Monday, May 27, 2013

Staying in Bounds

We must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror,” but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America. ...  As our fight enters a new phase, America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.  To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power -- or risk abusing it. 

-- President Obama, Thursday at the National Defense University

This week everybody was talking about the Oklahoma tornado

I assume you already know the basics, which have gotten 24/7 coverage.

A side issue is whether or not we can blame global warming. In general, as the planet warms there is more heat in the ocean and more moisture in the atmosphere, creating the potential for more violent storms. However, from year-to-year or even decade-to-decade, the tornadoes in one particular area are subject to a lot of other factors.

So, for example, the U.S. had unusually few tornadoes in 2012, probably because of the drought in Tornado Alley. Did climate change cause the altered precipitation patterns that created the drought? Maybe, but we're getting a little speculative now. (I'm always suspicious when both too much and too little of something -- i.e., tornadoes -- produce the same explanation.)

I know that conservatives claim global warming is refuted whenever some town gets late-season snow. So it sucks to feel obligated to stick to facts and reason. But as Grist's Susie Cagle puts it:
the science on tornadoes and climate change isn’t clear enough to OMFG about it just yet.

Here's my rule of thumb: Am I willing to accept the validity of this measurement if it turns against my favored theory in the future? In other words: If for the next year or two the number and severity of tornadoes in Oklahoma goes down again, will I feel like global warming is refuted? My answer is no, which means I shouldn't put too much stock in the global-warming/tornado connection now.

On the other hand, I would reconsider if the Earth had a genuinely cold year -- colder than the 100-year average -- with no obvious event like a major volcano to explain it. So when April turned out to be the 338th consecutive month with an average global temperature above the 20th-century average, I thought that was significant. In other words: If you're 28 or younger, you've never experienced a globally cool month.

and President Obama's speech

Thursday at the National Defense University, President Obama recognized that American democracy can't survive an endless global war. I summarize in "This War Must End".

and the IRS

As no trail to the White House emerges and the scandal hinges on how the regulations define 501(c)(3)s and 501(c)(4)s, you have to wonder: What Happens to a Scandal With Boring Details? Prediction: The mainstream media will lose interest, but the conservative media will invent whatever exciting details it needs to keep its audience aroused.

and the I-5 bridge collapse in Washington

The cartoon is actually a reaction to the 2007 bridge collapse in Minneapolis, but nothing has really changed. Which bridge will go down next? New York Magazine suggests that it could be one of the busiest bridges in the Northeast: the Tappan Zee.

Since no one died this time, I don't think I can be accused of "politicizing the tragedy" to point out that President Obama's American Jobs Act of 2011 included $50 billion for infrastructure improvements. It could not overcome a Republican filibuster. The proposal has been back every year since, and is now part of Obama's 2014 budget proposal.

It's entirely legit for Republicans to wonder how the necessary work will be paid for, but it's not legit to just block Obama's proposal. If Republicans don't offer an alternative infrastructure plan, then their plan is to keep watching our bridges fall down.

and atheism

I can't remember a week where atheism popped up in so many stories.

Wednesday, Pope Francis raised eyebrows (and hopes, maybe) by seeming to say that atheists can go to the Heaven they don't believe in:
The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!

Then Father Thomas Rosica -- quoted on CNN's Belief Blog as a "Vatican spokesman" in a post that countless other articles linked to -- seemed to take it all back, saying that Pope Francis' homilies speak to the typical Catholic as a "pastor and preacher", not "in the context of a theological faculty or academy", and that the Pope had "no intention of provoking a theological debate on the nature of salvation". Rosica reiterated that
Catholics believe that it is only in Jesus Christ that this salvation is conferred, and through Christianity and the one Church that it must be mediated to all people.

Fine, except ... Rosica wasn't writing as a Vatican spokesman and didn't claim to be. He was an official spokesman during the transition from Benedict to Francis, but Wikipedia says "He completed his service upon the election and inauguration of Petrine Ministry of Pope Francis." So although Rosica probably understands the Pope's mind far better than I do, in this case his opinion is just his opinion. [BTW: Need I mention how disappointed I am that CNN didn't get this right? It's not hard.]

Tuesday, Representative Juan Mendez delivered a secular humanist invocation to begin a session of the Arizona legislature.
I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.

