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  • August 25, 2015
    Economists Warn of GOP Threat to U.S. Economy

    While all eyes have been focused on the worldwide stock market plunge, a recent survey of economists by the Wall Street Journal identified a different threat to the vitality of the U.S. economy. But it's not the instability of Chinese stock prices, the devaluation of its currency, the Eurozone's Greek tragedy or even a premature Fed interest rate hike that has WSJ's economists so concerned. Instead, the fear is that the GOP-controlled Congress will once again precipitate a fiscal crisis this fall.

    Despite pledges from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell that his party will not shut down the government or once again hold the debt ceiling hostage, the Journal's round table ("WSJ Survey: Economists Cite Budget Battle as a Top Threat") isn't convinced:

    After watching Congress repeatedly crash into fiscal deadlines in recent years, a majority of economists are expecting a repeat performance, with 55% of respondents to the latest Wall Street Journal survey of 62 economists--not all of whom answered every question--predicting at least some disruption to the economy and financial markets in the months ahead.

    And that potential disruption could have a real impact on their forecast for 2.2 percent GDP growth and a 5.1 percent unemployment rate by the end of 2015. As the chart above shows, three-quarters of the respondents said the debt ceiling crisis of 2011, the fiscal cliff showdown to start 2013 and the GOP shutdown that fall produced mild or significant damage to the American economy. But with Uncle Sam needing a new budget and new borrowing authority for the start of the fiscal year that begins on October 1, Republicans as diverse as Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and John McCain (R-AZ) are threatening to shut down the government if Planned Parenthood is not defunded. The effect of that posturing?

    Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist of High Frequency Economics, a forecasting firm in Valhalla, N.Y., said the past episodes have damaged the economy by harming consumer confidence.

    O'Sullivan is exactly right. The GOP's unprecedented debt-ceiling brinksmanship that began four years ago didn't just cost the Treasury billions of dollars in higher borrowing costs. American consumer confidence nose-dived during standoff in the summer of 2011:

    As Reuters and the Christian Science Monitor explained, the GOP's debt-ceiling debacle was the main culprit for sagging confidence and job creation:

    Why has the job market cooled so much? An important factor, many economists say, is that signals from government lately have been hurting rather than helping confidence. The protracted talks over the nation's debt ceiling this summer appeared to dampen the spirits of consumers and businesses alike.

    On that point, S&P left little doubt in pointing the finger at the kamikaze conservatives in Congress:

    A Standard & Poor's director said for the first time Thursday that one reason the United States lost its triple-A credit rating was that several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the serious consequences of a credit default -- a position put forth by some Republicans. Without specifically mentioning Republicans, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that "people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default," Mukherji said. "That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable," he added. "This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."

    And S&P didn't just blame Republican default deniers for the Tea Party downgrade of 2011. In June 2013, the rating agency worried about continued GOP skullduggery even as it raised the outlook for U.S. debt:

    Although we expect some political posturing to coincide with raising the government's debt ceiling, which now appears likely to occur near the Sept. 30 fiscal year-end, we assume with our outlook revision that the debate will not result in a sudden unplanned contraction in current spending--which could be disruptive--let alone debt service...

    We believe that our current 'AA+' rating already factors in a lesser ability of U.S. elected officials to react swiftly and effectively to public finance pressures over the longer term in comparison with officials of some more highly rated sovereigns and we expect repeated divisive debates over raising the debt ceiling. We expect these debates, however, to conclude without provoking a sharp discontinuous cut in current expenditure or in debt service.

    Why those "divisive debates" are continuing into the fall of 2015 is an irony-filled topic. After all, as the reliability Republican Wall Street Journal acknowledged two week ago, "Spending Battle Looms Even as Deficit Shrinks." That's exactly right. Uncle Sam's annual budget deficit has been slashed by two-thirds since President Obama entered the Oval Office. Adjusting for inflation, federal spending has been lower every year than when Barack Obama first took the oath of office on January 20, 2009. That's why even House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) admitted over two years ago that the United States faced "no immediate debt crisis."

    But there is a final irony. Since 2011, the GOP has been the first modern party with both the intent and the votes to trigger a U.S. default. Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have willing to kill the American economy they held hostage unless the ransoms they demanded (i.e. massive spending cuts, Obamacare repeal, no funding for Planned Parenthood, etc.). And they did this despite the dire warnings of GOP leaders. As I noted in January:

    You don't have to take my word for it. Just ask Republican leaders like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and House Speaker John Boehner. In 2011, Ryan acknowledged that "you can't not raise the debt ceiling." Graham warned "the consequences for the entire global economy" resulting from a first-ever American default "would be catastrophic." Four years ago, Speaker-elect John Boehner issued this dire assessment if Congress did not increase Uncle Sam's borrowing authority to pay bills the federal government had already incurred: "That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy."

    Now, the GOP has a double-deadline on the budget and the debt limit. It's no wonder economists are worried.

