Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Things are worse in Iraq than we can see

This article on how bad things are in Iraq was so compelling that I had to copy the whole thing.

The link is here. Chilling.

'NYT' War Reporter: 'Anarchy' Curtails Reporting in Iraq
The New York Times
Dexter Filkins
By David S. Hirschman
Published: September 15, 2006/ Editor & Publisher
NEW YORK Journalists are in danger everywhere in Iraq these days, making it
nearly impossible to report, and it only seems to be getting worse, said New
York Times reporter Dexter Filkins, speaking Thursday at the offices of the
Committee to Protect Journalists in Manhattan. Filkins, who will begin a
Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University this month and start work on a book,
said that 98% of Iraq, and even most of Baghdad, has now become "off-limits"
for Western journalists.
Filkins, one of the longest-lasting and most-honored reporters in Iraq, said
that many situations lately have become even too dangerous for Iraqi
reporters to report on. He described the current climate as "anarchy," and,
when asked if the country was already involved in a civil war, he said,
"Yeah, sure."
Asked what advice he had for a reporter from a small paper going to Iraq now
without the kinds of money and backup that the Times was able to afford him
(or previous reporting experience in Iraq), Filkins replied: "Don't go."
The most that Times reporters can do these days, said Filkins, is "very
carefully set up an appointment with someone" using back channels and meet
with them under tight security. "We can't go to car bombings anymore," he
said, describing how even getting out of a vehicle to report would expose a
Western journalist to mob attacks and kidnapping.
As a result, the paper increasingly relies on its 70 Iraqi staffers to go
out into the streets and do the actual reporting. These Iraqi journalists,
both Sunni and Shiite, do "everything" according to Filkins, and are paid
handsomely (by local standards) for their efforts. But they live in constant
fear of their association with the newspaper being exposed, which could cost
them their lives.
"Most of the Iraqis who work for us don't even tell their families that they
work for us," said Filkins. "It's terribly terribly dangerous for them."
He estimated that there are probably 50 murders and 20 to 30 kidnappings in
Baghdad every day, and said that it had gotten to the point where it was no
longer just Sunni-Shiite clashes or insurgent mayhem. "Nobody trusts anybody
anymore," he said. "There's no law, and the worst people with guns are in
According to Filkins, the New York Times is burning through money "like jet
fuel" simply to securely maintain its operations in the country. In addition
to the 70 local reporters and translators, the Times employs 45 full-time
Kalashnikov-toting security guards to patrol its two blast-wall-enclosed
houses -- and oversee belt-fed machine-guns on the roofs of the buildings.
The paper also has three armored cars, and pays a hefty premium each month
to insure the five Times reporters working there.
American journalists, he said, spend their days piecing together scraps of
information from the Iraqi reporters to construct a picture, albeit
incomplete, of what life is like these days in the war-torn country. But he
says that the work is slow and difficult, and it is hard in such an
atmosphere for reporters to nail down specifics. "Five people doing a
run-of-the-mill story takes forever," he said.
Most troubling was Filkins' assessment that the U.S. military may not know
much more than the Times does about what life is like on the ground in Iraq.
Soldiers barely leave their bases and they don't interact very much with
average Iraqis, he said, so it is hard to say who, if anyone, has an
accurate picture of the current situation.
"Everyone is kind of groping around in the dark," he said.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Answer to Daley's veto of big-box ordinance is statewide big-box law

Mayor Daley vetoed the income-raising big box ordinance yesterday, that would have forced the out-of-state owners of some of the most profitable corporations in the world to pay more than poverty-level wages to their employees in Chicago.

His main objection to the ordinance is that it would have disadvantaged potential city stores versus suburban stores (who would not fall under the terms of the ordinance, and thus could pay their employees the state minimum wage of $6.50 without any benefits). It's a fair point. I still think he should have signed the ordinance into law, as I believe the benefits from higher wages and benefits to Chicago residents would have outweighed the costs of any big box stores that did not open in Chicago. Who knows whether the big box behemoths, that have clearly articulated their express desire to penetrate the urban market (the last frontier for the big boxes who have reached points of market saturation in the exurbs and in most rural markets), would have shouldered the higher operating cost of paying non-poverty wages in Chicago, or whether they would have followed through with the threats to ignore Chicago altogether?

It's worth pointing out that the problem is not that the ordinance to require non-poverty wages and benefits is a bad idea, it's that the ordinance wasn't broad enough.

It only covered Chicago.

The response seems clear: a statewide big box ordinance.

With a statewide ordinance, the border question doesn't afflict the Howard Avenue or Cicero Avenue. It only affects the state border.

