Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Bearing False Witness

In the news today, other than Israel bombing Syria and the surprise contraction of the economy last quarter, was the testimony of NRA spokesman Wayne LaPierre before Congress. I admit I was more curious about this particular day of testimony than others. For LaPierre staying true to his one lifelong obligation, to thwart any regulation of guns, requires dishonesty so complete and unabashed it is a phenomenon to see on display. Lots of people appear before Congress and lie—it's like an American tradition. But LaPierre plays on another level, a pathological level. Today he did not disappoint. And the contrast between LaPierre and a normal human being could not have been more striking, because still-recovering gun violence victim and former Representative Gabrielle Giffords preceded him saying, among other things:
Speaking is difficult but I need to say something important: violence is a problem. Too many children are dying.
 If that weren't poignant enough, right after Giffords spoke to the Senate committee another shooting took place in Arizona, her home state, in which one person was killed and two were wounded. The suspect, still at large, is a 70-year-old white male.

Moloch still reigns, and LaPierre his high priest.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Climate Change & The Second Term

Except for a brief and exceptionally tasty weekend diversion to The Spotted Pig for my sister's birthday celebration (and yes, we ate pig... don't make me link a photo), I spent the better part of my free time this week reading and rereading Obama's Second Inaugural while trying to keep up with the pundit reviews. I wrote last week directly after hearing it, that it was a great speech not destined for immortality. A lot of political commentators seem to have reached the same general conclusion. Jonathan Chait thought it was stridently progressive. Matt Yglesias described it as a "Strong Defense of Economic Liberalism." Timothy Egan argued that Obama's speech was an indication that modern liberalism was more in step with a reliable voter coalition than conservatism. Right wingers naturally did not give the speech much praise, but in many quarters offered grudging respect. Yuval Levin and Reihan Salam, both writing for the National Review, acknowledged the deep political inroads of Obama's liberalism reflected in the speech even as they decried that philosophy. Robert Costa tweeted as much, and in more dire terms, on the afternoon of Inauguration Day:
Consensus among my GOP sources: Obama is expertly repackaging old-school, tax-and-spend liberalism as the status quo, conservatism threatened
So called moderate conservative David Brooks was impressed and unimpressed at the same time, noting that Obama "came across as a prudent, nonpopulist progressive. Predictably Brooks then complained that neither Obama's party nor the Republicans shares his politics and what a sad fate for the nation that is. That his own views are nonsensical has not yet occurred to Brooks, although it certainly occurred to everyone who read his column the week before, which blamed the Democratic Party for radicalizing politics over the next four years in advance of their doing so and with no evidence but the fever dreams of Brooks' imagination. In response, Jonathan Chait tried to have Brooks committed. No luck.

What took most left-leaning Americans by surprise was the central place in the speech that Obama gave to fighting climate change. If there was one issue from the last four years that was characterized by hope without change, climate change was it. After the Second Inaugural, a lot of folks were wondering how seriously they should take Obama's word this time around, especially since Congress has no plans to pass any climate legislation.

But many environmentalists reacted favorably despite a gridlocked Congress because of the many steps Obama can take without Congressional approval. Andrew Revkin, New York Times dotearth writer, published this 9-point list for climate change progress for Men's Journal. (Some points, like transitioning away from coal use, seem more important than others, like reintroducing bison in Montana.) The NRDC has published its recommendation for Obama, using the EPA to cut carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. (The flexibility built into this plan for utility companies has garnered a lot of interest.) Damien Carrington thinks the only way forward is with a major bilateral agreement on climate with China. The Economist, referencing a new important study, suggests targeting soot (or black carbon) since it has a much higher warming effect than previously thought, especially in the arctic. Its effects on Beijing are not so great either.

Long and short, a lot of people have a lot of ideas about climate change, and Obama can take real action without worrying too much about the next election (although he will be invested in the 2014 midterm outcomes).

But I would add a recommendation to the top of the climate change to-do list, one called for by Jon Carlson, a professor of law at the University of Iowa: creating an international framework for governing geoengineering. If Obama is to be the FDR of the 21st century, then this would be his Breton Woods.

More on that in coming weeks...

