Mayor Wheeler, tear down these tents!

Portland, Oregon, March 22, 2021

J’Accuse…! George W Bush and the Iraq War

“Tell me lies. Tell me sweet little lies.” Fleetwood Mac

On this, March 20, the 18th anniversary of when the United States and coalition forces began the war in Iraq, causing hundreds off thousands of military and civilian deaths, the one person responsible for this unnecessary and tragic war needs to be acknowledged.

When David Halberstam wrote The Best and the Brightest about the people who dragged the United States into the war in Vietnam, he didn’t intend to praise them. He meant, instead, to strike a sardonic tone, to mock the elite, highly educated and well-born men (and they were mostly men) who promoted the Vietnam fiasco.

The policymakers Halberstam highlighted in “Best and the Brightest” were high-level actors such as President John F. Kennedy and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge and William Bundy, George Kennan, George Ball, Clark Clifford, Walt Rostow, John McCone, and others. 

The U.S. war in Iraq was a replay, just with different faces.

The players who dragged the United States down the twisted road into the conflagration in Irag were first and foremost the president himself, George W. Bush. His supporting cast included a long list of enablers, including: Vice President Dick Cheney; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith; Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis “Scooter”Libby; Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; David Wurmser, a member of Feith’s Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group; and Richard Perle, who served as chairman of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board. The weight of the unnecessary war should still hang like an albatross on the necks of these so-called public servants.

Not surprisingly, that’s not where the official White House-appointed commission created to find out where things went wrong laid the blame. 

“We conclude that the Intelligence Community was dead wrong in almost all of its pre-war judgments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction,” said the March 31, 2005 Report to the President of The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction“This was a major intelligence failure. Its principal causes were the Intelligence Community’s inability to collect good information about Iraq’s WMD programs, serious errors in analyzing what information it could gather, and a failure to make clear just how much of its analysis was based on assumptions, rather than good evidence. On a matter of this importance, we simply cannot afford failures of this magnitude.” 

“Finally, it was a failure to communicate effectively with policymakers; the Intelligence Community didn’t adequately explain just how little good intelligence it had—or how much its assessments were driven by assumptions and inferences rather than concrete evidence,” the Commission added.

Bullshit.

It wasn’t the intelligence community that owned all the screw ups. There’s no question that deficiencies in intelligence gathering, including a lack of useful human intelligence and reliance on unreliable Iraqi defectors, played a major role in making bad decisions. CIA Director George Tenet contributed to the manipulation of intelligence to maintain his access to, and influence on, Bush and other administration officials.

But if you read the books, reports, essays, etc. written by people not appointed by the Bush administration, the real blame belongs on the shoulders of the top policymakers, all the way up to President George W. Bush, whose eyes were wide shut, refused to see things in plain view. He was determined to go to war and embraced questionable intelligence data to make it happen. 

The result was a war that twisted and perverted whatever it touched, over there as well as over here, as Luke Mogelson wrote in a New Yorker essay about Peter Van Agtmael’s book, “Sorry for the War.” 

Photo by Peter van Agtmael, “Sorry for the War.” 

Bush and his cadre of neoconservatives thought they were doing the right thing, pushing for the transformation of Iraq in the belief that would have a bandwagon effect on the fractious middle east. 

President George W. Bush said on Nov. 6, 2003 at the 20th Anniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy: “Iraqi democracy will succeed –- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran –- that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.”

But in the end Bush and his acolytes were like the young idealist Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, set in Saigon during the French fight to retain Vietnam in colonial rule. “I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused . . . impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance,” the novel’s narrator, Thomas Fowler, said of Pyle.

Yes, subsequent analysis has revealed serious intelligence shortcomings.

  • Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi, known by the Defense Intelligence Agency cryptonym “Curveball”, reportedly told German intelligence that Iraq possessed stockpiles of biological weapons and had manufactured ingeniously simple mobile trailers to produce them. He was not considered a credible, reliable source and later admitted he had fabricated the story.
  • President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other senior administration officials asserted that Iraq had attempted to acquire more than 100,000 high strength aluminum tubes for gas centrifuges to be used for enriching uranium that could be used to make nuclear weapons. Evidence showed that was not the case. In fact, the dimensions and the aluminum alloy were identical to those of tubes acquired for small rockets by Iraq.
  • The Bush administration alleged that a Sept. 11 hijacker, Mohamed Atta, met with an Iraqi intelligence agent, Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim Samir al-Ani, at a café in Prague five months prior to the 9/11 attacks. There was no evidence to support that claim.
  • The administration claimed that Iraq had trained al Qaeda members in bomb-making and poisons and deadly gases, strengthening a claim of close ties between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. A June 21, 2002 CIA report, “Iraq and al-Qa’ida: Interpreting a Murky Relationship,” stated that “the level and extent of this assistance is not clear.” The document noted the “many critical gaps” in the knowledge of Iraqi links to al Qaeda because of “limited reporting” and the “questionable reliability of many of our sources.”
  • The Bush administration claimed that Iraq attempted to obtain processed uranium from Niger in Africa as part of its effort to reconstitute its nuclear weapons programs. Former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, sent to Niger by the CIA to investigate reports about Iraq’s attempts to acquire uranium from that country, concluded the claim was not credible and others asserted that documents allegedly detailing uranium transactions between Iraq and Niger were “not authentic.”
  • The Bush administration said Iraq was exploring ways of using unmanned aerial vehicles that could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas, potentially for missions targeting the United States. The Air Force, it was later revealed, had maintained that Iraqi drones with chemical and biological weapons were not capable of posing any real threat to the U.S., or even to the countries bordering Iraq.
  • President George W. Bush and key members of his administration insisted that Iraq was reconstituting its nuclear weapons program and that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) that posed an immediate threat to the United States and its allies. There was no program for development of WMDs, nuclear or otherwise. The United States failed to find weapons stocks or active production lines.

But the fact is intelligence, or the lack thereof, on Iraqi weapons programs isn’t what drove President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

As Paul R. Pillar, who served as National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia at the CIA from 2000 to 2005, wrote in an article published in the March/April 2006 edition of Foreign Affairs“What is most remarkable about prewar U.S. intelligence on Iraq is not that it got things wrong and thereby misled policymakers; it is that it played so small a role in one of the most important U.S. policy decisions in recent decades.”

The decision to topple Saddam Hussein was “driven by… the desire to shake up the sclerotic power structures of the Middle East and hasten the spread of more liberal politics and economics in the region,” Pillar wrote.

Where intelligence raised doubts about the reliability of information the policymakers were using to justify war, they disregarded it.

And American media mostly cheered them on, led by reporters for the major media outlets, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post. Then there was Congress, which, despite some misgivings, essentially gave President Bush a blank check to do his thing.

So Bush did.

As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe so eloquently put it, “A man is not deceived by others; he deceives himself.” 

 

 

 

Feeding the frenzy: the Atlanta murders and anti-Asian racism

Bam. Right out of the gate, national news media, advocacy groups, celebrities and politicians tied Tuesday night’s spa killings by Robert Aaron Long in Atlanta of seven women and one man, six of them of Asian descent, to anti-Asian racism.

“Call the Atlanta killings what they are: racial terrorism,” ran the Boston Globe headline on March 17.

“The killings of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, during a shooting spree in the Atlanta area yesterday have prompted a national outcry, and at a news conference today Biden noted a “very, very troubling” pattern of violence against Asian-Americans in recent months,” The New York Times reported.

The paper went on to cite statistics reported by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit social organization that says it tracks incidents of discrimination, hate and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. “Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders were targeted in nearly 3,800 hate incidents reported over the past year, according to Stop AAPI Hate,” the paper said.

NBC news even reported Stop AAPI Hate’s numbers as fact on March 17, with absolutely no critical analysis. “There were 3,800 anti-Asian racist incidents, mostly against women, in past year,” ran the NBC headline.

