Bill Humphrey

About Bill Humphrey

Bill Humphrey is the primary host of WVUD's Arsenal For Democracy talk radio show and is a Senior Editor for The Globalist. Follow him @BillHumphreyMA on twitter.

Afghan Army recruitment jumps, US underwrites

In this supposedly positive story, “Recruits pour in after Afghan Army offers pay raise,” there was no discussion of a funding source. The Taliban had been paying much more to fighters than the Afghan Army was paying its troops, so recruitment was down for the military until this past week. But the Taliban has an extremely large funding base right now because it has taken control of the poppy/opium supply for the world market – and Afghanistan is the biggest source. Afghanistan’s government, unlike Iraq’s, doesn’t have oil revenues to support a strong central military. The CIA World Factbook mentions very little in the way of non-poppy or foreign aid-related economic sources for Afghanistan, and notes that the poppy trade provides about $3 billion to the country’s (black market) economy.

So, when I was reading this article, I kept trying to think where the money was coming from for this big pay raise. It’s just so convenient that the week after President Obama announces an escalation, which many criticized because the Afghan Army is totally inadequate, that suddenly recruitment over the past week exceeds the whole September recruitment figure and is about 60% of the November figure!

Then, I remembered yesterday’s headline: “Karzai Says Afghan Army Will Need Help Until 2024,” referring to monetary support. Both articles are New York Times, but no mention in today’s article on pay raises. Well, connecting the dots, I made an educated guess that the US just underwrote a big pay raise for the Afghan Army, with very convenient timing. You might think this is good because now the Army will compete with the Taliban in recruiting people and thus security will improve. There’s the big problem, however. We can’t keep underwriting these pay raises forever. The United States is not going to keep fully financing the Afghan Army for fourteen years. We probably can’t afford to. The Taliban, however, has a cash crop that they can keep converting to payroll for their fighters, virtually infinitely unless something dramatic changes with the opium production or markets. The Afghan state has no such resource available.

I don’t know what the solution here is, since I don’t foresee either an immediate end to the US War on Drugs (which some believe would curtail Taliban revenue) or the Afghan government nationalizing poppies as if they were oil or minerals, but it’s unsustainable to keep throwing money at the Afghan Army. What makes 2024 the magic number anyway? There’s still no big revenue source available to the Afghan government in 2024, and so the Army would still run out of money. And then we’re back at square one.

 
This piece was originally published at Starboard Broadside.

We endorse Mike Capuano for US Senate

This is the official endorsement by the Editors-in-Chief of Starboard Broadside for the US Senate special Democratic primary election to be held on December 8th, 2009. The final special election will be in late January.

For us, this was a pretty simple choice: former Somerville mayor and current US Rep. Michael Capuano (D-MA-08) should be the next US Senator from Massachusetts. We made this decision based on several factors… First, Capuano has an impressive, unabashedly progressive voting record in the US House of Representatives. Second, on the big issues of today, he is not only already engaged in working on them and ready to hit the ground running in the upper chamber, but he has the right campaign positions. Finally, he is the best candidate to take up the banner of Ted Kennedy’s vision for America.

In office since 1999, with a lifetime progressive score of 95.42%, Rep. Capuano has been voting the right way on all the major issues that matter to progressive and liberal Democrats. Of particular importance are his votes against the 2001 USA PATRIOT ACT, the 2008 FISA domestic surveillance amendments, and the Iraq War Resolution in October 2002, which shows he has his head on straight. While it is a bit troubling that he has supported some of Israel’s more aggressive actions, such as the 2006 campaign in Lebanon, he also believes that a comprehensive two-state-based plan for peace in Israel and Palestine will help Israel in the long run more than endless war with terrorist groups. Capuano has also created a coalition of US representatives to take action on Sudan and the genocide in Darfur, and he has worked to end illegal torture and rendition of terrorism suspects, which we feel demonstrates a clear commitment to a humanitarian foreign policy that lives up to America’s ideals. He has a record of voting against nuclear weapons buildups and missile defense boondoggles. We conclude that as one of one hundred senators, his sensible foreign policy votes and stances will have even more impact. On the current health care reform, Capuano has voted against the dangerous Stupak abortion restriction amendment but for the overall reform plan. On the environment, he has a solid record heading into the ongoing climate change legislative process early next year. On education, he has voted to mitigate the negative effects of the No Child Left Behind legislation and has supported increased funding for public education in general. His record is virtually impeccable, he defends his liberal credentials vociferously and without apology, and there’s no mystery as to how he’ll vote in the Senate, which unfortunately cannot be said for any of his Democratic rivals, none of whom have any legislative record.