    Perrspective 11:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    August 18, 2015
    Conservatism's Love-Hate Relationship with the 14th Amendment

    Of all of the Republicans' manufactured controversies during the Obama presidency, one less-remembered episode may be the most telling of all. Unable to prevent three-fifths of the Senate from voting to confirm Elena Kagan as the newest Supreme Court Justice, Republican in May 2010 denounced Obama's nominee for declaring that the Founding Fathers' three-fifths of a person standard for counting African-American slaves was a "defect" in the U.S. Constitution.

    You read that right. During a 1993 speech honoring her mentor and late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kagan spoke approvingly of Marshall's lament expressed six years earlier to mark the 200th anniversary of the drafting of the Constitution:

    [T]he government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite "The Constitution," they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago.

    The Republican National Committee responded to that self-evident truth with a memo to reporters demanding to know:

    "Does Kagan Still View Constitution 'As Originally Drafted And Conceived' As 'Defective'?"

    That, in a nutshell, captures the attitude of many conservatives toward the Civil War Amendments. While only the most fervent practitioners of the GOP's Southern Strategy regret the 13th Amendment's abolition of slavery, with its draconian voter ID laws today's modern Republican Party has made a mockery of the 15th Amendment's guarantee that the franchise will not be "denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude." But it is the 14th Amendment that elicits the greatest and most visceral conservative scorn of them all. After all, many on the right still seek to deny to African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and gay Americans due process and equal protection of the laws promised to "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." Instead, as growing numbers of Republican insist, those 14th Amendment rights are limited to corporations and fetuses, neither of which is an actual person at all.

    Consider, for example, birthright citizenship itself. Crafted to ensure citizenship for the former slaves, the Constitution beginning in 1868 enshrined the rights of "all persons born or naturalized in the United States." But during a period in which illegal immigration from our southern border has dropped to net zero, some of the GOP's best and brightest insist that some people are more equal than others. As New Jersey Governor and 2016 White House hopeful Chris Christie recently put it to right-wing radio host Laura Ingraham:

    "I think all this stuff needs to be reexamined in light of the current circumstances," he said. "[Birthright citizenship] may have made sense at some point in our history, but right now, we need to re-look at all that."

    Of course, right now many of those new citizens are born to parents who speak Spanish. And for the likes of Christie's rivals like Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), that means birthright citizenship "should stop" and is "a mistake." While Louisiana Senator David Vitter is now pushing legislation "reimagining the 14th Amendment," in the House Tea Party caucus members led by Rep. Steve King (R-IA) proposed a bill designed to eliminate so-called "anchor babies" and supposed "birth tourism." But with a recent poll showing almost two-thirds of GOP supporters back the mass deportation of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, it's no wonder Texas State Health Services is now refusing citizenship papers for some babies born to Mexican parents living in the state.

    Meanwhile, another group of Republicans wants confer citizenship on those who haven't been born at all.

    As we learned during the August 7 GOP presidential debate, some Republicans are claiming that the 14th Amendment due process and equal protection rights apply to fetuses. After Fox News host Megan Kelly informed the candidates that New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan had called rape and incest exemptions "preposterous" and said "they discriminate against an entire class of human beings," Marco Rubio (R-FL) offered this novel--and preposterous--constitutional theory:
    "I've advocated passing a law that says that all human life, at every stage of its development, is worthy of protection--in fact, I believe that law already exists. It's called the Constitution of the United States."

    While Rubio wouldn't offer specifics, former Baptist Minister, Arkansas Governor and Fox News regular Mike Huckabee did. Huckabee, who never shies away from comparing abortion to slavery and the Holocaust, simply ignored 42 years of Supreme Court precedent since Roe v. Wade:

    "I think the next president ought to invoke the Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the constitution now that we clearly know that that baby inside the mother's womb is a person at the moment of conception.

    The reason we know that it is is because of the DNA schedule that we now have clear scientific evidence on. And, this notion that we just continue to ignore the personhood of the individual is a violation of that unborn child's Fifth and 14th Amendment rights for due process and equal protection under the law."

    Leave aside for the moment would-be President Huckabee's confusion over the separation of powers or his delusions about deploying troops to round up abortion providers. Under Huckabee's theory, fetus-bearing women would be eligible for a host of other protections and benefits, perhaps including health coverage, welfare payments and housing assistance. (As Al Franken put it 10 years ago, for conservatives "life begins at conception and ends at birth.") And while there are roughly four million live births and one million abortions annually in the United States, an estimated 15 to 20 percent (and potentially a much larger share) of pregnancies end in miscarriage. To put it in terms Governor Huckabee would understand, apparently the Supreme Being--and not the Supreme Court--is the bigger threat to fetal 14th Amendment rights.

    In any event, most of Rubio and Huckabee's fellow Republicans disagree on the Constitution's current embryonic due process and equal protection guarantees. That's why the 2012 GOP Platform, like those before it, called for a "Human Life Amendment" which would ban all abortions in all cases:

    Faithful to the "self-evident" truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed. We support a human life amendment to the Constitution and endorse legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to unborn children.

