2012 - %3, June

UPDATED: Extreme Weather Takes Over America

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 1:40 PM PDT

UPDATE June 29, 2012: Nature’s fury continues to wreak havoc across the US. The Colorado Waldo Canyon wildfire—officially the worst ever in state history—is leaving a wasteland in its wake, according to the Colorado Springs mayor. (Read all about the Colorado fires in our explainer here.)

 Meanwhile, it's hot as hell almost everywhere in the country, but historic torridity is creeping east. Sweltering temperatures have shattered Dust Bowl era records. At least two people may have died from excessive heat. Oh, and good luck breathing this weekend, Maryland. Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Debby, which pelted northern Florida with more than 20 inches of wet despair, has claimed seven lives. Perhaps June is the cruelest month.

June 28, 2012 - It was 103 degrees in Memphis, Tenn.  Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPressJune 28, 2012 - It was 103 degrees in Memphis, Tenn. Mike Maple/The Commercial Appeal/ZUMAPress

June 27, 2012 -  Port Richey, Fla. residents were evacuated from their mobile home park in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby. Brendan Fitterer/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPressJune 27, 2012 - Port Richey, Fla. residents were evacuated from their mobile home park in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Debby. Brendan Fitterer/Tampa Bay Times/ZUMAPress


June 22, 2009: The Supreme Court's upcoming health-care ruling, Sandusky's trial by jury, and this 68-year-old, bullied bus monitor aside, the big news everyone seems to be talking about this week is WTF is up with our nation's weather?

In northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, three days of torrential downpour forced nearly 300 people from their homes, drowned more than a dozen zoo animals, and caused $80 million in infrastructure damage. Fifteen large, uncontained fires are blazing in 10 states; in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, deadly conflagrations have scorched more than 400,000 acres of land. On the other side of the country, a giant heat wave is engulfing the Northeast and parts of the Great Plains.

The map below should give you some indication of the past week's crazy weather forecast. Click on the colored markers for more detailed information about record-breaking temperatures and precipitation and the status of current wildfire suppression efforts.

Sources: National Climate Data Center via Wunderground.com; USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program, June 22, 2012

Want a closer look at weather patterns and extremes in your area? Read Julia Whitty's post on Weather Underground, and make your own interactive map here.

Here are some photos from this week's weather weirdness.

June 20, 2012 - Flooding in Duluth, Minn. has torn up area roads.  Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - Flooding in Duluth, Minn. has torn up area roads. Brian Peterson/Minneapolis Star Tribune/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - A wildfire blazes behind St. Anthony Catholic Church in Sandia Pueblo, N. Mex.  Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMAPressJune 20, 2012 - A wildfire blazes behind St. Anthony Catholic Church in Sandia Pueblo, N. Mex. Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal/ZUMAPress

June 21, 2012 - A mother and her son try to beat the heat while waiting for a bus in Baltimore, Md.  Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/ZUMAPressJune 21, 2012 - A mother and her son try to beat the heat while waiting for a bus in Baltimore, Md. Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/ZUMAPress

What was the weather like in your part of town? Let us know in the comments.

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The Senate Farm Bill: It Could Have Been Worse

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 1:30 PM PDT
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee

As the 2012 farm bill zipped its way through the Senate—passing Thursday by a vote of 64-35— I kept thinking of something that veteran farm policy watcher Fred Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition told me back in April.

He said that the Senate version represents the bill's "high-water mark" in terms of progressive policy—that whatever the Senate comes up will be pushed in more Big Ag-friendly, regressive directions during reconciliation with the House.

Well, as expected, the Senate version of the farm bill preserves the broad incentives that have been in place for US agriculture for decades: Grow as much corn, soy, and a few other commodities as possible. It achieves it through insurance schemes described in my April post.

Obama Immigration Speech: Latinos Should Blame Republicans for Blocking Immigration Reform

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 12:11 PM PDT
Obama shakes hands with supporters following a speech on immigration reform in 2011.

It was President Obama's turn to address the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on Friday, the day after Mitt Romney spoke to the same group. Obama emphasized his commitment to passing the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. He reminded the audience that he voted for President George W. Bush's immigration reform bill as a senator, and that the bill had been scuttled by immigration restrictionists from Bush's own party.

