2011 - %3, June

2011: The Year of the Natural Disaster

| Wed Jun. 22, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

From NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, here's a chart that shows the number of disasters, and their cost, for every year since 1980:

As you can see, we're just halfway through 2011, and already eight extreme weather events in the United States have each caused more than a billion dollars in damage—a record since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began keeping tabs in 1980. The US has faced 99 weather-related disasters that cost at least $1 billion in the past 31 years, totaling $725 billion (when adjusted for inflation). But even though it's only halfway through, 2011 ranks second overall in total number.

There have been $32 billion in damages caused by extreme weather events this year, which have included blizzards, tornados, floods, and wildfires, National Climatic Data Center director Tom Karl said last week. The NCDC, a division of NOAA, released a released these stats last week in the wake of this spring's tumult.

Hurricane season—which tends to yield some of the costliest weather events—just started on June 1. And we've barely seen the beginning of the summer heat.

While the economic costs are high, so, too, are the human. There have been 575 deaths from this year's weather events, the majority of them in the tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest. The damage in Joplin, Mo. is a testament to the power of the most extreme among extreme weather events.

The weather-related disaster that people recall most immediately is Hurricane Katrina, which caused 1,833 deaths and caused $133.8 billion in damages. But drought and heatwaves have accounted for the two most catastrophic events to date: 10,000 deaths and $55.4 billion in damages in 1980 and another 7,500 deaths and $71.2 billion in damages in 1988.

Of course, we've always had severe weather events. And this year so far has been more extreme than most. But scientists have now warned repeatedly that we should expect extreme events more often in the future as the climate changes. It's safe to say we can expect more billion-dollar events down the line.

The front page photo of tornado devastation in Joplin, Missouri was taken by Andy Kroll.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for June, 22 2011

Wed Jun. 22, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

U.S. Army Spc. Daniel Miller (left) and Spc. Daniel Scott, both assigned to the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team security force, provide security as members of the team make their way to a canal project site in Zabul province, Afghanistan, on June 14, 2011. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, U.S. Air Force.

Will Obamacare Destroy Private Insurance?

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 8:54 PM PDT

I haven't been blogging about the great McKinsey Obamacare study flap, but in a nutshell, McKinsey conducted a survey of employers and concluded that 30% of all companies would stop providing health coverage once Obamacare kicked in in 2014. Conservatives immediately sounded the alarm, but McKinsey refused to explain their methodology or divulge anything about either the questions they asked or how they "educated" respondents before getting their answers.

Under considerable pressure, McKinsey finally released a brief summary of their methodology along with a weasely clarification that their report wasn't meant to be a prediction and had only said that 30% of companies "might" stop providing health insurance, not "would." Whatever. It was too late: the 30% estimate had long since become a piece of conservative lore about the dire effects of Obamacare.

But how likely is it to be true? No one can say for sure, but the reason the McKinsey study provoked so much outrage — aside from the peculiar fact that they refused to explain how the study was conducted — is that it was light years away from every other estimate that had been done. In fact, a team of health economists had just recently done a (very well documented) simulation of the effects of Obamacare and came to a very different conclusion: the decrease in private insurance rates would be on the order of 3%, over two decades, not 30% over two years. They looked at the likely effect of three things: (1) the expansion of Medicaid, (2) the creation of subsidized insurance via exchanges, and (3) the Cadillac tax. The chart on the right, kindly sent to me by Steve Pizer, one of the authors of the study, summarizes the results of their simulation. The number of uninsured goes down to nearly zero, the number of publicly insured goes up to about 15%, and the number of people covered by private insurance declines only a smidgen.

Is this estimate correct? Who knows. But it's carefully done and the methodology is open to all for criticism. All things considered, it's probably way more likely to be close to the mark than McKinsey's study. You probably don't have to worry much about your employer suddenly deciding to end your healthcare coverage when Obamacare starts up for real in 2014.

Unions Finally Catch a (Small) Break

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 3:42 PM PDT

The NLRB, protector of management rights when Republicans are in charge and protector of labor rights when Democrats are in charge, announced today that it plans to change the rules governing union recognition elections in order to "curb unnecessary litigation, streamline procedures before and after elections, and enable the use of electronic communications, such as requiring employers to give union organizers access to electronic files containing workers' addresses and emails." Sounds boring. So why should you care? I'll let Peter Kirsanow, an avowed labor-phobe, explain:

In a nutshell, the NLRB’s proposed rules would implement “quickie elections,” a process that would allow unions to organize a workplace as easily as they could have had the Employee Free Choice Act (also known as “card check”) passed.

