Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Civilian Surge

While reading one of the many excellent milblogs over at Slate's Sandbox, I came across a line that is both true and unfortunately, utterly unhelpful:

Last year, I wrote that there are many things in Afghanistan that are not best addressed by the Army or Marines. Stability Operations, and their subset, COIN Operations, require actions that are not typically military. As I pointed out before, Afghanistan has governance and economic development issues that the Army is not best suited to addressing. Other organizations, such as the State Department and USAID, had not been leveraged in Afghanistan. Just as we needed a military "surge," we needed a "civilian surge" as well.

This is so very true. The DoD cannot do everything. Combat troops aren't the best choice for improving governance and infrastructure in a shattered country. The counterinsurgent needs to do more than kill the insurgents, he must win the trust and respect of the populace. That's a role that USAID or State could certainly provide a big assist on.

So what's the beef? It's simple. The DoD has a budget north of $650bn, 700,000 civilian employees and over 1.4m military employees. The State Department, by contrast, has a budget of $16.4bn, 11,500 Foreign Service Officers, and 7,400 employees in the civil service. State and foreign affairs overall have a budget of a bit under $50bn, over $10bn of that from supplementals. (It's worth noting, as well, that virtually the only popular spending cut is one to Foreign Aid, which is to say USAID.) A civilian surge would be far more likely if there were any FSOs to surge. Unfortunately, right now the State Dept can't even keep its embassies staffed, much less surge a bunch of experienced and talented FSOs into Afghanistan.

The "civilian surge" is intended to promote a working, relatively free of corruption, and helpful Afghan government, which is obviously key to a successful COIN operation. Right now the Afghan government is far from that ideal, and we don't have all the resources we need to change that. Not only that, the resources don't even exist. Instead we're stuck with soldiers doing the work of diplomats and aid workers, and contractors doing the work of all of the above.

That said, the post is an excellent view of how things are progressing in one small corner of Afghanistan. Not all that confidence inspiring, but certainly moreso than my recent posts on the subject.

Monday, June 28, 2010

States' Rights!

Unless empowering state and local governments cuts against your established policy positions. See: abortion, marriage, and most recently, gun rights. Let's just give up this farce of a conservative "small government" ideology. Conservatives have a set of policy goals that they will use any method necessary to enact. There's no overarching principle of states' rights or small government. There's just the usual set of policy positions that, generally speaking, put the rights of the rich and powerful over those of the poor and disadvantaged.

The inability of conservatives to admit this incoherence leads them to misunderstand liberals. Liberals are not the "party of big government" as a foil for conservatives' "small government." Liberals have a set of defined policy goals that they will use any method necessary to enact. Because many of those goals involve help for the disadvantaged, often the methods include greater government involvement. But "big government" is merely the means by which liberals prefer to enact policy goals. It is not the end in and of itself. Conservatives could do a better job of influencing policy if they were to acknowledge this fact.

A good example was the health care debate. Liberals had one overarching policy goal: cover the uninsured. Wonks had a secondary goal of reducing health-care costs, so as to reduce the crippling effects of Medicare costs on the federal budget. The problem with Republican counter-proposals (such as they were) was not that they were insufficiently "big government," but rather that they didn't accomplish the policy goals that liberals aimed for. The alternatives focused on interstate insurance sales and tort reform. Partisan and non-partisan analysis showed that they did very little to accomplish either of the two major goals set out above. The ACA ended up being about as "small government" as it could be while still largely accomplishing the first goal and making inroads on the second.

We would all be better off if policy debates weren't stubbornly framed as "big government socialists vs principled advocates of small government solutions." It's simply not accurate to portray either side that way. On civil liberties and gay rights, liberals are the small government party. On health care and economic regulation, conservatives are. Each side has policy goals. They work to enact them. End of story.

EDIT: Chait writes about the same phenomenon on judicial restraint/activism:

Both parties are fairly instrumental about the law. They favor judicial activism in issue areas where they're politically weak, and support it in areas where they're politically strong. The difference is that Republicans tend to alternate their demands for judicial activism with a lot more pious declarations of fealty to judicial restraint.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fundamentalism with a Kind Face

From the New Yorker profile of Mike Huckabee:

Huckabee’s formulation is considerably more politic. “If somebody asked me, How do I get to Heaven, I would tell them that the only way I personally am aware of is faith in Christ, because I believe the New Testament,” he said. “That’s the only map I got. Somebody says, Well, I got a different map. O.K.! You know what? If it works, I’m not going to argue with you.
 [...]
“Consider homosexuality,” he writes. “Until recently, who would have dared to suggest that the practice should be accepted on equal footing with heterosexuality, to be thought of as a personal decision and nothing more?” Abortion is another example; he has said that his horror at “the holocaust of liberalized abortion” helped motivate him to leave the ministry and pursue a career in politics. When he was governor of Arkansas, Huckabee blocked Medicaid funding for an abortion that a retarded teen-ager wanted to have after she was raped by her stepfather.
[...]
“Evangelical essentially means people who have a belief in the authority and veracity of the Bible,” Huckabee said, “but who also believe that the Bible is about good news.” This was in contrast to fundamentalism, which “tends to put a focus on God’s judgment,” he said. “Evangelicalism is a grace-centered approach. It’s more about we’re all sinners, we’ve all screwed up, we all need help, that’s why we keep Jesus.”

