Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Little Dirt Is Good for You

by Jane E. Brody
The New York Times
January 26, 2009

Ask mothers why babies are constantly picking things up from the floor or ground and putting them in their mouths, and chances are they’ll say that it’s instinctive — that that’s how babies explore the world. But why the mouth, when sight, hearing, touch and even scent are far better at identifying things?

When my young sons were exploring the streets of Brooklyn, I couldn’t help but wonder how good crushed rock or dried dog droppings could taste when delicious mashed potatoes were routinely rejected.

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that this one too has helped us survive as a species. And, indeed, accumulating evidence strongly suggests that eating dirt is good for you.

In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.”

One leading researcher, Dr. Joel V. Weinstock, the director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, said in an interview that the immune system at birth “is like an unprogrammed computer. It needs instruction.”

He said that public health measures like cleaning up contaminated water and food have saved the lives of countless children, but they “also eliminated exposure to many organisms that are probably good for us.”

“Children raised in an ultraclean environment,” he added, “are not being exposed to organisms that help them develop appropriate immune regulatory circuits.”

Studies he has conducted with Dr. David Elliott, a gastroenterologist and immunologist at the University of Iowa, indicate that intestinal worms, which have been all but eliminated in developed countries, are “likely to be the biggest player” in regulating the immune system to respond appropriately, Dr. Elliott said in an interview. He added that bacterial and viral infections seem to influence the immune system in the same way, but not as forcefully.

Most worms are harmless, especially in well-nourished people, Dr. Weinstock said.

“There are very few diseases that people get from worms,” he said. “Humans have adapted to the presence of most of them.”

In studies in mice, Dr. Weinstock and Dr. Elliott have used worms to both prevent and reverse autoimmune disease. Dr. Elliott said that in Argentina, researchers found that patients with multiple sclerosis who were infected with the human whipworm had milder cases and fewer flare-ups of their disease over a period of four and a half years. At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Dr. John Fleming, a neurologist, is testing whether the pig whipworm can temper the effects of multiple sclerosis.

In Gambia, the eradication of worms in some villages led to children’s having increased skin reactions to allergens, Dr. Elliott said. And pig whipworms, which reside only briefly in the human intestinal tract, have had “good effects” in treating the inflammatory bowel diseases, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, he said.

How may worms affect the immune system? Dr. Elliott explained that immune regulation is now known to be more complex than scientists thought when the hygiene hypothesis was first introduced by a British epidemiologist, David P. Strachan, in 1989. Dr. Strachan noted an association between large family size and reduced rates of asthma and allergies. Immunologists now recognize a four-point response system of helper T cells: Th 1, Th 2, Th 17 and regulatory T cells. Th 1 inhibits Th 2 and Th 17; Th 2 inhibits Th 1 and Th 17; and regulatory T cells inhibit all three, Dr. Elliott said.

“A lot of inflammatory diseases — multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and asthma — are due to the activity of Th 17,” he explained. “If you infect mice with worms, Th 17 drops dramatically, and the activity of regulatory T cells is augmented.”

In answer to the question, “Are we too clean?” Dr. Elliott said: “Dirtiness comes with a price. But cleanliness comes with a price, too. We’re not proposing a return to the germ-filled environment of the 1850s. But if we properly understand how organisms in the environment protect us, maybe we can give a vaccine or mimic their effects with some innocuous stimulus.”

Dr. Ruebush, the “Why Dirt Is Good” author, does not suggest a return to filth, either. But she correctly points out that bacteria are everywhere: on us, in us and all around us. Most of these micro-organisms cause no problem, and many, like the ones that normally live in the digestive tract and produce life-sustaining nutrients, are essential to good health.

“The typical human probably harbors some 90 trillion microbes,” she wrote. “The very fact that you have so many microbes of so many different kinds is what keeps you healthy most of the time.”

Dr. Ruebush deplores the current fetish for the hundreds of antibacterial products that convey a false sense of security and may actually foster the development of antibiotic-resistant, disease-causing bacteria. Plain soap and water are all that are needed to become clean, she noted.

“I certainly recommend washing your hands after using the bathroom, before eating, after changing a diaper, before and after handling food,” and whenever they’re visibly soiled, she wrote. When no running water is available and cleaning hands is essential, she suggests an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Also helpful, he said, is to “let kids have two dogs and a cat,” which will expose them to intestinal worms that can promote a healthy immune system.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Monday, January 26, 2009

Bad Faith Economics

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
January 25, 2009

As the debate over President Obama’s economic stimulus plan gets under way, one thing is certain: many of the plan’s opponents aren’t arguing in good faith. Conservatives really, really don’t want to see a second New Deal, and they certainly don’t want to see government activism vindicated. So they are reaching for any stick they can find with which to beat proposals for increased government spending.

Some of these arguments are obvious cheap shots. John Boehner, the House minority leader, has already made headlines with one such shot: looking at an $825 billion plan to rebuild infrastructure, sustain essential services and more, he derided a minor provision that would expand Medicaid family-planning services — and called it a plan to “spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives.”

But the obvious cheap shots don’t pose as much danger to the Obama administration’s efforts to get a plan through as arguments and assertions that are equally fraudulent but can seem superficially plausible to those who don’t know their way around economic concepts and numbers. So as a public service, let me try to debunk some of the major antistimulus arguments that have already surfaced. Any time you hear someone reciting one of these arguments, write him or her off as a dishonest flack.

First, there’s the bogus talking point that the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created. Why is it bogus? Because it involves taking the cost of a plan that will extend over several years, creating millions of jobs each year, and dividing it by the jobs created in just one of those years.

It’s as if an opponent of the school lunch program were to take an estimate of the cost of that program over the next five years, then divide it by the number of lunches provided in just one of those years, and assert that the program was hugely wasteful, because it cost $13 per lunch. (The actual cost of a free school lunch, by the way, is $2.57.)

The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 — and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Finally, ignore anyone who tries to make something of the fact that the new administration’s chief economic adviser has in the past favored monetary policy over fiscal policy as a response to recessions.

It’s true that the normal response to recessions is interest-rate cuts from the Fed, not government spending. And that might be the best option right now, if it were available. But it isn’t, because we’re in a situation not seen since the 1930s: the interest rates the Fed controls are already effectively at zero.

That’s why we’re talking about large-scale fiscal stimulus: it’s what’s left in the policy arsenal now that the Fed has shot its bolt. Anyone who cites old arguments against fiscal stimulus without mentioning that either doesn’t know much about the subject — and therefore has no business weighing in on the debate — or is being deliberately obtuse.

These are only some of the fundamentally fraudulent antistimulus arguments out there. Basically, conservatives are throwing any objection they can think of against the Obama plan, hoping that something will stick.

But here’s the thing: Most Americans aren’t listening. The most encouraging thing I’ve heard lately is Mr. Obama’s reported response to Republican objections to a spending-oriented economic plan: “I won.” Indeed he did — and he should disregard the huffing and puffing of those who lost.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Children of Gaza: 280 Dead, 350,000 Disabled

by Rory McCarthy
January 23, 2009

Amira Qirm lay on a hospital bed today with her right leg in plaster, and held together by a line of steel pins dug deep into her skin. For several days after her operation Amira, 15, was unable to speak, and even now talks only in a low whisper.

In her past are bitter memories: watching her father die in the street outside their home, then hearing another shell land and kill her brother Ala'a, 14, and her sister Ismat, 16, and then the three days that she spent alone, injured and semi-conscious, trying to stay alive in a neighbour's abandoned house before she could be rescued last Sunday.

Ahead of her, she has a long recovery. First there is an imminent flight to France for the best possible medical treatment, many more operations and then months of rehabilitation and psychiatric care.

Only now, after most of the dead have been buried, is the first properly researched reckoning of the toll emerging. What already stands out is the striking cost borne by the children of Gaza, who make up more than half of the 1.5 million people living in this overcrowded strip of land.

The Palestinian death toll after three weeks of Israel's war was 1,285, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, or 1,268, according to the al-Mezan Human Rights Centre. Among those dead were at least 280 children.

The impact will be felt by many more for years to come. Among the more than 4,000 people injured more than a quarter were children, some left with severe disabilities. The Gaza Community Health Programme estimates that half Gaza's children – around 350,000 – will develop some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Amira Qirm, who lived in Tel al-Hawa, the scene of some of the heaviest fighting in Gaza City, is among the few in line to receive medical treatment abroad.

Already she has a dream to fulfil once she returns to Gaza. "I want to be a lawyer," she said today , "and to stand in court facing the Israelis for what they have done."

Most of the other children will have to make do with treatment in Gaza. Last week some psychologists were walking through the ruins of a house in Atatra, talking to a boy from the Abu Halima family who had lost his father, three brothers and an infant sister in a horrific fire after an Israeli phosphorus shell hit the house.

"The problem is they are not feeling safe even in their own homes, on the streets, in the mosques," said Ehassan Afifi, the psychologist. "This boy is seeing what happened as if it is an endless movie. The physically affected can be operated on, sometimes cured. But these mental problems may lead to problems for the rest of their lives."

