Kevin Drum - February 2010

How Are We Doing in Afghanistan?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 3:24 PM EST

How do we know if conditions are improving in Afghanistan? COIN expert David Kilcullen provides a list of indicators in a new paper. My favorite is this one, with commentary from Tom Ricks:

"Prices of exotic vegetables" and "Transportation prices." Now we are getting into the nitty gritty. Anything that embarrasses your S-3 as he discusses it in the briefing probably is a good metric. Until now most of DK's recommendations have been more or less rooted in common sense. But to understand this weird one, you need to understand local conditions. What people are paying for vegetables grown outside their district is a quick indicator of road security. Trucking companies factor in the risks they face, as well as the cost of bribes and other forms of corruption. So variations over time may be a helpful indicator of trends in public perception of security conditions and the corruption level of government security forces.

More here. Metrics to be avoided are here. How to measure the performance of the local government is here, including this one:

"Where local officials sleep." I really like this one because it is so simple, but it never occurred to me. In fact, I have never seen it listed before in works on metrics in warfare. But it makes sense. DK writes that, "A large proportion of Afghan government officials currently do not sleep in the districts for which they are responsible." He recommends looking into whether they fear for their safety, or perhaps are outsiders not really welcome in the districts. Both reasons are important, but have far different significance for your operations. 

This is probably harder to measure than vegetable prices, but still an interesting and nonobvious thing to keep track of.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quantum Algae

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 2:43 PM EST

Several years ago physicist Roger Penrose wrote a book suggesting that human consciousness can't be explained by standard chemical and physical processes. The only thing that could explain it, he said, was quantum processes, specifically microtubules that take advantage of quantum gravity effects.

I read Penrose's book when it came out, and like most people I wasn't convinced. For starters, the required quantum coherence effects just don't seem possible at room temperature. But today Tyler Cowen points to a new paper in Nature showing that there are apparently quantum coherence effects at work in the way some algae produce energy via the eight pigment molecules used in photosynthesis:

The route the energy takes as it jumps across these large molecules is important because longer journeys could lead to losses. In classical physics, the energy can only work its way across the molecules randomly.

....The team first excited two of these molecules with a brief laser pulse, causing electrons in the pigment molecules to jump into a quantum superposition of excited states....The results are a surprise. Not only are the two pigment molecules at the centre of the antenna involved in the superposition; so are the other six pigment molecules. This "quantum coherence" binds them together for a fleeting 400 femtoseconds (4 × 10-13 seconds). But this is long enough for the energy from the absorbed photon to simultaneously "try out" all possible paths across the antenna. When the shared coherence ends, the energy settles on one path, allowing it to make the journey without loss.

The discovery overturns some long-held beliefs about quantum mechanics, which held that quantum coherence cannot occur at anything other than cryogenic temperatures because a hot environment would destroy the effect. However, the Chroomonas algae perform their work at 21 °C.

None of this means Penrose is correct, of course. But it does suggest that quantum effects are at least possible at the biological level, and therefore maybe in the human brain. Interesting stuff.

Chart of the Day: Pentagon Budget

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:57 PM EST

The Project on Defense Alternatives sent me this email a few minutes ago:

We’ve just opened the web page Trillions to Burn? A Quick Guide to the Pentagon Budget Surge — please have a look.  It’s a quick read with 9 charts that explain why the DoD budget has risen to over 700 billion and what it implies for other federal spending and the national debt.

Hey, you had me at "charts"! So here's your chart of the day: a look at Pentagon spending since World War II, adjusted for inflation. Right now we're spending more than we did during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or the Reagan military buildup. And there's no end in sight. More at the link.

Buying Votes the Old Fashioned Way

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 1:18 PM EST

In the LA Times today, Michael Hiltzik provides a taste of our electoral future, where corporation are allowed to spend unlimited sums on their pet projects and candidates. Hiltzik's poster child is electric utility PG&E, which has qualified for the California ballot a measure that would require any public utility to get approval by two-thirds of voters before launching or expanding its public power service, or floating bonds to finance the service. That's a sweet deal, since a two-thirds vote is all but impossible to get, meaning that PG&E's public competitors would be effectively unable to ever expand their business:

Nine state legislators, led by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), warned PG&E Chairman Peter Darbee by letter that PG&E's actions might violate state law by interfering with the creation of new municipal power services. PG&E's self-interested exploitation of the initiative process, they told him, also "calls into question your company's integrity."

How did Darbee respond? His company placed an additional $3 million in the campaign kitty . If you were to translate that response to the legislators into English, it wouldn't be printable in a family newspaper.

