2011 - %3, March

Life in the Sea Ice

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 4:15 PM PST

Seal tracks on sea ice. Photo by Jason Auch, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Seal tracks on sea ice. Photo by Jason Auch, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

There's a fascinating paper in PNAS examining the relationship between Arctic sea ice and the single-celled algae that live in sea ice. These tiny players account for 57 percent of the primary productivity—that is, the business of making life from nonlife via photosynthesis—in springtime Arctic waters.

The authors turned the predictable question—How will dwindling Arctic sea ice affect ice-dwelling algae?—inside-out:
Here we ... ask instead whether organisms—in particular sea-ice algae—have evolved means to alter ice physical properties to their benefit, mitigating impacts of climate change.

 

Frazil or grease ice, an early stage in the formation of sea ice. Photo by Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Frazil or grease ice, an early stage in the formation of sea ice. Photo by Mila Zinkova, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

 

Some background: Although sea ice forms from seawater, it's composed largely of freshwater. That's because in the course of freezing most brine is expelled from the ice crystals—though some remains trapped in microscopic channels and pockets known as brine inclusions.

Amazingly, brine inclusions support tiny but rich ecosystems of  bacteria, viruses, unicellular algae, diatom chains, worms, and crustaceans—a near-frozen ecosystem inside a frozen world known as a sympagic environment (Greek syn: with; pagos: frost). 

We know a lot of lifeforms inhabit Arctic sea ice—and we hear a fair amount about the big guys, like seals, walruses, and polar bears.

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Huckabee and the Birthers

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 3:29 PM PST

Mike Huckabee says he's not a birther. Oh sure, when radio host Steve Malzberg quizzed him about it on Monday he admitted that "I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough." And he went on to express his concerns about Obama being raised in Kenya, even though Obama wasn't, in fact, raised in Kenya. (He was raised in Honolulu, mainly, with a few years spent in Indonesia, facts that aren't exactly hard to dig up.) Still, Huckabee's not a birther. He thinks Obama was born in America.

But here's the great part. I hadn't heard this before, but apparently Huckabee's stock answer about why he believes Obama was born in America goes like this:

The only reason I’m not as confident that there’s something about the birth certificate, Steve, is because I know the Clintons. I’m convinced if there was anything that they could have found on that, they would have found it, and I promise they would have used it.

That's brilliant! Huckabee wants to appear sane, so he can't be a birther. But he probably doesn't want to lose the birther vote either, since a big part of his base believes the birther conspiracy. So how does he explain not believing it? By pointing to Obama's certificate of live birth? By mentioning the birth notices in the Honolulu papers in 1961? By quoting the director of the Hawaii State Department of Health?

Nope. He shows the nutballs that he's one of them by appealing to their even more rock solid belief in the supernaturally malevolent powers of the Clintons. Because that's a genuinely tough call: should you believe that Obama was born in Kenya, or should you believe that Hillary and her gang of Arkansas thugs aren't quite as demonically ruthless as you thought? Decisions, decisions. Either way, though, bravo to Huckabee for inventing such a terrific dodge.

Republicans Recycle an Old Idea: the Foam Plastic Coffee Cup

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 1:52 PM PST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

A bit like the Republican party, they are white, seemingly indestructible and bad for the environment. But after an absence of four years, foam plastic coffee cups have made a comeback in the basement coffee shop of the United States Congress building after Republicans began reversing a series of in-house green initiatives undertaken by Democrats.

The about-turn was announced by a press aide to John Boehner, the speaker of the House of Representatives, who tweeted on Monday morning: "The new majority—plasticware is back".

When the Democrats held the house, the former speaker Nancy Pelosi put the cafeterias at the center of a plan to hugely reduce the carbon footprint of Congress.

Wisconsin Democrats Demand Probe of Gov. Walker

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 1:17 PM PST
Flickr/WisPolitics.com

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin will file a formal ethics complaint this week against Wisconsin's Republican Governor Scott Walker based on comments he made in a conversation with a prankster posing as right-wing billionaire David Koch, a party spokesman tells Mother Jones.

The spokesman, Graeme Zielinski, says party officials will request a probe into statements Walker made to the fake Koch, who was really gonzo journalist and Buffalo Beast editor Ian Murphy, concerning support for Wisconsin Republican lawmakers believed to be vulnerable due to their support of Walker's bill. Here's the part of Walker's call Democrats are zeroing in on:

Walker: "After this in some of the coming days and weeks ahead, particularly in some of these more swing areas, a lot of these guys are going to need, they don’t need initially ads for them, but they’re going to need a message out. Reinforcing why this was a good thing to do for the economy, a good thing to do for the state. So to the extent that message is out over and over again is certainly a good thing."

