2010 - %3, July

How Dangerous is al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:37 PM EDT

Via Glenn Greenwald, here is Newsweek's Michael Isikoff interviewing Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, about the current threat from al-Qaeda in the AfPak region:

Isikoff: Let’s get a sense of what the overall threat picture looks like right now. [White House chief of staff] Rahm Emanuel said [recently] that about half of Al Qaeda has been eliminated in the last 18 months. How many people is that, and how many people are left in the other half?

Leiter: I think [CIA director] Leon Panetta said on Sunday, and I agree with him, that in Afghanistan, you have a certain number, a relatively small number, 50 to 100. I think we have in Pakistan a larger number.

How many?

Upwards — more than 300, I would say.

When I wrote about Panetta's estimate a week ago, I cautioned that he had only talked about Afghanistan, not Pakistan. But now Leiter has given us an estimate for Pakistan, and it looks like there's no more than 400-500 al-Qaeda members in the entire AfPak region. This is, obviously, not the only consideration for assessing the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but it's sure a mighty big one. (And the others don't necessarily point in the direction of staying either. See Matt Yglesias here, for example.)

At this point there's not a lot left to say about this that hasn't been said a hundred times before, but just to restate the obvious, it's getting harder every day to justify the continued loss of life and continued multi-billion dollar expense of a full-out counterinsurgency campaign there if it's truly aimed at no more than a few hundred extremists living in caves. Maybe Joe Biden had this one right.

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How Big Corn Sees the BP Gusher

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:36 PM EDT

Last week, the National Corn Growers Association put its own farmer-friendly spin on BP's oil gusher in a new TV ad called "Ethanol: Now is the time."

Unfortunately, this idea is precisely wrong. Switching from oil to ethanol to save the Gulf would be like switching from cheeseburgers to cocaine to save your heart. Agricultural runoff from ethanol production fuels the Gulf's Dead Zone, a New Jersey-sized pollution plume that may be worse for the marine environment in the long run than BP's oil.

The Dead Zone is created when algae spawned by river-borne fertilizer sucks the oxygen out of the water, killing off shrimp, crabs and any other marine creatures that can't escape. This summer, the Dead Zone will cover up to 8,500 square miles of ocean from Alabama to Texas. That's about a third the area now covered by BP's oil gusher, but the long-term effects could be worse: The Dead Zone has doubled in size since the 1980s and returns every year to ravage crucial parts of the ocean's food chain.

The destruction caused by the Dead Zone means that our increasing ethanol dependence will only throw salt on the Gulf's ecological wounds. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Congress' 2007 renewable fuels standard requires ethanol production, which already consumes a third of the nation's corn, to triple in the next 12 years. A 2008 National Research Council report warned that the change could cause a "considerable" increase in damage to the Gulf.

And ethanol's environmental toll doesn't stop at the shore. A recent study found that dead zones also contribute to global warming—another indication that biofuels, in addition to driving up food prices and causing deforestation, do more to harm the climate than help it

Shocker: Tea Party, GOP Beliefs Identical

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:18 PM EDT

From Gallup comes the latest bit of news suggesting the tea party isn't as revolutionary as its members like to think: When asked what they considered "extremely serious threats" to the country's future wellbeing, tea partiers cited the exact same things as run-of-the-mill Republicans. Shocker, right? Both groups overwhelmingly pointed to federal debt (61 percent of tea partiers, 55 percent of GOPers), Big Government (49 percent, 43 percent), health care costs (41 percent, 37 percent), and "terrorism" (51 percent, 51 percent) as the biggest threats to American prosperity. And in the category of unimportant threats, both groups dismiss the environment/global warming and discrimination against minorities. Here's a good breakdown from Gallup:

So what's the takeaway here? That media coverage of the tea party is overblown? That they're not such a novel group after all? That's the message gleaned by the Washington Post's Greg Sargent:

The Tea Party movement gets a disproportionate share of media attention because of all the funny costumes, Hitler references, and fantasizing about armed revolution. But it's hard to see what's distinctive about the Tea Partiers' actual political views and priorities.

