The notion that Afghanistan could become Obama's Vietnam has been picking up supporters lately—see this Newsweek cover, plus more airings here and here and here. In this month's Washington Monthly, terrorism analyst and MoJo contributor Peter Bergen argues forcefully that there's nothing to see here, folks: "Afghanistan will not be Obama’s Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state."

Bergen is no wide-eyed optimist: In the July/August 2007 issue of Mother Jones, he took stock of the many avoidable mistakes made by the Bush administration in Afghanistan that led to the "Iraqization" of the conflict there. So it's notable that the Obama administration's increased investment in Afghanistan has him feeling more upbeat about the country's prospects. Check out the whole thing here.

Author Bio of the Day

"Michael Osinski, a former computer programmer, is an oyster farmer."

(From Mr. Osinki's op-ed in Friday's New York Times.)

Here's today's mix of science, environment, and health stories (ok, mostly health today) from our other blogs. And if you haven't read Josh Harkinson's piece about pot farms in our national parks, well, it's a trip. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)

Doctors without orders: The CIA is hiring doctors. Shudder.

Dream a little dream: Brad Delong's flights of health-care-reform fancy.

Climate change policy for the rest of us: How do you convince an ordinary schmoe that higher energy prices are worth paying?

Rationing rationale: Guess what? Health care is already rationed. Now, says Peter Singer, let's make it fair.

AMA, oh my: The American Medical Association endorses a pretty good health care reform plan. What a nice surprise.

Goldman's Billions

Matt Taibbi on the $3.44 billion quarterly profit announced by Goldman Sachs yesterday:

One of the most hilarious lies that has been spread about Goldman of late is that, since it repaid its TARP money, it’s now free and clear of any obligation to the government — as if that was the only handout Goldman got in the last year. Goldman last year made your average AFDC mom on food stamps look like an entrepreneur. Here’s a brief list of all the state aid that is hiding behind that $3.44 billion number they announced the other day.

Click the link to read the rest.  And here's the New York Times on Goldman and JP Morgan: "Both banks now stand astride post-bailout Wall Street, having benefited from billions of dollars in taxpayer support and cheap government financing to climb over banks that continue to struggle."

Over at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, liberal Dan Miller jumps into a conversation about healthcare:

There’s a vast policy apparatus on the progressive side of the aisle built around health care, with industrious wonks digging into every nook and cranny.  Meanwhile, the right has...nothing....The right has basically abdicated its role in the conversation.  It has not and as far as I can tell will not treat health care reform as any kind of priority—every major player on the right is sitting on the sidelines.  If we’re lucky, we’ll get two GOP Senate votes.  And this after not one but two elections in which the right was beaten by historic margins.

Why is this?  Sometimes it's worth backing up a bit and looking at the fundamentals.  And we have two fundamentally incompatible desires here: the American public supports universal healthcare.  Conservatives support a free market approach to healthcare.  Unfortunately, the free market doesn't do universal.  That's why, for things like roads, national defense, the postal service, and old-age pensions — all of which we've decided ought to be available to everyone — we let the government do the job.

So if you want universal coverage, the government has to be involved.  Still, this doesn't necessarily mean the government literally has to provide healthcare to everyone.  If you want a more limited government solution you could instead fund healthcare only to the 47 million uninsured.  Since everyone else is already covered, that would effectively make healthcare universal.  Unfortunately, there's a problem with this too.

Let's take an analogous case: food stamps.  The government doesn't try to provide food to everyone, only to those poor enough that they can't get it on their own.  But what's to stop everyone from lazily quitting their jobs and living off food stamps?  Answer: you'd have to accept being poor.  There are some people willing to do that, but most of us aren't.  So it's a manageable problem.

But healthcare is different because most of us don't buy it directly out of our own pockets.  We get healthcare insurance from our employers.  So suppose the government stepped in to help out just the uninsured.  What would happen?

Well, for starters, the program could be limited just to the poor.  But that wouldn't make it universal since there are plenty of non-poor who don't have health insurance and can't get it through the private market.

No, we'd have to simply offer it to anyone who was uninsured, subsidizing the poor and charging full price to everyone else. But what would happen then?  Answer: employers would start dropping health coverage for their employees.  Why wouldn't they, after all?  Unlike the food example, where there are personal incentives against being lazy and living off the government dole, employers have no reason to hold back.  As long as a decent alternative is available, their incentive is to get out of the healthcare business, hand over the money they save to their employees, and tell them to sign up for the government program.  Before long, the government would be funding a huge portion of the private insurance market.

