Kevin Drum

Squaring the Afghan Circle

| Mon Aug. 24, 2009 12:13 AM EDT

The New York Times yesterday:

In a region the Taliban have lorded over for six years, and where they remain a menacing presence, American officers say their troops alone are not enough to reassure Afghans. Something is missing that has left even the recently appointed district governor feeling dismayed. “I don’t get any support from the government,” said the governor, Massoud Ahmad Rassouli Balouch.

....Even with the new operation in Helmand Province, which involves the Marines here and more than 3,000 others as part of President Obama’s troop deployments, the military lacks the troop strength even to try to secure some significant population centers and guerrilla strongholds in central and southern Helmand.

The New York Times today:

American military commanders with the NATO mission in Afghanistan told President Obama’s chief envoy to the region this weekend that they did not have enough troops to do their job, pushed past their limit by Taliban rebels who operate across borders.

....The possibility that more troops will be needed in Afghanistan presents the Obama administration with another problem in dealing with a nearly eight-year war that has lost popularity at home, compounded by new questions over the credibility of the Afghan government, which has just held an as-yet inconclusive presidential election beset by complaints of fraud.

OK then.  More troops aren't getting the job done because we're not getting any support from the Afghan government.  So we're going to ask for more troops.

OK, OK: I know that's just a smart ass comment.  In fact, here's some good news from McClatchy: "Pakistan's extremist Taliban movement is badly divided over who should be its new leader, and analysts and local tribesmen say the al Qaida-linked group may be in danger of crumbling."  Though even that's a mixed blessing.  The second NYT story suggests that the death of Baitullah Mehsud, which set off the problems in the Pakistani Taliban, may also cause the Pakistani army to lose interest in the tribal areas and move on to other, shinier toys.

Overall, the evidence suggests that steadily increasing U.S. troop strength has had virtually no effect in the past; that the Taliban is getting continually stronger; that the central government is corrupt and incompetent; and that even under the best circumstances the Afghan army can't be brought up to speed in less than five years.  At the same time, U.S. commanders say they understand that they have only 12-18 months to turn things around.

Someone needs to explain to me how that's going to happen.  Anything even remotely plausible will do for a start.  Because I sure don't see it.

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Death Books

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

Sweet Jesus.  We've gone from death panels to death books?  Crikey.

BTW, I just did a Nexis search, and as near as I can tell the pamphlet in question wasn't mentioned a single time between 2006 and last month.  In other words, until it became a political football this week, not one single person thought this issue was important to enough to mention even in passing in any news outlet whatsoever.  The reason, of course, is that before now no one actually thought this was outrageous.  Because it isn't.

Regulating the Regulators

| Sun Aug. 23, 2009 12:28 PM EDT

MattY points us to a Gillian Tett column in the Financial Times, which ends with this:

If regulators and politicians are to have any hope of building a more effective financial system in future, it is crucial that they start thinking more about power structures, vested interests and social silence. That might sound like an irritatingly abstract or pious plea. However, it has some very practical implications about how policy is formulated. I will seek to flesh out some of those in next week’s column....

This is a surprisingly underdiscussed point, but it's something that's critical to how we think about financial regulation.  If we want regulation to work, the regulatory structures need to be set up so that their institutional power bases push them in the direction we want them pushed.  That's why, for example, I don't like the idea of the Fed gaining more power over consumer regulation: it's institutionally and culturally oriented toward the financial community and macroeconomic management.  Consumer regulation will never be taken seriously there no matter how many laws we write.

I'm not sure if this means that an entirely separate agency needs to be set up or not, but whatever we do has to take account of how power actually works.  Not only does consumer financial regulation need to be in the hands of someone who considers it their prime responsibility, but it needs to have committee support in Congress and some kind of natural constituency with serious political juice and a financial interest in making sure consumer regulation works.  Otherwise it will sink into bureaucratic oblivion.  Suggestions welcome.

Happy Blogoversary!

| Sat Aug. 22, 2009 7:00 PM EDT

Today is my seventh blogoversary.  Hooray!  We celebrated by having a system crash this morning, which is kind of appropriate in a way.  After seven years, I have yet to work on a truly reliable blogging platform.

But an even more appropriate way to celebrate is by putting up some bonus catblogging.  So here it is: a picture of Inkblot snapped three minutes ago.  If I had a cat-cam set up in my living room, this is what you'd see in real time.  In fact, it's what you'd see most of the time in real time.  And if I had a people-cam set up in my study, you'd see me staring at a glowing screen and typing some words into a box.  Which is also what you'd see most of the time.  In other words, if you substitute "blogging" for "snoozing," I'm an awful lot like a housecat.  Funny how that works.

Crash and Burn

| Sat Aug. 22, 2009 6:41 PM EDT

From the Washington Post today:

"Anything with Z seems like there's some slight irreverence about it. So it was as simple as putting Z in front of politics!" explains Republican media consultant John Brabender....With a four-program lineup, Zolitics bills itself as a bipartisan potpourri of "original scripted content, current events with a twist, and reality based shows unlike you have ever seen before."

....It's the place to see, for example, Rick Santorum squire Donna Brazile to a NASCAR race....The NASCAR sojourn is what Santorum has expressed interest in doing for the debut episode of "My America," a show that will pair ideologically divergent bedfellows and allow each to show the other "their America." The show, Zolitics crowed in a press release this week, "just may also become America's favorite buddy story."

....Santorum calls himself "a great fan of Donna's" and looks forward to milling around with the "red-blooded Americans out there" while watching cars go Zoom.

This sounds like possibly the worst idea in the history of western civilization.