    The corollary for conservatives, of course, is that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections do not apply to American women. (It should be noted that Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg felt Roe should have been decided on equal protection grounds and not, as Justice Blackmun argued in his majority opinion in 1973, "on a 'right of privacy' under the 4th Amendment and emphasizes the right of physicians to practice medicine as they see fit.") The GOP disdain for "the health of the mother" isn't just reflected in the hundreds of draconian anti-abortion regulations passed just since 2010. As Tennessee Republican Todd Gardenhire explained to a Democratic colleague who asked, "Why don't we put these same standards on a man who wants to have a vasectomy?"

    "Having personal experience in that field and also having one reversed I want to promise you that when ... you start talking to a doctor about them whacking on you down there, you want to wait a while and think about it. Men go through a lot more stringent process to have a vasectomy than a woman does, I would assume, on an abortion."

    But while most conservatives don't believe the Equal Protection Clause applies to women's bodies or their pay, only a declining share still insist the 14th Amendment doesn't apply to LGBT Americans. Unfortunately, they--and their candidates--dominate the Republican presidential field.

    As I noted back in March 2004, the 14th Amendment has played a central role in the Supreme Court's marriage equality rulings dating back at least as far as Chief Justice Earl Warren's 1967 opinion in Loving v. Virginia. As Warren explained, "There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause." And in a two-decade series of opinions culminating in this year's Hodges v. Obergefell decision striking down same-sex marriage bans in the states, Justice Anthony Kennedy erected a framework for extending the due process and equal protection guarantees to gay Americans as well. Citing the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment, Kennedy concluded:

    It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization's oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.

    Not according to virtually every Republican candidate for president and the who's who of social conservatives who signed the "Marriage Pledge." For them, the Court's ruling making marriage equality the law of the land was "the worst decision since Dred Scott."

    Ironically echoing Chief Justice Roger Taney abominable opinion in Scott v Sanford, the usual suspects on the right in their "pledge" essentially declared that gay Americans have no rights which the straight man was bound to respect:

    We will view any decision by the Supreme Court or any court the same way history views the Dred Scott and Buck v. Bell decisions. Our highest respect for the rule of law requires that we not respect an unjust law that directly conflicts with higher law. A decision purporting to redefine marriage flies in the face of the Constitution and is contrary to the natural created order. As people of faith we pledge obedience to our Creator when the State directly conflicts with higher law. We respectfully warn the Supreme Court not to cross this line.

    As it turned out, the Court didn't cross that line, it erased it. But while Chief Justice John Roberts dissented from the majority's argument "that the Due Process Clause gives same-sex couples a fundamental right to marry," he nevertheless warned conservatives hoping to resurrect "substantive due process" as the basis for 21st century economic libertarianism. As Ian Millhiser explained for ThinkProgress on June 29:

    This method, of implying rights from the Fourteenth Amendment's vague promise that liberty shall not be denied without due process -- otherwise known as "substantive due process" -- has a dark history. As I explain in my book, Injustices: The Supreme Court's History of Comforting the Comfortable and Afflicting the Afflicted, conservatives used this doctrine to hobble laws intended to benefit workers in the early twentieth century. The Supreme Court used it to strike down laws establishing a minimum wage, ensuring that laborers would not be overworked, and protecting workers' right to organize.

    (Among the most far-reaching of them was the Court's 1886 ruling in County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad, after which it was "well settled" that "corporations are persons within the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment.")

    But among the very worst of these decisions by conservative Courts from the late 19th century into the New Deal was Lochner v. New York decided in 1905.

    By the dawn of the 20th century, Millhiser laments, the "Fourteenth Amendment's promise of a nation that afforded basic rights to all of its citizens was largely a dead letter." Culminating with the "separate but equal doctrine" of Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, the Court had rejected author John Bingham's intent that the Fourteenth Amendment's "privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States" would extend the Bill of Rights to the states. Instead, "the Supreme Court took this amendment, and they transformed it into something far more sinister."

    Just how sinister was revealed in the 1905 Lochner case. Striking down a New York law limiting the work day for bakers who routinely labored where "sewage pipes leaked raw contents" in rat-infested "hot dungeons heated by lit ovens," the Supreme Court invented a new fundamental right, the "right of contract":

    Though New York enacted a law limiting baker's hours to ten a day and sixty per week, a 5-4 Court struck this provision down in Lochner, resting the decision on a so-called "right to contract" that it read into the Fourteenth Amendment. The "right to contract" was, essentially, a right to be bound by nearly any contract a worker agreed to, no matter how desperate the circumstances or how uneven the bargaining power that forced them to agree to such a deal. Thus, if New York bakers agreed to work 14 hours a day, seven days a week, the state had no authority to take that "right" away from them.

    Other decisions relying on this "right to contract" used the Fourteenth Amendment to strike down minimum wage laws and laws preventing union busting.

