Wealthy Frenchman

Sunday, December 31, 2006

A Healthy New Year

A Healthy New Year

The U.S. health care system is a scandal and a disgrace. But maybe, just maybe, 2007 will be the year we start the move toward universal coverage.

In 2005, almost 47 million Americans — including more than 8 million children — were uninsured, and many more had inadequate insurance.

Apologists for our system try to minimize the significance of these numbers. Many of the uninsured, asserted the 2004 Economic Report of the President, “remain uninsured as a matter of choice.”

And then you wake up. A scathing article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times described how insurers refuse to cover anyone with even the slightest hint of a pre-existing condition. People have been denied insurance for reasons that range from childhood asthma to a “past bout of jock itch.”

Some say that we can’t afford universal health care, even though every year lack of insurance plunges millions of Americans into severe financial distress and sends thousands to an early grave. But every other advanced country somehow manages to provide all its citizens with essential care. The only reason universal coverage seems hard to achieve here is the spectacular inefficiency of the U.S. health care system.

Americans spend more on health care per person than anyone else — almost twice as much as the French, whose medical care is among the best in the world. Yet we have the highest infant mortality and close to the lowest life expectancy of any wealthy nation. How do we do it?

Part of the answer is that our fragmented system has much higher administrative costs than the straightforward government insurance systems prevalent in the rest of the advanced world. As Anna Bernasek pointed out in yesterday’s New York Times, besides the overhead of private insurance companies, “there’s an enormous amount of paperwork required of American doctors and hospitals that simply doesn’t exist in countries like Canada or Britain.”

In addition, insurers often refuse to pay for preventive care, even though such care saves a lot of money in the long run, because those long-run savings won’t necessarily redound to their benefit. And the fragmentation of the American system explains why we lag far behind other nations in the use of electronic medical records, which both reduce costs and save lives by preventing many medical errors.

The truth is that we can afford to cover the uninsured. What we can’t afford is to keep going without a universal health care system.

If it were up to me, we’d have a Medicare-like system for everyone, paid for by a dedicated tax that for most people would be less than they or their employers currently pay in insurance premiums. This would, at a stroke, cover the uninsured, greatly reduce administrative costs and make it much easier to work on preventive care.

Such a system would leave people with the right to choose their own doctors, and with other choices as well: Medicare currently lets people apply their benefits to H.M.O.’s run by private insurance companies, and there’s no reason why similar options shouldn’t be available in a system of Medicare for all. But everyone would be in the system, one way or another.

Can we get there from here? Health care reform is in the air. Democrats in Congress are talking about providing health insurance to all children. John Edwards began his presidential campaign with a call for universal health care.

And there’s real action at the state level. Inspired by the Massachusetts plan to cover all its uninsured residents, politicians in other states are talking about adopting similar plans. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has introduced a Massachusetts-type plan for the nation as a whole.

But now is the time to warn against plans that try to cover the uninsured without taking on the fundamental sources of our health system’s inefficiency. What’s wrong with both the Massachusetts plan and Senator Wyden’s plan is that they don’t operate like Medicare; instead, they funnel the money through private insurance companies.

Everyone knows why: would-be reformers are trying to avoid too strong a backlash from the insurance industry and other players who profit from our current system’s irrationality.

But look at what happened to Bill Clinton. He rejected a single-payer approach, even though he understood its merits, in favor of a complex plan that was supposed to co-opt private insurance companies by giving them a largely gratuitous role. And the reward for this “pragmatism” was that insurance companies went all-out against his plan anyway, with the notorious “Harry and Louise” ads that, yes, mocked the plan’s complexity.

Now we have another chance for fundamental health care reform. Let’s not blow that chance with a pre-emptive surrender to the special interests.

The Not Wanted Signs


I’ve heard the concern expressed dozens of times by New Orleans residents who are poor and black and still living in enforced exile from their wounded city: Maybe they don’t want us back.

You hear it again and again and again, the tone of voice varying from sadness to anger to resignation, but always laced with the unmistakable pain of feeling unwelcome in one’s own home. I’ve come to think of it as the New Orleans lament.

“They are not trying to bring us home,” said Geraldine Craig, who is living in a federally sponsored trailer encampment in Baton Rouge. “Just the opposite. They’re telling us to find housing here.”

“It hurts,” said Mimi Adams, a woman who wore out her welcome with relatives in Houston and Atlanta but has no idea when she might return to New Orleans. “Even if I could find a place, the rents are too high,” she said. “They’ve gone up a lot. I’m told they don’t want us poor folks back, that they’re making it a city for the well-to-do. That’s what I’m hearing.”

Sixteen months have passed since the apocalyptic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. More than 13,000 residents who were displaced by the storm are still living in trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Another 100,000 to 200,000 evacuees — most of whom want to return home — are scattered throughout the United States.

The undeniable neglect of this population fuels the suspicion among the poor and the black, who constitute a majority of the evacuees, that the city is being handed over to the well-to-do and the white.

If you talk to public officials, you will hear about billions of dollars in aid being funneled through this program or that. The maze of bureaucratic initiatives is dizzying. But when you talk to the people most in need of help — the poor, the elderly, the disabled, the children — you will find in most cases that the help is not reaching them. There is no massive effort, no master plan, to bring back the people who were driven from the city and left destitute by Katrina.

Only the federal government could finance such an effort. Neither the city of New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has anywhere near the kind of money that would be required. “You’ve got a lot of people who don’t have a place to stay,” Gov. Kathleen Blanco told me in an interview on Friday, “and they’re spread all over creation.”

The federal government has not come close to meeting the challenge of this overwhelming humanitarian crisis. Instead of a concerted, creative effort to develop housing and organize the return to New Orleans of the poor and working-class families who were the heart and soul of the city, the government focused to a large extent on rolling out travel trailers to temporarily house an embarrassingly small percentage of the people in need.

“FEMA spent a lot on trailers,” said Governor Blanco, “trailers that are falling apart right now. And they spent as much money on those trailers in many cases as you would on putting a new house in place.”

The simple fact is that no one at any level of government, city, state or federal, has shown the leadership that was needed in response to this astounding tragedy. I tried to talk about this last week with the mayor of New Orleans, C. Ray Nagin, but he and his chief press aide were on vacation.

The most candid official I spoke with was Raymond Jetson, the chief executive of the Louisiana Family Recovery Corps, an independent, nonprofit group set up by the state in the wake of the storm.

“The most daunting aspect of the recovery is the human recovery,” he said, “and at this point it has certainly not received the resources or the attention that it needs.”

What was readily apparent in the aftermath of the botched rescue was the damage to the levees, the ruined homes and the city’s devastated infrastructure. “I don’t think,” said Mr. Jetson, “that the reality of what was happening in the lives of people and families was as apparent.”

The situation remains desperate for thousands of displaced residents. “Working families are finding it difficult to re-establish their households,” Mr. Jetson said. “People who are out of state want to come back home. The clock is ticking on the people who are living in the FEMA trailer communities. You have some people who are totally isolated from resources. And the emotional well-being of a significant number of people and families is literally in peril.”

This is how the new year is starting out for the victims of the great flood of 2005.

Health Care Problem? Check the American Psyche


WHAT is the most pressing problem facing the economy? A good case can be made for the developing health care crisis. Soaring costs, growing ranks of uninsured and a steady erosion of corporate health benefits add up to a giant drag on the nation’s future prosperity.

While the outlook seems scary, it doesn’t have to be. There is a solution, proven effective for hundreds of millions of people: single-payer health insurance.

Yes, single-payer — that much-maligned idea that calls for everyone to pay into one insurer, typically the government or a public agency. The insurer then pays doctors, pharmacists and hospitals at preset rates. Patients who want unapproved procedures and doctors not willing to accept the standard payment remain free to deal with one another directly, outside the system.

Such a system makes it much easier to deal with the growing costs of medical care, like administrative expenses and prescription drugs. It could also reduce the mountains of paperwork plaguing the current system and provide insurance coverage for the 46 million Americans now doing without it.

What’s more, as demonstrated in France, Britain, Canada, Australia and other countries with functioning single-payer systems, significant savings can come without hurting the overall health of the population.

There’s only one catch. Most Americans just don’t believe it can be done. The health care crisis may turn out to be more of a problem of ideology than economics.

The economic case for a single-payer system is surprisingly strong. Start with what we already know. Countries with single-payer systems have long records of spending less on health care than the United States does. The United States spent an average of $6,102 a person on it in 2004, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, while Canada spent $3,165 a person, France $3,159, Australia $3,120 and Britain just $2,508.

At the same time, life expectancy in the United States, a broad measure of health, was slightly lower than it was in those other countries in 2004, the latest year for which complete figures are available. And the United States had a higher rate of infant mortality.

To be sure, a single-payer system has plenty of critics. Unattractive features of some such systems, including waiting lists for particular types of care, are often highlighted by skeptics. But supporters note that the overall health of people fares well in those countries.

“The story never changes,” said Gerard F. Anderson, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The United States is twice as expensive with about the same outcome.

“As a consumer, I don’t mind paying more if I’m getting more, but that’s just not the case in the U.S.,” said Professor Anderson, who publishes an annual review comparing the American health care system with those of its peers.

