Sunday, December 31, 2006

Robert Fisk reflects on Saddam's death

Robert Fisk: A dictator created then destroyed by America
Published: 30 December 2006
Saddam to the gallows. It was an easy equation. Who could be more deserving of that last walk to the scaffold - that crack of the neck at the end of a rope - than the Beast of Baghdad, the Hitler of the Tigris, the man who murdered untold hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis while spraying chemical weapons over his enemies? Our masters will tell us in a few hours that it is a "great day" for Iraqis and will hope that the Muslim world will forget that his death sentence was signed - by the Iraqi "government", but on behalf of the Americans - on the very eve of the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of the Sacrifice, the moment of greatest forgiveness in the Arab world.

But history will record that the Arabs and other Muslims and, indeed, many millions in the West, will ask another question this weekend, a question that will not be posed in other Western newspapers because it is not the narrative laid down for us by our presidents and prime ministers - what about the other guilty men?

No, Tony Blair is not Saddam. We don't gas our enemies. George W Bush is not Saddam. He didn't invade Iran or Kuwait. He only invaded Iraq. But hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians are dead - and thousands of Western troops are dead - because Messrs Bush and Blair and the Spanish Prime Minister and the Italian Prime Minister and the Australian Prime Minister went to war in 2003 on a potage of lies and mendacity and, given the weapons we used, with great brutality.

In the aftermath of the international crimes against humanity of 2001 we have tortured, we have murdered, we have brutalised and killed the innocent - we have even added our shame at Abu Ghraib to Saddam's shame at Abu Ghraib - and yet we are supposed to forget these terrible crimes as we applaud the swinging corpse of the dictator we created.

Who encouraged Saddam to invade Iran in 1980, which was the greatest war crime he has committed for it led to the deaths of a million and a half souls? And who sold him the components for the chemical weapons with which he drenched Iran and the Kurds? We did. No wonder the Americans, who controlled Saddam's weird trial, forbad any mention of this, his most obscene atrocity, in the charges against him. Could he not have been handed over to the Iranians for sentencing for this massive war crime? Of course not. Because that would also expose our culpability.

And the mass killings we perpetrated in 2003 with our depleted uranium shells and our "bunker buster" bombs and our phosphorous, the murderous post-invasion sieges of Fallujah and Najaf, the hell-disaster of anarchy we unleashed on the Iraqi population in the aftermath of our "victory" - our "mission accomplished" - who will be found guilty of this? Such expiation as we might expect will come, no doubt, in the self-serving memoirs of Blair and Bush, written in comfortable and wealthy retirement.

Hours before Saddam's death sentence, his family - his first wife, Sajida, and Saddam's daughter and their other relatives - had given up hope.

"Whatever could be done has been done - we can only wait for time to take its course," one of them said last night. But Saddam knew, and had already announced his own "martyrdom": he was still the president of Iraq and he would die for Iraq. All condemned men face a decision: to die with a last, grovelling plea for mercy or to die with whatever dignity they can wrap around themselves in their last hours on earth. His last trial appearance - that wan smile that spread over the mass-murderer's face - showed us which path Saddam intended to walk to the noose.

I have catalogued his monstrous crimes over the years. I have talked to the Kurdish survivors of Halabja and the Shia who rose up against the dictator at our request in 1991 and who were betrayed by us - and whose comrades, in their tens of thousands, along with their wives, were hanged like thrushes by Saddam's executioners.

I have walked round the execution chamber of Abu Ghraib - only months, it later transpired, after we had been using the same prison for a few tortures and killings of our own - and I have watched Iraqis pull thousands of their dead relatives from the mass graves of Hilla. One of them has a newly-inserted artificial hip and a medical identification number on his arm. He had been taken directly from hospital to his place of execution. Like Donald Rumsfeld, I have even shaken the dictator's soft, damp hand. Yet the old war criminal finished his days in power writing romantic novels.

It was my colleague, Tom Friedman - now a messianic columnist for The New York Times - who perfectly caught Saddam's character just before the 2003 invasion: Saddam was, he wrote, "part Don Corleone, part Donald Duck". And, in this unique definition, Friedman caught the horror of all dictators; their sadistic attraction and the grotesque, unbelievable nature of their barbarity.

But that is not how the Arab world will see him. At first, those who suffered from Saddam's cruelty will welcome his execution. Hundreds wanted to pull the hangman's lever. So will many other Kurds and Shia outside Iraq welcome his end. But they - and millions of other Muslims - will remember how he was informed of his death sentence at the dawn of the Eid al-Adha feast, which recalls the would-be sacrifice by Abraham, of his son, a commemoration which even the ghastly Saddam cynically used to celebrate by releasing prisoners from his jails. "Handed over to the Iraqi authorities," he may have been before his death. But his execution will go down - correctly - as an American affair and time will add its false but lasting gloss to all this - that the West destroyed an Arab leader who no longer obeyed his orders from Washington, that, for all his wrongdoing (and this will be the terrible get-out for Arab historians, this shaving away of his crimes) Saddam died a "martyr" to the will of the new "Crusaders".

When he was captured in November of 2003, the insurgency against American troops increased in ferocity. After his death, it will redouble in intensity again. Freed from the remotest possibility of Saddam's return by his execution, the West's enemies in Iraq have no reason to fear the return of his Baathist regime. Osama bin Laden will certainly rejoice, along with Bush and Blair. And there's a thought. So many crimes avenged.

But we will have got away with it.

Monday, December 25, 2006

The War on poverty, British style, Paul Krugman

December 25, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Helping the Poor, the British Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The elephant in the room

It's still about oil in Iraq
A centerpiece of the Iraq Study Group's report is its advocacy for securing foreign companies' long-term access to Iraqi oil fields.
By Antonia Juhasz
ANTONIA JUHASZ is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and author of "The Bush Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time."

December 8, 2006

WHILE THE Bush administration, the media and nearly all the Democrats still refuse to explain the war in Iraq in terms of oil, the ever-pragmatic members of the Iraq Study Group share no such reticence.

Page 1, Chapter 1 of the Iraq Study Group report lays out Iraq's importance to its region, the U.S. and the world with this reminder: "It has the world's second-largest known oil reserves." The group then proceeds to give very specific and radical recommendations as to what the United States should do to secure those reserves. If the proposals are followed, Iraq's national oil industry will be commercialized and opened to foreign firms.

The report makes visible to everyone the elephant in the room: that we are fighting, killing and dying in a war for oil. It states in plain language that the U.S. government should use every tool at its disposal to ensure that American oil interests and those of its corporations are met.

It's spelled out in Recommendation No. 63, which calls on the U.S. to "assist Iraqi leaders to reorganize the national oil industry as a commercial enterprise" and to "encourage investment in Iraq's oil sector by the international community and by international energy companies." This recommendation would turn Iraq's nationalized oil industry into a commercial entity that could be partly or fully privatized by foreign firms.

This is an echo of calls made before and immediately after the invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. State Department's Oil and Energy Working Group, meeting between December 2002 and April 2003, also said that Iraq "should be opened to international oil companies as quickly as possible after the war." Its preferred method of privatization was a form of oil contract called a production-sharing agreement. These agreements are preferred by the oil industry but rejected by all the top oil producers in the Middle East because they grant greater control and more profits to the companies than the governments. The Heritage Foundation also released a report in March 2003 calling for the full privatization of Iraq's oil sector. One representative of the foundation, Edwin Meese III, is a member of the Iraq Study Group. Another, James J. Carafano, assisted in the study group's work.

For any degree of oil privatization to take place, and for it to apply to all the country's oil fields, Iraq has to amend its constitution and pass a new national oil law. The constitution is ambiguous as to whether control over future revenues from as-yet-undeveloped oil fields should be shared among its provinces or held and distributed by the central government.

This is a crucial issue, with trillions of dollars at stake, because only 17 of Iraq's 80 known oil fields have been developed. Recommendation No. 26 of the Iraq Study Group calls for a review of the constitution to be "pursued on an urgent basis." Recommendation No. 28 calls for putting control of Iraq's oil revenues in the hands of the central government. Recommendation No. 63 also calls on the U.S. government to "provide technical assistance to the Iraqi government to prepare a draft oil law."

This last step is already underway. The Bush administration hired the consultancy firm BearingPoint more than a year ago to advise the Iraqi Oil Ministry on drafting and passing a new national oil law.

Plans for this new law were first made public at a news conference in late 2004 in Washington. Flanked by State Department officials, Iraqi Finance Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi (who is now vice president) explained how this law would open Iraq's oil industry to private foreign investment. This, in turn, would be "very promising to the American investors and to American enterprise, certainly to oil companies." The law would implement production-sharing agreements.

Much to the deep frustration of the U.S. government and American oil companies, that law has still not been passed.

In July, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman announced in Baghdad that oil executives told him that their companies would not enter Iraq without passage of the new oil law. Petroleum Economist magazine later reported that U.S. oil companies considered passage of the new oil law more important than increased security when deciding whether to go into business in Iraq.

The Iraq Study Group report states that continuing military, political and economic support is contingent upon Iraq's government meeting certain undefined "milestones." It's apparent that these milestones are embedded in the report itself.

Further, the Iraq Study Group would commit U.S. troops to Iraq for several more years to, among other duties, provide security for Iraq's oil infrastructure. Finally, the report unequivocally declares that the 79 total recommendations "are comprehensive and need to be implemented in a coordinated fashion. They should not be separated or carried out in isolation."

All told, the Iraq Study Group has simply made the case for extending the war until foreign oil companies — presumably American ones — have guaranteed legal access to all of Iraq's oil fields and until they are assured the best legal and financial terms possible.

We can thank the Iraq Study Group for making its case publicly. It is now our turn to decide if we wish to spill more blood for oil.

Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Paul Krugman: As Bechtel goes (or cuts and runs)

November 3, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
As Bechtel Goes

Bechtel, the giant engineering company, is leaving Iraq. Its mission — to rebuild power, water and sewage plants — wasn’t accomplished: Baghdad received less than six hours a day of electricity last month, and much of Iraq’s population lives with untreated sewage and without clean water. But Bechtel, having received $2.3 billion of taxpayers’ money and having lost the lives of 52 employees, has come to the end of its last government contract.

As Bechtel goes, so goes the whole reconstruction effort. Whatever our leaders may say about their determination to stay the course complete the mission, when it comes to rebuilding Iraq they’ve already cut and run. The $21 billion allocated for reconstruction over the last three years has been spent, much of it on security rather than its intended purpose, and there’s no more money in the pipeline.

The failure of reconstruction in Iraq raises three questions. First, how much did that failure contribute to the overall failure of the war? Second, how was it that America, the great can-do nation, in this case couldn’t and didn’t? Finally, if we’ve given up on rebuilding Iraq, what are our troops dying for?

There’s no definitive way to answer the first question. You can make a good case that the invasion of Iraq was doomed no matter what, because we never had enough military manpower to provide security. But the lack of electricity and clean water did a lot to dissipate any initial good will the Iraqis may have felt toward the occupation. And Iraqis are well aware that the billions squandered by American contractors included a lot of Iraqi oil revenue as well as U.S. taxpayers’ dollars.

Consider the symbolism of Iraq’s new police academy, which Stuart Bowen, the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, has called “the most essential civil security project in the country.” It was built at a cost of $75 million by Parsons Corporation, which received a total of about $1 billion for Iraq reconstruction projects. But the academy was so badly built that feces and urine leak from the ceilings in the student barracks.

