Friday, January 03, 2003

The Bureau of Labor Statistics announced late last month that there had been 2,150 mass layoffs in the month of November alone, in which nearly a quarter of a million workers lost their jobs. Here in the responsibility era, Dubya's administration, deeply concerned, has announced swift, decisive action --- the BLS has been ordered to stop reporting on mass layoffs.

via Nathan Newman. And no, that's not satire, though as policy goes, you could certainly call it a joke...

More from The Onion New York Times on Dubya's foreign policy:

"We have a good dialogue with the United States on all levels characterized by respect," [Syrian] Minister of Information Adnan Omran said in an interview on Monday. "We can reach understandings and ease difficulties."

A Bush administration official involved in Middle East policy essentially agreed, saying, "The Syrians are highly opportunistic and pragmatic, which is why we can work with them." ...

The two countries are still in dispute over Syria's prolonged intervention in Lebanon, stubborn hostility toward Israel and the wide-ranging support for Hamas and Hezbollah militants that keeps Damascus on the State Department terrorist black list. Mob attacks against the American Embassy here in 1998 and 2000 opened new wounds, which have been salted by Syria's opening of its borders to Iraqi oil exports in violation of the United Nations-sanctioned embargo. ...

Syria denies breaking the United Nations embargo on Iraq, but Western diplomats and independent oil experts say the country imports about 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day for its domestic use, freeing its own oil production for export. Western diplomats estimate that total trade with Iraq earns the Syrian government $500 million a year, or 10 percent of its annual revenues. ...

As a member of the United Nations Security Council, Syria voted two months ago in favor of a resolution calling for Iraq to account for all weapons of mass destruction, a vote viewed positively in Washington as a tacit nod in favor of tightening the screws on Baghdad. But since that vote, Syria has tilted its diplomacy back in favor of Saddam Hussein to avert war.

During a state visit to Algeria last weekend, President Assad declared that Iraq had complied with the United Nations resolution and had proved it did not have weapons of mass destruction. "We see the United States administration's insistence on fabricating an excuse to launch a war against the brotherly people of Iraq," he said.

What balances against this record, apparently, is Syrian cooperation in rounding up al-Qaeda suspects (no surprise there; al-Qaeda hates the relatively secular Syrian regime, and is no doubt doing what they can to undermine it), and their alleged efforts to "restrain" Hezbollah, the openly declared terrorist group which they continue to sponsor. In short, the Republicans are once again cozying up to a vicious dictator because their interests temporarily align with his, just like they did with Saddam Hussein in the '80s. You'd think they'd have learned their lesson by now.

But it would be unfair to paint that as the only Republican response to vicious dictators. They have another: pointless posturing which begs for a conflict, and usually gets it. Witness their strategy for dealing with North Korea, to which, as Paul Krugman points out, building a bomb is actually a rational response, and it's hard to think of another. As Josh Marshall puts it:

You only get to seem tough and principled and Churchillian if you draw a line in the sand and then have something to follow it up with. You only get credit for pointing out what everyone already knew -- that the 1994 agreement was an imperfect one and perhaps only a stopgap -- if you've got something better. If you don't, you just look like a fool.

Grand strategy indeed.

Thursday, January 02, 2003

More news from Boston:

It's always fun to watch the Fox TV show Boston Public. It's set in the fictional Winslow High School, somewhere in Boston, which just happens to be the only public high school in the state of Massachusetts whose problems are limited to drugs, violence, sex, and students and parents who just don't give a damn. At most schools here, everyone --- teachers, staff, students, parents, everyone --- is worried sick about the MCAS.

What, pray tell, is this MCAS? It's a testing program pushed on the state, due in large measure to the efforts of Boston University Grand Poobah John Silber, he of the Taj Mahal office suite, while serving as head of the state board of education. It has the alleged goal of forcing students to bone up on the basics, and forcing teachers to be accountable for the progress of their students. So, for example, high school students can no longer collect a diploma with proving they know such elemental and basic facts of history as the purpose of the Treaty of Tordesillas (signed in 1494, in case that jogs your memory), and the major military challenges faced by the empire of Charlemagne.

There has been opposition to this testing program from all over the place, including public school systems which are excellent by any standard; the schools in Lincoln, for example, had to displace excellent student-directed in-depth study programs to make way for memorization from the test --- not to mention the significant cut out of teaching time taken by the test itself.

But, perhaps you say, you have to consider effects of the testing program on the state as a whole, including disadvantaged communities? Well, a recent study says that testing programs like MCAS don't help them either:

... after adopting such exams, twice as many states slipped against the national average on the SAT and the ACT as gained on it. The same held true for elementary-school math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an exam overseen by the United States Department of Education.

