Baghdad Update

Four years ago, during a commemoration of the Shiite saint Imam Musa al-Kazim, a thousand pilgrims to the Al Kadhimiya Mosque in Baghdad were killed when rumors of an imminent suicide bomb attack caused a panicked stampede across a bridge.  Every year since then, the commemoration has been regularly targeted by insurgents and militias.  Until now:

President Barack Obama's withdrawal strategy for Iraq got a big bump this weekend, when the Iraqi military and police presided over massive gatherings of pilgrims from the provinces in the capital, and pulled it off with no bombings. Obama could not plausibly withdraw from Iraq unless Iraqi security forces could keep a minimum of social peace. But if they can do so, the withdrawal could go smoothly. This weekend's evidence is positive.

That's from Juan Cole, who has more over at his place, both good and bad.

Fiscal Policy for Dummies

Brad DeLong chides Clive Crook for opposing a second stimulus package because it would increase the federal deficit.  The problem is that Crook isn't distinguishing between short-term and long-term deficits:

But if you don't distinguish between these two — if you call them both "fiscal policy" and pretend they are the same thing, as Crook does — then you get yourself completely confused....A while ago I wrote that one of the big problems in American governance was that Washington's political class was stupider than the pigs in the Orwell novel Animal Farm. The fundamental slogan of Animalism — "four legs good, two legs bad" — is no more complicated than "cyclical deficit good, structural deficit bad," and if pigs can understand the first why can't members of congress, anchor persons, and op-ed writers understand the second?

Well....I agree with Brad, but I also don't think this is quite the mystery he makes it out to be.  The problem is both obvious and old: nobody trusts politicians.  They're eager to increase short-term deficits during recessions because that allows them to give away goodies to their constituents.  And they're perfectly happy to promise to rein things in down the road when the economy recovers.  Occasionally this even happens.  But not very often, and everyone knows it.  The world being what it is, short-term cyclical deficits have a strong tendency to turn into long-term structural deficits.  (cf. California, fucked up finances of.)

In a perfect world we'd auction off 100% of the permits in a cap-and-trade system.  In a perfect world we'd construct a healthcare system that covers everyone but makes sensible compromises about how much coverage everyone gets.  And in a perfect world we'd create whatever short-term deficits we needed during a recession because we'd all feel confident that when the emergency was over we'd dutifully reduce spending and increase taxes to create a cyclical surplus.

But this isn't a perfect world, which means that concerns about a short-term deficit spilling over into the far future are actually pretty understandable.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, but it does mean that skeptics aren't being unreasonable if they ask for a credible plan in advance that insures deficits will come down in the future even in the face of monumental political pressures not to do it.  I have to admit that, given the current political environment, I'm not sure what such a plan would look like.

Health Care Time, Finally?

It seems that President Obama is finally switching gears and going to all health care, all the time. He's doing health care events almost daily now, and he's holding a prime-time presser on Wednesday to put the spotlight on the issue. But the real question is whether the President's push is coming too late. The August recess looms. Can the Democrats get the job done, or will they have to wait another generation for another chance? There is some good news: Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) supports a public option available on day one. The next two weeks are crucial.

American Healthcare vs. American Soccer

Over the weekend Mitch McConnell told David Gregory that "we have the finest health care in the world."  This is pretty standard Republican boilerplate, and it got me to wondering.

Has any Democrat ever said that "we have the worst health care in the world"?  Why not?  Sure, technically, you'd need to say "industrialized world" or some such, but aside from that it would be pretty accurate.  Certainly more accurate than McConnell's formulation.

So why not say it?  I can think of a few reasons.  (a) Americans don't like to hear anyone telling them they aren't the best at anything. (b) It would require politicians to explain how it is that other countries do healthcare better and cheaper than us — and Americans really, really don't like to hear that France does something better than us. (c) Since most Americans have health insurance and get adequate care, it's a tough sell. (d) Democrats agree with McConnell.

I suppose there are other possible reasons too.  But why nibble around the edges?  Republicans are willing to straight out claim that we're the best, even though there's virtually no metric in which this is even remotely the case.  It's as laughable as saying that America has the best soccer team in the world.  So why aren't we willing to stretch things a bit and flatly say that virtually every advanced country offers better healthcare than we do?  What's so hard about that?

DOD Withholds Key Weapons Spending Report

Every year, the Pentagon is required to send Congress a round-up of the total cost of major weapons systems. The Select Acquisition Report, or SAR, is one of the few publicly available tools with which to keep track of how major programs measure up with their original cost estimates—you can find them here. GAO uses the SARs to calculate that the DOD's biggest programs are currently running nearly $300 billion over budget.  Outside analysts have combed the reports to estimate that if the Pentagon doesn't change its ways, those programs will go an average 46 percent over budget in the next 10 years.

But this year, the Pentagon won't be compiling a SAR. The official excuse so far is that the weapons portfolio will be dramatically overhauled during the Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) later this year, and so the DOD plans to put together a SAR after that review is completed. That doesn't strike me as very convincing. The Pentagon is required by law to submit a SAR every year.  Even if the weapons portfolio happens to change in 2010, Congress and the public are entitled to an explanation of weapons spending as it stands now. In fact, releasing that information would surely help Obama and Gates make the case during the QDR that more troubled weapons programs should be slashed—and would also lend weight to their ongoing efforts to overhaul the Pentagon's messed-up procurement process.