What may be less well known is the level of administrative waste in the United States health care system, versus that of well-designed systems elsewhere. Although Americans tend to equate efficiency with private enterprise, that’s not the case with the current system.

The American system, based on multiple insurers, builds in more unnecessary costs. Duplicate processing of claims, large numbers of insurance products, complicated bill-paying systems and high marketing costs add up to huge administrative expenses.

Then there’s an enormous amount of paperwork required of American doctors and hospitals that simply doesn’t exist in countries like Canada or Britain.

“There’s little disagreement among economists today that a single-payer system would lead to lower administrative costs,” said Len Nichols, a health economist with the New America Foundation, a policy research organization in Washington. But he said that estimates varied widely over how big the savings could be.

One of the first major studies to quantify administrative costs in the United States was published in August 2003 in The New England Journal of Medicine by three Harvard researchers, Steffie Woolhandler, Terry Campbell and David U. Himmelstein. It concluded that such costs accounted for 31 percent of all health care expenditures in the United States.

More recently, in 2005, a study by the Lewin Group, a health care consulting firm commissioned to examine a proposal to provide universal health coverage in California, estimated that administrative costs consumed 20 percent of total health care expenditures nationwide.

Then there’s the test of time. Health care costs tend to rise over time as new technology and procedures are introduced. Yet here, too, government-funded systems appear to help contain long-term costs.

Consider Canada’s system. Professor Anderson points out that in the 1960s, Canada and the United States spent roughly the same per person on health care. Some three decades later, though, Canada spent half as much as America. How did Canada manage this? By controlling the use of medical equipment and hospital resources, which statistics show has helped Canadians keep a lid on costs without measurably compromising the overall health of the population.

Economic studies also show that a government-funded system could reduce costs while providing coverage for everyone. The Lewin report on the proposal to provide universal health coverage in California calculated that if such a system had been operating in 2006, it would have saved $8 billion, or around 4.3 percent of total health spending in the state. From 2006 to 2015, it estimated, savings would total $343 billion. Currently, California spends about $180 billion a year on health care.

Despite everything that is known about the economic benefits of a single-payer system, there’s one big stumbling block: many Americans don’t believe in it. They have heard horror stories from abroad, often spread by partisan advocates, focusing on worst-case examples. Such tales play upon the aversion of many Americans to government involvement in the economy.

Victor R. Fuchs, an economics professor at Stanford and a specialist in health care economics, explained it this way: “The Canadian system is a nonstarter for the U.S. even though it’s a good system for Canadians. You’re dealing with two very different countries. We were founded on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They were founded on peace, order and good government. It’s a difference of values.”

Others in the field echo his skepticism. But that raises questions about how well Americans understand the system they have, and what the alternatives are.

JUDGING from other countries, many features that Americans really like — being able to choose their own doctor, for example — would remain available in a well-designed single-payer system. And a single-payer system need not mean government-provided care: it often means government-provided insurance that encourages competition among providers.

Much of the resistance to a single-payer system appears to stem from a lack of confidence in the nation’s ability to make positive change. With all of its prowess in research and technology, can’t the United States match the efficiency of other developed nations, or do even better?

Changing the minds of so many millions of people isn’t done overnight. But sooner or later, persuading people to do something that’s in their own economic interest ought to succeed.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Frank Rich and David Brooks are on vacation.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Maureen Dowd is off today

A Failed Revolution


After first attempting to deny the scale of last month’s defeat, the apologists have settled on a story line that sounds just like Marxist explanations for the failure of the Soviet Union. What happened, you see, was that the noble ideals of the Republican revolution of 1994 were undermined by Washington’s corrupting ways. And the recent defeat was a good thing, because it will force a return to the true conservative path.

But the truth is that the movement that took power in 1994 — a movement that had little to do with true conservatism — was always based on a lie.

The lie is right there in “The Freedom Revolution,” the book that Dick Armey, who had just become the House majority leader, published in 1995. He declares that most government programs don’t do anything “to help American families with the needs of everyday life,” and that “very few American families would notice their disappearance.” He goes on to assert that “there is no reason we cannot, by the time our children come of age, reduce the federal government by half as a percentage of gross domestic product.”

Right. Somehow, I think more than a few families would notice the disappearance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — and those three programs alone account for a majority of nondefense, noninterest spending. The truth is that the government delivers services and security that people want. Yes, there’s some waste — just as there is in any large organization. But there are no big programs that are easy to cut.

As long as people like Mr. Armey, Newt Gingrich and Tom DeLay were out of power, they could run on promises to eliminate vast government waste that existed only in the public’s imagination — all those welfare queens driving Cadillacs. But once in power, they couldn’t deliver.

That’s why government by the radical right has been an utter failure even on its own terms: the government hasn’t shrunk. Federal outlays other than interest payments and defense spending are a higher percentage of G.D.P. today than they were when Mr. Armey wrote his book: 14.8 percent in fiscal 2006, compared with 13.8 percent in fiscal 1995.

Unable to make good on its promises, the G.O.P., like other failed revolutionary movements, tried to maintain its grip by exploiting its position of power. Friends were rewarded with patronage: Jack Abramoff began building his web of corruption almost as soon as Republicans took control. Adversaries were harassed with smear campaigns and witch hunts: Congress spent six years and many millions of dollars investigating a failed land deal, and Bill Clinton was impeached over a consensual affair.

But it wasn’t enough. Without 9/11, the Republican revolution would probably have petered out quietly, with the loss of Congress in 2002 and the White House in 2004. Instead, the atrocity created a window of opportunity: four extra years gained by drowning out unfavorable news with terror alerts, starting a gratuitous war, and accusing Democrats of being weak on national security.

Yet the Bush administration failed to convert this electoral success into progress on a right-wing domestic agenda. The collapse of the push to privatize Social Security recapitulated the failure of the Republican revolution as a whole. Once the administration was forced to get specific about the details, it became obvious that private accounts couldn’t produce something for nothing, and the public’s support vanished.

In the end, Republicans didn’t shrink the government. But they did degrade it. Baghdad and New Orleans are the arrival destinations of a movement based on deep contempt for governance.

Is that the end for the radical right? Probably not. As a long-suffering civil servant once told me, bad policy ideas are like cockroaches: you can flush them down the toilet, but they keep coming back. Many of the ideas that failed in the Bush years had previously failed in the Reagan years. So there’s no reason to assume they’re gone for good.

Indeed, it appears that loss of power and the ensuing lack of accountability is liberating right-wingers to lie yet again: since last month’s election, I’ve noticed a number of Social Security privatizers propounding the same free-lunch falsehoods that the Bush administration had to abandon in the face of demands that it present an actual plan.

Still, the Republican revolution of 1994 is over. And not a moment too soon.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Lessons Never Learned


It would not be easy to find two men more different than Gerald Ford and James Brown. But I had a similar reaction to each of their deaths — a feeling of disappointment at some of the routes the nation has traveled since their days of greatest prominence.

Both men were important figures, symbolically more than substantively, at crucial periods in postwar American history — Mr. Brown at the crest of the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s and Mr. Ford in the trough of the “long national nightmare” of Watergate.

Both were unlikely harbingers of the new. Mr. Brown, with his gleaming (and anachronistic) pompadour, became the very embodiment of black pride, a troubadour exhorting his followers to “Say it Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud” at a time when schoolhouse doors were opening and unprecedented opportunities were beckoning to black Americans after centuries of almost unimaginable degradation.

Mr. Ford was more than just the designated healer after Watergate. The U.S. was also in the final throes of the long national nightmare of Vietnam. And it was stuck in a protracted energy crisis. The nation was looking for a way forward.

My disappointment stems from the opportunities never seized and the lessons never learned from those two periods, which were all but bursting with possibilities.

Mr. Brown’s message was relentlessly upbeat and optimistic. Despite the continuing plague of racism, there were dreams in the 1960s of fabulous days ahead for black Americans, days in which the stereotypes and degradation of the past would be erased by a new era of educational, professional and cultural achievement.

Those dreams did not include visions of an enormous economically disadvantaged population that would continue to live in poverty, or near-poverty, more than 40 years later; or a perennially ragged public school system, largely segregated in fact, if not by law, that would turn out generation after generation of educationally deprived children; or a black prison population so vast and so enduring it would come to seem normal to legions of black youngsters, actually dictating to a great extent their tastes in fashion, art and music; or a level of sustained violence that has condemned thousands upon thousands of black youngsters to an early grave.

Oh, there have been plenty of strides since the mid-1960s. That’s undeniable. But one would have to be blind not to notice that there is much cause for disappointment, as well.

James Farmer, who helped create the Congress of Racial Equality on Gandhian principles of nonviolence, once told me that even as the civil rights movement was racking up its stunning successes, its leaders made a grave error.

“We did not do any long-range planning,” he said. “So we were stuck without a program after the success of our efforts, which included passage of a civil rights bill and voting rights legislation. We could have anticipated the backlash that followed. We could have asked ourselves what the jobs prospects would be for blacks in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, and later on. By and large we didn’t do that, except for affirmative action. We should have had a plan.”

