2012 - %3, July

A Quick Peek Inside the Latest From the Nutball Right

| Sun Jul. 22, 2012 1:40 PM EDT

It's unfair to spend too much time highlighting the ravings of unhinged cranks, especially if it's done with the unstated implication that they speak for a broader political movement. But then again, sometimes it's worthwhile to let people know just how demented things are getting out there. Here's a small excerpt from a fundraising email sent out by the crackpots at Teaparty.org highlighting a new video from Jerome Corsi, one of the masterminds behind the 2004 swiftboating of John Kerry:

Wasn't that the plot of Salt? Angelina Jolie really kicked some ass in that movie. I guess Corsi and the Teaparty.org folks thought it was a documentary.

Elsewhere, Steven Taylor passes along the news that certified nutcase Alex Jones doesn't believe the mass shooting in Aurora was the act of a demented maniac, but was "planned by the Obama administration (along with Fast and Furious and the Gabrielle Giffords shooting) as a plot to let the UN take our guns away." Perhaps Jones will ask Ron Paul what he thinks of that the next time he appears on the show.

I wish it were hard to see where this stuff comes from, but Corsi's lunacy is only a few ticks away from birtherism and Jones's lunacy is only a few ticks away from the idea that Fast & Furious was designed from the start to help make the case for more restrictive gun laws. Both of these are fairly widely held beliefs on the right, which makes it pretty easy to see how Corsi and Jones got where they did.

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The Surprisingly Monkish Life of 1950s Executives

| Sat Jul. 21, 2012 11:32 AM EDT

Counterparties put up a link yesterday to a recent reprint of a 1955 Fortune article that profiled the lifestyles of Eisenhower-era top executives. There's all sorts of great stuff there, most prominently the surprisingly low incomes (by current standards) of the very top of the top back then. Adjusted for inflation, they figure the top 30,000 execs earned $400,000 and up in 1955 — a sadly reduced income compared to past glory days, which meant they had to buy much smaller yachts and make do with only two servants. (I'm not making that up. Read the story!) Today, the same slice of top execs probably earns more like $3-4 million and up. (Way up.)

But that's old news. This was my favorite paragraph:

[The successful American executive] spends almost no time on politics. He entertains often because he must (i.e., for business reasons or on account of his wife) and, under much the same compulsion, he attends cultural events. He does little reading outside of newspapers, newsmagazines, reports, and trade papers....He drinks, if he drinks at all, moderately and on a schedule. Alcoholism, it is clear, does not go with success and is to be found only among some executives' bored wives. Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.

Got that? American executives of the 50s were apolitical, hardly drank at all, and never fooled around. Thus spake Fortune magazine. Methinks they didn't have their fingers on the pulse of the executive suite quite as closely as they thought they did.

Also, be sure to check out the casual sexism that marinates the entire piece. There's nothing surprising in it, but it's still a sight to behold.

Politicizing Tragedy and the Aurora Theater Shooting

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 2:00 PM EDT

Early Friday morning, as Americans were waking up to the horrifying news of a mass shooting at a midnight showing of the latest Batman film in Aurora Colorado, someone was writing a press release. A political pundit was outlining the early draft of an op-ed explaining how there is no more vivid example of what ails America than those lost in Aurora. Politicians and their speechwriters began crafting careful statements, seeking to find the exact right measure of solemn regret and hardened resolve. 

Is this disturbing? It's said that one should never try to "politicize" tragedies like this one. President Barack Obama said Friday morning that "there are going to be other days for politics, this I think is a day for prayer and reflection." Mitt Romney, his Republican rival, said "I stand before you today not as a man running for office, but as a father and grandfather, a husband, and American." Both the campaigns and some of their respective third-party allies have asked networks to pull negative advertisements from television in the state. No one wants to make a scene at a funeral. 

There's something quite political about that, though. After all, the reason the campaigns are behaving this way is not just because of decorum, but because a breach of decorum would exact a political cost. Politics are an inevitable part of a collective national trauma, which, for better or for worse, is how America treats incidents like this one.  It's not only appropriate to ask how we got here—it would be irresponsible not to. We frequently treat politics as a team sport, but it isn't one. Trying to avoid politics trivializes politics, which is the means by which we make collective decisions as a society. A discussion about policies that could prevent future tragedies like this couldn't be more appropriate. 

Politics itself is not the problem, but there are reasons we react with revulsion to the thought of "politicizing" tragedies. What repells us is the rush to collective blame, the lightning impulse to assign responsibility to one's political adversaries. There is nothing like an actual monstrous act to demonstrate the silliness of our tendency to reduce one another to caricature. Shortly after the shooting, the website of the late Andrew Breitbart published speculation, quickly hyped by conservative internet maven Matt Drudge, that the suspect in the the shooting was a registered Democrat. With no apparent sense of irony, the website later published an "exclusive" press release from a Tea Party group criticizing ABC News' Brian Ross, who made the outrageous decision to speculate publicly that the suspect might have been involved with a local Tea Party organization. I don't know Ross' political views, so I can only describe his actions as inexcusably reckless. (ABC later apologized.)

