2011 - %3, July

Tim Pawlenty's Massive Whopper: Obama "Hasn't Accomplished Anything"

| Fri Jul. 8, 2011 7:18 AM EDT

At a town hall meeting on Thursday, GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty claimed that President Obama "hasn't accomplished anything" since moving into the White House in 2009. Pawlenty also lauded Minnesota's government shutdown, and defended his "good guy" image at the event, saying it's possible for a president to be "nice and strong."

Pawlenty's town hall was held at his Iowa campaign headquarters in suburban Des Moines, with roughly 150 people in attendance, according to the Iowa Independent. The former Minnesota governor also took questions from Facebook users, who were watching the town hall streaming online.

Pawlenty attack on President Obama's record, of course, flies in the face of the president's long list of accomplishments. Obama signed a massive health-care reform law, the Affordable Care Act; passed a $900-billion economic stimulus bill that created or saved between 2.4 and 3.6 million jobs and helped avoid a second Great Depression; signed the Dodd-Frank financial regulatory reform bill; boosted funding for veterans' services by $1.4 billion; and signed the Children's Health Reauthorization Act, providing health care to 11 million children, to name just a few. It's not political gamesmanship to say Obama "hasn't accomplished anything"; it's just plain wrong.

That wasn't the only controversial statement Pawlenty made. He said he supported the government shutdown in Minnesota, because it forces politicians to "make tough decisions."

And Pawlenty defended his image as the aw-shucks nice guy in the GOP presidential field. "You don’t have to be a jerk to be strong," Pawlenty said, adding that President Ronald Reagan was no flamethrower but still won elections. "You can be nice and strong."

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 8, 2011

Fri Jul. 8, 2011 6:00 AM EDT

Terry Lewis, from the Warrior Transition Battalion at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, gives wounded warriors a brief exterior tour of the new Warrior Transition Complex here, June 23. The tour was provided for the wounded warriors in preparation for their upcoming relocation from the Walter Reed campus to a new WTC here. (U.S. Army photo by Marc Barnes)

Climate Change: Still Worse Than You Think

| Fri Jul. 8, 2011 5:55 AM EDT

While I was on vacation last week I took a side trip to New Haven to visit Jeff Park, an old high school friend who's now a geology professor at Yale. We ate some pizza at Frank Pepe, walked around the campus a bit, and then dropped by his office, where he had a stack of reprints of his latest journal article. Take one, he said. Maybe it'll be good fodder for the blog.

The title is a mouthful: "Geologic constraints on the glacial amplification of Phanerozoic climate sensitivity," coauthored with Dana Royer. (The Phanerozoic, in case it's slipped your mind, is the geologic eon spanning approximately the last 500 million years.) Roughly speaking, the article is an updated look at a computer model that estimates how much climate reacts to a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere.

The model originally concluded that a doubling of CO2 produces a temperature increase just under three degrees Celsius, an estimate that's in pretty good agreement with other models. So far, so good. But 500 million years is a long time, and several researchers have proposed that climate sensitivity might vary over that period depending on whether or not the earth is in an ice age. So in the new paper, the authors modeled glacial and non-glacial eras separately. And the best fit with the data suggests that climate sensitivity does indeed change depending on glaciation. In fact, during an ice age, the most probable climate sensitivity is six to eight degrees Celsius for a doubling of CO2, more than twice the previous estimate.

Why do we care? As the authors drily put it, "Because the human species lives in a glacial interval of Earth history, this modeling result has more than academic interest." You see, the most recent ice age in human history is the one that started about 30 million years ago and continues to the present day. We're living through a glacial interval right now, and that means that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere might produce a temperature increase of six to eight degrees Celsius, not the mere three degrees Celsius most commonly estimated.

This is just one model. There are lots of parameters to fit, there are only two glacial intervals to test, and the error bars are fairly large. In other words, it might be wrong. But it's one more data point in an increasing series of data points suggesting that climate change is worse than we thought—though "worse" is something of an understatement. Six degrees isn't just a bit warmer here and there; it's a global catastrophe that would likely produce mass extinctions, dead oceans, large-scale desertification, coastal cities underwater, and billions dead. And unless something changes, we're well on pace for a doubling of CO2 before the end of the century. Buckle your seat belts.

Charts of the Day: Our Coming Housing Boom

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 8:24 PM EDT

Here are two charts about housing. The first is from Brad DeLong, and it shows how much housing was overbuilt during the boom of the aughts. The blue line is trend growth, and the orange triangle that goes from 2002-07 amounts to about $300 billion dollars in excess housing. Since then, however, we've been massively underbuilding housing. That's the orange block that starts in 2007, and it already amounts to $1.2 trillion. It will probably add up to $2 trillion or more by the time we get back to the trend line. That's a net undersupply of $1.7 trillion.

The second chart comes from Calculated Risk, and it shows the apartment vacancy rate. During the recession it rose to about 8% as people left their apartments and moved in with family or roommates. (This shows up in statistics as a slowdown in the rate of family formation.) However, as the worst of the recession recedes, that number is coming down, and today it's nearly at its normal pre-bubble level of 5.5%. If the economy continues to recover, we'll very soon hit a point at which there are lots of people who want to rent or buy a home but there will be a huge undersupply of both single-family and multi-family housing to absorb them. Karl Smith is unnerved:

There is a huge demand bulge waiting in the wings. There is no supply coming on line on absorb it. Rental vacancies are already falling.

