Cruz, Paul and Rubio, all running for President. Hey, I thought I was supposed to write the horror stories.
-- Stephen King
This week's featured post is "The New Clinton Allegations: Fog or Smoke?"
No Sift next week
I've learned I don't have it in me to do a Sift on Monday if I've led a church service on Sunday. Next Sunday I'll be at the Unitarian Church of Quincy, Illinois (my hometown), talking about "Universalism, Politics, and Evil". The text of that talk will eventually show up on my religious blog, Free and Responsible Search.
This week everybody was talking about the environment
It was Earth Day, after all, which is a good time to consider how we're doing. It's a mixed bag. The disaster scenarios where the average global temperature goes up by 4 degrees or more are still out there. But -- in spite of just finishing the hottest March ever -- some observers are starting to see evidence of a turn-around.
The best news is the rapid growth of solar and wind energy. They still produce a tiny amount of the world's power or the United States' power, but the trend lines look really good. Coupled with the fact that electricity usage in the U.S. has been flat since the popping of the real estate bubble in 2008 -- a mixed blessing, because slow economic growth is part of that story -- we see charts like his one, in which the U.S.'s non-sustainable power production (in green) has been trending down. (Notice, though, that the vertical scale doesn't go to zero, so the percentage of solar and wind looks bigger than it actually is.)
TPM is in the middle of a five-part series about these trends, called "The Renewables". It calls attention to the fact that many of our worst carbon-producers -- coal-fired power plants -- are wearing out. The wind-and-solar uptick isn't Mitch McConnell's imaginary "war on coal", it's just the ordinary replacement cycle, where worn-out plants cycle off and the cheapest and most efficient sources are used for new production.
Informed Comment goes out on a speculative limb with this prediction:
future historians may look back on 2015 as the year that the renewable energy ascendancy began, the moment when the world started to move decisively away from its reliance on fossil fuels.
Climate Denial 2.0, as presented by Jeb Bush: Yes, we're causing global warming, but all we should do about it is keep fracking.
The essence of the position is that curbing carbon emissions involves wrecking the economy, which demonstrates a common fallacy about long-term externalities: If what we're doing is headed towards a long-term disaster, then it's not economical. If your economic calculations don't show that, then you've left something out. It's like saying you can't afford to change the oil in your car or fix the leak in your house's roof.
Just to give one example: Humanity has a lot invested in our coastal cities. As sea levels rise, we'll either have to move those cities or build expensive floodwalls around them (and deal with the costs of disasters that breach those walls, as happened in New Orleans). A truly accurate economic calculation would attach some of those costs to each unit of fossil fuel we burn. If we made those kinds of calculations, we might find that fossil fuels are a very expensive way to get energy.
Another example: the California drought. What if climate change ultimately makes large-scale agriculture infeasible in California, which currently has a bigger farming industry than any other state? What's the economic cost of that? Where does that figure in Bush's understanding of what is or isn't economical?
Still, the upside of Denial 2.0 is the recognition that flat-out denial -- the conspiracy of liberal scientists theory -- isn't working any more.
What's the "greenest" way to read a book, the one that puts the least pressure on the environment? Get it from the library, Grist says. Obviously, if you already have some device that lets you read e-books, downloading and reading additional books on it is greener than buying printed books. In terms of carbon footprint, the break-even point of a dedicated e-book reader vs. printed books that you keep in your personal library (rather than spread the environmental impact by passing them on to other people) is about 20-25 books.
The article leaves out an environmental advantage that I see in my life: The space I save by not storing all those books is one important factor that allows me to stay in an apartment within walking distance of the library. Otherwise I might need a house, with all the environmental costs that involves.
Public transportation has to be part of the conservation picture, but even in big cities there's a last-mile problem (or maybe a last-few-miles problem): How do you get to public transit, or to where you want to go from where public transit leaves you? With that in mind Slate's Seth Stevenson surveyed the current range of motorized devices that you might reasonably carry onto a crowded subway car. He finds a couple of foldable motorized scooters to be both fun and practical.
A little less practical -- because it's so hard to learn -- is the Solowheel, which a Grist reporter describes as what you'd get if "a unicycle had sex with a Segway". It may not be "the future of urban transportation", but it sure looks fun for the people who master it. You just have to see it.
and a trade deal
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a 12-nation trade agreement that doesn't exist in final form yet, though apparently there is a secret draft. So in spite of the headlines you might be seeing, nobody is being asked to ratify the agreement just yet.