Meanwhile, the left-leaning policy institute, the Center for American Progress, tried to tie the Atlanta killings to not only anti-Asian racism, but to white supremacy and misogny as well. “We…need to be unafraid and unflinching in calling Tuesday’s attack what it was: the result of anti-Asian racism, white supremacy, and misogyny, the Center said. “Anything less would be counterproductive in our fight to dismantle these systems of violence. Increased anti-Asian rhetoric and violence are a tragic reminder of the urgent need to dismantle white supremacy. #StopAsianHate

Others piled on:

  • Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms noted that the shootings follow a surge in racial violence against Asian Americans across the U.S. “It is unacceptable, it is hateful, and it has to stop,” she said.
  • Former President Donald Trump bears some responsibility for threats and violence against Asian Americans, said White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki. “There’s no question that some of the damaging rhetoric that we saw during the prior administration…has elevated threats against Asian-Americans.”
  • “The reported shootings of Asian American women on Tuesday in Atlanta is an unspeakable tragedy—for the families of the victims first and foremost, but also for the AAPI community—which has been reeling from high levels of racial discrimination,”  Stop Asian American and Pacific Islander Hate said in a statement.
  • Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a racial justice nonprofit, argued that Long was motivated by hate because he chose “targets owned by Asians.”
  • Bee Nguyen, the first Vietnamese American to serve in the Georgia house of representatives, said”misogyny and xenophobia” prompted the shootings.
  • Olivia Munn, who recently called out the new Teen Vogue editor-in-chief for her past allegedly racist tweets against Asians, said she’s “struggling” with the latest act of violence. “We are being targeted, we are living in a country that is attacking us simply just for being us,” Munn said. 
  • One news outlet, NewsOne, even tied the resignation under pressure of Teen Vogue editor Alexi McCammond, 27, to the spa murders partly because she sent a derogatory tweet about an Asian teacher when in college. “The move comes as violence against AAPI communities has spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, culminating in a targeted attack on Tuesday in Georgia where six Asian-American women were killed in massage parlors,” NewsOne, a Black-focused site, reported today.

There’s one problem. All the evidence, including statements by Long, indicates the shootings were not racially motivated.

“He (Long) apparently has an issue, what he considers a sex addiction, and sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate,” said Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Capt. Jay Baker.

But in the current frenzy over purported anti-Asian incidents in the United States, the temptation to tie the Atlanta shootings to anti-Asian racism has apparently been too tempting and the hook too easy.

Part of that is likely because it serves the agenda of some groups trying to draw attention to themselves. Part is probably because too much of the media is lazy, jumping on convenient connections to fill out a story and draw an audience.

And part, in this case, is probably because tying the shootings to anti-Asian racism caters to the predispositions of liberal audiences. They’re the ones now pushing to have the shootings called a hate crime, so they can push the Asian anti-racism connection harder, despite the evidence.

The reaction to the incident involving the Covington Catholic students near the Lincoln Memorial in January 2019 is a case in point of jumping to conclusions that satisfy presumptions.

Media outlets, celebrities and social media leaped on a viral videotaped encounter between a Native American man and high school boys that suggested a clash of racial and ideological differences. The initial media portrayal of the incident triggered outrage at the students in some quarters. The students received death threats and Covington Catholic High School temporarily closed due to fears for its students’ safety.

When more complete video footage emerged, it was clear that the students were not the aggressors in the incident. Reporting on the incident was so egregious that Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington student featured in most media coverage of the incident, filed lawsuits against CNN and The Washing ton Post. Both settled with Sandmann. The terms of the settlements were not disclosed.

All of this squanders the faith and trust of the general public. But in this age of preconceived notions and instant outrage it probably won’t stop.

Chaos: America’s immigration fiasco

“There’s a difference between a failure and a fiasco. A failure is simply the non-present of success. Any fool can accomplish failure. But a fiasco, a fiasco is a disaster of mythic proportions.” Elizabethtown -2005

  • Contradicting a common assumption that most of the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States came across the US-Mexico border illegally, almost half of all undocumented immigrants in the United States came into the US legally with a visa, often on fiancée, tourist or education visas, and then overstayed their visa time limit. They became what are simply labeled “overstayers”. A 2017 study by the Center for Migration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated visa overstays in 2014 accounted for 42 percent of the total undocumented population, or about 4.5 million people. It also projected that overstays made up about two-thirds of the total number of people who became unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. that year. There’s a strong case that, until the recent upsurge in border crossings, visa overstayers accounted for a larger share of the overall total of unauthorized immigrants. Complicating matters, the government doesn’t even compile information on the millions of overstayers, leaving it to others to piece together a snapshot of who they are and where in the U.S. they live.

So much for homeland security.

