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He Said, She Said

Who’s right about our transportation problems: Ron Sims or Christine Gregoire?

In late September, King County Executive Ron Sims came out and said he would vote “no” on King County Proposition 1, the enormous tri-county transportation package that would combine road construction and an extension of Sound Transit’s light rail line. Sims, a dedicated supporter of Sound Transit, shocked everyone by saying that Proposition 1 is a regressive bill that would do little to alleviate congestion, would build light rail where there is little demand for it, and would contribute drastically to global warming by encouraging the use of single-passenger automobiles.

A week later, Governor Christine Gregoire encouraged people to vote “yes” on Proposition 1, saying that there are important safety issues involved. At the same time, Sound Transit sent out an informational mailer that claimed that Proposition 1 would provide money to replace bridges in the tri-county area.

Notice that Gregoire tried to shift the debate away from the argument that Proposition 1 promotes global warming. That’s an argument she can’t counter, because it’s obviously true; hence, she chose not to address it. Instead, Gov. Gregoire opted to scare us into voting for Proposition 1 by using the example of a recent Minneapolis bridge collapse to highlight her safety concerns. If we don’t pass Proposition 1, she implied, we can expect bridges to start collapsing all over the Puget Sound region.

In fact, Proposition 1 contains $5.4 billion that will go to projects in King County and, of that $5.4 billion, only $1.2 billion is for maintenance work and bridge replacement (less than one-quarter of the total). That $1.2 billion will be used to replace only two bridges: the South Park Bridge and the 520 Bridge. The South Park Bridge replacement will cost $110 million. That’s a tiny, tiny fraction of the total amount of the bill. On the other hand, the 520 Bridge will get $1.1 billion, which is about one-third of the funds needed to complete construction on the span (the rest is supposed to come from state and federal funds–well, good luck with that). The remaining money for King County projects–$4.2 billion–will be used primarily for new construction for congestion relief, freight mobility, and additional HOV lanes.

Furthermore, Proposition 1 will divert local money from important bridge repairs. Several of the congestion relief and freight mobility projects in Proposition 1 will rely on the City of Seattle to provide local funds to supplement what the package provides. In other words, the city has to cough up a share of the costs.

Three weeks ago Mayor Greg Nickels released a new draft of the Seattle City budget which cuts tens of millions of dollars for the following bridge repair and replacement projects: the Magnolia Bridge replacement, the 12th Avenue South bridge deck repair project, and repairs to the 15th Avenue NE bridge and the East Duwamish Waterway bridge.

The Magnolia Bridge, in particular, is deserving of immediate attention; it was damaged in 1997 by a landslide and then further damaged in the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001. Yet the Seattle City budget cuts $23.5 million from the Magnolia Bridge fund and diverts that money to Proposition 1 projects, particularly the Mercer Street expansion, a congestion relief plan that will benefit developers and landowners in the South Lake Union area, including Paul Allen, the area’s largest landowner.

The City of Seattle plans to fund the Mercer Street expansion and various freight mobility improvements (which would mostly benefit the Port of Seattle and its affiliated businesses) by issuing $62 million in bonds in 2008 alone, an increase of $27 million over what was originally budgeted. In addition, the city will divert $4.7 million from the General Subfund (which funds everything from fire stations and public libraries to community activity centers and arts programs) and an additional $9 million from the cumulative reserves fund. Proposition 1, if it passes, will become a black hole that sucks up funds for bridge repairs in Seattle, but also devours large chunks of other money from the city budget that could be used for a whole range of other projects, including low-income housing, which is certainly more important than saving commuters a 10-minute wait on Mercer Street during rush hour.

Gov. Gregoire, by skipping the discussion about global warming and changing the argument to one of safety and road maintenance, was clearly showing her ignorance of the broader impact of Proposition 1. But mostly she was just trying to lighten her own workload. If Proposition 1 fails at the polls in November, then the tri-county Regional Transportation Investment District will dissolve at the end of December. When the state legislature reconvenes in January, Gov. Gregoire will face increasing pressure to come up with a “transportation solution.”

Potential solutions already exist and are working in other parts of the world. The use of tolls to pay for transportation improvements is widespread on the East Coast and is finally making its way west. State Department of Transportation officials are already considering tolls as an option to make up for sagging revenues from the gas tax (apparently, increased gas prices have forced Washington residents to drive less, buy less gas, and pay less in gas taxes than the state originally estimated). And tolls may become the only way to reliably fund the 520 Bridge project.

In his criticism of Proposition 1, Ron Sims pointed out that financing transportation costs through the sales tax is regressive and unfair to the state’s citizens. He suggested using a combination of tolls and “congestion pricing.” European cities, including London and several cities in Sweden, have used congestion pricing for years. In congestion pricing, the city designates a toll on certain roads or sections of the city during certain peak travel hours of the day. Any vehicle that uses the designated roads or enters or leaves the designated congestion area during those peak traffic times would pay a small fee. Tolls and congestion pricing are user fees that fall more heavily on commercial vehicles and wealthy drivers (who can already afford higher gas prices and exorbitant downtown parking fees) than on the poor, who are more likely to commute by bus or drive during off-peak times. For weekend trips, mid-day visits to the doctor, or evening drives to a movie theater, concert, or a Seahawks game, congestion pricing wouldn’t apply.

Conversely, if we enact a sales tax increase, the poor will pay a much higher percentage of their income in traffic congestion taxes than the wealthy would. This would unfairly impact low-income people who have already decided for economic reasons to take the bus to and from work. It would also place a burden on retirees, who don’t contribute much at all to traffic congestion.

User fees have an added benefit: they provide an additional economic incentive for people to leave their cars at home. In August, Seattle was confronted with a potential traffic congestion nightmare when most lanes of I-5 south of the city were closed for several days because of road maintenance work. Not only did most people leave their cars at home, but most made the switch to commuting by bus and train almost effortlessly. More importantly, after the I-5 work was completed, a significant number of people continued to commute by train and bus. Even after the incentive to not drive was removed, people still chose to leave their cars behind.

Removing cars from the road is the only viable solution to our traffic congestion problems. Spending billions of dollars to build additional lanes of traffic that will take twenty years to complete is not the answer. And the best way to address the environmental impact of automobile emissions is not to burn fuel made from corn in our gas tanks, but to ask ourselves why each one of us still has to acquire, maintain, and feed a single-passenger automobile.

We need to think to the future, then come up with solutions that are pro-active and future-oriented, instead of reactive and rooted in the past. Proposition 1 is driven by the desire to recapture a hazy memory of the good old days when we had wide-open roads from Tacoma all the way north to Bellingham. That past is gone forever, and the sooner we all admit it, the better.

ETS! endorsements for the Nov. 6 ballot ran last issue (Vol. 12, No. 3); they are available online at http://www.eatthestate.org/12-03/Election07Shotgun.htm.

Cheap Money for Corporations

George Bush and the Federal Reserve have been telling investors not to panic: the housing crisis won’t touch the broader economy. But recent news has proved them wrong.

In August, layoffs surged to 79,459 from 42,897 in July, more than double what economists had predicted for the month. Nearly half of those layoffs were attributed directly to the financial industry and the mortgage crisis. Which means that George Bush and the Fed were wrong: a large number of those layoffs came from the broader economy. The housing downturn is having a wider effect than predicted.

Common sense tells us how this could happen. The housing market has been full of speculation–investors and developers buying second, third, and fourth houses to fix up and resell while housing values skyrocketed. All this purchasing, selling, and remodeling activity created jobs in the construction, service, and retail industries, and those jobs are now being lost as the bottom drops out of the housing market.

There’s another, more ominous explanation for why the economy is experiencing a larger downturn than expected. The prevalence of cheap money (i.e., low interest rates and easy loan terms) that fueled the run-up in the housing market may have had a similar impact on corporate balance sheets.

Post-9/11, George Bush put forward an economic stimulus package that included tax cuts for corporations and a controversial–though not widely discussed–tax amnesty for multinational corporations that use offshore accounts to shelter their international profits from US income taxes. For a short time, multinationals could repatriate (bring back into the US) their international profits without having to pay a dime in US taxes. Bush sold this bill to Congress as a means to stimulate the job market: corporations could use this “free money” to create jobs.

Most corporations were very happy to repatriate their profits, but few used them to hire more workers. Most profits were used to fund mergers and takeovers (which often lead to job losses), capital purchases (buying machinery and equipment), and stock buy-backs. Buying back company stock was a particularly popular move, because it boosted the price of the company’s stock, which made investors happy and made further mergers and acquisitions easier.

