Kevin Drum

34,000 New Troops for Afghanistan

| Wed Nov. 25, 2009 1:46 AM EST

Two weeks ago McClatchy reported — with details — that Obama was planning to send 34,000 new troops to Afghanistan.  On Monday they confirmed this:

As it now stands, the plan calls for the deployment over a nine-month period beginning in March of three Army brigades from the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Ky., and the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, N.Y., and a Marine brigade from Camp Lejeune, N.C., for as many as 23,000 additional combat and support troops.

In addition, a 7,000-strong division headquarters would be sent to take command of U.S.-led NATO forces in southern Afghanistan — to which the U.S. has long been committed — and 4,000 U.S. military trainers would be dispatched to help accelerate an expansion of the Afghan army and police.

....The administration's plan contains "off-ramps," points starting next June at which Obama could decide to continue the flow of troops, halt the deployments and adopt a more limited strategy or "begin looking very quickly at exiting" the country, depending on political and military progress, one defense official said.

"We have to start showing progress within six months on the political side or military side or that's it," the U.S. defense official said.

....As part of its new plan, the administration, which remains skeptical of Karzai, will "work around him" by working directly with provincial and district leaders, a senior U.S. defense official told McClatchy.

A few comments:

  • The McClatchy crew has been way ahead of everyone else on this story.
  • If they're right, Obama essentially made this decision in early November.  It's not entirely clear what all the meetings since then have been for.  Getting their PR ducks in a row?
  • If their "senior defense official" is correct, the plan does indeed include a strong tribal component, as blogged about last night.

One other thing: I'm sort of a connoisseur of the excuses that reporters use these days for relying on anonymous sources, and I really like this one: "U.S. officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because...one official said, the White House is incensed by leaks on its Afghanistan policy that didn't originate in the White House."  That's admirably direct.  Nobody wants to piss off the CinC!

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Long-Term Deficits

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 10:24 PM EST

Martin Wolf says that although long-term deficits are a problem, it's too early to rein in spending right now:

What is needed, instead, are credible fiscal institutions and a road map for tightening that will be implemented, automatically, as and when (but only as and when) the private sector’s spending recovers. Among the things that should be done right now is to put prospective entitlement spending — on public sector pensions, for example — on a sustainable path. It is, in short, about putting in place a credible long-term tightening that responds to recovery automatically.

That sounds like a good idea to me.  That is, it would sound like a good idea if I could think of any way to make automatic future stabilizers truly credible.  Right now, I don't think you could pass any significant entitlement cuts or tax increases in the first place, let alone pass them embedded in a some kind of structure that seemed truly invulnerable to future political shifts.  But I'm all ears if anyone has any ideas.

(Adding: I'm entirely in favor of a Social Security commission, similar to the 1983 commission, tasked with producing a conventional basket of small revenue increases and small benefit cuts that would balance Social Security's book in the long term.  This is, admittedly, a relatively small thing, since Social Security's fiscal condition has improved over the past few years and is now projected to eventually go out of balance by only about 1.5% of GDP.  But aside from the virtue of even small acts of fiscal rectitude, it would also have the huge virtue of taking Social Security off the table as a political issue.  If we could, at long last, get the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal and the Peterson folks to quit droning on endlessly about this, we might actually clear the way for discussion of some real issues. And it's the kind of thing that can be put in place now and credibly be expected to unfold as planned.)

Chart of the Day

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 5:19 PM EST

ABC News reports that in the past 16 months the number of people who believe in global warming has dropped 8 percentage points.  But the drop is skewed almost completely by ideology: among liberals and moderates there's been a change of only a couple of points, which might just be statistical noise.  Among conservatives, belief in global warming has dropped a whopping 13 points.

Note that this isn't a drop in conservatives who think that global warming is manmade.  It's not a drop in the number who think it will continue in the future.  It's not a drop in the number who think it's too expensive to do anything about it.  The question ABC asked was whether or not temperatures had increased over the past hundred years.  It's a simple factual question like asking if the Allies won World War I.  But only a bare majority of conservatives believe it.  It's Jim Inhofe's party now.

Abortion and the Filibuster

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 3:21 PM EST

Megan McArdle has a weird post today:

Matt Yglesias and Kevin Drum are defending the elimination of the filibuster on the grounds that unpopular legislation will fail even if a majority of legislators are behind it.

