2011 - %3, June

Corn on "Hardball": the Palin Problem

Wed Jun. 1, 2011 6:51 PM PDT

David Corn and former chairman of the RNC Michael Steele joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Sarah Palin's controversial bus tour and how she has stolen the limelight from the other GOP presidential hopefuls.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter and Facebook. Get David Corn's RSS feed.

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The 10 Scariest Things You Can't Avoid

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 4:52 PM PDT

Today's world is a scary place, as any quick perusal of the interwebs will tell you. We're dealing with threats of death by obesity. Climate change. Nuclear war. Pickles. Wait, whutnow? Trust me, I know— that's what I said yesterday, when in my reading through articles about cell-phone-cancer-doom I came across this nifty little article about death by pickled stuff. Why would the universe want to deprive me, Snooki, and so many others of our favorite sandwich accompaniment?

But I suppose, in reality, I can avoid pickles if it's a matter of life or death. Still, I'm troubled by a slew of other articles that point to things that are so ingrained in our day-to-day existence that they would be extremely difficult—in some cases impossible—to dodge. How do we live with ourselves, knowing our every move is damaging our health? That the very way modern society dictates we exist is a carcinogenic, life-sucking slog to the grave, and that we're also indirectly killing our planet in the process? I plan to address that in an article to come, but in the meantime, here are ten everyday hazards with no easy fix:

Fact-Checking Haiti's Death Toll

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 3:47 PM PDT

We've all heard the numbers quantifying the horror of Haiti's 2010 earthquake: more than 300,000 dead, a million left homeless. Now a report is calling those figures into question.

The unpublished survey, commissioned by the US Agency for International Development, puts the death toll between 46,000 and 85,000. It also says there are 375,000 people still living in tent camps, whereas the International Organization for Migration, which does a lot of work with the displaced in Haiti, says there's 680,000. The Haitian government is standing by the higher numbers. A State Department spokeswoman says the report still has some inconsistencies. USAID's Haiti mission director says the commission that did the report isn't really qualified to settle the dispute. When I was in Haiti the first time, I heard some local businessmen laughing about how there was no way the death toll and the homelessness rate could possibly be as high as their government was claiming.

Now, I loooove me some fact-checking, but I'm having trouble getting worked up about this dispute. I understand it's important for the sake of, like, history. Also, analysts say the lower numbers might affect the plan to pump billions of dollars into the country for aid and reconstruction. I think it's a game-changer when a report concludes that, say, the war in Iraq killed 100,000 Iraqis in the first 18 months, rather than a widely reported 19,000. But whether 400,000 Haitians are displaced instead of 800,000 doesn't really change the overall fuckedness of the situation for me in this case. Either way, huge pieces of the entire country still need to be rebuilt. Either way, lots and lots of promised help still hasn't arrived. And honestly those displacement camps are so impossibly awful that nine people still living in them a year and a half after the quake would be cause for concern. Whichever way the dispute settles, hopefully it won't further impede the abysmal progress in the country's reconstruction.

The Illustrated 2011 Hurricane Forecast

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 2:32 PM PDT

Credit: NOAA.

 

 It's here. The start of the 2011 hurricane season. And so is the seasonal hurricane forecast of Phil Klotzbach and Bill Gray at Colorado State University. Their summary:

 

We continue to foresee well above-average activity for the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season. We are predicting the same levels of activity that were forecast in early April due to the combination of expected neutral ENSO conditions and very favorable atmospheric and oceanic conditions in the tropical Atlantic. We continue to anticipate an above-average probability of United States and Caribbean major hurricane landfall.  

 

Specifically, for 2011, they're forecasting the likelihood of:
 
  • 16 named storms

  • 9 hurricanes

  • 5 intense hurricanes

 

Compare that to the average during the 50 years between 1950 and 2000:

  • 10 named storms

  • 6 hurricanes

  • 2 intense hurricanes

 

Sea surface heights captured by the OSTM/Jason-2 satellite. Credit: NASA/JPL.

 

The four reasons for Klotzbach's and Gray's above-average forecast:

1. The likelihood of neutral to weak La Niña conditions between August and October, the most active portion of the hurricane season.

One way we track La Niña's characteristic water temperatures is by tracking sea surface heights, which are used to calculate how much heat is stored in the ocean below.

A weak or neutral La Niña generally results in average to below average levels of vertical wind shear. Weaker winds allow hurricanes to grow.

Tropical Cyclone Heat Potential on 31 May 2011. Credit: NOAA.