To look at the the frightened eyes of the survivors in Aurora, and see only our own intrinsic goodness, and our political enemies' implacable evil, is the most impenetrable vanity. It's not politics, it's just tribalism. And it's grotesque. But we shouldn't mistake this kind of pettiness for politics itself, which is far too important an arena to cede to those who are incapable of seeing a tragedy and wondering, above all, what it says about themselves. We should be talking about why this happened, and what, if anything, can be done to prevent it from happening again. 

National tragedies are political. They're too important not to be. 

Friday Cat Blogging - 20 July 2012

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 1:53 PM EDT

On the left, this has been Domino's favorite new snoozing spot for the past couple of weeks. I don't get it. What's so special about that exact patch of carpet in front of the sofa? And it's a pain in the ass, too. We have to be mighty careful these days not to step on a cat that's quietly taken up residence in front of the sofa while we're engrossed in NCIS or Restaurant Impossible.

On the right, Inkblot hasn't changed his snoozing habits a bit. He's plonked out on the bed upstairs, rolling upside down and looking adorable when the camera approaches. There's never any danger of stepping on him.

Time for Brian Ross to Find a New Job

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 1:25 PM EDT

Earlier this morning, ABC's Brian Ross reported that some guy named Jim Holmes who belonged to the Colorado Tea Party might be the same James Holmes who murdered a dozen people in a theater in Aurora last night. "Now, we don't know if this is the same Jim Holmes," Ross said "but it's Jim Holmes of Aurora, Colorado."

Needless to say, it turned out that this wasn't the guy. I don't normally call for people's heads for making a mistake, even a bad one, but this is really beyond the pale. What kind of reporter says something like this on national TV despite knowing full well that he has no idea if he's pegging the right person? Is there really any good reason Ross should still be employed by ABC News by the close of business today?

Is Science the Answer to Global Warming?

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 12:45 PM EDT

Like me, Ryan Avent is pretty discouraged about the likelihood that we'll do anything about global warming in time to prevent the earth from becoming an "alien place." This is because climate change has always been the public policy problem from hell, the kind of thing a graduate seminar would come up with if they were challenged to invent a problem that was virtually impossible to solve. Global? Check. Slow moving? Check. Invisible? Check. Costly to address? Check. Lots of well-heeled interest groups opposed? Requires international cooperation? Demands irksome lifestyle changes? Check, check, and check.

So maybe science is the answer?

The temptation upon considering needs like those above is to call for a "Manhattan project" approach, throwing massive government resources at the problem. Maybe that would work, and maybe it would generate knowledge spillovers large enough to justify the cost. Again, however economically problematic it may prove, the political realities (in America, anyway) suggest that an effort is unlikely to materialise. It's more likely that funds will be diverted from existing research programmes to pay for social spending or tax cuts.

I wonder why there hasn't been more philanthropical focus on prizes. Prizes have proven effective in generating innovation, perhaps most notably in kickstarting private space flight and research into autonomous vehicles....Perhaps prizes for new energy sources couldn't be expected to do much good; after all, there's already lots of money to be made from such innovations. But for technologies that would safely turn greenhouse gases in the air into something inert? There's little market for that at the moment, and a prize could make a great deal of difference.

Maybe. The problem with the Manhattan Project approach is that we're already doing it. The original Manhattan Project cost about $2 billion over five years, which amounted to roughly 0.2% of GDP over the same period. That's equivalent to $30 billion per year today. It's true that we don't spend that much on federal research alone, but public and private investment combined is probably close to that figure already.

As for prizes, I've never been able to get as excited about them as the geekosphere in general. Autonomous cars are getting close to reality because the technology has finally reached a critical level. I doubt that the various prize programs really had that much to do with it. And space flight? The prizes worked great — but only after the federal government had spent 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars developing all the basic technology.

But I'll confess that these still seem like the best bets we have. The problem is that they'd have to be big. If the feds implemented a big carbon tax, say $100 billion per year, and then used the money to intensively fund a wide variety of climate-oriented research programs, with $20 or $30 billion of that dedicated to prizes, it might work. It also might just be a boondoggle, but at least it has a chance. Conversely, as near as I can tell, relying on talking shops and international regulation has about no chance at all.

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Weak Smog Rules Cost Lives

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 11:42 AM EDT

Smog standards that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in 2010 could save as many as 4,130 lives per year, according to a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Just one problem: those standards are on indefinite hold.

More than two years ago, the EPA unveiled tougher new rules on ozone pollution. But in September 2011, President Obama stepped in to block the new rules as part of his administration's effort to remove "regulatory burdens." New rules are delayed until 2013, at the earliest.

But as the new study confirms, there are real-life costs of delaying these regulations. The current Bush-era standard is set at 75 parts per billion. Reducing it to 70 parts per billion, which is what the EPA was expected to propose, would save 2,450 to 4,130 lives per year, the Hopkins team found. Tightening it to 60 parts per billion, the lower end of the EPA scientific panel's recommendation, would save between 5,210 and 7,990 lives per year.

