Thursday, February 25, 2010

We must regulate black carbon in addition to CO2, and the EPA has the tools to do it now!

On Monday, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the EPA to regulate the pollutant called black carbon, also known as soot under the Clean Water Act. The Center's lawyers are experts at utilizing existing environmental laws to push regulatory agencies into action. I hope they succeed, because reducing black carbon pollution is crucial in the fight against global warming, which gets more important every day the US Senate dicks around failing to pass a carbon cap.

For the basic science of black carbon, Wikipedia has a pretty good primer. Black carbon warms the atmosphere directly by absorbing infrared radiation in the atmosphere. However, it mostly effects global warming through changing the Earth's albedo, or ability to reflect incoming radiation rather than absorb it. It does so by settling on snow or ice and making those surface absorb more incoming radiation. In the long run, black carbon reduces the extent of snow and ice coverage by warming those surfaces, which further decreases albedo by exposing either ocean water or land. A study by Ramanathan and Carmichael in 2008 found that black carbon is currently causing 60% of the global warming that CO2 is, making it the second highest contributor to warming by greenhouse gases after CO2.

One study recently found that aerosols settling on snow are causing 90% of the melting of Himalayan glaciers as opposed to study 10% from global warming. Under the heading of aerosols, black carbon causes 30% of the melting. In addition to lowering the Earth's albedo, the melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens the water supply for hundreds of millions of people in South Asia.

Thanks to the fact that we don't burn a lot of wood relative to fossil fuels and air pollution regulations for coal plants and diesel engines, the US contributes just 6.1% of global black carbon emissions. That's not much more than our share of the global population, unlike our disproportionately huge share of CO2 emissions.

However, there are several reasons that increase the urgency of the US cutting its black carbon pollution. First, as Wikipedia notes, black carbon from North America disproportionately impacts the Arctic sea ice, which is so crucial for maintaining the Earth's albedo. Second, the US is one of the foci of international shipping by sea. Ocean-going vessels often are fueled by dirty diesel engines, and they often pass closer to the Arctic. Finally, the US would set a powerful example for other countries, particularly India and China.

Reducing black carbon is easier than the shrinking fossil fuel consumption from CO2 because reducing black carbon often involves technology fixes like particulate filters. If we take aggressive steps to reduce it now, we can help avoid climate tipping points, especially in light of the failure of the global community to commit to serious enough CO2 reductions.

Will President Obama's EPA listen? Our bedrock environmental laws like the CWA, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act give the agency wide latitude to regulate pollution. It has taken initial steps to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act, but might be reluctant to regulate air pollution under the Clean Water Act, not for legal reasons but for fear of stepping on toes. As I've written earlier, Obama and the Democrats may realize that global warming exists and that we must cut CO2 pollution, but they definitely do not understand how gigantic the problem is and the scale of response it requires. Fortunately EPA head Lisa Jackson is more progressive than most in the administration, so we'll have to see. Whatever they decide, the outcome will be as much a political determination as a legal one.

PS. The IPCC seriously underestimated the effect of black carbon in its 2007 report, as the Wikipedia article notes. Yet another reason why emissions cuts need to be more severe than what the IPCC report dictates because the report is so conservative. This drives in the absurdity of the mainstream media's recent criticisms of the IPCC for minor mistakes. The IPCC hasn't created the idea of global warming out of its imagination, but rather has significantly under-estimated the extent and effect of this very real and pernicious phenomenon!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Marjah and the Bigger Picture in Afghanistan

Last week NATO forces in Afghanistan commenced a highly publicized assault on the town of Marjah in Helmand Province in the south of the country, a Taliban stronghold. It is supposed to be the paragon of the new "clear and hold" strategy of Gen. Stanley McChrystal, based on the ideas developed by Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq. Our government is clearly hyping this operation to the media, so let's take a look at why they are doing so and the real implications of the Marjah assault.

