2012 - %3, April

Time to Put "Only in America" Out of Its Misery

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 2:35 PM EDT

After listening to Mitt Romney's victory speech last night, Paul Waldman channels one of my pet peeves:

Can we just put aside the "only in America" schtick?....Let's be honest about this. America does indeed offer enormous opportunities for all kinds of people, despite our huge and growing inequality. The attraction it has always held for immigrants made this country what it is. For a long time, the kinds of opportunities available here were a rarity among nations, when in so many places class lines were much more rigid. But that's not true anymore. There are lots of places where somebody can come from modest circumstances and achieve wealth and/or power.

This whole routine usually just makes me laugh. To listen to America's politicians, you'd think that we live in the only country in the world where you can listen to whatever music you want, work in whatever job you want, eat whatever food you want, go to a hospital whenever you get sick, root for any sports team you want to, and elect the nitwit of your choice to high office. What really gets me, though, is how often this isn't just a mindless trope, but based instead on the apparent belief that Western Europe is some kind of impoverished, dystopian hellhole filled with sallow-faced drones who live lives of misery and angst.

Like most pet peeves, this one is basically innocuous, just a lazy way of demonstrating that you think America is great. No harm done, really. But it does grate now and then.

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Antarctic Ice Melting From Below by Warming Ocean

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 2:20 PM EDT

 

First map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California IrvineFirst map of Antarctica's moving ice: Image courtesy Eric Rignot, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and University of California Irvine

A paper published today in the science journal Nature reveals that the melting of Antarctica's ice sheet is being driven by a warming ocean more than a warming atmosphere.

Which means even though summer air temperatures have not yet warmed enough to substantially melt Antarctica's surface snows, the oceans are undermining the frozen continent from below—fueling a recent, widespread, and intensifying glacier acceleration and its accompanying rise in sea levels.

The results are based on 4.5 million measurements made by a laser instrument mounted on NASA's now defunct ICESat satellite between 2003 and 2008, which mapped the thickness of most floating ice shelves around Antarctica. The results:

  • Of 54 ice shelves mapped, 20 are being melted by warm ocean currents, most of those in West Antarctica.
  • In all cases the inland glaciers that flow down to the coast and feed into these thinning ice shelves have accelerated, draining more ice into the sea and contributing to sea-level rise.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the afternoon of 12 January 2010 .: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica on the morning of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The Ronne-Filchner Ice Shelf in West Antarctica  rapidly breaking up. Top image taken on the afternoon of 12 January 2010. Bottom image taken 24 hours later on the afternoon of 13 January 2010: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

The melting is happening fastest where deep troughs cut through the underwater continental shelf, allowing warmer water access to the undersides of the ice shelves. 

Lead author Hamish Pritchard at the British Antarctic Survey says:

"What’s really interesting is just how sensitive these glaciers seem to be. Some ice shelves are thinning by a few meters a year and in response the glaciers drain billions of tons of ice into the sea. This supports the idea that ice shelves are important in slowing down the glaciers that feed them, controlling the loss of ice from the Antarctic ice sheet... We think [the cause is] linked to changes in wind patterns. Studies have shown that Antarctic winds have changed because of changes in climate and that this has affected the strength and direction of ocean currents. As a result warm water is funnelled beneath the floating ice. These studies and our new results therefore suggest that Antarctica’s glaciers are responding rapidly to a changing climate. 

 

 

You can see that happening in this NASA video which shows warm ocean currents attacking the underside of ice shelves. Ice shelves colored red are thicker (greater than 1,800 feet / 550 meters). Those colored blue are thinner (less than 650 feet / 200 meters).  

The ice2sea project team behind the new paper will be releasing its projections on sea level rise into the 21st and 22nd centuries later this year. 

To Kick Climate Change, Replace Corn With Pastured Beef

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:51 PM EDT

Corn is by far the biggest US crop, and a network of corporations has sprouted up that profits handsomely from it. Companies like Monsanto and Syngenta sell the seeds and chemicals used to grow it, while Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson, and their peers buy the finished crop and transform it into meat, ethanol, sweetener, and a range of food ingredients. Known in Washington as King Corn, the corn lobby wields formidable power in political circles. 

And the economic pie these companies gorge on is massive. Pesticide Action Network's Heather Pilatic has an great post about how integrated pest management in US corn fields collapsed with the introduction of Monsanto's seeds engineered to contain the pesticide Bt and with the rise of Bayer's neonicotinoid-pesticide seed treatments—representing billions in annual sales to those companies. On the corn-processing side, government mandates ensure that a huge portion of the corn crop—currently, 40 percent—gets diverted into the fuel supply in the form of ethanol, a huge boon to ethanol giant Archer Daniels Midland.

The Yellow Rose of Southern California

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 1:10 PM EDT

It's spring, so here's a picture of a blooming yellow rose from our garden. I don't really need an excuse to post this, do I?

And speaking of yellow roses, did you know that most of Emily Dickinson's poems can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas"? It's true! Go ahead and give it a try.

