Saturday, October 31, 2009

Back to the real world, Part 2

Updated This year, 2009, has been the worst year for bank failures since 1992. The total so far this year is 115, including nine seized on Friday. That was
the most in a single day since the financial crisis began and the latest stark sign that substantial parts of the nation's banking industry are being crippled by bad loans. ...

More lenders are expected to go under this year as the industry tries to get a handle on commercial real estate loans that will continue to worsen, as more strip malls go vacant and residential developments stall.
In other words, it ain't nearly over.

The assets of the banks closed on Friday were acquired by US Bancorp, which has been aggressively buying up failed banks.
"This transaction is consistent with the growth strategy that we have outlined many times in the past, which includes enhancing our existing franchise through low-risk, in-market acquisitions," said Rick Hartnack, vice chairman of consumer banking for U.S. Bancorp.
Thus does "too big to fail" get even bigger, an unhappy fact which gains extra relevance in light of Thursday's testimony to the House Financial Service Committee about proposed "financial reform" legislation by Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, an advance copy of which was obtained by the Campaign for America's Future.
The discussion draft appears to take the most problematic and unpopular aspects of the TARP and makes them the model for permanent legislation[, Trumka testified]. ...

The discussion draft would appear to give power to the Federal Reserve to preempt a wide range of rules regulating the capital markets - power which could be used to gut investor and consumer protections.
The problem is two-fold. First, as the CAF explains, the proposal would give the Federal Reserve authority to decide on its own which financial institutions are bailed out in a crisis rather than it being one of a few agencies which together make that decision. The thing is, the Fed regulates bank holding companies, including the parent companies of the nation's largest banks. But while regulatory authority rests with the Fed's Board of Governors, responsibility for oversight has been delegated to the regional Federal Reserve Banks - and those banks are controlled by their member banks, whose holding companies the Fed regulates. Those member banks pick the majority of the members of the boards of the regional banks, which in turn select the presidents of the regional banks, who are in essence the boss of the regulatory staff.

In other words, turning the decision about bailouts over to the Fed amounts to turning it over to the banks themselves. The second problem is what happens when a bailout takes place.
We are also[, Trumka said,] deeply troubled by provisions in the discussion that would allow the Federal Reserve to use taxpayer funds to rescue failing banks, and then bill other non-failing banks for the costs.
Which would make everything a win-win for any bank or financial institution deemed "too big to fail." In fact, it positively encourages them to renew (or continue) the riskiest sorts of behavior of the type that nearly brought the entire economy down in a smoking ruin just one year ago. The riskier the investment, the bigger the payout if it succeeds. But if it fails, then under this plan other banks, healthy banks, the ones who proceeded safely, are the ones who would bear the cost of the loss, not the giant playing long shots with other people's money.

There is another important point here, one raised by Prof. David Moss of the Harvard Business School, which is
the explicit requirement in the bill that the identification of systemically dangerous financial firms by federal regulators remain entirely secret, and never be revealed to the public.
(Via Corrente.)

The bill says there will be “no public list of identified companies,” which means there is supposed to be no way for the public to know what financial institutions have been identified by federal regulators as "systematically dangerous," that is, which are in danger of failing. Even regulators' reports to Congress are supposed to be confidential. This clearly protects the banks, but how it protects the public is a mystery.

Rep. Brad Sherman calls the proposed bill "TARP on steroids," arguing
that the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program at least had a cap on spending, an expiration date, congressional approval, independent oversight and some executive pay limits for the banks on the receiving end of the taxpayers’ largesse,
none of which safeguards are in the current proposal, which by its lack of limitations would also allow for the Fed bailing out banks into the trillions of dollars without Congressional approval or involvement and without even informing the public.

In short, it simply increases the power of the powerful. "They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. 'Reform, reform,' they say, when there is no reform."

Footnote: There is an alternative, one sufficiently middle-of-the-road that even Paul Volcker has endorsed it: Reinstating the authority under the Glass-Steagall Act (or something like it) to separate investment banking from commercial banking, a wall that existed from 1933 to 1999.

Writing at the Huffington Post last May, Sam Stein remembered some of the senators and economists who "got it right" during the debate over the move to dismantle that wall, with several warnings about banks becoming "too big to fail." As one economist put it, "nobody will be able to discipline a Citigroup" once the legislation passed.

And, stroking my own ego, in March 1991, facing an earlier attempt by Shrub Sr. to dismantle Glass-Steagall (which failed; we had to wait for a "liberal Democrat" president to sign it), I wrote in the print version of Lotus that
[i]f the bill passes, big banks will get bigger and start dealing in stocks, mutual funds, and insurance - while brokerage and insurance houses ... will start running their own banks. ... Not only does this raise obvious threats of an even greater concentration of wealth than already exists, but ... allowing, indeed encouraging, an already-shaky industry to engage in potentially wildly-speculative ventures seems dumb on its face; doing it with the experience of the $1 trillion S&L bailout staring right at us is downright stupid.

So why do it? The real answer was revealed, probably inadvertently, in a largely fawning newspaper article about the glories of the new "financial services landscape." It was headlined "Bush reform proposal will help the giants."

Reinstating Glass-Steagall is reasonable, workable, and its provisions for decades provided protection against the sort of self-interested stupidity among the banks and bankers that nearly took us under. Which of course means it's completely off the table.

Same as it ever was.

Updated with the issue raised by Prof. David Moss.

Back to the real world, Part 1

Greenland is melting.

Well, not exactly, the land isn't of course, just the ice that's on top of it. And of course that ice is always melting, always has been, as glaciers move oh-so-slowly to the sea, and slowfall replenishes them.

So what's the big deal? Simple: It is - or, again to be more exact, the glaciers are - melting faster than they used to.
[T]he remarkable thing about the Jakobshavn Isbrae[, the most productive glacier in the northern hemisphere, shedding 35 billion tons of ice a year] – and nearly all of Greenland’s glaciers, and most of the glaciers in the world – is how fast those outward waves are flowing now.
In 2002, the Jakobshavn Isbrae was moving at the rather brisk clip (for a glacier) of 20 meters a day. Now, it's moving 40 meters a day and dumping twice as much ice into the fjord. Another large glacier, the Hellheim glacier, accelerated from 8km a year in 2000 to 11km a year in 2005 - and the speed is still increasing.
The reason the glaciers are speeding up is simple: Greenland is getting warmer. Jacqueline McGlade, director of the European Environment Agency, says: “The amount of ice that is being lost is far more than we thought. Greenland is warming faster than the computer models predicted, and that is a worry.” The Arctic has warmed at three times the rate of the rest of the world in the past 100 years, and temperatures continue to rise. Ola Johannessen, chief of Norway’s Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Centre, has worked on ice for more than 30 years. He has never seen anything like the current situation. “There is no doubt that what we are seeing is the result of global warming.”
That warming is already having an impact, not only on the glaciers but on the people of Greenland as the hunting on which they depend declines: Traditional quarry of polar bears and walruses struggle against shrinking habitat and the hunting season shortens because for months the ice is no longer thick enough to reliably bear the weight of their dogsleds and skidoos.

Greenlanders are not likely to be the worst affected by warming, as what they lose in hunting they may well regain in farming. Still, it is yet another example of how global warming is having an impact right now rather than off in the future.

But what's to worry? According to all the nanny-nanny naysayers, average world temperatures are actually declining! It's global cooling!

Which of course they're not and it isn't. We knew that already, but now it's been demonstrated mathematically in an analysis of data by independent statisticians.
The analysis was conducted at the request of The Associated Press to investigate the legitimacy of talk of a cooling trend....

The statisticians, reviewing two sets of temperature data, found no trend of falling temperatures over time. ...

Statisticians say that in sizing up climate change, it's important to look at moving averages of about 10 years. They compare the average of 1999-2008 to the average of 2000-2009. In all data sets, 10-year moving averages have been higher in the last five years than in any previous years.
What gave this extra significance is that it was a type of blind analysis:
[T]he AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented.
The data was NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years plus the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics.
Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.
In short, the numbers say global cooling is a crock. Again, we knew that but it's always nice to have confirmation.

I found this part of the article bitterly amusing:
One prominent skeptic said that to find the cooling trend, the 30 years of satellite temperatures must be used. The satellite data tends to be cooler than the ground data. Key to that is making sure that 1998 is part of the trend, he added.