Marjah isn't a particularly important town.
Here's Anand Gopal (the excellent journalist who wrote the story about secret US prisons in Afghanistan for The Nation) describing the significance of Marjah on Democracy Now!:
Well, you know, it’s interesting, because Marjah isn’t a particularly strategic place or even a place that holds any really strategic value. It’s a very tiny town in the Helmand province. The official estimate is around 80,000, but I think a lot of Afghans and I also think that’s a huge overestimate.
The Taliban did not respond to the offensive by digging in for a face-to-face battle. Instead, they have elected a guerrilla strategy, as Juan Cole writes. Many of them skipped town, and those that remained have been pestering NATO forces with sniper attacks, mines, and IEDs. Cole believes that they could be hurt by the loss of heroin income from the area, but the poppy industry is so widespread I would imagine that drug lords could move operations elsewhere. Overall, the operation seems unlikely to put a significant dent in the Taliban's operational capacity.

In an interview on Real News Network, Gareth Porter notes the absurdity of putting 15,000 NATO troops, a big chunk of their limited forces, into an assault on an agricultural town with a population of 80,000. The population of Marjah is a tiny, tiny percentage not only of the population of Afghanistan but also just the areas under Taliban control. When you consider that, according to Petraeus counter-insurgency doctrine, NATO forces don't have sufficient troops for the size of the country, the Marjah approach cannot be scaled up to significant portions of the Pashtun areas in which the Taliban dominates. In fact, it might allow Taliban forces free reign in other regions of the country, even in Helmand Province, while limited NATO forces are so concentrated in a small area.

Then, you might ask, what's the point? Gopal and Porter conclude that this operation is oriented toward the audience back home in the US. The Obama administration is likely attempting to utilize the Marjah operation to vindicate the strategy of the escalation and gain points at home. Porter takes that hypothesis one step further, and posits that convincing the home audience that our forces are gaining the upper hand is intended to gain the political breathing room necessary to negotiate with the Taliban, probably after a couple Marjahs more than a year down the road.

Robert Naiman astutely
compares this potential political-military strategy with the Iraq escalation. Bush only negotiated with Sunni militias i.e. paid them off in wake of the show of force that the 2006 surge presented. In both cases, the US escalates violence to make its population think that it is winning before negotiating the same result that could have been achieved years earlier without the massive human and economic cost. As Naiman writes, "It's a grim world in which the most powerful country kills people to look tough."

I fervently hope that Gareth Porter is right and that Obama eventually uses negotiation to end the war, both between US and Taliban forces and between the various parties in civil war, after a period of acting tough through escalation (perhaps after the 2012 election?). Absent a strong antiwar movement in the US, that would be the best case scenario. However, thus far his administration has been adamantly opposed to negotiating with Taliban leaders. At the recent Afghanistan conference in London, the US
reacted negatively to Hamid Karzai's stated intention of negotiating with the highest Taliban leadership.

Recently the CIA and the Pakistani ISI captured Taliban leader Mullah Omar's right hand man, Abdul Ghani Baradar. The
NYT article on his arrest quotes a US official critical of the arrest, saying that the US had been involved in incipient negotiations with Baradar. The article describes Baradar as representing the moderate faction of the Taliban.
"He was the only person intent on or willing for peace negotiations," said Hajji Agha Lalai, former head of the government-led reconciliation process in the city of Kandahar, who has dealt with members of the Taliban leadership council for several years.
Here's what the anonymous US official believes the consequences of this arrest will be:
"So it doesn't make sense why we bite the hand that is feeding us," the official added. "And now the Taliban will have no reason to negotiate with us; they will not believe anything we will offer or say."
This suggests that the arrest has dealt a serious blow to negotiations, by removing the link between Karzai and/or the US and Omar, and by discouraging growing support for negotiation and more moderate politics among the Taliban leadership. It also raises two other important questions. First, who will take Baradar's place? There's the possibility of someone more hardline stepping up to fill the vacuum. Secondly, will this further fragment the Taliban and give local commanders more autonomy? If so, does that actually improve prospects for a military victory by NATO? Will it handicap potential negotiations down the road? How the US handles the arrest and its eventual consequences will be illustrative of how the Obama administration intends to move forward on the negotiation front.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama made the decision to escalate US involvement in Afghanistan and implement a counter-insurgency campaign targeted at the domestically-oriented Taliban, not just the less than 100 al-Qaeda fighters remaining in the country. In the face of a bloody stalemate lasting for years that seems quite likely to occur, he faces another decision. On the one hand, he can continue the current strategy of pursuing total victory against the Taliban on the battlefield. In that case, he would likely have to push back the 2011 date withdrawal date. On the other, he can support Karzai's effort to negotiate a peace with an eye towards withdrawal.