Wednesday, another legislator said, "That's not a prayer" and led the legislature in a second daily Christian prayer as "repentance" for the previous day. That display of Christian supremacism led third member to object:
I want to remind the House and my colleagues and everybody here that several of us here are not Christianized. I'm a traditional Navajo, so I stand here every day and participate in prayers ... This is the United States, this is America, and we all represent different people ... and you need to respect that. Your God is no more powerful than my God. We all come from the same creator.

Most striking of all was the viral video where CNN's Wolf Blitzer described Rebecca Vitsmun (an Oklahoma tornado survivor) as "blessed" and pushed her to "thank the Lord" for her and her baby escaping harm, prompting her to confess "I'm actually an atheist." She was very gracious and dignified about it: "I don't blame anyone for thanking the Lord."

The Oklahoma Freethought Convention is selling "I'm actually an atheist" t-shirts. Proceeds will help Vitsmun rebuild her home.

Blitzer's clumsy interview points out the amount of religious propaganda we take for granted whenever natural disaster strikes. (Funny how nobody on TV ever says, "The randomness of this destruction reinforces my belief that sometimes stuff just happens and you can't take it personally.") Slate's Mark Joseph Stein called out the tunnel vision in ABC's reporting of the "miracle ending" at Briarwood school, where no children died.
The families and friends of the seven children who died at Plaza Towers would not consider this ending really all that miraculous.

Which reminds me of something Bertrand Russell wrote in 1943:
God's mercies are curiously selective. Toplady, the author of "Rock of Ages," moved from one vicarage to another; a week after the move, the vicarage he had formerly occupied burnt down, with great loss to the new vicar. Thereupon Toplady thanked God; but what the new vicar did is not known.

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Last week I talked about how Jonathan Karl's dishonest journalism on Benghazi briefly made it look like there really was a White House cover-up. It turns out we should have seen that coming. Two years ago, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) had him pegged as a "right-wing mole at ABC News". He comes out of the same conservative program that gave us Ann Coulter, Dinesh D'Souza, Michelle Malkin, Rich Lowry and Laura Ingraham.

Words you never thought you'd read here: Go, Jan Brewer.

This "shocking news" about ObamaCare is good news: The California exchanges are offering healthcare policies for less money than expected.

Tuesday, Apple CEO Tim Cook testified to a Senate committee about the tricks that allow his company to make many billions of dollars and pay very little tax in the U.S. or anywhere else. The business-news blog Quartz has a good summary of the problems in corporate tax law and how Apple abuses them.

Corporations and their political sock puppets often make the case for a "tax holiday" that would allow companies to bring overseas profits to the U.S. at a lower tax rate. It's worth noting that a lot of this money is "overseas" only in some theoretical tax-law sense. Quartz reports: "Most of the $102 billion Apple is keeping 'overseas' is in US banks."

After a British soldier was hacked to death in London Wednesday, Glenn Greenwald raised this question: Is there any reasonable definition of the word terrorism that includes this act, but not U.S. drone strikes in places like Pakistan or Yemen?
Can it really be the case that when western nations continuously kill Muslim civilians, that's not "terrorism", but when Muslims kill western soldiers, that is terrorism? ... Once you declare that the "entire globe is a battlefield" (which includes London) and that any "combatant" (defined as broadly as possible) is fair game to be killed - as the US has done - then how can the killing of a solider of a nation engaged in that war, horrific though it is, possibly be "terrorism"?

What could be cooler than a solar airplane?

Monday, May 20, 2013

This Nasty Phase

I believe in humanity. We are an incredible species. We're still just a child creature, we're still being nasty to each other. And all children go through those phases. We're growing up, we're moving into adolescence now. When we grow up - man, we're going to be something!

-- Gene Roddenberry

This week everybody was talking about scandals and pseudo-scandals

As the week went on, though, the scandals mostly fell apart -- particularly after it came out that Republicans had faked the "White House emails" that led to ABC's big scoop.

I summarize the current state of the Benghazi, IRS, and AP stories -- and explain why Republicans feel compelled to manufacture these pseudo-scandals --  in Blow Smoke, Yell Fire.

Oh, and I forgot to cover UmbrellaGate.

and Angelina Jolie

If you'd told me last week that Angelina Jolie's breasts would be front-page news, I'd have pictured a very different scenario. But Tuesday she announced in the New York Times that she had chosen to have a preventive double mastectomy, replacing both of her (apparently healthy) breasts with implants to reduce her risk of breast cancer.

