2012 - %3, November

Climate Change Didn't Cause Hurricane Sandy, But it Sure Made it Worse

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 1:26 PM EST

There are a bunch of technical reasons why climate change made Hurricane Sandy worse than it would have been, but Chris Mooney reports today that there's also a very simple reason: global warming has raised sea levels by about eight inches over the past century, and this means that when Sandy swept ashore it had eight extra inches of water to throw at us.

It turns out, eight inches matters a lot. First of all, using Climate Central's Surging Seas tool, [meteorologist Scott] Mandia estimated that 6,000 more people were impacted for each additional inch of sea level rise....Moreover, there is also reason to think that the second inch, so to speak, is worse than the first one. That's because of basic physics. Water flowing atop a surface—say, a New York City street—has its energy sapped by the friction of dragging along that street. However, if the water level is higher, it'll flow faster, because the water higher above the surface experiences less friction. "If you had an inch of water running down the street, you'd see all kinds of turbulence in it, which is basically energy being lost," Strauss explains. "But if the water were a foot above it, you'd see more sheet-like movement, which is a more powerful motion."

Speed matters a great deal in the context of a storm surge, because the surge is only temporary and will recede. So how far it penetrates before doing so is partly a function of its speed.

And there are still more reasons to think that increasing the size of a storm surge by eight inches really matters. Consider the US Army Corps of Engineers' "depth-damage" functions, which the Corps uses to study how much flood damage grows with an increasing water level. The upshot here, says Mandia, is that "the damage is exponential, it's not linear."Or in other words, as the water level increases, the level of damage tends to rise much more steeply than the mere level of water itself.

So that's that. No shilly shallying. No caveats. "There is 100 percent certainty that sea level rise made this worse," says sea level expert Ben Strauss. "Period."

And by the way, this is also why climate change is so much worse for a place like Bangladesh than it is for us: they have an enormous amount of very low-lying territory. They can adapt to a small, slow rise in sea level during normal times, but they can't adapt to the fact that monsoons become exponentially worse when sea level is higher. That extra eight inches turns into millions of tons of extra water, all delivered within a few hours to a place with nowhere near the infrastructure to handle it. So when you think about sea level rise, don't think about the shoreline advancing a bit and forcing people to move slightly farther inland. Think instead of storms and the extra millions of tons of water it delivers. That's climate change, and that's about as concrete as it gets.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Politically, Unions Are Between a Rock and a Hard Place

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 12:42 PM EST

Kathleen Geier points out that, as usual, labor played a big role in Tuesday's Democratic victory:

Labor's political power extends far beyond the 12% of American workers who are members of labor unions. Unions provide the ground troops that are essential for get-out-the-vote campaigns; this election cycle, they were particularly crucial in battleground states like Wisconsin and Ohio, which are union states. In particular, this year, unions played an even more active role in GOTV efforts than in the past, because as a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, for the first time, unions were able to call and canvass not just union households, but nonunion homes as well.

The big question is, in return for all that massive support, what can labor expect the Democrats to deliver?

The answer is: not an awful lot, really. So why do unions continue to pour so much effort into Democratic campaigns?

Prospect theory gives us the same answer as common sense: for most people, fear of loss is a more powerful motivation than anticipation of gain. And that's obviously what keeps unions working for Dems: they might not get very much out of it, but they know that they'll lose a helluva lot under Republicans.

This is a lousy deal for unions. Every election they put a ton of work in, knowing that they won't really get much more than dribs and drabs if Democrats win. But they're rightfully scared to death of what Republicans will do to them if they get into office. Democrats are well aware of this, which means they know they don't need to offer anything more than dribs and drabs. So they don't.

I keep thinking there ought to be a way for Republicans to leverage this. I'm not sure what it is, but even if they did nothing more than declare a truce of sorts, fear of loss might disappear as a motivating factor for unions. And with that, Democrats might lose a big chunk of support. But I suppose it'll never happen. Hatred of labor is just bred too deeply into their DNA.