Think about it. We want the Iraqis to stand up so we can stand down. But if they do stand up, we’ll dump excrement on their heads.

As for how this could have happened, that’s easy: major contractors believed, correctly, that their political connections insulated them from accountability. Halliburton and other companies with huge Iraq contracts were basically in the same position as Donald Rumsfeld: they were so closely identified with President Bush and, especially, Vice President Cheney that firing or even disciplining them would have been seen as an admission of personal failure on the part of top elected officials.

As a result, the administration and its allies in Congress fought accountability all the way. Administration officials have made repeated backdoor efforts to close the office of Mr. Bowen, whose job is to oversee the use of reconstruction money. Just this past May, with the failed reconstruction already winding down, the White House arranged for the last $1.5 billion of reconstruction money to be placed outside Mr. Bowen’s jurisdiction. And now, finally, Congress has passed a bill whose provisions include the complete elimination of his agency next October.

The bottom line is that those charged with rebuilding Iraq had no incentive to do the job right, so they didn’t.

You can see, by the way, why a Democratic takeover of the House, if it happens next week, would be such a pivotal event: suddenly, committee chairmen with subpoena power would be in a position to investigate where all the Iraq money went.

But that’s all in the past. What about the future?

Back in June, after a photo-op trip to Iraq, Mr. Bush said something I agree with. “You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered,” he declared. “You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people.” But what those measures actually show is the absence of progress. By any material measure, Iraqis are worse off than they were under Saddam.

And we’re not planning to do anything about it: the U.S.-led reconstruction effort in Iraq is basically over. I don’t know whether the administration is afraid to ask U.S. voters for more money, or simply considers the situation hopeless. Either way, the United States has accepted defeat on reconstruction.

Yet Americans are still fighting and dying in Iraq. For what?

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Friday, November 03, 2006

The most unaccountable government in the Middle East


LRB | Vol. 28 No. 21 dated 2 November 2006 | Ed Harriman

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The Least Accountable Regime in the Middle East

Ed Harriman

US Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction
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Kurdistan Regional Government
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American military spending on Iraq is now approaching $8 billion a month. Accounting for inflation, this is half as much again as the average monthly cost of the Vietnam War; the total spent so far has long surpassed the cost of the entire Apollo space programme. Three and a half months of occupation costs the equivalent of Iraq’s estimated oil revenues for the current financial year. We now know, thanks to the leaked report of James Baker’s Iraq Study Group, that if US troops withdrew, they would in all probability be redeployed to neighbouring countries, increasing the already massive expenditure and inevitably threatening new arenas of conflict. Here’s an unimaginable alternative. If the US army left the region, and if the money was instead handed out to every Iraqi man, woman and child, they would each receive more than $300 a month.

They need it: Iraq has run out of reconstruction money. The funds in the so-called Development Fund for Iraq – some $20 billion of Iraqi money – were spent by Paul Bremer’s Coalition Provisional Authority in the first year of the occupation. The US Embassy in Baghdad has spent virtually all of the $18.4 billion that Congress appropriated for ‘rebuilding’ the country; $5.6 billion of it was used to run the embassy, promote American ‘values’ and set up the new armed forces and police. Most of the American money never even gets to Iraq. The bulk of it has gone to American consultants, or into American contractors’ international bank accounts.

‘Most of the projects planned in sewerage, irrigation, drainage and dams have been cancelled,’ the auditors of the US Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) report. Others have been ‘descoped’. A 238 km canal brings fresh water to Basra from the Gharraf river, a tributary of the Tigris. The long neglected banks of the canal are crumbling. There was a plan to line its entire length with concrete; the idea now is merely to repair one badly damaged 20 km stretch. This is what ‘descoped’ means. In July, SIGIR could find no evidence of emergency repairs or even routine maintenance. According to the increasingly implausible State Department, Iraq’s basic utilities – its electricity, oil production and water supply – have reached standards close to or above those under Saddam. The US General Accountability Office (GAO), however, says these claims are meaningless, since they are based on numbers of completed projects, without indicating how much has been done of what was originally planned.

One thing is certain: the Coalition has created and fostered the least accountable and least transparent regime in the Middle East. It’s impossible to say whether it’s also the most corrupt, because so little is known about how Iraq’s ministers spend their government’s revenue. The US Embassy says it’s trying to find out, but it hasn’t had much success. Paul Bremer handed over $8.8 billion in cash to the interim government in the first year of occupation; it has never been accounted for. American auditors are also still in the dark about Iraq’s reconstruction budget for the two years that followed: another $14 billion. ‘SIGIR has no further information about how much of these funds has been expended.’ Iraqis don’t know either, since there are no meaningful public accounts.

Public opinion polls show that Iraqis list corruption as one of their three biggest worries, along with power cuts and violence. The inspector general for the Ministry of Health recently estimated that corruption costs Iraq $4 billion each year. World Bank officials told the GAO that putting contracts out for tender is still an ‘alien concept’ for Iraqi ministries. There are countless allegations of ‘ghost employees’ on ministry payrolls, of kickbacks, cronyism, nepotism and fraud that reach right up to the president, Jalal Talabani. SIGIR says that ‘corruption is a virtual pandemic in Iraq.’ The embassy’s ‘expenditure on anti-corruption has been modest’ – some $65 million, or 0.3 per cent of its reconstruction budget. It’s spending more than $1 billion on ‘democracy building’ activities, however, such as pro-American propaganda and PR.

The propaganda keeps quiet about the torture of prisoners in secret jail cells, and about the infiltration of the security forces by sectarian militias. These activities are overseen by the Interior Ministry, which reportedly employs at least a thousand ghost employees, whose wages amount to more than $1 million a month. The US Embassy has lost track of the weapons, radios and other hardware it has supplied over the past two years, and the auditors talk of ‘uncertain property ownership’ and ‘political difficulties’. The ministry’s audit director, who is responsible for police activities throughout Iraq, has six staff and one computer. Much of the equipment intended for government use is probably with sectarian militias, or has been sold.

Iraq has a Commission on Public Integrity, along with the Iraqi Board of Supreme Audit and inspector generals in the ministries, which is supposed to investigate corruption. Arrest warrants were issued last year for several former cabinet ministers. The defence minister Hazem Shaalan, accused of being party to corruption involving more than $1.3 billion, fled to London. He is now said to be in Iraqi Kurdistan. The transport minister Louay Hatim Sultan al-Aris disappeared. The electricity minister Abdul Muhsin Shalash is reportedly living in Jordan. There are signs that efforts to prosecute these people are finally being stepped up. The labour minister Laila Abdul Latif at least went to court, though she was only convicted of a minor offence and given a suspended sentence. Another ex-electricity minister, Aiham al-Sammarai, has now been convicted of corruption and embezzlement and sentenced to two years in prison. But he’s also an American citizen so he isn’t in an Iraqi jail.

The chairman of the Commission on Public Integrity, Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, says he’s keen to prosecute at least forty former cabinet ministers and senior officials. Yet ‘it is impossible to bring to justice a high-level official without the permission of his minister and if he is implicated as well, then he does not give this permission.’ Influential suspects either have immunity from prosecution or get tipped off so they can slip out of the country. As of July, the Commission had sent 1370 cases to the central criminal courts. Only 40 yielded convictions, and only one of those convicted was a senior ministry official. Many judges are corrupt; others are frightened, and with good reason: more than twenty have been assassinated.

The State Department is unforthcoming about the real cost of the corporate armies operating in Iraq: the mercenaries, or ‘private security contractors’, who guard US officials and international contractors ensuring that Coalition forces are free to fight insurgents. The GAO estimated last year that there were more than 25,000 of these ‘contractors’, significantly outnumbering British troops. A former squaddie, kitted out with dark glasses, automatic pistol, rifle, body armour and radio, working for a construction team, can earn at least $12,000 a month. A former special forces NCO protecting a Coalition official or construction firm boss can make more than twice that. The State Department says the cost of security makes up 16 to 22 per cent of the overall outlay on big reconstruction projects, but this may be an underestimate. The GAO has observed that the State Department’s reports to Congress ‘do not identify the magnitude or impact of the costs associated with security providers on reconstruction efforts or available funding’. When asked why not, embassy officials in Baghdad claimed that ‘such requests can be burdensome for both the contractors and agency officials.’ Publishing the true cost of ‘security contractors’ would mean admitting to the American public that what has become a deeply unpopular occupation is also even more expensive than it currently appears.

American officials talk of travelling ‘the last tactical mile’, by which they mean completing the work of hooking up Iraqi neighbourhoods and houses to the electricity grid, water mains and sewage systems. But that hasn’t happened across much of the country, and it’s not likely to happen soon. SIGIR estimates that the Iraqi government needs to spend almost $1 billion next year just to keep the projects going. But the government is short of cash: American advisers within the ministries say that they are making do with only a third of the budget they asked for. The auditors asked the State Department’s development arm, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), for ‘reliable and transparent’ estimates of how much it will cost to complete its projects. An answer was not forthcoming.

American reconstruction programmes are failing for reasons the audit reports make very clear, despite USAID’s refusal to co-operate. Many of Iraq’s dilapidated power stations, bombed during the first Gulf War, were kept functioning throughout the years of UN sanctions by resourceful engineers using makeshift spare parts. After the invasion in 2003, while Coalition forces stood by, looters trashed much of what little still worked. The Coalition planned to change all that. Initially, $5.56 billion of the $18.4 billion voted by Congress was budgeted for electricity. Then, in the summer of 2004, the embassy in Baghdad appropriated $1.25 billion of that to pay for the escalating costs of the war. This June, electricity output finally exceeded – just – the prewar level. Today, Baghdadis are lucky to get eight hours of electricity a day uninterrupted by power cuts, and many depend on their own generators, but for that they have to scrabble together the cash to buy one – around $200. The embassy says there isn’t much American money left for electricity.

The privately-owned California-based engineering company Bechtel was contracted in 2o03 ‘on an urgent basis’ to build two new 250 megawatt diesel-fired generating stations near Baghdad, enough to supply 1.5 million homes. It was soon discovered, however, that ‘there was insufficient fuel and no fuel delivery system of any kind in the Baghdad area.’ So there was a change of plan. The Coalition decided to use natural gas from the Mansuria gas fields 105 kilometres north-east of Baghdad. Costs shot up from $78 million to $381 million. They bought two General Electric gas turbine generators, for $25 million each. Then they cancelled the project. The gas has never been collected, so there is no infrastructure for delivering it from the oilfields to power stations. American advisers working with the CPA knew all along that the infrastructure wasn’t in place. So, too, did the then electricity minister, Aiham al-Sammarai, the minister who faces a prison sentence for embezzlement, and who ran a successful energy consultancy near Chicago before the invasion. Still, there was no way the Coalition was going to spend millions of dollars building new gas pipelines. So the gas continues to be burned off in the oilfields. Iraq’s gas turbines now run on fuel oil, which, according to the GAO, makes them half as efficient, requires three times more maintenance, and is likely to result in damage or failure of equipment. The new electricity minister, Kareem Waheed, says that his budget ‘is only a fraction of what the ministry needs’, and SIGIR says Iraq needs to invest $20 billion in power plants over the next four years. Getting the electricity into Iraqi homes depends on massive transmission projects, more than a third of which have yet to be started on. The last tactical mile is a long way off.