That will never fly, of course, so we'd need rules in place to prevent companies from dropping their healthcare plans.  But that would put existing companies at a disadvantage if new companies didn't also have to provide healthcare.  So we'd need rules that didn't just prohibit companies from dropping healthcare, but affirmatively required them to provide healthcare.  But which companies?  Lots of big companies don't offer healthcare right now, so this would be a brand new mandate.

And what about insurance companies?  Well, if we're relying on them to insure the people who aren't covered by their employers, they need to take all comers.  Coverage is supposed to be universal, after all.  This means that even people with expensive pre-existing conditions need to be included, and they need to be included at a reasonable price.  That's yet more regulation.

I could keep going, but you get the idea: by the time you're done you have a web of regulation so tight that you basically have the same same plan liberals offered up in the first place.  The only way to make healthcare universal is either to have the government fund it or to turn private insurers into little more than regulated utilities.  Either way, it's not a free market solution.

This, then, is the fundamental conservative problem: you can either have universal coverage or you can have a quasi-free market.  There's no way to have both, but no one is willing to say publicly that it's OK to leave millions of people without healthcare.  So instead conservatives hem and haw and nibble around the edges with things like HSAs and tax exclusions, even though these ideas don't do anything to make healthcare coverage more widely and securely available.  No free market solution can do that.

But that's what the public wants.  And so conservatives are stuck.

I would never have believed it, but... just hours after the National Research Council requested that hundreds of classified images of the Arctic be released for scientific study of climate changeas I reported yesterdayVoila!—the Interior Department did just that.

Seven hundred images of sea ice from half a dozen sites around the Arctic, plus 500 images from 22 sites in the US can now be viewed online.

Oh, and they're seriously gorgeous. If you have enough bandwidth to open them.

Reuters reports the Arctic images have a resolution of 1 meter, a vast improvement on available pictures with resolutions of 15 to 30 meters.

The higher definition pictures reveal small features with big impacts on warming—like dark melt pools on top of the ice that absorb light and heat. These images will vastly improve the accuracy of forecast modelling.

Scientists were expecting the request for the Arctic images to be declassified to take months—at least.

But apparently someone in Washington digs science and actually understands something about climate security and the perils of thin ice.

Credit Card Follies

Ah, credit card interchange fees.  One of my favorite subjects.  Here's how they work: every time you buy something with plastic the merchant pays a 2-3% fee to the credit card company.  You never see this fee, though, because merchants are contractually forbidden from charging you an extra 2-3% for credit card purchases.  Instead, they just add it to the price of their products and pass it along to everyone, including customers who pay by cash or check.  The whole process is invisible.

Merchants are unhappy about this arrangement.  But generally speaking, what they're unhappy about isn't the invisibility.  They're unhappy about the size of the interchange fee, which they'd like to be lower.

Now, it's obvious why merchants and banks fight over the size of the fee.  A big fee is good for banks and a small fee is good for merchants.  But they both seem to be fine with the invisibility of the fee.  Why?

Again, it's pretty obvious: If fees were tacked onto credit card purchases, people would use their credit cards less.  That's bad for banks.  But if they used their credit cards less, it probably also means they'd spend less, period.  That's bad for merchants.  It's better for both parties to keep the fees invisible and keep everyone spending lots of money.

This has recently become the subject of a major lobbying effort, but instead of trying to make interchange fees transparent, merchants are mostly just trying to convince Congress to regulate them downward.  Andrew Martin reports:

But retailers may have a tough time convincing Congress that consumers would benefit if the effective interchange rate, which has increased slightly in recent years, is dialed back. Many other countries, including Israel and Australia, have required banks that issue cards to reduce the fee. Yet there is little evidence that the savings were passed along.

In Australia, where regulators required banks to cut the interchange rate for Visa and MasterCard purchases to 0.5 percent from 0.95 percent, the banks offset their loss by reducing rewards programs and raising annual fees, according to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office.

So what's wrong with that?  In fact, I'd go further: let's kill two birds with one stone and just abolish interchange fees altogether.  Card companies would then be forced to charge higher annual fees to credit card users — fees that (a) would fall solely on the people actually using credit cards and (b) would make it obvious just how much credit cards actually cost.  That strikes me as an excellent idea.  Credit cards aren't a free lunch, and there's no reason that consumers should be fooled into thinking they are.