Would the big boxes ignore a 12,000,000 person market? I doubt it.

Would the cost of paying non-poverty wages be a big enough burden to write off 12,000,000 people? I don't think so.

There would be similar border dynamics around the ring of the state, but for most of the 12,000,000 potential customers who, according to industry standards that I learned about in Crain's will not travel more than 3-5 miles for retail, there isn't a border question.

Every county board should start passing similar big box ordinances, starting with Cook. And Lake County, Indiana, should do the same thing.

When wages are down (and they are -- average wages are falling) and the number of people without health insurance jumped by 1.1 million last year, we can't wait for the federal government to solve these problems. Cities, counties and states must continue to show leadership on raising the purchasing power of people to make everyone better off. Chicago's big box ordinance is a very innovative, envelope-pushing remedy to the problems of falling wages in our increasingly service-based economy.

To his credit, Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn has been pushing the idea of a statewide big box ordinance. And I have a correction to make as well: I wrote about the $7.50 an hour minimum wage advisory referendum on the Cook County ballot and assumed that the Cook County Board voted to put the question on the ballot. I was wrong: citizens did submit petitions to place the question on the ballot. And the Master of Referenda -- Lt. Governor Quinn -- was behind the effort. Congratulations to him and his political team for a smart move.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Cook County asks 5 million residents whether to raise the minimum wage to $7.50

I haven't seen this reported elsewhere (I first heard about it from the Blagojevich campaign), and I think it's very smart politics: the Cook County Board has placed an advisory referendum on the November ballot asking voters if they want to raise the minimum wage from $6.50 to $7.50 an hour.

One of the Democrats' signature issues in 2002 and in the 2003 General Assembly was raising the minimum wage past the federal minimum of $5.15 (that's $10,300.00 annual pre-tax income, and if that's not a poverty-wage, I'm not sure what is) to $6.50 an hour. It has been a triumph for the state and I'm sure has resulted in a large influx of wealth into our state as the extra $2,000 in purchasing power that mininum wage workers enjoy has been multiplied throughout our economy, not to mention the upward pressure on wages it has brought to hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Upward pressure on wages -- what a concept!

It's especially appropriate after Labor Day weekend (and thank you to labor unions for giving me the power to have the day off on Monday -- what a concept it must have been 80 years ago to demand a day off from work to honor labor!) the unending need to shift power to low-income workers both because it's the right thing to do and because it's good for our economy.

I've heard enough about the 'job-killing' minimum wage and I don't buy it. There isn't evidence to support the argument. And if opponents of a decent minimum wage are serious, then they should be for lowering the minimum wage to, say, $1 an hour. Or we can match the Chinese and go to $1 per day. That's the logic. If you oppose raising the minimum wage because it somehow impoverishes the working poor, then you are for lowering the minimum wage, because *that's* really going to bring jobs to those that need them!

It's funny: those who think that paying poor people less will mean they get more money also think that cutting taxes will mean the goverment will get more money too. I wonder if those people apply the concept to their own lives and tell their bosses that they don't want a raise, because they want to make more money. Oh wait: they probably are the bosses.....

I think this is exclusively a practical question. At some point (probably at the lowest 20% of income -- just shy of $10/hour, around the poverty level), there will be fewer jobs created. But there's a lot of wiggle room before that point, and the benefits that come to Illinois workers (and thus, the Illinois economy from all that new income, often paid by out-of-state owners of publicly-traded corporations) outweigh the costs of the relatively few lost jobs.

I don't know what other premise anyone could accept besides a ruthlessly pragmatic assessment to determine their support or opposition to a minimum wage increase. If it's *ideological*, then please. That's empty. The only ideological position that makes any sense is to abolish the minimum wage (and thus, to be for Chinese wages of $1 per day). What's the logical reason to oppose a $7.50 minimum wage and reluctantly support a $5.15 minimum wage? If it's a border question (gas stations and hot dog shops are all going to move to Indiana and Kentucky!) then it's really a pragmatic assessment: how many jobs will Illinois really lose to the poverty-wage states on our borders versus how much more income will flow to Illinois low-income workers?

Since we have no evidence that firmly supports either proposition (and if anyone's got some, I'd like to read it -- applied only that documents actual job losses, theoretical constructs don't count), there's no pragmatic reason to support the lower wage over the higher wage.

Anyway, I think it's a smart issue to draw attention to for the Blagojevich campaign and the Democratic Party, and if I were Judy Baar Topinka, I'd be promising to support a minimum wage increase to $7.50 sooner rather than later. Whoever figured out to ask the County Board to put this on the ballot should get a raise.