Monday, February 23, 2009

That River in Egypt

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
-- Upton Sinclair
In This Week's Sift:
  • Still in Denial About Global Warming. Every time the debate seems to be over, the same bogus arguments rise again. Maybe it's because energy companies have hundreds of billions of dollars at stake.
  • Will Obama Really Give Up Bush's Tyrannical Powers? After a good start, the Obama administration has backtracked, and is making noises about not wanting to "weaken the institution of the presidency". But don't we need to weaken the presidency to restore the constitutional balance?
  • Not Your Father's Recession. To see why this economic crisis is different, look in your fridge. But don't worry, hard times are good for you.
  • Short Notes. Obama's elf. Bristol's interview. Neocons never existed. Iraqis are cool about having their homes blown up. Christians discover poverty. And more.

Still in Denial about Global Warming
There was a brief period last year when I thought the debate about global warming was over. Al Gore had his Nobel Prize. John McCain was telling Republican primary voters that global warming was real, and they were voting for him anyway. Even the foot-dragging of the Bush administration seemed to be losing conviction. Maybe, I thought, we can finally get down to figuring out what we're going to do about it.

Lately, though, the fog has been spreading again. Once again I'm seeing the pseudo-scientific arguments that global warming is all some big mistake, illusion, hoax, or scam. The most enterprising new tactic -- maybe I just didn't notice it before -- is to skip the pseudo-science entirely and baldly claim (as if all well-informed people already knew this) that the global-warming deniers have been proved right.

Take Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard. As he tells it, the anti-global-warming case is so widely accepted that he can use it to condemn other stuff by analogy. This was his comment on Obama's defense of the stimulus bill:
Obama sounded like Al Gore on global warming. The more the case for man-made warming falls apart, the more hysterical Gore gets about an imminent catastrophe. The more public support his bill loses, the more Obama embraces fear-mongering.
Zachary Roth at TPM questioned Barnes on the claim that "the case for man-made global warming falls apart", and got the response that Barnes had a reference, but he wasn't telling what it was. Seriously. I last heard that argument in fifth grade.

I wrote that off as an isolated incident, but then George Will went even further. His February 15 column is full of easily checked falsehoods that he and the Washington Post apparently didn't check. I was going to list them all and their refutations, but Wonk Room did it for me. (I'll limit myself to this: Will referenced the Arctic Climate Research Center as the source for one of his "facts", and the ACRC web site contradicted him -- by name -- within hours. The WaPo didn't think that merited publishing a correction.) The column repeats some of the errors he propagated in a 2004 column, which were pointed out at the time here and here.

When you hear some apparently reputable people say "A" while other apparently reputable people say "not A", the natural conclusion is that the truth is complicated and unclear. But when the subject is global warming, a lot of people say obviously false or wildly misleading things, and outlets as reputable as the Washington Post publish them.

So what's going on? If the science is clear, why are there so many global warming deniers? I see three basic motives:
  • Money. At the base of the pyramid are researchers and publicists paid by the energy companies to produce confusion. They don't need to convince anybody; they win if they just make us all unsure enough that we won't call for action. Remember the Tobacco Institute fogging up the dangers of smoking? The main difference is the scale: Energy companies have hundreds of billions at stake rather than just billions. (As so often happens, the deniers try to turn this issue around by making a big deal out of environmentalists' financial motives, as if it weren't obvious where the big money really is.)

    The poster boy here is Steven Milloy, the "junk science" commentator on Fox News. He's an organizer of and other groups that receive Exxon-Mobil funding. He also apparently works for the tobacco industry, for whom he obfuscates the second-hand-smoke issue.
  • Ideology. Global warming became a left/right issue because the right has no answer for it. The market cannot deliver a solution to global warming without governments first constructing a substantial amount of structure (like creating some kind of cap-and-trade system). So if you believe with religious fervor that the market solves all real problems, then global warming can't be a real problem.
  • Partisanship. It becomes a Republican/Democrat thing both for ideological reasons and because the energy industry has more influence in the Republican Party. Once it's a partisan issue, positions freeze. As the evidence comes in, Republicans can't admit that they were wrong and the Democrats were right. (John Murdock tried on the New Majority blog, but the commenters weren't going to stand for it.)
As with tobacco, a few facts misstated or taken out of context can build a controversy out of nothing, and the media's obsession with "balance" always makes the sides sound equal. The best place to chase down these arguments is at Real Climate, a blog by climatologists. The responses are conveniently collected in the How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic guide.

I'll just discuss one, to give you a flavor of how this works. A common argument (it appears in the Will column and many other places) is that there has been no global warming "since 1998" or "in the last decade". Yearly temperature measurements fluctuate, and even though the long-term trend is clearly up, 1998 was a spike year -- it stand out above the curve. So starting your analysis there is a like starting your analysis of hurricanes in 2005, the Katrina/Wilma year, the worst year anyone can remember. Hurricanes are down since 2005 -- does that make you feel safe? A more complete article about the 1998 claim is here, including a graph that makes it all clear.