    With the New Deal and FDR's "switch in time that saved nine," the Supreme Court turned its back on Lochner. Instead, the Court embraced the Commerce Clause as the basis for upholding three generations of government regulation of economy, including worker safety, environmental protection, Social Security and Medicare.

    But in recent years, many of the same conservative minds decrying the 14th Amendment's extension to LGBT Americans have exhumed the stinking corpse of Lochner. At the forefront is Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who wrote in response this year's SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality:

    Those who disagree with the recent Supreme Court ruling argue that the court should not overturn the will of legislative majorities. Those who favor the Supreme Court ruling argue that the 14th Amendment protects rights from legislative majorities...

    Do consenting adults have a right to contract with other consenting adults? Supporters of the Supreme Court's decision argue yes but they argue no when it comes to economic liberties, like contracts regarding wages.

    It seems some rights are more equal than others.

    With his cramped view of the Constitution, it's no surprise Rand Paul opposed both the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It's even less of a shock that the likes of Charles Murray would call for a billionaire-funded campaign of civil disobedience to fight against government regulations business owners themselves decided were unfair. What is far more disturbing is that some of the rock stars in conservative legal circles are now carrying the bloody banner of Lochner.

    Take, for example, arch Obamacare foe and Georgetown law Professor Randy Barnett. Barnett hasn't merely written that he "would prefer that courts adopt a 'presumption of liberty' of the sort the Court seemed to employ in Lochner" in order to eviscerate the 20th century regulatory state. He has also suggested that Social Security violates "the original meaning of the Constitution." That view aligns nicely with those of Appeals Court Judge Janice Rogers Brown and others on the GOP's short-list for the next Supreme Court vacancy.

    Brown regretted that ""America's cowboy capitalism was long ago disarmed by a democratic process increasingly dominated by powerful groups with economic interests antithetical to competitors and consumers." In a concurrence with colleague Judge David Sentelle, she suggested that virtually all regulation of business, labor and Wall Street was unconstitutional:

    And the courts, from which the victims of burdensome regulation sought protection, have been negotiating the terms of surrender since the 1930s.

    Back in 2005, legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen offered a grim forecast for the United States should the likes of Rogers-Brown and other right-wing proponents of the so-called "Constitution-in-Exile" come to control the Supreme Court under a future Republican president.

    In a nutshell, Constitution in Exile (CNE) advocates argue that the Court since the New Deal has broadly and mistakenly applied the Commerce Clause, enabling a dramatic expansion of federal regulatory power not just in the economy, but into a range of social issues. The result according to CNE is not only illegitimate federal power, but the unconstitutional delegation of Congressional roles and authorities to a panoply of administrative agencies. For CNE proponents, the United States since FDR has built a national government without a basis in the Constitution, an exile, so they say, of 70 years.

    New Bush circuit judge Janice Rogers Brown was speaking in the context of the Constitution in Exile when she said, "The Constitution itself was transmuted into a significantly different document...1937...marks the triumph of our own socialist revolution." Her views, and those of many potential Bush additions to the Court, clearly imply an upheaval in the American economy and society as well between the federal government and the states.

    And so it goes.

    In recent years, Justice Antonin Scalia has helped conservatives distill their inversion of the 14th Amendment. In his reading of the 14th Amendment passed in 1868, upholding the Voting Rights Act's "pre-clearance" provision would have constituted the "perpetuation of racial entitlement." In 2013, Scalia argued that the 14th Amendment wasn't "only for the blacks," but provided the perfect weapon for those crusading against affirmative action:

    My goodness, I thought we've-- we've held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?

    What many conservatives are now claiming out loud is that 14th Amendment's guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws don't really extend to "all persons," but only to those of whom they approve. Instead, the leading lights of the Party of Lincoln now reveal, the Amendment designed to augur a "new birth of freedom" in a second American revolution protects only the power and money of businesses.

    Perrspective 9:30 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    Straight Outta Cotton

    The top-grossing movie in America this past weekend was Straight Outta Compton, the story of the rise of the hip-hop legends N.W.A. With its $57 million opening box office take, morning show appearances and (supposed) fans like Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the film's success illustrates the mainstream acceptance of rap culture once viewed by some as subversive, rebellious and even dangerous.

    But at the same time in Florida, a different group rallied to protect their increasingly--and deservedly--fringe symbol of racism, violence and white supremacy. Call them Crackers With Attitude:

    Angry protesters were on hand as hundreds of supporters of the Confederate battle flag took the streets to show their colors.

    The 15-mile road rally, which started at Heritage Park in Plantation and ended in Markham Park in Sunrise.

    As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) reported Monday, Sunday's neo-Confederates assembled for what was the 173rd rally for Robert E. Lee's old battle flag since Dylann Roof slaughtered nine at the Emanual AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Event organizer Chris Nicolaus, who promoted the rally on the South Florida Rednecks Facebook page, defended the gathering this way:

    "I understand that the flag may be seen as a symbol of oppression, but this is not about hatred. We are not the KKK -- this is about southern heritage."