What happened within the past 10 years or so is what counts, not the overall average, contends Don Easterbrook, a Western Washington University geology professor and global warming skeptic.
In other words, to find this supposed "cooling trend," you have to use a specific set of data gathered over a specific period and then toss out most of that data and start at a specific year within that period. And ignore everything else.
"If you look at the data and sort of cherry-pick a microtrend within a bigger trend, that technique is particularly suspect," said John Grego, a professor of statistics at the University of South Carolina. ...

Grego produced three charts to show how choosing a starting date can alter perceptions. Using the skeptics' satellite data beginning in 1998, there is a "mild downward trend," he said. But doing that is "deceptive."

The trend disappears if the analysis is begun in 1997. And it trends upward if you begin in 1999, he said.
Cherry-picking of data is exactly what the nanny-nanny naysayers have been reduced to. And yet the media still treats them as if they were part of a legitimate dispute. Damn.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A few more smiles

A few scattered bits and pieces from the last week that for one reason or another I regarded as good news.

Middle East - Last week, Haaretz (Israel) reported that
Israeli and Iranian representatives spoke directly during a multi-national conference on nuclear disarmament last month in Egypt.

According to the paper, delegates engaged each other for a short time during a meeting of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament which was held in Cairo last month.
The source was
[a] spokeswoman for Israel's Atomic Energy Commission [who] said on Thursday that commission representatives had held several meetings with an Iranian official to discuss nuclear issues in the region,
specifically, the chances of declaring the Middle East a nuclear-free zone.

Iranian officials deny the meeting took place, calling the report "a kind of psychological operation designed to affect the constant success of Iran's dynamic diplomacy," and yes in the tangled diplomacy of the region is has to be taken with the proverbial bit of salt, but even a hint of some direct, even if rather informal, contacts can be a hopeful sign. Which from another perspective shows how bad things are, but I will take what I can get.

Uruguay - Former dictator Gregorio Alvarez has been sent to prison for 25 years after being convicted on charges of murder and violation of human rights.

Alvarez became dicator of Uruguay after a 1973 military coup, a position he held until 1985. Because of his age, this is essentially a life sentence.

There is a twist here: A 1989 amnesty law barred prosecution of military officials and police for crimes they committed during the dictatorship. However, an exception written into the law has enabled the prosecution of a few of the criminals, including Alvarez.

As part of Sunday's elections, there was a plebicite on revoking the law, but it got only 48% of the vote when it required an absolute majority of those casting ballots to pass. (That is, not voting on the measure was effectively the same as voting "no.")

It gets more complicated: A few days before the election, Uruguay's Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional - but because of the nature of the country's legal system, that ruling has moral force but is not legally binding on all lower courts.

So there is still some amnesty for the torturers. Nonetheless, Alvarez is in prison.

UK - Nick Griffin, the leader of the racist British National Party (BNP), who has denied the Holocaust, repeatedly expressed anti-immigrant bigotry, and recently said that London is "no longer part of Britain" and has been "ethnically cleansed,"
was booed, jeered and scorned by the studio audience of a popular [BBC] television show after weeks of protests against his appearance erupted Thursday in a large demonstration and six arrests.
One Asian member of the audience of the panel show "Question Time" told Griffin that
You'd be surprised how many people would have a whip-round to buy you a ticket - and your supporters - to go to the South Pole. It's a colourless landscape that will suit you fine.
He was, by general agreement, "slapped around" by the audience and the rest of the panel as he refused to explain or in some cases even acknowledge his own past words.

Not surprisingly, in the wake of the show the big, rough, tough, rightwinger ran around sniffling, waving the "You're so mean!" card.
The BNP leader also broke cover to claim he had been unfairly treated, adding he was going to lodge a complaint with the BBC.

'That wasn't Question Time. That was a lynch mob,' he said.
Meanwhile, BNP representative John Walker claimed the show's format had been changed to load it against Griffin.
"Anyone who was opposed to the BNP would probably feel very smug and pleased with themselves this morning," he told BBC radio.
Undoubtedly with his lower lip stuck way out just like the pouting crybabies these buffoons are.

The BBC defended the decision to have Griffin on, saying that as leader of a party with seats in the European Parliament, they could not legally deny him coverage.

The Hague - The trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who until his capture last year was "the most wanted man in the world," began before the World Court on Monday. He is charged with
11 counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, including two counts of genocide, during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war.
Karadzic has been boycotting the proceedings, but the court has refused to let him dictate the terms and prosecutors have opened their case with recorded evidence of Karadzic speaking in 1991 of Sarajevo, then surrounded by Serb forces, as "a black cauldron where 300,000 Muslims will die. They will disappear," he said. "That people will disappear from the face of the Earth.” He also referred to the war as "a fight to the finish. It is a battle for living space.”

Or, as it's otherwise known, lebensraum.

Washington - The Justice Department declared earlier this month that there will be no federal prosecutions of people who use medical marijuana and those who distribute it to them so long as they are doing it within state law.

Currently 14 states make some allowance for medical marijuana use. The new policy is a sharp shift from that pursued by the Shrub gang, which raided medical marijuana distributors even in cases where state officials expressed opposition to the move.

However, Peter Gabriel Keyes, writing at the website Medical Marijuana of America, says that the DOJ memo's lack of specific reference to "medical marijuana collectives, cooperatives, dispensaries, or any other lawful infrastructures for the distribution of medical marijuana" leaves open the possibility of the feds going after such groups, leaving "safe access to medical marijuana ... an elusive concept." I suspect he's worrying too much, but considering the history of drug enforcement, caution is surely warranted.

Washington again - No extra explanation required here. On Friday, Obama announced that the administration is going to reverse the 22-year old ban on entry into the US for people with HIV/AIDS. A new rule is to be published next week that should see the ban lifted by the the beginning of next year.

Massachusetts - On Wednesday, the City of Boston and the Bank of America announced a plan to deal with foreclosed homes in a way that will not displace tenants. Under the plan, the city will buy the homes and then resell them to "homebuyers, non-profits, and private developers," all without displacing the current tenants.

The program is needed, according to the press release from the office of Mayor Tom Menino, because
[r]esearch by the City of Boston has indicated that of those households that have been displaced by foreclosure, over 75% are renters that had no direct involvement in the actions that led to the foreclosure.
Federal legislation passed earlier this year says tenants in foreclosed homes can't be evicted without cause for at least 90 days. The new plan aims to "protect tenants all the way through the process until a new owner takes possession of the property.”

Over 1300 renter-occupied units are in foreclosure in Boston - and while there still can be devils waiting to spring from the details, there's at least the attempt by the city to do a good thing.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Keep smiling

It's nice to have some good news from time to time, yes? So here's Another Small Victory in the Struggle:

This afternoon, President Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. The law adds gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and disability to race, color, religion, and national origin as categories deserving protection under federal hate crimes laws.
"This law honors our lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender brothers and sisters whose lives were cut short because of hate," said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese. "Today's signing of the first major piece of civil rights legislation to protect LGBT Americans represents a historic milestone in the inevitable march towards equality."
After years of effort - including, I will note, strong advocacy on the part of Ted Kennedy - the measure passed the House in 2007 but died in the Senate in the face of right-wing opposition and a threatened Shrub veto. It was passed again by the House in 2009 and got through the Senate by being attached to a DOD authorization bill - which 29 GOPpers then voted against because of the inclusion of the hate crimes provision.

Opponents foamed at the mouth, as usual.
"Expanding hate crimes puts America in lock step with the stated agenda of homosexual activists who will turn next to the so-called Employment Non-discrimination Act, followed by the repeal of the ban on homosexuality in the military and then the Defense of Marriage Act," the Family Research Council warned on its Web site.
Really? Cool!

Here's wishing the FRC more mouth foam.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Better late than never

I missed this when it first came out and perhaps everyone else knows about it, but even at this late date I thought it worthy of mention as a perfect example of the fucked-up-edness of our health care system.

On October 15, a woman name Peggy Robertson testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
I have two boys ages ten and three[, she told the Committee]. Shortly after my youngest son was born, my husband and I began to research independent health insurance options because our current policy was increasing in price every year. My husband is self-employed and we are unable to get access to a group policy.
They applied to the astonishingly misnamed Golden Rule company, part of UnitedHealthcare, only to be told that they wouldn't cover her. Why? Because she'd had a C-section when the three-year old was born.


