2009 - %3, December

Need To Read: December 2, 2009

Wed Dec. 2, 2009 3:58 AM PST

Today's must reads:

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A Technocratic Speech

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 10:34 PM PST

I didn't hear Obama's Afghanistan speech in real time, but I did read the transcript and then catch a replay on CSPAN.  Overall, I was pretty underwhelmed.

Partly that was just the tone of the speech itself, which was much clunkier than his usual efforts.  Take this, for example:

I must weigh all of the challenges that our nation faces. I do not have the luxury of committing to just one. Indeed, I am mindful of the words of President Eisenhower, who — in discussing our national security — said, "Each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs.”

If you've never heard this Eisenhower quote before, there's a reason for that.  Why would you have?  It's about the dryest, least memorable passage you could think of from any president anywhere.  It's positively soporific.  Why would you dig up something like this for use in an address designed to rally support for a troop surge?1

Two other problems leaped out as well.  First, there was really no discussion of new tactics at all.  I didn't expect much on this score, but at least there should have been something to help convince us that months and months of planning had produced something genuinely new and different.  Instead, all we got was this: "I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan."  That's pretty lame.  There were a few additional words about a civilian surge and a better partnership with Pakistan, but it was brief and pro forma and it's hard to imagine anyone being persuaded by any of this.  Obama really owed it to us to provide at least a sense of why the planning process took so long and how our new strategy will be more effective than the one that hasn't worked for the past eight years.

Second, most of the speech wasn't even devoted to the war at all.  By my count, only about a third of the address was really about his plan for the war, with the rest meandering around about the danger of al-Qaeda, a potted history of post-9/11 military efforts, and paeans to America's place in the world.  A little bit of that stuff is fine, but this was supposed to be a speech about Afghanistan.

On the substantive side, the good news was Obama's clear declaration that this would be limited effort and he plans to begin withdrawing the surge troops within 18 months.  Conservatives are outraged by this, of course, but look: we've been in Afghanistan for eight years.  If 100,000+ NATO troops can't start to turn the tide by 2011, then it's time to leave.  The alternative is to commit to staying forever, and that's insane.  Obama has now given the military everything it needs to succeed, and if they still can't do it, then they just can't do it.

Now, whether Obama has the spine to stick to his timeline when 2011 rolls around is a whole 'nother question.  But at least it's out there.  The details are deliberately vague, but it's out there.  The military knows what it has to do; Karzai knows what he has to do; and the country knows what we've signed up to do.  And the Taliban knows perfectly well that we're going to leave eventually, so this is hardly news to them.

Overall, I liked Adam Serwer's take:

It was perhaps his least inspiring speech ever — Obama has been at his most inspiring when he reconciles lofty American aspirations with the reality of American accomplishments and American failures. This speech was Bush-like in its embrace of platitudes and vagueries, it was often the least convincing where once it might have been the most inspiring. It was a speech that reflected the president deciding on what is maybe the least crappy of a number of crappy options — without convincingly explaining how it would work.

There are two possible reasons for the speech being so unconvincing: either Obama doesn't know how to deliver a good speech or else Obama isn't really convinced himself.  But we know the former isn't true, don't we?  You can fill in the rest yourself.

1On the other hand, it was apparently Dan Drezner's favorite part of the speech.  Go figure.

Moving the Troops

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 7:10 PM PST

This is a small thing, but I'm glad that Obama made this point in his Afghanistan speech tonight:

Let me be clear: there has never been an option before me that called for troop deployments before 2010, so there has been no delay or denial of resources necessary for the conduct of the war. Instead, the review has allowed me ask the hard questions, and to explore all of the different options along with my national security team, our military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan, and with our key partners. Given the stakes involved, I owed the American people — and our troops — no less.

Yes, Obama took a long time to decide on a strategy.  Maybe a little too long.  But since additional troops couldn't be sent over sooner than 2010 anyway, it was never going to make any difference at all to events on the ground.  I'm pretty sure that most of the people who have spent the past couple of months baying about Obama's "dithering" knew this perfectly well — and if they didn't then they have no business even having an opinion in the first place — but they kept baying away regardless.  Pretty reprehensible stuff.

Extreme Sea Level Rise Goes Mainstream

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 5:17 PM PST

Take 100 of the world's leading climate scientists. Have them work 20 state-of-the-art climate models. Include in those models the complex behavior of the Antarctic ozone hole and the most recent data on Antarctic ice loss. What do you get?

A prediction that sea ice around Antarctica could shrink 33 percent by 2100, causing a global sea level rise of 4.6 feet.

