2012 - %3, January

Santorum and Students Clash on Gay Marriage

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 6:39 PM EST
2012 GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum

Is Rick Santorum a bully?

It came close to that in Concord, New Hampshire, on Thursday when he addressed a convention of college students who had trekked to the Granite State from across the nation to witness the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. After a long discourse on American exceptionalism—in which Santorum claimed that President Barack Obama does not believe the United States is "objectively" better than all other countries, as Santorum says he does—the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, who virtually tied Mitt Romney in Iowa earlier this week, took questions. It was no surprise that one of the first queries was about his fierce opposition to gay marriage. Two students asked Santorum how he could justify this opposition with his opening remarks that focused on the guarantee, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that no American shall be deprived of the "pursuit of happiness."

"So anyone can marry several people?" Santorum asked. "What about three men?"

Santorum has been in this spot before, and he easily adopted a here-we-go-again stance, and, in a somewhat condescending manner, struck back with…logic. Or what he claimed to be logic. He asked the students to justify gay marriage. When one said, "How about the idea that all men are created equal and [have] the right to happiness and liberty," Santorum asked, Are you saying that everyone should have the right to marry anyone?

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Did Your Haiti Donations Ever Get Spent?

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 6:00 PM EST

Why yes, according to a new report by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, most of them did. Since the earthquake that devastated the country nearly two years ago, two-thirds of the $2.1 billion aid organizations have collected has gone to rebuilding or otherwise helping Haiti. That's a significant improvement over what the Chronicle found six months after the quake, when less than half the money had been utilized.

Not that two-thirds of the work is finished, however. "There are still 500,000 people in camps, there's still a very broken health system, and there's still endemic cholera and very little access to water and sanitation," says one NGO director interviewed for the survey. Though there are substantial millions remaining, it's not enough to get everything on aid groups' wishlists done—or to handle something like a full-blown cholera crisis. Since donations have tapered way off after the initial postquake fundraising bonanza, some groups are still offering encouragement to would-be donors. "It's not hopeless," Food for the Poor executive director Angel Aloma tells the Chronicle, "it's just slow."

Social Mobility in America: It's All About the Poor

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 4:05 PM EST

Social mobility in America, as near as I can tell, has stayed roughly the same over the past few decades. If you're born to poor parents today, it's about as hard to move up into the middle (or upper) classes as it was 50 years ago.

But as Jason DeParle writes today in the New York Times, it's also true that social mobility is a lot lower in America than in most other developed countries. Jared Bernstein points out that this is partly because income inequality in America is so high: you need a lot more money to move into the top 20% here than you do in Denmark. If we had less income inequality — if the poor families started out a little less poor and the rich families were a little less rich — we'd be a more mobile society too.

But it's worth drilling down a bit and asking what, precisely, is it that America does so badly at? The Times piece includes a chart comparing America to Denmark, which makes things pretty clear:

On the far left, you can see the only really big difference between the countries: the poorest kids in America are far more likely to stay poor than they are in Denmark and far less likely to get rich. And that's pretty much it. If you look at all the other quintiles (I took out the middle quintile to make the chart legible at this size, but it shows the same thing as the others), you see that there's not a lot of difference. And what difference there is favors the U.S. as often as it does Denmark.

So that's the problem: lousy opportunities for the very poorest kids. They start out worse off than Danish kids, and they end up worse off than Danish adults. There's no single reason for this, but one of the big ones is early childhood education. Danes do a much better job on this score than we do, and if we put more money and energy into this I'll bet it would make a big difference.

Rick Santorum's New Hampshire Roadshow: Terrorist Judges, "Snookered" Reagan, and Fidel Castro

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 4:01 PM EST
Rick Santorum.

Rick Santorum loathes the liberal judges of the Ninth Circuit, the federal appeals court that stretches from Alaska to California to Arizona. In small-town New Hampshire on Thursday, Santorum unveiled his plan for ending those judges' "reign of terror": Ship 'em all to Guam.

Santorum was full of spicy quips on Thursday at an old train station in the town of Northfield. Riding high from his impressive second place finish in Iowa's caucuses, Santorum held court before a standing-room-only crowd here, with almost as many journalists as voting-age New Hampshire citizens in attendance. He veered from issue to issue, from the evil of President Obama's Affordable Care Act to tax policy under Ronald Reagan, reforming Social Security to the 2009 Honduran coup.

