2009 - %3, March

Quagmire

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 1:12 PM EST
Matt Yglesias reads Time magazine and writes:

Joe Klein’s article on the situation in Pakistan and Afghanistan is informative, but doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence. It seems that military planners want the Obama administration to dispatch further additional troops to Afghanistan over and above the plus-up that’s already been announced. But nobody really knows what the mission of these troops would be.

.... Just about everyone seems to agree that the more serious problems are actually in Pakistan...and they’re ultimately political in nature — related to the willingness and capability of the Pakistani government to take on Taliban groups in border areas and, importantly, related to public opinion in Pakistan regarding priorities.

He's right.  Klein's article is here, and it's dismal reading.  I never really thought the Vietnam analogy was apt in the case of the Iraq war, but in the case of Afghanistan it seems to fit all too well: troop increases every year, diminishing success rates, no real strategy in place, and major problems with neighboring countries.  Unlike Iraq, destroying al-Qaeda's ability to wage war is obviously in our national interest.  But until someone produces a credible plan for accomplishing this, it's difficult to see what we're doing there.

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French Toast

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 12:49 PM EST
Roger Cohen is scared that Barack Obama wants to turn American into France:

The $3.6 trillion Obama budget made me a little queasy. There is a touch of France in its "étatisme"....For everyone from the oil and gas industry to drug companies, the message was clear: Off with their heads!....I’d thought of Obama as less Robespierre than Talleyrand....The former French President François Mitterrand....manifold sensual, aesthetic and gastronomic pleasures offered by French savoir-vivre....High French unemployment ....French frontiers have not shifted much in centuries....careful to steer clear of his French temptation....The United States is in full post-Bush nemesis. In its core values, un-Gallicized, lies the long road to redemption.

Is there something about having a New York Times column that makes you lose your mind?  Obama wants to push taxes on the super wealthy back up to 2001 levels.  He wants to move in the direction of carbon pricing and universal healthcare, just like he promised repeatedly during the campaign.  He wants to increase defense spending, but increase it slightly less than the Pentagon would like.  Stimulus outlays aside, the budget as a whole is up only moderately compared to two years ago.

If you object to this, fine.  But Cohen doesn't. "After the excesses of Reagan-inspired deregulation and the disaster that unfettered markets have delivered, the pendulum had to swing."  But how much less could Obama swing it and still be making any noticeable difference at all?  What, exactly, has Cohen so worried?  He never says.  He just loses himself in a paroxysm of stammering cliches.  Has he been taking lessons from Maureen Dowd?

Things that Are More Popular than Republicans, Cont'd.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 12:18 PM EST
First it was legalizing pot. Now it's communist China that is more popular than congressional Republicans.

The Death of Expertise, Cont'd.

| Thu Mar. 5, 2009 11:35 AM EST

I've gotten angry before at what I see as Washington's bastardization of expertise. More evidence today, in what Andrew calls the "Kristol Syndrome":

[Professor Philip Tetlock of the University of California, Berkeley] studied pundits and discovered they were, to a rough approximation, always wrong when making predictions. He took 284 pundits and asked them questions about the future. Their performance was worse than chance. With three possible answers, they were right less than 33 per cent of the time. A monkey chucking darts would have done better. This is consoling. More consoling still is Tetlock's further finding that the more certain a pundit was, the more likely he was to be wrong. Their problem being that they couldn't self-correct, presumably because they'd invested so much of their personality and self-esteem in a specific view.

Pundits often have experience or inside knowledge that can improve our understanding of national politics. David Gergen, a CNN mainstay, has served in four presidential administrations. His commentary should leaven the public debate. But maybe he should limit himself to telling us (1) how current political events conform to or differ from past ones and (2) what his sources in power are saying. Because it doesn't appear Gergen and his pals are any better at predicting the future than you or me.

Finances F**k Future Fuels

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 11:23 PM EST
The recession has walloped investment in clean energy. That means we're no longer on track to avert the worst impacts of climate change, according to a new analysis.  (Were we ever on track?)

Anyway… New Energy Finance says that although a depressed global economy will reduce CO2 emissions, funding for energy solutions is decreasing faster and that's likely to have a worse impact on emissions in the long run.

Here are the stats: Investment in clean energy—make that, renewables, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage—grew from $34 billion to $150 billion between 2004 and 2008. But investment needs to reach $500 billion a year by 2020. That is if we want CO2 emissions to peak before 2020.

There is currently a generalish consensus that continued growth of emissions beyond 2015 or 2020 at the latest will lead to severe and irreversible climate change (though this will only meet the IPCC's relatively generous standard not the 350ppm number that Bill McKibben wrote about recently). The new analysis predicts that a peak before 2020 now looks highly unlikely .