In the Crunch, Citizens United Turned Out to Be a Big Fizzle

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 11:44 AM EST

Dave Weigel makes a good point this morning at the same time that he answers a question of mine. The subject is the apparently poor use of money by Republican super-PACs:

Here's the problem: Some of the big money went to organizing. I hung out multiple times with volunteers for American Majority, Americans for Prosperity, and FreedomWorks, all of which got sizable donations in order to turn out votes. Tea Partiers signed up, taking literature from home to home, trying to repeat the magic of 2010. It did not work. It wasn't just that the ads were lame, it was that the organizing was monumentally less effective than OFA's four-year campaign.

I've been wondering just how much of that Super-PAC money went to organizing, rather than simply saturating the airwaves with the 10,000th anti-Obama ad. Now I have at least an idea: it was a fair amount. It wasn't all ads.

Here's what's interesting about that: I think Super-PACs can be reasonably effective with independent ads. I don't know how effective they were in this election cycle, but if they weren't, they can learn from their mistakes and get better. What's more, the conventional wisdom here is true: Super-PACs can sometimes be more effective than campaigns because they have the freedom to run nasty ads that a campaign might not officially want to be associated with.

But organizing is different. Done properly, it's simply far more efficient for organizing to be centralized. You can target more precisely, you can make sure nothing falls through the cracks, and you can make sure that people get called with the right message and don't get barraged by multiple organizers. Unless I'm missing something important, Super-PACs will simply never be as good at organizing a national campaign as a highly-disciplined central organization.

And that's pretty important. I suspect that one of the lessons of 2012 is that we've roughly hit saturation on presidential advertising. There are only so many hours of TV broadcasting in the day, and only so many repetitions of a message that are effective. Citizens United might have unleashed a flood of Super-PAC money, but there might no longer be anywhere for it to go because the ground game really is as important as everyone says, and the best ground game comes from either the campaign itself or the party apparatus. If that's true, it may turn out that Citizens United isn't the end of Western civilization after all, but for reasons none of us realized two years ago.

Maryland Dreamers Score Latest Immigrant Victory

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 7:03 AM EST

With the passage of Tuesday's Question 4 ballot initiative, Maryland became the latest state—and the first by popular vote—to pass a so-called state Dream Act, allowing undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition rates for public college and universities there. Fourteen states* now have such laws on the books:

It might not have been the most controversial initiative on Maryland ballots this year—that'd be Question 6, the same-sex-marriage measure, which also passed—but the Dream Act still generated a heated debate in the Old Line State. The bill originally was approved by the General Assembly and was signed by Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley in 2011, but opponents, led by the group Help Save Maryland, collected well over the nearly 56,000 signatures required to force a referendum on the issue.

Coming just months after President Obama's deferred-action directive, the result was another bit of good news for advocates of immigrants' rights, who in the past couple of years have fought both the Obama administration over its deportation of more than 1 million undocumented immigrants and various statehouses over the bevy of self-deportation-related state immigration laws like Arizona's SB 1070.

Now, with Obama's reelection secured thanks in no small part to the overwhelming support of Latino voters, they will try to hold him to his campaign promise to push through comprehensive immigration reform. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's post-election comments were any indication, immigration could follow the fiscal cliff as 2013's biggest legislative battle.

*Note: According to the National Immigration Law Center's Tanya Broder, Minnesota, while not marked on the above map, offers a flat tuition rate to students, regardless of immigration status. Also, Rhode Island's state measure was passed by its higher education board, not the Legislature.

Why John Boehner Has Gerrymandering to Thank for His Majority

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 7:03 AM EST

In November 2010, I reported that GOP control of all elements of state government in key swing states—including but not limited to Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania—could ensure a "Republican decade" in control of the House of Representatives. The Democrats' massive 2010 losses couldn't have come at a worse time for the party. Because the census was taken in 2010, GOP control of state legislatures and governors mansions around the country gave Republicans the power to draw congressional district lines largely as they chose. They seized that chance, aggressively gerrymandering so as to protect Republican incumbents and endanger any remaining Democrats. The Dems would have done the same thing, of course, had they won control of these crucial states in 2010. But they didn't.