 

2. Above average May sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic.

As you can see in the image above, sea surface temperatures are already at or above the tropical storm threshold of about 26 degrees Centigrade. As of 31 May, they were about 0.5 above normal in the Atlantic and 0.5 to 1.0 C above normal in the Gulf of Mexico. 

That's kindling to a hurricane's fire.

 

Atmospheric pressures at sea level. Anomalies recorded across the Atlantic in May 2011. Credit: NOAA.

 

3. Below average atmospheric sea level pressures during May in the tropical Atlantic.

You can see the extent of anomalously low sea level pressures throughout most of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic in the image above.

Lower pressures are gas to a hurricane's fire.

 
 

Simplified view of the oceanic thermohaline circulation, also known as the ocean conveyor belt. Credit: NOAA.

 

4. The current phase of the Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation, which began in 1995, is conducive to bigger and more frequent hurricanes. The forecasters explain it thus:  

Atlantic Multi-Decadal Oscillation (AMO)—A mode of natural variability that occurs in the North Atlantic Ocean and evidencing itself in fluctuations in both sea surface temperature and sea level pressure fields. The AMO is likely related to fluctuations in the strength of the oceanic thermohaline circulation. Although several definitions of the AMO are currently used in the literature, we define the AMO based on North Atlantic sea surface temperatures from 50-60°N, 10-50°W.  

 
 

Hurricane Alley. Image courtesy NASA GSFC.

 

It mostly all starts in Hurricane Alley (above), when storms fueled by hot air over the Sahara Desert meet cooler air over the Gulf of Guinea and roll off Africa into the Atlantic. 

 

Some of these waves, which begin with a simple thunderstorm—not that a thunderstorm is ever simple—will provide the sparks of energy and spin needed to grow a hurricane a few miles down the line in the waters of the Atlantic or the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico.

 
 

Credit: NOAA.

 

Here are the known travel paths of all 1,325 tropical cyclones born between 1851 and 2004.

 

The Klotzbach and Gray forecast calls for a much-higher-than-average chance of a major hurricane hitting the US this year:

 
  • A 48-percent chance along the East Coast, when 31 percent is average

  • A 47 percent chance along the Gulf Coast, when 30 percent is average

  • A 61 percent chance in the Caribbean, when 42 percent is average

 

 

 The video shows 2010's only June hurricane, Alex, and its two-week long birth and death, as it fought its way across the Atlantic, getting torn apart and rebuilding, finally forming as a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico.

The cyclic passing of gauzy white layers across the screen from right to left marks the transition from day to night, as the data from the visible spectrum of the daytime passes to the data from the infrared at night.

Crossposted from Deep Blue Home.

Louisiana Advances Bill Banning Dispersants

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 2:29 PM PDT

A committee in the Louisiana State Senate approved a ban on dispersants in the state's waters on Tuesday as new evidence came to light indicating that the record volume of chemicals used last year in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill may have done more harm than good.

The new law, proposed by Republican state Senator A.G. Crowe, bars the use of dispersants within 3 miles of the coast unless they are classified as "practically non-toxic." The chemicals, which are used to break down oil into smaller clumps and cause it to sink below the surface, became highly controversial last year when more than 1.8 million gallons were dumped into the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the massive Deepwater Horizon spill. Louisiana has now become the first state to take up a bill banning use of these dispersants, in response to concerns about the potential environmental and human health impacts that the chemicals may have. The bill will now go to the full Senate for debate.

We've written quite a bit about the controversy surrounding the use of dispersants in the Gulf, and the limited government oversight that created a situation in which BP was allowed to dump toxic substances into the water on top of the millions of barrels of oil it had spilled. The EPA maintains that using the dispersants was, overall, a preferable alternative to letting all the oil wash ashore. But the National Oil Spill Commission has said that a lack of planning for their use handicapped the government's spill response.

Now, more than a year after that spill began, scientists are finding evidence that the chemicals are lingering in the Gulf. The latest science on the spill, from researchers at the University of West Florida, finds that the dispersants not only failed to speed up the breakdown of hydrocarbons, but also actually increased the amount of oil that dissolved into the water, as the Pensacola News Journal reports. This may have an impact on phytoplankton and bacteria at the base of the Gulf food chain, according to Wade Jeffrey of UWF, and "may cascade itself up through other larger organisms."

A separate team of researchers from the University of South Florida said last week that they have found large amounts of dispersed oil are still lingering in the deep sea and potentially threaten the base of the food chain. They cited a "dirty blizzard" of dispersed oil and decaying plant and animal matter thousands of feet below the surface of the Gulf.

