2013 - %3, January

On Sea Level Rise, More Experts Lean Toward High End

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 3:47 PM EST
Flooding on the Virginia coast.

If you want to imagine what the future, climate-changed world will look like, one of the biggest questions is by how much, exactly, the sea levels will increase. Rising tides have already become one of the most prominent climate change impacts, threatening coastal communities from Virginia to Palau and amplifying the damage of storms like Sandy. Estimates vary: 2007's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report pegged the figure at somewhere around a foot by 2100, while a December study from NOAA went as high as 6.6 feet. But a swath of recent studies put the estimate at around three feet, including a report out Sunday in Nature Climate Change. From NBC:

Melting glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland may push up global sea levels more than 3 feet by the end of this century, according to a scientific poll of experts that brings a degree of clarity to a murky and controversial slice of climate science. 

Such a rise in the seas would displace millions of people from low-lying countries such as Bangladesh, swamp atolls in the Pacific Ocean, cause dikes in Holland to fail, and cost coastal mega-cities from New York to Tokyo billions of dollars for construction of sea walls and other infrastructure to combat the tides.

"The consequences are horrible," Jonathan Bamber, a glaciologist at the University of Bristol and a co-author of the study, [said].

While efforts to stem the rising sea, like reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels, are always worth pursuing, in light of the mounting evidence for large-scale changes it seems prudent for more coastal cities to take a lead from places like New York and start preparing for a closer coastline.

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Republicans Should Choose a Different Hostage

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 3:00 PM EST

Suzy Khimm writes about a way for Republicans to shut down the government that doesn't involve refusing to raise the debt ceiling:

Congress will have to pass another short-term budget before late March because it's been unable to pass a full budget through the regular process. In fact, the continuing resolution was the very first budget fight that Republicans used to extract spending cuts in the last Congress, threatening to shut down the government until a last-minute deal was struck in April 2011....Congressional Republicans now say that the year-to-year, discretionary budget must be part of the next fiscal deal's spending cuts, not just entitlements. "The pinch points will be the sequester, debt ceiling and the CR—all three coming up in the next three months," Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) told me. "The CR—it's one of the areas where there is indeed an absolute deadline. Washington and Congress respond to crises and deadlines, and we need to address the spending side of the equation."

If Republicans really want to shut things down, this is the way to do it. Don't get me wrong: I still think they'd be crazy to do it. Cutting spending while the economy is still weak is a recipe for disaster. But that's a difference of opinion, and a perfectly legitimate one to solve via the political process. Refusing to pay bills you've already run up isn't. Neither is risking the country's credit rating and its historic position as the world's most reliable lender.

There's another reason to do this via the normal budget process too: it's entirely feasible. When John Boehner says that he wants a 1:1 ratio of spending cuts to debt ceiling increases, he's using a ten-year baseline. In other words, a $1 trillion increase in the debt ceiling requires a $100 billion cut in annual spending. This is an amount that Obama and congressional Democrats have already agreed to in the past, and finding cuts of that magnitude can probably be done via the ordinary give and take of the legislative process.

Maybe not, of course. Maybe Republicans will end up shutting down the government. That would be terrible public policy, but it wouldn't be a complete breakdown of America's commitment to pay its bills. It's the right road for Republicans to take if they insist on holding hostages yet again.

Today in Orwellianism: Torture Isn't Torture if it Stops When You Start Talking

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 2:16 PM EST

From CIA veteran Jose Rodriguez, explaining why the CIA's torture program wasn't really torture:

Detainees were given the opportunity to cooperate. If they resisted and were believed to hold critical information, they might receive — with Washington’s approval — some of the enhanced techniques, such as being grabbed by the collar, deprived of sleep or, in rare cases, waterboarded. (The Justice Department assured us in writing at the time that these techniques did not constitute torture.) When the detainee became compliant, the techniques stopped — forever.

So....it was OK because detainees could make it stop anytime by doing what they were told. In other words, pretty much the same as every other episode of torture in history.

Paul Waldman has a question about this that he'd like answered:

Can you give a definition of torture that wouldn't include waterboarding, stress positions, and sleep deprivation? I have no idea what such a definition might be, and I have to imagine that if they had any idea they would have offered one. Because here's the definition of torture you'd think everyone could agree on: Torture is the infliction of extreme suffering for the purpose of extracting information or a confession.

I have a different question: if you think the CIA torture program was OK, presumably that means you wouldn't be outraged if the same techniques were used on U.S. soldiers in order to extract information from them. Right? It can't possibly be the case that it's OK for us to do this stuff, but not for anyone else, can it? Given that, the only sensible interpretation of Rodriguez's position is that the CIA program wasn't torture and therefore should be thought of as the new baseline for treatment of enemy combatants throughout the world.

Welcome to the brave new barbarism.

