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Need To Read: September 21, 2009

Mon Sep. 21, 2009 5:58 AM EDT

Today's must-reads didn't make any deals with the pharmaceutical industry:

  • Baucus Bill Sticks To Pharma Deal That Supposedly Wasn't Struck (Ryan Grim/HuffPo)
  • Why is it at all controversial to demand that debit card customers be able to decline overdraft "protection?" (WaPo)
  • You have no idea what health care really costs  (Ezra Klein/WaPo)
  • McChrystal's Report (Kevin Drum/MoJo)
  • The New Black Panthers and Me (MoJo)
  • How the Baucus Plan Bilks People Over 50 (MoJo)
  • How the US removed half a ton of uranium from Kazakhstan (Is Nice!/WaPo)
  • Olympia Snowe: "My Party Has Changed" (Steve Benen/The Washington Monthly)
  • Blue Dogs Aim To Scuttle/Pre-Empt Obama's Financial Regulatory Reforms (Politico)
  • Did the White House Give Joe Wilson Everything He Wanted? In a Word: Yes (Brian Beutler/TPM)
  • "On every major measurement, the Census shows the country lost ground during the Bush years." (The Atlantic)
  • Obama Admin. Pressured NY Gov. David Paterson Not To Run for Reelection; Paterson Running Anyway (NYT)
  • Atul Gawande for Senate: Best. Idea. Ever. (Yglesias)
  • Shocking news: CIA Directors conclude CIA shouldn't be investigated for murder (Glenn Greenwald)
  • A Brief History of Macroeconomics (Paul Krugman/NYT)

I post items like these throughout the day on twitter. You should follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, also tweets. So do my colleagues Daniel Schulman and Rachel Morris and our editors-in-chief, Clara Jeffery and Monika Bauerlein. Follow them, too! (The magazine's main account is @motherjones.)

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McChrystal's Report

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 2:02 AM EDT

The Washington Post has obtained a copy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's report on the war in Afghanistan:

The assessment offers an unsparing critique of the failings of the Afghan government, contending that official corruption is as much of a threat as the insurgency to the mission of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the U.S.-led NATO coalition is widely known.

"The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF's own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government," McChrystal says.

The result has been a "crisis of confidence among Afghans," he writes. "Further, a perception that our resolve is uncertain makes Afghans reluctant to align with us against the insurgents."

McChrystal is equally critical of the command he has led since June 15. The key weakness of ISAF, he says, is that it is not aggressively defending the Afghan population. "Pre-occupied with protection of our own forces, we have operated in a manner that distances us — physically and psychologically — from the people we seek to protect. . . . The insurgents cannot defeat us militarily; but we can defeat ourselves."

A separate report outlines McChrystal's request for more troops, without which the war "will likely result in failure," he says.  But I gotta ask: considering the unrelentingly grim assessment in the rest of his report, is it really likely that a few more troops and a change in emphasis toward COIN and away from counterterrorism will bear results within 12 months?  Because that's what McChrystal says the timeframe is.

That hardly seems likely to me.  But then, the surge in Iraq seemed an unlikely strategy to me too, and yet it worked1.  So my track record in surge-ology isn't great.  Still, it's worth bearing a couple of things in mind.  First, the Iraqi surge succeeded only because it was accompanied by several other developments (primarily the Sunni awakening, two previous years of sectarian cleansing, and al-Sadr's ceasefire), none of which can or will be duplicated in Afghanistan.  Second, the Iraqi surge was fundamentally targeted at Baghdad.  Spreading 28,000 troops throughout a country where we already had 140,000 in place would almost certainly have had no effect.  But most of the troops were deployed in Baghdad, where it meant a near doubling of capacity, and that did have an effect. Baghdad was so central to the rest of Iraq that a reduction of violence there had a country-wide effect.

But no such concentration is possible in Afghanistan.  Kabul isn't as important to Afghanistan as Baghdad is to Iraq, and in any case Kabul is already relatively safe.  It's the rest of the country that needs more troops, and it's hard to think of any single place they could be concentrated enough to have a real impact.

I think that's the key thing to look for when McChrystal gets more specific: what, exactly, does he propose to do with the additional troops?  If the idea is to spread them out in some way (for troop training, insurgent fighting, population protection, etc.), his request should probably be viewed skeptically.  But if he can propose some key operation or area where additional troops would represent a doubling or tripling of capacity and success might have an outsize effect on the entire conflict, then it might be worth trying. We'll see.

