2012 - %3, February

Nation-Building vs. Al-Qaeda-Crushing in Afghanistan

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 12:12 PM PST

Matt Steinglass on our decade-long nation-building mission in Afghanistan:

Nothing in my life has made me as pessimistic about development aid as the course of the American intervention in Afghanistan…I think I've seen figures showing that foreign aid was actually greater than the country's entire GDP in 2011. That sounds impossible, but I'd imagine it reflects the fact that foreign aid is often spent on salaries for Western consultants and equipment from donor countries, so it never really enters Afghanistan at all.

…The romantic vision of the transformation of Afghanistan involved passionate Westerners with graduate degrees donning local garb and riding on donkeys to dirt-poor villages to educate their girls and extend their agriculture. But Westerners with graduate degrees don't much want to sit around on donkeys in dirt-poor villages, particularly not when the Taliban will kill them for doing so. They want to ride out to the village in an SUV, train some locals to teach the girls (or better yet, train some local trainers), drive back to the city, hit the gym and turn on the laptop. Besides which, they have to turn on the laptop, because the congressional subcommittee has told USAID to mandate that they report monthly on progress in 37 different categories of target indicators in exchange for their NGO getting the grant.

Et cetera. I saw this last night, but couldn't think of anything really worthwhile to add to it. I wanted to link it up to the lessons we supposedly all learned from E. F. Schumacher several decades ago about the appropriate scale of foreign aid projects in Third World countries, but I just don't have the chops for that. I also wanted to link to an article I read a few years ago about the immense delicacy of interfering with local economic patterns, which runs the risk of wrecking key incentives and cultural practices built up over centuries, but I couldn't remember where I'd seen it or what country it was about. Which is too bad, because it was a great piece of eye-opening writing.

So that's a great big fail from me on the foreign aid front. Instead, I'll leave you with this observation from Andrew Sullivan:

Yesterday, I get a text from one of my friends, a former Special Ops guy who was one of the first to learn how to ride a horse, grow a beard and disappear into the mountains of Afghanistan in 2001. It read:

Are we leaving afghanistan. No way we are that is awesome.

The facts have persuaded me that this war needs to come to an end. But the most persuasive arguments I have heard have come from my friends who have served there. Every single one described "nation-building" there to be about as insane as, well, a 51st state on the moon. All of them wanted to find and kill the men who attacked the US a decade ago—and go home. Since Obama took office, they have been granted their wish: almost all the al Qaeda leadership dead, and bin Laden's bones being picked dry by fishes.

Our exit from Afghanistan is going to be messy and bloody. Republicans are going to have a field day no matter what. But our only other option is, almost literally, to stay there forever. The idea that the United States was ever going to remake Afghanistan in a few years or even a few decades was a ridiculous pipe dream, and it still is. We've now accomplished our military mission there about as well as it ever could have been accomplished, and it's time to leave.

It was endless jingoism from the right combined with cravenness from the left that turned our presence in Vietnam into a fiasco of world historical proportions. LBJ was simply unwilling to stand up to insinuations that he was soft on communism, and the end result was 60,000 Americans dead and, eventually, the exact same takeover of South Vietnam that would have happened in 1954 if we had let it. There was simply no way that even a massive military presence was ever going to change Vietnamese nationalism or reform Vietnamese corruption in a few years—or a few decades.

Thankfully, President Obama now seems to understand this. The jingoism from the right may be different this time—today's Democratic president is accused of being soft on terrorism, not communism—but if history isn't exactly repeating itself, it's certainly rhyming. Obama succumbed to this conservative braying a couple of years ago when he doubled down on Afghanistan, but apparently he's smart enough to realize that it's better to weather the inevitable right-wing jeremiads about appeasement than it is to turn into another LBJ.

I don't think that escalating in Afghanistan was ever the right call, and I doubt that an extra few years of war has made a serious dent in the Taliban, in Afghanistan's culture, or in the politico-tribal realities that have always governed the country. But if that was even a little bit unclear a few years ago, it's simply indisputable now. We've done enough damage to Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is dead, Al Qaeda is all but destroyed, and the Taliban is as weakened as it's ever going to get. It's long past time to come home.

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The Real Reason Mitt Romney Is Accepting Donald Trump's Endorsement

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 11:21 AM PST
Mitt Romney (left) and Donald Trump

A day after Mitt Romney was slammed from all sides for declaring he's not "concerned with the very poor" (because they enjoy such a swell safety net), why would he accept an endorsement from celebrity-birther, .001-percenter Donald Trump and appear at the magnate's Las Vegas casino to do so?