Whoever is elected to the Senate in January must have the right campaign positions on four pressing issues: the economy, the environment, and the War in Afghanistan, and health care reform. Capuano does have the right positions (given in those links) on these issues…

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, Capuano is working right now on reforms that we hope will prevent a similar economic catastrophe in future. We believe that while the TARP financial bailout program was problematic and poorly executed, we still think it was necessary, and therefore we commend his vote in favor of it and his recognition that we need to keep fixing the problems of the bailout. In another area, Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) has introduced aggressive consumer protection legislation, and Mike Capuano has been an advocate for consumers in the House, so we know he’ll support tough legislation such as Dodd’s.

On the environment, Capuano has pledged to continue strengthening climate change (cap-and-trade) legislation, which will still be on the table in January. Critically, he supports green jobs programs and renewable energy projects such as Cape Wind (off Cape Cod) that benefit Massachusetts and help fight global warming. He will also support tougher emissions standards for vehicles, which is always a good thing. From recycling programs in Somerville to legislative work in Washington, Capuano understands the need for strong environmental legislation.

On the campaign trail over the past couple months, he has called for the withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan; while we have debated whether or not it is the right time to draw down, we are agreed that we should not escalate further and that we need to prepare a clear exit plan. Capuano has consistently voted against indefinite timelines and military proposals that do not include an end plan.

Finally, on health care, the current legislation may have passed Congress by the time the next Senator takes office in January, but we don’t know what form it will take and we know that it will be far from a complete piece of legislation. For this reason, especially since the next person elected to the Massachusetts Senate seat could well hold the spot for decades, it is critical to have a Senator in place who will continue to push for more and better health care reform legislation. Thus far, he has voted the right way, and he maintains that he has been a strong, longtime supporter of increasing coverage for Americans, which we believe he will continue to be.

The third reason we have decided to endorse Rep. Mike Capuano for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat is that he is best suited to continue Senator Kennedy’s vision for the country. Kennedy served Massachusetts in the United States Senate from 1962 to 2009, and throughout it he fought for access to health care by all Americans and for quality education for all American children, and he worked to improve the lives of middle income and poor Americans. Whether serving in Somerville MA or on Capitol Hill in DC, Mike Capuano has demonstrated a commitment to these same ideals, as a liberal, as a Democrat, and as an American citizen. Although the Kennedy family or their loyal friends have held that Senate seat from 1953 to the present (with interim Sen. Paul Kirk Jr.), for the past three decades Ted Kennedy used that seat for fulfilling his ideals, not simply for fulfilling family or personal ambition. Thus, we feel that it is important to elect the candidate best suited to continue pursuing these aims. We don’t want a carbon copy, but we believe Ted Kennedy was one of the greatest Senators in US history, and so it’s important to fill his shoes as best we can. With a proven legislative record living up to Ted Kennedy’s vision, and the experience and Washington connections needed to continue the Dream, it’s clear Capuano will keep up the work that the Kennedy family started long ago with that seat.