Getting a Republican to Implement Democratic Defense Policies is Unnerving the GOP

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 1:01 PM EST

So it looks like Obama is going to nominate Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense after all. Andrew Sullivan says his core qualification is that he was a clear-eyed critic of the Iraq war even though he initially supported it:

Unlike so many of the lemmings and partisans of Washington DC, Hagel actually called out the catastrophe of the Iraq War as it happened. The neocons cannot forgive him for exposing what they wrought on the nation and the world. For good measure, he has a Purple Heart and has served in combat. Not easy to say about most of the Iraq War armchair warriors and war criminals.

Which is to say, as Chuck Todd said this morning, this nomination is about accountability for the Iraq War. All those ducking responsibility for the calamity — Abrams, Kristol, Stephens — are determined that those of us honest enough to resist, having supported in the first place, be erased from history. Or smeared as anti-Semites. Or given that epithet which impresses them but baffles me: "outside the mainstream". Rephrase that as — after initial support — being "outside the Iraq War mainstream" in DC — and you have a major reason to back him.

I won't pretend to have a firmly considered opinion about Hagel. On general principle, I don't like the idea of nominating a Republican to run the Pentagon yet again. Doing it once is one thing. Doing it a second time sends a message that there just aren't enough Democrats around who are qualified to run the warmaking branch of government.

Still, there's no getting around the smartness of the strategy. When it comes to defense policy, Obama's tenure has mostly been marked by (a) withdrawing troops from warzones, (b) cutting the Pentagon budget, and (c) repealing DADT. Getting a Republican on board as the public face of those policies gives them a bipartisan cast that would be nearly impossible to get otherwise. This is one reason that I think Republicans are so unnerved by Hagel. Despite what they say, their real problem is that they don't like the idea that one of their own will be telling the country that it's OK to withdraw from Afghanistan and it's OK to shave the defense budget a bit.

The $1 Trillion Platinum Coin Is Horrible, Lawless Policy

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 12:26 PM EST

Paul Krugman thinks President Obama should starting thinking about minting a $1 trillion platinum coin to get around the debt ceiling:

It's easy to make sententious remarks to the effect that we shouldn't look for gimmicks, we should sit down like serious people and deal with our problems realistically. That may sound reasonable—if you've been living in a cave for the past four years. Given the realities of our political situation, and in particular the mixture of ruthlessness and craziness that now characterizes House Republicans, it's just ridiculous—far more ridiculous than the notion of the coin.

So if the 14th amendment solution—simply declaring that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional—isn't workable, go with the coin.

I've written before that I don't think a court would uphold such a thing, and I've gotten pushback from two main directions. First, who would have standing to sue? I don't know the answer to that, but I think there are plenty of possibilities, John Boehner at the top of the list. Second, a number of people have suggested that judges often don't look at legislative intent, so the fact that this is based on a loophole wouldn't be a problem. I doubt that. It's one thing not to dive deeply into legislative history, but it's quite another to allow the president to take a dramatic action that's plainly, obviously, 180 degrees away from the intent of the law.

But put that aside for a moment. I want to ask something else: Is this really the road liberals want to go down? Do we really want to be on record endorsing the idea that if a president doesn't get his way, he should simply twist the law like a pretzel and essentially do what he wants by fiat? My recollection is that we didn't think very highly of this kind of thing when we thought George Bush was doing it.

This whole thing is not just a ridiculous idea, it's a bad idea too. Republicans seem willing to set the country on fire to please their increasingly fever-swampish base, and eventually they'll pay a price for that at the polls. Sooner than that, they'll pay a price with the business community. This is a problem that we should work out via politics and public opinion, not by pretending the law allows the president to do anything he wants.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 7, 2013

Mon Jan. 7, 2013 12:20 PM EST
U.S. Marines with Weapons Company 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, perform a live-fire manuever on Camp Schwab, Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 4, 2013.
U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Katelyn M. Hunter.

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Hagel's Half-Courageous Stand on the Iraq War

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 11:45 AM EST
Chuck Hagel

It's official. President Barack Obama has picked former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. And the opposition is already under way. Some gay activists are upset about Hagel's 1998 comment that James Hormel, whom President Bill Clinton had nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg, was "openly aggressively gay." Hagel has apologized. Hormel hasn't accepted. But at least one gay rights leader has proclaimed his support for Hagel. Meanwhile, pro-Israel hawks have been griping that Hagel has not been sufficiently hardline in supporting Tel Aviv. But Hagel does have one major point in his favor: He opposed the Iraq war. Or sort of.

In October 2002, when Congress was fiercely debating a measure that would allow President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, Hagel noted several reasons why this was a bad idea and presciently predicted all that could go wrong. Yet he still voted for the measure, mostly out of party loyalty (which GOPers now accuse him of no longer possessing). When Hagel was contemplating a presidential run in 2008, I examined his 2002 stance in a TomPaine.com column. I've pasted it below.

Of all the senators eyeing the White House in 2008, this Nebraskan [Hagel] was the only one to express deep reservations about the resolution—while still voting for it. "America—including the Congress—and the world, must speak with one voice about Iraqi disarmament, as it must continue to do so in the war on terrorism," Hagel said in explaining his vote. But he was prescient: "If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility." He added, "Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq's reconstruction. No small task."

