Kevin Drum - July 2011

Black Sites in Somalia?

| Sat Jul. 16, 2011 9:22 PM EDT

Jeremy Scahill has a long piece about Somalia in The Nation this week, which includes a charge that the Obama administration is effectively running a black site prison in Mogadishu despite promises two years ago that all the Bush-era black sites had been shut down. The following excerpt is long, but I want to include every passage in Scahill's piece that relates to the black site charge:

US agents “are here full time,” a senior Somali intelligence official told me. At times, he said, there are as many as thirty of them in Mogadishu, but he stressed that those working with the Somali NSA do not conduct operations; rather, they advise and train Somali agents.

....According to well-connected Somali sources, the CIA is reluctant to deal directly with Somali political leaders, who are regarded by US officials as corrupt and untrustworthy. Instead, the United States has Somali intelligence agents on its payroll. Somali sources with knowledge of the program described the agents as lining up to receive $200 monthly cash payments from Americans.

....According to former detainees, the underground prison, which is staffed by Somali guards, consists of a long corridor lined with filthy small cells infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes....A Somali who was arrested in Mogadishu and taken to the prison told The Nation that he was held in a windowless underground cell. Among the prisoners he met during his time there was a man who held a Western passport (he declined to identify the man’s nationality). Some of the prisoners told him they were picked up in Nairobi and rendered on small aircraft to Mogadishu, where they were handed over to Somali intelligence agents. Once in custody, according to the senior Somali intelligence official and former prisoners, some detainees are freely interrogated by US and French agents. “Our goal is to please our partners, so we get more [out] of them, like any relationship,” said the Somali intelligence official in describing the policy of allowing foreign agents, including from the CIA, to interrogate prisoners.

....Among the men believed to be held in the secret underground prison is Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, a 25- or 26-year-old Kenyan citizen who disappeared from the congested Somali slum of Eastleigh in Nairobi around July 2009....“Hassan’s abduction from Nairobi and rendition to a secret prison in Somalia bears all the hallmarks of a classic US rendition operation,” [says Clara Gutteridge, a veteran human rights investigator]. The US official interviewed for this article denied the CIA had rendered Hassan but said, “The United States provided information which helped get Hassan—a dangerous terrorist—off the street.”

....Some prisoners, like Hassan, were allegedly rendered from Nairobi, while in other cases, according to Aynte, “the US and other intelligence agencies have notified the Somali intelligence agency that some people, some suspects, people who have been in contact with the leadership of Al Shabab, are on their way to Mogadishu on a [commercial] plane, and to essentially be at the airport for those people. Catch them, interrogate them.”

So what's going on here? There are roughly three ways the United States can be involved with black sites:

  1. Full-on black site: The prison is directly funded and operated by Americans and all interrogation is done by American operatives.
  2. Proxy prison: The prison is technically run by foreigners, but this is little more than a ruse. In reality, it's funded and operated by Americans with only a veneer of local control.
  3. Business-as-usual cooperation with foreign intelligence services, many of whom are pretty nasty: A friendly foreign government runs a prison. Americans provide training, intelligence, and payoffs to helpful locals who are nominally on our side, and in return they get periodic access to prisoners.

So is this more an example of #2 or #3? There's no argument from anyone that America has an intelligence presence in Somalia, and no argument that we provide counterterrorism training for Somali intelligence agents. Whether you approve of this or not, it's a pretty standard part of running the American empire. The two big questions, then, are (a) whether the payoffs to Somali intelligence agents are extensive enough to amount to proxy control of the prison by the United States, and (b) whether the United States routinely renders terror suspects from other countries and turns them over to the Somalis. Unfortunately, based on what's in Scahill's story, it's impossible to say. There's just not enough evidence.

So I'll just open this up for conversation. I figure that pretty much every country in this region has a bunch of nasty prisons, and in the regimes that are friendly toward us the CIA probably has periodic access to all of them. What's more, lots of these friendly regimes receive American aid, American intelligence assistance, and American training of various sorts. So at what point does this morph from squalid, but normal, business to proxy American control of black sites? Comments?

