2010 - %3, April

Why Your Allergies Are Getting Worse

| Mon Apr. 26, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Ah, spring. Flowers! Lawn sports! Baby birds! Lots and lots of snot. Yes folks, this year's pollen counts, especially in the southeast, are through the roof, and as our intrepid reporter Kate Sheppard wrote between sneezing fits last week, a new study from the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) suggests allergies will likely become even more fierce if the planet continues to heat up.

Researchers found that not only is spring coming earlier, making for a longer allergy season, but warmer weather allows hickory and oak, two of the most allergenic tree species, to thrive almost everywhere in the US. Another factor: Some plants, such as ragweed, are actually making more pollen as the environment changes. "As trees that use the wind to pollinate undergo stress from heat or lack of water, they begin to produce more pollen to compensate," explained NWF climate scientist Amanda Staudt. Scientists have already observed this phenomenon in cities, where C02 levels are an average of 30 percent higher than in suburbs and rural areas. "Cities are where we’re seeing increased pollen production," explains Demain.

Hayfever's not the only allergic reaction that could worsen with climate change. Sometimes, pollen from certain plants can exacerbate food allergies to related plants, says Jeffrey Demain, director of the Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Center of Alaska. People who are genetically presdisposed to fruit and nut allergies, for example, may find that increased exposure to birch pollen makes their food reactions worse. Similarly, more ragweed pollen could aggravate symptoms in people allergic to melon. Also on the horizon: more aggressive poison ivy. A Duke university study found that poison ivy plants exposed to CO2 produced more potent urushiol, the allergen that causes the famous rash.

So is there any chance we'll adapt by becoming less allergic to all that pollen? Probably not, says Demain. "We don’t become more resistant to allergies with exposure, there's evidence that we actually become more allergic. We've actually seen more and more people with allergies for the past 30 years." So what's the solution? Ultimately, the only way to fix the problem is to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, says Staudt. In the meantime, since I'm not wild about the prospect of staying inside all allergy season long, here are three things we allergic people can do to sneeze less:

  • If you have a garden, choose plants with bright flowers. These are usually pollinated by insects, not the wind, meaning the pollen is generally too big to get into our nasal passages.
  • Urge your city officials to plant female trees, which don't produce pollen.
  • If you live in the city (especially one of those listed below), get out to the country every once in a while. (Some cities, like Albuquerque, New Mexico, have actually enacted ordnances against planting certain kinds of highly allergenic trees, though it's not clear how effective these rules are in lowering the pollen count.)

Each year the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America publishes a list of the most allergenic cities. Here's the top 10 from Spring 2010:

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 26, 2010

Mon Apr. 26, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

 

US Army Spc. Joel LeMaistre, a Soldier assigned to Joint Combat Camera-Iraq, documents video footage of a weapons cache discovered near K-3, Iraq, on April 13. Photo via the US Army.

Quote of the Day: Eliot Spitzer

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 5:28 PM EDT

From Jonathan Bernstein, after acknowledging that Eliot Spitzer is qualified to comment on, say, financial reform or the prostitution biz:

As an expert on how to be a good Governor of New York, however...well, I'm not seeing that.

At issue is why the New York Times felt a burning desire to run this front page story.

Graham and the Climate Bill

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 2:15 PM EDT

Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC) angrily withdrew his support for climate legislation this weekend after learning that Harry Reid and President Obama apparently want to move on immigration reform first. Since Graham himself has been pushing the administration to get more serious about immigration, charges of hypocrisy popped up almost immediately. I had one all teed up myself. But here's the most relevant part of yesterday's letter:

I know from my own personal experience the tremendous amounts of time, energy, and effort that must be devoted to this issue to make even limited progress.

In 2007, we spent hundreds of hours over many months with President Bush’s Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, and nearly every member of the U.S. Senate searching for a way to address our nation’s immigration problems. Unlike this current “effort,” it was a good-faith attempt to address a very difficult national issue.

Some of the major provisions we embraced in 2007 — such as creation of a Virtual Fence using cameras, motion detectors and other technological devices to protect our borders — have been scrapped for the time. Other issues we found agreement on at the time, such as a temporary guest worker program, have unraveled over the past three years.

Expecting these major issues to be addressed in three weeks — which appears to be their current plan based upon media reports — is ridiculous. It also demonstrates the raw political calculations at work here.

Let’s be clear, a phony, political effort on immigration today accomplishes nothing but making it exponentially more difficult to address in a serious, comprehensive manner in the future.

Well? Is he right? Because let's be honest here: this really does seem more like a political exercise to firm up the Hispanic vote than a serious effort to deliver a major immigration bill this year, doesn't it? It's possible that Graham's defection from the climate bill is cynically motivated too, but that only means that both sides are playing politics.

Or am I missing something here?

