Category Archives: War

Hidden Costs

One of the interesting changes we're seeing in the US is the different behavior of health care consumers when they are actually allowed to act like consumers. From the Wall Street Journal:

Last fall, two big employers embarked on a radical new approach to employee health benefits, offering workers a sum of money and allowing them to choose their health plans on an online marketplace. Now, the first results are in: Many workers were willing to choose lower-priced plans that required them to pay more out of their pockets for health care.

The new online marketplace, operated by consulting firm Aon AON -0.29% Hewitt, a unit of Aon PLC, was used by more than 100,000 employees of  SearsHoldings Corp.  SHLD -0.86%  and Darden Restaurants Inc.,  DRI +0.43% as well as Aon itself, to pick plans for 2013. The employers gave workers a set contribution to use toward health benefits, and they could opt to pay more each month to get richer plans, or choose cheaper ones that might have bigger out-of-pocket fees, such as higher deductibles.

"When people are spending their own money, they tend to be more consumeristic," said Ken Sperling, Aon Hewitt's national health exchange strategy leader.

Go figure. When people are given pricing options and asked to consciously weigh costs/benefits and risks/rewards they make "consumeristic" decisions. Forget for a moment all the details about "Obamacare" and your feelings towards it, and instead ask yourself these questions: Can any health care reform program succeed if it doesn't allow people to behave like a logical consumer? How can a logical consumer exist in a market where pricing is obscured? To that end, the next time you go to the doctor's office try this exercise: ask them what your appointment is going to cost before they do anything. They likely won't be able to tell you because they simply don't know – the cost depends on what kind of insurance you have and the rates your insurer has negotiated with the doctor's network. Craziness, huh?

Changing gears, but sticking to the hidden costs theme, have you ever wondered why we it's been so difficult for people to grasp the true costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It's because the bill has shown up in the form of an exploding deficit and not a "War Tax." Deficits are like credit card debt: you know they're bad and that they can be a drag on your financial well being, they are hard to get overly excited about because your daily life doesn't change much until you run out of credit and the bills come due. On the other hand if you're paying cash – or a War Tax – the cost of your action is immediately clear and you're far less likely to be so sanguine about whatever you're doing. 

So here's a rule of thumb we need to teach our children: if the cost of something is hidden, or if you aren't asked to pay for it up front, it is likely much higher than you think so you should really think hard before making that purchase decision. There should also be a corollary: if it's a politician doing the selling then you should probably just walk away or be ready to spend 100x whatever you think the cost is (see War, Iraq).

Watching Bush’s War

I’m a huge fan of PBS’s Frontline.  So much so that it’s my top ‘Season Pass’ on Tivo so that I’m sure no other show will preempt it for recording.  Last night PBS aired part 1 of Frontline’s Bush’s War which was duly recorded and I’ve now had the chance to watch about half of the 2 1/2 hour segment.  The quality of the show surpasses even Frontline’s excellent standards and I look forward to watching the rest of it at the earliest opportunity.

If you didn’t see it or get it recorded you can view it online at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/bushswar/

Fec points to a write up in Reuters about the show and excerpts a part that includes this paragraph:

In dozens of interviews and with meticulous fact-gathering, “Frontline”
makes a convincing case for two important aspects of the war. First, it
was primarily orchestrated by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense
Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Bush was only “the decider” insofar as he
signed off on their plans, often paying no heed to Secretary of State
Colin Powell and others.

Fec also loaned me Suskind’s The One Percent Doctrine which I’m about halfway through, and when you combine that book with this show you have pretty convincing evidence that Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld bent us over and were none too gentle with us.

The Worst Has Not Been Visited Upon Us Yet

Below is a video clip of an interview by Foreign Policy with former FBI interrogator Jack Cloonan on the use of torture in the "war on terror."  Basically he says that it is counterproductive in that it mythologizes terrorists and in turn helps the terrorists recruit a whole new generation of jihadists.  The most chilling lines come at the end when he says that we (the U.S.) believes that our programs work because we haven’t been attacked since 9/11, but the jihadists say that they’ll get us even if it takes a generation.  He ends with the line "The worst has not been visited upon us yet." 

Now I’ll sit back and wait for the "we’re American, Christian and righteous and we’re fighting for freedom in the face of invading Islamo-fascist hordes" crowd to come and say this expert has no idea what he’s talking about.  They know torture works and is necessary because they listen to Rush every day and he tells them it’s true.  And they’ve watched every episode of 24 at least seven times and if it works for Jack Bauer then surely it works for our boys too. 