...."The fertile minds of utility lawyers are going to be able to dream up all kinds of things," S. David Freeman, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the nation's largest municipal utility, told me last week. "This is just another attempt by a private utility to inhibit the right of public power to be a competitive yardstick. It's so hurtful of consumers that it would be laughable, except that PG&E's ability to put up brainwashing ads makes it a real threat."

Worse, state law prohibits elected officials and public agencies from spending public funds to oppose a ballot measure. That means any effort to counteract PG&E's bankroll will be crippled from the start. "It's a grim reality that public agencies won't be able to fight back at all," says Charles McGlashan, a Marin County supervisor.

PG&E's ballot measure hasn't passed yet, and the good news is that it's tough to win a majority for initiatives like this. Still, they can spend nearly unlimited sums trying to sell it, their natural opponents can't spend a dime, and that leaves nothing but generic good government groups to fight this thing. Not exactly a fair fight.

How They Do It

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 12:31 PM EST

I guess I was dozing off during Jon Stewart's interview with Newt Gingrich last night, because I don't remember this exchange:

Gingrich: The American public doesn't understand reading Miranda rights to terrorists in Detroit when it's fairly obvious they're terrorists.

Stewart: The only thing I would say to that is, didn't they do the same with Richard Reid, who was the shoe bomber?

Gingrich: Richard Reid was an American citizen.

How does he get away with saying stuff like this? Reid was a British citizen, born in London, and radicalized at the Finsbury mosque. This is Wikipedia level stuff. But guys like Gingrich get away with repeating this nonsense over and over even though they must know they're lying. Amazing. Via Steve Benen.

Men Without Work

| Wed Feb. 10, 2010 11:13 AM EST

Back in the early 90s Joel Garreau wrote a book called Edge City. Basically, an edge city is a suburb, but it's a suburb that has the usual sprawl of stucco houses plus at least five million square feet of leasable office space. In other words, it's a self-contained community where people can both live and work, and until the mid-70s such places really didn't exist. Today they're ubiquitous. So what happened? Garreau explains:

When I started asking developers when, exactly, they first thought it plausible to build quarter-of-a-million-square-foot office monoliths out in some cow pasture, far from the old downtowns, I found it eerie how often the year 1978 came up....The only thing I've discovered that begins to account for that nationwide pattern is that 1978 was the peak year in all of American history for women entering the work force. In the second half of the 1970s, unprecedentedly, more than eight million hitherto non-wage-earning women went out and found jobs. The spike year was 1978.

That same year, a multitude of developers independently decided to start putting up big office buildings out beyond the traditional male-dominated downtown....The new advantage was proximity to the emerging work force. These Edge City work centers were convenient for women. It saved them time. This discovery was potent. A decade later, developers viewed it as a truism that office buildings had an indisputable advantage if they were located near the best-educated, most conscientious, most stable workers — underemployed females living in middle class communities on the fringes of the old urban areas.

Italics mine. This passage has stuck with me ever since I first read it. Three decades ago employers discovered that as long as their jobs didn't require much in the way of physical strength — and fewer and fewer jobs did — women were a better employment bet than men. Since then, this has become more apparent with every passing year. Which brings us to the recession of 2008-09, as described by Don Peck in the Atlantic:

The weight of this recession has fallen most heavily upon men, who’ve suffered roughly three-quarters of the 8 million job losses since the beginning of 2008....In November, 19.4 percent of all men in their prime working years, 25 to 54, did not have jobs, the highest figure since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948.

....According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, the gender imbalance of the job losses in this recession is particularly noteworthy, and — when combined with the depth and duration of the jobs crisis — poses “a profound challenge to marriage,” especially in lower-income communities. It may sound harsh, but in general, he says, “if men can’t make a contribution financially, they don’t have much to offer.”

Noted without comment, because I really don't quite know how this is all going to shake out. But I wouldn't be surprised if we're entering not merely a slow recovery in general, but an era in which the male employment ratio hovers permanently around 80% even for those in their prime working years. For now, though, just consider this some raw data.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Public Not Ready to Give Up on Healthcare

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 6:59 PM EST

The Washington Post reports today that both liberals and conservatives are in favor of compromise on healthcare — as long as the other guys are the ones doing the compromising. It's a start! The results aren't quite even, though:

But even Republicans are critical of their congressional leadership, with 44 percent seeing them as doing too little to strike deals with Obama; that compares with just 13 percent of Democrats worried about inaction on Obama's part.

That's something to work with. The Fox News wing of the Republican Party obviously isn't in the mood for compromise, but this is a reminder that there's still a quieter, non-Fox wing that would like to see some things get done. And as the chart on the right shows, 63% of the country thinks "lawmakers in Washington" should keep trying to pass comprehensive healthcare reform, including 42% of Republicans and a firm majority of independents. It's not clear what all these people think they're signing up to when they say they want "comprehensive" reform, but that's still a pretty healthy level of support. At the very least it should help stiffen a few Democratic spines in Congress.