Monday, January 21, 2013

Second Inaugurals

The conventional wisdom regarding Second Inaugural Addresses is that, other than Lincoln's brilliant 1865 speech, they consistently underwhelm. John Avlon for The Daily Beast wonders if Obama can overcome the "Second Inaugural Curse." Stephen Prothero for CNN lists the top 5 inaugural addresses (presumably in chronological order, since it would be indefensible to claim Jefferson's overrated First Inaugural is superior to Lincoln's Second).

That Lincoln's Second Inaugural sets the standard will receive no argument from me. Ronald White writes that the power of the speech stems from Lincoln's intention to surprise his audience, emphasizing reconciliation over conquest, continually invoking God, and reflecting on the problem of slavery rather than American virtue. It is the last quality that I find the most compelling, in part because in honestly acknowledging slavery Lincoln defied all the conventions that modern speechwriters and politicians cling to. Lincoln does not represent himself as a Happy Warrior and there is no trace of American exceptionalism or a grand destiny in the speech. Lincoln dismisses in one line what every other President spends so much of their Inaugurals contemplating:
With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
After which, Lincoln delivered a speech that somehow matched in its wisdom the scope of the national tragedy that had occurred since slaves were first brought American shores in 1619. Frederick Douglass called it "a sacred effort." Garry Wills has said that Lincoln believed the speech was his best, better even than the Gettysburg Address, and that Booth's bullet was as much a blow to the literary future of the nation as well as its political edifice. "The Second Inaugural," he wrote, "is the towering measure of our loss."

Are all the other Second Inaugurals so inadequate? Each speech in its entirety cannot compare with Lincoln's, and some are downright bad. Jefferson's Second Inaugural (in contrast with his conciliatory First) is filled with acrimony and threats.
During this course of administration, and in order to disturb it, the artillery of the press has been levelled against us, charged with whatsoever its licentiousness could devise or dare. These abuses of an institution so important to freedom and science, are deeply to be regretted, inasmuch as they tend to lessen its usefulness, and to sap its safety; they might, indeed, have been corrected by the wholesome punishments reserved and provided by the laws of the several States against falsehood and defamation; but public duties more urgent press on the time of public servants, and the offenders have therefore been left to find their punishment in the public indignation.
Unpleasant stuff from TJ. But not everyone was so thin skinned. In many other Second Inaugurals there are moments of insight that deserve appreciation. In 1833, Andrew Jackson spoke against nullification, a reminder that contemporary states' rights gun advocates would do well to heed.
To this end it becomes the duty of all to yield a ready and patriotic submission to the laws constitutionally enacted and thereby promote and strengthen a proper confidence in those institutions of the several States and of the United States which the people themselves have ordained for their own government.
In his 1917 speech emphasizing unity in an unsettled world, Woodrow Wilson included a warning against the corporate lobbying that infects modern governance:
We are to beware of all men who would turn the tasks and the necessities of the nation to their own private profit or use them for the building up of private power.
No single line in FDR's Second Inaugural was so timeless as his First Inaugural's first paragraph's "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." But he did use his 1937 speech to articulate the new economic philosophy that was shaping the modern nation, a body of ideas that Republican neoliberals still seek to undo.
Our progress out of the depression is obvious. But that is not all that you and I mean by the new order of things. Our pledge was not merely to do a patchwork job with secondhand materials. By using the new materials of social justice we have undertaken to erect on the old foundations a more enduring structure for the better use of future generations.

In that purpose we have been helped by achievements of mind and spirit. Old truths have been relearned; untruths have been unlearned. We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals; we know now that it is bad economics. Out of the collapse of a prosperity whose builders boasted their practicality has come the conviction that in the long run economic morality pays. We are beginning to wipe out the line that divides the practical from the ideal; and in so doing we are fashioning an instrument of unimagined power for the establishment of a morally better world.
Twenty years later, Eisenhower's address had within it a call for international engagement that the present Republican Party has rejected:
We must use our skills and knowledge and, at times, our substance, to help others rise from misery, however far the scene of suffering may be from our shores. For wherever in the world a people knows desperate want, there must appear at least the spark of hope, the hope of progress--or there will surely rise at last the flames of conflict.