Cognitive dissonance alert! Huckabee tries to come off as a less militant conservative, and his personality is such that you instinctively like him. But his actions and even his words paint a picture of total faith in his own convictions. Those are clearly drawn from his Evangelical roots. You can choose your own path to heaven, but his path to heaven will dictate that a woman cannot terminate a pregnancy that originated in rape. Later in the article, he conflates homosexuality with incest. To be honest, the entire section on gay rights is nauseating. That fits my definition of fundamentalism, even if it doesn't fit Huckabee's.

Later in the article, much is said of Huckabee's seemingly caring more about the poor than his fellow conservatives. His primary economic policy idea, the Fair Tax, however, is a horribly regressive tax that would do far more to help the rich and hurt the poor than even the continual fight for regressive taxes by other conservatives. Huckabee's plan would abolish the (maybe, kinda, sorta, not really) progressive income tax completely, and replace it with a national sales tax. It makes an attempt at progressivity by exempting poor families by way of a rebate. But overall, it will still amount to a massive tax cut for the wealthy. Sounds like an orthodox conservative policy to me.

Being likable is not the same as having empathy for any sort of heterodox views.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

On the death of Journalism

Dave Weigel resigned from WaPo today. I am an unabashed fan of Weigel's reporting, so it should come as no surprise that I find this whole episode asinine. Weigel made some unguarded and inflammatory (literally, he said Matt Drudge should light himself on fire) comments in a private setting. Those comments were made public and he had to resign.

Marc Ambinder wrote a persuasive piece on why Weigel deserves to keep his job. Honestly, if WaPo doesn't realize the talent they just fired, they deserve to lose him. As many others have said, including Dave himself, there's no need to worry for him. He'll land on his feet. He reports his beat better than anyone else, and someone will realize what WaPo just left on the table. Another organization will be better for this episode, and WaPo will be worse for it. But hey, what is the old media juggernaut for, if not to squander their chances at being relevant?

ETA: Ben Boychuk (via Conor Friedersdorf) sums up the whole situation in 140 characters: "I find you insufferable, but indispensable. Sorry you resigned. I'll read you wherever you land, you magnificent bastard."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Jobs

Looks like the Senate is preparing to give up on its jobs bill, which has already been gutted. The result? States will be in even worse shape than they already are. They'll have to lay off yet more workers--up to 200,000 according to some estimates. It will heap pain on workers who are already unemployed and have been for a long time. That's also an anti-stimulative effect, by the way, since there are fewer people spending money.

Conservatives like to say that the unemployed aren't looking for work, and just sitting on their UI checks. Putting aside the ego hit a person takes from being unemployed, UI benefits aren't that generous. Even if there was evidence to support the theory that unemployment insurance disincetivizes job-hunting, and the studies I've seen show that it has little effect, there are over 5 people seeking work for every open position in the country. It's not a problem that a kick in the ass will help. We need to be creating jobs. And for that, we need further stimulus, not contraction and austerity. Inflicting pain on the unemployed doesn't accomplish anything but satisfy the desires of well-heeled congressmen to act like they care about the deficit.

Krugman thinks we're headed to a lost decade. I hope he's wrong. But things look worse by the day.

Afghanistanimation

The NY Times has a good round-up of prominent Afghanistan thinkers and their takes on McClusterfuck. I want to highlight a section from Andrew Exum's response. He focused on why Afghanistan in 2010 is not Iraq in 2007:

[I]n Iraq, General Petraeus was very good but also very lucky. His Baghdad security operations coincided with a Mahdi Army ceasefire, a tribal rebellion in Anbar Province and the effects of a brutal civil war fought out in 2006. In Afghanistan, by contrast, government corruption and Pakistani support for militant groups undermines U.S. and allied efforts.


General Petraeus will likely continue the counterinsurgency strategy set in motion by General McChrystal. But unlike in Iraq, he is liable to find not only the Taliban but also his nominal allies threatening progress every step of the way.

