Kevin Drum

Friday Cat Blogging - 9 October 2009

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 1:40 PM EDT

Today is Domino day.  It's hard to get good pictures of a pure black cat like Domino, but the light was hitting her nicely when I took this picture and it shows her at her best.  So let us all admire Domino and her beautiful white whiskers today.  The other guy will be back next week.

And speaking of light, has anyone tried these new Pharox LED light bulbs?  They seem very cool.  Is the illumination good?  How much light do they give off compared to an ordinary 60 watt incandescent?  Do they come on immediately or do they need to warm up a bit like CFLs?  I know what the specs say, but I'm curious if anyone has any personal experience to share.

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COIN Yet Again

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 1:13 PM EDT

Michael Crowley responds to my suggestion that the Obama administration wasn't really at fault for not realizing that the Pentagon planned to ask for a major troop increase in Afghanistan:

Even if you assume that only half the country needs COIN protection — the west and north are more stable then the south and east — you're still talking about a combined US and Afghan force of 300,000. McKiernan's requested force level, combined with the feeble Afghan National Army and police, wasn't even close to these levels. This would have been clear to someone like under secretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy, a COIN expert (and former Nagl colleague) who participated in the initial review. Though I don't believe he was part of the same review process, I have to think that David Petraeus, the ultimate Yoda of COIN, chimed in as well.

....At the same time that the counterinsurgency idea was taking hold among the review team's members, Mullen and Gates were starting to question whether McKiernan was the right general to lead the effort in Afghanistan. If he was serious about counterinsurgency, some in the Pentagon wondered, how could he not want more forces?

I doubt this view would have been kept secret from Obama, who had to approve the decision to sack McKiernan. It just seems a little too convenient, then, for administration officials to say they're surprised by McChrystal's call for many more troops.

But this gets directly to my point: counterinsurgency doctrine says we need 300,000 troops or more in Afghanistan.  Obviously nothing even close to that is going to happen.  So given that we know we're pursuing a non-optimal strategy, does non-optimal mean 100,000 troops or 140,000 troops?  That's not at all obvious.

Back in March, Obama had already committed to a big increase in troops in order to better pursue a COIN strategy.  If the military believed we needed another big increase, it's inconceivable that they would have simply assumed that everyone in the White House knew this.  They would have said so directly and forcefully.  But they didn't, and contra Michael, it seems awfully convenient for them to come back now and say they're surprised everyone didn't get this from the start.

I don't want to take this argument too far.  There's no telling precisely who said what, or whether Obama was given fair warning that another big troop request was in the offing.  But if that was the plan, surely it's the military's responsibility to make sure it's crystal clear?  Or are we going to go through this again six months from now because "everyone knows" that 140,000 isn't enough troops either?

Fixing the World's Problems

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's former intelligence chief, obviously didn't know that Barack Obama was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize when he wrote his op-ed about Afghanistan in this morning's Washington Post, but he sure sets out some Nobel-worthy goals in his piece.  Here are two of his six bullets:

  • Fix the Durand Line. As long as this border drawn by the British is not fixed, Pakistan and Afghanistan will be at loggerheads and always suspicious of one another. A joint development project for the border area, announced by both Pakistan and Afghanistan, and supported by the United States and the world community, will direct people's eyes to the future rather than the past.
  • Push India and Pakistan to fix Kashmir. That is doable, once both countries see a determined effort by the United States in that direction. Both countries are beholden to the United States -- Pakistan for the military and financial support it receives and India for the nuclear energy agreement it has signed with Washington.

OK then!  Just fix two problems that are among the oldest, most intractable border disputes on the planet.  And then in his second term Obama will be freed up to negotiate that long-awaited peace treaty with Mars.

Snark aside, I guess it would be interesting to hear from some area experts on this.  In the case of Kashmir, a treaty seems at least theoretically doable since the objective issues at stake are quite solvable.  Sure, it's politically impossible — and neither side seems to have the slightest interest in U.S. involvement — but at least it's possible to conceive of solutions.

But the Durand Line?  I don't even know what a solution would look like in theory.  Neither Afghanistan nor Pakistan will ever agree to move the line substantially enough to unite the Pashtun areas in dispute, and without that there's hardly any point.  Obama would have to literally be a miracle worker to make any progress on this front.

On the bright side, by including these two bullets, al-Faisal makes his other four goals seem like cakewalks.  Maybe that was the point?