But corporations may have became hooked on this artificial means of growth. In the past couple of years, low interest rates have tempted CEOs to borrow money to continue buying back stock and to finance even more mergers and acquisitions. This has artificially driven up the stock markets. In addition, many corporations may also have run up unsustainable amounts of debt on their balance sheets.

As more and more folks succumb to mortgage defaults and declare personal bankruptcy, or decide to struggle on with their huge monthly mortgage payments, consumer spending will continue to fall. Consumer spending is the lynchpin of the US economy: without it, corporate profits suffer, without exception. Once corporate profits plunge, the companies that have fallen into the cheap money trap will have a hard time making payments on their debts. Then it’ll be downsizing time, and we’ll really see a lot of layoffs.

Currently, economists are predicting that there’s a 50% chance that the US economy will undergo a recession next year. The odds are probably greater than that. And if many corporations have unwisely engaged in risky borrowing practices, the recession could be deep and prolonged.

At the same time, state and local governments will take a pounding as the economy worsens. Here in Washington State, our local governments rely heavily on the general sales tax. With a plunge in consumer spending, our state and city governments will be hit with deficits just when they’ll need extra money to deal with a growing homeless and jobless population.

(The housing downturn is expected to reach us eventually, and maybe quite soon. The inventory of unsold houses in the Puget Sound area is growing bigger each month. Local newspapers are now reporting that Seattleites are having trouble getting mortgages because of tightening credit. The next indicator will be falling prices–coming to your neighborhood soon. After all, if San Francisco can see their housing prices sink, so can we.)

We should remember, too, that 2008 will be an election year. Voters are always quick to punish the party in power whenever the economy goes sour. In the case of the Republicans and George Bush, the punishment will be well deserved.

Cheap Money Has Its Costs

It hasn’t reached us yet, but the tsunami is headed our way. The rest of the country has fallen into a housing slump that hasn’t touched us here in western Washington so far. Yet even if our housing market continues to boom, we’re going to feel the impact eventually.

The centerpiece of George Bush’s economic recovery plan has been to provide cheap money to boost the economy. Cheap money is generated when the financial system provides easy, low-interest loans to consumers and businesses, allowing them to increase debt for everything from house and car purchases, to credit card debt, to loans for businesses. This is made possible by artificially depressing interest rates–keeping the bucks flowing in an economy that depends heavily on consumer spending for its growth.

In the past three years, most of our consumer spending has been fueled by low-interest home equity loans and mortgage refinances. Folks have been using their homes as ATMs. Instead of maintaining a stable, 30-year fixed rate mortgage, they’ve been refinancing into riskier adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs) that lower monthly mortgage payments and free up cash to spend–but only for a while. Once the rate adjustments kick in (in year two or three of their loans), their monthly mortgage payments soar and suddenly they find themselves struggling to keep houses they once thought they could afford. This wasn’t a problem when housing prices were high and steadily increasing; these folks could always sell their homes and try again with a new house or, in some cases, refinance their old ARM into a new ARM.

Housing prices have plummeted in many parts of the country, leaving folks with ARMs in a real bind. If they sell their houses, they’ll lose money and be unable to pay their debts. Nor can these folks refinance into new ARMs, because mortgage companies are presently unwilling to write risky ARMs. This is called “credit tightening.” Too many people have defaulted on their loans causing banks and mortgage companies to lose money (more than 50 finance companies have gone bankrupt so far this year), so cheap money is harder to find now than in 2005 and 2006.

All the blame can’t be shoveled onto the shoulders of consumers, however. Most folks who took out ARMs had no clue what they were getting themselves into, and that’s at least partly the fault of the mortgage brokers and finance companies who wrote the loans. They make profit on the volume of loans and the total amount of money they lend, not on the quality of the loans they write. Sure, nobody wants a loan to go into default, but Wall Street has figured out a way to lessen the risk for mortgage lenders by packaging bundles of risky mortgage loans into mortgage-backed securities that can be sold to investors, thereby spreading the risk around.

Economists argued that by spreading risk the total financial impact is diluted if any of these risky loans fall into default. Credit rating agencies agreed. Of course, the rating agencies (Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch’s, etc.), are paid by the businesses who issue the bonds and securities they rate–a clear conflict of interest–so they routinely gave these mortgage-backed securities unwarranted high ratings. Investors, particularly those with pension fund investments and retirees searching for safe income-yielding investments, lined up in droves to buy these high-rated securities. Unfortunately, Wall Street couldn’t have been more wrong.

By spreading the risk around, they inadvertently magnified the impact of mortgage defaults. This has been clearly illustrated by the wild market swings over the past couple of weeks, as investors quickly pulled their money out of any investment fund that might own mortgage-backed securities. In turn, these investment funds can’t sell their mortgage-backed securities to pay their obligations to investors because nobody, simply nobody, is buying mortgage-backed securities. In other words, the market had dried up. Instead, investment funds have had to sell whatever assets they can to meet their debts to investors who want out of their funds. When they sold valuable stocks and commodities, the stock market plunged.

The story doesn’t end here. Thus far, most mortgage defaults have been caused by sub-prime loans–the small part of the market comprised of people with poor credit histories. The bulk of folks who took out risky ARMs in 2005 and 2006 have yet to see their loan rates increase, a problem set to hit the market sometime in 2008. Nobody really knows how big this issue will be, though estimates range from $325 billion to $550 billion worth of loans that may default in the next year or two.

Of course all of this could have been averted if there was a regulating body keeping an eye on the mortgage industry, or making sure the credit rating agencies were doing their job properly. But the current fashion among US economists is to push for deregulation. Let the markets decide. Beware of government intervention, which stifles capitalism and profit. When the chaff is shaken out of the system, we’ll all be better off, etc. Unfortunately, the chaff is comprised of people losing their homes, declaring bankruptcy, and becoming saddled with exorbitant debt. It’s made up of people losing their jobs because of a housing slump and economic meltdown. It’s made up of elderly people who’ve watched the value of their pensions and investments implode. To Wall Street, we’re all chaff, and we ought to be pretty damn angry.

So what are the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve doing? When the crisis hit a couple of weeks ago, the Federal Reserve immediately poured billions of dollars into the banking system as more cheap money in a largely unsuccessful effort to keep credit flowing. Next the Fed cut the discount rate–the interest rate it charges on loans it gives to banks–by half a percentage point. Then the Fed opened its discount window to provide billions more to banks struggling to avoid declaring bankruptcy. Few banks and finance companies want to admit they have a problem by withdrawing money from the discount window. The negative publicity would drive down their stock prices, causing more financial woes. Last week four major banks, including Bank of America and Citigroup–none of whom are in any immediate financial trouble, by the way–lined up to withdraw a total of $2 billion from the Feds’ discount window in a show of “good faith”, as if to say, “See, there’s no shame in dipping into the public trough when times are tough. Bailouts are a good thing.”

Unless, of course, you’re chaff. Then you’re supposed to suffer in silence while Wall Street pockets its profits and gets rewarded for its mistakes.

Leave the School Board Alone

Everyone who is sick of the Greg Nickels Grandstand Show please raise your hand. I’m glad I’m not the only one. Now, can we please leave the fucking school board alone?

The Seattle School Board has been tangling with two of the most difficult issues any school board has to face: a looming budget deficit and school closures. Instead of sitting in closed sessions and making the decisions by fiat (as prior boards might have done), the current school board has chosen to make the process an open and democratic one that includes plenty of public input. Unfortunately, along with helpful input from parents, the school board and superintendent have also received abusive and racist input, too.

The public is impatient and unfamiliar with the democratic process. American democracy has been reduced to voting once a year for pre-selected millionaire candidates and spending the rest of our time anesthetized by “reality” TV, Internet porn, and frenzied shopping sprees. Local “news” never involves an in-depth look at how the Seattle School Board struggles to choose which schools to close; instead, we’re treated to endless coverage of the life of a 30-something Microsoft lawyer who died when a construction crane fell on him. Do we even give a shit? (Clearly, if he’d been a 50-something school board member, the story never would have made the front page.)

