Thursday, November 24, 2005

Only White Guys At Princeton!

I must say that, since moving to New York, I've been impressed, though not really hampered by, the Ivy league world. In my industry, journalism, you constantly see Harvard grads helping Harvard grads. Really, it's not about the Ivy League, it's all about Harvard.

Harvard's Ivy League peer, though, the school that educated most of the family members who give me a pay check, is good old Princeton. I have fluffy bunny feelings for Princeton since F Scott Fitzgerald flunked out of there, back in the day.

Anyway, Samuel Alito, bound to get to the Supreme Court without really serious contention, went there too. And, it turns out, he was part of a campus organization that was way, way, too worried about women, minorities, homosexuals and even the disabled joining the Princeton community.

Fascinating. Okay, look, I believed a lot of whacky things in college and I'd not like to be judged, right now, by my college views. Yet, Alito had to go out of his way to join a xenophobic club, way back then. Also, long ago as it is, it's part of his record and something he should explain now, during his confirmation hearings.

For my own part, I've already described my college views as ideas from long ago, and I'm only 30. However, I probably am being too dismissive. I might not believe, right now, everything I believed in college but that doesn't mean that my college beliefs weren't formative. Even where I've changed my mind, what I believed then can be easily linked to what I believe now. I think that's true for most college grads -- those were the years of trying ideas on for size, after all, and for pursuing ways of thinking with minimal consequence. If Alito is anything like me, or like most people I know, what he believed back then is important, even if his opinions have since changed. College is formative, after all, by design.

Do You Like McCain?

John McCain is a likable guy. He's a war hero. He's an ex-prisoner of war, even. He knows what wae ia likw ans has questioned the reasoning behind our adventure in Iraq and has mosr recently led the Senate to require that the White House and its multiple offices not subject prisoners of war to torture.

McCain is a smart man and, to us lefties, offten a voice of reason from within the Republican party. He's also a media darling, loved by reporters because he gives good quote and will even, without hedging, criticize his own party.

But. never forget that he's a Republican. He's Republican by choice, as he's had numerous opportunities to either switch to the Democrats or to embrace a thirt party. He is, and has been from the start of his political career, a Republican and, even if he's been an iconoclast in his party, he's remained in that party and is, at his core, to the rifght of most Americans, on the majot issues.

McCain is lovable. I met him onae and can also call his charismatic and charming.

But... so what?

He might well run for president in 2008 and might seem like a Republican that Democrats can vote for. But, he isn't. He's really a conservative and he's really a right winger. It's great that he objects to torturing prisoners of war but that shouldn't be any sort of bench mark. Any reasonable person should object to our torturing our war prisoners.

McCain, beloved though he is and as much as I respect him, has never claimed to be anything but what he is -- a Republican senator from Arizona -- and that's what he really is.

A lot of Democrats who are on the fence will consider voting for McCain in 2008. But, we shouldn't forget that he's no Democrat, he's not even a moderate Democrat -- he might have some disagreements with Bushm, but he' s still of the same party and of the same mold.

Don't be fooled by his likability. McCain is a Republican and has been since his start, no matter what he's said or done, he's still closer to the Bush Administration than he is to the general public, Folks might call him "moderate" or "non-partisan" but when we get down to it, he's really a right-winger.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Hurting Morale?

In Mike's "Murtha, Murtha, Murtha" post, he (correctly) goes after the Republican leadership for attacking John Murtha's call to start pulling troops out of Iraq on the grounds that he was "helping the terrorists" or "hurting troop morale." Clearly, it's a canard to dismiss informed, reasoned concern about the troop's well-being and the country's national security interests as somehow contemptible because it supposedly hurts troop morale. Congresspeople have an obligation to worry about the troops and their other constituents, and if that worry leads to suggesting a shift in policy, so be it. I'm not a military veteran, but my hunch is that Congressional debate affects troop morale less than getting kept away from home on extended tours of duty, getting shot at (while underarmored), and watching your friends getting injured or killed. Those, I suspect, are the biggies. So if Murtha's right and the occupation of Iraq isn't doing anything except training terrorists and getting our soldiers used as target practice, then it'll not only improve our national security but also massively improve troop morale to bring the troops home. I'm not sure that I agree with Murtha, but his position isn't illogical or ridiculous, and it sure isn't, contrary to the initial Republican response to it, borderline treasonous.

