2013 - %3, February

Yikes! Without Top Predators, CO2 Emissions Skyrocket

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 4:43 PM EST
The three-spined stickleback is a regulator of carbon dioxide emissions in its ecosystem:

Top predators do more than regulate prey populations (think wolves and deer). They also regulate carbon dioxide emissions. At least they do in freshwater ecosystems—where if you take away the top predators CO2 emissions rise a staggering 93 percent. 

This according to a new paper in the latest Nature Geoscience that holds ramifications for a lot more than marshes. "Predators are disappearing from our ecosystems at alarming rates because of hunting and fishing pressure and because of human induced changes to their habitats," said lead author Trisha Atwood, at the University of British Columbia.

I wrote in an earlier post here on research showing how the loss of biodiversity (itself often a function of the loss of top predators) likely alters CO2 dynamics and other issues of global change as much as greenhouse gases.

The stonefly (Hesperoperla pacifica) whose presence helps keep CO2 emissions in check: Lynette S. / Lynette Schimming via Flickr

Food web theory posits that predators influence the exchange of CO2 between ecosystems and the atmosphere by altering processes like decomposition and primary production (a function of the numbers and diversity of plants).

To test that theory, the researchers experimented on three-tier food chains in experimental ponds, streams, and bromeliads in Canada and Costa Rica by removing or adding predators. Specifically by adding or removing three-spined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and the invertebrate predators stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) and damselflies (Mecistogaster modesta). When all the predators were removed the ecosystems emitted a whopping 93 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

"We knew that predators shaped ecosystems by affecting the abundance of other plants and animals," says Atwood, "but now we know their impact extends all the way down to the biogeochemical     level."

From the paper:

We monitored carbon dioxide fluxes along with prey and primary producer biomass. We found substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the presence of predators in all systems, despite differences in predator type, hydrology, climatic region, ecological zone and level of in situ primary production. We also observed lower amounts of prey biomass and higher amounts of algal and detrital biomass in the presence of predators. We conclude that predators have the potential to markedly influence carbon dioxide dynamics in freshwater systems.

The paper:

  • Trisha B. Atwood, Edd Hammill, Hamish S. Greig, Pavel Kratina, Jonathan B. Shurin, Diane S. Srivastava, John S. Richardson. Predator-induced reduction of freshwater carbon dioxide emissions. Nature Geoscience (2013). DOI:10.1038/ngeo1734

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SCOTUS to Consider Challenge to Campaign Donation Limits

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 4:15 PM EST

This morning, the Supreme Court agreed to hear McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (PDF), a case challenging the nearly 40-year-old cap on aggregate contributions to federal candidates, parties, and political action committees (PACs) as a violation of donors' right to free speech.

Thanks to the court's Citizens United decision in January 2010, donors can already give unlimited funds to super-PACs and 501(c)(4) groups, which are ostensibly prohibited from coordinating directly with the candidates they support. However, under federal law, donors are limited to giving no more than a total of $46,200 to federal candidates and $70,800 to parties and PACs during any two-year election cycle. Overturning those limits would not affect how much a donor could give an individual candidate (currently $2,600 per year), but a donor would potentially be able to cut a single multimillion-dollar check to a joint fundraising committee set up to distribute funds to multiple House and Senate candidates and state party committees. That committee could technically funnel the entire donation to a single candidate through a series of transfers.

When the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United that restricting outside spending violated the First Amendment, it overturned 100 years of legal precedents. If it takes a similar track in McCutcheon, laws limiting campaign contributions that date back to 1974—and affirmed by the court in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo—would be overturned.

"If the Supreme Court reverses its past ruling in Buckley, the Court would do extraordinary damage to the nation's ability to prevent the corruption of federal officeholders and government decisions," Fred Wertheimer, president of the reform group Democracy 21, said in a statement. "It would also represent the first time in history that the Court declared a federal contribution limit unconstitutional." Democracy 21 has been involved in the McCutcheon case since it was dismissed by a DC district court and subsequently appealed; the group is preparing an amicus brief defending the constitutionality of the current donation limits.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine, told Politico that the outside spending groups that arose from Citizens United made aggregate limits less important but wrote that the "broader significance" of the McCutcheon case is that it could make future constitutional challenges against contribution limits much harder to defeat.