The daily newspapers are even worse. Instead of a balanced look at problems in Seattle schools, we get a barrage of editorials excoriating the Seattle School Board for not tackling budget problems and taking too long to decide about school closures. Apparently, someone needs to explain to the public, including newspapers editors, that the democratic process takes time. And effort. And more time. Political decisions are not something we can shove into a microwave and, voila, two minutes later we have hot, cooked compromises ready to swallow. It can take weeks and months to reach decisions on difficult issues, and if the process has been an open one, the end product is usually a compromise that most folks can live with.

Unless you’re Mayor Greg Nickels.

With the school board struggling under a barrage of criticism from parents and the media, it was only a matter of time before Czar Nickels jumped on the bandwagon. First, he announced his desire to take over the management of the Seattle School District–never mind that the city government has no authority over anything related to the public schools (that falls under the role of the state government, not local governments).

As part of the coup, Czar Nickels promptly proposed that his own lieutenant be appointed as the next superintendent: former mayor Norm Rice, whose only qualifications for the job are that he’s African-American, a former czar himself, and has a nice smile (as opposed to the out-going Superintendent Raj Manhas, who rarely smiles at all).

Offended, the school board rejected Rice, because they’d already launched a nationwide search for Manhas’ successor. Presumably they’re looking for someone with prior experience running a school or a school district. In other words, they’re doing their jobs–which, of course, hasn’t stopped our local newspapers from criticizing them for not kowtowing to the Czar.

But does Norm Rice even know anything about schools? No. His plan for saving Seattle schools is full of meaningless rhetoric and an undisguised desire to be back in the command chair again. Remember, in the 1990s, when the mayor and city council were engaged in shady public-private partnerships? When the city built an expensive downtown parking garage for Nordstrom? When the city gave away the PacMed building to Amazon.com in a 99-year lease for almost nothing? When the city agreed to a downtown bus tunnel that sprang leaks and included built-in tracks for light rail that were the wrong size? Remember? Well, that was Mayor Norm Rice.

I should say right now that I don’t attend Seattle public schools and I don’t have children, but I have friends who do. Their kids are getting a decent education, from what I can tell. In fact, they’re getting a much better education than I received from a rural Pierce County school district that boasted a 50% dropout rate and where most of the college-bound students were headed for two-year voc-tech training courses at local community colleges. The rest of the graduates of my high school joined the military.

Still, I’m glad I didn’t grow up in a third world country with no public education system at all, or one where the teachers were routinely slaughtered by death squads because, as the most literate and educated members of their communities, they spoke out against government oppression. And I’m glad that my school district had enough money to put buses on the road, books on the desks, and teachers in the classroom; there are school districts all over the country and the world that struggle to do just that.

What we tend to forget is this: to get top-quality schools we need to spend more money per pupil and raise teacher salaries. Higher salaries attract better teachers. More money provides more options. Period. This is not just my personal opinion, but the opinion of folks who’ve compared education systems around the country. The defining difference between a school district where the kids do well academically and one where they don’t boils down to dollar signs.

Why is this so hard to understand, in a country where most of us think that money can buy happiness? Marrying a millionaire might make us happy, but cutting school funding won’t hurt our kids’ test scores? C’mon!

If we want our schools to do better, we shouldn’t put Norm Rice in charge, we should insist that the state and federal governments come up with more funds, and that they help the school board balance the budget. In the meantime, let’s give the school board a break.

Open Mouth, Insert Foot

It’s hard to imagine a worse month for the Bush administration, foreign-policy-wise, than September has been. Every day brings a new disaster on top of the last one like a line of speeding drivers tailgating their way into a 20-car pile-up.

First came the Bush administration’s failure to secure UN sanctions against Iran for purportedly seeking to build a nuclear weapon. Never mind the fact that UN inspectors have affirmed Iran’s uranium enrichment program is all above-board, and that they’ve only enriched uranium to a 3.6 percent purity level. To build a single nuclear weapon, they would need to get a 90 percent purity level, which most experts agree they might achieve over the course of a decade or two. Yes, that’s decades, not months, as Republicans in Congress would have us believe.

Not one single nation on the UN Security Council, other than the US, will consider sanctions against Iran, for two reasons: one, it’s been done before, against Iraq, and it was a massive blunder, and two, everybody else on the Security Council trades with Iran, except for us, to the sum of $22 billion per year. Germany sells them steel, France cars, Russia weapons, and China sells them air conditioners, washing machines, trucks, tractors, and other machinery. China also buys Iranian oil, which accounts for 18 percent of its crude oil imports. Even some US companies trade with Iran through subsidiaries registered in foreign countries. Iran, with 68 million people, is the second largest economy in the Middle East, after Saudi Arabia. It has a higher standard of living than our “democratic projects,” Iraq and Afghanistan. Sanctions were a stupid idea, guaranteed to fizzle from the start.

Speaking of Afghanistan, the recent news from that country is shocking. Remember, in early 2002, the Bush administration had secured a victory in Afghanistan. They had it in the bag. But on Sept. 13, Condoleezza Rice and Tony Blair stood before a NATO meeting and said that Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a “failed state.” A coalition of criminal gangs, drug lords, militias, resurgent Taliban fighters, and al Qaeda extremists control between one-half to two-thirds of Afghanistan’s total territory, depending on which regional expert you’re listening to. Some of the drug lords also moonlight as Afghan government officials and policemen, according to Afghan villagers interviewed by the press. That’s why Afghanistan is on track to produce a record $3 billion opium harvest this year, which will add up to 92 percent of the world’s total heroin trade.

That’s a major defeat in the flagging War on Drugs. Already, in Britain, the street price of heroin has dropped 50 percent. The Bush administration says that Afghan heroin has flooded Europe but hasn’t reached the US. That’s got to be a lie. When one nation accounts for 92 percent of total world opium production, a lot of that heroin has to be hitting our shores, too.

So Rice and Blair begged NATO to supply more troops for Afghanistan, but this month saw the worst fighting in Afghanistan since the war began five years ago. Not a single NATO nation signed up to bail us out, except for Poland, which said it might send 900 soldiers some time next year – although they’ve already promised 100 troops who haven’t materialized.

The Darfur debacle continues, with George W. Bush begging the UN to send a peacekeeping force. Meanwhile, he has refused to come out in favor of a bill that would require the US government to divest in companies that trade with Sudan. Fifteen states have already passed such a bill, but the Bush administration won’t support a similar version currently deadlocked in Congress. The President could literally get on the phone tomorrow and call key Republicans in Congress, and the bill would pass the next day. No one in the US press has pointed out the hypocrisy of Bush calling for sanctions on Iran, but not sanctions on Sudan, where the massacres in Darfur are continuing, even as you read this.

As a campaign strategy, the administration has pushed the war in Iraq to the background, since most Americans now view it as the disaster it has always been. Yet bad news still bleeds through. Witness the Sept. 15 announcement that US and Iraqi troops will dig trenches around Baghdad to keep out an enemy that has already infiltrated the city. In fact, the “enemy” is and always has been the population of the city itself, but that’s a fact not to be discussed, even by mainstream critics of the war. The trenches are just busy work for the handful of new Iraqi army recruits (the old ones having deserted when their salaries didn’t get paid), and a public relations gesture gone badly awry. Trenches around Baghdad do not look like a good idea, even to diehard Republican supporters.

And finally, Sept. 18 was the start of Beat Up Bush Week at the UN, where Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez led the charge on Sept. 20 by calling George W. Bush “the Devil” and waving around a copy of Noam Chomsky’s latest book on US imperialism. In spite of efforts by Republicans, Democrats, and the mainstream US press to belittle and demonize Chavez, Chomsky’s book shot to the number one spot on Amazon.com’s bestseller list. Clearly, someone was taking him seriously. Shortly after Chavez’s UN speech, the word “hegemony” became a popular word for many speakers who took the podium after him.

Outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan scolded Bush for making the world less safe and drawing resources away from more pressing matters. Thabo Mbeki of South Africa called for less focus on “security” and more work on poverty and development issues, and Brazilian President Lula da Silva seconded that view. But the spotlight belonged to Bolivia’s first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who came directly from a meeting with representatives of Native American tribes to speak at the UN in New York. He stood on the floor of the General Assembly and pulled a coca leaf from his pocket, then said, “Coca is green, not white like cocaine.” In other words, cocaine is a US problem, not a Bolivian problem.

