July 2, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 7:09 PM


AFTER AMERICA: Will civil war hit Afghanistan when the U.S. leaves? (Dexter Filkins, JULY 9, 2012, The New Yorker)

The ethnic battle lines in Afghanistan have not changed. Pashtuns, who dominate both the government and the Taliban, are from the south; the ethnic minorities--Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and many others--live mainly in the north. The capital, Kabul, is multiethnic and the focal point of all political and military ambition.

In April, I drove to Khanabad, a rural district near the city of Kunduz, in northern Afghanistan. It's only in the past few months that a Westerner could venture there without protection. Three years ago, the area around Kunduz fell under the control of the Taliban, who collected taxes, maintained law and order, and adjudicated disputes. A panel of Taliban imams held trials in a local mosque. There was an Afghan government in the area, with a governor and a police force, but the locals regarded it as ineffectual and corrupt.

In the fall of 2009, the Americans stepped up their efforts to reinforce the Afghan government. American commandos swooped into villages almost every night, killing or carrying away insurgents. Local Taliban leaders--"shadow governors"--began disappearing. "Most of the Taliban governors lasted only a few weeks," a Khanabad resident, Ghulam Siddiq, told me. "We never got to know their names."

The most effective weapon against the Taliban were people like Mohammad Omar, the commander of a local militia. In late 2008, Omar was asked by agents with the National Directorate of Security (N.D.S.)--the Afghan intelligence agency--if he could raise a militia. It wasn't hard to do. Omar's brother Habibullah had been a lieutenant for Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, one of the leading commanders in the war against the Soviets, and a warlord who helped destroy Kabul during the civil war. The Taliban had killed Habibullah in 1999, and Omar jumped at the opportunity to take revenge. Using his brother's old contacts, he raised an army of volunteers from around Khanabad and began attacking the Taliban. He set up forces in a string of villages on the southern bank of the Khanabad River. "We pushed all the Taliban out," he told me.

The Taliban are gone from Khanabad now, but Omar and his fighters are not. Indeed, Omar's militia appears to be the only effective government on the south side of the Khanabad River. "Without Omar, we could never defeat the Taliban," a local police chief, Mohammad Sharif, said. "I've got two hundred men. Omar has four thousand."

The N.D.S. and American Special Forces have set up armed neighborhood groups like Omar's across Afghanistan. Some groups, like the Afghanistan Local Police, have official supervision, but others, like Omar's, are on their own. Omar insists that he and his men are not being paid by either the Americans or the Afghan government, but he appears to enjoy the support of both. His stack of business cards includes that of Brigadier General Edward Reeder, an American in charge of Special Forces in Afghanistan in 2009, when the Americans began counterattacking in Kunduz.

The militias established or tolerated by the Afghan and American governments constitute a reversal of the efforts made in the early years of the war to disarm such groups, which were blamed for destroying the country during the civil war. At the time, American officials wanted to insure that the government in Kabul had a monopoly on the use of force.

Kunduz Province is divided into fiefdoms, each controlled by one of the new militias. In Khanabad district alone, I counted nine armed groups. Omar's is among the biggest; another is led by a rival, on the northern bank of the Khanabad River, named Mir Alam. Like Omar, Alam was a commander during the civil war. He was a member of Jamiat-e-Islami. Alam and his men, who declined to speak to me, are said to be paid by the Afghan government.

As in the nineties, the militias around Kunduz have begun fighting each other for territory. They also steal, tax, and rape. "I have to give ten per cent of my crops to Mir Alam's men," a villager named Mohammad Omar said. (He is unrelated to the militia commander.) "That is the only tax I pay. The government is not strong enough to collect taxes." When I accompanied the warlord Omar to Jannat Bagh, one of the villages under his control, his fighters told me that Mir Alam's men were just a few hundred yards away. "We fight them whenever they try to move into our village," one of Omar's men said.

None of the militias I encountered appeared to be under any government supervision. In Aliabad, a town in the south of the province, a group of about a hundred men called the Critical Infrastructure Protection force had set up a string of checkpoints. Their commander, Amanullah Terling, another former Jamiat commander, said that his men were protecting roads and development projects. His checkpoints flew the flag of Jamiat-e-Islami. Terling's group--like dozens of other such units around the country--is an American creation. It appears to receive lots of cash but little direct supervision. "Once a month, an American drives out here in his Humvee with a bag of money," Terling said.

Together, the militias set up to fight the Taliban in Kunduz are stronger than the government itself. Local officials said that there were about a thousand Afghan Army soldiers in the province--I didn't see any--and about three thousand police, of whom I saw a handful. Some police officers praised the militias for helping bring order to Kunduz; others worried that the government had been eclipsed. "We created these groups, and now they are out of control," Nizamuddin Nashir, the governor of Khanabad, said. "The government does not collect taxes, but these groups do, because they are the men with the guns."

