Metrics for Afghanistan

Well, we finally have our metrics for winning the war Afghanistan.  All 46 of them.  Or, more accurately, 46+, since there an undefined number of classified metrics as well.  Call it 50 in round numbers.

Some of them are ridiculously vague.  For example, "Status of relations between Afghanistan and its other neighbors," whatever that means.  Some are at least theoretically measurable: "Volume and value of narcotics."  Some have already been missed: "Afghan Government's... ability to hold credible elections in 2009 and 2010."  Some are darkly humorous: "Development of an enduring, strategic partnership between the U.S. and Pakistan."

I don't know what to think about this.  I just don't know.  It's not like I'm against the idea of setting out specific goals and trying to measure how well we're achieving them.  On the other hand, if you wanted to resurrect the ghost of Robert McNamara and convince everyone that Afghanistan is Vietnam 2.0, you could hardly do a better job than this list.  I don't doubt for a second that McNamara had something exactly like it in 1965 when he was meeting with LBJ and the Joint Chiefs in the Oval Office.

Still, if I had to pick out the one thing that bothers me most about this plan, it's how implicitly utopian it is.  We're not just trying to kill some terrorists here, we're apparently trying to turn both Pakistan and Afghanistan into thriving, peaceful, incorruptible, Westernized democracies.  But that's a hundred-year project, and it's not something we've ever demonstrated much skill at.  So what, exactly, makes us think we're going to be good at it this time around?

Okay folks, here it is. You know you want it! Too bad presidents can't always be this...human. Because Kanye West was indeed being a jackass. In case you've had your head buried in the sand the past week, Obama was referring to Kanye's stage-crashing at MTV's Video Music Awards, taking the mic from Taylor Swift, winner of the Best Video category, and saying that the award should have been Beyonce's. (The incident, an instant cultural meme, has triggered any number of spinoffs, like this one, and this!) Trouble was, the comment was off-the-record, but employees at ABC, which share a feed with CNN, saw the video and promptly tweeted it. But there's more to this story. You'll note that this video is branded Politico and TPM. Well, Politico, for one, apparently acquired and posted the video but then quickly pulled it out of respect, it explained, for a fellow news organization. But CNN decided Politico's could remain on YouTube. Moral: In the Twitter age, you can never put the toothpaste back in the tube.

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Insurers in eight states consider domestic violence to be a pre-existing condition, as Ryan Grim of HuffPo reported in this excellent piece. One of them is Mississippi. So the Jackson Free Press spoke to the state's top regulator, Mike Chaney, to find out how this happened. Chaney blamed the legislature:

"Would I do something about it? Hell, yeah, I'd do something about it, but I'm a regulator, not a legislator. I have to come to terms with that every week," Chaney said. "The whole situation is bad. Let's say a woman works with a company that had Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and she gets beat up in her house and Blue Cross says 'we're not covering you because getting beat up is your pre-existing condition.' That's terrible."

 

Tough Times

In a widely read column on Tuesday, David Leonhardt said that although unemployment is high, there's good news for those who still have jobs.  Instead of falling, as they normally would during a recession, real wages have risen at a steady clip this year.  Now, there's no question this was true in the second half of 2008, when nominal wages rose modestly but plummeting prices (especially energy prices) meant that in real terms wages skyrocketed.  Unfortunately, Dean Baker says those days are long gone:

The story then reversed in 2009. Inflation has advanced at close to a 3.5 percent annual rate thus far this year. Nominal wage growth has fallen sharply....For 2009, real wages have unambiguously been falling and are likely to continue to fall as modest increases in commodity prices are not offset by nominal wage growth.

So how does Leonhardt get the story so wrong? Most importantly he uses year over year data. This includes the large fall in prices at the end of last year, which still outweighs the impact of falling real wages through 2009. Using year over year data, we can say that real wages have risen in the last year. We will not be able to say that four months from now.

Italics mine.  Real wages have gone up if you compare August to August, which includes the big deflation in the Fall of last year.  But that's a one-off.  If you look at January to August instead, inflation is up, wage growth is anemic, and real wage growth is negative.  That's the path we're currently on, not one of rising incomes.

This morning, at the second of two hearings in the House's Natural Resources Committee,  POGO director Danielle Brian applauded Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s elimination of the Royalty In Kind program that governs the extraction of resources like oil from government land  (you can read my post on the first hearing and the many problems with RIK here). But Brian said Salazar's move still “does not adequately drive a stake through the heart of the program.” RIK came about as a way of collecting royalties without placing the burden of auditing companies on the Interior department. However, as Brian pointed out, “What has happened is that we never know if we are making money and don’t know if royalties are enough. We must audit to determine this, which defeats the purpose of collecting royalties in kind.” Last week Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill to create a new agency in the Interior Department to oversee oil and gas leasing of federal lands. 

Not everyone is happy with that idea. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) grumbled that eliminating RIK would lead to more litigation and decrease royalties. “I hate to see that we keep making it harder to get at our resources. Keep in mind the poor single moms who have been hitting me up when gas prices get high.”

But the problem isn't just one of money. There's also the environmental cost that occurs when resources are extracted from public lands without proper oversight. Stephen Smith, mayor of Pinedale, Wyoming, testified about the environmental degradation his community has seen since the extraction of the town’s 35-trillion feet of natural gas. The House Natural Resources committee is currently considering legislation that could provide greater oversight over companies drilling or mining for natural resources from federal and Indian lands. With or without the CLEAR Act, will the west’s wilderness withstand the extraction of its vast, untapped, publicly owned natural gas reserves?

