Wealthy Frenchman

Friday, March 31, 2006

The Road to Dubai


For now, at least, the immigration issue is mainly hurting the Republican Party, which is divided between those who want to expel immigrants and those who want to exploit them. The only thing the two factions seem to have in common is mean-spiritedness.

But immigration remains a difficult issue for liberals. Let me say a bit more about the subject of my last column, the uncomfortable economics of immigration, then turn to what really worries me: the political implications of a large nonvoting work force.

About the economics: the crucial divide isn't between legal and illegal immigration; it's between high-skilled and low-skilled immigrants. High-skilled immigrants — say, software engineers from South Asia — are, by any criterion I can think of, good for America. But the effects of low-skilled immigration are mixed at best.

True, there are large benefits for the low-skilled migrants, who may find even a minimum-wage U.S. job a big step up. Immigration also raises the total income of native-born Americans, although reasonable estimates suggest that these gains amount to no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

But low-skilled immigration depresses the wages of less-skilled native-born Americans. And immigrants increase the demand for public services, including health care and education. Estimates indicate that low-skilled immigrants don't pay enough in taxes to cover the cost of providing these services.

All of these effects, except for the gains for the immigrants themselves, are fairly small. Some of my friends say that's the point I should stress: immigration is a wonderful thing for the immigrants, and claims that immigrants are undermining American workers and taxpayers are hugely overblown — end of story.

But it's important to be intellectually honest, even when it hurts. Moreover, what really worries me isn't the narrow economics — it's the political economy, the effects of having a disenfranchised labor force.

Imagine, for a moment, a future in which America becomes like Kuwait or Dubai, a country where a large fraction of the work force consists of illegal immigrants or foreigners on temporary visas — and neither group has the right to vote. Surely this would be a betrayal of our democratic ideals, of government of the people, by the people. Moreover, a political system in which many workers don't count is likely to ignore workers' interests: it's likely to have a weak social safety net and to spend too little on services like health care and education.

This isn't idle speculation. Countries with high immigration tend, other things equal, to have less generous welfare states than those with low immigration. U.S. cities with ethnically diverse populations — often the result of immigration — tend to have worse public services than those with more homogeneous populations.

Of course, America isn't Dubai. But we're moving in that direction. As of 2002, according to the Urban Institute, 14 percent of U.S. workers, and 20 percent of low-wage workers, were immigrants. Only a third of these immigrant workers were naturalized citizens. So we already have a large disenfranchised work force, and it's growing rapidly. The goal of immigration reform should be to reverse that trend.

So what do I think of the Senate Judiciary Committee's proposal, which is derived from a plan sponsored by John McCain and Ted Kennedy? I'm all in favor of one provision: offering those already here a possible route to permanent residency and citizenship. Since we aren't going to deport more than 10 million people, we need to integrate those people into our society.

But I'm puzzled by the plan to create a permanent guest-worker program, one that would admit 400,000 more workers a year (and you know that business interests would immediately start lobbying for an increase in that number). Isn't institutionalizing a disenfranchised work force a big step away from democracy?

For a hard-line economic conservative like Mr. McCain, the advantages to employers of a cheap work force may be more important than the violation of democratic principles. But why would someone like Mr. Kennedy go along? Is the point to help potential immigrants, or is it to buy support from business interests?

Either way, it's a dangerous route to go down. America's political system is already a lot less democratic in practice than it is on paper, and creating a permanent nonvoting working class would make things worse. The road to Dubai may be paved with good intentions.

Monday, March 27, 2006

North of the Border


"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," wrote Emma Lazarus, in a poem that still puts a lump in my throat. I'm proud of America's immigrant history, and grateful that the door was open when my grandparents fled Russia.

In other words, I'm instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren't for Mexican immigration.

That's why it's intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do "jobs that Americans will not do." The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

Finally, modern America is a welfare state, even if our social safety net has more holes in it than it should — and low-skill immigrants threaten to unravel that safety net.

Basic decency requires that we provide immigrants, once they're here, with essential health care, education for their children, and more. As the Swiss writer Max Frisch wrote about his own country's experience with immigration, "We wanted a labor force, but human beings came." Unfortunately, low-skill immigrants don't pay enough taxes to cover the cost of the benefits they receive.

Worse yet, immigration penalizes governments that act humanely. Immigrants are a much more serious fiscal problem in California than in Texas, which treats the poor and unlucky harshly, regardless of where they were born.

We shouldn't exaggerate these problems. Mexican immigration, says the Borjas-Katz study, has played only a "modest role" in growing U.S. inequality. And the political threat that low-skill immigration poses to the welfare state is more serious than the fiscal threat: the disastrous Medicare drug bill alone does far more to undermine the finances of our social insurance system than the whole burden of dealing with illegal immigrants.

But modest problems are still real problems, and immigration is becoming a major political issue. What are we going to do about it?

Realistically, we'll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests — legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care — is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush's plan for a "guest worker" program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who'd love to have a low-wage work force that couldn't vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

What about a guest-worker program that includes a clearer route to citizenship? I'd still be careful. Whatever the bill's intentions, it could all too easily end up having the same effect as the Bush plan in practice — that is, it could create a permanent underclass of disenfranchised workers.

We need to do something about immigration, and soon. But I'd rather see Congress fail to agree on anything this year than have it rush into ill-considered legislation that betrays our moral and democratic principles.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Happiness Is a Warm Gun



It doesn't take much to make Dick Cheney happy. According to a list of his travel perks, printed by the Smoking Gun Web site, all he needs is a few cans of caffeine-free Diet Sprite, a big bed, a pot of decaf. (And global hegemony, of course.) Dr. Gloom, who once dismissed conservation as a "personal virtue," likes all the lights blazing before he gets to a hotel suite and all the TV's beaming Fox News.

Sometimes happiness means being protected from news about other people's unhappiness.

Washington may be gripped by a malaise over the miasma in Iraq. But elsewhere, in business, books and academia, there is a scavenger hunt under way to root out the scientific, economic and emotional reasons for joy.

When I was in college, in the Vietnam-Watergate era, sullen mugs trumped smiley faces.

"Happiness was very uncool," my friend Michael Kinsley recalls of his Harvard days. "There was a huge premium on being depressed."

Leon Wieseltier, who graduated from Columbia about the same time, agrees that "happiness was considered embarrassing, a mark of shallowness." He still calls joie de vivre "a sign that you're not paying attention."

But in the Ivy League now, students are eager to embrace the group therapy of positive thinking. As Carey Goldberg wrote in The Boston Globe, the most popular Harvard course is one taught by Tal Ben-Shahar about how to shed pathologies.

You'd think just being lucky enough to get that Harvard edge would cause elation. But Ms. Goldberg reported that more than 800 students left smiling and cheering after hearing Dr. Ben-Shahar offer self-help formulas like these: "Learn to fail or fail to learn"; don't think, "It happened for the best," but rather, "How can I make the best of what happened?"

He meditated with the students, telling them to "give yourself permission to just be." A gut on trusting your gut.

If there's post-traumatic stress disorder, he told me, there can be "post-peak experience order" spurred by music or giving birth. Or making love — but "not all the time, unfortunately," he said, laughing.

Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania professor who popularized positive psychology, says the field is growing because there are ways to measure it. He adds: "The epidemic of depression seems to be completely democratic. It hits the Harvard kids and the rich people and the poor people at about an equal rate."

Dr. Seligman developed the theory of "learned helplessness." He found that dogs who were given shocks for anything they did would become passive, accepting shocks they could escape if they tried. Humans, he says, should try to escape the culture of victimology, the self-absorption of "a huge I and a small we," and shortcuts like drugs and shopping.

In his class, he offers "positive emotion" exercises. One is writing down three things that went well during the day. Another is taking someone on a "strength date," encouraging the person to show off a skill or talent. Another is writing a "forgiveness letter." (I'm Irish, so I won't be doing that.)

One of his teaching assistants once told his students they'd all get A's, in the spirit of positive emotions. But we don't need to worry about a placid Stepford universe. The guru of good vibes, as Dr. Seligman is called, warns that people can increase their happiness only within a "set range."

"It's like a waistline," he says. "Everyone can't be happier in the pleasure sense. Maybe people can be happier in the engagement sense" — for example, taking a job where you use your strengths every day — "and in the sense of more meaning in life."

Studies show the happiest people are the most resilient. (And probably regard positive-psych classes as demented psychobabble?) Since they didn't have to learn to be resilient in the Depression and World War II, yuppies and their offspring succumbed to narcissism and materialism.

They say money can't buy happiness, but maybe it can buy some. In 2004, two economists declared that money seemed to buy greater happiness but, surprisingly, not more sex. (Explain Ron Perelman.) David Blanchflower of Dartmouth and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England calculated that if you increased your sexual activity from once a month to once a week, you'd be as happy as if you had an extra $50,000 a year.

But is the converse true? For $50,000 more, you're just as happy as if you'd quadrupled your sex? Along these lines, how much will it cost us to get rid of Dick Cheney and end his trillion-dollar war, because that would buy us happiness?

