A decade after the Geneva-based World Trade Organization (WTO) was launched, a growing array of US laws has come under attack in the WTO's closed dispute resolution tribunals, while claims made by WTO proponents that the institution would increase US wages by $1,700 per year for the average American family and enhance global economic stability have not been realized, Public Citizen said 1/11/05.
Since the 1994 Uruguay Round of global trade talks that established the WTO, the US trade deficit has skyrocketed more than 500% in nominal terms (not adjusted for inflation), with projections showing the 2004 deficit will be $600 bn. That's 5.5% of national income &endash;- a post-World War II high. US Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan considers the deficit a significant drag on US economic growth and a threat to the economy, given the growing weakness of the US dollar.
During the same period, the WTO has failed to deliver on promises of economic gains to poor countries; the number and percentage of people in the least-developed countries living in extreme poverty as defined by the World Bank (earning less than $1 per day) rose from the WTO's inception through 2001, according to World Bank figures. In fact, most of the gains in poverty reduction for developing countries over the period have come from China and India, two countries that diverge strongly from WTO-recommended policies. In China's case, the country began restructuring its rapidly growing economy only to meet WTO requirements in 2002.
In the first months of 2005, final rulings are expected on the controversial WTO decision that the US ban on Internet gambling and certain US agricultural subsidies are WTO-illegal. These cases implicate broad swaths of US regulatory authority and also potentially billions of dollars in commerce, Public Citizen noted.
To comply with WTO rules, the US has weakened food inspection standards for imported foods -&endash; even as the volume of such imports has exploded. WTO-compliant food safety rules require the US to deem other nations' food safety rules to be "equivalent" even when significantly different, allowing countries to import into the US meat and poultry that does not meet US safety standards. Foreign meat is indistinguishable to the consumer from USDA-inspected domestic products, since both bear the USDA grading seal, despite the fact that meat inspection practices in some of these countries are in clear violation of US law. The Bush administration has threatened to file a WTO challenge of the European Union's proposed innovative chemical safety policy, known as REACH, as a WTO "illegal barrier to trade."
"The WTO's 10-year record is abysmal, with growing instability and an unsustainable US trade deficit. Additionally, we have witnessed a spreading WTO cancer on democratic policymaking," said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch and author of Whose Trade Organization: A Comprehensive Guide to the WTO [The New Press]. "The WTO is an experiment that flopped. How much more damage must be documented before we try something else?" See tradewatch.org.
CAFTA COMING UP: Congress will wrestle with a number of trade issues in 2005, but the proposed Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) "is likely to be the most contentious," Reuters reported on 1/5/05. US business groups are pushing for a vote in the first half of the year on CAFTA, "which has languished at the White House since the Bush administration wrapped up negotiations in 2004," Reuters reports. The Austin American-Statesman reported 1/9/05, CAFTA will be a decisive test for the entire Bush outsourcing trade agenda. Within the broader context of stalled negotiations on the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), a Bush administration priority, and stalled negotiations on agriculture and the privatization of services at the WTO, CAFTA is seen as critical. Trade negotiators missed their 12/31/04 deadline to finish FTAA talks. The failure of CAFTA in Congress would put the nail in the coffin on that agreement, and mark a turning point in the direction of future trade agreements. Dems expect 20-35 additional votes side from Rs in districts heavy in textiles, manufacturing and sugar, which would be hit by the trade agreement.
SSI PRIVATIZERS PUMMELED: The GOP chairman of the House tax-writing committee has raised a political firestorm after admitting he wants Congress to discuss whether Social Security benefits should be tied to factors like gender, race, and employment. Appearing on NBC's Meet the Press, Rep. Bill Thomas also disagreed with President Bush's assertion that Social Security is "in crisis," increasing doubts among conservatives about the future of their privatization campaign. Stephen Moore, founder of the conservative Free Enterprise Fund, told the 1/25/05 Washington Times that "Republicans are just all over the map on Social Security" and that "the chance of getting reform done this year is looking to be unlikely." In another good sign for pro-Social Security progressives, AARP chief William Novelli 1/24/05 that his organization is "dead set" against any proposal that takes tax money out of Social Security to establish private accounts.