Israel has consistently rejected international criticism that its forces used excessive and indiscriminate firepower.

Asked about the criticisms, the prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said in an interview yesterday in the Israeli paper Ma'ariv that the mental health of the children of southern Israel had suffered in recent years. He added: "So now there is talk about Israel's cruelty. When you win, you automatically hurt more than you've been hurt. And we didn't want to lose this campaign. What did you want, for hundreds of our soldiers to die? That, after all, was the alternative."

On the Israeli side 13 died in this conflict, three of them civilians. In total in the past eight years, 20 people in Israel have died from rocket and mortar attacks launched by militants in Gaza.

Halting this rocket fire was Israel's primary goal and for the last few days, at least, it has achieved its aim.

But Eyad al-Sarraj, a prominent psychiatrist who leads the Gaza community health programme, said that years of violence in Gaza had only fostered radicalism among its young people, who have seen their fathers humiliated and now left defenceless.

His organisation is training 1,000 ­people to spread out across Gaza to offer help with grief and mourning and to pass serious cases on to professional therapists.

Already there were reports, he said, of children bed-wetting, stuttering, falling mute, having trouble sleeping, becoming violent or restless and losing their appetites.

The difference between this war and the uprisings, like the first intifada of the late 1980s, was that whereas there was once a frontline, with tanks near the border, now the bombing and artillery reached deep inside Gaza's urban areas and into the homes of ordinary families. "Yes, we have developed a coping strategy but we are still frightened of the Israelis doing this again and again," said al-Sarraj.

"The devastation is a reminder of what the Israelis will do. You need to give children a protective environment and give a chance to the fathers to regain their status as protectors and providers by giving them jobs and homes to live in … This is a massive, man-made disaster and we have to tackle the results."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Bolivia Set to Complete Its "Democratic Revolution" With New Constitution

by Rory Carroll and Andres Schipani
January 23, 2009

Since Francisco Pizarro's conquistadors first clanked into their domain almost 500 years ago, Bolivia's indigenous people have been subjugated and marginalised by European overlords and their descendants.

But after a bruising struggle between supporters and opponents of President Evo Morales, the country is now poised to adopt a new constitution which could prove a watershed for South America. A referendum on Sunday is expected to endorse a charter which supporters say will empower the indigenous majority and roll back half a millennium of colonialism, discrimination and humiliation.

Indigenous leaders gathered in the baroque hall of La Paz's presidential palace this week to give thanks to their champion Morales, a former llama herder who rose to the highest office and delivered, as he promised, a revolution.

In a scene unimaginable just a few years ago the visitors, dressed in the ponchos, colourful skirts and bowler hats of highland peasants, played pan pipe music, chewed coca leaves and spilled alcohol on the mahogany floor as an offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth, a goddess revered in the Andes.

"We will offer unanimous support to this new constitution," said David Choque, a traditional Aymara leader. His companions exploded in cries of "Jallalla", a call to arms and expression of triumph. Half a century ago indigenous people were banned from the palace.

Opinion polls suggest that despite the efforts of the conservative opposition, the 411-article charter will prevail, enshrining radical policies to extend state control of the economy and tilt Bolivia in favour of its underclass.

Morales, an abrasive and charismatic figure elected in 2005 as the first indigenous president, wept for joy when the draft was agreed last October. It would redress grievances dating to the Spanish conquest, he said. "We have made history. I can now go to the cemetery a happy man."

The charter will confirm Bolivia, South America's second-poorest country after Guyana, as a leader in the regional "pink tide" of leftist governments which have ousted traditional elites and challenged US influence.

Addressing a rally last night, Morales said voters would make Bolivia's "democratic revolution" irreversible.

"Patriots, we are not visiting the palace, we are here to stay for life," he told cheering crowds.

"Millions of Bolivians will guarantee the approval of the new constitution to refound Bolivia as a new state with equal opportunities, a new state where everyone will have the same rights and duties."

But not everyone is celebrating, and Morales's fight to "refound" Bolivia is not over. Conservative opponents in the eastern lowlands, a semi-tropical stronghold of paler-skinned European descendants, reject the constitution as a recipe for ruin, division and authoritarianism.

They fiercely resisted its drafting and mounted street protests which turned into bloody clashes with pro-government supporters, including miners armed with dynamite and peasants with machetes. Several people died, hundreds were injured and the country was left dangerously polarised.

"This constitution is making a big mistake by giving more rights to the indigenous [population] and less rights to the people of mixed race. As South Africans did some years ago, we need to unite," said Oscar Ortíz, the senate president.

By mimicking the wholesale nationalisations and hostility to private enterprise espoused by Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez, the charter invited disaster, said Ortíz. "This will isolate Bolivia." The opposition hopes to unite behind a single candidate against Morales in elections later this year.

Radical elements in the lowlands have pushed for autonomy to stymie the constitution's implementation in at least four provinces, a high-risk defiance of central government authority. "There will be violence," said Victor Hugo Rojas, a leader of a youth group in Santa Cruz. "We are ready for confrontation if necessary."

Some of the 50-page charter's most controversial provisions include state control over natural resources, tough penalties against privatisation, and the separation of church and state. Christian groups joined the campaign with the slogan: "Choose God, Vote No."

Wide-ranging provisions extend the rights of Bolivia's 36 indigenous groups and grant indigenous systems of justice the same status as conventional courts which are widely considered inefficient and corrupt.

Morales was forced to make important concessions in the text. He promised to stand for just one more term, meaning he must vacate the presidential palace by 2014.

He also diluted land reform so that any limits on the size of estates will not be retroactive. In addition, big landowners will be protected from peasant invasions or government confiscation if they can show their land is productive.

Some members of the president's party, the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS), complained the concessions went too far and that ambiguous wording left some provisions unclear.

Loyola Guzman, a former guerrilla who fought with Che Guevara and helped draft the constitution, was disillusioned. "This text generated more polarisation instead of uniting us. And there are many inconsistencies."

Few doubt the president, who won 67% in a recall election last year, will triumph on Sunday. But with the opposition preparing for a campaign of attrition, and prices for Bolivia's commodities falling, the future is murky.

"The new constitution may get ample political backing [but] surely won't solve many of the pressing governance challenges facing the Morales administration," said Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. "These will become even more acute as overall economic conditions worsen this year. The question will be how Bolivia's political forces interpret and carry out the many ambiguous clauses in the new constitution."

Indigenous leaders recognise the text is imperfect and that fresh battles loom: at the ceremony in the presidential palace they gave Morales a whip to help him tame opponents.

But for them this is a moment to savour. The election of Morales was the first flexing of indigenous power; the constitution affirmed it was here to stay, said Eugenio Rojas, head of the Red Ponchos, a radical Aymara group.

"We are indigenous people that for the first time in history are in power. We will fight to keep this constitution, we will fight hard to make it work and be respected."

He gestured to the snow-capped highlands of Achacachi, a bare landscape of llamas and shacks which contain the bones of rebels executed and dismembered by the Spanish. "We want to be an example to other peoples, to show the world that us, the indigenous, can manage a country."

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Green Building Trend Picks Up Pace in Westchester

by Abby Gruen
The New York Times
January 16, 2009

Living in a building with geothermal heat makes Garfield Hylton happy. He enjoys knowing his carbon footprint is smaller because he uses less energy in his apartment here.

“I’m a positive person, and this is a positive thing to be doing,” said Mr. Hylton, 28, a network technology specialist who lives at 66 Main Street, Yonkers’s first geothermally heated and cooled apartment building. The system will pay for itself in energy savings over 10 years, said Ken Dearden, the developer of 66 Main.

The new Ossining Public Library and the almost completed Mount Kisco Public Library also use geothermal heating and cooling systems. They are part of a green building trend — one that uses energy-efficient materials and technologies and minimizes disruption to the environment — that has accelerated in Westchester over the past two years.

The economic slowdown accentuates this shift in construction practices, said Steven Winter, an energy and construction consultant in Norwalk, Conn.

“Commercial and speculative projects have fallen off, but school buildings, affordable housing, government buildings and health facilities are least affected, and these tend to be green projects,” Mr. Winter said. He was chairman of the United States Green Building Council in 2000 when it released its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program, known as LEED, which is a nationally recognized third-party certification process for the construction of green buildings.

More than three dozen new building projects in Westchester have sought or completed LEED certification, according to the Green Building Council, which is based in Washington.

Building green in the county does not always mean building to LEED certification standards. Some local governments, like New Rochelle’s and the county Department of Public Works, have committed to green building in principle but are not going for LEED sign-off because of extra costs of hiring consultants and paying certification fees.

“We are requiring all of our staff and consultants to provide us with a listing of options for the different levels of certification, and then we are analyzing the costs,” said Ralph L. Butler, commissioner of public works for the county, who has begun offering LEED certification training to county engineers but has not adopted LEED standards.

