2008 - %3, December

Thoughts on Milk

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 4:06 PM EST

mojo-photo-milkcastro.jpgBraving the round-the-block lines at the Castro theater for an opening-weekend showing of Milk seemed like the right thing to do (see my cell-phone photo of post-screening mayhem at right), and the hour-long wait was made kind of enjoyable by the almost celebratory atmosphere of the crowd, which turned practically giddy once we filed in. Milk is a work of art, a reality-based fiction, but after a year of stumbling across the film crew all over town, and finally sitting in a theater across the street from Harvey Milk's old photo shop, one couldn't help but feel a sense of being a part of history. Milk is a good film, with very good performances, but its story and message are so pertinent today, I couldn't even try to remove that from my consideration of it as a movie. So, there are a few spoilers after the jump.

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The Curious Retention of Robert Gates

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 2:57 PM EST

Barack Obama's national security team--at this early stage--presents more questions than answers. His selection of Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state has been a much-chewed-over topic of pundit puzzlement. And with the Monday morning unveiling of his senior defense and foreign policy aides, Obama made official another curious decision: his retention of Robert Gates as secretary of defense.

There's an obvious reason for Obama to keep Gates at the Pentagon. Having a George W. Bush appointee in charge will give Obama political cover as he proceeds with his plan to withdraw troops from Iraq. But there are several potential problems with this move. I've consulted two former Pentagon officials--who are critics of standard operating procedure at the Pentagon--who decry this move. (Neither wanted to be quoted, for they might now or later be in contention for a job in the Obama administration.) "It's probably the dumbest thing Obama's done," one said.

They identified three possible pitfalls. First, Gates is a lame duck. There has been no indication how long he will stay in the Pentagon's top post, but it seems Gates will remain there on a quasi-temporary basis. Consequently, Pentagon bureaucrats who don't want to see their prerogatives challenged--if Gates wanted to do such a thing--could try to wait him out. Second, Gates is no agent of change when it comes to the Pentagon budget. In the Bush years, the regular military budget has increased by 40 percent in real terms (not counting so-called "emergency" supplemental spending bills for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan)--partly because of hundreds of billions of dollars in cost overruns. During the campaign, Obama talked about the need to cut "billions of dollars in wasteful spending" from the military budget. But Gates has yet to demonstrate he is truly interested in reworking the Pentagon's out-of-control budget. Keeping Gates in place sends the signal that Obama, who faces a host of hard jobs, is not eager to take on the Pentagon at the start of his presidency. "There are so many problems at home," says one of the critics, "Obama may not want to do anything fundamental about the Pentagon."

Blowback

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 2:57 PM EST

BLOWBACK....Juan Cole speculates about who was behind the Mumbai terrorist attacks:

When the Soviets withdrew in 1988-1989 from Afghanistan and the Mujahideen took over, the Pakistani military lost control of its northern neighbor. It therefore funded and promoted the Taliban (expatriate Afghan young men who had been through Deobandi seminaries in northern Pakistan) from 1994, enabling them to take over Afghanistan. The Taliban ran terrorist training camps, at which the Sipah-e Sahaba and the Lashkar-e Tayiba trained for missions in Kashmir.

....The cell that hit Mumbai was probably a rogue splinter group. They completely disregarded the old Lashkar-e Tayiba concentration on hitting only Indian troops in Kashmir, targeting civilians instead. It is very unlikely that anyone in the Pakistani military put them up specifically to this Mumbai operation. This attack was much more likely to be blowback, when a covert operation produces unexpected consequences or agents that were previously reliable go rogue.

....If the Pakistani government does not give up this covert terrorist campaign in Kashmir and does not stop coddling the radical vigilantes who go off to fight there, South Asian terrorism will grow as a problem and very possibly provoke the world's first nuclear war (possible death toll: 20 million).

Read the whole thing for more background and history.

Recession Dating

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 2:13 PM EST

RECESSION DATING....Me, back in February:

When NBER eventually gets around to dating the 2008 recession, when will they decide it started? My money is on December 2007. And when will they date the end? I'd guess March 2009.

NBER, today:

The nation's economy peaked, and the recession began, in December 2007, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced today.

....The committee concluded that the start of the recession was December 2007 — due in large part, it said in a statement, to the decline in jobs that began that month. But it noted that many other data points confirm the diagnosis.

"The committee determined that the decline in economic activity in 2008 met the standard for a recession," the group said in its statement. "Evidence other than the ambiguous movements of the quarterly product-side measure of domestic production confirmed that conclusion. Many of these indicators, including monthly data on the largest component of GDP, consumption, have declined sharply in recent months."

Advantage: blogosphere!

Afghanistan

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 2:03 PM EST

AFGHANISTAN....Nir Rosen is not optimistic about Afghanistan's future:

There are too many symptoms of Afghanistan's decline to inventory, but the roads are an easy place to start, a clear sign of the shrinking zone of order that now barely reaches beyond the outskirts of Kabul.