I didn't say anything remotely like that.1  I don't think Matt did either, at least not in the linked post.  But it gets even weirder after that:

I find it interesting that a major word is missing from the discussion: abortion.  The most successful Democratic use of the filibuster has, of course, been against judges who might overturn Roe v. Wade.  If it weren't for the filibuster, it's pretty likely that a play to overturn Roe would even now be wending its way through the courts, to a probably-successful conclusion.  Other treasured liberal programs like affirmative action, and certain kinds of environmental regulations, would probably also be in serious danger.

During the Bush era, Democrats filibustered — what?  Ten appellate judges?  And not all of them because of their views on abortion.  In what way has this prevented a challenge to Roe v. Wade from wending its way through the courts?  There are plenty of circuits with conservative majorities on them, after all.  Next:

Why is abortion missing from this discussion, especially when it is currently more central to our main public policy debate than the filibuster?  The filibuster has allowed Democrats to impose a minority view of abortion rights on the country; saying that unpopular legislation tends to fail is true, but not complete, because that is not the most powerful effect to which Democrats have used it.

It's true that polling on abortion attitudes is highly sensitive to question wording, but one of the simplest and cleanest questions is, "Do you support or oppose Roe v. Wade?"  Nate Silver's chart on the right, which aggregates multiple polls, shows the trend on this question clearly: whatever else the American public thinks about abortion, it supports Roe v. Wade by the whopping margin of 2:1.  If Roe ever gets overturned, it certainly won't be because that's what the majority of Americans want.

1For the record, I oppose the filibuster because I think it's unconstitutional.

No Free Lunches

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 2:27 PM EST

If President Obama decides to escalate our presence in Afghanistan, Congressman Dave Obey (D-WI) is threatening to propose that it be paid for by a "war surtax."  After all, Republicans keep telling us that the deficit is a big problem, and if that's the case then the war ought to be paid for.  Stan Collender writes today that this isn't the first time Obey has tried this tack:

In fact, I watched in awe as Obey used this same strategy about 30 years ago when I was a congressional staffer working for a member of the House Budget Committee. 

The issue at the time was a balanced budget and the Republican demand that the Democratic majority agree to policy changes that would make it happen. They said they would vote against the budget unless it was balanced.

In response, Obey proposed a balanced budget and forced his colleagues to debate and vote on it.  I don't remember all the details of what he proposed, but I'm pretty sure it included the specific program-by-program, across-the-board spending cuts needed to eliminate the deficit.

I have a vivid memory of Obey opening the debate on his balanced budget plan by saying that he was proposing it not because he wanted it to pass but rather because he didn't.  He wanted to call everyone's bluff.  And he did.  The Obey plan got only a handful of votes — including only one or two Republicans — and was overwhelmingly defeated.

Well, I'm sure glad I'm not president right now.  But of course, this is one of the whole points of having taxation with representation: it forces people to make tough choices.  You want healthcare reform?  Figure out how to pay for it and then see if people think it's worth it.  A war in Afghanistan?  Ditto.  Maybe you favor "winning" the war in Afghanistan by sending lots of additional troops over there, but do you still favor it if you know it's going to cost your family $500 per year in additional taxes?  Because that's about what the tab is.  There's no free lunch.

Reining in Wall Street

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 1:43 PM EST

I am — how to put this delicately? — skeptical of Congress's ability to stand up to the world-spanning tentacles of the finance lobby and actually enact serious banking reform.  Thanks to the lobby, the simplest, most robust ways of reforming Wall Street were never even on the table in the first place, and the reform bills now grinding their way through Congress are already complex enough that most bankers will have little trouble eventually figuring out a way to worm their way around them.

But Noam Scheiber reports today that maybe the lobby is about to lose a battle.  Barney Frank's draft legislation to force all derivatives to be traded on a public exchange originally included an exemption for "end users" — that is, ordinary corporations that simply want to hedge the price of oil or pork bellies or whatnot:

But independent experts who studied the measure came to a different conclusion: that it could exempt between 60 and 80 percent of the standardized market because of its vague wording, including many firms who were speculating rather than simply hedging risk....Which, as it happens, was precisely the idea. Though the end users arguably had a legitimate gripe, the banks had long viewed them as a means to deflect additional regulation. “The original plan on derivatives was basically pushed by the industry,” says one bank lobbyist. “What they wanted was, ‘Hey, let’s get the dopey end users to go out and be the face of reform. We don’t have the credibility.'” This lobbyist says the banks helped organize a group called the Coalition for Derivatives End Users, which weighed in with Congress in favor of a robust end-user exemption.

