Christopher Hayes | The Nation

Christopher Hayes

Christopher Hayes

Nation editor-at-large and host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes.

NAFTA Debate, Round 4,489,642

On my walk into the New York office, I was thinking through a post on NAFTA, but Robert Reich's post seems like a better jumping off point:

NAFTA has become a symbol for the mounting insecurities felt by blue-collar Americans. While the overall benefits from free trade far exceed the costs, and the winners from trade (including all of us consumers who get cheaper goods and services because of it) far exceed the losers, there's a big problem: The costs fall disproportionately on the losers -- mostly blue-collar workers who get dumped because their jobs can be done more cheaply by someone abroad who'll do it for a fraction of the American wage. The losers usually get new jobs eventually but the new jobs are typically in the local service economy and they pay far less than the ones lost.

Even though the winners from free trade could theoretically compensate the losers and still come out ahead, they don't. America doesn't have a system for helping job losers find new jobs that pay about the same as the ones they've lost – regardless of whether the loss was because of trade or automation. There's no national retraining system. Unemployment insurance reaches fewer than 40 percent of people who lose their jobs – a smaller percentage than when the unemployment system was designed seventy years ago. We have no national health care system to cover job losers and their families. There's no wage insurance. Nothing. And unless or until America finds a way to help the losers, the backlash against trade is only going to grow.

I'd dissent a bit and say that it may be true that theoretically the benefits of "free trade far exceed the costs," the economists' ideal of "free trade" isn't really what we're debating. We're debating actual trade agreements that are hundreds of pages long and negotiated by a democratically elected government. If you switch in NAFTA for "free trade" in that sentence, I don't think it's true that NAFTA's benefits have "far exceeded" the costs. Similarly, Reich thinks "the Dems shouldn't be redebating NAFTA," but NAFTA is the most infamous free-trade deal of the last several decades and a kind of placeholder in the trade debate that's unavoidable.

This Week on Tap

This week to break the impasse over the Senate-passed FISA bill, House Dems may split the legislation into two titles for separate votes--one that authorizes surveillance activities, and the other granting retroactive telecom immunity. After the votes, assuming mutual passage, the two would be recombined. By offering such a compromise, House Dems believe they can placate lawmakers that oppose retroative immunity and simultaneously move ahead to renew the law. Meanwhile the GOP is backing the plan, because on the second vote, it's likely enough Democrats will defect to provide the Bush administration--that is, the telecom companies--with Congressional cover. A FISA vote is expected before representatives leave for spring break on Mar. 17. This week, the House will also take up Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI)'s mental health parity legislation (which would make it easier for mental health patients and addicts to get coverage) and the Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, which would extend and reform national service laws.

On the Senate side, following the past year's slew of health and safety hazards posed by toys and other imported goods, members will take up legislation to increase the power of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Also this week, both the House and Senate will begin writing spending plans in separate committee sessions. The Senate will host hearings on disabled American veterans, mental health in the armed services, Kosovo, voter fraud and an FBI oversight hearing. The House will host a joint oversight hearing on future US commitments to Iraq, as well as hearings on CEO pay and the mortgage crisis, Cuba's future and a Department of Homeland Security oversight hearing.

Beef Inside SEIU

Steven Greenhouse at the Times as the run-down on the latest intramural battles inside the Service Employees International Union.

This tussle started back in early February when Sal Rosselli, president of a large local in CA, resigned from SEIU's CA executive council and posted a blistering open letter [PDF] faulting the union for pursuing growth uber alles and neglecting their members. But it's part of a much longer debate about the relative merits of (to over simplify) increasing union density through aggressive growth, even when that growth comes as a result of a grab bags of tactical approaches that can border on vanguardist, and focusing instead on union democracy, making sure unions are accountable to their members. Again, that's an oversimplification, but the fact is there is some tension between growth and small-d democracy inside a union and this tensions was in many respects part of the subtext for the split between the AFL-CIO and CTW a few years back.

Friday Capitol Letter

In the House....After last week's indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), the House continued its skittish debate over the creation of an independent ethics office. Democrats yanked a slated vote on the proposal as the GOP offered a competing plan to expand the existing ethics committee; neither proposal would grant subpoena power to a new body. By 212-198 vote, Democrats defeated a GOP attempt to force a vote on Senate-passed FISA legislation that grants telecom companies immunity. On Wednesday, the House voted to eliminate $18 billion in tax subsidies for oil companies and expand renewable energy incentives. That bill, HR5351, faces an uphill Senate fight and White House veto.

In the Senate....The largest $35-billion Indian health care overhaul in over a decade won passage after protracted battle, increasing federal spending by an annual average of $500 million for 10 years. "People are literally dying because we have not acted," said Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the chief sponsor. In what was expected to be a largely symbolic move, two of Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.)'s Iraq-related measures were unexpectedly seized by the Republicans as an opportunity to debate the success of the "surge," and simultaneously delay consideration of a Democrat-backed housing bill. After three days, the Democrats pulled the two bills without final votes taken. Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.)'s subsequent attempt to take up the housing bill likewise stalled as Republicans pilloried its proposal to allow bankruptcy judges' modification of mortgage terms for principal residences; the White House threatened to veto the bill.