Before 1991, Iraq had one of the best health services in the Middle East. Baghdad’s doctors and nurses provided care often comparable to that of their counterparts in Tel Aviv or Cairo. A decade of sanctions scuppered that: by 2002 the Health Ministry budget had been reduced by 90 per cent. According to both the UN and the World Bank, the health system needed $1.6 billion just to resume normal operation. The CPA set aside less than a quarter of that.

A new children’s hospital in Basra was to be a showcase for American generosity. It was a joint venture of Bechtel and Project Hope, one of Laura Bush’s favourite charities, overseen by USAID. Congressional Democrats questioned whether Iraq needed a state of the art 94-bed paediatric unit when existing hospitals were in dire need of basic repairs and medical supplies. The contract was signed anyway: $50 million was set aside for construction and $30 million for supplies and training. The project was to be finished by 31 December 2005. This June, the embassy finally ordered work to stop: $150 million had been spent, and Bechtel estimated that a further $98 million would be needed. Part of the problem was security on the site, but SIGIR auditors were more concerned about the ‘lack of effective programme management and oversight’ by the embassy. But the auditors also found that USAID had cooked the books and that the State Department had withheld details of delays and increased costs in its reports to Congress. In the meantime, Iraq’s existing hospitals are in dire condition. In May, the renovation of twenty maternity and children’s hospitals was halted. The contracts have been ‘descoped’ and the work won’t be finished for at least a year. The al-Hillah general hospital still lacks basic equipment, and medicines; Yarmuk hospital in southern Baghdad is in desperate need of repair.

The centrepiece of the Coalition’s health programme was to be 150 new primary care centres: at $243 million, this was the largest US-funded reconstruction project in Iraq – oil-related programmes aside. The contract was given to Parsons Global Services, which quickly subcontracted most of the work. The centres were supposed to be open and treating patients by last December. By March this year, three-quarters of the budget had been spent. Of the 150 centres, 135 were partially constructed. Only six had been finished. The embassy blamed Parsons; Parsons blamed the embassy. The subcontractors, it turned out, had further subcontracted the work ‘through a system of layered brokers’. The Iraqi construction firms at the bottom of the chain regularly went on strike, cut corners and ignored Parsons’s engineers. As a result, the buildings suffer from ‘roof failures . . . low strength concrete and poor foundations that are now costly to repair’. In April, the estimated cost of finishing 121 of the remaining centres was $36 million. So far, only two clinics are receiving patients. Meanwhile, the auditors, worried that medical equipment would go missing if delivered to the Iraqi health ministry, had it sent instead to a secure US-run warehouse at Abu Ghraib. Even so, several of the containers were found to have been broken into and the supplies stolen.

Parsons has 9000 employees and an annual turnover of $2.4 billion; its board includes James McNulty, the former director of the Pentagon’s Star Wars programme, and Admiral ‘Zap’ Zlatoper, the former commander-in-chief of the US Pacific fleet, as well as directors who have held senior positions in leading banks and universities. DynCorp, which won the contract to train the Iraqi police in Jordan, where staff rioted over pay, is one of the world’s largest private security contractors. On its board have sat former senior officials from Nasa, the FBI, the Federal Communications Commission and the US army. Bechtel has been one of the world’s largest overseas contractors for decades; other US firms which have earned more than $1 billion in Iraqi contracts include Fluor, Washington Group International and Kellogg, Brown and Root, which is owned by Dick Cheney’s former firm, Halliburton. Three years on, America’s corporate giants look stretched and exhausted in Iraq. They have proved quick at subcontracting and overrunning on costs, slower at meeting deadlines and on-site management. The auditors have also found evidence of corruption and gross incompetence in some of their dealings.

Take the question of oil pipelines. Oil from the southern oilfields is exported through a terminal port south of Basra. From the northern oilfields in Iraqi Kurdistan it goes by pipeline to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan. To defend Iraq’s oil and electricity networks from attacks by insurgents, the CPA decided in the summer of 2003 to create ‘Task Force Shield’. This would protect 810 key oil installations, 7000 km of oil pipeline and 14,000 km of electricity cables. Erinys, a British security business which employs several of Ahmed Chalabi’s family, would train and equip 14,400 guards for an Oil Protection Force (OPF). A few months later, an American security firm was contracted to train and equip 6000 guards for an Electrical Power Security Service (EPSS). It was a disaster. The Task Force ‘ultimately proved unsuccessful’, the auditors say. ‘Although the OPF showed some initial success, the EPSS programme barely got started before it was cancelled.’ Some $147 million, two-thirds of it Iraqi money from the Development Fund, had been spent. Today, the Iraqi Defence Ministry guards the pipelines and the Oil Ministry guards all other installations. The Oil Ministry’s inspector general says its security forces are undermanned, poorly equipped and unco-ordinated. Acts of sabotage go uninvestigated. The Electricity Ministry fares even worse. The auditors discovered that ‘tribal chiefs are paid to protect transmission lines . . . but are reportedly selling materials from downed lines and exacting tariffs for access to repair lines.’

Secure pipelines are useful only if oil flows through them. Coalition aircraft bombed the bridge carrying the main pipelines from the Kirkuk oilfields over the Tigris at al-Fatah. As well as carrying oil to Turkey, the lines supplied two of Iraq’s biggest refineries. A temporary pipe was laid across the bridge until a new, sabotage-proof pipeline could be constructed. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR) won the contract to rebuild the crossing and three others over nearby irrigation canals. The job was expected to cost $220 million, and was supposed to be completed by March 2004. By August 2004, KBR had claimed $75.7 million for the al-Fatah crossing alone, all 600 feet of it, but the drilling was a mess. The boreholes under the river kept caving in. A geologist hired by KBR said that the riverbed was unstable and needed further testing. KBR insisted its drilling subcontractors carry on regardless, and refused to let them talk to the Army Corps of Engineers. Finally, the contract was reassigned to Parsons, who, for another $29 million, dug a trench in the riverbed and buried the pipe.

That was the easy part. SIGIR inspectors found one irrigation canal crossing half finished. The US army engineer in Kirkuk reckoned another was about a tenth complete. Parsons again had the contract, but had not inspected the crossing because, the firm said, its Iraqi subcontractor ‘would only perform the work with the guarantee of no American presence at either site’. The workers were afraid of insurgent attacks. SIGIR questioned whether the site was quite as dangerous as all that, and wondered why Parsons was paid $13 million for three months when no one was working in the area. SIGIR has also found evidence that some of the buried pipelines are smaller than the contracts stipulated. The plan now is for a subcontractor from the Republic of Georgia to finish the crossing, protected by US paratroopers.

In southern Iraq, crude oil flows fairly smoothly from the Rumaila oilfield to the Basra terminal. Yet much of it is diverted along the way into small, illegal ‘sucker’ pipes that snake through palm groves to small huts, where the oil is pumped into waiting tanker lorries. There are bigger scams, too: sometimes the entire contents of oil storage depots disappear. As a centre of oil smuggling, the British-occupied area around Basra is rivalled only by the Niger delta. More than 1600 fishing boats in Basra spirit away 15 million litres of oil a month. Basra is now the most corrupt city in Iraq. Everyone has been accused of smuggling: the Iranian-funded Shia militias, criminal syndicates, the mayor, the Baghdad Oil Ministry. More than two and a half years after the invasion, Iraq still does not meter its oil, despite repeated warnings from the International Advisory and Monitoring Board.

Iraq has the world’s second largest proven reserves of oil after Saudi Arabia, possibly up to 200 billion barrels, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Shell, BP, Chevron and ExxonMobil all want to have what’s known as a production sharing agreement with the Iraqi government. Under the terms of such an agreement, in return for bearing the cost of getting new oilfields up and running, the companies would be guaranteed long-term access to Iraq’s reserves. Platform, the British oil monitoring group, has worked out that at a cost of production of only $40 a barrel, the companies’ return on investment would be somewhere between 42 per cent and 162 per cent, representing between $74 billion and $194 billion in profits that Platform feels should go to the Iraqi government.

This doesn’t seem likely. The oil companies have been lobbying hard in Baghdad since the first days of the occupation, and a succession of executives have been sent to work as advisers within the Oil Ministry. ‘Coalition officials and other international experts,’ the auditors say, ‘are working with the Iraqi government to craft oil legislation that would promote an efficient, competent, transparent, and investor-friendly oil and gas sector.’ In August, the Kurdish regional government published a draft petroleum act. Under articles 3 and 4, ‘Kurdistan has sole authority in respect of petroleum operations in Kurdistan and in the “Disputed Territories”, where Kurdistan is a party to the dispute, including Kirkuk.’ This has not pleased the Oil Ministry in Baghdad, which is now under intense pressure to publish a petroleum law by the end of the year with terms that British and American oil companies find attractive. If the Coalition’s mission fails, Iraq’s future rulers may prefer to invite tenders from the Chinese, the French and the Russians.

Also in August, the month that the new Baghdad Police Training Academy opened, the Baghdad morgue reported 1535 deaths from violence. SIGIR reports that the police academy is now closed: raw sewage from the toilets was leaking into the overhead light fittings. But construction of the US Embassy compound – the largest and at more than $1 billion the most expensive embassy in the world – is on schedule. So, too, is work on four large permanent US military bases. It isn’t clear how Tony Blair can think Iraq is a country on the verge of being a successful liberal democracy. But we do know what kind of mess will be left behind if the Coalition forces do eventually withdraw.

19 October

Ed Harriman is a journalist and television documentary film-maker.

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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Alternative realities, by George Packer