Keep in mind that Exum is a former Ranger, fellow at CNAS, a leading defense think-tank and hot-bed of COINdinistas, and actually took part in the major Afghanistan strategy review a couple years back. He is not a peacenik or a COIN skeptic. And his take on the situation is far from positive.

In an Op-Ed today, Tom Ricks makes the case for firing Holbrooke and Eikenberry as well. Kori Schake makes the same argument in the previous piece. Ricks also urges the Army to be quicker on the trigger with firing generals, so as to foster a new generation of innovative flag officers.

No policy can be successful if those sent to put it in place undermine one another with snide comments to reporters and leaked memorandums like the cable disparaging Mr. Karzai written by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry last year. For this reason, the president should finish cleaning house and fire Ambassador Eikenberry and the special envoy, Richard Holbrooke.

This is probably a good idea. At the very least, Obama needs to have a no-bullshit talk with Petraeus about whether or not keeping them in place will help him succeed. If the answer is anything but a firm "these guys are the right guys for the job," they should be fired. Unity of effort is paramount, if this is to work.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Imposing Their Ancient Values

Drug War Facts has an extensively sourced roundup of information on drug use in the Netherlands, which has probably the most permissive policy toward cannabis in the OECD. A couple statistics of note:

"The figures for cannabis use among the general population reveal the same pictures. The Netherlands does not differ greatly from other European countries. In contrast, a comparison with the US shows a striking difference in this area: 32.9% of Americans aged 12 and above have experience with cannabis and 5.1% have used in the past month. These figures are twice as high as those in the Netherlands."

That pretty much demolishes the argument that decriminalizing marijuana will increase the use of it. How about the argument that decriminalizing marijuana will lead to more use of harder drugs?

"The prevalence figures for cocaine use in the Netherlands do not differ greatly from those for other European countries. However, the discrepancy with the United States is very large. The percentage of the general population who have used cocaine at some point is 10.5% in the US, five times higher than in the Netherlands. The percentage who have used cocaine in the past month is 0.7% in the US, compared with 0.2% in the Netherlands.*"

The War on Drugs has been a complete and utter failure. To tell yourself otherwise is to delude yourself. I wonder if they care?

When Sarah Palin is closer to fact-based policy than you are, there's something wrong. But nobody in government seems all that interested in decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana. I guess it's up to us to change the laws.

American Politics in a Nutshell

From Ezra's Wonkbook:

A New York Times/CBS poll has good news and bad news for environmentalists, report John Broder and Marjorie Connelly: Overwhelmingly, Americans think the nation needs a fundamental overhaul of its energy policies, and most expect alternative forms to replace oil as a major source within 25 years. Yet a majority are unwilling to pay higher gasoline prices to help develop new fuel sources."

Informing the Public

Ezra Klein waxes utopian:

If I edited a major publication -- or even a medium-sized one -- I would begin each major legislative battle by detailing a few of my smartest, clearest writers to create a hyperlinked, fairly comprehensive, summary of the basic legislation. That summary would be kept updated throughout the process, and it would be linked in every single story written on the topic. As reader questions came in, and points of confusion arose, it would be expanded, so by the end, you'd have a document that was current, comprehensive, navigable and responsive to the questions people actually had about the legislation. Telling people what just happened is undeniably important, but given that most people aren't following that closely, we in the media need to do a better job of telling people what's been happening.

This would be excellent. I still don't understand regulatory reform, and I'm sure there are many aspects of the ACA that I'm clueless about. But nobody makes much of an effort to explain these things.

McChrystalGate

Spencer Ackerman has been calling it McClusterfuck. That sounds pretty accurate to me. The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal has set off a firestorm. You really need to read the piece to get a feel for just how damaging it is. In short, he and his aids made several disparaging comments about the Obama national security apparatus while on the record with a freelancer working for Rolling Stone. They focused on Ambassador Eikenberry, special envoy Richard Holbrooke, Joe Biden and NSA Jim Jones. I have several jumbled thoughts that the article sparked, in no particular order:

  • Clearly, the reporter, Michael Hastings, and Rolling Stone are not fans of our strategy in Afghanistan. What they think is a better idea is unclear, however.
  • I have no doubt that a lot of this stuff gets said on the staff of any flag officer, particularly one in an environment as trying as Afghanistan. What makes it completely idiotic bad is that they said it on the record. Rolling Stone's Eric Bates said on Morning Joe that the article was extensively fact-checked and that they did not blur the lines between on and off the record. Obviously that can be taken with a grain of salt, but judging by the lack of pushback by the McChrystal camp, it doesn't sound like any shady journalism is at fault here.
  • Obama has every right to be incredibly pissed off. This is not the first time that McChrystal has shot his mouth off and caused problems for the administration. He badmouthed Biden in a London Q&A and his office leaked a confidential cable from Amb Eikenberry. It's hard to see how Obama can get through this without firing him.