On Tuesday, the GOP cartographers' hard work paid off. Despite sweeping wins for Democrats in US Senate races and a broad Electoral College victory for President Barack Obama, it was clear early in the night that Republicans would hold on to the House. As Slate's Dave Weigel noted, "ridiculous gerrymanders saved the House Republican majority." In many states the president won convincingly, Democrats elected a minority of the House delegation. Here are the numbers for states that Obama won or came close and where Republicans drew the congressional map:

  • North Carolina, which Obama lost by around 2 percentage points: 9-4 GOP
  • Florida, which Obama won by around half a percentage point: 17-10 GOP
  • Ohio, which Obama won by nearly 2 percentage points: 12-4 GOP
  • Virginia, which Obama won by around 3 percentage points: 8-3 GOP
  • Pennsylvania, which Obama won by more than 5 percentage points: 13-5 GOP*
  • Wisconsin, which Obama won by 6 percentage points: 5-3 GOP
  • Michigan, which Obama won by 8 percentage points: 9-5 GOP

It goes to show that when you get to choose the ground on which electoral battles are fought, you're very likely to win them.

*Correction: This post originally said that Pennsylvania was 8-5 GOP. It's actually 13-5 GOP.

Quote of the Day: America's Billionaires are Pissed Off at Karl Rove

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 2:30 AM EST

Via Atrios, this is pretty funny:

"The billionaire donors I hear are livid," one Republican operative told The Huffington Post. "There is some holy hell to pay. Karl Rove has a lot of explaining to do ... I don't know how you tell your donors that we spent $390 million and got nothing."....Rove was forced to defend his group's expenditures live on Fox News on Tuesday night, and will hold a briefing with top donors on Thursday, according to Politico.

If conservative billionaires are looking for something else to be mad about, I'd recommend the Romney campaign's apparent habit of paying about 50 percent more for TV spots than the Obama campaign. That helped line the pockets of the consultants who both recommended the buys and got the commissions for placing the spots, but it didn't do much to win the election.

In the end, it turned out that one side ran its campaign like a business, while the other side ran its like a local PTA. Ironically, it was the ex-community organizer who did the former and the ex-CEO of Bain Capital who did the latter.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

We Should Probably All Calm Down a Bit

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 1:44 AM EST

I am going to be a killjoy tonight. I have two things to say:

  • Liberals, you should rein in the triumphalism. Obama won a narrow 51-49 percent victory and the composition of Congress changed only slightly. This was not a historic vindication of liberalism, and it doesn't mean that we can suddenly decide that demography will sweep us to victory for the next couple of decades. The plain truth is that although an increasing number of voters are turned off by what Republicans represent, that doesn't mean they've become lefty converts. A lot of them are still pretty nervous about a big part of our agenda, and we have a lot of work ahead to get them more solidly on our side. Also: No matter how much you hate to hear it, long-term deficit reduction and entitlement reform really are pretty important. Just because conservatives abuse the point doesn't mean there isn't something to it.
     
  • Conservatives, you should rein in the apocalytpic despair. Increasing top marginal rates to 39.6 percent is not a harbinger of torches and pitchforks in the streets, it's a limited corrective to decades of skyrocketing incomes at the high end. Obamacare is not a sign of incipient tyranny, it's a modest attempt to provide broad access to healthcare that's based on a Republican plan and operates largely through the private sector. Universal access to contraceptives doesn't represent the end of religious liberty, it represents a fairly narrow disagreement over the responsibilities of organizations that occupy a gray area between secular and religious. Fifty million people on food stamps doesn't mean the final triumph of takers over makers, it means that we're still recovering from the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. (Outside of healthcare, spending on low-income programs is actually pretty low.) America is still America, and it's still the best place in the world to be if you're an entrepreneur. More generally: You really do need to update your attitudes on a raft of social issues, but honestly, if you can manage to do something about your crackpot wing and your blood oath to Grover Norquist, you'd be in reasonably good shape.

