Thursday, October 28, 2010

The “business opportunities” created by Arizona’s immigration law

There’s more to Arizona’s controversial immigration bill (the so called “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act”) than an effort by a state government to block immigration from Mexico. It seems legislation was written to create business opportunities for private prison companies looking to build detention centers to hold immigrants. The legislation was promoted by ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) – a membership organization of conservative public officials and private corporations and associations. Campaign donations flowed to friendly legislators.

Laura Sullivan reports this at NPR:
The law is being challenged in the courts. But if it's upheld, it requires police to lock up anyone they stop who cannot show proof they entered the country legally.

When it was passed in April, it ignited a fire storm. Protesters chanted about racial profiling. Businesses threatened to boycott the state.

Supporters were equally passionate, calling it a bold positive step to curb illegal immigration.

But while the debate raged, few people were aware of how the law came about.

NPR spent the past several months analyzing hundreds of pages of campaign finance reports, lobbying documents and corporate records. What they show is a quiet, behind-the-scenes effort to help draft and pass Arizona Senate Bill 1070 by an industry that stands to benefit from it: the private prison industry.

The law could send hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to prison in a way never done before. And it could mean hundreds of millions of dollars in profits to private prison companies responsible for housing them.

Arizona state Sen. Russell Pearce says the bill was his idea. He says it's not about prisons. It's about what's best for the country.

"Enough is enough," Pearce said in his office, sitting under a banner reading "Let Freedom Reign." "People need to focus on the cost of not enforcing our laws and securing our border. It is the Trojan horse destroying our country and a republic cannot survive as a lawless nation."

But instead of taking his idea to the Arizona statehouse floor, Pearce first took it to a hotel conference room.

It was last December at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C. Inside, there was a meeting of a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council. Insiders call it ALEC.

It's a membership organization of state legislators and powerful corporations and associations, such as the tobacco company Reynolds American Inc., ExxonMobil and the National Rifle Association. Another member is the billion-dollar Corrections Corporation of America — the largest private prison company in the country.

It was there that Pearce's idea took shape.

"I did a presentation," Pearce said. "I went through the facts. I went through the impacts and they said, 'Yeah.'"

The 50 or so people in the room included officials of the Corrections Corporation of America, according to two sources who were there.

Pearce and the Corrections Corporation of America have been coming to these meetings for years. Both have seats on one of several of ALEC's boards.

And this bill was an important one for the company. According to Corrections Corporation of America reports reviewed by NPR, executives believe immigrant detention is their next big market. Last year, they wrote that they expect to bring in "a significant portion of our revenues" from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that detains illegal immigrants.

In the conference room, the group decided they would turn the immigration idea into a model bill. They discussed and debated language. Then, they voted on it.

"There were no 'no' votes," Pearce said. "I never had one person speak up in objection to this model legislation."

Four months later, that model legislation became, almost word for word, Arizona's immigration law.

They even named it. They called it the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act."

"ALEC is the conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group," said Michael Hough, who was staff director of the meeting.

Hough works for ALEC, but he's also running for state delegate in Maryland, and if elected says he plans to support a similar bill to Arizona's law.

Asked if the private companies usually get to write model bills for the legislators, Hough said, "Yeah, that's the way it's set up. It's a public-private partnership. We believe both sides, businesses and lawmakers should be at the same table, together."

Nothing about this is illegal. Pearce's immigration plan became a prospective bill and Pearce took it home to Arizona.

Pearce said he is not concerned that it could appear private prison companies have an opportunity to lobby for legislation at the ALEC meetings.

"I don't go there to meet with them," he said. "I go there to meet with other legislators."

Pearce may go there to meet with other legislators, but 200 private companies pay tens of thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like him.

As soon as Pearce's bill hit the Arizona statehouse floor in January, there were signs of ALEC's influence. Thirty-six co-sponsors jumped on, a number almost unheard of in the capitol. According to records obtained by NPR, two-thirds of them either went to that December meeting or are ALEC members.

That same week, the Corrections Corporation of America hired a powerful new lobbyist to work the capitol.

The prison company declined requests for an interview. In a statement, a spokesman said the Corrections Corporation of America, "unequivocally has not at any time lobbied — nor have we had any outside consultants lobby – on immigration law."

At the state Capitol, campaign donations started to appear.

Thirty of the 36 co-sponsors received donations over the next six months, from prison lobbyists or prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America, Management and Training Corporation and The Geo Group.

