2012 - %3, March

Will 2012 Be a Reprise of 2010's Summer of Hate?

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 3:09 PM EST

July and August of 2010 were a festival of xenophobia and racial rage from the news organs of the right. Among the topics that generated wall-to-wall coverage on a serial basis that summer were (1) the New Black Panthers, (2) Arizona's new immigration law, (3) the "anchor baby" controversy, (4) the "Ground Zero" mosque, (5) the Shirley Sherrod affair, (6) a new upwelling of birther conspiracy theories, (7) Glenn Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology," and (8) Dinesh D'Souza's contention — eagerly echoed by Newt Gingrich — that Barack Obama can only be understood as an angry, Kenyan, anti-colonialist. Plus I'm probably forgetting a few.

But last summer was pretty quiet. Maybe the right had finally learned its lesson? As it turns out, no. Apparently it's just that 2011 wasn't an election year, so there was no point in pushing racial hot buttons all summer long. But 2012 is very much an election year and things are heating up early this time around. I'm speaking, of course, of the latest race-baiting pseudo-exposé on the right: the long-promised video demonstrating just how radical Barack Obama was back in his Harvard Law School days — and probably still is, though of course he's cannily learned to hide his radicalism from the sheeple now that he's president of the United States.

Long story short, the late Andrew Breitbart's site has gotten hold of a video of Barack Obama in 1991 speaking in support of Derrick Bell, a firebrand black law professor at Harvard who, at the time, was demanding that Harvard hire some women of color. Shocking! This video, however, was nothing new. It had been shown on PBS in 2008. Obama's speech had been mentioned in books. BuzzFeed put up the video on their site before the Breitbart folks did. And the Derrick A. Bell who visited the White House last year turned out to be some other guy named Derrick A. Bell, not the famous law professor. The whole thing is a nothingburger. Paul Waldman comments:

From the beginning of Breitbart's enterprise, race-baiting was a key element of his attack on Barack Obama, one that continues even after his death. And he always had plenty of company, from Glenn Beck saying Obama "has a deep-seated hatred of white people," to Rush Limbaugh's repeated insistence to his white listeners that Obama was motivated by racial hatred in everything he did. "Obama's entire economic program is reparations," Limbaugh proclaimed. "The days of [minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry," he said. "And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That's what Obama's about, gang." When in 2009 he found a story about a white kid getting beaten up by a black kid on a school bus, Limbaugh said, "In Obama's America, the white kids now get beat up with the black kids cheering, 'Yay, right on, right on, right on, right on.'" And yes, he did that last part in an exaggerated "black" accent.

Paul optimistically suggests that the sheer lameness of the Derrick Bell episode demonstrates that the race-baiting precincts of the right have a problem: "they're running out of material." I'd sure like to believe that. But in early 2010, would you ever have guessed that the New Black Panthers would be feted with a multi-week run on Fox News? Or that something called the "Ground Zero mosque" would suddenly burst into prominence based on the hysterical blog posts of Pamela Geller? Or that we'd spend a couple of weeks talking about "anchor babies"?

If you did, you're a lot smarter than me. So I'm more pessimistic. It's an election year, and the idea that Obama is a secret radical remains a common trope among folks like National Review's Andrew McCarthy and his like-minded scribblers. It's also great for ratings among the talking-head set. So I suspect we're going to see a lot more stuff like this. It'll all just be a big coincidence that every few weeks produces yet another "controversy" that happens to appeal to underlying racial resentments, of course. There will be much tut-tutting about hypersensitive lefties seeing racism under every rock.

I hope to be proven wrong about this. We'll see.

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The Fed Should Help Out the Recovery by Letting Inflation Rise a Bit

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 2:22 PM EST

We had some pretty decent jobs numbers today: 227,000 new jobs in February and an upward revision for January to 284,000 new jobs. Hooray! And with that out of the way, I'm going to profoundly abuse the principles of fair use and republish this post of Karl Smith's in its entirety:

I had considered oil prices to be the primary threat to an accelerating recovery. I do think the fundamentals are ripe for an accelerating job creation rate. 300K+ a month is not fundamentally unrealistic at all.

I now believe, however, a panic-y federal reserve and an over-obsession with keeping inflation expectations moored is the biggest threat.

For now I think it should be the mission of every Journalist to harp on Fed Officials as to why they are willing to tolerate half a decade of unemployment above 5% and the devastation and loss of skills associated with that but they are not willing to tolerate Core-PCE rising above 2%?