That said, I do think the cries of hurt morale are more complicated than just Republican political posturing. First, the people worried about morale are probably partly right to do so. Calling for troop withdrawal now essentially says that the invasion was a mistake or at least that the occupation is counterproductive. Over 2,000 American troops have died in Iraq; and if Murtha's right, then it's easy to feel that they died pointlessly (and that the many more injured were injured pointlessly). From what I understand, most professional soldiers in combat fight for their unit, their immediate mission, and for their personal survival, and they tend to leave questions of political efficacy and philosphical justification to others, or at least until later, when nobody's actively trying to kill them. Still, a lot of people in the military signed up to defend America, and most troops want to feel like they're making a difference. Even those troops who would rather that the US had never invaded probably want to help get a new Iraqi society up and running that validates the time, money, and blood spent thus far. I sure would.

But the problem is the things we want to be true aren't always true. I want to look like the young Paul Newman and dunk like the young Michael Jordan. But I don't. I want George Bush to be erudite, thoughtful, receptive to new ideas, and ruthless in his demands that his employees follow the strictest demands of transparency, ethics, and competence. But he ain't. Most Vietnam vets wanted the war in Vietnam to be something other than a messy struggle stupidly taken over from the French and pursued with an indifference to the cultures and material circumstances of the Vietnamese peoples. But it wasn't. 56,000 Americans died in that war, and probably millions of Vietnamese did, and at this point nobody can give a convincing--and valid--reason why we went in in the first place. But it's depressing to think 56,000 (or 2,000) died unnecessarily or (worse) counterproductively. But even more depressing than 56,000 or 2,000 unnecessary deaths is the possibility of 112,000 or 4,000. If John Murtha believes what he says he believes, he'd be a traitor NOT to call for troop withdrawal. And his compatriots in the Congress would be traitors not to consider what he has to say carefully and reasonably.

I also think the cries of hurt morale are partly true not only of troop morale but also of the morale of Americans in general and Congressfolk in particular. In addition to genuine concern that Americans really do feel for the troops, I think "the troops" have actually become an imaginary projection of civilians' fears and hesitations.

American voters returned Bush to office after he launched the war; Congressfolk gave him the power to start the war in the first place. We now know that the primary overt justification for the war--WMD--was a bunch of bunk. We now know that the primary covert justification for the war--that it was somehow payback for 9/11--doesn't make a lick of sense in that al-Qaeda wasn't operating freely in Iraq until our invasion opened it up to them. We now know that 2,000 troops and 30,000 Iraqi civilians have died in the war. We now know that the $300 billion this war has cost us could have been spent to pay down the debt or to provide health care for poor kids or tax breaks for poor parents or education for everybody or for more intelligence and military resources to go after Osama bin Laden (remember him?).

So most Americans are feeling a little resentful about WMDs not found, the lives lost, and the dollars spent. A lot of Americans--especially supporters of the war, especially Congressional supporters--are feeling a little guilty and doubtful too. So when somebody like Murtha stands up and gives voice to the quiet doubt they feel but repress, they don't want to hear it. To take that doubt seriously, to let the doubts surface, would be too painful and threatening. So they take all the feelings of panic and doubt and project them onto the troops in the form of "bad morale" inflicted on those troops by treacherous lefties. It's an understandable attempt to work out the cognitive dissonance brought on by at once supporting and doubting the President and the war effort. But it's not the right one. It distorts thought and debate, and thought and debate are what we need most right now in sorting out the mess in Iraq.