We recognize and accept our own deep involvement in the destiny of men everywhere. We are accordingly pledged to honor, and to strive to fortify, the authority of the United Nations. For in that body rests the best hope of our age for the assertion of that law by which all nations may live in dignity.
And now we have Obama's Second Inaugural to add to the list. At first glance, it reads like many of the others: high minded, benignly vague even as it is issue oriented (debt reduction, middle class enlargement, climate change, gun control), and therefore destined for news cycle mortality. But one section did stand out for me, a reshaping in three sentences of our frontier mythology into a vision for social justice.
It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
It's an assertive speech, a call for Union—not bipartisanship, but Union—regarding the central challenges of our day. A paragraph on climate change is a big deal. Referencing Newtown matters. But Lincoln's Second Inaugural remains unassailed.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

House Elections

Last month I wrote that Congress is a disaster because of gerrymandering. The leaders of FairVote think I'm wrong. Their analysis, printed in Salon, argues the following:
The core reason for this distortion – and its ongoing impact on policy – lies in two basic facts about the American political system: a growing concentration of Democratic voters in urban areas, particularly those part of the coalition of single women, racial minorities and young people that boosted Barack Obama, and the winner-take-all, single-member district system currently used to elect members of Congress.
Check it out... their numbers are compelling.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Shapers of the Earth

It has already been widely reported that 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental United States and, unless a major volcanic eruption occurs, 2013 looks to be even hotter. The global climate has been suffering as well. As I reported in my last post, Australia is currently locked in one of the worst heat waves in history with temperatures in areas of NSW approaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 degress F.). As the New York Times reports, extreme weather is occurring everywhere. In the northern latitudes, winter seems to be, from region to region, bizarrely warm or absurdly cold. Siberia is suffering from temperatures approaching 50 degrees (F.) below zero. Perhaps the strangest fact of weather: Jerusalem and other cities in the Middle East have endured more snow this winter than Chicago.

Extreme weather was predicted as one of the dire consequences of climate change by James Hansen in 1988 in testimony before Congress. Hansen argued that global warming would not, as many people inferred, manifest only as gradual ubiquitous rising temperatures; it would instead "load the climate dice," making extreme weather events vastly more common than in our pre-industrial or early industrial climate.

There are all kinds of reasons to be frightened by climate change. A recently released federal report confirms that staggering changes lie ahead and not only are we failing to mitigate the problem and slow the change, we aren't well prepared to deal with a much warmer world. Probably the scariest data comes from the arctic, where swiftly rising temperatures are causing the permafrost to melt, releasing huge deposits of methane. As greenhouse gases go, methane is more potent than carbon dioxide by a factor of 20 (at least).

It is easy, then, to succumb to apocalyptic visions of climate catastrophe and the demise of human civilization. It is disconcerting that a whole bunch of smart people believe such a fate is possible, even likely. Malthusians Paul and Anna Erlich, for instance, see a collapse of global civilization ahead.

All of which begs the question, do we have any reasons for optimism? The answer is, I think, yes... quite a few.

Humanity is not without options when it comes to global warming. By that, I do not mean to parrot the refrain of most environmentalists that we must drastically limit our carbon emissions. We should drastically reduce our carbon emissions, but to this point little evidence exists that we have the will to do so. For instance, despite all the media attention given to renewable energies, coal use is rising globally thanks to India and China. For the foreseeable future, humanity will continue to put carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

But there are artificial ways of cooling the earth and some scientists have pointed to a variety of geoengineering methods as failsafes in case a climate emergency calls for their implementation. One school of geoengineering ideas concerns solar radiation management (SRM), which basically means figuring out ways to reflect more sunlight back into space and thus reduce global temperatures. Some of these ideas are so futuristic as to sound wacky (like sending mirrors into space) but David Keith, a Harvard professor, has articulated the most realistic method of SRM geoengineering: mimicking the effects of a volcanic eruption. Big volcanoes, when they erupt, send tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and all these particles of sulfur dioxide reflect sunlight away from the earth, reproducing on a molecular scale the albedo effect. This isn't conjecture... scientists know how this works. Consider this graph of global temperatures after Mt. Pinatubo erupted in 1991:

Because of the eruption, global temperatures dropped by .5 degrees Celsius for the next two years. Other major eruptions in the last century have produced similar measurable effects. Climate cooling, then, could be achieved by sending planes into the upper atmosphere releasing payloads of reflective particles. Compared with de-carbonizing our economy, this is a really bad way of dealing with climate change. It reduces precipitation; it does not stop ocean acidification; and it won't permanently hold off the calamity of long term climate change. But it is fast acting, cheap (roughly the cost of a weapons system), and effective. Moreover SRM could be used to on a regional scale to, for instance, keep the Arctic from melting.