    Brian K. Turner of the Sons of Confederate Veterans agreed." We do not condone racism or hate," he said, groups," adding "We believe there is no correlation between the massacre in South Carolina and symbolism. What needs to be discussed is mental illness [of the accused shooter]."

    Of course, the Confederacy's best and brightest left no doubt about what their southern heritage was really about. Which is why the letter ("A Flag for All of Us") signed by dozens of Mississippi celebrities calling for the Magnolia State to remove the old CSA emblem from the state flag is a welcome measure. As the luminaries, including former Ole Miss and NFL star Archie Manning, wrote:

    It is simply not fair, or honorable, to ask black Mississippians to attend schools, compete in athletic events, work in the public sector, serve in the National Guard, and go about their normal lives with a state flag that glorifies a war fought to keep their ancestors enslaved.

    (It is unfortunate that the signatories limited to their critique to just a question of black and white. As the character Isaac Jaffe rightly explained on the 1990's TV show, Sports Night, "It's a banner of ignorance and violence and a war that pitted brother against brother, and to ask young black men and women, young Jewish men and women, Asians, Native Americans, to ask Americans to walk beneath its shadow is a humiliation of irreducible proportions. And we all know it.")

    In any event, as the New Yorker and Rolling Stone emphasized, Straight Outta Compton resonates with the viewers today not just because of the continued vitality of hip-hop, but because the police brutality it captured a generation ago is once again dominating the national headlines. As for the gang colors of C.W.A., 150 years after the end of the Civil War more and more Americans of all stripes thankfully want to consign them to the dustbin of history. Even without their beloved flag, the neo-Confederates will always have their favorite rap:

    Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton Old times there are not forgotten. Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!
    Perrspective 9:25 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    August 13, 2015
    Sorry, Jeb: Your Brother Lost Iraq--Twice

    Things did not go well the last time Jeb Bush tried to blame President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for Dubya's calamity in Iraq. After comically flip-flopping as to whether he would have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now, Jeb! was then humiliated by a 19 year-old college student who correctly explained to him, "Your brother created ISIS."

    Three months after those not-ready-for-primetime moments, Governor Bush is once again charging that the American troop withdrawal at the end of 2011 "was the fatal error, creating the void that ISIS moved in to fill." It was, Jeb claimed on Tuesday, "a case of blind haste to get out and to call the tragic consequences somebody else's problem."

    Now, you can't blame a brother for trying. But like his first broadside against Obama and Clinton, Jeb's latest attack is doomed to fail. After all, this week in Baghdad Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with brought cross-sectarian support proposed overhauling the corrupt, Shiite-dominated government even as a new AP report once again confirmed that the top command of the Islamic State is "dominated by ex-officers in Saddam's army."

    As it turns out, President George W. Bush didn't just lose Iraq; he lost it twice. Defeat was ensured the first time in March 2003 as soon as the first American units crossed the border from Kuwait. But having created an ally of Iran the moment Saddam Hussein was ousted, President Bush guaranteed a recurring sectarian bloodbath in 2006 and 2007, when he installed his man and Shiite partisan Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad. And when al-Maliki betrayed the Sunni Awakening by alienating the tribal leaders whose vital support against Al Qaeda the U.S. temporarily bought, Bush's Faustian bargain predictably came undone.

    To fully grasp the magnitude of President Bush's calamity in Iraq, it's well worth recalling his war aims in his own words. On March 17, 2003, Bush addressed the American people about the looming invasion. "Today, no nation can possibly claim that Iraq has disarmed," Bush announced, "And it will not disarm so long as Saddam Hussein holds power." President Bush explained why he was launching an unprecedented preventive war and what its success would bring:

    The terrorist threat to America and the world will be diminished the moment that Saddam Hussein is disarmed...

    We are now acting because the risks of inaction would be far greater. In one year, or five years, the power of Iraq to inflict harm on all free nations would be multiplied many times over...

    And responding to such enemies only after they have struck first is not self defense. It is suicide. The security of the world requires disarming Saddam Hussein now. [Emphasis mine.]

    Bush made promises to the Iraqi people, too. "The tyrant will soon be gone," he said, adding that "the day of your liberation is near."

    "We will tear down the apparatus of terror and we will help you to build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free."

    But by every objective measure of his own goals, George W. Bush failed miserably. Due to an undersized invasion force and, more critically, the disbanding of the Iraqi army and the Ba'athist bureaucracy, Iraq rapidly deteriorated into chaos and violence. Foreign Al Qaeda fighters flocked to the Sunni triangle to battle U.S. forces while Shiite militias backed by Iran targeted American troops in and around Baghdad. The symbols of progress--like Condi Rice's note to Bush that "Iraq is sovereign" after the June 2004 handover of power by Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and the purple fingers of Iraqi voters and Republican Congressmen from elections boycotted by the Sunni minority--were belied by the growing civilian bloodshed and the mounting American casualties. Meanwhile, those weapons of mass destruction upon which the Bush administration made its case for war never materialized. With events spiraling out of control in August 2004, President Bush offered a novel--and shameful--explanation for the calamity he and his advisers authored:

    "Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."