Whether or not the troops should stay in Iraq, it's pretty clear that they shouldn't have been sent in the first place. If American voters and their representatives continue to pretend otherwise to themselves, they'll never be in a position to realistically weigh where we are and what we can do to make it better. And we owe it to our troops and to the Iraqis to do everything we can to make life better over there. It may mean keeping troops there. It may mean pulling out troops but leaving behind engineers, contractors, and the money they need to help rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. And it may mean a rapid pullout so that the Iraqis can govern themselves. These are practical policy decisions that need to be made by relatively rational grown-up Congressfolk answering by relatively rational grown-up voters, not by people busily and angrily projecting their unresolved emotional issues onto the troops whom they put in harm's way in the first place by projecting their hatred of Bin Laden onto Saddam Hussein.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The France Riots, as they die down

A few observations about the riots in France:

First, pretty much since I started interviewing global economists as part of my living, people who know have warned me that the European Union's inability to bring immigrants into the fold was going to cause trouble. Nobody I spoke with predicted riots like this. Rather, they've pointed out that the native EU population is aging and that immigration is the key to them having an economy that can handle the retirements of the EU's current population. So, this was an old issue.

Second, I've noticed a lot of criticism of France, from the US lately. Riots there has led people here to say, basically, "See how messed up they are?" Uh... no. The US has had major urban riots, in recent history, that have had issues of economics and race at their roots. Crown Heights. Watts. L.A. Also, in our country, the Detroit Pistons winning an NBA title is cause to get on the phone with your insurance company. We keep criticising France, but our system hasn't, over the last 50 years, immunized us to what just happened there.

Finally, there's the ever-present notion that, hey, these are just a bunch of crazy Arabs, doing crazy Arab things. But it is, of course, that very notion about Middle Eastern culture and Islam that makes such problems worse. Truth is, much as I love Europe, the US is light years ahead of our allies over there in terms of being tolerant of race and religion. Honestly, and I've now experienced this on and off since I graduated college, smart and thoughtful people in Europe will sometimes say things about, say, "the Jews," that would make the average American very uncomfortable, to say the least. I'm not branding all European natives as racist, but... tolerance of ethnic and religious difference is an area where America, despite out own rather notable flaws on this front, surged way ahead during the 20th century.

Europe's inabality to, in a broad social way, welcome new people, is killing it. But our reaction to what happened in France shouldn't be smug of sanctimonious. It has happened here. Unless we make changes, it will happen here again. The lesson, trite as this is, is that hate and feart breed urban riots and chaos, in any country. I think there's been too much schadenfreude about the riots in France. Instead, we should be talking about increasing tolerance here, making more openings for new people to join our economy, and bolstering what's always been our greatest strength, the ability to turn outsiders into members of our community. We've done that better than any country in the EU, by any measure, but we've also faltered so badly that if any other world leaders had the things that we did between our founding and now, we'd be demanding international trials for crimes against humanity. This is just one of those areas where we've done better than Europe, but nowhere near good enough.

Murtha, Murtha, Murtha

I don't know much about Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha. It's hard, even for somebody interested in politics, to know a lot about every congressional representative. The Village Voice, though, provides a quick and handy synopsis of his career and views.

Murtha, who voted for giving the president the option to use force against Iraq in 2002 has recently called for some plan to withdraw our troops. This is signifigant becayse Murtha, the first Viet Nam veteran ever elected to congress is no lefty dove and he's always been a staunch supporter of the military. Indeed, he frames his call for withdrawal as, quite reasonably, another example of his support for the military, whose members have suffered so much since we invaded Iraq.

For my part, I continue to be skeptical about calls for withdrawal. As much as I want our troops out, I don't think we can leave the Iraqis with the mess we created.

But that's an aside.

I'm depressed, though not surprised, to see that Murtha's opponents have accused him of demoralizing the military and hurting the war effort by calling for withdrawal.

I don't see how a congressional representative caring about the fates of our soldiers is demoralizing. Shouldn't our soldiers want and expect that the countries leaders will continue to debate in order to find the best solution? It'd be worse, I think, to feel like a potential acceptable loss in pursuit of anb unquestioned agenda.

But, even beyond that -- our congressional representatives aren't meant to be cheerleaders for the military. They're meant to make the best decisions about the use of our armed forces. If our leaders are truly trying to do that job, then it's inevitable that they'll have to question ongoing military actions. The best way for elected leaders from either side to support the troops is for them to do their jobs. If you're going to support the war, have reasons. Be reasonable about it. Make arguments. If you're going to oppose it, do the same. Murtha's been accused of being unhelpful to the cause. But how is blindly supporting the current course any more helpful? Also, is it the job of elected leaders to help military campaigns or to make decisions about them? This criticism of Murtha isn't just unfair to the representative, and treating a representative unfairly isn't an unpardonable sin by any means. The real problem here is that the criticism in this case stems from members of our government not understanding the government's responsibilities.

