2013 - %3, January

A Sports Rant That Isn't

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 2:27 PM EST

And in local news today:

The Dodgers have agreed with Time Warner Cable on a new television contract that will provide the team with a channel of its own, according to two people familiar with the deal but not authorized to discuss it.

Great. I suppose that means my cable bill is going up again even though I never watch the Dodgers. This just warms the cockles of my heart.

I feel like I have an epic rant about modern sports seething around inside me, but it always just fizzles out into nothing. Yeah, it's a business and the owners are assholes. Yeah, football is dangerous. Yeah, sports leagues are all effective monopolies. Yeah, the entire public is forced to pay for obscene contracts and profits, via both direct tax subsidies as well as sports programming that's shoehorned into basic cable rates. Yeah, sportsmanship has gone the way of the dodo. Yeah, the NCAA is practically a criminal enterprise.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But when I'm bored, I still turn on the TV and surf over to ESPN. Old habits die hard.

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Leverage is Back! But This Time It's Different.

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:56 PM EST

From the Wall Street Journal today:

Pension funds across the U.S. are desperate to overcome low interest rates and churn out returns big enough to pay future retirees. Now some hedge funds and money managers are pitching something they see as a Holy Grail: a strategy that often uses leverage to boost returns of bonds that usually occupy the low-risk, low-return portion of pension-fund investment portfolios.

What could possibly go wrong? Apparently nothing. Proponents of this strategy say that their brand of leverage is nothing at all like that nasty old-school kind of leverage that produced a global economic crisis five years ago:

Money managers such as Bridgewater Associates, the world's largest hedge-fund firm, and a growing number of pension funds say this type of leverage is different. By using leverage through derivatives, such as bond futures, and by investing in commodities, some pension funds believe they can reduce their typically large exposure to the turbulent stock market and still earn solid returns. Other proponents of this strategy, known as "risk parity," include AQR Capital Management and Clifton Group, a Minneapolis-based investment firm.

....Pension officials that employ risk parity say they are using a modest amount of leverage, and nowhere near what investment banks used leading up to the crisis. They also are trading in large, liquid markets, and say they have ample liquidity should they ever need to settle trading losses with cash...."Ironically, by increasing your risk in the bonds you are going to lower your risk in your overall portfolio,'' he said in an interview.

Uh huh. It's just a little bit of leverage. Trading is in large, liquid markets. Stocks and bonds always move in opposite directions. It's just common sense!

It simply astonishes me that, as near as I can tell, the rulers of our financial world learned exactly nothing from the events of 2008. They literally seem to believe that their actions had nothing to do with anything. The financial crash was just one of those black swans that nobody could have prevented. Next time we'll get it right.

No mattter how many fairy tales we tell ourselves, apparently we are all still just hairless apes and we are all idiots.

Mississippi and the State of Abortion 40 Years After Roe

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:54 PM EST

Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed a constitutional right to abortion throughout the United States. To mark the date, we've posted my dispatch from Jackson, Mississippi, where women may soon be unable to exercise the right Roe v. Wade guaranteed them, because the state is threatening to close its last abortion clinic.

Last April, Mississippi passed a new law requiring all doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at a local hospital. The two doctors that provide abortions at JWHO live out of state and don't have those admitting privileges, although the clinic already has a relationship with a local obstetrician who can admit women to the hospital in case of an emergency. When the law passed, the clinic knew it would not be able to comply. The local hospitals in this largely anti-abortion state refused to grant admitting privileges to abortion providers. A judge gave the clinic until mid-January to apply, but, as expected, no hospital would grant the privileges.

This was, I should note, the point of the law. Upon signing the legislation, Republican Gov. Phil Bryant called it "the first step in a movement, I believe, to do what we campaigned on—to say that we're going to try to end abortion in Mississippi."

Now Jackson Women's Health Organization could be closed very soon. Last week, the Health Department completed its inspection and determined the clinic is not complying with the new law. This was expected; the clinic's legal representatives from the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a motion asking the court to block enforcement of the law because it could not comply. The inspection begins the legal process to revoke the clinic's license, but actually doing so will take until the first week of March, according to the clinic's lawyers. The clinic is briefing the judge later this week, and expects that there will be a hearing or some sort of decision before March.

The goal in highlighting the Jackson Women's Health Organization is to illustrate the state of abortion care 40 years after Roe. Mississippi is the most extreme example of a state where lawmakers have introduced restriction after restriction in the past decades, pushing providers to the point where they have one clinic and zero in-state abortion providers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state has the lowest abortion rate in the country.

Many people will say, "Oh yeah, well, it's Mississippi, what do you expect?" But there are other states that aren't too far away from this reality. Both North and South Dakota are also down to one clinic and zero in-state providers. The number of abortion providers in the country has declined 38 percent from its peak in 1982, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families. Meanwhile, states have passed a record number of new abortion restrictions in the past two years: 92 new laws in 2011 and 43 in 2012. So although many women may have the right to access abortion, the actual opportunity to do so is becoming harder to come by.