Many environmentalists have dismissed geoengineering. It would be a supreme act of hubris, they argue, to imagine that humans should manipulate the earth on such a scale. Moreover, as geoengineers like Keith and others readily admit, technical "fixes" to the climate do not conserve the earth or nature as it was, but create a new paradigm in which we live in a truly anthropocene world.

I do not agree with these environmentalists. First, necessity makes investigations of geoengineering essential. We must study it because it seems almost certain we will have to use it. Second, it is a little late to caution against human hubris. In geological terms, altering the climate in one stroke by deploying sulfur dioxide is not particularly different than spending 150 years pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Humans have been geoengineering the climate since the Industrial Revolution. It would help to remember that and, as one science fiction writer has observed, to overcome our fears of geoengineering as a weird science.

Deep fear can set it when we look at the environmental future that confronts the globe, especially when we observe the political cowardice, denial, and inaction on this issue that I have written about before. But it is deeply heartening to consider the efforts by scientists, businessmen, conservationists, and humanitarians to tackle this problem. They are creating new forms of energy: not just renewables like wind, tidal, and solar, but enhanced geothermal systems, thorium salt nuclear reactors, and artificial photosynthesis. The Department of Energy has initiated an enormous battery project to develop better energy storage, the secret to a future of renewables. Multiple teams of scientists have made major advances in water desalination. Global population growth is slowing—in fact, we may never get to 9 billion people. Vaclav Smil, environmental economist, reminds us that we have all kinds of choices to make our own future, and that humans are the most adaptable species in the history of the planet. David Keith, in a talk at the Equinox 2030 conference, explains that his greatest fear for his own children remains war, not the end of the earth. And Bjorn Lomborg assures us that there is a safe future for pasta. Phew!

The end of nature, as Bill McKibben described it many years ago, may indeed be our future, but that does not mean the end of humanity. For better or for worse, we are in control of the globe, architects of an earthly garden. How green that garden is will be ours to decide.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

News of the Day

In a response to my post on the death of Robert Bork, reader AH offers a recommendation from today's New York Times:
Linda Greenhouse offered some thoughtful reflections on Bork this morning.
Meanwhile, a fight over the debt ceiling is brewing, not so much about the debt ceiling itself, but about how Obama will defuse the crisis. Jonathan Chait explains the two scenarios currently under debate by the liberal blogosphere: issuing IOUs or minting trillion dollar platinum coins. One is far more likely than the other, but it is hard not to have fun with the concept of a trillion dollar coin... especially speculating about whose face should appear on it.

But the biggest news of the day is that Tom Friedman actually wrote a halfway decent column explaining the common sense behind a carbon tax.

Why might a carbon tax be a good idea? Well, the US drought continues as Chicago's snowless winter attests to and Australia is on fire:

NASA satellite image of Australian wildfires at night

Monday, January 7, 2013

Political Armistice, 1850 & 2013

Since the fiscal cliff ordeal was addressed by the American Taxpayers' Relief Act of 2012, conservative columnists have begun the unenviable work of salvaging John Boehner's reputation, a task that goes hand in hand with reestablishing Obama as the major impediment to real compromise. Two days after the bill's passage, Peggy Noonan took the first step with a column subtitled "Obama Doesn't Seem To Have It In Him To Make A Deal." (The actual title is too childish to deserve reference.) Noonan observes:
In the short term, Mr. Obama has won. The Republicans look bad. John Boehner looks bad, though to many in Washington he's a sympathetic figure because they know how much he wanted a historic agreement on the great issue of his time. Some say he would have been happy to crown his career with it, and if that meant losing a job, well, a short-term loss is worth a long-term crown. Mr. Obama couldn't even make a deal with a man like that, even when it would have made the president look good.
Stephen Moore followed up with an editorial patronizingly called "The Education of John Boehner," which essentially puts forth the same story as Noonan's—Obama refused to compromise, even after major Republican concessions—but with the focus on Boehner as the unjustly maligned, congenial good guy. Ross Douthat yesterday published his column, "Boehner, American Hero," which isn't quite so right-wing-fantasy-land as the WSJ but still serves the same purpose: to elevate Boehner's prestige. No Speaker, Douthat's argument goes, has faced the same political climate as Boehner and that America has survived these recurrent budget crises relatively unscathed is a measure of Boehner's skill. Writes Douthat:
There’s no real precedent in modern American history for a bipartisan bargain in which two bitterly divided sides both accept so many painful sacrifices.
Douthat may be right on that score... for whatever reasons modern American history has not presented the nation with this kind of politically charged stalemate in the mechanisms of government. But, as I have written before, the history of the 1840s and 1850s does offer a precedent: sectional division over slavery that destroyed the Whig Party and, eventually, split the Democrats.

