2011 - %3, January

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 5, 2011

Wed Jan. 5, 2011 6:30 AM EST

U.S. soldiers and Afghan police move out on a foot patrol in the Isa Khan region of Afghanistan's northern Kunduz province, Dec. 28, 2010. The soldiers are assigned to the 10th Mountain Division’s Company A, 1st Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class John Queen

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Davos Man Is Different From You and Me

| Wed Jan. 5, 2011 2:52 AM EST

Chrystia Freeland has a piece in this month's Atlantic about the new "global elite" and the growing alienation of America's super-rich. Her article flits from one point to another with enough abandon that it's not always easy to figure out where she's going, but one interesting theme that runs throughout the narrative is that intense globalization goes a long way toward explaining why the super rich don't really seem to care much anymore about all the rest of us:

The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

....Speaking at the [Aspen Ideas Festival], Thomas Wilson, CEO of Allstate, also lamented this global reality: “I can get [workers] anywhere in the world. It is a problem for America, but it is not necessarily a problem for American business ... American businesses will adapt.” Wilson’s distinction helps explain why many of America’s other business elites appear so removed from the continuing travails of the U.S. workforce and economy: the global “nation” in which they increasingly live and work is doing fine — indeed, it’s thriving.

The super rich, she writes, "are becoming a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home." Thus the fury of the financial elite at the suggestion that perhaps they were responsible for the crash of 2008 or that they owe it to the rest of the country to do anything about it:

When I asked one of Wall Street’s most successful investment-bank CEOs if he felt guilty for his firm’s role in creating the financial crisis, he told me with evident sincerity that he did not. The real culprit, he explained, was his feckless cousin, who owned three cars and a home he could not afford.

....A Wall Street investor who is a passionate Democrat recounted to me his bitter exchange with a Democratic leader in Congress who is involved in the tax-reform effort. “Screw you,” he told the lawmaker. “Even if you change the legislation, the government won’t get a single penny more from me in taxes. I’ll put my money into my foundation and spend it on good causes. My money isn’t going to be wasted in your deficit sinkhole.”

I don't know if this attitude is truly new. Maybe not as much as Freeland suggests. Still, it certainly feels as if America is dominated more and more by an elite class that cares less and less about the public good because they don't really feel like they have a stake in the public good anymore: they've never served in the Army or the Peace Corps, their kids never come within yelling distance of public schools, they donate their money exclusively to their own churches and their own global foundations, and they whine constantly about taxes even though their incomes have skyrocketed and tax rates have fallen dramatically over the past several decades. To them, taxes aren't part of a social contract, they're just pure welfare: they don't care about education or infrastructure or unemployment or healthcare because they don't have to. Within their own bubble, they don't need to rely on the public versions of any of that stuff. Felix Salmon adds this:

When it comes to US plutocrats, [] most of them are very similar to the Russian oligarchs who seized their country’s natural resources — they’re bankers and hedge-fund managers who seized their country’s financial resources. They produced no goods, and they created no jobs — quite the opposite. And so it makes sense for Americans who have lost their jobs and their hope to reclaim those financial resources, through mechanisms like a wealth tax or a financial transactions tax. The Silicon Valley elite would happily pay such things. And if the angry bankers went off to destabilize some other financial system, they wouldn’t actually be missed.

He's not optimistic about the prospect of the American public ever rebelling against our ruling elites, and he's probably right. Ever since the demise of organized labor, the working and middle classes simply haven't had the kind of energetic, institutional presence that allows them a serious voice in our political culture. The elites are winning because, at the moment, there's really nobody left to fight them.

I Was a Wayne Barrett Intern

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 7:30 PM EST

I almost never got the chance to meet Wayne Barrett, who announced today that he's been let go from the Village Voice after more than three decades at the weekly as one of New York's best political journalists.

As it turned out, I had the pleasure to be among his final interns when, last summer, he taught me the fine art of hounding politicians without mercy after digging deep through the archives, ensuring we neglected no one with anything to hide.

Always Full Price

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 6:40 PM EST

I got a Borders gift card for Christmas, so last night I went online to buy a couple of books. And I discovered that, apparently, Borders doesn't discount books online at all. (Non-bestsellers, anyway.) But I had the gift card, so I went ahead and used it. I ended up paying $45.99 for a couple of books that would have cost $30.67 at Amazon or $32.57 at Barnes & Noble.

Needless to say, I'll never shop at Borders online again. Do you think perhaps this explains some of Borders' financial woes?