GOP DOUBLE-TALK ON PRIVATIZATION: Republicans are retreating from their talk about privatizing Social Security, but don't think that means they've given up the fight. They're just trying new tactics. Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com notes that Republicans originally called their plan to replace part of Social Security with private investment accounts "privatization." Then, in 2002, Republicans found that "privatization" didn't poll well, so the GOP HQ sent word down to stop using the word "privatization" and try to get reporters to stop using it too.
"Suddenly, 'privatization' was a slur, even though it was the Republicans' own word until word came down from party central to start zigging and by no means zag," Marshall said. "Orwellian word redefinition notwithstanding, however, for most folks the word 'privatization' still means 'private accounts'."
Marshall notes the website for Rep. Mike Ferguson (R-N.J.) says "Congressman Ferguson's principles on Social Security are clear: he opposes privatizing Social Security ..." But Ferguson also touts the awards he won from the "60 Plus Association," to demonstrate his Social Security bona-fides. Marshall notes that 60 Plus is a pro-privatization "astroturf" group, which on 2/15/02 proudly noted that in 1995 they "became the first national senior citizens group to endorse publicly the privatization of Social Security ..."
Rep. Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.) also claims to be a down-the-line anti-privatization man. But in a letter sent to constituents 1/19/05, he wrote, "I applaud President Bush's courage in addressing the long-term status of Social Security ... Don't be misled: neither President Bush nor any Republican in Congress has a plan to privatize Social Security. I will oppose any plan that privatizes Social Security, cuts benefits, cuts survivors or disability benefits, or raises payroll taxes."
Sen. Elizabeth Dole declares "no way am I for privatizing Social Security. I support the concept of allowing workers to contribute small portions of their own Social Security in the market because it would negate the need to nearly double payroll taxes on future workers to fund benefits ... This is not privatization," she says, "the government would always administer the program."
Matt Yglesias of Prospect.org notes that the Cato Institute published "Private Accounts Will Boost National Saving" on its website 12/23/04. "Since the term was apparently in good standing with privatization's leading advocates as little as three weeks ago, I see no reason we shouldn't keep using the term. Indeed, Cato's privatization advocacy website contains several hundred instances of the term. And in December, the president gathered supporters of his economic agenda for a "conference" in Washington, and "private accounts" are all over the transcript. ..."
Any Democrat who is seen helping the GOP "fix" Social Security needs a primary opponent.
MO. DEMS WARN PRIVATIZERS: A grassroots effort to warn off Democratic Congress members from collaborating with Republican efforts to privatize Social Security picked up steam Jan. 21 when the Democratic Club of Johnson County, in west central Mo., unanimously adopted a resolution similar to one adopted Jan. 3 by Democrats of San Fernando Valley, Calif., who resolved not to financially support any Democratic candidate "who expresses support, advocates for, or votes for ... any effort to phase out and/or replace Social Security, in whole or in part, in favor of a private accounts-based system," MyDD.com reported 1/22/05. See the resolution at dpsfv.com.
OTHER POWELL STEPS DOWN TOO: FCC Chairman Michael Powell announced 1/21/05 he will step down in March, modestly proclaiming he had " completed a bold and aggressive agenda." The Center for American Progess (americanprogressaction.org) noted that Powell will be best remembered for his crackdown on Janet Jackson's right breast and other crimes against decency (prompting may TV stations to pre-empt the showing of Saving Private Ryan on Veteran's Day and the pixilation of a cartoon baby's butt ). But Powell's most lasting impact will be rewriting the rules of media ownership on behalf of corporate conglomerates to allow for greater consolidation. Powell has set a course that erodes media diversity, competition and independence. Write the president [via freepress.net] and tell him you want a new FCC chairman to "stop further media consolidation, enforce public interest obligations, increase the diversity of voices in the media, and create policies that will encourage universal, low-cost access to the Internet."
FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS FACE JURY DUTY: Did Alberto Gonzales help get then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush excused from jury duty in 1996, saving Bush from having to disclose his then-secret 1976 conviction for drunken driving? In a written statement issued after Senate testimony seeking confirmation as attorney general, Gonzales insists he did not; he merely "'observed' the defense lawyer make a motion to strike Bush from the jury panel 'to which the prosecutor did not object.'" Interviewed by Newsweek, however, those two lawyers, as well as the judge who presided over the case, say Gonzales's account is a "complete misrepresentation." "Gonzales asked to have an off-the-record conference in the judge's chambers" and prodded the judge "to 'consider' striking Bush from the jury," Michael Isikoff reported. "Out of deference" to the governor, the judge and lawyers went along, though "there was little doubt among the participants as to what was going on. 'In public, they were making a big show of how he was prepared to serve,' said [Judge David] Crain. 'In the back room, they were trying to get him off.'" A senior White House official told Newsweek that Gonzales has "no recollection" of the meeting.
