2010 - %3, January

Cute Endangered Animal: Red Wolf

| Tue Jan. 26, 2010 5:10 AM PST

While much has been published about the Department of Interior's dealings with the grey wolf, the red wolf has gotten much less attention. The red wolf (canis rufus) has been in North America since the end of the ice age, and is one of only two wolf species on the continent. For most of the last century, the red wolf lived in the southeastern part of the US, feeding on small mammals like mice and raccoons and taking down the occasional deer. Although red wolves are fearful of humans and generally only hunt at dawn and dusk, they did eat some livestock and by the 1960s, predator eradication programs and loss of habitat had reduced the red wolf populations significantly.

Despite being listed as endangered species in 1973, by 1980 there were only 17 known remaining red wolves and the species was declared extinct in the wild. However, captive breeding programs have been successful and there are now about 200 wolves in captivity and 100 individuals in the wild.  In 2008 the red wolf had a major victory as citizens and activists defeated the Navy's plan to construct an airstrip through its protected habitat inside a North Carolina wildlife refuge. Currently, there are about 20 packs of red wolves living in North Carolina, the only state known to have a wild population of the animals.

One of the key threats to the red wolf is interbreeding with coyotes, a problem which biologists have attacked in various ways, such as sterilizing coyote-wolf couples and their hybrid offspring. Another approach is to secure red wolf-only packs, allowing the wolves to defend their own territory (and thus their genetic diversity, the thought goes) from outside predators like coyotes. This program could be modeled after the example of grey wolves: after grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, they killed nearly half the park's coyote population in just a few years and will kill any coyotes that invade their pack's territory. If the example of the grey wolf is any indication, wolves are resilient and recovery is possible, but just cause you make it off the endangered species list, doesn't mean you're out of the woods.

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Need to Read: January 26, 2010

Tue Jan. 26, 2010 5:00 AM PST

 The must-read stories from around the web and in today's papers:

A Little Night Music

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 11:42 PM PST

It's getting harder and harder for us progressives to stay chipper these days, isn't it? Today's deflating news for lefties was Obama's spending freeze proposal, and conservative Rich Lowry shows via Twitter that he understands why, even if the White House doesn't: "spending freeze, no matter how notional, is a huge ceding of rhetorical grnd by WH. will give GOP more leverage in makng anti-hcr, stim case." Sigh.

But I don't want to sign off for the night on a grim note. So here are a couple of things to brighten your day a bit. First off, it seems there's trouble brewing in America's fastest growing bunch of wackos:

A Tea Party convention billed as the coming together of the grass-roots groups that began sprouting up around the country a year ago is unraveling as sponsors and participants pull out to protest its expense and express concerns about “profiteering.”

....Erick Erickson, the editor of the influential conservative blog RedState.com, wrote this month that something seemed “scammy” about the convention. And the American Liberty Alliance withdrew as a sponsor after its members expressed concerns about the convention’s finances being channeled through private bank accounts and its organizer being “for profit.”

“When we look at the $500 price tag for the event and the fact that many of the original leaders in the group left over similar issues, it’s hard for us not to assume the worst,” Eric Odom, the executive director of the American Liberty Alliance and an organizer of the tax day rallies last April, wrote on the group’s Web site.

So sad. I know that schadenfreude is sort of an ugly thing, but right now I could use some. So I thought I might as well share. It turns out that when you put together a movement of cranky paranoids, they tend to be as suspicious of each other as they are of everyone else. Who knew?

And for a bit of more innocent fun, here's "Fear the Boom and Bust," a rap video from George Mason University's Mercatus Center featuring a showdown between John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek. It's astonishingly good — though I confess I don't actually understand what it's for. It's not educational, really, since no one who doesn't already understand what Keynes and Hayek are about will really figure it out from watching this. So I guess it's just for pure, nerdy, highbrow entertainment. Works for me! Watch and enjoy.

Pivot Watch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 6:59 PM PST

Here's the latest dance step in Barack Obama's post-Massachusetts "pivot." It's an old-school chestnut:

President Barack Obama intends to propose a three-year freeze on spending that accounts for one-sixth of the federal budget — a move meant to quell rising voter concern over the deficit but whose practical impact will be muted.

....The White House will propose a three-year freeze on discretionary spending unrelated to the military, veterans, homeland security and international affairs, according to senior administration officials. Also untouched are big entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

The freeze would affect $447 billion in spending, or 17% of the total federal budget, and would likely be overtaken by growth in the untouched areas of discretionary spending. It's designed to save $250 billion over the coming decade, compared to what would have been spent had this area been allowed to rise along with inflation.

Whatever. Just to be clear: $250 billion over the coming decade, even if Obama miraculously makes this work,1 is $250 billion out of a projected deficit of, oh, let's call it $10 trillion in round numbers. In other words, about 2 or 3 percent.

