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December 31, 2004

Under the heading "Credit Where Credit is Due," two quick points: (a) $350 million is precisely the kind of big, attention-getting number that was required here; and (b) Jeb Bush is a strong, perhaps even inspired, choice to accompany Colin Powell to the region. His almost Clintonesque persona is going to be a pleasant surprise to a lot of people, and should play well on tv screens around the world.

Well, that's an easy one, of course. Its ethical standards are too high.

This piece in today's WaPo on the increasingly difficult challenges facing America's middle class workers argues quite forcefully (though only by implication, of course) that Bill Clinton was right; if trade is to be our friend in this new century -- and it can be -- the US government has simply got to be involved in the business of helping Americans help themselves, particularly in terms of education, training, and health care.

Teresa Geerling is living the future of life in the middle of the American workforce.

After years cleaning the insides of airplanes and polishing their outsides, Geerling was laid off from American Airlines last year. The job was physically taxing for Geerling, 50, but the nearly $32,000 annual pay and health-care coverage helped provide a typical middle-class life in this small midwestern community.

Now, she works the overnight shift at a local hospital as a nurse's aide while completing course work to be certified as a medical assistant. That would seem to be a smart move, because unlike airlines, which are contracting, health care is one of the industries that many economists believe could generate millions more jobs in the decades to come.

Yet rarely has Geerling's work life been so precarious.

If she can't stay on her husband's health plan, her costs for health insurance offered by the hospital will be $200 a month, more than five times as much as at the airline. There are no pension benefits beyond the option for a 401(k) savings plan and few job protections. She makes $2 an hour less than before; to have a chance at higher pay, she will need to continually train herself in new areas.

Geerling is at the leading edge of changes that herald a new era for millions of people earning around the national average, $17 an hour.

This new era requires that workers shoulder more responsibility and risk on the way to financial security, economists say. It also demands that they be nimble in an increasingly fluid job market. Those who don't obtain some combination of specialized skills, higher education and professional status that can be constantly adapted will be in danger of sliding down the economic ladder to low-paying service jobs, usually without benefits.

Meanwhile, those who secure the middle-class jobs of the 21st century will have to make $17 an hour stretch further than ever as they pay more for health care or risk doing without insurance and assume much or all of the burden for their retirement. . . .

In some ways, Geerling is one of the lucky ones.... At the time she was let go, American Airlines provided training grants as part of the layoff package. The program, which no longer exists, gave her a way to learn new skills in the health care industry, where she had once worked.

Analysts say retraining will be key because tomorrow's middle-class jobs are likely to be enhanced variations of today's lower-wage jobs. Clerical positions keeping medical records, for instance, are being transformed into higher-paying technician jobs that are structured to involve both computer skills and the ability to talk to doctors and nurses.

"You can't be some kid who is good with a computer and get that job anymore," said Anthony Carnevale, senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy. The successful job seeker will be "someone who can do the computer stuff but also knows the business."

It is that combination of technology savvy, analytical thinking and interpersonal skills that could be the magic formula for U.S. workers -- whether the jobs are in health care, education, financial services or any other field. Jobs that involve all three qualities, said Thomas A. Kochan, an MIT management professor, are hard to duplicate with machines or with low-wage workers from abroad, putting the Americans who fill them in a strong position to demand not just good wages, but benefits, too.

"For workers who are performing services for people that can't be made impersonal or sent offshore, those jobs could become much more attractive," he said.

This is a good piece on big issue, and there's a lot more of it. So, please, read the rest.

UPDATE: Via Josh Marshall, here's some other stuff Clinton was right about.

RELATED: And via Nick Denton, The Economist asks, "Whatever happened to the belief that any American could get to the top?"

Normally, I'd just add this LA Times link to the bottom of yesterday's post on humanitarian aid as as update of some sort, but the piece in question is just too good -- too, uh, fair and balanced, if you will (in the best sense of that term, of course) -- to let it get lost in the shuffle. So here it is . . . .

LINK: U.S. Aid Generous and Stingy

December 30, 2004

In memory of Jerry Orbach, here's Law & Order: Artistic Intent.

(Via Gothamist.)

MORE: Aside from his curious contention regarding the best of the show's distaff ADAs, Ogged's summation seems sure to win over the jury.