Letter To the Secretary

Letter To the Secretary
Dear John Snow, secretary of the Treasury: I'm glad that you've
started talking about income inequality, which in recent years has
reached levels not seen since before World War II. But if you want to
be credible on the subject, you need to make some changes in your

First, you shouldn't claim, as you seemed to earlier this week, that
there's anything meaningful about the decline in some measures of
inequality between 2000 and 2003. Every economist realizes that, as
The Washington Post put it, ''much of the decline in inequality
during that period reflected the popping of the stock market
bubble,'' which led to a large but temporary fall in the incomes of
the richest Americans.

We don't have detailed data for more recent years yet, but the
available indicators suggest that after 2003, incomes at the top and
the overall level of inequality came roaring back. That surge in
inequality explains why, despite your best efforts to talk up the
economic numbers, most Americans are unhappy with the Bush economy.

I find it helpful to illustrate what's going on with a hypothetical
example: say 10 middle-class guys are sitting in a bar. Then the
richest guy leaves, and Bill Gates walks in.

Because the richest guy in the bar is now much richer than before,
the average income in the bar soars. But the income of the nine men
who aren't Bill Gates hasn't increased, and no amount of repeating
''But average income is up!'' will convince them that they're better

Now think about what happened in 2004 (the figures for 2005 aren't in
yet, but it was almost certainly more of the same). The economy grew
reasonably fast in 2004, but most families saw little if any
improvement in their financial situation.

Instead, a small fraction of the population got much, much richer.
For example, Forbes tells us that the compensation of chief
executives at the 500 largest corporations rose 54 percent in 2004.
In effect, Bill Gates walked into the bar. Average income rose, but
only because of rising incomes at the top.

Speaking of executive compensation, Mr. Snow, it hurts your
credibility when you say, as you did in a recent interview, that
soaring pay for top executives reflects their productivity and that
we should ''trust the marketplace.'' Executive pay isn't set in the
marketplace; it's set by boards that the executives themselves
appoint. And executives' pay often bears little relationship to their

You yourself, as you must know, are often cited as an example. When
you were appointed to your present job, Forbes pointed out that the
performance of the company you had run, CSX, was ''middling at
best.'' Nonetheless, you were ''by far the highest-paid chief in the

And the business careers of other prominent members of the
administration, including the president and vice president, seem to
demonstrate the truth of the adage that it's not what you know, it's
who you know. So my advice on the question of executive pay is: don't
go there.

Finally, you should stop denying that the Bush tax cuts favor the
wealthy. I know that administration number-crunchers have produced
calculations purporting to show that the tax cuts were tilted toward
the middle class. But using the right measure -- the effect of the
tax cuts on after-tax income -- the bias toward the haves and
have-mores is unmistakable.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, once the Bush tax
cuts are fully phased in, they will raise the after-tax income of
middle-income families by 2.3 percent. But they will raise the
after-tax income of people like yourself, with incomes of more than
$1 million, by 7.3 percent.

And those calculations don't take into account the indirect effects
of tax cuts. If the tax cuts are made permanent, they'll eventually
have to be offset by large spending cuts. In practical terms, that
means cuts where the money is: in Social Security and Medicare
benefits. Since middle-income Americans will feel the brunt of these
cuts, yet received a relatively small tax break, they'll end up worse
off. But the wealthy will be left considerably wealthier.

Of course, my suggestions about how to improve your credibility would
force you to stop repeating administration talking points. But you're
the secretary of the Treasury. Your job is to make economic policy,
not to spout propaganda. Oh, wait.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

George Bush's Trillion-Dollar War


Call it the trillion-dollar war.

George W. Bush's war in Iraq was never supposed to be particularly expensive. Administration types tossed out numbers like $50 billion and $60 billion. When Lawrence Lindsey, the president's chief economic adviser, said the war was likely to cost $100 billion to $200 billion, he was fired.

Some in the White House tried to spread the fantasy that Iraqi oil revenues would pay for the war. Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy defense secretary and a fanatical hawk, told Congress that Iraq was "a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon."

The president and his hot-for-war associates were as wrong about the money as they were about the weapons of mass destruction.

Now comes a study by Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Columbia University, and a colleague, Linda Bilmes of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, that estimates the "true costs" of the war at more than $1 trillion, and possibly more than $2 trillion.

"Even taking a conservative approach and assuming all U.S. troops return by 2010, we believe the true costs exceed a trillion dollars," the authors say.

The study was released earlier this year but has not gotten much publicity. The analysis by Professors Stiglitz and Bilmes goes beyond the immediate costs of combat operations to include other direct and indirect costs of the war that, in some cases, the government will have to shoulder for many years.

These costs, the study says, "include disability payments to veterans over the course of their lifetimes, the cost of replacing military equipment and munitions, which are being consumed at a faster-than-normal rate, the cost of medical treatment for returning Iraqi war veterans, particularly the more than 7,000 [service members] with brain, spinal, amputation and other serious injuries, and the cost of transporting returning troops back to their home bases."

The study also notes that Defense Department expenditures that were not directly appropriated for Iraq have grown by more than 5 percent since the war began. But a portion of that increase has been spent "on support for the war in Iraq, including significantly higher recruitment costs, such as nearly doubling the number of recruiters, paying recruitment bonuses of up to $40,000 for new enlistees and paying special bonuses and other benefits, up to $150,000 for current Special Forces troops that re-enlist."

"Another cost to the government," the study says, "is the interest on the money that it has borrowed to finance the war."

Among the things taken into account by the study are some of the difficult-to-quantify but very real costs inflicted by the war on the American economy and society, such as the effect of the war on oil prices, and the economic loss that results from the many thousands of Americans wounded and killed in the war.

The study does not address the substantial costs of the war borne by Iraq or by any other countries besides the United States.

In an interview, Mr. Stiglitz said that about $560 billion, which is a little more than half of the study's conservative estimate of the cost of the war, would have been enough to "fix" Social Security for the next 75 years. If one were thinking in terms of promoting democracy in the Middle East, he said, the money being spent on the war would have been enough to finance a "mega-mega-mega-Marshall Plan," which would have been "so much more" effective than the invasion of Iraq.

It's not easy to explain just how much money $1 trillion really is. Imagine a stack of bills worth $1 million that is roughly six inches high. (Think big denominations — a mix of $100 bills and $1,000 bills, mostly $1,000's.) If the six-inch stack were enlarged to the point where it was worth $1 billion, it would be as tall as the Washington Monument, about 500 feet. If it were worth $1 trillion, the stack would be 95 miles high.

Ms. Bilmes said that the $1 trillion we're spending on Iraq amounts to about $10,000 for every household in the U.S.

At his press conference on Tuesday, President Bush made it clear that whatever the cost, American forces would not be leaving Iraq soon. When asked whether a day would come when there were no U.S. forces in Iraq, he said that decision would be made by future presidents and future governments of Iraq.

The meter's running. We're at a trillion dollars, and counting.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Fly Into a Building? Who Could Imagine?



Three little words:

Still employed there.

Of all the through-the-looking-glass moments in the last few days, the strangest is this: The F.B.I officer who arrested and questioned Zacarias Moussaoui told a jury that he had alerted his superiors about 70 times that Mr. Moussaoui was a radical Islamic fundamentalist who hated America and might be plotting to hijack an airplane.

Seventy? That makes one time for every virgin waiting for Mr. Moussaoui in heaven. Judging by how disastrously the prosecution is doing, the virgins will have to wait.

We could have cracked the 9/11 plot if the F.B.I. wasn't run by dunces. Mr. Moussaoui's lawyers got a break because according to the testimony of the officer, Harry Samit, a better-run bureau could have broken the case even without the terrorist's confession — maybe F.B.I. officers should have shot him with some paintballs.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Mr. Samit confided to a colleague that he was "desperate to get into Moussaoui's computer." He never heard back from the F.B.I.'s bin Laden unit before 9/11 — what did the unit have to do that was more pressing than catching bin Laden? And he was obstructed by officials in F.B.I. headquarters here, whom he labeled "criminally negligent."

He named two of the officials who did not want to endanger their careers with any excess aggression toward radical fundamentalists: David Frasca and Michael Maltbie, then working on the Radical Fundamentalist Unit.

Even though Condi Rice told the 9/11 commission that "no one could have imagined" terrorists' slamming a plane into the World Trade Center, an F.B.I. officer did. Officer Samit testified that a colleague, Greg Jones, tried to light a fire under Mr. Maltbie by urging him to "prevent Zacarias Moussaoui from flying a plane into the World Trade Center."

Later, Mr. Jones told Mr. Samit that it had just been "a lucky guess."

Kenneth Williams, a Phoenix agent, also sent a warning memo to the phlegmatic Mr. Frasca in July 2001, after sniffing out a scheme by Osama to dispatch Middle East extremists to America to get flight training.

Neil Lewis wrote in The Times yesterday that "William Carter, an F.B.I. spokesman, said that neither the bureau nor Mr. Maltbie nor Mr. Frasca, who are still employed there, would have any comment."

Still employed there? How can Mr. Maltbie and Mr. Frasca still be employed at the F.B.I.? How can Michael Chertoff still be employed at Homeland Security? How can Donald Rumsfeld still be employed at the Pentagon?

