2009 - %3, September

Obama Rethinking US Foreign Aid

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:30 PM EDT

Yesterday, President Barack Obama ordered the federal government to conduct a broad reassessment of its global development policies. Revamping the government's approach to foreign aid has been a longtime goal of progressives, who see a smarter approach to development projects as a major non-military solution to global insecurity and environmental problems. The liberal Center for American progress cheered that the move begins to put "development alongside diplomacy and defense as a crucial instrument of US foreign policy."

In May, CAP released its "National Strategy for Global Development," a lengthy report that calls for reworking the federal government's balkanized approach to global assistance. The resources for foreign aid "are now spread across 24 government agencies, offices, and departments," it notes, "and are neither centrally coordinated nor guided by clear goals or a national strategy." Among other things, the report suggests appointing a single person to oversee global development policy, focusing on building strong government institutions abroad, and reinvigorating US AID, which had a staff of 15,000 during the Vietnam War but has languished to 3,000 today.

 Obama's executive order asks the National Security Council and National Economic Council to submit a joint report on US development policies by January. Any shakeup that results would come none too soon. CAP has found major flaws in how the US has provisioned aid in Afghanistan, which, along with other hotspots, may ultimately succeed or fail on the effectiveness of roads and schools as much as IEDs and smart bombs.

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Homes: Underwater and Sinking Fast

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:15 PM EDT

Although a few glimmers of hope for the housing market have shown through as of late, several new reports concerning houses with "underwater" mortgages—when a homeowner owes more than the total value of his or her home—foresee bleak times that could undermine a full economic recovery.

Moody's Economy.com found that 24 percent of all US homes are currently underwater, a 15 percent jump from a year ago, while 8 percent of homes have debt equal to the home's value. Online real estate site Zillow similarly calculated in its own report that 23 percent of homes were underwater. A Moody's analyst told The Washington Independent that her firm's findings mean about 16 million homes are underwater, adding that "Home prices have increased in the last month or two but I think it's too early to call an end to the downturn." More ominous, though, is a recent projection by Deutsche Bank that a whopping 48 percent of all US home mortgages will be underwater or "upside-down" by early 2011.

The fear with these kinds of statistics is that they'll stunt a more vigorous economic rebound here in the US. The housing market—as the Great Housing Meltdown so painfully illustrated—is inextricably linked to broader economic health, and if staggering totals of underwater mortgages continue to pile up, that will seriously blunt recovery efforts to turn the economy around, like stimulus spending. It also doesn't help that the goverment's mortgage relief efforts—like the largely flawed Home Affordable Modification Program—have done little so far, as the recent Hope Now statistics show.

Yet apart from these relief programs, experts admit that the only way to deal with underwater mortgages is to sit back and wait—which doesn't bode well for a V-shaped recovery anytime soon. (Think more of a W.) "For the most part, we have to let it happen. We needed a correction," Deutsche Bank’s Karen Weaver told The Washington Independent. "And, as we let the crisis play out, shore up the rest of the economy with low rates and government stimulus."

Toys and Books

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act makes it illegal to sell toys that haven't been tested for lead content.  In general, I think that's a perfectly fine idea.  At the same time, wiping out the second-hand market for clothing and books seems pretty draconian.  And this just stinks.  Maybe CPSIA could use a revisit?

Reading and the Whale

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:45 PM EDT

Should schoolkids be allowed to read whatever they want?  Or should teachers assign them specific books?  Here's the brief for the defense:

What child is going to pick up ‘Moby-Dick’?” said Diane Ravitch, a professor of education at New York University who was assistant education secretary under President George H. W. Bush. “Kids will pick things that are trendy and popular. But that’s what you should do in your free time.”

This whole debate seems odd to me because it conflates two different things.  In earlier grades, say 1-8 or so, we're teaching reading.  Within reason, letting kids pick books they're personally attracted to seems like a good approach since it's more likely to keep them interested in reading for its own sake.

But in later grades we're introducing them to the literary canon, and that's where it becomes more appropriate for teachers to pick the books.  American Literature is a subject, just like history or chemistry, and an expert in the subject ought to choose the reading list.