No thoughtful idea about the war, even if it's an idea that's never implemented or is found to be flawed, should be silenced. I think we've forgotten that, sometimes, people elected or appointed to government posts need to say things that people don't want to hear. It's part of the job. A big part.


Update: The House voted 403-3 against pulling troops out of Iraq. But, it was a meaningless vote. Republicans brought the matter to a vote as a rebuke of Murtha. It was basically a personal attack. The measure was voted down not only because it was intended to be voted down but because a lot of folks dismissed it as showmanship, not as a serious proposal. Which is pretty pathetic. It means that congressional Republicans, who should be debating about what to do, have decided to spend their time and energy on meaningless spectacle.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Rarest Of Lies

You all probably know this already but, in congressional testimony, executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips baldly lied to the country. Asked if they attended meetings as part of Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force in 2001, they all said "no."

Turns out, they did. Yet another scoop for Dana Millbank at the Washington Post, with help from colleague Justin Blum.

It was a weird lie, a rare one. It was a declarative lie.

I talk to people in business all of the time. It's my job. They rarely flat out deny something that's true. It happens, sure. But in my experience, people tend to say what's "technically true," if it serves them, leaving me feeling like I'd been lied to but facing something more complex.

That's not all bad. Consider this. An investment manager promises a 10% annual return, no matter what the markets do. Or, an investment manager promises to seek, or believes he can achieve, a 10% annual return regardless of what the market does. The first manager is more likely a scam artist than the second, who has hedged the promise in a realistic way. The second is only a liar or arrogant incompetent if they have no reason to believe they can get a 10% return.

An oddity about the oil lie is that refusing to answer was an option. Sure, folks would have taken that as confirmation, but it wouldn't have been confirmation. The Post would have still revealed the answer, but at least the execs would have been innocent of blatantly lying to the entire country.

Well, they said what they said. I guess now we know what they think of us. Our questions are irrelevant to them. They feel they owe us no candor. If they have more of a role in government than the rest of us, well, tough.

Maybe congress should bring the CEOs of the entire S&P 500 to testify, over the course of the next two years. I'd like to test the rest of them.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Another Way That Iraq Has Left Us Less Safe

Slate's "Today's Papers" says it best:

"U.S. intelligence officials have been secretly showing other nations data from a stolen Iranian laptop, the NYT reports, in an effort to convince them of the country's nuclear-weapons ambitions. The laptop, which contains bomb diagrams and test results, was given to the U.S. by an informant. Independent analysts consider the evidence to be convincing, but many countries, remembering the U.S.'s role in erroneous Iraq WMD intelligence, think the U.S. is just crying wolf."

Imagine! The US claims a rogue regime is building terrible weapons and our allies don't believe us? Whyever not?

Friday, November 11, 2005

Dubya's New Argument

The President now says that, since everybody had the same intelligence back before we invaded Iraq, everybody should realize that we did the right thing, even though the intelligence was wrong.

*Wayne's World Time Travel Sound, which goes, "Diddle-liddle-doo, diddle-liddle-doo, diddle-liddle-doo..."*

Does anybody remember, back before we went to Iraq, debating about whether or not we, you know, should?

Cuz, I do. I remember seeing Colin Powell's UN presentation and thinking that, at best, what he showed the world would make a reasonable person support beefed up inspections in Iraq. It didn't prove Saddam had WMD, or even that he was close to having them, only that it was a possibility worth learning more about.

It'd be as if, around that same time, you had evidence that somebody on the White House staff had leaked the covert identity of a CIA agent to the national media. A rational person wouldn't run out and fire the entire White House staff, they'd appoint somebody to investigate.