Missing 9/11, missing Katrina, mangling Iraq, racking up a $9 trillion debt — those things don't cause officials to lose their jobs. Only saying something honest — as prescient Gen. Eric Shinseki did — can get you a one-way ticket to Palookaville.

Rummy told reporters last week that the military was preparing for a civil war in Iraq, but he did not consider it a civil war yet — even though he acknowledged it was hard to tell exactly when chaos tipped into civil war.

"I don't think it'll look like the United States' Civil War," he added sanguinely. Yeah. At Fort Sumter, Lincoln let the enemy fire first. So the defense secretary believes if the body count stays below the Civil War era's 600,000, Iraq will achieve a healthy blue-state, red-state democracy?

One administration official says that Rummy does not hold the same sway in meetings anymore, that he's treated as an eccentric old uncle who pops off and is ignored. But why can't W. just quit him? Instead, the president praised him for doing "a fine job" on two wars and transforming the military, when Rummy actually bullied the military to go along with his foolish schemes in Iraq and has sapped the once-feared fighting machine.

At his impromptu press conference yesterday, the president presented himself as a nice guy doing a difficult job, relentlessly joshing with reporters. He chided the press for playing into terrorists' goals by showing bad news from Iraq — "they're capable of blowing up innocent life so it ends up on your TV show" — even as reports surfaced about insurgents outside Baghdad storming a jail, slaughtering 18 police officers and letting the prisoners out, following fast upon an insurgent raid on Iraqi Army headquarters in Kirkuk. Does the president think TV will instead report on an increase in melon sales at the market?

When the Bushies harp on training Iraqi security forces so America can hand the country over to them, it has a hollow ring. Back in 2003, the U.S. de-Baathified Iraq and put its faith in its friends, the Shiites. Now, given the suspected Shiite death squads and militias, the U.S. wants to bring the Sunnis back into the system. So whom do we trust? And for how long?

Asked if he could envision a day when there would be no more U.S. forces in Iraq, the president said, "That, of course, is an objective." But he added that it would be decided by future Iraqi governments and future American presidents.

Once W. is not still employed there.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Illogical Cutbacks on Cancer


When I was a kid I had the wildest crush on my Uncle Breeze's wife, Betty. She was beautiful and with all my heart I wanted to grow up and marry someone just like her.

I remember acutely the sadness I felt some years later when my mother told me that Aunt Betty was ill. She died not long after that. Cervical cancer.

This old memory was brought back to me by, of all things, a small but telling item in President Bush's mammoth budget proposal.

The federal government has a national breast and cervical cancer early detection program, run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It provides screening and other important services to low-income women who do not have health insurance, or are underinsured.

There is agreement across the board that the program is a success. It saves lives and it saves money. Its biggest problem is that it doesn't reach enough women. At the moment there is only enough funding to screen one in five eligible women.

A sensible policy position for the Bush administration would be to expand funding for the program so that it reached everyone who was eligible. It terms of overall federal spending, the result would be a net decrease. Preventing cancer, or treating it early, is a lot less expensive than treating advanced cancer.

So what did this president do? He proposed a cut in the program of $1.4 million (a minuscule amount when you're talking about the national budget), which would mean that 4,000 fewer women would have access to early detection.

This makes no sense. In human terms, it is cruel. From a budget standpoint, it's self-defeating.

"The program is really designed to help working women," said Dan Smith, a senior vice president at the American Cancer Society. "They may be working at a job that doesn't provide health insurance, but they're not the poorest of the poor who would qualify for Medicaid."

In many cases, these are women who do not have family doctors who might encourage them to be screened. The program offers free mammograms, Pap tests and other early detection services. "If they're diagnosed," said Mr. Smith, "there's a complementary program that allows them to be immediately insured so they can actually have the coverage for their treatment. That's a great program, as well."

"The early detection program is a good program because it has saved lives," said Dr. Harold Freeman, a senior adviser to the Cancer Society. "The women who are served come from a population that has a proven higher death rate from cervical and breast cancer."

He added: "It's hard to get into the health care system when you are asymptomatic. It's much easier to get into the system if you're obviously sick, if you're bleeding or in pain. But the problem with cancer is, if you're going to be cured, you have to get in before those kinds of symptoms occur. So these women need to be screened."

Dr. Freeman, a New York physician who has long specialized in the prevention and treatment of cancer, made it clear that his first concern was the health and quality of life of his patients. But then he addressed what he characterized as the "shortsighted" economic rationale for the budget cut.

"It won't save money," he said. "You don't save money by not diagnosing cancer early. You end up spending more money because anyone who develops cancer will get into the health care system and they will be treated. And the cost at that point will be a lot more. The logic here is very simple: the later you diagnose cancer of the breast or cervix, the more expensive it is to the country."

This is just one program in a range of cancer services that rely on support from the federal government. As if immune to the extent of human suffering involved, President Bush has proposed a barrage of cuts for these programs.

"What's really amazing," said Mr. Smith, "is that the president cut every cancer program. He cut the colorectal cancer program. He cut research at the National Cancer Institute. He cut literally every one of our cancer-specific programs. It's incomprehensible."

A bipartisan movement is under way in the Senate to block the president's proposed cuts. How that ultimately will fare is unclear.

What is clear is that cancer is a disease that horrifies most Americans, and with good reason. One out of every two men will contract the disease in his lifetime, and one out of every three women.

This is an area in which we need to be doing more, not less.

Bogus Bush Bashing


"The single word most frequently associated with George W. Bush today is 'incompetent,' and close behind are two other increasingly mentioned descriptors: 'idiot' and 'liar.' " So says the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, whose most recent poll found that only 33 percent of the public approves of the job President Bush is doing.

Mr. Bush, of course, bears primary responsibility for the state of his presidency. But there's more going on here than his personal inadequacy; we're looking at the failure of a movement as well as a man. As evidence, consider the fact that most of the conservatives now rushing to distance themselves from Mr. Bush still can't bring themselves to criticize his actual policies. Instead, they accuse him of policy sins — in particular, of being a big spender on domestic programs — that he has not, in fact, committed.

Before I get to the bogus issue of domestic spending, let's look at the policies the new wave of conservative Bush bashers refuses to criticize.

Mr. Bush's new conservative critics don't say much about the issue that most disturbs the public, the quagmire in Iraq. That's not surprising. Commentators who acted as cheerleaders in the run-up to war, and in many cases questioned the patriotism of those of us who were skeptical, can't criticize the decision to start this war without facing up to their own complicity in that decision.

Nor, after years of insisting that things were going well in Iraq and denouncing anyone who said otherwise, is it easy for them to criticize Mr. Bush's almost surreal bungling of the war. (William Kristol of The Weekly Standard is the exception; he says that we never made a "serious effort" in Iraq, which will come as news to the soldiers.)

Meanwhile, the continuing allegiance of conservatives to tax cuts as the universal policy elixir prevents them from saying anything about the real sources of the federal budget deficit, in particular Mr. Bush's unprecedented decision to cut taxes in the middle of a war. (My colleague Bob Herbert points out that the Iraq hawks chose to fight a war with other people's children. They chose to fight it with other people's money, too.)

They can't even criticize Mr. Bush for the systematic dishonesty of his budgets. For one thing, that dishonesty has been apparent for five years. More than that, some prominent conservative commentators actually celebrated the administration's dishonesty. In 2001 Time.com blogger Andrew Sullivan, writing in The New Republic, conceded that Mr. Bush wasn't truthful about his economic policies. But Mr. Sullivan approved of the deception: "Bush has to obfuscate his real goals of reducing spending with the smokescreen of 'compassionate conservatism.' " As Berkeley's Brad DeLong puts it on his blog, conservatives knew that Mr. Bush was lying about the budget, but they thought they were in on the con.

So what's left? Well, it's safe for conservatives to criticize Mr. Bush for presiding over runaway growth in domestic spending, because that implies that he betrayed his conservative supporters. There's only one problem with this criticism: it's not true.

It's true that federal spending as a percentage of G.D.P. rose between 2001 and 2005. But the great bulk of this increase was accounted for by increased spending on defense and homeland security, including the costs of the Iraq war, and by rising health care costs.

Conservatives aren't criticizing Mr. Bush for his defense spending. Since the Medicare drug program didn't start until 2006, the Bush administration can't be blamed for the rise in health care costs before then. Whatever other fiscal excesses took place weren't large enough to play more than a marginal role in spending growth.

So where does the notion of Bush the big spender come from? In a direct sense it comes largely from Brian Riedl of the Heritage Foundation, who issued a report last fall alleging that government spending was out of control. Mr. Riedl is very good at his job; his report shifts artfully back and forth among various measures of spending (nominal, real, total, domestic, discretionary, domestic discretionary), managing to convey the false impression that soaring spending on domestic social programs is a major cause of the federal budget deficit without literally lying.

But the reason conservatives fall for the Heritage spin is that it suits their purposes. They need to repudiate George W. Bush, but they can't admit that when Mr. Bush made his key mistakes — starting an unnecessary war, and using dishonest numbers to justify tax cuts — they were cheering him on.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Valley of the Rolls


I'm not going all confessional, like one of these bare actresses baring her soul on the cover of Vanity Fair. But I have a desperate secret, as the actresses like to say, that may help others if I talk about it.