Jolie's situation is unusual: Her mother died of ovarian cancer at 56, and genetic tests showed a defective BRCA1 gene that is associated with high risk of both breast cancer and ovarian cancer. Still, her decision was a Rorschach test that produced strong reactions of all types, especially among women. (A good collection of links is here.)

Many were strongly supportive and appreciated the fact that Jolie had put a public face on a difficult issue. I was reminded of Magic Johnson's announcement in 1991 that he had HIV. It's easy to either ignore a medical problem or demonize the people who have it, until it hits someone you know. Celebrities play the role of someone-you-know for an entire society.

Some people reacted negatively. For people who are generally suspicious of the medical establishment, Jolie's story is a Minority-Report-style nightmare, where drastic actions are taken based on predictions whose accuracy is unknowable. M.D. Daniela Drake describes her own experience.
Now I know why patients are so mad at us. This is supposed to be patient-centered care. But it feels more like system-centered care: the medical equivalent of a car wash. I’m told incomplete and inaccurate information to shuttle me toward surgery; and I’m not being listened to.

I came to discuss nutrition, exercise and close follow-up.

I’m told to get my breasts removed—the sooner the better.

The other issue this cast a light on is gene patents: Even if you think you might be in Jolie's situation, getting the genetic test will probably cost about $3000, and insurance often doesn't cover it. Why is it so expensive? Because Myriad Genetics "owns" the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes. It doesn't just own the testing procedure; it has a patent on the genes themselves. Even a company that came up with a different test couldn't market it. If that seems weird, that's probably because it is weird. The Supreme Court is supposed to hear a case about that soon, though it's hard to imagine the Roberts Court ruling against any form of property.

[Full disclosure: My wife is a breast cancer survivor whose mother died of breast cancer. She recently had the same genetic test as Jolie, which our insurance covered. If it had come out badly -- it didn't -- she would have faced a similar choice.]

and the new Star Trek movie

OK, maybe my definition of "everybody" is skewed. Still, lots of people who ordinarily write about other things were writing about Into Darkness, the second step in the J. J. Abrams reboot of the Trek movie franchise. I haven't seen it yet, but the reactions from people who have center on two themes:

It's interesting that the serious-fan discontent is coalescing around Abrams' second film, but I think I know why: For the first, fans were just glad the reboot was happening. They/we wanted the original characters back, but the original actors were too old to carry on. Plus, the reboot's plot necessarily was about how to get the band back together without trapping them in a narrative universe where all possible suspense is killed by what we already know about the Federation's future. Mission accomplished well enough to justify a new series of movies. Fine.

But the second movie has to answer the question: What are you going to do with the freedom the new timeline grants? All the challenges faced in the old timeline -- Klingons, Romulans, Q, the Borg, the Ferengi, etc. -- are still out there somewhere. That invites a long background meditation on fate: What has to turn out the way it did the first time, and what could change? Or we could forget all that and have a lot of starship chase scenes and shoot-outs with phasers.

Which raises the question: What is Star Trek about, really?Matt Yglesias (who usually doesn't write about this kind of thing) sees the heart of the franchise in the optimistic liberal values of the mid-20th century: envisioning a future where humanity gets past its tribal struggles, overcomes scarcity, and devotes its most powerful starship to seeking knowledge and helping other species rather than aggrandizing its wealth and power. Star Trek celebrates the kind of courage you need to hang in an uncertain situation and not shoot, while waiting for a peaceful solution to emerge.

Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait sums up:
At its best [Star Trek] was a deeply thoughtful mythology about ourselves and our conflicts, an allegory of our modern problems and flaws of humanity—war, greed, bigotry, narcissism—and how we overcome them, told as science fiction. That’s why we’re still telling these stories nearly 50 years later.

This movie wasn’t any of that.

NYT's A. O. Scott seems to agree:
it’s hard to emerge from “Into Darkness” without a feeling of disappointment, even betrayal. Maybe it is too late to lament the militarization of “Star Trek,” but in his pursuit of blockbuster currency, Mr. Abrams has sacrificed a lot of its idiosyncrasy and, worse, the large-spirited humanism that sustained it.
Atlantic's Christopher Orr sees the surrender of Star Trek's "deliberative, technology-obsessed, and science fictive" values to "visceral, imbued with mysticism, and space operatic" Star Wars values. (Abrams is the current custodian of both movie franchises.)