1I know, I know: "worked" is a question begging term.  But the surge did reduce violence, increase security, and make political reconciliation at least a possibility.  Long term stability is still up in the air, but even the short-term success of the surge was more than I thought likely at the time.

Net Neutrality is Back

| Sun Sep. 20, 2009 7:10 PM EDT

One of the blogosphere's pet topics, net neutrality, is back in the limelight.  When we last heard from our heroes at the FCC, they had adopted a set of four "principles" that basically said service providers should allow their customers access to any content and any application on the internet, should allow connection of any device, and should have to compete with other service providers.

That was all well and good, but a principle is a pretty thin reed to rely on and most liberals (as well as most content providers) thought that actual regulations would be a little more comforting.  We further thought that although guaranteeing access to any content was fine, we'd also like some assurance that quality of access to content was guaranteed too.  After all, access to YouTube isn't very useful if, say, Verizon decides to slow all YouTube connections to a crawl in order to lure people to its own video site instead.

For their part, service providers thought they should be allowed to favor their own content if they wanted to, and they also wanted to make sure that they still had the ability to manage traffic on their networks.  But if the Washington Post is to be believed, they're not going to get much satisfaction from the new net neutrality plan that will be unveiled tomorrow:

The proposal, to be announced Monday by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, will include an additional guideline for carriers that they make public the way they manage traffic on their network, according to sources at the agency. The additional guideline would be a "sixth principle" to four existing guidelines adopted in 2005 on Internet network operations. A fifth principle is expected to be announced by Genachowski on Monday during a speech at the Brookings Institute that would prohibit the discrimination of applications and services on telecommunications, cable and wireless Internet networks.

That fifth principle is a key victory for content providers (and all us content users).  It means that service providers can't provide faster or slower access to particular sites or applications.  And although they'll be allowed to perform technical traffic management in a content-neutral way, they'll have to disclose exactly how they're doing that so that everyone knows beforehand what the rules of the road are.

What's more, principles are out and rules are in:

The FCC is expected to vote on the proposed rulemaking of so-called net neutrality regulations at its October meeting. That vote will set off a series of regulatory procedures, and a final rule is expected to be introduced in the spring.

Obviously this is cause for only cautious optimism until we see the actual proposed rules.  The devil is always in the details, after all.  But it's a good start.  If you're interested in following along, the announcement and subsequent panel discussion will be streamed live on Monday starting at 10 am Eastern.

Conservatives on Healthcare Reform

| Sun Sep. 20, 2009 12:59 PM EDT

If you want to get a taste of the almost total conservative dysfunction over healthcare reform, the LA Times is your one-stop shop this morning.  They asked four well-known conservatives to go beyond just complaining about Obamacare and instead "propose ways to make the American healthcare system better."  Game on!  Let's see what they have to offer:

Bill Frist says we should encourage employers to offer wellness programs.  (Also: more PE in schools, better preventive care, and community planning to "include places to exercise and sources of healthy foods.") And if you get sick anyway?  Frist doesn't bother saying anything about that.

Mickey Edwards says the government should (a) "authorize" a private insurance pool that the uninsured and self-insured could join and (b) ban insurance companies from turning down applicants with preexisting conditions.  But (a) could exist today if anyone wanted to create such a pool and (b) would destroy the health insurance industry unless it's paired with an individual mandate.  Edwards seems unaware of either of these things.

David Frum says we should allow insurers to sell their policies nationwide.  End of proposal.  This is like being asked how GM can revitalize itself and suggesting they should put better tires on their cars.

And finally, there's Richard Viguerie, who even most conservatives shun as a crank.  Basically, he thinks we should make people pay for their own coverage (i.e., give them more "skin in the game"), we should encourage higher industry profits, and we should by God not create a government database of medical records.  Or something.  To be honest, I'm not sure.

This is pathetic.  Nationwide insurance companies might be a good idea.  Wellness programs are certainly a good idea.  (Though not an especially conservative one.)  And community rating is a good idea too.  But they do virtually nothing to extend healthcare to the uninsured, nothing significant to drive down costs, and nothing to reform the insurance industry unless they're embedded in a broader plan.  They're flea specks on a problem the size of an elephant.

Granted, these guys were writing op-eds, not white papers, but none of them made so much as a passing mention of anything more than these few disconnected talking points.  Our country's 47 million uninsured weren't even on their radar screen. The problem isn't that the Times didn't give them enough space, the problem is they flatly don't have any idea how to make American healthcare more broadly accessible or how to arrest its steady and relentless deterioration.  No wonder conservatives have decided to just say No instead.  When you've got nothing serious to offer, what choice do you have?