Or not.

I am a sleep-eater.

It has happened only a few times, and I'm not sure if it's connected to Ambien. It started last year when a jumbo pack of Oreos mysteriously went missing in my kitchen. I came down one morning to find the plastic sliced open and all the cookies gone. I called my exterminator, certain there was a crumb-covered critter lurking. He never found one.

A couple of other times, when I was staying in hotels with minibars, I found Snickers wrappers by the bed or telltale Toblerone chocolate smears.

I confided in a friend, a fellow occasional Ambien user, who said he woke up sometimes with Jackson Pollock-like splatters of Good & Plenty on his white T-shirts.

New Yorkers have been calling their doctors and nutritionists this week to see whether they should switch hypnotics, now that Minnesota researchers have suggested that Ambien may be creating a new form of ravenous sleeper cells, an alarming development given that some people had actually been taking Ambien to avoid the urge to stay up and raid the fridge.

It may just be a new form of avoirdupois rationalization. (That's my story, dear, and I'm sticking to it.) But a California woman included in one of the studies said she gained 100 pounds from sleep-eating while on Ambien; a Minneapolis woman in a full body cast was discovered by her son sleepwalking to her kitchen, frying bacon and eggs on one night and turning on her oven to 500 degrees on another; a Tennessee nurse said she'd devoured a whole package of hamburger rolls "like a grizzly bear."

Susan Chana Lask, a New York City lawyer, has filed a class-action suit against the makers of Ambien on behalf of users — who are overwhelmingly female. She gives examples of bad behavior by what she calls " 'Night of the Living Dead' creatures": driving impaired and eating raw eggs and even a buttered cigarette, and sleep-shoplifting DVD's.

Far more women suffer from insomnia, and far more women — even young ones — pop sleeping pills than men. As Ariel Levy wrote in New York magazine, pills are now seen as "brain styling," not mind-altering, because "the line between medication and recreation has become blurred."

One girlfriend of mine wanted to call her Upper East Side doctor yesterday and switch to Lunesta. "I have visions of myself in my Subaru crossing the George Washington Bridge at 3 in the morning covered in Cheetos dust," she said. But then she realized they'd probably find out something equally weird about Lunesta next week — that it causes you to run off with a Starbucks barista and go to male strip clubs in your sleep.

The scary news of zombie hordes of Ambien sleep-eaters follows fast upon the scary news of zombie hordes of Ambien sleep-drivers and zombie hordes of Ambien sleep-sirens.

The New York Observer recounted the saga of an attractive editor at a fashion magazine who hooked up with a young man in Soho and took him back to her place.

"She was laying there and had taken her clothes off," he told the paper. "Then, in completely slurred speech, she said: 'I just took two Ambien, so anything you're going to do, you better do it before I pass out.' "

The next mishap is sure to be sleep-governing. A headline on Wednesday read "Study: Ambien Users Invade Countries in Their Sleep; Wake Up With No Memory of Reasons for Invasion, No Exit Strategy." The story was written by the humorist Andy Borowitz, who also imagined that an Ambien side effect might be a tendency of some politicians to concoct incomprehensible prescription drug programs while asleep.

But real life once more outstrips satire, as the military in Iraq conducts Ambien air assaults. The president and some Pentagon officials have no memory of authorizing the strikes, and the generals in Iraq have no memory that they've already used these tactics without lasting success.

There is, after all, precedent for Sleepers in Chief. The first President Bush's doctor caught flak for giving him the sleeping pill Halcion — fingered as a possible contributor to Poppy's embarrassing frow-up moment at a state dinner in Japan.

If you don't want to give up Ambien, doctors say, put chimes on your bedroom door. The tinkling may wake you up on the way to get a snack or take a drive to shoplift a new wardrobe for your fat zombie self.

John Tierney is on vacation.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Stop Bush's War


"By some estimates," according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs, "the number of Iraqis who have died as a result of the [U.S.] invasion has reached six figures — vastly more than have been killed by all international terrorists in all of history. Sanctions on Iraq probably were a necessary cause of death for an even greater number of Iraqis, most of them children."

Not everyone agrees that Iraqi deaths have reached six figures. President Bush gave an estimate of 30,000 not too long ago. That's probably low, but horrendous nevertheless. In any event, there is broad agreement that the number of Iraqis slaughtered has reached into the tens of thousands. An ocean of blood has been shed in Mr. Bush's mindless war, and there is no end to this tragic flow in sight.

Jeffrey Gettleman of The Times gave us the following chilling paragraphs in Tuesday's paper:

"In Sadr City, the Shiite section in Baghdad where the [four] terrorist suspects were executed, government forces have vanished. The streets are ruled by aggressive teenagers with shiny soccer jerseys and machine guns.

"They set up roadblocks and poke their heads into cars and detain whomever they want. Mosques blare warnings on loudspeakers for American troops to stay out. Increasingly, the Americans have been doing just that."

Everyone who thought this war was a good idea was wrong and ought to admit it. Those who still think it's a good idea should get therapy.

Last Friday and Saturday, a conference titled "Vietnam and the Presidency" was held at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. Discussions about the lessons we failed to learn from Vietnam, and thus failed to apply to Iraq, were pervasive.

Some of the lessons seemed embarrassingly basic. Jack Valenti, who served as a special assistant to Lyndon Johnson, reminded us how difficult it is to "impress democracy" on other countries. And he noted something that the public and the politicians seem to forget each time the glow of a brand-new war is upon us: that wars are "inhumane, brutal, callous and full of depravity."

Think Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo. Think suicide bombers and death squads and roadside bombs. Think of the formerly healthy men and women who have come back to the United States from Iraq paralyzed, or without their arms or legs or eyes, or the full use of their minds. Think of the many thousands dead.

Most of the people who thought this war was a good idea also thought that the best way to fight it was with other people's children. That in itself is a form of depravity.

Among those who played a key role in the conference was David Halberstam, the author of "The Best and the Brightest," which is not just the best book about America's involvement in Vietnam, but a book that grows more essential with each passing year. If you read it in the 70's or 80's, read it again. We can all use a refresher course on the link between folly and madness at the highest levels of government, and the all-but-unimaginable suffering it can unleash.

In the book's epilogue, Mr. Halberstam wrote that, among other things, President Johnson "and the men around him wanted to be defined as being strong and tough; but strength and toughness and courage were exterior qualities which would be demonstrated by going to a clean and hopefully antiseptic war with a small nation, rather than the interior and more lonely kind of strength and courage of telling the truth to America and perhaps incurring a good deal of domestic political risk."

That latter kind of toughness is what's needed now. Invading Iraq was a disastrous move by the Bush administration, and there is no satisfactory solution forthcoming. The White House should be working cooperatively with members of both parties in Congress to figure out the best way to bring the curtain down on U.S. involvement.

Before that can begin to happen, the administration will have to rid itself of the delusion that things are somehow going well in Iraq. The democracy that was supposed to flower in the Iraqi desert and then spread throughout the Middle East was as much a mirage as the weapons of mass destruction.

President Bush continues to assert that our goal in Iraq is "victory." Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently told Tim Russert that things were going "very, very well" in Iraq.

They are still crawling toward the mirage. It's time to give reality a chance.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What's Better? His Empty Suit or Her Baggage?



There's only one reason I continue to brave Washington's dreary formal press dinners, which are so calcified they're a bad cross between a zombie movie and those little Mexican Day of the Dead sculptures.

I find it highly instructive to hear politicians make humor speeches. It's difficult, and few pols do it well.

It took Bill Clinton almost two terms to make a funny speech. He kept letting a petulant tone creep in. Even though W. would probably rather spend the night in Baghdad than go to a banquet, way past his bedtime, where he's getting lampooned by reporters still able to drink, he was a master right from the start.

Lynne Cheney is a practiced speaker, but a bit tone-deaf on humor. At the Gridiron dinner here on Saturday, she said of her husband: "He has a great sense of humor. Just the other day I asked him, 'Do you know how many terrorists it takes to paint a wall?' And he answered right back, 'It depends on how hard you throw them.' "

People laughed, but it felt creepy, the kind of humor that makes more terrorists.

Everyone was curious to hear Barack Obama, the Democratic speaker. He arrived last year as a star, then lapsed into a cipher, even getting punk'd by John McCain last month. In the capital's version of "Dancing With the Stars," Senator Obama won, turning in a smooth, funny performance that lifted him from his tyro track.

He tweaked fellow Democrats, telling the white-tie crowd: "Men in tails. Women in gowns. An orchestra playing, as folks reminisce about the good old days. Kind of like dinner at the Kerrys."

He mocked the president's unauthorized snooping, saying he'd "asked my staff to conduct all phone conversations in the Kenyan dialect of Luo." He advised W. to "spy on the Weather Channel, and find out when big storms are coming."

After saying he'd enjoyed the Olympic biathlon of shooting and skiing, he, deadpan, turned to Dick Cheney: "Probably not your sport, Mr. Vice President."

It may be true that Americans, as one Democrat told me, "will never elect a guy as president who has a name like a Middle East terrorist." And it may be true that Democrats are racing like lemmings toward a race where, as one moaned, "John McCain will dribble Hillary Clinton's head down the court like a basketball."