FALLON IN IOWA GOV RACE. Iowa state Rep. Ed Fallon, former TPP columnist, plans to run as a progressive Democratic candidate for Iowa governor. Fallon, who has been a legislator 12 years, has raised $100,000 and created a grassroots organization of 500 volunteers around Iowa. See fallonforgovernor.org.
SECOND CANADIAN WAL-MART GETS UNION: A second Wal-Mart store in Quebec received union certification after a majority of store employees signed cards naming the Canadian arm of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union as their official agent for collective bargaining, AP reported 1/19/05. The union and Wal-Mart Canada, a unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., already are negotiating a contract for another store in Jonquiere, Quebec., which was certified in August. Wal-Mart Canada spokesman Andrew Pelletier said the company is reviewing all its options, including a legal challenge to the decision by the Quebec Labour Relations Commission that certified the union after the majority of the 200 employees of the store in the town of Saint Hyacinthe signed union cards. Pelletier said that while Wal-Mart respects the laws and legal process in Quebec, he called the decision to automatically certify the store "undemocratic."
CENTRAL BANKS WEANING OFF DOLLAR. Central banks financed 83% of the US government deficit in 2003, the most recent year with full international statistics, with Asian central banks accounting for 86% of that flow, the Financial Times reported 1/24/05. A similar picture is emerging for 2004. The People's Bank of China has increased dollar reserves by $207 bn, financing nearly a third of the US current account deficit, estimated at $650 bn. Chris Giles, economics editor, wrote that Asian governments have been keen to oblige the US government's "unquenchable appetite to spend," in order to keep their currencies from appreciating. "But all investors have their limits and they may start worrying about their degree of exposure. If new official flows to the US were to be curtailed, the dollar would plunge, creating a huge hole in the accounts of central banks holding dollars."
In November, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan suggested foreign investors would reach a limit in their desire to finance the US current account deficit and diversify into other currencies or demand higher US interest rates, "elevating the cost of financing" the deficit and "rendering it increasingly less tenable." Members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries have cut the proportion of deposits held in dollars from 75% to 61.5% in the past three years. The Bank of Thailand said this month it was considering reducing the proportion of its $50 billion reserves held in dollars from 80% to 50%. Russian officials have made similar noises. A detailed survey out 1/24/05 suggests that central banks are increasingly moving official reserves out of the dollar and into the euro.
IMPROVED VA BANS VETS OUTREACH: Ten years ago, veterans hospitals were dangerous, dirty and scandal-ridden. Today, they're producting the highest-quality health care in the country, Phillip Longman writes in the January/February Washington Monthly. But when former Miss America Heather French had the idea to hold a "health fair" at the VA Hospital in Louisville, she ran afoul of a US Department of Veterans Affairs ban on any marketing that attempts to recruit veterans into its medical system, the *Louisville Courier-Journal* reported 1/20/05. A national VA memo in July 2002 said recruiting veterans is "inappropriate" because of a tight budget and growing demand for services. All veterans are potentially eligible for VA care, but they must enroll in the program. In the Kentucky and Indiana counties served by the local center, the Courier-Journal reported, there are 166,609 veterans, but only 48,892 were enrolled at the end of the 2004 fiscal year. David Autry, deputy national director of communications for the Disabled American Veterans, said the memo reflects the VA's "appalling lack of resources." Its health-care budget for fiscal 2004 was $26.9 bn, a 4% increase from the previous year. At the end of fiscal 2004 in September, 7.4 mn veterans were enrolled nationwide, but the VA said it's impossible to tell how many more veterans are eligible. There are more than 25 mn veterans nationwide. The priority list includes those with disabilities connected to their military service, former prisoners of war and certain low-income veterans.