Of course they wouldn’t agree with Cloonan when he points out that even the Israelis think that torture doesn’t work.  I mean, what do they know?  They just live on a piece of land the size of a US state and are bordered by whole groups of people who’ve stated for the record that they want Israel annihilated.  It’s not like they have a lot of experience dealing with this kind of thing, right?  Yep, Jack Bauer is a much better source of information.

Tanks, Missiles and Guns in France of All Places

Tankmuseum17_2
When we went to France in the spring we took a day trip to see the Troglodyte caves and then the Musee des Blindes in Saumur, France.  For those of you who are like me and would travel to France without grasping a single word of the French language the Musee des Blindes is a tank museum.  If you’re wondering why I’m bringing it up now, well, I finally got around to uploading all of our pictures from the museum onto Flickr.  If you like you can see them here.

Michaelerinjustinattankmuseum_vid_2
The picture at the top of this post is our family in front of the museum and the picture to the left is a heartwarming shot of my kids inside the museum.  Since I’ve never owned a gun in my life, and the preconceived notion we Americans have of the French as being, well, French, I find it ironic that this NRA-approved, warm and fuzzy image of the armed-to-the-teeth American family was shot in the heart of the Loire Valley.

Interesting Look at US War Operations

Michael Yon is an independent journalist who’s been in Iraq for what seems like forever.  He has a blog that provides coverage of the US war operations that is distinct from mainstream news operations.  For a sample I recommend his piece Bird’s Eye View which provides detailed background on tactical operation centers from the company level (one guy a radio and a map) to the brigade level (30 or so officers clustered around computers and monitors at different stations), then looks at some of the tools that they use for reconnaissance and then segues into how the Army leadership is mentoring local Iraqis on how to manage their cities.  A couple of my favorite excerpts include:

Ravenhandheld
An aerial reconnaisance unit called a Raven that is hand launched (picture at left).  Reminds me of the big gliders kids have been hand launching for years.  Yon also has pictures of a larger aerial unit called a Shadow that is launched off of a catapult which is also pretty cool.

Yon’s coverage of the seemingly mundane is also oddly fascinating given the context:

In the mornings after breakfast they hold the daily BUB (Battle Update
Briefing) at the TOC, where the happenings of the last 24 hours and
various important matters are discussed. The Safety Officer, Bob, says
that although people should be treating their uniforms with permethrin
to keep the bugs at bay (and they make you itch pretty badly if you
don’t—I’m scratching right now), that permethrin can reduce the
flame-resistant properties of Nomex. For those garments, the
recommendation is to put the bug repellent on the skin and not on the
Nomex.

At the end of Saturday’s briefing, Captain Pike showed a slide with
a bird from Iraq, stating that birds are cool. When it was over, I told
him that I am a birdwatcher, and that I’d even written about the birds I’d seen in Iraq. The Captain told me he goes birding every Sunday morning and invited me to join him at sunrise.

After the briefing, Safety Bob singled me out and quietly made sure
I understood the danger of treating my Nomex. (They really look out for
you here.) I told Bob that I’d put that in a dispatch so more people
would know.

Finally, is description of US personnel interacting with the Iraqis leads to some revelations (at least for me):

LTC Fred Johnson was about to head downtown in Baqubah to meet with
Iraqi officials, so I tagged along. Iraq has a voucher-based food
distribution system that predates the invasion, and hearkens back to
the sanctions and trade restrictions Iraqis had to live with because of
Saddam’s practices. Basically, there is one “food representative” for
about every 200 families, and those families get vouchers to pickup
food from local warehouses.

In Baqubah, the warehouse had been captured by al Qaeda—despots
always seem to go for the food supply first—but the people here are not
starving. Hefty Iraqis are everywhere. For instance, the grapes in
Baqubah vineyards are as good as any I get at home. Very sweet and
juicy. I was with 1-12 CAV yesterday and we got into a little fighting
yesterday (16 July) while we were in a vineyard. The grapes were very
sweet and juicy. As our folks clear the city of al Qaeda, the first thing people ask for is cigarettes,
not food. Cigarettes were outlawed by AQI. They celebrate the routing
of AQI by smoking and drinking cold water. (People say Al Qaeda also
outlawed cold water, but I have no idea why.)

and

LTC Goins explained that his soldiers had delivered chlorine to a
water plant, but they had a problem with farmers pumping water out of
the Nahr Khraisan tributary, which comes out of the reservoir, much
faster than it comes in. And when Al Qaeda recently blew up a bridge in
Baqubah, the explosion also cut some important electrical wires that
brought in current. (Much of the electricity in Diyala Province
actually comes from Iran.)

