Last fall, Adam Isaacson wondered what we're actually getting for the $4.7 billion dollars we've spent over the past six years fighting drug wars in Colombia. Not a whole lot, it seems.

This is more than a little ironic (not to mention depressing). Stan Cox reports that hordes of American immigrants—at least 50,000 and growing—have been moving to Lake Chapala in Mexico over the years to retire, and end up trashing the place:

Despite needing little or no air conditioning or heating in Lake Chapala's delightful climate, immigrants from up north appear to be having a per-person ecological impact… which, by Redefining Progress' figures, is as heavy as that of about 4 average Mexicans.

A flood of immigrants with a high-consumption lifestyle flocking to its shores is the last thing that the already ecologically devastated lake needs. According to NASA, water volume has dropped perhaps 75% from its historic level, with two-thirds of that loss coming since 1986. Enough dry ground has been laid bare to accomodate the entire city of Washington, DC. And because of pollution, to quote the AARP article, "The lake is now a view, nothing more." Even the lake's aesthetic appeal is waning, choked as it is with water hyacinth.

Lake Chapala would be threatened whether or not the gringos had shown up, but piling even more big houses onto the slopes above the north shore, with their acres of pavement, and swimming pools (always filled despite growing water shortages), and septic systems that wouldn't pass code in the US, and bright green, well-watered, monocultural lawns, and heavy monthly spraying for insects, spiders, and scorpions, and washers and dryers running full blast, and no clothes lines in sight, despite the bright sun and low humidity (if there's one thing we gringos know how to do, it's "use appliances in our homes correctly"!), it's kind of hard to argue that immigration is having a positive impact around the lake.

And that's just in one small region. Each winter finds at least 700,000 North Americans residing in Mexico, and many of them stay year-round.Maybe Mexico might want to think about investing in some Minutemen of its own…

Over the past month, insurgent attacks in Iraq have decreased somewhat—not that a drop from 100 attacks a day to 83 a day means that everything's fine and peaceful, but it is somewhat notable—and military commanders are reportedly discussing a major troop drawdown by the end of 2006, despite President Bush's recent insistence, during the State of the Union, that he was planning on "staying the course." Earlier this week, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, predicted that the number of U.S. and foreign troops would fall below 100,000 by the end of the year. And: "By the end of 2007," said al-Rubaie, "the overwhelming majority of the multinational forces will have left the country."

Al-Rubaie's prediction, of course, depends on a number of things: whether the relative decline in violence is permanent or just a statistical blip; whether the new Iraqi government can hold itself together and develop its own security force that can keep the country at least nominally stable. The usual issues. And then there's the whole "civil war" question. As Dexter Filkins of the New York Times pointed out, the fall in insurgent violence has been counterbalanced by a sharp rise in sectarian violence of late—between Shiites and Sunnis, as well as Sunnis and Kurds. The new fundamentalist government is becoming increasingly radical, so things don't look good on this front at all. If the various groups in Iraq can't reach any sort of decent political compromise, the United States will have to decide whether it wants to try use its military to break up the fighting between sectarian groups—a nearly impossible task—or continue drawing down regardless and leave the country to its own (presumably bloody) devices.

And if and when the U.S. does start leaving Iraq, what will it leave behind? The president has already announced that further aid for reconstruction will no longer be flowing to Iraq, and Western private contractors are already leaving the country. "We are not done by any stretch of the imagination," said the vice-president of one company, "but we are drawing down." It's true that much of the reconstruction was riddled by corruption, graft, and incompetence, as has been made clear by multiple government reports of late, the alternative to a shoddy reconstruction job could be worse, from Iraq's point of view. The World Bank estimates that it will still cost $56 billion to rebuild the shattered infrastructure in the country, but none of that seems to be forthcoming from anyone. Few of the international donors who have already pledged about $13.5 billion, it seems, are willing to lay down any money so long as violence is still shaking the country and making it difficult for anything to get built.

