2012 - %3, December

CHART: How Taxpayer Dollars Were Wasted on Afghanistan's Electrical Grid

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 2:32 PM EST

One important part of the US reconstruction effort in Afghanistan is beefing up the country's power grid, run by the state-owned utilities company, Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat. As of July 2012, only a third of Afghanistan had access to regular power, and a former UN advisor for Afghanistan told NPR that "energy remains a huge constraint for development of the country." 

The United States is pouring tens of millions of dollars into the country to help the country commercialize its electricity, but a portion of that money is being squandered. A new report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), released on Tuesday, shows that expensive electrical equipment purchased by the Pentagon is sitting unused in a warehouse near Kandahar. SIGAR also found that USAID paid a contractor $5.76 million contractor for a contract that was never completed.

SIGAR John F. Sopko wrote that both of these issues "warrant immediate attention." Here's the breakdown of the numbers: 

 

 

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Obama Commits on Gun Control

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 1:47 PM EST
President Obama visits Newtown for the Sandy Hook Elementary vigil.

At the memorial ceremony in Newtown on Sunday night, President Barack Obama declared that he would respond to the tragic shooting there with real policy action. This raised the expectation that he would take on the dicey matter of gun control. And at the White House this afternoon, he further fueled these expectations. The president announced the creation of an effort headed by Vice President Joe Biden. But, he noted, this would not be the typical "Washington commission" that takes months to produce a report that is pushed aside. Instead, Obama insisted, this Biden-led initiative would craft "real reforms right now" and cook up "concrete proposals" by the end of next month. Moreover, the president said, he would then push Congress to vote on these ideas soon. "I will be talking about these in my State of the Union," he said.

Obama suggested several steps he wants to see: some sort of ban on assault weapons, enhanced background checks for gun buyers, and an end to the gun-show loophole (which allows the purchases of firearms without such checks).

Obama, who has done little about gun violence since taking office, has committed himself to an issue he has heretofore avoided as president. While campaigning for the presidency in 2008, Obama backed permanently reinstating the assault weapon ban that had expired in 2004. And after he assumed office, his administration announced it would proceed on this front. But then Obama went silent. Nothing was done. The president was not willing to confront this hot and politically difficult topic.

Yet in the aftermath of the Newtown nightmare, Obama is not equivocating. "Words need to lead to action," he said today. He recited a list of Americans who have been killed by guns in the days since the Newtown shooting, noting that this group included several police officers and a four-year-old. He pointed out that gun violence claims the lives of 10,000 Americans every year and asserted this cannot be accepted as "routine."

"I will use all the powers of this office to aim to prevent more tragedies like this," Obama said. But, he added, ultimately, it "will take a wave of Americans" saying "enough."

With such remarks, Obama is making it clear: He has adopted combating gun violence as a priority. And he has now placed himself in the position where he will be judged on whether he gets anything done.

Guns? Yawn. What Do You Think of John Boehner's Tan?

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 1:33 PM EST

President Obama's press conference is still ongoing as I write this, but it's pretty remarkable. He spoke fairly powerfully for some time about gun violence and his intention to submit a gun package to Congress by January. Then he took questions, and the press corps simply couldn't have cared less. There have been four questions so far, and all four were the usual nitwittery about the fiscal cliff. There's no news there and everyone knows it. There's nothing Obama can really say. But it's Beltway process news, and that's what every reporter cares about.

Guns? Whatever. Now tell us whether you think your budget proposal is something Republicans should accept. You do? How remarkable!

UPDATE: Hold on! Question number five is about guns. Hooray!

UPDATE 2: The last question of the press conference came from Jake Tapper, who pointed out that Obama had made a "political calculation" to avoid gun issues in his first term even though there had been several mass killings during that time, including the Aurora massacre last July. "Where have you been?" he asked. Watch the exchange below, starting at 22:00:

The NRA Has No Intention of Making "Meaningful Contributions"

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 12:46 PM EST

I know that everyone already knows this, but I suppose it bears repeating. When the NRA says, in response to the Newtown massacre, that it's "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again," they mean exactly the opposite. They will hold a press conference on Friday and talk somberly about mental health. They will blame Hollywood and video games. They will insist that we need to enforce laws already on the books. They will proclaim a willingness to have a "dialog."