The confrontations between government forces and militias usually end with the government giving way. When riots broke out in February after the burning of Korans by American soldiers, an Afghan Army unit dispatched to the scene was blocked by Mir Alam's men. "I cannot count on the Army or the police here," Nashir said. "The police and most of the soldiers are cowards." He was echoing a refrain I heard often around the country. "They cannot fight."

Much of the violence and disorder in Kunduz, as elsewhere in Afghanistan, takes place beyond the vision of American soldiers and diplomats. German, Norwegian, and American soldiers are stationed in Kunduz, but, in the three days I spent there, I saw only one American patrol. The American diplomats responsible for Kunduz are stationed seventy-five miles away, in a heavily fortified base in Mazar-e-Sharif. When I met a U.S. official and mentioned the reconstituted militias once commanded by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the official did not know the name. "Keep in mind," he said, "I'm not a Central Asian expert."

Largely prohibited from venturing outside their compounds, many American officials exhibit little knowledge of events beyond the barricades. They often appear to occupy themselves with irrelevant activities such as filling out paperwork and writing cables to their superiors in the United States. Some of them send tweets--in English, in a largely illiterate country, with limited Internet usage. "Captain America ran the half marathon," a recent Embassy tweet said, referring to a sporting event that took place within the Embassy's protected area. In the early years of the war, diplomats were encouraged to leave their compounds and meet ordinary Afghans. In recent years, personal safety has come to overshadow all other concerns. On April 15th, when a group of Taliban guerrillas seized buildings in Kabul and started firing on embassies, the U.S. Embassy sent out an e-mail saying that the compound was "in lockdown." "The State Department has marginalized itself," an American civilian working for the military said.

The more knowledgeable American officials say they have a plan to deal with the militias: as the U.S. withdraws, the militias will be folded into the Afghan national-security forces or shut down. But exactly when and how this will happen is unclear, especially since the Afghan security forces are almost certain to shrink. "That is an Afghan government solution that the coming years will have to determine," Lieutenant General Daniel P. Bolger, the head of the NATO training mission, said.

Many Afghans fear that NATO has lost the will to control the militias, and that the warlords are reƫmerging as formidable local forces. Nashir, the Khanabad governor, who is the scion of a prominent family, said that the rise of the warlords was just the latest in a series of ominous developments in a country where government officials exercise virtually no independent authority. "These people do not change, they are the same bandits," he said. "Everything here, when the Americans leave, will be looted."

Nashir grew increasingly vehement. "Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin," he said. "This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government."

And drones to keep each regime in line.

Posted by orrinj at 6:49 PM


The Economics of the Health Insurance Mandate (Mark Thoma, 7/02/2012, Forbes)

Under adverse selection, relatively healthy people drop out of insurance pools because they expect their health costs to be less than they would have to pay for insurance. As the relatively healthy people drop out, it raises the average cost of covering people (since the relatively healthy are no longer in the pool), which causes more people to drop out (the ones with expected costs that are now less than the higher premiums), which raises the price again, which causes more people to drop out, and so on until the market breaks down entirely.

But even healthy people have some chance of catastrophic illness, illness that could be deathly for example, so why wouldn't they purchase insurance in case this happens?

People know we are a compassionate society, and if they come down with a life threatening disease we will take care of them even if they don't have insurance, i.e. even if moral hazard causes them to shirk the personal responsibility conservatives hold so dear. Thus, relatively healthy people can take a chance and go without insurance secure in the knowledge that they will be treated if something awful happens. Broken bones, catastrophic illness and so on will be covered. But covered by whom? In many cases, the individual will not have sufficient resources to pay for the medical care, it would bankrupt them, so there is no choice but for all of the rest of us to pick up the bill.

A mandate stops this from happening. It forces those who would take a chance and go without care, those who are relying on all of the rest of us to insure them against large, unavoidable medical costs, to insure themselves against this. That is, it stops this moral hazard behavior. 

Posted by orrinj at 6:37 PM


An Authoritarian Axis Rising? (William C. Martel, 6/29/12, The Diplomat)

Who are the members of this group? Today, it includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela.

Why does it exist? Fundamentally, this new axis signals growing anxiety on the part of its members that they are "behind the curve" of history. Simply put, these states are on the wrong side of history, politics and economics - and they know it.