By April, the bill was on Gov. Jan Brewer's desk.

Brewer has her own connections to private prison companies. State lobbying records show two of her top advisers — her spokesman Paul Senseman and her campaign manager Chuck Coughlin — are former lobbyists for private prison companies. Brewer signed the bill — with the name of the legislation Pearce, the Corrections Corporation of America and the others in the Hyatt conference room came up with — in four days.

Brewer and her spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

In May, The Geo Group had a conference call with investors. When asked about the bill, company executives made light of it, asking, "Did they have some legislation on immigration?"

After company officials laughed, the company's president, Wayne Calabrese, cut in.

"This is Wayne," he said. "I can only believe the opportunities at the federal level are going to continue apace as a result of what's happening. Those people coming across the border and getting caught are going to have to be detained and that for me, at least I think, there's going to be enhanced opportunities for what we do."

Opportunities that prison companies helped create.
ALEC, by the way, includes as part of its mission statement a commitment to free markets and small government – the same organization promoting legislation for the government to “create business opportunities” for corporations to build more prisons at taxpayer’s expense and to use the power of the state to fill those private prisons.

You can read and listen to the entire NPR story here.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Taking our country back to what?

Nostalgia for a past removed from historical context can be a dangerous thing. It is the tool of demagogues. Tea Party activists wanting to return to a time of shared prosperity without understanding how it came about and how it disappeared are prime examples of people ripe to be manipulated to act against their own self-interest.

Harold Meyerson examines the Tea Party’s loose grasp of history and the growing concentration of wealth in the United States during the past 30 years:
As battle cries go, the Tea Party's "Take our country back" is a pretty good one. It's short and punchy, and it addresses a very widespread sense that the nation that Americans once lived in has changed, and not for the better.

When the Tea Partyers get around to identifying how America has changed and to whose benefit, however, they get it almost all wrong. In the worldview of the American right -- and the polling shows conclusively that that's who the Tea Party is -- the nation, misled by President Obama, has gone down the path to socialism. In fact, far from venturing down that road, we've been stuck on the road to hyper-capitalism for three decades now. The Tea Partyers are right to be wary of income redistribution, but if they had even the slightest openness to empiricism, they'd see that the redistribution of the past 30 years has all been upward -- radically upward. From 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent of Americans -- effectively, all but the rich -- increased from 64 percent to 65 percent, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Because the nation's economy was growing handsomely, that means that the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent was growing, too -- from $17,719 in 1950 to $30,941 in 1980 -- a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.

Since 1980, it's been a very different story. The economy has continued to grow handsomely, but for the bottom 90 percent of Americans, it's been a time of stagnation and loss. Since 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent has declined from 65 percent to 52 percent. In actual dollars, the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent flat-lined -- going from the $30,941 of 1980 to $31,244 in 2008.

In short, the economic life and prospects for Americans since the Reagan Revolution have grown dim, while the lives of the rich -- the super-rich in particular -- have never been brighter. The share of income accruing to America's wealthiest 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1974 to a tidy 23.5 percent in 2007.

Looking at these numbers, it would be reasonable to infer that when the Tea Partyers say that they want to take the country back, they mean back to the period between 1950 and 1980, when the vast majority of Americans encountered more opportunity and security in their economic lives than they had before or since. Reasonable, but wrong. As the right sees it, America's woes are traceable to the New Deal order that Franklin Roosevelt, working in the shadow of the even more sinister Woodrow Wilson, imposed on an unsuspecting people.

In fact, the New Deal order produced the only three decades in American history -- the '50s, '60s and '70s -- when economic security and opportunity were widely shared. It was the only period in the American chronicle when unions were big and powerful enough to ensure that corporate revenue actually trickled down to workers. It marked the only time in American history when, courtesy originally of the GI Bill, the number of Americans going to college surged. It was the only time when taxes on the rich were really significantly higher than taxes on the rest of us. It was the only time that the minimum wage kept pace (almost) with the cost of living. And it was the only time when most Americans felt confident enough about their economic prospects, and those of their nation, to support the taxes that built the postwar American infrastructure.

Since the ascent of Ronald Reagan, though, America's claim to being a land of opportunity has become a sick joke. Unions have dwindled; colleges have become unaffordable; manufacturing has gone abroad; taxes on the rich have plummeted; our infrastructure has decayed.