Also this week, under threat of subpoena, former Attorney General John Ashcroft agreed to testify before the House about the no-bid, 18-month consulting contract worth up to $52 million his company was awarded to oversee a DOJ settlement. In a packed Cambridge public hearing, the FCC weighed whether to discourage cable giants like Comcast from discriminating against particular web sites or types of traffic. Both the House and Senate voted to extend the Andean trade promotion program for 10 months. Meanwhile over the weekend, state governors entreated Congress to end new Medicaid regulations that would shift billions onto already struggling state budgets (fully 21 states face budget shortfalls in 2009).

On Wednesday, the House Foreign Affairs Committee approved a bill to reauthorize Bush's global AIDS program, boosting Bush's original $30 billion funding request to $50 billion and eliminating the requirement that one-third of funding promote abstinence education. The White House reacted less than enthusiastically: "We don't think it's smart to send additional American taxpayer dollars that will sit there and not be used, or used ineffectively," said Dana Perino.

And as the Republican Study Committee urged more business tax cuts, at a Thursday press conference, President Bush exhorted Congress to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. The President also rebuffed the notion that the U.S. was experiencing a recession: ''We'll make it through this period just like we made it through other periods of uncertainty during my presidency,'' he said.

Free Onsaloo

It's a truism that if there's one thing that repressive regimes, from Zimbabwe to China, hate, it's independent trade unions.

Not surprising, then, that Iran has been imprisoning and detaining trade unionists for years. Mansour Osanloo is the president of the Tehran transit workers union, and currently sits in an Iranian prison. On March 6th, labor organizations around the world are holding a demanding his release.

The Politics of Place

This Atlantic piece about the ex-urbs as the new slums is scary, but plausible. I understand politicians don't necessarily want to be doomsayers, but there's a startling disconnect between the panic and pessimism I encounter on the financial blogs I read and the treatment of same in the campaign.

UPDATE: This is what I mean.

Ron Paul Has a Rival

In the run-up to this Tuesday's Texas primary, Congressman Ron Paul is facing a challenge from one Chris Peden, the personable Republican mayor pro tem of Friendswood, who says the 20-year Congressman is out there "to make a point, not a difference." (Out of 351 pieces of legislation Paul has sponsored, notes Peden, only six have made it out of committee, and none has ever passed.)

Wonkette braves the wrath of the Paulhards to take its satire to Texas:

To most American political fanatics, Ron Paul is just a goofy hobbit whose hilariously doomed online presidential campaign provided standout entertainment in a year that offered a wealth of hilariously doomed campaigns.

But to many of his constituents in Texas Congressional District 14, Ron Paul is just a blame-America-first attention whore who completely ignores the people who put him in office...

No independent polls have been released; both candidates claim the advantage in the March 4th primary. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of Feb. 13, Paul had $279,256 cash on hand; Peden had less than half that amount.

On the Alert

The ACLU has announced the U.S. "Terrorist Watch List" is veering ever closer to the 1-million mark, reaching over 900,000 names this week (up from 500,000 this past June).

Despite the FBI's effort last year to clear some 100,000 records "related to people cleared of any nexus with terrorism," the list's dubious utility continues to remain something of a running joke. A sampler of names that have made it onto the list: Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and Evo Morales (Bolivian president).

Among the thousands of Americans that inadvertently ended up blacklisted, some have called airlines to complain, while others have gone the messier, more bureaucracy-ridden route to try and be officially removed. Meanwhile, Hasan Elahi, a Bangladeshi-born American whose name accidentally wound up on the list is using another method: posting his up-to-the-hour activities and location on the Internet via GPS and cell-phone. Pictures of him noodling at Au Bon Pain, receipts from his purchases at Wal-Mart--everything goes online. That way, he figures, the Pentagon will have no excuse to throw him in Guantanamo....

(You, too, can keep an eye on the dangerous character here.)

US Prisons: Still #1

The United States' rapidly metastasizing prison population has reached a new milestone: as the NYT reports, today, more than one in 100 Americans are behind bars.

For some groups, the statistic is still more grim: one in 36 for Hispanic adults, and one in 9 for black men between the ages of 20 and 34.

With the onset of the U.S. "war on drugs," across states, the growth rate in prison spending has outpaced every other budget item except healthcare. Since the 1980s, national spending on jails and prisons has swelled by 619 percent, and now stands at an annual $60 billion.

Faulty Helmets? Here's Another $74 Million

When it comes to providing helmets for U.S. soldiers abroad, the Defense Department hasn't shown itself to be particularly discriminating in its choice of manufacturers.

Last December, after secret tapes revealed the North Dakota Sioux Manufacturing Company charged with producing helmets for soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan had knowingly delivered some 2.2 million helmets made with substandard weave, the Defense Department wasn't fazed by the controversy. Rather, 12 days before the pending Justice Department lawsuit was settled (with a $2-million slap on the wrist), the DOD issued another contract to the Sioux Manufacturing Company worth up to $74 million.

Today, VoteVets.org and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington launched a campaign for Congressional inquiry into the contract. Two whistleblowers from Sioux Manufacturing publicly released their recorded tapes with Sioux Manufacturing employees this morning (available with transcripts here); Sens. Kerry and Clinton have joined them in their call.

"We and our families deserve a government that will only give contracts to companies with an unblemished record," says Jon Schultz, VoteVets.org founder who served in Iraq and Kosovo. "The Bush Pentagon has once again let us down."

Since the Spirit Lake Nation owns the Sioux Manufacturing Company, the company can assert sovereign immunity in any private lawsuits brought by soldiers.

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