Big Changes in North Atlantic Currents

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 6:16 PM EST

There's an important paper in early view in PNAS describing profound changes in the dominant currents of the North Atlantic since the 1970s. What's intriguing here—apart from the findings—is the method of determining these changes.

The authors used new technology to parse the story of ocean circulation from the story of ocean productivity using the skeletons of deepwater gorgonian corals. Specifically, they employed a process of amino acid analysis of nitrogen stable isotopes (δ15N-AA), as recorded in the growth rings of corals living between Newfoundland and Maine.

The technique promises to be a kind of Rosetta Stone for deciphering the ecological and physical history of the oceans.

A deep-water gorgonian coral. Image courtesy of Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER.A deep-water gorgonian coral. Image courtesy of Sanctuary Quest 2002, NOAA/OER.

The results reveal a sharply declining influence of the Labrador Current (colder, less saline, and nutrient-poor) in favor of Gulf Stream waters (warmer, saltier, nutrient-rich) since the 1970s, compared to the previous 1,800 years. Image courtesy PNAS.Image courtesy PNAS.

The interplay between the Labrador Current and the Gulf Stream is a crucial component of the North Atlantic Oscillation, one of the major climate drivers for North America and Europe.

We therefore conclude that changes in nitrate source partitioning may be tied to recent, human-caused changes in global climate. These results highlight the importance of novel and creative proxies like δ15 N-AA for investigating the links between climate change and ecosystem functioning beyond the last few decades of scientific observations.

The paper:

  • Owen A. Sherwood, Moritz F. Lehmann, Carsten J. Schubert, David B. Scott, and Matthew D. McCarthy. Nutrient regime shift in the western North Atlantic indicated by compound-specific δ15N of deep-sea gorgonian coral. PNAS. January 3, 2011. DOI: 

Where the Money Is

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 5:53 PM EST

Over at Free Exchange, A.S. asks, "Are the rich making you poor?" Apparently not:

Talented traders and portfolio managers do make an obscene amount of money while other traders just get rich....The winner-takes-all nature of finance explains the income disparity within the industry. But it does not mean a Wall Street fat cat is getting rich at the expense of a more naïve investor whose stock holdings are limited to the mutual fund his 401(k) is in. The only thing that naïve investor is betting on is that the American economy will continue to grow and that companies will be profitable in the long run. Speculators actually can do this naïve investor a service. They can eliminate mispricing, promote efficiency, and provide market liquidity; this can enhance growth in the long run.

Well then, I have to ask yet again: where is this tsunami of money coming from? If financiers receive a greater fraction of national income than they did in the past, somebody else is getting less. That somebody is almost certainly you and me, whose wages haven't kept up with economic growth, thus creating a huge and growing pool of extra money for the financiers to hoover up.

The only other alternative is that the modern financial sector is actually creating wealth that otherwise wouldn't be created. That is, their magic has caused the economy to grow faster, and they're merely reaping the benefits of growth they themselves are responsible for. I imagine this is a popular explanation among Wall Street bankers themselves, but does anyone else buy it? If it were true, surely it would show up in accelerated growth rates starting around 1980. Right?

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National Security, Punk Rock Get a New Home

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 5:10 PM EST

If you don't know Spencer Ackerman, here's a great chance to start. A vet of the New Republic, Talking Points Memo, and the Washington Independent, Ack recently found a new home anchoring Noah Shachtman's and Wired's fantastic national security blog, Danger Room. Besides me, he's the only semi-Semitic tattooed Black Flag-loving left-of-center defense reporter I can think of. And he's the more talented one.

Since 2008, Ack's also blogged odds and ends on Attackerman, a FireDogLake blog (full disclosure: I guest-blogged for him a bit last year). But owing to some hand-wringing over congressional media credentials, he's reluctantly moved that blog to a new site. If you're intrigued by such headlines as "The Rick James Approach to Security" and "Sink, Florida, Sink!" (and you should be), then check him out at his new place. The community of progressive security watchdogs is small; y'all might as well get to know each other a little better.

Mourning the Loss of the "Godmother of the Anti-Mountaintop Removal Movement"

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 4:32 PM EST

The environmental movement lost a leader Monday night with the death of Judy Bonds, executive director of Coal River Mountain Watch. Bonds, 58, had battled cancer for several months, but to the end was a leading voice in the movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining.

