto his bunk: three shirts, a spare pair of trousers, and a cellphone. The room stinks, because the lavatories in the corner of the camp – holes in the ground – are backed up with excrement and clouds of black flies. There is no air conditioning or fans, so the heat is "unbearable. You cannot sleep. All you do is sweat and scratch all night." At the height of summer, people sleep on the floor, on the roof, anywhere where they can pray for a moment of breeze.

The water delivered to the camp in huge white containers isn't properly desalinated: it tastes of salt. "It makes us sick, but we have nothing else to drink," he says.

The work is "the worst in the world," he says. "You have to carry 50kg bricks and blocks of cement in the worst heat imaginable ... This heat – it is like nothing else. You sweat so much you can't pee, not for days or weeks. It's like all the liquid comes out through your skin and you stink. You become dizzy and sick but you aren't allowed to stop, except for an hour in the afternoon. You know if you drop anything or slip, you could die. If you take time off sick, your wages are docked, and you are trapped here even longer."
This is pretty much exactly what is done to illegal immigrants that are forced into prostitution or slave labor: you promise them the moon, then take away their passports and pay them a pittance for horrific work. That a state could have this be the default mode of employment is staggering. It makes nauseating to think about all those puff-pieces about Dubai we've seen over the years.

And now that things have fallen apart?

Since the recession hit, they say, the electricity has been cut off in dozens of the camps, and the men have not been paid for months. Their companies have disappeared with their passports and their pay. "We have been robbed of everything. Even if somehow we get back to Bangladesh, the loan sharks will demand we repay our loans immediately, and when we can't, we'll be sent to prison."

This is all supposed to be illegal. Employers are meant to pay on time, never take your passport, give you breaks in the heat – but I met nobody who said it happens. Not one. These men are conned into coming and trapped into staying, with the complicity of the Dubai authorities.

Sahinal could well die out here. A British man who used to work on construction projects told me: "There's a huge number of suicides in the camps and on the construction sites, but they're not reported. They're described as 'accidents'." Even then, their families aren't free: they simply inherit the debts. A Human Rights Watch study found there is a "cover-up of the true extent" of deaths from heat exhaustion, overwork and suicide, but the Indian consulate registered 971 deaths of their nationals in 2005 alone. After this figure was leaked, the consulates were told to stop counting.

At night, in the dusk, I sit in the camp with Sohinal and his friends as they scrape together what they have left to buy a cheap bottle of spirits. They down it in one ferocious gulp. "It helps you to feel numb", Sohinal says through a stinging throat. In the distance, the glistening Dubai skyline he built stands, oblivious.
Yeah. Nauseating.

The expats who were having the "good life" aren't necessarily doing better, though. A lot of those people were much like their American counterparts: heavily indebted. But in Dubai, a bad debt will get you sent to prison, as at least one couple in the story found out when their finances went south. He ended up in jail; she ended up on the streets, telling her story to the Independent in exchange for a decent meal.

But As one emiriti points out, there aren't really that many alternatives to the modernization. "Do you know what will happen if this model fails? Dubai will go down the Iranian path, the Islamist path." He rants about how lazy the workers are, how hypocritical westerners are, about the horror of inconvenient strikes and the "lazy, overweight babies" that Emiritis have become. Yet he is right. Without economic modernization, religious extremism may well grow in its place. Maybe not this kind of modernization, but I'm uncomfortably reminded of the pasts of places like Hong Kong, Singapore and, yes, London and New York.

(I won't even get into the American South.)

There are some positive signs, as the article points out. Some people are speaking out, even if they get harassed by the government and even the secret police. People like Mohammed al-Mansoori are saying that there's room for improvement, and that it's the lack of democracy that is fueling religious extremism, not the lack of wealth.

But then again, maybe democracy isn't the only problem. Remember how employers take people's passports?

one theme unites every expat I speak to: their joy at having staff to do the work that would clog their lives up Back Home. Everyone, it seems, has a maid. The maids used to be predominantly Filipino, but with the recession, Filipinos have been judged to be too expensive, so a nice Ethiopian servant girl is the latest fashionable accessory.

It is an open secret that once you hire a maid, you have absolute power over her. You take her passport – everyone does; you decide when to pay her, and when – if ever – she can take a break; and you decide who she talks to. She speaks no Arabic. She cannot escape.