Trends on Advanced Placement tests were also worse than the national average in 57 percent of those states, while movement in elementary-school reading scores was evenly split ? better than the national average in half the states, worse in the other half. The only category in which most of the states gained ground was middle-school math, with 63 percent of them bettering the national trend.

Of course, one math test is pretty much like another, more so than history tests or reading. Moreover, even gains on average test scores themselves don't necessarily mean that the schools have gotten any better:

Perhaps most controversial, the study found that once states tie standardized tests to graduation, fewer students tend to get diplomas. After adopting such mandatory exit exams, twice as many states had a graduation rate that fell faster than the national average as those with a rate that fell slower. Not surprisingly, then, dropout rates worsened in 62 percent of the states, relative to the national average, while enrollment of young people in programs offering equivalency diplomas climbed.

The reason for this is not solely that struggling students grow frustrated and ultimately quit, the study concluded. In an echo of the findings of other researchers, the authors asserted that administrators, held responsible for raising tests scores at a school or in an entire district, occasionally pressure failing students to drop out.

These sorts of effects are familiar to interested observers around here.

So why push an agenda so hard which doesn't actually work? Well, why do Silber's school rules at BU effectively forbid students from having guests late in their rooms? There's a certain sort of conservative thought which sees the imposition of rules on hoi polloi as creating order, which is good in itself. And while the rules are presented and rationalized as having to do with education, that's not the only thing that's going on. It's not just about education --- it's about power.

By the way, does anyone know where exactly in Boston Winslow High is supposed to be? The exterior shots look like they might have been filmed at a real school in East Boston, but I sometimes get the feeling Winslow High is supposed to be somewhere else...

Wednesday, January 01, 2003

So, at about this time last year, the warblog crowd was preening over American success in the attack on Afghanistan. It was perhaps a bit embarrassing that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar had escaped capture, but al-Qaeda at least was not a functioning organization, and the rest was a matter of time. Concern that the victory might be temporary, and that with the Taliban gone, the warlords we had sponsored would revert to the anarchic infighting which made the Taliban look attractive by comparison, was dismissed as the carping of left-wingers who had been shown up by the boldness and sagacity of the Bush administration. And the notion that the failed oil pipeline deal with the Taliban might have anything to do with subsequent events was dismissed as pure conspiracy mongering, and far-fetched at that. When would these liberal pantywaists admit they were wrong?

Cut to the present. Bin Laden and Omar are both still at large, and both apparently alive, witness that tape with bin Laden's voice discussing current attacks. Al-Qaeda has picked itself up and put itself back together; they haven't blown up anything in New York again, but the nightclub bombing in Indonesia was on a scale comparable to anything they'd done before that. As to Afghanistan, the best you can say about the Karzai regime is that it's well-intentioned, and holds uncontested control over most neighborhoods in greater Kabul. Meanwhile, Dubya shows his sagacity by building up for an attack on Iraq, which poses little immediate threat to anyone outside its own borders, as if it was the single greatest threat in the world today, pooh-poohing North Korea, which has started up a nuclear weapons production line, has been recently caught selling its first-rate missile technology to Arab governments of questionable integrity, and has generally done everything short of threatening directly to nuke Tokyo or Seoul, both well within range of its missiles. But the pipeline deal --- that's in place. (Funny how you don't see much about it in the American press). When will these preening conservative blowhards admit they were wrong?

Speaking of oil-driven politics, here's a Reuters story which pretty much tells the world that the US is planning to take over the Iraqi oilfields, and (if you scroll down all the way) divvy them up among major Western energy companies. Perhaps that's what makes Iraq more dangerous than North Korea --- they have oil, while all the Koreans have is plutonium...

(Links via Bitter Shack and Ruminate This).

Well, it's 2003, and here's the stupidest thing I've read all year:

Answering questions on his way into the only coffee shop in this one-stoplight town near his ranch, Mr. Bush issued no demands that North Korea halt the nuclear programs it has threatened to restart, and he did not mentioned the ouster today of the international inspectors who have monitored activity at the country's primary nuclear site.

"I believe this is not a military showdown, this is a diplomatic showdown," the president said, on his way to get a cheeseburger and to chat with his neighbors here.

But the president's tone and his warnings changed noticeably when he turned to Iraq. He cited Mr. Hussein's effort to build a nuclear weapon in the early 1990's and said that as of now "we don't know whether or not he has a nuclear weapon."