Morales advocates growing coca for medicinal purposes, pointing out that it’s an indigenous crop in Bolivia that would be impossible to eradicate. And he’s right, just as opium poppies would be impossible to eradicate in Afghanistan. Several analysts and NGOs now advocate legalizing Afghanistan’s opium crop so it can be used for the production of prescription painkillers, instead of sold on the black market to buy weapons for drug runners, the Taliban, and Afghan warlords. And they’re right, too. Waving a big stick doesn’t work nearly as well as waving cash.

(Incidentally, Morales also showed how idiotic our whole airport security system really is. Shampoo bottles are verboten, but a coca leaf makes it through okay.)

Still, it wasn’t just the heads of other nations who humiliated George W. Bush at the UN. He humiliated himself. First, he gave a paternalistic speech that sought to tell citizens of other nations what was best for them and what he thought of their governments (no wonder Hugo Chavez felt emboldened to tell the US people that their president is the Devil). Then he idiotically declared, “Asia has seen freedom progress” – at the exact same moment that a military coup was unfolding in Thailand, our closest ally in Asia.

Nor did George Bush recall that Pakistan, another very close ally in Asia, is ruled by a military dictator. That same dictator, Pervez Musharraf, told CBS News on Sept. 22 that he’s only been helping us out in the War on Terror because Bush’s security envoy, Richard Armitage, threatened in 2001 to bomb his country “back to the Stone Age” if he didn’t. Bush and Armitage immediately denied having said it, but they didn’t explain why our dear ally would lie about something like that.

There’s still plenty of time between now and the November elections for more disasters to unfold, for more humiliation and more highly amusing blunders. And they will happen, have no doubt.

A Lesson in American Justice

Class! Class, listen up. Today we’re going to talk about American Justice in the 21st Century. Our lesson begins with a discussion about executive power.

Open up your book to page three and read after me: “The three main branches of the government are the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch.” Simple, huh? Well, maybe in theory, but in actual practice, there are times when the Executive Branch sometimes takes over the function of one of the other branches, or even both.

Can we think of an example of when the Executive Branch has seized power from the Legislative Branch? No? How about a few years ago, when Congress passed a bill giving President Bush the authority to declare war on Iraq at any time, thereby giving up one of the main duties of Congress under the Constitution? Well, yeah, the Bush administration didn’t actually seize power from Congress; Congress gave it up willingly … after they’d had the bejeezus scared out of them with false information about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. That information was provided to Congress by the Bush administration, as a matter of fact. The act of “seizing power” can take all kinds of subtle forms, can’t it?

Now, let’s talk about ways that the Executive Branch might seize power from the Judicial Branch.

First of all, let’s revisit what the Judicial Branch does. It’s basically law enforcement and the judiciary itself: “cops and courts.” Some people, however, would argue that the law enforcement half is really controlled by the Executive Branch. Certainly, on the federal level, that’s very true. Can you think of some examples?

The FBI, yes. The CIA. The Department of Justice. Good. The NSA–you’ve got the idea. But we’re forgetting the big one…the military, that’s right! Okay, the whole enforcement arm of the federal government is completely controlled by the Executive–well, almost. Do Congress or the courts play a role, too?

Congress approves the budget for these agencies and certain Congressional committees exercise oversight: they review CIA, DOJ, and Pentagon policy and sign off on it. But what if the head of the Pentagon–that’s the Secretary of Defense–or the head of the CIA, or the head of the Justice Department (the Attorney General) don’t tell the Congressional committees everything they need to know? That’s another way of seizing power from the Legislative Branch: by not providing all the information needed for Congress to make an informed decision.

The Judicial Branch exercises some oversight of law enforcement, too. For example, when the police want to place a wiretap on someone’s phone, they have to go to a judge and get a warrant to conduct this special kind of blanket search. The police have to provide enough evidence to persuade a judge that there’s a compelling reason to violate a citizen’s right to privacy under the Constitution. So the Judiciary has some control over law enforcement’s actions, right?

What if the police go ahead and place the wiretap anyway, without going to a judge and getting a warrant? What if, when they’re caught in the act of breaking the law, the police refuse to investigate themselves because the Executive Branch–the Mayor, the Governor, or the President, for example–has told them that he has the authority to order wiretaps on anybody at any time, and that his word is more important than a judge’s ruling. This would be a much less subtle way for the Executive Branch to seize power from another branch of government. Can anyone think of an example in recent history when this has happened?

Thank you, Suzie. Yes, the NSA was recently caught tapping the phones of American citizens without first obtaining a warrant. Is anyone investigating this illegal activity? Well, no, they’re not. In fact, the Justice Department just announced that they’re going to investigate and find out who leaked the information to the press. Hmmm.

What do we call it when the Executive Branch seizes power from the Legislative and Judicial Branches and then, when confronted with its own wrongdoing, chooses not to investigate itself but to punish the whistleblowers, the dissidents, the dissenters, instead?

That’s right, Jimmy. We call that a dictatorship.

2005 Media Follies!

by Maria Tomchick & Geov Parrish

Welcome to our tenth year of selecting our annual list of the year’s most overhyped and underreported stories. As one would expect in a year when one of the underreported stories was our government’s covert propaganda campaigns, there’s plenty to unravel: stories that should never have been stories, stories whose reporting largely missed the point, and stories barely told at all in mainstream US media.

The good news is that, more than ever, mainstream media is no longer the last word in journalism. Foreign media, now universally available in English on the Internet, often tells a completely different (and usually more accurate) story than what we see, read, and hear here. So-called alternative media—which has been way ahead of the mainstream media on any number of issues–has repeatedly shown its relevance, to the point where the Internet is rapidly becoming the preferred news source for many Americans.

But it’s the mainstream that still has the largest audiences, and so it is the stories that do and don’t appear there that require our attention. Here’s our list, which is surely incomplete. If you have suggestions for additions to the list, e-mail them to geovlp@earthlink.net and we’ll run the best ones in a coming issue.

The Year’s Most Overhyped Stories:

The fate of Terri Schiavo. Somehow, the fate of a woman who hadn’t done much more than twitch in nearly two decades, and who had clearly stated that she never wanted to be kept alive in such conditions, became a crude political football for pandering Presidents and members of Congress. They should be ashamed–as should the media outlets that milked this non-story for weeks.

Intelligent Design [sic].

The “War on Christmas.” What do all three of these items have in common? They were all introduced and hammered into self-serving “controversies” by the right wing echo chamber at times when they really wanted to make sure the public wasn’t paying attention to congressional or White House scandals, a disastrous war, or the death of a major American city.

Everything’s Going Splendidly in Iraq. From the myth early in the year that Bush’s vision for democracy was spreading like wildfire throughout the Middle East, to the notion that Iraqi troops were trained en masse and ready to fight, to entirely mythical “progress” in Iraq’s economy and reconstruction, to the prediction, dutifully trotted out during three separate elections, that each such election marked a major turning point and a crippling blow for the insurgency, to an insurgency in its “death throes,” it was hard to take seriously anything the White House said about Iraq. Yet, remarkably, large segments of US media did just that.

Michael Jackson’s Trial.

Martha Stewart’s Comeback.

Julia Roberts’ Baby. OK, OK, any of the beautiful people.

Howard Dean. Now the Democratic National Committee head, Howard still shoots off his mouth (often accurately), and Republicans still get themselves all in a knot whenever he does. Get over it. He’s a glorified party fundraiser now, not a public official. What he says about public policy does not matter.

Pat Robertson. He wants Hugo Chavez dead. He threatens Dover, Pennsylvania on behalf of a God who apparently can’t speak for Himself. He thinks New Orleans’ suffering is punishment for not meeting his warped idea of morality. WHO. CARES. The publicity just encourages him.

The Minutemen. A few hundred yahoos on the Mexican border, and a few dozen on the Canadian border, proves only that there are still unemployed racist idiots living in Orange County and its spiritual equivalents.

Locally, Rossi v. Gregoire. The election was decided in 2004. The court case, in 2005, devolved into the Republicans dragging out a stunningly weak legal argument so that they could repeat, endlessly, their unsubstantiated charges of vote fraud and a massive conspiracy by King County Elections. They were essentially laughed out of court, but not before months of credulous coverage of their bogus claims. And hey, did anyone notice that in 2005 King County Elections performed nearly flawlessly?

Plus sports, 14-Day-Accu–Pinpoint-Doppler-Radar-Insta-Weather, the usual.

