Kevin Drum

Yet More on Atheism and Death

| Sat May 15, 2010 3:47 PM EDT

I promise not to blather forever on the death and atheism meme, but I think I'll do one more post on the subject just to finish things up. I wrote a few days ago that although knowledge of our inevitable death is unique to humans, it doesn't define what it means to be human any more than a hundred other things that are unique to humans. Andrew Sullivan disagrees:

I find Kevin's final statement unpersuasive. To be human is to be aware of our own finitude, and to wonder at that. Montaigne argued that to philosophize is to learn how to die. Camus put it differently: men die and they are not happy. For me, this last thing is our first thing as humans. It is our defining characteristic, even though some animals may experience this in a different way.

And our ability to think about this casts us between angels and beasts. It is our reality. Facing it is our life's task.

I think I hardly have to say that this subject is light years outside my usual wheelhouse. So I don't have a lot to say about it. But this attitude toward death surely sums up a vast chasm between the religious and the nonreligious. "Facing it is our life's task"? I can't even conceive of that. I think about death sometimes, just like everyone, and sometimes these thoughts bother me more than other times. But thinking about it all the time? Casting it as uniquely central to the human condition? That's almost incomprehensible to me. Wondering about our own finitude is one thing — I imagine we all do that from time to time — but why should this be elevated above the human ability to create art, science, mathematics, love, war, poetry, trade, government, or ethics — or the ability to wonder in the first place? Why is learning how to deal with our eventual death the defining characteristic of being human? Not just because Montaigne said so, certainly.

There's no answer, of course. Andrew thinks it is and I don't. But I confess that even on an intellectual basis I have a hard time grasping this. Still, we can't just let things rest there, can we? So instead, in an audacious effort to wrest this question away from the high-minded philosophers and transform it back into the kind of research and policy drudgery this blog excels at, here's an odd and seemingly unrelated thought: are autistics less religious than the rest of us? In general, as you go further along the Asperger's/autism spectrum are you less likely to believe in God and be concerned about death? And vice versa for those at the other end of the spectrum? I'm not sure why this conversation caused this particular question to pop into my head, but it did. Does anyone know if there's any research on this subject?

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Iraq Election Update

| Sat May 15, 2010 2:37 PM EDT

Two months after their parliamentary elections, the Iraqis have finally finished their recount and our pal Nouri al-Maliki didn't get the results he wanted:

In an embarrassing rejection of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's efforts to overturn his rival's lead in Iraq's inconclusive parliamentary election, a laborious manual recount of votes in Baghdad has turned up no evidence of electoral fraud and will not change the final outcome, officials said Friday....Had the allegations been upheld, the recount could have eroded the two-seat lead of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's faction. Allawi, a secular Shiite supported by Sunni Arabs, is claiming the right to form the next government as the head of the largest, if not majority, bloc in parliament.

....The delay in issuing final results has in turn deferred serious negotiations on the formation of a new coalition government....[Maliki's] coalition is locked in talks over who should be the next prime minister with the third largest winner, a Shiite bloc with 70 seats that is staunchly opposed to Maliki's candidacy and would like to see one of its own members get the job.

But wait! It turns out the Sadrist bloc has decided that maybe Maliki is acceptable after all:

A spokesman for radical, anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr told AFP the movement would drop a veto against Maliki seeking a new term as premier as long as he met its condition that around 2,000 Sadrist prisoners be freed....Saturday's conciliatory statement, which followed discussions between the two sides in the past 48 hours, would eliminate Maliki's biggest hurdle.

Meanwhile, the "war minister" for al Qaeda in Iraq is warning of "dark days colored in blood," and violence has increased as the political stalemate continues:

"Sunnis will be very frustrated if (Allawi's) list is sidelined in the new government," said Omar al-Bayati, from Baghdad's Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah. "Many Sunnis think the formula of the current government should be changed; otherwise, the country is heading to the worst."

...."It is clear that al-Qaida is trying to ignite the sectarian war in this country and with the latest attacks, I think that the civil war is a possibility," said Alaa Mohammed, of the city of Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad, scene of some of the worst bombings Monday.

Stay tuned.

Friday Newsletter: COIN in Afghanistan

| Sat May 15, 2010 1:52 PM EDT

Every week I write a short blog post that goes into a weekly newsletter that MoJo sends out via email each Friday. I've never reposted them here because I write these things on Wednesday night, and by Saturday they already feel ancient. But that's a little silly, no? So I think I'll start putting them up on the blog on Saturday morning so that people can comment on them if they want. Here's yesterday's edition.

Last week I was talking to a friend whose son is currently stationed in Afghanistan. He was pretty scathing about how the war is being prosecuted. We're supposed to be engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign there, he told me, which means getting soldiers out from their camps and into the towns and cities. They should be patrolling continuously, making their presence felt, and engaging with local leaders. But his son reported that none of that was happening.