Although we looked at the other candidates, we were not as impressed as with Rep. Capuano. State Attorney General Martha Coakley does not have a legislative record at any level, and she has had a fairly low-profile in her current office, which concerns us because we don’t want a wildcard, but rather a reliable liberal vote. Many of her supporters have argued that we need more women in office and that this is a sufficient reason to elect her. While we appreciate that we certainly do need more female leaders, we also believe that we should elect the candidate with the best positions and the best record, regardless of gender, and we feel that Capuano is better on both counts. We believe that Alan Khazei, a co-founder of City Year and a friend of Ted Kennedy, is an earnest candidate who is probably quite liberal, if untested, but he lacks the relevant experience we’d like to see in such an important office at this critical time. He would be new to government, and he would not be able to hit the ground running if elected. Furthermore, because he is so unknown, if Khazei won the primary he would be the most likely to put the seat at risk for a Republican capture — an unlikely scenario for the others. Mike Capuano is a much safer bet on all counts. Steve Pagliuca is the candidate we definitely cannot support in this primary because he is a former Republican and seems like a rich opportunist whom we can’t trust to represent the liberal Massachusetts constituency. He supported the Bush-Cheney 2000 campaign, despite abandoning the Republican Party before that. We have trouble supporting anyone who did that. Pagliuca’s positions are also questionable, including when he confuses people by issuing and backtracking from position statements, such as supporting a military draft. He has also showed insufficient concern for women’s rights, suggesting that the Stupak abortion restriction in the House health care bill was largely irrelevant or unimportant. Mike Capuano, on the other hand, raises none of these doubts in our minds.

In conclusion, we enthusiastically join the impressive list of those who have already endorsed Representative Mike Capuano for United States Senate for the Massachusetts Democratic primary on 12/8/09, and we will be casting our absentee ballots for Newton MA to help him win. We hope those of you who are registered to vote in Massachusetts will do the same.

Learn more about Mike Capuano and his positions at MikeCapuano.com

Democratic candidates and Choice

There’s been a lot of controversy within the Democratic base over the Stupak Amendment, which we’ll be covering more later. Essentially, it’s an amendment by the so-called “pro-life Democrats” in the House and would place de facto restrictions on abortion accessibility if it passes both chambers of Congress. Without going into the amendment itself much, I wanted to look at a point this raises on the role of the Choice issue in the Democratic Party and how it relates to Democratic candidacies.

I obviously can’t speak for all base Democrats, but I think many of us made the critical mistake of underestimating the potential influence of the anti-choice/pro-life caucus within our party in Congress. For example, Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-PA, elected 2006) has been a pretty good Senator so far, but everyone knew he ran as a “pro-life Democrat,” but most of us especially outside Pennsylvania probably thought very little on that point. Of course, some liberal pro-choice activists were rightly worried because Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, the major 1992 Supreme Court revision of Roe v. Wade, refers to Bob Casey Sr. who was then the Governor of Pennsylvania and supported a fairly strict abortion restriction law — and it was reasonable to wonder if the father’s views were shared by the junior Senator from Pennsylvania.

As it turns out, yes that appears to be the case:

Now some Senate Democrats, including Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, are pushing to incorporate the same [Stupak] restrictions in their own bill. Senior Senate Democratic aides said the outcome was too close to call.

 
I sincerely hope that the Senate does not pass the Casey-Nelson version of Stupak into the Senate health care reform bill (and the signs suggest that it won’t succeed). But that’s not even what I’m looking at here.

The problem as I see it is that I and many others assumed that at the federal legislative level, abortion law was largely a settled matter for the most part. I know many activists who are dedicated in particular to this issue didn’t share that view, but I’m willing to admit they were right and I was wrong on this. I figured that if the Republicans had used nearly uninterrupted control of the whole Congress for twelve years and the White House and the House for six years, but had failed to outlaw abortion, then it was pretty much secure. There were restrictions such as the misleadingly named “partial-birth abortion ban,” but the Republicans were upfront about their hope of banning abortion and they failed. I assumed that pro-Choice Democrats, who do form a majority of the caucus, would be able to keep the “pro-Life” Democrats in check.