In an earlier post evaluating the fiscal cliff mini-deal, I referenced a column in The New Republic by John Judis, who argued that Obama won this legislative battle hands down and in the process exposed fissures in the Repubican ranks. Judis wrote:
These divisions don’t necessarily augur the kind of formal split that wrecked the Whig Party in the 1850s. Nor do they suggest widespread defection of Republicans into the Democratic Party as happened during the 1930s. There is still far too much distance between, say, McConnell and Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid. But they do suggest that a process of erosion is under way that will weaken the Republicans’ ability to maintain a united front against Democratic initiatives. 
That "these divisions don’t necessarily augur... [a] formal split" strikes me as an observation worth investigating, so let us consider the state of political compromise in 1850 compared with the state of compromise in 2013. It will be an imperfect analogy, of course, but it should provide some useful insight.

It is common knowledge, or close enough, that slavery divided antebellum America along sectional lines, and that deals like the Missouri Compromise of 1820 kept the 2nd American Party system—that is, the Whigs and Democrats, both of whom had northern and southern wings—running relatively smoothly. But events in the late 1840s transpired to unsettle the political calm. The Mexican Cession granted to American a swath of land where slavery's existence or prohibition would have to be settled. And the discovery of gold in California in 1849 prompted thousands of fortune-seekers to settle and demand statehood—free statehood since very few of the settlers were slaveowners—far sooner than anyone anticipated.

In other words, by early 1850 the American government was facing what might be called an "antislavery cliff." California was destined to enter the Union and it seemed hard to deny it would do so as a free state. That eventuality would give free states a numerical edge in the Senate, 16-15, and with an insurmountable northern advantage in population that kept the House of Representatives out of reach, slaveholders confronted a political crisis that they believed threatened their society.

Into the breach stepped Henry Clay—Senator from Kentucky, border state Whig, longtime broker of compromises, and in this particular instance the John Boehner of 1850—who offered five resolutions that together constituted what he believed was a palatable compromise, among them admission of California as a free state and a stricter fugitive slave law. Packaged together Clay's resolutions failed, but (at Clay's direction) Stephen Douglas, Democrat from Illinois, separated them into separate components and maneuvered them through Congress in spite of stiff opposition from North and South.

Textbook history usually offers plaudits for Clay, the Great Compromiser who put nation before party or section. If he did not pilot the Compromise in its final stretch into law, he was its principal author and negotiator. Many historians, however, have challenged this view. In his mammoth two-volume work, The Road To Disunion, William Freehling argues:
Two myths dominate histories of the Compromise of 1850. The North-South clash supposedly defined the antagonism. Henry Clay supposedly directed the reconciliation.

The Kentucky Whig instead provoked a controversy as important as the one between warring sections: a bitter clash within the South. Deep South senators demanded and secured critical revisions of Henry Clay's Border South design for sectional adjustment. Especially after slaveholders had made Clay's proposals less northern, the Southern Whig's bills could not have carried the majority section, unless Northern Democrats overcame Northern Whigs' opposition—and perhaps unless President Zachary Taylor, Clay's most threatening Whig rival, died. 
Freehling's contention, that Clay's introduction of a "grand bargain" exacerbated the crisis of the Union by exposing fault lines within the South and within the weakening Whig Party, stems from the record of legislative infighting over the compromise resolutions and the votes themselves. Like Boehner's misadventures with his own Republican caucus in the fiscal cliff fight, Clay did not have the authority or the influence over the larger and more radical wing of his party. Clay was a slaveholding Southern Whig trying to appease a much larger contingent of staunchly antislavery Northern Whigs; Boehner is a Northern Republican trying to appease a radical mostly Southern contingent of Tea Party Republicans. Both Clay and Boehner wanted a grand bargain. Clay moved to appease Southern Democrats, losing him northern Whigs. Boehner moved to appease Democrats and lost the Tea Party (if he ever had them). Both failed.