Which isn't to say the tea party should be written off as entirely a wing of the GOP. The more libertarian strains of the tea party don't always align with the GOP party line, especially on an issue like the US' military presence abroad. (Rand Paul, running for US Senate in Kentucky, has suggested scaling back US military bases in Europe, for instance—an idea that's anathema to the GOP rank and file.)

But on the whole Sargent's right. In the past year, tea party coverage has focused more on the outlandishness of the burgeoning group than the (lack of) rigor or originality of its ideas. So, are we about to see a decrease in tea party coverage? Don't bet on it.

Watch: The Mystery BP Twitterer Revealed!

Tue Jul. 6, 2010 3:05 PM EDT

Leroy Stick is the brains behind a fake BP twitter account called BPGlobalPR that’s racked up more than 180,000 followers. Need to Know’s Erin Chapman grabbed an exclusive on-camera interview with him at the TEDxOilSpill conference.

Stick (an alias) began feeding his updates to humor-starved news junkies on May 19 and — like the oil — hasn’t slowed since. Some of his recent status reports include:

As long as we can get loaded potato skins at T.G.I.Friday’s, seafood can suck it.

Tropical Storms = 1/2 days.

Anyone accusing us of tarring and feathering pelicans is ignorant. They feathered themselves.

In an undisclosed location, Stick agreed to answer some questions about his methods and motivation, as well as what BP is getting wrong in their PR campaign. He appeared in a ski mask and demanded that we disguise his voice (so please excuse the audio

This video was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration. For Mother Jones' interview with Leroy Stick, click here.

A Year in the Life of the BP Oil Spill

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

The video (below) shows computer simulations of one possible scenario for the fate of the Gulf of Mexico's oil catastrophe over the course of a year. In the model, 5 million buoyant particles are released continuously from April 20 to September 17 from the Deepwater Horizon rig. What's really interesting is what you might call the Gulf Stream Whiplash Effect. The highlights, or rather lowlights of the findings:

  • Oil spreads initially in the Gulf of Mexico before entering the Loop Current, the narrow Florida Current, and finally the Gulf Stream.
  • After a year, about 20 percent of the particles have been transported through the Straits of Florida and into the open Atlantic.
  • Coastlines near the Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida might see the effects of the catastrophe by October.
  • The main branch of the subtropical gyre will likely transport the oil towards Europe, though strongly diluted.
  • As northeasterly winds intensify near Florida in October and November, the oil in the Atlantic moves closer to eastern US shores as it retreats from western Florida shores.
  • The narrow deep Straits of Florida force the Florida Current into a narrow channel, creating a tight bottleneck for the spreading of oil into the Atlantic. As the animation suggests, a filtering system in the narrowest spot of the Florida Current could mitigate the spreading of the oil film into the North Atlantic.
  •  

The explanantion behind the model:

The animation shows the calculated surface particle concentrations for grid boxes about 10-km-by-10-km in size into April 2011. For an estimated flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon of 50,000 barrels per day over a 150 day period, a concentration of ~10 particles per grid box in the animation corresponds roughly to an oil volume of 2 cubic meters per 100 square kilometers.

The dispersal model doesn't capture the real-world stuff that oil does, like coagulate, form tar balls, and get broken down over time by chemical and microbial degradation. Therefore surface concentrations relative to the actual spill may be overestimated. Or not. Seeing there might be more than 50,000 barrels a day being released. At any rate, the animation is designed not as a specific prediction but as a scenario to guide research and mitigation efforts.

The work was done by researchers from the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

World Cup Thread

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 2:14 PM EDT

I'll be rooting for the Netherlands for the rest of the World Cup. Why? Because I like tulips and windmills and the kid with his finger in the dike. Because I think it's remarkable that such a small country has such a successful soccer history, and I think it's about time for them to finally get their hands on the top trophy. Because they have such a good healthcare system. Because — at least in my experience — they seem to combine friendliness with a surprisingly robust sense of rationality. Because Switzerland and Denmark didn't make it out of group play. Because I've liked the Netherlands since the first time I visited.

