Quote of the Day

From Paul Ulrich, a spokesman for EnCana Corp., on their unceasing dedication to the safety of Wyoming's oil workers:

The notion that operators don't do everything they can every day [to ensure safety] is ludicrous.

No doubt.  But on the off chance that they could do just a wee bit more if they were properly motivated, some of Wyoming's oil workers think they should have the right to sue for injuries or deaths that are caused by negligence.  The problem, if I'm reading this story correctly, is that they actually work for independent operators, not the oil companies themselves — but operators are legally immune from lawsuits and courts have ruled that oil companies are liable for workplace injuries only if they actually run the workplace.  Technically, though, the operators run things.  So no one is responsible.  Neat.

In any case, my guess is that tighter safety regulation would be more effective than lawsuits, but I think I can guess what the operators and oil companies think of that idea too.  In the meantime, state representative Roy Cohee says workers should pound sand: "They took a high-risk job. Are they willing to assume some of the consequences when they're injured?"  I wonder if he then called over his butler to fetch him a cigar?  Cohee obviously missed his calling as a pious industrial baron in Victorian England.

More on Afghanistan

Last night I mentioned in passing the conventional wisdom that it will take five years or more to train the Afghan army up to a point where it can successfully take over counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban.  Why so long?  BruceR, who recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, provides an answer:

1. Building anew is harder than renovating.
2. Multinational coalitions are inherently less efficient at army building.
3. Force protection measures in a warzone limit mentoring.
4. We still have limited experience with the culture at our command levels.
5. Giving someone independence before you give them an army limits what you can do later.
6. Growing in size and in quality at the same time is hard.
7. Risk aversion: in some ways, we've taught them too well.

Details are at the link.  He also says this: "At some point in this game, saying something takes a long time is going to be the equivalent of saying it's impossible. [Italics mine.] And raising an army in a country where security is this uncertain may well be impossible for us....If any army with a piece of the Afghan puzzle has cracked the nut with their unique approach, I haven't heard it. If we ever do, the force of effort now being applied could rapidly gain traction, I have no doubt. But we're certainly not at a point that we have a solution and we're unable to implement it: I would suggest we simply don't have the whole solution yet."

Well, our top commanders in Afghanistan say they figure they have 12-18 months to figure this out.  If Bruce is right, that's pretty close to impossible.  Which means that in 12-18 months they'll be back asking for another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  And then another 12-18 months.  (And more troops.)  We might want to think about getting off this train now instead.

A Second Stimulus?

Should we pass a second stimulus?  A growing chorus of economists say yes.  They're afraid that the mini-recovery we're seeing right now is going to stall soon, leading to a second recession.  Consumer and business demand just isn't up to the task of keeping the economy growing, so government demand will have to step in.

But that risks blowing up the deficit and causing long-term problems.  Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis has a solution:

Olivier Blanchard, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, may have cracked the code on to boost the economy and not spook bond investors and budget hawks. Blanchard’s grand bargain, one I have been suggesting for months, is for government to spend more money in the short term to boost growth while simultaneously taking strong action to reduce the long-term budget deficit. “The trade-off is fairly attractive,” Blanchard said in a report this week. “IMF estimates suggest that the fiscal cost of future increases in entitlements is 10 times the fiscal cost of the crisis. Thus, even a modest cut in the growth rate of entitlement programs can buy substantial fiscal space for continuing stimulus.”

....As an analysis I commissioned from the American Enterprise Institute revealed, extending the Social Security retirement age while at the same time indexing benefits to inflation rather than wages would turn a $5 trillion present value deficit into a $5 trillion surplus.

In principle, this isn't crazy.  By credibly phasing in entitlement reductions, we could spend more money now without setting off debt alarm bells down the road.  And you wouldn't have to go as far as Pethokoukis either.  You could finance a trillion dollar stimulus package with only a tiny change in Social Security or Medicare growth.

The problem, of course, comes from Pethokoukis's specialty: "the nexus of Washington and Wall Street."  It's true that Republicans would normally be in favor of entitlement cuts, even if they were fairly small.  But they aren't in favor of stimulus packages and they really, really aren't in favor of doing anything to support the Obama administration.  So in real life, if Democrats proposed some kind of bargain like this, they'd instantly do exactly what they're doing right now with health care: begin screaming about rationing (if the cuts were to Medicare) or selling out the elderly (if the cuts were to Social Security).  They're the Party of No, it seems to be working pretty well for them, and there's no reason to think they're willing to give that up in order to help the president rescue the economy.

So this seems like a political nonstarter, even if technically it might have potential.  Until someone explains how to get Republicans to grow up and get on board with this, it's not going anywhere.

The CIA IG Report

Today, finally, the Obama administration is set to release a redacted version of the 2004 CIA Inspector General's report on the Bush administration's interrogation of terrorism suspects.

We already know a lot about what the IG found. On Friday, Newsweek's Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff reported that the IG detailed how the CIA staged mock executions and threatened one detainee with a gun and a power drill. If you want more foreshadowing, Marcy Wheeler has reposted two items (1, 2) she wrote in June outlining what already-released memos tell us about what's in the IG report.