Often sporting a "Save the Endangered Hillbilly" T-shirt at public events, Bonds consistently reminded us that we are not dealing with an "environmental" threat, but a human one as well. Just a few months ago, she was part of the organizing team for Appalachia Rising, an event that brought 2,000 anti-mountaintop removal activists to Washington. Coal River Mountain Watch co-director Vernon Haltom memorialized her in a message last night:

Judy was more than a co-worker, friend, and mentor: she became family. She inspired thousands in the movement to end mountaintop removal and was a driving force in making it what it has become. I can't count the number of times someone told me they got involved because they heard Judy speak, either at their university, at a rally, or in a documentary. Years ago she envisioned a "thousand hillbilly march" in Washington, DC. In 2010, that dream became a reality as thousands marched on the White House for Appalachia Rising.
Judy endured much personal suffering for her leadership. While people of lesser courage would candy-coat their words or simply shut up and sit down, Judy called it as she saw it. She endured physical assault, verbal abuse, and death threats because she stood up for justice for her community. I never met a more courageous person, one who faced her own death and spoke about it with the same voice as if it were a scheduled trip.

Jeff Biggers also posted a touching piece on Bonds Tuesday morning:

She was a tireless, funny, and inspiring orator, and a savvy and brilliant community organizer. She was fearless in the face of threats. As the godmother of the anti-mountaintop removal movement, she gave birth to a new generation of clean energy and human rights activists across the nation. In a year of mining disasters and climate change set backs, she challenged activists to redouble their efforts.

Bonds was a real inspiration to many, and her voice will surely be missed.

Navy Captain Sunk by Videos

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 4:00 PM EST

...Aaaand we have closure, kinda sorta. The Navy fired Captain Owen Honors, skipper of the USS Enterprise, for those imprudent "morale" videos he cut a few years back as the ship's second in command. Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room sums up what was at stake for an eminently qualified combat commander whose sense of humor wasn't in the service's spirit of honor, courage, and commitment.

I still have one unanswered question, which is: Where was the ship's old skipper, Captain Lawrence Rice, when his right-hand man was going all Coco on the camera (minus the funny, plus sexism and homophobia)? Rice, the one man who could have counseled Honors on prudence, apparently never did...perhaps because he was a member of the Navy's last total fraternity: the all-male Naval Academy class of '79 ("last class with balls," they call themselves). And now Rice is an admiral, assisting former Iraq commander Gen. Ray Odierno in forming military-wide joint startegy and policy. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Not much else to add here, except that Honors' defrocking has been an interesting learning lesson and opener of dialogue on what all Americans, liberal or conservative, want their military to be. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, you probably expect service members not only to be professional about their military missions: You expect them as well to uphold some sort of moral example to their shipmates and subordinates. My previous post on Movie Night-gate led to a lively discussion between commenters who have very different visions of an officer's moral responsibilities. And as Ackerman and Foreign Policy's Tom Ricks recently pointed out, the US has sort of slipped away from its longstanding tradition of holding admirals and generals (and captains and colonels) to account for failings of all sorts. So, even if you're hopping mad at the "politically correct" brouhaha surrounding Honors' sophomoric video scripts, enjoy the fact that we as a society are again talking about what is and isn't acceptable behavior in the commander of a nuclear-powered floating airbase.

Cantor: Defense Cuts "On The Table"

| Tue Jan. 4, 2011 3:56 PM EST

"Cut and grow."

That was the inconsistent message at soon-to-be Majority Leader Eric Cantor's first press conference on Tuesday, where he previewed the GOP's agenda for the 112th Congress. With a slew of reporters packed in around him, Cantor laid out the party's priorities, hammering away on issues like job creation, slashing spending, and "expanding liberty"—all themes you've heard more times than you can count. But near the end of the briefing, Cantor raised eyebrows on the subject of defense spending, until now the GOP's sacred cow of government spending.

Asked whether he'd consider cutting defense spending, Cantor replied: "Everything's got to be on the table. Everyone in this town must go through what people at home are doing—which is doing more with less, and prioritizing what we should be about." He went on, "We're going to be focused on what are the things that are priority to ensure our national security."

While not directly saying so, Cantor has now opened the door for lawmakers who believe the Department of Defense's $663 billion budget is ripe for shrinking. That's a departure from the traditional Republican party line, which has left defense and security spending untouched while eagerly calling for cuts to domestic programs like Medicare, Social Security, and education funding.

But Cantor looks to have put defense spending in play as well. As the new 112th Congress officially gets to work on Wednesday, and begins taking the red pen to federal spending, we'll see whether Cantor stands by his statement or backs down.