But the country the right wants to return to isn't the America that the Greatest Generation built. Judging by the statements of many of the Republican and Tea Party-backed candidates on next Tuesday's ballots, it's the America that antedates the New Deal -- a land without Social Security, unions or the minimum wage. It's the land that the Greatest Generation gladly left behind when they voted for and built the New Deal order. All of us should want our country back, but that country should be the more prosperous and economically egalitarian nation that flourished at the time when America was not only the world's greatest power, but also a beacon to the world.

Why are the French so angry?

It is easy to get the impression from the U.S. media that the French are acting like spoiled children asked to clean up their rooms. Strikes have left garbage uncollected, trains and buses idle, and mail undelivered. Students have demonstrated in large numbers around the country. Fuel depots and refineries have been blocked leading to a fuel shortage across the country. All of this, we are told, because the government is planning on raising the retirement age from 60 to 62.

Yet, if you suspect there may be more to this story than is summarized in most newspaper stories you are right. The often cited reason for this widespread turmoil – raising the retirement age from 60 to 62 – is only partially true and somewhat misleading. The proposals about changing the French retirement system are much more complex. But more importantly, these protests represent a widespread disgust with corruption in the Sarkozy government at a time when the French public are told they must make sacrifices. Ullrich Fichtner explains in Der Spiegel:
…the French are protesting against a flawed, unfair and poorly executed pension reform, and they are angry about more than what is being touted as a number of ridiculously minor changes. At the same time, however, the resistance against this concrete reform project by a very broad, only loosely cohesive protest movement offers a welcome excuse for the French to finally vent their long-simmering frustrations with their general situation. In fact, France is currently witnessing a veritable popular uprising against a government which has been shaken by scandals and which is already over the hill after only half of its term in office. The real target of the protesters' anger is Nicolas Sarkozy, the most unpopular French president of the last 30 years.

The Widespread Deterioration of a Once-Proud Republic

The parade of minor and major mistakes and scandals of the past summer provides an indication of where all this anger in the country is coming from, and of the extent of French citizens' disenchantment with their politicians today. During the football World Cup in South Africa, the outspoken secretary of state for sports, Rama Yade, criticized the French Football Federation for choosing an excessively luxurious hotel for its national team, before it was revealed that Yade herself would be staying at one of the most expensive luxury hotels in South Africa during her visit.

Soon afterwards, it became known that Christian Blanc, secretary of state for the Greater Paris region, had spent €12,000 of his budget on Cuban cigars within 10 months -- and Blanc didn't even understand what all the fuss was about. Other administration officials, including Industry Minister Christian Estrosi, allowed family members to use their official residences, paid for with taxpayer money, for private purposes. Did they feel guilty? Not at all. Did anyone apologize? What on earth for?

It's little short of a miracle that Labor Minister Eric Woerth, the man behind the highly controversial pension reform, still has his job and isn't in prison awaiting trial instead. In his previous job as budget minister, Woerth saw no conflict of interest in the fact that his wife worked for the holding company that managed the fortune of the wealthy L'Oréal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, and to this day Woerth still hasn't been able to rebut the accusation that he deliberately steered his wife into the job. Woerth, in his capacity as treasurer of the ruling party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), is also accused of having accepted illegal political contributions, in the form of cash-filled envelopes, from the very same Madame Bettencourt. Woerth denies everything.

The worst of it is that in France today, it is unlikely that such offenses will be investigated or that the alleged culprits will face punishment. In the Sarkozy era, judges and prosecutors are carefully weighing which cases they are willing to take on, and the parliament has also become a blunt weapon. Under Sarkozy, the French have witnessed the widespread deterioration of a once-proud republic and its values. In the years before the "omni-president," it would have been unthinkable for a French leader to give an inflammatory speech on national "insecurity," as Sarkozy did this summer. It would also have been inconceivable for an earlier administration to pursue a policy of expulsion like Sarkozy's treatment of the Roma.

The list of failings of the Sarkozy government is long, and their political consequences become more palpable with each new opinion poll. In a reliable new poll conducted last week, only 6 percent of respondents said that Sarkozy was doing a "very good" job, while 69 percent said that they considered Sarkozy to be a "bad" or "very bad" president. In other polls, some two-thirds of respondents have said that they approve of the strikes and protests against the pension reform. But in the end Sarkozy is even to blame for that.