From an operational/strategic standpoint, this article has a lot of bad news.

  • The troops don't all buy in to the strategy. Hastings (probably cherry-picks) a number of quotes from soldiers who don't like pop-centric COIN and want to kill more baddies. 
  • As I've said many times, the Karzai government is not confidence-inspiring. Karzai seems clueless and corrupt, as always.
  • The military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan (McChrystal and Eikenberry) appear to hate each other. One of the putative reasons for Gen. McKiernan's dismissal and McChrystal's installment as the commander in Afghanistan was because of McKiernan's bad relationship with Eikenberry. COIN is not just a military effort, it is vital that the military works closely with civilian leadership. The military is good at blowing stuff up and killing bad guys, but COIN depends on responsible governance and infrastructure-building. The rift between Eikenberry and McChrystal is unsustainable. This shouldn't be pinned entirely on McChrystal, as Eikenberry has had his moments as well. But it looks as if one of them must go.

I am more pessimistic than ever about the likelihood of success in Afghanistan. This quote doesn't fill me with confidence that we can do a sober analysis of costs and benefits in Afghanistan:

"If Americans pulled back and started paying attention to this war, it would become even less popular," a senior adviser to McChrystal says. Such realism, however, doesn't prevent advocates of counterinsurgency from dreaming big: Instead of beginning to withdraw troops next year, as Obama promised, the military hopes to ramp up its counterinsurgency campaign even further. "There's a possibility we could ask for another surge of U.S. forces next summer if we see success here," a senior military official in Kabul tells me.

If conditions in Afghanistan have not noticeably improved by July 2011, I believe it would be irresponsible to double down on a strategy that does not appear to be working. As Exum pointed out a week ago, the "surge worked in Iraq" narrative is simplistic and misleading. There were many factors that led to a decrease in violence in Iraq. The Sunni Awakening and Sadrist cease-fire were key factors of which there are not equivalents in Afghanistan. I appreciate what we're trying to do in Afghanistan, and that to some extent we caused the mess. I also appreciate that our current strategy probably has the best chance of something we can call success. But if it fails, we should be realistic about that, as well. OEF is already the longest war in American history. If we fail after a decade, will another decade help?

Spencer Ackerman makes a point to post the DoD press release each time a soldier dies in OEF or OIF. It's a small memorial and a constant reminder of the human cost of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Reading those names nearly every day, one can't help but ask if they're losing their lives for a lost cause.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Horrors of Marijuana

Dakota County, MN AG James Backstrom took to MPR to frighten the hell out of people about cannabis today:

Marijuana is not the harmless substance many would like us to believe. Marijuana is an addictive drug that poses significant health risks to its users. Short-term effects of marijuana include memory loss, distorted perception, trouble with thinking and problem solving, and loss of motor skills. Long-term adverse impacts include loss in muscle strength, increased heart rate, respiratory problems, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, impaired ability to fight off infections and risk of cancer

Every one of those is also an effect of alcohol and/or tobacco. Should we declare a war on Mr. Backstrom's evening glass of Bushmill's? In fact, marijuana is far less addictive than alcohol or nicotine.

Even more troubling is that marijuana serves as a gateway to the use of other illegal drugs. Most people who use methamphetamine, heroin or cocaine started their illegal drug use with marijuana.

Are people still trotting out this talking point? I thought we dismissed this as a bunch of claptrap long ago. Isn't it possible that people who try marijuana as kids are in situations where there is more exposure to drugs of all kinds?

Last, but certainly not least, there are strong links between marijuana use, violence and other criminal activity.

Again, would this be the case if marijuana weren't illegal and most widely available in areas of high crime and poverty? I would be SHOCKED if any of these studies controlled for socioeconomic conditions.

Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak recently commented about middle-class Minnesotans who are buying marijuana "with a wink and a nod, thinking it has nothing to do with anything" when in fact these persons are "literally paying for the bullets that kill people." I agree with Mayor Rybak that "any person who buys marijuana in this region is directly or indirectly giving money to gangs." Recreational users of marijuana may not think of themselves as criminals, but they are in fact the biggest contributors to the illegal drug trade in America.

Good point. The drug trade is a bad thing. It gives money to bad bad people. So what should we do about it?

For all of these reasons, in my opinion marijuana is America's most dangerous drug. We need to recognize the threat it represents and continue our efforts to control it, prevent our youth from starting to use it, aggressively enforce our laws against those who illegally cultivate, distribute and possess it, and effectively treat those who have become addicted to it.