This is a very big deal....Right now, initial elections normally are conducted within 38–40 days of the filing of a petition by the union....That’s not much time for the employer to get his message out. Indeed, in 2009 and 2010 unions won approximately 68 percent of elections (this does not include the number of petitions withdrawn by unions). Yet the “quickie election” rules proposed by the NLRB will shorten the time frame to a mere 10–20 days. Make absolutely no mistake: That’s not enough time for even the largest and most sophisticated employers to counter what the union has been telling employees while organizing them for the last 6–8 months. The union win rate will far exceed 68 percent. In fact, it’s likely that many employers will choose to not even go through the expense of an election that he’s sure to lose, but will simply voluntarily recognize the union upon a showing of authorization cards.

Sounds good to me! And don't get too excited about that two-thirds rate of union victories, either. It's true that in 2009 unions won 66% of all NLRB elections compared to 51% in 1997, but that's 66% of 1,304 elections compared to 51% of 3,261 elections. Contra Kirsanow, organizing a new workplace has gotten so hard in recent years thanks to corporate-friendly NLRB rule changes and increasingly aggressive union avoidance campaigns, that unions simply don't bother waging all that many recognition elections anymore. They know that most of them are hopeless. The result is that the net number of election wins has dropped nearly in half in just the last decade alone.

That's not good enough for Kirsanow and his allies, of course, who would like unions to disappear completely. But among workers themselves, the anti-union skepticism of the 70s and 80s has mostly disappeared in the face of stagnant wages and skyrocketing executive pay. Survey research a few years ago by Harvard's Richard Freeman suggests that "if workers were provided the union representation they desired in 2005, then the unionization rate would be about 58%" — almost eight times higher than the actual private sector rate of 7.4%. The fact that so many workers would welcome union representation but don't have it is compelling evidence that far from being unfair to management, the current legal regime for union elections is tilted dramatically in their favor. For workers, rule changes that slightly reduced that tilt and once again gave unions a fighting chance to organize workplaces would be a welcome change.

Speedup Wonkdown

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 2:47 PM PDT

July/August Cover of Mother Jones Magazine

The internet has been liking our "Speedup" essay about how Americans are being squeezed at work—no wonder, given that many of you probably read the piece sitting at a stoplight, on the phone to your boss, while firing off a couple of emails. "I haven't felt as 'hell yeah' about an article in a while," tweeted one reader. Commenters dug deep into census stats and the cost of childcare. And then there was a post by one of our favorite conservative bloggers, NRO's Reihan Salam, who in addition to calling the piece "a winner for the progressive mediasphere" (thanks!) and suggesting that we expand it into a book, asked a lot of smart questions including this one (about our point that all this overload merely serves to goose corporate profits):

If most of that 22 percent increase in profits accrued to the financial sector, should we reassess how we think about real economy firms? Could it be that addressing the pathologies of the financial sector is the right approach, not embracing more aggressive labor market regulations, collective bargaining, etc.?

Our answer, you won't be surprised to hear, is: We need both. But Salam is absolutely right that more data is needed on this whole topic—we were quite stunned, in researching the piece, at the lack of detailed research on worker productivity and its role in the economy. Could it have to do with the pollution of the economics profession? We'd dig into this immediately, but... we're slammed. Reihan, it's definitely going into the book (thanks, Ezra!) file.

Up Close and Personal with the Korowai

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 2:30 PM PDT

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

When encountering persons of the same sex, you often wonder what natural similarities you may find. And it's no different when you meet members of a remote tribe living in the dense vegetation of the jungle. BBC Earth researcher Rachael Kinley shares her intimate and humorous tale of what happened when the women of the Korowai Tribe in Papua invited her into their tree house.
 
By Rachael Kinley, Researcher, Jungles/Oceans team
Before filming begins, it's important to spend time with the contributors without big cameras in their faces. It helps to strike up a friendly rapport and make the future weeks more productive and enjoyable for all. So, our first day in Papua with the Korowai is spent in their home, a tree house.

Making friends in the treehouse Korowai houses are communal and split into male and female sides, to avoid furtive touching in the evenings. So, as the rest of the crew, including the translator are men, I sit down with the women, while the crew all head outside to take in the view from the male balcony.
Friendship-forming begins inside the house. In the UK, we’d receive cups of tea and cake; here, it's fire-charred lumps of sago palm, fresh from the flames. We start making net bags together, rolling lengths of rattan along our thighs, entwining the fibres to form a string which is then plaited together to create a bag that is strong enough to hold up to 70kg.


