Friday, January 09, 2004

Some bloggers, particularly on the left, have responded to recent offerings from David Brooks and William Safire with mere casual mockery. But Andrew Northrup gives them the treatment that their status as conservative elders truly deserves...
The latest unemployment news (from a Reuters dispatch, in case the Times pulls it later):

American employers barely took on any new workers in December, a disappointing government report on Friday showed, indicating the economic recovery has yet to translate into sustained jobs growth.

However, the unemployment rate fell to 5.7 percent, the lowest level in over a year and down from 5.9 percent in November.

Evidently, the decrease in the unemployment rate is due almost entirely to people leaving the labor force altogether -- and you can bet that most of them aren't living off sustainable investment income. Continuing:

Encouraged by a reasonable holiday shopping season and a drop in filings for jobless benefits in December, economists had been expecting payrolls to rise 130,000. The jobless rate was forecast to hold steady at 5.9 percent.

In other words, a lot of economists had been making the reasonable-sounding assumption that more economic activity in America would lead to American companies creating jobs... in America. Which has been, for example, the free traders' case against restricting trade to preserve American jobs for a while:'s job shift--not job loss. "[S]ome Americans who otherwise would have had high paying jobs either have no jobs, or else lower paying jobs," but other Americans who would have had no jobs or else lower paying jobs have higher paying jobs, and Americans who buy what they make pay less and so have higher real incomes. We pay for the stuff that Indians sell us by giving them dollars, and those dollars are useless to them unless they use them to buy U.S. exports (or trade them to people who will use them to buy U.S. exports) or invest them in America--thus providing financing for American businesses to expand their productive capacity.

That's Brad DeLong, who is arguing, in this instance, that outsourcing shouldn't necessarily lead to a decline in the overall well-being of the American workforce. But he doesn't even bother to draw an explicit connection between "American businesses ... expand[ing] their productive capacity" and new jobs for Americans -- it's that obvious. Or it has been.

But something has recently changed -- and what has changed is, in fact, outsourcing. The chic way for American businesses to expand is to hire outside America. And this is the case in just about every industry you can think of -- heck, GM and Ford have set up car design bureaus in India, which is also fast becoming a destination of choice for advanced medical treatment. Which is surely a great thing for India -- and would be a good thing all around if the Americans being displaced had something better to look forward to than low-wage jobs in a retail sector increasingly dominated by the notoriously abusive WalMart. But the current economic expansion has been going on for long enough that if one believes that economic activity in America per se leads to the creation of good American jobs, one ought to be able to point to which good jobs have been created, where. Or else, at least start to worry that the connection has come unstuck.

Now, I'm not saying that trade per se is a problem here, or even that outsourcing in any individual sector is a problem. But a general race to the bottom, cutting across all sectors in the economy, reducing wages across the board to third world levels and polarizing the income distribution, is a problem. It's starting to look like that's what's happening here -- and that outsourcing is one of the ways it is happening. Trade barriers of whatever sort are surely not the best way of dealing with a situation like that, probably not even a very good way. I'd welcome better ideas. But first, you've got to acknowledge the problem...

Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Jesse Taylor is surprised that Mel Gibson, as a professing, devout Catholic, would simply make up a papal endorsement for his movie. Perhaps he's forgetting Gibson's Dad's particular strain of Catholicism -- a kind of radical traditionalism which holds that Vatican II, and everything that followed, was heresy. So, reasoning along the same lines, the actual Pope may have fallen into error, and failed to endorse the movie -- but the Gibsons are in a position to say that he certainly should have...
So, the latest on airline security is that the French are now seeking someone who failed to show up for one of the cancelled flights from Paris to Los Angeles, who is suspected of having al Qaeda ties. Let's hope for everyone's sake that the information is better than for some of the other suspects on the same flights:

One name matching that of the leader of a Tunisian-based terror group turned out to be that of a child. Another "terrorist" was a Welsh insurance agent. Another was an elderly Chinese woman who once ran a restaurant in Paris. The remaining three were French citizens. Extensive interrogations in the presence of officials from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration revealed nothing sinister, French officials said.

Meanwhile, the added security at airports in Mexico is delaying some passengers for days, as obnoxious security drones search the same bags and ask the same questions over and over and over -- and back home, in a much-blogged incident, airport security tried to detain what they evidently viewed as a terrorist pet fish.