On the Ninth Circuit, a favorite punching bag for conservatives, Santorum said he supported its abolishment—"What the Congress creates, it can uncreate"—or at least tossing out its most liberal judges and replacing them with new ones. He acknowledged there might be some Constitutional problems with just firing the Ninth's judges. His solution: "Maybe we can create a court that puts them in Guam or something like that," a jab that earned him more than a few laughs.

The Ninth Circuit wasn't the only court Santorum blasted. He singled out the Supreme Court—at least its more liberal justices—for plenty of criticism, calling the high court an out-of-control "super-legislature." "Five people who are not accountable to the people should not be able to amend the Constitution," he said.

Like any good conservative, Santorum paid his respects to Ronald Reagan. In Northfield, though, the tax increases presided over by Reagan came up, in particular the Gipper's payroll tax hike passed in 1983. Santorum winced at this. "I love Reagan," he said. "He got snookered in '83."

And in attacking Obama's foreign policy record, Santorum ripped the president for calling the 2009 change-over in power that ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya a coup. In doing so, Santorum said, Obama took his place alongside two other leaders: Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. "How many times do you want to hear America in the same sentence as a group of three countries that's Cuba, Venezuela, and the United States?"

Yet what earned Santorum the most applause was not his attacks on liberal judges or foreign policy but on Obama's Affordable Care Act. Santorum pledged to make repealing health care reform his first act if elected president, vowing to replace it with a free-market system built "from the bottom up."

Nearly two hours had passed since Santorum strode into the old train station surrounded by a crush of cameras and reporters. Now, Santorum said it was time to get moving again. "I'd love to stay and answer more questions," he said, "but there's miles to go before I sleep."

Ethanol Subsidies: Not Gone, Just Hidden a Little Better

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 3:34 PM EST

A few years ago I called subsidies for corn ethanol "catastrophically idiotic." And why not? Corn ethanol, it turns out, is actively worse for the environment than even gasoline, farmers responded to the subsidies by reducing the amount of farmland used for food production, and this drove up the price of staple food worldwide. What's more, back when the subsidies were enacted corn farmers were already doing pretty well. We were shoveling $10 billion in ag welfare to a group of people who were already pretty rich.

In fact, ethanol subsidies are such obviously appalling policy that it's one of the rare areas that both liberals and conservatives agree about. In theory, anyway. But that's never mattered. After all, lots of corn is grown in Iowa, and every four years Iowa holds the first presidential caucuses in the nation. And that has long made ethanol subsidies everyone's favorite pander.

But guess what? At the end of last year, ethanol subsidies quietly expired and no one tried to extend them. On the campaign trail, ethanol subsidies became invisible. It was like a tiny miracle. The Economist's Erica Grieder marshals up several reasons that ethanol subsidies finally died a well-deserved death:

The roaring tea-party movement opposed the subsidies on fiscally conservative grounds, and asked the 2012 Republican candidates to do the same…Then, the budget-cutting frenzy put the subsidies on the table…And concurrently, Midwestern farmers seemed to realise they weren't going to win this one and it might look greedy to keep clamouring…The burgeoning wind and solar industries are increasingly able to produce clean energy without requiring such whopping subsidies or distorting the agricultural markets. The rise of unconventional natural gas has also undercut any excitement around ethanol. And the opposition to ethanol subsidies has gotten more organised.

This is enough to restore your faith in democracy, isn't it? And for that reason, I'd really, really like to end the story right there. But I can't. We're grown-ups, after all. We can handle the truth.

And really, you're probably suspicious of this story anyway. Corn farmers were afraid of looking greedy? (That would be a first.) Tea partiers demanded an end to ethanol subsidies? (I must have missed the anti-corn rallies.) A bunch of politicians decided to stand up to a powerful special interest and do the right thing regardless of the consequences? (Uh-huh.) Maybe there's something we're missing here.

There is. It turns out that corn farmers really don't care about ethanol subsidies all that much anymore, but there's a reason for that. Here is our own Tom Philpott writing in February 2010:

After a flirtation with reason last spring, the Obama EPA has signed off on the absurd, abysmal Renewable Fuel Standard established under Bush a couple of years ago—ensuring that farmers will continue to devote vast swaths of land to GHG-intensive corn, of which huge portion will ultimately be set aflame to power cars—but not before being transformed into liquid fuel in an energy-intensive process.

Tom's a liberal. Here is Aaron Smith, writing a couple of days ago for the conservative American Enterprise Institute:

Deficit hawks, environmentalists, and food processors are celebrating the expiration of the ethanol tax credit. This corporate handout gave $0.45 to ethanol producers for every gallon they produced and cost taxpayers $6 billion in 2011. So why did the powerful corn ethanol lobby let it expire without an apparent fight? The answer lies in legislation known as the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), which creates government-guaranteed demand that keeps corn prices high and generates massive farm profits. Removing the tax credit but keeping the RFS is like scraping a little frosting from the ethanol-boondoggle cake.

