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America vs. The World

The big trouble with dumb bastards is that they are too dumb to believe there is such a thing as being smart. — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Friday car blogging

Neoconservatives believe that the most of the world's problems can be solved by a suitable application of military force and national will.

I believe that parking tickets are an infringement on my rights and I shouldn't have to pay them.

Neocons' beliefs have about the same effect in the real world that mine do:

Feel free to draw whatever comparisons you like between the Chicago Department of Revenue and terrorists.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Big-box politics

(updated below)

The Chicago City Council passed the big-box retailer ordinance by a vote of 35 to 14 on Wednesday, though it still might face a veto by Mayor Daley. I guess they just weren't listening to me.

I'm not against minimum wage laws — they certainly have their place, especially when the gap between rich and poor is growing as rapidly as it is. But as P. Pirx points out, singling out a single industry is neither fair nor economically wise, and may even be illegal under the Illinois Constitution.

When I find myself yelling at the radio on my way to work, that probably suggests something I should write about. The way the supporters of this law have gone about about passing it drives me nuts. They don't really know if it will keep large retailers away. And already, Wal-Mart is talking about ringing the city-limits with stores, rather than building in the city itself.

Why not work with Wal-Mart and other large retailers on a program that achieves higher wages while guaranteeing they'll still open new stores? In a world in which communities can be tricked into using hundreds of millions in tax dollars to build privately-owned stadiums, we should be able to exchange some tax breaks or other incentives for higher guaranteed wages.

One of the main defenses of this law is that the Chicago area is so desirable to retailers they will come here regardless of the increased wages. And this might be true. But I wouldn't discount Wal-Mart and its big buddies staying away just to send a message to other communities considering these kind of laws.

You might even call this "bullying tactics", as Alderman Joe Moore did. May be. But it's the poor neighborhoods which need these stores that will suffer. What does Moore care? He represents Rogers Park, a fairly nice neighborhood at the northernmost tip of Chicago. There is about as much chance of Wal-Mart opening a store in Rogers Park as a Moo & Oink opening on Michigan Avenue. Other boosters of the ordinance are similarly far removed from the action.

There is more than a little well-meaning racism here, and I'm not the only one who sees it:
"I've got these white liberals telling me what's good for my community. But this big-box thing will cost black people jobs," Ald. Ike Carothers (29th) told me during Wednesday's pontifications.

"If I put out a notice that there were 500 jobs waiting in my ward — what Wal-Mart was offering for each store — you'd see a line of people from my ward all the way to Mississippi. People want jobs. That's it."
Oh, these poor black people don't know what they're doing. Let's pass a law to help them, even if they don't approve. After all, we know better.

In the John Kass column quoted above, he suggests that the driving force behind this bill might be as simple as power struggles between a newly-weakened Daley and a City Council eager to buck him a bit. Call me crazy, but I'm a little suspicious of career politicians who are overly concerned with helping other people's constituents. And surprise surprise, organized labor wants to keep non-union jobs out of Chicago.
"At the heart of this ordinance is equality and fairness," Chicago Federation of Labor President Dennis Gannon said in a statement. "Today's vote sends a message that our elected officials and community members alike are not interested in the creation of low-paying jobs that fail to provide a living wage or adequate health-care benefits for working families.

"The choice between no job and a low-paying job is a choice between bad and worse," Gannon said.
Is he serious? Why don't you ask some of the residents of Ald. Carothers' ward if they think low-paying jobs are worse than no jobs at all.

If the stores still move to Chicago and the law passes constitutional muster, that's great. Higher wages for the workers, tax money for the city, happy ending for everyone. But it's an awful big risk to take when you're gambling with other people's lives. Or rather, the lives of other people's constituents.


Daley vetoes the ordinance. Sweet.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The World vs. America (and Co.)

The cover of Tuesday's Friday's Independent sums up the current situation pretty well:

The Independent

As Digby explains, our refusal to endorse an immediate ceasefire is trashing what little credibility we have left in the world.

Dumb or dumber

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is set to speak to Congress today. From the Boston Globe:
"His refusal to condemn Hezbollah is painful. When it comes to the war on terror, we ask Prime Minister Maliki, where does he stand? What side is he on?" said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. "Iraq is supposed to be, in the words of our president, a great ally" and linchpin of Middle East democracy.