Santorum Tanks, Huckabee Triumphs Again

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 8:49 PM EDT

Well, the results are in and it looks like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has exactly zero hope of ever mounting a serious presidential campaign. Not that anyone really thought he did, except perhaps for him. Santorum's name was on the ballot for the straw poll at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit in DC this weekend, along with other GOP luminaries such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney. In past years, the straw poll has been an early testing ground for the GOP's presidential aspirants. But if Santorum was hoping to woo activists from a distance (he didn't actually show up to campaign) with his anti-gay history, it didn't work. Santorum managed to garner a scant 2.5 percent of the vote, saved from coming in dead last only by Ron Paul. 

As in past years, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee cleaned up big time. None of the other candidates even came close to his 28 percent of the votes. Behind him, there was a four-way tie among Romney, Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), a guy who looks very much like someone running for vice president (the Indiana curse, perhaps). The fact that Palin fared so poorly also doesn't bode well for her future as a candidate, as she nearly lost to virtual unknowns Pence and Pawlenty along with Huckabee. 2012 is still a long way away, but it's not hard to imagine Huckabee as an early frontrunner for the race. His youthful fondness for frying squirrels in a popcorn popper nothwithstanding, Huckabee polled within seven points of Obama in April this year in an early look at potential matchups for 2012. Having seen him light up a room this weekend before the values voters, I have to think he's a pretty serious candidate.

Quote of the Day

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 11:59 AM EDT

From Bruce Bartlett, lamenting the state of the modern conservative press since Irving Kristol shut down The Public Interest in 2005:

Commentary is now just a highbrow version of National Review, which is just a glossy version of Human Events, which has become a slightly less hysterical version of nutty websites like WorldNetDaily.

Nicely put.  Bruce is obviously adapting quickly to the polemical rigors of the blogosphere.

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Mitt Romney For Olympics Czar?

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 11:54 AM EDT

Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney entered the Values Voters Summit in DC Saturday like royalty, with the disco ball turning and patriotic music from the 2002 Olympics blasting from the speakers. It was a warm welcome from a group of Christian conservatives who largely prefer non-Mormon Bible-thumper Mike Huckabee as a presidential candidate. Watching Romney read his speech word for word from the teleprompters, it seemed clear that he had made a huge tactical error in picking a career. He still looks more like a TV president than Martin Sheen ever could.

Still, his speech garnered a lot more enthusiasm than that of say, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, who also failed to stick to the protocol here of starting out with a Bible story. Romney decried out-of-wedlock births and rapped on White House czars. He had a few snappy one-liners. Repeating the GOP mantra on cap and trade, which he equated with a 15 percent income tax on all Americans, he quipped, "Democrats keep talking about climate change. I think they're confusing global warming with all the heat they've been taking at town halls." 

After two days of such rhetoric, though, it was clear that the conservatives need to coordinate their jokes better. (And a pox on Nancy Pelosi for every referring to town hall participants as an "angry mob.") By noon Saturday, Romney was like the 18th speaker to invoke the mob reference. The conservatives were funnier dissing Tom DeLay's new ballroom dancing career, which has been a running gag this weekend.

Romney's speech wasn't helped by coming last in the lineup, behind Bill Bennett, a genuinely funny guy. His Mormon heritage really hurts him in the humor department. Having grown up in Utah, I know first-hand that Mormon humor is distinctly inside-baseball and, well, not very funny. (What do you call a burger that catches fire on the grill? A burnt offering, yuck yuck.)  Romney's version of the town hall riff: "The Demorats call them a mob, crazies, trash—I call them patriots." 

Failed humor aside, Romney made a solid showing to an appreciative crowd. Nonetheless, he's still likely to get killed in the straw poll. In 2007, he just edged out Huckabee, but that was largely because of Internet voting, which has since been banned as a result. This year's poll is strictly in-person. And if Romney can't win over the values voter foot soldiers, there's not much hope for him nationally. Maybe he has a future as Obama's Olympic czar. That's one offical White House job that the values voters might approve of.

