Thursday, December 31, 2009

But - but - but - it's snowing!

Which, of course, proves that there's no such thing as global warming.

When they attempt a more serious argument than that, the nanny-nanny naysayers often resort to sneering at climate models - at the very idea of climate models. It's all nonsense, they insist, just wild speculation, the success of models in producing results in close approximation with the historical records notwithstanding.

The odd thing is, they may be correct: The models may be wrong. Unfortunately for them (and everyone else), two recent studies indicate in different ways that the models might be underestimating global warming.

One of those studies was reported a couple of days ago, when researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said new findings
suggest that climate change may be affecting aquatic environments faster and sooner than the atmosphere. ...

Lake Tahoe, Clear Lake and four other big lakes in Northern California and Nevada are heating up faster than the surrounding atmosphere....

[R]esearchers tapped satellite sensor temperature data compiled over 18 years in what is believed to be the first time that long-range lake surface temperatures have been dissected. What the data reportedly showed is that the lakes' water temperature rose two times faster, on average, than the regional air temperatures.
Philipp Schneider, the study's lead author, called the results "a big surprise" and that if the results are confirmed, "lake ecosystems are going to be very much affected, especially because the trend we observed seems to be quite rapid."

Earlier, the November 25 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Geophysical Research Letters carried a paper by Jeffrey Park, a professor of geology and geophysics at Yale. It described an increased time lag in the response of CO2 levels in the atmosphere to short-term changes in temperature: A lag time that used to be about five months is now at least 15 months.

Why the change? "Think of the oceans like soda," he said in an email to Kevin Drum. "Warm cola holds less fizz. The same thing happens as the oceans warm up." Drum noted:
By itself, that's unsurprising, but the magnitude of the change was much bigger than he expected.
And that was the real point: The study indicated, in Park's words, "that human activities have lately outpaced the ocean's capacity for absorbing carbon." The oceans act as a massive heat sink, offsetting the impact of the anthropogenic release of carbon into the atmosphere by soaking up a good amount of that carbon. But if Park is right, that role could be coming to an end as the oceans reach the limit of their capacity to take up carbon. That means no buffer against further CO2-driven warming and more rapid changes.

Which, by the way, is how that first study, the lake study, figures in: Not only the oceans, but even lakes are acting at heat sinks, indicating - again - that more heating is being generated than atmospheric models account for. And when a saturation point is reached, atmospheric warming could skyrocket.

That's unlikely to happen for a few decades, anyway, but still....

Happy New Year.

The Footnote: To add to the joy there is the recent news that global warming is already speeding up insect breeding and that some pest species that bred once a year are now breeding twice.

T'other Footnote: I came across the Park paper in a post by Kevin Drum - credit where it's due - but which I now can't for the life of me locate, so I don't have a link.

T'other Other Footnote: A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the plan for a "Global Day of Action" on climate change on December 12-13. Over 3,000 events took place across the world; some photos can be found here.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Proving an old point

Updated From Digby at Hullabaloo I learn that Joe "Call Me Mr. President" Lieberman
said on "Fox News Sunday" that the U.S. will have to take an active approach in Yemen after multiple recent terrorist attacks on the U.S. were linked back to the Middle Eastern nation.

The Connecticut senator said that an administration official told him that "Iraq was yesterday's war, Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act preemptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war."
"Multiple" attacks in this case means maybe two, the others mentioned, such as the attack on the USS Cole, not really qualifying as "recent." The two would be the November shootings at Fort Hood by Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who killed 13 people, and the attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to set off an explosive on a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas day. The latter does appear to have been an attempted act of terrorism: US officials are claiming that Abdulmutallab said
that al Qaeda operatives in Yemen supplied him with an explosive device and trained him on how to detonate it.
But the former has largely been regarded as a psych case, not a terrorism case - except, or course, by the wingnuts and people like Joe "Curtis LeMay" Lieberman. No matter, the senator from the great state of Neocon insists that both men might have had some connection to a radical Muslim cleric in Yemen and that's all the proof he needs to start dreaming about bombing runs and invasions.

Which is typical political "Macho Man" blather, but, you know, so what? Grant everything he claims. Let him spin his fantasies. It seems to me that the contentions about Yemen actually serve to point up the uselessness of a military response to such as al-Qaeda.

Those who have called counter-terrorism a "law enforcement issue," with the emphasis on the patient work of investigation and intelligence-gathering, have been called anything and everything from naive to "objectively pro-terrorist."

But how is this better? They're in Afghanistan! Bomb Afghanistan! Now they're in Pakistan! Bomb Pakistan! No, wait, now they're in Yemen. Bomb Yemen!

Then what? No, no, wait again, now they're in Kowabunga with camps at the headwaters of the Wazoo River! Bomb them up the Wazoo!

It's an unending game of Whack-a-Mole with for the most part living, breathing - or, rather, formerly living and breathing - human beings just trying to get on with their lives who make up most of those on the receiving end of mallets made of cruise missiles.

It's stupid and it's pointless.

Oh, and what "old point" does this serve to prove? Well, there's this, which I wrote on October 2, 2001:
Our best weapons are bread and butter, not bombs; our best tactic reconstruction, not retaliation; our best strategy justice, not jingoism.
And more the the point, this from January 5, 2002:
Patient police work of effective investigation and intelligence has done and will do more to oppose terrorism than all our bombing sorties combined.
That still seems true to me and still seems clearly the better way.

Footnote: The patron saint of pant-wetters also said that the administration should not release the 90 Yemenis now held at Gitmo. Whether, it appears, there is any evidence against them or not.

Updated to note that earlier reporting had said, and this post originally said, that Abdulmutallab had tried to set off "a plastic explosive." It has developed that the explosive was a powdered explosive called PETN which he tried to set off by injecting it with a liquid. The phrase "a plastic explosive" has been changed to "an explosive."

Which actually raises a point: The idea was to set off a chemical reaction by combining the liquid with the PETN - but would that have caused an explosion? Such a method seems highly unlikely to produce the extremely rapid release of energy that constitutes an explosion; more likely, the reaction would have been drawn out over a time. (Keeping in mind that in a case like this, one second can be a long time.) That doesn't mean it wasn't dangerous: Even without an explosion, it might have produced a fireball sufficient to damage the plane enough to bring it down. But it's also possible that the only person injured would have been Abdulmutallab himself. It's impossible to say anything for sure - especially without knowing what the liquid was, which I haven't noticed reported - but I can't help but wonder if even if the thing had gone off as planned would the event have gone off as planned.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Change alert - FYI

HalsoScan, which provides the comment feature here, has been bought out and is going to a pay service called Echo in just a few days.

The cost isn't much and even in my current straits I expect I could afford it but I'm not willing to pay for it since it really involves paying in order to get access to a bunch of features in which I have no interest and which are of little use to a low-traffic blog like this place.

So I'm letting it expire. I should have Blogger's comment form - which I don't like that much but it's there - up and running as soon as that happens. Which means that all of you chomping at the bit to make your opinions known will not be disappointed.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Catching up - economy

Updated This is the last of my "catching up" posts, which has come a good deal later than originally intended, but it's not like it's important or anything, just our economic futures and all.

That future doesn't look so good. I'm tired of reading economic news that insists on saying "the recession appears to be ending" (or even "has ended") or "the economy has turned a corner," or whatever, all of which begin to sound like William Westmoreland (or, as we called him, Waste-more-land) declaring we could see "the light at the end of the tunnel" in Vietnam. Because the fact is, until a turnaround starts to affect and improve the lives of a significant number of people, it ain't over no matter what the number-crunchers living in the Land of Economic Theory tell us.

And that won't happen for a while.
Unemployment is a lagging indicator, meaning it won't bounce back until well after the recovery is underway. But even then, the consensus is that joblessness will improve at a glacially slow pace - so woe unto all of us if the consensus is wrong and the outlook is even worse.
The official unemployment rate hit 10.2% in October before dropping a bit to 10.0% in November - which was still, except for October, the highest rate since July 1983 and 3.2 percentage points higher than a year before. (Monthly figures can be found by going to this link at the Bureau of Labor Statistics and changing the "From" year.)

And those "official" figures, of course, don't tell the whole story. Include those who are working part-time only because they can't find full-time work and those "marginally attached" to the labor force (defined as those who had not searched
for work in the preceding four weeks and including "discouraged workers" who had given up looking altogether), and the unemployment rate hits 17.5%.