Y'see, having had one C-section increases the chances of having another in a later pregnancy and the company didn't want to have to pay for it in the event she got pregnant again. Put another way, the company is essentially saying that her being fertile is a pre-existing condition.

What's more, it turns out that discriminating against women in coverage or rates because of a previous C-section is legal in 45 states.

Oh, but Golden Rule was not completely hard-hearted, oh, no. They told Ms. Robertson - in writing - that they'd be just dee-lighted to cover her. All she had to do was get sterilized.

Yup, that's what they said. In writing. And it's legal. In 45 states.

But the good times don't stop there. The Robertsons had previously applied to Humana only to be told their younger son couldn't be covered because he was a "breath holder," a condition that they were afraid would later cause him to have seizures - which of course could involve some treatment and they can't have that because treatments mean claims and claims cost money. Come back in a year, they said.

Well, there were no seizures and so the next year they go back and get told, again, he won't be covered, this time because he's "too small."

So a few weeks ago we had the story of a baby who couldn't be covered because he is too big, now we have one who couldn't be covered because he is too small.

Just like Goldilocks, insurance companies only want the ones who are "just right." And if you think for a moment that what they're really interested in is your health rather than your wealth, you're the one living in a fairy tale.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Unhealthy care reform

I was going to title this post something about Yin-Yang, but decided against it because neither of those opposing principles is bad, it's just a question of when either is to be preferred as a source of action.

And this is a case of good news/bad news; to be more specific, a sort of good news plus a reminder of bad news.

The sort of good news is that the version of the health care bill to be considered by the Senate will include a public option, albeit with an opt-out provision.
The "opt out" proposal would set up a national insurance plan with government seed money and be run by a private, not-for-profit board. Under the proposal, states would have to prove they can provide comparable coverage in order to exit out of the federal plan.
States would have until 2014 to opt out.

As I said on Saturday, I think an opt-out provision is
overall a bad idea but I don't know that I'd consider it a deal-breaker because I'm confident that any state that did try to opt out would find significant pushback from within its own borders and frankly it's hard to see what the benefit would be to the state to not participate.
Unfortunately, the public option offered is a pretty weak one, as it would
negotiate rates with providers just like private insurance companies do, presumably keeping premiums on a level playing field with the private industry,
which makes it difficult to see what the advantage to consumers is of having it. Still, the fact that the provision is there at all is good news in that it sharply increases the chances of it being in what the Senate ultimately passes, which in turn clearly increases the chances of a decent public option being part of whatever final bill comes out of a Senate-House conference. Bottom line is that whatever comes out at the end (I was tempted to say "of" the end) will fall far short of what should be done - but the possibility of having something worth passing is still alive.

The bad news is the reminder the Los Angeles Times brings us today, the reminder that a "bill worth passing" may still be not worth passing:
[T]he oft-vilified health insurance industry is on the verge of seeing a plan enacted that largely protects its financial interests. ...

[T]here is broad agreement that the final plan will, for the first time, require Americans to buy health coverage, with taxpayer subsidies for millions who cannot afford it.

For the health insurance industry, that means millions of new paying customers. What's more, there are likely to be no limits on what insurers can charge, while at the same time the plan is expected to limit competition from any new national government insurance plan that lawmakers create.
In short, taxpayer-guaranteed profits to an industry which will have guaranteed customers, continue to lack significant competition, and still be free from anti-trust regulations.
[I]n Washington, many marvel that lawmakers have not wrung more from an industry that, surveys show, is held in low regard by the public.

"The industry is really in no position to be making demands," said Celinda Lake, a longtime Democratic pollster.
Bullshit, and you know it, Ms. Lake. Because what it is in a position to do is spread a lot of money around on both lobbyists and lawmakers. And that is making demands of precisely the sort too many legislators will heed.


Another part of my youth has just disappeared.

Soupy Sales is dead.

He died this past Thursday in a New York City hospice at the age of 83.

One of the things that endeared him to me and my friends was how much of this "kids show" would go straight over the heads of its supposed target audience, directly to their older brothers and sisters. Now, that's almost passe. In the '60s it was positively subversive.

A complete Soupy Sales show part one
A complete Soupy Sales show part two
A complete Soupy Sales show part three

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

Just as a sort of sidebar, we should never forget that there is another present-day cost to our commitment to a fossil fuel-driven economy: damage to our health.

According to the National Research Council, the cost of early deaths and health damages to Americans from the use of fossil fuels is about $120 billion a year. About half of that comes from pollution from coal-fired power plants and most of the rest is from motor vehicles.

This was the result of an examination of the costs of energy production and the use of fossil fuels that aren't reflected in the price of energy.

The report's figure, which included costs from electricity production, transportation and heating, is undeniably low because the group didn't try to put a dollar value on all the hidden costs of energy use, such as certain air pollutants such as mercury, harm to ecosystems, and risks to national security. It also didn't examine air, rail or water transportation, which make up 25% of total transportation energy usage.
The dollar amounts were mainly early deaths due to pollution, with the value of each life put at $6 million, consistent with other studies. More than 90 percent of the costs were the statistical cost of early deaths. Other costs in studies the panel examined included chronic bronchitis and asthma, [Maureen] Cropper[, an economist at the University of Maryland and Vice-chair of the report committee,] said.

Total early deaths were about 18,000 to 19,000 per year, said another member of the panel, Daniel Greenbaum, the president of the Health Effects Institute in Boston, a nonprofit organization that researches the effects of air pollution on health.
Yet another cost is the effects on the land itself.
As attacks on mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia have grown increasingly sharp, the coal industry and its supporters have defended the practice by saying that reclaimed mine areas provide flat land for development in a place where level sites are scarce.

However, development was planned for less than 3 percent of the roughly half-million acres of land covered by surface-mining permits in Kentucky over the last decade, according to state data.
Which raises the perennial question about the coal industry and its supporters: Why the hell do we listen to these people?

I should have done this yesterday

But I suppose then I couldn't report on what happened.

Yesterday, Saturday, marked 50 days before the opening of the world climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, which is scheduled to run from December 7 to December 18. To mark the day, there were protests around the world, many of them centering on the theme of "350," referring to 350 parts per million. That is the level of CO2 in the atmosphere below which climate scientists say we must remain to avoid the worst aspects of global warming.

Grist reported on several of the protests, including ones in Sydney, Berlin, Jakarta, Madrid, and Istanbul. The article also noted some creative expressions of concern: In Paris, protesters set their alarm clocks and mobile phones to ring at 12:18 pm, to refer to the end of the summit on December 18. There were two actions in London, one by "The Eye" and one across the Thames, where some 100 musicians gathered outside Parliament and used their trumpets, trombones, saxophones, and clarinets to play an F note (with a frequency of 350 Hz) for 350 seconds. And in Beirut, many of the protesters wore snorkels, saying this wouldn't be the first time the city was submerged but the first time the cause wasn't earthquakes.

NPR described
what founder Bill McKibben called a global game of Scrabble, [in which] groups in Australia, Ecuador, India, the United Kingdom, the U.S. and Denmark each spelled out one of the numbers in 350. Hundreds gathered in New York City's Times Square and watched slideshows of the other events on giant screens.
Photos also came in of people forming one of the numbers at places ranging from on the beach at Catia La Mar north of Caracas, Venezuela, to at the Dead Sea, in Jordan, in Israel, and in the Palestinian Territories. Altogether, says, there were over 5,200 events in 181 countries.

But as exciting and invigorating as such an outpouring of concern and conviction is, there is still a big and in some ways steepening hill to climb. Writing at Grist, Jonathan Hiskes says "it’s hard not to be troubled" by the results of a recent Pew Research Center poll, which found, quoting Hiskes,
a significant drop in the number of Americans who believe global warming is happening, is human-caused, and is a serious problem.

The poll found that only 57 percent of respondents believe that “the earth is getting warmer,” compared with 71 percent in April 2008. Pew has asked similar sets of questions six times since June 2006 and has never found such a dramatic rise in skepticism.

Those who believe warming is caused by human activity (burning fossil fuels) wavered between 41 and 50 percent in the first five polls. This fall, the figure dropped to 36 percent.

