November 26, 2012

If the 'pro-life' movement really cared about life...

The “pro-life” movement has become a joke. I simply can’t take it seriously. Case in point: Liberty University is again taking the Obama Administration to Court. Fox News reports:

“The school is challenging the constitutionality of the part of [the Affordable Care Act] that mandates employers provide insurance and whether forcing insurers to pay for birth control is unconstitutional under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause.[1]

If abortion is murder, as the Liberty crowd believes, then it should be doing all it can to support the administration’s requirement that insurers pay for birth control. Simply put, when women have free access to birth control, they have fewer unwanted pregnancies. And when women have fewer unwanted pregnancies, they have fewer abortions.

A recent study concluded that—quoting an AP story reprinted by none other than Fox News—“[f]ree birth control leads to fewer abortions.” The study tracked 9,000 St. Louis women who were offered free birth control. In what should have come as no surprise, these women had a significantly lower rate of unintended pregnancies than the general population. Teens in the study had especially low rates: “There were 6.3 births per 1,000 teenagers in the study. Compare that to a national rate of 34 per 1,000 teens in 2010.”[2]

The study further found that there were “substantially lower rates of abortion, when compared with women in the metro area and nationally: 4.4 to 7.5 abortions per 1,000 women in the study, compared with 13.4 to 17 abortions per 1,000 women overall in the St. Louis region” and “almost 20 abortions per 1,000 women” nationally.

Sarah Kliff recently argued that better birth control methods—namely, intrauterine devices (IUDs)—are the most likely reason that the abortion rate has been falling. (Yes, the abortion rate has been falling.)[3] In the above study, women who used IUDs were 22 times less likely to have an unintended pregnancy than women using the pill. All of which led one of the study’s authors, Dr. Jeffery Peipert, to conclude that if women were given access to free IUDs the national abortion rate could very well drop by half.[4]

Which is why I can’t take so much of the “pro-life” crowd seriously. If they really cared about saving human lives, then they would take actions that would actually save human lives.

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[1] “Supreme Court orders new look at Liberty University’s health care coverage,” November 26, 2012.

[2] Lauran Neergaard, “Study: Free birth control leads to few abortions,” Associated Press, October 5, 2012.

[3]Surprise! The abortion rate just hit an all-time low,” Washington Post, November 23, 2012.

[4] Darshak Sanghavi, “Why Have Teen Pregnancy Rates Dropped?” Slate, July 31, 2012.

November 24, 2012

The Case for Boycotting Walmart

1) Walmart does not take care of its workers.

According to IBISWorld, an independent market research company, the average Walmart worker makes $8.81 an hour.[1], [2] This is less than workers make at many competing companies. The average cashier at Costco, for example, makes $15.50 an hour.[3]

Because Walmart workers make so little, many of them cannot afford to buy health insurance. In 2009, just 52% of workers had employer-sponsored insurance. Given that Walmart has since increased premiums and eliminated insurance for part-timers, this number is undoubtedly much lower today.[4]

The company's low wages and inadequate benefits also affect non-employees. For instance, a 2007 study by the UC-Berkeley Labor Center concluded that its low wages drive down wages in competing retail stores.[5] Its low wages also have the end result of placing a heavy burden on taxpayers. Because they’re paid so little, a disproportionately large number of Walmart workers depend upon such government programs as Medicaid, food stamps, and subsidized housing.[6]

Many Walmart workers have in the past fought to improve their situation by organizing, only to be stymied time and again. Human Rights Watch, among others, has documented how Walmart has employed numerous tactics, some legal, some illegal, to deprive workers of this basic right.[7]

2) Walmart can afford to take care of its workers.

The Walton family is unbelievably wealthy, holding as much wealth as the bottom 41.5 percent of American families combined. Yes, you read that right: The Walton family holds as much wealth as the bottom 41.5 percent of Americans families, that is, 49 million families.[8]

Scholars at the Economic Policy Institute have shown that Walmart could easily increase worker pay while retaining its edge against competitors. Walmart currently has a profit margin of 3.57%. If it reduced its margin to its 1997 level (2.9%),it would still have a significantly higher margin than Costco (1.72%). If Walmart took this money and gave it to non-supervisory workers, each worker would receive an annual raise of 13 percent or $2,100.[9]

One study showed that if Walmart instead decided to charge higher prices in exchange for higher wages, consumers wouldn’t be greatly affected. If, for instance, Walmart bumped up worker wages to $12 an hour, the average consumer would pay an additional $0.46 per trip or $12.49 per year.[10]

3) Walmart, therefore, should take care of its workers.

