2009 - %3, November

Need To Read: November 25, 2009

Wed Nov. 25, 2009 4:07 AM PST

Today's must reads hope you won't miss them too much on Thursday and Friday:

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34,000 New Troops for Afghanistan

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:46 PM PST

Two weeks ago McClatchy reported — with details — that Obama was planning to send 34,000 new troops to Afghanistan.  On Monday they confirmed this:

As it now stands, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan — to which the U.S. has long been committed — and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

....The administration's plan contains "off-ramps," points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

"We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that's it," the U.S. defense official said.

....As part of its new plan, the administration, which remains skeptical of Karzai, will "work around him" by working directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

A few comments:

  • The McClatchy crew has been way ahead of everyone else on this story.
  • If they're right, Obama essentially made this decision in early November.  It's not entirely clear what all the meetings since then have been for.  Getting their PR ducks in a row?
  • If their "senior defense official" is correct, the plan does indeed include a strong tribal component, as blogged about last night.

One other thing: I'm sort of a connoisseur of the excuses that reporters use these days for relying on anonymous sources, and I really like this one: "U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because...one official said, the White House is incensed by leaks on its Afghanistan policy that didn't originate in the White House."  That's admirably direct.  Nobody wants to piss off the CinC!

Long-Term Deficits

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 8:24 PM PST

Martin Wolf says that although long-term deficits are a problem, it's too early to rein in spending right now:

What is needed, instead, are credible fiscal institutions and a road map for tightening that will be implemented, automatically, as and when (but only as and when) the private sector’s spending recovers. Among the things that should be done right now is to put prospective entitlement spending — on public sector pensions, for example — on a sustainable path. It is, in short, about putting in place a credible long-term tightening that responds to recovery automatically.

That sounds like a good idea to me.  That is, it would sound like a good idea if I could think of any way to make automatic future stabilizers truly credible.  Right now, I don't think you could pass any significant entitlement cuts or tax increases in the first place, let alone pass them embedded in a some kind of structure that seemed truly invulnerable to future political shifts.  But I'm all ears if anyone has any ideas.

(Adding: I'm entirely in favor of a Social Security commission, similar to the 1983 commission, tasked with producing a conventional basket of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts that would balance Social Security's book in the long term.  This is, admittedly, a relatively small thing, since Social Security's fiscal condition has improved over the past few years and is now projected to eventually go out of balance by only about 1.5% of GDP.  But aside from the virtue of even small acts of fiscal rectitude, it would also have the huge virtue of taking Social Security off the table as a political issue.  If we could, at long last, get the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Peterson folks to quit droning on endlessly about this, we might actually clear the way for discussion of some real issues. And it's the kind of thing that can be put in place now and credibly be expected to unfold as planned.)

Warming Drives Civil War in Africa

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 6:11 PM PST

Guess what happens as climate warms in Africa? You get more war. About a 50 percent higher chance of war in unusually warm years.

Prior research has shown links between drought and conflict. But this is the first comprehensive study to finds strong links between civil war and temperature in Africa.

The reason seems to be mostly about food. African crop yields are extremely sensitive to even the smallest shifts in temperature—only 0.5 degree Celsius (0.9 degrees F) is enough to drive crop failures and that drives people to start killing each other.

(You think the same thing couldn't happen here?)

So where's Africa headed? Combining historical temperature trends with climate forecasts, the researchers predict a 54 percent increase in armed conflicts by 2030. That's an additional 393,000 war deaths if future conflicts are as deadly as current conflicts.

The paper is important enough that it's been made open access on PNAS.

The researchers' conclusions? On the eve of Copenhagen, lead author Marshall Burke of UC Berkeley told the BBC:

"Our findings provide strong impetus to ramp up investments in African adaptation to climate change by such steps as developing crop varieties less sensitive to extreme heat and promoting insurance plans to help protect farmers from adverse effects of the hotter climate."

Want to calculate how much your Thanksgiving turkey is contributing to civil war dead in Africa? A recent study estimated Britains' annual turkey dinners add 51,000 tons of C02 to the atmosphere each Christmas. That's the equivalent of 6,000 car journeys around the world. Or some unknown number of war dead.

Seitan turkey, anyone?
 

The Torture Tapes: What We Know Now

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 5:18 PM PST

There's a certain beauty to the Freedom of Information Act. Even when the government won't give you something under it, they still have to give you a list of what it is they're not giving you. So when the government decided that it would not release the documents the ACLU has been seeking regarding the CIA's destruction, it still had to provide a description—including a date—of each document it was withholding and what its rationale was for doing so.