  • Contrary to assumptions that asylum applications have been going up, until recently asylum applications received by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) were actually down, not up, for the third straight year. Approximately 92,800 affirmative asylum applications were received by (USCIS) in FY 2020, the lowest number in five years, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
  • Whether to count undocumented immigrants in the 2020 census matters. About half of the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2018 resided in just three states: California (24 percent), Texas (16 percent), and New York (8 percent). If unauthorized immigrants were excluded from the apportionment count, California, Florida and Texas would each end up with one less congressional seat than they would have been awarded based on population change alone.
  • You may think that once an immigrant makes an asylum claim, action is prompt. Not so. Due to the large application volume and limited resources, both the affirmative and defensive asylum systems have extensive backlogs. As of December 2020, according to USCIS, there were 350,000 affirmative cases pending; the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) reported over 570,000 pending asylum cases. EOIR is a sub-agency of the United States Department of Justice whose chief function is to conduct removal proceedings in immigration courts and adjudicate appeals arising from the proceedings.
  • You may assume that when unaccompanied children are allowed to stay in the United States under Biden’s presidency and are placed with sponsor families, at least those families are in the country legally. Not necessarily. According to UPI, The Biden administration announced on March 12 it was terminating a policy of checking the immigration status of caregivers who come forward to sponsor unaccompanied migrant children because it discouraged caregivers from coming forward to sponsor the children. HHS and the Department of Homeland Security signed an agreement to promote “the safe and timely transfer of children” to sponsors, which the administration said was usually a parent or another close relative who crossed the border before their children.
  • Despite common assumptions that Mexicans and Central Americans are the entire illegal immigration problem. MPI has estimated that of all unauthorized immigrants during 2014-18, about 1.5 million (14 percent) were from Asia; 783,000 (7 percent) from South America; 648,000 (6 percent) from Europe, Canada, or Oceania; 406,000 (4 percent) from the Caribbean; and 230,000 (2 percent) from Africa. In one week of Dec. 2019, U.S. Border Patrol agents assigned to the Del Rio Station in Texas apprehended 56 migrants trying to cross into the United States from African countries, including Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Congo, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. During FY 2019, Del Rio Sector agents apprehended a total of 1,211 people from 19 African nations. Just a few days ago, a man was sentenced in federal court after three Chinese migrants, including a mother and her 15-year-old son, were found dead in the trunk of the man’s BMW in August 2019 after he crossed into the United States through the San Ysidro Port of Entry. On March 21, 2021, the New York Times reported that a center run by the Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition in Del Rio had recorded about 1,325 migrants so far in March, more than three times the number in February, said Tiffany Burrow, its director of operations. About 70 percent of them are Haitians, she said, with many others coming from Africa, “from Ghana down to Angola plus the Congo.”
Litter and bedding covers the floor of the hard-top shipping cargo container used to smuggle Chinese nationals to the United States.
  • In his eagerness to roll back President Trump’s immigration policies, President Biden has exacerbated the problems at the U.S.-Mexico border, creating a massive surge of migrants and numerous economic and security risks.  

What a mess.

The Covid Rescue Act is just a start. Next up: exploding debt.

Before President Biden signed the 630 page $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, Democrats focused most of their public messaging on the $1400 checks that would be going out to everybody and their brother (and sister). Who doesn’t like free money, the Democrats figured. After President Biden signed the bill, Democrats shifted some of their messaging to highlighting an expansion of the child tax credit (CTC).

Before the new law, the CTC allowed qualifying families to reduce their income tax bills by up to $2,000 for each child through age 16. The new law increases the credit to $3,000 a child and makes parents of 17-year-olds eligible to for the 2021 tax year. The credit rises to $3,600 for children under the age of 6 as of the end of 2021.

For a qualifying family with one child, the previous credit would have cut a $5,000 tax bill to $3,000. Under the new law, the credit will cut the tax bill to $2,000, and to $1,400 if the child is under age 6. The benefit amount will gradually diminish for single filers earning more than $75,000 per year, or married couples making more than $150,000 a year.

Though framed as an expansion of the current tax credit, it is essentially a guaranteed income for families with children, because it will provide most parents a monthly check of up to $300 per child. That’s because unlike the current program, where the money is distributed annually as a tax reduction or check, the new program will send out monthly checks to provide a more stable cash flow.