The Underreported Stories

George Bush is already a lame-duck president. There’s usually a year or two grace period after the president is elected for the second time, when he can point to his second election victory as vindication for his policies and use it to get some important legislation passed. Bush has squandered his election victory. All the major initiatives he wanted to pass in Congress this year, from the privatization of Social Security to the permanent renewal of the USA Patriot Act provisions, have gone down in flames, even with a solid Republican majority in both houses. The most basic budget bills have failed to pass because Bush couldn’t get a consensus within his own party. Meanwhile, members of his administration are leaking stories of Bush administration misdeeds every week. Three more years of this and the Republican Party may never recover.

The United States is becoming a torture regime. It is no longer a secret that the US tortures prisoners. But numerous aspects of this abomination remain undercovered. The year was full of shocking revelations about how far the Bush administration has taken us into totalitarian atrocities: the NSA listening to and reading US citizens’ foreign telephone calls and e-mail without warrants; the Pentagon spying on peace groups; the rendition of prisoners to secret CIA detention centers in Eastern Europe (and then sneakily flying them to North Africa when the scandal finally broke in Europe); the testimony of former prisoners at Guantanamo and victims of rendition that they were brutally abused while in prison; more evidence that the US maintains secret detention centers around the world; the Guantanamo Bay hunger strikers; dozens of deaths of War on Terror prisoners in US custody; the Graham Amendment, which voids habeas corpus for suspects in the War on Terror and renders moot a Supreme Court challenge to Bush’s military tribunal system; the Army’s newly expanded list of permissible interrogation techniques; the evidence that the decision to employ torture began at the highest levels of the White House; the roots of those techniques in the control unit prisons of America’s forgotten domestic gulag–the list goes on and on. Only a few aspects of Dick Cheney’s War on Decency made the news here, and they were not nearly the scandals here that they were in the rest of the world. And let’s not forget that the new, US-supported Iraqi government is torturing prisoners in ways that mimic Saddam Hussein’s excesses.

Iraq is spinning out of control. Ethnic and sectarian hostilities have turned into open street battles between Shiite religious factions, battles between factions of the Sunni insurgency, mass killings of Sunnis by Shiite death squads, secret arrests, government-sanctioned torture of prisoners, and mass migrations of people between neighborhoods, cities, and provinces–an outright Balkanization of Iraq. Iraq’s oil fields are rapidly deteriorating from a combination of sabotage and neglect. Oil imports are down drastically, leaving the Iraqi government without the money to pay salaries to teachers, doctors, police, and other civil servants. Meanwhile, corruption is rampant at high levels in the Iraqi government, while smaller, local governments run on extortion and bribery (a matter of basic survival when they’re not getting paid a regular salary). And security analysts note that the insurgency is as healthy as ever and becoming more efficient, and more deadly, in its attacks.

Say, where is Osama bin Laden, anyway?

The Downing Street Memos. Ignored for weeks by US media until the blogosphere buzz became simply too loud, these early revelations of “fixing the intelligence around the policy” have now gone down the memory hole again. But their content has been completely corroborated by subsequent revelations.

Bush wanted to bomb Al-Jazeera headquarters in Qatar. This British report was squelched by the Official Secrets Act, but not before it caused a sensation around the world due to its detailed plausibility–except in the US, where corporate media dismissed the allegation out of hand.

The economy is balanced on a knife-edge. The Bush administration would like you to forget that the US has a record trade deficit, a record budget deficit, and that the housing market–the one thing that’s kept the US economy afloat for the past three years–is beginning to cool a little too quickly for comfort. Republican attempts to balance the budget on the backs of poor people while trying to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent have garnered little attention from the press. And so has the fact that China and Japan own most of our public debt. While Bush’s approval ratings rise and fall with the price of oil, a very cold winter is hitting Americans in the pocketbooks, and the press can only talk about the economy “steaming full-speed ahead.” Uh huh.

The Bush administration’s continued attacks on the environment. From criminal attempts to stop the implementation of the Kyoto global warming treaty and a possible successor to the privatization of public lands to drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the US press hasn’t cared much about Bush’s shocking attempts to pillage the environment the same way his administration has pillaged the public treasury.

Republican corruption scandals. Some four dozen Congressmen, mostly Republican, have been confirmed as taking money from Jack Abramoff or his clients at about the same time they took legislative action favorable to Abramoff or his clients. Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff are just the tip of the iceberg, but our compliant press has trouble seeing even that much. Now the Supreme Court is reviewing the Texas redistricting scheme that helped the Republicans win a bigger majority in the House–a scheme that was undertaken by the Republicans after their own Justice Department had ruled it unconstitutional. This should be a much bigger scandal than it currently is.

Failures of Homeland Security: Hurricane Katrina, racism, and the gutting of FEMA. This was a huge story that, while briefly covered extensively by the US press, disappeared from the mix far too quickly and without enough analysis. And both the corruption of rebuilding contacts and the complete subsequent abandonment of New Orleans by the feds have received virtually no attention.

Likewise, the devastating earthquake in Kashmir received very little coverage. Kashmiris, of course, are used to the West not caring much about them. But we shouldn’t prove them right.

Our government’s global covert propaganda campaign. Armstrong Williams and the Lincoln Group in Iraq were just the start. All over the world, among countries friend and foe, the Pentagon is running an unprecedented, massive propaganda and disinformation campaign, including the planting of stories designed to find their way back into US media. The planted stories are never identified as being written by the US government. Rumsfeld said after 9-11 that he would continue to lie, and he was telling the truth.

The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and its fallout on Israeli and Palestinian politics is more important to Middle Eastern peace than anything happening in the War on Terror, yet the US press has difficulty covering Israeli and Palestinian politics beyond the latest suicide bombing. Likewise, the Palestinian elections, with the split in the Fatah Party and electoral gains by Hamas, have received almost no coverage here, nor has Ariel Sharon’s split from Likud (the party he co-founded). Major shifts are happening in a very important part of the world, and Americans are oblivious. And the passive White House enabling of whatever Sharon wants to do has also received no attention.

The right-wing radicalism of Samuel Alito is no secret; it’s just been deeply ignored by a too cautious press. Likewise, John Roberts’ portrayal as a moderate was simply mind-boggling.

The biggest labor news in decades, the AFL-CIO split and the formation of the new Change To Win Coalition, passed with hardly a whimper in the US press. It’s time to start unionizing a few more media outlets.

A sweet victory for small communities–POCLAD passing legislation in Pennsylvania to stop the construction of megachain stores in local communities–was so far off the radar that you almost had to know someone working on the campaign to have heard about it. That’s shocking.

Locally, the corporate welfare flowing to South Lake Union biotech development, from a useless streetcar to extensive hi-tech infrastructure investment, received virtually no media attention. Nor were any local media pointing out that seemingly every city and suburb in the country is putting its economic development eggs into this same overcrowded basket–all for an industry that, so far, is mostly wildly unprofitable. Didn’t we learn anything from the dotcom binge?

The failure of I-912 at the polls was the first time in recent memory that a statewide anti-tax initiative failed to pass, giving, perhaps, new hope that Washington state voters are willing to invest in basic governmental services when that responsibility is largely being abdicated by the federal government.

Lastly, for the first time, a blog determined the outcome of a local election when David Goldstein’s HorsesAss.org broke the story that King County Executive candidate David Irons literally beat his mother. Only one major local media outlet (the P-I) would touch it, but the sensational (and true) story was enough to turn a close race into an easy victory for Ron Sims.

Bush Policy in Iraq: Invade, Destroy, and Separate

The best we can ever expect from a stupid president is a strategy of no strategy, but even Republicans were disappointed in George Bush’s speech on Iraq, which was his response to Republican Rep. John Murtha’s call for the United States to pull troops from Iraq immediately.

Reiterating failed US policy, Bush outlined the plan that his government has pursued for the past three years in Iraq: “Clear, hold, and build.” And, not surprisingly, the US public yawned and changed the channel, in search of a new episode of “Lost” (a perfect, one-word metaphor for the war in Iraq).

The Pentagon, which has been caught planting fake news stories in the Iraqi press as propaganda for the war effort, is having a hard time keeping the bad news from US citizens. This past week the Washington Institute for Near East Policy released a report that said the insurgency in Iraq is “as robust and lethal as ever.” The report’s authors were Jeffrey White, a 34-year veteran of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, and Michael Eisenstadt, a former civilian-military analyst with the US Army. These guys know what they’re talking about, and what they say is devastating: the insurgency has barely begun to tap into a vast pool of potential Sunni recruits in Iraq; if they ever start recruiting seriously, the US war effort is doomed.