And even that doesn't address the situation of temporary workers, the hiring of who has surged recently. That could be taken as a good sign, since after the last two recessions in the early 1990s and in 2001, such a surge was followed by employers bringing those temps on as permanent employees - but in those cases, that went on for just two or three months and the recent surge has lasted for four months -
and still corporate managers have been reluctant to shift to hiring permanent workers, relying instead on temps and other casual labor easily shed if demand slows again. ...

Last month 52,000 temps were added, greater than the number of new workers in any other category. Not even health care and government, stalwarts through the long recession, did better.
So does "temp" now indicate "in transit to permanent" or just "temporary," with all of the instability for such workers as the term indicates?

[t]he number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks and over) rose by 293,000 to 5.9 million. The percentage of unemployed persons jobless for 27 weeks or more increased by 2.7 percentage points to 38.3 percent.
Get that? Nearly 40% of the unemployed, the "officially" unemployed, have been out of work for over six months. That kind of deep and long-term unemployment has wreaked havoc on states' unemployment compensation funds.
Currently, 25 states have run out of unemployment money and have borrowed $24 billion from the federal government to cover the gaps. By 2011, according to Department of Labor estimates, 40 state funds will have been emptied by the jobless tsunami.
Necessary total loans, it is predicted, will reach $90 billion. And
with holiday workers soon to be laid off, analysts are forecasting that the nation's unemployment rate will rise to 10.5% next summer before beginning to decline.
If it does. If everything goes right. John Mauldin, president of Millennium Wave Investments, and Michael Shedlock, an advisor representative at SitkaPacific Capital Management
have been crunching the unemployment data. They conclude that the unemployment rate won't hit 5% (or so-called full employment) until - best-case scenario - 2020. ...

Meanwhile, the economy has shed about 8 million private-sector jobs in the last two years, even as the U.S. needs to add about 125,000 jobs a month just to absorb the new folks entering the workforce. Put the two together, and the economy would need to create about 15 million jobs over the next five years just to get back to where we started at the inception of the Great Recession, Mauldin calculates. ...

What Maudlin is saying is that the U.S. needs to add 250,000 jobs a month every month for five years. That's an unprecedented level of job creation. Over the last decade we've experienced just one year when the economy gained more than 250,000 jobs a month every month, Mauldin says, and that was 1999: the height of the tech bubble. ...

[That is, the] model assumes some very optimistic (if long-range) outcomes - namely, no recessions for the following 10 years and 2 million jobs added each year after 2011. "Of course, we've never done that, but let's be optimistic," Mauldin writes.
Which I suppose is appropriate for a "best-case" scenario, but considering what it requires, even "best" seems to be understating it; "miraculous" seems more appropriate.

And the worst case scenario? That assumes a quick double-dip recession in 2011.
Throw in the very real possibility of higher taxes and we get unemployment peaking at just below 13% in 2011 and 2012, and then remaining above 10% for the next eight years. (David Rosenberg, chief economist at Canada's Gluskin Sheff and formerly of Merrill Lynch, says unemployment could hit 13%, too.)
What's really worrying is that this worst-case scenario looks clearly more likely than the best-case one:
Meredith Whitney, who is about as famous as a bank analyst can get, said Monday that we're in for a double-dip recession, by the way.
And economist Joseph Stiglitz thinks that there is "a significant chance" of one.

Just how bad is it? Consider that the GDP needs to grow 2.5% a year just to absorb the people newly entering the job market every month. Compare that the the average prediction of economists of 2.9% growth in 2010, and the picture doesn't look good. Especially when it turns out that according to the Commerce Department's revised figures, the economy didn't grow at a 2.8% annual rate in the third quarter of 2009, but at a 2.2% rate.

In fact, the figure was even more disappointing, as the initial projection was for a 3.5% annual growth rate. What's more, a significant part of that 2.2% was due to the Cash for Clunkers program:
Motor vehicle output added 1.45 percentage points to the third-quarter change in real GDP after adding 0.19 percentage point to the second-quarter change.
Take away from the third quarter that net 1.26 percentage point gain over the second quarter and growth outside the federal program shrinks to an anemic annual growth rate of 0.94%.

Just how bad is it? The good news was that in November, the economy lost the fewest jobs in a month (11,000) that it had since December 2007. Not gained any, just lost the fewest.

And even as leading economic indicators continued to tick up,
[s]ome analysts cautioned that the [gain] was overstating the economy's underlying strength.

Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, noted that the index did not adequately reflect smaller companies.

"The index takes no account of the dire state of the small business sector, which ... remains in deep recession," he said.
Ultimately, just how bad is it?
“Depression has been forestalled only because major government borrowing and spending is filling the gap,” Albert M. Wojnilower, a Wall Street economist and consultant at Craig Drill Capital, said in a newsletter last week.
And a good hunk of that spending - the stimulus - won't be there next year.

Even the Fed admits that unemployment will remain at or near record post-WW2 highs for some time; in fact, Fed policymakers say it could take "five or six years" for the economy and the labor market to be consistently healthy.

Besides the deep and persistent unemployment and its effects of individuals and states, there are other danger signs, some of them partially hidden. For one,
U.S. mortgage delinquency rates and the percentage of loans that entered the foreclosure process jumped in the third quarter, with both reaching record highs, the Mortgage Bankers Association said on Thursday. [Record-keeping began in 1972.]

The percentage of loans on which foreclosure actions were started rose to 1.42 percent in the third quarter, an all-time high....

"It is all about unemployment, everything else is secondary," MBA's chief economist Jay Brinkmann said in an interview. ...

The delinquency rate for mortgage loans on one-to-four-unit residential properties rose to a seasonally adjusted rate of 9.64 percent of all loans outstanding as of the end of the third quarter of 2009, up 40 basis points from the second quarter and up 265 basis points from one year ago, the MBA said in its National Delinquency Survey.

The delinquency rate broke the record set last quarter.
That increase in the delinquency rate is undoubtedly tied to another revealing statistic about the "shadow inventory" of houses headed for sale because of foreclosure or delinquency but which are not yet on the market: The number of such homes has risen by 55% over the last year, from 1.1 million to 1.7 million. Banks have resisted putting these houses up for sale for fear of further depressing a housing market that is just showing the first signs of recovery, a recovery that may be souring and is at least uncertain. But if government efforts to help homeowners keep their houses can't keep up with the number of defaults, that will only go on so long. And on that front, things are moving very slowly: Of the over 700,000 temporary mortgage modifications made under the federal program, less than 5% have become permanent.

For another, despite everything from massive bailouts to mortgage renegotiation programs, banks remain reluctant to loan.
[An] Associated Press story notes that "according to the Federal Reserve, loans by the nation's 8,000 banks fell 8 percent to $6.7 trillion in the past year, and some analysts expect them to keep falling at least through next year."
More particularly, October was the ninth consecutive month during which lending by the 22 top recipients of federal bailout money declined even though their profits are increasing. Why? Pat Choate at Huffington Post says the reason is "White House politicking and old-fashioned banker greed," with the profits going to pay off federal loans so Obama can kill the bailout as a political issue and the banks can get out from under the restrictions they were under.

But economist Michael Munger has a more subtle and darker explanation. He maintains that the Fed has been "POURING money into the system" (emphasis in original), increasing the money supply by 10% a month, by buying long-term Treasury bonds. That leaves banks with plenty of cash. They also are selling off some of their collateralized debt obligations - the sort of toxic "assets" that brought us to the brink of ruin in the first place. So the wholesale credit market is flush with cash but it's not turning into loans in the retail market. Why?

Munger says that banks "are still trying to avoid risk" - a strange attitude for institutions whose blithe gambling almost brought on a catastrophe, but never mind - so they are pursuing a different course:
[B]anks are borrowing money from the government, at 0%, and then buying NEW federal debt[, that is, the Treasury bonds], which pays 3%. That's a guaranteed 3% real return, with no risk. So the Fed buys up debt to increase the money supply, to get the banks to lend. But the banks just buy more government debt, lending to the government instead of lending to small businesses or even large businesses.

And the government is having to borrow more and more to finance the deficit being used to bail out the banks. But the banks are just using the bail-out money to buy more of the debt being used to finance the bail-out! From the taxpayer's perspective, you'd be better off playing the "3-card monte" games in Times Square.
In short, the banks are taking federal (public, taxpayer) money and loaning it back to the government at a profit. We're paying the bill and getting precisely zilch for it, not even an easing of credit.