But the clever, elegant performance by Mr. Obama — who is intent on keeping his head down in the Senate until he, too, can be a tedious insider — underscored the Democratic vacuum. Not only do the Democrats "stand for anything," as Mr. Obama semijoked, but they have no champion at a time when people are hungry for an exciting leader, when the party should be roaring and soaring against the Bushies' power-mad stumbles. They should groom an '08 star who can run on the pledge of doing what's right instead of only what's far right.

The Republicans won with Ronald Reagan and W. by taking guys with more likeability and sizzle than experience. They figure they'll win in a McCain-Hillary duel by running a conservative beloved by the media and many Democrats against a polarizing Northerner who can't win any red states despite pandering to conservatives.

The weak and pathetic Democrats seem to move inexorably toward candidates who turn a lot of people off. They should find someone captivating with an intensely American success story — someone like Senator Obama, Tom Brokaw or some innovative business mogul who's less crazy than Ross Perot — and shape the campaign around that leader. Barack Obama is 44. J.F.K., who had a reputation as a callow playboy and lawmaker who barely knew his way around the Hill, was 43 when he became president.

With seniority comes dullness. And unless you can draw on it in desperate times, promise is merely a curse.

Democrats think Senator Potential's experience does not match Senator Pothole's. Much of hers is as a first lady who bollixed up chunks of domestic policy. They also suspect she may be more macho than he is. They fret that the freshman Illinois senator would wilt against the Arizona senator's foreign policy experience — and he probably would. But Mr. McCain, a big hawk on Iraq, has talked of sending more troops, and his mentor was Henry Kissinger. These are not recommendations.

W. had the foreign policy "dream team," and it shattered our foreign policy, ideals and self-image. Despite hundreds of years of combined experience, the Bushies rammed through cronies and schemes that were so destructive, it will take hundreds of years to straighten out the mistakes.

The Democrats should not dismiss a politically less experienced but personally more charismatic prospect as "an empty vessel." Maybe an empty vessel can fill the room.

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Right's Man


It's time for some straight talk about John McCain. He isn't a moderate. He's much less of a maverick than you'd think. And he isn't the straight talker he claims to be.

Mr. McCain's reputation as a moderate may be based on his former opposition to the Bush tax cuts. In 2001 he declared, "I cannot in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us."

But now — at a time of huge budget deficits and an expensive war, when the case against tax cuts for the rich is even stronger — Mr. McCain is happy to shower benefits on the most fortunate. He recently voted to extend tax cuts on dividends and capital gains, an action that will worsen the budget deficit while mainly benefiting people with very high incomes.

When it comes to foreign policy, Mr. McCain was never moderate. During the 2000 campaign he called for a policy of "rogue state rollback," anticipating the "Bush doctrine" of pre-emptive war unveiled two years later. Mr. McCain called for a systematic effort to overthrow nasty regimes even if they posed no imminent threat to the United States; he singled out Iraq, Libya and North Korea. Mr. McCain's aggressive views on foreign policy, and his expressed willingness, almost eagerness, to commit U.S. ground forces overseas, explain why he, not George W. Bush, was the favored candidate of neoconservative pundits such as William Kristol of The Weekly Standard.

Would Mr. McCain, like Mr. Bush, have found some pretext for invading Iraq? We'll never know. But Mr. McCain still thinks the war was a good idea, and he rejects any attempt to extricate ourselves from the quagmire. "If success requires an increase in American troop levels in 2006," he wrote last year, "then we must increase our numbers there." He didn't explain where the overstretched U.S. military is supposed to find these troops.

When it comes to social issues, Mr. McCain, who once called Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "agents of intolerance," met with Mr. Falwell late last year. Perhaps as a result, he is now taking positions friendly to the religious right. Most notably, Mr. McCain's spokesperson says that he would have signed South Dakota's extremist new anti-abortion law.

The spokesperson went on to say that the senator would have taken "the appropriate steps under state law" to ensure that cases of rape and incest were excluded. But that attempt at qualification makes no sense: the South Dakota law has produced national shockwaves precisely because it prohibits abortions even for victims of rape or incest.

The bottom line is that Mr. McCain isn't a moderate; he's a man of the hard right. How far right? A statistical analysis of Mr. McCain's recent voting record, available at www.voteview.com, ranks him as the Senate's third most conservative member.

What about Mr. McCain's reputation as a maverick? This comes from the fact that every now and then he seems to declare his independence from the Bush administration, as he did in pushing through his anti-torture bill.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Guantánamo. President Bush, when signing the bill, appended a statement that in effect said that he was free to disregard the law whenever he chose. Mr. McCain protested, but there are apparently no hard feelings: at the recent Southern Republican Leadership Conference he effusively praised Mr. Bush.

And I'm sorry to say that this is typical of Mr. McCain. Every once in a while he makes headlines by apparently defying Mr. Bush, but he always returns to the fold, even if the abuses he railed against continue unabated.

So here's what you need to know about John McCain.

He isn't a straight talker. His flip-flopping on tax cuts, his call to send troops we don't have to Iraq and his endorsement of the South Dakota anti-abortion legislation even while claiming that he would find a way around that legislation's central provision show that he's a politician as slippery and evasive as, well, George W. Bush.

He isn't a moderate. Mr. McCain's policy positions and Senate votes don't just place him at the right end of America's political spectrum; they place him in the right wing of the Republican Party.

And he isn't a maverick, at least not when it counts. When the cameras are rolling, Mr. McCain can sometimes be seen striking a brave pose of opposition to the White House. But when it matters, when the Bush administration's ability to do whatever it wants is at stake, Mr. McCain always toes the party line.

It's worth recalling that during the 2000 election campaign George W. Bush was widely portrayed by the news media both as a moderate and as a straight-shooter. As Mr. Bush has said, "Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again."

Gross Neglect


When it comes to providing desperately needed services for children who have been beaten, starved, sexually abused or otherwise mistreated, the state of Mississippi offers what is probably the worst-case scenario.

Mississippi gets more than 25,000 allegations of abuse and neglect each year, and it can't handle them.

Way back in 1992 the Child Welfare League of America issued a blistering report about the backward state of affairs in Mississippi. The league warned that vulnerable children would suffer irreparable harm if steps weren't taken to reduce caseloads, increase staffing and locate additional foster care and adoptive homes.

In 2001, Sue Perry, the state's director of family and children's services, warned top state officials that "the crisis needs to be addressed by whomever has the power to rectify the situation — before a tragedy occurs."

She quit the following year, saying in a letter to then-Governor Ronnie Musgrove that the system was starved for resources and had deteriorated so badly that protecting the children had become "an impossible task." At the time she wrote the letter, Ms. Perry was being directed to abolish 88 additional full-time positions.

She told the governor that Mississippi's children had been placed at such great risk that some would die. "I am sorry to inform you," she said, "that this has already happened in DeSoto County. A 19-month-old child was brutally beaten by his stepfather in a case known to this agency."

Warnings don't get much louder, but the honchos in Mississippi were in no mood to listen. These were poor kids, after all. What claim did they have on the state's resources?

Two years after Ms. Perry resigned, Gov. Haley Barbour acknowledged that the state's Department of Human Services had "collapsed for lack of management and a lack of leadership." Collapsed. That was the governor's word. Was he serious? Was he planning to do something about it? You must be joking. He made the comment as he was announcing additional budget cuts for the agency.

When a state abandons its obligation to care for its vulnerable residents, the last best hope has tended to be the courts. Enter Children's Rights, an advocacy organization based in New York. Over the years, it has filed lawsuits in a number of states that have led to the overhaul of failing child welfare systems, and it is currently pressing a class-action suit on behalf of abused and neglected children in Mississippi.

The situation in Mississippi has become so bad, said Marcia Robinson Lowry, the executive director of Children's Rights, that the state deliberately (and unlawfully) diverts children from the child welfare system by failing to investigate reports of abuse and neglect.

"Mississippi has one of the worst child welfare systems we have ever seen," Ms. Lowry said.

Mississippi doesn't even try to fully staff its Division of Family and Children Services. Caseloads for child protective workers are absurdly high. Where national standards call for a maximum of 12 to 17 cases per worker (depending on the types of cases involved), there are counties in Mississippi where the average caseload for workers is 100 and beyond. According to the lawsuit, the average caseload in Lamar County is 130.

In that kind of system, kids suffer and may even die without ever coming close to the attention of the authorities.

The kids who do come to the attention of the system frequently get short shrift. Some are placed in settings that are as dangerous — or more dangerous — than their original environments.

How bad is Mississippi? In the papers compiled by Children's Rights for its lawsuit is a reference to testimony by a key official of the Department of Human Services, who said the state would "not necessarily investigate" whether sexual abuse had occurred if a "little girl" contracted a sexually transmitted disease.

If you don't understand that a "little girl" with a sexually transmitted disease is a raging signal to take immediate steps to protect the child and to launch a criminal investigation, then you should not be allowed anywhere near vulnerable children.