A Declaration of War against the Unions

The word has spread in France that the contributory pension system can only remain viable if it is modified to conform to demographic and financial necessities. The current situation is, roughly speaking, comparable to the situation in Germany before the changes of recent years. The legal retirement age is 65 (and is expected to increase to 67), and the contribution period is 40.5 years (and is expected to increase to 41.5 years). The fact that the numbers 60 and 62 are constantly appearing in news reports is the result of confusing terminology, cultural differences and an attempt to stultify the positions of the unions and the Socialists.

In fact, 60 is merely the earliest possible retirement age for workers who have been paying into the system for at least 40 years. Anyone who retires at 60 in France without having completed the full contribution period must accept substantial reductions in benefits. The only problem is that Sarkozy clearly has no interest in initiating a socially accepted reform that has the support of the unions. In fact, such a reform has hardly been discussed at all. Basically, the outcome was announced before the beginning of any debate on the issue. The bill was endorsed by Sarkozy's cabinet at a meeting on July 13, in the middle of the country's summer vacation. Since then, its key points have been portrayed as non-negotiable.

In other words, the government -- and in recent months Sarkozy alone is ultimately France's government -- never sought the possibility of a sustainable, widely accepted solution. Instead, it used pension reform as a declaration of war against the unions, the Socialists and other adversaries. The intended message, from the very beginning, was that the administration was unwilling to collaborate with these elements, and that it was not going to allow anyone to water down its plans. There was certainly also a hope that the left would become radicalized again, which would deprive it of some of its appeal in the coming elections.

The outcome is now one-sided and warped. Workers, particularly civil servants, are taking on virtually the entire burden of the reform, while employers emerge largely unscathed. Worst yet, workers with extremely long contribution periods are penalized, women are put at a disadvantage and hardship cases are not sufficiently taken into account. It is, in a nutshell, a socially unjust reform. The manner in which it was (not) negotiated is, in a political sense, perhaps the greatest scandal of all, while the current turmoil is the logical consequence.

It was former President François Mitterrand who once noted that the exercise of the office of president in France amounted to a "permanent coup." Sarkozy is taking Mitterand's words at face value, as he tenaciously expands his power. His team of ministers has long been little more than an arm of the Elysee Palace, while Sarkozy's majority group in the French parliament has deteriorated into a club of presidential yes-men. Edwy Plenel, the head of a news website called Mediapart, now refers to Sarkozy as a "Caesar-like hyper-president," a man who gets his way "at any price, as fast as possible and, if necessary, by force."

Fears of a Misguided Transformation of French Democracy

The current strike and protest movement began on Sept. 7. Since then, millions have taken to the streets on a series of national action days, and by no means all the protestors were organized by unions, opposition parties and other organizations. Some of the people who are now getting involved have never taken part in protest marches before. They are the freshly politicized and unorganized who fear a misguided transformation of French democracy and are deeply suspicious of the supposed common sense that the French government prefers to invoke in place of the constitution today.

The opposition movement, the overwhelming majority of which is peaceful, is now being regularly joined by representatives of the disoriented youth of the low-income suburbs -- the same people that Sarkozy, when he was interior minister, referred to as "scum," and who Sarkozy, as president, has treated as scum. Now it seems that everything he had promised them, in the form of his so-called "Marshall Plan for the suburbs," has dissolved into lies and vanished into thin air. Now, not surprisingly, they are seeking the tumult of the street -- to set cars on fire, loot shops and smash windows. And it wouldn't be surprising if scenes like those that unfolded during the 2005 riots were repeated in the near future.

Nowadays, the uncomfortable truth in France is that everyone is constantly anticipating new eruptions, and that Sarkozy can never find a conciliatory word. He never even attempts to bring calm to the situation -- instead, he constantly manages to escalate things even more. And each new outbreak of violence is subsequently used as ammunition against the protesters.
You can read the entire article here.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stimulating hypocrisy

The Center for Public Integrity has uncovered the grab for stimulus funds by Senators and Congressmen who are campaigning on opposing the 2009 stimulus spending package and earmarks. This from an article by John Solomon and Aaron Mehta in today’s Washington Post:
The behind-the-scenes grab for stimulus dollars is a particularly sensitive topic for Republicans, who have wooed the tea party movement with an incessant attack on stimulus spending as wasteful and ineffective. The House GOP's Pledge to America campaign manifesto promises to rescind all unspent stimulus dollars if Republicans regain control of Congress in the November elections.