by George Packer
Issue of 2006-10-30
Posted 2006-10-23

When the National Security Council met to discuss Iraq earlier this month, in Washington, the sense of urgency was palpable. The director of national intelligence described the deterioration o security in Baghdad and Basra; the Iraqi Army was near collapse, he said, and another explosion of sectarian violence was imminent. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff reported that th American commander in Iraq was asking for two new combat brigades immediately and fifty thousand additional troops in the coming months
“We’ve just heard a very dour intel briefing,” the national-security adviser said, opening the floor to discussion. “With more resources, can we really get it right? Can we do it better than we’ve done in the past three and a half years?”
“What is ‘it’?” another participant asked. “What do we mean by success? A democratic Iraq?”
“Can we achieve a stable, unified Iraq?” the national-security adviser persisted. “Does anyone here believe that’s still possible? And, if not, then Plan A has failed and we have to come up with other options.”
“Plan A is dead,” the Secretary of State announced, and sketched out a new strategy to bring Iran, Syria, and Iraq’s other neighboring countries into negotiations, in order to prevent civil war from spreading across borders. “We have to take what is a hugely eroded leadership position in the international community and try to turn it around. It’s a hell of a long shot.”
The meeting was remarkable for its clarity: the principals looked at unpleasant facts from every angle, asked fundamental questions about the choices available, criticized past failures, and agreed on new plans without concern for the political fallout. The old habits of wishful thinking and blind loyalty were gone.
If this discussion had taken place at the White House, one could be a little hopeful, not just for a change of policy but for a change of climate in which new policies might be imagined. Instead, it occurred a mile away, at the Brookings Institution, where a dozen civilian and military officials of previous Administrations had come together for a daylong war game on Iraq.
Conversations like this one are taking place in quiet corners of the government and the military, within small groups of trusted friends, but they are not happening where it matters. Obstacles to critical thinking are not exclusive to this Administration, with its incurious President and its ruthless political “commissars,” as they are known among their colleagues. The fear of leaks, and the damage they can do to an appearance of unity and resolve, makes it almost impossible for top officials in any Administration to speak freely in groups of more than three or four. But the resistance intensifies when the White House is under siege. “The worse the situation gets,” the imaginary national-security adviser said, “the harder it is to make the point that there’s a problem.” When the real Office of Policy Planning at the real State Department proposed writing a memo on the alternatives facing the Administration if its Iraq policy failed, the idea was dismissed by the department’s real leadership.
The President’s Iraq war is lost. Plan A—a unified and democratic Iraq that will be a model in the region—is no longer achievable. The civil war for which the Administration will not consider new responses is already at hand. Because no one in power can admit any of this, the United States is in the position of trying to hold still while the ground shifts violently underfoot. The resistance to thinking about Plans B, C, and D means not only that this country remains stuck while Americans and Iraqis die but that its ability to affect events six or twelve months away is rapidly diminishing.
In the Brookings war game, the mock National Security Council, functioning the way the National Security Council should, responded to the deterioration in Iraq by making certain decisions, and then responded to the consequences of those decisions. By the end of the day, American policy had shifted from the President’s “democracy agenda” to a focus on stabilizing Baghdad and bringing the warring parties to the conference table, to an effort to stem the flow of refugees, to a policy of countering Iranian domination of Iraq. By that point, the American forces were out of Baghdad and positioned along Iraq’s borders and in Kurdistan. It was the revenge of Realpolitik. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs reminded the committee that the new policy meant greatly increased casualties among Iraqis and “a terrible loss for U.S. prestige, credibility, and legitimacy.” But, in an atmosphere of critical thinking and open debate, the officials had to accept it.
Others are trying to fill the vacuum of debate from the outside. Recently, Dennis Ross, who was President Clinton’s Middle East envoy, proposed in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the United States should negotiate its departure with the Iraqi government, basing the timing and manner on whether the factions there can reach a settlement: “If Iraqis are ready to resolve their internal political differences, to adjust to reality and to make the hard choices they face, our presence can help in the transition. But if they continue to avoid reality, our presence will simply prolong both their state of denial and ours.”
Earlier this year, Congress commissioned the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Representative Lee Hamilton, which is looking into Iraq policy and will offer recommendations. Such is the paralysis of official Washington that the course of the war seems to be waiting for the report, which won’t be released until after next month’s elections. News stories suggest that it will call for changes along the lines of the Brookings war game: talk to Iran and Syria, negotiate with armed Iraqi factions in a Dayton-style conference, and, as a last resort, reduce American casualties by shifting from supporting the government in Iraq to containing the fighting.
Every one of the proposals coming from outside the real Administration starts from the assumption that its policy has failed. Plans B, C, and D are also admissions of defeat. They are an acknowledgment that our highest interests in Iraq no longer involve the welfare of Iraqis. For anyone who had hoped that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein would bring a better life to Iraq’s people, these are hard truths to accept. But they also suggest that between the President’s resolve to persist in folly and the public’s instinct to be rid of Iraq there is a range of choices that could prevent the disaster from inflicting permanent damage on American interests. This kind of clear, rational thought is less heartless—even, in the end, less defeatist—than willful blindness.

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Flags of our fathers, Clint Eastwood

October 20, 2006
A Ghastly Conflagration, a Tormented Aftermath

It seems hard to believe there is anything left to say about World War II that has not already been stated and restated, chewed, digested and spat out for your consideration and that of the Oscar voters. And yet here, at age 76, is Clint Eastwood saying something new and vital about the war in his new film, and here, too, is this great, gray battleship of a man and a movie icon saying something new and urgent about the uses of war and of the men who fight. “Flags of Our Fathers” concerns one of the most lethal encounters on that distant battlefield, but make no mistake: this is also a work of its own politically fraught moment.

The film distills much of the material covered in James Bradley and Ron Powers’s affecting book of the same title about the raising of the American flag during the battle for Iwo Jima. Mr. Bradley’s father, John Bradley, nicknamed Doc and played by an effectively restrained Ryan Phillippe, was one of six men who helped plant the flag (it was the second planted that day) on the island’s highest point on the fifth day of the monthlong American offensive. An Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal, immortalized the moment, and American politicians seized the day, sending the three surviving flag raisers — Doc, Ira Hayes (Adam Beach, delivering heartbreak by the payload) and Rene Gagnon (Jesse Bradford) — on a hugely successful war-bond drive.

Collectively hailed as heroes from sea to shining sea, Rene embraced the spotlight, Doc settled into stoic unhappiness, while Ira, a Pima Indian shattered by Iwo Jima and its dead, sobbed and drank himself into oblivion. The efforts of Doc’s adult son (Tom McCarthy) to tell his father’s story years later give the film its scaffolding, but it is Mr. Beach’s Ira, with his open face and vulnerability, who haunts it. Tears mixing with booze, he floods his scenes with raw emotion that serves as a rebuke to gung-ho fictions like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” a 1949 bad joke in which John Wayne hands an American flag to the real Ira, Doc and Rene so they can raise Old Glory once more, this time over the sands of Southern California.

Mr. Eastwood’s cinematic deconstruction takes a considerably darker view of the historical record. The Air Force had repeatedly bombed Iwo Jima before the American landing on Feb. 19, 1945; by D-Day, barely a blade of grass survived, even as more than 20,000 Japanese soldiers remained dug in. To replicate that scorched earth, Mr. Eastwood drains much of the color from the film’s already muted palette, so much so that many of the scenes on the island look as if they were shot in black and white. It seems impossible that anything living could survive long in this charred, spooky place, and it isn’t long after the invasion that American bodies begin piling up amid the orange-red explosions and dull-red sprays of blood.

During these anxious moments, Mr. Eastwood characteristically keeps his sights (and ears) on the troops and the choreographed chaos of their movements; the focus remains on them, not the filmmaking. When the men hit the shore, the cameras stick close to them, moving and then, during a sudden hailstorm of bullets, running alongside the men as if similarly searching for cover. Despite the occasional bird’s-eye view that underscores the staggering scale of the operation — the hundreds of boats hugging the coast, the thousands of men dotting the land — the filmmaking retains a devastating intimacy, as in a quiet shot of dead soldiers lying facedown on the beach, the water under their bodies receding as if it were blood.

The scenes on Iwo Jima are harrowing, borderline surreal, and even after Doc, Ira and Rene leave the island, they never fully escape it. During the bond drive, the pop of a camera bulb, a flash of lightning and the bang of a backfiring car engine instantly return the three to the island and its horrors, a blurring between past and present that, with seamless, ruthless efficiency, Mr. Eastwood and his longtime editor, Joel Cox, turn into a dreadful memory loop. In Mr. Bradley and Mr. Powers’s book, one Iwo Jima veteran describes seeing his dead friends while sitting in class at medical school; the flashbacks, he says, were “like a movie screen wrapped around me.” We see a version of that movie here, and it is terrible.

Most war movies, even those that claim to be antiwar, overtly or implicitly embrace violence as either a political or cinematic means to an end. Few filmmakers can resist the thrill of the rocket’s red glare and the spectacle of death; the violence is simply too exciting. There are plenty of big bangs in “Flags of Our Fathers,” but because the screenplay, by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, oscillates among three separate time frames — Iwo Jima, the bond tour and, less successfully, contemporary scenes involving Doc and his son — and because the flag raisers were pulled off the field before fighting ended, the violence of their war remains at a frenzied pitch. It doesn’t build, evolve, recede; it terrifies and keeps terrifying.

What do we want from war films? Entertainment, mostly, a few hours’ escape to other lands and times, as well as something excitingly different, something reassuringly familiar. If “Flags of Our Fathers” feels so unlike most war movies and sounds so contrary to the usual political rhetoric, it is not because it affirms that war is hell, which it does with unblinking, graphic brutality. It’s because Mr. Eastwood insists, with a moral certitude that is all too rare in our movies, that we extract an unspeakable cost when we ask men to kill other men. There is never any doubt in the film that the country needed to fight this war, that it was necessary; it is the horror at such necessity that defines “Flags of Our Fathers,” not exultation.

In this respect, the film works, among other things, as a gentle corrective to Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” with its state-of-the-art carnage and storybook neatness. (Mr. Spielberg, whose company bought the film rights to “Flags of Our Fathers,” is one of its producers.) Where “Saving Private Ryan” offers technique, Mr. Eastwood’s film suggests metaphysics. Once again, he takes us into the heart of violence and into the hearts of men, seeing where they converge under a night sky as brightly lighted with explosions as any Fourth of July nocturne and in caves where some soldiers are tortured to death and others surrender to madness. He gives us men whose failings are evidence of their humanity and who are, contrary to our revolted sensitivities, no less human because they kill.

One view of Mr. Eastwood is that he has mellowed with age, or at least begun to take serious measure of the violence that has been an animating force in many of his films. In truth, the critical establishment caught up with the director, who for decades has been building a fascinating body of work that considers annihilating violence as a condition of the American character, not an aberration. “Flags of Our Fathers” is an imperfect addition to that body of work, though its flaws are minor and finally irrelevant in a film in which ambivalence and ambiguity are constituent of a worldview, not an aftereffect. Notably, Mr. Eastwood’s next film, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” set to open early next year, revisits the same battle, this time from the point of view of the Japanese.

“Flags of Our Fathers” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). The representation of war and its battlefield atrocities is extremely graphic.


Opens today nationwide.

Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by William Broyles Jr. and Paul Haggis, based on the book by James Bradley with Ron Powers; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; music by Mr. Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released by Paramount Pictures. Running time: 132 minutes.

WITH: Ryan Phillippe (John Bradley), Jesse Bradford (Rene Gagnon), Adam Beach (Ira Hayes), John Benjamin Hickey (Keyes Beech), John Slattery (Bud Gurber), Barry Pepper (Mike Strank), Jamie Bell (Ralph Ignatowski), Paul Walker (Hank Hansen) and Robert Patrick (Col. Chandler Johnson).

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Don't make nice, Paul Krugman

October 23, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Don’t Make Nice

Now that the Democrats are strongly favored to capture at least one house of Congress, they’re getting a lot of unsolicited advice, with many people urging them to walk and talk softly if they win.

I hope the Democrats don’t follow this advice — because it’s bad for their party and, more important, bad for the country. In the long run, it’s even bad for the cause of bipartisanship.

There are those who say that a confrontational stance will backfire politically on the Democrats. These are by and large the same people who told Democrats that attacking the Bush administration over Iraq would backfire in the midterm elections. Enough said.

Political considerations aside, American voters deserve to have their views represented in Congress. And according to opinion polls, most Americans are actually to the left of Congressional Democrats on issues such as health care.

In particular, the public wants politicians to stand up to corporate interests. This is clear from the latest Newsweek poll, which shows overwhelming public support for the agenda Nancy Pelosi has laid out for her first 100 hours if she becomes House speaker. The strongest support is for her plan to have Medicare negotiate with drug companies for lower prices, which is supported by 74 percent of Americans — and by 70 percent of Republicans!

What the make-nice crowd wants most of all is for the Democrats to forswear any investigations into the origins of the Iraq war and the cronyism and corruption that undermined it. But it’s very much in the national interest to find out what led to the greatest strategic blunder in American history, so that it won’t happen again.