I still think oil prices are a potential problem area, as is Europe — though the EU seems to have successfully kicked the can down the road for a while and is probably not an immediate threat. And in the Fed's defense, they've made it clear that interest rates are going to stay super-low for quite a while.

Still, a wee bit of higher inflation would be pretty welcome. Just as insurance, mind you. Let's do everything we can to avoid an economic relapse, OK?

"Silent House": Home Invasion + Screaming White Girl = Surprisingly Tolerable

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 2:20 PM EST
Elizabeth Olsen getting scared senseless in "Silent House" (2012).

Silent House
Open Road Films
88 minutes

There are three things in life of which we will—unfortunately—always have too much: AM talk radio, vampire lit, and horror movies about pretty young white girls who get chased around their houses by deranged, one-dimensional killers. Silent House fits snugly into that third category.

The no-frills horror movie is the American remake of La Casa Muda, a badass 2010 Uruguayan film noted for its unrelenting intensity and stylistic novelty. The new version kicks off with an unmistakable been-there-done-that vibe: Sarah and her father John travel to their lakeside vacation home to take care of some much-needed renovation before the house is put back on the market. The creaky, borderline-dilapidated property is located in the middle of nowhere—no cell phone reception, phone lines, internet, or contact with the outside world. Almost all the home's circuits are kaput. Nightfall is fast approaching.

Before you even begin mouthing the words "Hey, I've seen this one befo...." a man shrouded in shadows busts into the house, incapacitates John, and starts lumbering menacingly after Sarah.

Thus begins the white-girl-being-chased-through-the-house-athon: Sarah spends the next hour-plus making quick getaways into decrepit and dusty rooms, with the faceless stalker in hot pursuit. For practically the entire film, we watch Sarah—scared out of her skin—panting and scampering away from the invader, suspicious noises, forbidding darkness, loud footsteps, unexplained bloodstains, and even the apparitional figure of a little kid. You name it, this pretty young white girl is screaming and running away from it.

Arizona Moves to Bar "Wrongful Birth" Lawsuits

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 1:08 PM EST

Aaron Carroll asks:

Should doctors be protected by law for withholding information from patients that their patients might want to know?

Hmmm. I guess the correct answer is "no." But I'm a little confused about whether anyone actually disagrees about this.

At issue is an Arizona bill that would bar "wrongful birth" and "wrongful life" suits. These suits have a long history, and are generally brought by parents who believe their physician failed to tell them about a prenatal problem that might have led them to seek an abortion if they'd known about it. Some states allow these suits, some don't. But does the Arizona bill protect a doctor who, perhaps because he or she opposes abortion on principle, deliberately withholds information that could lead the mother to seek an abortion?

It doesn't seem like it to me. The bill in question is SB 1359, and it's pretty short. Here's paragraph D:

This section does not apply to any civil action for damages for an intentional or grossly negligent act or omission, including an act or omission that violates a criminal law.

Any Arizona readers care to comment? Is there some kind of legal distinction between "negligent" and "grossly negligent" that's germane here? Is "intentional" so hard to prove that in practice no one can ever do it? Is there some key distinction between a wrongful birth tort and an ordinary malpractice tort? This bill is obviously motivated by pro-life principles, and obviously it does something. But it plainly doesn't allow doctors to deliberately lie about prenatal conditions. Still, perhaps it gives them more wiggle room to "accidentally" miss something or "just decide" not to run a test? I can't tell. Doctors, lawyers, and Arizonans are urged to weigh in and educate the rest of us.

No, Virginia, There Are No Independent Voters

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 12:19 PM EST

Any book review that starts like this is probably worth reading:

I suppose we should be grateful to Linda Killian. Her new book collects in one place every clichéd and suspect empirical generalization about political independents. So in that sense—and only in that sense—it is a useful volume.

That's from Ruy Teixeira. His simple point is one that regular readers will be familiar with: most "independent" voters are actually pretty partisan. Indies who lean Democratic vote Democratic and indies who lean Republican vote Republican. They're just about as reliable in their voting patterns as actual Democrats and Republicans. This has long been common knowledge among political scientists who actually look at voting data.

But what about the folks who don't lean at all?

Yet the “independent” group does include one sub-group whose members look and act more like swing voters. This is the so-called pure independents subgroup, those who say they do not lean toward either party. In 2008, they split their vote much more evenly between the parties—51-41 for Obama—and they have policy views that are not closely aligned with either party. But this is a small group, and because it tends to show low information, low involvement, and relatively low turnout, it is even smaller in the context of an actual election. In 2008, according to the NES, they were just 7 percent of all voters and only 20 percent of nominally independent voters.