This is the sort of thing Children's Rights is trying to correct with its lawsuit. It seeks nothing less than to compel the governor and other officials to meet their obligation to protect and care for the most vulnerable children in their state. And that can only be done by transforming a system that at the moment can best be described as grotesque.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

W.'s Mixed Messages



The good news is the Arabs aren't going to run our ports.

The bad news is the Americans are going to run our ports.

Homeland Security's protection of the ports is a joke. The goof-off Michael Chertoff is remarkably still in charge. The swaggering of the president and vice president on national security has been exposed as a sham, with millions spent shoring up our defenses wasted, with the Iraq war aggravating our danger, and with anti-Muslim feeling swelling among Americans and anti-American feeling swelling among Muslims.

A Washington Post-ABC News Poll this week found that a growing percentage of Americans have unfavorable opinions of Islam. A majority now think Muslims are disproportionately prone to violence.

The creepy John Grisham-style Washington firm called the Carlyle Group, suffused with Arab connections and money, and seeded with Saudi money (including bin Laden family money until after 9/11), even gave some thought to investing in the ports, before backing off.

The nakedness of the ports is so obvious it was a "Sopranos" plot point. A source called Deep Water, who helped check out new hires for the New Jersey port before and after 9/11, told the F.B.I. a couple of years ago about what he saw as gaps in security practices on the waterfront and a "suspicious" flow of recent Arab immigrants, some speaking little English, being hired as port watchmen. Deep Water said he'd recently been interviewed by New York detectives.

President Bush does not seem to understand that it was his bumbling — rather than our bigotry — that led Americans to gulp and yelp at the idea of an Arab government running our ports. When the president said yesterday that "my administration was satisfied that port security would not have been undermined by the agreement," he seemed oblivious to the fact that — after W.M.D., Katrina and Iraq — many Americans no longer trust this administration to protect them.

Still shaken by his first rebellion by Republicans fed up with White House hubris and hamhandedness, W. chastised lawmakers about xenophobia. "I'm concerned about a broader message this issue could send to our friends and allies around the world, particularly in the Middle East," he said. He said that we had to cultivate moderate Arabs, but that moderate Muslims were shrinking back as violent Islamists pushed ahead.

American skepticism about the Dubai government running our ports is not prejudice. As Denny Hastert put it, "It's counterintuitive." There is nothing wrong with wanting Americans to be responsible for American security. That's not nativism or jingoism or bigotry. It's self-reliance and prudence. Of course, such an attitude can be exploited by bigots. And some bigotry is being fed by scenes on the news every day of Arab fighters blowing things up, leading to the same stereotype of Arabs that existed in the 70's, a caricature limned from terrorism, oil and the petrodollar.

The president also does not seem to understand that he spurred the dissonance that led to this vote of no-confidence. Since Sept. 11, he has been anti-terror but pro-Mideast, a position that has left Americans confused. His enemy is a tactic that's too vague to pinpoint, too vast to ever defeat. In some ways, the country seems more alive to the true origins of the fiends who attacked us than the president.

His nuclear deals have so jumbled up the carrots and sticks that American threats on nuclear proliferation have lost all meaning.

W. and General Rove present the war on terror as Armageddon and World War VIII, yet in every other aspect of foreign policy, it's business as usual. One minute they're scaring Americans into supporting their power grabs by essentially yelling, "They're coming to kill us!" The next minute, the Persian Gulf is still the great nexus for capitalist deals by the likes of Treasury Secretary John Snow, Dick Cheney, Halliburton and the Carlyle Group.

The president preaches that we are seriously threatened by autocratic Arab societies that won't modernize and become free markets, but then his cozy relationship with autocratic Arab regimes, including the Saudis, continues basically unchanged.

As Michael Hirsh of Newsweek summed up in a recent column: "How then did we arrive at this day, with anti-American Islamist governments rising in the Mideast, bin Laden sneering at us, Qaeda lieutenants escaping from prison, Iran brazenly enriching uranium, and America as hated and mistrusted as it ever has been? The answer, in a word, is incompetence."

Friday, March 10, 2006

The Conservative Epiphany


Bruce Bartlett, the author of "Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy," is an angry man. At a recent book forum at the Cato Institute, he declared that the Bush administration is "unconscionable," "irresponsible," "vindictive" and "inept."

It's no wonder, then, that one commentator wrote of Mr. Bartlett that "if he were a cartoon character, he would probably look like Donald Duck during one of his famous tirades, with steam pouring out of his ears."

Oh, wait. That's not what somebody wrote about Mr. Bartlett. It's what Mr. Bartlett wrote about me in September 2003, when I was saying pretty much what he's saying now.

Human nature being what it is, I don't expect Mr. Bartlett to acknowledge his about-face. Nor do I expect any expressions of remorse from Andrew Sullivan, the conservative Time.com blogger who also spoke at the Cato forum. Mr. Sullivan used to specialize in denouncing the patriotism and character of anyone who dared to criticize President Bush, whom he lionized. Now he himself has become a critic, not just of Mr. Bush's policies, but of his personal qualities, too.

Never mind; better late than never. We should welcome the recent epiphanies by conservative commentators who have finally realized that the Bush administration isn't trustworthy. But we should guard against a conventional wisdom that seems to be taking hold in some quarters, which says there's something praiseworthy about having initially been taken in by Mr. Bush's deceptions, even though the administration's mendacity was obvious from the beginning.

According to this view, if you're a former Bush supporter who now says, as Mr. Bartlett did at the Cato event, that "the administration lies about budget numbers," you're a brave truth-teller. But if you've been saying that since the early days of the Bush administration, you were unpleasantly shrill.

Similarly, if you're a former worshipful admirer of George W. Bush who now says, as Mr. Sullivan did at Cato, that "the people in this administration have no principles," you're taking a courageous stand. If you said the same thing back when Mr. Bush had an 80 percent approval rating, you were blinded by Bush-hatred.

And if you're a former hawk who now concedes that the administration exaggerated the threat from Iraq, you're to be applauded for your open-mindedness. But if you warned three years ago that the administration was hyping the case for war, you were a conspiracy theorist.

The truth is that everything the new wave of Bush critics has to say was obvious long ago to any commentator who was willing to look at the facts.

Mr. Bartlett's book is mainly a critique of the Bush administration's fiscal policy. Well, the administration's pattern of fiscal dishonesty and irresponsibility was clear right from the start to anyone who understands budget arithmetic. The chicanery that took place during the selling of the 2001 tax cut — obviously fraudulent budget projections, transparently deceptive advertising about who would benefit and the use of blatant accounting gimmicks to conceal the plan's true cost — was as bad as anything that followed.

The false selling of the Iraq war was almost as easy to spot. All the supposed evidence for an Iraqi nuclear program was discredited before the war — and it was the threat of nukes, not lesser W.M.D., that stampeded Congress into authorizing Mr. Bush to go to war. The administration's nonsensical but insistent rhetorical linkage of Iraq and 9/11 was also a dead giveaway that we were being railroaded into an unnecessary war.

The point is that pundits who failed to notice the administration's mendacity a long time ago either weren't doing their homework, or deliberately turned a blind eye to the evidence.

But as I said, better late than never. Born-again Bush-bashers like Mr. Bartlett and Mr. Sullivan, however churlish, are intellectually and morally superior to the Bushist dead-enders who still insist that Saddam was allied with Al Qaeda, and will soon be claiming that we lost the war in Iraq because the liberal media stabbed the troops in the back. And reporters understandably consider it newsworthy that some conservative voices are now echoing longstanding liberal critiques of the Bush administration.

It's still fair, however, to ask people like Mr. Bartlett the obvious question: What took you so long?

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Children In Torment


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Two little boys -- toddlers in Yonkers -- died horrible deaths last July when they were left alone in a bathroom with scalding water running in the tub. The water overflowed and flooded the room. The children, in agony, were unable to escape as the water burned and blistered their feet and ankles and kept on rising. One of the boys struggled to save himself by standing on his toes, but to no avail. Authorities said that when the boys were found, they were lying face up in the water on the bathroom floor, their bodies all but completely scorched. They had burned to death.

The boys -- one was nearly three years old and the other 20 months -- had been left in the bathroom (which had a damaged door that was difficult to open) by David Maldonado, the live-in boyfriend of the boys' mother. Police said he was the father of one of the children.

The two adults had taken heroin. While the children suffered and died, the grown-ups, according to the authorities, were lying in bed, lost in a deep drug-fueled sleep. Both have pleaded guilty in connection with the deaths, and have been imprisoned.

I've been reading (and sometimes writing) stories like this for many years. Every few months or so, some horrifying child abuse case elbows its way onto the front pages, and there is a general outcry: How could this have happened? Where were the caseworkers? Lock up the monsters who did this! Let's investigate and reform the child welfare system.

And then the story subsides and we behave as if this murderous abuse of helpless children trapped in the torture chambers of their own homes has somehow subsided with it. But child abuse is a hideous, widespread and chronic problem across the country. And despite the sensational cases that periodically grab the headlines, it doesn't get nearly enough attention.

What some adults do to the children in their care can seem like behavior left over from the Inquisition. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 1,500 children died from abuse or neglect in 2003, the latest year for which reasonably reliable statistics are available. That's four children every day, and that estimate is probably low. Record-keeping in some states is notoriously haphazard.