For some time now, CNN has been an effective mouthpiece for the Bush administration, mostly through innuendo, flag-waving, and omission. Now, with Paula Zahn's help, the network's shift ever farther right has become more overt. Media Matters for America has documented several of Zahn's recent stunts, including this one:

In a conversation with Paul Begala, Zahn said:

But security is still going to be a huge issue in this country, and whether you like it or not, you've got a lot of people out there saying, if you're Republican, we're going to keep the country safe, you know, if you vote for a Democrat, that basically you want to be bombed.

Media Matters has also documented Zahn's cheerleading for Rush Limbaugh. According to Media Matters' records, in the last six weeks, Zahn has aired clips from the Rush Limbaugh Show five times, and on three of those occasions, she offered no countering argument.

Zahn has often used Republic talking points, referring to Social Security privatization as "Social Security reform," announcing that Sojourners "admitted" it was a liberal publication, and "confronted" Al Franken with "lying" when he joked that he was writing a book about abstinence education.

The irony is that when Zahn was on Fox News, she was, more often than not, articulate and insightful--the only one on Fox who went beyond the surface of the issues being discussed.

George W. Bush: Soft on torture, tough on t-shirts he doesn't like? The Carpetbagger Report has the details. Glenn Greenwald, meanwhile, has much more on Cindy Sheehan getting dragged out of the Capitol building during Bush's speech last night, despite having been invited by a representative, for wearing, apparently, the wrong sort of fashion apparel.

Economist Kash Mansori has a great post about the costs that would come with switching to a single-payer system in the United States. In some respects, a single-payer system would be more expensive than what we have now: people would end up consuming more health care, especially the 45 million who are currently uninsured. But on the plus side, these extra expenses would be outweighed by the cost savings that would come from eliminating a lot of the $400 billion we spend on administrative overhead and allowing the government to bargain down the price of services. Is there any evidence for this? Sure, look at Taiwan:

As another useful data point we can examine the case of Taiwan, a country that replaced a collection of different insurance schemes with a National Health Insurance program in 1995. The percent of Taiwanese with health insurance rose from about 60% in 1994 to 96% a few years later. It turns out that in Taiwan's case, the forces that would increase costs roughly balanced the forces that would decrease costs.
Moreover, providing preventive care to all people, especially those who are currently uninsured, would likely save money by preventing later, costlier hospital visits—it's much cheaper, for instance, to treat diabetes early on than wait for a patient to get rushed to the ER. According to the Institute of Medicine, covering all Americans continuously would save the country anywhere from $65 billion to $130 billion in better health outcomes. Note that this is more than the estimated $80 to $100 billion it would cost to cover the uninsured. On the surface at least, universal coverage makes economic sense.

The catch that's always mentioned, of course, is that some sort of single-payer system would force rationing of health care and stifle innovation. Innovation is a harder problem, but it's worth noting that we already do ration care—by income, by location, by age. But the case for switching to a system that would cost roughly the same, if not less, as our present dysfunctional mess, and would lead to universal coverage, has a lot going for it.

In his State of the Union last night, the president got all environmental on us and proposed a few million dollars in subsidies for clean-energy research. About $264 million, according to David Roberts of Grist—not nothing, but a pittance compared to the billions of dollars in subsidies that Congress is giving oil and gas companies to drill and explore the earth last year. (In a year that Exxon earned a record $36 billion in profit, no less.) Oh, and that also comes after last year, during which funding for carbon-free energy sources was cut 3.6 percent.

Sorry to get critical—yes, yes, the president was making a baby step towards some sort of decent goal for once in his life—but this really won't cut it. Dramatic climate change is on the way, and little half-gestures won't help change course. Meanwhile, the president's proposal to increase spending on federal research and development by an additional $6 billion was a good call, and genuinely needed—most of this basic research is responsible for some of the major inventions of our time, including a variety of breakthrough drugs and of course the internet, and the U.S. is falling behind other countries on this front—but the betting line is that the Republican-controlled Congress won't actually approve anywhere near that much. Oh well, I'm sure it made for a good applause line, and that's all that counts, right?

February 1st...

Welcome to February, everybody. February reminds me of Walt Whitman, who wrote, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself." That's because February is simultaneously National Snack Food Month and National Heart Month. Oh, and also National Children's Dental Health Month. All the best from Mother Jones.