So for Casey and other candidates, I figured there was probably very little chance for them to put their views to a vote, and if it did come up I forgot that pro-life Republicans and Democrats would be able to vote in unison to form a majority as they did on the Stupak House amendment. It almost seemed like some Democratic candidates who took pro-life pledges might just have been pandering with no intention of casting damaging votes. And I think I was wrong.

That leads us to a question on how to view pro-life candidates in future. Obviously there are a lot of Democrats who have more conservative opinions on abortion, and that means there’s a role for pro-life candidates. On the other hand, and more importantly, I think a majority of the Democratic base supports the right to choose and women are certainly a majority of the Democratic Party’s membership nationally. The Stupak Amendment is a political problem for the party because it makes it look like the party is “throwing women under the bus,” as many have said in the past few days.

I think we may have reached a day of reckoning on this issue. The Democratic Party is going to face severe electoral difficulties if it doesn’t quickly resolve its position on abortion rights. In future election cycles, I think that activists, the ones who donate their time and money to elect Democrats, are going to be extremely wary of engaging with candidates who oppose the right to choose. We’ve now seen that they’re a real threat to the right to choose, not just a stated or theoretical threat. This is an intra-party policy contradiction that the party leaders have kicked down the road for years. That doesn’t look like an option anymore. Unfortunately, this has never been an issue that party leaders like to discuss openly, even though it needs to be discussed.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Iraqi Kurds protest Iranian bombardment

The Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) issued a press release on Friday protesting Iran’s bombardment of the border regions in their fight against Iranian Kurdish rebels in PJAK. According to the October 2nd press release, two sub-districts in the Kurdish Region of Iraq were subjected to heavy bombardment from Iran, most likely by shelling and Katyusha rockets, based on past strikes.

The KRG maintains some distance from groups like the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party, in Turkey) and PJAK because they are concerned about these such military actions, which they consider a violation of sovereignty. But the regional government also hasn’t taken particularly strong action against the rebels using their territory as a base of operations.

However, the statement doesn’t quite read as an accurate representation of the situation:

The Islamic Republic of Iran has severely bombarded the border areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq without any justification in clear violation of the sovereignty of Iraq and of the territory of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

 
If an armed terrorist organizations is attempting to bring down your government, you probably do feel like you have justification, whether or not it’s a violation of sovereignty.

The KRG still does have a legitimate complaint, and they’re in an awkward position of not wanting to antagonize either the neighboring countries or the other ethnic Kurdish groups, with whom they feel some solidarity, by rooting them out. But it’s probably unlikely that their request will be met:

Continued bombardment of such border areas is not in the interest of good neighbourly relations. Therefore, we urge the Islamic Republic of Iran to immediately cease the unjustified bombardment of the border area and respect the sovereignty of Iraq, international law, and the peaceful will of the people of the Kurdistan Region.

 
This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.

Giving death penalty the chop

This is now a week old, but the New York Times ran an editorial last Sunday arguing for the elimination of the death penalty on budget grounds (in addition to reasons of morality), which is something I discussed last May in an update to a post on California’s budget crisis. It’s one of the many contradictions in modern American conservatism: a professed fiscal conservatism and a tough-on-crime stance that requires the perpetuation of expensive money sucks, such as the war on drugs and the death penalty. Most people don’t realize just how expensive the death penalty really is, compared with life without parole.

Here’s what I wrote in the post in May:

The ACLU of Northern California just emailed me to recommend I link you all to their proposal to save the state $1 billion in 5 years. Their proposal rests on the premise that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life imprisonment, as several studies have shown. The governor has proposed selling state lands to cover the fiscal crisis, including the San Quintin State Prison (death row), and thus the ACLU’s proposal makes sense. If you go to the preceding link from The Economist on the costs of the death penalty, they actually suggest that states are more likely to consider ending or suspending the death penalty as a cost-saving measure during the recession.