Meanwhile, US officials still put the insurgency’s strength at about 20,000 men–no change from last year or the year before. The current Iraqi government, on the other hand, estimates the insurgency to include more than 100,000, with no explanation for the difference in estimates, but we might reasonably assume that Iraqi analysts living in the thick of the turmoil in Baghdad would have more information than analysts in Washington, D.C.

The facts on the ground in Iraq are not too hard to discern from here in the United States, however. We can just read the news off the wire service reports. Every week brings a new US initiative in Ramadi, Samara, Hit, Qaim, Tal Afar, Mosul, and dozens of other cities with Sunni or mixed Sunni/Shiite/Kurdish populations. Most, if not all, of these cities have been attacked before by US troops, some of them twice and three times. Previously “cleared” of Iraqi rebels, US troops have turned these cities over to poorly-trained and ill-equipped Iraqi troops or police and moved on to deal with the next targeted town, thereby allowing the rebels to retake the “cleared” cities. In spite of Bush’s speech, this policy can’t change, because there simply are not enough US troops to “hold” every rebel bastion in Anbar Province, much less Diyala, Nineveh, Sulimaniyah, and other provinces where the war has continued unabated.

We might, for a moment reflect on the one city that has been “cleared” and “held”: Fallujah. Fallujah is a garrison town now, its entrances and exits blocked by US forces, its residents subject to search and inspection each time they come and go–much like residents of the Gaza Strip. An estimated 60 percent of the city was destroyed in order to “clear” it, and most of it has not been rebuilt. Fallujah has only one-half the population that it did prior to the US assault, and it’s unlikely to improve for years, if not decades, to come. If this is what “clear” and “hold” mean, then it’s no wonder that the United States is losing the war.

Nor has the United States successfully “held” other important cities in Iraq. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, is still outside US control. Large parts of Mosul, the third largest city in Iraq, are under the control of insurgents. Basra is run by Shiite militias who have taken over the Iraqi police forces in that city–no surprise, since the Iraqi government doesn’t have the money to pay salaries to its police forces, so they take money and orders from militia leaders, instead. Even Baghdad, which has suffered a Fallujah-like encirclement by US troops and Iraqi security forces, has seen as much as one-third to one-half of its neighborhoods slip outside the jurisdiction of US forces or Iraqi police.

As for “rebuilding,” Bush is clearly referring to rebuilding the Iraqi army. Any other meaningful rebuilding has simply ceased because of the security situation. Of the reconstruction funds spent in Iraq, the largest portion has gone for two things: 1) to pay for private security guards, and 2) to train and equip Iraqi army troops and police forces. But, shockingly, the Iraqi government last week issued its own report on the state of the Iraqi army in which it described its own military as ill-trained, ill-equipped, and desperately lacking qualified recruits.

In the meantime, the Iraqi nation itself is disintegrating. The head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq–the Shiite returning-exile group that runs the current Iraqi government–announced a couple of weeks ago that the Shiites would pursue a separate, autonomous region in the south of Iraq modeled after the Kurdish autonomous region in the north. Last week, the Kurdish regional government agreed to let a Norwegian company begin drilling in a new oil field, without any approval from the federal government in Baghdad. Said Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani: “there is no way Kurdistan would accept that the central government will control our resources.” In this statement of defiance, he used the word “Kurdistan,” which for most Kurds means a separate and independent state. Iraq is moving ever faster towards Balkanization.”Clear, hold, rebuild” is the Bush administration mantra, but the truth on the ground in Iraq looks a lot more like “invade, destroy, and separate.” Rep. Murtha is right; the strategy we need to hear from the Bush administration right now is “disengage, apologize, and withdraw.”

Dangerous Smokescreen of the Week: Avian Flu

I can’t be the only person in the world who’s asked the question: “Is the avian flu scare just another big hype campaign from the Bush administration, like Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction?”

That’s not as crazy as it sounds. When George Bush announced his $7.1 billion plan to fight avian flu, I thought about what public health officials at the UN and other agencies have been saying about the virus itself and its emergence.

For one thing, it’s a bird virus, not a human one. Sure, humans can catch it from birds, but we can’t pass it from person to person. So the “experimental vaccine” that drug companies in the US will receive $1.2 billion in taxpayer funds to brew will be great for birds, but not very helpful for humans, unless you spend a lot of time raising chickens, and not even then (see below). And we’re not even sure the next big pandemic will come from the H5N1 bird flu virus. It may come from a sick pig, for all we know (remember swine flu?).

The Bush plan includes $1 billion to stockpile Tamiflu and Relenza, two antiviral drugs that have had some effect in reducing the severity of the avian flu. But here’s the fine print: not every person who’s received doses of these drugs to treat the avian flu has shown a reduction in symptoms. In other words, the antivirals don’t work for everybody. Whether that’s because some people’s bodies deactivate the drugs or because there’s more than one strain of avian flu out there, no one knows. In addition, antivirals are like antibiotics; if you use them for every sniffle and stomachache, they lose their effectiveness, because the virus mutates and develops resistance to them (if it hasn’t already).

Doctors who’ve studied the cases of people in Asia who’ve caught avian flu are puzzled by one fact: poultry handlers and chicken farmers don’t seem to be getting sick. Yes, that’s right. What you’re reading in most press accounts is simply not true. Most of the people who’ve caught the flu in Asia have bought chickens for dinner in public markets where livestock is sold, taken the birds home and slaughtered them in unsanitary conditions. But the people who handle the birds every day, who raise them, sell them in the markets, and slaughter them haven’t fallen ill. Why is that?

(There’s a subset of people who’ve caught the virus by giving mouth-to-mouth resucitation to birds injured in cock fights, but how many Americans are going to kiss a chicken? Seriously.)

Consider this: the people who raise and handle birds have been exposed to various strains of avian flu viruses for years. It’s highly possible that they have some natural immunity to the current H5N1 virus. Maybe they’ve had a similar H5N1 virus before–one that wasn’t so deadly in its effect. Even more interesting is the notion that they may have already caught the current virus, but didn’t get as sick as the folks who’ve been hospitalized.

And here’s where public health officials disagree with one another. The official statistics, based on hospitalized cases of avian flu show that the current strain has a 50% mortality rate. In other words, half the people who contract it will die. But the statistics are based on people who’ve been so ill that they’ve had to go to the hospital. What if there’s a larger number of people who’ve already caught the virus from birds and been sick with a normal case of flu that lays them low for a couple of days, and then they recovered from it? Some public health officials are looking at the data and beginning to think that this is the case.

For example, the majority of people in Asia who’ve died of the avian flu are young children, which would argue that adults have some natural immunity to the bug. Yet we’re all operating on the assumption that this avian virus is worse than any other flu bug that comes along. But this flu season, some 36,000 people will die in the United States of flu–we’re talking about the ordinary flu bugs that are already extant in the human population–and many of those deaths will be of elderly folks, people with lowered immune systems, and, yes, children (as we’ve seen with the avian flu).

The press marches in lock step, spewing warnings about a pandemic akin to the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 500,000 people in the US and millions worldwide. But this isn’t 1918. People don’t live in tiny houses with parents and children sleeping in the same rooms and sometimes whole families in the same bed. We wash our clothes, blankets, bodies, hands, and just about everything else a lot more often than people did in those days. We have modern disinfectants, indoor plumbing, reliable sources of clean (and hot) water, and modern medicine on our side. What’s the difference between 1918 and 2005? A difference of 500,000 vs. 36,000, that’s what.

The press, however, continues to print the warnings of “experts”–virus researchers at major drug companies and universities who have a direct financial stake in creating a public scare. They’ll be the first ones in line for the billions of dollars in funding for new vaccines and research in the Bush administration’s bill.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration is requiring state and local governments to spend their own scarce money to buy up stocks of Tamiflu and Relenza. In an earlier budget bill, the Bush administration cut funding for state healthcare infrastructure by $130 million. Only $100 million of that money will be restored in Bush’s avian flu plan. Do more with less money, the feds have told us, with a sickening grin on their faces.

Bush’s plan isn’t just a giveaway of taxpayer money to pharmaceutical companies. The version of the bill that’s flying through the Senate (faster than anyone can read it) contains a provision to set up a government agency that will oversee vaccine development and research. Oddly, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency will be the only federal agency exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. Not even the CIA or the Department of Homeland Security is exempt from FOIA, but for some reason this new agency has to be. Why? The answer is in the title of the Senate bill: The Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act of 2005. Alarm bells are ringing. The Bush administration wants to fund bioweapons research under the smokescreen of developing an influenza vaccine.