The RFS mandates that at least 37 percent of the 2011-12 corn crop be converted to ethanol and blended with the gasoline that powers our cars…[As a result] the current price of corn on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange is about $6.50 per bushel—almost triple the pre-mandate level.

As the Congressional Budget Office wrote back in 2010, "In the future, the scheduled increase in mandated volumes would require biofuels to be produced in amounts that are probably beyond what the market would produce even if the effects of the tax credits were included." [Italics mine.] In other words, the mandates have grown so large that the tax credits barely made a difference anymore. Demand for ethanol is driven by the mandates, not by the tax credit. When you take away the tax credit, nothing happens: Demand stays high because the law says so, corn prices go up accordingly, and corn farmers stay rich. The subsidies were a nice little fillip on top of that, but at this point it's basically chump change.

So there you have it. The fairy tale version of the story was nice, but it turns out that ethanol subsidies didn't go away after all. That's true both literally (most of the subsidy money was redirected to other, smaller-bore ethanol initiatives) and in the bigger picture, where mandates provide the same benefit without being quite so obvious about it. Corn farmers have learned what so many other special interests before them have learned: A nice, quiet subsidy is always better and safer than a garish, noisy one. Now that's what they have.

Front page image: Patrick Fallon/ZUMA

Winter Arctic Update

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 3:13 PM EST

Icebergs around Cape York,Greenland. : Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Icebergs around Cape York, Greenland. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.The National Snow and Ice Data Center's (NSIDC) latest polar ice report is in and the big news is that this winter might be a lot different from last, even though we're still in the middle of a La Niña.

The reason is the appearance of a mostly positive phase of the Arctic Oscillation (AO), which tends to produce less snow and warmer-than-average temperatures over the wintertime North America and Eastern Europe.

Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. :  Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.Daily Arctic Oscillation Index values from the NOAA Climate Prediction Center, Sept 2011 to Jan 2012, showing relative pressure anomalies between polar and mid-latitude regions. : Credit: NSIDC courtesy NOAA NWS Climate Prediction Center.

Last winter saw the opposite: tons of snow and really cold temps over much of North America and Europe and warmer-than-normal conditions over much of the Arctic. That's because a negative Arctic Oscillation took hold. I wrote about that here.

Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Arctic Oscillation: positive phase (left) has higher air pressure in mid-latitudes than in Arctic, leading to milder winter for US; negative phase (right) has higher air pressure over Arctic, pushing frigid, wet air into US.: Credit: NASA.Technically, the Arctic Oscillation is a measure of atmospheric pressure variations at sea level north of 20N latitude. Where an Arctic high develops affects weather thousands of miles away.

Last year the so-called "Arctic fence" that keeps cold air penned up in the north broke down, allowing frigid air to spill south. So far that's not happening this winter. Though the AO is a fickle—not seasonal—phenomenon and can switch up at any time.

Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade.: Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.Monthly December ice extent for 1979 to 2011 shows a decline of 3.5% per decade. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The NSIDC report points out that during a positive Arctic Oscillation, like now, thick sea ice tends to migrate through Fram Strait between Greenland and Iceland, leaving much of the Arctic with thinner ice that melts out more easily the following summer.

In the graph above you can see the precipitous decline of December Arctic sea ice—averaging -3.5 percent per decade since 1979—a trend that's stronger than the AO alone.

Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.Arctic sea ice extent on 9 September 2011, the 2nd lowest extent on record.: Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

After last year's warm Arctic winter, the 2011 summer sea ice extent was the second lowest on record. (FYI, August sea ice is declining by 9.3 percent per decade... HT @Sustainable2050 for that stat.)

Which means we started this winter with a major deficit. And even though sea ice grew slightly faster than normal in December 2011, and even though temperatures in much of the Arctic were lower than normal in December, overall sea ice cover was still below average. In fact, the third lowest on record.

The five lowest December sea ice extents have all occurred in the past six years. Polar bear.: Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.Polar bear swimming. Credit: Mila Zinkova via Wikimedia Commons.

The positive feedback loop between less ice, open sea water, and escalating temperatures can be seen in the Atlantic side of the Arctic, in the Kara and Barents seas. Higher-than-average December temperatures there were at least partially a result of of dwindling sea ice, allowing more heat to escape from open sea water and further warm the atmosphere.