But it will be a sham, as always. They will, as usual, do their best to distract pundits and talking heads with discussions of Xboxes, programs to help disturbed teenagers, and other shiny objects unrelated to firearms. They will continue doing everything they can to demonize the ATF and keep it effectively powerless. They will continue to fight any proposals that would regulate gun ownership in even the smallest way. They will make no changes to the scorecards they keep on their pet legislators. They will do everything they can behind the scenes to slow things down until, they hope, everyone gets tired and just goes home. They've spent the entire past week strategizing about how to do this in the smoothest, least noticeable way possible.

We all know this. Just be sure to keep it in mind over the next few weeks. Don't let mental health or Grand Theft Auto distract you, no matter how worthy you think those topics are. If you want to get anything done, keep your focus on guns and nothing but guns.

Corruption and Fraud in the Financial Industry Get Worse and Worse

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 12:00 PM EST

Felix Salmon explains that we have only begun to plumb the depths of financial industry corruption:

You want to know why pretty much the entire financial sector is still trading at less than book value? This is why: the number of investors who trust the banks is now zero, and banking seems to have become a game of picking up fraudulent nickels in front of a relentless justice-department steamroller.

This is a reaction to the latest shoe to drop in the LIBOR scandal. UBS, it turns out, wasn't just shaving its own submissions in order to manipulate the LIBOR rate (as Barclays did), it was actively bribing everyone in sight to do the same thing. "If Barclays was dreadful and UBS was much worse than Barclays," says Felix, "it’s hard to imagine that anybody has clean hands here." True. More to the point, if corruption around LIBOR was so widespread and extended so far into the executive suite, it's a pretty good guess that similar corruption extended to practically every other operation on Wall Street too.

The mammoth profits of the financial industry are bad for the economy because they suck money away from other activities with actual value. They're doubly bad because they were built on, and encouraged, vast amounts of fraud and corruption. That's what happens when there are enormous pools of money sitting around for the taking. None of us will be safe until profits in the financial sector are permanently cut by about three-quarters from the go-go days of the aughts.

We're still at War: Photo of the Day for December 19, 2012

Wed Dec. 19, 2012 11:34 AM EST
Blackhawk helicopters fly to Kandahar, Afghanistan, Dec. 16, 2012. Department of Defense photo by D. Myles Cullen.

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Tom's Kitchen: Holiday Biscotti

| Wed Dec. 19, 2012 7:01 AM EST
A-ladi-dadi, we like biscotti.

Admit it: You're bored with "Christmas cookies." They're cloyingly sweet, they're bland, and they can be hard on the eyes, with their "festive" shapes and garish colors. What to make in their place?  The holiday season demands a special snack—one that adults can nibble with coffee and kids can inhale as a treat. Biscotti, the famed Italian cookies, aren't an obvious substitute. They've become ubiquitous in US coffee shops; and are too often served stale, oversweet, and not worth the often-two-bucks-a-pop price tag.

Here's the thing. Homemade biscotti, nutty and slightly salty, are terrific—and they're pretty easy to make. And because they get much of their substance from nuts, they're a more wholesome snack than the usual flour-dominated holiday cookies. And they're versatile—while they're best-known in the US as a foil for coffee, the Italians also enjoy them dunked into the famous Tuscan dessert wine vin santo.In her Zuni Cafe Cookbook, from which I learned to make biscotti, the great San Francisco chef-restaurateur Judy Rogers suggests serving them with Champagne. Meaning that you might want to bust out a second batch for New Year's Eve.

Sure, the kids may judge them insufficiently sweet. Humbug! That just means more for you. So put down that Santa-shaped cutter and get busy. You'll be telling me prego when you taste the results.

In the below version, I took Rogers' recipe, which spices the cookies with anise seeds, and amped it up with orange zest, which works well with the licorice flavor of anise and delivers a seasonal edge. And in place of Rogers' anisette, an anise-flavored liqueur,  I tried Cointreau, an orange-flavored one. Feel free to use either—and either can be replaced, in a pinch, with good old vodka. I also used—because it's what I had on hand—a dark, minimally processed, mollasasy cane sugar. I worried that it might taste too heavy and overshadow the orange and anise flavors. In the end, though, I liked it—it gave the cookies caramel edge that complemented the other ingredients. Lighter sugars will work as well.