Down the Rabbit Hole

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 12:25 PM PDT

Jon Chait points us to this remarkable imaginary conversation between Barack Obama and Paul Ryan as transcribed by the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus:

Barack: The current system can’t go on. I wouldn’t say this publicly, but my party’s wrong to pretend it can. Still, your approach goes way too far. Seniors would get help to buy private insurance but would pay a lot more than they do now.... You’re forced to make deep cuts in Medicare because you won’t agree to raise taxes and that’s the only other way to get to balance.

Paul: Look, I could maybe support higher taxes as part of an overall deal. I just can’t admit that. On costs, my plan gives extra subsidies to the poorest, sickest and oldest seniors. If those aren’t big enough, we could talk. But it makes sense for wealthier seniors to pay more. And what about the general concept? Could you accept the idea if the subsidy grew at a rate higher than regular inflation?

This is just mind boggling. Like Ross Douthat's response to me a few weeks ago about Republicans and taxes, I hardly know how to respond. I feel like one of us is living in that Spock-with-a-beard alternate universe, and I'm beginning to wonder which one of us it is.

In Marcus's case, she imagines that Paul Ryan — Paul Ryan! — is secretly willing to support higher taxes. That's crazy. There's absolutely nothing in his past history to suggest that he's anything but an unalterable, true-believing hardliner on taxes. In Douthat's case, he wrote that I was underestimating how many Republican lawmakers might accept a modestly tax-increasing budget compromise and suggested that Republican opposition to tax increases was roughly similar to Democratic opposition to spending cuts. Seriously? Of course Dems don't want to cut spending as much as Republicans do, and of course there are some Democrats who won't support domestic spending cuts of any kind. Still, there are loads of centrist Democratic senators who are quite plainly willing to talk seriously about reining in spending, but at a guess, no more than three or four Republican senators who would be willing to support a tax hike of even a dime. The situation in he House is similar. Is this really even a debatable point? Hell, virtually the entire Democratic caucus voted for $500 billion in Medicare cuts in 2009 even though they knew they'd get shellacked for it by Republicans in 2010. And they did.

I just don't get it. The Republican jihad against taxes is hardly a secret, and Republican obduracy against even the slightest tax increase is perhaps the firmest, longest held, and most widely known economic policy held by either party. Nothing else even comes close. So how can smart, experienced journalists and commentators continue to somehow believe that it's all a big show and Democrats just need to demonstrate a bit of flexibility in order to win Republican votes for a tax increase? How can they be seduced by Paul Ryan's mild tone into believing that he's just modestly opposed to tax increases and could be easily reasoned with if only President Obama would invite him over for a beer?

What's going on here? Is Spock clean shaven in my universe or theirs?

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Europe's Slow-Motion Financial Collapse

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 11:32 AM PDT

There's a small boomlet today in blog posts trying to explain what Martin Wolf is saying in his Financial Times column today. If you just want the conclusion, it's easy: Europe is screwed and no one knows what to do about it. But the details are a little trickier.

Roughly speaking, Europe's problem is easy to understand. Countries like Greece and Ireland are borrowing huge amounts of money to stay afloat. This money is coming from healthy economies like Germany and France, which aren't willing to continue loaning vast sums forever. So unless the debtor countries get their finances in order quickly — which seems unlikely — they might eventually be forced to default on their sovereign debt. The problem is that this debt is largely held by banks in healthy countries like Germany and France, and if the weak countries default, those banks are in big trouble. The German and French governments would have to undertake a bank rescue using taxpayer money, so in the end German and French taxpayers will be the ones paying the piper no matter what happens. What's more, the aftermath of such a default and rescue operation would likely be catastrophic.

Drilling down a bit further and using Greece as an example, what's happening at an operational level is that the German central bank is withdrawing credit from German commercial banks and loaning that money to Greece. But Wolf, relying on the testimony of Hans-Werner Sinn, president of the Ifo Institute for Economic Research, says that this can't go on much longer even if we wanted it to:

Prof Sinn makes three [] points. First, this backdoor way of financing debtor countries cannot continue for very long. By shifting so much of the eurozone’s money creation towards indirect finance of deficit countries, the system has had to withdraw credit from commercial banks in creditor countries. Within two years, he states, the latter will have negative credit positions with their national central banks – in other words, be owed money by them. For this reason, these operations will then have to cease.

If I understand this correctly, the basic mechanism is that commercial banks create money, central banks are borrowing it and loaning it to other central banks in weak countries, and once there it ends up being loaned to commercial banks that are losing deposits because no one trusts them to stay solvent. But soon commercial banks in strong countries will no longer owe money to their central banks and this mechanism for fiscal transfers will have to stop.