Salon's Andrew O'Hehir recalls Abrams complaining that previous Star Treks were "too philosophical" and accounts for Into Darkness like this:
the Abrams “Star Trek” movies feel as if they didn’t just depict an alternate universe but were created in one – a universe in which the original “Star Trek” was an action-adventure Marvel Comics title rather than a geeky, Enlightenment-saturated 1960s TV series. ... There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Star Trek Into Darkness” – once you understand it as a generic comic-book-style summer flick faintly inspired by some half-forgotten boomer culture thing.

He fantasizes "that those in charge of the 'Star Trek' universe could have entrusted its rebirth to someone who actually liked it."

But hey, Into Darkness will probably make money, and that's what counts. I think the Ferengi have a rule about that.

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If Europe is proving that austerity economics doesn't work, Japan is an interesting test case in the opposite direction. The Abe government has decided to stimulate its way out of the country's decades-long funk, debt be damned.

Japan's national debt is approaching 245% of GDP, more than double the U.S. ratio and considerably higher than even the famous bad example of Greece. The government has announced its intention to create inflation; it's goal is 2% per year, reversing the current deflation. To do that it is prepared to double the money supply.

If the deficit hawks know anything about how the world works, Japan should crash and burn. Conversely, if it doesn't, the Paul Ryans know nothing about how the world works.

Filibuster reform is being discussed again, as Harry Reid is admitting privately that he made a mistake in not pushing it harder at the beginning of this Congress.

It isn't just the unprecedented number of filibusters that is causing this, but the broader ambitions behind them. In the past, both parties have at times filibustered nominees that they had some personal objection to: the nominee was too extreme, too acerbic, or had some scandal in his or her past.

During the Obama years, though, Republicans have been using the filibuster as part of a global strategy to monkey-wrench parts of the government they don't like. No one has ever done that before.

For example, Republicans have blocked Richard Cordray's nomination as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau -- not because they have uncovered something questionable about him, but because they don't think the CFPB should exist. As a post on Senator Shelby's web site put it in 2011: "44 Republican U.S. Senators today sent a letter to President Obama stating that they will not confirm any nominee, regardless of party affiliation, to be the Director of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) absent structural changes". The stalemate has continued ever since.

Now the monkey-wrenching threatens to shut down the National Labor Relations Board. Legally, the NLRB can't function without a quorum, and unless some of Obama's nominees are confirmed it won't have one when the next member's term expires in August. So come August, it will be open season on workers' rights, because the federal government will be out of the picture. You don't have to change the law if you can shut down the enforcement agency.

Nurses explain the healthcare law in 90 seconds.

Four political scientists did an interesting study about the causes of political polarization. Their research survey describes the polarization process like this:
People are often unaware of their own ignorance (Kruger & Dunning, 1999), they seek out information that supports their current preferences (Nickerson, 1998), they process new information in biased ways that strengthen their current preferences (Lord, Ross & Lepper, 1979), they affiliate with other people having similar preferences (Lazarsfeld & Merton, 1954), and they assume that others’ views are as extreme as their own (Van Boven, Judd, & Sherman, 2012).

Then they did a series of experiments and found that people's certainty about policy proposals goes up after they're asked to give reasons why they hold their position, but goes down after they're asked to explain how the underlying proposals are supposed to work.
Across three studies we show that people have unjustified confidence in their mechanistic understanding of policies. Attempting to generate a mechanistic explanation undermines this illusion of understanding and leads to more moderate positions.

And they suggest:
that political debate might be more productive if partisans first engage in substantive and mechanistic discussion of policies before engaging in the more customary discussion of preferences and positions.

This matches my experience during 29 years of marriage: We're more likely to come to consensus on where to take a vacation if we first imagine what we would do in a variety of places, and only later express preferences.

To follow up on last week's discussion of Syria, I found this map at Wikipedia. Red is Assad/Alawite/Shia controlled. Green is rebel/Sunni. Beige is Kurdish.