This video by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (no idea who they really represent) shows what you can do with images and music and enough money to buy air time: Fossil fuels are good and life-affirming, while the proposal to regulate CO2 is a threat to all you hold dear.

Will Obama Really Give Up Bush's Tyrannical Powers?
It's easy to point out the excesses of executive power when you're not the executive. When you are, giving up power is always fraught with problems. Your unchecked powers seem harmless because you know you will only do good things with them.

That's why civil libertarians have been watching President Obama carefully ever since he took office. The signs from the first few days were good. In his inaugural address he said:
we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our founding fathers faced with perils that we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake.
One of his first executive orders committed him to closing the prison at Guantanamo, and he suspended the prosecutions that were pending under Bush's military tribunals. His attorney general and CIA director ended the word games about torture. He restricted the CIA to the interrogation techniques listed in the Army Field Manual.

Since then the signs have been more ambiguous and occasionally ominous.
  • The administration has stood by the Bush claim that enemy combatants can be held indefinitely without charges at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan -- including four men brought there from outside Afghanistan. The ACLU's Jonathan Hafetz: ""They've now embraced the Bush policy that you can create prisons outside the law."
  • While the Justice Department is reviewing all the court cases where the Bush administration claimed a state secrets privilege, the privilege was re-asserted in a civil lawsuit against a Boeing subsidiary accused of involvement in renditions. The state-secrets privilege has been recognized since the Eisenhower administration, but Bush's expanded interpretation allows the executive branch to dictate what information courts can and can't consider. If it stands, the courts are not an equal branch of government.
  • The Obama administration is continuing the Bush effort to dismiss lawsuits concerning the "missing" Bush administration emails.
  • Obama hasn't committed one way or the other on Karl Rove's claim of "absolute" executive privilege, which allows him to ignore congressional subpoenas. Particularly worrisome is the statement of White House counsel Greg Craig that Obama "is also mindful as President of the United States not to do anything that would undermine or weaken the institution of the presidency."
But doesn't the institution of the presidency need to be weakened, after eight years of steroid injections? How else can we re-establish the constitutional checks and balances?

If (like me) you want to believe in the Obama administration's basic good intentions, you can blame a lot of this on its methodical character: They'll change a policy when they've figured out what the right policy should be, and not before. They've been left a huge mess, and they don't want to make a lot of fast, sweeping decisions that have more consequences than they realize.

Still, if new policies don't come out soon, they'll be harder and harder to make at all, because they'll have to reverse not just Bush, but a bunch of their own actions as well.

We'll know a lot more in a few weeks, because a number of key decisions are coming up.
  • Attorney General Holder has to decide whether to release a report that his predecessor blocked. The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility looked into the process that resulted in the famous "torture memos" by the Department's Office of Legal Counsel. Because the OLC is the official interpreter of the law within the executive branch, those memos gave torturers the highest possible assurance that they were acting legally. Rumors about the report say that "OPR investigators focused on whether the memo's authors deliberately slanted their legal advice to provide the White House with the conclusions it wanted." That could lead to disbarment for former OLC lawyers like John Yoo and Jay Bybee, and could have criminal implications both for them and for co-conspirators in the Bush White House.

  • By March 4 the administration has to file its brief on executive privilege. Clearly, Obama will want to retain some kind of executive privilege. But the Bush interpretation of executive privilege allowed (and continues to allow) his aides to ignore congressional subpoenas completely, rather than refuse to answer specific questions. If that stands, Congress is not an equal branch of government.

  • Obama has to decide what to do with Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, a Qatari who was living in Peoria (under a legal visa) when he was declared an "enemy combatant". He has been held in isolation in a military brig for more than five years, with no charges filed and no opportunity to contest his imprisonment or the evidence against him.

Not Your Father's Recession
There continues to be no sign of a bottom: Not in the stock market, in jobs, or in ominious statements from financial leaders like George Soros or Paul Volcker.

Paul Krugman explains why this is different (and scarier) than other recent recessions :
Your father’s recession was something like the severe downturn of 1981-1982. That recession was, in effect, a deliberate creation of the Federal Reserve, which raised interest rates to as much as 17 percent in an effort to control runaway inflation. Once the Fed decided that we had suffered enough, it relented, and the economy quickly bounced back. Your grandfather’s recession, on the other hand, was something like the Great Depression, which happened in spite of the Fed’s efforts, not because of them.
But if you want real gut-level evidence that this one is different, stat guru Nate Silver has it: Beer isn't recession-proof any more. Looking back to 1959, Silver documents that alcohol sales are uncorollated with the overall economy -- until now. Take-home alcohol revenue (i.e., not bar sales) was down an unprecedented 9.3% in the fourth quarter, with beer down 14%.