That's a loss of one million square miles of ice, nearly equal to the size of India.

The predictions by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research are the first comprehensive review of Antarctic climate change over the long haul known as deep time.

Their analysis reveals that the ozone hole actually cooled Antarctica in the past 30 years by generating extreme winds that allowed sea ice to grow 10 percent.

(Which makes recent good news on the ozone hole recovery a distinctly mixed bag. Floods, or skin cancers/dying phytoplankton? Choose your plague.)

When the ozone hole heals by the end of the century or thereabouts, the authors warn, Antarctica will suffer the full brunt of global warming, with temperatures rising as much as 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit.

In 2007 the IPCC predicted sea level rise of between 8 and 23 inches by century's end. Two years later, based on what's melting now, predictions once considered too extreme to be realistic are now looking likely. 

(How much worse will things look two years from now?)

It's interesting that this story has been all over the front pages of British newspaper websites and nowhere to be found on American. Instead, US news outlets are choosing to report as their big science story of the day a dubious study on the supposed contagiousness of loneliness. (New Scientist reminds us of a few other things supposedly contagious through social networks: acne, headaches, your height.)

If you're wondering what a 4.6-foot sea level rise looks like, try this interactive Google flood map.
 

Jim Webb: Climate Curmudgeon

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 4:10 PM PST

Jim Webb is not at all happy that Barack Obama plans to travel to Copenhagen next week and pledge that the US will act to halt climate change. In a letter to Obama, Webb argues that the president does not have "unilateral power" to promise anything to the rest of the world. Instead, Webb contends, Obama should sit around and wait for the Senate to do something about the problem.

"I would like to express my concern regarding reports that the Administration may believe it has the unilateral power to commit the government of the United States to certain standards that may be agreed upon at the upcoming United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties 15 in Copenhagen, Denmark," wrote Webb. "The phrase 'politically binding' has been used."

"As you well know from your time in the Senate, only specific legislation agreed upon in the Congress, or a treaty ratified by the Senate, could actually create such a commitment on behalf of our country," Webb continued. "I would very much appreciate having this matter clarified in advance of the Copenhagen meetings."

While Webb is right that the Senate needs to ratify any international treaties, the administration also has the authority to negotiate with other nations in drafting accords.

Webb has never been particularly vocal about environmental issues. A moderate, coal-state Democrat, he's supported energy legislation but balked at capping emissions—I included basically everything he'd ever said on the subject in this short profile in July.

But in recent weeks, Webb has emerged as a major pain in the ass for Democratic leaders on climate issues. He recently announced that he is partnering with Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on an alternative climate bill that, instead of curbing emissions, would pour massive sums into nuclear power. Cap-and-trade legislation, he said, is too "enormously complex," and, in its present form, he "would not vote for it."

So, even though he has signaled he has no plans to support a bill to cap emissions any time soon, he wants Obama to wait around for him.

'Made in China' Still Means 'Made With Exploited Labor'

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 3:11 PM PST

Think of it as Extreme Makeover: China Edition. This week CNN aired a China-produced commercial intended to repair the country's image after a slew of PR disasters. In the past half-decade, Chinese cough syrup, children's toys, and milk (among other products) have caused sickness and even death in consumers around the world. The new ad brushes these concerns aside, showing quick shots of clothes made in China but designed in France and an iPod made in China but using US software. An American voice concludes, "When it says 'Made in China,' it really means 'Made in China, made with the world.'" See the ad here:

Let's take a minute to keep the Chinese propaganda machine in check. Chinese labor is known for more than the toxic side effects of its products. The country's production industry is also notorious for its toxic work environment—fueled by underage employees—that underpays workers and tries to cover up factory injuries. So despite what this ad claims, when the tag says 'Made in China,' it still means 'made with exploited labor.'

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Kerry: US Must Pay "Fair Share" Of Climate Aid

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 1:35 PM PST

How much money will the rich world muster to help poorer countries adapt to the devastating effects of climate change and curb their emissions? That's one of the essential elements that negotiators must tackle at the Copenhagen climate summit next week. And the biggest question mark in the equation is the US, which has not yet specified exactly how much cash it's prepared to kick in. Now John Kerry, the key senator in the climate debate, is urging the Obama administration to be more generous.

The proposed 2010 budget from the Obama administration would devote $1.2 billion per year to international climate funds. The Waxman-Markey bill that passed the House would direct about 7 percent of the revenues of a cap-and-trade plan to international adaptation and technology funding in the initial years, which could total around $5 billion per year by 2020, according to an analysis by Resources for the Future. The proposed Senate bill offers similar levels of funding.