And if that means consumers end up using credit cards less — well, what's wrong with that?  It's the free market in action.

Kids and war—always a bad combo, right? Not for the folks at Matchbox and Ogiilvy & Mather, who just unveiled their "Young Warriors" ad campaign in Singapore. The photo-realistic ads depict tween boys as virtual GI Joeys, flying jets and attack copters and straddlng a battle-scarred M1 Abrams tank in what sure looks like Iraq.

Particularly creepy are the kids' stoic, hardened expressions. As Copyranter (H/T) notes, "I get the point: Matchbox makes realistic little war machine replicas. But what's with the thousand-mile stares on the young faux dogfaces?" (A commenter quips back, "You try living in the shit for a year when you're eight. You'll get the stare, too.") I suppose Matchbox gets some credit for not going for the "combat is good, clean fun" G.I. Joe-type vibe that's usually used to sell war toys. Though by not going that route, it's unintentionally created a campaign that makes war seem like anything but a game.


If there was any doubt before today who the federal government's $13 trillion bailout was truly meant to benefit—homeowners and small businesses or megabanks like Goldman Sachs  and JPMorgan Chase—a pair of telling, yet depressingly familiar, headlines should put that to rest.

Reuters reports:

Foreclosures at Record High in First Half 2009 Despite Aid

New York - U.S. home foreclosure activity galloped to a record in the first half of the year, overwhelming broad efforts to remedy failing loans while job losses escalated.

Foreclosure filings jumped to a record 1.9 million on more than 1.5 million properties in the first six months of the year, RealtyTrac said on Thursday.

The number of properties drawing filings, which include notices of default and auctions, jumped 9.0 percent from the second half of 2008 and almost 15 percent from the first half of last year.

"Despite everybody's best efforts to date we're not really making any headway against the problem," Rick Sharga, senior vice president at RealtyTrac in Irvine, California, said in an interview.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported this today as well:

JPMorgan Earnings Soar as It Finds Profit in Slump

Even as it weathers the worst economic downturn in decades, JPMorgan Chase on Thursday announced a $2.7 billion second-quarter profit from stellar trading and investment banking results.

The strong showing may put to rest some worries that the bank was allowed to pay back its $25 billion taxpayer investment too early, after it passed the Treasury Department’s stress test in May. But its quick resurgence in earnings, along with Goldman Sachs’s announcement of a $3.4 billion quarterly profit on Tuesday, is bound to raise fresh concerns about soaring pay levels and growing influence in Washington.

Toss in Goldman Sachs' announcement on Tuesday that it had recorded its richest quarterly profit in the bank's 140-year-history and that it has so far earmarked $11.4 billion in compensation this year (NYT headline: "With Big Profit, Goldman Sees Big Payday Ahead"), and the writing is on the wall. Treasury Sec. Tim Geithner called these absurdly large profit announcements an "important sign of recovery." For the financial behemoths in whose pockets he so neatly fits, recovery it sure is. But for the 1.9 million homeowners who filed for foreclosure in the first half of this year and the small businesses teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, "recovery" couldn't be farther from the truth.

New Haven firefighter Frank Ricci has been the invisible man of Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. For four straight days, members of Congress have endlessly rehashed, dissected and debated the case that bears his name. Republicans have lionized Ricci and used his lawsuit against New Haven, Connecticut to bash Sotomayor for everything from shoddy analysis and perfunctory opinion-writing to reverse racism.

So it was with great anticipation that the man himself arrived in the witness chair today. But in case it wasn’t obvious from his uniform, Ricci is a firefighter, not a legal expert. So in his testimony, Ricci largely stuck to what he knew. He opened with a lecture on how “technology and modern threats have changed our profession.” He detailed the dangers of his job and why lieutenants and captains need to understand the “dynamic fire environment.” His point, eventually, was that the test he took was designed to promote only those who’d mastered all this tricky stuff. By refusing to promote on the basis of the test results, the city of New Haven risked putting incompetents behind the hose.

“When your house is on fire or your life is in jeopardy, there are no do-overs,” he said with the delivery of someone who has given this speech before, possibly to third-graders on career day. (The soliloquy prompted Sen. Lindsey Graham to tell him later, “Mr. Ricci, I would want you to come to my house if it was on fire.”)