And in return for what? The liberal base now has yet another reason to be disgusted with Obama, so the obvious hope is that independents are going to lap this up. And who knows? Maybe they will. But what I wonder is this: hasn't Obama's pivot happened too quickly to seem like anything other than what it increasingly is: a panicky and transparent attempt to recover from the Massachusetts tsunami? Given that, is anyone going to buy it? Or is it just going to come across as a thinly veiled and poll approved effort to "connect" with voter angst without really doing anything substantive?

Beats me. In the past, I've been pretty astonished by the willingness of voters to take politicians at their word no matter how plainly their words are politically motivated. So maybe it will work. But I have my doubts.

POSTSCRIPT: And just to repeat myself: I'm not sure I've ever seen this level of political panic grip a party so fast over a single election loss. It's just remarkable. Yes, I know Dems were getting nervous before last week's election, and Scott Brown's victory just opened the floodgates, so to speak. But still. I've just never seen anything quite like this. I'm not sure if that's because it's never happened in recent memory or because I just haven't followed politics closely for long enough. Perhaps some political reporter with more experience can school me on this.

1Matt Yglesias lays out pretty clearly here why it probably won't.

Big Waves Rising Faster than Sea Level

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:52 PM PST

The biggest waves in the Pacific Northwest are getting bigger. So are the smaller waves.

A new assessment of offshore data from Oregon and Washington finds the annual average heights of deep-water waves have increased since the mid-1970s—with both the low waves of summer and the highest storms waves of winter growing yearly.

Consequently the 100 year wave for this region just grew form a 33-foot wave to a 46-foot wave: a 40 percent rise. Furthermore, the really highest waves possible in the 100-year-event cycle are likely to rise above 55 feet, according to research published in Coastal Engineering.

Worse, the impacts of these storm waves will dwarf the impacts expected from sea level rise in coming decades.

I wrote about this phenomenon in MoJo's All the Disappearing Islands in regards to the people of the Pacific islands nation of Tuvalu. Long before they're actually drowned, low-lying islands and coastlines will become uninhabitable from periodic inundation by storm waves.

In the Pacific Northwest, increasing wave heights have already wrought three times more havoc from erosion, flooding, and coastal damage than is expected from sea level rise in the next few decades.

Add sea level rise to growing wave heights you get a seriously accelerated impact on coastlines.

The most likely cause? Global climate change, say the researchers—who note similarly rising wave heights in the North Atlantic, plus a rising in the total power generated by hurricanes yearly.

So for those who think a 1.5-degree F global temperature rise is inconsequential, here are a few of the deadly inconsequences.
 

The Public Sector

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 4:18 PM PST

In the middle of a rant about healthcare reform and the compromise over the Cadillac tax, one of Andrew Sullivan's readers says this:

The idea that public employees make less than those in the private sector is a myth that needs to die. Most already have cadillac plans and in most places their salaries are ahead of private workers whose taxes go pay for their income. On top of that they get much better benefits and pensions, so to let them out of a tax that private industry workers will have to pay who work at the same income level is a slap in the face. Our system cannot work if the government employees earn more than the private industry workers earn who are supporting them.

I'm genuinely curious about this. I think my sense of the situation is probably a common one: 30 or 40 years ago, public sectors employees worked under an implicit deal: the pay wasn't too great, but they made up for it with job security, good benefits, and a nice pension plan. This was widely accepted by both workers and taxpayers as a reasonable trade. Today, though, that deal has changed: now public sector workers get paid as much or more than comparable private sector workers and they have job security, good benefits, and spectacular pensions.

But is this actually true? In the upper reaches of management, it obviously isn't. Mid-level and executive level managers often make half as much as comparable private sector managers. (Or less.) And although rich pension deals make headlines, it's not clear how widespread they really are.

More generally, though: do ordinary workers (clerks, school teachers, construction workers, etc.) make as much as their private sector counterparts? Or more? And where could we go to find out? William Voegeli tried to make the case that California public workers were overpaid in City Journal earlier this year, but his piece was notable for its almost complete lack of actual evidence on this score.1 Likewise, there are probably a bunch of left-leaning think tanks that would assure me public sector workers still labor under the jackboot of imminent poverty, but who knows if they're providing the whole story either?

This is a hard question to answer. How do you make sure you're really looking at comparable jobs? How do you value different benefits packages? How do you adjust for things like age, experience level, and regional cost of living differences? Has public sector comp gone up faster than inflation, or merely faster than more stagnant private sector median wages? Has anyone taken a broad, reasonably rigorous look at this? I'd sure be interested if someone has.

1In fairness, he was writing broadly about the quality of state services. Compensation levels were just one part of his argument.

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Ross Douthat and Jonathan Rauch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 3:21 PM PST

In his New York Times column from Monday, Ross Douthat argues that President Barack Obama overreached by pushing for comprehensive health care reform. (Mark Oppenheimer profiles the conservative wunderkind in the latest issue of Mother Jones.) Douthat says that liberals should blame their heroes—FDR, for example—for creating a state so large that it's impossible to reform:

Under Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, liberals created a federal leviathan that taxes, regulates and redistributes across every walk of American life. In the process, though, they bound the hands of future generations of reformers. Programs became entrenched. Bureaucracies proliferated. Subsidies became “entitlements,” tax breaks became part of the informal social contract. And our government was transformed, slowly but irreversibly, into a “large, incoherent, often incomprehensible mass that is solicitous of its clients but impervious to any broad, coherent program of reform.”