....In Kabul I met with western diplomats, security experts, former Mujahideen commanders, former Taliban officials, NGO representatives, and senior officials at the UN; many of the westerners have been in the country since the US invasion, some for more than a decade. They are committed, in various ways, to supporting the government led by Hamid Karzai, the efforts at development and reconstruction, and the coalition campaign against the resurgent Taliban — and none would speak candidly without remaining anonymous, since their private assessments are, to a person, "incredibly bleak," as one said.

....As I saw on the road to Ghazni, the Taliban have succeeded in essentially cutting off Kabul from the rest of the country. The road southwest to Kandahar was lethal. "The Kabul to Ghazni road is gone," a British intelligence officer told me, "the Ghazni to Gardez road is exceedingly bad, the Wardak road is sh***, the Jalalabad road is sliding. The ambushes have become routine."

Via Andrew Sullivan.

Picking Up the Pieces: A Sober, War-Time National Security Cabinet Takes Shape

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 1:40 PM EST

As they were introduced and made brief remarks this morning, it was hard to envy the team of national security aides President-elect Barack Obama announced today at the Chicago Hilton. President Bush and Vice President Cheney broke the national security apparatus. Are retired Marine Corps General Jim Jones, Obama's designated national security adviser, Sen. Hillary Clinton, the next secretary of state, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who Obama has asked to stay on, up to the task of fixing it? In the midst of two wars, and the most ominous economic crisis in half a century?

Obama expressed confidence in the pragmatism and competence of the bipartisan national security team he had assembled, and the event conveyed sobriety and awareness of the enormous task ahead, more so than any excitement at the prospect of a new, more cooperative and internationalist national security vision to come from Washington. The team he picked reflected the subdued moment: pragmatists over ideologues, managers and technocrats who get things done. These people represent a far cry from the Bush era's hardline, uncompromising, us-versus-them, bellicose rhetoric and often miserable incompetence.

"In this uncertain world, the time has come for a new beginning – a new dawn of American leadership to overcome the challenges of the 21st century, and to seize the opportunities embedded in those challenges," Obama said. "To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances, and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example. The team that we have assembled here today is uniquely suited to do just that. They share my pragmatism about the use of power, and my sense of purpose about America's role as a leader in the world."

General Jones, who has served as a Marine Corps commandant, as NATO's supreme allied commander, and, most recently, as Bush's Mideast envoy (trying to assess efforts to build up the Palestinian security forces), is widely respected both abroad and within the turf-conscious national security community in Washington. (A native Kansan, Jones went to high school in France, where his father was stationed as a military officer and speaks fluent French.) Jones is "a good guy," says one former US intelligence official who dealt with Jones during the first Bush term on a European-related issue. "He's politically tuned into Hillary. He's pretty smart guy, speaks French....They like him in Europe. He's a well-respected, good man, a square guy and a good marine. He'll handle the job better than Stephen Hadley."

Other appointments Obama announced today include his long-time campaign foreign policy adviser Susan Rice as US ambassador to the United Nations, which will again be a cabinet level position; Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano as secretary of homeland security; and Eric Holder as attorney general. It's worth noting that Obama did not announce a director of national intelligence or director of the Central Intelligence Agency among his other national security appointments today. The reported top candidate for the job, John Brennan, withdrew his name from consideration last week, after coming under criticism in the left blogosphere for allegedly defending the CIA's harsh interrogation practices while serving as an aide to former CIA director George Tenet.


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The Greening of America

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 1:23 PM EST

THE GREENING OF AMERICA....Over at Gristmill, Gar Lipow explains how we can reduce carbon emissions in the United States by 95%. Answer: it will take both regulation and carbon pricing:

Making the unrealistic assumption of zero technical breakthroughs in efficiency or renewable technology, the total cost of a complete transition to 95 percent (or better) emissions-free energy in the U.S. would be about $1.7 trillion annually....From a social standpoint, total paybacks would be $600 billion a year more than this, meaning in the 20th year, the economy would grow $600 billion more per year net than without such investments.

....The particular subsidies I projected start at around $275 billion annually, average to $365 billion a year for the first 20 years, and peak at $475 billion annually in the 20th year. They drop back to $275 billion a year in the 21st year, as the renewable industries mature and can get by without further subsidy.

....Because this post is about public investment and regulation, I concentrated mainly on this topic. But putting a price on emissions is not optional. To the extent public investment is more palatable than such pricing, it does allow it to be delayed. We can, if we have to, completely eliminate emissions in the building and power generation sectors without such pricing, eliminate most emissions in transportation, and a significant percent even in industry. But there is no way, except via an emissions price, to capture most possible savings in industry. There are just too many efficiency means we don't know about in advance. Similarly, even in transport it is really hard to see how to reduce emissions in shipping and air travel without an auctioned permit system.

