Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bush administration seeks return to 19th century laissez faire

The Consumer Protection Agency (CPA) responsible for policing 15,000 consumer goods from toys to tools has seen its budget slashed.

Its staff currently numbers 420, about half its size in the 1980s. Only 15 inspectors are assigned to police imported consumer products ranging from flat screens to toys, a marketplace of 15,000 different products valued at $614 billion in 2006.

There is only one full-time employee to test toys despite recalls in the last two months of more than 13 million Chinese made toys with lead levels that sometimes reached 200 times the safety limit.

Lead is harmful to children because it can accumulate in their nervous system, damaging brain development and causing learning difficulties.

The damage is irreversible.

So what is the response of the Bush administration to the proliferation of unsafe products?

Remarkably, it is actively opposing efforts to increase the number of inspectors and strengthen the agency's enforcement tools.

Reaching back to Adam Smith's 1776 laissez faire playbook, it has urged Congress to reject legislation designed to strengthen the agency ability to regulate harmful or dangerous products.

That's right! Despite the fact that 13 million toys like Thomas toy trains and Mattels's Sesame Street and Nickelodeon characters — including the Elmo Tub Sub, the Dora the Explorer Backpack, and the Giggle Gabber - have been found to be dangerous to children, the Bush administration apparently feels that one inspector is enough!

Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has written two letters to lawmakers urging them to reject the bulk of legislation that would increase the agency’s authority, double its budget and sharply increase its dwindling staff.

Ms. Nord has also opposed provisions that would significantly increase the maximum fines from $1.85 million to $100 million, ban lead completely from all children’s products and make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products, protect industry whistle-blowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate laws.

Light was shed on Ms. Nord’s opposition to increasing her agency's capacity when it was disclosed that she had traveled on the industry’s dime, accepting “gift travel” from those with business before the commission.

While it is hard to believe the agency’s lax approach was not affected by nearly 30 trips to places like China, Spain and a golf resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C., Ms. Nord’s opposition is entirely consistent with the the Bush administration's ideological opposition to the regulation of industry. From antitrust to trucking to worker safety, officials appointed by President Bush have sought to reduce regulation of the private marketplace promoting industry self-policing as an alternative.

Bush administrative officials argue in the face of more than a century of evidence that capitalism will self regulate- that corporations will not produce unsafe products because rational consumers will not buy them. From Upton Sinclair's expose of the unsanitary conditions in Chicago's packing houses through the century long production of dangerous products like lead paint and cigarettes to the Ford Pinto gas tank explosions to the Chinese toy lead paint scare, the history of industrial capitalism demonstrates just the opposition.

Consumers have no idea what harmful chemicals and other agents are used in the production of products, pharmaceuticals and even food.

Corporations are legally obligated to pursue the highest rate of returns for their stockholders. And corporate executives' compensation is generally based on short term, quarterly results. Consumer, worker or environmental safety are deemphasized or ignored entirely. As a result, in the world's industrial democracies citizens have turned to their elected governments to enact laws that require that products, pharmaceuticals and food meet safety standards and that guarantee consumers the right to know what the products they buy are made of.

The Bush administration knows that it cannot tell American consumers that it doesn't care about the safety of the products they buy, the air they breath and the water they drink. Taking a page from the Reagan administration it doesn't eliminate regulatory agencies. Rather it slashes their budgets and appoints directors opposed to the agency's mission.

Management lawyers hostile to unions are appointed to run the National Labor Relations Board. Representatives of mining and oil companies head the Environmental Protection Agency. Horse lawyers are appointed to lead FEMA. Foxes are appointed to run the chicken coop.

The results are as predictable as they are bad.

The global economy has intensified the need for regulation. Many of the developing nations lack product safety standards or the mechanisms to enforce standards if they have them.

In large part globalization is nothing more than an effort by US based corporations to escape the regulatory framework constructed by the citizens of this country to tame the ravages of 19th Century industrial capitalism. In their drive to lower their costs of production and increase their profits, corporations search the globe for countries without labor, consumer and environmental regulations.

The only thing standing between your child or grandchild and lead poisoning is the hated government bureaucrat and the consumer protection regulations they enforce. The Bush administration and its minions want to return us to the not so good old days of the 19th Century. It's up to Congress to stop them.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Republicans embrace fear and terror

In the darkest days of the depression with fascism on the march in Europe, Franklin Roosevelt urged his countrymen to resist succumbing to “...nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”

Paul Krugman contrasts Roosevelt's call to action to that of the Republican presidential candidates who have made fear and "unreasonable, unjustified terror" the "centerpiece of their campaigns."

From Giuliani to Huckabee they offer no vision of the future or solutions to the nation's problems. Their platform is one of fear of terrorists, fear of immigrants, fear of cities, fear of secularists, etc.