Ian Murphy (posing as Koch): "Right, right. We'll back you any way we can."

The Wisconsin Democratic Party isn't the first group to cry foul over these remarks. Last week, a left-leaning campaign watchdog group, the Public Campaign Action Fund, said it was looking into whether Walker violated ethics or campaign finance laws in Wisconsin. "In a call with who he thought to be billionaire political donor David Koch, Gov. Walker may have broken campaign finance and ethics laws," David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund, said in a statement. "If he did, he should resign."

When the recording of Murphy's 20-minute prank call with Walker came out last Wednesday, it immediately went viral—news networks and Jon Stewart's "Daily Show" played clips—and breathed new life into the pro-labor protests in Madison. Walker told the prankster that "we thought about that" when Murphy mentioned planting "troublemakers" in the crowd, and also bragged that he had a baseball bat in his office—a "slugger"—with his name on it. A spokesman for the governor confirmed the authenticity of the tape, saying Walker's conversation with Murphy "shows that the Governor says the same thing in private as he does in public."

As it happens, Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed organization, began running ads last week in Wisconsin in support of Walker's budget bill. The ad says, "Governor Walker has the courage to do what's right for Wisconsin. Stand With Walker." Here's the ad:

The ad is part of Americans for Prosperity's "Stand with Walker" campaign, which includes a petition drive in support of Walker's bill and an AFP "fact sheet" on the issue.

As I reported a few weeks ago, Walker has himself directly benefited from the Koch brothers' largesse. In 2010, Koch Industries' political action committee donated $43,000 to Walker's gubernatorial campaign, making the PAC one of the future governor's top donors.

Zielinski, with the state Democratic Party, says more details about the party's complaint will come out later this week.

Huckabee: Obama Was Raised in Kenya (Updated)

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 12:46 PM PST

Well, that didn't take long. Just one week after calling the birther conspiracy theory "nonsense," probable GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee raised concerns of his own about the president's upbringing, in an interview with a conservative New York talk show host. In an appearance Monday on the Steve Malzberg show, the Fox News personality and former Arkansas governor appeared to sympathize with his host's questions about President Obama's citizenship, and then floated a theory of his own: Obama was raised in Kenya. Per Media Matters:

"I would love to know more. What I know is troubling enough. And one thing that I do know is his having grown up in Kenya, his view of the Brits, for example, very different than the average American."

But don't worry, he's not a birther:

"The only reason I'm not as confident that there's something about the birth certificate, Steve, is because I know the Clintons [inaudible] and believe me, they have lots of investigators out on him, and I'm convinced if there was anything that they could have found on that, they would have found it, and I promise they would have used it."

Huckabee went on to explain how Obama's Kenyan upbringing imbued him with an anti-British worldview radically different than most Americans. (You know, like the guys who wrote this anti-British screed.) Media Matters has the full audio here.

Just to be clear: Obama was not raised in Kenya. So what exactly does he think the President is hiding? I contacted Huckabee through his PAC for a response; we'll let you know if we hear back.

Huckabee's assertion about Obama's childhood haunts is decidely fringey, but his comments about the President's attitude toward the British  should sound familiar. He's parroting the argument made in Forbes last fall by Dinesh D'Souza: that Obama's decision-making is informed by a distinct "Kenyan, anti-colonialist" worldview. The piece earned praise from one of Huckabee's likely primary challengers, Newt Gingrich, who announced the formation a presidential exploratory committee this week.

Update: Huckabee spokesman Hogan Gidley tells Ben Smith "The governor meant to say the President grew up in Indonesia." But it's worth noting Huckabee did more than just misidentify Obama's childhood residence; he misidentified everything about Obama's childhood. As Huckabee explained: "[Obama's] perspective...growing up in Kenya with a Kenyan father and grandfather, their view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather." Whether it was Kenya or Indonesia, Obama didn't grow up with his Kenyan father or his Kenyan grandfather. Huckabee's not a birther, but he's either playing fast and loose with the facts or he doesn't really know them.

Bernanke: Budget Cuts Will Hurt the Economy

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 12:26 PM PST

Fed chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress today that Republican budget cuts probably would have a modest negative effect on the economy:

Bernanke [] threw some cold water on recent studies by two leading economic forecasting groups that suggested Republicans' proposed $60 billion budget cut would be a major drain on the economy over the coming year....Responding to questions from Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Bernanke said that the Fed's analysis suggests smaller economic losses from the spending cuts, reducing GDP by several tenths' of a percent and the number of jobs by "certainly much less than 700,000."