    Fight another day, indeed.

    As I documented at length elsewhere, Jeb Bush was dead wrong when he claimed this month, "ISIS didn't exist when my brother was president. Al Qaeda in Iraq was wiped out when my brother was President." And 19 year-old Nevada college student Ivy Ziedrich had it exactly right when she lectured Jeb, "Your brother created ISIS." As I explained then:

    Ms. Ziedrich's is a bold claim. After all, for her to be right, ISIS--the dangerous movement combining Saddam loyalists, former Al Qaeda members and disgruntled Sunni fighters--would have to have emerged as a direct result of the war Bush launched in 2003. The disbanding of Saddam's 400,000 man army would have to be laid at the feet of "The Decider." Foreign fighters must have flocked to Al Qaeda--a non-factor in Iraq before the U.S. invasion--specifically to target American troops. And while those unlikely allies forged ties in U.S and Iraqi prisons, Sunni tribesmen once paid by American forces would have to have become alienated by a sectarian Shiite strongman in Baghdad beholden to Iran. The inevitable outcome of such U.S. mismanagement of post-Saddam Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld privately warned his boss on October 15, 2002, would be that "Iraq could experience ethnic strife among Sunni, Shia, and Kurds" with the result that "it could fracture into two or three pieces, to the detriment of the Middle East and the benefit of Iran."

    Unfortunately for Jeb Bush--and to Ivy Ziedrich's credit, that is precisely what transpired.

    That "ethnic strife" is exactly what came to pass after Sunni extremists destroyed the golden dome of the Shiite shrine in Samarra. And what ensued next--and continues to this day--is the very kind of bloody, sectarian civil war the likes of John McCain and Bill Kristol arrogantly predicted would never come to pass. As Senator McCain, who was wrong about so much of what would to pass in Iraq, put it on April 23, 2003:

    "There is not a history of clashes that are violent between Sunnis and Shias, so I think they can probably get along."

    On April 1, 2003, Kristol went even further, belittling those Americans worried about opening a Pandora's Box of sectarian conflict in Iraq:

    "On this issue of the Shia in Iraq, I think there's been a certain amount of, frankly, a kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can't get along with the Sunni and the Shia in Iraq just want to establish some kind of Islamic fundamentalist regime. There's almost no evidence of that at all. Iraq's always been very secular."

    The men and women of the American military learned the hard way that Bush, Kristol and McCain were tragically wrong. And in 2006, months before the "Surge" that brought 30,000 more U.S. troops into the country, President Bush made that Faustian bargain that sowed the seeds for the Islamic State to sweep through northwest Iraq in 2014. As his commander General David Petraeus described it, in the summer of 2006 the United States put the Sunni insurgency on its payroll and promised Sunni tribal leaders a role in the Iraq government. But when Dubya tapped Shiite strongman Nouri al-Maliki as his man in Baghdad, it was only a matter of time until that promise was broken.

    In August 2006, the Washington Post reported, "Tribal sheikhs in Iraq's Anbar province turned against a chief U.S. threat: al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)." General David Petraeus later described the so-called "Sunni Awakening," which began five months before President Bush announced the surge of thousands of additional U.S. troops into Iraq, as a turning point in the U.S.-led war effort. On January 5, 2007--five days before Bush addressed the nation about his surge strategy--John McCain agreed with that assessment:

    Too often the light at the tunnel has turned out to be a train, but I really believe -- I really believe that there's a strong possibility that you may see a very substantial change in Anbar province due to this new changes in our relationships with the sheiks in the region.

    But the decision of Sheik Ahmed Abu Risha and other Sunni tribal leaders to turn on the Al Qaeda forces led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and partner with the U.S. in arming some 90,000 Sons of Iraq came with a big asterisk attached. As the Post noted in 2008:

    But experts stress the moves by Sunni sheikhs was less an embrace of U.S. objectives and more a repudiation of al-Qaeda in Iraq's actions...

    "The Americans think they have purchased Sunni loyalty," Nir Rosen, a fellow at New York University Center on Law and Security, told Congress in April 2008. "But in fact it is the Sunnis who have bought the Americans" by buying time to challenge the Shiite government.

    Regardless, for Bush's deal with the devil to succeed, the Sunni tribes had to stay bought. And they would only stay bought if they had a partner to work with in Baghdad. But that's precisely what the Bush administration failed to provide.

    Writing in the New Yorker in April 2014, Dexter Filkins recalled Maliki's ascension to the premiership engineered by the Bush administration. In 2006, Bush undermined the incumbent PM, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who struggling to form a government:

    An avuncular, bookish figure, Jaafari had infuriated Bush with his indecisiveness, amiably presiding over the sectarian bloodbath that had followed the recent bombing of a major Shiite shrine.

    During the videoconference, Bush asked Khalilzad, "Can you get rid of Jaafari?"

