Saturday, February 17, 2007

Why Change is Difficult

Great sentences and great writers assemble the pieces of ideas we all have floating around in our brains and put them together in a way that clicks.

Take for example this gem from page C3 of Thursday's New York Times. It comes from an article by Robert H. Frank, economist at Cornell University, explaining why it's difficult to implement a single payer health insurance system even though it would dramatically reduce overall health care costs. He writes:
"Those who stand to lose from policy changes always battle harder than those who stand to gain -- an asymmetry that is exaggerated when losses would be concentrated and gains diffuse."
46 million Americans who currently don't have health insurance would benefit from a new single payer health insurance system. What's that worth to the average person--$4,000? $5,000? Maybe even $10,000 a year? However, the current health insurance industry (which consumes an obscene 31 cents of every health care dollar spent in the United States) would be decimated by a move to a single payer health plan.

Dr. Frank's point is that the insurance executive who earns $15 million dollar a year (and his $750,000 a year VPs and all his $85,000 a year staff) will battle harder (to prevent needed reform) than those who support reform and stand to gain $5,000 to $10,000 a year in reduced health insurance costs. The losses are concentrated and the gains are diffuse which impacts how aggressively people play the policy game.

I think it explains why a lot of obviously needed reform (regulating carbon emissions, regulating nicotine, regulating the meatpacking and produce industries) often languishes in Congress in spite of overwhelming popular support.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

7,100 types of apples

Another winner from page C11 of the New York Times today.

It was an obituary for Bent Skovmand who was a plant scientist who helped set up the Global Crop Diversity Trust. The article is fascinating.

But the sentence that caught my eye was this:
"It [the Global Crop Diversity Trust] said that of an estimated 7,100 types of apples grown in the United States in the 1800s, more than 6,800 no longer exist."
I think a lot of times, people act like we are living in the best of all possible worlds. But honestly, 7,100 different types of apples would have been pretty incredible to experience. You could try a different type of apple every day for over 19 years. So even as distribution has improved and costs have fallen (I imagine), something has been also been lost--6,800 different types of apples.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Case for Impeachment, Part 2


Because the Bush administration manipulated pre-war intelligence against Iraq--they have no credibility when they make claims against Iran about nuclear weapons.

It's the boy who cried wolf (or, as my childhood friend used to say, "wuff").

It's not that the Iranians aren't a threat. They very well may be. We just don't know. And we're not going to be able to find out as long as Bush and Cheney are in office because they have no credibility on intelligence matters. After 6 years of lies (see Iraq) and incompetence (see Katrina) no one is listening to what they have to say.

We can't go two more years without accurate, credible, up to the minute, untouched-by-Cheney's-hands, solid information about Iran that the world can rely and act upon.

So for the sake of national security and to deal with the potential threats from Iran, North Korea, who knows where, we need to impeach Bush and Cheney immediately.

The Case for Impeachment, Part 1

If you want to end the war in Iraq, I think you have to impeach the President. Here's why:

Right now, the Congress merely has the power to cut off funding for the war--but in a lot of ways that is politically untenable. Republicans will be more than happy to use their media machine to punish Democrats for "cutting off funding to the troops" regardless of the fact that Bush put them in harm's way in the first place.

The President meanwhile, has a whole host of tools at his disposal. Not only can he draw up military strategy as the commander of the armed forces--he also has a whole array of diplomatic resources available to him--from the U.N. to the Secretary of State to the State Department. The problem is--he refuses to use all of the tools he has available. For him there can only be a military solution. But most experts, including the Iraq Study Group have concluded that only a negotiated political solution involving many of Iraq's neighbors will bring peace to the region.

So the Congress may have the will to end the war but not the appropriate tools to do so effectively and the President has the tools but refuses to use them. So what do we do?

Impeach Bush.

Impeach Cheney (the same day).

Speaker Pelosi becomes the President of the United States. She can immediately appoint a new cabinet--perhaps Bill Richardson as Ambassador to the United Nations, Wesley Clark as Defense Secretary, and Joe Biden as Secretary of State. Her team can immediately go to work to implement a political solution in the region while removing our troops from the front lines.

It gets the whole, "first woman President" thing out of the way. And it gets us out of Iraq through a comprehensive military and political strategy that is more likely to produce stability in the region.

Grounds for impeachment? That's easy--they lied to Congress (and the American people) about pre-war intelligence.

Pelosi Blocks Bush's Boob Grab

High after giving the State of the Union, Bush somehow managed to fumble a handshake with Speaker Pelosi and almost caused an incident.

So why exactly was Bush trying to hug the Speaker of the House? Did he ever try to hug Speaker Hastert after the State of the Union in prior years?

Winner of the Huffington Post Contagious Festival, Jury Prize!!!

Okay, who didn't leak Valerie Plame's identity?

How about this--would anyone in the Bush administration who didn't leak the identity of an undercover CIA officer to the press please raise their hand.

Walter Pincus of the Washington Post says Ari Fleischer leaked the info to him.

Fleischer also said under oath that he leaked the information to Bob Woodward and John Dickerson who was working for Time Magazine.

Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times, and Matthew Cooper, formerly of Time magazine testified earlier that I. Lewis Libby leaked the information to them.

Now, Robert Novak says that Richard Armitage and Karl Rove were his sources.

So Libby, Armitage, Fleischer, and Rove were all leaking the information to anyone who would listen. Are we supposed to believe that they all just spontaneously started speaking out of school (and in violation of federal law) without orders from above? Is there anyone who doesn't think that this goes all the way to the top?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What if America's oil industry were nationalized?

Some of the best stories are often buried on page C13 of the newspaper.