ROCKET FUELED LETTUCE: The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in January released its long awaited report on perchlorates, a byproduct of rocket fuel that has contaminated water, vegetables, and dairy products across the US, OrganicConsumers.org noted 1/14/05. Perchlorates, recklessly discharged into streams and rivers near military bases and weapons manufacturing facilities, have contaminated drinking water in 35 states, and have been detected in measurable amounts in 93% of lettuce and milk samples as well, including organic products. The government-funded NAS study has found that perchlorates are roughly 10 times more toxic to humans than the Department of Defense has been claiming. Perchlorates can inhibit thyroid function, cause birth defects and lower IQs. Perchlorates are considered particularly dangerous to children. In monitoring wells across the US, scientists have found perchlorate levels as high as 30,000 times what the NAS report indicates would be "safe" exposure. Due to pressure exerted on Congress by military officials and defense contractors, there are currently no federal restrictions or tolerance levels regulating perchlorates. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., has propose legislation to clean up perchlorate pollution and make the military (and other perchlorate polluters) pay for this cleanup. See organicconsumers.org/perchlorate.htm.
BILLIONAIRES BATTLE BUSH: A group of billionaire philanthropists plan to donate tens of millions more dollars to develop progressive political ideas in the US in an effort to counter the conservative ascendancy. The Financial Times reported 1/12/05 that George Soros, who made his fortune in the hedge fund industry; Herb and Marion Sandler, the California couple who own a multi-billion-dollar savings and loan business; and Peter Lewis, the chairman of an Ohio insurance company, donated more than $63 mn in the 2004 election cycle to organizations seeking to defeat George W. Bush. At a meeting in San Francisco last month, the left-leaning billionaires agreed to commit an even larger sum over a longer period to building institutions to foster progressive ideas and people. Far from being disillusioned by the defeat of John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, the billionaires have resolved to invest further in the intellectual future of the left, one person involved told FT. [Editor's Note: TPP hasn't gotten any of that money -- with the possible exception of a few subscriptions -- and doesn't expect to.]
PROGRESSIVE DEMS PLAN ELECTORAL REFORM: Over 500 activists from 40 states gathered in Washington, D.C., the weekend of Jan. 22 to plan a progressive agenda for the Democratic Party. Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) coordinated the Counter-Inaugural Summit to move forward on a pro-democracy agenda, including: passage of the Right-to-Vote Amendment advocated by Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.; advocating for public financing for elections; supporting instant runoff voting (IRV); and work to cut the purse strings for funding the war in Iraq. PDA is building on recent coalition successes in challenging the Ohio electoral vote certification in Congress. Leaders from the voting reform movement who spoke at the conference included Green Party presidential candidate David Cobb, who praised PDA for its work on the issue, and Gary Flowers from the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition. PDA will regroup in Phoenix, Ariz., on Feb. 6. "It's our first meeting outside the beltway, and it's designed and organized by the grassroots, which is what we're all about," Said Kevin Spidel, deputy director of PDA. See pdamerica.org.
JOHNNY CARSON'S DEMOCRACY: In a tribute to Johnny Carson, who died Jan. 23 at age 79, Jack Boulware wrote for Salon.com in 2001, "If I could rearrange history, I'd add to the last episode of Carson's *Tonight Show* his ingenious 1991 monologue 'What Democracy Means to Me,' delivered as a tribute to the Soviet republics created after the fall of communism. As Doc and the band played "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" in the background, Johnny summed up the totality of life in the land of the free:
"'Democracy is buying a big house you can't afford with money you don't have to impress people you wish were dead. And, unlike communism, democracy does not mean having just one ineffective political party; it means having two ineffective political parties. ... Democracy is welcoming people from other lands, and giving them something to hold onto -- usually a mop or a leaf blower. It means that with proper timing and scrupulous bookkeeping, anyone can die owing the government a huge amount of money. ... Democracy means free television, not good television, but free. ... And finally, democracy is the eagle on the back of a dollar bill, with 13 arrows in one claw, 13 leaves on a branch, 13 tail feathers, and 13 stars over its head -- this signifies that when the white man came to this country, it was bad luck for the Indians, bad luck for the trees, bad luck for the wildlife, and lights out for the American eagle. I thank you.'"