Poll: Record High Support For Legal Abortion in the US

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:39 PM EST

A record-high 70 percent of Americans now oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that affirmed a limited consitutional right to abortion, according to a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll. And for the first time since the Journal and NBC started asking this question in 2003, a majority of the country believes abortion should be legal in all or most cases:

A simple explanation:

The shift is mostly the result of more Democrats backing the decision—particularly Hispanics and African-Americans—and a slight uptick in support from Republicans.

But the poll showed a consistent tension in Americans' attitudes toward the decision. Almost seven in 10 respondents say there are at least some circumstances in which they don't support abortion.

The news of Roe's newfound support comes on a big day—the milestone abortion-rights ruling had its 40th anniversary on Tuesday. The decision last saw its highest levels of support during the early '90s—around the same time the Supreme Court issued the 1992 ruling Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which affirmed the constitutionality of certain restrictions on abortion access.

MoJo editor Mike Mechanic has a good round-up of handy infographics from the Guttmacher Institute. Here's one that demonstrates the challenges women still face in trying to gain access to safe, legal abortion in the US:

guttmacher infographic barriers abortion us

And here's one on how abortions in this country have become concentrated primarily among the poor:

guttmacher infographic abortion concentrated among poor women

For more, click here and here.

Libertarian Propaganda With Your Organic Arugula?

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:22 PM EST

If you shop at Whole Foods, you've probably seen the ads at the cash register for Conscious Capitalism. Cowritten by the store's founder, John Mackey, and Raj Sisodia, chairman of a nonprofit called Conscious Capitalism Inc., the book bills itself as a tale of "Mackey's own awakenings as a capitalist." While Mackey serves up plenty of cheerful exhortations and pithy self-help tips, however, the only "awakening" that you're likely to get from reading this 313-page apologia for libertarianism is a sense that he ought to stick to selling groceries. (Read my interview with Mackey here.)

To give Mackey his due, he proved that many shoppers are willing to pay a premium for foods that are healthy, sustainably produced, and sold by workers who earn decent wages and health benefits. His book strives to show CEOs in other industries that they can follow his lead. "We need a richer and more ethically compelling narrative to demonstrate to a skeptical world the truth, beauty, goodness, and heroism of free-enterprise capitalism," he writes. "Otherwise we risk the continued growth of increasingly coercive governments, the corruption of enterprises through crony capitalism, and the consequential loss of both our freedom and our prosperity."

Is Obama Finally Serious About Climate Change?

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 1:10 PM EST

President Obama was much more direct about the impact of climate change than usual in his inaugural address yesterday:

We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

Does this mean we're actually going to do something serious? We'd better. Thomas Lovejoy wrote yesterday in the New York Times that even a rise of two degrees C, the limit most often mooted, would be catastrophic:

Two degrees is actually too much for ecosystems....A 2-degree world will be one without coral reefs....At current global warming of 0.8-0.9 degrees, the fingerprints of climate change can be seen virtually everywhere in nature. The coniferous forests of western North America are currently experiencing massive tree mortality because climate change has tipped the balance in favor of native bark beetles. The Amazon seems to be edging close to dieback in the southern and southeastern portions of the great forest.

At essentially double that current temperature increase, there undoubtedly will be massive extinctions and widespread ecosystem collapse. The difficulty of trying to buffer and manage change will increase exponentially with only small increments of warming. In addition, the last time the planet was 2 degrees warmer, the oceans were four to six (perhaps eight) meters higher.

More than a 2-degree increase should be unimaginable. Yet to stop at 2 degrees, global emissions have to peak in 2016.

2016. We're pretty obviously not on track to make that happen, but further inaction would be disastrous. Stuart Staniford reproduced the chart on the right today, which shows the likely amount of warming based on when we start cutting carbon emissions and how fast we cut them. I've added the dashed blue lines, which show where we'll be if carbon emissions peak in 2030 and then decline steadily at 2 percent per year. Answer: 3 degrees C.

That would be catastrophic, leading to sea level rises of 5-10 feet this century, massive die-offs, and the virtual depopulation of significant areas of the planet. And yet, at current rates, 2030 looks to be about the best we can hope for. The political will for more just doesn't exist right now.

If President Obama achieves nothing in his next term except to change that, it would be, by far, the most significant thing he does. We're not just running out of time. We've already run out of time. Hurricane Sandy was only a tiny taste of what our grandchildren are in for if we keep twiddling our thumbs for another couple of decades just because acknowledging climate change is inconvenient for a particular political ideology.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 22, 2013

Tue Jan. 22, 2013 12:44 PM EST

U.S. Army Soldier from the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division pulls security next to a M2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle during Decisive Action rotation 13-03 on Jan. 19, 2013 at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Eric M. Garland II.

