Kevin Drum

Quote of the Day: Iraq

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 12:25 PM EST

From a "senior U.S. military official" in Iraq, commenting on the increased sectarian violence in Baghdad a few weeks before the upcoming election:

All we're doing is setting the clock back to 2005. The militias are fully armed, and al-Qaeda in Iraq is trying to move back from the west. These are the conditions now, and we're sitting back looking at PowerPoint slides and whitewashing.

I don't think there's any way to sugar coat this: this was always a possibility, no matter how long we stayed in Iraq. The Four S's (Surge, Sadr, Sectarian cleansing, Sunni awakening) gave Iraq a bit of breathing room, but they didn't change its culture overnight. We still have a bit of influence, and our troops are still available as backups, but at this point the future of Iraq is up to the Iraqis. Surge or no surge, there's no guarantee it will have a happy ending.

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Crank Economics, Part 375

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 12:02 PM EST

Greece problems would be a lot less severe if it still had its own currency. The exchange rate of the drachma would adjust, exports would get cheaper and imports dearer, and Greece's economy would stumble around a bit but then recover. Unfortunately, Greece is part of the eurozone, so they don't have this option. They don't control their own currency.

Now, if you were, say, a miscellaneous blogger who didn't know much of anything about how this stuff works, you might have an idea: why doesn't Greece leave the eurozone? Readopt the drachma, let it float, and watch as all their problems neatly sort themselves out. Then, later, when their economy has recovered, they can adopt the euro again. Problem solved.

If you wrote a post suggesting this, it would take about five minutes to get a dozen comments explaining why it's impossible. But hey — you're just a hypothetical blogger. Nobody expects you to know anything about this stuff. Live and learn.

But why does Martin Feldstein, one of the world's preeminent economists, seem to think this would be a good idea? And why does the Financial Times give him space to suggest it? Paul Krugman is — uncharacteristically — too polite to actually ask this, but he's pretty obviously shaking his head over it as well. What's the deal, FT?

Chart of the Day: The Stimulus

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 11:16 AM EST

In the New York Times today, David Leonhardt writes what should be obvious: last year's stimulus bill, though not perfect, has been a smashing success:

Just look at the outside evaluations of the stimulus. Perhaps the best-known economic research firms are IHS Global Insight, Macroeconomic Advisers and Moody’s Economy.com. They all estimate that the bill has added 1.6 million to 1.8 million jobs so far and that its ultimate impact will be roughly 2.5 million jobs. The Congressional Budget Office, an independent agency, considers these estimates to be conservative.

....Around the world over the last century, the typical financial crisis caused the jobless rate to rise for almost five years, according to work by the economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. On that timeline, our rate would still be rising in early 2012. Even that may be optimistic, given that the recent crisis was so bad. As Ben Bernanke, Henry Paulson (Republicans both) and many others warned in 2008, this recession had the potential to become a depression.

For partisan political reasons, Republicans find it in their interest to insist that the stimulus was just a boondoggle that hasn't created a single job. The fact that this frequently gets reported with a straight face is a black mark for the press, which ought to insist on its sources being a wee bit more reality-based if they want to be quoted without being immediately debunked in the following paragraph.

The chart below from Organizing For America tells the real story. We still have a long way to go before job growth is back to normal, but the stimulus is getting us there a lot faster than we would have gotten there otherwise.

DADT and the Troops

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 7:55 PM EST

McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reports that, for the most part, the issue of allowing gays to serve openly in the military mostly just elicits yawns from those who are actually in the military:

Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was nearing the end of a 25-minute question and answer session with troops serving here when he raised a topic of his own: "No one's asked me about 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'" he said....Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Darryl E. Robinson, who's the operations coordinator for defense attache's office at the U.S. Embassy here, explained why after the session. "The U.S. military was always at the forefront of social change," he said. "We didn't wait for laws to change."

....Indeed, since Mullen appeared on Capitol Hill earlier this month and told a stunned Congress that in his personal view, gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve, the response among members of the military has been little more than a shrug.