Reese Berman, the supervisor of the Town of North Castle, has been working with a team of county leaders on climate-change issues for the past few years and now, as a member of the Westchester Municipal Officials Association executive committee, is working on green guidance for local governments.

“It’s hard when development is slow for towns to make this kind of legislation,” said Ms. Berman, whose town has had to shelve plans for a new highway garage with solar panels. “Unless there are really big incentives from the state or federal government, we are not going to see the kind of green initiatives we were hoping to see.”

Yonkers, which has the most at stake in the county with Struever Fidelco Cappelli’s $1.6 billion redevelopment plan in the works, as well as other waterfront and downtown building proposals, has drafted the most aggressive green building standards in Westchester.

“We had heard that it was not going to be economically feasible,” said Liam J. McLaughlin, the Republican minority leader on the City Council, who heads its Environmental Policy and Protection Committee. “Then we talked to other developers and municipalities and found that the added expense is not that great.”

Mr. Dearden, the developer of 66 Main, estimated that complying with LEED standards would have added up to 4 percent to his building costs.

In a rare instance of unanimity, the Yonkers City Council is expected to pass a green building code this month that will require that most new construction, including the Struever Fidelco Cappelli project, comply with LEED standards, Mr. McLaughlin said.

Mayor Phil Amicone has not endorsed the law yet but is likely to support some form of green building code, said David Simpson, his spokesman.

“Especially in Yonkers, where we have the Hudson River and the Saw Mill River,” Mr. Simpson said, “we have to do the best thing to protect these environmental assets, at the same time that we are developing the city.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Forgive and Forget?

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
January 15, 2009

Last Sunday President-elect Barack Obama was asked whether he would seek an investigation of possible crimes by the Bush administration. “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” he responded, but “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.”

I’m sorry, but if we don’t have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years — and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama’s remarks to mean that we won’t — this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don’t face any consequences if they abuse their power.

Let’s be clear what we’re talking about here. It’s not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation’s security. The fact is that the Bush administration’s abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies.

At the Justice Department, for example, political appointees illegally reserved nonpolitical positions for “right-thinking Americans” — their term, not mine — and there’s strong evidence that officials used their positions both to undermine the protection of minority voting rights and to persecute Democratic politicians.

The hiring process at Justice echoed the hiring process during the occupation of Iraq — an occupation whose success was supposedly essential to national security — in which applicants were judged by their politics, their personal loyalty to President Bush and, according to some reports, by their views on Roe v. Wade, rather than by their ability to do the job.

Speaking of Iraq, let’s also not forget that country’s failed reconstruction: the Bush administration handed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to politically connected companies, companies that then failed to deliver. And why should they have bothered to do their jobs? Any government official who tried to enforce accountability on, say, Halliburton quickly found his or her career derailed.

There’s much, much more. By my count, at least six important government agencies experienced major scandals over the past eight years — in most cases, scandals that were never properly investigated. And then there was the biggest scandal of all: Does anyone seriously doubt that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into invading Iraq?

Why, then, shouldn’t we have an official inquiry into abuses during the Bush years?

One answer you hear is that pursuing the truth would be divisive, that it would exacerbate partisanship. But if partisanship is so terrible, shouldn’t there be some penalty for the Bush administration’s politicization of every aspect of government?

Alternatively, we’re told that we don’t have to dwell on past abuses, because we won’t repeat them. But no important figure in the Bush administration, or among that administration’s political allies, has expressed remorse for breaking the law. What makes anyone think that they or their political heirs won’t do it all over again, given the chance?

In fact, we’ve already seen this movie. During the Reagan years, the Iran-contra conspirators violated the Constitution in the name of national security. But the first President Bush pardoned the major malefactors, and when the White House finally changed hands the political and media establishment gave Bill Clinton the same advice it’s giving Mr. Obama: let sleeping scandals lie. Sure enough, the second Bush administration picked up right where the Iran-contra conspirators left off — which isn’t too surprising when you bear in mind that Mr. Bush actually hired some of those conspirators.

Now, it’s true that a serious investigation of Bush-era abuses would make Washington an uncomfortable place, both for those who abused power and those who acted as their enablers or apologists. And these people have a lot of friends. But the price of protecting their comfort would be high: If we whitewash the abuses of the past eight years, we’ll guarantee that they will happen again.

Meanwhile, about Mr. Obama: while it’s probably in his short-term political interests to forgive and forget, next week he’s going to swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” That’s not a conditional oath to be honored only when it’s convenient.

And to protect and defend the Constitution, a president must do more than obey the Constitution himself; he must hold those who violate the Constitution accountable. So Mr. Obama should reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime. Consequences aside, that’s not a decision he has the right to make.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bitter Pill After the Mourning

by Paul McGeough
The Sydney Morning Herald
January 17, 2009

War sets its own hideous pace but there has to be a morning after. If, as anticipated, the smoke and ash start to clear over Gaza in the coming days, the crying by the wounded and bereaved soon will be drowned out by claim and counterclaim over who won the war.

And unless the world has taken leave of its senses, Hamas will have achieved a remarkable breakthrough - a lifting of the internationally backed siege that has made a prison of the Gaza Strip for its 1.5 million people. No doubt there will be conditions that will temper that sense of victory.

Hamas will insist that it fired rockets to the end - 25 lobbed into Israel on Thursday. But it will be a long time before it fires another.

David Horvitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, observed: "The practical success or failure of Israel's resort to force will be measured in two areas: the degree to which Hamas is deterred from further rocket fire and the extent to which it is prevented from recovering and then expanding its military capacity."

Other yardsticks will also apply. At $US1.4 billion ($2.08 billion), the first estimate of the cost of damage caused by more than 2300 Israeli air strikes alone seems too low. In an interview with The Times in London, an Israeli officer who was in Gaza described the damage as unimaginable: "It doesn't look like we have been there for [just] a few weeks. It looks destroyed, demolished, like we were bombing it for years."

After almost three weeks of being pummelled by one of the world's bigger and technologically superior military machines, Hamas lost only a fraction of its fighters and still holds a big stockpile of rockets and other weapons, Israeli officers concede.

On the battlefield, Hamas seemed to be playing for time and that seemed to be paying off. Most estimates put its fighting force at 15,000-plus and so far Israel estimates it has killed 300 to 400 of them.

As the third week of the conflict ends, Israel is diminished in the eyes of the world. Speaking of the hundreds of dead children in Gaza, a Tel Aviv-based ambassador was quoted as telling Israel: "Your action is brutal … I don't know how to explain these things to myself, never mind to my government."

At the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, a senior official indicated this ambassador was not alone. Acknowledging the overwhelming negativity of dispatches from embassies in Israel even before the onslaught to come - when foreign media finally gets into ravaged Gaza - the official groaned: "You see the reports in the morning and you feel ill."

The serial wrong-headedness by the US, the Europeans and Israel in their collective handling of the Palestinian issue after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington has been breathtaking. The first mistake was to paint the legitimate national claims of the Palestinians into the so-called "war on terror". That error was compounded by the global collective punishment of Palestinians for electing a Hamas government in 2006.

The siege, as described by the Ha'aretz analyst Amira Hass this week, had existed since the early 1990s and was merely refined after Hamas's election victory. "We're all big boys and girls and we know … Israel's goal was to thwart the two-state solution … ," Hass wrote.

It was then that Israel and its international sponsors decided they needed to deal with the nice "moderates" of Fatah rather than Hamas "hardliners" who had been endorsed by Palestinians because of Fatah's decades of failure.

Describing as a "dangerous idea" Israel's belief that it has a right to choose who represents the Palestinians, the Israeli commentator Yossi Alpher warned this week: "Israel has failed whenever it has tried to manipulate the structure of the Arab leadership … Israel removed the PLO from Lebanon and instead got Hezbollah. There is no telling what we'll get in Gaza if we remove Hamas, but the return of Fatah-PLO is improbable."

Speculating on the inevitable key elements of a ceasefire - rocket fire and weapons smuggling cease and border-crossings re-open - Britain's former ambassador to the United Nations, Jeremy Greenstock, lamented the tragedy in these terms: "It underlines the folly of maintaining the fiction that Hamas is beyond the pale and cannot be a partner in talks … when Hamas leaders have already indicated that they could, in the right circumstances, accept a two-state solution."

Undaunted, Israel's Foreign Ministry has already set up a "morning after" taskforce, with a key challenge to keep both Hamas and Iran out of what is expected to be a major international effort to rebuild Gaza, lest either reaps the kind of kudos Hezbollah did in the reconstruction of south Lebanon after an Israeli invasion in 2006.

Notwithstanding that Hamas is the elected government of the West Bank and Gaza, Israel wants Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority "as well as Arab and international entities" to do the work.

But the war seems to have further eroded Abbas's parlous position. West Bank Palestinians who have dared to protest against Israel's campaign in Gaza have been clubbed and beaten by Abbas's security forces and anecdotal reports from across the West Bank indicate a steady rise in support for Hamas. "[Abbas] is one of the main losers in this war," the independent Palestinian analyst Ghassan Khatib observed this week.