In a Burger King, a Filipino girl tells me it is "terrifying" for her to wander the malls in Dubai because Filipino maids or nannies always sneak away from the family they are with and beg her for help. "They say – 'Please, I am being held prisoner, they don't let me call home, they make me work every waking hour seven days a week.' At first I would say – my God, I will tell the consulate, where are you staying? But they never know their address, and the consulate isn't interested. I avoid them now. I keep thinking about a woman who told me she hadn't eaten any fruit in four years. They think I have power because I can walk around on my own, but I'm powerless."

The only hostel for women in Dubai – a filthy private villa on the brink of being repossessed – is filled with escaped maids. Mela Matari, a 25-year-old Ethiopian woman with a drooping smile, tells me what happened to her – and thousands like her. She was promised a paradise in the sands by an agency, so she left her four year-old daughter at home and headed here to earn money for a better future. "But they paid me half what they promised. I was put with an Australian family – four children – and Madam made me work from 6am to 1am every day, with no day off. I was exhausted and pleaded for a break, but they just shouted: 'You came here to work, not sleep!' Then one day I just couldn't go on, and Madam beat me. She beat me with her fists and kicked me. My ear still hurts. They wouldn't give me my wages: they said they'd pay me at the end of the two years. What could I do? I didn't know anybody here. I was terrified."

One day, after yet another beating, Mela ran out onto the streets, and asked – in broken English – how to find the Ethiopian consulate. After walking for two days, she found it, but they told her she had to get her passport back from Madam. "Well, how could I?" she asks. She has been in this hostel for six months. She has spoken to her daughter twice. "I lost my country, I lost my daughter, I lost everything," she says.

As she says this, I remember a stray sentence I heard back at Double Decker. I asked a British woman called Hermione Frayling what the best thing about Dubai was. "Oh, the servant class!" she trilled. "You do nothing. They'll do anything!"
"We has met the enemy, and it is us".

I just wonder what the American expats think of all this. Is there any sense of the irony? Any desire to change history repeating itself? Does the word "massuh" ever ring in their ears? Or do they just delight in having their little servants, too?

But then again, maybe I don't want to know. I'll probably sleep better.

Burying Psychology

This article in Time about how important behavioral economics is to the Obama administration vis a vis neoclassical economics is good, but it somewhat misses the point.

Behavioral economics is, in a very real way, not economics. It's a synthetic discipline that draws on sociology and psychology to answer the questions that neoclassical economics seems to have so much trouble with. That's fine and great- definitely an improvement.

But why spend all your time talking about the "economics" part of it, instead of the return of these previously-scoffed-at disciplines to policymaking? It's their return that's relevant, not the fact that economics has been modified by them.

And why use the term "behaviorists"? It really isn't a good idea: behaviorism is a branch of psychology with a very specific viewpoint on the human mind. It's just going to cause confusion in readers who have heard of 70's behaviorism, and especially those who know that it's not even necessarily the dominant viewpoint these days.

(I believe cognitive psychology is the leader in the 21st century.)

Now don't get me wrong. The points made about default choices, about how people tend to choose easy/popular options over the most "rational" ones, and about how neoclassical economics predicts behavior about as well as astrology are all good. Nudge is a solid book, and I have a lot of respect for Sunstein et al.

But it's not economics that's the story here. it's everything else.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Meanwhile, in the Senate...

The Republicans are apparently going to hold Obama's DoJ appointees hostage unless he agrees not to investigate the Republicans' torture "issues".

The hits, they just keep on coming.

So Why Hasn't Iggy Spoken Up About Abousfian Abdelrazik

He's the human rights guy, right? And leader of the Liberal party, which prides itself on its positions on human rights, isn't he?

So why the hell hasn't he gone to bad for A Canadian citizen who has been exiled to Sudan, tortured, and refused re-entry by the Conservative government?

Yes, the Conservatives should be criticized for this. They are. What's surprising is that Iggy appears to have no interest in the issue, instead farming it out to Irwin Cotler.

And why aren't his party's bloggers calling him out on it? Kossacks would (and do) tear strips off Obama whenever he even feints towards pulling this sort of thing. I wouldn't expect anything from Whatzisname, he's never seen a civil right that didn't irritate him, but I'd hope for a bit more from the rest of 'em.

Every time I look at that party, it just gets a little sadder.