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Getting Inside the Republican Mind

| Sat Jul. 16, 2011 10:21 AM EDT

Let's review Republican priorities, shall we? First off, here are three Republicans explaining why a bad economy is something to be concerned about. Hint: it's not because of the human misery of millions of home foreclosures and tens of millions of unemployed.

From conservative analyst Erick Erickson, explaining why Republicans should wreck the U.S. economy via default:

Obama has a legacy to worry about. Should the United States lose its bond rating, it will be called the “Obama Depression”. Congress does not get pinned with this stuff.

From Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, explaining why Republicans shouldn't wreck the U.S. economy via default:

It destroys your brand and would give the president an opportunity to blame Republicans for a bad economy. Look, he owns the economy. He has been in office almost three years now. And we refuse to let him entice us in to co-ownership of a bad economy.

From James Pethokoukis, tweeting excitedly last night about the brighter side of bad economic news:

Ouch!....Obama 2012 nightmare!....Alarms bells must be ringing loudly tonight across Obamaland....Panic at the WH?....GOP nomination very much worth having.

And here are a couple of other glimpses into what's motivating Republicans these days. Hint: it's all about protecting the rich.

From the LA Times, on the travails of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: 

When it opens its doors next week, the federal government's new agency to protect consumers from financial fraud won't be quite the aggressive watchdog promised a year ago....The agency won't have power, for instance, to crack down on mortgage brokers, some of which helped lead the nation into the housing debacle four years ago. It also won't have authority over other largely unregulated sectors of the financial services industry, such as payday lenders and remittance companies such as Western Union, that it was created to police.

....Vehement opposition to the agency from Republicans and much of the financial services industry has stalled efforts by the Obama administration to install a director, a five-year appointment that must be confirmed by the Senate.

From James Stewart on who benefits from cutting funding to the SEC:

Cutting the S.E.C.’s budget will have no effect on the budget deficit, won’t save taxpayers a dime and could cost the Treasury millions in lost fees and penalties. That’s because the S.E.C. isn’t financed by tax revenue, but rather by fees levied on those it regulates, which include all the big securities firms.

A little-noticed provision in Dodd-Frank mandates that those fees can’t exceed the S.E.C.’s budget. So cutting its requested budget by $222.5 million saves Wall Street the same amount, and means regulated firms will pay $136 million less in fiscal 2012 than they did the previous year, the S.E.C. projects.

Goldman Forecast: Economy Sucking Ever Worse

| Sat Jul. 16, 2011 1:48 AM EDT

James Pethokoukis helpfully tweets an abysmal new economic forecast from Goldman Sachs:

In Obamaland these may be alarm bells, but if the rest of Pethokoukis's tweets are any indication, Republicans hear them as the bells of Christmas in July. Unfortunately, they understand the lessons of political science forecasting models all too well, so while it would be nice if conservatives would let us do something about this grim news instead of just standing cynically athwart the economy and yelling Stop, it's not going to happen. After all, there's an election coming up, and the worse off you are, the better off they are.

So suck it up, folks. There's no relief in sight.

The Return of the 8x8 Myth

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 9:14 PM EDT

Hooray! One of my favorite pet peeves is in the news again. It's the infamous — and endlessly debunked — 8x8 rule, namely that adults should be sure to drink at least 8 glasses of water per day. I got interested in this several years ago because I'm a human camel: I don't drink anywhere near that much water and I feel fine. So I wondered where this myth came from. Answer: after undoubtedly prodigious research, Heinz Valtin of Dartmouth concluded a decade ago that it most likely came from a single paragraph in an obscure government report in 1945. Here it is:

A suitable allowance of water for adults is 2.5 liters daily in most instances. An ordinary standard for diverse persons is 1 milliliter for each calorie of food. Most of this quantity is contained in prepared foods.

Note two things: First, this is based on no actual research at all. It's just a casual guess. Second, even if it's true, it was misinterpreted. Everyone read the first sentence, which suggests that a 2000-calorie diet requires 2000 ml of water, or roughly 64 ounces. But they sailed right by the second sentence, which says that you get a lot of this automatically in the food you eat. So even if this was good advice, it really meant something like five or six glasses of water per day, not eight or more.