Independent voters aren't entirely a myth, but they're surely an endangered species. There just aren't as many of these fabled creatures as the mainstream press endlessly suggests. Like it or not, we're a partisan country.

Iran War Watch: "Bunker-Buster" Edition

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 11:41 AM EST
A GBU-28 "Bunker Buster" laser-guided bomb weighs roughly 5,000 pounds.

Are the United States and Iran on a collision course over the Middle Eastern country's controversial nuclear program? We'll be posting the latest news on Iran-war fever—the intel, the media frenzy, the rhetoric.

During to a recent visit to Washington, DC, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly placed an order for a pair of hot items: GBU-28 "bunker-buster" bombs and some advanced refueling aircraft—weapons that would significantly improve the Israeli air force's ability to take out Iran's underground nuclear facilities. President Obama has since ordered Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to work closely with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to hash out details of a potential sale, a senior US official told Haaretz. The report continues:

During the administration of former U.S. President George Bush, the U.S. refused to sell bunker-penetrating bombs and refueling aircrafts to Israel, as a result of American estimates that Israel would then use them to strike Iran's nuclear facilities. Following Obama's entrance into the White House, however, the United States approves a string of Israeli requests to purchase advance armament.

Just a few months after Obama took office, the president quietly approved the transfer of over four dozen GBU-28 Hard Target Penetrators. (At the time, some raised concerns that the sale might be perceived as "a green light for Israel to attack Iran's secret nuclear sites one day.") The Israeli government also currently maintains a limited stock of older, smaller bunker-busters, as well as a small number of refueling jets, all of which were bought from the United States.

American intelligence officials do, however, often acknowledge their uncertainty over how effective the Pentagon's latest bunker-busting technology would actually be at penetrating the scattered subterranean chambers where the Iranian government is enriching uranium.

Also, there was a report this week in the Israeli Hebrew-language newspaper Ma'ariv—citing anonymous intelligence sources—that the Obama administration had proposed a deal to allow the weapons sale, in exchange for Netanyahu's promise to hold off on an attack until 2013, after the messy election season winds down in November. But considering, for instance, that Israeli officials have openly floated the idea of not warning the Americans in the event of a preemptive airstrike on Iran's nuclear installations, it's likely that this alleged covenant is just one more bad rumor regarding regional tensions. (Naturally, at least one Israeli official has already dismissed it as such.)

Now, enjoy some classic footage of GBU-28 bunker-busters doing their thing:

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Two Years On, Tar Sands Spill Casts Long Shadow

| Fri Mar. 9, 2012 7:00 AM EST
A cleanup crew member at the site of the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010.

This week, as Senate Democrats narrowly defeated a renewed—and some say misguided—call to rush construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, residents and officials at the site of the country's largest-ever tar sands oil spill are still reeling nearly two years after the fact. A look at the fallout from that incident in Michigan reveals that a spill of diluted bitumen, the kind from Alberta's tar sands that Keystone would carry, is a far nastier beast than your typical spill of conventional crude. It also shows that cleaning it up can be just as damaging to the environment as the spill itself.

A story this week in the Canadian online magazine The Tyee outlines how, 20 months after a pipe carrying tar sands "dil-bit" burst on the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, residents and local Environmental Protection Agency officials are still struggling to clean up the river. It was the first-ever major spill of this type of heavy oil, and it blindsided EPA cleanup crews: recovering the 1.2 million gallons of oil that have been cleaned up so far has cost the pipe's owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, roughly $725 million—10 times as much, per liter, as the average spill of conventional crude. Ralph Dollhopf, who led the EPA's response to the incident, told local media that the agency had to "write the book" on dealing with a cleanup of tar sands bitumen.

The underlying issue, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift told me, is that US and Canadian officials don't know just how different dil-bit is from conventional crude. With US imports of tar sands bitumen projected to shoot up to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019 (up from 100,000 barrels in all of 2000), Swift said there remains a serious deficit in US and Canadian officials' understanding of how to manage potential spills. "The pipeline safety issue is just one of many areas where tar sands production hasn't been fully evaluated," he said. That didn't deter Alberta Premier Alison M. Redford from telling reporters she was "very optimistic" that the Keystone pipeline, which would likely be an economic windfall for her province, would be approved by the Obama administration should the president win reelection.

Good News! Obamacare Will Cost Less than Projected

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 6:58 PM EST

As long as we're on the subject of healthcare, have you heard about the conservative discovery that Obamacare is going to cost $111 billion more than originally projected? No? Good for you. It means you have a life.