Kiplinger illustrated the program by assuming a family of five with three children ages 12, 7 and 5. Assuming the family qualifies for the higher child credit and doesn’t opt out of the advance payments, they could get $800 per month from the IRS from July through December 2021, for a total of $4,800. They would then claim the additional $4,800 in child tax credits when they file their 2021 return next year.

But neither the Democrats nor the media are talking about how much the benefit will cost. You have to be a very aggressive, persistent searcher to find a number. 

According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the CTC expansion in President Biden’s rescue bill will cost a whopping $110 billion just in 2021. 

But that probably won’t be the final cost because Democrats want to make the new CTC program permanent. Left-leaning groups are already lobbying for permanency. 

“Substantially increasing the CTC on a permanent basis would help secure economic stability for working families, reduce inequality, and sustainably boost economic growth,” says one such organization, the Center for American Progress. “It would be one of the most effective investments we can make as a society.”

Democrats have already introduced bills in the House and Senate to make the CTC changes permanent. 

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget figures the ultimate price tag of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act could be twice as high if some of the policies in the bill are extended beyond their presumed expiration dates, substantially increasing deficits and debt.

As Jared Bernstein, a top economic advisor to Biden told the Wall Street Journal last month, “When you’re worried about fiscal sustainability, the things that hurt you are not the temporary measures,” Mr. Bernstein said in an interview late last month. “It’s the things that are permanent [and] that aren’t paid for.”

On March 22, 2021, the New York Times reported that President Biden’s advisers were expected to present a proposal to him recommending a series of bills that would propose a $3 trillion economic package. This would be in addition to extension of the so-called temporary tax cuts meant to cut poverty that are already on the books, which could cost an additional billions of dollars. 

Since neither the Democrats nor Republicans seem much concerned about exploding deficits and debt, it’s doubtful that policies in the American Rescue Plan Act that lawmakers decide to make permanent or the cost of the $3 trillion package will be fully offset with tax increases or spending restraint.

“In addition to trying to make permanent some of the temporary provisions in the package, Democrats hope to spend trillions of dollars to upgrade infrastructure, reduce the emissions that drive climate change, reduce the cost of college and child care, expand health coverage and guarantee paid leave and higher wages for workers,” The New York Times reported.

Hang on. It’s going to be a rough, and expensive, ride. 

Poor, Poor Meghan

So a middling actress, who at 36 married her prince charming, 6th in line for the English throne, a grandson of Queen Elizabeth II,  chafed under the obligations of being part of a royal family, abandoned England for a secluded, luxurious $14.65 million, 7.4-acre Montecito, California estate, cried out for privacy, publicized in a New York Times essay that she had miscarried her second child with Prince Harry, sat down for a spectacle of shameless self-promotion wearing a $4,700 black, triple silk georgette dress design by Giorgio Armani with $695 spiky black Aquazzura pumps in front of television cameras before 17 million members of the grubby public with her billionaire neighbor, Oprah Winfrey…and complained about her suffering.

Dear Sen. Wyden: If you want $15 an hour, then walk the talk.

If Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) really believes the minimum wage across the United States should be $15 an hour, he and his wife should start in their own back yard.

The Strand Bookstore in New York City, which is owned by Sen. Wyden’s wife, Nancy Bass Wyden, doesn’t even pay all of its employees at least $15 an hour.

NOTE (Added 3/1/21): I’ve discovered that the general hourly minimum wage in New York City has been $15 since Dec. 31, 2019. I don’t understand how Glassdoor can show employee wages reported by employees as less than that. This suggests that either the employees are not being truthful in reporting their wages or the Strand is breaking the law)

The Strand’s main site is a massive store, “home of 18 miles of books,” at 828 Broadway in Manhattan.

Based on salary data shared by Strand employees with Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees anonymously review companies and submit their salaries, multiple job categories pay less than an average of $15 an hour. This includes booksellers (ave. hourly pay: $14), visual merchandisers (ave. hourly pay: $14 – $16), sales staff (ave. hourly pay: $12 – $13), sales associates (ave. hourly pay: $12), booksellers (ave. hourly pay: $11 – $12), and web fulfillment staff (ave. hourly pay: $13 – $14). Indeed.com, another website with salary postings, says only 47% or employees who have reported on the site think they are paid fairly by Strand and reviewers give the company a rating of only 2.9 on a scale of 5 in Pay and Benefits.