It would be foolish to suggest that the United States as a whole hasn’t made tremendous progress since the 1960s and ’70s. But it’s impossible to reflect on the presidency of Gerald Ford, who formally ended U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam, and fail to notice that his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and chief of staff, Dick Cheney, were among the chief architects of the current calamity in Iraq. There were lessons galore to be learned from Vietnam. But Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Cheney, like frat boys skipping an important lecture, managed to ignore them.

The trauma of the 1973 oil embargo actually spooked the country into action on the energy front. Fuel economy standards for automobiles were ratcheted up and improvements were made in the energy efficiency of refrigerators, air-conditioners and other household appliances. But those successful early efforts, instead of being strengthened, were undermined by the conservative political tide of the past several years.

Now we’re confronted with the dire threat of global warming, and as usual there is no plan.

If history tells us anything, it’s that we never learn from history. We could have stepped back from the war in Iraq, and stepped up to the challenge of global warming. We could have learned something when James Brown was on the charts and Gerald Ford was in the White House.

Maybe next time.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Note to Readers:

Thomas L. Friedman and Maureen Dowd are off today.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Helping the Poor, the British Way


It’s the season for charitable giving. And far too many Americans, particularly children, need that charity.

Scenes of a devastated New Orleans reminded us that many of our fellow citizens remain poor, four decades after L.B.J. declared war on poverty. But I’m not sure whether people understand how little progress we’ve made. In 1969, fewer than one in every seven American children lived below the poverty line. Last year, although the country was far wealthier, more than one in every six American children were poor.

And there’s no excuse for our lack of progress. Just look at what the British government has accomplished over the last decade.

Although Tony Blair has been President Bush’s obedient manservant when it comes to Iraq, Mr. Blair’s domestic policies are nothing like Mr. Bush’s. Where Mr. Bush has sought to privatize the social safety net, Mr. Blair’s Labor government has defended and strengthened it. Where Mr. Bush and his allies accuse anyone who mentions income distribution of “class warfare,” the Blair government has made a major effort to reverse the surge in inequality and poverty that took place during the Thatcher years.

And Britain’s poverty rate, if measured American-style — that is, in terms of a fixed poverty line, not a moving target that rises as the nation grows richer — has been cut in half since Labor came to power in 1997.

Britain’s war on poverty has been led by Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer and Mr. Blair’s heir apparent. There’s nothing exotic about his policies, many of which are inspired by American models. But in Britain, these policies are carried out with much more determination.

For example, Britain didn’t have a minimum wage until 1999 — but at current exchange rates Britain’s minimum wage rate is now about twice as high as ours. Britain’s child benefit is more generous than America’s child tax credit, and it’s available to everyone, even those too poor to pay income taxes. Britain’s tax credit for low-wage workers is similar to the U.S. earned-income tax credit, but substantially larger.

And don’t forget that Britain’s universal health care system ensures that no one has to fear going without medical care or being bankrupted by doctors’ bills.

The Blair government hasn’t achieved all its domestic goals. Income inequality has been stabilized but not substantially reduced: as in America, the richest 1 percent have pulled away from everyone else, though not to the same extent. The decline in child poverty, though impressive, has fallen short of the government’s ambitious goals. And the government’s policies don’t seem to have helped a persistent underclass of the very poor.

But there’s no denying that the Blair government has done a lot for Britain’s have-nots. Modern Britain isn’t paradise on earth, but the Blair government has ensured that substantially fewer people are living in economic hell. Providing a strong social safety net requires a higher overall rate of taxation than Americans are accustomed to, but Britain’s tax burden hasn’t undermined the economy’s growth.

What are the lessons to be learned from across the pond?

First, government truly can be a force for good. Decades of propaganda have conditioned many Americans to assume that government is always incompetent — and the current administration has done its best to turn that into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the Blair years have shown that a government that seriously tries to reduce poverty can achieve a lot.

Second, it really helps to have politicians who are serious about governing, rather than devoting themselves entirely to amassing power and rewarding cronies.

While researching this article, I was startled by the sheer rationality of British policy discussion, as compared with the cynical posturing that passes for policy discourse in George Bush’s America. Instead of making grandiose promises that are quickly forgotten — like Mr. Bush’s promise of “bold action” to confront poverty after Hurricane Katrina — British Labor politicians propose specific policies with well-defined goals. And when actual results fall short of those goals, they face the facts rather than trying to suppress them and sliming the critics.

The moral of my Christmas story is that fighting poverty isn’t easy, but it can be done. Giving in to cynicism and accepting the persistence of widespread poverty even as the rich get ever richer is a choice that our politicians have made. And we should be ashamed of that choice.

The Ninth Ward Revisited


Spike Lee, who has made a stunning six-hour documentary about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, was telling me the other day about his first visit to the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, which was annihilated by the flood that followed the storm.

After more than a year his voice was still filled with a sense of horrified wonder. “To see it with your own eyes,” he said, “and you’re doing a 360-degree turn, and you see nothing but devastation .... I wasn’t born until 1957 but I automatically thought about Hiroshima or Nagasaki or Berlin after the war.

“It looked like someone had dropped a nuclear bomb. It was all brown, and there was the smell, the stench. It was horrible.”

His words echoed the comments of a woman I had met on a recent trip to New Orleans. She remembered standing in the Ninth Ward after the waters had receded. “Everything was covered in brown crud,” she said. “There was nothing living. No birds. No dogs. There was no sound. And none of the fragrance that’s usually associated with New Orleans, like jasmine and gardenias and sweet olives. It was just a ruin, all death and destruction.”

Said Mr. Lee: “You couldn’t believe that this was the United States of America.”

The film, which was produced by HBO and has been released in a boxed set of DVDs, is called “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.” It’s Mr. Lee’s best work, an informative, infuriating and heartbreaking record of a cataclysmic historical event — the loss of a great American city.

What boggles the mind now is the way the nation seems to be taking this loss in stride. Much of New Orleans is still a ruin. More than half of its population is gone and an enormous percentage of the people who are still in town are suffering.

As Mr. Lee noted, the public face of the city is to some extent a deceptive feel-good story. The Superdome, a chamber of horrors during the flood, has been made new again. And the city’s football team, the Saints, has turned its fortunes around and is sprinting into the National Football League playoffs. (They beat the Giants in New York yesterday, 30-7.)

“They spent the money on the Superdome, and you can get drunk in the French Quarter again, and some of the conventions are coming back,” Mr. Lee said, “so people are trying to say that everything’s O.K. But that’s a lie.

“They need to stop this focus on downtown and the Superdome because it does a disservice to all those people who are still in very deep trouble. They need to get the cameras out of the French Quarter and go to New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward. Or go to St. Bernard Parish. You’ll see that everything is not O.K. Far from it.”

Vast acreages of ruined homes and staggering amounts of garbage and filth still burden the city. Scores of thousands of people remain jobless and homeless. The public schools that are open, for the most part, are a scandal. And the mental health situation, for the people in New Orleans and the evacuees scattered across the rest of the U.S., is yet another burgeoning tragedy.

There’s actually a fifth act, only recently completed, to “When the Levees Broke,” in which a number of people reflect on what has been happening since the storm. Wynton Marsalis, ordinarily the mildest of individuals, looks into the camera with an expression of anger and deep disgust. “What is the government doing?” he asks. “They’re trying to figure out how to hand out contracts. How to lower the minimum wage so the subcontractors can make all the money. Steal money from me and you, man. We’re paying taxes, you understand what I’m saying?”

For most of America, Katrina is an old story. In Mr. Lee’s words, people are suffering from “Katrina fatigue.” They’re not much interested in how the levees have only been patched up to pre-Katrina levels of safety, or how the insurance companies have ripped off thousands upon thousands of hard-working homeowners who are now destitute, or how, as USA Today reported, “One $7.5 billion Louisiana program to help people rebuild or relocate has put money in the hands of just 87 of the 89,403 homeowners who applied.”

There are other matters vying for attention. The war in Iraq is going badly. Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell are feuding. And, after all, it’s Christmas.

“You know how Americans are,” Mr. Lee said. “We’re on to the next thing.”

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Yes, You Are the Person of the Year!

TIME’S choice for 2006 Person of the Year — “You” — was a bountiful gift of mirth to America, second only to the championship Donald Trump-Rosie O’Donnell bout as a comic kickoff to the holiday season. The magazine’s cover stunt, a computer screen of Mylar reflecting the reader’s own image, was so hokey that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert merely had to display it on camera to score laughs. The magazine’s disingenuous rationale for bestowing its yearly honor on its readers was like a big wet kiss from a distant relative who creeps you out.

According to Time, “You” deserve to be Person of the Year because you — “yes, you,” as the cover puts it — “control the Information Age” and spend a lot of time watching YouTube and blogging instead of, well, reading dead-tree media like Time. The pronouncements ginned up to inflate this theme include the observation that “Thomas Paine was in effect the first blogger” (which presumably makes the Old Testament in effect the first Facebook). The desperation of Time to appear relevant and hip — “fantastically cutting-edge and New Media,” as Nora Ephron put it in a hilarious essay for The Huffington Post — was embarrassing in its nakedness.