How's that War on Drugs been working for you so far? Guess how else we could get the money out of the hands of gangs, and ensure that those with problems get treatment? We could legalize it. Even Sarah Palin thinks we spend too much time and money enforcing drug laws. Yes, I'm closer to Sarah Palin on this issue than Mr Backstrom. If we're going to have a serious discussion about drug policy in this country, we do not need fear-mongering essays like this. We need frank and honest discussions of the pros and cons of our harsh enforcement of drug laws. We imprison the highest percentage of our population of any country in the world, yet we haven't eradicated the drug trade yet. Maybe it's time to consider a change of strategy rather than doubling down on a one that has been failing for decades.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Leave Tony Hayward Alone!

Seriously, guys. He's been relieved of his job heading up BP's response to the spill in the Gulf. I know nobody has a lot of sympathy for anyone at BP right now, but would any of you have reacted differently? He just had what was probably the most trying two months of his life. So he went sailing. It's called work-life balance, and I suspect he hasn't had any since the explosion. If it's not his responsibility to deal with the mess anymore, why should I be angry that he wanted to relax a bit?

This constant collective populist outrage gets old, people. Move along.

(For those of you who didn't get the reference in the title, here.)

Dear Congress...

...you don't know better than the Pentagon. So shut the hell up:

The U.S. government is snapping up Russian-made helicopters to form the core of Afghanistan's fledgling air force, a strategy that is drawing flak from members of Congress who want to force the Afghans to fly American choppers instead.
 [...]
U.S. and Afghan military officials who favor the Mi-17, which was designed for use in Afghanistan, acknowledge that it might seem odd for the Pentagon to invest in Russian military products. But they said that changing helicopter models would throw a wrench into the effort to train Afghan pilots, none of whom can fly U.S.-built choppers

(Emphasis mine.) Senators Shelby and Dodd are more interested in throwing business at the military-industrial complex in the US than they are about actually doing what works. As Andrew Exum put it on his twitter feed: "When Afghan pilots can *fly* American, we will *buy* American ... But right now we're trying to win a war here, okay?"


This comes on the heels of last year's battle over the F-22 that the Pentagon didn't want and the second engine for the F-35 that the Pentagon didn't want. Politicians may posture about the security of the country, but they're really just interested in keeping all that defense money in their districts. This is what makes me despair about defense budget cuts despite having a SecDef who knows they need to happen.

Media Bias

NYU's Jay Rosen has an excellent post about bias in the media:

In political journalism there are almost always two sides, not two-and-a-half, three or four. Inhabitants of the “it’s complicated” camp place a good deal of importance on this maniacal two-ness. The two party system and the journalist’s method of pushing off from both sides to generate authority fit perfectly together. That’s ideological.

His analysis is extremely interesting. He says that the doggedly unbiased style of reporting and analysis practiced by most political reporters is itself a form of radical ideology. Dana Milbank is his example of one of the most radically ideological members of the press. He also points out several aspects of this ideology, including my favorite, "he said, she said journalism":

“He said, she said” journalism means…
- There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.

When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear.

Rosen has the same solution I do for this: more fact checking! I love PolitiFact, but reporters need to get better at doing these things themselves. It's frustrating when politicians roll out talking points that are deliberate misinterpretations at best and outright lies at worst but reporters refuse to call them on it.

It's one of the best theories of political journalism I've seen, and it's well worth reading.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Growth, Please

Ezra Klein takes a look at a study out of UCLA and makes the point I tried to make here. The upshot is that we're not growing nearly fast enough to reduce unemployment at anything other than a snail's pace. In past recessions, GDP growth has tended to be higher than normal during the recovery, putting us back on track. In this recovery, we're at normal growth, even slightly lower than normal growth. That's not a good sign. Actually, right now it looks like it's leading to 8.6% unemployment in 2012. But don't worry, congress is... not doing anything about it.

Results

Andrew Sullivan reflects on the left's unhappiness with President Obama:

I sure understand why people feel powerless and angry about the vast forces that control our lives and over which we seem to have only fitful control - big government and big business. But it seems to me vital to keep our heads and remain focused on what substantively can be done to address real problems, and judge Obama on those terms. When you do, you realize that the left's "disgruntleist" faction needs to take a chill pill.

He goes on to talk about several issues where Obama's slow and steady approach has paid dividends. I largely agree with Sullivan. The netroots left and liberals need to understand that while we may not have President Anthony Weiner in the Oval, we do have a president who is doing all he can to advance a broadly progressive agenda. And he's doing it in an incredibly tough political environment.