And these are average hourly wages, meaning some employees probably earn less, even though the hourly workers are unionized, affiliated with UAW Local 2179.

Even with the wages the Strand already pays, in Oct. 2020 Nancy Bass Wyden pleaded for public support in light of the business lost because of the pandemic, saying, “…we are now at a turning point where our business is unsustainable.”

Her employees don’t seem to be behind her. In July 2020, one employee commented on Glassdoor “The Strand brand markets as progressive, but its mere marketing. The business is profitable, but in one of the most expensive cities in the world, the business owner (Nancy Bass-Wyden, wife of Sen. Ron Wyden, who owns the building and rents sections of it out) pays her workers the bare minimum. Equality isn’t overcharging people for pink-totes and rainbow pins. Salaries should live up to slogans. Pay better, be better, do better. Micromanage less.”

All this in a city that has the highest cost of living in the United States, 35% higher than in Portland, OR. In other words, if Sen. Wyden thinks workers across America should be earning a minimum of $15 an hour, workers in New York City should be making quite a bit more.

In the same context, for example, workers earning $15 an hour in Hawaii are in quite a different position than workers earning $15 in Mississippi. That’s because an income of $47,520 in Hawaii has the equivalent purchasing power of an income of $36,480 in Mississippi.

Similar disparities occur when looking at Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs). As the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis pointed out in a recent blog post, a dollar in one city isn’t necessarily the same as a dollar in another: Average per capita personal income nationwide is about $43,996. In terms of purchasing power, the equivalent income in St. Louis, Missouri, is below $40,000 due to the relatively low cost of living. Meanwhile, in comparatively expensive New York, New York, the equivalent income is almost $54,000. In other words, as the cost of living goes up, it takes more dollars to buy the same basket of goods and services.

That’s part of the problem with all this talk from Wyden, other Democrats and some big companies, such as Amazon, about raising the federal minimum wage across the U.S. to $15. “Companies listed on Wall Street may support a much higher minimum wage because it would give them a competitive advantage, but a hike would make it that much harder for Main Street to even continue to exist,” Kevin Kuhlman, vice president of federal government relations for the National Federation of Independent Business, told Roll Call

Of course, if Sen. Wyden wants to set a wage of $15 an hour for members of Congress, we could talk about that.

Satire from The Borowitz ReportAmericans Favor Fifteen Dollars an Hour for CongressAcross the nation, service employees demonstrated their conviction that Congress deserves a maximum hourly wage of fifteen dollars.By Andy Borowitz

Photograph by Pablo Martinez/AP

“You need to buy more stuff,” fashion industry says to working-from-home women

When Covid first hit, more women working at home stocked up on the softest, cosiest sweatpants they could find and stayed wrapped up in their comforting embrace for months. 

Initially, fashion companies pivoted, churning out casual clothing to meet demand and even endorsing the shift, suggesting it was time for unbridled consumption to end.

“I feel very strongly that when we come out at the other end, people’s values are really going to have shifted,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour said in April 2020. “I think it’s an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and to look at our lives, and to rethink our values, and to really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.”

But as the pandemic has persisted, it has devastated the fashion industry. Consumers have been shopping less and overall spending has declined. As one analyst said, consumers have shifted to inconspicuous spending. That reduced industry revenues by an estimated $640 billion and profits by as much as 90% in 2020. 

Horrors! Fashion industry leaders have come to realize that promoting casualness and frugality will kill their businesses. They needed to up their game, to get people to care more about how they looked on Zoom, to buy for when they eventually leave the cocoon of their home office and reemerge in public.

So now the industry is going all out to convince women that the new Zoom-dominated business environment demands they shed their shapeless comfortable loungewear and return to glamorous outfits that will sparkle and shine, reinforce their power and strengthen their social identity. 

Some fashion cheerleaders are arguing that ramping up fashion choices is imperative to save fashion company standouts. Others say it’s needed to give people something to focus on that isn’t morbid and depressing or because we need to focus on a future of choices. But what it’s really all about is returning to an environment of conspicuous consumption.

This past weekend, I was struck by a story in the Wall Street Journal that illustrated this new posturing. 