Take for example, the story on page C13 of today's New York Times. The very last sentence in the article contained information that made my eyes bug out--cartoon style:
"Last year, Pemex [Mexico's state owned oil monopoly] sales surpassed $100 billion [that's with a b] but it paid $79 billion in taxes [also with a b], which accounted for almost 40 percent of Mexico's federal budget."
Imagine if all the oil reserves in the United States were nationalized. It's our oil, as a democracy we can choose to do what we want with it right? Imagine if Exxon and Shell and every other oil company that does business in the U.S. paid 80% of their revenue into the U.S. treasury. We could pay for health care for every American (several times over). We could build new schools and parks, and cure cancer, malaria, and AIDS--all while lowering taxes for every American. Sometimes the best solutions are simple, obvious, and right in front of our nose.

The war is over but the spin never ceases

On Monday, February 5, 2007, the Associated Press reported that 4 U.S. helicopters had been shot down in Iraq in the last two weeks and that it appears that the insurgents have new anti-aircraft missiles. From the article:
"The U.S. command has ordered changes in flight operations after four helicopters were shot down in the last two weeks, the chief military spokesman said Sunday, acknowledging for the first time that the aircraft were lost to hostile fire.

The crashes, which began Jan. 20, follow insurgent claims they have received new stocks of anti-aircraft weapons - and a recent boast by Sunni militants that "God has granted new ways" to threaten U.S. aircraft...

Maj. Gen. William Caldwell told reporters that the investigations into the crashes of three Army and one private helicopters were incomplete but "it does appear they were all the result of some kind of anti-Iraqi ground fire that did bring those helicopters down."

It was the first time a senior figure in the U.S. Iraq command has said publicly that all four helicopters were shot down...

In December, a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's ousted Baath party, Khudair al-Murshidi, told The Associated Press in Damascus, Syria, that Sunni insurgents had received shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles and "we are going to surprise them," meaning U.S. forces."

If the insurgents in Iraq now have effective anti-aircraft missiles--this war is likely over. Given the effectiveness of IEDs in disrupting our transportation routes and hurting our troops on the ground our air superiority is the only thing we have left. But if new missiles make it difficult or impossible to provide air support to our ground troops then fatalities will continue to rise and squirrelly Senate Republicans (and Joseph Lieberman) will have no place left to hide. If you recall, the Soviets were forced to pull out of Afghanistan after the CIA provided Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to the mujahideen.

By today, 6 U.S. helicopters had been shot down! From the New York Times:

"BAGHDAD, Feb. 7 — With two more helicopter crashes near Baghdad, including a Marine transport crash on Wednesday that killed seven people, the number of helicopters that have gone down in Iraq over the past three weeks rose to six. American officials say the streak strongly suggests that insurgents have adapted their tactics and are now putting more effort into shooting down the aircraft."
But the military has a new spin on what's happening:
"Details about the Marine helicopter, a CH-46 Sea Knight transport that crashed into an open field in an insurgent-heavy region northwest of Baghdad, were still sketchy Wednesday night. Witnesses said the aircraft appeared to have been shot down, but some military officials suggested that the crash might have been caused by a mechanical failure...

There have been four other fatal downings of American helicopters since mid-January that killed at least 20 people and that military officials have suggested were all caused by small-arms fire. In some cases, however, witnesses indicated that missiles had been fired from the ground.

American officials emphasize that a new sense of coordinated aggressiveness on the part of insurgents toward attacking aircraft, or even luck, may be playing as large a role in the high pace of crashes as improved skill and tactics among insurgents.

“I do not know whether or not it is the law of averages that caught up with us,” said Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during Senate testimony on Tuesday. Another possibility, he said, was that there had “been a change in tactics, techniques and procedures on the part of the enemy.”...

One Air Force commander in Baghdad said the recent crashes appeared largely to be a result of old weapons long available in Iraq and not an influx of new hardware or technology. “I haven’t seen anything like that,” the American commander said."
So that's it--just a little more elbow grease on the part of the Iraqis. Just a little luck. Small arms fire--nothing to be worried about. Law of averages. No anti-aircraft missiles to worry about here.

Only problem is, the official U.S. account of why more helicopters are being shot down appears to be untrue. Again from the New York Times:
"In some cases, however, witnesses indicated that missiles had been fired from the ground...

On Jan. 20, in the deadliest recent crash, attackers appear to have fired from a pickup truck near Baghdad. The first of two Black Hawk helicopters passed over the truck and saw nothing amiss. But a witness said that the second helicopter fired the flares that were used to confuse heat-seeking missiles before bursting into flames and then crashing.

An Apache gunship in the area then pursued the truck and destroyed it. The American military later said that the debris from the truck contained tubes consistent with missile launchers."

Why? Why would Gen. Pace and military spokespeople contend that it was mechanical failure or chance or small arms fire rather than new anti-aircraft missiles even when evidence on the ground from witness and even our own troops suggests otherwise? Because he knows that if the insurgents have new air-aircraft missiles we're screwed.

In a bit of understatement, the reporter for the Times wrote, "Historically, improved tactics in shooting down helicopters have proved to be important factors in conflicts in which guerrillas have achieved victories against major powers, including battles in Somalia, Afghanistan and Vietnam."

If you can't provide effective air cover then several things happen, all of them bad:
  • you lose massive overhead firepower which can destroy enemies at a distance;
  • our ground troops are fighting their ground troops and they know the territory better;
  • you can't get additional troops moved quickly into battle which means if our guys get into a firefight it's harder to get reinforcements to them;
  • you can't get injured troops or outgunned troops away from a firefight as easily.
  • you have a tougher time moving supplies quickly to where they are needed.