Those who consider global warming a “very serious problem” ranged between 41 and 47 percent in the first five polls. This fall, the figure fell to 35 percent.
Hiskes suggests several "unsatisfying" possible explanations for the results (and David Roberts, also at Grist, wonders how seriously to take them), but I think he misses the obvious one: Pew asked if there is "solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades." For the past few years, it hasn't been getting warmer. Temperatures have been pretty stable, even dropping a bit, in a cooling trend driven by a shift in ocean currents that may conceal the effect of anthropogenic warming for a decade or even longer. As a result, there has been more than enough triumphant trumpeting among the reichwing about "So where's the global warming, huh?" to have penetrated the understanding of the issue among the general public. (This is precisely why some climatologists are urging that a greater focus be placed on the long-term nature of the warming.)

Which is deeply unfortunate, because - as I have, I'm sure you know, said many times before - not only is global warming real and a serious threat to the future, its effects are already being seen.

For one example, the UN's International Labor Organization (ILO) has launched a project in the Philippines aimed at mitigating the impact changing weather patterns generated by global warming are already having on the local economy.

For another, Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute says that we are already seeing "environmental refugees."
Our early twenty-first century civilization is being squeezed between advancing deserts and rising seas. Measured by the biologically productive land area that can support human habitation, the earth is shrinking. Mounting population densities, once generated solely by population growth, are now also fueled by the relentless advance of deserts and may soon be affected by the projected rise in sea level. As overpumping depletes aquifers, millions more are forced to relocate in search of water.
As one point of evidence, he cites a 2006 UN conference that predicted that desertification in sub-Saharan Africa could drive up to 60 million people from the region and into North Africa and Europe by 2020.

In the run-up to the Copenhagen summit, various people and organizations have tried to stress the urgency of the matter. A report by leading physicians from 17 nations published simultaneously in the UK's two leading health journals, the British Medical Journal and The Lancet, last month, declared that "a global health catastrophe" faces us in the absence of effective action.
Calling on medical practitioners everywhere to put pressure on politicians in advance of the meeting, the doctors say that the world's poorest people will be hit first by the health effects of global warming, but add that "no one will be spared". ...

Malaria, dengue fever and other tropical diseases would increase, the study predicted, spelling out how rising temperatures will cause health crises in half a dozen areas: there will be increased problems with food supplies, clean water and sanitation, especially in developing countries. Meanwhile, the migration of peoples will combine with extreme weather events such as hurricanes and severe floods to make for disastrous conditions in human settlements.
Such a future faces us, they said, if the politicians at Copenhagen are "indecisive" or "weak."

More recently, just a few days ago the leaders of 18 US scientific societies wrote a letter to the Senate
to state the consensus scientific view [of climate change].

Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence, and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on society, including the global economy and on the environment. For the United States, climate change impacts include sea level rise for coastal states, greater threats of extreme weather events, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, urban heat waves, western wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems throughout the country. The severity of climate change impacts is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.
The words about human activities were given an exclamation point by work recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Current global warming seems to be unlike any other in the past, which were the outcome of natural processes, says new evidence unearthed by geologists.

Sediments retrieved by University at Buffalo (UB) geologists from a remote Arctic lake are unlike those seen during previous warming episodes. Researchers found that dramatic changes began occurring in unprecedented ways after the midpoint of the 20th century.

"The sediments till the mid-20th century were not all that different from previous warming intervals," said Jason P. Briner, assistant geology professor at the UB College of Arts and Sciences. "But after that things really changed. And the change is unprecedented."

The sediments are considered unique because they contain rare paleoclimate information about the past 200,000 years, providing a far longer record than most other sediments in the glaciated portion of the Arctic, which only reveals clues to the past 10,000 years.
Note that they made no claim about the degree or intensity of warming in those earlier eras as compared to now. What they did say is that the present warming is fundamentally different from anything that has been seen since modern humans appeared on Earth. It is not a natural phenomenon. It is us. We are doing it.

So why are we futzing around? Why are we hearing things like Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen saying things are moving too slowly for an agreement to be reached in Copenhagen? Why is it that Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice can tell the Toronto Globe & Mail (Canada) say he's not hopeful for an agreement at the meeting without generating howls of protest? How can it be that Yvo de Boer, executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, has to say it's “unrealistic” to expect a treaty to come out of the summit and the best Obama adviser John Podesta can offer is that there may be some kind of accord to lead to a treaty, that is, the nations could maybe agree to agree - sometime later?

Well, one reason is the idiotic, perverse, Alphonse and Gaston routine in which the nations of the world are engaging.

Canada, for example, is insisting it should have a "less aggressive" target for emission reductions than Europe or Japan because its population is growing faster and its industrial structure is energy-intensive. It's also refusing to release a plan
until there is more clarity on how the United States intends to proceed in global climate-change talks in Copenhagen in December, and on what an international treaty would look like.
It's also demanding that emerging economies such as China and India agree to binding caps on their emissions - while those two nations have taken a united stand of pledging to reduce the rate of growth of their emissions, but not to cap them. They in turn insist that the developed nations, particularly the United States, the world's second largest producer of greenhouse gases (behind China) must act first. But lacking a commitment from developing nations, the chances of getting climate protection legislation through the Congress are dim.

So Canada says it won't act until China and India agree to cap their emissions, who refuse to do so and say the US must act first, and the US refuses to act until after China and India do.

Meanwhile, European Union has said it would reduce emissions by 30 per cent from 1990 levels by 2020 - if other developed countries accept similar reductions.

"Please, after you." "Oh, no no no, by all means, after you." "No, you first." "No, you first!" And around it goes, all of them concerned with short-term economic (and political) self-interest and nationalistic ego to the detriment of the long-term interests of their own societies.

You want to see just how dumb the governments of the world can be? That Globe & Mail article says that Ottawa is defending its climate goals by saying the 2020 target represents a 26% reduction from 1990 emission levels on a per-capita basis, after adjusting for population growth, and the targets are “comparable” to more aggressive ones because they will be just as costly to achieve.

"Per capita basis" doesn't mean shit to the climate! "Comparable costs" doesn't mean shit to the climate! What the climate cares about is the total output of greenhouse gases. And as long as we continue as we have been, pumping them out faster than the environment can dispose of them, we continue to build our own coffins. Might there be some short-term economic or political disadvantage to saying "We're not waiting for anyone else, we're going to do the best we can, right now?" Yes, absolutely. The question is, how much of your future, how much of your society's future, how much of the human future, are you willing to sacrifice to avoid that cost?

The answer we're getting right now is - let's just say - not encouraging.

Footnote: On the other hand, for whatever encouragement it does bring, it's wise to recall that those US poll numbers from Pew Research do not reflect worldwide thinking. A worldwide poll commissioned by The Guardian (UK) and released the end of July, found broad popular support for action on climate change.

The survey sampled the opinions of over 18,000 people in 19 countries, asking them if they wanted their own government to make climate change a top priority. Overall, 73% said yes.

The results of the poll as graphed at this link are a little hard to understand so I'll explain: People were asked to rate, on a scale of 0 to 10, how high a priority dealing with climate change is for their government. They were then asked to rate how high a priority it should be. There are two notable takeaways from this:

One is that, as DeSmogBlog notes, the US is an outlier: On making it a top priority, it came in at 4.71. Only one other nation (the Palestinian Territories) came in under 5 and only one more (Iraq) came in under 6. Which, considering the importance of the US in the whole negotiation and how it almost single-handedly undermined Kyoto by its self-centered, pig-headed resistance to cooperation, is certainly not good news.

However, even here there is a silver or at least a silver-plated lining in the second takeaway: In every one of the 19 countries, including the US, people said it should be a higher priority for their government than it is.

Take what you can get and carry on. 'Cause if you don't - we are so screwed.

Footnote to both of the preceding

Just a sidebar for those who say something like a strong public option is "just a sliver" of the issue, as He Who Must Be Obeyed put it, expressed in the form of a riddle:

When is health insurance coverage not health insurance coverage?

The answer is, when it's based on health insurance obtained through an employer.

The Los Angeles Times noted in a story last week that a key part of the "a public option is unnecessary for reform" argument is the elimination of pre-existing condition exclusions. And that is unquestionably a good thing. However, as the Times reported, it also creates an incentive for insurance companies to simply refuse to pay for treatment, even if it is supposedly covered.
"There are going to be a lot of denials," said insurance industry analyst Robert Laszewski, a former health insurance executive. ... "How else are they going to bend the cost curve?"
I think that would more accurately be expressed as "How else are they going to maintain their profits and their CEO mansions," but leave that aside because this is the real kicker:

If you get your insurance through an employer you have no right to challenge in court a refusal to cover treatment.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) bars suits for damages over health benefit decisions. That affects some 132 million people.