Given Obama's rhetoric on the campaign trail about making government more transparent to citizens to help them pressure elected officials to serve their interests, one might have hoped that his DOD would make this kind of information more accessible, not less so. Indeed, because pro-defense industry lawmakers are predictably resisting Gates' weapons cuts, getting the public on board is probably the only hope Obama has of making those cuts stick—and there's never been a better time to argue that the country can't afford the DOD's out-of-control spending. But right now, the information the DOD does release about acquisitions programs is slapped haphazardly onto this epicly crappy website. It's hard to use and difficult to navigate. Even if a concerned citizen wanted to learn more about how the Pentagon is wasting his money, it's likely that all he'd get for his trouble is a bunch of "file not found" messages and a giant migraine. A Pentagon rep will be meeting with congressional representatives next week to discuss the missing SAR. Let's hope lawmakers press the DOD to change its mind.

Moby Healthcare

On Friday I told David Corn that on odd days I was optimistic about the prospects for healthcare reform and on even days I was pessimistic.  Since it was Friday the 17th when we talked, I was optimistic.  The AMA is on our side!  The House Tri-Committee Bill is pretty good!  Hoorah!  He just laughed.  On Saturday, I was again pessimistic.  The centrists Dems are screwing everything up!  There's no way to pass a tax increase to fund it!  We're doomed!

On Sunday I was going to write about this.  But shortly after Tom Watson's epic meltdown at the end of the British Open, our power went out.  And stayed out.  It didn't come back on until 4:30 this morning.  Turns out that was mostly good news, though.  I did get to see all the golf, after all.  And the power outage spared you all some aimless musings about the politics of healthcare.  And since I had nothing else to do, I pulled Moby-Dick off the shelf and decided that dammit, I'd actually read it this time.  I haven't quite done that yet, but I'm about halfway through.

As for healthcare, I don't really know what I think.  It's an even day so I supposed I'm pessimistic.  We landed a man on the moon 40 years ago but we can't even pass a national healthcare plan?  What a screwed up country.  But check back with me tomorrow for another opinon.

Dear Senator Lieberman

Dear Senator Lieberman,

I know we haven't always seen eye-to-eye, but I need your help. I'm confused. I thought you were supposed to be hawkish on foreign policy and Israel, moderate on social issues, and liberal on economic issues. That seems to be the conventional wisdom. But if you're so progressive on economic issues, why are you trying to hold up health reform? You must realize that if health care is going to get done, it's going to have to be this year—2010 is an election year.

The Republicans have been all over television talking about how if they can just delay health care past October, they can "break" President Obama. So why are you signing letters urging the President to "resist timelines"? Just because you think it would be better for things to move slower doesn't change the political reality. The longer this takes, the less likely it is to happen. You used to be a Democrat: you know, the party that's been trying to give Americans universal health care since Harry Truman's presidency. It's been over sixty years. Haven't Americans waited long enough? Progressives might disagree with you about Iraq. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't love to see you leading on health care. Do it.

-Nick Baumann

U.S. Army soldiers fire mortar rounds at suspected Taliban fighting positions during Operation Mountain Fire in Barge Matal, a village in eastern Nuristan province, Afghanistan, July 12, 2009. U.S. and Afghan forces secured the remote mountain village, which was overwhelmed by insurgent forces several days before. The U.S. soldiers are assigned to the 10th Mountain Division's 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Matthew C. Moeller.

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, July 20

A Monday mix of noteworthy posts from around the site:

Here's a question for a Monday morning: How dope are you? Find out with our drug-war quiz

Those meowing manipulators: Kevin Drum on the recent finding that we unknowingly cater to our cats' every whim. (This, of course, falls squarely under the heading of no-duh for anyone who has spent any time around felines.)

This just in from the supermarket checkout aisle: The tabloids are reporting that a) George W. Bush is suicidally depressed because of his tarnished legacy and b) Laura is worried he has Alzheimer's. Just sayin'.

How soon is now: Climate change deniers are all, "It's cool. We can just wait till global warming actually causes problems to pay to fix it." Well, look no further than Pakistan for evidence of said problems. Like, now.

He's baaaack: Remember Libertarian hedge funder Cliff Asness? He's popped up again, this time to rehash some tired old points about health care. MoJo assistant editor Nick Baumann offers a response.

The pAper chAse
Someday This Could All Be Yours Vol. 1
(Kill Rock Stars, 2009)


Did you hear that Marilyn Manson put out a new record? Guess what? Nobody cares. That shtick isn't scary anymore. No one is shocked by a pale dude named Brian from Florida who calls himself Antichrist Superstar. With the world falling apart around us, all we have to do is turn on the news to get a little freaked out.
 
In contrast with His Freakiness, the Dallas, Texas-based quartet known as the pAper chAse takes its cues from things that actually scare people, and to each song title on this sixth release appends a mildly unsettling parenthetical, such as, "What Should We Do With Your Body (The Lightning)." These guys don't exactly break new sonic ground on this album—then again, when you specialize in highly unique nightmare soundtracks, reinventing yourself probably isn't a top priority.

The group's sound is dark, but not goth. Abrasive, but not punk. Not pop, but surprisingly…catchy? The rhythm section is massive here, creating spine-jerking grooves, with songs that shudder and shake as singer John Congleton—best known for his production work for acts like Explosions in the Sky and the Polyphonic Spree—wails over the cacophony like a soapbox preacher: I'll have you pictured in my head / All of you butchered in your beds / 'Cause God is everywhere / God is everywhere. (All this while wringing damaged notes from the neck of his guitar.) 

My least favorite track is "The Common Cold (The Epidemic)," whose weird circus vibe makes it feel out of place. That one aside, Someday This Could All Be Yours Vol. 1 is a solid addition to the band's growing discography. This music is definitely not for everyone, but if it strikes a chord with you, you should check out the band's earlier stuff, too (Hide the Kitchen Knives being my personal favorite). As the title indicates, Someday is the first part of a double album. With the economy what it is, I suppose you can't blame an artist for releasing a CD in two parts. Besides, it gives you the time you'll need to fully digest these songs.

Follow MoJo music reviews on Twitter via #musicmonday or at @MotherJones.