Congress Already Has the Power to Make Us Buy Things We Don't Want

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 12:56 PM EDT

We're probably all tired of arguments about whether the individual mandate is constitutional, right? I mean, the arguments have been made and someone on the Supreme Court is already busily at work writing a majority opinion telling us whether it is or isn't. But Andrew Sprung hasn't given up talking about it, and today he riffs off a song that contains the line, "But the car that you are driving doesn't really belong to you." And that reminds me of something.

Andrew uses this to segue into a discussion of the nature of insurance mandates, but I've long thought that cars can teach us a different lesson about the power of the federal government to make us buy things even if we don't want them. When I bought my last car, for example, I was forced by federal law to also buy seat belts and air bags — and as far as I know, no court has ever suggested the federal government lacks this power. Why?

Technically, of course, the government isn't forcing me to buy these things. I could, if I wanted, forego the purchase of a car. This isn't very practical where I live, serviced as I am by a single bus line that comes by once an hour, but I could do it. I could also move someplace with better transit. I'm not absolutely mandated to own seat belts and airbags.

But in real life, the fact is that most of us need a car. It's only an option in the most hyperlegalistic sense, which means that for all practical purposes the federal government has mandated that I buy seat belts and airbags. And they've done that on the theory that even if I don't care about my own safety, other people might ride in my car and they deserve protection. What's more, taxpayers could end up on the hook for medical care if I injure myself and my passengers. So seat belts and airbags are the law.

Practically speaking, then, what's the difference between this and an insurance mandate? In both cases the federal government is forcing me to buy something I might not want. The cost of complying with both mandates is substantial. You can be fined for disabling airbags or removing seat belts, just as Obamacare fines you for not buying health insurance. They're pretty damn similar.

I understand that it's possible to draw a distinction between airbag mandates and health insurance mandates. It's possible to draw a distinction between anything if you put your mind to it. But in real-life terms, what's really the difference? Not much, it seems to me. Unless you live the life of a hermit, Congress already regulates inactivity heavily and extensively. There's stuff you have to buy whether you like it or not. Welcome to the modern world.

Europe Still on Slow Motion Course to Disaster

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 12:06 PM EDT

Stories about problems in the eurozone often compare the "industrious" north to the "carefree" south. Or maybe the "easy-going" south. Or the "sun-drenched" south. The word lazy is seldom actually used, but it's almost always implied. They're just a bunch of sluggards down in Italy and Spain and Greece and Portugal!

As it happens, this isn't true. According to OECD figures, Italians average about 34 hours of work per week. Portugal clocks in at 33 and Spain at 32. The industrious French, by contrast, work an average of only 30 hours per week. Germans punch in 27 hours per week and the Dutch 26.

The problem isn't laziness, it's lack of productivity. Italians simply don't produce as much per hour as Germans, which means that in order to be competitive they have to be paid less. But over the past decade, thanks to hot currency flows into the south, inflation in Europe's periphery has been high and wages have risen. A currency devaluation could take care of this, but since Germans and Italians all use the euro these days, that's not possible. Nonetheless, one way or another, labor costs need to go up in Germany and France and down in Italy and Spain.

Unfortunately, as Paul Krugman points out this morning, that's just not happening. Not nearly fast enough anyway. Labor costs in Italy have actually risen more than in Germany, and even in Spain and Portugal, which have risen less, the difference is tiny. Spain has made up less than one percentage point on Germany and only about three percentage points on France. At that rate, relative labor costs won't get to where they need to be for decades.

"You can argue that adjustment is happening here," says Krugman, "but it’s painfully slow — and not remotely fast enough to avert catastrophe on the current course." This is true. At the same time, it's also true, as Tyler Cowen points out, that "There does not exist any coherent, workable, political incentive-compatible plan whereby [periphery] governments borrow more, spend more, and 'invest for growth.'" Something along the lines of Jay Shambaugh's plan might work, but nothing along those lines is yet on offer, and Europe simply doesn't have decades before something gives and the eurozone collapses. The question is, how long do they have?

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Newt Gingrich Maybe Kinda Considering Dropping Out

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 11:07 AM EDT

Following his razor-thin 29-point loss to Mitt Romney in Delaware last night — along with his somewhat, um, larger losses in other states — Newt Gingrich is thinking seriously about reassessing his position:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is expected to suspend his presidential campaign within the next week, according to a Republican operative familiar with the decision....“Over the next few days we're going to look realistically at where we're at,” Gingrich said in a speech in Concord Tuesday night. He said he would assess the race “as somebody who's a unifier and somebody who's realistic.”

That's our Newt: a realist and a unifier. So maybe in a week or so he'll announce that, you know, he could have won, but for the good of the party he's dropping out. Because that's just the kind of selfless, big-hearted guy that he is. Yeesh.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 25, 2012

Wed Apr. 25, 2012 9:58 AM EDT

Lance Cpl. Anthony Acosta fires a M240B machine gun during live-fire training on April 24, 2012 aboard USS Pearl Harbor here. The 22-year-old Phoenix native serves as a mortarman for Battalion Landing Team 3/1, the ground combat element for the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit. The unit is deployed as part of the Makin Island Amphibious Ready Group, currently a US Central Command theater reserve force. The group is providing support for maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the US Navy's 5th Fleet area of responsibility. Photo by Cpl. Tommy Huynh.