It's impossible to believe that this disgraceful shell game is going on without the knowledge of Fed chair and golden boy Ben Bernanke, cruising toward confirmation for a second seven-year term even as he utterly failed to see the looming crisis and continues to stonewall about details of the Fed's rescue of AIG.

He has certainly made his interests clear: He intends to crush inflation into a black hole such that even a 3% per year inflation rate is dangerously high because it "could cause the public to lose confidence in the central bank’s willingness to resist further upward shifts in inflation." That is, a 3% inflation annual inflation rate could cause we consumers to panic. If that plan means 10% or more unemployment and allowing the big banks to continue their suck-money-from-the-public shell game, then so be it.

But don't let it be said that Ben Bernanke is unconcerned about deficits. Oh, no, not Ben Bernanke! Shoveling trillions into the coffers of Wall Street is one thing, but after all, there have to be limits somewhere! So in testimoney before the Senate Banking Committee earlier this month,
Bernanke called for cutbacks in Medicare and Social Security even as unemployment rises and the middle class is endangered.
Why there? Because, he said, "That's where the money is." He even hinted that Congress should repeal Social Security and Medicare, stating "it's only mandatory until Congress says it's not mandatory."

Well, I have my own suggestions about where a good hunk of money could be found, but that is likely a topic for a different post, so I'll just note here that when asked if he would take taxes on the rich off the table, Bernanke suddenly turned diffident, saying that was up to Congress and he tried to stay out of such discussions, a consideration that apparently does not apply to slashing benefits that go mostly to the middle and lower-middle classes in the name of reducing deficits, the better to fight - again - the demon or more accurately the specter of inflation.

(It's worth noting at this point that low inflation helps banks and other lenders and somewhat higher inflation helps creditors because both expect the inflation to pay part of the real cost of loans, which are paid out in today's dollars but repaid in tomorrow's - inflated - dollars. And also worth noting who, in that light, Bernanke's policies help.)

That same devotion to the golden idol that is Wall Street, with the same paranoia about its evil enemy inflation, has infected the White House. A few weeks ago Paul Krugman wrote that
[i]n December 2008 Lawrence Summers, soon to become the administration’s highest-ranking economist, called for decisive action. “Many experts,” he warned, “believe that unemployment could reach 10 percent by the end of next year.” In the face of that prospect, he continued, “doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much.”

Ten months later unemployment reached 10.2 percent, suggesting that despite his warning the administration hadn’t done enough to create jobs. You might have expected, then, a determination to do more.

But in a recent interview with Fox News, the president sounded diffident and nervous about his economic policy. ... “[I]t is important though to recognize ... that if we keep on adding to the debt, even in the midst of this recovery, that at some point, people could lose confidence in the U.S. economy in a way that could actually lead to a double-dip recession.” ...

[A] report on suggests that deficit reduction, not job creation, will be the centerpiece of his first State of the Union address.
That is, the same claptrap that Bernanke was spewing, living in the same world. Ten percent unemployment? The worst long-term unemployment ever? Over 17% of the workforce either unemployed or underemployed? Businesses and individuals unable to obtain credit? Foreclosures? None of that affects confidence in this world. Only the deficit does. Why? Because businesses (especially small businesses) and individuals are not those whose concerns matter in this world. The only ones who matter are "the investors" - the banks, the investment houses. They are the ones who must be placated, must be pleased, must be given their offerings, must have their devotions.
Ever since the Great Recession began economic analysts at some (not all) major Wall Street firms have warned that efforts to fight the slump will produce even worse economic evils. In particular, they say, never mind the current ability of the U.S. government to borrow long term at remarkably low interest rates - any day now, budget deficits will lead to a collapse in investor confidence, and rates will soar.
It is a "phantom menace," Krugman says, "a threat that exists only in their minds" - while the real danger, the danger that Summers recognized a year ago, the danger of a government effort too small, too short, while the conditions it was meant to address persist, goes unattended.

While businesses go without credit. And while we go without jobs. And while we go without homes. And while we can't afford health care. And while we can't afford to retire. And while we can't afford a future for our children. And while we are expected to see our and their futures contract further for the sake of protecting the interests and private jets and summer homes of a handful of robber barons. And while we are expected to live as the peasants of old, as the "huddled masses" of a century ago, to leave the elite to their mansions while we keep our places, live lives of servitude without complaint, and then die without making a fuss.

Because, you know, the alternative is for the investors to lose confidence - and that prospect is just too horrifying to contemplate.

Foonote the First: In some cases, the reluctance of banks, particularly smaller banks, to lend is not their fault. In late November, the FDIC reported on some information about its secret list of troubled banks.
The number of banks on the regulator's confidential watch list increased by 33% in the third quarter, to 552, the highest level in almost 16 years....

Tough credit conditions persisted, with charge-offs and past-due loans reaching record highs, "and we expect that it will be at least a couple of more quarters before we see a meaningful improvement in that trend," said Chairman Sheila Bair....

The troubled bank list represents 6.8% of all banks covered by the FDIC's deposit insurance fund....

[M]ore than 1,000 banks could ultimately face seizure by authorities before the financial industry's woes subside, according to research and consulting firm Institutional Risk Analytics, which provides data on lenders to clients ranging from private investors to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
The closing of Colonial Bank, with its $25 billion in assets taken over by BB&T in August, was among the biggest banks failures in US history. Just a couple of days ago, the FDIC took over seven more banks, bringing the total for the year to 140.
The high number of bank failures has pushed the FDIC insurance fund into the red and has cost $30 billion. The FDIC expects the cost of the crisis to its insurance fund to reach $100 billion over the next four years.
Footnote the Second: Bernie Sanders has introduced the "Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act," which would require the Secretary of the Treasury to submit to Congress "a list of all commercial banks, investment banks, hedge funds, and insurance companies that the Secretary believes are too big to fail" and then to break them up into units small enough that their failure "would no longer cause a catastrophic effect on the United States or global economy without a taxpayer bailout."

An editorial in the December 15 New York Times, while not citing the bill, certainly endorsed the concept:
If we have learned anything over the last couple of years, it is that banks that are too big to fail pose too much of a risk to the economy. Any serious effort to reform the financial system must ensure that no such banks exist.
Sounds like a plan, or at least a start of one.

Footnote the Third: Not all the news was black, some of it was merely gray, even maybe light gray. For one, consumer sentiment increased some, but less than expected, while still remaining at "quite negative levels," in the words of Richard Curtin, director of the Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers.

[p]ersonal incomes rose in November at the fastest pace in six months while spending posted a second straight increase, raising hopes that that the recovery from the nation's deep recession might be gaining momentum.
According to the Commerce Department, personal incomes were up 0.4 percent in November and spending rose 0.5 percent in November. Both, however, were slightly less than economists' predictions.

Updated to include several additional bits: the information about state unemployment funds, the three paragraphs following the mention of the 2.2% growth rate in the third quarter, the mention of the possible souring of the housing market, and the third footnote.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another interruption...

...for no reason other than it gave me a much-needed smile and demonstrated yet again the truly remarkable human creative impulse, something at which we can be perpetually amazed and for which we should be profoundly grateful. (Found here, which has a couple of other similar examples.)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

Kent Conrad is saying that whatever health care deform bill comes out of a conference committee had damned well better toe the line on what the Senate passes - or more accurately, what he and his fellow corporate-tit-sucking toadies demanded - or it may not get 60 votes. Put more bluntly, it's "Do it our way of we'll filibuster the conference report and kill the whole thing."

Put even more bluntly, it's "Hey, House of Representatives, fuck you and the bill you rode in on! Equal partners in the Legislative Branch? Screw that and eat this!" And in fact "The Hill" is saying that "momentum seems to lie behind the Senate bill staying intact."

Remember all that hoopla about the "historic" House vote? Remember how I was so disappointed in what came out? Apparently, I shouldn't have been because apparently, it didn't mean crap.

Another interruption in catching up

Updated Yeah, this catching up stuff is taking longer than I thought 'cause we've been rather distracted of late, particularly in scrambling for new health care coverage after we lost ours when my wife had to leave her job because of her heart condition. But I'm getting there....

But speaking of health coverage and all that, that's what this interruption is about. I actually addressed this earlier this month, but it deserves a loud reprise because what I complained about has continued unabated.