Bear in mind that the security panic at the airports is based on information that Dubya's crew deems reliable. That would be the same crew that was happy to start a war based largely on unchecked rumors about weapons of mass destruction, which seem to have been largely false.

And of course, given the finite resources that security services have, all this attention to airports must necessarily come at the cost of reduced scrutiny elsewhere. Which is something an intelligent terrorist might exploit -- if you're building truck bombs and don't want much scrutiny, send all the cops to the airports. I do hope that there isn't an "informant" in a quiet nook somewhere in Northern Pakistan hanging up a satellite phone and laughing his ass off...

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Several years ago, in the wake of the British Mad Cow Disease crisis, I remember making a particular point of avoiding products of British cattle. Which turn up in the damnedest places -- Altoids mints, for instance, are a British import made from gelatin, a cattle product. Strangely, in all the ads featuring the dire consequences of consuming the "curiously strong" mints, not one features brain rot.

Now that the disease is showing up in our domestic meat supply, though, people who want to avoid it need to be a bit more thorough. For instance, as Julia points out, it's not uncommon for animals to be fed detritus from other animals -- quite possibly including animals found to be unfit for human consumption, given the general carelessness of our agribusiness. It's not terribly uncommon for potentially infected cattle bone meal to be used in chicken feed, for instance, or in fertilizer.

So, don't assume that you're safe eating chicken. And wash those vegetables...

Republicans of the ilk of Dubya and DeLay are four square behind two apparently contradictory policies -- preserving and adding to major entitlements (e.g. Medicare), while at the same time cutting taxes. And it has reached the point where the fiscal future of the nation is in jeopardy. It's common enough, on the left, to view this as part of a cynical plot to destroy government services -- in part because that is the avowed goal of influential Republicans like Grover "strangle government in a bathtub" Norquist. But we should also consider the possibility that some of the people who advocate this nonsense do so because they sincerely believe it.

How is that possible? Consider this tale, relayed by Michael Froomkin, of two unexpected guests at a Live Action Role Playing party. The LARPers had been given a corner of the grounds of a country club, which was hosting a wedding reception elsewhere, but had been told in no uncertain terms not to disturb the other guests. In typical fashion, this restriction was incorporated into the rules of the LARP -- a swords and sorcery type scenario, in this instance -- with the result that when two guests from the wedding party wandered into the LARPers' den, they were immediately confronted with stark warnings from numerous, strangely garbed people about the dire consequences of traveling back across "the edge of the world". And believed them. Indeed, as none of the LARPers would break character for long enough to explain to the hapless mundanes what was going on, they got increasingly desperate, to the point that one offered the entire contents of his wallet for transit back to "his world".

This sounds crazy, but it seems there are people who will believe the most idiotic things if they are repeated often enough by people who seem to believe them earnestly. Now, consider that the typical Republican Congressman spends all day surrounded by colleagues who seem to earnestly believe that, by some unexplained fiscal alchemy, cutting taxes somehow raises government revenue...

Monday, January 05, 2004

The news from occupied Iraq -- where the cluster bombs are still dropping, ethnic strife is rising, residents are blogging about everything from the dismal state of the power grid (private local generators are a growth industry) to the possibility of civil war, and our soldiers are running out of time to manage things themselves, can't, on the whole, be characterized as really great. But it's worth noting that all has not gone as the doomsayers might have predicted.

For instance, we have not yet seen the once widely anticipated "sellout of the Kurds", and according to an article in today's New York Times, we won't -- Dubya's crew has decided, they say, to maintain the Kurdish region's autonomous status, rather than try to bring it back under the domination of a possibly hostile Arab-based central government. Better yet, as Juan Cole notes, this is part of a general trend of Americans abandoning their large-scale transformative schemes in favor of getting out of the country as quickly as possible -- which those in favor of leaving Iraqi government to the Iraqis would have to see as good news, even if they're doing it for the wrong (American electoral) reasons.

Cole does have his worries, though, as here, where he worries that a division of the country based on ethnic bantustans may not be a good foundation for democracy pretty much anywhere. Nor, for that matter, necessarily even stability -- the article in the Times is, technically speaking, silent on the question of what happens if the Turkish army sends forces into the present Kurdish autonomous region after the US pulls out.

And then there's the question of whether Dubya's crew is planning to keep on meddling anyway -- Cole points to a report that Cheney is personally pursuing a revival of, of all things, Saddam's old secret police, with the explicit goal of "maintain[ing American] control over the direction of the country" after American troops pull out. Atta way to bring them democracy...