Rogers writes that biscotti are "best aged a few days before serving"—store them in an airtight container, she advises.

Orange-Anise Biscotti
Inspired by Judy Rogers'
Zuni Cafe Cookbook/makes about 18 biscotti.

¾ cups almonds
4 tablespoons butter, kept out overnight in a cool place
A generous ½ cup of whole, minimally processed, dark cane sugar
1 large egg
Zest of an entire orange, like a Seville
1 ½ teaspoons Cointreau
1 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoons salt
1 ½ teaspoons anise seeds

Preheat oven to 325. On a cookie sheet, toast the almonds for about 15 minutes, until they're lightly brown and toasty-smelling.

Cream the butter and sugar in a bowl—that is, whip it with an electric beater or a whisk until it's lightly fluffy. Add the egg, the orange zest, and the Cointreau and beat until just incorporated.

In another bowl, combine the dry ingredients—the flour, the baking powder, the salt, and the seeds—and mix well with a fork or a whisk. Now fold in the wet mixture into the dry stuff with a wooden spoon, until well incorporated.

Ropes of biscotti dough, ready for the oven.

Divide the dough into two balls and place on a lightly floured surface. Using your hands, roll each ball out into a rope of 1 inch diameter.  Carefully lift the dough ropes onto a cookie sheet. (Most cookbooks, including Rogers', command you to line the cooking sheet with parchment paper. I forgot to this time, and paid no price.)

Bake for 15-20 minutes—"until lightly brown and firm on the surface, but yielding to light pressure," as Rogers advises.

Place the cooked logs on a cutting board. Using a large sharp knife, cut at an angle into ½ inch slices. Carefully move the biscotti back to the warm cookie sheet and bake for 5 minutes more so that they lightly brown. Allow them to cool. Enjoy immediately or store them a few days in an airtight container.

Bushmaster's Corporate Overlords Leaving the Gun Business

| Tue Dec. 18, 2012 6:51 PM EST

The big-money buyout firm behind Bushmaster and many other gunmakers is getting out of the firearms business—and thanks may be due to public-sector workers in one of America's bluest states.

Chances are you didn't even know that Cerberus Capital Management, the Dan Quayle-employing, Manhattan-based private equity group that famously took a bath on Chrysler during the auto bailout, owned 15 gun manufacturers with $238 million in total sales last quarterincluding Bushmaster, which produced the assault rifle that was Adam Lanza's weapon of choice in Newtown last Friday. Cerberus managed this "family of companies" through a shell called Freedom Group, which grew so large that some rank-and-file NRA members feared a mysterious anti-gun purchaser was buying up the companies just to shut them down.

Know Your Gun Terminology!

| Tue Dec. 18, 2012 6:48 PM EST

One of the more annoying features of the gun control debate is the frequent mockery from gun rights folks toward anyone who doesn't have a deep technical understanding of how firearms operate. After all, how much do you need to know to figure out whether you think dangerous weapons ought to be regulated more than they are now? And yet, occasionally I have to admit that I sympathize with the gun folks a little bit. Here's a fragment from Hardball yesterday:

CHRIS CILLIZZA: ....You mention in the ammunition used in this shooting was one of these high-round ammunitions.....Chuck is right, the president, I think....he has to do something. The question is, does he do something around these high-round ammunition holders?....Eventually — OK, let's say assault weapons or let's say these high-caliber — these high-pack rounds — if they do that, what will they do next....

Seriously? "High-round ammunitions"? Followed by "high-round ammunition holders"? And then by "high-caliber/high-pack rounds"? I don't even care about this stuff much, and even so I was rolling my eyes listening to this. No one expects every talking head to be a deep expert on the taxonomy of firearms, but this is a common topic of political discussion and has been for decades. Anyone who talks about it should have at least a nodding familiarity with the basics of guns. I assume that Cillizza was trying to talk about high-capacity magazines—though his later mention of "high-caliber" makes me wonder—and knowing that this is what they're called is about the equivalent of knowing that it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. You really mark yourself as a dolt if you don't even know that much.