A date and the description of a document can tell you a lot. That's why the ACLU was able to announce today that it now knows "the precise date the tapes were destroyed" and has "evidence that the [Bush] White House was involved in early discussions about the proposed destruction."

Marcy Wheeler has the highlights of the chronology that the new list provides. I've added some comments for context.

November 1, 2005: Bill Frist [then the Republican Senate majority leader] briefed on torture.

November 1, 2005: [Washington Post reporter] Dana Priest reveals the use of black sites in Europe. In response, CIA starts moving detainees from the countries in question.

November 3, 2005: [Judge] Leonie Brinkema inquires whether govt has video or audio tapes of interrogations. CIA IG Report on Manadel al-Janabi’s death completed.

November 4, 2005: Member of Congress writes four page letter to CIA IG.

November 8, 2005: CIA requests permission to destroy torture tapes. CIA reaffirms March 2005 statement that all interrogation methods are lawful. Duncan Hunter [R-Calif.] briefed on torture. Pete Hoekstra [R-Mich.] briefed on torture.

November 9, 2005: CIA confirms destruction of torture tapes.  Doug Jehl article on spring 2004 CIA IG report on interrogation methods appears.

November 14, 2005: Govt tells Brinkema it has no audio or video tapes.

This is yeoman's work (par for the course from Marcy). If you can't tell, it shows that the tapes were destroyed right after Judge Brinkema and Congress asked about them. That looks pretty damning. Here's Jameel Jaffer, the director of the ACLU's National Security Project, explaining the White House involvement:

[T]he tapes were destroyed immediately after the Washington Post reported the existence of the CIA black sites and the New York Times reported that the CIA Inspector General had questioned the legality of the agency's torture program.

The index also lists the earliest known record of White House participation in discussions about destroying the tapes—an e-mail dated February 22, 2003 revealing that CIA officials met with Bush administration officials to discuss how the agency should respond to a letter from Representative Jane Harman (D-CA) advising the agency not to destroy the tapes. While it was known previously that the White House participated in discussions about the disposition of the tapes, this is the earliest record to date of any such discussions.

I'll say the same thing I said about the Obama administration's suppression of perhaps thousands of torture photos two weeks ago: this smells like a coverup.

Alan 'Die Quickly' Grayson Seeks 55-Vote Supermajority

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:27 PM PST

The Dems' bombastic pit-bull Alan Grayson started a petition (sub req) yesterday urging Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to lower the Senate’s cloture requirement from 60 votes to 55. Edging dangerously close to his "die quickly" meme, Grayson says that "every day the Senate delays, more people die from lack of health care." Though this could jumpstart the movement for cloture reform, it's most likely a non-starter since mid-session rules changes require 67 votes. Still, the petition could draw criticism from conservatives who think Democrats are trying to force Obama’s agenda through congress, and liberals who worry that lifting cloture requirements would backfire when the GOP reclaims control of Congress.

But the suggestion is not unprecedented and most harmed by Grayson's reputation as a partisan flame thrower. In the mid-1970s, Congress lowered the supermajority of 67 votes to 60. And Ezra Klein writes that liberals should not be worried about weakening the filibuster:

A system governed by the filibuster is a system in which you can't really do anything, but you can't undo anything, either. If the Democrats pass health-care reform, but an angry populace throws 12 Democratic senators and 35 Democratic congresspeople out of office, and then impeaches Barack Obama and replaces him with Haley Barbour, nothing will happen to health-care reform. At least, not if the remaining Democrats don't want anything to happen to health-care reform. That is, on some level, insane: A landslide election is not likely to result in anything close to a ratification of the public's will.

Whether you agree with Grayson's proposal or not, it is clear that something needs to change. Kevin Drum writes today that "full-blown unanimous obstruction is something new under the sun...Dems, for better or worse, never tried to make every single bill a destruction test of the opposing party's governance."  The filibuster was not consistently abused until the Dems reclaimed control of Congress in 2007.  During the Reagan administration, for example, there were as few as 20 cloture votes per congressional term, compared to more than 100 in the 2007-2008 term, twice what was necessary in the preceding six years.