Friday Cat Blogging - 21 August 2009

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

You can't really see it through the shadows, but Domino is viciously attacking some errant blanket trolls on the left.  You can't perceive them, of course, limited as you are to a measly three spacial dimensions, but they were there just moments before this picture was taken.  Honest.  Inkblot, meanwhile, is enjoying a nice summer day in the garden.  And by "enjoying," of course, I mean "napping."

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Pharmaceutical Innovation

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 2:41 PM EDT

Right now, it's arguable that government ground rules give pharmaceutical companies too little incentive to innovate.  If FDA regs forced them to demonstrate more than just superiority to a sugar pill, drug company incentives might be aligned a little more strongly toward finding genuinely effective new therapies instead of yet another statin or ED pill or a slightly different heartburn formulation.

Or maybe not.  It's an argument worth having.  But the current system is by no means the free market juggernaut conservatives like to pretend it is.  Changing the ground rules might very well increase innovation, not stifle it.

Quote of the Day

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 2:11 PM EDT

From James Fallows, after watching Jon Stewart's show last night:

I have been far too soft on Betsy McCaughey.

Yep.  Here's the conversation I had with Marian last night at about 11:10 pm:

M: Do you want to watch the interview?

K: Who is he having on?

M: Um, some former lieutenant governor of New York or something.

K: Oh shit.

I was appalled that Stewart chose to have McCaughey on, and I agree with Fallows that he was unable to handle her.  Partly this was because McCaughey affects a winsome, faux innocent style that makes it hard for Stewart to bully her.  Partly it's because she's ruthlessly devoid of scruples.  Partly it's because she knows she doesn't have to "win" the debate.  She merely has to sew a tiny seed of doubt.

McCaughey is pure poison.  She cares about nothing except making sure that no healthcare reform of any kind is ever adopted in the United States, and in that cause she's willing to say or do anything.  It was a mistake giving her yet another forum to spread her lies.

How to Win

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 1:03 PM EDT

Does Barack Obama really believe that calm bipartisanship is a successful political strategy in modern Washington DC?  Well, it got him elected, didn't it?  Matt Yglesias takes it from there:

My worry would be that it strikes me as very plausible that a political strategist could overlearn the lessons of his own success. The fact of the matter is that Obama’s margin of victory was more-or-less exactly what you would expect based on fundamentals-driven models of presidential elections. We know that the strategy Obama employed “worked” (he won, after all) but there’s no clear evidence that it was particularly brilliant. But you can easily imagine Obama and David Axelrod and other key players becoming overconvinced by their own success.

Nobody ever, ever, ever believes this.  There's always a narrative behind presidential victories, and there always will be, despite the fact that 90% of them are dead wrong.  Obama ran an excellent primary campaign and a perfectly decent general election campaign, but the latter boiled down to one word: "Change."  That's what most elections boil down to: "Time for a change" vs. "Experience counts."  They both work fine in alternate cycles, but neither is especially brilliant or especially new.  Pericles pioneered them both in his long career, and that was 25 centuries ago.

The post-partisan schtick might yet work.  But even though it was effective during last year's campaign, it's not really what won him the presidency.  A little bit of ruthlessness vs. Hillary Clinton got him through June, and repeating a nice, simple message over and over and over kept him on top throughout the fall.  That's a combination he might want to remember.

"Yes, But"

| Fri Aug. 21, 2009 12:40 PM EDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today that he'd like to hold a reasoned discussion about end-of-life counseling.  "We might start by asking Sarah Palin to leave the room," he says.

That's "close to reasonable," says Joe Klein.  But no, it isn't.

Krauthammer is part of the swelling "Yes, but" crowd, and for my money these guys are infinitely worse than the flat-out nutters themselves.  I mean, at least nutters have the excuse of being nutters, right?  They can be dismissed or mocked or yelled at or whatever.  But everyone outside the nutter base understands that they're crazy.

Then there's the "Yes, but" contingent.  Sober.  Serious.  Looking at all sides of the issue.  Stroking their chins.  Coming to conclusions.

And what are those conclusions?  Well, golly, the nutters might be nuts, but they have a point!  Allowing Medicare to reimburse doctors for advance care counseling might be the first tiny step toward turning them into junior Dr. Mengeles after all.  Krauthammer bases this conclusion primarily on his belief that living wills are pretty much useless:

So why get Medicare to pay the doctor to do the counseling? Because we know that if this white-coated authority whose chosen vocation is curing and healing is the one opening your mind to hospice and palliative care, we've nudged you ever so slightly toward letting go.

It's not an outrage. It's surely not a death panel. But it is subtle pressure applied by society through your doctor. And when you include it in a health-care reform whose major objective is to bend the cost curve downward, you have to be a fool or a knave to deny that it's intended to gently point the patient in a certain direction, toward the corner of the sickroom where stands a ghostly figure, scythe in hand, offering release.

Subtle pressure indeed.  The only thing that's subtle here is Krauthammer's faux evenhandedness.  Up until two minutes ago, politicians and pundits across the political spectrum universally believed that advance care counseling was an entirely sane and uncontroversial practice, one that any compassionate society would encourage.  Those same politicians and pundits knew perfectly well that it was never about guiding patients in any particular direction and has never been motivated by cost savings in any way.  They knew that other countries reimburse for advance care planning — just like any other use of a doctor's time — and it hasn't led to any pressure, subtle or otherwise, to pull the plug on grandma.

They knew this.  Until two minutes ago.  But now they're pretending — subtly, temperately — that maybe it isn't true after all.  And they're doing this not because they've changed their minds, but because they want to kill healthcare reform for political reasons and they don't care whether innocent bystanders get hurt in the process.  Their "Yes, but" campaign might ensure that patients forevermore mistrust doctors who talk about advance care directives, but they also know that sober, serious, subtle op-eds endorsing this point of view are more likely to derail healthcare reform among the chattering classes than Sarah Palin's Facebook maunderings.  It is intellectual venality of the first order.