It is a small rant about one aspect of the health care deform "debate" (which is more a debate over how much more can - not even should, but can - be given away to appease the drug and insurance industries and, more recently, the anti-choice crowd and the egomaniacs than it is over actual policy). More specifically, it's about the figure the "suck it up, loser" crowd keeps sticking in the face of those of us who find the Senate bill, let's just call it, less than attractive, the statistic that says "30 million more people will have insurance!" Connected with it is the assertion by some, particularly Ezra Klein, that opposing the Senate bill means you're willing to let people die for lack of coverage. (As a sidebar, in a column he accused people of allowing others to die to express their dislike of Blue Dogs - and a week later in a TV appearance said the exact same thing in virtually the exact same words, except he inserted "Joe Lieberman" in place of "Blue Dogs." Apparently he thinks this is an all-purpose debilitating slammer requiring only the insertion of the villain du jour.)

Time out, gang. In a technical sense, the statement about the number of newly-insured may be true, but it would be more accurately expressed as "30 million people will be forced to buy insurance!" Even if it sucks. Even if it's a plan with high premiums and crappy coverage. Because that's what we're really talking about here. That's what that number actually represents: the amount of additional business for the health insurance industry.

And having health insurance is not even the issue. I mean it. It's not. Having health insurance is not the issue. Having access to adequate health care is the issue. Insurance is merely a means to that end. It's a route (and far from the best one), not the destination. It's the hammer and saw, not the bookshelves. It's - you get the idea.

So here's the question I want answered: How many of that 30 million will as a result of this legal requirement to further fill the coffers of the insurance industry have access to adequate health care in a way they didn't before? Does anyone know? I'm not even thinking here about the sort of major disasters that can (and often enough do) bankrupt even people with insurance, I'm talking about plain old health care, about the ability to go to the doctor, to the dentist, to pay for a mammogram or an EKG or blood work, about getting a cast on a broken arm.

It can't be denied that some among those 30 million are families and individuals who are without insurance by choice, who are either young enough or healthy enough or something enough to have decided that the money they save on premiums is worth the risk of not having insurance. How many of those people there are is unclear; the right tries to maximize them by playing with the numbers while the left often ignores them or assumes the number is insignificant. That may even be true - but again, no one seems to know and the fact that they exist is unquestionable. The point being that they already had access to insurance, they already had access to health care.

A more significant question is how many of those 30 million people could get insurance now, for example through high-risk pools, but don't because that would just leave them paying premiums for insurance they couldn't use because the deductibles are so high - that is, leave them with crap and worse off than they were before? And how many of those newly-insured people will wind up in just that situation? How many of that 30 million will be people who, having been forced to buy insurance, find themselves with low-cost, high-deductible policies that still leave them without access to health care because even as they can afford the premiums, they can't afford the deductibles?

And one more thing: How many still will be left out? How many still will lack insurance-provided access? I haven't seen a figure for the Senate plan, but figure this: The CBO estimated that for the insipid but superior House plan, even after everything was up and running and the maximum impact was reached 10 years from now, there would be 36 million newly insured but 18 million still uninsured. So if the Senate bill would produce 30 million more insured, that would appear to mean that even 10 years from now there would still be 24 million uninsured. Even allowing for some who are uninsured because they prefer the penalties to the premiums, it's only reasonable to think that those 24 million will mostly be people still left out in the cold, lacking access to care. (Would it be fair to propose that Ezra Klein is willing to have those people die for lack of affordable health care in order to express his distaste for the DFHs?)

The blunt bottom line is that presenting the 30 million figure as "the uninsured getting insurance" is not analysis, it's PR. It's sloganeering. It's spin. Presenting it as "the uninsured getting health care" is a lie. And using it in either form to slam people opposed to the Senate bill is - to say the least - offensive.

Health insurance is not the issue. Access to adequate health care is. It's damn well time people remembered that.

Updated with a Footnote: Turns out I was right about the future uninsured. On Tuesday (link via MMFA) the CBO wrote to Harry Reid saying that under present law, 54 million people would be uninsured in 2019 and under the Senate bill, 31 million of those will have insurance - leaving 23 million still uninsured.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A catching up addendum - privacy/secrecy

I'm dong this as a separate post because all these examples come from a single article written for The Daily Censored by Dr. Michael Niman, a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College.

- Over the last 10 years, the annual Halloween Naked Pumpkin Run in Boulder, Colorado
grew to involve hundreds of folks, clad only in running shoes and hollowed-out pumpkins over their heads, sprinting through the brisk downtown Boulder night. The event, which usually begins around 11pm, draws thousands of cheering spectators each year.
It's even inspired a few imitators in other cities in the West. But of course, silly fun runs counter to closed minds. Last year the city started arresting runners; this year, they sent out two SWAT teams and a small platoon of riot officers to make the arrests.
Since Boulder has a long tradition of public nudity and no laws on the books against nudity, the pumpkins, according to the police, would be charged with “indecent exposure,” following the legal logic that donning a pumpkin head, as opposed to wearing nothing, makes the remaining bodily exposure “indecent.” If convicted of this charge, celebrants would be required to register, for the remainder of their lives, as “sex offenders.”
- In 2006, Tamara Freeman was on an airplane with her two kids, who wouldn't stop arguing over the window seat. Finally, she spanked them and in the commotion, they kids accidentally spilled a can of tomato juice on her. When a flight attendant came, Freeman shouted some profanity at her and threw the half-empty can of juice to the floor.

She was arrested and charged with terrorism. She spent three months in jail awaiting trial where, at the urging of her public defender, she pled guilty in return for a sentence of probation. Under the terms of the probation, she can't leave Oklahoma and as a "convicted terrorist," she can't fly. So she was unable to get home to Maui for a series of custody hearings. So she lost custody of her children.

- Another pair of desperados are Dawn Sewell and Carl Persing. It seems that while flying, Carl put his head on Dawn’s lap and she smiled. For some reason this was seen by a flight attendant as some kind of sexual activity and got some serious lip from Carl when they were disturbed. They were charged, yes, with terrorism.

- Three years ago come January, two Fairfield, Connecticut sisters of Jordanian descent were being arraigned on a charge of disturbing the peace. A packet of what later was identified as salt fell from one of their pockets, initiating a bio-terror panic that shut down part of downtown Bridgeport. The sisters were charged with, say it with me, terrorism. For salt.

- Late in October, Zack Aslam, a freshman at Michigan State University student,
aparently got upset after a heated discussion with another student and began to, as the kids say, “talk shit.” Campus police haven’t released the specifics of what the 17-year-old supposedly said to his friends, but they charged him with, according to the MSU student paper, “threatening terrorism and communicating that threat to another person.” He was talking shit. Did I mention he was 17? Police later went to his dorm room and impounded all of his belongings.
He's now another terrorist.

- In March 2006, the then-brand new Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act, which pretty much seeks to outlaw as terrorism any activity which could harm the economic interests of any vaguely-defined “animal enterprise,” was employed against six animal rights activists protesting a private “animal-testing” company, Huntington Life Sciences.
HLS is a long-time target of animal rights groups.... Protests against the company, ranging from legally protected speech to illegal threats, vandalism, and harassment of employees, nearly bankrupted HLS in 2000 when it was dropped from the New York Stock Exchange.

The arrested activists were never charged with engaging in any illegal activities. Instead, they were charged and convicted as terrorists for maintaining a Web site that unabashedly celebrated such acts.
Because, you see, mere political agreement is "material support" of terrorism.

- Finally, in Utah,
a person has engaged in “commercial terrorism” if “he [or she?] enters or remains unlawfully on the premises of or in a building of any business with the intent to interfere with the employees, customers, personnel, or operations of a business."
Thus, these people were terrorists. So were these people. And these people. As Dr. Niman says,
Our list of folks newly classified as terrorists is extensive. It includes the New York social worker I wrote about last month, who is being investigated for tweeting. It includes University at Buffalo professor Steve Kurtz, who faced a four-year prosecution as a terrorist for producing physically harmless but politically potent and internationally acclaimed artwork critiquing corporate sacred cows such as genetically modified foods.

With the crackdown on the Naked Pumpkin Run, can we expect our ranks of registered sex offenders to swell in much the same way our ranks of accused and convicted terrorists has grown? If so, the terms “terrorism” and “sex offender” will lose all meaning—but not before these McCarthy-era tactics of tarring your opponents with toxic labels ruins countless lives.
I'd add one thing. Notice that there is one consistent thread running through all these examples: In all cases, the charges are used in support of power, whether corporate or governmental, or authority, whether that be a cop, a campus, or just a flight attendant. They are punishments for not being what "we" tell you to be or not doing what "we" tell you to do - ultimately, for the "crime" of failing to passively submit. Two more '60s slogans that deserves to be reanimated are "Fight the Power" and "Question Authority."