Is God Dead? Or Merely Bored?

| Sun Apr. 25, 2010 1:31 PM EDT

"Given the durability and predictability of the arguments involved," says Ross Douthat, "it’s hard to come up with something interesting to say on the question of Christianity versus the 'new' atheists." True enough. But he says David Bentley Hart has done it, and as evidence he points us to Hart's recent essay in First Things about his weariness with the anti-God contentions of people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Their arguments, he says, are just the same-old-same-old, delivered with too little reflection, too much bombast, and a way-too-healthy dose of contempt. And maybe so. Atheists can be as annoying as anyone else, after all.

Unfortunately, when it comes to annoying and stale rhetorical tropes, Hart shows that he's no slacker either. This is perhaps my least favorite of all time:

A truly profound atheist is someone who has taken the trouble to understand, in its most sophisticated forms, the belief he or she rejects, and to understand the consequences of that rejection. Among the New Atheists, there is no one of whom this can be said, and the movement as a whole has yet to produce a single book or essay that is anything more than an insipidly doctrinaire and appallingly ignorant diatribe.

You can almost hear Hart sighing, "Please Lord, deliver me from cretins." But his pretensions are, if anything, even more insipid than anything coming from the New Atheists: they are, like Jesus, at least trying to reach ordinary people in language that's meaningful to them. Hart wants nothing to do with that. Here he is objecting to the New Atheists' view that God is "some very immense and powerful being" who explains nothing because he, himself, then needs to be explained:

The most venerable metaphysical claims about God do not simply shift priority from one kind of thing (say, a teacup or the universe) to another thing that just happens to be much bigger and come much earlier (some discrete, very large gentleman who preexists teacups and universes alike). These claims start, rather, from the fairly elementary observation that nothing contingent, composite, finite, temporal, complex, and mutable can account for its own existence, and that even an infinite series of such things can never be the source or ground of its own being, but must depend on some source of actuality beyond itself. Thus, abstracting from the universal conditions of contingency, one very well may (and perhaps must) conclude that all things are sustained in being by an absolute plenitude of actuality, whose very essence is being as such: not a “supreme being,” not another thing within or alongside the universe, but the infinite act of being itself, the one eternal and transcendent source of all existence and knowledge, in which all finite being participates.

You can decide for yourself whether this string of words actually makes anything about God more understandable. I doubt it. But it hardly matters, because even if you like Hart's formulation, this is simply not the lived experience of Christianity for most people. Hart would like us to believe that anyone who hasn't spent years meditating on Aquinas and Nietzsche isn't worth engaging with, but walk into any Christian church in America — or the world — and you'll find it full of people who understand God much the same way Hitchens and Dawkins do, not the way Hart does. That's the reality of the religious experience for the vast majority of believers. To call a foul on those who want to engage with this experience — with the world as it is, rather than with Hart's abstract graduate seminar version of the world — is to insist that nonbelievers forfeit the game without even taking the field.

So: do the New Atheists recycle old arguments? Of course they do. But that's not because they're illiterate, it's because those arguments have never been convincingly answered. All the recondite language in the world doesn't change that, either, because the paradoxes are inherent in the ideas themselves. In the end, the English language probably just isn't up to the task of answering them, no matter how hard you try to twist it. To say that God is is best understood as an absolute plenitude of actuality doesn't really advance the ball so much as it merely tries to hide it.

Later in the essay, perhaps recognizing that he's exhausted the semantic possibilities here, Hart redirects his focus to the cultural impact of Christianity, suggesting that the New Atheists haven't truly grappled with what a world without religion would be like. And perhaps they haven't. But interior passions and social mores work both ways. Did Isaac Newton feel a deeper aesthetic connection with the infinite when he was inventing calculus or when he was absorbed in Christian mysticism? Who can say? Not me, surely, and not Hart either. Likewise, the question of whether Christianity has, on balance, been a force for moral good is only slightly more tractable. Does keeping the servants from stealing the silver really outweigh the depredations of the Crusades and the Inquisition?

But no matter how beguiling those questions are, surely the metaphysical one always comes first. To say merely that Christianity is comforting or practical — assuming you believe that — is hardly enough. You need to show that it's true. And if you want to assert that something is true, the onus is on you to demonstrate it, not on the New Atheists to demonstrate conclusively that it isn't. After all, in the end the only difference between Hart and Dawkins is that Hart believes in 1% of the world's religions and Dawkins believes in 0% of them. It's Dawkins' job only to question that remaining 1%. It's Hart's job to answer him.

Climate Bill Roll Out Postponed as Graham Threatens to Walk

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 9:10 PM EDT

The state of climate and energy legislation was thrown into disarray Saturday evening as the lead Republican on the bill, Lindsey Graham, threatened to walk away from negotiations over tensions on timing. With bipartisan agreement in peril, John Kerry, the lead Democrat on the bill, pushed off the anticipated roll out of the bill scheduled for Monday.