Hagel was disappointed in the discourse within the Senate: "We should spend more time debating the cost and extent of this commitment, the risks we may face in military engagement with Iraq, the implications of the precedent of United States military action for regime change and the likely character and challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq. We have heard precious little from the President, his team, as well as from this Congress, with a few notable exceptions, about these most difficult and critical questions." And he cautioned humility: "I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world." Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn't have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.

Hagel took a thoughtful approach to the question of the invasion. His worries were dead-on. Yet he had the wiggle room to vote for the measure because there remained a possibility—albeit slight—that Bush would not use this authority and the conflict with Saddam Hussein would be resolved without US military intervention. In considering the invasion and its implications, Hagel had the right take; he just couldn't bring himself to vote accordingly.

GOP Sen. Ted Cruz: "I Don't Think What Washington Needs Is More Compromise"

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 11:00 AM EST
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The 112th Congress that ended last week as one of the least productive of any Congress in 70 years. The Huffington Post found 219 pieces of legislation that were passed by the last Congress and signed into law, down from 383 during the 2009-2010 session and 460 from 2007-2008. At the same time, a small fraction of Americans—just 18 percent in a December Gallup survey—approve of the way Congress is doing its job.

Yet Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), an tailored suit-wearing tea party favorite and rising star in Republican politics, says the way forward for Congress is less, not more, compromise.

On Sunday, Cruz said on Fox News that bipartisanship and deal-making is not the way forward for Congress. Here's his full comment:

I think the fiscal cliff deal was a lousy one, but moving forward with the debt ceiling and those who believe in limited spending and solving the debt...I don’t think what Washington needs is more compromise, I think what Washington needs is more common sense and more principle.

Cruz's dim view of compromise in Congress clashes with what Americans say they want. A December NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that, on the fight over the so-called "fiscal cliff," 65 percent of respondents wanted Congress to compromise on a deal to stop from going off the cliff. (Cruz said he would've voted against the deal that ultimately passed.) Indeed, Americans have told pollsters over and over and over in recent years that they want more compromise.

Cruz, of course, is no moderate. He is, as Mother Jones reported in October, "the thinking man's tea partier," an authentic conservative with no qualms for gumming up the works in Congress in defense of what he believes to be right and true. With his latest comment, Cruz appears to be well on his way to doing just that.

In Defense of Django

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Jamie Foxx as Django in the new Quentin Tarantino flick

WARNING: This post contains multiple spoilers.

Every time Jamie Foxx’s character Django rides into town in Quentin Tarantino's new spaghetti Western Django Unchained, set against the backdrop of American chattel slavery, someone asks some variation of the question, "What is that nigger doing on a horse?"

This is as much a threat as an inquiry. Almost every character who asks it is involved in trying to tear Django off the horse, because a black man on a horse is a threat to a strict racial hierarchy that even those who cannot afford a horse hold dear. It's a question that Tarantino might even assume his own audience members are asking, since the iconic American gunslinger is nearly always white. It's also a question that might well have been asked by the protagonists of America's classic Westerns, from Rooster Cogburn to Ethan Edwards to Josey Wales—all former Confederate soldiers who committed treason in defense of slavery.

5 Albums to Get Excited About in 2013

| Mon Jan. 7, 2013 7:01 AM EST

We survived the apocalypse, the fiscal cliff, and a new Ke$ha album. If the last bit of 2012 was gloom and doom, 2013, at least, may offer a musical respite. Here are five albums we can look forward to in the new year.

Yo La Tengo, Fade (January 15) In a world of one-hit wonders, quietly depressing reunion tours, and bands that put out a few great albums and then fall off the face of the planet, Yo La Tengo are the freak survivalists. Fade marks the trio's 14th studio album—since 1986, they've showered a unique, consistent goodness on an adoring cult of fans. In November, YLT prereleased the Fade single "Before We Run," a swelling, meditative lullaby sung in Georgia Hubley's honest alto. More recently, the band put out "Ohm," a gentle krautrocker with a chorus bound to glue itself to the inside of your skull. To celebrate the upcoming full-length, YLT has announced a series of West Coast in-record-store shows. (Check out the schedule here.)

Unknown Mortal Orchestra, II (February 5): Frontman Ruban Nielson has described this sophomore album as "lonely." That'd be a major change of pace from the band's debut, which clattered onto the scene in 2011 as a funky, exuberant patchwork of psych-pop songs—the stuff of surrealistic lyrics and deliciously weird, tart guitar lines recalling the earliest Pink Floyd. It's been nearly two years since Nielson, former guitarist of New Zealand's experimental noise outfit The Mint Chicks, let those first few tracks loose via Bandcamp, and I'm not the only one who's been keeping a keen weather eye out for UMO's next delivery. If "Swim and Sleep (Like a Shark)," a single from II, is anything by which to judge the release, Nielson's second effort is shaping up to be just as inspired as the first. Loneliness, in this case, is welcome.