Wait a second. According to Dana Milbank, Scott Lilly of the Center for American Progress estimates that the Republican plan would lead to the direct loss of 650,000 government jobs. If that's the case, surely total job losses can't be "much less" than 700,000?

In any case, it hardly matters. Maybe it's a million jobs, maybe it's half a million jobs. Maybe it will cost a point of GDP, maybe it will cost half a point of GDP. But considering that the economy is still sluggish and unemployment is extremely high, why are we considering budget cuts that will have any negative effect on jobs and growth? Especially cuts in the only part of the budget that isn't a long-term problem?

That's the big news from Bernanke's testimony: not that he thinks other estimates of job losses are too high, but the fact that he agrees the Republican budget plan will cost jobs and slow growth. That's coming from a Republican Fed chair! How much more evidence do we need that our current budget cutting mania is insane?

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Barbour on Gingrich: "I'm Crazy About Him"

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 11:19 AM PST

Former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich has decided to form a presidential exploratory committee this week, taking his first official step toward running for president. ABC News broke this news on Tuesday morning, following months of speculation about Gingrich's intentions. Though he's toyed with running for president for decades, Gingrich has never actually followed through.

The move will make Gingrich the highest-profile Republican to announce his intention to challenge Obama. But it's unclear how he'll fare in the Republican field, drawing only 12 percent support among Iowa Republicans and 6 percent in New Hampshire, as Talking Points Memo notes. But the Georgia Republican elicited unabashed praise from at least one fellow Southern legislator: Gov. Haley Barbour (R-Miss.). "I'm crazy about him," Barbour told reporters, exiting a congressional hearing on health care on Tuesday. 

Barbour held back, though, from making any prognostications about the Republican primary. When asked about how Gingrich stacked up against the other likely 2012 candidates, the governor replied: "Depends on who runs."

Speculation has also swirled about a potential presidential bid by Barbour himself. But in recent months, Barbour's racially insensitive remarks about civil rights and the Ku Klux Klan seemed to downgrade his chances of a run. That being said, an endorsement from Barbour could be a factor in a candidate's ability to solidify Southern support, so expect Barbour to remain in the spotlight as the Republican contest limps forward.

Tackling Government Waste

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 11:10 AM PST

The GAO has released a 345-page report that identifies "federal programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives, either within departments or governmentwide, which have duplicative goals or activities." Ezra Klein complains that while conservatives trumpet the conclusions of reports like this endlessly, liberals don't:

That's a lost opportunity for liberals: It's the people who believe in government who should be angriest and most insistent on taking action when it fails to work, not the people who believe government can't work and see failure and inefficiency as proof for their argument.

Well, I want to do my part, so I direct your attention to page 59: "Duplicative Federal Efforts Directed at Increasing Domestic Ethanol Production Cost Billions Annually." The problem, says the GAO, is not just that ethanol subsidies are bad policy, but that they're literally useless. Since 2005 we've had a renewable fuel standard in place that requires increasing use of ethanol in gasoline, and that standard ensures a high demand for ethanol all by itself. The subsidy is just money down the drain:

If reauthorized and left unchanged, the VEETC’s annual cost to the Treasury in forgone revenues could grow from $5.4 billion in 2010 to $6.75 billion in 2015, the year the fuel standard requires 15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels. The ethanol tax credit was recently extended at 45-cents-per-gallon through December 31, 2011, in the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010.

$5.4 billion! That's real money. And there ought to be unanimous bipartisan support for getting rid of this subsidy immediately. Let's do this thing!

Of course, getting rid of a tax credit is.....um, a tax increase, according to reigning Republican orthodoxy. So I guess this is out of the question. Which is too bad, because on page 75 GAO identifies the real killer app in the federal budget: "almost $1 trillion in federal revenue was forgone due to tax exclusions, credits, deductions, deferrals, and preferential tax rates— legally known as tax expenditures." No one wants to get rid of all these tax expenditures, and even if we did some of them would be replaced by normal spending programs. But there's real money there, unless you automatically equate removing a tax expenditure with raising taxes, and therefore won't consider it. Which, I'm pretty sure, describes most Republicans.

But there are other opportunities in the GAO report, though it's unclear just how much money most of them would save. If we combined DOD and USAID programs for Afghanistan, for example, would we actually save money, or just spend the same amount slightly differently? It's hard to say, and in most cases GAO doesn't have a good estimate for how big the savings are from combining duplicative programs. But I'll skim through the report in my spare time, and I urge you to do the same. You don't have to read the whole thing, just take a look at a few items and let us know in comments which ones look like good targets. We've got $5.4 billion for sure, and I'll bet there's at least $20-30 billion more that ought to be fairly noncontroversial. Unless you're from Iowa, of course.