To summarize:

  • Iraq: Tried to build a nuclear bomb in 1990. Cooperating with an inspection regime now, and has no current access to fissile material in any event. A case for immediate military action.

  • North Korea: Trying to build a nuclear bomb now. Has kicked out inspectors, activated a reactor waste reprocessing plant which will give them material for six bombs in as many months, and threatened withdrawal from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which, in effect, acknowledges they're building a bomb and double-dog-dares us to do anything about it. Oh, by the way, they have better missile delivery systems for the Iraqis (and, in fact, traded that technology to our ally in Pakistan in return for better bomb designs).

    Clearly, there's no case here for military action or threats; this is a case where nice, reasonable people can resolve things by diplomacy (with, perhaps, a few economic incentives thrown in --- think how glad Kim Jong-Il will be that he can get so many more votes by doubling his peoples' allowance of tree bark!)

I expect defenders of administration policy to cite this as further evidence that Dubya is pursuing the "madman strategy" which many of them cite with approval. I don't know if Saddam Hussein thinks he's nuts yet, but if he doesn't, it's not for lack of effort from Dubya...

Tuesday, December 31, 2002

The New York Times has come in for its share of criticism from people who believe that it is being improperly harsh towards Dubya and co. So it was interesting to note that the paper made a point yesterday of reporting a major success on their part, getting the Saudis to agree to let U.S. forces use bases on Saudi soil in an attack on Iraq, after months of foot-dragging.

Nice story. Or at least, interesting. But it looks like someone forgot to check with the Saudis:

In remarks on Monday, both the foreign minister and the deputy defence minister said there was no change in Saudi Arabia's position. The kingdom remains opposed to a war against Iraq, but has said it may review its options if the UN passes a resolution explicitly authorising the use of force.


"The truth is what I said, not what the [New York Times] newspaper reported," Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters during a visit to Sudan.

"Even if the [UN] Security Council issues a unanimous decision to attack Iraq, we hope a chance will be given to the Arab states to find a political solution to this issue," Prince Saud said.

Monday, December 30, 2002

Commentators like Steven den Beste are fond of describing Dubya's foreign policy as an intricate structure, whose many semi-transparent layers hide the true purpose at the core. Perhaps that's why attempts to discuss it seriously come off sounding like The Onion.

For example, from the latest New York Times analysis of Dubya's strategy regarding the crisis "serious situation" in North Korea, we have this:

There are several theories here and in Washington about the underlying strategy Mr. Bush is pursuing.

One is that he simply cannot afford a confrontation with North Korea when the United States military is preparing for a possible war with Iraq.

But Mr. Powell strongly argued that the United States was capable of handling both situations at once, and one of Mr. Bush's senior advisers called a reporter this weekend to argue that if Mr. Bush was seeking to play down the seriousness of the North Korean threat, he would not have ordered the State Department to confront the North Korean government in October with evidence that it was secretly developing a nuclear weapons program.

To which we might add that if true, this would make a liar out of Rummy. Think of it! (Of which, more anon). But what's the alternative?

A second theory is that the administration has calculated that Mr. Kim, even if he adds to his nuclear arsenal, is essentially more predictable and less dangerous than Mr. Hussein, who has never successfully produced a nuclear bomb.

Mr. Powell made that argument today. "This is a country that's in desperate condition," Mr. Powell said. "What are they going to do with another two or three more nuclear weapons when they're starving, when they have no energy, when they have no economy that's functioning?"

Which is certainly consistent with the general tenor of the administration's response to the crisis serious situation. It's just completely inconsistent with all reliable accounts of conditions in North Korea, which describe Kim as a madman who writes operas and builds monuments to his own greatness while having proven several times over by now that he doesn't much care if his population has to live by eating tree bark.

Moving right along, we have a Washington Post report on where Iraq got its start building chemical and biological weapons --- through a trade program opened in the Reagan years by Donald Rumsfeld, who claims to have had nothing to do with the shipments of anthrax, and to have tried to suggest restraint in the use of chemical weapons. (That last part is mysteriously absent from State Department notes on the meeting). But that was then. This is now, and in trying to explain the difference between former and current policy on Iraq, the Post comes up with this:

What makes present-day Hussein different from the Hussein of the 1980s, say Middle East experts, is the mellowing of the Iranian revolution and the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait that transformed the Iraqi dictator, almost overnight, from awkward ally into mortal enemy. In addition, the United States itself has changed. As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. policymakers take a much more alarmist view of the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