Obama has an irksome propensity for taking the middle path for its own sake rather than sound reasoning, and it seems likely he will do so in Afghanistan. Even if Porter's theory is correct, the result will be at least two more years of civilian and military casualties, as well as thousands of innocent Afghans becoming refugees in their own country. In the end, no matter how reprehensible they are, some of the Taliban will probably be part of the post-war political process or even a coalition government. In the midst of what Marshall Auerbach dubs "deficit terrorism," crucial domestic programs (and possibly the so-called entitlements) will be cut while military spending continues to grow, in no small part because of the war in Afghanistan. Unless our military contingent there overcomes the limitations of its size and strategy and conclusively defeats the Taliban, which seems unlikely, even Porter's best case scenario will have a poor result.

In conclusion, we must challenge not only the unjust nature of American militarism that President Obama has embraced, but also his failure to acknowledge the limits of US military power that this over-hyped battle for Marjah demonstrates. Political strategies can achieve results that are the same or better than military strategies in terms of the national interest as well as justice. President Obama has acknowledged the importance of political strategies, but thus far has subordinated them to use of the military. Until that ends, we will be stuck in the Long War with sad consequences for the American as well as Afghan people. Professor Andrew Bacevich of Boston University hits the nail on the head in his illuminating article entitled "Obama's Post-Modern War of Attrition":

The revival of counterinsurgency doctrine, celebrated as evidence of enlightened military practice, commits America to a postmodern version of attrition. Rather than wearing the enemy down, we'll build contested countries up, while expending hundreds of billions of dollars (borrowed from abroad) and hundreds of soldiers' lives (sent from home).

How does this end? The verdict is already written: The Long War ends not in victory but in exhaustion and insolvency, when the United States runs out of troops and out of money.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Friday, February 5, 2010

Health Care in Taiwan

In the US we mostly hear news about Taiwan only in terms of their historical dispute with China, as in recent coverage of our proposed arms sales to Taiwan angering the Chinese. I'd like to look at a different aspect of Taiwan, one that ironically makes Taiwan more socialist in one respect than China when their dispute is typically characterized as capitalist Taiwan v. communist China.

I recently stumbled across an interview that the NY Times health care blog did with Harvard professor William Hsiao who led the panel devising health care reform for Taiwan in 1995, which was implemented with great success. The process is almost as impressive as the outcome.

At that time, 45% of Taiwanese had no health insurance. The country's first democratically elected president Lee Teng-hui created a panel to create a plan to cover them. After the initial panel had difficulty getting to a consensus, they invited Hsaio to head the panel and get things under control.

They proceeded to do a study of the health care systems of the US (insurance through employer or individually except government covers poor and elderly), UK (national health care system w/ government running insurance and care), Germany (universal coverage, mixed public and private ie. multi-payer), France (universal coverage, multi-payer), Canada (single-payer w/ private and public care), and Japan (universal coverage, multi-payer) to determine which system they would emulate.

In the end, they chose to emulate the Canadian system, single-payer with, unlike in the UK, both private and public health care delivery. Here's why:
Canada has a single-payer system with universal insurance coverage. It offers people free choice of doctors and hospitals, and it has competition on the delivery side between public and private hospitals. The quality of health services is very high, and people were very satisfied with the system from the 1980s through the mid-1990s.
President Teng-hui pushed the plan through, and it was implemented within 6 months of its passage. Remember how the Democrats' preferred health reform bills wouldn't really take effect until 2013 or 2014 because they said it would take time to set up the exchanges? Bullshit, especially when you add the Taiwan example to the fact that we implemented Medicare (another single-payer system) in 1966 just after it was passed in 1965.

Thus Taiwan's national health insurance plan became the sole payer for health care in the country with an excellent result. The country made the utmost effort to sign up everyone, even sending out people to sign up the homeless! Employers pay 60% of their workers' premiums, and workers pay the other 40% through a payroll tax, currently at 4.6%. Hsiao compares this to the 12-20% of wages that American workers pay for employer-based insurance, a hidden appropriation of which many Americans are not cognizant. The government covers the premiums completely for the poor and partially for veterans, the self-employed, and farmers.

Every citizen gets a "SmartCard" that contains their health care information and history. This, combined with the fact that in a single-payer system patients have total freedom to choose their provider (unlike in the US where insurance companies restrict patient choice of doctor and hospital), gives them flexibility to see whatever doctor they wish to. In addition, it cuts costs because it allows the claims system to be paperless.