The first words that come to mind are: too soon. Such a move will only reinforce the meta-narrative that Romney is far removed from the 99-percenters. It will also associate him with a fellow who was humiliated by Barack Obama last spring, when the president at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner eviscerated Trump with humor the same weekend he was secretly overseeing the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Trump's unfavorable rating last spring—before his birther crusade crashed and burned—was 47 percent.

But Romney may not have had a choice. This morning, several media outfits—Politico, the New York Times, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—were reporting that Trump was going to endorse Newt Gingrich. This suggests "the Donald" was talking to both camps to boost his leverage as he was negotiating a deal. (Quelle surprise!)

Planned Parenthood and the Culture Wars

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 9:54 AM PST

The Komen Foundation claims that they cut off their breast cancer screening funding for Planned Parenthood for entirely innocent reasons. They had adopted a new rule that barred grants to organizations under investigation by local, state or federal authorities, and Planned Parenthood is currently the target of a congressional investigation. Sadly, this rule gave them no choice but to end their grants.

This is such transparent BS that it's insulting that they didn't bother coming up with something a wee bit more believable. Today, Jeffrey Goldberg explains what really happened:

Three sources with direct knowledge of the Komen decision-making process told me that the rule was adopted in order to create an excuse to cut-off Planned Parenthood....The decision, made in December, caused an uproar inside Komen. Three sources told me that the organization's top public health official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest immediately following the Komen board's decision to cut off Planned Parenthood.

....John Hammarley, who until recently served as Komen's senior communications adviser...explained that the Planned Parenthood issue had vexed Komen for some time. "About a year ago, a small group of people got together inside the organization to talk about what the options were, what would be the ramifications of staying the course, or of telling our affiliates they can't fund Planned Parenthood, or something in-between." He went on, "As we looked at the ramifications of ceasing all funding, we felt it would be worse from a practical standpoint, from a public relations standpoint, and from a mission standpoint. The mission standpoint is, 'How could we abandon our commitment to the screening work done by Planned Parenthood?'" But the Komen board made the decision despite the recommendation of the organization's professional staff to keep funding Planned Parenthood.

....Another source directly involved with Komen's management activities told me that when the organization's leaders learned of the Stearns investigation, they saw an opportunity. "The cart came before the horse in this case," said the source, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity. "The rule was created to give the board of directors the excuse to stop the funding of Planned Parenthood. It was completely arbitrary. If they hadn't come up with this particular rule, they would have come up with something else in order to separate themselves from Planned Parenthood."

The right's recent jihad against Planned Parenthood is about as loathsome as anything I've ever seen come out of them. They simply don't care anymore how many people they hurt or how much harm they do to anyone they disapprove of.

Tell Us: How Do You Teach Your Kids About Climate Change?

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 9:47 AM PST

When I was in New Hampshire recently, I met Sarah Larson Dennen, a teacher at Moharimet Elementary School in Madbury. We were talking about something else entirely - the decline of New England's sugar maple - but another part of our on-carmera interview has stuck with me ever since: how Sarah teaches her young students about climate change.

"Language is really key when you're talking to kids," Sarah explained. "I don't use terms like 'global warming'. I use terms like 'climate change'. And I try to back things up by really showing them data."

"I look to see that these kids are care-takers of our whole natural world," she said.

That got me thinking: how do you teach your kids about climate change? You don't want to tell your kids the world is in uttter peril… right? But if they ask about climate change, what do you say?

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Fallout Over Komen's Planned Parenthood Decision

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 9:06 AM PST

Susan B. Komen for the Cure's decision to end grants to Planned Parenthood that helped pay for breast cancer screenings has already drawn much criticism from outside the organization. But over at the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg talks to some Komen insiders who say that the move was controversial within the organization as well:

The decision, made in December, caused an uproar inside Komen. Three sources told me that the organization's top public health official, Mollie Williams, resigned in protest immediately following the Komen board's decision to cut off Planned Parenthood. Williams, who served as the managing director of community health programs, was responsible for directing the distribution of $93 million in annual grants. Williams declined to comment when I reached her yesterday on whether she had resigned her position in protest, and she declined to speak about any other aspects of the controversy.
But John Hammarley, who until recently served as Komen's senior communications adviser and who was charged with managing the public relations aspects of Komen's Planned Parenthood grant, said that Williams believed she could not honorably serve in her position once Komen had caved to pressure from the anti-abortion right. "Mollie is one of the most highly-respected and ethical people inside the organization, and she felt she couldn't continue under these conditions," Hammarley said. "The Komen board of directors are very politically savvy folks, and I think over time they thought if they gave in to the very aggressive propaganda machine of the anti-abortion groups, that the issue would go away. It seemed very short-sighted to me."