So what do we do? Well, for those who have enough money that they actually do things like make investment decisions, why not move your money to where it's going to count in more ways than mere money? Invest in clean energy. For those of us who do not have anything resembling spare change, invest in a cleaner energy lifestyle. You know: eat more vegetarian; buy more locally; drive less; kill your clothes dryer; air your clothes more & wash them less (another grandmother solution); buy used; think about the long run more. We've talked about these solutions before.

As for why we continue to not do these things, at least on a societal level, Chris Goodall at CarbonCommentary makes some interesting, well, commentary.

How to Build the Smart Grid Smartly

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 7:58 PM EST
The Smart Grid transmits information between utility companies and household appliances, allowing you to automatically dial back energy use during peak hours. "In theory, the Smart Grid offers a user-friendly way to curb our electric appetites," Jenn Kahn wrote our in energy issue last May. "The most compelling thing about the Smart Grid is that it could change the way we use energy without requiring us to do anything."

Having read our magazine, I suppose, President Barack Obama recently set aside $4.5 billion in the stimulus bill to build a national Smart Grid. (At the time Kahn wrote her piece, Smart Grid boosters were pining for a meager $400 million in R&D funding). But it turns that the Smart Grid requires us to do at least one thing before it will pay off: figure out how to build it. It's going to be harder than we thought:

Smart grid operation standards have not been designated yet despite a provision in the 2007 energy bill calling for the Commerce Department's National Institute of Standards and Technology to come up with standards with the help of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and other organizations so that the technology can easily communicate on the same platform -- a concept known as interoperability. That lapse combined with the general lack of public knowledge about the smart grid and how to manage energy in real-time could be a recipe for failure, [Alaska Senator Lisa] Murkowski said.
"We are playing more than a game of catchup here," Murkowski said. "This is too important to get it wrong."

So the Smart Grid isn't exactly shovel-ready. The electric industry needs nine months to a year to agree on standards for the grid, the Times reports. But Kahn's piece illustrates why rushing the grid would be a mistake:

In one scenario, the utility—and eventually, our appliances themselves—would do the thinking, raising and lowering the power pulled into our houses so subtly that we'd hardly notice it. In the current "dumb" grid, information runs in one direction: from the user to the utility. As a result, there's usually no way for consumers to know about real-time rate changes until weeks later, when the added cost shows up on their electricity bill. In a smart system, usage and rate information would flow both ways and also arrive in real time.
But is the Don't Tread on Me nation ready to hand control of the thermostat over to for-profit utilities that don't always have our financial best interest at heart? (See the 2001 Enron-triggered California energy crisis.) It's not impossible. Many of us have come around to paying our bills automatically. With the appropriate protections in place, there's no reason to think that consumers would balk at a chance to save money and energy—so long as that six-pack stays cool.
Congress will need to write those protections into law if it wants the Smart Grid to be credible with consumers. It will also need to ensure the grid doesn't become a mishmash of competing technologies:
In the absence of federal standards for the Smart Grid and smart appliances, any utility that dared to update its grid would have to gamble that its new features would remain compatible with next-generation technology. As Steve Hickok, deputy administrator of the Bonneville Power Administration, puts it, "No one wants to get stuck with a Betamax."
In both cases, only the government has the authority to pull this off. That's why, despite the time and work, the $4.5 billion is ultimately money well-spent.

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Pop Culture Watch

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 6:34 PM EST
I've been meaning to write posts about both 24 and Watchmen for a while, but haven't quite gotten around to it because I don't have anything really meaty to say.  So I'm just going to toss out a couple of offhand observations instead, mostly as an excuse to host an open thread on either or both of these fine Hollywood products.

First, 24.  It's turned into exactly the train wreck that I was afraid of when the season started.  Back when Jack Bauer merely tortured people as part of the script, that was one thing.  Your mileage might vary on whether you felt like watching it, but in the end it was just modern-day Dirty Harryism.  Nothing to get all that worked up about.  But this season Jack isn't just spontaneously beating up on bad guys who know where the ticking time bombs are buried.  No.  This season Jack is beating up on the bad guys as part of a premeditated strategy and then talking about it endlessly.  And so is everyone else.  The writers are no longer content to merely suggest that (in their fictional universe) a bit of extralegal torture might sometimes be justified because it gets results.  They're bound and determined to explicate it on screen every single time it happens and demand that we, the audience, actively approve of it. This is not only depraved, it's lousy storytelling too.  All the usual 24 preposterousness aside, it's made the show cringe-inducing this season.

Next, Watchmen.  Like many fans of the comic, I suppose, I've been waiting for it with a mixture of both anticipation and trepidation.  Anticipation, of course, because it's a seminal comic and I'm eager to see how it gets translated onto the screen.  Trepidation because I don't think it will translate well.  This isn't because I think it's "unfilmable," or because I think Zack Snyder will necessarily ruin it.  (I'm agnostic about that.  I thought 300 was fairly entertaining, so I don't hold that against him.)  No.  Oddly enough, it's because I think the story is simply too absurd to survive the transition to film.  I realize that proposition is a little hard to defend, but there's a sense in which a story that tries to treat costumed superheroes as real people is much harder to accept than one in which the essential burlesque of the superhero genre is simply taken for granted.  Once you start to interrogate the whole concept, it's much harder to successfully suspend disbelief.