Since we're already talking Star Trek, here's a polarizing graphic:

Monday, May 13, 2013

Magical Deliverance

 The statement that God won’t allow us to ruin our planet sweeps aside ethics, responsibilities, consequences, duties, even awareness. It comforts us with the anodyne assumption that—no matter what we do—some undefined presence will, through some undefined measure, make things right, clean up our mess. That is seeking magical deliverance from our troubles, not divine guidance through our troubles. So is God really here just to tidy up after our sins and follies, to immunize us from their consequence?

-- Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, 5-8-2013

This week everybody was talking about the Cleveland captives

Last Monday, Amanda Berry, Georgina "Gina" DeJesus, and Michelle Knight were rescued from their 9-to-11-year captivity after Berry escaped and contacted police. The story has been all over the news ever since (to the undoubted consternation of Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, who saw his mega-hyped Benghazi hearings upstaged).

Perversely, when a story gets this much coverage it's hard to keep track of the facts. Coverage focuses on whatever new detail has just come out, seldom taking a step back to put it all in context for the non-obsessed viewer. The 24-hour news channels feel that they have to keep covering the story or lose viewers, so rather than endlessly repeat the few known facts, they fill the air with speculation. As a result, it's easy to lose what-actually-happened inside the cloud of what-at-some-point-looked-like-it-might-have-happened.

I rely on Wikipedia to sort it out. We're not used to thinking of "encyclopedia" and "current events" at the same time, but Wikipedia ends up doing exactly what you need: telling the whole story from the beginning, while constantly updating it with the latest details.

A sub-genre of the Cleveland-kidnapping articles are personal reflections about why stories of captivity and sex-slavery are so arresting, both in real life and in fiction. Slate's Emily Bazelon expresses just how disempowering this dark fascination can be.
These ordeals are our gothic horror stories, our Bluebeards come to life. I fight my own obsession with them because it fills me with morbid fear and not much else. ... [The Silence of the Lambs] terrified me so much that I turned down a summer job I’d wanted as a caretaker on a stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Suddenly I couldn’t handle the idea of being alone and exposed.

What particularly disturbs Bazelon is the thought of being tamed, of reaching the point where you cooperate with your captor. She recommends the novel Room by Emma Donoghue. Being older and male, I flash back to the related horror of John Fowles' The Collector, where insane fantasies gradually come to seem like plans any guy might carry out if he had the opportunity.

and whether to intervene in Syria

The situation in Syria just keeps getting worse. NATO commander Admiral James Stavridis estimates the number of killed around 100,000, with 1.4 million refugees leaving Syria and another million displaced within the country. That's from an original population around 22.5 million (just slightly less than Iraq).

What started out as a revolution against a secular dictator has little by little turned into a religious war. The Assad government has never been particularly devout, but the Assad family is from the Alawite branch of Shia, which lives mainly in the coastal areas north of Lebanon. Alawites are 12% of a majority-Sunni country that also has a sizable Christian minority (13%). Alawites dominate Assad's secret police, and the revolution's initial support came largely from the inland Sunni areas.

Worse, the war is starting to look like Al Qaeda vs. Hezbollah, as the roles of the primary Sunni and Shia terrorist groups keep growing. The Guardian reports that "entire units [of the rebel Free Syrian Army] have gone over to [Al Qaeda-linked] Jabhat al-Nusra".
"Fighters are heading to al-Nusra because of its Islamic doctrine, sincerity, good funding and advanced weapons," said Abu Islam of the FSA's al-Tawhid brigade in Aleppo. "My colleague who was fighting with the FSA's Ahrar Suriya asked me: 'I'm fighting with Ahrar Suriya brigade, but I want to know if I get killed in a battle, am I going to be considered as a martyr or not?' It did not take him long to quit FSA and join al-Nusra. He asked for a sniper rifle and got one immediately."

Meanwhile, Hezbollah's long-rumored involvement in the defense of the Assad regime is getting more explicit. Which is why Admiral Stavridis asks: "Who do you arm? And what happens to those weapons afterward?"

As reports increase that Assad is either using or planning to use chemical weapons, the pressure for the United States to intervene is growing. But Russia is Assad's main backer, and China also blocks a UN resolution that an anti-Assad international coalition might gather around. So at best this would be another coalition-of-the-willing, not a true international police action.