That's only one unit, of course, and enlisted men are rarely privy to the bigger picture.  Maybe there's a reason this particular unit is twiddling its thumbs for the moment. Unfortunately, there's reason to suspect that the problem runs deeper and wider than that. And even more disturbingly, there's pretty good reason to think that even if the Army steps up its game, it won't do any good. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is currently planning a make-or-break offensive in the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, but a source there who's a firm believer in counterinsurgency doctrine has recently become profoundly disillusioned. In "A Counterproductive Counterinsurgency," a memo currently wending its way through official channels in Afghanistan, he says:

The idea of “counterinsurgency” appears to be a viable way for success on paper. Military units, along with NGO’s [non-governmental organizations], the Department of State, GIRoA [the Afghanistan government], and other government agencies work together to emplace the clear, hold, build strategy in key areas of the battlefield. Like communism, however, counterinsurgency methods are not proving to be effective in practice.

The history of foreign powers mounting successful counterinsurgencies is bleak. Too little force and you can't protect the local population. Too much force and you risk enough civilian damage to push them into the hands of the insurgents. It is, in T.E. Lawrence's famous phrase, like eating soup with a knife, and most practitioners can point to only one significant success in the modern era: the Malayan Emergency of the late 40s and 50s. Plus, of course, Gen. David Petraeus's famous victory in Iraq in 2007. But even that should give pause for thought. For starters, it's not clear yet that counterinsurgency has actually worked in Iraq: the government is less stable now than ever and violence is again on the rise. Beyond that, though, the success in Iraq was due not just to Petraeus's surge, but to what I call the Four Esses. The Surge was one of them, but it wouldn't have worked without the other three: the Sunni Awakening that turned tribal leaders against al-Qaeda in Iraq; the sectarian cleansing that displaced millions of Iraqis and purged mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad; and Muqtada al-Sadr, who declared a cease fire long before Petraeus arrived and, against all odds, stuck to it.

None of those things is present in Afghanistan, and so far the evidence suggests that without them we have little chance of replicating even the contingent success we had in Iraq. This is something that the Pentagon seems to be belatedly recognizing as it tries to downsize future operations. Counterinsurgency, says Andrew Exum, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security, "is a good way to get out of a situation gone bad," but it's not the best way to use combat forces. Afghanistan, unfortunately, is starting to look like the graveyard of empires once again.

Chart of the Day: Drill, Baby, Drill

| Sat May 15, 2010 1:35 PM EDT

This chart comes from Glen Sweetnam of the Department of Energy (he's the director of the EIA's International, Economic and Greenhouse Gas division). The black line represents the year 2011. After that, oil production diverges sharply from projected demand, and no one knows how we're going to make up the difference.

Sweetnam, by the way, is not talking about peak oil here. DOE subscribes to an "undulating plateau" theory, where oil production peaks and then stays more or less flat for a decade or so. Rather, Sweetnam attributes the production decline to a lack of investment. However, since new projects take years to come on line after they're funded, this is a fairly thin distinction in the medium run. If investment is lacking today, then Sweetnam's chart is probably accurate for at least the next few years.

What can be done? The possibilities are: (a) much higher oil prices to suppress demand, (b) a continuing recession to suppress demand, (c) amped up conservation and efficiency measures to suppress demand, (d) an increase in renewable sources of electricity along with an electrification of our transportation infrastructure, (e) biofuels, or (f) a switch to natural gas in place of oil — though I think the natural gas bonanza has been oversold, and in any case even if things go well it will take years for natural gas to seriously eat into oil consumption. I'm probably missing a few things, but this is basically the shape of the river. And all of them come with significant problems that I probably don't have to go into.

Just thought I'd share. (Via ClimateProgress.)

Sarkozy Threatens to Leave the Euro

| Sat May 15, 2010 11:25 AM EDT

Megan McArdle passed along an El Pais story yesterday saying that French president Nicolas Sarkozy threatened a week ago to abandon the euro unless Germany agreed to a French plan to rescue Greece. This didn't seem to pass the smell test to me, so I skipped past it. But today the Guardian confirms it:

Nicolas Sarkozy threatened to abandon the euro unless Angela Merkel dropped her hostility to the EU's €750bn safety net for the single currency, sources in Brussels and European capitals said yesterday...."It was a standup argument. He was shouting and bawling," said one official in Brussels. "It was Sarkozy on steroids," said a European diplomat. "He's always very energetic. This time he was very emotional, too."

....Diplomats at the time reported that the summit was going very badly and would continue through the night. But it ended half an hour later after Sarkozy abruptly announced he was leaving. "Sarko said: 'For me it's over. I'm stopping this if we can't agree,' " said a diplomat.