No matter how arbitrary, foolish, cruel, cold-hearted, or downright outright stupid the decision, if the insurance carrier says "we won't pay," you're screwed. There is nothing you can do beyond appealing to the same company that refused you in the first place.

None of the health care bills pending in Congress would remove that ban and there are not enough votes to overturn it in the face of the obvious and expected industry support for the ERISA decision.

Without at least a government plan that would directly compete for business with private insurers, which is not what is being proposed now, we do not have real reform.

We are so screwed.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why we will never have universal health care, Part Six

This chapter is subtitled "The effects of self-interest and stupidity."

That same Washington Post article I cited in the previous post also referred to the interest in Congress in a public option with an "opt out" provision that would allow states to choose to not participate in the program, generally after it has been up and running for a few years.

I think that's overall a bad idea but I don't know that I'd consider it a deal-breaker because I'm confident that any state that did try to opt out would find significant pushback from within its own borders and frankly it's hard to see what the benefit would be to the state to not participate.

The point here is that the article said that Harry "The Dynamo" Reid
pitched the opt-out idea to Obama at a White House meeting Thursday night and received a noncommittal response. Several senior Democratic sources said Obama is wary about alienating [Olympia] Snowe - the only Republican so far to support a Democratic health-care measure - and had already concluded that her plan for a "trigger" that would create a public option if private insurers don't offer affordable rates represented a satisfactory compromise.
Just how stupid is the White House? Just how many IQ points are subtracted by this inane obsession with having a "bipartisan" bill? Just how moronic, how pointless, how useless does a proposal have to be before Barack "Just gimme a goddam bill, any bill" Obama will say "Fer-get it?"

What Snowe's measure does is, essentially no make that literally, nothing. Nothing at all. It just kicks the whole business several years down the road even as tens of millions continue to be unable to obtain adequate health care, millions more go bankrupt trying, and the rest struggle with rising premiums, co-pays, and deductibles as corporate CEOs continue to live in their $15 million houses. And at the end of that time, however long it is and however large is the number of ruined lives that have marked the path, we would have to argue the issue all over again as industry lobbyists proclaim how oh, they've come so very far and how their rates really are as affordable as possible and the Olympia Snowes of Congress insist that it just needs a little more time and how we don't want to interfere and the right-wingers and the corporate flacks and flakes rant yet again against the looming specter of "a government take over."

It is nothing but the ultimate delaying tactic. It is trash. It is bogus. It is useless.

And Obama likes it because he thinks it will make Snowe vote for a Senate bill.

I repeat: Just how stupid is the White House? Consider this: We start with a national health care system, take a step down to single-payer. Then it's go to the compromise of a strong public option. Then it's compromise on the compromise and have a weak public option, one that's "just another insurance plan." Now it's compromise on the compromise on the compromise and have a weak public option that won't even see the light of day for several years - if then.

And for what? For one single fucking GOPper vote. Maybe.

Just how stupid is the White House?

Abandon everything that makes for anything that could even be called reform, do absolutely nothing that will significantly increase access to health care or cut costs, essentially throw the entire idea down the sewer, and for what?

For one single fucking GOPper vote. Maybe.

And if they get it, they will have a bill that will pass the Senate even though it's no longer worth passing. And they will say "heath care reform accomplished." And they will say "bipartisanship achieved." And maybe they are not so stupid - maybe it's just that they value Barack Obama's political status and personal ego above what's right and what's good for the people.

It's truly odd when "stupid" seems the preferable response.

Footnote: And after having done that, they will turn to the House and tell all the liberals and progressives there to eat it and keep their mouths shut about real reform - because, as always, it is the left that must compromise and the right which must be placated.

Why we will never have universal health care, Part Five

Nearly two months ago, I gave four reasons "Why we will never have universal health care." They were, in brief,

1. Too many advocates, both in and out of government, subscribe to the bonehead notion that it is "smart politics" to propose what you think might pass and negotiate back from there rather than to propose what you want and negotiate from there - which in practice means you'll invariably wind up with less than what might have passed and never with what you want.

2. It is always the left, never the right, that should do the compromising.

3. The Democrats, apparently possessing less backbone than a stalk of wheat, are being steamrollered by the exact same arguments the health industry has used literally for more than 60 years.

4. Industry money is more important than the public good to too many legislators.

Well, now comes a fifth reason: Even when the chances of some actual improvement, albeit short of the ultimate goal, appear to be within reach, a combination of personal self-interest and ignorance of the reality will screw it up.

The Washington Post reported yesterday on the seeming "dramatic shift" in momentum on the idea of a public option as part of a health care "reform" bill. "Prospects," it said, "have gone in a few short weeks from bleak to bright." House Majority Whip James Clyburn recalled that earlier this month, such an option was supposedly "off the table."
Clyburn said the debate is no longer whether to include a public option, but "whether or not we will get this form of a public option or that form of a public option."
Um, okay - but that's exactly the problem. The meaning of the term "public option," which originally referred to the idea of a government-run, government-provided, insurance plan similar to Medicare which would compete with private health insurance plans and offer subsidized coverage to those who could not afford it otherwise, has been so watered-down and spread out that it's no longer clear what anyone means when they refer to it. What it has unhappily come to mean to too many is laid out by the Post:
Any public plan is likely to have a relatively narrow scope, as it would be offered only to people who don't have access to coverage through an employer.

The public option would effectively be just another insurance plan offered on the open market. It would likely be administered by a private insurance provider, charging premiums and copayments like any other policy. In an early estimate of the House bill, the Congressional Budget Office forecast that fewer than 12 million people would buy insurance through the government plan.
So first, if you can get insurance through work, you're stuck with it. No "option" for you. Even if the plan sucks, even if it's with a crap outfit like Cigna or UnitedHealth or Wellpoint - in other words, most plans - even if the deductibles and co-pays are beyond your reach, even if your portion of the premium is more than you can afford so you can't take advantage of it anyway, tough. You're SOL.

Second, it is avowedly "just another insurance plan," one administered by a private company; it's no longer even a government-run plan. I admit this could be a bit of soft-sell, of trying to increase support (or, more likely if this is the case, soften opposition) by emphasizing just how small a change it is. But that of course is part of the problem: Minimizing the impact of a public option also minimizes the whole point of it, which is (or, rather, was) to change the landscape.

One of the ways it was supposed to do that was by competing directly with private plans, thus forcing them to moderate costs and premiums. But if the population that can go for this option is limited to those who do not have insurance through an employer (which is how the vast majority of people who have insurance other than through existing government programs - Medicare, Medicaid, the VA - get it), where is the competition? What is the population for which you're competing? Those who have no insurance, the very people in who the private insurance companies have already shown they have no interest? What are these people smoking?

What's more, one of the ways the option was supposed to contain costs was the fact that as a government program, it could be run on a nonprofit basis. Even if it was to never get additional funds from the government and had to cover its own costs, without investors to be sated and multi-million dollar CEOs at who to throw money, costs could be considerably lower. (It's worth recalling that in terms of cost efficiency, that is, in percentage of costs that go directly to patient care rather than overhead and so on, Medicare is about the best thing out there.) But if it's to be administered by a private company, what happens to that idea? That company will certainly want a profit on the deal, not to mention having a CEO to fatten.

And what's the result of all this? "Fewer than 12 million people would buy insurance through the government plan." Now, bluntly, I'm going to assume that this actually means 12 million people would obtain insurance through the plan rather than would "buy" it - the not insignificant difference being that in the latter case, which would mean 12 million policies would be issued, many more than 12 million people would be covered since those policies surely would include a lot of family coverage. And I can't imagine in that case the emphasizing word "fewer" would have been used.

That is, then, no more than about one-quarter of the nearly 50 million (and rising) uninsured will be able to benefit from what has become "the public option."

So "just another insurance plan" limited to people who have no insurance, three-quarters of who will see no benefit from it. The only landscape change I see here involves a lot of whitewash.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Two more rules

The preceding posts and a couple of recent foolish attempts at having a discussion with a righty have prompted two additions to my growing list of rules of right-wing arguing.