In a letter to Maliki, Schumer and other high-ranking Democrats wrote that the prime minister's published comments referring to "Israeli aggression" were troublesome, noting that Maliki has not ruled out amnesty for Iraqi insurgents who have killed US soldiers. Democratic House lawmakers also pointed out that the Iraqi Parliament approved a resolution condemning Israel and its "criminal aggression."

In addition, 20 Democratic congressmen wrote to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert , Republican of Illinois, urging him to cancel Maliki's address. It was an unusual rebuke of a world leader -- particularly one who rose to power after the United States ousted former dictator Saddam Hussein and sponsored the elections that swept him into office. Republicans rejected the Democrats' idea and urged them to listen respectfully to the address; most Democrats are expected to attend.

OK, deep breaths. Here are the possibilities:

1. Democrats actually believe this is good policy.

As Steve Gilliard points out, Maliki doesn't have a lot of options here. How long do you think he would last if he came out strong against Hezbollah and made even a little bit of pro-Israel noise? Unlike most world leaders, Maliki has more to worry about than just the next election — beheading, for instance.

With the election of Hamas in Palestine, I thought everyone had pretty much given up hope of U.S.-friendly democracies magically springing up all over the Middle East. It's not hard to work this out: When most of a country's populace is anti-American, and you allow them to elect their own government, the government is going to be anti-American too.

The Iraqi government is a lot more concerned about staying on the good side of its neighbors (i.e. Iran) than America's. After all, what's the downside to criticizing the United States? Bush has already said our troops aren't coming home while he's still in office. We've made support of Iraq one of the pillars of our foreign policy.

The last thing the Iraqi government wants is to be seen as a pawn of America. Most Arabs, including Iraqis, probably assume they are already. But there's no reason to make it worse by doing something as monumentally stupid as publicly supporting Israel. The leaders of Egypt and Saudi Arabia can get away with that because they rule their countries with an iron fist and are in little danger of open revolt. Open revolt would be an improvement in Iraq.

At this point we need to accept that Iraq will probably not be closely allied to the United States. So let's concentrate on some other goals like, I don't know, halting its slide into civil war and preventing the implementation of Sharia law.

2. Democrats know this is dumb but are using it as a political ploy.

If anything, this might be even worse than the first option. We've already got one party playing national security for partisan advantage — we don't need another.

The Republicans have made such a clusterfuck of U.S. foreign policy that you have to assume the Democrats would do a better job almost by default. But between this and that Dubai ports crap, I sometimes wonder if they even care what's in our national interests.

We're facing enough real problems at home and abroad that we don't need to gin up new ones. Rather than trying to beat the Republicans at their own game, why don't the Dems try to come up with some workable policies for improving the situations in Iraq and the larger Middle East? You know, actual governing.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Beirut to Putin: come in, Putin

I think by now the world realizes that the only way to keep Israel and Lebanon apart (if that’s what it truly wants) is by sending in an international armed force that is both strong and popular.

A week ago, I was ready to write about why NATO is the only force that could fit the bill. Since then, it became clear that America and Britain won’t be sending troops and the United Nations seems more interested in stepping it up.

(America has enough on its plate, and its troops may actually further destabilize the region as a terrorist target; Britain is militarily maxed out in Iraq; and neither fully supports a ceasefire at this time, particularly one that doesn’t lead to the end of Hezbollah.)

The UN’s existing force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, consists of 2,000 relatively-impotent “monitoring” staff from China, France, India, Italy, Poland, Ukraine, Ireland and Ghana. If they want to accomplish anything, they’ll need actual “security” troops, the kind that carry guns and are allowed to use them if push comes to shove.

So there’s recently been talk of trying to get some “heavy-hitters” in the mix to make it work. Germany’s a contender: with Merkel in place, they may be ready to shed their pacifist attitude for a bigger stake in global affairs. Turkey’s also a good choice, politically straddling the West and Middle East with a reputation for strength and moderation.

But in my opinion, only one nation (besides an unwilling America) can actually bring some stability to the region: Russia.

Russian leadership has historically leaned towards the West, and this is the perfect opportunity to do so in a tangible and productive way. By teaming up with a mostly Western armed force (possibly even in a leading role) they can build some credibility and relevance on the world stage.