This is setting up to be the story of 2012 and it is setting up to be a doozy. Inflation creeping higher despite the Feds best efforts to tamp it down. A possible explosion in the growth rate if we get a virtuous cycle of more construction job leading to more household formation, leading to more construction jobs.

Maybe! As Brad points out, this all depends on unemployment falling enough to generate lots of new families that want — and can afford — a place of their own. So far, there's not much sign of that happening, and American families continue to have a huge debt overhang that's likely to keep demand sluggish. Still, if housing keeps getting tighter and employment starts to rise even modestly, we might indeed get the virtuous cycle that Karl talks about. We'll see next year.

Quote of the Day: There is No Obama Doctrine

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 8:09 PM EDT

From Fareed Zakaria, praising the speed of Barack Obama's reaction to events in the Middle East:

It took Ronald Reagan two years to turn on Ferdinand Marcos. It took Obama two weeks to urge Hosni Mubarak to resign.

The rest of the piece is a welcome call to stop looking endlessly for an "Obama Doctrine." It doesn't exist. Obama's temperament is generally multilateral and realist, and his responses to specific events tend to be both pragmatic and considered — and contrary to the carping of his critics, they also tend to be both resolute and relatively speedy. But that's about it. Like it or not, he's just not a doctrinal kind of guy.

The Anti-Anxiety Pregnancy Diet

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 5:51 PM EDT

As I've been reading through pregnancy books and blogs, I've been haunted by lunch meat. Every source seems to tell me that lunch meat is very dangerous and to be avoided when pregnant due to the increased risk of listeriosis, a bacterial disease that can cause miscarriage or death in newborns. The other day I ordered a club sandwich and was about to take a bite when I saw the sliced turkey in it. As I put the sandwich down, I started thinking: can a club sandwich really be that lethal? 

A little bit of research showed that only 2,500 people a year get listeriosis. That's a 0.00083% chance, otherwise known as "incredibly, incredibly rare". I started looking at the other foods and beverages I've been instructed not to consume: 

bacon due to cancer-causing nitrates. The reality: Actually, the American Cancer Society says only high levels of consumption are tied to gastric cancer, and other scientists say the link between nitrates and cancer is indirect at best.

sushi due to risk of food poisoning and bacteria and mercury (for some fish). The reality: most fish consumed in the US is flash-frozen, which kills most parasites and bacteria. Mercury is a valid concern, but high-mercury fish are easy to avoid.

caffeine due to risk of miscarriage. The reality: studies have conflicting accounts. One found a slight link between caffeine and increased risk of miscarriage, but another did not.

There seems to be a trend here: Any risk, no matter how small or how uncertain, is considered reason enough to boot bacon or sliced turkey or other foods off the table. This is not only scare-mongering, it's inaccurate and puts emphasis on tiny risks like listeriosis instead of large risks like cardiovascular issues, which accounts for 34% of maternal deaths according to the CDC. Fatal injuries also claim the lives of many pregnant women. Most of those injuries are attributable to motor vehicle accidents (44%) and homicide (31%), and yet I've not been warned once to take the train instead of driving or to make sure to watch out for a potentially violent partner.

It feels silly to be worrying about a risk so small, so unknown, that it's not even in the top 10 causes of maternal or fetal death. So next time I get the club sandwich, I'm going to enjoy it. Who knows, I might even get a piece of sushi too.

 

 

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Iowa Conservatives Unveil Anti-Gay Marriage Pledge

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 4:51 PM EDT
Bob Vander Plaats

On Thursday, one of Iowa's most influential social conservative organizations, The Family Leader, informed GOP presidential candidates that to win the group's endorsement, they'll have to sign a pledge. Family Leader president Bob Vander Plaats, a former Mike Huckabee ally, wants GOP contenders to commit to a list of 14 red-meat items, including opposition to gay marriage, a ban on Islamic Sharia law, a rejection of pornography, and an affirmation that married couples have better sex.

The group, which spearheaded the successful campaign to unseat state supreme court judges who had voted to legalize gay marriage, has been courted by candidates like Michele Bachmann and Tim Pawlenty as a way of tapping into the state's huge bloc of conservative Christian caucusgoers. What's in the pledge? Here's a quick rundown:

Presidential candidates who sign The Marriage Vow will sign off on support of personal fidelity to his/her spouse, appointing faithful constitutionalists as judges, opposition to any redefinition of marriage, and prompt reform of uneconomic and anti-marriage aspects of welfare policy, tax policy, and divorce law. The Marriage Vow also outlines support for the legal advocacy for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), humane efforts to protect women and children, rejection of anti-women Sharia Islam, safeguards for all married and unmarried U.S. military personnel, and commitment to downsizing government and the burden upon American families.

The document itself gets more specific. Point 5 begins with a "Recognition of the overwhelming statistical evidence that married people enjoy better health, better sex..." Point 9 rejects "forms of pornography and prostitution, infanticide, abortion and other types of coercion or stolen innocence."

