Time's Mark Thompson posted an email exchange today with Douglas Wissing, author of Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban, about his impression of the war after spending time on the ground in Afghanistan. Here's Wissing:

FM 3-24, the famous counterinsurgency manual authored by General David Petraeus that guides the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan, states that partnering with a legitimate host government is an indispensable “north star” to a successful war. Instead, the U.S. is allied with an Afghan government that is largely ineffective and systemically corrupt.

....When I was embedded with U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, the soldiers started telling me that the U.S. government is wasting tens of billions of American taxpayer dollars on scandalously mismanaged aid and logistics contracts that end up financing the Taliban.

We’d be trundling through Taliban-controlled areas in armored vehicles, dodging ambushes and hitting IEDs, and the soldiers would be saying, “We’re funding both sides of this war.” It seemed preposterous at first. But as I dug into the story, officers, diplomats, and aid officials confirmed the rough outlines of the pernicious system. One sardonic US intelligence officer told me, “It’s the perfect war. Everyone is making money.”

....I have seen courageous American soldiers get increasingly frustrated and cynical about the war. Last summer a Marine colonel in southern Afghanistan told me there was low morale among the troops. He said, “On an operational level, the soldiers are saying, ‘I’m going to go over there and try to not get my legs blown off. My nation will shut this bullshit down.’ That’s the feeling of my fellow soldiers.” The marine officer said, “The juice ain’t worth the squeeze.”

Wissing believes that the continued American presence simply isn't doing any good. His advice: "I think the U.S. officials need to accelerate the withdrawal of the troops, and prepare to assist with the inevitable humanitarian crisis that is bound to overwhelm Afghanistan when we leave. We broke it. We need to help pick up the pieces."

You all know what a speed trap is, right? If you have a highway running through your small town, you can make a lot of money by ticketing out-of-state drivers who are going one or two miles per hour over the speed limit. How many victims are going to waste time trying to fight it, after all?

But have you heard about "forfeiture corridors"? That's a little different — and quite a bit more lucrative. All you have to do is pull over an out-of-state driver for supposedly making an unsafe lane change, have your police dog sniff around for a bit of marijuana residue, and then use civil asset forfeiture laws to impound any cash you might find. Apparently it's especially popular on highways leading into and out of casino towns. Radley Balko has the details here.

I know that conventional wisdom says that primary contenders can hold hands and sing Kumbaya in the fall no matter what they've said about each other in the spring. But Rick Santorum sure seems bound and determined to perform a destruction test on this conventional wisdom. This ad, especially by Republican lights, is just brutal.

So how's that whole contraception thing working out for the right? The latest Gallup poll of swing states suggests that it's not going so well: Obama now leads Romney in these states 51%-42%. Here's why:

The biggest change came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney's support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group.

USA Today breaks this down a bit more in the chart below. Most people still don't have much of an opinion about birth control, but among those who do, 27% agree with Obama's view while only 11% agree with Romney's view. This might all blow over by November, but if the Obama campaign manages to keep it in play it could become a pretty serious albatross for the right.

Via Brad Plumer, here's an interesting chart from the BLS showing how much we spend on stuff compared to a few selected other countries. We spend a lot more on housing than the other countries, somewhat more on healthcare, and quite a bit less on food. Hooray factory farming!

Brad has some commentary to go along with this chart, but I have a different takeaway. Looking at these numbers, it's hard not to conclude that we have a lot of headroom on healthcare. I could easily see healthcare rising to at least the same level as food expenditures, and maybe as high as transportation too. That could happen because we collectively decide to spend less on food and transportation, or it could happen just by spending the same fixed amount on these items as wages rise, and then plowing all of our additional income into healthcare. On past performance, that might very well be something we do happily.

In other words, it's true that to some extent rising healthcare expenditures provide their own pushback. When we collectively decide we're spending too much, we'll collectively start reining in our spending. But as the chart below makes clear, that time could be quite a way away.

Jonathan Cohn says the Supreme Court itself was on trial last week:

Before this week, the well-being of tens of millions of Americans was at stake in the lawsuits challenging the Affordable Care Act. Now something else is at stake, too: The legitimacy of the Supreme Court.