Mystery Guest Cat: Turkish

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 12:01 PM EDT

It's Laura again. We're running a little late getting you Kevin and David's regular week-in-review podcast today, but don't worry, it's coming. In the meantime, a little light reading from the rest of the MoJo crew:

1) Conservative Muslims don't think so, but the technology behind synthetic hymens really is kind of cool.

2) Too bad virginity isn't the only thing being reclaimed these days: Medicare's repo men could be coming soon to a nursing home near you.

3) And speaking of shameless commerce: Did the Chamber break its own rules when it adopted a hard-line climate policy that scared off Nike?

Last, congrats to Turkish, a.k.a. Mystery Guest Cat #2, appearing naked as Levi Johnston in Kevin's Drum Beat newsletter today. [For Kevin's newsletter-exclusive weekly bonus post and mystery cat news, sign up here.]

From reader Patrick O'Grady: Turkish is two-and-a-half years old, unemployed, and fears losing his litter box to bankruptcy should that black spot on his nose turn out to be more than a simple beauty mark. Miss Mia Sopaipilla, being some six months younger, is certain that she will live forever and spends her days peering out the window, keeping a lookout for socialists bent on killing her granny. Turkish and Mia live in a tiny blue carbuncle on the fat red ass of Colorado Springs, Colorado, with their staffers Patrick and Shannon O'Grady. When not serving their feline overlords, Patrick dabbles in freelance cycling journalism; Shannon works for the Colorado Library Consortium.

Laura McClure hosts weekly podcasts and is a writer, editor, and sometime geek for Mother Jones. Read her recent investigative feature on lifehacking gurus here.

Exciting Trade Deficit News

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 10:26 AM EDT

This is genuinely good news:

The U.S. trade deficit unexpectedly narrowed for the first time in four months in August, with exports rising to their highest level of the year and imports easing despite higher oil prices.

....The decline, the first since May, was a surprise on Wall Street. Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had expected a further widening in the deficit to $33.6 billion.

The recent resurgence of oil prices had been pushing the trade deficit back up, after a brief dip earlier in the year when the recession sapped demand for imports. However, exports have enjoyed a five-month uptrend, which bodes well for the economic outlook.

As with a lot of other hopeful indicators, there's no telling if this one will last.  But it's essential that it does.  Despite what Sarah Palin may think, the U.S. desperately needs a weaker dollar, lower consumption, and an end to the permanent current account deficit.  This news probably won't get a lot of attention, but it should.

Morning Roundup

| Fri Oct. 9, 2009 9:49 AM EDT

Hey, good morning.  Anything new going on today?  Let's see.....NASA crashed a probe into the moon....a car bomb killed 49 people in Pakistan....Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace prize....

Wait a second.  Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize?  What for?  Says here it's in recognition of "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."

I'm going to head out into the blogosphere and see what people think of this.  But before I do, I just want to say that this is ridiculous.  I mean, I'm all in favor of making wingnut heads explode, but the guy's been in office for slightly less than nine months.  That's barely enough time to make a baby, let alone bring world peace.  Shouldn't the luminaries in Oslo have waited until he had done something more significant than making nice with his former primary opponent before declaring him a man for the ages?

Oh well.  Sometimes people do dumb things.  At least we get to see wingnut heads explode.

UPDATE: OK, I've now spent a few minutes taking in reaction from all corners.  Is there anyone who's defending this choice?  Couldn't they have just given it to Bono instead?  At least then maybe we'd get some nice music at the awards ceremony.

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Getting Afghanistan Right

| Thu Oct. 8, 2009 5:58 PM EDT

In the Washington Post today, Rajiv Chandrasekaran has an inside look at the Obama administration's long deliberations over how to deal with Afghanistan.  Jason Zengerle says it's full of details that "make the Obama administration look more than a little inept."  Michael Crowley wonders how Obama's first review, back in March, "came up so embarrassingly short."  Matt Yglesias says it "makes the Obama administration look pretty foolish."

I'm not so sure.  Here's Chandrasekara's gloss of how last March's recommendation that we adopt a counterinsurgency strategy was intepreted at the time:

To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones.

And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

So the civilians screwed up.  They wanted counterinsurgency on the cheap, but that was never in the cards. Now they're scrambling to regroup.

Except that's not really what Chandrasekara says.  Later he explains why the March task force members thought that Obama's previous commitment to send 21,000 more troops to Afghanistan was sufficient:

Encouraging the view that a massive influx was not needed were statements from the overall U.S. and NATO commander at the time, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who said he had shifted his troops toward counterinsurgency operations. He was not asking for more forces beyond the 21,000 Obama had agreed to, plus 10,000 more in 2010, which the Pentagon told the White House it could address later in the year.