The current issue is whether the Obama administration will get "fast track authority" for the final round of negotiations. This is something past presidents have had for trade agreements like NAFTA. It means that when the treaty is complete, the Senate will have a simple yes-or-no ratification vote and won't be able to demand changes. Multi-nation trade deals are almost impossible to negotiate if other nations don't believe we are agreeing to the final text, so not granting such authority virtually kills U.S. participation in the treaty.
Unlike most issues, this isn't a Democrat vs. Republican thing. Republicans like lowering tariff barriers, and aren't usually disturbed by the idea that our government might be signing away its ability to regulate multinational corporations. Instead, this battle is between President Obama and Democrats like Elizabeth Warren.
I like to agree with both of those people -- Warren somewhat more often than Obama -- and the issues involved are complicated, so I'm not going to take a side until I've done more research. To get the flavor of the dispute: here's Warren's WaPo op-ed from February, and President Obama's radio address promoting the TPP.
Thursday, President Obama acknowledged that a drone strike in January against an Al Qaeda compound near the Afghan-Pakistan border unintentionally killed two western hostages, one American and one Italian. In a separate strike, an American citizen believed to be working with Al Qaeda was killed. From the NYT:
Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and lead author of a 2013 study of drones, said the president’s statement “highlights what we’ve sort of known: that most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.”
Mr. Zenko noted that with the new disclosures, a total of eight Americans have been killed in drone strikes. Of those, only one, the American cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and was killed in 2011, was identified and deliberately targeted. The rest were killed in strikes aimed at other militants, or in so-called signature strikes based on indications that people on the ground were likely with Al Qaeda or allied militant groups.
The incident called attention to the intentional blindness the American public has maintained regarding warfare: As long as our troops aren't being killed in some country, we pretend we're not at war there. But a drone strike is an act of war. We're at war in Pakistan and Yemen and Syria and several other countries.
And I'm sure Obama's apology to the families of the two hostages has rankled people in those war-torn countries. How many innocent civilians have we killed with drones, but their families didn't get presidential apologies because they weren't Americans or Europeans?
and money in our presidential politics
The featured article "The New Clinton Allegations: Smoke or Fog?" focuses on the charges that there was some kind of corruption involving the Clinton Foundation and Hillary Clinton's decisions as Secretary of State. But this is also a good time to take a look back at the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill Clinton, which turned out to really exist.
We have a result in the Koch Primary: Scott Walker wins. Or at least that was the initial indication; apparently a recount is happening. And recent polls say that Marco Rubio is leading in the Adelson Primary., while other billionaires are backing Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum. If the billionaires can't find consensus soon, eventually the Republican Party might have to consult some voters.
Included in NRA President Wayne LaPierre's denunciation of Hillary Clinton was the line "Eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough." Because 43 consecutive white male presidents didn't symbolize anything. If in 2007 some black girl looked at a row of presidential portraits and saw 43 white men, she shouldn't have read anything into that at all.
That's privilege in a nutshell: When the privileged group runs things, that's just normal; it means nothing and is not worth talking about. So when President Reagan appointed Sandra Day O'Connor to the Supreme Court, the headlines were all about the first female justice. But when President Ford appointed the previous justice (John Paul Stevens), nobody remarked on symbolic significance of the 101st consecutive male.
Over at the conservative Weekly Standard, Jay Cost is asking "So What About Money in Politics?" He spends the first half of the article establishing his conservative bona fides: trashing the Clintons, denouncing "identity politics", accusing liberals of hypocrisy, and making the ridiculous claim that "complaints about Citizens United itself are mostly a red herring". But ignore that part: It's ideological boilerplate, similar to the way that Soviet research articles all had to start with a paragraph about how this wonderful breakthrough would have been impossible without the genius of Marx, Lenin, and whoever the current leader happened to be.
Keep reading, because eventually Cost gets around to saying something important:
[Y]ou can’t beat something with nothing. Where is the anti-corruption agenda of the right? Where are the counterparts to the good-government organizations spearheaded by Ralph Nader? Other than the Center for Competitive Politics, helmed by former Federal Election Commission chairman Bradley Smith, and Take Back Our Republic, a new organization founded by those who helped Dave Brat take down Eric Cantor last year, one is hardpressed to think of conservative entities promoting a vision of good government. Conservatives have spent enormous intellectual capital on issues like education, health care, and taxes—but what about corruption? When Democratic pols rail against Citizens United, what reforms can Republicans counter with?