Oh, and smart people on both sides of the aisle should start thinking seriously about how to handle a future in which smart machines do more and more work and humans do less and less. I'm dead serious about this.

That is all. For now. You may now start tearing me apart in comments.

Republicans Got Seriously Smoked in the Senate

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 10:07 PM EST

I know plenty of people have already said this, but the Senate is an even more impressive story for Democrats than President Obama's reelection last night. Just a few short months ago it was conventional wisdom that Democrats would be lucky if they only lost three seats, and might very well lose enough to turn control over to Republicans. Instead, they gained two seats.

In 2004, I remember being dismayed by Democratic performance in the tossup races. Out of five close Senate races, Republicans won four of them. This year was the exact opposite. Democrats won every single close contest but one (Heller in Nevada), and in the end most of the races didn't even turn out to be all that close. Heidi Heitkamp won by one point; Tester by four; Kaine by five; Baldwin by six; Donnelly by six; Warren by seven; and McCaskill by 16 (!). That's just a helluva performance.

Republicans could have at least retained their current numbers if they'd had the good sense to reject tea party nutballs in Missouri and Indiana, but even if they had they still would have underperformed expectations substantially. Obama's victory wasn't a surprise to anyone living outside the Fox News bubble, but the results of the Senate races constituted a pretty serious, pretty pointed rejection of Republican ideology in red states and blue states alike.

The Republican Rape Caucus Crumbles

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 8:50 PM EST

Foot-in-mouth rape commentary by Republican candidates was one of the most disturbing mini-trends of the 2012 election. And as the returns began rolling in last night, it quickly became clear that this bounty of apologies for sexual assault had paved the way for some big GOP losses. Here's a breakdown of the candidates who said absurd things about rape and paid for it at the polls.

Pittsburgh Post Gazette/ZUMAPressPittsburgh Post Gazette/ZUMAPressWho: Tom Smith, Pennsylvania Senate candidate

Comments: In a TV interview, Smith compared a pregnancy from rape to "having a baby out of wedlock."

Outcome: Defeated by Democrat Bob Casey, who got nearly 54 percent of the vote.

 

 

Globe Photos/ ZUMAPressGlobe Photos/ ZUMAPressWho: Linda McMahon, Connecticut Senate candidate

Comments: During a debate, McMahon clarified that no Catholic hospital should be required to provide emergency contraception to rape victims, except in cases of "emergency rape."

Outcome: Defeated by Democrat Chris Murphy, who got 55 percent of the vote.

 

 

 

Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAPressHarry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAPressWho: Rick Berg, North Dakota Senate candidate

Comments: When asked in a TV interview whether he'd support abortion in cases of rape, Berg awkwardly evaded the question, then gave a flat-out no. 

Outcome: Berg conceded to Heidi Heitkamp, who beat him by less than 3,000 votes.

 

 

 

Wisconsin State LegislatureWisconsin State LegislatureWho: State Rep. Roger Rivard, running for reelection to the Wisconsin legislature

Comments: Last December, Rivard got into a discussion with a local newspaper about a case in which a 17-year old was accused of forcing sex on a 14-year-old girl. Expressing his thoughts on the case, Rivard cited a motto he'd learned from his dad: "Some girls rape easy." Or in other words, girls agree to sex and then call it rape, because that's convenient.

Outcome: Rivard lost to Democratic challenger Stephen Smith by 582 votes.

 

Christian Gooden/ZUMAPressChristian Gooden/ZUMAPressWho: Todd Akin, Missouri Senate candidate

Comments: During a now-infamous TV interview in August, Akin responded to a question about his beliefs on abortion in cases of rape by saying that pregnancy from "legitimate rape" is unlikely because "the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down." In October, a 2008 video surfaced showing Akin explaining how women who aren't actually pregnant get abortions anyway.