One of the deal-breaker issues that will cause some to scratch their heads is the smuggling tunnels between Gaza and Egypt - hundreds of them delivering everyday goods as well as arms for Hamas.

All originate on the Egyptian side of the border, which suggests Israel went to war against Gaza to achieve an outcome that could have been had in the Washington-Jerusalem-Cairo cosy corner, without squandering so much military, political and diplomatic capital.

If Israel was unable to do a deal with Egypt to close the tunnels, it might have asked for more help from Washington, which gives the Cairo regime an annual pay cheque second in largesse only to that paid to Israel. Such a deal was reportedly to be signed in Washington yesterday.

The outcome of the war will be assessed with the passage of time and, for Israel, there will be a dangerous sleeper effect - the impact of the war on the attitudes and thinking of Gazans, especially that half of the population who are teenagers or younger, and their judgment of who is to blame.

"The children of Gaza who survive this war will remember," the Ha'aretz commentator Gideon Levy wrote on Thursday. "A significant majority of the children killed in Gaza did not die because they were used as human shields or because they worked for Hamas.

"They were killed because the [Israeli Defence Forces] bombed, shelled or fired at them, their families or their apartment buildings.

"That is why the blood of Gaza's children is on our hands, not on Hamas's hands and we'll never be able to escape that responsibility. A child who has seen his house destroyed, his brother killed and his father humiliated will not forgive."

Levy's "what next?" theme was taken up by the provocative former Knesset-member Avraham Burg. Writing on Israel's repeated refusal to accept the Palestinians' chosen interlocutors, he wrote: "On the day Gaza becomes a stronghold of al-Qaeda and global radical Islam, we will discover that it was Hamas, the Hamas of today, that was not so awful."

There were signs this week that Israel's political leadership had split. Already being bundled from office on corruption allegations, the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, seemed out of touch as he manipulated ministerial meetings to prolong the Gaza war and in his public bragging of how the Israeli tail wagged the Washington dog when it came to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's vote in the UN Security Council.

The Israeli historian Avi Shlaim has a wonderful knack of tracing the arcs of Israel's history to reveal today's reality - all the talk of successive governments about the peace process has been lip service which has conceded nothing on the ground.

Even before the events of this week, when Washington dismissed Olmert as - well, as a liar, and the UN used similar language to dismiss Israel's attempt to blame Hamas for the white phosphorous bombing of the UN's emergency stores of food and medicine in Gaza, Shlaim was in his library, re-evaluating the words of John Troutbeck.

In June 1948, Troutbeck vented to Ernest Bevin, the British foreign secretary of the day, that the US had been responsible for the creation of a gangster state headed by "an utterly unscrupulous set of leaders".

"I used to think this judgment was too harsh," Shlaim wrote in The Guardian. "But Israel's vicious assault on the people of Gaza and the Bush Administration's complicity, have reopened the question."

Copyright © 2009 The Sydney Morning Herald

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Where Sweatshops Are a Dream

by Nicholas D. Kristof
The New York Times
January 14, 2009

Before Barack Obama and his team act on their talk about “labor standards,” I’d like to offer them a tour of the vast garbage dump here in Phnom Penh.

This is a Dante-like vision of hell. It’s a mountain of festering refuse, a half-hour hike across, emitting clouds of smoke from subterranean fires.

The miasma of toxic stink leaves you gasping, breezes batter you with filth, and even the rats look forlorn. Then the smoke parts and you come across a child ambling barefoot, searching for old plastic cups that recyclers will buy for five cents a pound. Many families actually live in shacks on this smoking garbage.

Mr. Obama and the Democrats who favor labor standards in trade agreements mean well, for they intend to fight back at oppressive sweatshops abroad. But while it shocks Americans to hear it, the central challenge in the poorest countries is not that sweatshops exploit too many people, but that they don’t exploit enough.

Talk to these families in the dump, and a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children.

“I’d love to get a job in a factory,” said Pim Srey Rath, a 19-year-old woman scavenging for plastic. “At least that work is in the shade. Here is where it’s hot.”

Another woman, Vath Sam Oeun, hopes her 10-year-old boy, scavenging beside her, grows up to get a factory job, partly because she has seen other children run over by garbage trucks. Her boy has never been to a doctor or a dentist, and last bathed when he was 2, so a sweatshop job by comparison would be far more pleasant and less dangerous.

I’m glad that many Americans are repulsed by the idea of importing products made by barely paid, barely legal workers in dangerous factories. Yet sweatshops are only a symptom of poverty, not a cause, and banning them closes off one route out of poverty. At a time of tremendous economic distress and protectionist pressures, there’s a special danger that tighter labor standards will be used as an excuse to curb trade.

When I defend sweatshops, people always ask me: But would you want to work in a sweatshop? No, of course not. But I would want even less to pull a rickshaw. In the hierarchy of jobs in poor countries, sweltering at a sewing machine isn’t the bottom.

My views on sweatshops are shaped by years living in East Asia, watching as living standards soared — including those in my wife’s ancestral village in southern China — because of sweatshop jobs.

Manufacturing is one sector that can provide millions of jobs. Yet sweatshops usually go not to the poorest nations but to better-off countries with more reliable electricity and ports.

I often hear the argument: Labor standards can improve wages and working conditions, without greatly affecting the eventual retail cost of goods. That’s true. But labor standards and “living wages” have a larger impact on production costs that companies are always trying to pare. The result is to push companies to operate more capital-intensive factories in better-off nations like Malaysia, rather than labor-intensive factories in poorer countries like Ghana or Cambodia.

Cambodia has, in fact, pursued an interesting experiment by working with factories to establish decent labor standards and wages. It’s a worthwhile idea, but one result of paying above-market wages is that those in charge of hiring often demand bribes — sometimes a month’s salary — in exchange for a job. In addition, these standards add to production costs, so some factories have closed because of the global economic crisis and the difficulty of competing internationally.

The best way to help people in the poorest countries isn’t to campaign against sweatshops but to promote manufacturing there. One of the best things America could do for Africa would be to strengthen our program to encourage African imports, called AGOA, and nudge Europe to match it.

Among people who work in development, many strongly believe (but few dare say very loudly) that one of the best hopes for the poorest countries would be to build their manufacturing industries. But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely.

Look, I know that Americans have a hard time accepting that sweatshops can help people. But take it from 13-year-old Neuo Chanthou, who earns a bit less than $1 a day scavenging in the dump. She’s wearing a “Playboy” shirt and hat that she found amid the filth, and she worries about her sister, who lost part of her hand when a garbage truck ran over her.

“It’s dirty, hot and smelly here,” she said wistfully. “A factory is better.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

NY Times' Friedman is Wrong

by bpb
FAIR blog
January 14, 2009

There is no evidence for Thomas Friedman's contention that after Israel's 2006 war with Hizballah, "Lebanese civilians, in anguish, said to Hezbollah: 'What were you thinking? Look what destruction you have visited on your own community! For what? or whom?'" In fact, in the month following the war, a public opinion poll conducted in Lebanon confirmed the opposite: that Lebanese public opinion strongly favored Hizballah.

According to a poll conducted by Information International from Aug. 22 to Aug. 27, 2006, 57% of respondents "supported" Hizballah's kidnappings of Israeli soldiers, which initiated the conflict. According to the same poll, 79% of respondents rated the performance of Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah as "good/great." These numbers are noteworthy not only because they disprove Friedman's claim, but because they also represent a relative uniformity of opinion across Lebanon's notoriously divided populace.

Furthermore, even in mid-October 2006, months after the war's end, a poll conducted in Lebanon by the Center for Strategic Studies found that 78% of respondents believed that Israel would have attacked Lebanon "whether Hizbollah captured the Israeli soldiers or not," thus signifying that a large majority of Lebanese were unwilling to place blame on Hizballah.

Based on these numbers, it is easy to see that Thomas Friedman is rewriting history in order to justify his current support of Israel's war on Palestinian civilians. It is remarkable that he seems to have assumed that his claims could not be fact-checked in this age of ubiquitous polling.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gaza Killings Trigger Call for War Crimes Probe

by Thalif Deen
Inter Press Service
January 13, 2009

With hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, killed during nearly three weeks of fighting in Gaza, there is a growing demand either for an international tribunal or an international commission to investigate charges of war crimes committed by Israel.

But there are fears that any such move may be shot down by the United States, and possibly by other Western nations, which continue to politically temper their criticism of Israel despite violations of all the known international conventions protecting women, children, the wounded and the dying in war zones.

"On an inter-governmental level, the war crimes process is essentially subject to geopolitical control, which means in practice that the criminal wrongdoing of the most powerful [the U.S. government] and its closest friends [Israel] get a free pass," Richard Falk, a professor of international law and a U.N. human rights expert, told IPS.