What our people are trying to accomplish here is simple. Simple in
the sense that a simply stated goal might be very hard to achieve.
After vanquishing al Qaeda (that’s what the Iraqis here call them), the
goal is to have no pause in the restoration of services. This is about
mental inertia and psychology. The idea is to jump-start the people and
facilitate their taking responsibility for their communities….

Even though LTC Goins must leave the meeting and return to the field,
each day he (along with other commanders) has to put his mind to work
on how to administer Baqubah, and he knows one of his problems is
water. Solve water, and lots of things can be carried forward on that
momentum. (Actually, solving the fuel issue comes first; many of the
water pumps and generators depend on the fuel, as do the vehicles, so
they are concentrating on the fuel issue while prepping the water
issue.)

The idea is to get the Iraqis to run their own cities but most of the
old leaders are gone, and the new ones are like throwing babies to cow
udders. Many just don’t know what to do, and in any case, most of them
have no natural instinct for it. So our soldiers are mentoring Iraqi
civil leaders, which is a huge education for me because I get to sit in
on the meetings. The American leaders tell me what they are up to,
which amounts for free Ph.D. level instruction in situ: just
have to be willing to be shot at. (The education a writer can get here
is unbelievable.) Meeting after meeting—after embeds in Nineveh, Anbar,
Baghdad and Diyala—I have seen how American officers tend to have a
hidden skill-set. Collectively, American military leaders seem to
somehow intuitively know how to run the mechanics of a city…

I have wondered now for two years why is it that American military
leaders somehow seem to naturally know what it takes to run a city,
while many of the local leaders seem clueless. Over time, a possible
answer occurred, and that nudge might be due to how the person who runs
each American base is referred to as the “Mayor.” A commander’s first
job is to take care of his or her forces. Our military is, in a sense,
its own little country, with city-states spread out all around the
world. Each base is like a little city-state. The military commander
must understand how the water, electricity, sewerage, food
distribution, police, courts, prisons, hospitals, fire, schools,
airports, ports, trash control, vector control, communications, fuel,
and fiscal budgeting for his “city” all work. They have “embassies” all
over the world and must deal diplomatically with local officials in
Korea, Germany, Japan and many dozens of other nations. The U.S.
military even has its own space program, which few countries have.
In short, our military is a reasonable microcosm of the United States—sans
the very important business aspect which actually produces the wealth
the military depends on. The requisite skill-set to run a serious war
campaign involves a subset of skills that include diplomacy and civil
administration.

I know this is a long post and it probably seems that I excerpted the majority of his article, but believe me when I say that there’s plenty more there.  I highly recommend you read his stuff for it provides a distinct, ground level view of US activity in Iraq that you aren’t getting on CNN.

Money-Money-Money, Mooooney

One of the things I consistently hear from friends and family who read my mind dribblings is that they read everything except for the "boring stuff" about politics and government.  Invariably they say something like "I’m just not as into it as you are" which is fair since I’m interested in lots of boring things, including my navel.  Still, it got me to thinking that maybe I need to be a little more entertaining when I write about that stuff since so here goes my first try:

Today’s topic: War and Money

Important takeaway: We’ve spent a buttload of money on the war in Iraq and it’s not ending any time soon.

Interesting hook: Some folks are putting a $1.2 Trillion price tag on the war, but back in 2003 when one of the Bush administration’s economists predicted the war might end up costing us about $100-200 billion dollars he was canned. The other administration estimates at the time were closer to $60 billion which means they were only off by, oh, $1.14 trillion.

Entertainment Value: Think about what $1.2 Trillion could buy.  If I were writing my typical, boring, wonky stuff I’d write about all the teachers it could pay for, doctors it could provide, yada, yada, yada.  But for fun lets look at the number of the following that you could purchase:

Man that’s a lot of spare change.  Now, if you want to talk about real money take a look at what Fec’s pointing to re. the coming crisis due to the healthcare and retirement costs of the aging (finally) baby boomers. 

Boring? Yes.  Important? Hell yes.