“After a dispiriting year of living and working through video, women are investing in fashion and accessories that truly shine on-screen. How to make an impact from the waist up,” the paper announced.  “Now, thanks to some combination of optimism, sweatshirt fatigue and longing for a pre-pandemic world, many women are not only getting dressed for Zoom—they’re getting decked out.”

Featured in the story was a model in a $2,470 sweater from Alexander McQueen, a $545 necklace and a $505 choker.

 

Another recent WSJ story featured a model in a $7,000 jacket (you read that right, $7,000) and $2,000 shirt (you read that right, too, $2,000) all ready for a Zoom session. 

The industry isn’t just pushing expensive and extravagant clothes for the homebound. It’s hawking costly skin care treatments that will make women shine on screen. “Go for the glow,” the WSJ said. “A consistent beauty regimen is the secret to a dewy complexion that will radiate on screen,” said the WSJ.  Emphatic accessories “help you stand out from all the other tiny squares,” said Jennifer Behr, a New York designer.

Then for the truly insecure, the fashion industry says Zoom-time means it’s time for expensive surgery. 

“Zoom is making people notice all of their small imperfections,” New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman explained in the WSJ. “We are used to seeing our faces statically in the mirror, rather than dynamically as we do on video,” added New York plastic surgeon Adam Kolker. Movements and expressions “often demonstrate facial aging more vividly.”

Most popular cosmetic procedures, Kolker added, are “neuromodulators [like Botox] to decrease lines and injectable fillers [like Restylane and Juvederm] to minimize the perception of deeper wrinkles.” For Miami dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd’s patients, Zoom has cast a spotlight on skin-tone and texture issues, which she addresses with chemical peels and microneedling.”

Or women can simply choose to use Zoom’s flattering “Touch Up My Appearance feature” to smooth over their appearance, making them look dewy and well-rested. It costs a lot less.

Reckless lunacy: Portland has surrendered to graffiti vandals

The scourge of graffiti in downtown Portland, OR

It should have been confronted in the beginning. Now it’s out of hand.

Graffiti was once a rarity in downtown Portland. Now, ignored or tolerated for too long, it has metastasized, spread like a cancer throughout the city.

Graffiti isn’t harmless play-acting or simply entertainment for bored youth. It isn’t simple rebellion either. It is, instead, reckless lunacy.

Unapproved graffiti on a building, train or highway wall is not just a harmless “expression of self,” as some apologists argue.  There’s no romanticism in it. It is abusing others’ property. It’s a crime that impacts the quality of life of everybody who has to confront it. At a minimum, it’s vandalism. When used to mark territory by gangs, it puts the community at risk. If allowed to stay and multiply, it serves as a billboard for disorder and social disruption.

As Whitney Hall has written, graffiti has a “wave effect” in that it leads to increases in crime, including violence, loitering, littering, and other forms of property destruction, as well as more theft of items being used to do the graffiti.

Maybe some graffiti can be seen as art, but that’s not what’s now covering Portland. It is, instead, brutality taking away our right to a clean city, our right to live in a safe unthreatening environment.

When New York City’s grand Frederick Law Olmstead-designed Central Park fell into debilitating despair in the 1970s and 1980s, the proliferation of graffiti was a prime signal of its decline.

Vandals bombarded the Belvedere Castle, a Central Park landmark, with spray painted graffiti in the 1970s.

The park’s revival was spurred, in part, by aggressive efforts to rid the park of graffiti and meticulously restore it to its former grandeur.

Portland needs to do the same.

ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, recently posted an article written by Jeremy Kohler arguing that the failure of state legislatures and law enforcement to respond to the attacks of armed far-right mobs led directly to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6. “Experts and elected officials said the lack of action by lawmakers and police created an environment that encouraged political violence,” ProPublica wrote. “Eventually, you get to the point of entitlement where you can get away with anything and there will never be any accountability,” the Idaho House minority leader, Ilana Rubel, a Democrat, said.”

It’s time to face Portland’s tolerance for graffiti for what it is, another sign of a city out of control.

Cancelling student loan debt: bad politics, bad policy

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Cancel federal student loan debt!”  That’s the latest rallying cry of liberal politicians.

During their presidential campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris called for forgiveness of up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt.

Now the pressure’s on to up the ante and cancel $50,000.

“We are not going to let up until we accomplish it, until $50,000 of debt is forgiven for every student in the country,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said Thursday.