The president's reception at NALEO was very warm—he drew several standing ovations. His defense of his decision to exempt DREAM Act-eligible unauthorized immigrants from deportation was well-received. "They are Americans in their hearts, in their minds, in every single way but on paper—and all they want is to go to college and give back to the country they love," Obama said. "Lifting the shadow of deportation and giving them a reason to hope was the right thing to do."

Obama didn't mention Romney by name, but he did refer to his rival's pledge to veto the DREAM Act. "Your speaker from yesterday has a different view," Obama said. "In his speech, he said that when he makes a promise to you, he’ll keep it. Well, he has promised to veto the DREAM Act, and we should take him at his word."

The president also directly blamed Republican partisanship for the collapse of immigration reform efforts. Here's the key section of his speech:

In the face of a Congress that refuses to do anything on immigration, I’ve said that I’ll take action wherever I can. My Administration has been doing what we can without help in Congress for more than three years. And last week, we took another step. On Friday, we announced that we’re lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children. We should have passed the DREAM Act a long time ago. It was written by members of both parties. But when it came up for a vote two years ago, Republicans in Congress got together and blocked it. The bill hadn’t really changed. The need definitely hadn’t changed. The only thing that had changed, apparently, was politics.

This is not an entirely accurate portrayal of events. Republicans did band together to block the DREAM Act, including several former co-sponsors of previous versions of the bill. But they were joined by skittish centrist Democrats. The final vote was 55 to 41, with five Senate Democrats joining the opposition. Had Obama delivered the votes of his own party, the DREAM Act would have passed. And if Republicans who previously supported the legislation hadn't decided it was terrible after Obama supported it, it would have passed. 

The president has a big advantage over Romney with Latinos, but his task is arguably harder. With little progress on reform but a verbal commitment to policies Latino voters prefer, Obama has to seriously energize Latino voters to have a chance at retaining the Oval Office. Romney, on the other hand, doesn't have to win a majority of the Latino vote—he just has to convince enough of them he wouldn't be that bad. 

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 June 2012

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 11:57 AM PDT

As regular readers of Friday catblogging know, I don't use my camera's flash very often. Mostly that's because I just don't like direct flash much, but it's also because "laser eye" in cat pictures is far worse than red eye in human pictures. You have to shoot from a pretty extreme angle to avoid it.

But sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, and last night was one of those times. On the left, Marian is tuckered out on the sofa and Domino has decided she makes a pretty good bed. On the right, Inkblot has churned through his usual cycle of favorite places and decided that the antique bench is once again his favorite place. That should last another week or so. They're so cute when they drape a paw over their eyes, aren't they?

Why I Hate Social Media, Part 386

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 11:35 AM PDT

Why do I hate social media so much? I guess I'm just antisocial. (Seriously. I am.) But there's also this, from the Clay Shirky interview I just posted about:

Wired: What developments — companies, products, technologies, whatever — really get you excited right now?

Shirky: I don’t know if you’ve played with news.me, have you seen this thing?

Wired: No I haven’t.

Shirky: So news.me sits on top of bit.ly, and it also sits on top of your social graph in Twitter and it just forwards you the five most popular stories among everybody you follow, not based on the number of times the link was circulated, but the number of times individual people you follow clicked on that link. It really has become my favorite piece of email of the day. I’ve tried lots of curation services and have really been wrestling with the serendipity problem in one form or another in news since the 1990s, when I did some work with Walter Bender’s group up at MIT. And this is the first thing I’ve seen that’s actually done it.

That sounded kind of interesting, so I went over to News.me to sign up and try it. First they needed my email address. Fine. Then I had to add my Twitter account. Fine again. But here's what I had to allow the news.me folks to do:

  • Read Tweets from your timeline.
  • See who you follow, and follow new people.
  • Update your profile.
  • Post Tweets for you.

Say what? I have to give them the authority to update my profile and post tweets under my name? I don't know if this requirement is a News.me thing or a Twitter API thing, but it's ridiculous. Obviously they need read access to my timeline and followers in order to put together their custom-built compilation of news pieces and email them to me. But they don't need write access to my account. And they didn't get it. They still have my email address, though. I guess I'll never get that back from them.