That’s a quote from Jonathan Rauch’s “Government’s End: Why Washington Stopped Working,” a book that should be required reading for Democrats as they contemplate their predicament this week. First published amid the collapse of Clintoncare, and then reissued after the failure of the Gingrich Revolution, Rauch’s analysis makes mincemeat of the popular theory that sinister “special interests” are to blame for derailing reforms the common man wholeheartedly supports.

Instead, he suggests that sweeping reforms are difficult because we’re all special interests, in one sense or another. We all benefit from something (or many things) the government does, and so we all have an incentive to resist dramatic changes to the way Washington spends money.

What's missing from Douthat's analysis of Rauch is the fact that on Saturday (two days before Douthat's column appeared), Rauch offered a guarded endorsement of the Senate's health care reform bill. "It could be much better," he says (true), and "there is plenty to worry about," (also true), but "Taken together, [the bill's] measures could set in motion a virtuous cycle." (You can read Rauch's column and judge for yourself whether that's true.) On Monday, Douthat took to his blog to note Rauch's endorsement of the Senate bill. "[I]t’s only fair to note that Rauch himself thinks the legislation is worth saving," Douthat wrote. But he didn't explain why he didn't mention it in his print column. If the endorsement wasn't mentioned because Douthat didn't see it until after his column went to press, then Douthat should say that. If Douthat knew about Rauch's position but decided not to mention it in print, he should explain why he came around to the idea that "it's only fair" to mention it.

The Liberal Plot to Save California

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:19 PM PST

Even before last week's progressipocalypse, there was a growing sentiment among those on the left that the American political process had some serious mud in its tires. And not just in Washington, either. Perhaps nowhere is democratic decay more pronounced than in MoJo's home base of California.

The state's problems have been well documented (here's a helpful introduction), but no single element has been more problematic than Prop 13, the 1978 constitutional amendment which stipulates that any tax-raising measure requires a virtually unattainable two-thirds majority in Sacramento. With revenues no longer keeping pace with the state’s needs, the cash-strapped government has been forced to slash essential services and issue I.O.Us to creditors. But help may finally be on the way: University of California-Berkeley professor George Lakoff, a linguist who was once dubbed "the father of framing" by the New York Times Magazine, is pushing to effectively repeal Prop 13 via a referendum this November.

"The linguistics is interesting," Lakoff told me after a recent event in San Leandro. "When you say 'supermajority' it sounds like it's more democratic, when it's actually anti-democratic. It's that little twist on language that's there, and I think people had no idea about the reality of what was happening—that this is the only state in the union where there was total rule by a conservative minority."

Pass the Damn Bill

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 2:02 PM PST

Mark Kleiman called Sen. Dianne Feinstein's office today to register his support for passing the Senate healthcare bill along with later fixes during reconciliation and heard some good news:

The polite young man who answered the phone said that he could take a comment about a legislative matter, listened politely to about three polite sentences of Pass the Damned Bill and an expression of displeasure about DiFi’s “slow down” comment, assured me that the Senator had voted for the bill and was eager to see it pass — and then gave me the first ray of sunshine I’ve seen since the catastrophe in Massachusetts.  He said that they’d been getting a lot of Pass the Damned Bill phone calls and wanted to know whether my call was part of an organized effort.

Italics mine. This is terrific. So join in: call your representative and your senators and tell them to pass the bill. Easy instructions here. Do it first thing tomorrow. It doesn't take long.

Bipartisan Healthcare Watch

| Mon Jan. 25, 2010 1:38 PM PST

So if Democrats decide to start over and reach out to Republicans to pass a bipartisan healthcare bill, what would Republicans be willing to support? Here's John McCain:

....overhauling medical malpractice lawsuits, allowing residents of one state to buy health insurance from a company in another state, and granting tax credits for people who purchase health insurance on their own.

And here's Mitch McConnell:

You start with junk lawsuits against doctors and hospitals. Interstate competition among insurance companies. And many of my members would be lookin’ — would — would be willing to look at equalizing the tax code. Right now, if you’re a corporation and you provide insurance — for your employees, you get to deduct it on your corporate tax return. But if you’re an individual on the individual market, you don’t.

That's two Republican leaders saying exactly the same thing, so I think it's safe to say that this is pretty much the GOP party line right now. Nothing about preexisting conditions, nothing about Medicaid, nothing about cost control, nothing about subsidies. Just a tired attack on medical malpractice suits, a gift to the insurance industry, and a tax cut. That's the Republican plan.

Lots of Washington pundits are willing to concede that Republicans were "uncooperative" on healthcare, but most of them also seem to think that maybe if Democrats had tried a little harder they could have talked them into some kind of compromise. This really ought to stop that kind of talk. These suggestions are little more than jokes, not the kind of thing that comes from a party that takes healthcare reform seriously.