Whilst we are winding, I try to spark up a conversation. But with Jim, our translator, out of sight this gets to be a bit tricky. I only know one word in their language, and they know none in mine. I begin by pointing at items around us and learning the words for their shell necklaces, pet pig, and net bags. After we've exhausted everything on their person, the tables are turned and they start pointing and teaching me words for parts of my body: hair is "habianto" and breast, "am". They seem to be extremely intrigued by my breasts.

A couple of children reach over and prod them. The older women giggle, encouraging the girls on. The next thing I know, they start to unbutton my shirt. The Korowai are amazed at the lifting properties of my Gossard Superboost bra. They begin to imitate its effect by cupping their own breasts in their hands with curious looks. It feels slightly surreal to be sitting, meters up in a jungle tree house, being communally undressed by several women and children. I help them to unfasten the clasp and the women stroke my breasts, smiling, giggling, repeating "am am am".

It's lovely, it's touching, we laugh together and are definitely bonding. But amidst all this, my mind is thinking why couldn't this be at the end of the four weeks in the jungle when I’d definitely be much thinner? I guess that you can take your clothes off in the jungle, but it's harder to get your head out of the UK.
 

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New in Natural Gas Hype: A Fracking Coloring Book

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 1:50 PM PDT

With government agencies, documentaries, and even celebrities taking aim, fracking has been getting a bad rap these days. So it's no wonder that oil and gas companies are working hard to change the tone of the debate surrounding the controversial method of reaping natural gas.

The latest in their PR efforts? A children's coloring book. Published by oil and gas producer Talisman Energy and distributed for free, the 24-page text follows the adventures of a "Friendly Fracosaurus" named Talisman Terry. Throughout the book, he leads his readers through a natural gas extraction saga—explaining the benefits of the substance, and how it's found, drilled, and delivered.

tk

Man Robs Bank of $1 To Get Health Care in Prison

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 12:56 PM PDT

No, it's not an Onion article. An unemployed, sickly man in North Carolina robbed a bank of a single dollar in hopes of being arrested and receiving free health care in prison. The New York Times relays the story, which seems destined to become a political anecdote about our dysfunctional health care system:

James Verone, an unemployed 59-year-old with a bad back, a sore foot and an undiagnosed growth on his chest, limped into a bank in Gastonia, N.C., this month and handed the teller a note, explaining that this was an unarmed robbery, but she'd better turn over $1 and call the cops. That, he figured, would be enough to get himself arrested and sent to prison for a few years, where he could take advantage of the free medical care...

In a television interview last week with a local news station, WCNC, Mr. Verone explained that he was hoping for a three-year sentence, which would give him a place to live and free health care until he was old enough to collect a Social Security check and buy a condo on the beach.

The story is telling not just because it shows the sad desperation of uninsured Americans who have trouble finding health care—but also how costly it is to leave such problems unattended. James Verone may have only robbed the bank of one dollar, but the cost of jailing him for just one year in North Carolina is over $23,000, not to mention the legal fees his case will rack up as well. Similarly, if he wasn't in prison, and his health problems worsened, he could end up in an emergency room, where the state would again have to help foot the bill if he couldn't pay. Insuring him would likely be the cheapest option—which is one reason why Democrats have made universal coverage a priority under federal health reform.

Obama's Spending Cuts

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:57 AM PDT

Matt Yglesias points out that last December, when Democrats cut a deficit-busting deal with Republicans to cut taxes and increase stimulus spending, would have been a perfect time to raise the debt ceiling. But:

It didn’t happen. Obama said he trusted John Boehner. Harry Reid said he didn’t want the debt limit to be raised by the 111th Congress because he wanted to force the incoming 112th Congress to take ownership over it. The results of these decisions have been a disaster.

What’s more, not only was the disaster predictable but even once it was visibly on the horizon the White House bungled it. There was a brief opportunity for the President to dig in his heels and simply refuse to compromise. Then the debate rapidly would have become “can John Boehner round up the votes in his caucus necessary to avoid a default.” Instead, the White House conceded the unprecedented point that even though Boehner and Obama agreed about the desirability of raising the debt ceiling that the White House should make concessions to the Speaker in order to obtain it. Consequently, you get what we have here this week.

For what it's worth, I continue to think that this probably wasn't a bungle. More likely, during his first two years in office Obama had gotten enough deficit religion from the likes of Peter Orszag and Tim Geithner that he actually welcomed the opportunity to put in place some long-term spending cuts. He couldn't very well admit that publicly, of course, since his base would go bananas, so instead he punted on the debt ceiling, knowing that Republicans would then use it to "force" spending concessions out of him. Mission accomplished: long-term spending is reduced, and Republicans get all the blame. Democrats mostly forgive him because everyone knows Republicans are crazy, and as a bonus, Republicans don't even get much of a boost from their own base out of this since any real-world spending cut won't come close to the demands of the tea party crowd.