So how much water should you drink? Answer: as much as you want. If you're thirsty, drink some water. If you're not, don't bother. And "water" includes coffee, tea, soft drinks, and pretty much any other water-based beverage. Water with caffeine in it is just as good as water without it.

So why am I writing about this yet again? Because I'm amused by the fact that every couple of years someone rediscovers this myth, looks into it, and publishes a journal article debunking it. Valtin wrote about water requirements in 2002, the Institute of Medicine tackled the subject in 2004, and in 2008 Dan Negoianu and Stanley Goldfarb published a comprehensive piece in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology concluding that for normal, healthy people there's no evidence one way or the other that drinking lots of water has any health benefits. It doesn't clear your kidneys of toxins, it doesn't improve organ function, it doesn't help you lose weight, it doesn't prevent headaches, and it doesn't improve your skin tone. (On the other hand, it doesn't do any harm, either. If you're thirsty, feel free to drink some water.)

But that was three years ago, so it's time for another go-around. Jen Quraishi has the latest debunking today, reporting on a piece by Margaret McCartney in the current issue of the British Medical Journal. This time, though, there's a brand new source of dubious hydration nonsense to be debunked: the bottled water industry:

While McCartney didn't see evidence backing up the 2-liter-a-day rule, she did see bottled water companies pushing the "water=health" idea to sell more of their products. As McCartney wrote on her blog: "The bottled water industry is pushing the idea that we should drink more than we normally would with the promise of health benefits, and I don’t think there are any. That's all. And I would recommend tap rather than bottled water: cheaper, and far better for environment." The bottled water companies were not happy with McCartney's attitude. In response, the European Federation of Bottled Waters wrote a letter to BMJ about McCartney's article and cited a recommendation that "at least two liters of water should be consumed per day."

McCartney, in fact, goes even further than other researchers I've read: according to Jen, "she found evidence that mental performance suffers when people drink more water than they're thirsty for." So take it easy on the Big Gulps, OK?

Friday Cat Blogging - 15 July 2011

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 2:03 PM EDT

On the left, Domino is surveying her domain. The entire living room below is hers, all hers. On the right, my spy cam ferrets out Inkblot in his new favorite place. Normally, he spends morning nap time on our bed, but for the past week he's been camping out in a dark hidey hole underneath the guest bed instead. Don't ask me why. Occasionally a stray neuron fires and he suddenly decides he adores some new and different place. Next week it might be the bathtub. After that, who knows?

Our Problem is Household Debt, Not Government Debt

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 1:36 PM EDT

Here's an interesting chart via Paul Krugman. Atif Mian and Amir Sufi compared the strength of economic recovery on a county-by-county basis, and what they found was that virtually all of the continuing weakness is concentrated in areas where household debt is high. Consumption of durable goods is low, residential investment is low, and employment is low. Their conclusion:

Overall, the county evidence strongly suggests that credit demand is weak because of an overleveraged household sector....The evidence is [] consistent with the view that problems related to household balance sheets and house prices are the primary culprits of the weak economic recovery. King (1994) provides a detailed discussion of how differences in the marginal propensity to consume between borrowing and lending households can generate an aggregate downturn in an economy with high household leverage....Our view is that the depth and length of the current recession relative to previous recessions is closely linked to the tremendous rise in household debt that preceded it.

This isn't an easy problem to solve, but a couple of things leap out. First, high household debt is strongly correlated with underwater mortgages, and this could be partly addressed by a more aggressive program of loan modifications to replace the hapless HAMP program of 2009. Second, temporary tax cuts that put money in people's pockets are useful even if the money doesn't get spent. We won't get a full recovery until debt levels get back to normal, and the faster that happens the better. If tax rebates get used to pay off credit cards or mortgages, that's fine.

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Incandescent Bulbs Not Banned. Repeat: Not Banned

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 11:56 AM EDT

The strange conservative jihad against energy efficient light bulbs continues today. Higher efficiency standards were mandated by the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, a bill passed by massive majorities in Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush, but no matter. The Rush Limbaugh crowd has turned it into a poster child for socialism run amok, and repealing it is now a top priority among among the tea party crowd. Here's Stephen Moore in the Wall Street Journal today:

The light bulb ban was part of the 2007 energy bill. It will outlaw the sale of traditional 100 watt bulbs starting in 2012. Many Americans dislike the new fluorescent bulbs, which give off less heat and are more energy efficient, because they don't like the quality of the lighting.