The intelligence everybody had at the time, before the war, proved only that Saddam Hussein's ambitions for, ability to get, and possession of WMDs were things worth looking at more closely, not that we should freak out, turn green and muscular, scream, "America Smash!" and then turn the place into a zone of chaos that we'll be responsible for until the end of modern history.

Bush's real argument, what he's really saying, is: "Anybody who was me, knowing what I knew then, would have done what I did. Heheheh."

Well... okay. We knew that. You still screwed up, bozo.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


I've always wanted to start a post like this:

Michael Kinsely once defined a "gaffe" as when a politician accidentally tells the truth.

Check out this gaffe by Tom Delay's former aide, Michael Scanlon. He wrote, in a memo to a lobbying client, the Coushatta Native American Tribe in Louisiana that he could mobilize the religious right to help protect their gambling industry. Except, here's how he described the Christian Right:

"The wackos get their information through the Christian right, Christian radio, mail, the internet and telephone trees," Scanlon wrote in the memo, which was read into the public record at a hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Simply put, we want to bring out the wackos to vote against something and make sure the rest of the public lets the whole thing slip past them."

The whackos! And here I thought I was the effete East Coast liberal snob!

To my surprise, we have a reader or two that stop by this blog and who would describe themselves as conservative and religious. I've corresponded with one of them, a delightful guy who took with good cheer that he and I disagree on just about everything.

But, you see, for all the bad I've said about the religious right, and for all the nasty things I have called them and probably will call them, and for all the bad their side has said about people like me and for all the bad they'll say in the future -- us normal people don't go around trying to manipulate each other as part of some crass dance. I know, I know, they don't dance. It's sinful. Well... it's hard to dance to Clint Black. If God had wanted them to dance, he would have given them decent music.

See? We make fun of each other. That's the American way. Remember, Religious Right... cynical manipulation is a sissy tactic. So even if you think us city-dwelling lefties are pampered, hedonistic distortions of humanity... we ain't sissies like that guy who worked so closely with Tom Delay. I might be a latte drinking, cigarette smoking, mostly black clothes wearing, nihilist relativist. But at least I let you know what I think of you all when you try to sneak creationism into public schools. It's that guy who claims to represent you that's the liar and who doesn't think enough of you to say what he really thinks about you in public.

Remember I said that.

Because, some day, I have no doubt, some lefty leader who I'll like a lot will reveal himself to think that I and people like me are just something to be manipulated too.

While we all debate where we are and where we should be going and how we should be getting there, too many of our representatives aren't. I've always suspected that, absent the election in 2004, that if George Bush and John Kerry were given the choice to spend an evening hanging out together, or hanging out with their most genuinely fervent supporter, they'd chose each other.

Good News, Maybe

The BBC has an interesting story on some of the positive environmental plans potentially afoot in the US (including Schwartzenegger's push to drop gas usage in CA by 30% and a coalition of Northeastern states trying to curb greenhouse emissions).

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tax Windfall Profits?

By some estimates, the 29 biggest players in the US oil industry will rake in profits of $100 billion this year. ExxonMobil just brought in record quarterly profits of $9.9 billion. A lot of this came from the $3 gasoline that was sold in the wake of Katrina but, higher than normal oil prices for the last two years, along with good refining margins, has certainly helped. Next week, some oil executives will go before the senate to try to justify their profits. Various senators, from both parties, have called for the oil and gas players to either voluntarily give up some of their profits to help people who have paid high gasoline prices, or people who will face heating bills that might be 50-70% higher this year, or some combination of the two.

What's going on?

On one hand, I'm for a windfall tax. When one industry profits from a disaster, at the expense of the rest of the nation, it seems a reasonable step to take.

However, I'm not sure Katrina was the cause of all of this. Face it, oil and gas prices, and the associated prices of gasoline and plastics and even freight shipping costs, have been going up for years now, and even absent the hurricanes, oil and gas companies would have had a very good year. If these companies gouged consumers after Katrina, they should be exposed and forced to disgorge some profits. But, I think that, though gouging is certainly possible and probably happened, Katrina didn't cause so much as it revealed a lot of what we've already known.