Paul Krugman describes this as a "slow-motion bank run," and it doesn't end well. But restructuring debt in Greece and elsewhere would provoke a bank crisis in Germany, and that in turn would likely produce another financial collapse like 2008. Felix Salmon quotes a Merrill Lynch report:

While volatility is low, correlations are still very high. And that’s a combination which tends to presage nasty price crashes across many asset classes. In other words, markets are exhibiting a lot of fragility right now, and something drastic like a Greek restructuring could easily send them into a Lehman-style downward spiral.

So there's no answer. As Wolf says:

The eurozone confronts a choice between two intolerable options: either default and partial dissolution or open-ended official support. The existence of this choice proves that an enduring union will at the very least need deeper financial integration and greater fiscal support than was originally envisaged. How will the politics of these choices now play out? I truly have no idea. I wonder whether anybody does.

I don't wonder at all. I think everyone understands the basic state of play and knows perfectly well that there's simply no decent solution. Every possible path is catastrophic in one way or another, and it's human nature to try to avoid a certain doom as long as possible. The fact that waiting just makes it worse hardly matters.

Bachmann in 2006: "We are in the Last Days"

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 10:16 AM PDT

I have a story up today on how Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann's millenial theology shapes her political positions (on Israel, monetary policy, and education, most notably). The likely GOP presidential contender, who cut her teeth in politics as a grassroots Christian activist, has been a frequent guest on "Understanding the Times," a radio program devoted to interpreting current events through the lens of End Times prophecy. Bachmann's no novice when it comes to faith; when she raises the spectre of "One World currency" in an interview with a host who believes the arrival of the Antichrist is being expedited by President Obama's policies, she understands full well the connotation of her words.

Now, via the folks at Dump Bachmann, comes an even clearer explication of Bachmann's views...from Bachmann herself. Here she is in 2006 stating that "we are in the Last Days" (picks up at the 1:20):

The idea that we are living in the "Last Days" is not, at least theologically speaking, particularly radical. Last Days is not meant to be taken literally (i.e. "Thursday"), but rather as an indefinite period, and means that we're in the last "dispensation" before the Rapture. But when taken in conjunction with her associations and Left Behind rhetoric, the picture becomes a lot clearer.

It's also worth noting the context: Bachmann's "Last Days" remark came in a prayer for You Can Run But You Cannot Hide International, a heavy-metal ministry that travels to public schools to encourage students to find Christ (on the taxpayers' tab). It's also anti-gay. Very, very anti-gay. As I explained last month, its founder, Bradlee Deen, has suggested that gays caused the Holocaust, and called for gays to be thrown in jail. Until 2009, he was also a member of the Embassy of Heaven, a sovereign citizen organization that's classified as an "anti-government" group by the Department of Justice. (Bachmann has raised money for YCRBYCHI.)

America Loses 112,000 Jobs in May

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 9:18 AM PDT

OK, technically that headline isn't true. In fact, ADP estimates that employment grew by 38,000 jobs last month. But the American economy needs to generate about 150,000 new jobs each month just to keep up with the number of new workers entering the economy thanks to population growth. So just as you should adjust price levels for inflation, you should adjust new jobs for population growth. And on that scale, we lost about 112,000 jobs last month.

But quick! Medicare might start having funding problems in 2025 and Social Security might go into the red in 2040. Those are obviously the problems we should be dealing with right this second. And we should deal with them by cutting spending on a bunch of other programs because, um, um, um......

I forget. But I know there's a reason. My TV keeps telling me there is. Something about the rest of the world forcing us to screw the poor and destroy our economy today in order to save it tomorrow. So let's get on with the destruction.

Fear the Knife!

| Wed Jun. 1, 2011 9:01 AM PDT

Aaron Carroll writes today that modern American medicine is even worse than you thought. It turns out there's compelling evidence that arthroscopic knee surgery has no actual effect, but doctors keep doing it anyway. We could save money by just making a fake incision in your knee and doing physical therapy instead.

This made me wonder if I've been the victim of this dramatic placebo effect, since I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee about a decade ago and it worked great. But I guess not. My surgery was to repair a torn meniscus, and a torn meniscus is probably a very real thing. The useless variety of knee surgery is arthroscopic lavage, which is apparently a procedure that cleans out random crud from around your knee. Turns out the crud didn't need to be removed, though. All these knees needed was ordinary physical therapy, which they'd get along with the surgery anyway.

Aaron's point about this isn't just that this is a pretty amazing result, but that it's been largely ignored by both doctors and patients. Doctors still want to cut into knees and patients still want their knees cut into. Who wants a bunch of crud floating around in there, after all?

But now you know. If your doctor recommends arthroscopic lavage in the future, you're going to turn it down. Right?

Right?