But I don't, and in case you have heard about this you might also want to hear the actual story. Jonathan Cohn has you covered:

After the Affordable Care Act became law, the administration became aware of a glitch in the law....Congress responded by amending the law, to redefine who would be eligible for Medicaid.

....As a result, some people who would have gotten their insurance through Medicaid will now get their health insurance through the new exchanges....That makes the overall cost of subsidies a lot higher. Throw in some changes in economic forecasting, and you get that extra $111 billion in subsidies.

But that’s only half the story! The cost of subsidies has gone up, because more people will be getting insurance through the exchanges. But the cost of Medicaid has gone down, because, among other things, fewer people will be getting coverage through that program. Overall, the administration now projects the ten-year Medicaid cost to decline by $272 billion.

So, um, subtract two, carry the one, and....you end up with net cost reduction of $161 billion over ten years. The actual number might end up being different once the accounting boffins grind all the way through their spreadsheets, but it looks a lot like it's going to be negative.

It's worth pointing out, once again, the object lesson here: Obamacare isn't perfect. It's not set in stone. Stuff is going to go wrong and it's going to get fixed. In a few cases, like the CLASS Act, things just aren't going to work out and some element of the law will be abandoned. In other cases, like this one, mistakes will be corrected and costs will change modestly either up or down. And in still others, there's really nothing wrong at all and conservatives are just trying to gin up some faux outrage. So take everything you hear with a grain of salt. Every big bill has problems, and those problems get addressed as implementation goes forward. Obamacare will be no different.

Chart of the Day: Medicare Growth Slowing Down to Near Zero

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 6:20 PM EST

Via Sarah Kliff, a pair of researchers have taken a look at per-capita Medicare spending and concluded that it's on a long-term downward path which is likely to continue into the future. Their argument is pretty simple: Although Medicare's sustainable growth rate formula has been overridden year after year (this is the infamous annual "doc fix"), they say that other attempts to rein in spending have actually been pretty effective. This suggests that the cost controls in Obamacare have a pretty good chance of being effective too. Their basic chart is below, and since we're all about the value-added around here I've added a colorful red arrow to indicate the trajectory.

(Note that their calculations are based on potential GDP, not actual GDP. I'm not sure why, but I assume it's to control for the effects of recessions and boom years.)

Now, this calculation is per beneficiary, which means that overall Medicare costs will still go up if the number of beneficiaries goes up — which it will for the next few decades as the baby boomer generation ages. There's really nothing to be done about that, though. Demographic bills just have to be paid. Nonetheless, if we can manage to keep benefits per beneficiary stable compared to GDP we'll be in pretty good shape.

Twister Whispers

| Thu Mar. 8, 2012 4:20 PM EST

A monster EF4 tornado with winds of 180 mp/h (290 km/h) that caused extreme damage in Harrisburg, Illinois, on leap day happened to travel across an array of seismographs recently deployed for studying earthquakes.

The scientists working with the OIINK array (named for its coverage of parts of the Ozarks, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky) thought their instruments had been destroyed by the twister. Instead, the seismographs recorded the tornado.

Or rather not the tornado itself, as their preliminary investigation suggests, but the passage of the large atmospheric pressure transient pushing ahead of the thunderstorm that spawned the tornado... one of an anomalous number of tornadoes so far this winter. Some of which may add up 2012's first billion-dollar disaster in the US .

 Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University
Location of seismographs in eastern Missouri and southern Illinois and the path of the tornado that struck Harrisburg IL on 29 Feb 2012: Courtesy of Indiana University University

In the image above you can see the seismic stations sets against the ground path of the 29 Feb Harrisburg tornado. These stations are part of the NSF's EarthScope program planned to cover the entire US with a grid for detecting and better understanding and eventually maybe predicting earthquakes. Seems they might come in handy for tornadoes too.

I wrote about the EarthScope program here after Japan's 9.0 quake last year.

 

 

This animation shows  EarthScope stations lighting up in response to ground shaking following a 21 February 2008 earthquake in Wells, NV. From the video's YouTube page:

Each circle represents a seismometer and the colors change to reflect variations in the signal amplitude crossing the array. The ground motion begins near the source and then expands outward like a the waves from a pebble dropped in a pond. The circular wavefronts are distorted by the simple map projection used in the animation. The initial waves travel at about 8km/s, the larger amplitude waves that follow are moving at about 2.5km/s.

The amazing EarthScope array has been dubbed the upside-down telescope for its view into the dynamics of interior Earth.