And sad. This editorial pratfall struck me, once a proud Time staff member, as a sign that my journalistic alma mater might go the way of the old Life. Like Time today, Life in the late 1960s was a middle-of-the-road publishing fixture sent into an identity crisis by the cultural revolution that coincided with a calamitous war. The fabled weekly finally shut down in 1972, the year Rolling Stone celebrated its fifth anniversary.

Let’s hope publishing history doesn’t repeat itself. So in Time’s defense, let me say that the more I reflected on its 2006 Person of the Year — or perhaps the more that Mylar cover reflected back at me — the more I realized that the magazine wasn’t as out of touch as it first seemed. Time made the right choice, albeit for the wrong reasons.

As our country sinks deeper into a quagmire — and even a conclusive Election Day repudiation of the war proves powerless to stop it — we the people, and that includes, yes, you, will seek out any escape hatch we can find. In the Iraq era, the dropout nostrums of choice are not the drugs and drug culture of Vietnam but the equally masturbatory and narcissistic (if less psychedelic) pastimes of the Internet. Why not spend hour upon hour passionately venting in the blogosphere, as Time suggests, about our “state of mind or the state of the nation or the steak-frites at the new bistro down the street”? Or an afternoon surfing from video to video on YouTube, where short-attention-span fluff is infinite? It’s more fun than the nightly news, which, as Laura Bush reminded us this month, has been criminally lax in unearthing all those “good things that are happening” in Baghdad.

As of Friday morning, “Britney Spears Nude on Beach” had been viewed 1,041,776 times by YouTube’s visitors. The count for YouTube video clips tagged with “Iraq” was 22,783. Not that there is anything wrong with that. But compulsive blogging and free soft-core porn are not, as Time would have it, indications of how much you, I and that glassy-eyed teenage boy hiding in his bedroom are in control of the Information Age. They are indicators instead of how eager we are to flee from brutal real-world information that makes us depressed and angry. This was the year Americans escaped as often as they could into their private pleasure pods. So the Person of 2006 was indeed you — yes, you.

Unless it was Borat. The often uproarious farce that took its name from that hopelessly dense and bigoted fictional TV correspondent from Kazakhstan was the year’s most revealing hit movie. It was escapism incarnate, and we couldn’t eat it up fast enough. “Borat” also encapsulated the rising xenophobia that feeds American fantasies of the ultimate national escape: fencing off our borders from the world. If its loutish title character hadn’t been invented by Sacha Baron Cohen for us to ridicule and feel morally superior to, then Lou Dobbs would have done it for him.

The second most revealing movie hit of this escapist year was “Casino Royale.” Though technically an updating of the old Bond franchise — it is, nominally at least, set in the present — its screenplay actually hewed closely to the original Ian Fleming novel of 1953. The film merely changed the villain from a lethal Soviet operative to a terrorist financier, thereby recasting the confusing, hydra-headed threat of Al Qaeda and its ilk as a manageable, easily identifiable enemy that 007 could vanquish as decisively as the ham-fisted Iron Curtain Commies. Better still, Daniel Craig’s James Bond smites the terrorists in two hours plus change, not the 24 hours it takes Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer. There could be no happier fairy tale for a country looking in the eye of defeat.

Christ, I miss the cold war,” M, Bond’s boss at British intelligence, says early on in “Casino Royale.” M — the reassuring Judi Dench — speaks for the entire audience. Nostalgia for the cold war, which America won unambiguously, was visible everywhere this year as we lost a war that has divided the country. In Florida, there was a joyous countdown to Fidel Castro’s imminent demise. At NASA, there was a new plan to return to the moon. Throughout the news media, there was a Hannibal Lecterish pleasure in the excruciating physical decline of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB spy murdered by poison. As the CNN anchor John Roberts put it rather gleefully, “For many of us, headlines out of London seemed like a James Bond movie or a distant echo of the cold war.” Heaven knows those headlines were easier to take than those coming out of the hot war — or, for that matter, out of London itself when terrorists struck there 18 months ago. It’s no surprise that “Casino Royale” sold way more tickets than “World Trade Center” and “United 93” combined.

The most revealing index of our lust for escapism this year cannot be found at YouTube or the multiplex, however, but in the sideshow villains who distracted us from main news events in the Middle East: James Frey, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and Judith Regan. It was a thrill beyond schadenfreude to watch them be soundly thrashed and humiliated for their sins.

FAR be it for me to defend any of them; Mr. Gibson once threatened to have my “intestines on a stick” after I raised the notion that the author of “The Passion of the Christ” might be an anti-Semite. But our over-the-top pleasure in their comeuppance still seems like escapist fare. It may be satisfying to see “Apocalypto” fade fast after its opening weekend or watch Ms. Regan lose her job after enriching O. J. Simpson for a sleazy book project. Yet something is out of whack when these relatively minor miscreants are publicly stoned and the architects of a needless catastrophe that has cost thousands of American and Iraqi lives escape scot-free. On the same day that Ms. Regan was canned, the fired Donald Rumsfeld was given a 19-gun salute and showered with presidential praise in a farewell ceremony at the Pentagon.

For that matter, Ms. Regan’s worst offenses can’t compare even with those of her former lover, Bernard Kerik, the Giuliani-era New York City police commissioner who was appointed by President Bush in 2003 to train Iraqi’s police. Mr. Kerik promised to stay “as long as it takes to get the job done,” then fled months later without explanation and without the job even started. Today the Iraqi police he failed to train are not only useless but are also routinely engaged in sectarian violence, including torture, helping to ensure that Iraq is more dangerous for everyone than ever, American troops included.

Mr. Kerik has never been held accountable for that failure, only for less lethal and unrelated graft in New York. Paul Bremer, whose early decisions as our Iraqi viceroy all but guaranteed our defeat, received the highest civilian award from the president. So did both George Tenet, who presided over the “slam dunk” intelligence that sped us to war, and Gen. Tommy Franks, who let Osama bin Laden get away. Even now, no generals have been fired for their failures in Iraq; the only one to lose his job was the former Army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, who antagonized Mr. Rumsfeld before the war by correctly warning that hundreds of thousands of American troops would be needed to secure Iraq. But never mind. That’s ancient history. We can avoid confronting these morally grotesque skeletons in our closet as long as we can distract ourselves with Michael Richards’s meltdown.

Besides, it’s time for the home front to party. Whatever else is to be said about Time’s Mylar cover, it’s news you can literally use: it is just a paper shredder away from being recycled as the most glittering of New Year’s Eve confetti.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Trump Fired Up


Donald Trump gives me an interview, though he has his doubts.

“I would like the interview to be in the Sunday paper,” he says.

He can’t be worried about his exposure, so it must be his boundless appetite for bigger/taller/glitzier that makes him yearn for the larger readership of Sunday.

“Me, too,” I reply. “But the only way that’s going to happen is if I give Frank Rich my notes and let him write the column.”

“I like Frank Rich,” he says, his voice brimming with appreciation for a man whose circulation is bigger than mine.

“Me, too,” I say.

Kurt Andersen, who jousted with the Donald as an editor at Spy, celebrates the “Daffy Duck” of deal-making in New York magazine this week as one of the “Reasons to Love New York,” calling him “our 21st century reincarnation of P. T. Barnum and Diamond Jim Brady, John Gotti minus the criminal organization, the only white New Yorker who lives as large as the blingiest, dissiest rapper — de trop personified.”

When I call De Trop Trump at Mar-a-Lago, he’s still ranting about “that big, fat slob Rosie O’Donnell.” When he granted Tara Conner, the naughty beauty queen, a second chance this week, Rosie made a crack on “The View” about an oft-married snake-oil salesman not being the best person to pass moral judgments. He slimed back, and the Great American Food Fight was on.

This past year was rife with mistakes — global mistakes, bigoted tirades, underwear mishaps. Winding up 2006, I asked the celebrity arbiter of who-can-stay and who-must-go about redemption.

In the case of Hollywood’s overexposed and underdressed young ladies of the night, Mr. Trump judiciously notes that in some cases, carousing is good for your career. His rule is, the more talented you are, the less you should mindlessly party. But if mindlessly partying is your talent, go for it.

“Britney,” he says, “doesn’t carry it off as well as Paris.”

How about those other international party girls, the Bush twins?

“When you’re a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people, our soldiers and Iraqis who are maimed and killed — you see children going into school in Baghdad with no arms and legs — I don’t think Bush’s kids should be having lots of fun in Argentina,” he says.

Should viewers give Katie Couric another look?

If you can’t get the ratings, he says, you’re cooked: “I like Katie, but she’s hit bottom and she’ll stay there. She made a terrible, tragic mistake for her career. She looks extremely unhappy on the show. I watched her the other night, and she’s not the same Katie.”

Can Gwyneth rebound from her comments comparing Americans unfavorably with Brits? “Gwyneth Paltrow is a good actress with average looks,” he says. “She likes to ride the high English horse. But when she puts down this country that gave her more than she should have had, it’s disgusting.”

Michael Richards and Judith Regan made irredeemable mistakes, in his view, as did Al Gore and John Kerry, when they couldn’t win winnable elections, and W., Cheney and Rummy, when they invaded Iraq.