    "Yes," Khalilzad replied, "but it will be difficult."

    Difficult, but not impossible. "I have a name for you," a CIA officer told U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, "Maliki."

    But as Filkins explained last June, "Maliki is a militant sectarian to the core, and he had been fighting on behalf of Iraq's long-suppressed Shiite majority for years before the Americans arrived, in 2003.

    As noted above, the success of the 2007 U.S. surge in Iraq turned on the American cultivation of Sunni tribal leaders in restive Anbar province already underway since the previous year. The arming of 90,000 "Sons of Iraq" and the new alliance with the Sunni sheikhs helped turn the tide against Al Qaeda insurgents in the west. By late 2007, there were already worries that the Sunnis wouldn't stay bought, with Shiite politicians and CIA analysts warning that "when the U.S. leaves, what we'll have are two armies" and "there is a danger here that we are going to have armed all three sides: the Kurds in the north, the Shiite and now the Sunni militias." And that risk would be elevated if the Shiite-controlled government led by Prime Minister Al-Maliki refused to accommodate Sunni interests in Baghdad.

    Which is precisely why GOP Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Saxby Chambliss fretted that the entire Sunni Awakening could be undone if the Shiite Prime Minister al-Maliki didn't move quickly to seek political accommodation with the minority Sunni and Kurdish communities in Iraq. As Graham put it in November 2007:

    "What would happen for me if there's no progress on reconciliation after the first of the year, I would be looking at ways to invest our money into groups that can deliver."

    Chambliss was even blunter, telling reporters "If we don't see positive results by the end of the year I think you'll probably see a strong message coming out of Congress calling for a change in administration.

    But behind closed doors, Robert Draper reported, McCain months earlier had delivered a much harsher message about al-Maliki for President Bush:

    It suddenly seemed that the efforts of the surge might be for naught. And so, shortly after returning from Iraq, McCain and Graham visited President Bush at the White House. According to three individuals with knowledge of the July 11 conversation, the pair advised Bush to cut all ties with al-Maliki unless he showed immediate signs of engagement. Such a move on Bush's part would be tantamount to encouraging a coup against Iraq's first democratically elected prime minister, but McCain and Graham saw the situation as a desperate one. We've got a military strategy that's working, they told the president. And it's being undercut by an Iraqi government that's dysfunctional.

    Bush was sympathetic. He'd been giving al-Maliki pep talks for more than six months now, with little to show for the effort. But, he told the two senators, "Who's going to replace him?"

    We don't have a good answer for that, they replied. But unless al-Maliki changes, we can't get there.

    But Nouri al-Maliki didn't change That's why Filkins, who believes the U.S. should have tried harder to maintain a small legacy force in place after 2011, declared Prime Minister Al-Maliki is "probably the dominant" factor in the current disintegration in Iraq:

    Time and again, American commanders have told me, they stepped in front of Maliki to stop him from acting brutally and arbitrarily toward Iraq's Sunni minority. Then the Americans left, removing the last restraints on Maliki's sectarian and authoritarian tendencies.

    In the two and a half years since the Americans' departure, Maliki has centralized power within his own circle, cut the Sunnis out of political power, and unleashed a wave of arrests and repression. Maliki's march to authoritarian rule has fueled the reemergence of the Sunni insurgency directly. With nowhere else to go, Iraq's Sunnis are turning, once again, to the extremists to protect them.

    That was evident in rapid ISIS takeover of Mosul last year. The much larger Iraqi army units evaporated in the face of hundreds of ISIS fighters. The Washington Post described the reaction of residents:

    For many in the mostly Sunni city, the ouster of the hated national security forces was welcome, offering a sign of just how much the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has alienated the Sunni population in the eight years since Maliki came to power.

    Eight years and $25 billion after the United States occupied the country, an Iraqi Army undermined by sectarian politics still won't fight to stop the Islamic State. As Filkins warned earlier this year, in the wake of Ramadi's fall to ISIS, the new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad must choose between the lesser of two evils:

    In Baghdad, Prime Minister Abadi faces a stark choice: losing Anbar Province to ISIS or unleashing Shiite militias to reconquer the place, only to permanently alienate an occupied Sunni population. The militias, some of which were responsible for widespread atrocities during the Iraqi civil war between 2005 and 2008, are generally much more effective than the Iraqi Army. Despite their success, American officials are deeply worried about the prospect of the Iraqi security forces being completely taken over by gangs of Shiite gunmen, and they have leaned on Prime Minister Abadi to keep the militias out of Ramadi. For one thing, the militias are trained and backed by Iran, whose influence, despite the country's desire to crush ISIS, often runs directly against that of the United States. During the American war in Iraq, those same Shiite militias, under Iranian direction, killed hundreds of Americans soldiers.

    But the most important reason the Americans are opposing the use of Shiite militias to help regain control of Anbar Province is that they don't want the campaign against ISIS to become an entirely sectarian war.