I don't pretend to know how things should play out, but I keep thinking of what General Petraeus said about Iraq in 2003: "Tell me how this ends." American hawks have a bizarre tendency to think of war as a stabilizing force, when history shows the exact opposite. I'm plenty convinced that the situation in Syria is bad; what I'm waiting to hear is how American intervention makes it better.

Here's Admiral Stavridis' assessment:
We do have a fairly recent situation that's somewhat similar to Syria, and that does not fill me with optimism: The Balkans in the 1990s. If you look at Yugoslavia -- a nation that was constructed of different ethnic and religious groups. Tito departs the scene, and the region goes through a 10-year process throughout the 1990s. Several million are pushed across borders, requiring the intervention of tens of thousands of Western and Russian troops to bring the situation under control. I think that might be where Syria is headed.

but I wrote about Benghazi

I've been ignoring Benghazi, because as best I can tell there's no there there. Like most things that turn out badly, you can look back and find bad planning, you can wish it had played out differently, and you can find examples of people spinning in hope that they won't get blamed. But it has turned into yet another episode in the GOP's Captain Ahab quest for The Scandal That Brings Down Obama. Just like Solyndra and Fast&Furious before it, Benghazi can't carry that weight.

In Benghazi Hearings: Congress as Reality TV, I compare Republicans' handling of Benghazi with Democrats' treatment of 9-11, where there were plenty of conspiracy theories they could have winked at, but didn't. I speculate about why: Democrats didn't want to pander to a minority, because it takes a majority to win elections. But Republicans calculate differently, because their party has been taken over by the Conservative Entertainment Complex. A third of the country is a losing voter-block, but it makes one hell of an audience.

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The death total in the collapse factory complex at Bangladesh has reached 1127 as the search for survivors ends. What I said last week here -- that we need to act politically as citizens and not just individually as consumers -- gets expanded and elaborated in an article I wrote for UU World.

Wednesday, Senator Whitehouse did something more liberals should do: He used religious rhetoric to denounce religion-based global-warming denial.
So why then, when we ignore His plain natural laws, when we ignore the obvious conclusions to be drawn by our God-given intellect and reason, why then would God, the tidy-up God, drop in and spare us?  Why would He allow an innocent child to burn its hand when it touches the hot stove, but protect us from this lesson?  Why would He allow a badly engineered bridge or building to fall, killing innocent people, but protect us from this mistake? Why would He allow cholera to kill in epidemics, until we figure out that the well water is contaminated?  The Earth’s natural laws and our capacity to divine them are God’s great gift to us, allowing us to learn, and build great things, and cure disease.  But God’s gift to us of a planet with natural laws and natural order has, as an integral part of that gift, consequences.

And he closed by pointing out where the real opposition to protecting the planet comes from:
We need to face up to the fact that there is only one leg on which climate denial stands: money.  The polluters give and spend money to create false doubt.  The polluters give and spend money to buy political influence.  The polluters give and spend money to keep polluting.  That’s it.  That’s it.  Not truth, not science, not economics, not safety, not policy, and certainly not religion, nor morality.  Nothing supports climate denial.  Nothing except money.

Meanwhile in the Halls of Mammon, the Wall Street Journal published Harrison Schmitt and William Happer's "In Defense of Carbon Dioxide". Unprecedented-in-human-history levels of atmospheric CO2, they tell us, "will benefit the increasing population on the planet by increasing agricultural productivity."

So who are these guys? Botanists? Climate scientists? Specialists in global agriculture? No. One is a geologist and the other a physicist, and neither has done research in any field relevant to the claims they're making. But the WSJ sees fit not to mention their most illuminating credentials: Both are connected to think tanks that get funding from the oil industry.

Media Matters debunks their article in detail, including this graphic from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Conservatives hate it when anyone implies they're racists, but then they go and do stuff like this: The Heritage Foundation hired a new Ph.D. with a racist thesis, ignored his posting on white nationalist web sites, and made him a co-author on their study denouncing immigration reform.

Kevin Drum (extensively quoting Jonathan Bernstein -- a political scientist not to be confused with economist Jared Bernstein) notes the "hack gap" between liberal and conservative economists. There are plenty of bogus correlation-implies-causation points liberals could be making that are comparable to the discredited Reinhart/Rogoff debt-kills-growth argument. For example: Medical costs have been slowing since ObamaCare was passed.