....The plaintiffs have conceded that a universal health insurance program would be constitutional if, instead of penalizing people who decline to get insurance, the government enacted a tax and refunded the money to people who had insurance....Think about that for a second: If the justices strike down the Affordable Care Act, they would be stopping the federal government from pursuing a perfectly constitutional goal via a perfectly constitutional scheme just because Congress and the Preisdent didn’t use perfectly constitutional language to describe it.

There are two ways to look at this. The first is through the lens of what it would actually mean to overturn Obamacare. On this score, Jonathan is right: it would be unprecedented. The Supreme Court has handed down plenty of big decisions before, but very, very rarely has it overturned a major piece of federal legislation. Not since the mid 30s, in fact. What's more, it would be overturning this legislation — a consummately political compromise forged in a consummately political area of public policy — based on a distinction that I think even most of Obamacare's critics would acknowledge is a very fine point of constitutional law. And that's not all. It would be overturning the law on a party-line 5-4 vote, and it would be doing so in the wake of oral arguments in which several of the justices made arguments so transparently political that it felt more like we were listening in on the Senate cloakroom than the chambers of the Supreme Court.

So yes: in terms of its actual impact, overturning Obamacare would be a very big deal indeed, and among a large chunk of the chattering classes it would certainly lead to a more jaundiced view of the modern Supreme Court as a nakedly political body.

But there's also a second lens to look at this through: the lens of public opinion. And although poll results on this are a little tricky to parse, there's no question that Obamacare is not much of a barnburner among the general public and isn't getting more popular over time. Even a generous reading of the survey data suggests that only about half the country likes Obamacare, and even among that half support is fairly lukewarm. When the Supreme Court started overturning New Deal legislation in the 30s, it ran into a buzzsaw of public condemnation. If it overturned Obamacare, most of the public probably wouldn't care very much.

So no: in terms of the public's view of the court, overturning Obamacare probably wouldn't have a big impact at all.

So which matters more? The general public's view? Or the view of a small but dedicated segment of elite opinion? In the short term, the general public probably matters more. In the longer term, probably elite opinion. Obviously we won't get a reprise of FDR's disastrous court-packing scheme, but overturning Obamacare could end up mobilizing movement liberalism in the same way that the Warren Court mobilized movement conservatism four decades ago. The nomination of Supreme Court justices is already an intense partisan battleground, and getting more intense all the time. Overturning Obamacare would raise the stakes even higher.

According to the Today show, here's what George Zimmerman said to a 911 dispatcher as he was trailing Trayvon Martin last February:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

What a racist! Obviously Zimmerman had a real hang-up about black kids. But no. It turns out some bright spark at NBC decided to edit the conversation just a wee bit. Here's the whole exchange:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.

Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?

Zimmerman: He looks black.

This is now fated to be Exhibit A in conservative charges of mainstream media bias for about the next century or so. And who can blame them? What a cockup.

Me and my iPad

You've probably all been wondering about me and my new toy. "I wonder how Kevin likes reading on an iPad?" you've been asking yourself. "I sure wish he'd write a blog post telling us."

OK, fine. I will. I'm not sure if I'm surprised by this or not, but I like it a lot. I bought a Kindle a few years ago and used it for several months, and while I didn't hate it, I never really warmed to it either. But the iPad feels entirely different. Partly it's the larger screen. Partly it's the faster page turning. That doesn't sound like a lot, but it's just enough to make it feel a lot more comfortable than the Kindle. Having readable graphics in nonfiction is a huge plus too. (Though I wish Amazon would make their inline graphics a little higher resolution. I know that would make file sizes bigger, but it would be worth it.)

But what about eyestrain? One of the reasons I waited so long to try a tablet was because I was afraid that long reading stints on a low-res display would make my eyes ache. I don't know if that would have been a problem since I never tried it, but the retina display on the iPad is as good as advertised, and so far hasn't caused any eye fatigue at all.