To use a word linked to so many progressive causes these days, there would be nothing “equitable” about going down this road. 

What would this mean for Oregon?

As of Sept 30, 2020, 483,500 Oregonians had outstanding federal student loan debt totaling $12.4 billion. The number who hold $50,000 or less of debt is approximately 413,100. A $50,000 loan forgiveness program would mean eliminating the debt of 413,000 debtors. That would leave just 70,500 with outstanding debt, each of whom would see their debt reduced by $50,000 as well.[1]

But would that be fair and equitable? Not likely.

First of all, the fact is most Americans don’t have federal student loan debt, including about 30 percent of college undergraduates, and about 25 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with less than $20,000 in outstanding loans. Fewer than 20 percent of all borrowers owe more than $40,000.

And despite all the hysteria and political posturing, most who do have outstanding federal loans are not overwhelmed with huge amounts of debt. Average debt at graduation from public and nonprofit colleges was $28,800 in 2019, less than the average amount Americans pay for a new car ($36,718 in 2019, according to automotive information site Edmunds).

An initial rationale for forgiving federal student loan debt was that it would help struggling students who couldn’t get ahead because of burdensome loan payments stretching far into the future.

Then came the justification that it would particularly help Blacks because Black students borrow more, have lower levels of family income, wealth, and parental education and have much higher loan default rates. That’s partly because Black students are more likely to attend for-profit colleges, where default rates are higher in general. Also, completion rates at many HBCUs are high, leaving too many students with debts but no degree. 

Now proponents of loan cancellation are trying to connect the idea to Covid-19, arguing that Covid has made paying bills harder (even though Pres. Bi9den has already signed Biden also signed an executive order extending the payment pause on federal student loans due to Covid-19 until October).

One problem is that if you pay off $50,000 of federal student loan debt just for those with current outstanding loans, many students just graduating will owe nothing, while new freshman will be starting to build debt again.

Loan cancellation would also tend to benefit the better-off among us who are more likely to have completed college and this be able to pay off college debt. Even in a $10,000 debt forgiveness program, an analysis by the Urban Institute indicates that about $150 billion would accrue to the top 40 percent of U.S. households by income.

Also, students and parents who have been faithfully paying off their loans for years, often at great sacrifice, may see little benefit if their balance is now close to zero.  

As Jeff Jacoby, a Boston Globe columnist put it, “…a massive bailout of borrowers would be unfair to countless families that saved and worked to pay for college, to say nothing of those who responsibly repaid their loans.”

Another problem. Students and parents with private loans will still owe it all. Americans owe more than $132 billion to private student lenders.

Then there’s the cost, probably about $1 trillion. But neither party seems overly concerned about that now. Even the media doesn’t care. The Hill, like many other news sites, recently managed to write an entire article on the idea without once mentioning how much it would cost. The cancellation advocates say not to worry because taxes on “rich people” will cover the cost. The problem is they want “rich people” to pay for every other new budget-busting program as well.

The argument progressives make that forgiving student loans would be a huge stimulus to the economy doesn’t make sense either.  

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says the stimulus benefits would be minimal and aimed at those who least need the help. Total student loan debt may be atrociously high, but borrowers often pay back their loans over 10, 15, or even 30 years. That means debt cancellation would increase their available cash for injection back into the economy by only a fraction of the total loan forgiveness. 

“Stimulus dollars that are spent rather than saved provide a stronger boost to near-term economic output,” the Committee says.

The fact is, subsidizing people who run up large college loan debts penalizes those who took their responsibility seriously and acted responsibly, James B. Meigs wrote in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market think tank. That leaves a lot of people feeling like chumps, he said.

 “…the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of—working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens—aren’t just undervalued, but scorned,” Meigs wrote. 

Then there’s the “moral hazard” of a one-time cancellation of student debt. It would encourage students and parents to continue running up risky big loan balances on the assumption that their debts will be forgiven at some point. That would cause a distortion of borrowing decisions, making them insensitive to the ability to repay. 


[1] The office of Federal Student Aid (https://studentaid.gov/data-center/student) doesn’t break down student debt numbers showing debt owed of $50,000 or less. Instead, it shows debt owed between $40,000 – $60,000. I arbitrarily split the amount of the debt and the number of debtors in half to determine the figures for debtors owing $50,000 or less.