#16 - You might call this the "Both Sides Now" tactic: If the behavior of some right-winger is undeniably bad, can't be explained away, airily dismiss it with "both sides do it," even if that means equating people wearing anti-war t-shirts to a Bush rally with people carrying assault rifles to Obama appearances.

#17 - This could be called "I'm rubber and you're glue." Insist, even in the absence of any foundation, that any criticism of your methods or tactics actually applies to your opponent. For example, if someone notes you're avoiding a debate, insist "You're the one who won't debate!" Faced with examples of right-wingers lying, reply "That fits you lefties to a T!" (This is related to the "You're the real racist!"-type argument cited in Rule #10.)

I want to add a point here, an important thing I mentioned along with the original list of rules but which needs to be re-emphasized. I frankly expect many of us have at some time or another used one or more of these tactics in the course of debate, especially if it got heated. That is not the point of this list, which I have very deliberately come to call rules of right-wing "arguing" rather than "debate." This list is not about tactics used in debate, it is about tactics used by right-wingers to avoid debate. To avoid actual, factual, engagement on issues and to substitute accusation and obfuscation for investigation.

It is, that is, a compilation of examples of the right's fundamental intellectual dishonesty.

Footnote: Sincere apologies for inserting Joni Mitchell into such an unhappy and inappropriate place but it's a great song and it was a good opportunity for the link.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Footnote to the preceding

Updated Okay, I just had to laugh at the timing. I was at iCount, "a compendium of political blogs" of the left (including Lotus) and the right, to see if that last post had showed up. (It had.)

While there, I noticed a right-wing blog lead with this:
Do it enough times, and you will eventually get caught. And that’s what happened to the case of the Working Families Party registration drive: they got caught red handed rigging an election. In case you were not privy to the facts, the WFP is nothing but some shell organization of our favorite leftist crime syndicate: ACORN. You have to read this stuff.
(No, I won't link to it. If you really want to see the whole post, go to iCount and find it yourself.)

"You have to read this," huh? So I did. The link was to a Faux News item about misuse of absentee ballots to cast fraudulent votes in Troy, NY. To understand the whole story, first you need to know that New York state has several recognized third parties with ballot lines. The generally left Working Families Party is one of them. Candidates can be nominated by more than one party and so run on more than one line; this is an advantage because it can get that candidate extra votes. (It's called "fusion voting." It used to be common but now is illegal in most states as Dims and GOPpers cooperated in undermining the power of third parties that fusion voting advanced.)

Okay. The story was poorly written and poorly edited, but if you plow through to the end, this is what you learn:

1. Some 38 absentee ballots filed in Troy, NY, for the WFP primary held on September 15 have been thrown out on the grounds that they were fraudulent.

2. The connection to ACORN consists in the group's CEO having helped organize the party.

3. Most importantly, it appears the actual charge being made by local GOPpers is that some Democrats pulled off this scheme with the goal of getting the WFP line for the Democratic Party candidate - while local Democrats are suggesting there's something fishy about the GOPpers who are, they claim, creating a "diversion."

So - not only is the issue not one of a registration drive and not only is the connection to ACORN both weak and irrelevant, the WFP is not being accused of perpetrating a fraud; if the charges are true, it was the target of a fraud. In other words, the winger got it totally - and I do mean totally - wrong.

Finding that just a few hours after posting about how right-wing flakes are impervious to fact and logic was just too sweet to let pass unrecorded.

Footnote: The article was so busy trying to link WFP to ACORN that it couldn't find space to mention that ACORN did not create the WFP; rather, it was one member of a coalition of labor and community groups that did so and that was 10 years ago. It also managed to avoid commenting on the rather curious fact that all this brouhaha broke out just after that party had what the NY Times called its "best electoral showing yet."

There was also this odd bit:
Hillary Clinton garnered 2.7 percent of her total votes from the WFP line when she first ran for Senate in 2000, which increased to 5 percent of her total vote in 2006. In September, Clinton's former campaign manager for her 2000 Senate run, New York City Councilman Bill DeBlasio, who has been endorsed by the WFP, beat two long-established politicians in the Democratic primary. Critics also accuse the Working Families Party of having a long association with the troubled activist group, ACORN.
"Also?" What the hell does that mean? Is there something to be criticized, an accusation to be made, about Clinton's vote or DeBlasio's victory? What is being suggested here?

In fairness, this may be a case of sloppiness - I did say that the article was poorly written and poorly edited. But it really doesn't say much for you when your defense against innuendo is incompetence.

Updated with a late but relevant Footnote: Raw Story for Friday had an item about a bit of a brouhaha that erupted in Dallas, Texas:
Police officers in Dallas, TX have issued at least 39 citations to drivers in the last three years for the non-existent infraction of not speaking English.
The chief of police has apologized publicly and said he was " stunned that this would happen," adding "In my world, you would never tell someone not to speak Spanish."
All pending citations will be dismissed, fines will be returned, and the offices involved will be investigated for dereliction of duty.
Yet in comments, despite all that, you still found people defending the cops who did it! The disconnect with reality is just amazing.

In case any explanation was needed

Updated An item over at Media Matters for America from yesterday superbly illustrates why I no longer have any interest in engaging right wingers in rational debate: They simply do not know the meaning of the term.

The item concerned Glenn Blech misleadingly cropping a statement by White House communications director Anita Dunn that was part of a speech to a high school commencement last spring. Blech used the truncated quote for the purpose of branding her a far-left radical who quote "worships" unquote Mao Zedong.

This is what Blech had her saying:
Two of my favorite political philosophers, Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa - not often coupled with each together, but the two people that I turn to most.
This is what she actually said:
And then the third lesson and tip actually come from two of my favorite political philosophers, Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa - not often coupled with each together, but the two people that I turn to most to basically deliver a simple point, which is, you're going to make choices.
I assume the difference is obvious: She turns to them to make a point.

She went on to note how Mao, under criticism for wanting to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek in the face of long odds, responded "You fight your war, and I'll fight mine." She also told the story of "a fairly affluent young person" who wrote Mother Teresa, asking about going to Calcutta to help, and getting the reply "Go find your own Calcutta."

The point was simple and valid: Make your own choices, find your own way, fight your own wars, pursue your own causes, rather than simply following someone else's path. More importantly, the point was clear - and clearly different from the meaning Blech tried put in her mouth.

Okay, all of that is pretty run-of-the-mill for Blech but the point here is not so much his vacuous rantings but some of the commenters on the item at MMFA. Read them if you don't believe me - not that I think you don't - and notice how the right-wingers and trolls simply refuse to acknowledge facts. I note for the record that all the quotes here are copied and pasted from the original and have not been changed in any way and that except as noted, they are all from different people.

First, there were those who in one way or another essentially denied the quote had been cropped, even though it plainly had:

- Someone demanded to know where the "real, supposed un-cropped quote" was - other than, I guess, in the very item on which they were commenting.

- Another declared "Really, how often does she turn to them? She said it, so do not see any cropping."

- Yet another referred to "the 'cropped' tape." (Note the quotation marks around "cropped.")

- Then there was the one who insisted Blech "let her own words do the talking."

- "Smearing someone is to lie about them, I dont see the lie. She said what she said...."

This last person also employed the standard winger tactic of trying to change the subject, asking "At what point would you libs say 'you know what, this administration is far to radical'?" The question, of course, assumes Blech's characterization is accurate, which connects to the next group, the chorus united in the conviction that Blech's version was The Truth:

- "The REAL problem is why the WHITE HOUSE ??? has this kind of political thinking as an advisor in the WHITE HOUSE! There are so MANY Maoists, Communists, Socialists in the WHITE HOUSE giving el presidente advice!"

- "You folks should really be ashamed, attempting to present these Obama officials as not being radicals, as not being praisers of Mao and Che."

- "Ms. Dunn, White House Communications Director, indicates that Mao Zedong is one of her favorite political philosophers."

- "Since when did it become chic to idolize the likes of Mao,Che, Castro, Hilter,Chavez and Achmadinijad? Are all you people on crack? The woman admires the likes of a man who KILLED 50 MILLION PEOPLE."

And then there was perhaps the champ:

- "You and your fans are claiming that Glenn Beck's 'cropping' of Anita Dunn's quote 'changes' the ESSENCE of her intended meaning when compared with her original, un-edited quote. I submit that it does NOT change the essence."