“No matter how long we stay in Iraq, no matter how many soldiers we send, the day we leave, the meanest, most vicious, most brilliant man in the country, a man who makes Saddam Hussein look like a baby, will take over and spit on the American flag,” he says. “Bush will go down as the worst and by far the dumbest president in history.”

Colin Powell, he considers irredeemable as well: “He’s speaking up now, but he’s no longer relevant. I call him a pathetic and sad figure.”

He thinks John McCain has lost the 2008 election by pushing to send more troops to Iraq but that Hillary should be forgiven for her “horrendous” vote to authorize the war. “Don’t forget that decision was based on lies given to her,” he says. “She’s very smart and has a major chance to be our next president.”

He deems it “not a good sign” that Barack Obama got into a sketchy real estate deal with a sleazy Chicago political figure. “But he’s got some wonderful qualities,” Mr. Trump says, and deserves another chance.

And how about Monica Lewinsky, who just graduated from the London School of Economics? “It’s good she graduated,” he says. “She’s been through a lot.”

When it comes to having an opinion on everything, Trump towers.

Democrats and the Deficit


Now that the Democrats have regained some power, they have to decide what to do. One of the biggest questions is whether the party should return to Rubinomics — the doctrine, associated with former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, that placed a very high priority on reducing the budget deficit.

The answer, I believe, is no. Mr. Rubin was one of the ablest Treasury secretaries in American history. But it’s now clear that while Rubinomics made sense in terms of pure economics, it failed to take account of the ugly realities of contemporary American politics.

And the lesson of the last six years is that the Democrats shouldn’t spend political capital trying to bring the deficit down. They should refrain from actions that make the deficit worse. But given a choice between cutting the deficit and spending more on good things like health care reform, they should choose the spending.

In a saner political environment, the economic logic behind Rubinomics would have been compelling. Basic fiscal principles tell us that the government should run budget deficits only when it faces unusually high expenses, mainly during wartime. In other periods it should try to run a surplus, paying down its debt.

Since the 1990s were an era of peace, prosperity and favorable demographics (the baby boomers were still in the work force, not collecting Social Security and Medicare), it should have been a good time to put the federal budget in the black. And under Mr. Rubin, the huge deficits of the Reagan-Bush years were transformed into an impressive surplus.

But the realities of American politics ensured that it was all for naught. The second President Bush quickly squandered the surplus on tax cuts that heavily favored the wealthy, then plunged the budget deep into deficit by cutting taxes on dividends and capital gains even as he took the country into a disastrous war. And you can even argue that Mr. Rubin’s surplus was a bad thing, because it greased the rails for Mr. Bush’s irresponsibility.

As Brad DeLong, a Berkeley economist who served in the Clinton administration, recently wrote on his influential blog: “Rubin and us spearcarriers moved heaven and earth to restore fiscal balance to the American government in order to raise the rate of economic growth. But what we turned out to have done, in the end, was to enable George W. Bush’s right-wing class war: his push for greater after-tax income inequality.”

My only quibble with Mr. DeLong’s characterization is that this wasn’t just one man’s class war: the whole conservative movement shared Mr. Bush’s squanderlust, his urge to run off with the money so carefully saved under Mr. Rubin’s leadership.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that conservatives who claimed to care about deficits when Democrats were in power never meant it. Let’s not forget how Alan Greenspan, who posed as the high priest of fiscal rectitude as long as Bill Clinton was in the White House, became an apologist for tax cuts — even in the face of budget deficits — once a Republican took up residence.

Now the Democrats are back in control of Congress. They’ve pledged not to be as irresponsible as their predecessors: Nancy Pelosi, the incoming House speaker, has promised to restore the “pay-as-you-go” rule that the Republicans tossed aside in the Bush years. This rule would basically prevent Congress from passing budgets that increase the deficit.

I’m for pay-as-you-go. The question, however, is whether to go further. Suppose the Democrats can free up some money by fixing the Medicare drug program, by ending the Iraq war and/or clamping down on war profiteering, or by rolling back some of the Bush tax cuts. Should they use the reclaimed revenue to reduce the deficit, or spend it on other things?

The answer, I now think, is to spend the money — while taking great care to ensure that it is spent well, not squandered — and let the deficit be. By spending money well, Democrats can both improve Americans’ lives and, more broadly, offer a demonstration of the benefits of good government. Deficit reduction, on the other hand, might just end up playing into the hands of the next irresponsible president.

In the long run, something will have to be done about the deficit. But given the state of our politics, now is not the time.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

America’s Open Wound


New Orleans

It’s eerie. The air is still. There is no noise. Night is falling.

The five stone steps in front of me once led to a porch, or maybe directly to the front door of a house. There is no way to be sure. The house is completely gone. All that’s left are the five steps, one of which is painted with the address, 1630 Reynes St. The steps sit alone, like a piece of minimalist art, at the front of a small vacant lot full of weeds and rubble. Next door is a house that is completely capsized, fallen over on its side like a sunken ship.

Welcome to the Lower Ninth Ward. You won’t find much holiday spirit here. In every direction, as far as it is possible to see, is devastation.

On another lot, piled high with the rubble of a ruined house, I saw a middle-aged man standing in the front yard weeping. He wore a dirty white baseball cap and he was sobbing like a child. I walked toward him to ask a question but he waved me away.

Whatever you’ve heard about New Orleans, the reality is much worse. Think of it as a vast open wound, this once-great American city that is still largely in ruins, with many of its people still writhing in agony more than a year after the catastrophic flood that followed Hurricane Katrina.

Enormous stretches of the city, mile after mile after mile, have been abandoned. The former residents have doubled-up or tripled-up with relatives, or found shelter in the ubiquitous white trailers of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or moved (in some cases permanently) to Texas, Mississippi, Georgia and beyond. Some have simply become homeless.

“This is a ghostly city, if you ask me,” said Sheila Etheridge, a waitress whose home was destroyed and whose three children are staying with relatives near Atlanta. “It gets real spooky when the sun goes down. They let me sleep in the back of the restaurant. But I’ll tell you the truth, we don’t have too many customers. You see what those neighborhoods are like. They’re empty. The people gone.”

The recovery in New Orleans has gone about as well as the war in Iraq.

In mid-September 2005, with parts of the city still submerged and soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division on patrol, President Bush made a dramatic, flood-lit appearance in historic Jackson Square. In a nationally televised speech he promised not only to do all that he could to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but also to confront the terrible problem of deep and persistent poverty.

“That poverty,” said the president, “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.”

Now, more than a year later, the population of New Orleans is less than half what it was before the storm. The federal government has allocated billions for the city’s recovery but much of that money has been wasted or remains hopelessly tied up in the bureaucracy. Very little has gotten to the neediest victims, the people who were poor to begin with and then lost their homes and their livelihoods to the storm.

Many of the city’s hospitals and schools remain closed. Some will never reopen. There is very little public transportation. The politicians have come up with a stunning array of post-Katrina initiatives, but one grandiose recovery plan after another has faltered.

The terrible experience of the flood and its aftermath has left an imprint on the minds of most residents that’s as distinct as the water lines that stain so many of the city’s buildings. A cabdriver’s voice faltered as he told me about an obese woman who put pillows under her arms as the floodwaters were rising. She thought the pillows would help her float.

“She drowned,” the driver said.

Emotional and psychological problems are rampant, but there is a drastic shortage of mental health professionals to treat them. People are suffering from severe anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and other illnesses. Doctors told me that large numbers of mentally ill individuals have gone more than a year without taking their prescribed medication.

Many of the poor residents in the city feel that they’ve been abandoned by the government and the rest of America, and that the president broke his promise to help. “We’re in terrible trouble down here,” said a woman named Delores Goode, who stood outside the Superdome asking passers-by if they knew where she might find work as a baby sitter. “We were all over the television last year. Now we’re back to being nobody.”

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Flunking Our Future



The only sects that may be more savage than Shiites and Sunnis are the Democratic feminist lawmakers representing Northern and Southern California.

After Nancy Pelosi and Jane Harman had their final catfight about who would lead the House Intelligence Committee, aptly enough at the Four Seasons’ hair salon in Georgetown, the new speaker passed over the knowledgeable and camera-eager Ms. Harman and mystifyingly gave the consequential job to Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Mr. Reyes promptly tripped over the most critical theme in the field of intelligence. Jeff Stein, interviewing the incoming chairman for Congressional Quarterly, asked him whether Al Qaeda was Sunni or Shiite.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” the lawmaker guessed.

As Mr. Stein corrected him in the article: “Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an Al Qaeda clubhouse, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.”

Mr. Stein followed up with a Hezbollah question: “What are they?” Again, Mr. Reyes was stumped.

“Hezbollah,” he stammered. “Uh, Hezbollah. Why do you ask me these questions at 5 o’clock? Can I answer in Spanish?” (O.K. ¿Que es Hezbollah?)

Sounding as naked of essentials as Britney Spears, the new intelligence oversight chief pleaded that it was hard to keep all the categories straight. Thank heavens Mr. Stein never got to Syrian Alawites.