Now, obviously that didn't hurt the comic.  (Not much, anyway.)  But I think it's harder to pull this off on the screen, which works by default in a realist mode, than it is in a comic book, which doesn't.  Or so it seems to me, anyway — though I cheerfully admit that the whole argument sounds kind of half-baked.  Feel free to mock me in comments.

This won't stop me from seeing Watchmen, of course.  Maybe I'll even see it on Friday if I can find anyone to go with me.  The question is: how many people who haven't read the comic a dozen times will do the same?

Peter Bergen: "This Is Not Your Father's Taliban"

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 6:11 PM EST
Testifying today before a House subcommittee, terrorism expert and Mother Jones contributor Peter Bergen (read him here, here, and here) offered his assessment of where things stand in Afghanistan. His comments make for interesting reading. He's particularly insightful about how the Taliban has evolved since 9/11. From his written statement:
But this is not your father’s Taliban. Where once the Taliban had banned television, now they boast an active video propaganda operation named Ummat, which posts regular updates to the Web. They court the press and Taliban spokesmen are now available at any time of the day or night to discuss the latest developments. The Taliban had banned poppy growing in 2000; now they kill government forces eradicating poppy fields, and they profit handsomely from the opium trade. The Taliban also offer something that you might find strange, which is rough and ready justice. The Afghan judicial system remains a joke, and so farmers and their families--the vast majority of the population-- looking to settle disputes about land, water and grazing rights can find a swift resolution of these problems in a Taliban court. As their influence extends, the Taliban has even set up their own parallel government, and appointed judges and officials in some areas.
The Taliban’s rhetoric is now filled with references to Iraq and Palestine in a manner that mirrors bin Laden's public statements. They have also adopted the playbook of the Iraqi insurgency wholesale, embracing suicide bombers and IED attacks on US and NATO convoys. The Taliban only began deploying suicide attackers in large numbers after the success of such operations in Iraq had become obvious to all. For the first years after the fall of the Taliban suicide attacks were virtually unknown in Afghanistan, jumping to 17 in 2005 and 123 a year later. Just as suicide bombings in Iraq had had an enormous strategic impact—from pushing the United Nations out of the country to helping spark a civil war—such attacks also have made much of southern Afghanistan a no-go area for both foreigners and for any reconstruction efforts.

Geithner Vows Tax Haven Crackdown

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 5:55 PM EST

We've known for a while now that 83 of the 100 biggest companies in the U.S. have subsidiaries in tax havens, a practice that lets those corporations skirt an estimated $100 billion in yearly tax liabilities.

On the list of 83 tax-dodgers, you'll find the quasi-nationalized Citigroup (which takes the top prize, with 427 subsidiaries in tax shelters), AIG, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America...

You get the idea: We've thrown hundreds of billions of dollars at these institutions that actively search for ways to avoid paying their full tax bill. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner addressed the problem Wednesday during his testimony before the Senate Finance Committee:

Feeding the Beast

| Wed Mar. 4, 2009 4:10 PM EST
Ross Douthat takes a guess at what Barack Obama is up to:

What you see in his budgeting proposals, I think, is the liberal equivalent of the conservative attempt to "starve the beast." In both the Reagan and Bush eras, Republicans passed tax cuts and ran up large deficits while hoping that by starving the federal government of revenue they would curb its long-run growth. Obama's spending proposals would effectively reverse that dynamic — they would create new spending commitments and run up large deficits, in the hopes that the dollars poured into health care and education will create a new baseline for government's obligations, which in turn will create the political space for tax increases on the middle class. Like the starve-the-beast approach, the Obama strategy puts off the hard part till tomorrow: Give them tax cuts today, conservatives said, and they'll swallow spending cuts tomorrow; give them universal health care, universal pre-K, subsidies for green industry and all the rest of it today, liberals seem to be thinking, and they'll be willing to pay for it tomorrow.

I think this is pretty much right, and it's exactly what conservatives are afraid of.  As Bill Kristol knows all too well, social spending programs, once they get started, tend to be pretty popular.  The odds of deep sixing, for example, national healthcare after it's up and running is essentially zero.  And once it's up and running, taxes will follow because most Americans would rather see their taxes go up than their healthcare services go down.

Of course, this mostly applies to broad-based programs.  Smaller ones are still hard to get rid of, but not impossible.  It's the bigger ones that become third rails.  Both Obama and the GOP are smart enough to know this, which is why Obama wants to swing for the fences and congressional Republicans want to become the Party of Nyet.  If they don't stop him now, they never will.