Nope. Traditional bulbs will continue to be available. They'll just be more efficient. As Stephen Lacey tells us, Philips brought new, higher efficiency incandescent bulbs to market several months ago:

It’s not just Philips making these bulbs. GE and Sylvania are also producing new, energy-efficient incandescents using the same technology. And by 2014, consumers will not be forced to buy more expensive LEDs or moderately priced CFLs — they’ll be able to buy incandescent bulbs that today cost $1.42 and use 27% less energy.

The table on the right shows the new standards. (Details here.) Basically, the new bulbs produce the equivalent of 100 watts of light output using only 72 watts, the equivalent of 75 watts using only 53 watts, etc. And they're still incandescent, and they still provide the same kind of light you're used to. If you don't like CFLs, you're free to continue not to use them.

Repeal of the EISA standards failed earlier this week, but the tea partiers aren't giving up. It just passed on a voice vote in the House as an amendment to an appropriations bill, all based on the myth that incandescent bulbs have been banned and you'd better stockpile them quick before the EPA jackboots march into your local hardware store and haul them all away. But it's not true. You can still buy incandescent bulbs. They'll just be more energy efficient.

The World is Not as Safe as Wall Street Thinks

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 11:20 AM EDT

Felix Salmon posts this chart from a recent Basel report and repeats the familiar observation that "it wasn’t an excess of greed and speculation which led to the financial crisis, but rather an excess of overcaution, with an attendant surge in demand for triple-A-rated bonds." True enough: everyone wanted super safe investments, so Wall Street cranked out boatloads of allegedly super safe investments. As the Basel report states, "Between 1990 and 2006, the year in which the series of ABS issues peaked, assets with the highest credit rating rose from a little over 20 per cent of total rated fixed-income issues to almost 55 per cent." (That's the heavy green line in the chart.)

But I think this misses the point a bit. The problem is that the Basel report cherry-picks its timeframe. Try this instead: "Between 1994 and 2006, assets with the highest credit rating rose from about 47 per cent of total rated fixed-income issues to almost 55 per cent." That doesn't seem quite so scary. But surely that's a better timeframe to use since global issuance of fixed income securities was pretty negligible before that.

What is scary in this chart is the huge growth of debt in general over the past two decades, and in particular the boom in ABS debt during the aughts, which tripled between 2000 and 2006. These are the CDOs and structured products that fueled the housing boom, and there's not much question that most of them should never have been allowed to join the AAA hit parade. They're largely gone now, but unfortunately, Felix points out what's next:

Finally, look at the way that the maroon bars — structured products, basically — have given way to a scarily large purple bar at the far right of the chart. That’s sovereign debt, and it tells you all you need to know about where the next crisis is likely to come from.

The share of debt rated AAA may be only modestly higher now than it was in the late 90s, but it still strains credibility to believe that half the debt in the world is truly AAA — i.e., essentially completely free of credit risk. The world just isn't that safe a place.

Quote of the Day: Chaos OK as Long as Obama Gets the Blame

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 10:12 AM EDT

From influential RedState editor and CNN analyst Erick Erickson, advising House Republicans to reject President Obama's compromises on raising the debt ceiling limit:

Obama has a legacy to worry about. Should the United States lose its bond rating, it will be called the “Obama Depression”. Congress does not get pinned with this stuff.

OK then. I guess a massive new depression is fine as long as Obama gets stuck with the blame. It's heartwarming to see such concern for the working families of the country, isn't it?

But then, Erickson's also one of the guys who continues to be under the impression that Congress has banned incandescent light bulbs. How many people are going to have to point out that this is untrue before conservatives finally get the message?

Carmageddon: LA's Billion-Dollar Car-Pool Lane

| Fri Jul. 15, 2011 4:55 AM EDT
Interstate 405 ("the 405") in Los Angeles, California.

