Saturday, December 31, 2005


Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, prominent a Democratic hawk, began a spirited political debate when he said it was time for U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq.

The retired Marine colonel delivered an emotional statement in November, saying he had concluded that the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq was counterproductive because they'd become a magnet for insurgent violence and that they should be redeployed over a period of six months.

That set off a firestorm in Washington in which many Republicans lambasted Murtha for his position, questioning his integrity and his mettle.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan compared the congressman to anti-war filmmaker Michael Moore.

McClellan said it is "baffling that [Murtha] is endorsing the policy positions of Michael Moore and the extreme liberal wing of the Democratic party."

The White House also accused Murtha of wanting to "surrender to the terrorists."

Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Republican from Ohio who was obviously unaware of Murtha's combat record, venomously accused the war veteran of being a "coward."

To his credit, Murtha, earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry from the South Vietnamese.

It was just days later that President Bush, after initially criticizing Murtha's proposal, made an incrdible about face by suggesting the possibility of withdrawing some U.S. troops from Iraq in 2006. The change of heart was convenient because 2006 is an election year.

Yet in a confusing contradiction, Vice President Dick Cheney later forcefully argued that early withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq would be "unwise in the extreme" and increase the risk of terrorist attacks in the United States and other nations.

So what's the story? Could there really be a troop reduction in the new year?

On his most recent trip to Iraq, Rep. Murtha found that U.S. "commanders are truly discouraged" and clearly angry. The following may illustrate why.

Virginia's John Warner, the Republican Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called a meeting with 10 battalion commanders to get an honest portrayal of the situation in Iraq. The Marine and Army officers were quite frank in their assessments. Contradicting the Pentagon's repeated claims, the commanders said they not only needed more manpower, but that they'd also repeatedly asked for it -- as recently as this past August. Each time, they said, they were denied.

The commanders said they don't have enough troops to keep insurgents out of cities that have initially been cleared and secured. They also complained of lacking enough personnel to effectively deal with the problem of roadside bombs, the leading cause of U.S. casualties.

So it's hard to imagine the withdrawal of U.S. forces from a war in which there have never been enough forces to begin with. Of course there will be vigorous arguments both for and against, just as there have been up to this point, but it will get really interesting, and perhaps even more ugly, in an election year. At this point the administration can't even get its position straight.

But the ones truly suffering through this debate are our forces fighting in Iraq. I'm inclined to side with the commanders who've said they don't have enough numbers to be truly effective -- or at least as effective as they otherwise could be if they had our government's backing in their valiant effort to defeat this stubborn insurgency. Our troops are worthy of at least that much. That would genuinely be "supporting our troops."

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Thursday, December 29, 2005


Last week, an Oakland, California jury awarded $172 million to thousands of Wal-Mart employees who claimed they were illegally denied lunch breaks.

The news is just the latest blow to the world's largest retailer, which has been repeatedly stung by negative publicity regarding the manner in which it treat its workers.

Wal-Mart was ordered to pay $57 million in general damages and $115 million in punitive damages to about 116,000 current and former California employees for violating a 2001 state law that requires employers to give 30-minute, unpaid lunch breaks to employees who work at least six hours.

The practice is hardly uncommon. According to the New York Times, one week of time records from 25,000 employees in July 2000 found that there were 60,767 missed breaks and 15,705 lost meal times.

The class-action lawsuit is just one of more than 40 nationwide alleging workplace violations by Wal-Mart, and was the first to go to trial. The company had already settled a similar lawsuit in Colorado for $50 million. However, the company doesn't seem to have learned its lesson or changed its ways. But the latest award will hardly hurt the Arkansas-based retailer, since it earned $10 billion last year.

Fred Furth, the attorney who brought the case on behalf of the workers, seemed satisfied that the jury "held Wal-Mart to account."

Naturally, Wal-Mart's attorney said the retailer would likely appeal the jury's verdict, which was reached after nearly three days of deliberations and four months of testimony. His basis for appeal? That state law can only be enforced by California regulators, not by workers in a courtroom. An interesting, though dubious strategy. He also added that Wal-Mart did not believe the lunch law allowed for punitive damages.

Apparently Wal-Mart just doesn't get it. The company is so huge, and so powerful that it thinks it can just ignore the law. It's been caught denying employees fair treatment under the law, yet its corporate governors think that it's appropriate to simply begin following the law now, albeit by court mandate, without any punishment. They are indignant at notion that they should actually be punished for their illegal and unethical actions.

"We absolutely disagree with their findings," attorney Neal Manne said of the jury's verdict. He conceded that Wal-Mart made mistakes in not always allowing for lunch breaks when the 2001 law took affect, but he said the company is "100 percent" in compliance now.

Oh, so now they get it. Finally. I wonder what it took. Could it be the tens of millions in punitive damages? I'll be that had something to do with it. Fines can be somewhat motivational.