It's almost embarrassing to have such feeble enemies, but that's no reason not to put them out of their misery..  
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Posted by orrinj at 6:26 PM

Posted by orrinj at 6:21 PM


Jindal's Louisiana Vouchers Face Growing Legal Backlash (CASEY MICHEL JULY 2, 2012, TPM)

The voucher program Louisiana is slated to employ is much broader than other states. The vouchers, worth up to $8,800 annually, will be offered to students of families making under $60,000 and who are currently enrolled in a public school in which at least 25 percent of students test below grade level. So far, about 6,000 students have applied to the approximately 5,000 slots currently available in the approved private schools across the state, according to The Shreveport Times.

The following school year, however, will see the implementation of "mini-vouchers," in which all students at the aforementioned schools, regardless of their family's income, will be eligible for a $1,300 stipend to pay for private-school classes and apprenticeships. The voucher system would thus open up to nearly half of the state's public school students. Since the public schools will lose commensurate funding every time one of their students opt for a voucher, the state's public school system could by some estimates lose up to $3.3 billion annually once the program is fully implemented.

With 70.9 percent of its students receiving high school degrees, Louisiana has one of the lowest graduation rates in the country.
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Posted by orrinj at 6:15 PM


FLASHBACK: Romney Acknowledged His Massachusetts Healthcare Plan Imposed A Tax (Michael Falcone, 6/29/12, ABC News)

In what is now a well-known exchange from ABC News' January 2008 Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm College in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney declared "I like mandates" when asked by moderator Charlie Gibson about his approach to health care reform in Massachusetts.

But there's another moment from the debate that's getting more traction after yesterday's Supreme Court ruling -- on in which Romney says "yes," when asked is the health reform law he ushered in as governor constituted a tax.

GIBSON: "Governor ... you imposed tax penalties in Massachusetts?"

ROMNEY: "Yes, we said, look, if people can afford to buy it, either buy the insurance or pay your own way; don't be free-riders."

Posted by orrinj at 6:12 PM


CNN Poll: Health care ruling has not impacted race for White House, so far (CNN Political Unit, 7/02/12)

About a third of all Americans live in states that are not considered safe Republican or safe Democratic strongholds, including toss-ups states (like Florida and Ohio) as well as states that lean toward one presidential candidate but could ultimately wind up voting for his rival. In those 15 "battleground states," the poll indicates that Romney currently has a 51%-43% advantage over the president among registered voters, if the election were held today.

Posted by orrinj at 6:07 PM


Copland's 'Lincoln Portrait': Honest Abe's Oratory, Tailored For Orchestra (TOM HUIZENGA, 7/02/12, NPR)

Lincoln Portrait was commissioned by conductor Andre Kostelanetz in 1942. It was soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Copland meant for it to boost spirits during that difficult time. You might recognize a couple of American songs embedded in the music: Stephen Foster's "Camptown Races" and the folk song "Springfield Mountain."

This special new performance (at the top of this page), produced by NPR Music, features the U.S. Marine Band, also known as "The President's Own," conducted by Col. Michael J. Colburn. The narrator, who begins about halfway through, is Broadway star Brian Stokes Mitchell.
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Posted by orrinj at 5:58 PM


When 'Local Sourcing' Means Aisle 12 (JEFF GORDINIER, July 2, 2012, NY Times)

Ask around, and it's rare that you'll find a leading light in the culinary world who doesn't have a semi-secret fondness for at least one of these supermarket stalwarts, whether Hellmann's mayonnaise or Skippy peanut butter, Premium saltines or Oreos or Cheerios, American cheese or generic ice-cream sandwiches.

"There is something to be said about all those things," said Dan Kluger, the chef at ABC Kitchen, whose Web site proclaims that the New York restaurant is "passionately committed to offering the freshest organic and local ingredients possible."

A lot of grocery-store staples "may not be organic," he added. "They may not be the best products in terms of our environment and GMOs and all those kinds of things, but we kind of grew up with them, and you can't help but revert back to them in a pinch."

Besides, said Wylie Dufresne, the chef at WD-50 in New York: "It's actually a fuller life to try all that stuff. I would rather not be pious about things."

He should know. While creating his playfully surreal reinterpretations of American cuisine, Mr. Dufresne powers himself through a day in the kitchen by dipping into a ready stockpile of American cheese slices.

"I like all cheese, but my guiltiest pleasure is definitely American cheese," he said. "We have it in the restaurant all the time. The guys know that they need to stock Land O'Lakes American, or Chef will not be pleased. I've got probably four five-pound blocks of it in my walk-in right now. I'm constantly snacking on it."

Years ago, while working for the chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas, he would fold a slice in half and spoon in a smear of steak tartare. "American cheese is the perfect soft taco," Mr. Dufresne said.

His habit might sound like one iconoclastic chef's personal quirk. It turns out, though, that top chefs across the country -- in Atlanta and Boston and even the high-minded precincts of Portlandia -- are more than willing to own up to a particular corporate-food crush.