Hypocrisy Alert: Charles Koch Blasts "Crony Capitalism"

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 11:04 AM PST
A scene from the massive labor protests in Madison, Wisc., on Saturday, February 26. Flickr/eaghra

Charles G. Koch, the right-wing titan of industry, is a very tight-lipped guy, just like his billionaire brother David Koch. But today Charles Koch has gone public with a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "Why Koch Industries Is Speaking Out." In it, Koch decries the years of "overspending" that have "brought us face-to-face with an economic crisis." He blames this crisis on both Democrats and Republicans who've "done a poor job managing our finances." Koch explains how he, his family, and his multi-billion-dollar company, Koch Industries, have tried to support politicians like Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker who are "working to solve these problems."

But here's where it gets interesting. Koch goes on to rail against businesses who "have successfully lobbied for special favors and treatment" like government subsidies and regulations. For starters, Koch Industries has benefited plenty from government subsidies in the past. As the New York Observer reported, Koch companies have received subsidies from the Venezuelan government as part of a deal to sell Venezuelan-made fertilizer in the US; used US land subsidies for its Matador Cattle Company; and profited from private logging of US forests that wouldn't have been possible if the US Forestry Service hadn't built new roads with taxpayer money to un-logged lands, among other examples. (For much more on the Kochs' use of subsidies, check out this ThinkProgress post.)

And while Charles Koch criticizes "crony capitalism," his company is one of the biggest players in the nation when it comes to lobbying and political donations. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Koch Industries has spent more than $40 million lobbying the federal government in the past three years alone. Koch Industries, company executives, and the company's political action committee have doled out $11 million since 1989 to federal candidates, political parties, and political committees; Charles and David Koch and their wives contributed $2.8 million of that, a mere $1,500 of which went to Democrats, according to the Public Campaign Action Fund (PCAF). Much of that spending has gone toward fighting new regulations of the oil and gas industry, which would hurt Koch Industries' profits. Not surprisingly, then, lawmakers on the influential House energy and commerce committee have pocketed $630,950 in Koch-connected donations.

Koch's concerns about the fiscal health of the US, as voiced in his op-ed, are not unfounded. But his criticism of lobbying and "crony capitalism" flies in the face of his own actions and those of companies, critics say. "Koch Industries is the perfect example of absolutely everything Charles claims to hate about our current political system," David Donnelly, national campaigns director for Public Campaign Action Fund, said in a statement. "The hypocrisy is palpable."

Memo to Americans United for Life: Our Questions Still Stand

| Tue Mar. 1, 2011 10:26 AM PST

Last Friday, as Nick Baumann and I completed our reporting on the anti-abortion group behind a nationwide push to broaden justifiable homicide laws to cover killings in the defense of fetuses, I contacted the organization, Americans United for Life, to request an interview. Specifically, I asked to speak with Denise Burke, AUL's vice president for legal affairs and the author of the model legislation, the Pregnant Woman’s Protection Act, that the group has pressed state lawmakers to introduce. An AUL spokeswoman told me that Burke was travelling, and asked me to submit my questions in writing. So I did. AUL never responded. Instead, the group waited until after the story was published to blast Mother Jones on its website for "dishonest" and "intentionally distorted" reporting, complaining that the "anti-life media once again got their facts wrong."

As we reported, AUL-inspired legislation has recently sparked controversy in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa, with critics claiming that the measures are so expansive that they could potentially invite—if not legalize—the killing of abortion doctors. We write:

That these measures have emerged simultaneously in a handful of states is no coincidence. It's part of a campaign orchestrated by a Washington-based anti-abortion group, which has lobbied state lawmakers to introduce legislation that it calls the "Pregnant Woman's Protection Act" [PDF]. Over the past two years, the group, Americans United for Life, has succeeded in passing versions of this bill in Missouri and Oklahoma. But there's a big difference between those bills and the measures floated recently in South Dakota, Nebraska, and Iowa.

While the Oklahoma and Missouri laws specifically cover pregnant women, the latest measures are far more sweeping and would apply to third parties. The bills are so loosely worded, abortion-rights advocates say, that a pregnant woman could seek out an abortion and a boyfriend, husband—or, in some cases, just about anyone—could be justified in using deadly force to stop it.

It's not just anti-abortion groups that think these bills are bad news. Omaha's deputy chief of police recently testified that Nebraska's LB 232 "could be used to incite violence against abortion providers." And a spokesman for South Dakota's Republican governor—a staunch abortion foe—called the version of the bill introduced in that state "a very bad idea."