As the biggest user of energy and other raw materials, the US has always been able to set global prices with its own demand. Not true anymore. Often cited China and India have really added competition as purchasers of not only oil and gas but wood and steel and copper. Mostly, the US just sets the market in coffee these days. It's not just China and India, either. Argentina, in default four years ago, is recovering now, and growing. Russia is growing. Brazil is growing. I've been interviewing fund managers who buy and sell emerging market debt and stocks recently. They're happy. They believe that, fundamentally, emerging market countries are in better shape than they have been in a long time. They're growing and they're selling their products (often resource products) at higher, and higher prices.

It's been often asked, when we talk about the patterns of consumption in the US, about how much we eat, or how much electricity we use, or how much we drive or how often we build houses and office buildings, "What do we do when the rest of the world wants to live the way we're living?" Guess what? They do. Some of them are doing it. Some of them will out consume us, if only to catch up. China and India now call dibs on half of every new barrel of oil produced.

Increased demand for finite products means global inflation.

I'm all for our government investigating the energy industry, post-hurricanes and before an expensive winter. I'm cynical, too, because I doubt that politicians bought and paid for by the energy industry will, in the end, treat it too roughly. This might just be a show for constituents who are angry that they ever paid $3 a gallon for gas and who are more angry that prices rose so quickly and, though they're falling now, have fallen more slowly.

This is going long, but I would like to address one big complaint against the energy companies. First is that they haven't built new refineries in so long that they efficiently can't process oil into the gasoline, plastics and whatnot that America needs. Some will blame enviornmental regulations and "Not In My Backyard" politics for the lack of new refineries. Those people aren't entirely wrong.

But the real problem is the economics of the energy business. Refineries are expensive to build, tough to run, and often lose money. They lost a lot of money during the 1990s, when oil was cheap and seemingly plentiful. As with anything of this nature, there's a supply and demand effect and if there's enough refined oil for America then people won't pay a refiner much for their services. So, there's an incentive not to build new refineries. When an oil executive who owns refineries hears, "We don't have enough refinery capacity," they're happy. That means they can set the price. In a lot of ways, it makes no sense to build a new refinery where you've got a line of people, willing to pay top dollar, lined up outside the refineries you already own.

But, goes the reasonable objection, we need adequate capacity. It's part of our infrastructure. Yes. Yes it is. But when you choose to let private interests handle the entire infrastructure, then your infrastructure will serve their needs, rather than yours. I'm not sure if the problem is that the oil companies aren't investing enough in building that infrastructure or if it's that we as a society shouldn't have expected them to serve our needs before their own.

As for a windfall tax... our representatives need to ignore the donor lists, take the inquiry seriously and prove a case for it. If they can, it should be applied. But let's not pretend that it will restore the world economy to what it was before America found itself facing serious competition from other customers.

The real long-term solution, as Jon E. has been pointing out here, is to get out of a game we can't win and to find alternatives either for the products we're buying currently (which will go up in price, despite fluctuations, for a long time) or in the way we use those products. One oil analyst who I like a lot wrote to me that the solution will be conservation, but it'll be the type of conservation that you don't even notice -- better appliances, hybrid cars, just plain better-made pure combustion cars, or picking up a product at the store that wasn't shipped from too far away not because it wasn't shipped but because it's cheaper and just as good.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

WalMart War Room

So, as part of my sinister plan to crowd out all of Mike's posts, I offer this...

In case you needed a reminder that the Democratic and Republican parties are ideologically a lot closer that people often think, look no further than the WalMart "war room," a cadre of former high-ranking political operatives from the major parties who spend their professional lives defending WalMart against criticism. (That's a full-time job if I ever heard one--I wonder if they get benefits.) Big companies do tend to bring people together across party lines. If you want bipartisan institutional support for a bill, make sure that it contains provisions endorsing consumer capitalism, stupid wars, and happy puppies.

The ability of WalMart's war room to generate bipartisan support doesn't merely prove that political operatives can be some of the most cynical, amoral human beings on earth ("buypartisan support"); it also proves that the problem that WalMart represents goes way deeper than party platforms. People who attack WalMart often make the issue a moral one, as if there were some problem with the particular corporate culture of WalMart. But the problem is political. Not "political" in the relatively superficial sense of which party or candidate or zoning variance permits or forbids what. "Political" in the fundmamental sense that how our economy works in large part determines not only the more superficial politics of our lives but also a whole array of everyday choices and possibilities--the ways we spend our time in order to have some guarantee of food, shelter, and community.