And the only foam any of them eat at home is Reddi-whip.

Posted by orrinj at 2:37 PM


Posted by orrinj at 5:37 AM


Obama campaign call affirms money anxiety (Emily Heil, 7/02/12, Washington Post)

Such fundraising pitches aren't unusual, since candidates seek to keep donors from feeling complacent, and Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt characterized the conference call as "routine." But it echoes the urgent tone the Obama campaign has struck in recent appeals, which have raised the specter of Romney holding a significant cash advantage over Obama. "I will be outspent," read the subject line of a Tuesday e-mail Obama sent his supporters.

The call from Air Force One, which apparently ran afoul of no laws governing the separation of official and campaign business, came just hours before the Saturday deadline for reporting June donations.

And it was on the heels of what turned out to be a fundraising boon for Romney: the former Massachusetts governor's campaign claims to have taken in $4.6 million during the 24 hours after the Supreme Court's decision on Thursday to uphold the Affordable Care Act. The Obama campaign claims that it, too, raked in money after the decision, though the campaignhas not revealed how much.

Obama has benefited from Democratic super PACs, but they have trailed their GOP counterparts in amassing funds.

The Romney campaign raised more than Obama in May and a senior Obama official predicted to reporters two weeks ago that Romney could raise $100 million in June.

For a campaign that had the luxury of vastly outspending Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) four years ago, the prospect of being on the other side of a torrent of money has become the second-biggest worry, after the state of the economy -- which is expected to be voters' No. 1 concern.

Posted by orrinj at 5:31 AM


Prices of Raw Goods Plunge on Slowdown (CAROLYN CUI, 7/01/12, WSJ)

The sudden economic downdraft has caused one of the biggest and broadest declines in commodities prices since the financial crisis, surprising producers and creating a glut of raw materials around the world.

From crude oil to copper to cotton, prices were down an average of 9% since late February, based on the Dow Jones-UBS Commodity Index.

Crude-oil prices, well above $100 a barrel just two months ago, now fetch $84.96 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Posted by orrinj at 5:23 AM


New law could shift employee health benefits to private market: The Affordable Care Act could entice companies to give employees a fixed amount to buy their own insurance. (Chad Terhune, 7/01/12, Los Angeles Times)

One of the more popular ideas being discussed is to give workers a lump sum, or defined contribution, and then let them use that money to buy their own individual health plan.

The approach resembles existing 401(k) retirement plans in which employers put a fixed amount of tax-deferred dollars into employees' retirement accounts and leave it to the workers to manage the money. In the case of health benefits, employers gain more control over their spending and avoid the hassle of picking plans for their workforce.

The idea comes at a time when employers are eager for new options as medical costs and insurance premiums keep climbing. The average family premium for employer coverage in the U.S. has increased 113% in the last decade, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Big companies are unlikely to give up their conventional healthcare role in the near term. And even smaller firms, especially in technology, may want to keep benefits in-house to compete for the best talent. But experts say companies in retail, hospitality and other service sectors with lots of lower-wage workers may find this alternative appealing.

"Some companies will look for new approaches like defined contributions, vouchers and exchanges," said David Lansky, chief executive of the Pacific Business Group on Health. "Maybe that all gets a boost now."

Now just give them exactly enough to buy an HSA/catastrophic plan.

Posted by orrinj at 4:48 AM


America's Generation Y not driven to drive (Reuters, July 01, 2012)

In her reluctance to drive or own a car, Gurian-Sherman is typical of a certain segment of Generation Y, the coveted marketing demographic encompassing the 80 million U.S. residents between the ages of 16 and 34.

Bigger than the post-World War Two baby-boom generation but without the middle-class expansion that drove the earlier group's consumer habits, Generation Y includes an increasing number of people for whom driving is less an American rite of passage than an unnecessary chore.

"That moment of realising that you're a grown-up - for my generation, that was when you got your driver's license or car," said Tony Dudzik, a senior policy analyst of the Frontier Group, a California-based think tank that has studied this phenomenon. "For young people now, that moment comes when you get your first cellphone."

US residents started driving less around the turn of the 21st century, and young people have propelled this trend, according to the federal government's National Household Travel Survey.

From 2001 to 2009, the average annual number of vehicle-miles traveled by people ages 16-34 dropped 23 per cent, from 10,300 to 7,900, the survey found. Gen Y-ers, also known as Millennials, tend to ride bicycles, take public transit and rely on virtual media.

More than a quarter of Millennials - 26 per cent - lacked a driver's license in 2010, up 5 per centage points from 2000, the Federal Highway Administration reported.