    Abadi has made his choice. Even as American headlines reported that "Iraq Risks Sinking Into Sectarian War, Analysts Say," the Prime Minister dispatched pro-Iran militias, the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces, to help the Iraqi army recapture Ramadi from ISIS. Some of those fighters, armed and advised by Tehran, have the blood of American soldiers on their hands. And now, they will try to eject the Islamic State from Ramadi, where U.S. troops fought and died years ago against some of the same Al Qaeda fighters now flying the ISIS banner.

    Of course, you'd never know any of this listening to Jeb Bush. For him, history began only when his brother's presidency ended:

    "Who can seriously argue that America and our friends are safer today than in 2009, when the president and Secretary Clinton -- the storied 'team of rivals' -- took office? So eager to be the history-makers, they failed to be the peacemakers."

    But Obama and Clinton didn't inherent peace in Iraq, but a seething sectarian conflict certain to erupt again. As Peter Beinart reminded Jeb Bush and his ilk this week, the "Surge Fallacy" was President Bush's second failure in Iraq:

    But they forget something crucial. The surge was not intended merely to reduce violence. Reducing violence was a means to a larger goal: political reconciliation. Only when Iraq's Sunni and Shia Arabs and its Kurds all felt represented by the government would the country be safe from civil war. As a senior administration official told journalists the day Bush announced the surge, "The purpose of all this is to get the violence in Baghdad down, get control of the situation and the sectarian violence, because now, without it, the reconciliation that everybody knows in the long term is the key to getting security in the country--the reconciliation will not happen."

    That reconciliation still hasn't happened. And that's why Jeb's brother lost Iraq. Twice.

    Perrspective 2:30 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    August 12, 2015
    Wage Theft. Dishonest Franchises. Papa John's.

    Papa John's is everywhere. Its 4,500 restaurants, most run by franchisees, are in all 50 states and 34 countries. The Louisville Cardinals play their college football in Papa John's Stadium, while Papa John himself regularly appears in TV ads with his business partner, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. And as the business press has been reporting, CEO "Papa" John Schnatter is making his pizza's "quality" the focus of his company's marketing:
    "We are finding ways to more effectively communicate our commitment to using the best quality ingredients. That has always been part of what distinguishes Papa John's from the rest."

    But more and more, what apparently distinguishes Papa John's from its competitors is cheating its workers.

    The company revealed its latest episode of wage theft during its second quarter results that showed net income was down to $10.8 million from $16.7 million a year ago:

    In the second quarter, the Company recorded a pre-tax expense of $12.3 million for a preliminary legal settlement, subject to court approval ("Legal Settlement"). This collective and class action, Perrin v. Papa John's International, Inc. and Papa John's USA, Inc. which included approximately 19,000 drivers, alleged delivery drivers were not reimbursed in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). The Company continues to deny any liability or wrongdoing in this matter.

    The plaintiffs, led by former pizza driver William Perrin of St. Louis, charged that Papa John's engaged in "a corrupt scheme in which drivers 'kicked back' money to the company by receiving lower reimbursements for the use of their vehicles to deliver pizzas." The result, as the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting (KYCIR) explained, was that delivery workers were often paid far less than the minimum wage.

    According to the complaint, drivers were typically paid between $1 and $1.50 per delivery, regardless of distance, rather than the 45 to 55 cents per mile rate recommended by AAA and the IRS. That scheme cost the drivers $1.50 to $5.33 per hour, giving them a net hourly pay ranging from $1.48 to $5.75, according to the lawsuit.

    If this story of cutting corners with workers' wages sounds familiar, it should. Just last month, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman secured a guilty plea from a Bronx franchisee whose 9 Papa John stores illegally took wages from his employees. Sentenced to 60 days in jail and owing $460,000 in back wages and a $50,000 fine, "BMY Foods Inc. failed to pay about 300 current and former employees the minimum wage and overtime, and also filed fake quarterly tax returns to hide their actions." And as the New York Times also noted:

    Schneiderman won judgments of almost $3 million against two other Papa John's franchises in other wage theft cases this year.

    That Papa John's and its franchisees are in trouble for pumping up profits at employees' expense is unsurprising. Like a fish, the rot starts with the head. In August 2012, Mitt Romney fundraiser John Schnatter warned that "Obamacare will cost 11 to 14 cents per pizza," adding, "If Obamacare is in fact not repealed, we will find tactics to shallow out any Obamacare costs and core strategies to pass that cost onto consumers in order to protect our shareholders best interests." As a former Papa John's VP dismissed in 2002 described Schnatter, "He has a passion for being wealthy." That passion is reflected in his stunning mansion, private jet and multimillion dollar St. Regis penthouses. As Mitt Romney put it during an April 2012 fundraiser at Schnatter's estate:

    "What a home this is, what grounds these are, the pool, the golf course, you know if a Democrat were here he'd look around and say no one should live like this," said Romney, as the crowd began to laugh. "Republicans come here and say everyone should live like this, all right."

    No matter what it takes. Especially if it is taken from workers.

    Perrspective 12:25 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

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