As elsewhere, a bit of a contretemps is brewing in Blogdom these days over the question of whether the US is "stingy" or "generous" in its humanitarian aid spending, so I thought I'd take a minute this morning to briefly lay out the valid points that I think each side is making in the debate.

First, on the broad question of American generosity, conservatives like James Joyner are correct; much of what the US spends in this area isn't counted in the official statistics, which leads to some rather misleading analyses, such as those that suggest that we spend only two cents per person per day on humanitarian aid. (In addition to the excellent points James makes on the deceptively narrow definition that these analyses tend to use for "humanitarian assistance," it should also be noted that virtually every aid package on the face of the Earth could arrive at its destination stamped, "Delivered from our nation to yours through the good offices of the United States Navy." Therefore, it seems only fair to factor at least some of the dollars that US taxpayers shell out to provide the security umbrella under which the entire humanitarian aid infrastructure stays warm and dry into these sorts of calculations.) Moreover, private charities in this country do raise and distribute rather large sums, and, while I think some on the right have a tendency to overstate the magnitude and effectiveness of these kinds of efforts, their good works should not go unrecognized.

That said, much of the Democratic criticism of this administration's response to the current disaster in South Asia is spot-on; yet again, President Bush appears to have squandered an opportunity to reach out to the very people whose hearts and minds we need to win in order to defeat both bin Laden and bin Ladenism, and that's just plain dumb. Publius, over at Legal Fiction, is particularly strong on this point:

For those who donít know, I am not a world leader. Given my writing over the past year, I have a sneaking suspicion that I will never be a world leader. But if I were a world leader, I would think that humanitarian disasters in other countries would be the political equivalent of hanging curve balls. You really donít have to exert that much effort to earn global goodwill. In fact, it's one of those rare opportunities where every single person on the planet would agree with you and appreciate your words. Even if you truly donít give a s**t that 100,000 people have died, even if you would rather clear brush for four days than worry about it, all you have to do is have a five minute press conference, express sympathy, and promise money somewhat in excess of what you could get at a couple of political fundraisers. In fact, the only way to blow such a golden opportunity to gain sorely needed goodwill (especially in the Muslim world) is to do exactly what Bush did Ė nothing. It was a rather remarkable feat.

In closing, and on a semi-related matter, I'd like to second every word that Henry Farrell has to say here. Thoughtful criticism of individuals and their ideas is one thing. But at a time like this, when so many blogospherians are doing what they can to help alleviate the suffering of millions of their fellow human beings halfway around the world, we could really do without the puerile cheap shots.

December 29, 2004

On the off-chance that you're one of the three people on the planet who reads this blog but not Kevin Drum's (Hi, Aunt Nancy!), do yourself a favor and follow this link to his op-ed in today's LA Times on the Great Social Security Scam of 2005. Millions of decent, hardworking Americans are about to screwed with their pants on for no good reason, and you won't find a more cogent analysis of the, uh, in and outs of that looming debacle anyplace.

Does the relative independence of the judiciary explain why "common law" countries tend to outperform their "civil law" cousins economically? An admirably accessible (read so oversimplified that even I can almost understand it) article by Nicholas Thompson makes just that case here.

VIA: Arts & Letters Daily

Via Juan Cole, here's Georgie Anne Geyer on the increasingly desperate situation we appear to be facing in Iraq:

On the eve of World War II, the French depended confidently upon their huge and famous Maginot Line. Its enormous defensive fortresses, created almost as a necklace of cities in themselves, lined the entire border between France and Germany -- this time, the Germans would never pass!

But all the Germans had to do was to march around through Belgium to invade France. By May 1940, the vaunted Maginot Line was pitifully useless against such innovative resolve.

Today in Iraq, American officials are having to face their own verbal and rhetorical Maginot Lines. Our "answer" has been that we can get out when Iraqi forces are trained, when elections are held, and when Iraqis themselves win back the country from the "insurgents" or "terrorists" or "guerrillas" (or whatever we finally determine they are).

But in only the last two weeks, American generals and civilian officials are, in fact, admitting that they have their own similar Maginot Line problems. In Mosul, the Iraqi police force has "faded away." American generals speak of a "virtual connectivity" of the insurgents never seen before, as they use the Internet to pass along techniques, tactics and advice to one another. American generals now admit that almost all of them are Iraqis; we have created the Iraqi terrorists who were not there before . . . .