Conservatives have been Pollyannas about the economy at least since Larry Kudlow enthused about "the Bush boom" late in 2007. But now Michael Gerson is taking it to a new level. Even if we are going into a depression, that might be good for us. It can "lead to the rediscovery of virtues that make sustained prosperity possible -- and that add nonmaterial richness to our lives." Evangelical megachurch pastor Jack Hibbs is pushing a similar message: Thank God for hard times. (The first depression had such an uplifting influence on the Germans, after all.)

Well, at least we're drinking less.

Recent events have taught Tom Toles a lesson about regulation.

It's weird that we're still arguing about the New Deal 75 years later, but we are. And Republicans are wheeling out their most reliable weapon against FDR: They're making stuff up.

Short Notes
Worst pun ever? As lucky as Barack Obama has been these last two years, it's not surprising that his elf is exhausted and ready to quit.

Last week I reported that the mercenary corporation Blackwater has changed its name to Xe. But I didn't do it with quite the panache of Harper's Scott Horton: "Xe? It looks like the obvious alternatives, SPECTRE and THRUSH, were unavailable."

I don't usually cover sports here, but if you want to raise your understanding of the game of basketball, read this piece on Shane Battier. Oh, and the New Yorker's A-Rod cover is fabulous.

Conservatives who make fun of liberal Obama-worship have conveniently forgotten what they were like back in the mission-accomplished days. Here's a little memory jog. And another. And a bunch more.

Bristol Palin's interview on Fox News had a number of interesting moments. "It was my choice to have the baby," she says (with about 6 minutes to go). Bristol seems very genuine and likable. She is still engaged, but it sounds like marriage is a long way off -- finishing school and getting a job are higher priorities. At the beginning of the interview she waxes about how fulfilling it is to be a mom, but later on (2:45 to go) she comments on teen pregnancy in general: "I think everyone should just wait ten years. ... It's not glamorous at all." The real surprise comes near the end: "Everyone should be abstinent or whatever, but it's not realistic at all." (No kidding. I think anyone who advocates abstinence-only sex education should be tested to see if they remember anything from their teen years.)

Salon's Rebecca Traister does a play-by-play of Bristol's interview, including recalling this Daily Show piece from September: Samantha Bee discussed Bristol's situation with folks at the Republican Convention, who tripped all over themselves trying not to say the word that Bristol says very openly: choice.

Brain pacemaker. The FDA has approved a device to be implanted in the brains of people with extreme, unresponsive obsessive-compulsive disorder. Like a pacemaker for the heart, it stimulates OCD-related parts of the brain with electricity. The device is also being tested for severe depression.

I love it when something that we all know turns out to be only sort-of true. Everybody knows that America has had a high rate of incarceration since the Reagan years. But it turns out this pattern goes back a lot further. Back in the 50s we had just as high a percentage of our people locked up, but more of them were in mental hospitals and less in prisons. We emptied the mental hospitals in the 70s and filled up the prisons in the 80s. So what is it about American society that makes us want to put so many people away?

Top neo-conservative Richard Perle is touring the country saying that neo-conservatives shouldn't be blamed for the failures of the Bush foreign policy because (1) there's no such thing as a neocon and (2) Bush never listened to them anyway. WaPo's Dana Milbank is skeptical.

And speaking of neocons, here's Surge-architect Fred Kagan Wednesday: "when the insurgents dig in and we root them out, the Iraqis don’t on the whole say 'darn it, you shouldn’t have blown up all of our houses.' They sort of accept that." Yeah, I'll bet they just laugh that stuff off, the same way we would if foreigners blew up our houses.

In another 2000 years, who knows what they might accomplish? Conservative Michael Gerson and liberal Jim Wallis are forming a bipartisan Christian alliance against poverty. This kind of project would be much easier if Christianity had ever had an influential founder. Preferably someone who spoke out about poverty. Maybe on a mount.

When Glenn Beck moved from CNN to Fox News, I thought: "Great. That's where he belonged all along." Little did I know that he had been reining himself in for CNN. Now that he's at Fox, he's wacko even by their standards. Witness this.


Anonymous said...

outlets as reputable as the Washington Post

Whaddaya mean "reputable"!? Honestly, it's like for mainstream media, a reputation, once earned, is forever. Contrast that with, say, the reputation of the US abroad which has been soundly trounced over recent years, due in no small part to the incessant cheerleading by these same MSM of the Bush/Reagan regimes. Somehow now our national reputation is in tatters while in the media's parallel universe life goes on much as before - including last night's billion-dollar Oskar jerkoff.

Doug Muder said...

I sympathize, but I think it's true that a lot of people still trust the Post. If you want to argue that they shouldn't, well, I'm not going to oppose you on that.