Further, Goldberg writes, the new rule forbidding grants to any organization currently under investigation was designed specifically to ice Planned Parenthood out. Under the new rule, which Goldberg documents with an internal memo, any organization that is the subject of an investigation by any local, state or federal authority is deemed ineligible for grants. This, of course, creates an incentive for pretty much anyone to launch an investigation for the purpose of denying funds to groups they don't like very much.

This certainly seems to be the motivation for the investigation anti-abortion Rep. Cliff Stearns launched in September against Planned Parenthood. Democrats on his committee accused Stearn of abusing his chairmanship to further the "Republican vendetta" against the group. They noted that both the Health and Human Services Inspector General and state Medicaid programs regularly audit Planned Parenthood, and "have not identified any pattern of misuse of federal funds, illegal activity, or other abuse that would justify a broad and invasive congressional investigation."

The act of launching an investigation, of course, has nothing to do with whether or not any actual wrongdoing occurred.

Indiana and the Future of Unions

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 9:05 AM PST

Ed Kilgore reacts to the news that Indiana is set to become the first state in the industrial Northeast or Midwest to enact a right-to-work law that will almost certainly gut union organizing completely:

As someone who grew up in the right-to-work Deep South, I can assure Indianans that from a psychological point of view they are about to enter a brave new world where an ever-neurotic desire to keep corporations happy always seems to trump any consideration of fair play or workers' rights. Welcome to the Old South, Hoosiers! Misery loves company.

Unions are simply too weak these days to stop this from happening, and that trend shows no sign of slowing down. Republicans have always depended on money from corporations and the rich for their survival, and increasingly that's true of Democrats as well. Given this basic dynamic, it's very hard to see how unions survive in the long term.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 2, 2012

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 3:57 AM PST

Members of the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team walk to the next objective during a dismounted patrol to the Department of Public Works facility and a water distribution point in Kandahar province on January 28, 2012. This was a pre-final inspection to establish a punch-list inspection. The project is set to be complete in two weeks. The Kandahar PRT is a civilian-military organization whose mission is to improve security, governance and infrastructure capacity throughout Kandahar province. Photo by the US Army.

Is Sugar as Addictive as Alcohol?

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 3:10 AM PST

As I sit down to write this post, I'm munching on a chocolate-orange cookie, something I grabbed to get me through a mid-morning energy slump. Packed with processed sugar, this treat could be considered just some empty calories I burn off as long as I take a rigorous walk at lunch or practice yoga after work. But scientists from the University of California–San Francisco, whose article "The Toxic Truth About Sugar" came out yesterday in Nature, are hoping to change this mindset. "There is nothing empty about these calories," they write, arguing that a growing body of evidence places the blame of the worldwide increase in chronic diseases such as liver toxicity, obesity, and pancreatitis squarely on the shoulders of this pervasive ingredient.

If UCSF researcher Robert H. Lustig and his team had their way, sugar would be regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, and would be knocked off of a USDA list of foods "Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)," which allows food manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food. Using four criteria established in 2003 to justify regulating alcohol, these scientists make a case for why sugar is a public health concern and should be regulated:

  • Sugar is unavoidable: In recent years, it is being added to almost all processed foods. Even if I avoid cookies and desserts, for example, and I think I'm controlling my intake, I'm probably still taking in more sugar than what's necessary through processed snacks, bread, condiments, and beverages. According to the USDA (PDF), the average American ate the equivalent of 52 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day in 2000, compared to the 10 teaspoonful daily maximum recommended. Per capita consumption was up 39 percent from the 1950s.
  • It's toxic: The paper maintains that excessive consumption of sugar affects health beyond just adding empty calories. The food has been linked to metabolic dysfunction and its ensuing diseases, and Lustig asserts that fructose (one of two molecules that along with glucose makes up sugar) can have the same impact on the liver as alcohol. For more on fructose, read my coworker Kiera Butler's piece on sugar versus corn syrup. Also, see Gary Taubes's article on sugar's toxicity, which features Lustig, in the New York Times magazine last spring.
  • It's addictive: This claim appears a little extreme (hard to imagine a group called Sugarholics Anonymous), but the paper cites various studies that examine human dependency on sugar. The sweetener dampens the suppression of hormones that signal hunger and satisfaction to the brain, so the more we eat, the less likely we are to realize when we've had enough of the stuff, and the more likely we are to want more.
  •  Sugar has a negative impact on society: It's been linked to metabolic dysfunction, which can lead to heart disease, obesity, liver disease, and diabetes. In 2011, the United Nations declared that for the first time ever, chronic non-communicable diseases like these posed a greater burden on the world than infectious diseases. A 2011 University of Minnesota study linked the uptick in sugar consumption over the last 30 years to an increase in average body weight. Currently, seventy-five percent of all US health-care dollars are spent on treating metabolic syndrome and its resulting diseases.

So what's to be done to curb our demand for sugar? The pie in the sky solution for the UCSF scientists is to get food manufacturers to stop adding it to everything under the sun. "But sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change," write Lustig and crew. Another solution is to make it less accessible by taxing it. Denmark is considering a sugar tax, and the United States may soon start taxing sugary sodas per ounce.

But the idea of regulating sugar is going to face plenty of protest from the massive sugar lobby, something that Lustig and colleagues recognize.  Taking hope from the success public health officials have had in fighting the tobacco lobby and regulating smoking in places nationwide, the UCSF researchers are optimistic about the government's ability to take on sugar like it has taken on smoking.

Republicans Want to Throw Kids Under the Bus. Literally.

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 3:52 PM PST

On Tuesday, House Republicans released a transportation package that environmental groups have labeled as a massive giveaway to oil and gas interests.

It's got everything that oil companies have asked for over the years and more: drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, increasing oil shale production, allowing much larger trucks on highways, and cutting funds for high-speed rail. And Speaker John Boehner has said he wants to attach a provision to the bill that would force approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline as well.

But here's where it gets really sad: The bill would also cut the Safe Routes to School program, a $202 million grant program that helps states and school districts make improvements so that kids and their families can walk to school without getting run over. There are many reasons this program is a good idea. Pedestrian deaths have been up in recent years, and this is one way to address that challenge. It's also better for everyone else when kids don't need a fleet of polluting minivans to get to school. And walking is good for you. Unless you get run over, that is. Then walking is bad for you.

The Unemployment Rate is Down No Matter How You Measure It

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 3:50 PM PST

Every day there are several stories that seem to show up in about half the blogs I read. Today, for example, Mitt Romney said he doesn't care about the poor; youth unemployment is sky high in Greece and Spain; and if we just let the Bush tax cuts expire, a big chunk of our deficit problem goes away. And then there's Cardiff Garcia's post over at Alphaville that reproduces a graph showing what the unemployment rate would be if all the discouraged workers who have left the labor force were still in it. Answer: bad. "This alternative measure has remained above 10 per cent since September 2009, and...has mostly just moved sideways."

But wait. There's nothing magical about this. The graph comes from Nomura, but the BLS already tracks this stuff in a variety of unemployment measures that are released every month. U3 is the usual headline measure, but there's also U4, which is U3 plus all discouraged workers, and U5, which is U4 plus marginally attached workers. As the modified FRED chart on the right shows, all three of these measures have been declining in lockstep over the past couple of years. So even if you include all the folks who have just stopped looking for work, you still see a decline of about 1.5 points since the peak in 2009.

So color me confused. Unless the Nomura folks have some reason for thinking their measure is better than any of the BLS's measures, it looks to me like unemployment has gone down no matter how you measure it.

UPDATE: Cardiff Garcia contacted the Nomura folks to ask about this, and they explained that their measure is a modification of U4. In a nutshell, U4 includes the unemployed plus "discouraged" workers — i.e., those who say they want to work but have given up because they believe there are no jobs available. That number has declined over the past two years.

The Nomura measure, by contrast, counts everyone who has exited the labor force for any reason other than retirement. They simply assume that all other labor force exits are for economic reasons of one kind or another.

I suppose either measure could make sense depending on what you're most interested in. There's probably always a small segment of the labor force that's only barely interested in working, and that decides to stay home with the kids or write the great American novel given even the slightest incentive. Those folks are captured in the Nomura calculation but not in U4. I guess it's up to you to decide which you find a more useful measure of the state of the economy.