On the subject of Moby Dick in particular, though, I take issue with Matt Yglesias:

All that said, I love Moby Dick. Every American should read Moby Dick, it’s our great national epic and you can’t understand the country without it.

I read Moby Dick a couple of months ago.  I didn't care for it.  I'll spare you the details since I'd just be opening myself up to quite justified charges of philistinism, and who needs that?  But I will say this: I don't feel like I understand our country any better for having read it.  And "you can’t understand the country without it" is an even stronger claim that requires an equally strong defense.  I'm eager to hear it.

Wielding Stick on Climate, EPA Reminds it Could Regulate CO2 Itself

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:44 PM EDT

If the Senate does not pass a cap and trade bill this year—a prospect that seems increasingly likely—the Obama administration may start pressuring legislators by moving to regulate CO2 itself.

Yesterday, as leading Senate Democrats announced they were putting off introducing a cap and trade bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson let it be known that her agency would probably classify CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act "in the next months," triggering her ability to regulate it without approval from Congress. The so-called "endangerment finding," long sought by environmentalists, was announced in April but has yet to be formalized. It would hypothetically allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases much as it does other forms of air pollution, by capping point-source emissions and fining polluters.

Jackson and President Obama have said that they prefer letting Congress regulate greenhouse gas emissions instead of doing it through the executive branch, a process that might prove more cumbersome and disruptive to the economy. Still, with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans under intense pressure to block or water down the bill, Obama might gain a strategic edge by getting more specific about how he'd tackle the issue if they don't. That could in turn give some legislators political cover, allowing them to tell their corporate overseers and conservative constituents that voting for the bill was in their "best interests"—a way of averting something even stricter. (Indeed, even the hint of the threat has already swayed one prominent Republican, Grist notes).

Would that approach mean much bigger political risks for Obama? Of course. But it might be worth it: By 2012, when Americans realize that their electric bills haven't skyrocketed, gas doesn't cost $4 a gallon, and coal miners are still employed, Obama's stance on global warming might be old news, or even a plus at the ballot box.

The Strange Amnesia of David Brooks

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:33 PM EDT

I'm generally pretty well disposed toward David Brooks.  We wouldn't run the country the same way, but he's not a zealot and he's usually not boring.  For a biweekly columnist, that's not bad.

But today's column feels like it came straight from Sarah Palin's PR shop with just a light rewrite:

Anxiety is now pervasive....The public’s view of Congress, which ticked upward for a time, has plummeted....There are also warning signs in the Senate....The public has soured on Obama’s policy proposals....Driven by this general anxiety, and by specific concerns, public opposition to health care reform is now steady and stable. Independents once solidly supported reform. Now they have swung against it.

Etc.  You'd think that Obama had been working in a vacuum or something.  There's not even the briefest mention of the primary cause for all this: the deliberate decision by the Republican Party to hand over the reins to its most extreme wing and adopt a scorched earth counterattack to Obama's entire agenda.  He agreed to cut the stimulus package by $100 billion and put 40% of it into tax cuts.  That cut no ice.  Democrats proposed a cap-and-trade proposal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions because it uses market mechanisms instead of crude command-and-control directives — and then adopted hundreds of compromises to water it down.  Didn't matter.  Max Baucus has been "negotiating" over healthcare reform with Republicans in the Senate for months and Obama has been careful not to criticize.  But that turned out to be a charade.  Tim Geithner's financial bailout plan was limited and business friendly.  No matter.

Independents haven't "swung against" healthcare reform.  They've been the target of a massive campaign of lies and demagoguery.  Brooks says that Obama needs to embrace "fiscal responsibility, individual choice and decentralized authority," but every time he's done that it's gotten him nowhere.  In fact, just the opposite: for the most part these proposals just invite blistering counterattacks from supposedly conservative Republicans.

And contra Brooks, Obama hasn't moved to the left.  He's done almost exactly what he said he'd do during the campaign — sometimes to my chagrin.  So what accounts for an entire column on this subject that doesn't even mention the Republican opposition?  Beats me.  I guess Brooks just finally got tired of reading pieces like this.