Once again, though, I'm left scratching my chin. Am I wildly overreacting? Does no one care about this kind of thing anymore? Should I just shrug and let it go? Or is this every bit as intrusive as I think it is? Can someone under the age of 25 please help me out?

UPDATE: Mike Young, chief technology officer at News.me, replies in comments:

I wanted to try to explain why we ask for both read and write permissions for Twitter when signing up for News.me. You are right to give pause and be concerned with any applications that ask for this, but hopefully this will help explain things a bit.

When building a Twitter app, you can ask for (only) two sets of permissions: "read" and/or "write." The read part is obvious, as you mentioned — we collect the tweets in your stream throughout the day and display what we think are the most interesting stories for you in our daily email, as well as our iphone and ipad apps. We ask for "write" permissions to your account so that you can do things like share/tweet articles (or retweet) from our iPhone, iPad and upcoming web application. The only way to do this from any third-party Twitter application, like News.me, is if you authorize "write" access. Since News.me spans across email, iphone and ipad (and soon the web), we ask for both read and write access if you log in to News.me via any of those platforms.

One things to note: Twitter doesn't let you get more granular when you ask for "write" permissions like Facebook does. You noted that the Twitter dialog shows things like "this app can 'update your profile'" which we never do, or would ever want to do, but we can't tell Twitter that we don't want access to that. It's either all or nothing with Twitter. Facebook gives you much more granular controls so that, as a developer, you only ask for what you really need and it's very clear to the user which data the application will have access to. It's not the case with Twitter, but I believe that will change soon.

I hope this helps explain things a bit! We take this very seriously, and obviously have some work to do to make this more clear to our users. Happy to discuss further or answer any more questions here or on email.

Hmmm. I still think they could make write access optional for folks who don't care about retweeting from within their app. Still, that's the explanation and I wanted to pass it along.

It's Back to the Future for Presidential Campaigns

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 11:18 AM PDT

Wired posted an interview a few days ago with internet guru Clay Shirky. This part is getting a lot of attention:

Wired: Are you seeing anything interesting in how this election is being conducted or covered online?

Shirky: Clinton used mailing lists in ’92, and every election since then — famously Howard Dean to Barack Obama — has involved considerably more imaginative use of social media. And this election has not. I’ve been quite surprised by that.

I had a student looking at Super PACs a while ago, and we said, “Let’s try and find out what the Super PACs’ social media strategy is.” As she came back about 10 days later, she said, “I think I know what the Super PAC’s social media strategy is: Don’t use it.” That’s exactly the whole point of being a Super PAC, to be able to spend unlimited money on the kind of media where no one has the right or the ability to respond, and to minimize transparency. This election feels to me, right now, more Nixon-Kennedy than Obama-McCain because television has become the tool of choice for the source of unlimited fundraising. Politicians like television better; nobody gets to yell back to you if you’re yelling on TV.

I'm not sure this is right. Super PACs aren't focusing on social media because, rightly or wrongly, they don't think that's their strong suit. A social media campaign is better suited to an organization with a personal flavor or a longer planning horizon, like a presidential campaign or one of the major party national committees. It's nearly impossible to gin up any kind of viral enthusiasm for a faceless organization like Crossroads GPS.

So the real question isn't what Super PACs are doing, it's whether the Romney and Obama campaigns are using social media in any new and imaginative ways. And here, Shirky seems to be right. I can't remember reading a single piece this year about some creative new use of social media from the campaigns. Maybe that's because the mainstream media is bored with social media, but I doubt it. If they can get themselves interested in dressage and "the economy is doing fine," they can get themselves interested in whiz-bang new war room strategies based on whatever new new thing is supposedly putting Facebook out to pasture. But they haven't. That means either the campaigns are keeping this stuff very, very quiet, or else they aren't really doing anything new. The former is unlikely, so it's probably the latter. But why?

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Does Obama Have a Plan for Immigration Reform?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 9:45 AM PDT
Obama discusses immigration reform with former Rep. Joseph Cao (R-La.) in 2009.