....But a funny thing happened on the way to securing the loophole: A confederation of consumer and investor groups, labor unions, environmental activists and a progressive organization called Americans for Financial Reform (AFR) started raising hackles of their own. In several meetings with Frank, these groups stressed that the exemption was too porous, and that it wasn’t just an obscure, technical issue of interest only to banks, regulators, and lobbyists.

....By early this month, the pressure from [CFTC chairman Chairman Gary Gensler] and the progressive groups had the desired effect. Though Frank believed their concerns were somewhat overblown, he pronounced himself open to tightening the language to make sure the bill didn’t give speculators a pass. “Barney likes to say redundancy is your friend,” says one financial services committee staffer. “If people have concerns, we’ll tighten up the language...hedging done by corporations is what we’re looking to protect.”

To be honest, this seems like only the tiniest ray of sunshine to me.  The derivatives legislation is important, but it's never really struck me as the core of financial reform, and the end-user loophole was so obvious that it's frankly hard to believe it was there in the first place.  Getting rid of it just means that the financial lobby failed in a longshot effort, not that it failed on any point of truly central concern.

Anyway, we still haven't seen the revised wording from Frank's committee, we still haven't voted on the bill, we still haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, and we still haven't seen the conference report.  There's plenty of time for even this minor victory to get sanded down to nothing.  I remain pessimistic on the ability of Congress to rein in the financial community in any serious way.  They just don't have the power.

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Are You Pro-Choice?

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 12:44 PM EST

Perhaps, like me, you've heard that sometimes too much choice is bad.  Consumers get paralyzed by the array of products on offer and just can't make up their minds, so they simply choose to buy nothing.  This effect has been demonstrated in experiments several times, but  via Tyler Cowen, Tim Harford writes that these experiments may not have been as robust as we thought:

Benjamin Scheibehenne, a psychologist at the University of Basel, was thinking along these lines when he decided (with Peter Todd and, later, Rainer Greifeneder) to design a range of experiments to figure out when choice demotivates, and when it does not.

But a curious thing happened almost immediately. They began by trying to replicate some classic experiments — such as the jam study, and a similar one with luxury chocolates. They couldn’t find any sign of the “choice is bad” effect. Neither the original Lepper-Iyengar experiments nor the new study appears to be at fault: the results are just different and we don’t know why.

After designing 10 different experiments in which participants were asked to make a choice, and finding very little evidence that variety caused any problems, Scheibehenne and his colleagues tried to assemble all the studies, published and unpublished, of the effect.

The average of all these studies suggests that offering lots of extra choices seems to make no important difference either way. There seem to be circumstances where choice is counterproductive but, despite looking hard for them, we don’t yet know much about what they are. Overall, says Scheibehenne: “If you did one of these studies tomorrow, the most probable result would be no effect.” Perhaps choice is not as paradoxical as some psychologists have come to believe. One way or another, we seem to be able to cope with it.

Interesting!  Perhaps the paradox of choice used to be true in simpler times, but the internet and the rest of modern life have taught us to revel in choice, rather than being intimidated by it.  In a related vein, maybe it's a generational thing.  Maybe choice dazzles me more than it does a 20-something who grew up with 87 cell phone plans, 300 cable channels, and 1,000 Facebook friends.

Personally, I find a wide array of choice intimidating mainly if I'm trying to buy something brand new that I don't know anything about.  If there are 20 different kinds of cough syrup on the shelf, and I've never bought cough syrup before, I might just give up on the whole thing and keep on coughing.  I suppose that's pretty obvious, but it might explain the differences in some of the experiments.  If you showed me a huge variety of wines, I might throw up my hands in despair rather than trying to puzzle out which one to buy.  Show me an equally huge variety of candy bars and I'd pretty quickly narrow it down to half a dozen that I liked and then choose one.  That's because I consume a lot more candy bars than I do wine.

It's worth noting that whether or not social scientists are certain that the paradox of choice really exists, good sales people are certain that it does.  Watch a good sales person at work, and you'll notice that one of the first things they do is try to narrow your choices for you if you seem even the least bit confused.  When they ask what features are most important to you, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask what things you don't like, they're trying to narrow your choices.  When they ask about your price range, they're trying to narrow your choices.  Because they know in their hearts that if they can just get you down to two or three alternatives, there's a pretty good chance you'll get seriously invested in the decision process and then eventually choose one of them.