Yet the current justices have shown that they are sympathetic to some limits on campaign fundraising. Justice Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote in Citizens United, argued in 2003 that donor caps on loosely regulated "soft money" were constitutional "under Buckley's anticorruption rationale."

Alabama Rep. McClurkin: Abortion Removes the "Largest Organ" in a Woman's Body

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 4:13 PM EST

Update, 9:15 p.m.: The Alabama House of Representatives passed the bill by a 73-23 vote. It now moves to the Senate.

The Alabama House of Representatives is expected to vote Tuesday on a bill that would place heavy restrictions on abortion in the state because, according to the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mary Sue McClurkin (R), "when a physician removes a child from a woman, that's the largest organ in a body."

The bill would place a host of regulations on Alabama's five abortion clinics. The Montgomery Advertiser reports:

The legislation [...] would require physicians at abortion clinics to have admitting privileges at local hospitals; require clinics to follow ambulatory clinic building codes and make it a felony — punishable by up to 10 years in prison — for a nurse, nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant to dispense abortion-inducing medications.

The requirement that all doctors who perform abortions have admitting privileges at a local hospital is the same rule that is currently threatening Mississippi's last abortion clinic. Hospitals are not required to grant doctors admitting privileges, so if local hospitals chose not to allow doctors to admit patients, abortion providers will not be able to comply with the law. That is exactly what has happened in Mississippi. (Currently, the clinic in Mississippi is open while it awaits a hearing with the state health department.)

"That's a big surgery. You don’t have any other organs in your body that are bigger than that," McClurkin told The Montgomery Advertiser. Nevermind that the liver, the second-largest organ after the skin, is about the size of a football and larger than a first- or second-trimester fetus: McClurkin's assertion that the fetus is an organ contradicts the idea of fetal personhood, a favorite Republican rationale for banning abortion. Organs are not people. That makes McClurkin's comment possibly the most creative excuse for throttling abortion clinics in a while.

"Her comments alone prove the intent of the bill," says Nikema Williams, a vice president at Planned Parenthood Southeast. Williams says the bill is  "designed to close down all of the abortion providers in the state of Alabama." The House of Representatives will vote on the bill Tuesday afternoon, Williams says.

 

Janet Yellen Explains Why Our Recovery Has Been So Weak

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 3:32 PM EST

Ezra Klein points to an interesting speech last week from Janet Yellen, vice chair of the Federal Reserve. The question she's addressing is why our recovery from the 2008 recession has been so anemic, and the answer comes in the form of three "tailwinds." The first one is both the most important and the one that we have the greatest control over: fiscal stimulus.

History shows that fiscal policy often helps to support an economic recovery....For example, following the severe 1981-82 recession, discretionary fiscal policy contributed an average of about 1 percentage point per year to real GDP growth over the subsequent three years.

However, discretionary fiscal policy hasn't been much of a tailwind during this recovery. In the year following the end of the recession, discretionary fiscal policy at the federal, state, and local levels boosted growth at roughly the same pace as in past recoveries, as Exhibit 3 indicates. But instead of contributing to growth thereafter, discretionary fiscal policy this time has actually acted to restrain the recovery....Negotiations continue over the extent of spending cuts now due to take effect beginning in March, and I expect that discretionary fiscal policy will continue to be a headwind for the recovery for some time, instead of the tailwind it has been in the past.

The full speech is here. Ezra has a nice summary here. The bottom line is simple: we're doing this to ourselves by actively implementing negative stimulus rather than positive stimulus. I still don't know whether this is the result of ignorance or deliberate malice—maybe it's both—but for the past four years we've been held hostage by ancient economic ideologies that should have died during the Great Depression. And we're continuing to pay the price.

Simpson-Bowles 2.0 and Its Sacred Cows

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 2:45 PM EST

All morning I've been trying to decide whether I should care about the release of Simpson-Bowles 2.0. As you can guess from its name, this is yet another plan for deficit reduction from the folks who failed to get bipartisan agreement for their first plan.

So in one sense: who cares? Deficit reduction plans are a dime a dozen. There's really nothing special about releasing a fact sheet with a bunch of numbers that add up to some other number. Anyone can do that.

