Kevin Drum - September 2009

Selling Juice to The Man

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 10:26 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias is in Germany, where the law requires local utilities to buy electricity from you if you install solar panels on your roof and generate excess current during the day:

This raises the overall price of electricity a little, but it has a dramatic impact in making solar power viable at scale. So dramatic, in fact, that Germany is a world leader in solar power despite not being sunny at all. If you took a similar policy framework and deployed it in places like Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas where they have tons of sun it would be hugely effective. And much larger portions of the United States manage to be sunnier than Germany.

I don't know about those other states, but California passed a Net Energy Metering law back in the 90s.  So the Germans have nothing on us.  And yes, it's a very good idea that makes small-scale solar installations economically worthwhile.

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McChrystal's Report

| Mon Sep. 21, 2009 1:02 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 6:10 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 11:59 AM 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?

Quote of the Day

| Sat Sep. 19, 2009 10:59 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.

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 September 2009

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

Today is Happy Cat Day™.  On the left, Inkblot is smooching himself on my computer speaker.  On the right, Domino is rolling around on the sidewalk.  May your weekend be as happy as theirs.

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Chart of the Day

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

This isn't any big surprise or anything, but it's still sort of breathtaking when you see it in such stark terms.  Via Steve Benen (from a Research 2000 poll), the Republican Party is just flat dead everywhere outside the South.  Even folks in the Midwest can't stand them.  The GOP is, for the time being anyway, a purely regional party.

And who's responsible for that?  "I know this probably sounds arrogant to say," George Bush told speechwriter Matt Latimer in a conversation last year, "but I redefined the Republican Party."  I'd say he had a point.

Money Money Money

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 1:22 PM EDT

Hmmm.  Apparently Ben Bernanke wants to change the way that bankers pay themselves:

The Federal Reserve is preparing what would be the most sweeping rules yet to regulate the pay at banks across the country, people close to the discussions said on Friday.

The rules would apply not just to the compensation and bonuses of top executives but also to traders, loan officers and other employees. But rather than focusing on the specific amount employees are paid, Fed officials will be scrutinizing whether the structure of compensation, like the use of bonuses based on the volume of loan origination, encourages excessive risk-taking.

....The surprising move comes as both the Obama administration and the Congress, as well as governments in other industrialized countries, are pushing for restrictions on executive pay, which many experts say contributed to reckless risk-taking that led to the financial crisis of the last year.

In the mood I'm in right now, I don't think I'd do more than raise an eyebrow if Bernanke suggested we just shoot every tenth banker on Wall Street as an object lesson to the rest of them.  But even so, I'm really lukewarm to this idea — and not just on the practical grounds that it's almost impossible to really make it work properly.

Basically, I think it's an admission of surrender.  It's the kind of thing you do either because (a) you can't solve the underlying problem that causes dangerous pay packages in the first place, or (b) you don't want to solve the underlying problems and are casting around for some kind of window dressing to divert everyone's attention from that fact.

The big issue isn't that bankers get paid too much.  That's just a symptom.  The big issue is that banks make too much money by engaging in risky practices.  If you reduce that ocean of money, pay will follow.  If you don't, no set of rules in the world will prevent it from eventually making its way into the hands of traders and executives. So instead of trying to regulate pay, why not regulate the dangerous practices themselves and let compensation sort itself out naturally?

Paul Volcker, for example, thinks we ought to get banks largely out of the securities trading business.  If we did, that would automatically eliminate gigantic bonuses based on risky, short-term trading profits.  We could institute serious rules on the abuse of leverage and overnight repo financing.  That would eliminate some of the most volatile sources of short-term earnings.  We could levy a transaction tax, which would reduce some of the riskiest (but most lucrative) spread bets.  We could limit the size and interconnectedness of hedge funds and other parts of the shadow banking system.  All of these things would reduce the amount of money banks earn and therefore the amount they pay their executives.

Plus there's another bonus!  If you reduce the earnings banks get from risky and socially useless financial legerdemain, then (a) Wall Street will be forced to make money by providing actual useful services to the rest of the business community, and (b) more money and investment will flow into productive parts of the economy.  If we do that, bad pay practices won't be a big problem anymore.  If we don't, bad pay practices will be the least of our worries.

Jargon Watch

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 11:33 AM EDT

Just as we were all getting used to "AfPak" as the insidery way of referring to the comingled problem area of Afghanistan and Pakistan, apparently the State Department is pulling a switcheroo:

State Department inspector general Harry Geisel, testifying about waste, fraud and abuse in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the House oversight subcommittee on national security, called the region "PakAf."

...."Is that just you," [Rep. Jeff] Flake asked, "or are others expected to do that?"

Geisel said he would check and, a few minutes later, offered this. "My staff has been kind enough to explain to me how AfPak became PakAf. And the answer is it was Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who started using PakAf."

You have been put on notice.  There will be a test on this stuff later today.

The Future of TV

| Fri Sep. 18, 2009 11:11 AM EDT

In a move clearly inspired by Barack Obama's plan to turn the United States into a grim socialist hellhole, California plans to regulate giant TVs:

The first-in-the-nation TV efficiency standards would require electronics retailers to sell only energy-sipping models starting in 2011. Even tougher efficiency criteria would follow in 2013.

....The rules, which took more than a year to develop, are designed to shave $8.1 billion off Californians' electricity bills over a 10-year-period. That works out to $30 per set per year, according to commission officials.

It will also help California utilities head off the need to build more power plants just so residents can watch "American Idol" and other shows. TVs already account for 10% of residential energy use in California, driven largely by surging demand for large-screen TVs. Strict state mandates for cutting greenhouse gas emissions are further pressuring officials to act.

I suppose Congress could override this rule if TVs were part of interstate commerce, but that's a pretty ridiculous notion since practically everyone buys televisions from stores in their own state1.  So I guess we're out of luck.  We Golden Staters will have to continue our desperate struggle against the jackboot of the California Energy Commission all by ourselves.

1In case you don't get the joke, see here.