WalMart is the way it is because our economy (which is largely globalized at this point) is the way it is. WalMart's business model depends on 1) differential wealth distribution across nations, 2) economies of scale, 3) sales volume, and 4) weak labor protections. That is, if (1) China were as wealthy per capita as the US, then WalMart couldn't buy cheap Chinese products and sell them in the US. If (2&3) WalMart couldn't get so huge, then it could neither keep its costs low by massive bulk purchases nor generate such reliable profits on such tiny margins. And if (4) workers in China and elsewhere producing those cheap products had meaningful labor protections, then the products wouldn't be so cheap AND if its store employees in the US and elsewhere could unionize and demand better benefits and salaries, then those tiny margins would get too tiny.

For me, #1 and #4 are the crucial ones. Economies of scale and sales volume are simply facts that emerge in our economic system when companies get big. But it's the differential wealth of nations and the lack of labor protections at home and abroad that allow companies to get big in certain ways and to shaft their workers as a result. WalMart, as it is, simply couldn't exist if the US and China had better worker protections. To see that you only have to see what happened the one and only time a WalMart store got a real union (the corrupt, oppressive Chinese government-sponsored "unions" don't count). When a Canadian WalMart voted to unionize, WalMart corporate just closed the whole store. End of store, end of story. The store might have been able to make a profit as part of an almost entirely non-union corporation, but if unionization had started to spread, WalMart's existence as a corporation would've been in trouble.

WalMart may be slightly ahead of the curve in terms of growth and worker-shafting, but it's not an aberration from our system. It's the company that shows us where our system is and where it's heading. Henry Ford once doubled the standard factory worker's wage to $5 a day because, as he put it, he needed to create consumers who could buy his cars. Those days are over in this country. Now we have WalMart, which halves the standard wages so that its employees have no choice but to shop at its stores. (This isn't an endorsement of Ford's candidacy to the hall of Marxist saints--he was out to make a buck, pure and simple. But the way he took advantage of differential wealth in order to make that buck was very different than the way WalMart does.)

The direction that WalMart clues us into is a frightening one and part of a large and powerful system of global capital movement. But it's also one that--in theory--everyday people in this country do have some power over because everyday people can vote and because they can act. The behavior of corporations and the movement of money is not the same as the behavior and movement of hurricanes. Corporations and money are human constructions--national and international agreements that require daily consent by the people inside them to their continued existence. And I don't mean that in some fancy, philosohical way. I mean it in very straightforward, literal terms. A corporation is a legal entity. If we as a nation were to pass different laws radically changing the legal definition of a corporation--and if the armed services backed the government when the corporations traded their army of lawyers for actual armies--then corporations would become different things entirely. (Of course, that's unlikely to happen because--remember the WalMart war room?--the people running the political parties tend to like corporations just as they are.)

Backers of globalization or laisez-faire capitalism will often justify their support by making recourse to the laws of economics. But they don't mention--or necessarily realize--that those laws aren't natural laws like the laws of physics. They're derivative laws: the laws of economics are only true if people continue to live their lives in accordance with political and social laws that make those laws of economics true. But because our economic system is set up the way it is, the political and social laws that perpetuate it can feel totally natural, even if they feel scary and dismaying at the same time.

Still, the laws of economics aren't any more natural than the laws of baseball. Your Little League coach may have eventually convinced you that you can't run the bases clockwise. And you may now take that as a simple fact. But if everybody on the field changes the rules, you can run the bases clockwise. Or not run them at all. Or you can stop playing baseball altogether.

There might not be an urgent need to change the rules of baseball, but I think there is one to change how our economy works. When the most logical and efficient way to play our particular economic game is to put together a corporation that keeps workers everywhere at or below subsistence wages in boring, routinized jobs, everybody playing the game will start doing exactly that. And that, to me, means we need some mighty big rule changes mighty quick.