Refudiated

The Prop 8 ruling is obviously last week’s big news, but I wanted to touch on an issue that I didn’t get a chance to write about yesterday. On Tuesday, a New York City panel rejected efforts to grant landmark status to a building near Ground Zero slated to be built into a mosque. The mosque had become the latest outrage du jour for conservatives concerned about the impending Muslim takeover of America. Republican heavyweights Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin took a day off from demonizing city dwellers to instead speak on their behalf by bashing the mosque and claiming it is an insult to all those who died during 9/11. I know it is political silly season right now, but I think this is an important issue because of just how blatantly the conservative arguments about the mosque fly in the face of basic American values.

Gingrich, in addition to basically comparing peaceful New York Muslims to Al Qaeda hijackers, had this particularly cutting argument for why we shouldn’t allow a mosque.

There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.

 
Yup, Newt is basically saying that we should throw out our commitment to religious pluralism and nondiscrimination because the Saudis don’t allow freedom of religion. When the hell did Saudi Arabia become our standard for freedom? Lets get rid of women rights too, while we’re at it! America is a better country than Saudi Arabia precisely because of these freedoms and it would be ludicrous to hold ourselves to their standards.

Not only is the Ground Zero Mosque not really a mosque (it is more of a community center that has prayer spaces), it’s also not on Ground Zero. Everyone is talking about how insensitive it would be to built a mosque on ground zero, but it’s located several blocks away from the former site of the Twin Towers and would be only the second mosque in lower Manhattan (I don’t have really any first-hand knowledge on this, but I can only really find one other on google maps). We are talking about prime real estate in a city with thousands of Muslims who might appreciate having a place to pray close to their work.

I definitely understand that 9/11 was a traumatic experience for all Americans and New Yorkers especially. And because the terrorists attacks were carried out in the name of Islam, it is not at all surprising that some Americans would feel uneasy about other members of that religion. But the pain of that day should not blind us to the fact that Islam is the second largest religion in the world and the vast majority of its followers are not terrorists and do not wish to kill innocent Americans. Our prejudices, not matter how understandable they may be, should not allow us to deny fundamental rights to other Americans. In this case, having the government prevent the mosque would violate both the religious rights and property rights of the Cordoba Initiative (they own the building and are mostly free to do whatever they choose with it). Maybe the Cordoba Initiative could choose to stir less controversy and outrage by building the mosque somewhere else. But if they want to build the mosque there, they have the right to. Don’t like it? Too bad, we live in a free country.

This all brings me back to another point I have touched on several times before: every time we compromise our fundamental rights in the name of fighting “terrorism,” we are in fact advancing the terrorist cause. Religious pluralism, one of the foundations of American democracy, is antithetical to the jihadist ideology and when we compromise our ideals we create an America less free and more like the nation Al Qaeda would like to create.

But none of this really about Ground Zero and 9/11. That’s just a cover. How do I know this? There is a trend from Tennessee to Wisconsin to California of opposition to mosque construction. Along with silly fears about “creeping sharia law” there’s a feeling among conservatives that Islam is not a religion, but rather a “political ideology” or a “cult.” Since our Founders recognized “Mohammedans” as a religion that deserves the protection that other religions enjoy, I am going to side with Thomas Jefferson and his Koran on this one (Never mind that the only real difference between a cult and a religion is the number of followers they have). In a time of economic recession, this type of xenophobic bigotry is certainly not unprecedented. That, however, does not make it any less shameful.

Finally, I want to give out to some cheers and jeers in this saga. Jeers to the Anti-Defamation League for condemning the mosque and, well, defaming Muslims. Having followed the Anti-Defamation League’s antics surrounding the Armenian Genocide and the Israeli-Palestinian Debate, however, I can’t say I am surprised. Cheers to Fareed Zakaria for returning an ADL prize in protest. Here’s an excerpt from his letter:

The ADL’s mission statement says it seeks “to put an end forever to unjust and unfair discrimination against and ridicule of any sect or body of citizens.” But Abraham Foxman, the head of the ADL, explained that we must all respect the feelings of the 9/11 families, even if they are prejudiced feelings. “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted,” he said. First, the 9/11 families have mixed views on this mosque. There were, after all, dozens of Muslims killed at the World Trade Center. Do their feelings count? But more important, does Foxman believe that bigotry is OK if people think they’re victims? Does the anguish of Palestinians, then, entitle them to be anti-Semitic?