So who will jump on board? Much of the platform seems to mix fairly well with standard conservative talking points, but there might be a few dissenters. At the New Hampshire Republican debate last month, for instance, frontrunner Mitt Romney pointedly came to the defense of Muslims and smiled away any suggestion that American Muslims would be any less qualified to serve in his administration than anyone else. Because Sharia Islam is actually just a synonym for Islam, it would seem like a radical departure for Romney to suddenly embrace the Family Leader's far-right language. He also declined to sign the Susan B. Anthony List's pledge, which affirmed candidates' opposition to appointing pro-choice officials, because he felt it limited his flexibility to make cabinet and judicial appointments.

Update: That was quick. Bachmann's on board.

Map: Cutting Air Pollution Saves Lives

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 4:11 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency finalized new rules on Thursday that will limit emissions from power plants in the eastern half of the US, preventing up to 34,000 premature deaths each year due to air pollution by 2014.

The regulations, which were greeted by a good deal of fanfare from enviros and public health groups, will require power plants in 27 states and the District of Columbia to cut harmful pollution that travels across state lines. The EPA estimates that the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule will also prevent 858,000 other health problems, including non-fatal heart attacks, acute bronchitis, asthma attacks, and other upper and lower respiratory symptoms. In all, this would help prevent up to 1.8 million missed days at school or work due to health concerns every year, the agency found.

Environmental Defense Fund put together this map showing where the EPA expects this rule to save lives:

Patents Are Broken. But How Do We Fix Them?

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 2:45 PM EDT

Tim Lee writes today about Microsoft's recent string of demands for royalty payments from companies that produce smart phones built on Google’s Android operating system:

You might think Google could deal with this by just not infringing Microsoft’s patents, but that’s not how software patents work. Android has roughly 10 million lines of code. Auditing 10 million lines of code for compliance with 18,000 patents is an impossible task—especially because the meaning of a patent’s claims are often not clear until after they have been litigated. Most Silicon Valley companies don’t even try to avoid infringing patents. They just ignore them and hope they’ll be able to afford good lawyers when the inevitable lawsuits arrive.

So Android, like every large software product on the planet, infringes numerous Microsoft patents. And Microsoft is taking full advantage. They’re visiting Android licensees and giving the same sales pitch Reback remembers from a quarter century ago. “Do you really want us to go back to Redmond and find patents you infringe? Or do you want to make this easy and just pay us?” Once again, many of the targets are writing checks to make the problem go away.

A couple of days ago, after I wrote about Apple's new patent on multitouch gestures on touchscreen devices, I got an email from a patent attorney. Among other things, he said this:

Another common misunderstanding (as seen in the reaction to the Apple patent) is that the mere grant of a patent can be used to claim ownership of existing technologies. This is incorrect. Specifically, before granting a patent, the patent office looks at the prior art at the time of the invention, and has to determine that the claimed invention is novel and not obvious. While the patent office process is clearly flawed (due to limitations on the patent office, mainly time and money), there are other safeguards available. Other parties can ask the patent office to re-examine an issued patent based on additional evidence. Additionally, a party accused of patent infringement can present evidence in a court to show that the patent is not novel or is obvious, and can thus cause the patent to be completely invalidated.

My reply:

Obviously reasonable people can differ on this, but my sense is that the rule that patents should involve some genuinely novel idea has been watered down to almost nothing. When it comes to gestures on a touchpad, for example, there's just a limited universe of solutions, and they're all fairly obvious once the technology gets to a point that people start thinking about them. But what if some bright lad thinks about them slightly earlier, comes up with all the obvious gestures, and then patents them? Does that make sense? To me, it doesn't.

I realize that it's very, very difficult to quantify just how "novel" something should be in order to be patentable. But for starters, I'd say that the broader the claim the more novel it ought to be. In the case of touchpad gestures, or shopping cart checkout, that means it needs to be pretty damn novel. And I just don't think we're within light years of meeting that standard.

So then, a question for people who think that software patents are out of control: what should the rule be? No patents at all on software or business processes? Probably not. But if patents aren't flatly banned on business processes, is there some kind of rule that would raise the bar in a reasonable way on just how novel something has to be to deserve a patent? I hear a lot of complaints about software and business process patents, and I'm sympathetic to them. But exactly what kind of reform would improve things?

Mitt Romney's Evangelical Problem

| Thu Jul. 7, 2011 1:02 PM EDT

My mother asked me the other day why Mitt Romney's religion was supposed to be a problem for him. "Because lots of evangelicals view Mormonism as a cult," I answered, and evangelicals are a huge part of the Republican primary base. Unfortunately, my answer lacked emotional punch, and it's not as if I can pretend to be an authority on evangelicals, so there's no telling if she believed me. But Amy Sullivan is an expert, and she explained Romney's evangelical problem six years ago here. Have things changed since then? Maybe, but here, via Paul Waldman, is a "lighthearted" report on a mainstream Memphis TV station about Mormon beliefs. I'm willing to bet there's not another religion in the world they'd be willing to treat this way.