Authorities in Michigan reported the heartbreaking case of a 7-year-old, Ricky Holland, who begged his school nurse not to send him home to his adoptive parents. ''Let me stay in school,'' he pleaded.

He was later beaten to death with a hammer, prosecutors said, and his bloody body was dragged away in a garbage bag. His parents were charged with his death.

The deaths, as horrible as they are, don't begin to convey the enormity of the problem. In 2003, authorities were alerted to nearly three million cases of youngsters who were alleged to have been abused or neglected, and confirmed a million of them. The number of cases that never come to light is, of course, anybody's guess.

What's remarkable to me is that we've been hearing about this enormously tragic problem for so long, decades, and yet the reaction to each sickening case that makes it into the media spotlight is shock. How many times are we going to be shocked before serious steps are taken to alleviate the terrible suffering and prevent the horrible deaths of as many of these children as we can?

We know some things about child abuse and neglect. We know that there is a profound connection between child abuse and substance abuse, for example. We know that abuse and neglect are more likely to occur in households where money is in short supply, especially if the caregivers are unemployed. A crisis in the home heightens the chances that a child will be abused. And adults who were abused as children are more likely than others to be abusers themselves.

Child-abuse prevention programs are wholly inadequate, and child protective services, while varying in quality from state to state, are in many instances overwhelmed and largely unaccountable. The child protection system has broken down -- or was never up and running at all -- in state after state after state.

''There are no consequences to violating policy,'' said Marcia Robinson Lowry, executive director of the advocacy group Children's Rights. ''There are no consequences to violating the law.''

The kids who are most frequently the victims of abuse are from the lower economic classes. They are not from families that make a habit of voting. There is no real incentive for government officials to make the protection of these kids a priority.

They couldn't be more alone. They are no one's natural constituency.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Nipping and Tucking on Both Coasts


There is a crash of ideologies between the country's two most self-regarding and fantasy-spinning power centers. The Bush crowd cringes away from gay cowboys spooning, gay authors flouncing, transgender babes exploring and George the Dashing Clooneying in movies about the glories of free speech and the dangers of oilmen influencing policy.

But as I looked around Vanity Fair's slinky Oscar party on Sunday night, it struck me that the bellicose Bushies do share a presentation aesthetic with Tinseltown's trompe l'oeil beauties: you see no furrowed brows, no regretful winces, no unflattering wrinkles, no admissions of imperfection, no qualms about puffing up what you really have, no visible signs of hard lessons learned, and no desire to confront reality in the mirror.

Who ever thought Dick Cheney and Mamie Van Doren would have so much in common?

The White House is constantly trying to do laser resurfacing on its Iraq policy, to sandblast away the damage from its own mistakes. But its veneer may be beyond repair.

In Hollywood terms, we've reached an Indiana Jones crisis moment in our parlous protectorate. The cave is collapsing, the snakes are encroaching, the vehicles are exploding, the crushing ball is rolling down on us. The public has stopped buying the administration's sugary spin. The Washington Post reported yesterday that 80 percent of Americans — cutting across party lines — say sectarian violence makes civil war in Iraq likely. More than a third call it "very likely." Half also think the U.S. should begin withdrawing troops from Iraq, the poll found, and two-thirds say the president has no clear plan for Iraq.

The widespread resistance to the Dubai ports deal, even among newly fractious Republicans, indicates that Americans have lost faith in the president's competence — a faith shredded by the White House's obtuseness and lies on Katrina.

As Hollywood often does, the administration scorns introspection and originality. It sticks with the same worn themes: Stay the course. Victory's around the corner. Anyone who expresses skepticism is a defeatist, a softie on terrorism.

On "Meet the Press" on Sunday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraq was "going very, very well, from everything you look at." And at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, Rummy, who should have resigned in shame long ago, tried to blame the press, echoing Gen. George Casey in saying: "Much of the reporting in the U.S. and abroad has exaggerated the situation."

He added, "The steady stream of errors all seem to be of a nature to inflame the situation and to give heart to the terrorists."

After all the horrible mistakes in judgment the defense secretary has made — mistakes that have left our troops without proper backup and armor, created an inept and corrupt occupation, and confused soldiers into thinking torture was O.K. — it takes humongous gall to suggest that the problem is really the reporters.

Many experts say we're close to a civil war — or already in one. Even the U.S. envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, told The Los Angeles Times on Monday that the invasion of Iraq had opened a "Pandora's box" of tribal and religious fissures that could devour the region. His words evoked a harrowing image of the bad spirits swarming up the mountain in Disney's "Fantasia" as Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain" played.

He said that if there's another incident like the Shiite shrine's being blown up, Iraq is "really vulnerable."

The Pentagon says it'll look once more at the death by friendly fire of the football player and Army Ranger Pat Tillman in Afghanistan, because the first three inquiries had problems — one more sad illustration of the administration's cynical attempt not to let anything get in the way of its heroic, and dermatologically plumped up, story line for America.


My column of Feb. 18 said that Scooter Libby testified that "superiors" had authorized him to leak classified information about Valerie Plame. Rather, Mr. Libby testified that "superiors" had authorized him to leak classified information from an intelligence report to rebut critics and justify the Iraq war, not information about Valerie Plame.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Feeling No Pain


President Bush's main purpose in visiting India seems to have been to promote nuclear proliferation. But he also had some kind words for outsourcing. And those words help explain something that I know deeply puzzles the administration's political gurus: Mr. Bush's dismal polling on economic issues.

Now the American economy isn't doing as well as Bush partisans think it is. In fact, since the end of the 2001 recession, the recovery in jobs, output and especially wages has been unusually weak by historical standards. Still, the economy is expanding, so it's impressive just how large a majority of Americans disapproves of Mr. Bush's economic management.

Why doesn't Mr. Bush get any economic respect? I think it's because most Americans sense, correctly, that he doesn't care about people like them. We're living in a time when many Americans are feeling economically insecure, but a tiny elite has been growing incredibly rich. And Mr. Bush's problem is that he identifies so totally with the lucky, wealthy few that in unscripted settings he can't manage even a few sentences of empathy with ordinary Americans. He doesn't feel your pain, and it shows.

Here's what Mr. Bush said in India, when someone raised the question of the political backlash against outsourcing: "Losing jobs is painful, so let's make sure people are educated so they can find — fill the jobs of the 21st century. And let's make sure that there's pro-growth economic policies in place. What does that mean? That means low taxes; it means less regulation; it means fewer lawsuits; it means wise energy policy."

O.K., so you're a 50-year-old worker whose job has just been outsourced, and Mr. Bush tells you that you should go get a 21st-century education and rejoice in the joys of a lawsuit-free economy. Uh-huh.

Actually, Mr. Bush's remarks were even more off-key than they seem, coming during a visit to India. India's surge into world markets hasn't followed the pattern set by other developing nations, which started their export drive in low-tech industries like clothing. Instead, India has moved directly into industries that advanced countries like the United States thought were their exclusive turf. When Business Week put together a list of areas "where India has made an impact ... and where it's going next," that list consisted almost entirely of high-technology activities like software and chip design.

What this means is that American workers whose jobs are threatened by Indian competition are, in many cases, people who thought they already had acquired the skills to "fill the jobs of the 21st century" — but have just discovered that Indians, who are paid about a tenth as much, also have those skills.

Am I saying that we should try to stop outsourcing? No. But if you don't feel conflicted about the effects of globalization, if you don't worry about the many losers from the process, you aren't paying attention. And American workers deserve a better answer to their concerns than yet another assertion that a rising tide raises all boats, because that's manifestly untrue.

The fact is that we're living in a time when most Americans are seeing little if any benefit from overall income growth, because their share of the economic pie is falling. Between 1979 and 2003, according to a recent research paper published by the I.R.S., the share of overall income received by the bottom 80 percent of taxpayers fell from 50 percent to barely over 40 percent. The main winners from this upward redistribution of income were a tiny, wealthy elite: more than half the income share lost by the bottom 80 percent was gained by just one-fourth of 1 percent of the population, people with incomes of at least $750,000 in 2003.

And those fortunate few are the only people Mr. Bush seems to care about. Look at what he had to offer after asserting, in effect, that workers get outsourced because they don't have the right education: lower taxes, deregulation and fewer lawsuits. Funny, that doesn't sound like "pro-growth" policy to me. Instead, it sounds like a wish list for wealthy individuals and big corporations.

Mr. Bush once joked that his base consisted of the "haves and the have-mores." But it wasn't much of a joke. His remarks in India show that he really can't imagine what it's like not to be a member of a privileged economic elite.

Nuclear Madness


The key to understanding the Bush administration and its policies is contained in the widely cited New York Times Magazine article, "Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush," by Ron Suskind.

That's the article in which Mr. Suskind described how a senior Bush adviser contemptuously dismissed the community that most of us live in, "the reality-based community."

The times have changed and reality isn't what it used to be. As the adviser explained, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

This mad-hatter thinking was on display again last week. President Bush, who used specious claims about a nuclear threat to launch his disastrous war in Iraq, agreed to a deal — in blatant violation of international accords and several decades of bipartisan U.S. policy — that would enable India to double or triple its annual production of nuclear weapons.