Midnight tonight marks the beginning of Carmageddon in Los Angeles: For two days and five hours, Interstate 405 between I-10 and US 101 will be completely shut down. Since the 405—and yes, we always use "the" in front of our freeway numbers in Southern California—is the main artery between Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, everyone expects total chaos as drivers jam up every available alternate route into the city (and into LAX, which is, inconveniently, located right on the 405). City and transit officials are treating this about the same way they'd treat a tsunami warning, telling residents in increasingly apocalyptic tones to either leave town or else just stay inside for the duration. Their message, broadcast across every medium known to science for the past two months, is pretty simple: Don't even think about taking your car anywhere if you live within a 30-mile radius of the construction.

So what's the reason for this mind-boggling closure? Answer: Caltrans is adding a 10-mile northbound car-pool lane to the freeway. The Los Angeles Times' architecture critic, Christopher Hawthorne, has some questions about this:

To begin with: Is widening the 405 (to add one solitary carpool lane on the freeway's northbound side) really something that we should be spending $1 billion on? Will it actually make traffic through the pass better? And if so, for how long?

After all, study after study has shown the ineffectiveness of this approach. As soon as you open up new lanes, drivers adjust: A few more decide to take the newly widened route each day, and before long the congestion is just as bad as before.

In this case, because an HOV lane is being added, some of the change in behavior will be virtuous, turning drivers into passengers. It's still tough to think of a less cost-efficient way to spend a billion dollars of public money.

Actually, it might be even worse than Hawthorne thinks. For the past two decades Los Angeles has gone on a binge of increasingly expensive car-pool construction, but the benefits of these new lanes are surprisingly equivocal. The lanes are always additions to freeways (no previously existing lane has been converted for car-pool use since the Santa Monica diamond lane debacle of 1976, which set back car-pool lanes by a decade), so they always ease traffic for a while. But as Hawthorne points out, the phenomenon of "traffic generation" has been known for decades. More lanes just attract more drivers and more congestion.

What's more, although it's true that car-pool lanes carry more passengers than general purpose lanes, this is a meaningless statistic. If all of a freeway's existing car-pools move into a newly constructed HOV lane, all you've done is juggle the traffic around. In fact, since HOV lanes generally have lower capacities than multiuse lanes (thanks to the "snail" effect, which is exactly what it sounds like), you actually lose some overall traffic capacity.

But here's the worst news. What we really want to know is how many drivers are motivated by HOV lanes to form new car pools. Surprisingly, though, considering the thousands of miles of HOV lanes constructed in the United States over the past two decades, this is a hard number to get a handle on. There have been a few studies of new car-pool formation, however, and here's one of them from Caltrans showing the number of car pools on LA freeways over the past 20 years:

The good news is that HOV lane construction during the '90s appears to have genuinely spurred more carpooling. True, adding 25,000 new car pools doesn't seem like much for a region the size of the LA basin with hundreds of miles of freeways, but at least it's measurable progress. The bad news is that despite the billions of dollars spent since then, new car-pool formation during the past decade has been...zero. All that money seems to have had no effect on car-pool behavior at all. Nor is this limited just to Los Angeles. Pravin Varaiya of the University of California's PATH program came to the same conclusion for the Bay Area's HOV lanes in a 2007 study. Over both the near and long term, the shorter commute times of HOV lanes apparently has almost no effect on the willingness of drivers to form car pools. What's more, census data suggests this is a nationwide phenomenon. "Over time the attraction of HOV travel appears to be weakening," Varaiya concludes.

None of this should be taken as a definitive takedown of car-pool lanes. The data on their effectiveness is murky, to say the least, and a lot depends on where the lanes are built and how well they support bus traffic. But that murkiness is surprising all by itself considering the HOV spree the country has been on over the past two decades. Even after 20 years of nonstop construction, we still don't really know how effective HOV lanes are at promoting car pools.

For Angelenos, however, the news is almost certainly bad. For starters, the I-405 shutdown is going to produce two rounds of chaos (the second one coming at the end of the project). And the project is sucking up a billion dollars that could almost certainly be used more efficiently on other transit projects. But that's the least of it. If Caltrans' own chart is to be believed, LA's willingness to carpool was saturated over a decade ago. Adding another billion dollars in new HOV lanes won't produce even a single new car pool. Now that's Carmageddon.

Plus even Hitler doesn't like it. And he's the guy who built the autobahns.