On the other hand: for some reason, Simpson and Bowles get more media attention for their deficit reduction plans than most other people. So I guess we have to take it seriously whether we want to or not.

So far, though, that's not really possible. There's literally no detail in the summary they released today, so there's nothing much to praise or complain about. I'm happy to see them agree that deficit reduction should be done slowly. I'm happy to see them agree that low-income workers and retirees should be protected from benefit cuts. I'm happy to see them agree that the federal tax code should remain at least as progressive as it is now. I'm happy to see them focus on healthcare costs, which really are the driver of most of our future budget problems. And I'm happy to see them name check farm subsidies and highway funding. But without details, it's impossible to say anything further.

Except for one wee thing. Ezra Klein, bless his heart, managed to figure out the ratio of spending cuts to tax increases (it's buried on page 3, in the phrase "and another quarter from tax reform") and then compare it to Simpson-Bowles 1.0. And guess what? Despite their brave talk about both sides needing to "put their sacred cows on the table," they've apparently decided that conservatives should put a whole lot fewer of their sacred cows on the table than they suggested in their first plan. The chart on the right tells the story. In SB 1.0, deficit reduction was moderately evenly divided between spending cuts and tax increases. In SB 2.0, they've suddenly decided it should be 75 percent spending cuts. That's despite the fact that spending cuts have already been 75 percent of the deficit reduction we've done so far.

Why? Beats me. I guess they figure that conservative sacred cows are a little more sacred than liberal ones. Or something. But even if you take deficit reduction seriously in the first place, this sure makes it hard to take Simpson-Bowles 2.0 seriously as a plan.

UPDATE: Ezra made a correction to the chart, so I've updated the post to reflect that. The new chart shows the spending cuts in SB 1.0 more accurately. When you account for interest savings, they amount to $3.8 trillion, not $2.9 trillion.

GOP Governor to Karl Rove: Take a Hike

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 1:53 PM EST
Karl Rove.

Karl Rove, the Republican political whiz, is still grappling with blowback from the unveiling of his latest venture, the Conservative Victory Fund. A combination super-PAC and dark-money nonprofit, the Fund will spend millions on advertising in contests where Republicans believe they only have a shot at winning the November general election if the right candidate emerges from the GOP primary. In other words, Rove wants to prevent future Todd Akins and Richard Mourdocks.

The latest Republican to join the Rove haters is Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who over the weekend said he'd ripped Rove and the Conservative Victory Fund in a recent phone call with the strategist. "I basically told Karl Rove that what he was doing is counter-productive and he needs to stay out of it," Branstad told the Associated Press.

Rove and his new venture have driven a wedge between establishment Republicans and the ascendant conservative wing of the GOP. Matt Kibbe, the president of the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, recently described the furor over the new Rove super-PAC as "a little bit like gang warfare." One tea party leader, Jenny Beth Martin, told the Hill she considered Rove's new outfit a direct challenge to the tea party, adding that hard-line conservatives like herself are "ready to rise to the challenge."

The 2014 primaries are more than a year away, but already the Conservative Victory Fund is eyeing races in Iowa, Georgia, and West Virginia. But Branstad, the Iowa governor, says Rove and his allies have their strategy all wrong. Branstad favors a more "diplomatic" approach (he declined to say what that entailed—a friendly game of Oujia, perhaps?) to ensuring that Republicans who win primary elections can also win in November. From the AP's story:

But the targeted effort conflicts with a more diplomatic approach favored by Branstad and other mainstream Republicans wary of offending important officeholders and factions. Branstad, who is influential as the five-term governor of a political swing state that hosts the first nominating contest of each presidential campaign, was especially inflamed by indications the Rove organization would target Iowa arch-conservative Rep. Steve King if he tried to run for the state's open Senate seat in 2014.

There is similar tension about Republican candidates in West Virginia, where the GOP hopes to pick up a seat long held by Democrats, and in Georgia, where Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss' retirement has set off an internal fight between hard-right conservatives and the GOP establishment.

Branstad, in an interview with the Associated Press, said Rove's plan to use fundraising and negative advertising against suspect Republicans was "a mistake."

"If some outside group that has no connection to Iowa attacks somebody from Iowa, that is not smart," Branstad said.