 

 

The big hoopla on the blogs this week has been whether Joe Wilson’s exclamation "you lie!" amongst the healthcare debate, was racist. Jimmy Carter and many on the left say yes, while the GOP power structure categorically denies any possibility that the exclamation was based on race. From there, the discussion of race spiraled out of control, leading to questions about whether George W. Bush was being racist when he called Obama "this cat" last year during the campaign. Rush Limbaugh joined the discussion by highlighting a fight between a white kid and a black kid on a school bus. To Limbaugh's horror, the black kid won. "In Obama's America the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering 'yeah, right on, right on, right on,'" he said.

There's no doubt in my mind that Limbaugh's statement was racist. As Adam Serwer writes, Limbaugh "perceives an explicit reversal of the way things are supposed to be. In Limbaugh's America, the black kids know their place, and that place isn't in the White House." And Matt Yglesias notes that the predictable result of these discussions is that members of the GOP consistently minimize the importance of racism toward Barack Obama while over-dramatizing a perceived reverse racism or political correctness toward whites.

But when it comes to race, both the left and right too often misrepresent the issue.

Look, I'm no prude, and my Spanish is lacking, but I do get what "Hay Trampa!" means, and let's just say these grown-ups—captured in this video posted on YouTube-like site LiveLeak.com—won't make my list of potential babysitters. I'm not even sure this takes place in America. But still. Where is it okay to teach kids this young to get busy? I think the moment that struck me most is when one of the adult women presents her rear for the little boy to hump. The posting title, referring to the dance music, dissapprovingly asked: Esto es reggaeton?

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Chart of the Day

Miller-McCune magazine points out today that we'll soon have new CAFE fuel standards.  EPA and the Department of Transportation announced their proposed new rules on Tuesday, and in an effort to find something interesting to say about them I present you with this chart.

Normally, CAFE is a DOT program.  But the Supreme Court recently ruled that EPA was required to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act, so now it's a two-agency operation.  EPA's part isn't to directly regulate fuel economy, it's to regulate CO2 — though this largely amounts to the same thing.  Basically, it works like this: you multiply a car's track width by its wheelbase to come up with its "footprint" in square feet.  Then you go to this chart, which tells you how much CO2 it's allowed to emit.  A subcompact, for example, will be allowed to emit no more than 204 grams of CO2 per mile in 2016.  (That's what the technical appendix says, anyway.  The chart seems to be offset slightly high along its entire length.)

The Ninth Circuit Court has had problems with the whole "footprint" idea in the past, but EPA and DOT apparently hope that these new regs will pass judicial muster.  They also hope that car companies won't just build bigger cars, thus doing an end run around the standards.  In fact, here's what they hope the new rules will accomplish:

  • Increase fuel economy by approximately five percent every year
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 950 million metric tons
  • Save the average car buyer more than $3000 in fuel costs
  • Conserve 1.8 billion barrels of oil

If the fooprint approach works the way it's supposed to, we'll reach a fleet average of 35 mpg by 2016 instead of 2020.  Time will tell.

World Wrestling Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon announced recently that she is poised to lay the smackdown on embattled Sen. Chris Dodd in the 2010 midterm elections. On first glance, this is definitely an uphill battle for McMahon. There are currently no Republican representatives in Congress throughout the northeast and polls show that former Rep. Rob Simmons already has a slight lead over Dodd.

But information released by the Center for Responsive Politics shows that McMahon has a history of donating to Democratic candidates and PACs, a fact that could help her in the mostly blue northeast state. Of the $90,000 she and her husband have contributed since 1989, 51 percent has gone to Democrats. Her top beneficiaries include Dem Mark Warner of Virginia, Obama chief of staff and former Rep. from Illinois Rahm Emanuel, and Dem-turned-Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

It's looking more and more like the battle for Dodd's seat could be the main event of the 2010 election cycle. And there's no doubt that this video should be used in someone's campaign ad... though I'm not sure whether it would hurt or help McMahon:

On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the end of the Interior Department’s oil and gas royalty collection program. Salazar made his announcement at part one of a two-part testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee. Last week Rep. Nick J. Rahall (D-WV), the chairman of that committee, introduced legislation that would overhaul the existing federal royalty system and create an Interior agency to regulate oil and gas leasing.

Currently, rather than paying in cash for resources extracted from government lands, companies pay federal royalties in comparably valued oil and gas, which the government then sells on the open market. This system, known as Royalty in Kind, is administered by the Minerals Management Service (MMS). Last year, a report compiled by the Interior Department's inspector general found that MMS collections fell far short of their estimated potential revenue and discovered corruption within the agency.

Back in September 2008, Mother Jones’ Josh Harkinson wrote:

So far the grand prize for depravity goes to former RIK manager Gregory Smith, who pitched the oil companies he regulated to do business with his outside consulting firm, slept with two subordinates, and bought cocaine from another RIK employee while on the job (DOJ, where are you?). Of course, last time I checked, there was also an ongoing GAO investigation, four False Claims Act cases pending against MMS in Oklahoma City, and a DOJ investigation of a Virginia-based MMS employee who allegedly traveled to Atlanta to have sex with someone he'd met in a teen online chat room who he thought was a 13-year-old girl.

Salazar’s announcement to overhaul the collection program is no great surprise given MMS’ sex, drug, and bribe-related scandal last year. At the present moment, US drilling regulations consist of a gap-filled web of EPA, BLM, and MMS legislation. The second part of Rahall’s hearing on his proposal is happening now.