After Tuesday's question-and-answer session, Mullen told McClatchy that although he's held three town hall sessions with troops since his testimony, not a single service member has asked him about the issue.

Among the senior officer corps, which trends more conservative and comes from an older generation, there might still be a fair amount of anxiety about ending DADT. But among the enlisted troops, I'll bet that even those who say they oppose repeal of DADT don't really feel very strongly about it. They grew up in an environment where it's just not that big a deal anymore, and when DADT is finally repealed, it won't be that big a deal in the military either.

Who's Outlandish Now?

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 7:27 PM EST

Have environmentalists who focus on climate change really "undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish," as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank said a couple of days ago? Apparently not. The Wonk Room took a look at those claims and found that (a) they were true, (b) many of them didn't have anything to do with global warming, and (c) they weren't made by environmentalists anyway.

This is what happens when you take stenography from the Heritage Foundation. Any reporter past his senior year in high school ought to know better.

Quote of the Day: On Justifying Selfishness

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 2:18 PM EST

From Matt Yglesias, on the question of whether broader access to health insurance would save lives:

To be even having this conversation is for the right-wing point of view to win the argument. It’s like the fake climate change “debate” — the point is not so much to actually persuade anyone of anything but simply to shift the rhetoric around. A lot of people have perfectly good selfish reasons to want to resist comprehensive climate legislation, but few people are comfortable self-consciously espousing selfish political beliefs. So it’s comforting and useful if they’re able to instead anchor themselves to the idea of some “controversy” over whether or not uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions are harmful.

And you see something similar here. There’s obviously a lot of discomfort with the idea of a highly moralized debate about the values implicated in the decision to support or resist efforts to expand access to affordable health insurance, so creating an air of technical controversy around the fact that the exact degree to which lack of insurance is harmful helps resterilize things.

Or to put it another way, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." Some things never change.

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Defending Torture the Old Fashioned Way

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 1:21 PM EST

Here is torture defender — and newly minted Washington Post columnist — Marc Thiessen explaining last year how the barbaric treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed yielded valuable information:

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.

That was in the Washington Post. Here is Tim Noah, writing in the Post's Slate subsidiary the next day:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim [...] is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002....But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration "broke up" that attack during the previous year? It couldn't, of course.

And Jonathan Bernstein, this morning:

I just saw torture apologist Marc Thiessen on CSPAN repeating, first of all, his argument that the Obama Administration is foolishly killing, rather than torturing, too many terrorists (today's news apparently notwithstanding; I turned it on too late to hear his explanation if any on that part of it), but more to the point his claim that torture and only torture prevented the Library Plot in Los Angeles from working.

I guess it's easy to see why the Post wants this guy writing for them on a weekly basis. He never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mud Flinging and Climate Change

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 12:43 PM EST

A few days ago I summarized some of the controversies swirling around the most recent (2007) IPCC climate change report and asked, "Is there anything to them? Or just a whole bunch of mud being thrown on the walls by the usual suspects?"

Yesterday the pros at RealClimate went through all the complaints and basically concluded that there's only one actual error in the report: the claim that Himalayan glaciers would be mostly gone by 2035. "Fixing this error involves deleting two sentences on page 493 of the WG2 report," they say, and it was never central to the report's conclusions anyway. So where did the whirlwind come from?

To those familiar with the science and the IPCC’s work, the current media discussion is in large part simply absurd and surreal. Journalists who have never even peeked into the IPCC report are now outraged that one wrong number appears on page 493 of Volume 2. We’ve met TV teams coming to film a report on the IPCC reports’ errors, who were astonished when they held one of the heavy volumes in hand, having never even seen it. They told us frankly that they had no way to make their own judgment; they could only report what they were being told about it. And there are well-organized lobby forces with proper PR skills that make sure these journalists are being told the “right” story. That explains why some media stories about what is supposedly said in the IPCC reports can easily be falsified simply by opening the report and reading. Unfortunately, as a broad-based volunteer effort with only minimal organizational structure the IPCC is not in a good position to rapidly counter misinformation.