Just elementary morality here.

4) Since Walmart refuses to take care of its workers, we must pressure it to do so. 

And a boycott is probably the most effective way to do this. 

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Two Caveats: First, I feel the need to point out that this boycott isnt intended to destroy Walmart. Rather, it’s intended to help Walmart workers and in so doing to make Walmart itself a better company. 

 Second, I don’t think the poorest Americans should feel guilty for shopping at Walmart. It’s true that Walmart has “Always Low Prices,” and people with limited means have to do what they have to do to get by. But I think that those of us who can afford to pay slightly more for, say, a second Blu-ray player, really should make an effort to shop elsewhere.

* * * * *

One Counterargument: The most common argument given by Walmart defenders is that Walmart’s low prices make up for its low wages. Instead of dealing with that argument here, let me refer you to Bernstein et al.’s “Tradeoffs Between Profits, Prices, and Wages.”

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[1] Courtney Gross, “Is Wal-Mart Worse?Gotham Gazette, February 14, 2011.

[2] The company’s CEO, by contrast, was paid a salary of $18 million last year (Anne D’Innocenzio, “Wal-Mart’s CEO paid $18.1 million in 2011,” Associated Press, April 16, 2012).

[3] The UC-Berekely Labor Center for Research and Education concluded in a 2004 study that “Wal-Mart workers in California earn on average 31 percent less than workers employed in large retail as a whole” (Arindrajit Dube and Ken Jacobs, “Hidden Costs of Wal-Mart Jobs: Use of Safety Net Programs by Wal-Mart Workers in California,” August 2, 2004). Gross, “Is Wal-Mart Worse?

[4] Steven Greenhouse and Reed Abelson, “Wal-Mart Cuts Some Health Care Benefits,” The New York Times, October 20, 2011.

[5] Specifically, the study found that between 1992 and 2000 every additional Walmart store that opened in a given county caused overall retail wages to drop by 1.5 percent. “With an average of 50 Wal-Mart stores per state, the average wages for retail workers were 10 percent lower, and their job-based health coverage rate was 5 percentage points less than they would have been without Wal-Mart’s presence” (Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester, and Barry Eidlin, “A Downward Push: The Impact of Wal-Mart Stores on Retail Wages and Benefits,” UC Berekely Center for Labor Research and Education, December 2007).

[6] Jordan Weissmann, “Who’s Really to Blame for the Wal-Mart Strikes? The American Consumer,” The Atlantic, November 22, 2012. A 2004 study concluded that each year Californians pay $86 million annually for public assistance programs being used by Walmart employees. “The families of Wal-Mart employees in California utilize an estimated 40 percent more in taxpayer funded health care [and “an estimated 38 percent more in other (non-health care) public assistance programs”] than the average for families of all large retailers” (Dube and Jacobs, “Hidden Costs of Wal-Mart Jobs: Use of Safety Net Programs by Wal-Mart Workers in California”).

[8] “Today the Walton family of Walmart own more wealth than the bottom 40 percent of America,”, July 22, 2012; Josh Bivens, “Inequality, exhibit A: Walmart and the Wealth of American families,” The Economic Policy Institute Blog, July 17, 2012.

[9] Jared Bernstein, Josh Bivens, and Arindrajit Dube, “Tradeoffs Between Profits, Prices, and Wages,” Economic Policy Institute, June 14, 2006.

November 17, 2012

Two Myths about Operation Pillar of Defense

Myth #1: Hamas started the conflict.

This has been the narrative of much of the mainstream press. The New York Times, for example, stated earlier this week that Israel began dropping bombs in Gaza “after persistent Palestinian rocket fire.”[1] But, as Paul Pillar points out, “who appears to be retaliating against whom depends on when you start the clock.” Although it’s true that Palestinian militants often fire rockets into Israel, it’s also true that Israel regularly aggresses against those living in Gaza.[2] The blockade itself is a continuous act of aggression, one which continues to cause tremendous suffering among Palestinians.[3]

Pillar further points out that, while many media outlets have stated that the recent conflict began when Palestinian militants attacked IDF soldiers on November 8, these outlets have generally failed to mention that the soldiers were attacked after they, buttressed by four tanks and a bulldozer, invaded Gaza.[4]

Myth #2: Netanyahu just wants peace; he only ordered the assault on Gaza to force Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.