Despite widespread condemnation, this practice of "geopolitical impunity" is likely to shield Israel from formal scrutiny with respect to the alleged crimes of war and crimes against humanity associated with its military operations in Gaza since Dec. 27, he added.

Falk, who is the U.N. Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, was detained and expelled from an airport in Tel Aviv last month when he was on a U.N.-mandated assignment to probe human rights in the occupied territories.

As of Tuesday, the Palestinian death toll had risen to more than 900, mostly civilians, compared with over 10 Israelis, including those killed by Hamas's rocket fire.

The London-based Amnesty International has asked the Security Council "to take firm action to ensure full accountability for war crimes and other serious abuses of international human rights and humanitarian law."

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told a special session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva that accountability must be ensured for violations of international law.

"I remind this Council that violations of international humanitarian law may constitute war crimes for which individual criminal responsibility may be invoked," she said.

At the special session Monday, the HRC adopted a resolution calling for an "urgent independent international fact-finding mission" to investigate all violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by Israel.

Asked specifically about charges of "war crimes" in Gaza, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon refused to express his view on the unbridled killings of civilians.

"That's something which the International Criminal Court (ICC) or other international organisations will have to determine," he told reporters Monday, on the eve of his weeklong peace mission to the Middle East.

But the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), which is calling for an international commission of investigation, points out that Israel has not ratified the statute of the ICC.

"Activating the ICC jurisdiction for these crimes implies for the U.N. Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC," in order for the ICC prosecutor to initiate an investigation, FIDH said in a letter to the 15-member U.N. body.

But any such Security Council action will most likely be vetoed by the United States, a longstanding ally of Israel.

Besides the ICC, which was established in 2003, there have been special criminal tribunals or special courts created to prosecute war crimes or genocide in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Cambodia and East Timor.

"There certainly should be a tribunal," Michael Ratner, president of the New York-based Centre for Constitutional Rights, told IPS.

While it would look at war crimes committed by all parties, Hamas's actions pale in comparison to the murders committed by Israel, he said.

"The continued impunity of Israel for crimes it has committed encourages it in perpetrating gross violations of humanitarian law," said Ratner, who is also adjunct professor law at Columbia University.

"A tribunal is essential, [but] the United States will likely veto such a Security Counsel resolution. By doing so, it is enabling and condoning war crimes," he warned.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and international studies at the University of San Francisco, said: "A strong case can be made for an investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli armed forces."

Since the Gaza Strip is legally a non-self-governing territory, the United Nations has a particular responsibility to ensure that those guilty of war crimes are prosecuted, he added.

"Such prosecution, however, would be more appropriate if pursued through the International Criminal Court, which did not exist at the time special tribunals were set up for Yugoslavia, Cambodia and Rwanda," Zunes told IPS.

By pursuing cases through the ICC rather than a special tribunal, it would lessen the likelihood of charges that the United Nations was once again unfairly singling out Israel for violations of international humanitarian law, he added.

Falk said "the most that we can expect are fact-finding and investigative missions" established by the Human Rights Council in Geneva (as proposed in its Special Session) and by the General Assembly (as an outcome of an upcoming Ninth Special Session).

"I think these symbolic steps are important, and they will undoubtedly be opposed by the United States and Israel, and Israel will in all likelihood not allow such initiatives to enter Gaza," he said.

This will confirm concealment, a virtual admission of guilt, and will still enable authoritative reports and recommendations for a criminal accountability mechanism to be established, which the General Assembly has the authority to do under Article 22 of the U.N. Charter, Falk said.

There are some other possibilities for establishing legal responsibility and criminal accountability, especially well-organised civil society initiatives.

He pointed out that one model would be the tribunal process associated with the Iraq War, with sessions in some 20 countries, and a culminating Iraq War Tribunal held in Istanbul, Turkey in June 2005.

"There exists the political climate to organise such a tribunal process for Gaza, and it will have worldwide resonance."

In the course of such a democratically conceived grassroots tribunal process, there would also be an opportunity to consider the implications of the U.S. role in providing vast military assistance and unconditional diplomatic support to Israel, as well as to consider the relative passivity of Europe, Arab neighbours, and others, he added.

Copyright © 2009 IPS-Inter Press Service

Shoppers Guide to Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

by Environmental Working Group (EWG)
December 2008

Start with the fixtures you use most. Choose CFLs for locations where breakage is rare - for instance, for ceiling fixtures rather than table lamps in high traffic areas or clip lamps.
  • BUY a few test bulbs of several brands and try them out in different areas. With standard use, CFLs will last a long time -- all the more reason to make sure that as you consult the EWG guide, you and your family are comfortable with their quality of light.
  • BUY CFLs bulbs with the lowest mercury content. The Energy Star logo is not a good indicator of low mercury bulbs. Instead choose from the 7 types EWG research shows have the least mercury:
Earthmate Mini-Size Bulbs (13, 15, 20, & 23 Watt)
Litetronics Neolite (10, 13, 15, 20, & 23 Watt)
Sylvania Micro-Mini (13, 20, & 23 Watts)
Sylvania DURA-ONE (reflector bulbs)
Feit Ecobulb
Philips with Alto
For online buying options visit ewg.org/greenlightbulbs.
  • DON’T use CFLs where mercury exposure is unacceptable or cleanup is difficult --- children’s rooms, playrooms, recreation rooms, workbenches and near irreplaceable rugs and furniture.
  • DON’T use CFLs in closets and other spots lit for short periods. CFLs take 10 to 15 minutes to reach optimum light and energy efficiency.
  • USE mercury-free bulbs such as LED (light emitting diodes) or halogen energy savers where CFLs don’t work. Also consider them for stairs and hallways where a CFL’s slow start-up poses a safety risk.
  • Cleaning up broken CFL bulbs:
If you break a bulb follow EWG’s 10 step clean-up checklist [ewg.org/greenlightbulbs]. The most critical steps to remember:
• Keep children and pregnant or nursing women away from the contaminated area.
• Close doors and open windows to allow volatile mercury vapors to vent outdoors.
• Leave the site for 5 to 15 minutes.
• Scoop up bulb fragments and use tape to collect tiny particles.
• Seal the waste in a glass jar with screw-top lid.
See the full report here.

Copyright 2007-2009 Environmental Working Group

Monday, January 12, 2009

Israel Is Losing This War

by Uri Avnery
The Progressive
January 11, 2009

Nearly seventy years ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called “the Red Army” held the millions of the town’s inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.

Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.

This is the description that would now appear in the history books – if the Germans had won the war.

Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as “hostages” and exploit the women and children as “human shields”, they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured.

In this war, as in any modern war, propaganda plays a major role. The disparity between the forces, between the Israeli army - with its airplanes, gunships, drones, warships, artillery and tanks - and the few thousand lightly armed Hamas fighters, is one to a thousand, perhaps one to a million. In the political arena the gap between them is even wider. But in the propaganda war, the gap is almost infinite.

Almost all the Western media initially repeated the official Israeli propaganda line. They almost entirely ignored the Palestinian side of the story, not to mention the daily demonstrations of the Israeli peace camp. The rationale of the Israeli government (“The state must defend its citizens against the Qassam rockets”) has been accepted as the whole truth. The view from the other side, that the Qassams are a retaliation for the siege that starves the one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, was not mentioned at all.

Only when the horrible scenes from Gaza started to appear on Western TV screens, did world public opinion gradually begin to change.

True, Western and Israeli TV channels showed only a tiny fraction of the dreadful events that appear 24 hours every day on Aljazeera’s Arabic channel, but one picture of a dead baby in the arms of its terrified father is more powerful than a thousand elegantly constructed sentences from the Israeli army spokesman. And that is what is decisive, in the end.

War – every war – is the realm of lies. Whether called propaganda or psychological warfare, everybody accepts that it is right to lie for one’s country. Anyone who speaks the truth runs the risk of being branded a traitor.

The trouble is that propaganda is most convincing for the propagandist himself. And after you convince yourself that a lie is the truth and falsification reality, you can no longer make rational decisions.

An example of this process surrounds the most shocking atrocity of this war so far: the shelling of the UN Fakhura school in Jabaliya refugee camp.

Immediately after the incident became known throughout the world, the army “revealed” that Hamas fighters had been firing mortars from near the school entrance. As proof they released an aerial photo which indeed showed the school and the mortar. But within a short time the official army liar had to admit that the photo was more than a year old. In brief: a falsification.

Later the official liar claimed that “our soldiers were shot at from inside the school”. Barely a day passed before the army had to admit to UN personnel that that was a lie, too. Nobody had shot from inside the school, no Hamas fighters were inside the school, which was full of terrified refugees.

But the admission made hardly any difference anymore. By that time, the Israeli public was completely convinced that “they shot from inside the school”, and TV announcers stated this as a simple fact.

So it went with the other atrocities. Every baby metamorphosed, in the act of dying, into a Hamas terrorist. Every bombed mosque instantly became a Hamas base, every apartment building an arms cache, every school a terror command post, every civilian government building a “symbol of Hamas rule”. Thus the Israeli army retained its purity as the “most moral army in the world”.