You don't read stories like "Economist: ObamaCare Already Cutting Health Costs" in the newspaper, though, because liberal economists don't bend that way. (The recession is the biggest reason for slowing healthcare inflation, and beyond that something is going on that we don't understand yet.) But conservative economists do. Hence the apparent respectability of austerity economics despite the complete lack of evidence that it has anything to do with reality.

Speaking of austerity, the Washington Post showed its conservative economic bias in an article last Monday. The article reports (correctly) that revenue is up and spending is down, so the government won't hit its debt limit until October -- months later than originally predicted.
That might seem like good news, but it is unraveling Republican plans to force a budget deal before Congress takes its August break.

Say what? A smaller deficit is bad because it's "unraveling Republican plans"?

If you're up for some intellectual heavy lifting, Corey Robin's article in The Nation about the relationship between Nietzsche and the Austrian school of free-market economists (Hayek, Von Mises) is very illuminating.

I had never thought much about whether the economic concept of "value" is connected to the moral concept of "values", or what the will-to-power has to do with economic power. But the connections are fascinating.

Christian parents of 6th-graders who attend a public school in Arkansas are canceling the official class graduation ceremony (and holding an unofficial one in a church) because they've been informed that they can't do what they did last year: open and close the ceremony with prayer.

In a classic example of privileged distress, the parents have managed to turn things around so that they are the persecuted ones. They're not being exclusive; they've invited everyone to their Christian graduation ceremony. Says one parent: "We're not trying to be pushy or ugly to anybody, we just want them to know there is a God who loves them. ... We just want to take a stand for God because we felt like our rights were taken away."

To everyone else, it's obvious that the "right ... taken away" from the Arkansas Christian parents is actually a special privilege that no other religious group in America has ever had: the option to insert their religious messages into government-sponsored programs. (I'm sure a lot of Buddhists and atheists also have some uplifting thought that they "just want people to know" and would like the government to provide a platform for.) American Christians are privileged, not persecuted; but their privileges are shrinking, so it feels like persecution to them.

I started with one sermon, so I'll end with another one: Astronauts explain "the Overview Effect", the way your point of view changes after you've seen the Big Blue Ball from space.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Three things are never satisfied. Yea, four say not "It is enough":
the grave, and the barren womb, and the earth that is not filled with water, and the fire.

-- Proverbs 30: 15-16

This week everybody was talking about industrial accidents

The death toll from the factory collapse in Bangladesh keeps rising, now at 650.

All week, liberal web sites have been full of socially-conscious shopping tips about what brands may or may not be involved in corner-cutting third-world factories like the ones that ordered their workers back into a building whose walls were cracking. But that's a band-aid at best.

The fundamental problem here is that workers have no power. Without their jobs they'd be so desperately poor that going back into a crumbling factory seems less risky than standing up to their bosses. As long as that is true, all the incentives in the capitalist system work to circumvent the consciences of shoppers. The most "efficient" way for the system to deal with the current situation is not to improve safety, but to fool socially conscious consumers into thinking something is being done. The system will keep working on that "efficient" solution until it figures out a way to do it, because that's where the money is.

Just ask Walmart, whose greenwashing campaign is working great for the corporate image, even if it isn't doing much for the environment.

So sure, change your buying patterns in whatever way seems appropriate. But if you're doing that instead of pushing for worker rights, the corporate power structure thanks you.

Oh, and in case you think this is just a third-world problem, don't forget about the fertilizer factory explosion in West, Texas. We hear so much about the costs of government regulation, but the costs of non-regulation are even higher.

and Jason Collins

Basketball player Jason Collins became the first active professional athlete in a major American sport to announce he is gay. His article in Sports Illustrated talks about the pressure of hiding a major area of your life not just from the public, but from teammates as well.

Collins is a 12-season NBA veteran who has never been a star and seldom starts, but consistently fills a role a lot of teams need: a 7-footer who can come off the bench and provide defense and rebounding when your starting big guys are in foul trouble or need a rest. He played for the Celtics and Wizards last season and is currently a free agent. He is in his declining years as an athlete, but Nate Silver's comparisons to similar players in the past indicates there was a somewhat better than 50-50 chance he would have a job next season before his announcement. (So whether he gets signed next year is not necessarily proof of either prejudice or favoritism.)