But, let’s address the logic of George Bush’s argument for a moment. If a highly lethal, human transmissible form of the H5N1 virus ever does emerge, the first line of defense would be local hospitals and local health clinics that are already struggling to handle a flood of emergency room visits by people with no health insurance and no primary care doctors. Add a disaster on top of that and you have, well, something that looks a lot like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina: the haves fleeing to private hospital beds while the have-nots are left to lie on cots in drafty school gymnasiums without enough nurses, food, or medicines, and forced to line up to use overflowing toilets. It could be 1918 all over again, to our shame and our government’s willful indifference.

There’s a crying need for reform throughout the entire US healthcare system, but it has nothing to do with avian flu, biodefense, or vaccine development. It has everything to do with making healthcare affordable and accessible to everyone, and ensuring that modern medicine stays modern, relevant, and effective for everyone. The Bush avian flu plan just makes that goal harder to achieve.

Yes on the Monorail

I won’t be riding the Monorail, but I will be voting for it. Again. Here’s why:

It’s the only solution for West Seattle. West Seattle is so isolated from the rest of the city that we often think of it as another town altogether. There’s no current, reliable, fast mass transit system for West Seattle. While Ballard, the University District, Northgate, Capitol Hill, and South Seattle all have fast bus service, West Seattle buses are stuck in gridlocked traffic on the West Seattle bridge, along with everyone else trying to commute to and from work. Nobody has even tried to suggest a streetcar for West Seattle because of the steep hill and lack of access. Ditto for light rail. That leaves the Monorail, West Seattle’s only hope for a decent mass transit system–one that takes commuters off the West Seattle bridge.

Where’s West Dravus Street? Ask folks who live and work in the Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods. Also ask them how long it takes them to get downtown on a bus–particularly the folks who live in Magnolia, which has a traffic access problem similar to West Seattle’s. But even Queen Anne trolley buses are slooooowwww… and a good argument against building streetcar lines, in case you were wondering. Hop on the Number 1, the Number 2, or the Number 13 buses during rush hour and find out what I’m talking about.

Ironically, the most-traveled section of the Monorail line will be through downtown, where current opposition to it is highest. Once downtown business owners see that their employees and customers use it all the time, their attitudes will change. They won’t be so quick to both complain about how Seattle isn’t doing anything about our “transportation problem” and then turn around and oppose one of the best solutions for dealing with traffic gridlock and exorbitantly expensive downtown parking. And maybe they’ll think twice about opposing mass transit systems in the future. But that can’t happen if the line doesn’t get built.

No transportation system of any kind pays for itself–not buses, not light rail, not streetcars, and certainly not personal automobiles and new roads. Yet we expect to build the Monorail and operate it on the cheap. Granted, $11 billion is too steep, but the current proposal for $3-$4 billion is not bad, considering the amount of money we’re willing to pour into new roads (look at the gas tax, for example, which will be used primarily to subsidize private auto transportation). We have to keep our perspective, or else we’ll fall into an anti-mass transit and pro-global warming frenzy of road building. That’s a short term cop-out and not a long term solution.

We should build the first stage on our own dime and seek federal funds for the next stage. Unfortunately, Mayor Nickels and the City Council withdrew support for the Monorail before the new interim director could get started in his new job. The new director, however, had some interesting things to say about Seattle’s Monorail plan. Like it’s one of the best transit construction projects he’s ever seen. Like it would make sense to seek federal funds–something no one else has thought of, for whatever reason. Like Seattle appears to really need a Monorail system. He has a point.

And here’s something to think about: if we build the West Seattle stage with our own money and it turns out to be as useful as it’s supporters say it will (and I think they’re right), it’ll be a great demonstration to the feds that Seattle is serious about mass transit, and that we ought to have the funds for an expansion of the line to Ballard. Washington’s senators and representatives have a lot of experience prying transit funds out of Congress; they did it for the Sound Transit light rail system. Why not the Monorail?

As usual, the politicians aren’t leading on this issue, so it’s up to the voters to show them the way to go. One more “yes” vote on the Monorail will get them off their butts and working to get it built. And it’ll be about time.

Iraq: The Constitutional Vote

On Saturday, October 15, Iraqis will go to the polls to vote on their new Constitution. The Bush administration is betting that Iraqis will turn out in massive numbers to vote “yes” and that the election’s success will bring an end to the guerrilla war. There a several problems with that view.

First is the question of relevancy. The few Western reporters who can work outside the Green Zone in Baghdad have interviewed quite a few Iraqis on how they’ll vote in the referendum. Most have expressed a mixture of apathy and fear: why a Constitution and not clean water? Why not bring the Iraqi people reliable electricity or medicines for their hospitals first? This Constitution was written by exiles, and Iraqis feel it has no relevance for them. Many fear that the polls will be targeted by suicide bombers or that guerrillas will follow and shoot people leaving the polls on election day.

Other Iraqis have not read the Constitution yet. The printing started too late, and security problems have hampered distribution. The UN has the task of printing the draft Constitution and distributing it, but a workable draft wasn’t available until early September and then two weeks were wasted while US ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad forced the Shiites and Kurds to make cosmetic changes that were supposed to get the Sunnis to sign onto the draft. But that failed, and several more days were wasted while the Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority each provided different drafts of the Constitution to the UN for printing. The Shiites insisted that, because they held a majority in Parliament, the whole Parliament didn’t need to vote on a final draft; the Shiite draft was the final draft. But the UN insisted that the rules be followed: Parliament must vote. After several more days, the Shiites and Kurds reconciled their different versions and Parliament passed a draft on September 27. Printing began that day–more than a month late.

Even after the printing began, Zalmay Khalilzad, in a massive political blunder, insisted that changes could still be made to the Constitution to appease the Sunnis. Iraqi technocrats joked that the Constitution should be distributed as a PowerPoint presentation to make changes easier.

The delays meant that the first copies hit the streets of Baghdad on October 5, a scant ten days before the election. According to the UN, the last copies will be printed and distributed by October 14, the day before the vote, which leaves little time for Iraqis to read and debate a document that could shape their future for decades to come.

Distribution of the draft Constitution has not gone according to plan, either. The UN wanted businesses that distribute goods through the UN food program to hand out the document (80% of Iraqi families have signed up to receive UN food rations). But many businesses have refused to take the copies and make them available; some have already been threatened by guerrillas, others are fearful of attacks. In addition, delivering copies by truck around the country is fraught with risk–when and if the UN can find drivers who’ll take the chance. Two days after the first copies of the draft Constitution arrived in Baghdad, reporters noted that distribution was going very slowly inside the capital city and was not going on at all in the rest of the country.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is doing its best to make sure that most of the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province will not be able to vote on October 15th. US troops have been conducting two military offensives in Anbar: Operation Iron Fist along the Syrian border and Operation River Gate throughout the Euphrates River Valley. The war continues unabated in Anbar in the form of aerial bombing campaigns, artillery barrages, and intense urban fighting. The US modus operandi is to surround a town or village and force everyone to leave, then conduct house-to-house searches that result in heavy urban combat with whomever remains behind, whether they’re guerrillas or civilians who stayed to protect their homes and businesses. Pentagon spokesmen in Washington DC claim that the offensives will cease in time for the October 15th vote, but US generals inside Iraq haven’t received those orders yet; they say the offensives won’t stop until December at the earliest.

The Shiite majority is trying very hard to suppress the Sunni vote, too. On October 3, they voted in Parliament to change the referendum rules so that a two-thirds majority of registered voters in any three provinces would be required to vote “no” in order to reject the draft Constitution. The original rules used only the word “voters,” which was widely interpreted to mean voters who went to the polls on election day. The addition of the word “registered” set the standard so high that it was nearly impossible to meet. Most nations, including the US, never see two-thirds of registered voters turn out to the polls on any election day, much less voting together on a given issue or candidate.

The Sunni reaction was immediate: they threw up their hands and said, “What’s the use of participating at all? We’re going to boycott the election!” The UN protested, saying that the rule change wasn’t up to international standards. The Bush administration realized that it was better to avoid the appearance of unfairness and that the rule change would further alienate the Sunnis (the whole exercise is meant to draw the Sunnis into the political process, as Khalilzad’s blunder revealed). Under intense pressure from the UN and the US, the interim Iraqi Parliament voted to change the rule back to its original wording.