The truth is that the atrocities are a direct result of the war plan. This reflects the personality of Ehud Barak – a man whose way of thinking and actions are clear evidence of what is called “moral insanity”, a sociopathic disorder.

The real aim (apart from gaining seats in the coming elections) is to terminate the rule of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. In the imagination of the planners, Hamas is an invader which has gained control of a foreign country. The reality is, of course, entirely different.

The Hamas movement won the majority of the votes in the eminently democratic elections that took place in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. It won because the Palestinians had come to the conclusion that Fatah’s peaceful approach had gained precisely nothing from Israel - neither a freeze of the settlements, nor release of the prisoners, nor any significant steps toward ending the occupation and creating the Palestinian state. Hamas is deeply rooted in the population – not only as a resistance movement fighting the foreign occupier, like the Irgun and the Stern Group in the past – but also as a political and religious body that provides social, educational and medical services.

From the point of view of the population, the Hamas fighters are not a foreign body, but the sons of every family in the Strip and the other Palestinian regions. They do not “hide behind the population”, the population views them as their only defenders.

Therefore, the whole operation is based on erroneous assumptions. Turning life into living hell does not cause the population to rise up against Hamas, but on the contrary, it unites behind Hamas and reinforces its determination not to surrender. The population of Leningrad did not rise up against Stalin, any more than the Londoners rose up against Churchill.

He who gives the order for such a war with such methods in a densely populated area knows that it will cause dreadful slaughter of civilians. Apparently that did not touch him. Or he believed that “they will change their ways” and “it will sear their consciousness”, so that in future they will not dare to resist Israel.

A top priority for the planners was the need to minimize casualties among the soldiers, knowing that the mood of a large part of the pro-war public would change if reports of such casualties came in. That is what happened in Lebanon Wars I and II.

This consideration played an especially important role because the entire war is a part of the election campaign. Ehud Barak, who gained in the polls in the first days of the war, knew that his ratings would collapse if pictures of dead soldiers filled the TV screens.

Therefore, a new doctrine was applied: to avoid losses among our soldiers by the total destruction of everything in their path. The planners were not only ready to kill 80 Palestinians to save one Israeli soldier, as has happened, but also 800. The avoidance of casualties on our side is the overriding commandment, which is causing record numbers of civilian casualties on the other side.

That means the conscious choice of an especially cruel kind of warfare – and that has been its Achilles heel.

A person without imagination, like Barak (his election slogan: “Not a Nice Guy, but a Leader”) cannot imagine how decent people around the world react to actions like the killing of whole extended families, the destruction of houses over the heads of their inhabitants, the rows of boys and girls in white shrouds ready for burial, the reports about people bleeding to death over days because ambulances are not allowed to reach them, the killing of doctors and medics on their way to save lives, the killing of UN drivers bringing in food. The pictures of the hospitals, with the dead, the dying and the injured lying together on the floor for lack of space, have shocked the world. No argument has any force next to an image of a wounded little girl lying on the floor, twisting with pain and crying out: “Mama! Mama!”

The planners thought that they could stop the world from seeing these images by forcibly preventing press coverage. The Israeli journalists, to their shame, agreed to be satisfied with the reports and photos provided by the Army Spokesman, as if they were authentic news, while they themselves remained miles away from the events. Foreign journalists were not allowed in either, until they protested and were taken for quick tours in selected and supervised groups. But in a modern war, such a sterile manufactured view cannot completely exclude all others – the cameras are inside the strip, in the middle of the hell, and cannot be controlled. Aljazeera broadcasts the pictures around the clock and reaches every home.

The battle for the TV screen is one of the decisive battles of the war.

Hundreds of millions of Arabs from Mauritania to Iraq, more than a billion Muslims from Nigeria to Indonesia see the pictures and are horrified. This has a strong impact on the war. Many of the viewers see the rulers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority as collaborators with Israel in carrying out these atrocities against their Palestinian brothers.

The security services of the Arab regimes are registering a dangerous ferment among the peoples. Hosny Mubarak, the most exposed Arab leader because of his closing of the Rafah crossing in the face of terrified refugees, started to pressure the decision-makers in Washington, who until that time had blocked all calls for a cease-fire. These began to understand the menace to vital American interests in the Arab world and suddenly changed their attitude – causing consternation among the complacent Israeli diplomats.

People with moral insanity cannot really understand the motives of normal people and must guess their reactions. “How many divisions has the Pope?” Stalin sneered. “How many divisions have people of conscience?” Ehud Barak may well be asking.

As it turns out, they do have some. Not numerous. Not very quick to react. Not very strong and organized. But at a certain moment, when the atrocities overflow and masses of protesters come together, that can decide a war.

The failure to grasp the nature of Hamas has caused a failure to grasp the predictable results. Not only is Israel unable to win the war, Hamas cannot lose it.

Even if the Israeli army were to succeed in killing every Hamas fighter to the last man, even then Hamas would win. The Hamas fighters would be seen as the paragons of the Arab nation, the heroes of the Palestinian people, models for emulation by every youngster in the Arab world. The West Bank would fall into the hands of Hamas like a ripe fruit, Fatah would drown in a sea of contempt, the Arab regimes would be threatened with collapse.

If the war ends with Hamas still standing, bloodied but unvanquished, in face of the mighty Israeli military machine, it will look like a fantastic victory, a victory of mind over matter.

What will be seared into the consciousness of the world will be the image of Israel as a blood-stained monster, ready at any moment to commit war crimes and not prepared to abide by any moral restraints. This will have severe consequences for our long-term future, our standing in the world, our chance of achieving peace and quiet.

In the end, this war is a crime against ourselves too, a crime against the State of Israel.

Copyright 2008 The Progressive Magazine

Little Rock Nine Set Foundation for Obama

by Kim Segal and John Zarrella
January 12, 2009

Carlotta Walls LaNier points out the only two African-Americans in her senior class as she flips through her high school yearbook. She pauses when she sees the picture on a page dedicated to "Integration."

It's been nearly five decades since LaNier graduated from Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas.

"It shows how the 101st were on the grounds of the school," says LaNier.

In 1957, soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division, an elite Army unit, escorted LaNier and eight other African-American students into the all-white public high school. The students, who became known as the Little Rock Nine, were taunted and threatened by an angry mob.

"We knew we could not participate in extracurricular activities," recalls LaNier. "There was one who could have been in the band, one who could have been on track. I was the one who played basketball ... I couldn't do that."

Back then, LaNier thought once the doors of equality were open it wouldn't be long before an African-American became president.

"I had hoped to see something like that in the next 10 or 15 years when I was in high school but that didn't happen," says LaNier.

What has happened is a new generation of students walks the halls at Central High. Even though the exterior looks the same as it did during integration -- the interior would be almost unrecognizable to LaNier and the other Little Rock Nine.

Today, the sea of mostly white faces has disappeared. The hallways are now filled with a more racially diverse student body. Students take a class to learn about the school's history and many say it's given them a greater appreciation for racial tolerance.

"Now it's definitely hard to imagine -- you walk into the halls and you see people of all different races are in the hallway. And in addition, the majority of our school is African-American now," points out Afshar Sanati, student body president. "It is hard for me to walk inside the school every day and see how this place could have been such a hostile environment for nine African-American students."

LaNier is still humble when she reflects on her experience.

"We all knew that we were giving up something for a bigger cause and [we were] happy that we did it," says LaNier. "Because it has been 51 years, I think they were baby steps now. But they were big steps then."

The steps taken by the Little Rock Nine were so big, in fact, they received personal invitations to attend President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.

"I think the Little Rock Nine set the foundation," says student Sarah Karney. "I don't think [Obama's election] could have happened without them."

Today, many students at Central High see themselves as the beneficiaries of an Obama presidency.

"Him being president means there actually is a chance for anyone to do what they want to do if they work hard enough," says Helena Liu, who says she doesn't see race when she looks at Obama.

"It doesn't depend on your race -- it depends on who you are, the quality of your character," says DeIvory Howard.

"[We've] got to get past just the color of our skins being newsworthy. It's really about all the things we knew we could do for this country and now we have the opportunity to show it and it's going to come through his leadership," says LaNier. "And, we're looking forward to that."

Senior Chris Bell couldn't agree more.

"This election proves that this America is just not the old America. It shows that America is ready for something different," says Bell. "I just think ... that's amazing."

© 2009 Cable News Network

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Eight Years of Madoffs

by Frank Rich
The New York Times
January 10, 2009

Three days after the world learned that $50 billion may have disappeared in Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, The Times led its front page of Dec. 14 with the revelation of another $50 billion rip-off. This time the vanished loot belonged to American taxpayers. That was our collective contribution to the $117 billion spent (as of mid-2008) on Iraq reconstruction — a sinkhole of corruption, cronyism, incompetence and outright theft that epitomized Bush management at home and abroad.