Instead, smaller deals were struck when different political players took control of negotiations: Stephen Douglas in 1850; Joe Biden & Mitch McConnell in 2013. But their legislative "success" did not undo the damage wrought by the earlier fumblings of Clay or Boehner. Here's how the final votes compare:

John Judis reports on the fiscal cliff vote:
There is a regional division in the party between the deep South, which contains many of the diehard House Republicans, and the Republicans from the Northeast, industrial Midwest, and the Far West. In the House vote on the fiscal cliff, Republican House members from the deep South opposed it by 83 to 10, while Republicans from the Northeast favored it by 24 to one, and those from the Far West by 17 to eight. 
Freehling writes on the Compromise of 1850 vote:
The key test of whether the American middle would hold against these sectional extremes came on a so-called Little Omnibus Bill.... Upper South Democrats voted 2:1 and Northern Democrats 3:1 yes on the package. Northern Whigs voted 2:1 and Deep South Democrats 3:1 no. Only Southern Whigs could offset the Deep South Democrat/Northern Whig negation and thus save the Little Omnibus and the ultimate national settlement. Southern Whigs went for the Little Omnibus 24-1, allowing it to squeak through, 108-97. That vote paved the way for the revised version of Clay's proposals to slide through the House and into the statute books.
And the implications, as Freehling writes, were tremendous going forward (the emphasis is mine):
The saviors of the Little Omnibus were the largest potential losers from the compromise. Southern Whigs secured a national settlement based on a new fugitive slave law.... Northern Whigs scorned that goal. Northern Democrats helped gain it. Southern Whigs' best allies were in the other party. That was a demoralizing burden to carry into the next southern two-party campaign.
Surely the concerns that Southern Whigs had in the wake of 1850 are not dissimilar to the concerns moderate Republicans in 2013 (i.e. those that voted for fiscal cliff deal). What saved the nation in the latter case, if that is what happened, was their joining with the Democratic House to pass the legislation, 257-167. Those 85 Republicans who voted aye face the same "demoralizing burden," that in their next campaign their worst enemies come from their own party. In the meantime, northeastern Republicans were outraged that federal funds for Hurricane Sandy relief, already delayed by Boehner, were then passed unanimously by Democrats but suffered 67 no votes by Republicans. (The WSJ again defended Boehner.)

Historian David Potter in The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, called the Compromise of 1850 an "armistice." Freehling agrees:
"Compromise" or "Armistice" or "Sellout," call this settlement what you will, it everywhere failed to defuse explosive questions.
Can we say any different for the Fiscal Cliff compromise? The WSJ can delude themselves that Obama is the major obstacle of reform, but amazingly neither Noonan's op-ed or Moore's editorial mentions that Boehner failed to pass his own Republican-friendly "Plan-B." Like Clay, he never had the votes for a grand bargain, regardless of Obama's position. In pretending like he did, willfully or ignorantly, Boehner has badly damaged hopes for a more moderate and effective Republican future. Ross Douthat ends his own editorial with this:
And anyone who thinks that Boehner would transform the Republican Party for the better by, say, resigning his leadership position and excoriating his colleagues should watch fewer Aaron Sorkin shows.
I'm not convinced. If the comparison with 1850 shows us anything, it is that staving off crisis does not necessarily lessen the severity of that crisis, and that searching for compromise can sometimes do more harm than good. It is unclear whether Boehner has done anything to improve the fortunes of Republicans. More than likely he has made things much worse. He should have resigned... not to "transform the Republican Party for the better," but to bring it one step closer to its day of reckoning.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Violent Crime, IQ, and... Lead

Kevin Drum for Mother Jones recently published a piece on the diabolical influence of lead molecules on human society. Drum translates into journalistic language the hypothesis of Rick Nevin, who has argued that ingested lead levels, largely a byproduct of the tremendous sales of leaded gasoline after World War II, offers a staggeringly compelling correlation with violent crime rates in the United States. After the EPA was created and started demanding stricter emissions controls, such the catalytic converter, the sale and use of leaded gasoline declined dramatically. By 1996, the final phase out in the United States for motor vehicles occurred. High crime levels in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in big cities (where lead levels in the air were higher) dropped in the 1990s as generations of children came into adulthood who had ingested far less lead.