What’s more, the public wants to know. A large majority of Americans believe both that invading Iraq was a mistake, and that the Bush administration deliberately misled us into war. And according to the Newsweek poll, 58 percent of Americans believe that investigating contracting in Iraq isn’t just a good idea, but a high priority; 52 percent believe the same about investigating the origins of the war.

Why, then, should the Democrats hold back? Because, we’re told, the country needs less divisiveness. And I, too, would like to see a return to kinder, gentler politics. But that’s not something Democrats can achieve with a group hug and a chorus of “Kumbaya.”

The reason we have so much bitter partisanship these days is that that’s the way the radicals who have taken over the Republican Party want it. People like Grover Norquist, who once declared that “bipartisanship is another name for date rape,” push for a hard-right economic agenda; people like Karl Rove make that agenda politically feasible, even though it’s against the interests of most voters, by fostering polarization, using religion and national security as wedge issues.

As long as polarization is integral to the G.O.P.’s strategy, Democrats can’t do much, if anything, to narrow the partisan divide.

Even if they try to act in a bipartisan fashion, their opponents will find a way to divide the nation — which is what happened to the great surge of national unity after 9/11. One thing we might learn from investigations is the extent to which the Iraq war itself was motivated by the desire to have another wedge issue.

There are those who believe that the partisan gap can be bridged if the Democrats nominate an attractive presidential candidate who speaks in uplifting generalities. But they must have been living under a rock these past 15 or so years. Whoever the Democrats nominate will feel the full force of the Republican slime machine. And it doesn’t matter if conservatives have nice things to say about a Democrat now. Once the campaign gets serious, they’ll suddenly question his or her patriotism and discover previously unmentioned but grievous character flaws.

The truth is that we won’t get a return to bipartisanship until or unless the G.O.P. decides that polarization doesn’t work as a political strategy. The last great era of bipartisanship began after the 1948 election, when Republicans, shocked by Harry Truman’s victory, decided to stop trying to undo the New Deal. And that example suggests that the best thing the Democrats can do, not just for their party and their country, but for the cause of bipartisanship, is what Truman did: stand up strongly for their principles.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Paul Krugman: The war against wages: Walmart

October 6, 2006
The War Against Wages
Should we be cheering over the fact that the Dow Jones Industrial Average has finally set a new record? No. The Dow is doing well largely because American employers are waging a successful war against wages. Economic growth since early 2000, when the Dow reached its previous peak, hasn’t been exceptional. But after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, because workers’ productivity is up, but their wages aren’t — and because companies have dealt with rising health insurance premiums by denying insurance to ever more workers.
If you want to see how the war against wages is being fought, and what it’s doing to working Americans and their families, consider the latest news from Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart already has a well-deserved reputation for paying low wages and offering few benefits to its employees; last year, an internal Wal-Mart memo conceded that 46 percent of its workers’ children were either on Medicaid or lacked health insurance. Nonetheless, the memo expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising, in part “because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases.”
The problem from the company’s point of view, then, is that its workers are too loyal; it wants cheap labor that doesn’t hang around too long, but not enough workers quit before acquiring the right to higher wages and benefits. Among the policy changes the memo suggested to deal with this problem was a shift to hiring more part-time workers, which “will lower Wal-Mart’s health care enrollment.”
And the strategy is being put into effect. “Investment analysts and store managers,” reports The New York Times, “say Wal-Mart executives have told them the company wants to transform its work force to 40 percent part-time from 20 percent.” Another leaked Wal-Mart memo describes a plan to impose wage caps, so that long-term employees won’t get raises. And the company is taking other steps to keep workers from staying too long: in some stores, according to workers, “managers have suddenly barred older employees with back or leg problems from sitting on stools.”
It’s a brutal strategy. Once upon a time a company that treated its workers this badly would have made itself a prime target for union organizers. But Wal-Mart doesn’t have to worry about that, because it knows that these days the people who are supposed to enforce labor laws are on the side of the employers, not the workers.
Since 1935, U.S. workers considering whether to join a union have been protected by the National Labor Relations Act, which bars employers from firing workers for engaging in union activities. For a long time the law was effective: workers were reasonably well protected against employer intimidation, and the union movement flourished.
In the 1970’s, however, employers began a successful campaign to roll back unions. This campaign depended on routine violation of labor law: experts estimate that by 1980 employers were illegally firing at least one out of every 20 workers who voted for a union. But employers rarely faced serious consequences for their lawbreaking, thanks to America’s political shift to the right. And now that the shift to the right has gone even further, political appointees are seeking to remove whatever protection for workers’ rights that the labor relations law still provides.
The Republican majority on the National Labor Relations Board, which is responsible for enforcing the law, has just declared that millions of workers who thought they had the right to join unions don’t. You see, the act grants that right only to workers who aren’t supervisors. And the board, ruling on a case involving nurses, has declared that millions of workers who occasionally give other workers instructions can now be considered supervisors.
As the dissent from the Democrats on the board makes clear, the majority bent over backward, violating the spirit of the law, to reduce workers’ bargaining power.
So what’s keeping paychecks down? Major employers like Wal-Mart have decided that their interests are best served by treating workers as a disposable commodity, paid as little as possible and encouraged to leave after a year or two. And these employers don’t worry that angry workers will respond to their war on wages by forming unions, because they know that government officials, who are supposed to protect workers’ rights, will do everything they can to come down on the side of the wage-cutters.

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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NYT Editorial: Kicked while down

October 7, 2006
Kicked While Down
In a blow to labor unions, the National Labor Relations Board recently expanded the pool of workers exempted from union membership. Specifically, the labor board found that registered nurses who assigned others to some shifts or tasks were supervisors, and thus not eligible to join unions. It was a bad decision, not only because of the specifics of the case, but also in its broader ramifications.
There are good reasons to bar managers from unionizing. It is extremely difficult to run a large organization efficiently if the people at the top are unable to easily hold their managers accountable for overall success or failure. But responsibilities like making out a schedule do not amount to management. If they did, interns would be the only non- managers in many of today’s workplaces.
Companies facing unionization drives have long found it convenient to discover that employees who are basically rank-and-file workers are actually managers. That seems to be the case with the nurses. The board’s decision opens the door for possibly millions of health-care workers and other professionals to be disqualified from the option of union protection.
This is one more step curbing the power of organized labor since President Bush came to office. The administration’s philosophical vendetta against unions has come at a time when their power is already on the wane. Membership has fallen to 7.8 percent of the private work force in this country, from over a third in the 1950’s. Far from balancing the scales, the anti-union drive comes when workers are already at a historic low in bargaining strength. Despite a growing economy and rising productivity, hourly wages adjusted for inflation have declined 2 percent since 2003. Corporate profits, meanwhile, are at their highest share of gross domestic product since the 1960’s.
We are getting closer and closer to a work force with no benefits and no substantive protections. Some unions succumbed to corruption and contributed to their own decline. But their role in giving common workers a voice is essential to a functioning society.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

Borrowing During the Bush Years - Deeper and Deeper - New York Times

Borrowing During the Bush Years - Deeper and Deeper - New York Times
Deeper and Deeper

There is fresh evidence, if any more were needed, that excessive borrowing during the Bush years will make the nation poorer.

For most of the past five and a half years, interest rates have been low, allowing the government to borrow more and more — to cut taxes while fighting two expensive wars — without having to shoulder higher interest payments.

That’s over now. For the first time during President Bush’s tenure, the government’s interest bill is expected to rise in 2006, from $184 billion in 2005 to $220 billion this year, up nearly 20 percent. That increase — $36 billion — makes interest the fastest-growing component of federal spending, and continued brisk growth is likely. According to projections by Congress’s budget office, the interest bill will grow to $249 billion in 2007, and $270 billion in 2008.

All of that is money the government won’t have available to spend on other needs and priorities. And much of it won’t even be recycled back into the United States economy. That’s because borrowing from foreign countries has exploded during the Bush years. In 2005, the government paid about $77 billion in interest to foreign creditors in China, Japan and elsewhere.

And that’s not the worst of it. While foreign investors were putting up most of the $1.5 trillion the federal government has borrowed since 2001, they were also snapping up hundreds of billions of dollars in private sector securities, transactions that have been a big source of the easy money that allowed Americans to borrow heavily against their homes.

The result, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, is that for the first time in at least 90 years, the United States is now paying noticeably more to foreign creditors than it receives from its investments abroad. That is a momentous shift. It means that a growing share of America’s future collective income will flow abroad, leading to a lower standard of living in the United States than would otherwise have been achieved. Americans deserve better than this financial mess.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Insurance Horror Stories - New York Times

Insurance Horror Stories - New York Times
September 22, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Insurance Horror Stories

“When Steve and Leslie Shaeffer’s daughter, Selah, was diagnosed at age 4 with a potentially fatal tumor in her jaw, they figured their health insurance would cover the bulk of her treatment costs.” But “shortly after Selah’s medical bills hit $20,000, Blue Cross stopped covering them and eventually canceled her coverage retroactively.”

So begins a recent report in The Los Angeles Times titled “Sick but Insured? Think Again,” which offers a series of similar horror stories, and suggests that these stories represent a growing trend: more and more health insurers are finding ways to yank your insurance when you get sick.

This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Between 2000 and 2005, the number of Americans with private health insurance coverage fell by 1 percent. But over the same period, employment at health insurance companies rose a remarkable 32 percent. What are all those extra employees doing?

Now we know at least part of the answer: they’re working harder than ever at identifying people who really need medical care, and ensuring that they don’t get it. In the past, they mainly concentrated on screening out applicants likely to get sick. Now, it seems, they’re also devoting a lot of effort to finding pretexts for revoking insurance after they’ve already granted it. They typically do this by claiming that they weren’t notified about some pre-existing condition, even if the insured wasn’t aware of that condition when he or she bought the policy.

Welcome to the ugly world of American health care economics.

Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million. Meanwhile, employment in the private health services industry has risen 16 percent, to 12.6 million. Another 1.3 million people are employed at government hospitals. So we’re quickly approaching the point at which more Americans will be employed delivering health care than are employed producing manufactured goods.

Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

Because everyone faces some risk of incurring huge medical costs, only the superrich can afford to be without health insurance. Yet private insurers try to refuse coverage to those most likely to need it, and deny payment whenever they can get away with it.

The point isn’t that they’re evil or greedy (although you do wonder how the people who cut off the Schaeffers can look themselves in the mirror). The fact is that cruelty and injustice are the inevitable result of the current rules of the game. Blue Shield of California is a nonprofit insurance provider, yet as a spokesman put it, if his organization doesn’t follow the for-profit practice of selectively covering only the healthiest people, “we will end up with all the high-risk people.”

Now, before you panic about the state of your own coverage, you should know that the horror stories in The Los Angeles Times article all involve individual insurance; if your coverage comes via your employer, you’re reasonably secure against sudden cancellation.

But employment-based insurance is in rapid decline, as employers balk at the cost and more and more companies adopt Wal-Mart-style minimal-benefit policies. That’s why many people are turning to individual insurance — only to find out, in some cases, that they didn’t get what they thought they paid for.

And here’s the thing: it’s all unnecessary.

Every other wealthy nation manages to provide almost all its citizens with guaranteed health insurance, while spending less on health care than we do. And there’s no mystery why: we’re paying the price for pointless, destructive reliance on private insurers. Medicare, which is a universal health insurance program for older Americans, spends less than 2 cents of every dollar on administrative costs, leaving 98 cents to pay for medical care. By contrast, private insurance companies spend only around 80 cents of each dollar in premiums on medical care; much of the remaining 20 cents is spent denying insurance to those who need it.