Catching up - privacy/secrecy

This is not going to really be analysis, more a compilation of items I've collected of late that I have not taken the opportunity to post. They are in no particular order of date or importance.

- This is old, but still important. Back in January 2009, the government issued a grand jury subpoena to the online news site demanding "all IP traffic to and from" the site for a particular date, including "IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information." That is, the feds wanted any available identifying information about everyone who visited the site that day (which is beyond what the law allows) and they also ordered the site's proprietor to keep the demand secret (which is also beyond what the law allows). At one point, she was threatened with prosecution for obstruction of justice if she revealed the subpoena.

Fortunately, instead of meekly submitting the proprietor went to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which shot the whole thing down and forced the government to back off. The point remains, however, how many other such subpoenas have gone out and have been complied with - including keeping them secret - because the recipients didn't realize they had an option or just weren't interested in trying?

- Speaking of "how many times," you may know that all cell phones sold now have a GPS capability so if you dial 911 from an unknown location, rescuers can find you. What you may not know is that Sprint has set up a web interface for law enforcement agencies, which can then locate any Sprint customer in real time knowing only their phone number.

In its first year of operation, the system processed eight million such requests covering thousands of customers.

- Last month, the Supreme Court heard a case testing the limits of immunity from suits for prosecutors. The case involves Terry Harrington and Curtis McGhee, who spent 25 years in prison for killing a cop in Council Bluffs, Iowa - until evidence long hidden in police files resulted in them being freed.

The principal witness against the two at their trial had earlier fingered two other men, one of whom, it turned out, was in prison at the time of the crime. The "witness" also got the site of the shooting wrong and gave three different accounts of the type of gun used. And he failed a polygraph.

Police and prosecutors knew all this and more - including evidence pointing to a different suspect - but still prosecuted Harrington and McGhee. Notably, the other suspect was white and the two men are black.
In 2003, the Iowa Supreme Court overturned the convictions, calling the star witness a "liar and perjurer." All the prosecution witnesses have recanted.
McGhee agreed to a plea deal in exchange for time served; Harrington refused and all charges were dropped. Under Iowa law, there is no practical way for the men to obtain compensation for those 25 years, so they sued prosecutors and police in federal court for violation of constitutional rights.

Prosecutors typically are shielded from suits for what they do at trial, for fear that they would be subjected to a flood of lawsuits by anyone they ever got convicted. But the prosecutors in the murder case, who are the defendants in this suit, are claiming far more: They are claiming that protection also covers the investigation and the filing of charges before any trial, that prosecutors are absolutely immune from any suit, period.
Even if a prosecutor files charges against a person knowing that there is no evidence of his guilt, says [Stephen] Sanders[, the defendents' lawyer], "that's an absolutely immunized activity."
What they are arguing - and I mean literally and in so many words - is that "there is no freestanding right not to be framed."

That well deserves the description "shocks the conscience." If it doesn't strike you that way, I invite you to imagine what it would/could mean if SCOTUS agrees.

- Under the "It's way too late to be surprised" heading comes news that Barack Obama has convinced Congress to extend key components of the Patriot Act which are set to expire at the end of the year. These are the same provisions he opposed before those powers were his, not someone else's.

The three provisions in question 1)allow warrantless wiretapping of phones and emails, 2)authorize seizure of private records from credit reporting companies, banks, internet service providers, and libraries, and 3)loosen the meaning of what constitutes "material support" to terrorists.

In 2005, then-Senator Obama called such provisions "just plain wrong" and "a fishing expedition through every personal record or private document." Now they're vitally important, as Obama gulps down another plateful of the steaming pile Shrub left behind.

- The wealthy enclave of Tiburon, California has decided to
become the first U.S. city to install cameras to photograph the license plates of every car that enters and leaves town.

"I think it makes the community safe," Michael Cronin, Tiburon's police chief said....
So would installing surveillance cameras in every room of every home, Chief. Is that next?

- As I'm sure you know so I'm just going to mention it in passing, the Obama administration flip-flopped about releasing photos of detainee abuse at Guantánamo and resisted a Court of Appeals ruling calling for the release. More recently, Congress passed a law the end of October allowing Defense Secretary Gates to withhold the photos, an authority he used two weeks later. On November 30, SCOTUS reversed the Appeals Court and ordered it to reconsider its ruling in light of the new law.

- Speaking of that fabled Obama administration transparency and accountability, after a two-year court battle, the Electronic Frontier Foundation was finally able to obtain
thousands of pages of records detailing behind-the-scenes negotiations between government agencies and Congress about providing immunity for telecoms involved in illegal government surveillance.
They were released as a result of a suit filed in 2007, when Congress first debated granting immunity to the telcoms doing the government's illegal dirty work of unchecked surveillance of Americans' phone and internet communications. EFF filed an FOIA request information about communications between the DOJ, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Congress, and the telcoms.

The Shrub gang stonewalled and so, initially, did the O-crowd. But now it has released "a significant portion" of the records while declaring it will try to block the release of more - including, significantly, the names of the telcoms involved in lobbying for immunity.
"This case isn't over yet - there's still more information about the extensive lobbying campaign by the telecoms that helped them get immunity last year," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. "The government continues to hide important documents from the public."
The government's appeal will be heard before the Court of Appeals in January.

- It's not all bad news on the privacy/secrecy front. In early November, a federal district court ruled that
patients and scientists can challenge patents on human genes in court, allowing a lawsuit challenging patents on two human genes associated with hereditary breast and ovarian cancer to move forward.
The practice of patenting human genes has become disturbingly widespread. About 20% of all human genes are patented, including genes associated with Alzheimer's, muscular dystrophy, colon cancer, asthma, and many other illnesses. That often means, as it does mean in the particular case at hand, that only the patent-holder can perform diagnostic tests on the genes; even looking at them without consent is claimed to be a violation of the patent. That monopolistic control of a diagnostic tool not only enables charging sky-high rates, it makes getting a second opinion legally impossible.

The idea of patenting genes, which clearly are "products of nature" specifically excluded in patent law, is not only legally absurd, it is morally offensive and frankly creepy to boot. The suit, filed by the ACLU and the Public Patent Foundation, a non-profit affiliated with Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, challenges the whole notion of gene patenting, and so could have far-reaching effects. So it's a very good thing that the defendants' attempts to get it dismissed failed.

- But getting back to the bad news, with the arrival of devices placed in all new cars that monitor and log driver behavior, privacy advocates worry about their intrusive nature. Automakers and others of course dismiss the concerns. But consider:
Jim Kobus, a communications manager at OnStar, says that the system cannot track any vehicle's location until a customer makes contact by his or her own volition ... or the system detects a blowout or crash.

"The only area where that would change is in the event you report the vehicle stolen. We make sure there's a valid police report and then we begin the process to track the vehicle. ...

At the request of law enforcement, OnStar can remotely slow down a vehicle or halt its operation.
Hold it. But that means you can track the vehicle's location without the driver initiating contact: Surely no thief is going to press the button. And you can control the car, make it slow down or stop. You're saying you can't but all you really mean is that normally you don't.

Referring to the data recorder in cars, GM spokesman Alan Adler says "We don't do anything with that data ourselves."
"In the case of a crash, it doesn't say where you were, or which street you were on. It records only certain pieces of data; it's a tool in reconstructing crashes."

Adler explains that drivers have little choice but to drive with the system intact. "To get rid of the system then you have to get rid of airbags, and it's illegal to drive without airbags."
In other words, it records info police and/or your insurance company can use against you and was specifically designed to make it impossible to remove.

Next there's Josh Huber of Inthinc, who says his company's Tiwi system
"monitors the speed of the car and also aggressive driving, accelerating or braking too hard, and whether the seatbelt is on. If the driver is going above the limit it will alert the driver.

"The notifications are automatically put on a database on our website and a parent can access that database or have it sent by alerts on their phone."
So that information is made available to people other than the driver; it's part of the very idea. And it's not only parents, it's the manager(s) of the database - and anyone who gets the password.