The Healthcare Summit

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 3:52 PM EST

Jon Chait writes about President Obama's proposed healthcare summit meeting later this month with Republicans:

Skeptics around Washington are already warning that the summit will be nothing more than Kabuki theater, allowing each side to grandstand on television while providing little in the way of substantive debate or additional understanding for the folks watching back home.

That's not the point. Obama knows perfectly well that the Republicans have no serious proposals to address the main problems of the health care system and have no interest (or political room, given their crazy base) in handing him a victory of any substance. Obama is bringing them in to discuss health care so he can expose this reality.

I agree that this is almost certainly Obama's intent. The question is whether it will work. The GOP leadership has already responded to Obama's offer with a list of preconditions for the meeting, a tactic straight out of Negotiation 101, but also one that works pretty well. What's more, if they decide to show up anyway, they'll be a lot better prepared than they were for their Q&A a week ago. My guess is that they'll have some pretty good sounding arguments lined up about consumer focused healthcare, the need for market-driven reforms, the evils of top-down government control, etc. etc. Those aren't things that Obama will be able to conclusively swat down in a few hours.

But we'll see. I don't have high hopes for the summit because Democrats haven't shown much ability to control the media narrative lately, and that's what this is really all about. Hopefully they'll do better than I think.

The Pain of Spain is Mainly in the....Euro

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 3:21 PM EST

Paul Krugman writes about Europe's troubles today:

Most press coverage of the eurozone troubles has focused on Greece, which is understandable: Greece is up against the wall to a greater extent than anyone else. But the Greek economy is also very small....

Well, OK, but Lehman Brothers was also pretty small relative to the rest of Wall Street. A failure in Greece could easily have knock-on effects that start taking out other weak countries and then spreads to not-so-weak countries. Still, point taken. Moving on:

....in economic terms the heart of the crisis is in Spain, which is much bigger. And as I’ve tried to point out in a number of posts, Spain’s troubles are not, despite what you may have read, the result of fiscal irresponsibility. Instead, they reflect “asymmetric shocks” within the eurozone, which were always known to be a problem, but have turned out to be an even worse problem than the euroskeptics feared.

The rest is worth reading if this stuff seems mysterious to you. It's very short, comes complete with some colorful charts, and gets across the main problems very succinctly. Basically, the problem is that Spain is in big trouble and needs to devalue its currency, but it can't because it doesn't have its own currency anymore. It has the euro, and the rest of the eurozone (i.e., Germany) doesn't want to adopt an expansionist monetary policy just to bail out Spain and a few other countries. So they're stuck.

Read More Books!

| Tue Feb. 9, 2010 2:12 PM EST

I promise not to spend all day writing about Twitter and the end of Western civilization, but having defended e-media of various kinds earlier this morning, now I want to plead the case for books. Here is Ezra Klein's defense of online media:

Then there are the advantages that online media offer that books can't match: It's possible to follow an issue in real time. People who really wanted to understand the health-care reform conversation were better off reading Jon Cohn's blog than any particular book or magazine. Did those people spend more time reading Jon and less time reading books? Probably. But it was time well spent. Packer is insistent on making the point that something is lost as we move into this faster, more fractured, more condensed media environment. But so too is something gained.

Italics mine. I don't want to disagree too much with this. Obviously online media does allow you to follow issues in real time, something that books don't. But is it really time well spent to devote more time to reading Jon Cohn's blog posts on healthcare and less time to reading Jon Cohn's book about healthcare? I'm not so sure, and to this extent I think George Packer has a point when he bemoans the loss of time for reading books.

This is, I grant, a purely personal reaction, but one of my occasional frustrations with the blogosphere is a sense that people sometimes think they can understand complex issues merely by reading lots of blog posts and newspaper articles. I'm not so sure of that. There's a big difference between a 100,000-word book on healthcare and 100,000 words of real-time commentary on healthcare. You can learn a lot from the latter, but very frequently you miss the big picture because (a) it's not all there and (b) you have to put it together yourself over time. The result is a sort of glib and shallow understanding that can produce enjoyable polemics or good water cooler arguments, but not much more.

A few hours spent with a carefully constructed book, on the other hand, can change the way you think about something by showing you history, context, and all the non-sexy stuff — in other words, all the messy complexity — in a single package that you absorb all at once. Basically, if you read Sick, you're getting years of Jon Cohn's distilled knowledge of American healthcare in a few hours. To get the same from his blog posts, you'd have to spend months or years reading them, and you still wouldn't get it all.

If you really want to understand any issue more complex than Brad and Angelina's marital status, there's really no substitute for a book. Not instead of blogs and newspapers and Twitter, but in addition to them. So: read more books! They're good for you.