"If progressives REALLY want to transform America," a Senate Democratic chief of staff told TPM last week, "they'll make an issue of the anti-democratic rules of the Senate which make real change virtually impossible." So Alan Grayson's long-overdue proposal could pick up some steam. Too bad it was proposed by… Alan Grayson.

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Chart of the Day

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:19 PM PST

ABC News reports that in the past 16 months the number of people who believe in global warming has dropped 8 percentage points.  But the drop is skewed almost completely by ideology: among liberals and moderates there's been a change of only a couple of points, which might just be statistical noise.  Among conservatives, belief in global warming has dropped a whopping 13 points.

Note that this isn't a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade.  It's not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future.  It's not a drop in the number who think it's too expensive to do anything about it.  The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years.  It's a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I.  But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it.  It's Jim Inhofe's party now.

Abortion and the Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 1:21 PM PST

Megan McArdle has a weird post today:

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are defending the elimination of the filibuster on the grounds that unpopular legislation will fail even if a majority of legislators are behind it.

I didn't say anything remotely like that.1  I don't think Matt did either, at least not in the linked post.  But it gets even weirder after that:

I find it interesting that a major word is missing from the discussion: abortion.  The most successful Democratic use of the filibuster has, of course, been against judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade.  If it weren't for the filibuster, it's pretty likely that a play to overturn Roe would even now be wending its way through the courts, to a probably-successful conclusion.  Other treasured liberal programs like affirmative action, and certain kinds of environmental regulations, would probably also be in serious danger.

During the Bush era, Democrats filibustered — what?  Ten appellate judges?  And not all of them because of their views on abortion.  In what way has this prevented a challenge to Roe v. Wade from wending its way through the courts?  There are plenty of circuits with conservative majorities on them, after all.  Next:

Why is abortion missing from this discussion, especially when it is currently more central to our main public policy debate than the filibuster?  The filibuster has allowed Democrats to impose a minority view of abortion rights on the country; saying that unpopular legislation tends to fail is true, but not complete, because that is not the most powerful effect to which Democrats have used it.

It's true that polling on abortion attitudes is highly sensitive to question wording, but one of the simplest and cleanest questions is, "Do you support or oppose Roe v. Wade?"  Nate Silver's chart on the right, which aggregates multiple polls, shows the trend on this question clearly: whatever else the American public thinks about abortion, it supports Roe v. Wade by the whopping margin of 2:1.  If Roe ever gets overturned, it certainly won't be because that's what the majority of Americans want.

1For the record, I oppose the filibuster because I think it's unconstitutional.

No Free Lunches

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 12:27 PM PST

If President Obama decides to escalate our presence in Afghanistan, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI) is threatening to propose that it be paid for by a "war surtax."  After all, Republicans keep telling us that the deficit is a big problem, and if that's the case then the war ought to be paid for.  Stan Collender writes today that this isn't the first time Obey has tried this tack:

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes — including only one or two Republicans — and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Well, I'm sure glad I'm not president right now.  But of course, this is one of the whole points of having taxation with representation: it forces people to make tough choices.  You want healthcare reform?  Figure out how to pay for it and then see if people think it's worth it.  A war in Afghanistan?  Ditto.  Maybe you favor "winning" the war in Afghanistan by sending lots of additional troops over there, but do you still favor it if you know it's going to cost your family $500 per year in additional taxes?  Because that's about what the tab is.  There's no free lunch.

Best Abstinence Advice Ever

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 12:26 PM PST

If you're like me, and you have trouble keeping friendly frontal hugs from turning into full-on depraved bonefests, you'll appreciate the advice of these side-hug-advocating, Jesus-loving white rappers (h/t the Rumpus): 

Honestly, even though my Catholic-school teachers forced me to watch graphic abortion videos when I was a child, I had a hard time believing a big Christian group would really endorse something this misguided. Forget that even Bristol Palin knows that abstinence-only education is just silly; what's with the gunfire and sirens? But consider the matter fact-checked: "Mm-hm, that was us," the Encounter Generation Conference secretary told me this morning. "The side hug is just a little rule we have around here, to encourage kids to keep their hands off each other." Apparently they've also recorded songs set to the Phantom of the Opera theme and Queen's "We Are the Champions." Since those are, unfortunately, not available on the Internet, I offer you Christian punk band Lust Control's catchy anti-masturbation screed. My favorite part is where they remind you that Jesus "sees everything you do"—though it's a slightly less creepy deterrent than what I was taught in grade school, which is that if you touch yourself, Jesus AND your dead relatives will watch.