As a nation we love to celebrate the "greatest generation." We forget that their greatest contribution was to embrace Roosevelt's basic truth from his first Inaugural address that "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself...."

Read the entire column.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The invisible hand fails Africa's poor

Since the 1970's policy makers and economists have been enamoured with the 18th century musings of Adam Smith.

The Chicago School under Milton Friedman's tutelage led this revival. It has been enthusiastically embraced by Republican politicians and operatives from Ronald Reagan though Grover Norquist to George W. Bush.

Even new Democrats, motivated by ideological confusion or political opportunism, have gravitated toward market fundamentalism.

The neoclassical theory they promote is little more than a regurgitation of Smith's idea that "no one intends to promote the public good." Rather they are ''led by an invisible hand to promote an end," the public good, "which is no part his intention. "

Despite the fact that Smith's seminal work, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, was primarily a critique of mercantilism, the 17th century state monopoly trading system, and a celebration of the dynamism of emerging capitalism and competitive markets, US urban and international development policy have been based on free market libertarian ideas for almost thirty years.

A new World Bank report demonstrates that "free market mechanisms" have largely failed to promote economic growth or prosperity in impoverished African nations.

The New York Times reported this weekend:

"In the 1980s, in the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the World Bank increasingly withdrew its support from agriculture and expected private markets to spur growth through competition. Bank officials even thought profit-seeking companies would build toll roads in remote parts of Africa.

But, as the recent internal evaluation found, private markets often failed to deliver a range of goods and services farmers needed, including improved seeds, fertilizer and credit. "

The World Bank report concludes that market mechanisms have failed to generate investment in "scientific research, rural roads, irrigation, credit, fertilizer and seeds — the basics of an agricultural economy — crucial to helping Africa’s poor farmers.

That this is newsworthy suggests how dominant libertarian policy has become.

If market mechanisms haven't generated sufficient investment to rebuild America's central cities, maintain our transportation infrastructure, build a dynamic, high speed information highway, stimulate biotechnology research, or provide affordable healthcare to our citizens why should we expect competitive markets to work any better in poverty stricken African countries?

Read the entire NYT article here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Fischer Island-the rich are different from you and me!

Fischer Island is an exclusive, private island residential community just off the Miami coast.

Less than 10 minutes from Miami Beach, Fischer Island is in a world of its own, the richest zip code in the U.S.

Its residence lead extravagant lives or as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me."

The New York Times described this idyllic paradise:"... from the imported Bahamian sand coating the beaches to the marble and mahogany-encrusted Vanderbilt mansion and the 186-foot, $250,000-a-week chartered yacht bobbing in the marina just outside, everything bespeaks luxury. The gilded trappings are a potent reminder of the great income gap that prevailed when Mr. Vanderbilt used to alight his hydroplane in the inviting waters offshore, in the early decades of the 20th century, a gap that has re-emerged today."

A share in the Fischer Island golf club costs $250,000 and dues run to $20,000 a year.

Yes, Fischer Island is a beautiful long as you don't have to work there.

The workers tending the grounds or washing linens make as little as $8.50 an hour.

Fischer Island's workers, 21st century servants, travel daily to this man made island from Miami which has the highest degree of housing inequality in the country and where one on five children live in poverty.

In February a local organization of religious leaders sent a letter to all residents, alerting them to “serious and tragic poverty within your midst.”

A great invisible work force, unseen by many, maintains Fisher Island's condominiums, golf courses and tennis courts, prepares and serves food to its residents, cleans their rooms and common areas, and maintains the critical equipment that keeps the air-conditioning and other mechanics of the island running smoothly. Their stories are chilling."

It is time the residents of Fischer island start treating their employees with the same respect they treat their cars. It's time for the plantation mentality to stop!

To see how you can help visit

And watch the video:

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Bush administration's fuzzy math

Last week the Bush administration reported that the U.S. budget deficit had fallen to $162.8 billion, the lowest amount in five years.

Don't believe it.

Fortune's Allan Sloan had predicted the Bush celebration in early September arguing the deficit is much, much bigger than you think.

See Jack Cafferty's refutation of the Bush administration's "fuzzy math."

Journal Sentinel buries ex commanders criticism of Iraq war

Yesterday the former top commander of American forces in Iraq, Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, blamed the Bush administration for a "catastrophically flawed, unrealistically optimistic war plan” and denounced the current addition of American forces as a “desperate” move that would not be successful.

Why did the Journal Sentinel bury it on page 4?

Sanchez public criticism of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war is surely bigger news than the tragic deaths of four people at a horse show in Madison, the paper's lead story.

Here's the page 1 New York Times story.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Republicans lack ideas-engage in character assassination

The New York Times' Paul Krugman has an excellent column on the Republican Party's vicious smear campaign against the twelve year old boy who gave the Democratic Party's response to President Bush's veto of Congress's bipartisan expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance program (SCHIP).