I do disagree with Sullivan regarding Obama's civil liberties record, which should come as no surprise to readers of this blog. He's made steps in the right direction, but also made some things even worse. These issues seem to be no-brainers to me, so I reserve the right to bitch and moan. On the whole, though, liberals have a lot more to be happy about than pissed about from this administration.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What're we doing in Afghanistan?

Two excellent posts today, by Andrew Exum and Spencer Ackerman. Two of the best overviews of the situation I've seen in a long time. The upshot is that our current strategy is the most likely strategy to succeed in accomplishing our strategic goals, namely reducing or eliminating the threat to the US posed by Al Qaeda and the Taliban. That's not to say that it is definitely the right strategy from a cost-benefit perspective. (Remember, as far as the public and most of our government is concerned, wars are free.) But this strategy of a surge and drawdown, focusing on population-centric counterinsurgency and training of the Afghan army and national police, is the one with the best chance of working.

I remain a pessimist about this strategy actually working, for the same reasons as before: Hamid Karzai's government is not a workable partner for a counterinsurgency strategy. But Petraeus says we're ahead of schedule on training the Afghan army (a miracle, considering how much of the population is illiterate), so maybe my pessimism is unwarranted. We'll see in July 2011. In the meantime, read both pieces. Seriously.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Interest Group Politics

After the Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates of corporate money in politics (sorta), Democrats in Congress wanted to do something, anything to fight back. The result? The DISCLOSE act, which attempts to use transparency to combat corporate money. CEOs would have to appear in ads, and donors would have to be identified. Sounds good, right? Well, interest groups aren't happy with it. And so there's an exemption. It's one that applies to only one group, the NRA. What a fucking joke. I guess the gun lobby doesn't need transparency.

UPDATE: Conservatives are pissed at the NRA for getting itself an exemption and going along with the DISCLOSE act. Now I'm just confused.

Monday, June 14, 2010

"The Saudi Arabia of Lithium" (III)

Many many folks have ridiculed the NYTimes "scoop" about mineral finds in Afghanistan. Be that as it may, it was still news to me. And seeing as I have long been worried about the ability of Afghanistan to function without billions in foreign aid every year, it's still good news. Many are worried about it become a kleptocracy or falling into the trap that Bolivia did. Or possibly being unable to develop the resources to mine them. My answer to that is: would it really be worse than what the country is now? At least someone will have money that didn't come from growing poppies.

Long-Term Deficit Reduction

Kevin Drum challenges liberals who are in favor of additional stimulus to couple them to long-term deficit reduction plans. I somewhat agree with Yglesias in that we need long-term deficit reduction regardless, so it can be counterproductive to couple stimulus to distasteful budget cuts and tax hikes.

However, it's true that liberals have an obligation to lay out their ideas for long-term deficit reduction, as they criticize the right for being deficit peacocks and hypocrites. With that in mind, here goes:

  • Let the Bush tax cuts expire. That means all of them.
  • Draw down troop levels and aid in Iraq and Afghanistan. Rethink our commitment to stationing so many troops in places like Germany and South Korea.
  • Take a long, hard look(PDF) at the defense budget. Do we need a new SSBN? What about those cost overruns on the DDG-1000 program? Ditch the MV-22. Stop getting involved in insurgencies. There's much more. The report in the first link has a bunch of good ideas.
  • Close the carried interest loophole, reinstitute and expand the estate tax, put capital gains taxes more in line with income taxes. Stop legislating through the tax code. There's definitely more reform in the tax code that's possible and needed. I'm not familiar enough with the issues to make specific recommendations there.
  • Get rid of the mortgage interest deduction and the employer health insurance deduction.
  • Get health care costs under control. Start moving away from a fee-for-service model in the health care sector. Massachusetts is looking at this, and it already works at the Mayo Clinic. There are some promising pilot programs in the ACA, and as we see how they work, they can be ramped up or shut down as appropriate. Ensuring that death panels are fully insured would help.
  • Reduce or eliminate crop and corn ethanol subsidies.
  • Means-test Social Security and Medicare. Sorry, but if you've got a really nice pension or a massive 401k the government shouldn't be on the hook for your retirement pay. As Andrew Sullivan put it, SS and Medicare should be billed as social insurance against poverty in retirement, not as guaranteed benefits.
  • Raise the cap on payroll taxes for the aforementioned entitlement programs.
  • Raise the gasoline tax by at least $0.50/gal.
  • Put a price on carbon, either through a tax or cap and trade system.
  • Reform public employee pay. Move from a benefit-heavy, salary-light structure to one in which employees are given better pay, but have fewer legacy costs. No, conservatives, public employees are not paid better than private sector employees.
  • Raise taxes on junk food, soft drinks, alcohol and tobacco. If you're going to abuse your body and cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars through Medicare later in life, you can start paying for it now.
  • On a local level, institute congestion pricing in major metropolitan areas.
  • Invest in IT infrastructure for the federal government. A small amount of money now could enhance productivity and save lots of money in the future.
  • Abolish the Senate. (Just kidding.)