So in honor of the Netherlands, here's a snapshot taken during that first visit in 1967. This is Madurodam, a miniature city in The Hague that my brother and sister and I were all pretty captivated by at the time. Beat that, Legoland. Judging from their website, Madurodam has been considerably spruced up since our visit, and I suppose that means I should take a trip over to Europe one of these days and check it out. In the meantime, though, I'll settle for rooting for their soccer team.

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The Myth of the Midterm Insurgent

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 1:26 PM EDT

The Associated Press reports today on Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.), yet another incumbent candidate once thought a shoo-in but who is now facing a tough reelection bid in November. The liberal, anti-war Feingold will likely square off against businessman Ron Johnson, the presumed GOP candidate, in what's shaping up to be a brutal midterm election for the Democrats. On the whole, the AP's take on the brewing battle up in Wisconsin—according to several polls, Feingold, a four-term senator, leads Johnson by a mere one or two percentage points—is standard stuff.

What's most intriguing about Wisconsin’s Senate race—and what the AP fails to dig into—is Johnson's background and wealth. Johnson made his fortune through his company making plastic packaging materials, and it's becoming clear he plans to use that wealth to defeat Feingold. The GOPer has already spent $1 million on ads, and could spend up to $15 million to beat Feingold. If he does, Johnson will join a veritable bloc of candidates in battleground states like Florida and California who've staked out a paradoxical, almost hypocritical position in the midterm elections: the super wealthy who claim to be political insurgents and who, in some cases, ally with the influential tea party masses. They're candidates who somehow think voters won't notice or care that they’re spending millions this election season, cutting ads and jetting around their states, while claiming to relate to and connect with normal Americans at a time of record unemployment and economic hardship in the US.

The Future of Oil

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 1:11 PM EDT

Mike Konczal notes the startling news that U.S. investment in resource extraction (primarily oil and gas exploration) has now overtaken investment in manufacturing. But I think he goes astray here:

In 2001 we decided to lift a lot of rules and a massive amount of resource extraction went into place in a very short time span. This was done with the privatization of regulation (deregulation). We thought that the capital markets would be enough to oversee this massive change in our resources and handle the risk appropriately, and we did it in a really short amount of time. Instead of an eternal problem facing human society, it’s about a small group getting power in the White House and shredding the laws, oversight and process concerning how our environment and private companies interact, no doubt making themselves rich in the process. Less Icarus, more Cheney. What does this hold for the future? Notice that the regulators were put into crony sleep mode exactly at the moment where they were most needed.

Obviously some of that happened. But the primary shape of this story is pretty obvious. When oil prices skyrocketed following the OPEC embargoes of the 70s, investment in oil exploration went up. When oil prices crashed in the 80s, investment went down. When they skyrocketed again in the aughts, investment went up. Bush/Cheney policies obviously helped, but this is mostly a pretty simple market reaction to high prices.

And the future? I'd count on that blue line continuing to rise. It will certainly have rattles and bumps along the way, but the era of cheap oil is over, and permanently high prices make even expensive investment in hard-to-extract oil worthwhile. The final fate of American manufacturing is still unclear, but I doubt that it will ever match resource extraction again.

How to Bed a Rock Star

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 12:43 PM EDT

In her new book, "Every Rose Has Its Thorn: The Rock 'n' Roll Field Guide to Guys," Nerve sex and dating advice columnist (aka Miss Information) Erin Bradley takes readers on a Journey (see what I did there?) of the rock stars and wannabes that we adore and abhor. Filled with quizzes, memes, true-life stories, and cheeky illustrations, her book demystifies 10 types of rocker guys, with advice on how to bed, wed, or behead them—depending on your inclinations. It's as entertaining as it is endearing. If you've ever wanted to know what kind of guy owns a gorilla suit but not an interview suit (Mannish Boy), the type who "cuddles so close you can hear his cells dividing" (Boy with the Thorn in his Side) or the one whose voice can induce pregnancy through a stereo (Sexy Motherf*cker), then look no further.

Mother Jones: First off, I have a huge crush on you. But you didn't write "The guide to seducing writers who live 3,000 miles away," so I'll lay low until you do. Why did you focus on musicians?