Jeff Harvey, also at Inthinc, says the information collected about a driver's habits is used to calculate a score based on the number of "violations" over a certain number of miles, and their severity.
That score, Harvey says, is kept for up to a year, but again is only accessible to the owner of the vehicle, who can choose to share that information with insurance companies should they choose.
Oh, right, like that will be voluntary once the insurer knows you have such a device installed.
Harvey adds that in the event of a stolen vehicle, the owner can log onto Inthinc's website and see where their car is, and can work independently with police for its recovery.
Which means, yet another time, that you can track to car's location. And that was the question. Not if you routinely do, but if you can. So let everyone driving a late-model car know: You can be tracked everywhere you go. It doesn't mean you are, but there is no question but that you can be.

- Finally for this round, have you seen the signs all over airports about how you have to show ID to get on a plane?

It's not true.

Nope. Not true. You do not need to show an ID to fly from one state to another. You may (and very likely will) get extra screening if you don't show ID, but it is not actually required under either law or TSA regulations or guidelines.

Surprised? So are, it seems, the TSA team in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who arrested frequent flyer Phil Mocek after he refused to produce ID when trying to board a plane on November 16. He was charged with "concealing identity, disorderly conduct, refusing to obey an officer, and criminal trespass” and held on $1,000 bail. His traveling companion was detained and banned from the airport for 24 hours after attempting to film the arrest.

In fairness and on the upside, Mocek has been doing this for a few years and while he has been subjected to increased scrutiny, before this occasion he has always been able to get on the plane. But the existence of those lying signs are still a pisser.

Footnote: It's not just us. In the UK, whenever someone is arrested, a DNA sample is taken. Under guidelines established by the ruling Labour Party, police can keep those samples on file forever, even if the person is never charged with, much less convicted of, any crime. As a result, the British government has created the world's largest DNA database.

Recently, a report from the Human Genetics Commission charged that police are regularly arresting people just to get their DNA samples. What's more, there is clear racial bias in the practice:
While about eight percent of the British population is now listed on the DNA database, more than three-quarters of young black males, aged 18 to 35, are listed. ...

[T]he reported crime rate in Britain has been falling since 2004, but during that time arrests have been increasing at a rate of four to six percent per year. The Nature magazine blog reports that there are nearly six million people on Britain's DNA database, out of a total population of 62 million. Of those, 980,000[, over 16%,] are estimated to have never been charged with a crime.
Labour has proposed a change to allow the DNA of innocent people to be removed from the database after six years, but as sometimes happens, the right is more attuned to privacy: The Conservative Party says the DNA of innocent people shouldn't be in the database at all except if they were charged with violent or sexual offenses.

That doesn't go far enough for me; "not guilty" should mean "not guilty." Still, it is clearly better than Labour's stand.

We interrupt our catching up for a quick question

Five high-ranking executives at AIG have threatened to quit if they are required by federal regulators to take a significant pay cut.

And this should concern us exactly how?

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Catching up: Afghanistan

This is something I've neglected for far too long, so bear with me. Let's start from the fact that, unlike some who are Shocked! Shocked, I tell you! that Barack "War is necessary for peace" Obama escalated in Afghanistan, I'm not: It's exactly what he said he would do.

Well, okay, not exactly. Rather more, in fact.

In July 2008, in a New York Times op-ed, he said he would deploy "at least two additional combat brigades" to Afghanistan. A brigade is about 3,000-5,000 soldiers, so candidate Obama was proposing to increase troop strength by 6,000 to 10,000.

In February, President Obama sent 17,000 and then another 4,000. And now it's 30,000 more. So by the time this escalation is completed sometime next year, and assuming there will be no more, Obama will have sent about 51,000 more soldiers to Afghanistan - somewhere between five and eight times what he said he would do and doubling the number of troops in country. Even allowing for the political weasel phrase "at least," that's a hell of a lot more than he proposed.

However, that doesn't change the fact that in that same July op-ed he promised to "accomplish the mission" in Afghanistan and "to finish the job," the latter of which phrases he used again on November 24 during his trip to India:
During a joint press conference with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh today, President Obama addressed his upcoming announcement on his Afghanistan troops decision. ...

After eight years, some of those years in which we did not have either the resources or the strategy, to get the job done, it is my intention to finish the job[, he said].
The day after the election, I wrote that
I strongly suspect that in a while a lot of people are going to be very disappointed in Barack Obama. While opponents will be surprised to discover he's not nearly as bad as they'd been lead to believe (Louis Farrakhan is not going to be heading up any cabinet department), supporters are going to be dismayed to discover that he's not nearly as good as they had lead themselves to believe, that the soaring rhetoric will not produce soaring policies and that there was far more hope in the words than there will be in the deeds.
Okay, I was wrong about the opponents' ability to recognize reality, but not about the supporters. But, as I said a couple of weeks before the election and I don't know how many times since,
Barack Obama is not a peace candidate. He's just a "I knew Iraq was a dumb idea" candidate. ... He's a reliable, accepts-the-common-wisdom, centrist who can be counted on to strive to continue the Pax Americana,
a judgment I think his Nobel prize acceptance speech confirmed: It eagerly embraced the mythology of the US having spent the "last six decades" spending "blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms" to "underwrite global security," "promote peace and prosperity," and "enable democracy to take hold," all for reasons completely unrelated to "impos[ing] our will" but only because "we seek a better future" for all the "children and grandchildren" of the world. It's as if Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, the Bay of Pigs, the Dominican Republic, Panama, Nicaragua, Grenada, the Gulf of Sidra, Lebanon, "the former Yugoslavia," Libya, Iraq (twice) - I'm sure I'm forgetting some as well as leaving aside the "indirect" cases such as Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Chile, and East Timor - it's like they never happened.

Oh, and Afghanistan. Right. Afghanistan.

So getting back to that, while I'm distressed and disappointed at the decision to escalate - especially since there was just a brief, flickering, moment when it looked like the decision just might possibly go the other way, a brief moment when there was talk of pushback within the administration against the demands of the generals - I can't say I'm in any way surprised, much less shocked.

What it does mean, though, is that this is now Barack Obama's war. Whether you consider it his Iraq or his Vietnam, it is his war. And it's possible that it will frame and define his presidency, as Iraq did Bush's, as Vietnam did Johnson's. The parallels are chilling.

For one example, this a war in support of the government of Hamid Karzai - a bogus president, who retained his office in an "election" in which one-third of his votes were fake (and the Deputy Special Representative to the UN mission in Kabul was ordered by his superior to conceal evidence of fraud even from the Afghan election commission) and a "runoff" which never happened after his only opponent withdrew, claiming fraud made victory impossible. And, let it be noted, it was an election which the White House claimed would "significantly factor into their strategic review" about strategy and troop levels - but which apparently didn't.

A war in support of a government that even Nancy Pelosi calls an "unworthy partner" undeserving of increased support; one so rife, so rancid, with corruption that according to the annual Corruption Perceptions Index of Transparency International, only Somalia is worse. A government so fragile that its president had to be inaugurated in a capital turned by authorities into
all but a ghost town, with police shutting down streets and ordering citizens to stay home.
A government with so little control outside Kabul that the Taliban has in nearly all provinces established a shadow government, one whose members
"are running the country now," said Khalid Pashtoon, a legislator from the southern province of Kandahar who has close ties to Karzai. "They're an important part of the chaos."
A shadow government that for all its cruelties and failings, people are turning to for solutions to their problems, preferring that to the corruption and ineptitude of the Karzai regime. A regime without the support of its own people.

It is a war not only supporting a corrupt government but using the wrong tactics to do so: Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October, Robert Grenier (former CIA station chief in Pakistan) and Dr. Marc Sageman (former member of the CIA's Afghan Task Force)
concurred that escalation would only further spread anti-American sentiment among Afghans and other Muslims, and that nonmilitary initiatives to contain Al Qaeda and foster civic development in Afghanistan would prove far more effective. ...

"'It's me and my brother against my cousin. But it's me and my cousin against a foreigner[,' Sageman said.] So if we send 40,000 Americans...that will coalesce every local rivalry; they will put their local rivalry aside to actually shoot the foreigners and then they'll resume their own internecine fight.... Sending troops with weapons just will unify everybody against those troops, unfortunately."
What's more, it's a war against the wrong "enemy" that will only advance the position of the real one:
Poverty and unemployment are overwhelmingly seen as the main reasons behind conflict in Afghanistan, according to a survey in that country.

British aid agency Oxfam - which questioned 704 Afghans - said seven out of 10 respondents blamed these factors.

Taliban violence was seen as less important than government weakness and corruption, according to the poll. ...