Working together with (preferably) NATO or (likely) UNIFIL, Russia brings some real muscle to the operation, wielding the power to move real troops in and the clout to keep Syria and Iran out. And there’s not a chance that Israel nor Lebanon nor Hezbollah nor Syria would open fire on a Russian force; it’s the one nation that manages to somehow be allied with all of them.

And here’s where you ask why this will never happen. Simple—the Middle East is a political and military quagmire, and Putin would rather his fellow world powers struggle through it than dive in himself. (Also known as China’s global strategy.)

So prepare to watch Germany or France grab the wheel of Kofi Annan’s Titanic while Israel and Hezbollah lob rockets overhead, because the only nations powerful enough to actually achieve something are either unwilling or unable.

You wanted to see what a post-hegemonic world looks like. Enjoy the show.

Shooting yourself in the economic foot

(updated below)

I don't shop at Wal-Mart. Among other reasons, because the Walton family uses the stores to promote their conservative politics (e.g. censoring media and refusing to sell the morning-after pill). And as a matter of simple aesthetics, I'm willing to pay higher prices in order to support some of America's older and smaller businesses.

Then again, I can afford to.

Much of the opposition to Wal-Mart and other "big-box retailers" is based around the view that they don't pay their employees enough to live on. But there is a lot of evidence that poor communities benefit from Wal-Mart's low prices more than enough to make up for the low wages they pay. From a paper by Jason Furman (PDF):
There is little dispute that Wal-Mart's price reductions have benefited the 120 million American workers employed outside of the retail sector. Plausible estimates of the magnitude of the savings from Wal-Mart are enormous — a total of $263 billion in 2004, or $2,329 per household. Even if you grant that Wal-Mart hurts workers in the retail sector — and the evidence for this is far from clear — the magnitude of any potential harm is small in comparison. One study, for example, found that the "Wal-Mart effect" lowered retail wages by $4.7 billion in 2000.
Is this bullshit? Maybe. And when both sides can make a good case, to me that signals we should just let the market work it out.

The Chicago City Council isn't having any of that laissez faire crap, though. A new ordinance up for a vote Wednesday would increase the minimum wage to $13 an hour in wages and benefits by 2010. But only for stores with at least 90,000 square feet and annual sales of $1 billion.

Sounds great for workers. But what about those big-boxers? Well, Target has put three new Chicago stores on hold as it awaits the result of Wednesday's vote. Not that the Council cares, apparently.
Ald. Joe Moore (49th), lead sponsor of the measure, scoffed at the Target report.

"They are clearly trying to threaten and intimidate the members of the City Council," he said. "It's nothing short of bullying tactics. If you look at other cities or states that have passed similar laws, there were similar kinds of threats and, after the dust settled, they went back to business as usual. I think it's an idle threat."
Bullying tactics? Who the fuck is this moron? Giant retailers like Wal-Mart and Target have built their entire business models on keeping costs low. (Wal-Mart operates on a profit margin of about 3.5 percent.) You tell them that you are going to increase one of their major expenses by about a third. Completely predictably, they then have second thoughts about opening new stores in your city — especially when they can build in Calumet City a few miles over and pay their employees whatever the hell they want.

This dumbass ordinance isn't even popular in the communities in line to get new Wal-Marts and Targets. Several aldermen from predominantly black and poor wards oppose the measure because they are counting on these huge new retail centers to help revitalize the community. A compromise proposed Monday would allow aldermen to opt out of the requirements on a ward-by-ward basis.

Ald. Moore isn't having any of this, either.
An opt-out provision "would completely undermine the purpose and effect of the ordinance," Moore declared. "I don't think whether a Chicago worker gets a living wage should depend on the whim and caprice of the individual alderman."
A living wage for all workers is a reasonable goal. But you can't just make it happen by magically waving the minimum-wage wand around. And you especially can't make it ha[[en by passing laws that mostly have the effect of driving employers out of your city.


Well, the Chicago City Council passed the ordinance by a vote of 35 to 14. It still might face a veto by the mayor.

Predictably, suburban communities are already doing their best to woo Wal-Mart and other big-boxers away from the city.
Jeff Goldstein is a wanker.