The source for this news was a near-final draft of an as-yet-unpublished 513-page federal history of this nation-building fiasco. The document was assembled by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction — led by a Bush appointee, no less. It pinpoints, among other transgressions, a governmental Ponzi scheme concocted to bamboozle Americans into believing they were accruing steady dividends on their investment in a “new” Iraq.

The report quotes no less an authority than Colin Powell on how the scam worked. Back in 2003, Powell said, the Defense Department just “kept inventing numbers of Iraqi security forces — the number would jump 20,000 a week! ‘We now have 80,000, we now have 100,000, we now have 120,000.’ ” Those of us who questioned these astonishing numbers were dismissed as fools, much like those who begged in vain to get the Securities and Exchange Commission to challenge Madoff’s math.

What’s most remarkable about the Times article, however, is how little stir it caused. When, in 1971, The Times got its hands on the Pentagon Papers, the internal federal history of the Vietnam disaster, the revelations caused a national uproar. But after eight years of battering by Bush, the nation has been rendered half-catatonic. The Iraq Pentagon Papers sank with barely a trace.

After all, next to big-ticket administration horrors like Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and the politicized hiring and firing at Alberto Gonzales’s Justice Department, the wreckage of Iraq reconstruction is what Ralph Kramden of “The Honeymooners” would dismiss as “a mere bag of shells.” The $50 billion also pales next to other sums that remain unaccounted for in the Bush era, from the $345 billion in lost tax revenue due to unpoliced offshore corporate tax havens to the far-from-transparent disposition of some $350 billion in Wall Street bailout money. In the old Pat Moynihan phrase, the Bush years have “defined deviancy down” in terms of how low a standard of ethical behavior we now tolerate as the norm from public officials.

Not even a good old-fashioned sex scandal could get our outrage going again. Indeed, a juicy one erupted last year in the Interior Department, where the inspector general found that officials “had used cocaine and marijuana, and had sexual relationships with oil and gas company representatives.” Two officials tasked with marketing oil on behalf of American taxpayers got so blotto at a daytime golf event sponsored by Shell that they became too incapacitated to drive and had to be put up by the oil company.

Back in the day, an oil-fueled scandal in that one department alone could mesmerize a nation and earn Warren Harding a permanent ranking among our all-time worst presidents. But while the scandals at Bush’s Interior resemble Teapot Dome — and also encompass millions of dollars in lost federal oil and gas royalties — they barely registered beyond the Beltway. Even late-night comics yawned when The Washington Post administered a coup de grâce last week, reporting that Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne spent $235,000 from taxpayers to redo his office bathroom (monogrammed towels included).

It took 110 pages for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan research organization, to compile the CliffsNotes inventory of the Bush wreckage last month. It found “125 systematic failures across the breadth of the federal government.” That accounting is conservative. There are still too many unanswered questions.

Just a short list is staggering. Who put that bogus “uranium from Africa” into the crucial prewar State of the Union address after the C.I.A. removed it from previous Bush speeches? How high up were the authorities who ordered and condoned torture and then let the “rotten apples” at the bottom of the military heap take the fall? Who orchestrated the Pentagon’s elaborate P.R. efforts to cover up Pat Tillman’s death by “friendly fire” in Afghanistan?

And, for extra credit, whatever did happen to Bush’s records from the Texas Air National Guard?

The biggest question hovering over all this history, however, concerns the future more than the past. If we get bogged down in adjudicating every Bush White House wrong, how will we have the energy, time or focus to deal with the all-hands-on-deck crises that this administration’s malfeasance and ineptitude have bequeathed us? The president-elect himself struck this note last spring. “If crimes have been committed, they should be investigated,” Barack Obama said. “I would not want my first term consumed by what was perceived on the part of Republicans as a partisan witch hunt, because I think we’ve got too many problems we’ve got to solve.”

Henry Waxman, the California congressman who has been our most tireless inquisitor into Bush scandals, essentially agreed when I spoke to him last week. Though he remains outraged about both the chicanery used to sell the Iraq war and the administration’s overall abuse of power, he adds: “I don’t see Congress pursuing it. We’ve got to move on to other issues.” He would rather see any prosecutions augmented by an independent investigation that fills in the historical record. “We need to depoliticize it,” he says. “If a Democratic Congress or administration pursues it, it will be seen as partisan.”

We could certainly do worse than another 9/11 Commission. Among those Americans still enraged about the Bush years, there are also calls for truth and reconciliation commissions, war crimes trials and, in a petition movement on Obama’s transition Web site, a special prosecutor in the Patrick Fitzgerald mode. One of the sharpest appointments yet made by the incoming president may support decisive action: Dawn Johnsen, a law professor and former Clinton administration official who last week was chosen to run the Office of Legal Counsel in the Department of Justice.

This is the same office where the Bush apparatchik John Yoo produced his infamous memos justifying torture. Johnsen is a fierce critic of such constitutional abuses. In articles for Slate last year, she wondered “where is the outrage, the public outcry” over a government that has acted lawlessly and that “does not respect the legal and moral bounds of human decency.” She asked, “How do we save our country’s honor, and our own?”

The last is not a rhetorical question. While our new president indeed must move on and address the urgent crises that cannot wait, Bush administration malfeasance can’t be merely forgotten or finessed. A new Justice Department must enforce the law; Congress must press outstanding subpoenas to smoke out potential criminal activity; every legal effort must be made to stop what seems like a wholesale effort by the outgoing White House to withhold, hide and possibly destroy huge chunks of its electronic and paper trail. As Johnsen wrote last March, we must also “resist Bush administration efforts to hide evidence of its wrongdoing through demands for retroactive immunity, assertions of state privilege, and implausible claims that openness will empower terrorists.”

As if to anticipate the current debate, she added that “we must avoid any temptation simply to move on,” because the national honor cannot be restored “without full disclosure.” She was talking about America regaining its international reputation in the aftermath of our government’s descent into the dark side of torture and “extraordinary rendition.” But I would add that we need full disclosure of the more prosaic governmental corruption of the Bush years, too, for pragmatic domestic reasons. To make the policy decisions ahead of us in the economic meltdown, we must know what went wrong along the way in the executive and legislative branches alike.

As the financial historian Ron Chernow wrote in the Times last week, we could desperately use a Ferdinand Pecora, the investigator who illuminated the history of the 1929 meltdown in Senate hearings on the eve of the New Deal. The terrain to be mined would include not just the usual Wall Street suspects and their Congressional and regulatory enablers but also the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a strangely neglected ground zero in the foreclosure meltdown. The department’s secretary, Alphonso Jackson, resigned in March amid still-unresolved investigations over whether he enriched himself and friends with government contracts.

The tentative and amorphous $800 billion stimulus proposed by Obama last week sounds like a lot, but it’s a drop in the bucket when set against the damage it must help counteract: more than $10 trillion in new debt and new obligations piled up by the Bush administration in eight years, as calculated by the economists Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph E. Stiglitz in the current Harper’s Magazine.

If Bernie Madoff, at least, can still revive what remains of our deadened capacity for outrage, so can those who pulled off Washington’s Ponzi schemes. The more we learn about where all the bodies and billions were buried on our path to ruin, the easier it may be for our new president to make the case for a bold, whatever-it-takes New Deal.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

Kucinich Speaks Against Israel Resolution

January 9, 2009

Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) today spoke out against a resolution affirming U.S. support for Israel’s military action in Gaza. While a firm supporter of the people of Israel and a critic of rocket attacks by Hamas militants, Congressman Kucinich led opposition against the incomplete resolution.

H.Res. 34, “Supporting Israel in Its Battle with Terrorist Hamas,” is incomplete because it does not address the humanitarian crisis of Palestinians in Gaza, fails to insist on an immediate ceasefire, and neglects Israel’s potential violation of the Arms Export and Control Act which governs U.S. arms exports to foreign countries.

The Arms Export Control Act (AECA) requires that each nation that receives a shipment of arms from the United States must certify that the weapons are used for internal security and legitimate self-defense, and that their use does not lead to an escalation of conflict. Congressman Kucinich informed the administration of Israel’s possible violation of AECA through Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on January 6, 2009. Kucinich has yet to receive a response.

The full text of Congressman Kucinich’s statement follows:

January 9, 2009

“In Gaza, the United Nations gave the Israeli army the coordinates of a UN school, and the school was then hit by Israeli tank fire, killing about forty. The UN put flags on emergency vehicles, coordinating the movements of those vehicles with the Israeli military, and the vehicles came under attack, killing emergency workers. The Israeli army evacuated 100 Palestinians to shelter, and then bombed the shelter, killing thirty people.