One in five said they had been tortured and one in 10 claimed to have been imprisoned at least once since 1979, when Soviet forces invaded.

Based on what those surveyed said:

• one in six Afghans are currently considering leaving the country

• three-quarters of Afghans have been forced to leave their homes since 1979 ...

"The people of Afghanistan have suffered 30 years of unrelenting horror," said Oxfam chief executive Barbara Stocking.

"In that time millions have been killed and millions more have fled their homes. Those who have committed the most terrible abuses have enjoyed impunity rather than faced justice. Afghan society has been devastated."
In fact, the supposed enemy, the one we're supposedly really concerned with, isn't even there: US military officials will concede privately that there are probably no more than about 100 al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Which has produced echoes of both Iraq and Vietnam. On the Iraq side of that tally is the unavoidable fact, no matter how much the Obama crowd in and out of the White House dance and dodge, that this is a Bush doctrine war. It's declared intent, it's central purpose, what "finish the job" is supposed to mean, is to prevent a Taliban victory because, the argument goes, that would be followed by al-Qaeda forces returning to "safe havens" in Afghanistan from which they can "plot attacks against America." That is, bluntly and clearly, the whole idea is that it is a war not to defend against an existing threat but to prevent the emergence of a hypothetical future threat. That is the Bush doctrine! It is precisely the Bush doctrine! A doctrine now fully embraced by Barack Obama to justify his war.

Oh, a "hypothetical" threat, you ask? Even leaving aside the inconvenient fact that most of the planning for 9/11 was not done in Afghanistan but in Germany (which no one has proposed invading, as far as I know), yes. At that Foreign Relations Committee hearing, John Kerry
asked whether there is legitimate concern about "a new union [between Al Qaeda and] the Taliban."

Sageman didn't perceive such a threat.

"A Taliban return to power does not automatically mean an invitation to Al Qaeda to return to Afghanistan," Sageman said. "The relationship between Al Qaeda and...[the] Taliban has always been strained."
Indeed, if the formula is "Taliban control yields free rein for al-Qaeda," why are there fewer than 100 in Afghanistan at a time when, according to Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Taliban has secured a "dominant influence" in 11 provinces?

Despite all that, here we are. Or, rather, he we are again, prosecuting an unjustified war on behalf of the wrong friends in power, with the wrong tactics, against the wrong "enemy," a war more likely to kill innocents than enemies, more likely to turn people against us than to us, one guaranteed to bring bloodshed, hunger, and homelessness while all but equally guaranteed to find "victory" to be a chimera, not a conclusion.

And, as always seems to be the case, escalation is easy but the end is endless; it's all hard facts, dates, and timetables about getting in, about building up, about "more" - and all mushy vagueness and easily-spun platitudes about getting out as the candidate who demanded an exit strategy for Iraq becomes the president who evokes 9/11 and talks in bumper stickers about "evil in the world" and "finishing the job" in Afghanistan.

Despite what some chose to hear, it was clear from the beginning to anyone who actually paid attention that there was no "timetable" for withdrawal in Obama's grandiloquence or even for the start of one. Obama said in his announcement of the escalation that "after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home" - but later amended that to how it was actually all about "handing over responsibility to Afghan forces," which would
allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011. Just as we have done in Iraq, we will execute this transition responsibly, taking into account conditions on the ground.
In other words, even assuming "our forces" referred to all 100,000 of them, not just the latest 30,000, "It depends." In case anyone didn't catch that, it was soon made abundantly clear:
Clarifying [Obama's] plan in testimony to a congressional committee, [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said a "full scale reevaluation of where we stand" would take place in December 2010.

The administration would then assess whether plans to begin transferring security responsibility to the Afghans in July 2011 remained on track.

July 2011, that is, was in Gates' words the "intent," the "plan," but "the president always has the freedom to adjust his decisions."

At the same hearings, Admiral Mullen said
that what would begin in July 2011 was a transfer of secured districts from US to Afghan government control. “The July 2011 date is a day we start transitioning - transferring responsibility and transitioning,” he said.
Combine that with something else Gates said:
As the transition gets underway, Gates suggested U.S. forces could begin to pull back from the frontlines as Afghan forces play a bigger role in certain districts and provinces, much as they did during the transition in Iraq.

He said the transfers would take place in the "most uncontested places" of Afghanistan first. Other areas of the country could remain locked in "extraordinarily heavy combat."

Asked whether the July 2011 start of the transfer of security responsibility to the Afghans may not include immediately a withdrawal of U.S. forces, Gates said:

"That is correct. I think as we turn over more districts and more provinces to Afghan security control, much as we did with the provincial Iraqi control, that there will be a thinning of our forces and a gradual drawdown," he said.

What do you get from all that? You get a "clarification" of Obama's "intent" that turns it from a date for the beginning of a withdrawal into a "plan" for "the beginning of a process" that may not even involve the withdrawal of any troops from Afghanistan but only shifting them from certain provinces into other provinces where combat is heavier.

So there's always a timetable for a build-up - there's always a timetable for a build-up, the clarion call of "urgency," of "necessity" - but not for a withdrawal, not even for a drawdown, not even for a date to begin even a symbolic drawdown, only an "intent," an "it all depends," a - you'll pardon the expression - hope.

A "hope" while the blood keeps flowing, especially among, same as it ever was, the civilians: Over 30,000 killed by the war since 2001 and a yearly toll that has risen each of the last four years.

And for what? For what? Matthew Hoh, the former Foreign Service officer who worked in a province considered to be a Taliban stronghold in southern Afghanistan but resigned as a protest over US policy in the country, argues that
many Afghans are fighting the Americans simply because troops there are taking sides in an internal "civil war,"
a fact infuriatingly, horrifyingly, foully, disgustingly, known to US officials.
Nearly all of the insurgents battling US and NATO troops in Afghanistan are not religiously motivated Taliban and Al Qaeda warriors, but a new generation of tribal fighters vying for control of territory, mineral wealth, and smuggling routes, according to summaries of new US intelligence reports[, the Boston Globe revealed in October]. ...

“Ninety percent is a tribal, localized insurgency,’’ said one US intelligence official in Washington who helped draft the assessments. “Ten percent are hardcore ideologues fighting for the Taliban.’’
They know that and still they just label it all "Taliban," in the same sort of conscious distortion - the same sort of lie - they used in calling every attack on US forces in Iraq the work of "al-Qaeda in Iraq."

In an interview in November, Hoh asserted that
"[t]he presence of our ground combat troops is not doing anything to defeat al-Qaida"
and the US should stop combat operations and seek "some kind of political reconciliation" because right now all those operations do is "prolong the conflict."

When he quit, Hoh insisted that "a lot" of people in the Obama administration agree with him. Apparently, sadly, tragically (especially for the people of Afghanistan), they are not among those who have Obama's ear.

Meanwhile, and finally for the moment, what about the other side of that tally I mentioned - what of Vietnam? What is the echo of Vietnam? It's one of the worst and one that becomes louder with each news cycle, no longer a rumble but a clanking, a clanging, pounding on the ears of anyone not deaf to Marx's famous line that "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." A klaxon screech of expanding wars, of wars spilling beyond boundaries, of secret wars - in Cambodia. In Laos.

In Pakistan.

A secret war.

A deadly secret war.

A spreading secret war.

A growing secret war.

In Pakistan.

I think of Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, of the secret air war on Laos, of the secret bombing of Cambodia and the invasion to "clear out" the enemy's "privileged sanctuaries" - or, if you prefer, "safe havens." And I get very, very nervous.

Withdraw. Now.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Catching up: global warming - the news

So as the nations of the world debate and dither and the nanny-nanny naysayers bluster and bellyache, what are some of the latest signs of global warming that the former too often ignore and the latter always do?

Well, let's start with a sort of footnote to the post about the emails. In the wake of the brouhaha over the theft of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, came this from it's director, Phil Jones:
"That the world is warming is based on a range of sources: not only temperature records but other indicators such as sea level rise, glacier retreat and less Arctic sea ice," he said. "Our global temperature series tallies with those of other, completely independent, groups of scientists working for Nasa and the National Climate Data Centre in the United States, among others.

Even if you were to ignore our findings, theirs show the same results. The facts speak for themselves; there is no need for anyone to manipulate them." ...