But several of the architects of the GOP's anti-stimulus campaign tried to secure money from the program, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) and Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), a member of the Republican House leadership who helped craft the Pledge to America.

At least one of McConnell's requested projects was accepted, with $20 million being earmarked from the Transportation Department for a bridge replacement between Milton, Ky., and Madison, Ind.

All told, five members of the GOP's leadership - McConnell, Pence, Sessions, Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) - sent letters requesting that funds be funneled to more than a dozen projects. Even McCain, who made running against pork a key plank of his 2008 presidential campaign, sent a letter offering his "conditional support" for Energy Department funds for Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The grant was not awarded. McCain also wrote three letters endorsing stimulus applications pending at the Commerce Department.

Such letters dismay tea party activists and conservative advocacy groups such as Americans for Tax Reform, which see a touch of hypocrisy among candidates they thought were conservative champions of spending cuts.

"The GOP should not be taking this money and spending it regardless of where it came from," said Rob Gaudet, national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "They should be fighting against it with every fiber of their elected beings."

Over the past year, isolated reports of lawmakers and governors seeking funds from a single agency handing out stimulus money have surfaced in the news media. Using the Freedom of Information Act, the Center for Public Integrity collected nearly 2,000 requests from lawmakers in both parties to secure funding from the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

When the bill was signed into law in February 2009, President Obama boasted that it was free of earmarks, which have been used by lawmakers for years to steer federal money to their pet projects.

"We're not having earmarks in the recovery package, period," the president said, promising that the process would create a "new higher standard of accountability, transparency and oversight."

While the legislation went through Congress without any traditional earmarks, lawmakers - including some Democratic leaders - went to work afterward, cajoling agencies to secure stimulus money for their favored projects for constituents and donors.
You can read the entire article here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What’s the problem with the U.S.-Mexican border? Define your terms

Mathew Yglesias discussed the term “illegal immigrant”:
… it’s generally a bit misleading to write about US-Mexico border crossings primarily through a frame of immigration. If you look at this wall on the border near Tijuana, it hardly captures the full scope of the issue to say that this is a barrier to prevent Mexicans from immigrating to the United States and permanently settling there. It’s also a barrier to prevent Americans from walking on the beach into Mexico and buying some tacos. Or to prevent Mexicans from waking walking across the border to sell some beach towels and umbrellas to Americans and then walking back home with pockets full of money. The increasing militarization of the US-Mexico border has tended to increase the duration of time that Mexicans who come to the US to work illegally spend in our country, but both traditionally and under a saner policy most people who cross the border would probably just go back.

People should remember that not only are wage levels higher in the United States, the price level is higher too. Consequently, the best way for Mexicans willing to migrate to maximize their real wealth is to come to the US to work and then take their money back to Mexico. Temporary labor migration of this kind has traditionally been the goal of most work-oriented border crossing and the easiest way to prevent it from turning into illegal labor and semi-permanent settlement is to create a legal channel.

None of this per se answers the terminological issue, but it’s just to gesture in the direction of the idea that we should try to get more specific about what it is we’re talking about. There are laws governing crossing the border, laws governing employment, laws governing citizenship, etc. When I was camping and paddling down the St Croix River, I crossed the US-Canada border without authorization a number of times and probably broke some kind of laws but I was never an “illegal immigrant to Canada,” I was a kid on a canoe trip.
The politics pertaining to the U.S.-Mexican border is based more and more on hysteria and the resources thrown at trying to block movement back and forth between the two nations seems way out of proportion to any real problem free movement creates. Countries have every right to control their borders but when common people are prohibited from legally crossing a line on the map to work then they will start crossing borders at any point they can, they will be forced to live outside the law, and they won’t leave because of the difficulty of returning at a future date. Sometimes government policies play a role in aggravating the very problems they were created to resolve. There really is such a thing as the self-fulfilling prophecy.

Yglesias is right – terminology and definitions are important. (I remember a college professor who continually reminded us during class debates to “define your terms.”) So is the problem that people cross the southern U.S. border looking for work without going through the formal process of applying for citizenship or some sort of work permit?

Maybe rather than trying to recreate the border between North and South Korea with walls, barbed-wire, and armed personnel we should establish centers on the border where those seeking employment in the U.S. can go to apply for and receive the necessary work permits in an expedited manner. If the problem is defined as Mexicans entering the country illegally and never leaving then it makes more sense to make it easy to enter legally and to leave easily without fear of not being able to return.