I doubt that Sarkozy was even nominally serious about this, but as Megan says, this is a big deal anyway. It shows both that dissolution of the euro isn't entirely unmentionable and that Germany's opposition to the Greek bailout was stronger than anyone thought. The former, I suppose, was inevitable, and the latter actually makes it more likely. As Paul Krugman says, it's hard to think of any other solution to Europe's problems. Even defaulting completely on its debt wouldn't really help Greece much at this point.

Question: is there any way to artificially "adjust" a country's exchange rate in the eurozone? I don't see how, but maybe there's some clever synthetic way of accomplishing the same thing as a currency devaluation without leaving the euro. Has anyone heard of such a thing?

Green Cards Once Again Green

| Fri May 14, 2010 9:39 PM EDT

Here's a post from The Corner's resident immigration guy:

It's Finally Green Again! [Mark Krikorian]
Here's the redesigned look of the green card:

It hasn't actually been green for decades, in part, I think, because of bureaucratic stubbornness — they weren't going to give in to some silly nickname. They seem to have thought better of that, which is good.

I'm genuinely curious: why is this good? In fact, why does anyone care one way or the other if a green card is actually green? Has this been some pet peeve of the anti-immigration community for years? Inquiring minds want to know.

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Basketball Trivia

| Fri May 14, 2010 7:04 PM EDT

In the history of the NBA, 24 players have won five or more championship rings. Of those, 23 won most or all of them as a member of one of four dynasties: the George Mikan Lakers, the Bill Russell Celtics, the Magic/Kareem Lakers, and the Michael Jordan Bulls. Who was the 24th?

Friday Cat Blogging - 14 May 2010

| Fri May 14, 2010 2:53 PM EDT

Yesterday was just a beautiful day here in Southern California, so the cats were out playing in the garden. Inkblot was sniffing around the flowers, occasionally looking up to ask why someone kept pointing a giant glass eye in his direction. Domino sat serenely with the sun hitting her directly enough that you can actually see her face in this picture, not just a furry black blob. And today? It's looking just as good. Have a nice weekend, everyone.

More on the Long-Term Unemployed

| Fri May 14, 2010 1:54 PM EDT

Just a quick additional note about long-term unemployment — i.e., those who have been unemployed more than six months. Normally, the long-term unemployment rate is considerably lower than the short-term rate, and tracks roughly equal with the rate of the medium-term unemployed (those out of work 15-26 weeks). The chart snippet on the right, with long-term unemployment in red, shows this. So if this recession had followed the usual pattern, long-term unemployment would have peaked a few months ago at about 2% of the labor force and would now be down in the neighborhood of 1.5% or so. Instead, it's at nearly 4.5% and still climbing.

Here's what this means: if this recession were following the usual pattern, total unemployment would have peaked several months ago not at 10%, but at around 7% or so. This is just a back-of-the-envelope figure after looking at the raw BLS numbers, but it's in the right ballpark. And that's a huge difference. Unemployment of 7% is bad, but it's not catastrophic.

I don't yet have anything deep to say about this. I'm still just noodling over the data. But as this makes clear, the depth of our current recession is almost entirely due to the fantastically high and unprecedented amount of long-term unemployment. I don't know if that's cause or effect or something in between, but it's important.

Protecting the Oil Industry

| Fri May 14, 2010 1:12 PM EDT

If drilling for oil has the potential to cause vast damage, then the drillers of oil need to have the financial wherewithal to repair that damage when it occurs. That's the kind of personal responsibility the Republican Party stands for. So Republicans certainly wouldn't object to raising the liability cap for offshore drilling accidents so that taxpayers aren't the hook for the costs. Right?

You underestimate the Republican party. None other than Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski stood up to object. Yes, the senator from the state that got hammered by the Exxon Valdez spill objected to raising the liability cap.

And what was her argument? If the liability cap is raised, that might exclude small oil companies from being able to get the insurance and financing necessary to drill offshore. After all, only the oil giants could afford $10 billion. That is to say: only the oil giants can afford to clean up after themselves.

You're not dreaming. That's really the argument. Murkowski wants small, independent oil companies to be able to privatize the profits of offshore drilling but offload the financial risks to the public. And she frames it as avoiding a "Big Oil monopoly" on drilling. She's just defending mom-and-pop oil shops! The gall is breathtaking.

That's David Roberts. On a historical note, this is pretty much how the nuclear power industry is treated too. Back in 1957, when no one knew just how dangerous nuclear plants were, insurance companies were unwilling to write open-ended policies for them. Congress, however, didn't want that to get in the way of nuclear development (too cheap to meter, after all!). So they required plant operators to buy the biggest policies they could, and then put taxpayers on the hook for any damages above that.

Oh wait. No they didn't. Actually, they set up a $10 billion insurance pool funded by the industry. Taxpayers were on the hook for anything above that, but at least the industry as a whole was responsible for the first $10 billion. If Murkowski is so worried about all those small oil companies, maybe she should support the same kind of fund for offshore drilling. But I guess that would be socialism. Or something.