....What apparently has happened is that interested quarters, after the Himalyan glacier story broke, have sifted through the IPCC volumes with a fine-toothed comb, hoping to find more embarrassing errors. They have actually found precious little, but the little they did find was promptly hyped into Seagate, Africagate, Amazongate and so on. This has some similarity to the CRU email theft, where precious little was discovered from among thousands of emails, but a few sentences were plucked out of context, deliberately misinterpreted (like “hide the decline”) and then hyped into “Climategate”.

You should read the whole thing if you're even minimally interested in this stuff. It really does look like there's nothing much here. Basically, we had the CRU emails, which were genuinely embarrassing even if they didn't affect the science much, followed by the glacier debacle, and that was enough to make pretty much any other allegations look like they might be plausible too. So the anti-warming forces went to town.

So where does this leave us? As the RealClimate folks — following the lead of plenty of others — point out, even if the science of climate change hasn't been dented, it's pretty plain that the IPCC has been massively outgunned on the PR side of things. It's not clear yet what the answer is to this, but either the IPCC itself needs to get bigger and more organized, or else climate scientists who deal with the press need to step up their game individually. Or both. One of their problems, of course, is that any legitimate researcher faced with an allegation of error is going to want to take the time to genuinely look into it, and that automatically limits them. There are only so many "errors" they can look into, and the ones they do investigate will take some time to adjudicate. That's just the nature of science — and it's why, for example, it took until yesterday for RealClimate to address all this stuff even though it's been swirling around for a while. The debunkers, conversely, have no such limitations. They're free to throw as much mud against the walls as they want, and their allegations can be turned into a feeding frenzy on blogs and the popular press in hours or days. There's no need for caution.

The press itself is plainly unable to referee this stuff. The source material is highly technical and obviously far beyond their ability to understand, while the PR efforts of the debunkers are the kind of thing they're trained to deal with in an "objective" way. It's a recipe for disaster. One way or another, then, the climate community needs to step up its game. Kate Sheppard has some ideas here.

Stupid and Loathsome in the Golden State

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:41 AM EST

The LA Times reports that California suffered a political triple whammy last week:

First came the end of the once-promising drive for a state constitutional convention....Last week's second blow came when the Assembly rejected Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) as lieutenant governor....The final blow was the revelation that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and more than a dozen Democrats in Congress have together donated $160,000 from their political treasuries for a November ballot measure to scrap Proposition 11 — the same 2008 redistricting measure described above that caught them by surprise when it passed. They want to wrest back their power to pick their own voters before the reform affects a single election season.

The constitutional convention always seemed like a longshot to me, so I guess its failure doesn't come as a big surprise. But rejecting the eminently qualified and reasonable Maldonado for the inconsequential job of lieutenant governor — apparently because Dems were unwilling to allow a Hispanic Republican to gain a higher profile — was both stupid and loathsome. And making the repeal of Prop 11 their highest priority is — well, let's just go with stupid and loathsome again. These guys aren't really worth a trip to the thesaurus.

The depth of California's political suckitude is hard to fathom. It's like a contest from hell, where both parties try to outdo each other in sleaze and contemptibility. Republicans have a pretty big lead, but it's not insurmountable. Apparently Democrats are out to prove it.

Yet Another Nutritional Update

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:12 AM EST

Apparently scientists are changing their minds yet again. Here's the latest on saturated fat:

For the current study, researchers led by Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Center in California, pooled data from 21 studies that included a total of nearly 348,000 adults.

Participants, who were generally healthy to start, were surveyed about their diet habits and then followed for anywhere from five to 23 years. Over that time, 11,000 developed heart disease or suffered a stroke. Overall, Krauss and his colleagues found, there was no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.

The article quotes Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, cautioning against "over interpreting" the results. So don't go mainlining sticks of lard just yet. But apparently all that animal fat isn't quite the heart attack on a plate we've been led to believe.