“Emergency workers have been blocked by the Israeli army from reaching hundreds of injured persons. Today’s Washington Post: 100 survivors rescued in Gaza from roads blocked from Israelis. Relief agencies fear more are trapped, days after neighborhood was shelled. Today, the U.S. Congress is going to be asked to pass a resolution supporting Israel’s actions in Gaza. I’m hopeful that we don’t support the inhumanity that has been repeatedly expressed by the Israeli army. The U.S. abstained from a UN call for a ceasefire. We must take a new direction in the Middle East, and that new direction must be mindful of the inhumane conditions in Gaza."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Israel: Boycott, Divest, Sanction

by Naomi Klein
The Nation
January 7, 2009

It's time. Long past time. The best strategy to end the increasingly bloody occupation is for Israel to become the target of the kind of global movement that put an end to apartheid in South Africa.

In July 2005 a huge coalition of Palestinian groups laid out plans to do just that. They called on "people of conscience all over the world to impose broad boycotts and implement divestment initiatives against Israel similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era." The campaign Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions--BDS for short--was born.

Every day that Israel pounds Gaza brings more converts to the BDS cause, and talk of cease-fires is doing little to slow the momentum. Support is even emerging among Israeli Jews. In the midst of the assault roughly 500 Israelis, dozens of them well-known artists and scholars, sent a letter to foreign ambassadors stationed in Israel. It calls for "the adoption of immediate restrictive measures and sanctions" and draws a clear parallel with the antiapartheid struggle. "The boycott on South Africa was effective, but Israel is handled with kid gloves.... This international backing must stop."

Yet many still can't go there. The reasons are complex, emotional and understandable. And they simply aren't good enough. Economic sanctions are the most effective tools in the nonviolent arsenal. Surrendering them verges on active complicity. Here are the top four objections to the BDS strategy, followed by counterarguments.

1. Punitive measures will alienate rather than persuade Israelis. The world has tried what used to be called "constructive engagement." It has failed utterly. Since 2006 Israel has been steadily escalating its criminality: expanding settlements, launching an outrageous war against Lebanon and imposing collective punishment on Gaza through the brutal blockade. Despite this escalation, Israel has not faced punitive measures--quite the opposite. The weapons and $3 billion in annual aid that the US sends to Israel is only the beginning. Throughout this key period, Israel has enjoyed a dramatic improvement in its diplomatic, cultural and trade relations with a variety of other allies. For instance, in 2007 Israel became the first non-Latin American country to sign a free-trade deal with Mercosur. In the first nine months of 2008, Israeli exports to Canada went up 45 percent. A new trade deal with the European Union is set to double Israel's exports of processed food. And on December 8, European ministers "upgraded" the EU-Israel Association Agreement, a reward long sought by Jerusalem.

It is in this context that Israeli leaders started their latest war: confident they would face no meaningful costs. It is remarkable that over seven days of wartime trading, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's flagship index actually went up 10.7 percent. When carrots don't work, sticks are needed.

2. Israel is not South Africa. Of course it isn't. The relevance of the South African model is that it proves that BDS tactics can be effective when weaker measures (protests, petitions, back-room lobbying) have failed. And there are indeed deeply distressing echoes: the color-coded IDs and travel permits, the bulldozed homes and forced displacement, the settler-only roads. Ronnie Kasrils, a prominent South African politician, said that the architecture of segregation that he saw in the West Bank and Gaza in 2007 was "infinitely worse than apartheid."

3. Why single out Israel when the United States, Britain and other Western countries do the same things in Iraq and Afghanistan? Boycott is not a dogma; it is a tactic. The reason the BDS strategy should be tried against Israel is practical: in a country so small and trade-dependent, it could actually work.

4. Boycotts sever communication; we need more dialogue, not less. This one I'll answer with a personal story. For eight years, my books have been published in Israel by a commercial house called Babel. But when I published The Shock Doctrine, I wanted to respect the boycott. On the advice of BDS activists, I contacted a small publisher called Andalus. Andalus is an activist press, deeply involved in the anti-occupation movement and the only Israeli publisher devoted exclusively to translating Arabic writing into Hebrew. We drafted a contract that guarantees that all proceeds go to Andalus's work, and none to me. In other words, I am boycotting the Israeli economy but not Israelis.

Coming up with this plan required dozens of phone calls, e-mails and instant messages, stretching from Tel Aviv to Ramallah to Paris to Toronto to Gaza City. My point is this: as soon as you start implementing a boycott strategy, dialogue increases dramatically. And why wouldn't it? Building a movement requires endless communicating, as many in the antiapartheid struggle well recall. The argument that supporting boycotts will cut us off from one another is particularly specious given the array of cheap information technologies at our fingertips. We are drowning in ways to rant at one another across national boundaries. No boycott can stop us.

Just about now, many a proud Zionist is gearing up for major point-scoring: don't I know that many of those very high-tech toys come from Israeli research parks, world leaders in infotech? True enough, but not all of them. Several days into Israel's Gaza assault, Richard Ramsey, the managing director of a British telecom company, sent an e-mail to the Israeli tech firm MobileMax. "As a result of the Israeli government action in the last few days we will no longer be in a position to consider doing business with yourself or any other Israeli company."

When contacted by The Nation, Ramsey said his decision wasn't political. "We can't afford to lose any of our clients, so it was purely commercially defensive."

It was this kind of cold business calculation that led many companies to pull out of South Africa two decades ago. And it's precisely the kind of calculation that is our most realistic hope of bringing justice, so long denied, to Palestine.

Copyright © 2008 The Nation

The Obama Gap

by Paul Krugman
The New York Times
January 8, 2009

“I don’t believe it’s too late to change course, but it will be if we don’t take dramatic action as soon as possible. If nothing is done, this recession could linger for years.”

So declared President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday, explaining why the nation needs an extremely aggressive government response to the economic downturn. He’s right. This is the most dangerous economic crisis since the Great Depression, and it could all too easily turn into a prolonged slump.

But Mr. Obama’s prescription doesn’t live up to his diagnosis. The economic plan he’s offering isn’t as strong as his language about the economic threat. In fact, it falls well short of what’s needed.

Bear in mind just how big the U.S. economy is. Given sufficient demand for its output, America would produce more than $30 trillion worth of goods and services over the next two years. But with both consumer spending and business investment plunging, a huge gap is opening up between what the American economy can produce and what it’s able to sell.

And the Obama plan is nowhere near big enough to fill this “output gap.”

Earlier this week, the Congressional Budget Office came out with its latest analysis of the budget and economic outlook. The budget office says that in the absence of a stimulus plan, the unemployment rate would rise above 9 percent by early 2010, and stay high for years to come.

Grim as this projection is, by the way, it’s actually optimistic compared with some independent forecasts. Mr. Obama himself has been saying that without a stimulus plan, the unemployment rate could go into double digits.

Even the C.B.O. says, however, that “economic output over the next two years will average 6.8 percent below its potential.” This translates into $2.1 trillion of lost production. “Our economy could fall $1 trillion short of its full capacity,” declared Mr. Obama on Thursday. Well, he was actually understating things.

To close a gap of more than $2 trillion — possibly a lot more, if the budget office projections turn out to be too optimistic — Mr. Obama offers a $775 billion plan. And that’s not enough.

Now, fiscal stimulus can sometimes have a “multiplier” effect: In addition to the direct effects of, say, investment in infrastructure on demand, there can be a further indirect effect as higher incomes lead to higher consumer spending. Standard estimates suggest that a dollar of public spending raises G.D.P. by around $1.50.

But only about 60 percent of the Obama plan consists of public spending. The rest consists of tax cuts — and many economists are skeptical about how much these tax cuts, especially the tax breaks for business, will actually do to boost spending. (A number of Senate Democrats apparently share these doubts.) Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center summed it up in the title of a recent blog posting: “lots of buck, not much bang.”

The bottom line is that the Obama plan is unlikely to close more than half of the looming output gap, and could easily end up doing less than a third of the job.

Why isn’t Mr. Obama trying to do more?

Is the plan being limited by fear of debt? There are dangers associated with large-scale government borrowing — and this week’s C.B.O. report projected a $1.2 trillion deficit for this year. But it would be even more dangerous to fall short in rescuing the economy. The president-elect spoke eloquently and accurately on Thursday about the consequences of failing to act — there’s a real risk that we’ll slide into a prolonged, Japanese-style deflationary trap — but the consequences of failing to act adequately aren’t much better.

Is the plan being limited by a lack of spending opportunities? There are only a limited number of “shovel-ready” public investment projects — that is, projects that can be started quickly enough to help the economy in the near term. But there are other forms of public spending, especially on health care, that could do good while aiding the economy in its hour of need.

Or is the plan being limited by political caution? Press reports last month indicated that Obama aides were anxious to keep the final price tag on the plan below the politically sensitive trillion-dollar mark. There also have been suggestions that the plan’s inclusion of large business tax cuts, which add to its cost but will do little for the economy, is an attempt to win Republican votes in Congress.

Whatever the explanation, the Obama plan just doesn’t look adequate to the economy’s need. To be sure, a third of a loaf is better than none. But right now we seem to be facing two major economic gaps: the gap between the economy’s potential and its likely performance, and the gap between Mr. Obama’s stern economic rhetoric and his somewhat disappointing economic plan.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company