The truth no one really wants to deal with is that this war could very easily be lost by the United States. All the insurgents have to do is hang on another year. All we have to do is what the French and the British did in their colonies: Let themselves be exhausted and finally destroyed by their hubris, their delusions and their arrogant lack of understanding of the local people.

Our Maginot Lines today are our satellites, our huge bombers, our willingness to destroy a city such as Fallujah without even knowing who's there. Our Maginot minds refuse to see that the Germans sneaking around the French through Belgium to destroy them is disturbingly analogous to the insurgents in Iraq moving in cells from city to city and letting us think we are "winning."

Geez. What's wrong with Georgie Anne? Hasn't she heard about the soccer fields? And the schools . . . ?

POSTSCRIPT: As regular readers know, I (kinda sorta) supported this unremittingly awful clusterschtup, so it gives me absolutely no pleasure to link to pieces like the one above. Unfortunately, though, it seems clearer by the day that the pessimists realists like Ms. Geyer are right: we're in real danger of losing this war, and better leadership -- rather than better PR -- is our only chance of turning things around in time. Assuming, of course, that there still is time . . . .

UPDATE: It's funny. I was just reading this post over, and realized how much the terms of the debate have changed in the last year or so. Because, when I used the phrase "turning things around," it's not like I was referring to, you know, actually winning. I just meant managing to get out of there with a relatively whole skin.

And to think they used to call the Carter era the Age of Diminishing Expectations.

House Ethics Panel Chief May Be Replaced (Washington Post)

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert is leaning toward removing the House ethics committee chairman, who admonished House Majority Leader Tom DeLay this fall and has said he will treat DeLay like any other member, several Republican aides said yesterday.

Although Hastert (Ill.) has not made a decision, the expectation among leadership aides is that the chairman, Rep. Joel Hefley (R-Colo.), long at odds with party leaders because of his independence, will be replaced when Congress convenes next week.

The aides said a likely replacement is Rep. Lamar S. Smith, one of DeLay's fellow Texans, who held the job from 1999 to 2001. Smith wrote a check this year to DeLay's defense fund. An aide said Smith was favored for his knowledge of committee procedure.

Republicans are bracing for the possibility that DeLay, who is the chamber's second-ranking Republican and holds enormous sway over lawmakers, could be indicted by a Texas grand jury conducting a campaign finance investigation that the party contends is politically motivated.

The effort by DeLay and his allies to preserve his leadership post, even if he faces criminal charges, is one of the most sensitive issues facing Republicans as the new Congress begins. If Hefley is replaced by Smith, it is another signal by House leaders that they will stand by DeLay. "It certainly seems they're circling the wagons," said a GOP staff member who declined to be identified.

What's that hoary old line? Something about power corrupting -- and Tom DeLay's power corrupting absolutely . . . .

December 28, 2004

As the enormity and, to some extent at least, the avoidability of the tragedy in South Asia begins to come fully into focus, Chris Mooney helpfully reminds us that, less than a decade ago, so-called "conservatives" in Washington were doing their damnedest to shut down the agency that tracks earthquakes and their consequences here in the US.

MORE: Jeff Jarvis quotes an expert as saying that "most people would have been safe if only they'd walked one mile inland or gotten to higher ground . . ."

Former Homeland Security Inspector General Clark Kent Ervin tells USA TODAY that the nation is still highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack, and calls the agency he used to oversee "a huge, dysfunctional bureaucracy."

Clark Kent Ervin . . . said in an interview last week that airport security isn't tight enough and that little has been done to safeguard other forms of mass transit. Ervin said ports remain vulnerable to terrorists trying to smuggle weapons into the country. He added that immigration and customs investigators are hampered in their efforts to track down illegal immigrants because they often lack gas money for their cars.

"There are still all these security gaps in the country that have yet to be closed," Ervin said. Meanwhile, he added, Homeland Security officials have wasted millions of dollars because of "chaotic and disorganized" accounting practices, lavish spending on social occasions and employee bonuses and a failure to require competitive bidding for some projects.

Asked what's wrong with the department, he said, "It's difficult to figure out where to start."

Ervin lost his job this month in mysterious fashion. Appointed by President Bush in December 2003 when Congress was out of session, Ervin was never confirmed by the Senate. Nor was he renominated by the White House this month when his "recess appointment" ó which lasted until the congressional session ended ó expired Dec. 8.