If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Mean or green: Organic at Walmart

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Mean or Green?


[from the September 11, 2006 issue]

A laughing baby is covered in baby food. He's making a gushy mess, as babies do, but having a grand time. A magic word reassures us--before we've had a chance to worry--that the food itself is wholesome. That word, of course, is "organic." More surprising, to many viewers of this advertisement, will be the origin of this virtuous feast: Wal-Mart. This summer, the mega-retailer launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign with an irresistible promise: "Introducing Organics at the Wal-Mart price." The commercial, which cannily plays to mothers' worries about how pesticides and additives may affect their children's health, has run on network and cable TV; a print version will appear in Parenting, Real Simple, Self and Cooking Light. Already one of the nation's leading organics vendors, Wal-Mart announced this past spring its intention to enter the market far more aggressively, to double its inventory and eventually offer organics at only 10 percent above the price of conventional food.

Food bearing the government's organic label can be, for low- and middle-income shoppers, prohibitively expensive. That's why, to many observers, an "organic Wal-Mart" represents the democratization of healthier--and better-tasting--food. Bob Scowcroft of the Organic Farming Research Foundation argues, too, that environmentalists should cheer Wal-Mart's move, which will "turn hundreds of thousands of acres" now being farmed conventionally to organic. "Think of the tonnage of toxins and carcinogens which will disappear from the earth," he says. Scowcroft also points to research by the Swiss government showing that organic farming can reduce global warming--actually drawing nitrogen and carbon from the atmosphere. Like the retailer's push for fuel-efficient trucking, Wal-Mart's entry into the organic sector could turn out to be another example of how one decision by this company--however market-driven--might do tremendous good, simply because of its scale.

But while there are potential upsides to Wal-Mart's move, it also offers plenty of reasons to worry. To advocates of local economies, like Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and co-chair of the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, an organic Wal-Mart could do "more harm than good" because of the changes it will bring about in the organic food industry. For example, she cites Wal-Mart's likely impact on many small farmers. In other industries Wal-Mart's aggressive competition has proved devastating to small producers, from TV manufacturers to conventional pork farmers. Though Wal-Mart, like Whole Foods, has agreed to source some products locally, most family-scale organic farmers will not supply big-box retailers directly. But many farmers will nonetheless struggle to meet Wal-Mart's price, in order to supply competing retailers or simply hang on to customers. "Every farmer has to compete because Wal-Mart is in every market," explains Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, a progressive research group that advocates for small farmers. "From an economic justice standpoint," he adds, Wal-Mart's plan to go more aggressively organic is "a disaster" because it could prove ruinous for so many family farms.

Some of the concern over small farmers may be sentimental, a remnant of our national identity as a land of Jeffersonian citizen-yeomen. And some detect, in the progressive reaction to Wal-Mart's organic ambitions, a whiff of countercultural cliqueishness. Gary Hirshberg, president of Stonyfield Farm, which supplies organic yogurt to Wal-Mart, is a former hippie who lived on an organic solar- and wind-powered farm in the 1960s and '70s. He dismisses Wal-Mart critics in the organic movement as "activists who don't want to think of organic as a segment. They think of it as a lifestyle." To Hirshberg, organic Wal-Mart is a sign of the movement's success, and those who don't like it are elitist purists, dedicated to their own marginality.

But there are unsentimental reasons to root for small farmers in this drama. They are important to a progressive vision, partly because they are more likely to be farming organic out of principle than a large corporation is and thus more inclined not to cut corners and compromise standards. People who live on their farms with their families also have a compelling incentive to treat the land better. Regina Beidler is a Mennonite who lives with her dairy-farmer husband, Brent, and 8-year-old daughter, Erin, on 145 acres with forty cows in Randolph Center, Vermont. Because the Beidlers farm organically--which as defined by the Department of Agriculture means no pesticides, petroleum-based fertilizers or sewage-sludge-based fertilizers--Erin roams the farm freely (her job is to push the button on the grain elevator). "It's reassuring to know she isn't being exposed to those [toxic] substances," says her mother. "It's much more child-friendly."

Perhaps even more convincingly, as groups like the Organic Consumers Association point out, transporting food long distances is a staggering waste of energy and contributes to global warming. According to research by Brian Halweil of the Worldwatch Institute, our food typically travels 1,500 to 2,500 miles to reach our plate, 25 percent farther than in 1980. By the time we sit down to eat it, a meal from a conventional grocery store has used four to seventeen times more petroleum than a meal made from local ingredients. While Wal-Mart officials have expressed concern about the "food miles" issue, industry observers predict that most of Wal-Mart's produce will travel significant distances--Chile, Kenya and China are some of the likeliest low-cost sources, according to Mary Hendrickson, director of the University of Missouri's Food Circles Networking Project--raising confusing questions about whether organic Wal-Mart will, on balance, hurt or help the planet. (Just to confuse the environmental issue still more, Bob Scowcroft points out that converting all those acres in China will clean up a lot of groundwater there, which is obviously good for the Chinese.)

Most small organic farmers interviewed for this article believed that in organics, as in many other sectors, Wal-Mart's low prices would, ultimately, mean lower standards. Stonyfield Farm's Hirshberg, who has had many discussions with Wal-Mart officials about the company's commitment to organics, says Wal-Mart does not plan to lower its price by lowering standards; rather, he says, Wal-Mart is committed to delivering the savings through efficiencies within its own system. But Wal-Mart's behavior as a major player in the organic dairy industry has already suggested otherwise. It has also provided a window on how the company will treat small organic farmers: just fine, until they can no longer provide the lowest possible price.

When Wal-Mart began selling organic milk, one of its first suppliers was Organic Valley, a cooperative of small farmers committed to organic principles. Organic Valley farmers, including Regina Beidler, were proud to be reaching Wal-Mart's customers, people like themselves who were struggling to make ends meet. But Organic Valley faced a milk shortage, so when the co-op found itself outpriced by a competitor, Horizon, which is owned by Dean Foods, the farmers decided not to engage in a price war to stay on the Wal-Mart shelf but to continue supplying the smaller food stores that had long formed the backbone of their customer base. "We didn't want to make compromises," says Organic Valley CEO and farmer George Siemon, meaning that the farmers needed to get a fair price while maintaining their product's integrity.

Horizon, which controls 55 percent of the organic dairy market, meets Wal-Mart's low price in part by providing appalling conditions for its cows. The Cornucopia Institute's Mark Kastel, first reached for this article as he was standing on Horizon's 4,000-cow Idaho feedlot, says the cows were "standing in 90-degree heat. No shade, no water. These animals are living very short lives." (To be considered "organic," animals--whether they are raised for meat, milk or eggs--must be given some access to the outdoors. It is an irony of the bureaucracy and inequity surrounding federal certification that by following the letter if not the spirit of such regulations--that is, for some of their lives Horizon's cows are outside, even if they have no room to move around--Horizon can call its milk organic, while many small farmers, whose cows roam freely and munch on grass, cannot; in many cases the farmers can't afford the expense of the certification process, or are put off by the paperwork.) The Organic Consumers Association has urged shoppers to boycott Horizon. As savvy consumers learn that sometimes the organic label tells an incomplete story, Organic Valley stands to benefit. "Organic Valley has long been built on the idea that family farming is a better way to give care to animals and the land," Siemon says diplomatically. "Consumers have a hard time believing that large factory farms are really organic."

To be sure, some family-scale organic farmers are benefiting from Wal-Mart's entry into the industry. Horizon buys at least half its milk from hundreds of small-scale farmers, as even a dogged critic like Kastel, author of a report called "Maintaining the Integrity of Organic Milk," acknowledges. And while Organic Valley isn't supplying Wal-Mart directly anymore, some Organic Valley milk does end up, much transformed, in the Wal-Mart customer's shopping cart: Stonyfield Farm buys milk from the cooperative to make organic yogurt. Says Stonyfield's Hirshberg: "If you're serious and sincere about family farms, then your ultimate goal is to be in Wal-Mart, to be where food is sold."

Still, the Horizon/Wal-Mart alliance is potentially ominous for family-scale dairy farmers, because, as Kastel points out, "there's a shortage today, but a year from now," as producers rush to meet the demands of big retailers like Wal-Mart, "you could have a surplus." A milk surplus could erode the organic premium and drive many small organic dairy farmers into bankruptcy, just as it has wiped out many of their conventional neighbors. Organic farmers, especially in the Northeast, are already in a precarious situation because of high fuel, grain and transportation costs. Travis Forgues, a second-generation farmer in Alburg, Vermont, the state's farthest-northwest town, milks eighty grass-fed cows. A 33-year-old father of three young children, he speaks for many small farmers when he says, "If we didn't have the organic market, my dad and I would have been out of here long ago." On the danger of a surplus fueled by demand from Wal-Mart and other big-box stores, Forgues says, "Anyone who's not worried about what's going to happen is crazy."

With Wal-Mart on the scene, the strength of alternative and local economic institutions will determine whether small farmers like Forgues survive. With 871 farmers and growing, Organic Valley, the largest organic farmers' cooperative in the country, is still going strong even without Wal-Mart's business, maintaining farmer control while still distributing on an impressive scale. (In the grocery store on my corner in New York City, which is not a natural-food store or a food co-op, Organic Valley milk is sold right next to Horizon, and that's the case in stores all over the country.) Farmers agree that the co-op model is critical, helping them maintain some power in an increasingly concentrated market. "The farmer has to be in the driver's seat," says Forgues. Because of the organic milk shortage and the Organic Valley cooperative, he continues to get a fair price and has survived a difficult season far more easily than most of his farmer neighbors. Of Wal-Mart, he says, "We're not going to cut our price so we can get onto that shelf. We have to make sure farmers don't get removed from the process, as happened in the conventional food market."

In a nod to the savvy consumer's growing interest in nearby food, Organic Valley is in the process of regionalizing many of its operations, so that even though farmers in twenty-three states belong to the co-op, customers in New England buying Organic Valley milk will be, increasingly, buying from New England farmers. Farmers' markets, which are growing in popularity, will also be critical institutions in the organic Wal-Mart era. Jim Goodman, a Wisconsin dairy farmer who tends 400 certified-organic acres with his brother, sells to a local cheesemaker (as well as directly to customers through mail order) but also relies on the weekly farmers' market in Madison, where he sells beef. He doesn't think Wal-Mart is going to affect his business. "People who come to the farmers' market are shopping there because they want to deal directly with the farmer," he says. "They want to meet the person who raised it, put it in their hand. When they get home they can say, 'This came from Mike, this came from Jim.' When you're sitting down to dinner that makes so much difference. I'd be surprised if they would go to Wal-Mart just because it's cheaper."

For local food to become more than a niche market and begin to transform our relationship to the environment, however, energy is going to have to be a lot more expensive. For the majority of Americans to have the incentive to buy local, the cost of food transport would have to reflect its true environmental costs. Many local food advocates speak--half with alarm, half wishfully--of "peak oil," the notion that we are running out of oil and will soon be forced to grow our own food and cooperate with our neighbors. That neo-primitivist scenario, if it ever comes to pass, is not going to arrive nearly quickly enough to substitute for the necessary work of persuading Americans to change our lifestyles, and advocating policies that conserve energy.