Many Americans, including those in charge of Middle East policy, are befuddled and fed up with the intransigent tribal and religious fevers of the region. As Bill O’Reilly sagely remarked, “I don’t want to ever hear Shia and Sunni again.” But it is beyond the job description of top officials to wish the problems away, especially when the entire region is decomposing before our bleary eyes.

If Mr. Reyes had been reading the newspaper, he might have noticed Mr. Stein’s piece on The Times’s Op-Ed page two months earlier, in which, like a wonkish Ali G, he caught many intelligence and law enforcement officials, as well as members of Congress, who did not know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite.

“Too many officials in charge of the war on terrorism just don’t care to learn much, if anything, about the enemy we’re fighting,” he concluded. “And that’s enough to keep anybody up at night.”

The lack of intellectual urgency about our Middle East wars is chilling. The Iraq Study Group reported that our efforts in Iraq are handicapped by the fact that our embassy of 1,000 has only 33 Arabic speakers, just six who are fluent.

W., of course, failed a foreign affairs pop quiz and still became a close ally of the Pakistani dictator he referred to as “General ... General.”

Once they have the job, the incentive of politicians to study is somewhat dulled. Charles Z. Wick, who headed the U.S. Information Agency during the Reagan years, sent a memo to his staff saying that he and the president needed to know if France was a member of NATO. Mr. Reagan had already been the president for years, The Times’s Steve Weisman reported, when he expressed surprise at learning that the Soviets had most of their nuclear weapons on land-based missiles, while America had relatively few.

One possibility is that Mr. Stein’s questions were just too darn hard. He should have pitched a few warm-ups, like: How many sides are there in the Sunni Triangle? Or: Which religious figure, Muhammad or Jesus, has not been the subject of a Mel Gibson film?

Perhaps the questions could be phrased Jeopardy-style, as in: “The name shared by two kings in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.” (What is Abdullah?)

A multiple choice might be easier on harried policy makers. For instance, which of the following quotes can be attributed to Dick Cheney?

a) “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people: greedy, barbarous and cruel.”

b) “Don Rumsfeld is the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had.”

c) “Certain things are not known to those who eat with forks.”

Or this: Is the Shiite crescent a) a puffy dinner roll, b) a new Ramadan moon, or c) an arc of crisis?

Once our leaders get a grasp of the basics, we can hit them with a truly hard question: Three and a half years after the invasion of Iraq, with nearly 3,000 American troops dead and the Iraqis not remotely interested in order or democracy, what on earth do we do now?

Monday, December 18, 2006

In China's pocket

Robert Kuttner

The Boston Globe

The high-profile mission to China of key U.S. economic officials looked like another predictable fizzle. The delegation, headed by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, was long on state dinners and photo ops, short on real progress.

That's because the Chinese have learned to play their U.S. trading partners like a soothing violin, and we Americans are all too willing to dance to the tune. Despite the precarious condition of the U.S. dollar, the Chinese central bank keeps lending us dollars by the hundreds of billions, so that we can keep buying their cheap products. The more we owe them, the less leverage we have.

As the cliché used to have it, damn clever, these Chinese. A better interpretation would be: Damn stupid, these Americans.

Bernanke, Paulson and company make a big deal of China's deliberately undervalued currency. By intervening in money markets to keep the yuan cheap, China makes its products artificially discounted.

But the yuan is the least of America's problems. If the Chinese actually did what Paulson and Bernanke say they want and stop pegging the yuan to the dollar, it could trigger an international run on the dollar. What the U.S. officials really want is the appearance of progress, and very gradual appreciation of the yuan, to head off pressure from Congress for tougher measures.

However, slow adjustment of the yuan, which is already occurring, will hardly make a dent in the trade deficit with China. The far bigger problem is China's entire economic system.

China has managed to combine something that in theory can't exist: a Leninist one-party state, and a fiercely efficient pseudo-capitalist economy. Since President Bush I, American leaders have insisted that as China becomes more capitalist, it will become more politically liberal. But tell that to opposition leaders who keep being jailed. China is no closer to a Western style democracy than it was on the day of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

China's mercantilist economy defies norms of free trade. But American industry finds it too convenient to use China as a low-wage production zone to complain very much.

So the U.S. government goes through the motions of protesting China's subsidies to industry, its theft of American intellectual property, its coercive demands for the transfer of sensitive technologies by U.S. business partners and hardly bothers to protest the slave-like labor conditions in many Chinese factories. The Chinese make soothing noises, not much changes, and the U.S.-China trade imbalance keeps going through the roof.

Last June, the AFL-CIO filed a petition under Sec. 301 of the 1974 Trade Act, which makes brutal labor conditions in an exporting country an unfair trade practice, just as theft of intellectual property is an unfair trade practice. The petition described: a nightmare of 12-hour to 18-hour work days with no day of rest, earning meager wages that may be withheld.

The factories are often sweltering, dusty and damp. Workers are widely exposed to chemical toxins and hazardous machines, and suffer sickness and death at the highest rates in world history. They live in cramped dormitories, up to 20 to a room, with each worker's space limited to a bed in a two-tiered bunk — comparable in space, discomfort, and privacy to prison cells in the United States. Ten to 20 million workers in China are children. No one knows the precise number, because statistics of that kind are state secrets. The severe exploitation of China's factory workers and the contraction of the American middle class are two sides of a coin.

In rejecting the petition, the Bush administration did not deny the conditions, but cited ongoing consultations. Yet, last year's annual Report of the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China declared that the Beijing government had simply "avoided discussions with the international labor community on Chinese workers' rights." And labor conditions were not even on the Paulson-Bernanke agenda.

In the early 1990s, China was a lot weaker economically, Americans were a lot less dependent on Chinese lending, and China eagerly wanted entry into the World Trade Organizations. But three administrations Bush I, Clinton, Bush II gave up that diplomatic leverage and worked to welcome China into the WTO in exchange for mostly empty promises. Why? Because American business elites were so eager to make more deals.

So, after the Paulson-Bernanke trip, once again nothing much will change, and we will be deeper in hock to Beijing than ever.

Desperation in the White House

By Joseph Galloway
McClatchy-Tribune Information Service

The power brokers in Washington carefully arranged fig leaves and tasteful screens to cover the emperor's nakedness while he was busy pretending to listen hard to everyone with an opinion about Iraq while hearing nothing.

Sometime early in the new year, President Bush will go on national television to tell a disgruntled American public what he has decided should be done to salvage "victory" from the jaws of certain defeat in the war he started.

The word on the street, or in the Pentagon rings, is that he'll choose to beef up American forces on the ground in Iraq by 20,000 to 30,000 troops by various sleight-of-hand maneuvers -- extending the combat tours of soldiers and Marines who are nearing an end to their second or third year in hell and accelerating the shipment of others into that hell -- and send them into the bloody streets of Baghdad.

These additional troops are expected to restore order and calm the bombers and murderers when 9,000 Americans already in the sprawling capital couldn't. They're expected to do this even when Bush's favorite (for now) Iraqi politician, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, refuses to allow them to act against his primary benefactor, the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Shiite Muslim Mahdi Army militiamen who kill both Americans and Sunni Arabs.

This hardly amounts to a "new way forward," unless that definition includes a new path deeper into the quicksand of a tribal and religious civil war in which whatever Bush eventually decides is already inadequate and immaterial.

The military commanders on the ground -- from Gen. John Abizaid, the head of the U.S. Central Command, to his generals in Iraq -- have said flatly that more American troops aren't the answer and aren't wanted. For them, it's obvious that only a political decision -- an Iraqi political decision -- has even the possibility of producing an acceptable outcome.

The White House hopes that its much-trumpeted reshuffling of a failed strategy and flawed tactics will buy time for its luck to change miraculously. That this time will be paid for with the lives and futures of our soldiers and Marines -- and their families -- apparently means little to these wise men who've never heard a shot fired in anger.

This president has made it painfully obvious that he has no intention of listening to anyone who doesn't believe that he's going to win in Iraq. He'll march stubbornly onward without any real change of course until high noon Jan. 20, 2009, when his successor will inherit both the hard decision to pull out of Iraq and the back bills for Bush's reckless, feckless misadventure.

The midterm election that handed control of Congress to the Democrats can be ignored. Bush's own approval rating in the polls, now at an all-time low of 27 percent, likewise means little or nothing.

Only Bush's definition of reality carries any weight with him, and therein lies the tragedy -- both his and ours.

James Baker was sent to Washington by the original George Bush, No. 41, to salvage something out of the mess that his son, No. 43, has made of his presidency and the world. The Baker commission labored mightily and produced, if little else, some truth: The situation in Iraq is dire and rapidly growing worse.

It's also clear, however, that Bush the son is paying no more than lip service to the Baker report. He doesn't want Dad's help, and the idea that he once again needs to be rescued from the consequences of his mistakes -- as he had to be so often back in Texas -- can only have hardened his resolve to stay the course.

What will happen in the coming year if the congressional Democrats begin to do their job, issuing subpoenas and holding oversight hearings into the looting of billions from the national treasury by defense contractors and other fat-cat donors to the Republican Party?