That is, imply the quote was not cropped, then immediately admit it was cropped, then deny the cropping made any difference; insist, rather, that the edited quote and the real quote said the same thing. It's the bland, blank-eyed stare of the right-wing nutcase that enables them to look all evidence and all logic directly in the face and see ... nothing.

But of course, you dare not criticize any of this lamebrain nonsense, oh, no. If you do, you get this kind of response:

- "[F]rom my experience here, this is the way liberals 'fight'; they attempt to intimidate by questioning your intellect, education, calling you stupid, or an 'illegitimate news agency' for not simply rolling over or disagreeing with their point of view."

You get that kind of response because ultimately right-wingers are whining crybabies who for years have engaged in attack, smear, slander, and vituperation but get all weepy and "You're so mean!" when others are prepared to play by the same rules that they set down. And by "the same rules" I do not mean smear, slander, and vituperation, but I do mean attack and doing it without backing down or off.

I will be damned if in the face of those who say I’m not an American, that I'm a threat to freedom, who have called me "pro-terrorist" and claimed I'm "hoaxing all of Mankind [sic]" in pursuit of a dictatorship, who threaten me, who want to expel me, foster hate against me, eliminate me, that I am going to act like some cliche battered wife and spend my time and energy searching my soul to see how I brought this on myself and how I can best placate them.

Do I sound cruel, unforgiving, rigid, dismissive of some? Then so be it. This is a battle for justice, it has been for decades, not a battle of violence or arms, but a battle of rhetoric (I don’t say ideas because we’re the only ones who have any) and commitment - and I’m tired of being expected to play nice with the bullies and bigots.

And - in case any explanation was needed - I no longer have any interest in debating the flakes and fanatics of the right because they are not interested in honest debate. They do not know how to debate honestly and they do not care to know. They are immune to facts and impervious to logic. Their only concern is power. Is victory. Is control. Is dominance.

Their arguments are built on lies, deceit, fearmongering, racist and sexist stereotyping, misdirection, evasion, and deception, and the closest they ever get to truth is gross exaggeration. Indeed, they are not interested in truth (or Truth), they are not interested in justice, they are not interested in the greater good, they are not interested in community, they are not interested in anything that does not measurably and immediately benefit them and theirs.

And I am and have been for a while utterly uninterested in trying to engage them in reasonable discourse. It's like the old joke about mud-wrestling with a pig: You only get dirty and the pig likes it.

And it's a damn waste of my time.

Footnote: I said somewhere not long ago that I made a distinction between right-wingers and conservatives in that the latter could be reasonable, even if totally wrong. I have had serious exchanges with conservatives which were generally unproductive in the sense of anyone changing anyone else's mind in any substantial way but remained civil and productive in the sense of exploring ideas even in the absence of agreement. And which I could hope planted a few seeds that could take root.

Right-wingers, on the other hand, are beyond our reach. They are like the alcoholic or drug addict who is not yet ready to admit to their condition. All you can do is hope they really hit bottom so they can start recovery.

Updated with the links in the paragraph beginning "And - in case any explanation was needed."

Thursday, October 15, 2009

You're getting warmer, Footnote to the preceding

Many nations of the world have generally agreed that to head off the worst effects of global warming, temperature rise must be held to no more than 2oC (3.6oF).

Even that figure "is not without some fairly serious impact," in the words of IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri. That impact, one that, we need to realize, we've pretty much given up on avoiding, is serious enough that
[e]xperts and aid groups called Thursday for the United States to help poor countries deal with the effects of global warming, as Congress considers key climate change legislation.

Testifying before a Senate panel, humanitarian organizations called for US aid to help countries with "adaptation solutions" in response to the effects of climate change. ...

"We urge you to help ensure that at least three percent of the resources in comprehensive climate and energy legislation are devoted to adaptation efforts in vulnerable developing countries," [David Waskow, climate change program director at Oxfam] said.

Peter O'Driscoll, director of ActionAid USA said "there is no viable alternative to investing in climate adaptation: helping people, communities and entire countries face these consequences must be a central pillar of US foreign policy."
General Charles Wald, former deputy commander of US European Command, warned that "climate change has the potential to create sustained natural and humanitarian disasters on a scale and at a frequency far beyond those we see today," creating political instability as demands for services outstrip the ability of governments to deal with them.

Pachauri, for his part, brought no comfort to a meeting of ministers of the International Energy Agency in Paris on Thursday.
"Strong, urgent and effective action" is needed, [he said.]

"It is not enough to set any aspirational goal for 2050, it is critically important that we bring about a commitment to reduce emissions effectively by 2020," he said.
If the world is going to meet the goal of limiting temperature increase to 2oC, he said, "then global emissions must peak by 2015."

In other words, if he's right, if the IPCC is right, we don't have 40 years to stabilize emissions, we have 10 years - and for the back five of those 10 years emissions need to be declining.

I'll keep talking about it, I'll keep arguing for conservation and for the goddam it already-existing alternatives that could sharply reduce our emissions if it weren't for energy policy and the fucking Congress to be in hock to the fucking oil and coal giants - but you know what? I think we're already screwed. This is another of those moments when I'm glad I will not live to see the world I see coming.

Warming up - Blog Action Day

Today, Blog Action Day, was organized by the appropriately-named as a blogswarm day on climate change. I certainly have posted some on the topic (a check reveals 97 posts tagged with "global warming" although for some reason clicking on the tag only brings up 20 of them), most recently less than two weeks ago. I figured that for my contribution to the effort I would offer some graphs and charts that can be used as resources and/or illustrations.

The first is the chart I expect many of you have seen; it shows the recorded temperatures since 1850. The important thing, the central thing, to note is that except for a temporary dip around 1940-1950, average global temperature has been on a pretty steady climb since 1900. The nanny-nanny naysayers cling desperately to the small drop in the year-to-year average of the past few years, but aside from the fact that this is the result of a natural cooling cycle driven by a change in ocean currents that at most will conceal anthropogenic global warming for a time, it's worth noting that the drop is neither as deep nor as steep as that which occurred in the 1940s - which was followed by another extended period of rapid rise.

In fact, even allowing for expected natural cycles, the warming of the world is dramatic. The following graphic, which comes from the peer-reviewed magazine Science of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), shows the likelihood (in percent) of various regions having summer temperatures during the period 2040-2060 that will exceed the highest on record to date.
The nanny-nanny naysayers are forever claiming that it's all natural, nothing to do with us, blah, blah, blah - and often accuse (sometimes openly, sometimes by implication so as to not be held responsible for their words) climatologists of stupidly or - worse - deliberately ignoring some natural trend or another. Unfortunately for them (and, in a philosophical sense, unfortunately for the rest of us as well) that is simply not true. Not only do climatologists take such trends into account, they find that natural cycles simply cannot explain the recent warming, as shown by the following graph. The left graph compares actual recorded temperatures with the results of computer models that try to mimic and predict the real world and which included human influences as well as natural ones. It's a good fit. The right-hand graph, on the other hand, compares those records with computer models that considered only natural influences. In that case, the lines started to diverge in the 1940s and have been getting further apart ever since.

Its not just surface temperature, either: The same applies to global ocean temperatures. Note the right-hand graph below, which compares actual data with models that include human influences and others that do not. The first is an excellent fit; the other, just like with surface temperatures, has increasingly diverged from the hard data.

The conclusion is inescapable: Natural forcings simply cannot explain all of the warming that has occurred over the past several decades. We are screwing with the climate, the nanny-nanny naysayers be damned.

Finally, I wanted to include this:

In case you haven't guessed, this is the classic "hockey stick" graph, done in 1999. It compares the recorded average global temperature for the period 1961-1990 (the solid horizontal line; note the use of a 30-year period in order to smooth out short-term variations) with both recorded temperatures since 1850 (the red line) and with determined temperatures dating back 1000 years, the latter figures calculated from data obtained by the use of various proxies. The graph shows a large number of short-term variations but a relatively constant temperature over the long term - until the industrial age. Then temperatures start to rise pretty steadily until the present day, with current temperatures at levels unprecedented in the previous 1000 years.

The pale blue indicates a type of error bar, that is, a reflection of the range within which the researchers are quite confident the actual figure sits. Note that prior to around 1600, the pale blue area is considerably wider; what that means, in brief, is that the researchers are much less confident in the accuracy of their results for earlier periods. However, even with that in mind, the graph still shows a high degree of confidence that current temperatures are unprecedented in at least 400 years if not more.