11 Minutes To Eat School Lunch?!?

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

My recent post on the question of food deserts and people's eating habits led me to a topic I haven't touched in a while: school lunches. I wrote about it a lot in 2009-'10, when Congress was working on its once-in-five-years reauthorization of lunch funding.

Amid much hype in late 2010, President Obama signed a reauthorization bill that created new guidelines to encourage more fresh and healthy foods, but allocated an extra 6 cents a day per kid—a miserly sum given that schools have less than $3.00 per day to spend on each kid's lunch, about two-thirds of which goes to overhead, leaving pennies to spend on ingredients.

It's hard for me to imagine that schools can serve up decent food at those rates. And money isn't the only scarce commodity cafeteria operators have to grapple with. Another one is time. Get this:

In the Minneapolis public schools, we are supposed to have 15 minutes to eat, which would be bad enough. But realistically we get only 10 to 11 minutes (we have been timing it).

That's from Minneapolis sixth graders Talia Bradley and Antonia Ritter, writing on the op-ed page of the Minnesota Star Tribune. Ten to 11 minutes to eat lunch? Welcome to fast-food nation, kids, where eating is a necessary inconvenience, to be dispatched with as rapidly as possible.

Nationwide, similar trends hold sway. According to the School Nutrition Association, elementary-school kids get a median of 25 minutes for lunch, while middle and high school students get 30.

Over at the Lunch Tray blog, University of Iowa law professor and parent of public-school children Chris Liebig offers the following explanation for what he calls the "incredible shrinking lunch period":

At a meeting with concerned parents, the school superintendent sympathized with our concerns, but explained how much pressure the administrators were under, because of No Child Left Behind, to raise standardized test scores. As a result, administrators felt that they had to add instructional time to the day, and there were only so many places to find those minutes. Hence the disappearing lunch and recess.

What seems to be going on in schools is that administrators are drawing a clean line between eating and education—and squeezing the one in order to make more time for the other in an era of budget cuts.

But as Lunch Tray blogger Bettina Elias Siegel argues, that distinction is false. She points to a post by Karen Le Billion (author of French Kids Eat Everything), who puts the case like this:

Learning doesn’t stop in the lunchroom, in my opinion. If we are giving our children a short lunch break, we are teaching them that food is an inconvenience, and eating is an interruption in the day. We encourage them to gobble their food, when the research shows that eating more slowly is healthier. In fact, the French spend longer eating, but eat less–in part because that ‘fullness feeling’ (satiety signal) needs about 20 minutes to get from your stomach to your brain. But the French also spend longer eating because they believe that it’s important to teach kids to eat well—it’s a life skill, like reading.

Hustling kids through lunch, by contrast, seems an ideal way to mint life-long customers for the fast-food industry.

MAPS: Biblical Flooding Is Coming to a Refinery Near You

| Wed Apr. 25, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Oil and water don't mix, but that may soon change.

A rare Senate hearing on the threat of rising sea levels last week coincided with a new report from Climate Central, a non-profit that publishes peer-reviewed environmental research, that shows rising seas may soon be lapping at the country's oil and gas refineries, electric and natural gas power plants, and even nuclear facilities.

Climate change has raised global sea levels by eight inches since the late 19th century, amping up storm surges and flooding around the world. Extreme coastal deluges—of the sort that's only supposed to happen once a century—are those that reach at least four feet above local high tides. The rate of this kind of biblical flooding is expected to more than double by 2030, according to the report. Check out the researchers' map of coastal threats from rising waters in your area:

Climate Central

This is bad news for coastal energy facilities. The analysis, which assessed data from the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, the US Geological Survey and FEMA, tallied nearly 300 locations, spread across 22 coastal states, which stand on ground below that critical high tide-plus-four level. That includes 130 natural gas, 96 electric, 56 oil and gas, and 4 nuclear facilities. Here's Climate Central's map of of all the at-risk locations. (You can adjust the data to show energy facilities at higher and lower flood levels.)


More than half are in Louisiana. That state can't win.

Ben Strauss, Director of Climate Central's Program on Sea Level Rise, and co-author of the report, who testified at the Senate hearing, says flooding of energy facilities could result in blackouts, damage to critical access roads and destruction of mechanical systems. At refineries storm surges could cause spillage, damage to storage tanks, and national oil supply shortages. Or imagine an American Fukushima, in which flood waters cut off power supplies, keeping reactors from being cooled, and triggering a nuclear meltdown.

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the lone Republican at the hearing, called the report's findings "a wake-up call."

Scientists expect waters to rise 20-80 more inches this century, depending on whether the world gets it together policy-wise. Don't hold your breath.

Well, actually, you might need to.