"Consumers have to be more educated," says Goodman. He thinks it's important to tell people why the prices are higher: Organic is not overpriced; rather, conventional food is cheap because its costs are passed along to the environment, small farmers and the health of those who eat it. "If people can't afford to buy organic," he says, "it's because they are not paid enough in their jobs, and don't have health insurance." That, Goodman insists, should be part of a broader economic justice agenda: A living wage should allow a person to buy responsibly grown, healthy food for her family. "With organic food," he explains, "there's no hidden cost." It's also true that at farmers' markets and roadside stands, organic food is often cheaper than in stores, because there's no profiteering middleman.

Taking their case to the shopper, Organic Valley farmers like Travis Forgues have been traveling the country on speaking tours. The Organic Consumers Association is working to create a domestic fair-trade group, whose label would assure the consumer that food was produced in a way that was environmentally and socially responsible--giving an edge to smaller, more conscientious producers over Dean Foods. With the goal, too, of making local organic produce affordable to the poorest Wal-Mart shoppers--those who will probably never be able to afford a meal at the White Dog Cafe, which runs around $50--the OCA is also working to broaden a program making it easier for farmers' markets to accept food stamps.

Many organic farmers are social activists and idealists who care about the environment, animal rights and economic justice. But many are also entrepreneurial--and that's how they will survive the new era of big-box organic. The challenge Wal-Mart poses, says Bob Scowcroft, is "to get consumers who discover organics at the Wal-Mart to get out of their car and to the farmers' market."

From the Nation: Hard work to be organic

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Hard Labor


[from the September 11, 2006 issue]

The Grimmway packing plant in Arvin, California, a drab farmworker town fifteen miles southeast of Bakersfield, is where carrots go to be reborn. After months of being coaxed and weeded in the nearby fields, the vegetables are yanked from the ground by a mechanical harvester. A convoy of open-bed trucks carries them to the plant, a cluster of tan, windowless buildings with mysterious-looking pipes and gadgets protruding from the sides. Here they are washed, sliced, sanded and emerge as "baby" carrots--the snackable treats in the cellophane bag familiar to health-conscious shoppers everywhere.

Once the carrots pass through an opening in the side of the main building, they enter a world that seems miles away from the fields and orchards outside. Dozens of machines fill the chilly air with a deafening noise. Employees wade through pools of water several inches deep on the plant's rubber floor. There are carrots everywhere--scattered on the floor, piled inside carts and vats, in heaps at the base of the metal equipment.

At the grading tables, the new arrivals float by teams of Latinas in masks and hairnets who separate the good ones from those with imperfections. Supervisors stand by to time bathroom breaks of no more than seven minutes and to scold the women if they speak or glance up from their work.

Here, surrounded by the rhythmic thwack-thwacking of the machines, Beatriz Gonzalez stands for eight hours a day and sorts. Wearing rubber gloves and down ski pants to keep her warm, she deftly reaches into the orange tide, plucking out defective specimens and tossing them into a center tub. Years of performing the repetitive motion have swollen her forearms and left her with arthritis in her knuckles. When she started working in the Arvin plant, she earned the state minimum of $6.75 an hour. Four years later, she makes $7.30.

A petite woman with fluffy bangs and rounded features, Gonzalez studied law in her native Mexico but left school for the United States in search of wealth. "Now," she says sadly, "I have neither money nor education."

Gonzalez's workplace looks like any number of packing sheds in California's fruit and vegetable industry, where the state that grows half the country's produce has for decades relied on a low-paid immigrant workforce to tend and harvest its crops. But this is no ordinary plant--Gonzalez's employer is a leader in the organic food business, an industry that prides itself on a gentler approach to the land and the people who work it. Her experience illustrates just how far the organic food movement has yet to go to fulfill its promise of a more socially just food system.

I visited Grimmway because I was curious about organic food and the people who grow it. I grew up eating vegetables from my mother's garden. Fresh-picked zucchini blossoms fried and stuffed with cheese, homemade bread soaked in the juice of heirloom tomatoes--these are some of my most vivid childhood memories. And when I go grocery shopping, I'm drawn to fruits and vegetables that look like the ones on which I was raised: real and imperfect, sometimes a little dirty, but looking and smelling like fruits and vegetables rather than waxy widgets that just fell off an assembly line. In other words, I buy organic, and I feel good about the decision, even if it means spending a little more.

I'm not alone. For many consumers, an organic apple tastes sweeter not only because it's healthier but because it conjures up a vision of a simpler, more pure world, where we produce our food without wreaking havoc on the environment and our relationship to it is unmediated by fear, guilt or the drive for excessive profits. This image of a food utopia has fueled the growth of the organic food industry, which is expanding by 20 percent each year.

But the farmworkers who bring in the organic harvest face a different reality, one largely invisible to food buyers. Whether they work in the fields or in processing plants, most workers on organic farms, like those on conventional farms, are immigrants from Mexico who earn minimum wage or slightly more and receive no benefits. Fieldwork on organic farms can be especially strenuous because farmers employ back-breaking methods like hand-weeding to avoid using pesticides.

California's more than 2,000 organic farms range from multimillion-dollar companies like Grimmway, where temporary agencies and labor contractors supervise the workers, to small family ranches where owners enjoy good relations with employees but pay them so little that they rely on public assistance and charity. Organic farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley, the state's largest agricultural region, often live in the same towns as conventional farmworkers, where poverty rates can reach one-third, pesticide drift is an ever-present problem and the food available for purchase is likely to be high in fat and low in nutrients. A 1999 study of 150 California organic farmers found that more than half paid their workers the minimum wage; less than 10 percent paid more than $7.50 per hour.

"Generally a consumer who goes to Whole Foods makes the assumption that if producers are growing in a way that's conscious of the environment, that's going to be better for workers," said Martha Guzmán, legislative advocate for the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, a farmworker advocacy group. "And that assumption benefits the organic industry. But when you look at the labor practices that matter most--paying decent wages, treating workers with respect--none of that is really related to whether you use a certain type of pesticide."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. The homesteaders and commune dwellers who pioneered sustainable agriculture in the 1960s saw their movement as a wholesale alternative to industrial agriculture, with its poisonous chemicals, soil-depleting techniques and exploitative labor practices. As culinary historian Warren Belasco explains in his book Appetite for Change, early farmers' "radical vision extended the organic farmer's cooperation with nature to a cooperative model in human relations."

Yet after spending several months visiting California organic farms and talking to consumers, workers, farmers and retailers, I heard a sharp debate about whether organic farmers should do better for their employees. The clamor has intensified in the past year, as farmers and worker advocates have clashed over state regulations intended to protect farmworkers. In the spring of last year, researchers at the University of California published a study showing that organic farmers widely oppose requirements that they pay benefits and allow farmhands to organize.

Nonetheless, there is a small but growing campaign, backed by some of organic agriculture's staunchest supporters, for a new kind of food labeling, one that would guarantee that food is produced in ways that benefit workers as well as the environment.

As organic farming comes of age, with demand outpacing supply, many are asking the same questions I did after my tour of Grimmway: How did organic farmers come to emulate the labor practices of a system they fought so hard to escape? And when it comes to the way Americans treat the people who grow our food, is this as good as it gets?

"Farming is farming," says Fred Rappleye, a manager for Grimmway's organic division, when I tell him some criticize the company's low wages. "When you get into organic you are being more proactive with the environment, but [boosting] pay is a hard thing to do. Labor is always the highest cost, and it's one of the things we try to keep under control. All of organic is a business, too, and you have to make money."

And Grimmway does make money--$450 million in 2005, according to analysts. The firm sells more than 40 percent of the world's carrots, more than any other grower. Advocates for workers say the company skimps on labor costs using the time-honored practice of contracting out.

"The motivation for hiring contractors is to avoid direct responsibility for wages and benefits," says United Farm Workers (UFW) spokesperson Marc Grossman. "You have no job rights--when the harvest begins you have to come with your hat in your hand and beg for your job, even if you've worked for the same grower for twenty years."

Grimmway and contractor Esparza Enterprises currently face a lawsuit claiming contract workers were sexually harassed while working at the company. The state Department of Labor has also fined Esparza for failing to train employees to use dangerous equipment and for hiring children without work permits. The checkered record is typical of farm labor contractors. And indeed, nothing about Grimmway's business practices suggests that its workers fare worse than those on other large farms. The company's owners, conventional farmers with little connection to the organic movement, have simply chosen agribusiness-as-usual over the movement's social justice principles.

On a foggy day Rappleye, a tall twentysomething with startlingly clear blue eyes, drove me around the dirt roads of Arvin. Around us the company's fields seemed to stretch forever, some barren, others covered with fernlike carrot tops or a bright mix of collards and chards.

When Grimmway began farming organically in the mid-1990s, Rappleye explained, it found the new venture to be far more labor-intensive than conventional agriculture. In a conventional field, one worker can spray weeds with pesticides at a cost of $30 per acre, he said. Organic farming requires crews of laborers for weeding that can cost up to $1,000 per acre.

The physically demanding nature of organic farming sparked a recent battle that pitted organic farmers against farmworkers. The UFW had long drawn attention to musculoskeletal problems suffered by people who work stooped over in the fields. In the 1970s the union led a successful campaign to ban the short-handled hoe, arguing that the tool caused back injuries. When union founder Cesar Chavez died, friends at the funeral placed one of the hoes on his casket. But growers soon found a way around the ban by requiring workers to weed by hand. Moisés Olivera, a migrant worker who's hopped from job to job throughout the Central Valley, explained to me how it feels.

"You go along on your knees," he said. "There is a constant, numbing pain. By the end of a year people develop a lot of problems with their bones."

In 2004 farmworker groups lobbied the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration to restrict hand-weeding. Organic farmers led the backlash against the proposal. While they have devised many creative tactics for banishing weeds without pesticides--singeing them with torches, slicing them with disks, allowing them to flourish before planting and then mowing them down--every organic farmer I talked to insisted there's only one way to completely rid your crop of the pesky plants: sitting, kneeling or bending, plucking them out one by one.

It's tremendously costly. Yet farmers say there's little alternative; long-handled hoes, which would allow workers to stand upright, can destroy some of the delicate specialty crops, such as baby leaf lettuce, that many organic farmers cultivate. At a minimum they would force farmers to space their plants farther apart, cutting into profits by yielding a smaller harvest on the same area of land.

"You're talking about growing five times as many acres," said Rappleye. "Your costs go outta sight. There's not enough ground or enough manure in the valley to farm that way."

The farmers ultimately triumphed, and OSHA exempted organic farms from the new rules, which went into effect last year. For labor advocates like Martha Guzmán, who had sought to reach a compromise, it was a slap in the face. "I realized then that I could get my organization to support a conservation act or greater subsidies for transitional assistance [to organic farmers]," she said. "But none of that was being really reciprocated. It's just not part of their vision."

Of course, workers benefit most obviously from organic farming by not being exposed to pesticides. But Don Villarejo, an agricultural policy analyst who conducted the largest-ever clinical study of farmworker health in California, argues that while pesticide exposure is important, it's not the most crucial health issue on the farm. Villarejo pointed to data on reported workers' compensation claims between 1990 and 1999. Of the major claims, where insurance companies paid $5,000 or more, only 1.5 percent stemmed directly or indirectly from pesticides. Almost half were strain injuries, followed by fractures, sprains and lacerations.