Initially, the two-thirds rule was meant to be a fail-safe to ensure Kurdish participation in the political process. The Kurds control three provinces in the north of Iraq and they insisted on having the ability to veto the Constitution if they didn’t like the outcome. This forced the Shiites to make common cause with the Kurds. That the Shiites unilaterally changed the rule may have contributed to a growing rift between the Shiites and Kurds that came to a head last week when Kurdish President Jalal Talababi called for the Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to resign. This announcement shocked everyone inside of Iraq and out (well, in those nations where it made the news, of course, which doesn’t include the US).

Talababi and the two Kurdish groups that he represents are extremely frustrated with the Shiite majority. First, the Shiites have increased ties with fundamentalist Iran, which makes the secular Kurds uneasy. Secondly, the Kurds are unhappy that they’ve received few of the lucrative government ministries that they wanted. The few ministries under Kurdish control have been underfunded and ignored. And finally, the Shiites haven’t made good on their promises to speed up the resettlement of Kurds in Kirkuk, the northern oil city that the Kurds want to eventually annex into the northern Kurdish enclave. Talababi’s move was emblematic of how fragile the Shiite-Kurdish coalition is. It also was a warning to the Shiites–a reminder that the Shiites need the Kurds to help them pass the Constitution on October 15th.

While the Sunnis can muster a hefty “no” vote in Salahadeen and Anbar provinces (provided they’ll be allowed to vote), getting a two-thirds majority in a third province will be harder. Their best shot may be Nineveh, which has a mixed population of Sunnis, Kurds, Turkomen, Assyrian Christians, and several smaller minority groups who are against the Constitution because it provides a mechanism for the Kurds to possibly annex all or a part of Nineveh into the Kurdish Autonomous Region.

Back in January, during the elections for the interim Parliament, Nineveh was the site of massive vote fraud perpetuated by the Kurdish peshmerga militia which was given the task of maintaining security in Nineveh. Kurds stole ballot boxes, tampered with ballots, stuffed extra ballots into boxes, and prevented the distribution of ballots and ballot boxes to non-Kurdish controlled towns. In one town, US troops who were overseeing the election alongside the peshmerga joked that the town had a 500% voter participation rate. For the upcoming October vote, the Kurdish peshmerga will once again be in control in Nineveh, working to ensure that the Constitution gets a majority “yes” vote.

But the Sunnis have an ace in the hole: Moqtada al-Sadr. Al-Sadr, a young Shiite cleric, has been alienated by the current Shiite majority coalition in Parliament. He has refused to either endorse or denounce the Constitution and says he’ll rule on it in the day or two before the vote. In the past, he has issued multiple denunciations of US policy and of the interim government and, in recent weeks, his political aides and the leaders of his militia have been arrested and harassed by US and British troops in Baghdad and Basra.

But al-Sadr is a force to be reckoned with. He’s extremely popular among young urban and impoverished Shiites. His militia controls the largest neighborhood in Baghdad, the predominantly poor Sadr City, which contains about two million people. If he tells his followers to vote against the Constitution, the city of Baghdad, which is a province in itself, may vote it down. If that happens, the Bush administration and its proxy government in Iraq may never recover politically or militarily.

Shake Things Up!

While I generally agree with Geov’s election endorsements (Throw the Bums Out!, this issue), this time around I disagree with him on four races.

The most important of these is the King County Sheriff’s race. Being a woman, I understand how hard it can be to disagree with your male boss, particularly in a hierarchical, pseudo-military organization like a police department. Blaming incumbent Sue Rahr for the mistakes of her predecessor, Dave Reichert, just isn’t fair. Instead, we should evaluate her on her performance in the past year since Reichert left.

Unfortunately, that evaluation has to include the abysmal settlement of the Dan Ring case. But Rahr’s explanation that she allowed Ring to retire with full benefits and pension because she was afraid a federal mediator would reinstate him in his job isn’t as bad as it initially sounds. Keep in mind what’s going on at the federal level these days with the Bush administration in power: the promotion of completely unqualified people to top positions at the UN, FEMA, FDA, etc., whose main purpose is to dismantle the agencies they’re supposed to be serving. In this light, Rahr’s decision seems more practical: get rid of the guy in the quickest, surest way possible.

And let’s look at her opposition for a moment: Jim Fuda and Greg Schmidt. Schmidt has no administrative experience, doesn’t know the issues, and is taking credit for someone else’s work in creating the Domestic Violence Unit for the Seattle Police Department–an item that he cynically added to his resume to counter his own prior arrest for domestic violence. Fuda has an equally ugly smear on his record: passing off a degree from a diploma mill as “life experience.” (What experience is that, Jim? Clicking a button on your mouse?) If we wanted more dishonesty at the KCSO, we’d might as well rehire Dan Ring.

In addition, Fuda is running on an anti-terrorism ticket. C’mon, in unincorporated King County? Maybe that would fly in the City of Seattle or the Port of Seattle, but in Black Diamond or Enumclaw? If Fuda talked about meth labs, theft, alcoholism, and domestic violence with some authority, I’d vote for him. But only Sue Rahr has a handle on these issues.

The Seattle Monorail Board races are a mess. Clearly, who you vote for will depend on what you think the future direction of the Monorail should be. Should we cut our losses and stop the project now? Then vote for Beth Goldberg and Jim Nobles. Or should we give it a fighting chance?

Personally, I think it’s too early to ditch the whole project. Monorail supporters have a point: they deserve a little time to explore options–at least as much time as the Sound Transit board was given. If you agree with this, your candidates to vote for are Cindi Laws and Dick Falkenbury.

Yes, Cindi can be dim, as when she made her execrable statement about downtown Jewish interests (which I view as a reflection of our society’s general ignorance of race issues), but she’s been one of the few board members to play an activist role on the board. To lose her now would be a shame. Dick Falkenbury is short on solutions, but his chief quality is that he speaks plainly and tells it like it is. There’ll be no decisions behind closed doors with Falkenbury on the board. He has my vote.

It’s great to see so many good candidates for Port of Seattle positions. Choosing the best candidate for Position 3 is particularly hard, with activist Chris Cain, two union-supported candidates (Rich Berkowitz and Peter Coates), and a former King County Auditor (Lloyd Hara) on the ballot. If you want to go for a labor candidate, Coates is supported by local Democratic Party bigwigs (Sims, Nickels, and others) and the better guy, Berkowitz, has the Longshoremen’s union behind him, but also has the support of Alaska Airlines (hmm).

My vote is for Lloyd Hara. I have a lot of admiration for Chris Cain, don’t get me wrong, but he has a problem running a credible campaign. He hasn’t elucidated his position on key issues at the port and hasn’t formulated a platform. He hasn’t gotten his message–any message other than “I’m a Port critic”–out to voters. In short, he’s been lazy, and I’m not inclined to reward that.

Hara, on the other hand, states forthrightly that he’s in favor of replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct with an aboveground replacement as soon as possible. He’s against Southwest Airlines leaving SeaTac airport. He wants annual audits of the Port’s finances. That’s a platform, and one I can support.

Another lazy campaign is Dwight Pelz’s run for City Council Position 8. It’s clear that Pelz is completely unfamiliar with city issues and hasn’t taken the time to do any research, talk to residents, or get informed. Unfortunately, he’s the only real opposition to Richard McIver, who sides too often with downtown business interests. If there’s any race in this election I’m inclined to skip out of sheer disgust, it’s this one.

In the School Board race for District No. 7, Cheryl Chow is a non-starter. Alan Lloyd seems alright, but not well-informed. That leaves Theresa Cardamone and Linda Thompson-Black. It’s a tough decision. Again, who you vote for in this race depends on what your priorities are for the School Board. If you want to promote fiscal responsibility, vote for Linda Thompson-Black, who has the skills to deal with the District’s messed-up budget. While Theresa Cardamone lacks those skills, she’s firmly in the reformist camp, and Thompson-Black apparently isn’t. Cardamone gets my vote by a hair’s breadth.

And, finally, I’ll end with a plea for more and better-informed candidates. Next time around, we need progressive candidates who’ll formulate a platform and run aggressively against lifer, pro-business Democrats like Ron Sims, Larry Gossett, Larry Phillips, and Dow Constantine. Let’s shake things up a little more!

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