So, the problem isn't so much that he's a bloodthirsty fascist --- we knew that all along, particularly after the chemical attacks on his own people which the Reagan administration shrugged off --- but that his taste in blood isn't quite as discriminating as we'd like. Which makes you wonder what sort of behavior Republicans expect when they ship arms and give aid to power-mad, bloodthirsty tyrants, and why. But the real howler is the second part. Let's read it again:

As a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, U.S. policymakers take a much more alarmist view of the threat posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

Dubya's concern is remarkably selective. It doesn't extend, for example, to Pakistan, which developed nuclear technology in defiance of American sanctions, and which has already proliferated it to the madman running one of the most dangerous pariah states in the world --- North Korea. (And which also, by the by, has bragged that it was fully prepared to go nuclear "if Indian troops moved a single step across the international border", though a spokesman later issued the sort of "clarification" familiar to Americans who remember the Reagan years). Nor does Dubya seem particularly anxious to mop up the loose nuclear material rattling around the former Soviet union; he's targeted the joint American/Russian program to secure that stuff for funding cuts, choosing to spend the money instead on missile defense programs which have a 60% chance of intercepting an incoming missile, so long as it doesn't change course or carry decoys, but a 100% chance of steering billions of dollars to his favorite defense contractors.

I could go on, but if you like this sort of thing, I'm sure you can find more of it, making at least as much sense, in the pages of America's finest news source.

So, the theory behind stock options was that it would tie executive compensation to performance. If anyone still believes that theory it's time to give it up:

By most standards, 2002 has not been a good year for Tenet Healthcare.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation raided one of its hospitals to determine whether two doctors there had performed unnecessary heart surgeries. Medicare officials began scrutinizing the company's billing practices. Tenet badly missed its profit projections, and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened an inquiry into a steep decline in its stock, which closed on Friday at $15.13, more than 60 percent below its level a year ago.

But by another measure ? the paydays for Tenet's top executives ? the past year looks glorious. Jeffrey C. Barbakow, the chief executive, cashed out company stock worth $111 million in January shortly after calling the company's business "sensational" and increasing its profit forecast. Thomas B. Mackey, the chief operating officer, made $16.4 million in stock profits before he resigned in November, after Mr. Barbakow lost confidence in him. Other executives made an additional $12 million selling stock.

Similar contrasts between executive pay and corporate performance are fueling much of the public anger with corporate America. Yet even with business under intense scrutiny in 2002, many executives and board members have continued to cash in the stock options they were awarded as part of their pay, making millions of dollars even while their companies lost much of their value.

It's not so much that the movie of my life has been made. It's that the hip local alternative newspaper hated it.

Sunday, December 29, 2002

So, let me get this straight.

Iraq appears, for the moment, to be cooperating with the international inspections regime. They may have some lingering WMD capability, but with regard to nukes, at least, the most worrisome WMD, they are almost certainly years away from having a nuclear capability, due to lack of fissile material. The United States is threatening war at the first slip-up.

North Korea has kicked out their own inspectors, and activated plutonium reprocessing facilities which have no clear purpose other than bomb production. They probably already have material for a bomb or two on hand, and if they are allowed to restart the production line, they'll have material for another half-dozen within months, and a more slowly, but still steadily growing stockpile after that. Dubya's suggested approach? Economic sanctions.

The administration thinks that Korea will respond if it is threatened with economic collapse. (They don't make clear how they think economic collapse would differ from the current situation, in which many North Koreans are trying to subsist on eating grass and acorns).

As is often the case, the most interesting bits of the Times analysis of this sanctions package are buried at the bottom. For one thing, a sanctions regime requires multilateral cooperation, or it's hosed from the start, as the North Koreans will just trade elsewhere. Which means this sanctions policy is hosed from the start:

China, American officials acknowledge, has not pressed the North Koreans as hard as Washington would like and is unlikely to support economic sanctions. South Korea's new president, for his part, has come to office on a platform that called for increased interaction with North Korea, not the increased its isolation.

As to why the North Koreans are holding their plutonium party now:

"I think the Bush administration's tough rhetoric and tough policies toward North Korea have unnerved the North Koreans and perhaps led them to conclude that the only way for them to ensure security is to confront the world with a fait accompli by rapidly acquiring a substantial nuclear arsenal," Mr. Einhorn said.

In other words, Dubya's tough talk about possible conflict --- including breaking off ongoing negotiations with the North Koreans as he entered office, for no apparent reason --- may well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If this is what mature, professional foreign policy looks like, let's bring back the amateurs.