Frost relied on SCHIP after suffering severe head injuries in an automobile accident because his family did not have health insurance like 47 million other Americans.

Krugman writes:

...the Graeme Frost case is a perfect illustration of the modern right-wing political machine at work, and in particular its routine reliance on character assassination in place of honest debate. If service members oppose a Republican war, they’re “phony soldiers”; if Michael J. Fox opposes Bush policy on stem cells, he’s faking his Parkinson’s symptoms; if an injured 12-year-old child makes the case for a government health insurance program, he’s a fraud.

Meanwhile, leading conservative politicians, far from trying to distance themselves from these smears, rush to embrace them. And some people in the news media are still willing to be used as patsies.

Politics aside, the Graeme Frost case demonstrates the true depth of the health care crisis: every other advanced country has universal health insurance, but in America, insurance is now out of reach for many hard-working families, even if they have incomes some might call middle-class.

And there’s one more point that should not be forgotten: ultimately, this isn’t about the Frost parents. It’s about Graeme Frost and his sister.

I don’t know about you, but I think American children who need medical care should get it, period. Even if you think adults have made bad choices — a baseless smear in the case of the Frosts, but put that on one side — only a truly vicious political movement would respond by punishing their injured children.

Here is the entire column.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

M7 should oppose Waukesha tax on Milwaukee!

Where's the Milwaukee 7 when we need it?

Waukesha's County Board is proposing to raise bus fares by twenty-five cents on riders who travel from Milwaukee to Waukesha.

Waukesha's Board, an ardent foe of any and all tax increases, has tossed fiscal restraint aside when it comes to Milwaukee County residents, giving new meaning to Governor Thompson's pledge "to stick it to Milwaukee."

The Board's rationale, tough fiscal times, is hard to swallow since it recently found $1.75 million to help fund an interstate highway interchange to the upscale, Pabst Farms regional mall in Western Waukesha that planners had forgotten to finance.

This "zone fare" increase will hurt the ability of Milwaukee's workers to get to jobs in Waukesha and hurt Waukesha's employers who face a growing shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labor.

Economists call this a spatial mismatch-potential workers are concentrated in one place, Milwaukee, and the jobs are in another, Waukesha!

The Brookings Institute in a study of the problem could easily have been talking about Milwaukee, routinely rated one of the nation's most segregated cities, and Waukesha when it observed that sprawl exacerbates racial inequality: "In areas where blacks are more segregated from whites, blacks tend to live apart from job rich suburban areas (where a disproportionate share of whites live)."

The "zone fare" increase, a tax on Milwaukee labor, will only exacerbate these problems because as bus fares increase, ridership will decrease!

Waukesha had a surcharge only a few years back. When the Milwaukee labor tax was eliminated in 2003, ridership on the route increased by almost 10%.

It's a basic rule of economics that when prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases and conversely. Implementation of this Milwaukee labor tax will decrease ridership.

Waukesha's leaders need look no further than Milwaukee County to see how incremental increases in fares have reduced ridership!

The Milwaukee 7, Southeastern Wisconsin's effort to promote regional economic cooperation and growth, has argued convincingly that solving the region's shortage of skilled workers is key to growing SE Wisconsin's economy.

Waukesha's misguided "zone fare," a tax increase on our poorest citizens, will intensify the region's spatial mismatch and undermine economic growth.

It's easy to talk about regional economic cooperation. The leaders of the M7 need to walk the walk.

They can start by urging the Waukesha County Board to drop this bad idea.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

John Mellencamp releases powerful new song-Jena

John Mellencamp has released a powerful new music video-Jena- about the case of the Jena Six: six black high school students charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight after nooses were hung from the school's "white tree."

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Milwaukee Philanthropist wrong about MPS

Sheldon Lubar is a successful investor.

It's great that he's giving half a million dollars to Whitefish Bay High School to renovate its stadium. Generations of suburban athletes will benefit from Mr. Lubar's largess.

But isn't this what wealthy businessmen do-make large donations to their alma maters that name bricks and mortar after them? Nothing really unusual here.

But I don't understand how making a lot of money or even donating some of it makes Mr. Lubar an expert on urban education or public school governance. Yet Mr Lubar used the announcement of his gift to praise Whitefish Bay as a model in successfully educating black students and attack the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) as "structured to fail." All of this was dutifully reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

We have a long history in this country of folks who made a lot of money in business-Henry Ford comes to mind- who stumble badly when they venture beyond their area of expertise.

Ford mastered the art of mass production in designing and producing the Model T. He even doubled his workers wages, something that would help address the labor shortage today, to solve his turnover problem. But his manufacturing and managerial insights did not prevent him from supporting German fascism, being an overt anti-Semite or hiring criminals to spy on his employees.