Outcome: Lost to Democrat Claire McCaskill, who got nearly 55 percent of the vote.

 

Chris Bergin/MCT/ZUMAPressChris Bergin/MCT/ZUMAPressWho: Richard Mourdock, Indiana Senate candidate

Comments: When asked at an October debate whether abortion should be permitted in cases of rape, Mourdock said it shouldn't, because the rape and subsequent pregnancy are "something God intended."

Outcome: Defeated by Democrat Joe Donnelly by nearly 150,000 votes.

 

Andrew Shurtleff/ZUMAPressAndrew Shurtleff/ZUMAPressWho: Paul Ryan, vice presidential candidate and incumbent representative in Wisconsin

Comments: Where to begin? Ryan has called rape just another "method of conception," has said he's "very proud" of the forcible rape bill he cosponsored with Todd Akin, and has cast 59 votes on abortion in his career, all of them anti-choice.

Outcome: Ryan won't be heading to the White House as Mitt Romney's VP, but he did keep his House seat.

John Boehner's Desperate Bluff on Taxes

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 8:27 PM EST

House Speaker John Boehner lost no time getting in the first shot Wednesday on taxes and the fiscal cliff, telling reporters that in order to forge a bipartisan agreement Republicans are "willing to accept new revenue, under the right conditions":

While Boehner suggested that Republicans would still oppose Obama’s plan to take “a larger share of what the American people earn through higher tax rates,” he said the party is open to “increased revenue . . . as the byproduct of a growing economy, energized by a simpler, cleaner, fairer tax code, with fewer loopholes, and lower rates for all.”

It was not immediately clear whether Boehner meant that Republicans would acquiesce only to fresh revenues generated through economic growth rather than actual tax increases.

Really? That wasn't immediately clear? I'd say Boehner was being crystal clear: he won't accept higher tax rates on the rich, and he won't even close loopholes unless they're accompanied by lower tax rates on the rich. In other words, his offer is: nothing. After all, it's not as if there's anyone who opposes the prospect of getting more revenue as a byproduct of a growing economy.

I think the right way to interpret this is as pro-forma, job-saving bluster. Boehner knows full well that his caucus will eat him alive, with Eric Cantor leading the charge, if he wavers on taxes, so he's adopting the same hardline position as he did last year but trying to pretend that it's some kind of kinder, gentler proposal. It's not. This is precisely the position that Republicans offered during the debt ceiling showdown and precisely the position they've stuck to ever since. There's not even a hint of a difference.

But it's still bluster and Boehner knows it. On January 1st, the Bush tax cuts expire. They're gone. At that point, Boehner & Co. can agree to a deal that lowers taxes for everyone on all income under $250,000, or they can hold out for a deal that lowers taxes for everyone and lowers taxes on income over $250,000 back to Bush-era levels. However, if they refuse to make a deal, then no one gets a tax cut, and they'll be crucified by public opinion for protecting the rich. As Dave Weigel says, voters have made that clear:

Barack Obama ran on one consistent tax promise, in both 2008 and 2012. Vote for him, and you'd see middle-class tax rates stay the same while the rate on income over $250,000 increased to 39.6 percent. In 2008 and 2012, Republicans whaled on Obama for that message. If you flipped on TV in a swing state, you heard all about Obama's "trillion-dollar tax increase." Last month, in a comment that Republicans derided for its gaffitude, Joe Biden repeated the claim about tax hikes and leaned into the mic, drawing out his promise: "Yes. We. Will." For months, Republican strategists told me that they'd beat Democrats on the tax issue just like they beat 'em in 2010.

They didn't beat Obama. Twice, in four years, a majority of voters have picked Obama for president, knowing full well that he'll raise upper-income tax rates.

And that's not all: poll after poll shows big majorities in favor of higher rates on the rich. Opposing a broad, bipartisan tax cut because it's not friendly enough to the rich is a losing hand and Boehner knows it. He just can't admit it yet, so instead he hauled out the same tired talking points from a year ago and did his best to dress them up a little differently. Nice try.