"For more than six months, Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman, and I have been meeting for hours each day to find a bi-partisan path forward and build an unprecedented coalition of stakeholders to pass a comprehensive climate and energy bill this year," Kerry said in a statement. "We all believe that this year is our best and perhaps last chance for Congress to pass a comprehensive approach. We believe that we had reached such an agreement and were excited to announce it on Monday, but regrettably external issues have arisen that force us to postpone only temporarily."

Graham had expressed anger over the suggestion from Democratic leaders that immigration reform might move ahead of climate and energy legislation. Earlier on Saturday, he told supporters that he would walk away from the bill if Democratic leadership did not commit to moving their forthcoming bill first. Graham quitting his work on the bill would put its fate in question; he's the only Republican publicly engaged with Democrats in writing legislation.

Kerry said he remains "deeply committed to this effort" and that there is "no choice but to act this year." He also praised Graham’s role in shaping the bill, but said he and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) would move forward without him. "Joe and I deeply regret that he feels immigration politics have gotten in the way and for now prevent him from being engaged in the way he intended. But we have to press forward. Lindsey has helped to build an unprecedented coalition of stakeholders from the environmental community and the industry who have been prepared to stand together behind a proposal. That can’t change. We can’t allow this moment to pass us by."

Kerry, Graham and Lieberman had expected to unveil a draft of their legislation on Monday, promising unprecedented support from industry groups. But at this point, the bill's fate is uncertain, to say the least.

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Graham: Energy First, or I Walk

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 6:27 PM EDT

Lindsey Graham has made his opposition to taking up immigration reform before a climate and energy bill well-known. On Saturday, he made it clear that if Democrats go that route, he's walking away from the work he's done with Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a comprehensive package.

The Hill reports that Graham sent a letter to supporters saying that he will be "unable to move forward" with the energy and climate plan they're expected to roll out on Monday if it falls behind immigration on the list of legislative priorities. Graham quitting his work on the bill would send negotiations into a state of chaos; he's as of yet the only Republican publicly engaged with Democrats in writing legislation.

From Graham's letter:

Recent press reports indicating that immigration—not energy—is their priority have not been repudiated. This has destroyed my confidence that there will be a serious commitment and focus to move energy legislation this year. All of the key players, particularly the Senate leadership, have to want this debate as much as we do. This is clearly not the case.
I am very disappointed with this turn of events and believe their decision flies in the face of commitments made weeks ago to Senators Kerry, Lieberman and me. I deeply regret that election year politics will impede, if not derail, our efforts to make our nation energy independent.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) issued a statement affirming his commitment to addressing both issues this Congress, noting that they are "equally vital to our economic and national security and have been ignored for far too long." But Reid also made it clear that he plans to move on whichever piece of legislation has the support to pass. "As I have said, I am committed to trying to enact comprehensive clean energy legislation this session of Congress," said Reid. "Doing so will require strong bipartisan support and energy could be next if it's ready."

As for Graham, Reid said:

I appreciate the work of Senator Graham on both of these issues and understand the tremendous pressure he is under from members of his own party not to work with us on either measure. But I will not allow him to play one issue off of another, and neither will the American people. They expect us to do both, and they will not accept the notion that trying to act on one is an excuse for not acting on the other.

What this means for Monday's anticipated roll out of a climate and energy bill isn't clear. "Unless their plan substantially changes this weekend, I will be unable to move forward on energy independence legislation at this time," Graham wrote. "I will not allow our hard work to be rolled out in a manner that has no chance of success."

Mortgages and Consumer Protection

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 5:57 PM EDT

Speaking of conservatives and financial reform, Arnold Kling is one who does write seriously about the subject on a fairly regular basis. A couple of days ago he listed three problems with Chris Dodd's financial reform bill, all of which seem reasonable to me (though I think Dodd is planning to take up reform of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in a separate bill). But then he took this shot at the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency:

I know that it's axiomatic that poor people are helpless victims. But in the case of these mortgages [i.e., bubble-era ARM/no-doc/exotic mortgages], that is a really hard sell. The banks did not take from poor people. They gave to poor people....I'm sorry, but if you borrowed up to 100 percent of the value of the house or more, then all you really lost were your moving expenses.

What about predatory lending? As I understand it, the idea of predatory lending is to saddle the borrower with an expensive mortgage so that you can foreclose on the property and sell it at a profit. How many times did that happen? Have you read of a single instance in the past three years where the bank made a profit on a foreclosure?

Put aside the question of whether or not poor people really have suffered thanks to exotic mortgages, a problem that I think Kling dismisses much too easily. From a systemic point of view, the real issue is that predatory lending on a large scale helped to massively inflate the housing/credit bubble of the aughts. If the home loan market had been regulated stringently enough to keep mortgage lending relatively sober, the bubble most likely would have been half the size it ended up at, the credit derivative tidal wave never would have picked up a lot of steam, the bursting of the bubble would have kicked off a normal-sized recession instead of a near-depression, and the banking system would have survived without massive government intervention.