I'm also pleased with Readability, an Instapaper-like app that allows you to easily save long magazine articles and then read them later on the iPad. Everybody told me I'd love this, and everybody was right. I'm way more likely to read long-form stuff if I can do it in my easy chair instead of sitting in front of my desktop display. (I'm using Readability because for some reason Instapaper wouldn't work properly for me. But it works great and the app is free, so I guess this was a blessing in disguise.)

I ended up buying a leather cover for the iPad, and although that probably marks me as terminally unhip, it's been great. For me, reading is partially a tactile experience, and I don't like to read on a device that's cool and slick to the touch. The leather cover gives the iPad a warmer, friendlier quality that just feels more like a book. Besides, the leather cover also has a flip stand thingie that props up the iPad when I'm reading at a table, and that's something I like a lot too.

It's still possible that I'll get bored with the iPad at some point and drift back to dead-tree books. But so far I'm a convert.

POSTSCRIPT: Is there anything I don't like about the iPad? Well, it takes a helluva long time to charge, but that's not too big a deal. And it's all but impossible to move files on and off the iPad unless you have a handy copy of iTunes running on a desktop machine. That's a pain in the ass, and especially annoying because it's a deliberate design decision, not a sad but necessary compromise. Still, I don't have a big need to do this, so I can live with it.

A few days ago I finished reading Rule 34, which reminded me once again that I should probably read Charlie Stross's blog more regularly. But of course, I did nothing about this because I'm a lazy sod and I had other things on my mind. Now Brad DeLong reminds me again, by linking to Stross, who in turn links to John Brownlee, who is obsessed these days with an iPhone app called Girls Around Me. Why? Because it demonstrates just how much privacy we've given up, either voluntarily or accidentally, in the era of Facebook and social networking:

“Okay, so here’s the way the app works,” I explained to my friends.

Girls Around Me is a standard geolocation based maps app, similar to any other app that attempts to alert you to things of interest in your immediate vicinity: whether it be parties, clubs, deals, or what have you. When you load it up, the first thing Girls Around Me does is figure out where you are and load up a Google Map centered around your location....It’s when you push the radar button that Girls Around Me does what it says on the tin. I pressed the button for my friends. Immediately, Girls Around Me went into radar mode, and after just a few seconds, the map around us was filled with pictures of girls who were in the neighborhood. Since I was showing off the app on a Saturday night, there were dozens of girls out on the town in our local area.

....“How does it know where these girls are? Do you know all these girls? Is it plucking data from your address book or something?” another friend asked.

“Not at all. These are all girls with publicly visible Facebook profiles who have checked into these locations recently using Foursquare....The pictures you are seeing are their social network profile pictures.”

“Okay, so they know that their data can be used like this for anyone to see? They’re okay with it? ”

“Probably not, actually. The settings determining how visible your Facebook and Foursquare data is are complicated, and tend to be meaningless to people who don’t really understand issues about privacy,” I explained. “Most privacy settings on social networks default to share everything with everyone, and since most people never change those... well, they end up getting sucked up into apps like this.”

....One of my less computer-affable friends actually went pale, and kept on shooting her boyfriend looks for assurance. A Linux aficionado who was the only person in our group without a Facebook account (and one of the few people I’d ever met who actually endorsed Diaspora), the look he returned was one of comical smugness.

“But wait! It gets worse!” I said, ramping things up.

Click the link to see how it gets worse. And then click on Charlie's blog post to find out what it all means. Then, when you're done, for God's sake, take some time to go into your Facebook profile and make sure you're not sharing anything more than you really want to. It's not as easy to do this as it should be, but the good news is that it's at least a little easier than it used to be. So go do it.

UPDATE: ProPublica reporter Jake Bernstein tweets that this app no longer works. Good news! But there will be many, many more just like it, so go update your Facebook profile anyway.

I just turned on the TV for a few minutes and switched to MSNBC. Where I found Rachel Maddow going on and on about the fact that Mitt Romney once called the residents of Afghanistan "Afghanis" instead of Afghans. That got tedious after the fifth or sixth bit of snark, so I switched over to Fox. Where Sean Hannity and a pair of guests were guffawing over the fact that Barack Obama once referred to the "Austrian" language and mispronounced "corpsman." Yuck yuck.

This is why I hate politics sometimes. And it's why I hate TV almost all the time.