Afghan Army recruitment jumps, US underwrites

In this supposedly positive story, “Recruits pour in after Afghan Army offers pay raise,” there was no discussion of a funding source. The Taliban had been paying much more to fighters than the Afghan Army was paying its troops, so recruitment was down for the military until this past week. But the Taliban has an extremely large funding base right now because it has taken control of the poppy/opium supply for the world market – and Afghanistan is the biggest source. Afghanistan’s government, unlike Iraq’s, doesn’t have oil revenues to support a strong central military. The CIA World Factbook mentions very little in the way of non-poppy or foreign aid-related economic sources for Afghanistan, and notes that the poppy trade provides about $3 billion to the country’s (black market) economy.

So, when I was reading this article, I kept trying to think where the money was coming from for this big pay raise. It’s just so convenient that the week after President Obama announces an escalation, which many criticized because the Afghan Army is totally inadequate, that suddenly recruitment over the past week exceeds the whole September recruitment figure and is about 60% of the November figure!

Then, I remembered yesterday’s headline: “Karzai Says Afghan Army Will Need Help Until 2024,” referring to monetary support. Both articles are New York Times, but no mention in today’s article on pay raises. Well, connecting the dots, I made an educated guess that the US just underwrote a big pay raise for the Afghan Army, with very convenient timing. You might think this is good because now the Army will compete with the Taliban in recruiting people and thus security will improve. There’s the big problem, however. We can’t keep underwriting these pay raises forever. The United States is not going to keep fully financing the Afghan Army for fourteen years. We probably can’t afford to. The Taliban, however, has a cash crop that they can keep converting to payroll for their fighters, virtually infinitely unless something dramatic changes with the opium production or markets. The Afghan state has no such resource available.

I don’t know what the solution here is, since I don’t foresee either an immediate end to the US War on Drugs (which some believe would curtail Taliban revenue) or the Afghan government nationalizing poppies as if they were oil or minerals, but it’s unsustainable to keep throwing money at the Afghan Army. What makes 2024 the magic number anyway? There’s still no big revenue source available to the Afghan government in 2024, and so the Army would still run out of money. And then we’re back at square one.

 
This piece was originally published at Starboard Broadside.

Giving death penalty the chop

This is now a week old, but the New York Times ran an editorial last Sunday arguing for the elimination of the death penalty on budget grounds (in addition to reasons of morality), which is something I discussed last May in an update to a post on California’s budget crisis. It’s one of the many contradictions in modern American conservatism: a professed fiscal conservatism and a tough-on-crime stance that requires the perpetuation of expensive money sucks, such as the war on drugs and the death penalty. Most people don’t realize just how expensive the death penalty really is, compared with life without parole.

Here’s what I wrote in the post in May:

The ACLU of Northern California just emailed me to recommend I link you all to their proposal to save the state $1 billion in 5 years. Their proposal rests on the premise that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than life imprisonment, as several studies have shown. The governor has proposed selling state lands to cover the fiscal crisis, including the San Quintin State Prison (death row), and thus the ACLU’s proposal makes sense. If you go to the preceding link from The Economist on the costs of the death penalty, they actually suggest that states are more likely to consider ending or suspending the death penalty as a cost-saving measure during the recession.

Honestly, I think the ACLU is completely right. I’d rather keep social safety nets for abused women (on the governor’s list of cuts in the main link in the post), than continue executing people, if we’re choosing between the two.

 
However, I didn’t enumerate the costs, except in the comments briefly… but the New York Times did, based on “evidence gathered by the Death Penalty Information Center,” which opposes the death penalty:

States waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.

There is also a 15-to-20-year appeals process, but simply getting rid of it would be undemocratic and would increase the number of innocent people put to death. Besides, the majority of costs are in the pretrial and trial.

 
To really put it in perspective, they looked at a few states that continue to use the death penalty and they determined the average cost per executed person.

According to the organization, keeping inmates on death row in Florida costs taxpayers $51 million a year more than holding them for life without parole. North Carolina has put 43 people to death since 1976 at $2.16 million per execution. The eventual cost to taxpayers in Maryland for pursuing capital cases between 1978 and 1999 is estimated to be $186 million for five executions.

Perhaps the most extreme example is California, whose death row costs taxpayers $114 million a year beyond the cost of imprisoning convicts for life. The state has executed 13 people since 1976 for a total of about $250 million per execution. This is a state whose prisons are filled to bursting (unconstitutionally so, the courts say) and whose government has imposed doomsday-level cuts to social services, health care, schools and parks.

 
That’s a lot of money that could be used more productively or cut to ease state deficits during the present fiscal crisis. I don’t know if the $1 billion saved in 5 years claim by the ACLU of Northern California, is too optimistic, but just eliminating the $114 mil/year saves $570 million in five years, and that’s still a significant figure, and their sources calculate it’s $125 million not a $114 million. Furthermore, there are future cost increases projected for states such as California that will have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars soon on new facilities to expand for the lengthening death row.