The "hockey stick," so-called because of the relatively straight "shaft" in history and the sharply angled "blade" of recent times, has been repeatedly attacked by the nanny-nanny naysayers and questioned by serious researchers. Which leads to my final graph:

This is a collection of nine different attempts to reconstruct temperature records for the last 1000 years. They were done by different teams of researchers (albeit some individuals were involved with more than one team) and used different combinations of proxies. The "shaft" of the hockey stick has gotten twisted and warped, leading to a reasonable conclusion that global temperatures were not as relatively constant as the initial graph indicated.

However, and this is far more important for us, they universally agree that current temperatures are unprecedented in the last 1000 years. The naysayers will nitpick at details and argue technical fine points and yes there are details and fine points to be argued - but especially in an area as complex as climate, where mathematical precision eludes us, and especially in an area with such a huge potential impact on human life and society, it is the weight of the evidence that must guide our choices.

And the weight of the evidence is literally overwhelming: Global warming is real. It is happening. It is already having an impact. And that impact will grow and worsen and the longer we delay action the worse it will be.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Looky here!

This past Sunday, Crooks and Liars posted a clip of Rep. Alan Grayson on CNN's Situation Room which included conservative pundit Alex Castellanos attacking Grayson's charge that GOPpers have no health care plan by asking him "Which particular Americans do you think I'd like to die? Can you name some?"

Grayson refused to get sidetracked, to his credit, but I had an immediate (and I actually do mean immediate) reaction to the Castellanos ploy. I thought:

"No, I can't name you particular people because if I could, if I could present you with real people with real faces, real names, real voices, you wouldn't want them to die. It's precisely because those people can be faceless, just 'out there' somewhere, existing to you only as statistics, as numbers on some actuarial sheet, that this can go on."

I thought a bit later of the proposal made some years ago that the codes to launch nuclear weapons be implanted in the chest of a Secret Service agent. The idea was that if the president wanted to order a launch, he/she would first have to kill the agent to get at the codes. It was thought an outrageous idea on the grounds that the president would be unwilling to do it and so would never issue the order - which of course was the point: How can you even think of justifying the deaths, the slaughter, of hundreds of millions of people when the thought of killing one is so heinous?

The underlying point is that the agent is a real, living, breathing, identifiable person who by virtue of that is "realer" - and whose death is thus a "realer" event - than the faceless masses about to be incinerated. Having to kill the "real" one directly in front of you in order to kill the faceless many who are not, making death a real event, not a political calculation, drives home just what it is that is being undertaken.

This in turn raises the discussions of the differences in how people on the right and people on the left think. There has been the much-noted work of Dr. Robert Altemeyer on the authoritarian mindset. And a few years ago researchers at UCLA aimed to determine the way Democratic and Republican brains differ in how they interpret political images. Additionally, I recall first reading years ago - well before the Internet, so I have no link for it even if there is one - that the one common thread that ran through the psychological profiles of all those who described themselves as politically conservative, consistent across considerations of age, gender, race, education, and economic class, was a fear of change. The greater the fear, the stronger the conservatism.

That idea was confirmed more recently - recently in this case being 2003 - in a metastudy of research literature about the psychology of conservatism. (A metastudy is one that doesn't do new research but tries to synthesize the results of previous research on a particular topic.) The researchers found that "at the core of political conservatism is the resistance to change and a tolerance for inequality" and common psychological factors include "fear and aggression," "dogmatism," "uncertainty avoidance," and "terror management."

Additionally, a study from 2007 found that "liberals are more likely than are conservatives to respond to cues signaling the need to change habitual responses" and that "conservatives tend to be more persistent in their judgments and decision-making, while liberals are more likely to be open to new experiences." Finally, an even more recent study, this one from last year, suggests that both righties and lefties have their fears but they are of a very different sort: In brief, those on the right fear chaos while those one the left fear "emptiness," that is, a life without meaning.

The bottom line here is that there is more than ample evidence that conservatives and leftists think differently, view the world differently, and react to new circumstances differently: In the face of such, those on the left are more willing to embrace change while conservatives are more likely to stiffen their resistance. That was a theme I commented on in a letter to a friend nearly 16 years ago:
Whenever the present looks stressful and the future doubtful, there are those who find their security in a dimly recalled and largely imaginary past. Change is frightening to many ... and history has the virtue of being - or, more properly, seeming - sure.

Are we really to think, for example, that it’s coincidence that the right wing gained strength in the wake of the ‘60s, which challenged previously “self-evident” beliefs on an unprecedented scope and demanded people rely on their own wits to judge moral and ethical questions? Are we likewise to think it coincidence, to return to an earlier theme, that Puritanism gained strength and adherents during a time when not even one but two supernovas visible in broad daylight occurred (1572 and 1604), so thoroughly shattering the centuries-old and blindly accepted Aristotelian notion that the heavens were eternal and unchanging that even the Catholic church hierarchy couldn’t maintain it? [Note: I had been writing about the Church of England and Puritanism earlier in the letter.] I’ve for a long time argued that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don’t have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It’s already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone.
Just recently, there has been renewed consideration of the issue because of the way the health care debate has played out, with folks on the left increasingly bemoaning the tactical brilliance of the right in coming up with phrases like "death panels" and "government takeover" that are easy to repeat, easy to remember, can be used in the course of imagining you understand what's actually going on, and are helpful in ginning up the fear on which the wingers are depending. That, too, is not a new concern: In response to a column by John Leo of what was then called US News & World Report which had been sent to me by a former student, I wrote more than 20 years ago that
Leo is, however, right about one thing: Leftists “tend to be straight-ahead rationalists who do not respond much to symbols or calibrate their power.” (In other words, we think.) It’s the rightists’ sensitivity to manipulation of symbols that is the source of much of their power - even when the symbols, such as “community,” are concepts in which they do not believe, which, in fact, they destroy even as they celebrate.
The notion of "death panels" is just that: a symbol, an image that suggests a much wider range of associations. The effectiveness of such tactics shows that while my flip comment that "In other words, we think" was not inaccurate, it did brush off the significance of the point much too lightly.

However, and this not only brings me back to the C&L post but arrives at the real point of this somewhat rambling discussion, in thinking of the Grayson-Castellanos exchange and my own reaction to it, I recognized what I believe is yet another, related, difference in the way the left and the right think: I very strongly suspect that there is a marked difference between the right and the left in the ability to reify abstractions, to in our imagination, our understanding, turn numbers, charts, and statistics into the actual human beings they represent. More specifically, those on the left can do it (and do) and those on the right can't do it (and don't).

To the right, the 44,000 people who die every year, the 122 who on average die every single day, from lack of access to health care aren't truly real. They're just stories, it's just a number, and as such has no intrinsically greater value than any other number. But to us, that 44,000 who die every year is 44,000 very real human beings whose lives have been unnecessarily cut short.

It's 44,000 mourning families; 44,000 tearful fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters; 44,000 financial crises for struggling families; 44,000 funerals that shouldn't have happened; 44,000 causes for the pain and grief of loss for friends, relatives, coworkers; 44,000 plans uncompleted, dreams lost, hopes undone. It's the high school graduation with a parent missing, the empty spot at the table at Thanksgiving dinner, the repeated jolt when for the tenth or the hundredth time you think "I should tell them about this" the instant before you remember, again, that they're not there anymore; it's the house that's too quiet, the bed that's too wide, the toys that don't need to be picked up, the "special vacation next year" that will never happen in the next year that will never come.

We feel the tragedy which that number represents, which it describes, the utterly unnecessary tragedy, in a way that quite bluntly most people on the right, for all their sloganeering about caring, simply do not because they simply cannot. The real suffering of real people is unreal to them if it is merely one step removed from their direct experience.

And it's all deeply depressing because I have no idea how to get past that. Never mind the leaders of the right wing, a noxious concoction of liars and nutcases who fit into one of two categories: charlatans or beyond hope. I'm thinking rather of the coworker who quotes Glenn Beck and the neighbor who relies on Fox News and the in-law who thinks police cameras on every corner are a terrific idea because how else are you going to keep us safe from the terrorists. I have no idea how to get past their wall of fear, how to appeal to people who close off the world because they see it changing in ways they never anticipated and don't understand.

But maybe the first thing to do is to realize that they simply do not see the same world we do because, tragically, they simply are not capable of seeing it as we do.

Even so - than what?
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