He added that he had long been under pressure from climate sceptics to further explain his research: "From about 2001/2002 I was getting emails from a number of people involved in the climate sceptic community. Initially at the beginning I did try to respond to them in the hope I might convince them but I soon realised it was a forlorn hope and broke off communication. Some of the emails I sent them subsequently appeared and were discussed on various sceptic websites."
That last is part of the basis for the claims of "suppressing information." The CRU staff found they were spending so much time responding to "requests" for ever more data that it was interfering with their work until the finally went to the FOI officer at the University and asked if the stuff being demanded was really within the scope of the FOI. That officer ultimately agreed that a lot of it wasn't. And of course the agency's refusal to continue to respond to people not acting in good faith has been used against it.

Anyway, onward. What about some of those areas mentioned by Jones? Well, for one thing,
[t]he Greenland ice sheet is losing its mass faster than in previous years and making an increasing contribution to sea level rise, a study has confirmed. ...

For the period 2000-2008, melting Greenland ice raised sea levels by an average of about 0.46mm per year.

Since 2006, that has increased to 0.75mm per year. ...

In total, sea levels are rising by about 3mm per year, principally because seawater is expanding as it warms. ...

The 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report projected a sea level rise of 28-43cm during this century.

But it acknowledged this was almost certainly an underestimate because understanding of how ice behaves was not good enough to make reliable projections. ...

Another analysis of satellite data, published in September, showed that of 111 fast-moving Greenland glaciers studied, 81 were thinning at twice the rate of the slow-moving ice beside them.

This indicates that the glaciers are accelerating and taking more ice into the surrounding sea.
The important point here is not the amount of melt but the fact that it's accelerating - and liquid water both absorbs more, and reflect less, heat, meaning more warmth to produce more melting. It's a positive feedback loop. It's thought to be unlikely to develop enough to be a serious problem for quite some time, maybe a couple of centuries - which is a very good thing, as a complete melt of the Greenland ice sheet would raise world sea levels by about 20 feet - but the more rapid melt is a clear indication that global warming is continuing.

In some areas, even what was thought to be good news turns out to be, well, not so good. Bad, even.
One of Canada's top northern researchers says the permanent Arctic sea ice that is home to the world's polar bears and usually survives the summer has all but disappeared.

Experts around the world believed the ice was recovering because satellite images showed it expanding. But David Barber says the thick, multi-year frozen sheets crucial to the northern ecosystem have been replaced by thin "rotten" ice that can't support weight of the bears. "It caught us all by surprise because we were expecting there to be multi-year sea ice. The whole world thought it was multi-year sea ice," said Barber, who just returned from an expedition to the Beaufort Sea.

"Unfortunately, what we found was that the multi-year (ice) has all but disappeared. What's left is this remnant, rotten ice."
The research ship easily broke through permanent ice, which is normally 10 meters (about 33 feet) thick. What the team thought to be stable ice cracked when they arrived, and
"[as] I watched, over the course of five minutes, the entire multi-year ice floe broke up into pieces," Barber said. "This floe was 16 km across. Something that's twice the size of Winnipeg, it just broke up right in front of our eyes." ...

Multi-year sea ice used to cover 90 per cent of the Arctic basin, Barber said. It now covers 19 per cent. Where it used to be up to 10 metres thick, it's now 2 metres at most.
This was an area thought to be recovering, based on satellite data, because from there it looks the same and has the same superficial temperature. But it's not.

And despite the nanny-nanny naysayer claims based on cherry-picking individual years and short-term trends, the warming of the planet is continuing. In fact,
[t]his decade is on track to become the warmest since records began in 1850, and 2009 could rank among the top-five warmest years, the U.N. weather agency reported Tuesday on the second day of a pivotal 192-nation climate conference.

Only the United States and Canada experienced cooler conditions than average, the World Meteorological Organization said, although Alaska had the second-warmest July on record.

In central Africa and southern Asia, this will probably be the warmest year, but overall, 2009 will "be about the fifth-warmest year on record," said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general of the WMO. ...

The decade 2000-2009 "is very likely to be the warmest on record, warmer than the 1990s, than the 1980s and so on," Jarraud told a news conference, holding a chart with a temperature curve pointing upward.

The decade has been marked by dramatic effects of warming.

In 2007-2009, the summer melt reduced the Arctic Ocean ice cap to its smallest extent ever recorded. In the 2007-2009 International Polar Year, researchers found that Antarctica is warming more than previously believed. Almost all glaciers worldwide are retreating.

Meanwhile, such destructive species as jellyfish and bark-eating beetles are moving northward out of normal ranges, and seas expanding from warmth and glacier melt are encroaching on low-lying island states.
But just remember, the whole thing is a UN-driven conspiracy and the WMO is part of the UN, so how can you believe anything they say, even if it is verified independently? They're all in on it, you know! "Climategate," after all, is an "international scientific fraud." (My gosh, this story of the hacked emails is turning into a game of Gossip - or, as we used to call it, Rumors - getting wilder and wilder over time.)

Meanwhile, the glaciers keep retreating, the ice keeps melting, the seas keep rising, the CO2 concentrations keep increasing, and the thermometers keep going up.

Going up just how much? Well, the UK Met Office just predicted a better than even chance that 2010 will be the hottest year on record, surpassing the previous "We've been cooling for over a decade!" record year of 1998. (Link via Notes from Underground.)
The "central estimate" of their forecast is that the global average surface temperature for 2010 will be 0.58 degrees C above the long-term average for 1961-1990 (which is 14 degrees C), compared to the average for 1998, which was 0.52 degrees above.

If a new hottest year is indeed recorded, it will undermine the argument of climate change sceptics that the actual warming of the atmosphere ceased in 1998. ... The new record is likely to be broken, the Met Office said, because of a combination of global warming and El Nino, the periodic, natural warming of the waters of the eastern tropical Pacific, which is currently pushing up world temperatures.

In 1998, the record was established because the El Nino of that year was the strongest ever seen. But 2010 is likely to top it, climate scientists believe, even though the present El Nino, which began this summer and is likely to extend to next spring, is much less strong than its 1998 equivalent, and is regarded merely as "moderate".

This implies that global warming will play an even stronger role in the average temperature out-turn for next year, although the natural variability of the climate will also play a part.
While there is no guarantee that 2010 will be an all-time record - remember, that was based on the "middle estimate" - the Met said there is a 90% chance that 2010 will be warmer than 2009. It's worthy of note that the Met's prediction for 2009 turned out to be spot on and that since it started making such predictions 10 years ago, it's average error has been 0.06 degrees - and even if it's prediction for 2010 proves to be too high by that amount, the coming year will still tie with 1998 for the warmest ever.

And you can bet that if 2010 does set a record, the nanny-nanny naysayers will claim the numbers were fudged to cover up "Climategate."

So what's the bottom line - or the top line, so to speak? Six.
Average temperatures across the world are on course to rise by up to 6C without urgent action to curb CO2 emissions, according a new analysis.

Emissions rose by 29% between 2000 and 2008, says the Global Carbon Project.

All of that growth came in developing countries, but a quarter of it came through production of goods for consumption in industrialised nations. ...

According to lead scientist Corinne Le Quere, the new findings should add urgency to the political discussions. ...

"If the agreement [at Copenhagen] is too weak or if the commitments are not respected, it's not two and a half or three degrees that we will get, it's five or six - that's the path that we are on right now." ...

Before about 2002, global emissions grew by about 1% per year.

Then the rate increased to about 3% per year, the change coming mainly from a ramping up in China's economic output, before falling slightly in 2008 as the global economy dipped towards recession. ...

Concentrations in the atmosphere also show an upward trend - as monitored at stations such as Mauna Loa in Hawaii - but at a lower rate. ...

One of the most intriguing findings from the study is the difference between the emissions produced directly by a given nation and the emissions generated through production of the goods and services consumed by its citizens.

Emissions from within the UK's borders, for example, fell by 5% between 1992 and 2004, says the GCP analysis.

However, emissions from goods and services consumed in the UK rose by 12% over the same period. ...

Another of the analyses shows that per-capita emissions across the globe are rising.

On average, each human now consumes goods and services "worth" 1.3 tonnes of carbon - up from 1.1 tonnes in 2000.

The GCP analysis suggests that constraining the global temperature rise to 2C would entail reducing per-capita emissions to 0.3 tonnes by 2050.
Fat chance of that happening. I've said this before in varying contexts, but it merits repeating: My biggest fear of death is the frustration of not knowing what happens after that. Not to me, to the world. It's the idea that there is an absolute end to knowledge.

But sometimes I do not regret I will not live to see the world I see coming.
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