A key senator won't say why. Elissa Davidson, spokeswoman for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, wouldn't comment on why Chairman Susan Collins, R-Maine, never held confirmation hearings for Ervin. "The decision not to renominate Clark Kent Ervin was purely a White House decision," she said.

This "good news" White House really doesn't like its bad news guys, does it? And that's understandable up to a point, I suppose, at least from a purely political perspective. Unfortunately, though, those are probably the very voices we need to hear on national security issues; just think, for example, how different things might be today if this administration had listened to men like Richard Clarke and Rand Beers and Eric Shinseki instead of telling them to sit down and shut up.

The saddest words of tongue or pen, indeed. So let's just hope that Clark Kent Ervin's name stays off that distinguished but deeply dispiriting list.

Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler, who once had the audacity to run a much better race for his candidate than I did for mine in a primary here in SC, has a smart piece over at TNR today on the Democratic party's national security difficulties. (Sorry, subscription only.)

So what's the problem with the party of the left when it comes to national security? Despite Karl Rove's successful postelection spin that the 2004 election was about values, the truth is that reassurance and security moved the voters that made the difference. Particularly among married and college-educated women, the electorate believed that the Republicans would better protect them and their families than multi-medal, thrice-wounded John Kerry. So, while the Democrats are now fighting among themselves over whether we have values, we have done nothing to address the real thematic reason for Kerry's loss.

Democrats have conceded so much territory to the Republicans on security that we have left little room to make the case for ourselves. Our (in)actions suggest that even we have bought the line that you cannot be patriotic and be a Democrat. Since when does patriotism belong to the Republicans? Since when does the flag belong to the right wing?

Democrats are not connecting with voters, despite clear policies that favor the military, its veterans, and its families. We love issues so much that we forget to put them in a context that voters understand and, more significantly, that they feel.

The Democratic Party can do better in communicating to the American people our commitment to keeping the United States strong and safe. That means talking about security as a core principle of our party, not another policy proposal. Security for American voters means the safety of their families before it means the soundness of our borders. It means the peace of mind that comes with strong, decisive leadership before it means rewarding a candidate for the decorations of distinguished military service.

That's absolutely right. We Democrats have an unfortunate tendency to talk about national defense the same way we discuss, say, funding formulas for early childhood development programs, and the American people don't like it. Worse, they don't trust it. And until we can find a way to communicate on national security matters more effectively, we're going to keep having the kinds of problems we ran into this year, when a stupefyingly unsuccessful Republican president managed to win a narrow victory by convincing a bare majority of the electorate that they just couldn't risk turning the country over to our guy in perilous times.

UPDATE: Via Charles Kuffner, here's Jerome Armstrong's take on Fowler's Net-savvy campaign to become the next chairman of the DNC.

Today's WaPo has a list of organizations that would appreciate your assistance as they try to help the survivors of yesterday's devastating tsunami in South Asia.

The satellite has arrived, Wordpress is functioning, and all the old posts are in the new system.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled blogging.

December 12, 2004

I was planning to wait until sometime after the first of the year to get back to regular blogging -- Carla and I are in the country full-time until then, where we connect to the Internet at the blazing rate of 24.0 Kbps -- but I'm finding it awfully hard to stay away. So, instead of simply waiting things out, I've finally given in and placed an order for the only kind of high(er)-speed access available out here in the middle of nowhere the pastoral heartland of America -- satellite.

Supposedly, the new system will be up and running in the next week or ten days, and I'll start blogging again as soon as it is. Until then, thanks for your patience, and I hope to see you shortly.

POSTSCRIPT: Hard as it may be to believe, I haven't been wasting the hour or two a day I normally spend on this stuff; when the site returns, it will once again be running on a true blog platform -- WordPress -- and, for the first time in years, all the archives will be in one system, and all the old permalinks will be properly forwarded to their current addresses.

POSTSCRIPT 2: As bad as blogging is out here, e-mail is even worse. Much worse, actually. It literally takes a couple of hours a day for me to download the trencherman's helping of spam I get at some of the addresses associated with this blog. So, frankly, I haven't been doing it. Or at least not much of it. Which means, of course, that if you've sent me any e-mail in the last couple of weeks, I probably haven't seen it yet. I apologize for any inconvenience that may have caused, and I'll make those replies a priority as soon as the new satellite arrives.

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