O'Reilly Bans Media From Speech

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 10:41 AM EDT

Conservative TV host Bill O'Reilly headlined the Friday night session of the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit, ensuring a good turnout for Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty's stump speech. I confess to having burned out after nine hours of Christian political speeches yesterday, and I skipped the evening events in favor of a much-needed cocktail in the hotel bar and dinner with my husband. Apparently I made the right choice. As it turned out, O'Reilly banned the media, without advance notice, from his speech. I would have been stuck in the bar either way. Bob Ellis, a conservative writer from Dakota Voice, confirmed that one of the conditions of O'Reilly's appearance at the summit was a media blackout. Ellis was deeply annoyed at being shut out. He writes:

I’m sorry, but that seems more than a little hypocritical of Bill O’Reilly to say the least.

After all, the man (who I like very much to watch and agree with on most things) gives no quarter to anyone on his show.  That’s essentially how a good reporter should be: not put up with the spin.

Yet he’s afraid to have the media report on his speech?

Say it ain’t so, Bill!

So while I now have a transcript of Pawlenty's bland speech, I couldn't tell you what O'Reilly had to say. Which is too bad, because there was some action last night. Adele Stan over at AlterNet reports that hotel security forceably ejected blogger Mark Stark from the room during O'Reilly's speech.

Rick Santorum For President?

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 9:05 AM EDT

Conservatives are gathered this weekend in DC at the Family Research Council's Values Voter Summit to kvetch about Obama, liberals and the homosexual agenda. But aside from bemoaning the collapse of American culture, they are also here to start the vetting process for potential GOP presidential candidates. Many of the aspiring candidates are here to woo evangelical voters, including Mitt Romney, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee and Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty. But there are a number of other people on the summit's straw poll ballot who are also throwing their hats in the ring. The best known are Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. But the ballot also includes Ron Paul, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and, surprisingly, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Perhaps his appeal to the values voters is not so shocking given his rabid anti-gay stance. But Santorum lost his last election in a blowout by Sen. Bob Casey in one of the largest losses in Senate history. His defeat stemmed in no small part to a concerted Internet campaign by gay columnist Dan Savage to use Santorum's name to describe the "frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the biproduct of anal sex," an effort launched after Santorum equated homosexuality with bestiality. It's hard to imagine the guy could run a viable presidential campaign with his name forever linked to anal sex in Google. I guess we'll find out how viable Santorum is among people who agree with him today at 3:15 when the straw poll results are released.

Arctic Geese Skip Migration

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 7:38 PM EDT

Tens of thousands of geese known as brant aren't migrating south anymore. Seduced by warmer weather, they're choosing to overwinter in western Alaska instead.

Big change. Usually Brant stream south along the Pacific flyway each fall. They're a familiar site off the West Coast, long lines riding on tailwinds above the surfline at speeds over 60 mph.

Their destination is a series of shallow lagoons in Baja California, where California gray whales  breed, and where the birds feed on eelgrass.

But whereas once nearly the entire population of Pacific brant overwintered in Mexico and fewer than 3,000 were known to overwinter in Alaska, now 40,000 birds, or 30 percent of the population, are opting for Alaska instead.

The change coincides with a general warming of temperatures in the North Pacific and Bering Sea and its well-documented effect on the abundance and distribution of numerous marine species, including walleye pollock, Pacific cod, northern fur seals, and thick-billed murres.

The effects on species restricted to estuarine ecosystems had not been investigated. But David Ward of the USGS and lead author of the study appearing in Arctic has been investigating brants for 30 years.

The shift in migratory patterns appears related to changes in the availability and abundance of eelgrass. Coastal sea ice isn't forming or is less extensive, and so more nutrient-rich eelgrass is accessible to the geese year round. Ward and his coauthors suspect that Pacific brant numbers will continue to increase in Alaska during winter, given climate predictions.

But there's a big risk in this new scenario, and it was previewed in the winter of 1991-92, when mild temperatures were punctuated by an extended period of cold weather and the formation of extensive shoreline ice. This scenario could become more common as climatic variability increases. Nowadays, sudden, severe cold bouts would put more of the entire brant population at risk.

Changing winds are also affecting the migration of the geese. Traditionally the birds wait for a storm system to come down through the Aleutians so they can catch the tailwinds south. (I wrote about godwits doing the same thing in Diet For A Warm Planet.) But the storm track is changing and there are fewer days each fall with favorable tailwinds to assist the geese on their 3,000 mile-long migration to Mexico.

In other words, the brant may not be opting to stay so as much as they're grounded.

Ward and his colleagues found  the increase in the number of brant overwintering in Alaska was clearly linked to fewer number of days with favorable southward winds.