So maybe some lefty magazine should do all us peacenik lefties a favor and write a really short, punchy guide to the basics of guns. There are probably no more than about a dozen terms you'd need to know to get yourself through a cocktail party without too much embarrassment. Let's make a list:

  • Automatic
  • Semi-automatic
  • Machine gun
  • Shotgun
  • Clip/magazine
  • Caliber
  • Assault weapon
  • Bolt action
  • Chamber
  • Bullet/round/cartridge
  • __________ (placeholder for other terms that could use a brief explanation)

Hey! Wait a second! I work for a lefty magazine. Maybe we should do it! How about it, Adam?

World Bank Says Poor People Need Coal

| Tue Dec. 18, 2012 6:18 PM EST

Last week, I reported on environmental groups calling foul on the World Bank for even considering a proposal to finance a new coal-fired power plant in Mongolia. Funding the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine project, which also includes a 750 megawatt coal plant, was out of line with the Bank's stated concern that the world is heading to devastating and irreversible climate consequences.

Rio Tinto has asked the World Bank Group's private funding arm, International Finance Corporation, for part of the money needed to start construction on the project. IFC was not able to comment at press time, but did send a lengthy email response on Tuesday. Basically they argue that poor nations need energy, that the World Bank is increasingly shifting its focus toward renewables, and that renewable energy can't meet all of Mongolia's needs.

I'll post the full response, from IFC communications officer Josef Skoldeberg, and let you evaluate for yourself:

The world must tackle the problem of climate change more aggressively. But this will be achieved by energy transitions by the largest consumers of coal, not by foreclosing on energy options that mean access to basic electricity for the world’s poorest people. This is not the terrain on which the battle against climate change will be won.
The problem with coal emissions rests squarely in the most highly industrialized nations. If you took all the developing countries in the world and added up all their emissions together, it still would be one-third of the emissions of the United States, European Union, and China combined – just one-third.
Increasingly, the World Bank Group only invests in coal in very rare circumstances - when poor countries have no other realistic options to rapidly ramp up renewable energy alternatives and power is needed for basic energy needs for hospitals, industry and factories, and to light schools, heat homes and cook meals. We have moved away from funding coal and have moved toward the funding of renewable energy. The Bank Group doubled lending for renewable energy in the last five years.
IFC has shifted its investments in the power-generation business from 70% of investments in fossil fuel-based energy to 70% of investments in renewable energy, with a new focus on off-grid and remote applications, access to energy and infrastructure. In 2011, IFC invested in Newcom, a Mongolian company that is building the country’s largest wind power project. IFC invested in Newcom because it believes that there are good opportunities to expand the use of renewable energy in Mongolia.
However, like other countries around the world, renewable energy cannot meet all of Mongolia’s immediate energy needs alone and the country’s other local resources, including coal, will likely need to play a role in its future energy mix. IFC is currently considering financing the Oyu Tolgoi copper mining project in Mongolia.
The Oyu Tolgoi mine is expected to bring significant benefits to the people of Mongolia, such as much needed jobs, government revenues and infrastructure. IFC is fully adhering to its environmental and social guidelines as they evaluate the project. To meet Mongolian requirements that the project be powered by domestic energy sources, Oyu Tolgoi is evaluating the option of a coal fired power plant for sourcing the relative large amounts of reliable power that the mine will need for continuous around the clock operation from within Mongolia.

The argument that we shouldn't be "foreclosing on energy options that mean access to basic electricity for the world’s poorest people" is not directly relevant here. This coal plant is being built to power a mine and refining operations, not homes.

Secondly, I find the argument that climate change is not the fault of developing countries a bit disingenuous. Of course it's true, but the issue is that those countries are working toward industrialization. And right now major multinational financial institutions are supporting their efforts by building in dirty energy, rather than helping them skip over those old technologies. It wasn't all that long ago that China and India were "just" developing nations. Now we're all wringing our hands about their major contributions to global warming.

It's interesting, however, that the IFC and World Bank seem to care enough about the issue to put out a lengthy and thoughtful statement. That in and of itself seems to indicate to me that they're concerned about opinions on their funding decisions as they relate to climate change.