 
Cheers again to Michael Bloomberg for an eloquent speech defending religious freedom and the right of the Cordoba Initiative to build the mosque. I recommend watching the whole thing.

This post was originally published on Starboard Broadside.

A Long War

Recently, we crossed the trillion dollar threshold for Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, the War in Afghanistan is officially longer than the Vietnam War, in length of American military presence, clocking in at 104 months long. Rick Hampson, USA Today, wrote on this milestone on May 27th this year:

Three months after 9/11, every major Taliban city in Afghanistan had fallen — first Mazar-i-Sharif, then Kabul, finally Kandahar. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar were on the run. It looked as if the war was over, and the Americans and their Afghan allies had won.

Butch Ivie, then a school administrator in Winfield, Ala., remembers, “We thought we’d soon have it tied up in a neat little bag.”

But bin Laden and Omar eluded capture. The Taliban regrouped. Today, Kandahar again is up for grabs. And soon, Afghanistan will pass Vietnam as America’s longest war.

The Vietnam War’s length can be measured in many ways. The formal beginning of U.S. involvement often is dated to Aug. 7, 1964, when Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, giving the president a virtual carte blanche to wage war. By the time the last U.S. ground combat troops were withdrawn in March 1973, the war had lasted 103 months.

 
Hampson visited several American communities particularly affected in the two wars (and in the Iraq War) and wrote about them in his article.

It’s long since time to bring the troops home.

Don’t forget all those who have died during the wars but were not soldiers and weren’t Americans.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Niger Delta always slick with oil

Elisabeth Rosenthal reminds us that while it seems like a big deal to Americans when a giant oil disaster spreads a vast slick across our waters, we seem not to care much when the oil is spilled in somebody else’s waters by our companies supplying Nigerian oil for 40% our current consumption:

But it is important to remember that this mammoth polluting event, so extraordinary here, is not so unusual in some parts of the world. In an article published Sunday in The Guardian of London, John Vidal, the paper’s environment editor, movingly recalls a trip to the Niger Delta a few years ago, where he literally swam in “pools of light Nigerian crude.”

A network of decades-old pipes and oil extraction equipment in the delta has been plagued by serious leaks and spills. “More oil is spilled from the delta’s network of terminals, pipes, pumping stations and oil platforms every year than has been lost in the Gulf of Mexico,” he writes.
[…]
Here in the United States, people express outrage at BP’s actions in the gulf and demand that the oil giant behave responsibly in our waters. But should they also insist that oil companies behave well in the developing countries where their oil comes from? After all, many people insist on “fair trade” coffee and non-sweatshop clothing.

One more excerpt from Mr. Vidal’s fascinating article: “If this gulf accident had happened in Nigeria, neither the government nor the company would have paid much attention,” said the writer Ben Ikari, a member of the Ogoni people. “This kind of spill happens all the time in the delta.”

 
Where eleven employees of British Petroleum were killed in the initial explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in April, frequent pipeline explosions in the Niger Delta region (sometimes caused by rebels) often kill a hundred or more people at a time, many simply too close at the time. As John Vidal explains in his article, the ensuing spills and leaks destroy crops, pollute drinking water, and kill vital fish stocks. Companies such as Shell and Exxon usually take their light sweet time about fixing the leaks, sometimes springing from ancient pipes that just rusted away. And until the relative recent democratization of the country, anyone who pointed this out faced the possibility of the death sentence from a government getting fat off American oil money. Even now, villagers report attacks from security guards if they get too vocal, while Shell claims villagers prevent them from making repairs to try to get more compensation money. Yeah right.