EB: I got over the “ZOMG I HEART BOYS IN BANDS!” thing in high school. But since then, I’ve always somehow managed to date musicians by default. Couple that with my five years as Miss Information and a deep, abiding love of rock 'n' roll, and a book like this felt really natural. I tried to wedge a few of my other lifelong loves—salt and birds of prey—into it but my editor told me no.

MJ: When you were little, did you dream that one day you’d write a book about how to bone dudes who act like Bret Michaels?

EB: No, I wanted to be a TV news anchor. Then a dentist. Then an archaeologist. Then a model. I did have Bret Michaels pin-ups on my walls starting at age 12. We had these things called “magazines” back then and I’d rip them out of Circus and Metal Edge and smuggle them out in my jean jacket at the corner drugstore. I was never the girl who was into New Kids on the Block or the Mickey Mouse Club. I liked my rockstars older—scuzzy and age-inappropriate.

MJ: As I was reading this, I kept thinking, Man, I wouldn’t date any of these guys! Then I thought, maybe it’s because I’m pretty gay. Still, would you want to end up with any of these archetypes?

EB: I would. All of them have redeeming qualities. Mannish Boy is great to take to boring gallery openings or wedding receptions. You’ll always have someone joining you in being wildly inappropriate. There may be some cultural references lost on a younger guy like Sweet Child O’ Mine but his lack of baggage more than makes up for it. Plus, the youth perspective is great if you work in a publishing or advertising job. You’re not fucking around, you’re researching. You can even put the condoms on your expense report.

David Brooks on Fiscal Stimulus

| Tue Jul. 6, 2010 12:13 PM EDT

David Brooks has one of his patented "arguing with myself" columns in the Times today, and this one is about whether fiscal stimulus is a good idea. Here's where he ends:

These days, debt-fueled government spending doesn’t increase confidence. It destroys it. Only 6 percent of Americans believe the last stimulus created jobs, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey. Consumers are recovering from a debt-fueled bubble and have a moral aversion to more debt.

You can’t read models, but you do talk to entrepreneurs in Racine and Yakima. Higher deficits will make them more insecure and more risk-averse, not less. They’re afraid of a fiscal crisis. They’re afraid of future tax increases. They don’t believe government-stimulated growth is real and lasting. Maybe they are wrong to feel this way, but they do. And they are the ones who invest and hire, not the theorists.

The Demand Siders are brilliant, but they write as if changing fiscal policy were as easy as adjusting the knob on your stove. In fact, it’s very hard to get money out the door and impossible to do it quickly. It’s hard to find worthwhile programs to pour money into. Once programs exist, it’s nearly impossible to kill them. Spending now creates debt forever and ever.

....But the overall message is: Don’t be arrogant. This year, don’t engage in reckless new borrowing or reckless new cutting. Focus on the fundamentals. Cut programs that don’t enhance productivity. Spend more on those that do.

Two things occur to me. The first is that a columnist like Brooks doesn't have to pander to public opinion. He should leave that to politicians. If he thinks more debt is dangerous, he should say so and explain why. If he doesn't, he should say that. What he shouldn't do is throw up his hands and say that since the public feels X, then we must do X. After all, part of the reason the public feels X is because people like David Brooks keep telling them that.

Beyond that, though, I guess my question is what he thinks the downsides are here. That is, what's the downside of more stimulus vs. less stimulus? The downside of less stimulus, I think, is obvious: if the Krugmanites are right, it will mean years and years of grinding unemployment and slow growth. It means pain and destitution for millions.

But what's the downside of more stimulus? No one can say, really. The best answer is that it might lead to future interest rate hikes or future inflation or future tax increases. But there's very little evidence to support this, and Brad DeLong, among others, makes an excellent case that even a trillion dollar stimulus would have only a tiny effect on the federal government's future solvency. So even if a big stimulus has little positive effect — which seems unlikely given current circumstances — it doesn't create much danger either. So why not try it? The fiscal purists sure don't seem to have much in the way of better ideas.