And of course, there are always the moral reasons, including the execution of innocent people. Let’s join the civilized world and save a bunch of money at the same time. Give death penalty the chop.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

Giving up on job-hunting

This is one of those issues that I’ve been hammering away on since March: that the US government doesn’t count folks as officially unemployed if they’ve given up looking for work. The New York Times had a story on this yesterday, featuring the stories of several such people. One quotation from a master carpenter living in Florida stuck out at me as a good analogy for the situation…

“When you were in high school and kept asking the head cheerleader out for a date and she kept saying no, at some point you stopped asking her. It becomes a ‘why bother?’ scenario.”

 
The government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, as I’ve now said several times on this blog, publishes the U3 unemployment number as the official national unemployment statistic, which is what the media quotes every month. But the U3 ignores the folks in that article above who’ve given up looking because there just aren’t any jobs to be found. The U6 figure from the BLS is a broader measure that does take that into account, as well as including people who are underemployed (i.e. they can’t find as much work as they need because of jobs/hours scarcity). To quote myself from the end of July:

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

 
I once again commend the Times for looking into this, but the government is fundamentally misrepresenting the national economic situation to make things look better than they are, and that’s hamstringing the ability to implement good policy to fix things. The American media, as a whole, remains complicit in this fudge. I recognize that it would confuse everyone to have the national unemployment figure suddenly spike by changing it back to the pre-1994 way of measuring things (essentially what the U6 now measures), but millions of Americans are affected by this directly and indirectly; so it helps none of us to keep pretending things are much rosier than they are.

In August, the official U3 unemployment rate was 9.7%, while the U6 rate was 16.8%.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

New York Times finally gets it

While studying an unemployment graphic by The New York Times back in March, I observed that they (like the rest of the traditional media) were ignoring the fact that the quoted national unemployment statistic (U3) is too limited in its definition. For example, it excludes all the people who’ve simply given up looking for work because there just aren’t any jobs in the area. This makes employment look far better than it really is, and it helps boost the stupid claims that western Europe’s national unemployment rates are far higher than ours. I showed that using the lesser-known U6 Bureau of Labor Statistics measurement of unemployment, which I explain fully in that post, US and Western Europe have very comparable unemployment most of the time.

This month, finally, the NY Times posted a state-by-state interactive graphic that confirms what many bloggers (including me) have been saying for quite some time: unemployment is much worse than many people realize. The new graphic shows the U6 rate in each state, rather than the usual and more limited U3, and for several states the unemployment is actually over 20%. Here’s a non-interactive picture of the map (click for full version):

Some people may think the distinction doesn’t matter and is just semantics, but in the June data, the official rate was 7 points lower than the more accurate U6 rate of 16.5% unemployed nationally. Using the U6 unemployment rate, which used to be the definition of official unemployment until 1994, we can see that we have the worst unemployment since the Great Depression (not since merely the 1980s as the media insisted for a while. Making sure people understand the severity of the situation is the difference between pressure for critical government efforts to save the economy and spur recovery and public pressure to reduce the deficit and debt in the middle of a gigantic recession. The latter has been the worrying trend recently. And once we get out of this mess, U6 versus U3 is the difference between helping Michigan and the Rust Belt states climb out of their semi-permanent hole that existed prior to the recession and continuing with business as usual. 13% in Michigan looks much better than 22% unemployed. The post-recession part may be even more important, in terms of helping Americans in chronic localized recession.

While I laud the Times for their graphic earlier this month, they and others need to begin incorporating the broader definition into their reporting both nationwide and state-by-state. This shouldn’t be swept under the rug had a technicality. The government won’t change the definition back, I’m sure, because it’s like rose-colored glasses for the state of the economy. But the U6 figure is out there every month, and it takes about 5 seconds more to locate on the BLS website. The media just doesn’t want to waste time explaining the distinction to people.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

More on Unemployment

Yesterday I reminded everyone to check the U6 unemployment, which gives a better picture of the unemployment situation in this country. There’s another reason I forgot to mention, other than that it doesn’t ignore the chronically unemployed.

It’s being said that this is the worst unemployment in 26 years (which goes back to 1983). That’s true if one looks at the official rate over that period (BLS graph):

But the problem is, and I wish the old media would remember this, the official definition of unemployment changed in 1994, to exclude the chronically unemployed (who lack job opportunities in their area), which makes the situation look better. Not only does that mean that a slight decrease in unemployment does not automatically point to recovery (because people could just give up looking for a while and then be excluded), but it also means that the magnitude of the recession is ignored in media reports. Saying that this is the worst unemployment in only 26 years simply isn’t true. Using the U6 from 1994 to present and comparing that to the old official rate before 1994, which used roughly the same definition, we find that this is the highest unemployment since probably as far back as the Great Depression. This is probably the worst in 71 years.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics shows me only back to 1948, but between 1948 and 1994, the highest unemployment was in 1982, when it reached 10.8% unemployment. Compared to the present (U6) unemployment, 16.4%, it’s evident that you have to go back past 1948 to find a higher unemployment rate than now. So I’m pretty sure that means going all the way back to the Great Depression, when (if I recall correctly) unemployment reached 25% at one point. After a brief recovery, it climbed back to 19% or so in 1938.