DRUG DATABASE UNVEILED: Public Citizen has launched a new website, www.WorstPills.org, that provides consumers with comprehensive information about 538 prescription drugs and warns them of 181 drugs that are unsafe or ineffective. The searchable database also provides information about drug pricing, outlines 10 rules for safer drug use, has monthly issues of Public Citizen's Worst Pills, Best Pills newsletter and enables users to sign up for e-alerts about newly discovered drug dangers. People looking for information on the site can search by drug, medical condition or by drug-induced disease. The website contains the entire contents of the new edition of the book, Worst Pills, Best Pills, including a new chapter on dietary supplements.
PREZ SIDES WITH WRONGDOERS, AGAINST WORKERS: After George Bush 1/7/05 called for federal curbs on asbestos lawsuits, which he said were driving businesses into bankruptcy, and the Senate began hearings on asbestos, USAction President William McNary urged senators to remember the innocent workers and their families who are the real victims, rather than the corporate wrong-doers. "President Bush missed an opportunity last week to demonstrate his concern for innocent workers and their families who were knowingly exposed to asbestos. He never once talked about the real tragedy: the healthcare crisis facing the tens of thousands of American workers who, without being told, were exposed to this deadly substance," McNary said. "... Instead, the president used his bully pulpit last week to repeatedly make clear that his number one priority is to protect asbestos manufacturers, the insurance industry, HMOs, the pharmaceutical companies and the nursing home industry from being held accountable for poisoning their workers; for injuries from medical errors, harmful drugs and other products." USAction supported Sen. Patty Murray's proposal to ban asbestos and set up a federal trust fund for current and future workers, their families and others exposed to the deadly product, "not the needs of the very industries that knowingly poisoned them." See usaction.org.
CORN GROWERS CALL FOR RURAL AGENDA: The American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) called on Congress to complete last year's energy bill, rethink US agriculture policy, postpone reopening the US border to Canadian beef imports and urged caution on Social Security reform. ACGA urged Congress to move forward with the energy bill that failed to pass the last Congress. "Not only does this legislation increase the demand for renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel, it also increases the incentives to produce and use renewable power sources such as wind," said Keith Bolin, ACGA president and a corn and hog farmer from Manlius, Ill. Bolin also called on US ag policy to secure farmers' livelihoods by improving prices paid to farmers for the fruits of their labor and less on direct subsidies from taxpayers. "But until we treat and eliminate the disease of low prices, we are dependent on the current subsidy structure," Bolin said. "Simply eliminating subsides, without first enacting mechanisms to improve prices, will devastate US farmers and will not help farmers in developing nations."
AFTER 4 YEARS OF BUSH. Numeralist.blogspot.com ran the numbers:
2000: 11.3%, or 31.6 mn Americans
2003: 12.5%, or 35.9 mn Americans
Dow Jones Industrial Average
Value of the Dollar
1/19/01: $1 = 1.06 Euros
1/19/05: $1 = 0.77 Euros
2000 budget surplus $236.4 bn
2004 budget deficit $412.6 bn
That's a shift of $649 bn and doesn't include the cost of the Iraq war.
Cost of the war in Iraq
American Casualties in Iraq
End of 2000: $5.7 tn
Today: $7.6 tn
That's a 4-year increase of 33%.
WAR COSTS BOOM: When Lawrence Lindsey, then the president's chief economic adviser, suggested the Iraq war would cost $100 billion to $200 billion, he was practically run out of town. Well, Salon.com notes, the Bush administration plans to ask for $80 billion more to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (This includes, as Atrios.blogspot.com pointed out, $1.5 billion for a US embassy in Baghdad.) AP reports: "Not including the latest package, lawmakers have so far provided the Defense Department with $203 billion for the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and against terrorists, according to the Congressional Research Service. That includes $121 billion for the war in Iraq, $53 billion for Afghanistan and $29 billion for improved security and anti-terror efforts in the United States and abroad." Congressional Budget Office is due to release new projections of what the ongoing wars will cost in coming years. The last projections for the 10-year costs of the wars were $1.4 trillion.
MOCKING THE POOR: In the air of triumphalism surrounding the GOP inauguration festivities, impressionist Rich Little, emceeing the Constitution Ball at the Hilton Washington, said he missed and adored the late President Ronald Reagan, the Washington Post reported Jan. 21. "I wish he was here tonight, but as a matter of fact he is," Little said, and he proceeded to impersonate Reagan, saying, "You know, somebody asked me, 'Do you think the war on poverty is over?' I said, 'Yes, the poor lost.'" The crowd went wild, the Post reported.