"Yes, pesticides are a concern, and it's good farmers are trying to figure out how to grow without them," he said. "But if you really want to deal with the fact that workers are being killed and maimed all the time, you have to look elsewhere."

After three straight weeks of rainy weather on Riverdog Farm, owner Tim Mueller is looking harried. Dressed like a stereotypical hippie farmer with a ponytail, 1970s-style glasses, shorts and galoshes, he dashes back and forth from the packing shed to the cramped trailer that serves as the farm's office, fixing computer problems, helping an employee translate documents into Spanish and checking in on crates of vegetables that packers are readying for shipment.

This spring's heavy storms have destroyed thousands of dollars in crops here in the Capay Valley, a narrow slice of land near Sacramento where small farmers like Mueller grow specialty produce for chic restaurants. Mueller estimates that he has lost 10 percent of the gross income from his 250-acre ranch, half of which goes to labor costs. The tour he takes me on is a trail of horrors: the peas that were sickened by the rain, the broccoli field with a flood at one end, the stacks of seedling trays by the greenhouse, waiting to be planted.

When Mueller looks at this wreckage, he sees numbers. More specifically, he sees his workers' paychecks. "I'm looking at their year-to-date earnings and I'm going, Not only are we behind on earnings, but all of them are behind," he says. "That's what these greenhouses full of plants symbolize."

Smaller farms like Riverdog make up the majority of organic farms in California. But their share of the profits and acreage is shrinking as organic giants like Grimmway and Salinas Valley-based Earthbound Farms increasingly dominate the market. Most survive through some combination of farmers' markets, wholesale and restaurant sales, and home deliveries. It's not an easy living. In a bad year Mueller might gross 2 percent less than his expenses. A fantastic year means 4 percent profit.

So how are Riverdog's workers faring in that eco-economy? I meet several of them in a soggy field where they are cleaning leeks, sitting on overturned crates, their legs ankle-deep in mud. They get along well with Mueller, they say, and like their job--except in months like this, when the least senior employees go days without pay because there is nothing for them to do. Most earn California's minimum wage of $6.75 per hour, and some have worked fewer than twenty hours in the past week.

"We're all waiting for summer, when the tomatoes are ripe; we work ten hours a day and we can send a little to Mexico to save or to build a house," says Consuelo Romo, a crew leader with a toothy grin and a tan bandanna wrapped around her head. "But in the winter, we don't have enough even to cover our own expenses."

Romo is a single mother with two kids and one of a minority of workers whose salaries top the minimum. She makes $8.50 per hour, just below the poverty line for a family of three. She gets canned food and used clothing from local nonprofits, and struggles to pay $20 a day for childcare at an unlicensed center. I ask Romo if she ever buys organic food for her children. Usually when I've asked farmworkers this question, they've laughed at the idea of such luxury. Romo looks embarrassed. "It's an economic question," she says. "I buy food grown with chemicals so I can save to buy something else."

Like Romo, most organic farmworkers can't afford to eat the food they produce, says Gail Feenstra, food systems coordinator for the Sustainable Agriculture Program at the University of California, Davis. "They're in a community where they don't even have access to it," she told me. "What they do have access to is very processed food that is helping to create diseases like diabetes, and government food programs that give out lard and canned products high in sodium and fat."

In 2004 Feenstra and her colleagues surveyed close to 200 mostly small organic farmers on their labor practices; two-thirds supplied no benefits. Mueller has put together a health plan for workers but says it's a trade-off, leaving less money for wages. There are some success stories, like one man who got a free hernia operation he'd been putting off for years. But most Riverdog workers don't meet the plan's eligibility requirements of six straight months of full-time work.

As we sit in Mueller's truck, with the rain pattering on the roof, he tells me how he and his wife, Trini, started Riverdog fifteen years ago, with just five acres. "For most of us who got involved with organic farming then, it was about a social movement," he says. "It was about land reform, labor reform, bringing small farms back. That's all gone. It's been legislated away, economized away. There is no dollar for that. I think most small organic farmers know their workers and want to do right by them but have varying levels of feeling like they can afford to do it."

Mueller plants less lucrative crops like alfalfa in the winter so he can provide year-round employment, and is known to kick in a few hundred dollars as a no-interest loan to help a worker buy a car or a piece of furniture. Still, he rails against labor regulations that he sees as costly and inefficient, like a 2005 law requiring farmers to stop work in very high temperatures, passed after several farmworkers died from heat exhaustion.

"Farming is about common sense, which you can't really legislate," he says. "When people fuss about us watching the little numbers, we say, Look, we have to do that just to make sure we don't go under."

His comments capture the sentiments of many small organic farmers, who feel their financial situation leaves little room for idealism when it comes to working conditions. Farmers in the University of California study said they agreed in theory that labor standards were important but disagreed with adding them to the requirements for organic certification. Close to half said organic farmers should not have to allow farmworkers to organize--a right guaranteed under California law.

Small farmers' objections have derailed earlier attempts to set labor standards for organic farms. In 1990 Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act, directing the Agriculture Department to establish a board of growers, consumers and retailers charged with developing the first national rules for the organic industry. Third-generation farmer Michael Sligh, founding chair of the board, brought a labor organizer to address one meeting. According to Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota grain farmer who served on the board, the group batted around some ideas and came close to agreeing that organic farmers should be required to provide employee health benefits.

"Then one of the farmers from California raised his hand and said, 'I really agree that we should do this, but my problem is I can't even provide health insurance for my family.' It became such a complex issue that nobody really knew how to deal with it, so it fell by the wayside."

There's little hint of these dilemmas in the shelf displays at Whole Foods Market in Berkeley, California. Posters hanging over the produce bins feature smiling white farmers posed against backdrops of lush fields, the sun glistening on their hair. More signs plastered to the bins helpfully spell out everything from the nutritional content of a coconut to the pros and cons of produce wax. None address working conditions.

A gaggle of shoppers fill the aisles, peering at lists and hefting and prodding vegetables. Public school teacher Carmen Carreras is picking out artichokes for dinner. They were grown conventionally, but she almost always buys organic. "I buy it because it's better for everybody," she tells me immediately. "Better for the environment, better for me and better for the workers."

Carreras says workers on organic farms must work hard, "but I imagine they don't get as many illnesses related to their work. I guess it's easier for them, and I hope they feel more connected to nature because all the processes are natural."

Carreras's comments are typical of what market researchers call the "hard core"--those customers who buy mostly organic, shop at farmers' markets and are more likely to rank social justice issues as a high priority. While they may know little about actual working conditions on organic farms, they believe that their purchases are helping to create a more egalitarian food system. For them the word "organic" evokes not simply a growing method but a political and lifestyle choice.

But not everyone thinks like Carreras, according to Laurie Demeritt, president of the Hartman Group, a market research firm specializing in the natural food industry. The mainstreaming of organic is creating a new kind of organic consumer, says Demeritt, one who's more concerned about the immediate health of her family than anything else. These shoppers tend to understand organic in terms of the narrow, technical definition put forward by the National Organic Standards Board: a growing method that does not involve the use of synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.

"Today's organic consumer looks like the average US consumer," says Demeritt. "They haven't put a lot of thought into what they're consuming until they have a child. Then they think, 'I want my child to be healthy, so I'm going to buy them organic milk.'"

Such consumers rank concerns about workers very low on their list, if at all. It's not that they're anti-worker, says Demeritt. They're just not as invested in their buying decisions as the hard-core group. "They don't really have a lot of information and they don't really want it--as long as they can think they're making a better choice, that's enough."

Consumers, of course, also care about price, and organic food's relatively high cost turns off many potential buyers. If higher wages equal higher prices, as any Wal-Mart spokesperson will tell you, wouldn't bettering working conditions on farms cement organic products' status as luxury items? Is agriculture a zero-sum game, where we must choose between access to affordable healthy food and decent living standards for the people who grow it?

Feenstra, the UC Davis researcher, doesn't think so. "I think it's a false choice," she says. "Most of the money in the food system, about 80 percent, is in the marketing, processing and distribution sector, compared with 20 percent for production. Organic food is not just fruits and vegetables; a lot of it is processed, and that shoots the price up. So when you're talking about labor costs, they're probably going to add 1 or 2 cents, compared with what you're paying for excess packaging, transport from here to there, all those layers of cellophane and bright-colored boxes."

Feenstra envisions a decentralized food network with people buying minimally processed food through direct markets, and schools and hospitals serving up organic meals made with ingredients from local farms.

"It's not just on the backs of organic growers to fix this thing," she continues. "It's going to take a long, slow shift to get us from a system that's hierarchical, with a few people controlling the resources, to one that's more disaggregated."

Strawberry farmer Jim Cochran seems to agree. The owner of Swanton Berry Farm was the first and only California organic farmer to negotiate a union contract with his workers, after hearing UFW president Arturo Rodriguez speak at a conference in 1998. Swanton's employees form a labor aristocracy of sorts, with wages of $8 to $12 an hour, medical and dental care, pensions and paid vacations. During the workday, ranchera music wafts over Swanton's fields, which lie on the coast near Santa Cruz and have a sweeping view of the Pacific. The men talk and joke as they move down the rows, which are elevated to ease the strain of weeding and picking.

Cochran balances his budget by following a strict philosophy: He plants an older variety of berries that customers prize for its full-bodied taste. He processes, packs and distributes the berries himself, and avoids extra debt by leasing his land from a nonprofit land trust. The brand draws a loyal following in farmers' markets and natural food stores, bringing in enough money to pay his hefty labor costs.

"Farmers need to see that it can be done," says Cochran. "They're afraid because they look at their returns and they think it's impossible. But we need to go from saying 'I'm doing the best I can' to realizing we should do more."

Across the country, small bands of eco-crusaders are developing ways to reward organic farmers who make commitments to their workers. The Organic Consumers Association, a grassroots group that organizes buyers over the Internet, is working to get "sweat-free food" ordinances on the books in major cities. The Oregon-based Food Alliance offers a "sustainable agriculture" certification to farmers who earn high scores in categories that include training their workers and establishing procedures to resolve conflicts.

Sligh, the founding chair of the National Organic Standards Board, helps lead a coalition that is developing a social justice label to be used alongside organic certification. Placed on a fruit or vegetable, the sticker would signal to customers that the food was grown under equitable conditions, on a farm that provides healthcare and respects workers' right to organize. Members of the New Jersey-based Farmworkers Support Committee played a key role in developing the program, which hits natural food stores next year. The goal is to educate consumers about labor issues while helping small farmers differentiate themselves in their competition with agribusiness.

"When consumers vote with their food dollars, they have tremendous power," says Sligh. "Every time we go to the grocery store we're choosing what kind of food system we want."

One challenge could be convincing retailers. Whole Foods has resisted advertising products as "fair trade," a similar labeling system that guarantees Third World farmers an adequate price for their goods. "We find labeling products 'fair trade' is unfair because it insinuates that other products sold in our stores are unfairly traded. And that's simply not true," Ashley Hawkins, a spokesperson for the chain, told me.

In the end, whether such a labeling system succeeds may depend on the willingness and ability of consumers and workers to connect across boundaries of race, class and geography. Since 2003, Americans concerned about animal welfare have been able to buy meat, poultry and eggs with a "Certified Humane" label guaranteeing that the livestock were raised with good shelter and a nutritious diet. Can organic food buyers be persuaded to show the same care for their fellow humans? If the labeling advocates have their way, we're about to find out.