Comparisons to Jackie Robinson are appropriate in some ways but not others. Robinson was a uniquely talented athlete whose statistics (compiled over only half a career, since he was kept out of the majors until age 28) could have put him in the Hall of Fame even without his off-the-field significance. Obviously, Collins is not in that class. And I'm sure Robinson would have had an easier time if he could have played 12 years in the majors and then announced he was black.

Still, Collins' announcement required courage. (Anyone who thinks it didn't needs to explain why no one has done it before.) He has made himself a symbol. Like Robinson, Collins will be cheered and booed for what he is, not who he is.

Some commenters clearly resent the fact that Collins is being cheered by many. There's an intentional cluelessness in Ben Shapiro's tweet: "So Jason Collins is a hero because he's gay?" What's striking, though, is the way such views are being rejected in neutral forums. Check out the comments on this anti-Collins editorial by a small-town Illinois sports editor.

Naturally, this popular rejection of bigotry is being spun as some kind of unfair discrimination against bigots. There's a name for that: privileged distress.

But the biggest significance of Collins' announcement (and the generally positive response) is on the many closeted gay athletes in high school and college, like the one profiled by Sunday by the Portland Press Herald.

But I wrote about sustainable economics

I reviewed the recent book Enough is Enough in Prosperity Without Growth?

and you also might be interested in ...

The observatory at the top of Mauna Loa in Hawaii is recording atmospheric carbon dioxide approaching 400 parts per million "for the first time in human history". The graph tells the story.

This re-emphasizes a point I've made before: When someone says they don't believe in global warming, or don't believe humans cause it, ask them which part of the argument they doubt. Here are the steps:
  1. Burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. (Duh.)
  2. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been going up more-or-less continuously since the Industrial Age got rolling. (That's this graph.)
  3. Atmospheric carbon dioxide warms the Earth through a greenhouse effect. (Infra-red radiation that would ordinarily dissipate into outer space gets reflected back to the planet surface.)

Given these rising carbon levels, which we can measure directly, global warming is what a rational person would expect. The argument against it needs to be a little stronger than just "maybe something else will happen".

The public got its first look at the George W. Bush Library this week. I had been hearing about the Decision Point Theater game, where visitors supposedly hear the kind of advice Bush got at some key point in his administration, then get to make a decision. Now we finally see what that looks like.

You know what it looks like? The whole Bush administration. The single thing most typical of Bush was his shameless spin -- rhetoric that made you think of one thing, but then if you challenged it as a lie, his people would explain that it was true because of something else entirely. So Saddam "supported international terrorist organizations" -- which was supposed to make you think he was helping Al Qaeda plan the next 9-11. But if you pushed back you'd hear about connections to Hamas or Abu Nidal, not Al Qaeda or Bin Laden. They'd talk about Al Qaeda affiliates "operating in Iraq", but if you pushed you'd find they were talking about a Kurdish zone Saddam had lost control of. And so on.

Bush is still spinning in exactly the same ways. Rachel Maddow shows clips from the DPT section on invading Iraq, calls BS on it, and then comments:
The case to invade Iraq was not "mistaken". The case to invade Iraq was cooked up. It was a hoax perpetrated on the American people. And they are still cooking it up, right now.

Here's one of those polls that makes you wonder if people really believe what they say. By a 44%-31% margin, Republicans agree with the statement "In the next few years, an armed rebellion might be necessary to protect our liberties." (Democrats disagree 61%-18%.)

If I actually believed that, I think I'd be doing more than just stockpiling assault rifles. (After all, the government has tanks and planes.) I'd for sure have my escape route out of the country planned and a stash of money at my planned destination. Are people really doing that kind of stuff? In large numbers? Or has answering polls become part of some big fantasy game?

If there's anyplace in America that might need an armed rebellion to maintain democracy, it's North Carolina. The Republican leadership in the legislature is so intent on getting rid of the state's renewable energy program that they declared victory in a voice vote and refused requests to have votes actually counted.

Mitch McConnell is catching on to this social-media thing. If your campaign video is getting as many hits as you want, you can buy the extra hits.

I often find myself telling non-religious people that right-wing Christians really aren't as bad as they think. Well, the science education at Blue Ridge Christian Academy in South Carolina is worse than you think.

It's been a heavy week. Let's end with some entertainment.