Of course, the proposed CFPA would do a lot more than just regulate mortgage lending, and we can argue about whether that regulation would be a good thing. But the Fed obviously did a lousy job of reining in mortgage brokers during the past decade, and since property is by far our biggest (and most dangerous) asset class, doing a better job of that is a key part of preventing a repeat of 2008. Giving that responsibility to someone who takes it more seriously seems like a pretty good idea to me.

Quote of the Day: The Southern Strategy

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

From Republican National Chairman Michael Steele, on the GOP's electoral strategy since the 60s:

For the last 40-plus years we had a "Southern Strategy" that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South. Well, guess what happened in 1992, folks, "Bubba" went back home to the Democratic Party and voted for Bill Clinton.

I'm glad we've settled that once and for all.

Where's the Right Wing Reform?

| Sat Apr. 24, 2010 2:02 PM EDT

Via Twitter, National Review editor Rich Lowry suggests that conservatives are a lot more interested in financial reform than I (or Jonathan Chait) give them credit for. To demonstrate, he points to a post that has links to nine pieces recently run on the NR website or in the magazine.

I'll get to those in a minute. First, though, I should clarify: I wasn't targeting any particular magazine when I suggested that conservatives haven't shown a lot of serious interest in financial reform. My observation was much broader than that. When I think of the blogs that have become go-to sites on the financial crisis — Mike Konczal, Felix Salmon, Barry Ritholtz, Simon Johnson & James Kwak, Yves Smith, Steve Randy Waldman, and others — they're mostly run by folks with a leftish tilt of one kind or another. Ditto for books. Ditto for magazine pieces. There are a few conservatives who blog and write about financial regulation too, but just not very many, and almost none that do it with the depth and passion — or the kind of concrete proposals — of the lefties. That's why lefty sites mostly end up arguing with other lefties.

But what about National Review in particular? Well, aside from nonsense about the CRA there's one thing for sure that we know conservatives are exercised about: the supposed "bailout fund" contained in Chris Dodd's reform bill. So I'll give 'em that. And sure enough, of the nine piece linked in this post, five of them (1, 2, 3, 4, and 8) are primarily about that. Of the others, #6 and #7 are just reporting and nonspecific commentary, and #9 is some kind of weird analogy with oily rags and fire insurance that I couldn't even make sense of. Bottom line: NR has some commentary on reform, but there's not much, and what there is is almost entirely dedicated to griping about resolution authority and the "bailout fund." It's essentially pretty trivial stuff. On a broader note, The Corner probably puts up a couple hundred posts a week on every topic under the sun, but most weeks you can count the number dedicated to serious commentary on financial reform on the fingers of one hand.

But maybe you noticed that I skipped a step up there. What about item #5? It's by Duncan Currie, and after a bit of throat clearing about the bailout fund and the dreaded CFPA, he offers three reform suggestions Republicans should take up. Here's the condensed version:

(1) A one-page mortgage form....The form would clearly and concisely show prospective borrowers how their mortgage payments relate to their income, and would be accompanied by a two-page glossary defining various technical terms. It has received praise from none other than Elizabeth Warren, chair of the TARP Congressional Oversight Panel.

(2) Revamping Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac....Dodd’s legislation does not address their future status. Republicans should continue highlighting this omission and challenge Democrats to support robust GSE-reform language.

(3) Implementing new capital requirements....In the latest issue of National Affairs, economists Oliver Hart of Harvard and Luigi Zingales of the University of Chicago describe an innovative approach. Briefly, Hart and Zingales would force big financial firms to safeguard their systemically important obligations by carrying two layers of capital, the second of which “would allow for a market-based trigger to signal that a firm’s equity cushion is thinning, that its long-term debt is potentially in danger, and therefore that the financial institution is taking on too much risk.”

This is the kind of thing I'm talking about. It's obviously not what I'd propose, and it doesn't really address the deepest regulatory issues that probably cause the most heartburn for conservative ideology. Still, it shows a serious interest in the subject and tosses out some real proposals. Mortgage loans should be simpler. Fannie and Freddie do need to be dealt with. And capital requirements are a key part of any reform effort. It's a good piece.

But it's just one piece. Beyond that, I guess my question is, Where are the Mike Konczals and Simon Johnsons of the right? That is, conservatives who acknowledge the serious market failures that brought on the crash (instead of obsessing solely over CRA or Fannie Mae) and who go beyond just sniping at Democratic proposals. Conservatives who write regularly for a lay audience and really take seriously an obligation to explain what they think happened and what we ought to do to fix it. Maybe they're out there and I'm just not reading them. But if someone gives me half a dozen names, I'll take a look.