How sure am I of this? Not very. Maybe 60%. But think of it this way: the kind of negotiating position Matt is talking about isn't rocket science. It's not even Negotiation 101. It's more like the fifth grade version. There's just no way that Obama and Reid and the rest of the Democratic brain trust were literally so stupid that they didn't understand this. A far more parsimonious explanation is that this is roughly what Obama wanted. He wanted spending cuts, but he wanted Republicans to be the ones to take the lead. And that's what happened.

Bottom line: I don't think we should try to figure out what Obama "really" thinks about stimulus spending vs. deficit reduction. His actions suggest that he wants long-term spending cuts. Like it or not, that's the real Obama.

UPDATE: Jon Chait has the same reaction as Matt, saying this about the failure last December to tie a debt ceiling increase to the tax and spending package: "It was clear that the time that Republicans were committed to pushing the boundaries of their formal powers as far as they would go, and Obama utterly failed to anticipate this."

Seriously? Does anyone really believe that Barack Obama and his team, all with high IQs and decades of Washington experience, utterly failed to anticipate this? I don't. A third grader might fail to anticipate this, but not Obama.

Slouching Out of Afghanistan

| Tue Jun. 21, 2011 10:33 AM PDT

President Obama will be at Ft. Drum on Thursday to announce his plan to reduce our military presence in Afghanistan. Apparently, though, there's not much chance of doing anything more than pulling out the 30,000 troops that were added to Afghanistan in 2010. The real discussion is only over the exact pace of withdrawal for those 30,000:

Administration officials said Mr. Obama would most likely pull out the entire 30,000 troops by the end of 2012. What is still not known is how soon and how fast, though as the administration’s deliberations wind down, the outlines of the main proposals are becoming clearer.

Some senior White House officials advocate a plan under which 15,000 troops would return by the end of this year and the other 15,000 by the end of 2012....Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., who has long pushed for the United States to curtail its military engagement in Afghanistan, favors a plan under which all 30,000 troops would be pulled out within 12 months....Pentagon and military officials [prefer] an initial reduction this year of about 5,000 troops — the size of a brigade — followed by 5,000 over the winter, when fighting recedes. The final 20,000 troops could remain into the next autumn, through the 2012 fighting season.

So there you have it. Behind Door #1, is the 15/15 plan. Behind Door #2 is the 30/0 plan. Behind Door #3 is the 5/5/20 plan. Plus there's a Door #4, with no timeline at all. Those are your choices. Any way you slice it, though, all we're doing is getting back to 2009 levels, which themselves were more than twice as high as they were during the Bush administration.

In the New York Times a couple of days ago, David Sanger wrote that Obama "has scaled back, time and again, Washington’s goals in a country that the British, the Soviets and ultimately the Americans tried, and failed, to change." No kidding. Nation building is just a dim memory, we're negotiating a power-sharing arrangement with the Taliban instead of trying to eliminate them, and our relationship with neighboring Pakistan is as dim as it's been for the past decade. What's more, the president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has become even more hostile and mercurial than ever, lashing out at NATO a few days ago with this broadside:

“You remember a few years ago I was saying thank you to the foreigners for their help; every minute we were thanking them,” he said. “Now I have stopped saying that, except when Spanta forced me to say thank you,” referring to his national security adviser, Rangin Spanta, who was present. “They’re here for their own purposes, for their own goals, and they’re using our soil for that,” Mr. Karzai said.

Former Afghan ambassador Karl Eikenberry, as Spencer Ackerman pungently put it, basically told Karzai the next day to "shut the fuck up," and it's hardly any wonder. It's dangerous enough being deployed in Afghanistan already without having the local government essentially declare open season on you. But that's what Karzai does every time he unleashes one of these verbal cannonades.

I honestly don't know what our mission is in Afghanistan any more. It's a base for continued drone attacks against al-Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan, but our own intelligence officials have estimated that there are no more than a couple of hundred al-Qaeda members left there. It hardly seems feasible that we're ever going to get al-Qaeda presence in the AfPak border region down to zero, so the only real question left is whether it's worth hundreds of American lives and tens of billions of American dollars every year to try to reduce that number from 200 to 100, or from 100 to 50.

We really don't seem to be doing anything else useful there, the host government speaks out against us routinely, and Afghanistan continues to be a festering sore with no end in sight. So why is it that the only thing we're arguing about is whether a few thousand troops will come home in February of next year instead of October? Why aren't we arguing about whether we ought to be in Afghanistan at all?