Obviously, there's a big difference between the numbers coming out of the White House and Capitol Hill. On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations committee chair John Kerry (D-Mass.) wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking the administration to address the "large gap" between the Congressional figures and the budget. Kerry wants the US should kick much more than the amount forecast in the 2010 budget, in order to demonstrate its commitment to addressing the problem of climate change. He suggested $3 billion for 2011, routed through agencies like the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

"[A]s we approach the Copenhagen climate change negotiations, the global community has agreed that $10 billion is required annually in fast-start financing to support immediate international climate change priorities," wrote Kerry. "The United States must be prepared to contribute its fair share of this obligation."

As we noted yesterday, the European Union is under fire for plans to redirect existing aid money to climate rather than finding new funds. The US, too, will be under pressure to commit significant amounts of new money to help the world's most vulnerable nations. But in the middle of a lingering recession, this will be a tough political sell.

Quote of the Day: The GOP's Love Affair with Medicare

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 11:46 AM PST

From John McCain, explaining his undying opposition to proposed reductions in the growth of Medicare spending:

All of these are cuts in the obligations that we have assumed and are the rightful benefits that people have earned... I will eagerly look forward to hearing from the authors of this legislation as to how they can possibly achieve half a trillion dollars in cuts without impacting existing Medicare programs negatively and eventually lead to rationing of health care in this country.

On the big list of political sins, I generally think hypocrisy is overrated.  It's great gotcha material for Sunday morning talk shows, but in the end it's usually pretty trivial stuff.

But the Republican switcheroo on Medicare is really in a league of its own.  Here's a party that opposed Medicare viciously in the first place, routinely spoke out against it in the years that followed, was dedicated to gutting it in the 1990s, voted for major cuts in 1997, and has been using it as a cudgel ever since to get its base riled up over the future bankruptcy of America.  McCain himself proposed over a trillion dollars in Medicare cuts just 12 months ago.  But now?  Well, now it's 2003 all over again and there are elections to think of.  So now they're righteously opposed to cutting so much of a nickel out of Medicare spending, even if the cuts are aimed at waste, fraud, inefficient programs, and bad incentives.  It's just jaw droppingly mendacious.  More at the link.

GOP Medicare Hypocrisy

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 11:37 AM PST

The Democratic National Committee is hammering John McCain today for supporting stripping all Medicare cuts from the health care bill. The charge is hypocrisy, and it's sticky: the health care reform McCain proposed during his run for the presidency was going to be paid for with massive Medicare cuts. A lot of the cuts in the Democrats' bill would be to Medicare Advantage "overpayments" to insurers, which is presumably why Harry Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley, told TPM's Brian Beutler that "[McCain,] the self-described foe of all earmarks is with one single amendment providing a big fat wet kiss for his friends in the insurance industry."

Over at The New Republic, Jon Cohn emphasizes that it's not just McCain who looks hypocritical here:

McCain has plenty of company in his hypocrisy. As Volsky goes on to note, many of the Republicans likely to vote in favor of McCain's amendment voted for the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, whichalso called for substantial Medicare cuts. Sam Brownback, Charles Grassley, Jon Kyl... the list goes on..... The reductions in Medicare Republicans are now decrying are more equitable, better targeted, and not even half as large as the ones many of those same Republicans endorsed in the '90s.

Of course, most seniors won't know that Republican Senators have voted to cut nearly $1.6 trillion from Medicare during their tenure. The problem, as Cohn points out, is that "seniors on Medicare don't really care about who's being intellectually consistent and who's being hypocritical. They want to know what's going to happen to their Medicare, period." That's one reason the Republicans are demagoguing on this issue. But the other reason is that they see the writing on the wall. Older Americans are already much more conservative than younger Americans, and they are much more likely to vote. It's fertile recruiting ground. The GOP has had little success reaching out to young people and non-white people. If they can improve their margins among seniors, that might not matter—at least for a while. It's a lifeline. And in this case, it's one that, conveniently enough, makes the insurance companies happy.

Credit Card Hell

| Tue Dec. 1, 2009 11:17 AM PST

Why are credit card companies so unwilling to transfer obviously distressed customers into programs that cancel their accounts and provide them a fixed period of time to pay off their balance?  Mike Konczal crunches the numbers and comes up with the answer: banks don't really care if you pay off your entire balance.  They can make more money by squeezing late fees and high interest rates out of you for even a short period than they can by having you pay off your whole balance at a moderate interest rate.  Details here.