Setting aside its effects on violent tendencies, Drum notes that lead does lasting damage to the intelligence:
Neurological research is demonstrating that lead's effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought. For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 µg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage. The EPA now says flatly that there is "no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood," and it turns out that even levels under 10 µg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 µg/dL.
 The Economist makes a similar case. In its new-year issue: "The World in 2013" the magazine published an obituary for lead, because 2013 marks the year a UN deadline will take effect demanding that all nations around the globe phase out mass consumer sales of leaded gasoline. What countries still have lead at the pumps? Take a look at a 2009 graphic:

The Economist lists the 2013 nations by name:
They are an interesting bunch: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea, Sierra Leone, Yemen. None is a happy place. All are afflicted by violence, and three by long-running wars. Opponents of lead in petrol, or in anything else, might conclude that their case is closed. Lead’s pernicious presence lowers intelligence and increases aggression, typified by the urge to roar through dusty cities in heavily armed, pollution-spewing trucks.
In other words, there is good news ahead for some of the most dangerous places on earth... and if it comes, it will be thanks to science, regulation, and globalism.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Evaluating the Fiscal Cliff

The fiscal cliff deal having been made, all the pundits have been scrambling to sort out who won and who lost  and why. The score-keepers didn't offer too many surprises. On the right, at the Washington Post Jennifer Rubin claims "the left got taken to the cleaners" while Charles Krauthammer claims Obama's victory was complete, bringing him one step closer to destroying America. (The basic theory of Krauthammer is that he likes to speak and write in apocalyptic language so that his words complement his leathery zombie-like face.) Meanwhile the New York Times editorial board claimed Obama did okay but displayed too much of his characteristic weakness in negotiating. Meanwhile, Ezra Klein, Michael Tomasky, and John Judis write that liberal complainers are freaking out and should recognize that Obama won this fight hands down.

All of them link their analyses to the next stage in this ongoing showdown, the debt ceiling, set to expire most likely by March.

My two takeaways are slightly different:

  1. Liberals have plenty to complain about in the fiscal cliff negotiations, and justly so, but that doesn't mean Obama lost. Columnists like Jennifer Rubin always make arguments about Obama losing because they assume, wrongly, that Obama IS liberal. He isn't. But for a few specific political stances like his opposition to the Iraq War, Obama has always been a centrist. Liberals ought to complain to maintain leftward pressure on Obama, but to judge the fiscal cliff results by liberal standards would be foolish. Obama seems to have gotten exactly what he wanted. Put another way, it is always a good sign when David Brooks is frustrated as hell and Paul Krugman is just moderately disgruntled.
  2. The results of the fiscal cliff deal and the upcoming debt crisis negotiation matter far less to me than the divisions and dysfunctionality growing within the Republican Party ranks. The Democrats exhibited extraordinary party discipline through this ordeal while the Republicans not only lost, which was always going to happen, but they chose to screw hurricane Sandy victims for good measure and alienated as of now the most powerful mainstream candidate the Republicans can nominate in 2016.
It is rare when this is the case, but the policies debated in the last month, and soon to be debated in the coming two months, matter less than the politics... it is the politics that will determine if the Republican Party has a future, or if they continue down the path of ideological self-destruction.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jubilee Day, 150 Years On

January 1, 2013 marks the sesquicentennial date of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had issued the proclamation in preliminary form in September of 1862, after the Union victory at Antietam forced the Army of Northern Virginia out of Maryland, but it did not take effect until January 1, 1863 when he signed it into law.

First page of the Emancipation Proclamation

It is four and a half pages in Lincoln's longhand. It is not an elegant bit of writing. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously said the proclamation "had all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading." But Lincoln knew in this case the language was less significant than the act. As John Hope Franklin's helpful short essay tells it, Lincoln said directly before signing it, "I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper."

Here is how it begins...
That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free
 And here is how it ends...
And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

Without speaking for the latter, I would say the former has judged him well. That day, in fact, luminaries in Boston gathered in the afternoon at Boston Music Hall to celebrate. The list of attendees was an extraordinary one.

And today our current president, who is indebted as we all are to Lincoln, has issued his own proclamation of observation and remembrance.

150 years since Jubilee Day. Happy 2013 everyone.