This is particularly problematic during periods of extreme heat like we've seen this summer. Ozone levels rise with temperatures, contributing to poor air quality that is especially harmful to folks with asthma or other respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. It can be deadly, but it can also result in more trips to the hospital and more missed days of work and school. As Environmental Health News reports, this will only become more important in the warmer future:

"We contend that a more stringent standard would prevent a substantial number of adverse health outcomes," wrote the researchers, led by senior scientist Frank Curriero of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The team calculated the reduced deaths by incorporating data from a variety of health studies around the country that have found that whenever ozone levels rise, deaths and hospitalizations from cardiovascular and respiratory problems rise, too.
The authors warned that as temperatures heat up due to global warming, smog levels will worsen and deaths will increase. "Implementation of tigher emissions regulation is important because ambient ozone levels are predicted to rise with changes in global climate," they wrote.

But you know, everyone can wait until after the election to worry about that.

Why Pot Is Still Illegal Everywhere in the World, Part 2

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 11:23 AM EDT

Are international treaties preventing the United States from fully legalizing marijuana? Yes, but Mark Kleiman adds some nuance:

If a state were to tax and regulate, and the feds were to mind their own business (i.e., prevent interstate commerce but not mess with strictly intra-state production, sale, and use) then we’d have something much more like real legalization than, for example, the Dutch system is.

In addition, while even five years ago the treaties looked immutable, that’s much less true now. The U.S. could withdraw from the Single Convention and re-acceed to it with a “reservation” about marijuana. That would leave the other parties to the treaty with the option of accepting the reservation or kicking the U.S. out of the treaty system entirely. Or the U.S. could propose amendments to the treaties; we’d have company, though whether enough company to actually secure the 2/3 required for an amendment is doubtful.

So the treaties do create barriers to true legalization, but those barriers aren’t impassable.

That gibes with my understanding of the situation, which is a relief since my understanding mostly came from Mark a few years ago. Basically, to fully legalize pot we'd need to withdraw from the relevant treaties, which I continue to think isn't in the cards anytime soon — though Mark appears to think it's not quite as out-of-the-question as I do. (My guess: it might get ten votes in the Senate. Maybe.) Failing that, we can get close if the feds simply decide not to enforce the law. Right now, that's probably our most promising option.

Drudge, Breitbart.com, and ABC on the Dark Knight Rises Theater Shooting: #Fail

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 11:17 AM EDT

At least 12 people were killed in a mass shooting at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado. The name of the suspected gunman, now in custody, is James E. Holmes. What we know about him this morning: He's a white male, mid-20s, with an apartment in Aurora.

Here's Matt Drudge tweeting a thinly sourced Joel Pollak report at Breitbart.com: 

The James Holmes tracked down by Breitbart.com is 25 years old and registered at an address in La Plata County—roughly a six-hour drive from the alleged shooter's apartment, according to Google Maps.

And now, here's ABC News' Brian Ross earlier today, irresponsibly speculating on the shooter's possible Tea Party link (ABC later withdrew the claim and apologized):

There are a lot of people in Denver and Aurora with the legal name of James/Jim Holmes.

Dozens of people are injured. At least 12 people are dead. The body count could rise. Even the 2012 attack dogs are taking a siesta from the partisan mudslinging in the wake of the tragedy. If you're going to publish a story about an alleged mass murderer's politics, you had better get it right.

Microsoft Finally Admits Defeat

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 10:58 AM EDT

Matt Yglesias notes that investors are shrugging their collective shoulders at Microsoft's news that it lost money last quarter for the first time in its history:

Interestingly, markets aren't freaking out and Microsoft's stock isn't tanking. That's because investors seem happy to accept Microsoft's view that this is basically all just a matter of accounting gimmicks ("the previously announced non-cash, non-tax-deductible income statement charge of $6.19 billion for the impairment of goodwill and the deferral of $540 million of revenue related to the Windows Upgrade Offer") and the company offered a parallel non-GAAP earnings measure showing very solid 7% revenue increase and 12% operating income increase.

I'm not actually sure how reassuring I would find any of that. If you look at the statement, the basic structure of Microsoft continues to be that it has highly profitable franchises selling Windows and Office and enterprise server software yoked to a staggeringly unsuccessful online services division.

This is no surprise. Especially in the high-tech world, investors have long since concluded that official GAAP earnings are indeed basically a collection of accounting gimmicks and that a simpler look at earnings probably provides a better snapshot of a company's health. So they're happily accepting Microsoft's view because it's the view that's been conventional wisdom for a long time.

The second paragraph is more interesting, and it's the real reason no one freaked out over this news: the market gave up on Microsoft's online business and priced that failure into Microsoft's market cap long ago. At this point, investors are probably just relieved that Microsoft has finally admitted the obvious, which might mean that it's ready to try something different.