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Animal House in Afghanistan

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 1:19 PM EDT

UPDATE: Here are the jaw-dropping photos. NSFW.

Drunken brawls, prostitutes, hazing and humiliation, taking vodka shots out of buttcracks— no, the perpetrators of these Animal House-like antics aren't some depraved frat brothers. They are the private security contractors guarding the US embassy compound in Kabul.

These allegations, and many more, are contained in a letter sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday by the Project on Government Oversight, which has been investigating the embassy security contract held by ArmorGroup North America (a subsidiary of Wackenhut, which is in turn owned by the security behemoth G4S). The contractor was the subject of a congressional probe earlier this summer that found serious lapses in the company's handling of the embassy security contract, which internal State Department documents said left the embassy compound "in jeopardy." Nevertheless, the government opted to extend the company's 5-year, $189 million contract for another year. 

Commonwealth Ousts Fiji Over Elections

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

As writer Anna Lenzer found out first-hand, Fiji's government is run by a military junta that's suspended the national constitution and delayed elections for years. The dictatorship took power in a 2006 coup and has used the excuse of "emergency rule" to extend its reign indefinitely. Three years has been enough for the Commonwealth, however, which has suspended Fiji's membership until its government re-installs democracy.

The Commonwealth, made up of 53 former British colonies and territories, said it suspended Fiji's membership after the government failed to meet today's deadline to set a date for democratic elections. The elections were to be held before October 2010, but as Fiji only continues to insist it will hold elections in 2014, the Commonwealth lived up to its word and suspended it. Although Fiji was kicked out of the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this year, the Commonwealth may hold a bit more sway as it provides funding to the nation, and allows them to compete in the Commonwealth Games. Both funding and athletic participation are suspended until Fiji meets the Commonwealth's requirements.

Leaving Afghanistan

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 12:41 PM EDT

George Will, after running through the immense difficulties of nation building in Afghanistan, says this:

Forces should be substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, airstrikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.

One of the things I never seem to hear much about is what the generals think would happen if we withdrew from Afghanistan.  If the answer is that the Taliban is likely to take over completely, that's one thing.  But if it's more likely that the Taliban and the central government would continue fighting, with the Taliban maintaining control over a limited area of the country and the central government maintaining control over the rest, that's quite a different outcome.

If, after eight years, the Karzai regime is so weak that the former is likely, then our task is probably hopeless and we should withdraw in the way Will suggests.  But if the latter is more likely, would it really be necessary to go that far?  Why not offer to lease Bagram from the Afghan government for a billion dollars a year, offer some additional money in military and rebuilding aid, and then continue the mission of fighting al-Qaeda from there while leaving the Taliban to Karzai?  We know how to protect a military base from an insurgent force like the Taliban, and fighting from there would be a helluva lot easier than trying to do it from offshore.

This is probably a hopelessly ignorant suggestion.  Does anyone ever try to maintain a military base in a country riven by civil war?  I'm not sure.  But it would be interesting to hear the experts chime in on this.

Healthcare and the Media

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

A reader from outside DC writes to disagree about healthcare policy stories being too complicated and slow moving to get a lot of air/print time:

Engaging health care stories aren't too complicated for newspapers in the flyover states. They've been doing the personal health bankruptcy stuff for months and folding it into the larger picture.

It ain't that complicated, this is what papers do outside of D.C. They look at an important public issue and, realizing it's complex, dry or technical, figure out ways to make it interesting and easy to understand. They find local people and talk to them and report what they hear in ways that people who live around there absorb.

....As a big fan and daily reader, I am chagrined with your simplistic analysis of why the press corps is bungling the health care story. It's an absence of will, direction, hustle and journalistic acumen — a dearth of basic story-telling skills and common sense — that binds these D.C. sycophantic editors and reporters to everyone in DC. But it is not because the story is too complicated.

Anyone else from outside the Beltway care to chime in on this?  Is coverage of healthcare policy really better in Des Moines than it is in the Washington Post?