"Typically, you defer to the field for the resource needs," said one senior official involved in the review. "In March . . . we thought we had a handle on what McKiernan thought he needed."

A military official familiar with McKiernan's thinking said his request for 30,000 troops last fall was tempered by a belief that the Bush White House would reject it outright if he asked for more. As it was, Bush tabled the request, leaving it to Obama.

...."The military was not ready at that point to come to the president and say, 'Here's the number we think it's going to take,' " the person familiar with the conversation said. "They were satisfied that what they had put on the table at the beginning of the administration met their requirement for the moment."

If Chandrasekar's account is correct, the fault isn't really with the Obama administration at all.  It's with the military: McKiernan was on board with the counterinsurgency strategy but didn't indicate that he needed more troops to implement it.  Maybe this was because he was gun shy thanks to his experience with George Bush, maybe not.  But one way or the other, he didn't ask for more troops.  And considering the obvious political sensitivity of a troop increase, you just can't plausibly suggest that he somehow implied he needed one even though he never quite said so outright.  If he wanted more troops, he would have said so.

Later, of course, McKiernan was pushed out and a new commander took a fresh look at what resources were needed.  But that hardly reflects badly on Obama, and it doesn't really sound like anyone screwed up back in March.  Long story short, the military changed its mind about troop levels between March and September, and now Obama has to decide how to respond to that.  I don't really see a case for ineptness here, and I, for one, am perfectly happy that Obama and the generals are taking their time to hear everyone out and try to get things right this time around.  After eight years of futility, it's not as if a few more weeks to hash out internal differences and get some real consensus is a bad thing.

Modern Journalism Watch

| Thu Oct. 8, 2009 3:03 PM EDT

The Financial Times is now basing front page stories on Facebook postings from Sarah Palin?  Seriously?  Did Rupert Murdoch buy them too while I wasn't watching?

Why We Spend So Much

| Thu Oct. 8, 2009 1:40 PM EDT

Bob Somerby wants to know why the media isn't a wee bit more interested in why the United States pays far more per person for medical care than other rich countries.  Here's the rough answer:

  • We pay our doctors about 50% more than most comparable countries.
  • We pay more than twice as much for prescription drugs, despite the fact that we use less of them than most other countries.
  • Administration costs are about 7x what most countries pay.
  • We perform about 50% more diagnostic procedures than other countries and we pay as much as 5x more per procedure.

Underlying all this is the largely private, profit-driven nature of American medicine, but regardless of how you feel about that, the main lesson here is how hard it would be to seriously bring these costs down.  We can jabber all we want about incentives and greed and systemic waste, but the bottom line is that if we want to do anything more than nip around the edges, we'd have to pay doctors and nurses less, pay pharmaceutical companies less, pay insurance companies less (or get rid of them entirely), pay hospitals less, and pay device makers less.  That's a lot of very rich and powerful interests who will fight to the death to prevent any serious cost cutting, and it's why Obama and the Democrats in Congress have largely chosen to buy them off instead.

If you're curious about this in slightly more detail, the chart on the right comes from a McKinsey Global Institute study of healthcare costs.  (An older but more interactive version is here.)  Healthcare spending tends to be higher in richer countries, and since the U.S. is a very rich country it's unsurprising that we spend a lot on healthcare.  However, even when you account for that, McKinsey figures that we still spend about $2,000 more per person than we should, a total of about $650 billion.  The chart shows where this extra expense comes from: the dark blue areas are places where we spend more than expected and the orange areas show where we spend less than expected.

No matter how you slice the healthcare pie, though, compared to other rich countries we spend far more, cover fewer people, get hassled a lot more, and don't get much better outcomes.  Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who profit handsomely from this state of affairs, so it's not likely to change radically anytime soon.  Baby steps, my friends, baby steps.

Upgrade Hell

| Thu Oct. 8, 2009 12:04 PM EDT

Is this really true?

XP owners, the biggest body of Windows users [...] have to wipe out their hard disks after backing up their files elsewhere, then install Windows 7, then restore their personal files, then re-install all their programs from the original CDs or downloaded installer files. Then, they have to install all the patches and upgrades to those programs from over the years.

In other words, for all practical purposes it's impossible to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7.  Jeebus.  Is Microsoft trying to give Apple fresh material for its TV ads?