At the end of the day, health care costs are still the number one driver of our structural deficit problem. If we get those under control, we get our deficits under control. Now let me get Doug Elmendorf on the phone, and I'll let you know if I managed to balance the budget with all that...

Edit to add: In the short-term, the absolute best way to get deficits under control is a strong economic recovery. Fewer people on medicaid and unemployment and who are instead paying taxes would take a huge burden off the books. But nobody seems to care about that...

"The Saudi Arabia of Lithium" (II)

Much of the commentary on this find focuses on the convenient timing of the announcement (surely not an accident, after the bad news coming out of Afghanistan recently). Conor Friedersdorf's take is that we should run like hell. As he is an avowed libertarian, that's no surprise. His argument is that we'll get caught up in the corrupt process of developing these mines and be tempted to stay in Afghanistan for these resources. I'm not unsympathetic to that argument; I also think this is a reason to get the hell out. But my reason is different: now Afghanistan has the nominal ability to try to pay for its own security and government. However corrupt, I would rather Afghanistan fund and run its own government than having America funding and running much of Afghanistan's infrastructure and civil service.

When Obama announced his plan for Afghanistan, I wasn't thrilled, but just hoped it would work. I think at this point, it's not. The trick is how to get out without looking like we're leaving with our tail between our legs and letting Afghanistan fall to the Taliban. I really think that the discovery of anything that's not poppy natural resources in Afghanistan opens the door for foreign money that's not just aid to enter the country. Even taking into account the (undoubtedly huge) losses to corruption, this will actually create an economy in Afghanistan and revenue for the Karzai government. There are worries about Afghanistan morphing into an autocratic regime, funded by this natural resource revenue. Frankly, at this point, that's a better outcome than a constant war that risks destabilizing a nuclear-armed Pakistan.


If this "discovery" gives the US more freedom to get out of Afghanistan, I'm glad to see it. We're wasting billions of dollars, and the lives of thousands of bright young Americans in a war that looks increasingly hopeless. I really hope we're not on track to extend the July 2011 deadline for drawing down in Afghanistan.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

"The Saudi Arabia of Lithium"

The NY Times reports that vast mineral deposits have been discovered in Afghanistan:

The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

This strikes me as a game changer. If nothing else, it at least means that at some point, Afghanistan will have income. This means (hopefully) that it won't be dependent on foreign aid for the rest of time. I'll wait to read more about this before trying to say more, but right now it seems like a positive sign in a war that could desperately use one.

"Nitwits"

Christine Fair and Daniel Byman make the case for calling today's terrorists idiots in The Atlantic:

To be sure, some terrorists are steely and skilled—people like Mohamed Atta, the careful and well-trained head of the 9/11 hijackers. Their leaders and recruiters can be lethally subtle and manipulative, but the quiet truth is that many of the deluded foot soldiers are foolish and untrained, perhaps even untrainable. Acknowledging this fact could help us tailor our counterterrorism priorities—and publicizing it could help us erode the powerful images of strength and piety that terrorists rely on for recruiting and funding.

I totally agree. After the Captain Underpants and the Failbomber, the proper response was not hysteria, recriminations, fear-mongering and finger-pointing. Rather, it was to mock the ineptitude of the "terrorists" that the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been able to recruit. Elevating them gives them more credit and legitimacy than they deserve. They're common murderers, and incompetent ones at that. Let's treat them like it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

It's Aggregate Demand, Stupid.

A widely favored stimulative measure is targeted tax breaks for small businesses when they hire new employees. These proposals are generally pretty popular among politicians on both sides of the aisle, but they're actually a really stupid way to try to create jobs. If a company doesn't have the sales/business to hire, a small tax break probably won't be the impetus needed. Indeed, the National Federation of Independent Businesses surveyed their members, and the single most important problem was sales.

It's all about aggregate demand. Consumer confidence is only ticking up slowly, and there are currently tens of millions of people unemployed or underemployed, sapping demand. Unfortunately, most states are still cutting spending and laying off thousands of teachers, firemen, and police officers. In fact, since the recession started, we've had no net stimulus at all. State and local spending cuts have outstripped even the massive spending in the ARRA. It's a miracle we're in a recovery at all. But we're in for a long, hard, jobless recovery at this rate. Without customers, businesses can't hire, and without hiring, people don't have money to spend. That's why the government needs to step in with expansionary fiscal (and monetary, if necessary) policy. Unfortunately, right now the government is laying off more people than it's employing.