But all that is obscured when the old media decides to ignore the 1994 definition change that artificially lowers the official unemployment rate by 7 points in the month of may.

This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.

American Exceptionalism and the Torture Debate

Mark Thompson at the League of Ordinary Gentleman has what I think is an excellent post on how torture runs contrary to this idea that America is an exceptional country.

If you think the United States is just another country, or even just another Western country, then the moral issues of whether waterboarding is torture, or whether it was a war crime to drop the atomic bomb, can and perhaps should be either irrelevant or only of minor significance compared to whether those actions saved more lives than they cost. But if you are a true believer in American exceptionalism, then you must accept that maintaining that exceptionalism comes with costs, perhaps sometimes in human lives.

Shining cities don’t just appear and maintain their shine without sacrifice and risk-taking by their citizens. It does no one any good to pretend otherwise; nor does it do any good to secretly and gradually apply a bit of plaster and polish to a monument from which you have taken much gold restores the monument to its previous glow. Instead, that monument must be stripped of its plaster for all to see in its newly grotesque shape. Then, and only then, can the people properly evaluate whether the lost shine was worth the increase in safety.

 
He goes on to state in the post and in the comments that America is not and has often not been the right country or the most free. Instead, he bases his ideas of American exceptionalism on the founding documents of our nation, which laid out the premise that all men are created equal and endowed with certain natural rights. Since I’m in a historical minded mood (I should be studying instead of writing this…), I wondered about this.
Read more

If he can walk and chew gum…

Or: Why President Obama must deal with the torture issue now

It got really cliche when supporters countered critics of Obama’s bold agenda by saying the president was capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time.

Even some people in the administration kept saying that. If he can work on Iraq, Afghanistan, the economy, and health care all at the same time – since he does have all these people working for him – it seems theoretically possible to do some other things simultaneously as well.

Robert Gibbs, the press secretary, says Obama is focused on “looking forward” and not back, which is supposed to be a good enough explanation for his disinterest in following the law and investigating and prosecuting those in the previous administration who authorized or carried out torture.

If Obama were the only person in charge of doing everything at once, this might be a reasonable thing to say. But he’s not. He’s the head of a gigantic administration (and he could, for that matter, leave it entirely up to the U.S. Dept. of Justice, like he’s supposed to, and not worry about it). That means it’s possible for the administration to be looking forward and back at the same time.

Like Janus, the Roman god of doorways and the namesake of the month of January:
janus

But on a serious note… think about it this way: If people committed crimes in the previous administration (and the evidence is overwhelming that they did), then they should be prosecuted. Because what sort of signal does it send to less-than-honest people in current and future administrations? If we prosecute, it tells people they can’t get away with it just because they’re out of office. If we don’t prosecute, it tells them that laws don’t mean anything because everyone will be ready to move on and “look forward.”

It doesn’t make sense to me that we should just “look forward.” That’s the same argument that Gerald Ford used in pardoning Nixon, and it pissed everyone off and may have cost him the 1976 election. Sure, it’s a distraction and it’s politically draining, but if we don’t hold up the law, does the law mean anything? Why bother writing laws if we never plan on enforcing them?

If we always cower because we don’t want to look like we’re politically motivated in carrying out the law, then it encourages further law-breaking. That’s not a slippery slope argument, it’s just reality. There are bad people out there who want to do illegal things, some of them will break the law anyway, but some of them will be stopped because they know there will be consequences.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been looking at this in a different light, and he also makes these points and others better. Particularly, he suggests that there is a double standard for how the law gets enforced:

Endorsing justice, consequences, and “personal responsibility” for poor black fathers, as Obama does for instance, is moral, upstanding, and honest. Endorsing justice, consequences and “personal responsibility” for your colleagues who are charged with safegaurding the future of hundreds of millions of people is, apparently, mere retribution. What a joke.

 
Our country is based on the rule of law. If we enforce the laws for the poor minorities, we also have to enforce the laws for the powerful, rich white guys. I’d like to see these right-wing nuts stop defending illegal torture and start calling for enforcement of these laws, just as loud as they call for enforcing immigration laws and other such things.

We don’t get to pick and choose.

 
NATE UPDATE: More TNC on moving forward

Here’s what TNC actually thinks about “moving forward”

There’s a bar in the East Village that offers five shots of anything for ten bucks. I’m going there tonight, and taking 10 shots of anything the crowd reccommends. Then I’m going to stand on the street soliciting random women for sex. Should I be arrested I shall have the perfect rejoinder, “Officer, I think we should focus on looking forward.” Should I be slapped, I’ll have the perfect rebuttal, “Baby, I think we really should be focused on looking forward.” Should I succeed and come home, hung-over, and have to face my spouse’s accusing eyes, I shall be armed with the perfect riposte, “This relationship should focus on looking forward.”

 
This post originally appeared on Starboard Broadside.