Mitt Romney's speech on immigration policy before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials on Thursday avoided the two big questions regarding immigration reform. Voters still don't know what Romney would do with the approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the US. Last week, President Barack Obama announced a new Department of Homeland Security directive granting work authorization and temporary stays of deportation to certain young illegal immigrants brought to the United States as children. But voters don't know what Romney would do with those people, either.

Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post's pro-Romney blogger, is deeply upset that reporters have pointed out that the Romney speech was evasive. She has lashed out at the media for "spinning" for the White House, contending that "Mitt Romney came out with his own immigration plan, which was broader than the president's":

The hypocrisy is jaw-dropping. Where is Obama's solution? Well, wink-wink, he wants simply to legalize all of them, his defenders say. Oh really, then why not say so? And would they be citizens? There is a gulf as wide as the Grand Canyon between what Obama has hinted at and what he has done or even articulated in a reelection campaign.

The White House's position on both of these matters is available to anyone with access to a web browser and the ability to use Google. The Obama administration pushed for the DREAM Act in 2010 only to see it filibustered to death by Senate Republicans and a few Democrats. The White House's Blueprint for Immigration Reform states that the president favors a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants in the US provided they "register and undergo national security and criminal background checks." They will also have to "pay their taxes, pay a fine, and fully integrate into the United States by learning English." Obama also supported the immigration reform plan put forth by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that Graham subsquently abandoned.

Obama's commitment to following through on immigration reform can and should be questioned—many of the president's own allies were unsatisfied with his approach. But Romney's objections to the president's policy are made in bad faith and completely ignore Republican efforts to kneecap immigration reform. At any rate, Rubin is flat wrong: The president's position on both of these major issues is entirely clear.

That's not to say Romney's speech offered nothing of value. He stated very clearly Thursday that "we may not always agree, but when I make a promise to you, I will keep it." During the primary, Romney committed himself to a policy of forcing out undocumented immigrants through "self-deportation," and pledging to veto the DREAM Act. Voters who care about immigration policy should take Romney at his word that he'll keep those promises.

Good Politics Maybe Not Such Good Policy Lately

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 9:23 AM PDT

Will Wilkinson acknowledges that Darrell Issa's campaign to crucify Eric Holder over the Fast & Furious program is probably just an election-year witch hunt. But he doesn't care:

The executive has taken far too much power from the legislative branch, much to the detriment of democratic principles. I don't much care why in a particular case Congress wishes to assert its prerogatives against the executive. Whenever it finds the motivation, I'm for it. So this is an election-year ploy I'm happy to see. The people's representatives in government have a right to the information they need to hold the agents of the state accountable. They've asked. The executive has an obligation to comply. It's that easy.

Meanwhile, over at the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer argues that President Obama's newfound belief that he can unilaterally change immigration laws is "naked lawlessness":

Prosecutorial discretion is the application on a case-by-case basis of considerations of extreme and extenuating circumstances. No one is going to deport, say, a 29-year-old illegal immigrant whose parents had just died in some ghastly accident and who is the sole support for a disabled younger sister and ailing granny. That’s what prosecutorial discretion is for. The Napolitano memo is nothing of the sort. It’s the unilateral creation of a new category of persons — a class of 800,000 — who, regardless of individual circumstance, are hereby exempt from current law so long as they meet certain biographic criteria.

This is not discretion. This is a fundamental rewriting of the law.

I think both of these gentlemen are overstating things. In the case of the F&F fishing expedition, it's not actually quite "that easy." There are legitimate grounds to exert executive privilege, and Obama might be exercising one of them.

As for Krauthammer, overstating things is his stock in trade. As he knows very well, given limited resources, presidents have routinely set national enforcement and prosecutorial priorities at a policy level: more time on X, less time on Y, don't bother with Z. It's hardly unprecedented.

And yet, can I say that I think they both have a point? Sure, Issa submarined his own credibility by refusing Holder's offer to let his committee "review" the documents he wanted to see, but at the same time, I'm not gullible enough to believe that all the documents Issa has subpoenaed are truly protected conversations. Some may be, but I suspect that many are simply embarrassing. As with every other executive privilege case I can think of, I sure wish there were some sort of neutral third party that could adjudicate this stuff. Some third branch of government or something. That would help things along, wouldn't it?