The benefits are comprehensive. The national insurance system covers prevention, primary care, hospitalization, home care for the chronically ill (cheaper than hospitals), mental health, dental, eye care, and even traditional medicine like acupuncture and Chinese massage. Not only is this comprehensiveness totally awesome, but it practically guarantees better health care outcomes, and not just by traditional measures like life expectancy, which, as Hsaio notes, is on the rise.

It's important to note that this is socialized insurance. As I've written before, socialized health insurance lowers administrative costs while allowing for true universal coverage (as opposed to the 97% "universal" coverage that mandate-and-subsidies approach with a public option charging Medicare rates was projected to achieve here). It lowers costs by eliminating the costs of investor profit, exorbitant executive compensation, marketing, underwriting, and denying claims. Their administrative cost for insurance is 2.3% of premiums while ours fluctuates between 12-14%. Single-payer also lowers the cost for hospitals and doctors in dealing with claims from different payers. Currently Taiwan has universal coverage with health care costs at 6% of its GDP, while we have about 85% of our population covered and health care costs at 16% of our GDP (they actually jumped up to 17% last year, yikes).

The Taiwan case shows that is possible to implement single-payer and achieve universal coverage at a reasonable cost in a short time. The claim of those like President Obama that switching to single-payer would be too disruptive is total bullshit intended to avoid explaining why they don't support single-payer when it makes so much sense. Considering our problem with health care costs (the worst in the world I might add), we need structural change in our insurance system. Hsaio concludes that this is true for just about any country:
You can have universal coverage and good quality health care while still managing to control costs. But you have to have a single-payer system to do it.
So next time a liberal or leftist friend of yours threatens to move to Europe out of frustration with our government, tell them to consider Taiwan!

PS. There's much more to be gleaned from this brief interview, so watch out for a Part 2 and maybe 3.

Media Distortion of New Jobs Numbers

Here's the headline in today's NY Times: "Labor Market Shows Signs of Reawakening in New Data". True, the Labor Department's report for January says that the rate of unemployment dropped from 10% to 9.7%.

Yet in the second paragraph: "The economy shed another 20,000 net jobs during the course of month." That's a lot better than losing hundreds of thousands of jobs a month like we were at the peak of recession, but it's still a net loss of jobs. Not exactly a "reawakening."

You might ask, how did the unemployment rate drop if the economy lost jobs on the whole? Well, it turns out that the Labor Department changed how they estimate the overall population.

The report also featured a new way in which the government estimates the population, which is used to calculate the unemployment rate. That prompted some economists to dismiss the drop in joblessness as a statistical quirk.

“The message is, you can’t believe what they tell you,” said Joshua Shapiro, chief United States economist at MFR Inc. in New York. “Everyone goes crazy over today’s number, but history has been rewritten. Things are not comparable from month to month.”

So we'll see when next month's numbers out, but it's clear that the labor market isn't exactly reawakening if we're still losing jobs.

Meanwhile, my daily Financial Times email summary of the day's global news remarked that "the number of US workers claiming jobless benefits unexpectedly rose last week." Didn't see that in the Times article. Obviously a monthly time scale is a better indicator of overall trends than a weekly one, but it is another strike against the supposed reawakening. That weekly data combined with fears of sovereign debt default in Greece and elsewhere in Europe "rocked global markets" according to the FT, suggesting that investors take that data more seriously than the monthly report.

The NYT article concludes oddly enough with a quote from the great liberal economist (actually probably more of a leftist than a liberal, pretty cool that he's getting such coverage, probably has to do with the fact that he called the housing bubble), Dean Baker, that is at odds with their optimistic headline.
Things are getting bad less rapidly,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “We’re sort of hitting bottom, but there is no evidence of a robust turnaround.”
If the media and politicians continue to trumpet about a recovery in the labor market when it's clearly not there, it lessens the chance of a serious jobs program to deal with the millions of people left semi-permanently unemployed (as the article notes, 6.3 million out of work for 6 months or more), financed through debt or taxes on the wealthy and financial sector. We need to be on the alert for a jobless recovery that will benefit capital much more than working families. Plus, given that so much of our economy is reliant on consumer spending, a jobless recovery might not end up being a recovery at all.