The verdict could hardly have come at a worse time for Wal-Mart. The company is waging an intense public-relations campaign to counter critics who are attempting to stop the retailer's expansion and make it boost workers' salaries and benefits.

Wal-Mart was so concerned about Robert Greenwald's new film, Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, that they hired a "war room" of public relations people to fight back. Apparently their efforts haven't paid off very well: a Zogby poll showed that Americans don't approve of Wal-Mart's worker-unfriendly policies.

Paul Blank, campaign director for, an union-affiliated advocacy group that believes Wal-Mart's policies over wages, health benefits and other issues harm families and communities, said he was delighted by the verdict.

"It is a sad day when Wal-Mart provides these so-called low prices by exploiting their workers and even the law," Blank said.

In 2003, sales associates, the most common job in Wal-Mart, earned on average $8.23 an hour for annual wages of $13,861. The 2003 poverty line for a family of three was $15,260, while the national median family budget in the United States for a two-person family (one parent and one child) in 1999 was $23,705.

This year, Harper’s Magazine reported that Wal-Mart employees were eligible for $2.5 billion in federal assistance in 2004. Yet, a national report documented at least $1 billion in subsidies to Wal-Mart from state and local governments.

But an analysis of Wal-Mart's 2005 annual report reveals that the company could cover the cost of a dollar an hour wage increase by raising prices a half penny per dollar. For instance, a $2.00 pair of socks would then cost $2.01. This minimal increase would annually add up to $1,800 for each employee.

After an internal memo surfaced that showed 46 percent of Wal-Mart employees' children were on Medicaid or uninsured, the company decided to add lower-cost health insurance this year. Wal-Mart has generally been content to let the government - meaning taxpayers - pay it's employees healthcare costs.

And Wal-Mart's President and CEO Lee Scott doesn't deny it. In fact, he admits that public health care assistance may be a “better value” than Wal-Mart's own employee healthcare program. Despite $10 billion in profits, Scott said, "In some of our states, the public program may actually be a better value - with relatively high income limits to qualify, and low premiums."

It's repugnant for a mullti-billion dollar company, the number one employer in the US, to shamelessly pass the buck like that.

According to the Wall Street journal, Wal-Mart’s average spending on health benefits for each covered employee was 27% less than the industry average and 37% less than the national average.

And a federal lawsuit is pending in San Francisco that accuses the company of paying men more than women. The beat goes on, and on.

Earlier this year, the PBS series Frontline aired a documentary called "Is Wal-Mart Good for America?" The answer from almost all of those interviewed was unequivocally, no.

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005


According to a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies, both legal and illegal immigration are reaching record levels while Congress has done little to control America's borders. The report found that nearly 8 million people moved to the United States in the past five years, the highest five-year period of immigration on record.

Deriving its findings from the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey from March, the report reveals that there are 35.2 million foreign-born people presently living in the United States. That's about 12.1 percent of the current U.S. population, and according to Census figures, the highest percentage since 1920.

The report also said an estimated 9 million to 13 million are here illegally, and that immigrants, on average, are less educated and more likely to live in poverty than people born in the United States.

"The 35.2 million immigrants living in the country in March 2005 is the highest number ever recorded -- two-and-a-half times the 13.5 million during the peak of the last great immigration wave in 1910," said the report by Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tougher policies on illegal immigration and favors attracting immigrants with needed job skills.

Camarota said the U.S. should work harder to expel people who are in the United States illegally.

"The obvious thing is to enforce the law, at the border and at the work site, and to deny access to bank accounts and driver licenses," Camarota said.

Those are key requisites to enforcement. People in the U.S. illegally shouldn't be able to obtain bank accounts, driver licenses, or anything else that helps ease or legitimize their status. Otherwise, how can the U.S. meaningfully enforce its laws?

Audrey Singer, an immigration fellow at the Brookings Institution, said, "There's no doubt that we are at a high in immigration to the United States." Singer says that immigrants come to the U.S. due to economic reasons, and because of social ties to people already living here.

"Look at places where people come from, these are places with very limited economic opportunities," Singer said.

Not surprisingly, Mexico is the largest contributer of immigrants to the United States, followed by East Asia, Europe, the Caribbean, Central America and South America, according to the report.

Some immigrant rights activists argue that the American economy would collapse without the cheap labor provided by undocumented workers. Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, is one of them. She says it would be impossible to deport as many as 11 million illegally immigrants, who make up about 5 percent of the U.S. work force.

"There isn't fairy dust that is going to make the 11 million people go away," Kelley said. "It would be far more sensible to have them come out into the light of day ... and give them a chance to join the American family on a permanent basis."

But it's truly hard to imagine the U.S. economy collapsing due to the loss of 5 percent of its workforce.

For various reasons -- be they egalitarian, political, or economic -- members of both parties have ignored this issue for years, and polls show that Americans are fed up with their representatives lack of action. That frustration may finally be getting through.