Honestly, I think the ACLU is completely right. I’d rather keep social safety nets for abused women (on the governor’s list of cuts in the main link in the post), than continue executing people, if we’re choosing between the two.

 
However, I didn’t enumerate the costs, except in the comments briefly… but the New York Times did, based on “evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center,” which opposes the death penalty:

States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.

There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.

 
To really put it in perspective, they looked at a few states that continue to use the death penalty and they determined the average cost per executed person.

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

 
That’s a lot of money that could be used more productively or cut to ease state deficits during the present fiscal crisis. I don’t know if the $1 billion saved in 5 years claim by the ACLU of Northern California, is too optimistic, but just eliminating the $114 mil/year saves $570 million in five years, and that’s still a significant figure, and their sources calculate it’s $125 million not a $114 million. Furthermore, there are future cost increases projected for states such as California that will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars soon on new facilities to expand for the lengthening death row.

And of course, there are always the moral reasons, including the execution of innocent people. Let’s join the civilized world and save a bunch of money at the same time. Give death penalty the chop.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Giving up on job-hunting

This is one of those issues that I’ve been hammering away on since March: that the US government doesn’t count folks as officially unemployed if they’ve given up looking for work. The New York Times had a story on this yesterday, featuring the stories of several such people. One quotation from a master carpenter living in Florida stuck out at me as a good analogy for the situation…

“When you were in high school and kept asking the head cheerleader out for a date and she kept saying no, at some point you stopped asking her. It becomes a ‘why bother?’ scenario.”

 
The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, as I’ve now said several times on this blog, publishes the U3 unemployment number as the official national unemployment statistic, which is what the media quotes every month. But the U3 ignores the folks in that article above who’ve given up looking because there just aren’t any jobs to be found. The U6 figure from the BLS is a broader measure that does take that into account, as well as including people who are underemployed (i.e. they can’t find as much work as they need because of jobs/hours scarcity). To quote myself from the end of July:

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

 
I once again commend the Times for looking into this, but the government is fundamentally misrepresenting the national economic situation to make things look better than they are, and that’s hamstringing the ability to implement good policy to fix things. The American media, as a whole, remains complicit in this fudge. I recognize that it would confuse everyone to have the national unemployment figure suddenly spike by changing it back to the pre-1994 way of measuring things (essentially what the U6 now measures), but millions of Americans are affected by this directly and indirectly; so it helps none of us to keep pretending things are much rosier than they are.

In August, the official U3 unemployment rate was 9.7%, while the U6 rate was 16.8%.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

New York Times finally gets it

While studying an unemployment graphic by The New York Times back in March, I observed that they (like the rest of the traditional media) were ignoring the fact that the quoted national unemployment statistic (U3) is too limited in its definition. For example, it excludes all the people who’ve simply given up looking for work because there just aren’t any jobs in the area. This makes employment look far better than it really is, and it helps boost the stupid claims that western Europe’s national unemployment rates are far higher than ours. I showed that using the lesser-known U6 Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement of unemployment, which I explain fully in that post, US and Western Europe have very comparable unemployment most of the time.

This month, finally, the NY Times posted a state-by-state interactive graphic that confirms what many bloggers (including me) have been saying for quite some time: unemployment is much worse than many people realize. The new graphic shows the U6 rate in each state, rather than the usual and more limited U3, and for several states the unemployment is actually over 20%. Here’s a non-interactive picture of the map (click for full version):

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

While I laud the Times for their graphic earlier this month, they and others need to begin incorporating the broader definition into their reporting both nationwide and state-by-state. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug had a technicality. The government won’t change the definition back, I’m sure, because it’s like rose-colored glasses for the state of the economy. But the U6 figure is out there every month, and it takes about 5 seconds more to locate on the BLS website. The media just doesn’t want to waste time explaining the distinction to people.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.