How much is being spilled or is leaking? Well, right now there are about 300 incidents a year, and that has added up over the decades.

One report, compiled by WWF UK, the World Conservation Union and representatives from the Nigerian federal government and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation, calculated in 2006 that up to 1.5m tons of oil – 50 times the pollution unleashed in the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster in Alaska – has been spilled in the delta over the past half century. Last year Amnesty calculated that the equivalent of at least 9m barrels of oil was spilled and accused the oil companies of a human rights outrage.

According to Nigerian federal government figures, there were more than 7,000 spills between 1970 and 2000, and there are 2,000 official major spillages sites, many going back decades, with thousands of smaller ones still waiting to be cleared up. More than 1,000 spill cases have been filed against Shell alone.

Last month Shell admitted to spilling 14,000 tonnes of oil in 2009. The majority, said the company, was lost through two incidents – one in which the company claims that thieves damaged a wellhead at its Odidi field and another where militants bombed the Trans Escravos pipeline.

 
As stated above, the United States gets 40% of its oil from the Niger Delta right now, and Nigeria is now the third-largest American supplier nation, beating out Saudi Arabia. You should care about this. (Further reading, with incredible photos, here.)

The Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon catastrophe is definitely bad, but we need to stop drilling for oil everywhere and change the whole world to clean energy soon… not just the United States. So many reasons to do it, and this is just one more.

Caption: An oil spill from an abandoned Shell Petroleum Development Company well in Oloibiri, Niger Delta. Wellhead 14 was closed in 1977 but has been leaking for years, and in June of 2004 it finally released an oil spill of over 20,000 barrels of crude. Above: Workers subcontracted by Shell Oil Company clean it up.
photo & caption by Ed Kashi, via citisven

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.

More on Unemployment

Yesterday I reminded everyone to check the U6 unemployment, which gives a better picture of the unemployment situation in this country. There’s another reason I forgot to mention, other than that it doesn’t ignore the chronically unemployed.

It’s being said that this is the worst unemployment in 26 years (which goes back to 1983). That’s true if one looks at the official rate over that period (BLS graph):

But the problem is, and I wish the old media would remember this, the official definition of unemployment changed in 1994, to exclude the chronically unemployed (who lack job opportunities in their area), which makes the situation look better. Not only does that mean that a slight decrease in unemployment does not automatically point to recovery (because people could just give up looking for a while and then be excluded), but it also means that the magnitude of the recession is ignored in media reports. Saying that this is the worst unemployment in only 26 years simply isn’t true. Using the U6 from 1994 to present and comparing that to the old official rate before 1994, which used roughly the same definition, we find that this is the highest unemployment since probably as far back as the Great Depression. This is probably the worst in 71 years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows me only back to 1948, but between 1948 and 1994, the highest unemployment was in 1982, when it reached 10.8% unemployment. Compared to the present (U6) unemployment, 16.4%, it’s evident that you have to go back past 1948 to find a higher unemployment rate than now. So I’m pretty sure that means going all the way back to the Great Depression, when (if I recall correctly) unemployment reached 25% at one point. After a brief recovery, it climbed back to 19% or so in 1938.

But all that is obscured when the old media decides to ignore the 1994 definition change that artificially lowers the official unemployment rate by 7 points in the month of may.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

US Unemployment at 16.4% (U6)

It’s the first Friday of the month, which means today’s labor report is out from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for last month. The U6 unemployment rate nationwide hit 16.4% for May 2009.

This is much higher than the normally quoted U3 rate, of course, in case that seems high to you. But as I explained when the February data came out, we should be looking at the U6 to get an accurate understanding of the situation. I encourage you to read that post, if you didn’t before, since understanding the difference between the “official rate” and the U6 rate is critical, in my opinion, to understanding the US economy, especially when we’re not in a recession.

I call the U6 “real” unemployment, just like people talk about “real” wage growth (which accounts for inflation).

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.