Mr Lubar has evidently been a savvy investor, but that doesn't make him an expert on how to educate Milwaukee's predominantly poor, inner city children. Nor does it make him an expert on urban school governance, a topic of considerable research and debate.

Whitefish Bay, contrary to Mr Lubar's assertion, is not a "model" for successfully educating black children. An examination of testing data suggests that despite having a much more affluent student population than the Milwaukee Public Schools, Whitefish Bay still has a significant racial achievement gap.

On the 10th grade reading test, 83% of Bay's white students recorded advanced scores and 14% were proficient. Yet only 33% of its black students were advanced and 29% proficient. On the 10th grade math test, 57% of white students were advanced and 36% proficient, while only 17% of black students were advanced and 33% proficient.

These results shouldn't surprise anyone with a serious interest in urban education since the racial achievement gap is a national dilemma. But it is a clear refutation of Mr. Lubar's contention that Whitefish Bay is worthy because it has solved the challenge of successfully educating poor black children and MPS is not and should be taken over and dismantled.

Mr Lubar certainly has a right to his opinions. This is America after all. But making lots of money doesn't make one on expert in other areas. And the Journal shouldn't allow its pages to be used as a megaphone by rich, but misinformed donors.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Milwaukee Journal: perscribes wrong deficit reduction medicine

A Milwaukee Journal editorial recently opined that "A Republican Congress abandoned its principles and left the country ill-prepared to meet long-term obligations." "Fiscal discipline is needed" it concluded.

The piece criticised the $190 billion 2002 Farm Bill, 70% of which went to the richest 10% of farmers. It also targeted the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Both could charitably be described as socialism for the rich-U.S. agribusiness, insurance and pharmaceuticals companies!

While they are poorly designed public policy, neither is at the heart of the deficit problem.

By failing to identify how the Bush administration has squandered a projected $5.2 trillion surplus, the Journal is fueling the erroneous perception that out of control social spending and entitlements are to blame.

Nothing could be further from the truth

The two main causes of the Bush era deficits are its high end tax cuts and the War in Iraq.

Congressional Budget Office data show that Bush's tax cuts have been the single largest contributor to the reemergence of substantial budget deficits. Legislation enacted since 2001 has added almost $2.3 trillion to deficits between 2001 and 2006, with half of the deterioration in the budget due to the tax cuts (about a third was due to increases in security spending, and only a sixth to increases in domestic spending).

56.5% of these tax cuts went to the richest 10% of wage earners, those averaging $256,000. Only 14.7% went to the bottom 60% who average $44,000.

Unlike in previous wars, the United States has cut taxes at the same time it has increased military spending."It's fair to say all of the money spent on the war has been borrowed," says Richard Kogan, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank in Washington. "But eventually everything has to be paid for."

And the bill is growing!

Just last week President Bush requested an additional $42.3 billion in “emergency” funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. If passed, the 2008 war bill will be almost $190 billion, the same as the 10 year Farm Bill increase the Journal singled out for criticism and the largest single-year total for these wars. It is an increase of 15 percent from 2007.

It will bring the year end total for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars since Sept. 11, 2001 to $800 billion, still less than half the $2 trillion total projected cost.

As Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen once said about the Defense budget, "a billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money"-money that could buy a lot of healthcare, infrastructure, early childhood education or deficit reduction!

What it hasn't bought is protective equipment for our soldiers and their vehicles, the capture of Osama Bin Laden or adequate medical care for our vets!

And remember this $42 billion military increase is off-the-books, "emergency" funding, an addition to the original 2008 spending request, made before the President announced his so-called “new strategy” of partial withdrawal.

Iraq alone has cost the United States more in inflation-adjusted dollars than the Gulf War and the Korean War and will soon pass the Vietnam War.

This for a war that former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld promised would cost under $50 billion while his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, predicted Iraqi oil revenues would largely pay for Iraq’s reconstruction.

The $42 billion emergency funding increase is more than the bipartisan, fully funded $35 billion expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) that President Bush has promised to veto.

Since Iraq costs the country $333 million a day, we can't afford to expand SCHIP which costs $19 million a day!

The $42 billion is also almost twice as much as the $23 billion in improvements for waterways and water systems in every state that Bush is threatening to veto as too costly.

Mr Bush took office in 2001, the last time the Government produced a budget surplus. Every year after that the Government has been in the red. In 2004 the deficit swelled to a record $US413 billion ($494 billion).

The Journal is right when it suggests that Mr Bush is mortgaging the country's future. But it is wrong to suggest that entitlements and social spending are to blame.

High end tax cuts and Mr Bush's war of choice in Iraq are the real culprits!