So how about you?  When do you get intimidated by choice?

The New Obstruction

| Tue Nov. 24, 2009 11:36 AM EST

Matt Yglesias writes about the routine use of the filibuster and other delaying tactics in Congress:

It’s worth emphasizing how one-sided efficacious minority party obstruction has been. The Bush administration wasn’t able to get its agenda through congress unscathed, but fundamentally they did achieved their main goals in terms of tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, substantially altering Medicare in 2003, and of course securing support for the invasion of Iraq and 2002.

In fact, it's worth emphasizing this even more.   Republicans gained significant levels of Democratic support for No Child Left Behind, the 2001 tax cut, the post-9/11 war resolution, Sarbanes-Oxley, McCain-Feingold, the Iraq war resolution, the 2003 tax cut, the Medicare prescription drug bill, and the bankruptcy bill.  That's a lot of bipartisan support

But what about Social Security, you ask.  That was certainly a full court press by the D team.  And yes it was.  But by the time the summer of 2005 was over, it didn't have much Republican support either.

In any case, the point isn't that full-blown unanimous obstruction is something new under the sun.  There will always be issues here and there that are so central to a party's governing ideology that there's really no room for compromise.  The point is that Dems, for better or worse, never tried to make every single bill a destruction test of the opposing party's governance.  Republicans are doing exactly that, and that is something new under the sun.  Unfortunately, as Matt says, it may be a shrewd calculation on their part: if you make the government look incapable of accomplishing anything at any time, and if the media generally treats this as politics as usual, it's the party in power that suffers the most regardless of who's been throwing the pies around.  So why not throw pies at every opportunity?

A Tribal Strategy for Afghanistan

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 9:04 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago Fred Kaplan speculated that President Obama might be planning to pursue a tribe-centered counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan rather than one centered on the central government in Kabul.  Today, after reading Dexter Filkins' piece in the New York Times that describes an effort already underway to co-opt local militias, Kaplan doubles down:

The interest, even excitement, in this development stems from two sources. First, it is reminiscent of the Anbar Awakening in 2006-07, when Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq formed alliances with U.S. forces — whom the Sunnis had been shooting just months earlier — to beat back the bigger threat of al-Qaida.

Second, it has drawn high-level attention to a 45-page paper by Army Maj. Jim Gant, the former team leader of a special-ops detachment stationed in Konar province. The paper, called "One Tribe at a Time: A Strategy for Success in Afghanistan," recounts his experiences with organizing "tribal engagement teams" to help local fighters beat back the Taliban — and it spells out a plan to replicate these teams across the country.

....There are signs that Obama has been mulling over something like Gant's strategy. At one of the seven meetings Obama has held with his national security advisers (the ninth, and perhaps final, session takes place tonight), he asked for a breakdown of which Afghan provinces could provide their own defense, which need our help, and to what degree.

....Obama is likely to announce his decision — on a strategy and on how many, if any, more troops it will require — soon after Thanksgiving. A key question to ask, in examining this mix, is how prominently it features the tribes.

I first heard about Gant's paper via email from Wagster, who wrote about it in a post earlier this month:

Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach — a tribal engagement strategy — that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally — not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.

I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.

Kaplan says flatly that if Obama's eventual strategy doesn't look a lot like Gant's, "it is almost certain to fail."  And even if it does, it might still fail.  But at this point, the tribes are pretty much our only hope.

I am, as I've said before, skeptical about deepening our engagement in Afghanistan at all.  But the absolute minimum requirement is a strategy that's notably different from the one we've been following for the past seven years, a strategy that's done little except pour ever more troops into the country while simultaneously losing ever more control.  This might be the one. We'll probably know in another week or so.

On to Copenhagen

| Mon Nov. 23, 2009 2:59 PM EST

The latest news from the White House:

The US will announce a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions before next month's UN climate summit, according to a White House official.

The target is expected to be in line with figures contained in legislation before the Senate — a reduction of about 17-20% from 2005 levels by 2020.

This is no big surprise: 17% is the figure in Waxman-Markey and it's close to the figure in the various Senate bills.  Overall, it's a pretty modest target, but Obama could hardly pledge anything more under the circumstances.  At least it's something.

(I think this is going to be my motto for the next four years: "At least it's something."  Kinda sad, isn't it?  But at the moment we're still pretty plainly not willing to face up to reality on a whole bunch of different fronts.  So we do what we can.)