(HT: Yglesias)

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Quote of the Day

Courtesy of Phil Roberts of Uptown's favorite development group, Parasole:

We want this place to be dive-y enough so that it's almost chic, so the Edina folks will feel like they're almost slumming.

I love a good dig at the suburbs. Especially a suburb that's as hostile to canvassers as Edina.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Process over Policy, Pundits vs Political Scientists (II)

Slate lampoons the debate between political scientists and political pundits with the news as written by a political scientist. Brilliant:

Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.

The whole piece is fantastic, definitely worth a read.

(HT: EK)

Cocooning

From Talking Points Memo on Thursday:

[I]sn't it ironic that a DC press corps that could barely muster a collective yawn when Karl Rove was moving U.S. Attorneys around like political pawns, is hyperventilating about the White House making it known to potential candidates that there are other ways to serve beyond being a Senator?

From WaPo, via Rich Lowry over at National Review:

If this is not a quid pro quo — a federal job in exchange for dropping the Senate bid — it is uncomfortably close. Substitute Karl Rove for Jim Messina and imagine the uproar if the Bush administration had engaged in such a baldly political exchange.

Put aside the obvious contrast here. (Who's right? I don't really care.)

Um, WaPo IS the mainstream Washington media. If they want uproar, they create it. This reminds me of Senators who try to dodge issues by saying the Senate "isn't interested in taking the issue on." Hey, Senator, you're in the Senate, if you care about the issue, do something about it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Process over Policy, Pundits vs Political Scientists

Jon Chait has a better term for what passes as analysis these days: Bullshit.

[P]olitical scientists understand that a huge portion of the analysis of news events that appears in the media is total bullshit.

Clinton said it best: "It's the economy, stupid." If unemployment were 5%, Obama would be a masterful communicator and tactician. Pew graphed out disapproval vs unemployment. The results speak for themselves. Every day pundits go on TV and blather on about process-related hokum, and its 90% bullshit.

May Job Numbers

I don't have much to add to Ezra. The top-line number hides a depressing situation. The only thing I would add is that there's a silver lining of strong growth wherever it is; it will be somewhat stimulative. Even though these new jobs are temporary and government, they still allow those 400k census workers to spend money and add a teeny bit of aggregate demand. Won't be enough to replace those 400k jobs with private jobs over the next months, though, I expect.

Not a good sign.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Fix It! (II)

DiA skewers the Carvilles, Dowds, and Matthewses of the punditocracy:

Perhaps Mr Obama should reflect the public's emotional response to the disaster. Perhaps he should affect a more authoritative posture. Maybe he should hold a press conference on a boat somewhere. None of it would change the underlying reality of the situation (and more substantive suggestions don't seem to be forthcoming). Mr Carville captured the essence of the situation during his little diatribe. Pausing from his political commentary for a brief moment, he noted, "[Obama] can't exactly fill the hole up." Then he criticised the president for not "getting down" there and "taking control of this thing"

These people want some combination of a mother and a mascot. Personally, a calm, smart guy who's got the best scientists in the world at his fingertips would be my choice.  Also James Cameron.

Feel Good Thursdays(?)

Small Wars Journal posted this youtube clip of KISS playing all the different service songs on their USO tour:


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Doctors vs Patients

Doctors win. What Pearlstein doesn't mention, which I think is worth noting, is that extending unemployment and medical benefits to the unemployed is going to be far more stimulative than ensuring that already-rich doctors stay just as rich. Putting money in an IRA is not as stimulative as spending it at Costco.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Gasoline Tax, Advocated by... Car and Driver?

That's right. Gearhead magazine Car and Driver ran a column in the July issue, written by Aaron Robinson, advocating a gasoline tax as a much more efficient way to enforce fuel standards than the current CAFE system. (Sorry, the column isn't online yet.)

Please, can't we even discuss a gasoline tax without somebody calling somebody an America-hating socialist?
[..]
Having a five-year lead time to plan a product that will live or die on the future spot price for crude makes the industry extremely risk-averse. Investing in cool, compact vehicles with small, high-efficiency gas and diesel engines--such as the gems that rule Europe's roads--requires some confidence that people will buy them.

A fuel tax would help instill that confidence without forcing down our throat the desperate, costly changes necessitated by CAFE.

Hey, if even gearheads are asking for a carbon tax, why not oblige them? Anyway, the worst gas-guzzlers are bought by rich people at this point anyway. The exception to that is work trucks. But isn't that gas already tax-deductible? We need to put a price on carbon and this is a spot where we would clearly get a large market-based reaction.

Or maybe I'm just more willing to entertain the idea since I have a Honda Fit that makes it out of the garage once a week or so.