None. And if you want to know why, just look at the Republican presidential nomination process, where everyone is competing to curry favor with the Kochs, Sheldon Adelson, and a handful of other billionaires. This is how the perfectly legal corruption of our political system happens: not through quid-pro-quo deals (where you make a donation and then the Justice Department to drops your antitrust case or something), but through control of the agenda. You can't get elected without going to the billionaires, and you just can't tell them that they already have too much power, even if most voters agree with you.
and you also might be interested in ...
Fascinating article over at ThinkProgress about a poll Tresa Undem did for Vox about abortion. Polls typically ask people to choose among abstract legal question like: "Abortion should be legal in almost all cases; abortion should be legal in most cases; abortion should be illegal in most cases; or abortion should be illegal in all cases."
Undem split her sample in two, gave half the usual list of options, and gave the other half the same options rephrased in terms of women's rights: "Women should have a legal right to a safe and accessible abortion in almost all cases. ... Women should not have a legal right to any kind of abortion."
That simple change made a big difference in the results. The most pro-choice option went from 27% to 38%, while the most pro-life option went from 16% to 11%. The poll goes on to ask more detailed questions, phrasing them to draw the respondent into a woman's experience rather than picture himself/herself as an abstract rule-maker. The answers show large majorities (70% or so) consistently supporting the idea that once a woman has decided to have an abortion, she shouldn't be harassed about it or made to jump through unnecessary hoops.
Here's an example I found striking: "Would you want a woman who has had an abortion to feel shame, or not?" The responses split 67%-26% against shame. I'll bet if you wrote the woman out of the question -- "Is an abortion something to be ashamed of?" -- you'd get a different split.
Another interesting result from the same poll: Asking "Do you consider yourself a feminist or not?" gets a resounding No (52%-18%). But asking half the respondents "Do you believe in social, legal, and economic equality of the sexes?" gets a Yes (78%-6%), and asking the other half "Do you believe in equality for women?" garners even more approval (85%-3%).
So apparently more than half the population believes feminism means something else.
Also at Vox, this brilliant visualization of the gradual polarization of Congress. Maybe I'm biased, this doesn't look to me like a symmetric process; it looks like a red dot solidifies, pulls away from the mass, and then grows.
Sometimes I think I'm getting an exaggerated notion of the shear craziness that's out there, and then I read a direct quote like this one from former House majority leader Tom Delay:
I think we got off the track when we allowed our government to become a secular government. When we stopped realizing that God created this nation, that he wrote the Constitution, that it’s based on biblical principles.
I would love to know when Delay thinks "we allowed our government to become a secular government". In actual history, the Founders very intentionally created a secular government by writing the Constitution. The Constitution was virtually unique among the political documents of its day because it didn't invoke God.
It's hard to do a better takedown of Bobby Jindal's NYT op-ed "I'm Holding Firm Against Gay Marriage" than the Human Rights Campaign's red-pencil markup, which begins by editing the title to: "I'm Losing the Fight Against Marriage Equality".
A win in the struggle against monopoly: The Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable seems to be off.
Recent stories from Missouri point out that we still have a long way to go on race:
- Tyrus Byrd will be Parma's first black mayor and first female mayor, after winning the election 122-84 in a town with 700 residents. Within a week, five of the town's six police officers had resigned, along with the city attorney, the clerk, and the manager of the water department.
- A day after a memorial tree for Michael Brown was planted in a Ferguson park, it was cut down by vandals. (And later replaced.)
I'm not sure whether the vandalism counts as a hate crime under the law, but it certainly illustrates the concept of a hate crime: This was not just a crime against a tree or a park; it was an attempt to demoralize Ferguson's black community and to remind them of their inferior and vulnerable status. It deserves a more serious punishment than ordinary vandalism.
Amy Schumer's parody of Friday Night Lights connects some dots about the football culture and rape. As the coach says:
How do I get through to you boys that football isn’t about rape? It’s about violently dominating anyone that stands between you and what you want!
It's not what you do, it's who you are. Give classified information to unauthorized people, then lie to the FBI about it, and you'll go to jail. Unless you're a general, of course.
and let's close with something fun
like what toddlers are doing when you're not looking.