In the weeks after Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement, Branstad has used private breakfasts with King and his House colleague Tom Latham to discuss who would be the strongest contender for seat, which has been held by Democrats for more than 30 years.

The Rove v. Tea Party story, needless to say, has quite a ways to go.

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Quote of the Day: Not Even Wrong

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 1:52 PM EST

From Mike Konczal, via Twitter:

This statement is not clear enough to be wrong.

The topic at hand appears to be something about the EITC and the demand for low-skill labor. I'm not entirely sure, actually. Nonetheless, it seems like a valuable phrase to keep in mind for future arguments.

Coming Attractions Are Now a Honeypot of Extra Money

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 1:38 PM EST

Among other things, here's one reason why I see fewer movies than I used to:

As they rose in value, the total number of trailers shown before a movie started going up. Three or four was the norm a decade ago. Regal and AMC theaters now run six or seven before every feature.

Turns out this is mostly because big theater chains now get paid for running trailers, so more trailers = bigger profits. I did not know that.

Obama, DC Press Corps Locked in Mutual Loathing Pact

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 1:30 PM EST

Over at Politico today, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen have a long piece about press corps unhappiness with their access to President Obama. Their timing is unfortunate, coming just a day after the press corps embarrassed itself by coming completely unglued over....

....their lack of access to Obama's golf date this weekend with Tiger Woods. Seriously:

The frustrated Obama press corps neared rebellion this past holiday weekend when reporters and photographers were not even allowed onto the Floridian National Golf Club, where Obama was golfing. That breached the tradition of the pool “holding” in the clubhouse and often covering — and even questioning — the president on the first and last holes.

Yep. They "neared rebellion" not over OLC memos or drone strikes or FOIA tardiness or leak prosecutions, but over their inability to ask Obama questions—tough ones! penetrating ones!—before and after he hit the links. Sheesh.

I wish I knew what to think about this. Does Obama keep a very, very tight rein on press coverage? Yes, he sure seems to. In fact, every president seems to keep a slightly tighter grip on the reins than the previous one. I'm not very happy about that.

At the same time, the reporters interviewed for this piece seem to be weirdly upset over the fact that the Obama White House uses Twitter and Facebook and releases lots of its own photos. But why is this a problem? It's 2013, guys. Why shouldn't a president communicate with the public using whatever mediums the public happens to consume? Over the past century, that's evolved from whistle-stop tours to radio to TV to Facebook, but so what? Why should reporters be unhappy about this?

They also complain that although the president gives lots of interviews (674 in his first term compared with 217 for George Bush), they're mostly with local outlets, not with the national reporters "who are often most likely to ask tough, unpredictable questions." I'd have more sympathy for this if national reporters really did ask lots of tough, unpredictable questions, but I'm afraid I'm mostly on Obama's side on this one:

The president’s staff often finds Washington reporters whiny, needy and too enamored with trivial matters or their own self-importance....Obama and his team, especially newly promoted senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer, often bemoan the media’s endless chase of superficial and distracting storylines.

For evidence of how true this is, check out John Cook's serial tweeting of every inane question that Mike Allen lobbed at President Bush during a May 2008 interview. Start here and work your way down. It's not a pretty sight.

What to think? I'd like the president of the United States to make himself more available for tough questioning on a routine basis. However, I'd also like a national press corps that pays enough attention to policy that it can ask tough questions and then keep drilling down when they're getting brushed off. But most of them don't. They ask predictable questions based on whatever the opposition party happens to be kvetching about at the moment, and that represents the limit of what they can do. I'm pretty sure you could give Mike Allen a ten-hour interview with the president and he still wouldn't be able to nail him down on a tough policy question of any importance. He either doesn't care, doesn't have the background knowledge to do it, or both.

What to do? Obama is right: the DC press corps is hardly worth engaging with on subjects of any substance. But the DC press corps is also right: he should make himself available anyway. If reporters don't lay a glove on him, that's their problem, not his.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 19, 2013

Tue Feb. 19, 2013 12:06 PM EST

Artillerymen with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 1st Brigade Combat Team prepare to hook up an M119A2 105mm howitzer to a UH60 Black Hawk helicopter during air assault training Feb. 8, 2013, at Fort Bragg, N.C. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.