The eastern coast of Hudson Bay didn't freeze entirely until late December. Normally, it's completely frozen over by the beginning of December. That's a bad start to the winter for Hudson Bay polar bears.

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Your Daily Newt: Virtual Gingrich

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 3:00 PM EST

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

I could describe in great detail Newt Gingrich's 2007 address to Second Life, in which a pony-tailed avatar parachutes onto the steps of the United States Capitol to hear the (considerably slimmer) former speaker discuss novelist Isaac Asimov novel, Necromancer. Or you could just see for yourself:

We cannot confirm that the man at the 3:13 mark is Wolf Blitzer's Second Life avatar.

No Maple Syrup by 2100?

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 1:43 PM EST

Martha Carlson, Sandwich N.H.: James WestMartha Carlson, Sandwich N.H. James West

A few years ago, Martha Carlson, a veteran maple farmer, began noticing subtle changes in her 60-acre "sugar bush" in Sandwich, New Hampshire: Maple sap was unusually dark, and leaves were falling too early, never having reached postcard New England color. Her sugar maples, some of them nearly 300 years old, were sick.

At 65, Martha now leads the crusade to save the New Hampshire sugar maples—and the multimillion dollar local syrup and tourism industries they provide—from disastrous climate change. And in the process she's mobilizing a crack team of researchers: a group of elementary school kids.

Take a peak at the Climate Desk's slideshow of production stills from New Hampshire on Facebook (and make sure to like our page). We're also on Google Plus. Front page image: Adam Rose/Flickr

Planning for Wars That Will Never Happen

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 1:21 PM EST

The Washington Post reports on the Obama administration's plans to cut back military spending. James Joyner comments:

Oddly, despite having been back benchers during the two hot wars the United States has fought over the last decade, “The Navy and Air Force are expected to fare better because they will play an instrumental role in the administration’s strategy for Asia, where the United States is seeking to counter China’s expanding military power.”

....All of this should remind old hands of the early 1990s. Despite being entangled in a series of peacekeeping/stabilityoperations/operations other than war missions, the Bottom-Up Review and subsequent Quadrennial Defense Reviews planned for a future of major regional conflicts modeled on the wildly unlikely scenario of two nearly-simultaneous wars in Iraq and the Korean peninsula. Yet, the United States military has spent the ensuing two decades fighting brushfire wars.

To be sure, there was the Shock and Awe Lite invasion of Iraq, in which rapid dominance was achieved in three weeks of fighting. But we learned, once again, that a military organized and equipped for major wars wasn’t necessarily one equipped to fight sustained small wars.

I'm always unsure whether to think of this as good news or bad news. The bad news version is the one James talks about: we're busily building a military that's suitable for fighting a war we're never going to fight but unsuitable for fighting the kinds of wars we probably are. If you believe that organizations — even ones whose mission you disagree with — ought to be run efficiently and effectively, then this is purely bad news.

On the other hand, if the Pentagon's old guard is ascendant again, and our newfangled focus on counterinsurgency is being quietly deep-sixed now that the pesky David Petraeus has been kicked upstairs, perhaps that means we'll be a lot less likely to get sucked into brushfire wars in the future. We just won't have the capability most of the time, and that will keep us out of them no matter how loudly the war hawks are whooping it up.

Compared to the alternatives, maybe that's not so bad after all. Unless, of course, it's wrong, and we end up fighting just as many wars as before but fighting them really badly. Take your pick.

The Return of the Cain

| Thu Jan. 5, 2012 12:40 PM EST

I suppose I'm lowering both my IQ and the collective IQ of my readership just by mentioning this, but here is Herman Cain's return to public life:

The former Godfather’s Pizza CEO announced plans to tour the country to raise support for the “9-9-9” plan that was the star of his aborted presidential run, hoping to rally congressional sponsors for his plan to replace the federal Tax Code with a 9 percent corporate tax, 9 percent personal income tax and a 9 percent national sales tax.

....“I started a new movement. The biggest comment I got when I ended my candidacy was to keep 9-9-9 alive. That’s what this is about, and I’m going to keep it alive with what I’m calling Cain’s Solutions Revolution,” Cain said.

What's really going on here? I guess the obvious answer is that Cain is just engaged in the time-honored pursuit of separating fools from their money, but I can't help but wonder if he actually believes this stuff or not. I suppose it doesn't matter, really, but surely Cain isn't so completely divorced from reality that he thinks the Republican Party will ever adopt 9-9-9? Even hardcore conservatives thought it was an idiotic idea.

But I guess he figures he can get a book out of it, and so the clown show continues. Sigh.