As for mini-DREAM, presidents may set enforcement priorities, but Krauthammer is right when he says it's rare to see such a sweeping decision to simply not enforce the law under specific circumstances. As much as I approve substantively of what Obama has done, I think the authority of the president to ignore laws he doesn't like is — or at least should be — distinctly limited. Mini-DREAM sets a bad precedent.

I don't think either of these things are huge issues. Nowhere near as big as any of half a dozen national security policies I can think of. Mostly this is just election-year politics, red in tooth and claw. Nonetheless, I'm uneasy with both of these decisions.

Time to Let Greece Go?

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 8:52 AM PDT

Ezra Klein surveys the current attitudes of Germany and other northern European countries and asks, "Is Europe trying to kick Greece out?"

One plausible story I’ve begun to hear is that an increasing number in the euro zone actually want to drive Greece out. The idea, basically, is that Greece is such an unsalvageable basket case, and its economy is so much weaker than anyone else’s, and its governments have been so much more dishonest and difficult to deal with, that solving Greece’s problems would mean rewarding irresponsibility while not solving them would mean an endless cycle of crisis. At some point, it’s better just to cut them off and cauterize the wound.

The funny thing about this is that everyone might be better off if Germany and Greece negotiated a (relatively) amicable agreement to do this. Germany would be better off because they don't want to prop up Greece forever. Greece would be better off because re-adopting the drachma and devaluing it would solve their underlying problems of inflation and capital inflow and give them a chance at a genuine recovery. And the eurozone would be better off because it would be rid of the country least suited to be a member.

Obviously there's still the risk of contagion in this scenario: if Greece can negotiate an exit, why not Spain and Italy and Portugal too? But that's a looming danger in any case, and simply acknowledging what's common knowledge — that Greece never should have been part of the eurozone in the first place — might do everyone a world of good. A friendly deal that made Grexit as smooth as possible; kept Greece in the EU; and included some IMF support to cushion the blow might actually be the least bad bet for everyone.

How Politics Shapes the Supreme Court

| Fri Jun. 22, 2012 8:17 AM PDT

Ilya Somin argues that there's been less flip-flopping on the individual mandate than liberals think. In fact, plenty of conservatives have opposed it all along. I think that's considerably overstated, but I'll let it slide. Instead, ponder this:

It is certainly true that courts would be unlikely to strike down a major federal law that enjoyed broad bipartisan support. In that sense, the opposition of the GOP and the willingness of 28 state governments to file lawsuits against it played a crucial role. One can say the same thing for almost every major case challenging the constitutionality of a prominent law. None of them are likely to succeed in the face of overwhelming bipartisan opposition.

A friend writes in to wonder what this means:

Note the emphasis on the party here — that played a "crucial role." What is interesting here is the view that if one "party" lines up in full opposition and marshals its lieutenants in the states to press the issue in the courts, then any arguments upholding its constitutionality become much more suspect, the challenge more valid today — even if it was invalid yesterday. And courts should acknowledge that and be more willing to overturn the legislative decision due to the lack of bipartisanship. So, a 60-40 party-line vote in the Senate is less valid than a 51-50 vote as long as the 51 had a bipartisan mix and the state-generated challenges are a bipartisan mix as well. In each case, regardless of the merits. Or, more precisely, the merits don't come into play until the politics says they come into play.

Given the Roberts Court's rulings to date and certainly their public hearings, it's hard not to agree with Somin's point....It's a frightening paradigm and one that moderates and Democrats would — and should — abhore. But just dismissing it as absurd doesn't mean it isn't firmly in place and in full operation now.

If this is right, it means that the Republican Party's enthusiasm for unanimous obstruction is more than just a purely political strategy aimed at slowing legislation and appealing to its tea party base. It's also targeted at supposedly nonpolitical actors like the Supreme Court, giving them an opportunity to overturn a "partisan" law rather than one that's more broadly accepted. In theory, that shouldn't matter, but in practice it does. It's really a very nicely integrated strategy, much as Fox News has a nicely integrated strategy between its "news" shows and its "opinion" shows. It's pretty smart.