High School Graduation Rates Still Increasing

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 11:52 AM EST

A few days ago I mentioned that high school graduation rates were up, and suggested that reduced exposure to lead might be part of the reason. Today, the Department of Education announced that the upward trend has continued:

Based on data collected from the states for the Class of 2010, the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that 78 percent of students across the country earned a diploma within four years of starting high school. The graduation rate was last at that level in 1974, officials said.

....Notable in 2010 was the rise in the percentage of Hispanic students who graduate on time, with a 10-point jump over the past five years, to 71.4 percent. Hispanics are the nation’s largest minority group, making up more than 50 million people, or about 16.5 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

....Graduation rates improved for every race and ethnicity in 2010, but gaps among racial groups persist. Asian students had the highest graduation rate, with 93 percent of students finishing high school on time. White students followed with an 83 percent graduation rate, American Indians and Alaska Natives with 69.1 percent and African Americans with 66.1 percent.

I know it's easy to sound Pollyannaish about this stuff, but the evidence of the last few decades suggests that standardized test scores are up; international comparisons are in pretty good shape; and that high school completion rates are up. This doesn't mean that we can declare victory, or that America's schools are paragons of educational excellence. There's plenty of room for improvement.

At the same time, the conventional narrative of steady decline just doesn't seem to be true. Especially when you consider the size and diversity of America's primary education system, our results are decent and getting better. The data on this score is clear enough that this really needs to become the new conventional narrative.

Is it Obama? Is it Gore? No! It's the Green Ninja!

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 7:01 AM EST

President Obama's high-profile statements about climate change in his inauguration speech—"Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms"—will need to be backed by strong action if there's any hope of dimming recent attacks on science in America's classrooms.

The National Center for Science Education lists four new bills in the last week alone that have been introduced in state legislatures: two in Oklahoma, and one each for Missouri and Colorado. For example, House Bill 179, introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives on January 16, labels as controversial the teaching of "biological and chemical evolution;" Ditto for Colorado, which on the same day introduced House Bill 13-1089 (PDF) which also misrepresents global warming and evolution as questionable science.

No wonder Dr Eugene Cordero thinks climate change needs a superhero. Bam! Enter the Green Ninja, the not-very-talkative martial arts master who whips up all sorts mayhem to teach young minds about carbon footprints, energy-saving strategies and gas guzzling leaf blowers, a kind of climate-bent Captain Planet, for a younger generation.

Cordero—both the creator of Green Ninja and a climate scientist at San Jose State University—has already created a series of videos and lesson plans for teachers. And they are now looking to the crowd on the popular funding website Kickstarter for more cash to produce a 16-episode YouTube series, starting this Spring. At the time of writing, with just 10 days to go, the Green Ninja team has raised half of its stated $10,000 goal.

Visit the Tiny Town Where Big Coal Will Meet Its Fate

| Tue Jan. 22, 2013 7:01 AM EST
An estuary where the Columbia River meets the sea, just downriver from the planned terminal.

Last week Beijing saw its infamous smog thicken to unprecedented levels, driven largely by emissions from coal-fired power plants across China. In recent years coal from US mines has stoked more and more of these plants, in effect offshoring the health impacts of burning coal. This year, much of the US coal industry's focus will be on pushing an unfolding campaign that seeks to dramatically ramp up the amount of coal we ship overseas.

Morrow County, Oregon, is a quintessientially green pocket of the Pacific Northwest. It's capped by the Columbia River, which winds past the hipsters in Portland en route to the sea, often carrying schools of the salmon that have long been an economic staple for locals. But Morrow County could soon become a backdrop for the transformation of the US coal industry, if a planned loading zone for massive shipments of coal—harvested in the Powder River Basin in Montana and Wyoming, and packed into Asia-bound cargo ships—gets final approval.

Right now, local, state, and federal lawmakers are hammering out the details in what is unfolding as one of the biggest climate fights of 2013.

west coast coal exports
Chart by Tim McDonnell

The Port of Morrow, where coal would be transferred from inland trains onto outbound river barges in the small town of Boardman, is just one of five proposed new coal export terminals now under consideration in Oregon and Washington. If built, the terminals could more than double the amount of coal the US ships overseas, most of it bound for insatiable markets in China, India, South Korea, and a suite of other Asian nations.

Building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.

It's the next giant leap forward for the US coal industry, which has in recent years turned increasingly to the East as domestic demand dwindles and Obama-era clean air regulations make it next to impossible to build new coal-burning facilities at home. But Big Coal's ability to sell its wares overseas is increasingly bottlenecked by maxed-out export facilities, most of which are on the Atlantic-facing East Coast, anyway, better situated for shipments to Hamburg than Hong Kong. So, says Brookings Institute energy analyst Charles Ebinger, building the new West Coast terminals could be a matter of life or death for US coal.

"There's a lot of coal in the domestic market that can't be utilized," Ebinger says. "The Asian market is the fastest-growing coal market in the world. If we wish to continue to export coal [these terminals] are very important... whatever volume of coal we could export would find a market."