A divided House Judiciary Committee approved a bill last week that would enlist military support for border surveillance and set new mandatory minimum sentences on smugglers and people convicted of re-entry after removal. Illegal presence in the country, now a civil offense, would become a federal crime. That would surely boost the U.S. prison population quite considerably.

Hopefully, the report will inspire the House as it considers a bill that would curb illegal immigration by boosting border security and requiring workplace enforcement of immigration laws. The full House is expected to take up the measure this week, before it adjourns for the year.

The bill doesn't include President Bush's proposed guest worker program, which would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country temporarily to fill jobs unwanted by Americans. The great mystery is what exactly would compel a guest worker to leave the U.S and go back home after a three year stay, and how immigration officials would find them to enforce the law. It would be very easy for these workers to go back 'underground', as many illegal immigrants presently are.

Experts contend that the only way to enforce the law is to mandate employers to comply under the threat of stiff penalties. At present, those laws are almost entirely ignored and go unenforced. That's the root of the problem. As long as there is a demand in the workplace for illegal immigrants, there will be an endless supply of them willing to come to the U.S. to take those jobs.

While the recent energy bill passed by the Republican controlled Congress did little to lower gas prices or make us less energy dependent, the Democrats have announced an "Energy Independence 2020" plan to reduce our reliance on foreign oil over the next 15 years. They claim their plan will "create innovative new jobs and build a cleaner, greener, and stronger America."

The plan is highlighted below:


Democrats believe the Federal government can and must do a better job of protecting consumers, businesses, and farmers burdened by today's skyrocketing energy prices. We must break our country's dangerous reliance on foreign energy. We believe our leadership and vision can help ensure low cost supplies of sustainable energy to improve American competitiveness and the security of our nation. That's why Democrats have a strategy to make America energy independent by the year 2020. We plan to:

Launch an Apollo Project for Energy
- Create a massive commitment to support research and development necessary to develop alternative energy sources to free us from foreign oil by 2020.

Diversify and Expand Our Energy Supplies
- Increase dramatically the production of domestically grown biofuels - Institute a national renewable portfolio standard
- Enhance incentives for energy production from solar, wind, and geothermal
- Utilize existing domestic oil and gas leases' for environmentally compatible extraction
- Encourage construction of the Alaskan natural gas pipeline
- Support the development of a hydrogen economy
- Increase the deployment of advanced clean coal technology like integrated gasification and coal-to-liquids, in conjunction with carbon capture and storage approaches

Protect Consumers and the Environment
- Prevent oil company price gouging, market manipulation, and disaster profiteering
- Increase energy market transparency and consumer choice at the pump
- Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to cover increased household energy costs
- Provide car buyers with accurate fuel economy information
- Protect pristine public lands from short-sighted oil and gas exploitation
- Enhance funding for weatherization and low-income energy assistance needs in all climates

Improve Energy Security and Prevent Price Volatility
- Create geographically diverse strategic gasoline and jet fuel reserves
- Streamline fuel specifications while maintaining state clean air protections
- Encourage the development of a smarter and more distributed electricity system
- Leverage trade relationships to maintain competitiveness of energy-intensive U.S. manufacturers

Reduce Demand for Oil and Natural Gas
- Lower petroleum use in the federal fleet and improve government conservation efforts
- Provide consumers with more fuel efficient vehicle choices
- Develop renewable substitutes to replace natural gas use in the petrochemical industry
- Improve infrastructure and electricity options for hybrids and plug-in hybrids
- Increase mass transit use and incentivize transit-oriented development
- Advance air traffic management to shorten flight times
- Reduce tractor trailer fuel needs by improving aerodynamics, logistics, and idling

Invest in Energy Efficiency and American Jobs
- Update efficiency standards for appliances and small engines
- Invest in math and science education for the next generation of energy engineers
- Ensure access to worker training and retraining in advanced energy technologies

Saturday, December 10, 2005


When President Kennedy addressed Congress on May 25, 1961, he said the following:

"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind ... and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.

I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.

This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, material and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further — unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space."

For the last five years, President Bush and Congress have missed the opportunity to do something truly meaningful and historical with regard to our nation's energy policy. But there are still three years remaining in the President's second term, and it's not too late too act.

Following the example of President Kennedy's Apollo Moon Mission, the current President and Congress should make a pledge to dedicate all national resources — funding, research, technology, and manpower — toward the goal of developing viable, cost-efficient, renewable energy sources for the US.

These alternatives to oil and other fossil fuels would keep the US from remaining dependent on Middle East oil, and held hostage to the demands and whims of OPEC.

The rewards could be enormous in manifold ways.

Alternatives fuels would also be kinder to our environment and could potentially create millions of jobs and whole new industries. But it will require the same national will that drove the space program in the '60s.

Only the President has the pulpit, power and prestige to marshall this requisite will, as well as the necessary commitment of resources, toward the realization of this goal.

It may not be realized in his term, or even by the end of this decade, but it should be pursued with all determination and vigor nonetheless.

Copyright © 2005 The Independent Report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without the author's consent.