If Netanyahu just wants peace, then it’s not clear why he ordered the assassination of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari on November 14. Jabari’s assassination, you’ll recall, triggered Hamas to declare that “the gates of hell” had been opened and to fire a flurry of rockets into Israel.[5] We now know that on the morning of his assassination Jabari received a cease-fire proposal from Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin. Baskin has for the past few years served as a liaison between Israel and Hamas and helped secure the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2011.[6] Baskin recently learned that Jabari was interested in establishing a long-term ceasefire with Israel, and so he drafted a proposal with Hamas’ Deputy Foreign Minister, Ghazi Hamad. Baskin believes that the proposal had a good chance of working, for, unlike previous proposals, this one “included both a mechanism for dealing with impending terror threats and a clear definition of breaches.” Israeli security officials were aware of the proposal, and yet Israel assassinated Jabari on the very morning he received it.[7]

If Netanyahu wants peace, then it’s also not clear why he doesn’t end the blockade. For a strong case can be made that the blockade is the cause of Palestinian terrorism. Just about any group that was daily subjected to the brutality and humiliation of the blockade would respond by trying to strike back at its oppressors. At the very least Netanyahu could ease the blockade—e.g., by allowing more exports—when Hamas reigns in extremist groups. Hamas has shown that it’s willing and able to reign in such groups, but Israel has given it few incentives to do so. By reversing this policy, Netanyahu could do much to protect Israelis.[8]   

[1] Peter Hart, “When Does Israel/Palestine Violence Start?” FAIR, 11/15/12
[2] “The Symmetry and Asymmetry of Violence in Gaza,” The National Interest, 11/15/12
[3] UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs occupied Palestinian territory, “Easing the Blockade: Assessing the Humanitarian Impact on the Population of the Gaza Strip” [.pdf], March 2011.
[4] See also IMEU, “Timeline: Israel’s Latest Escalation in Gaza,”11/14/12.
[7]Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination,” New York Times, 11/16/12.
[8] Daniel Byman, “Israel’s Gamble in Gaza,” Foreign Affairs, 11/15/12.

November 2, 2012

Why I’m Voting for Obama

I’m not a fan of Barack Obama. With regards to foreign policy and civil liberties, his first term was in many ways a continuation of George W. Bush’s second term. He escalated the war in Afghanistan. He escalated drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen. He tried to keep American troops in Iraq. He continued Bush’s policy of due-process-free indefinite detention. He did absolutely nothing for Palestinians. In sum, he largely governed like a sociopath, and if this were a just world he would be standing trial for war crimes.

But it’s not a just world, and Jill Stein doesn’t have a chance of winning. Our choice is between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And as bad as Obama may be, I believe that Romney would be worse.

First, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy would certainly be more belligerent. Romney has sounded like a neocon throughout much of the campaign, and, although he’s toned it down for the general election, if we want to see how he would govern we need just look at his advisors. His inner circle, Rosa Brooks writes, “looks an awful lot like George W. Bush’s inner circle, mostly because they’re made up of the exact same guys,” people like John Bolton, Dick Cheney, Robert Kagan, Dan Senor, Eliot Cohen, and Eric Edelman. All of which means that a Romney presidency might very well mean war with Iran. It might mean a return to torture, extraordinary rendition, and CIA black sites, all of which Obama banned in 2009. A Romney presidency would certainly mean more money for the defense industry.
Second, Mitt Romney would drastically weaken the social safety net. Although he hasn’t released an actual budget, he’s made it clear that he’s committed to balancing the budget without raising taxes and without cutting Medicare, Social Security, or defense. As Ezra Klein points out, “To make Romney’s numbers add up, you have to assume that by the end of his presidency, Romney will have cut every federal program that’s not Medicare, Social Security or defense spending by 57 percent.” Which means that he would have to impose drastic cuts to programs that benefit the poor; we’re talking things like “Medicaid, food stamps, housing subsidies and job training.” Some estimates suggest that “a Romney victory would deny health insurance to about 45 million [poor] people who would have coverage if he lost.”

Third, Romney’s policies would certainly be much more harmful to the environment. Obama hasn’t been great on environmental issues, but, as Brad Plummer recently reported, he “has taken a few modest steps to curb carbon emissions.” If we essentially continue these policies, we’re likely to see a decrease in carbon emissions by as much 16 percent by 2020. (Obama also invested quite a bit in clean energy in the stimulus.) Romney, by contrast, has made it clear that he would not do anything to reduce emissions.

Again, I wish we had a better choice. I wish Jill Stein were a viable candidate. But she’s not. The American public isn’t yet ready for someone like her. Which means that we have our work cut out for us. We need to continue working to educate people. But in the mean time, I’m voting for Barack Obama, whose policies will certainly harm less people than Mitt Romneys.