What will happen if everything that Bush does to string things along in Iraq fails (as has everything he's done there so far), and the Iraqis ask, order or drive us out?

Did you notice that at every stop on the president's information-gathering tour last week, there was a very familiar face looming over his shoulder? There was Vice President Dick Cheney, looking as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.

Should the president suddenly have an original thought or seem to be going wobbly, Cheney will be right there to squelch it or to set him straight.

It can be argued that Bush understood little about war and peace and diplomacy and honesty in government. Cheney understood all of it, and he bears much of the responsibility for what's gone on in Washington and in Iraq for the last six years. Keep a sharp eye on him. Desperate men do desperate things.

Joseph L. Galloway is former senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder Newspapers and co-author of the national bestseller "We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Out of Sight


Baker, La.

There are hundreds of children in the trailer camp that is run by FEMA and known as Renaissance Village, but they won’t be having much of a Christmas. They’re trapped here in a demoralizing, overcrowded environment with adults who are mostly broke, jobless and at the end of their emotional tethers. Many of the kids aren’t even going to school.

“This is a terrible environment for children,” said Anita Gentris, who lost everything in the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina and is living in one of the 200-square-foot travel trailers with her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “My daughter is having bad dreams. And my son, he’s a very angry child right now. He cries. He throws things.

“I’m desperately trying to find permanent housing.”

The television cameras are mostly gone now, and the many thousands of people from the Gulf Coast whose lives were wrecked by Katrina in the summer of 2005 have slipped from the national consciousness. But like the city of New Orleans itself, most of them have yet to recover.

The enormity of the continuing tragedy is breathtaking. Thousands upon thousands of people are still suffering. And yet the way the poorest and most vulnerable victims have been treated so far by government officials at every level has been disgraceful.

More than a third of the 1,200 people in this sprawling camp are children. Only about half of the school-age youngsters are even registered for school; of those, roughly half actually go to school on any given day. The authorities can’t account for the rest.

A number of officials who asked not to be identified told me they are concerned that large numbers of children are remaining isolated at Renaissance Village, holed up in the trailers day in and day out, falling further and further behind educationally, and deteriorating emotionally.

Leah Baptiste, a caseworker from a local affiliate of Catholic Charities, said: “These trailers are small. They were only meant for traveling. And you’ve got families with three and four children cooped up in there seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, no babysitter, no job, no money — there’s a lot of help they need. Some people have learned to adapt, but a lot are depressed.”

The most critical needs for the trailer camp population are housing and employment. Many of the adults at Renaissance Village were working before the storm but have been unable to find work since. Even the lowest-wage jobs in the Baton Rouge area are scarce, and without cars (in some cases, without money even for bus fare) it’s extremely difficult for Renaissance Village residents to get to them.

Beyond that, many of the residents have severe personal problems. “They are afraid,” said a woman who works closely with the population and asked not to be identified. “They’re embarrassed by their situation, humiliated. They don’t know what to do. Some cannot read or write, so when the government drops off these bureaucratic forms for them to fill out, it’s a waste of time.”

Nearly all of the residents are carrying scars from their initial ordeal. Many lost close relatives, and many came frighteningly close to dying themselves.

Candice Victor was about to give birth immediately after the storm and needed a Caesarean section. A stranger with a butcher knife offered to do it. “She was going to sterilize the knife by pouring lighter fluid on it and setting it on fire,” Ms. Victor said. Wiser heads prevailed, and the baby, a girl, was later successfully delivered.

The big story in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was the way the government failed to rush to the aid of people who were obviously in desperate trouble. What we’re witnessing now is an extended slow-motion replay of that initial failed response. Thousands of people remain in trouble, but instead of clinging to roofs and waving signs at TV cameras in helicopters flying overhead, they are suffering in silence, out of the sight of most Americans.

The government could have come up with a crash program to build housing and find or create jobs for the victims of Katrina. It could have ensured that all those hurt by the storm received whatever social services they needed, including mental health counseling and treatment. It could have begun to address the long-festering problems of race and poverty in this country.

The government could have done so much. But it didn’t.

Paul Krugman is on vacation.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Mary Cheney’s Bundle of Joy

IT’S not the least of John McCain’s political talents that he comes across as a paragon of straight talk even when he isn’t talking straight. So it was a surprise to see him reduced to near-stammering on ABC’s “This Week” two Sundays after the election. The subject that brought him low was the elephant in the elephants’ room, or perhaps we should say in their closet: homosexuality.

Senator McCain is no bigot, and his only goal was to change the subject as quickly as possible. He kept repeating two safe talking points for dear life: he opposes same-sex marriage (as does every major presidential aspirant in both parties) and he is opposed to discrimination. But because he had endorsed a broadly written Arizona ballot initiative that could have been used to discriminate against unmarried domestic partners, George Stephanopoulos wouldn’t let him off the hook.

“Are you against civil unions for gay couples?” he asked the senator, who replied, “No, I’m not.” When Mr. Stephanopoulos reiterated the question seconds later — “So you’re for civil unions?” — Mr. McCain answered, “No.” In other words, he was not against civil unions before he was against them. His gaffe was reminiscent of a similar appearance on Mr. Stephanopoulos’s show in 2004 by Bill Frist, a Harvard-trained doctor who refused to criticize a federal abstinence program that catered to the religious right by spreading the canard that sweat and tears could transmit AIDS.

Senator Frist is now a lame duck, and his brand of pandering, typified by his errant upbeat diagnosis of the brain-dead Terri Schiavo’s condition, is following him to political Valhalla. The 2006 midterms left Karl Rove’s supposedly foolproof playbook in tatters. It was hard for the Republicans to deal the gay card one more time after the Mark Foley and Ted Haggard scandals revealed that today’s conservative hierarchy is much like Roy Cohn’s milieu in “Angels in America,” minus the wit and pathos.

This time around, ballot initiatives banning same-sex marriage drew markedly less support than in 2004; the draconian one endorsed by Mr. McCain in Arizona was voted down altogether. Two national politicians who had kowtowed egregiously to their party’s fringe, Rick Santorum and George Allen, were defeated, joining their ideological fellow travelers Tom DeLay and Ralph Reed in the political junkyard. To further confirm the inexorable march of social history, the only Christmas season miracle to lift the beleaguered Bush administration this year has been the announcement that Mary Cheney, the vice president’s gay daughter, is pregnant. Her growing family is the living rejoinder to those in her father’s party who would relegate gay American couples and their children to second-class legal or human status.

Yet not even these political realities have entirely broken the knee-jerk habit of some 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls to woo homophobes. Mitt Romney, the Republican Massachusetts governor, was caught in yet another embarrassing example of his party’s hypocrisy last week. In a newly unearthed letter courting the gay Log Cabin Republicans during his unsuccessful 1994 Senate race, he promised to “do better” than even Ted Kennedy in making “equality for gays and lesbians a mainstream concern.” Given that Mr. Romney has been making opposition to same-sex marriage his political calling card this year, his ideological bisexuality looks as foolish in its G-rated way as that of Mr. Haggard, the evangelical leader who was caught keeping time with a male prostitute.

There’s no evidence that Mr. Romney’s rightward move on gay civil rights and abortion (about which he acknowledges his flip-flop) has helped him politically. Or that Mr. McCain has benefited from a similar sea change that has taken him from accurately labeling Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance” in 2000 to appearing at Mr. Falwell’s Liberty University this year. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last week found that among Republican voters, Rudy Giuliani, an unabashed liberal on gay civil rights and abortion, leads Mr. McCain 34 percent to 26 percent. Mr. Romney brought up the rear, at 5 percent. That does, however, put him nominally ahead of another presidential wannabe, the religious-right favorite Sam Brownback, who has held up a federal judicial nomination in the Senate because the nominee had attended a lesbian neighbor’s commitment ceremony.

For those who are cheered by seeing the Rovian politics of wedge issues start to fade, the good news does not end with the growing evidence that gay-baiting may do candidates who traffic in it more harm than good. It’s not only centrist American voters of both parties who reject divisive demagoguery but also conservative evangelicals themselves. Some of them are at last standing up to the extremists in their own camp.

No one more dramatically so, perhaps, than Rick Warren, the Orange County, Calif., megachurch leader and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” He has adopted AIDS in Africa as a signature crusade, and invited Barack Obama to join the usual suspects, including Senator Brownback, to address his World AIDS Day conference on the issue. This prompted predictable outrage from the right because of Mr. Obama’s liberal politics, especially on abortion. One radio host, Kevin McCullough, demonized the Democrat for pursuing “inhumane, sick and sinister evil” as a legislator. An open letter sponsored by 18 “pro-life” groups protested the invitation, also citing Mr. Obama’s “evil.” But Mr. Warren didn’t blink.

Among those defending the invitation was David Kuo, the former deputy director of the Bush White House’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. In a book, “Tempting Faith,” as well as in interviews and on his blog, the heretical Mr. Kuo has become a tough conservative critic of the corruption of religion by politicians and religious-right leaders who are guilty of “taking Jesus and reducing him to some precinct captain, to some get-out-the-vote guy.” Of those “family” groups who criticized Mr. Obama’s appearance at the AIDS conference, Mr. Kuo wrote, “Are they so blind and possessed with such a narrow definition of life that they can think of life only in utero?” The answer, of course, is yes. The Christian Coalition parted ways with its new president-elect, a Florida megachurch pastor, Joel Hunter, after he announced that he would take on bigger issues like poverty and global warming.