The president turned his back on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (dismissed, like reality-based thinking, as passé) and moved the world a step closer to an accelerated nuclear arms race in Asia and elsewhere. In the president's empire-based, otherworldly way of thinking, this was a good thing.

For decades, U.S. law and the provisions of the nonproliferation treaty have precluded the sale of nuclear fuel and reactor components to India, which has acquired an atomic arsenal and has refused to sign the treaty. President Bush turned that policy upside down last week, agreeing to share nuclear energy technology with India, even as it continues to develop nuclear weapons in a program that is shielded from international inspectors.

The attempt to stop the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five original members of the so-called nuclear club — the U.S., Russia, Britain, France and China — has not been perfect by any means. But it hasn't been bad. Back in the 1960's there was a fear that before long there might be dozens of additional states with nuclear weapons. But so far the spread has been held to four — Israel, India, Pakistan and most likely North Korea.

A cornerstone of the nonproliferation strategy has been the refusal to share nuclear energy technology with nations unwilling to abide by the provisions of the nonproliferation treaty. Last week George W. Bush decided he would change all that by carving out an exception for India.

Presidents from both parties — from Richard Nixon through Bill Clinton — had refused to make this deal, which India has wanted for more than three decades.

"It's a terrible deal, a disaster," said Joseph Cirincione, the director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment. "The Indians are free to make as much nuclear material as they want. Meanwhile, we're going to sell them fuel for their civilian reactors. That frees up their resources for the military side, and that stinks."

With President Bush undermining the nonproliferation treaty, critics are worried that it's only a matter of time before other bilateral deals are made — say, China with Pakistan, which has already asked Mr. Bush for a deal similar to India's and been turned down.

"We can't break the rules for India and then expect other countries to play by them," said Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is one of the leading opponents of the deal, which will require Congressional approval.

In the early 1960's, President John F. Kennedy, a member in good standing of the reality-based community, tried to convey the menace posed to mankind by nuclear weapons. "Today," he said, "every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

Today, in 2006, as Congressman Markey reminds us, terrorists as well as rogue governments are racing to get their hands on nukes.

"We've had a consensus for a generation," he said, "that the world will cooperate to restrict the spread of these nuclear materials. If this consensus breaks down, then we increase exponentially the likelihood that the catastrophic event that Kennedy warned about will, in fact, occur."

Friday, March 03, 2006

George the Unready


Iraqi insurgents, hurricanes and low-income Medicare recipients have three things in common. Each has been at the center of a policy disaster. In each case experts warned about the impending disaster. And in each case — well, let's look at what happened.

Knight Ridder's Washington bureau reports that from 2003 on, intelligence agencies "repeatedly warned the White House" that "the insurgency in Iraq had deep local roots, was likely to worsen and could lead to civil war." But senior administration officials insisted that the insurgents were a mix of dead-enders and foreign terrorists.

Intelligence analysts who refused to go along with that line were attacked for not being team players. According to U.S. News & World Report, President Bush's reaction to a pessimistic report from the C.I.A.'s Baghdad station chief was to remark, "What is he, some kind of defeatist?"

Many people have now seen the video of the briefing Mr. Bush received before Hurricane Katrina struck. Much has been made of the revelation that Mr. Bush was dishonest when he claimed, a few days later, that nobody anticipated the breach of the levees.

But what's really striking, given the gravity of the warnings, is the lack of urgency Mr. Bush and his administration displayed in responding to the storm. A horrified nation watched the scenes of misery at the Superdome and wondered why help hadn't arrived. But as Newsweek reports, for several days nobody was willing to tell Mr. Bush, who "equates disagreement with disloyalty," how badly things were going. "For most of those first few days," Newsweek says, "Bush was hearing what a good job the Feds were doing."

Now for one you may not have heard about. The new Medicare drug program got off to a disastrous start: "Low-income Medicare beneficiaries around the country were often overcharged, and some were turned away from pharmacies without getting their medications, in the first week of Medicare's new drug benefit," The New York Times reported.

How did this happen? The same way the other disasters happened: experts who warned of trouble ahead were told to shut up.

We can get a sense of what went on by looking at a 2005 report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office on potential problems with the drug program. Included with the report is a letter from Mark McClellan, the Medicare administrator. Rather than taking the concerns of the G.A.O. seriously, he tried to bully it into changing its conclusions. He demanded that the report say that the administration had "established effective contingency plans" — which it hadn't — and that it drop the assertion that some people would encounter difficulties obtaining necessary drugs, which is exactly what happened.

Experts within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must have faced similar bullying. And unlike experts at the independent G.A.O., they were not in a position to stand up for what they knew to be true.

In short, our country is being run by people who assume that things will turn out the way they want. And if someone warns of problems, they shoot the messenger.

Some commentators speak of the series of disasters now afflicting the Bush administration — there seems to be a new one every week — as if it were just a string of bad luck. But it isn't.

If good luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, bad luck is what happens when lack of preparation meets a challenge. And our leaders, who think they can govern through a mix of wishful thinking and intimidation, are never, ever prepared.


On Jan. 30 I cited an article in The American Prospect that reported that Indian tribes who hired Jack Abramoff had reduced their contributions to Democrats by 9 percent. Dwight Morris, who prepared the study on which the article was based, says on The American Prospect's blog that "there is no statistically valid way to calculate this number given the way the data were compiled." The American Prospect was sloppy, and so was I for not checking its methodology.

However, Mr. Morris goes on to say this is a minor point because other calculations show "an undeniably Republican shift in giving."

Pre-Abramoff, the tribes gave slightly more money to Democrats than to Republicans; post-Abramoff, they gave 70 percent to Republicans, versus only 30 percent to Democrats. In other words, there's nothing bipartisan about the Abramoff scandal.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Always Having to Say He's Sorry


If there were a trapdoor that was somehow rigged to open beneath the U.S. senators we really don't need, Conrad Burns of Montana would surely fall right through it.

Mr. Burns is a racially insensitive Republican whose re-election bid this year has been jeopardized by his dealings with the G.O.P. superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. Mr. Abramoff has pleaded guilty to charges of fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Among other things, he's admitted to bilking American Indians out of millions of dollars, and he's said to be singing louder than the fat lady to federal investigators.

Mr. Burns is reported to have received more money in the form of campaign contributions from Mr. Abramoff and his favor-strewing friends than any other member of Congress. This has delighted his political opponents, who have tried to show that Mr. Burns and Mr. Abramoff were as close as a pair of prisoners sharing a single set of handcuffs.

When The Times asked whether he or members of his staff might get caught up in the federal investigation, Mr. Burns said he didn't know. As he put it, "You can't say yes and you can't say no."

The Abramoff scandal is just the latest issue to raise questions about Senator Burns's fitness to hold high public office. You've heard of accidents waiting to happen? He's an accident that happens again and again and again.

Back in 1994, while campaigning for a second term, Senator Burns dropped by a local newspaper, The Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and told an editor an anecdote about one of his constituents, a rancher who wanted to know what life was like in Washington.

Mr. Burns said the rancher asked him, "Conrad, how can you live back there with all those niggers?"

Senator Burns said he told the rancher it was "a hell of a challenge."

The anecdote was published, and Senator Burns apologized. When he was asked why he hadn't expressed any disapproval when the rancher used the word nigger, the senator said: "I don't know. I never gave it much thought."

Maybe he didn't express any disapproval because he didn't particularly disapprove. On another occasion Senator Burns had to apologize after giving a speech in Billings about America's dependence on foreign sources of oil. In the speech, he referred to Arabs as "ragheads."

"I regret the use of such an inappropriate term," he said. "I hope I did not overshadow the serious substance of my remarks."

Mr. Burns's apologies have always been undermined by the serial nature of his offensive remarks. Last fall he upset a pair of female flight attendants after one of them, a mother with two children, asked him about outsourcing and the economy. She wondered what she would do if she lost her job. The senator reportedly replied that she could stay home and take care of her children.

A third flight attendant, after hearing the story, wrote an angry letter to Mr. Burns, saying, "Before you sit in judgment and make such ignorant statements, you really should stop and remember that we don't all live in a 'Leave It to Beaver' world."

It has always been this way with Conrad Burns. Back in 1991, immediately after a civil rights bill had been passed, he invited a group of lobbyists, some of them white and some of them black, to accompany him to an auction.

When asked what was being auctioned, he replied, "Slaves."

The Washington Post quoted one of the lobbyists as saying: "We were floored. We couldn't believe it." Senator Burns later said he was talking about a charitable auction in which the services of individuals are sold.

When you consider that clowns like Conrad Burns can inhabit some of the highest offices in the land, it's no longer such a mystery why the United States of America seems to be barreling down the wrong track at truly hair-raising speeds.

As we've found with the war in Iraq and so many other important issues, leadership matters. And serious leaders in the U.S. have been in dangerously short supply.

In response to questions about the Abramoff scandal, Mr. Burns has denied that he's done anything wrong. And he dismisses concerns about the amount of money he received. "What's the difference between one dollar and one thousand?" he said. "It's all dollars. Just like you rob a bank down here. If you get a thousand you go to jail, and if you get a million you go to jail."

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