Without commenting on Lipow's exact figures, I think this is exactly right. The scale of the task ahead is so huge that there's no single approach that will do the job all by itself. Straightforward regulation and investment are often the most efficient way of getting things done if we already know what to do, while carbon pricing via cap-and-trade provides both an additional broad push in all these areas while also providing incentives to find new ways of doing things. Properly designed, it also provides a revenue stream to help pay for green improvements and to keep the cost of those improvements from hitting the poor at a disproportionate rate.

I haven't gone through this myself, but if you're curious about Lipow's methodology, he's posted all the details here in an Excel spreadsheet and invited comments. Head on over if you want to dive more deeply into the numbers.

How to Break a Terrorist

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 12:25 PM EST

HOW TO BREAK A TERRORIST...."Matthew Alexander," an interrogator who rejected torture in favor of "showing cultural understanding and using good old-fashioned brainpower to tease out information," and managed to bag the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in the process, writes about his experience:

I learned in Iraq that the No. 1 reason foreign fighters flocked there to fight were the abuses carried out at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. Our policy of torture was directly and swiftly recruiting fighters for al-Qaeda in Iraq....How anyone can say that torture keeps Americans safe is beyond me — unless you don't count American soldiers as Americans.

After my return from Iraq, I began to write about my experiences because I felt obliged, as a military officer, not only to point out the broken wheel but to try to fix it. When I submitted the manuscript of my book about my Iraq experiences to the Defense Department for a standard review to ensure that it did not contain classified information, I got a nasty shock. Pentagon officials delayed the review past the first printing date and then redacted an extraordinary amount of unclassified material — including passages copied verbatim from the Army's unclassified Field Manual on interrogations and material vibrantly displayed on the Army's own Web site. I sued, first to get the review completed and later to appeal the redactions. Apparently, some members of the military command are not only unconvinced by the arguments against torture; they don't even want the public to hear them.

Alexander's book, How to Break a Terrorist, hits bookstores tomorrow. Sounds like a good read.

In Which I Eat My Hat

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 2:20 AM EST

IN WHICH I EAT MY HAT....Barack Obama will be announcing his foreign policy team on Monday. David Sanger reports on their mission:

All three of his choices — Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the rival turned secretary of state; Gen. James L. Jones, the former NATO commander, as national security adviser, and Robert M. Gates, the current and future defense secretary — have embraced a sweeping shift of priorities and resources in the national security arena.

The shift would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

....Whether they can make the change — one that Mr. Obama started talking about in the summer of 2007, when his candidacy was a long shot at best — "will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency," one of his senior advisers said recently.

The adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the three have all embraced "a rebalancing of America's national security portfolio" after a huge investment in new combat capabilities during the Bush years.

That's good to hear. If they're successful, it would be a triumph of common sense in an era that's seen precious little of it in the national security arena.

On another note, you may recall that I promised to eat my hat if Hillary Clinton agreed to be Obama's Secretary of State, and let no one say I'm not a man of my word. Marian made me a chocolate cake in the shape of a baseball cap, I decorated it with M&Ms, and then this afternoon I chowed down on it. Promise made, promise kept.

Holiday Shopping

| Mon Dec. 1, 2008 12:33 AM EST

HOLIDAY SHOPPING....The National Retail Federation passes along some holiday cheer today:

More than 172 million shoppers visited stores and websites over Black Friday weekend, up from 147 million shoppers last year.

Shoppers spent an average of $372.57 this weekend, up 7.2 percent over last year's $347.55. Total spending reached an estimated $41.0 billion.

We seem to have an arithmetic breakdown here. My calculator says this weekend's numbers come to $64 billion, compared to $51 billion last year. That's a 25% increase.

That seems implausible to me. On the other hand, it also seems implausible that 172 million times $372.57 equals $41 billion. So what's going on?

POSTSCRIPT: For what it's worth, the NRF's methodology is to survey a bunch of people in an online poll and ask them how much they've spent this weekend. Every news outlet in the country reports the NRF numbers as gospel, but frankly, this approach strikes me as so dubious that I wonder if their numbers would mean anything even if they could get their arithmetic straight. It sure doesn't jibe with the report of Wachovia analyst John Morris, who told the New York Times that "there was definitely more elbow room" in stores this year; or with ShopperTrak, which told them that sales increased only 3 percent on Friday; or with the numbers provided by Marshal Cohen of the NPD Group, who told them that Friday foot traffic was down 11 percent and the "shopping bag count" (whatever that is) was down 24 percent compared with last year. Very fishy, no? I blame the War on Christmas.

UPDATE: In comments, big truck notes that in the fine print NRF says that their 172 million number "includes same consumer shopping multiple days." So maybe there were 110 million actual human beings spending $372 each, which would net out to $41 billion. However, applying the same logic to last year's numbers still produces a 20% increase in total dollars spent this year ($41 billion vs. $34 billion), which seems wildly implausible. Why on earth does anyone take these figures seriously?