Two more things you should know about developments on the detainee treatment front. First, as Spencer Ackerman originally reported, the Obama administration is setting up special new teams to interrogate terrorism suspects. According to the Washington Post's story, the new teams will have to abide by the techniques laid out in the Army Field Manual, but as Spencer points out, the field manual itself—once widely considered to be Geneva Conventions-compliant—has been revised to include some questionable techniques.

Second, a new Justice Department report recommends reopening a number of prisoner abuse cases, making it "all but certain that the appointment of a prosecutor or other concrete steps will follow," according to today's New York Times. So much for "not looking backwards." Good.

Need To Read: August 24, 2009

I'm back from vacation. Here's what you should be reading today:

Like most bloggers, I also use twitter. I mostly use it to send out links to interesting web content like the stuff above. You can follow me, of course. David Corn, Mother Jones' DC bureau chief, is also on twitter. So are 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.)

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Lally, left front, and Col. Dan Hokanson, behind Lally, lead Soldiers down steps of the Ziggurat of Ur during a tour outside Camp Adder, Iraq, July 31, 2009. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cory Grogan.

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 24

Fish Dish: US commerce secretary sez no expansion of commercial fishing in Arctic until ecological studies done. [Environmental News Network]

Healthcare Ripoffs: A doctor charged $4,500 for an office visit for which Medicare would have paid $134. What gives?

River Held Hostage: French truck drivers threaten to pollute the Seine if their pay demands are not met. [UK Guardian]

Death Counseling: Is it really such a bad idea to cover it with Medicare? Experts debate.

Making Lemonade: Some politicians are capitalizing on the Heartland's health reform panic.

Steele Goes Postal: On healthcare reform, that is. A few key exchanges here.

Invention's Mother: If Pharma had more requirementst, they might be motivated to change it up, says Kevin Drum.

Music Monday: Playing for Change

Back when Mark Johnson founded Playing for Change, the concept was simple: Unite the world through music. His first success story was a video featuring musicians from around the globe performing "Stand by Me," the old feel-good hit by Ben E. King. It starts with a street guitarist in Santa Monica and proceeds around the world adding new musical layers as it goes. So far that video has received some 13 million hits on YouTube, and Johnson's project has spawned a PBS documentary, CDs, a DVD, an upcoming concert tour, and a foundation to bring music to disadvantaged communities. I caught up with Johnson last week to talk about the monks that inspired him, his unusual mobile recording studio, and how he's seen music change lives.

To listen to the podcast of this interview, click here.

Mother Jones: In a nutshell, what is Playing for Change? What inspired it, and what are you trying to accomplish?

Mark Johnson: Playing for Change is a global movement using media, music, technology, and inspiration to try to unite as many people around the world as possible. The original idea came about 10 years ago. I was recording music at a New York City studio, and I was on my way to work one day, and I saw two monks painted all in white from head to toe. One was playing a nylon guitar and the other one was singing. I saw about 200 people stop, and everybody's watching this performance. Some are crying and jaw-dropping and smiling, and I look around and see a collection of people who normally just run right by each other, and here they are coming together for this music. Then I got on the train and I went to the recording studio and I realized the best music I ever heard in my life was on the way to the studio, not in the studio. That's when I realized great music, great art—they're just moments in time. They exist everywhere, and we can use these moments in time to connect people and bring inspiration. And that led to the idea of traveling the world with a mobile recording studio and cameras, filming, recording, and interviewing musicians, and connecting them together with songs around the world, such as "Stand by Me" and "One Love."

Squaring the Afghan Circle

The New York Times yesterday:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.

....Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.

The New York Times today:

American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.

....The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.

OK then.  More troops aren't getting the job done because we're not getting any support from the Afghan government.  So we're going to ask for more troops.

OK, OK: I know that's just a smart ass comment.  In fact, here's some good news from McClatchy: "Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling."  Though even that's a mixed blessing.  The second NYT story suggests that the death of Baitullah Mehsud, which set off the problems in the Pakistani Taliban, may also cause the Pakistani army to lose interest in the tribal areas and move on to other, shinier toys.

Overall, the evidence suggests that steadily increasing U.S. troop strength has had virtually no effect in the past; that the Taliban is getting continually stronger; that the central government is corrupt and incompetent; and that even under the best circumstances the Afghan army can't be brought up to speed in less than five years.  At the same time, U.S. commanders say they understand that they have only 12-18 months to turn things around.

Someone needs to explain to me how that's going to happen.  Anything even remotely plausible will do for a start.  Because I sure don't see it.

Death Books

Sweet Jesus.  We've gone from death panels to death books?  Crikey.

BTW, I just did a Nexis search, and as near as I can tell the pamphlet in question wasn't mentioned a single time between 2006 and last month.  In other words, until it became a political football this week, not one single person thought this issue was important to enough to mention even in passing in any news outlet whatsoever.  The reason, of course, is that before now no one actually thought this was outrageous.  Because it isn't.