But it is leaders like Mr. Hunter and Mr. Warren who are in ascendance. Even the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at Mr. Haggard’s former perch, the National Association of Evangelicals, has joined a number of his peers in taking up the cause of the environment, putting him at odds with the Bush administration. Such religious leaders may not have given up their opposition to abortion or gay marriage, but they have more pressing priorities. They seem to have figured out, as Mr. Kuo has said, that “politicians use Christian voters for their money and for their votes” and give them little in return except a reputation for bigotry and heartless opposition to the lifesaving potential of stem-cell research.

The axis of family jihadis — Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council, the American Family Association — is feeling the heat; its positions get more extreme by the day. A Concerned Women for America mouthpiece called Mary Cheney’s pregnancy “unconscionable,” condemning her for having “injured her child” and “acted in a way that denies everything that the Bush administration has worked for.” (That last statement, thankfully, is true.) This overkill reeks of desperation. So does these zealots’ recent assault on the supposedly feminizing “medical” properties of soy baby formula (which deserves the “blame for today’s rise in homosexuality,” according to the chairman of Megashift Ministries), and penguins.

Yes, penguins. These fine birds have now joined the Teletubbies and SpongeBob SquarePants in the pantheon of cuddly secret agents for “the gay agenda.” Schools are being forced to defend “And Tango Makes Three,” an acclaimed children’s picture book based on the true story of two Central Park Zoo male penguins who adopted a chick from a fertilized egg. The hit penguin movie “Happy Feet” has been outed for an “anti-religious bias” and its “endorsement of gay identity” by Michael Medved, the commentator who sets the tone for the religious right’s strictly enforced code of cultural political correctness.

Such censoriousness is increasingly the stuff of comedy. So are politicians of all stripes who advertise their faith. A liberal like Howard Dean is no more credible talking about the Bible (during the 2004 campaign he said his favorite book in the New Testament was Job) than twice-married candidates like Mr. McCain are persuasive at pledging allegiance to “the sanctity of marriage.”

For all the skeptical theories about the Obama boomlet — or real boom, we don’t know yet — no one doubts that his language about faith is his own, not a crib sheet provided by a conservative evangelical preacher or a liberal political consultant on “values.” That’s why a Democrat from Chicago whose voting record is to the left of Hillary Clinton’s received the same standing ovation from the thousands at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church that he did from his own party’s throngs in New Hampshire. After a quarter-century of watching politicians from both parties exploit religion for partisan and often mean-spirited political gain, voters on all sides of this country’s culture wars are finally in the market for something new.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Farewell, Dense Prince



James Baker ran after W. with a butterfly net for a while, but it is now clear that the inmates are still running the asylum.

The Defiant Ones came striding from the Pentagon yesterday, the troika of wayward warriors marching abreast in their dark suits and power ties. W., Rummy and Dick Cheney were so full of quick-draw confidence that they might have been sauntering down the main drag of Deadwood.

Far from being run out of town, the defense czar who rivals Robert McNamara for deadly incompetence has been on a victory lap in Baghdad, Mosul and Washington. Yesterday’s tribute had full military honors, a color guard, a 19-gun salute, an Old Guard performance with marching musicians — including piccolo players — in Revolutionary War costumes, John Philip Sousa music and the chuckleheaded neocons and ex-Rummy deputies who helped screw up the occupation, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, cheering in the audience.

It was surreal: the septuagenarian who arrogantly dismissed initial advice to send more troops to secure Iraq, being praised as “the finest secretary of defense this nation has ever had” by his pal, the vice president, even as a desperate White House drafted ways to reinvade Iraq by sending more troops in a grasping-at-straws effort to reverse the chaos caused by Rummy’s mistakes.

Just imagine the send-off a defense secretary would have gotten who hadn’t sabotaged the Army, Iraq, global security, our chance to get Osama, our moral credibility, the deficit and American military confidence.

Even Joyce Rumsfeld got a Distinguished Public Service Award ribbon placed around her neck. The grandiose ceremony featured everything but the gold-plated matching set of pistols Tommy Franks, another failed warrior, and his wife, Cathy, recently received from a weapons manufacturer. (His had four stars and diamonds; hers, rubies and their marriage date.)

W. never seems as alarmed about the devastation in Iraq as he should be. He told People magazine “I must tell you, I’m sleeping a lot better than people would assume,” and he told Brit Hume that his presidency was “a joyful experience.”

He slacked off on his slacker effort to form a new Iraq plan. (Can’t these guys ever order pizzas and pull some all-nighters?) Mr. Bush was busy this week hosting Christmas parties for a press corps he disdains; convening a malaria conference at the National Geographic with Dr. Burke of “Grey’s Anatomy” Isaiah Washington; and presiding over a hero’s departure for the defense secretary he actually dumped, not because of incompetence but for political expediency.

The Rummy hoopla was a way for W. to signal his decision to shred the Baker-Hamilton study, after reportedly denouncing it as a flaming cowpie. Condi Rice signaled the same, telling The Washington Post that she did not want to negotiate with Syria and Iran, as the Iraq Study Group had proposed, because “the compensation” might be too high.

The Democrats thought that when they won the election, they won the debate on the war and they had W. cornered. But the president is leaning toward surging over the Democrats, voters, Baker and the Bush 41 crowd, and some of his own commanders.

W. seems gratified by the idea that rather than having his ears boxed by his father’s best friend, he’s going to go down swinging, or double down, in the metaphor du jour, on his macho bet in Iraq. He’s reading about Harry Truman and casting himself as a feisty Truman, but he’s heading toward late L.B.J. The White House budget office is studying how much it will cost to finance The Surge, an infusion of 20,000 to 50,000 troops into Baghdad to make one last try at “victory.” The policy would devolve from “We stand down as they stand up” to “We stand up more and maybe someday they will, too.”

Some serving commanders are not in favor of The Surge because they fret that it will infantilize Iraqis even more about assuming responsibility for their own security. They also fear that the insurgents, who have nowhere to go, will outwait our troops.

But W. would rather take a risk in Iraq than risk being a wimp. So he continued to wrap himself in muscular delusions, asserting that on Rummy’s watch, “the United States military helped the Iraqi people establish a constitutional democracy in the heart of the Middle East, a watershed event in the story of freedom.”

Dick Cheney offered this praise to his friend: “On the professional side, I would not be where I am today but for the confidence that Don first placed in me those many years ago.”

Alas, we wouldn’t be where we are today, either.

A Gag on Free Speech

December 15, 2006
New York Times Editorial

The Bush administration is trampling on the First Amendment and well-established criminal law by trying to use a subpoena to force the American Civil Liberties Union to hand over a classified document in its possession. The dispute is shrouded in secrecy, and very little has been made public about the document, but we do not need to know what’s in it to know what’s at stake: if the government prevails, it will have engaged in prior restraint — almost always a serious infringement on free speech — and it could start using subpoenas to block reporting on matters of vital public concern.

Justice Department lawyers have issued a grand jury subpoena to the A.C.L.U. demanding that it hand over “any and all copies” of the three-and-a-half-page government document, which was recently leaked to the group. The A.C.L.U. is asking a Federal District Court judge in Manhattan to quash the subpoena.

There are at least two serious problems with the government’s action. It goes far beyond what the law recognizes as the legitimate purpose of a subpoena. Subpoenas are supposed to assist an investigation, but the government does not need access to the A.C.L.U.’s document for an investigation since it already has its own copy. It is instead trying to confiscate every available copy of the document to keep its contents secret. The A.C.L.U. says it knows of no other case in which a grand jury subpoena has been used this way.

The subpoena is also a prior restraint because the government is trying to stop the A.C.L.U. in advance from speaking about the document’s contents. The Supreme Court has held that prior restraints are almost always unconstitutional. The danger is too great that the government will overreach and use them to ban protected speech or interfere with free expression by forcing the media, and other speakers, to wait for their words to be cleared in advance. The correct way to deal with speech is to evaluate its legality after it has occurred.

The Supreme Court affirmed these vital principles in the Pentagon Papers case, when it rejected the Nixon administration’s attempts to stop The Times and The Washington Post from publishing government documents that reflected badly on its prosecution of the Vietnam War. If the Nixon administration had been able to use the technique that the Bush administration is trying now, it could have blocked publication simply by ordering the newspapers to hand over every copy they had of the papers.

If the A.C.L.U.’s description of its secret document is correct, there is no legitimate national defense issue. The document does not contain anything like intelligence sources or troop movements, the group says. It is merely a general statement of policy whose release “might perhaps be mildly embarrassing to the government.” Given this administration’s abysmal record on these issues, this case could set a disturbing and dangerous precedent. If the subpoena is enforced, the administration will have gained a powerful new tool for rolling back free-speech rights — one that could be used to deprive Americans of information they need to make informed judgments about their elected leaders’ policies and actions.

Paul Krugman is on vacation.

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