2011 - %3, August

Tea Party Leader: Liberalism Has "Killed a Billion" People

| Sun Aug. 7, 2011 11:19 AM EDT

Yesterday I reported that Judson Phillips, the founder of the Tea Party Nation group now touring Wisconsin to support the six GOP state senators facing recall elections on Tuesday, compared Wisconsinites who protested Republican Gov. Scott Walker to Adolf Hitler's Nazi storm troopers. The day before, Phillips claimed Democrats in Wisconsin wanted to "break the back of conservatives in Wisconsin" with the recalls.

But at an event on Saturday, Phillips amped up the vitriol and hate even more. As Politico reports, Phillips told a north Milwaukee crowd that "the left" and its beliefs have "killed a billion people in the last century." Here is Phillips' complete statement: "I will tell you ladies and gentlemen, I detest and despise everything the left stands for. How anybody can endorse and embrace an ideology that has killed a billion people in the last century is beyond me."

Phillips wasn't the only one spewing this stuff. From Politico:

Vince Schmuki, a leader of the Ozaukee Patriot tea party group compared the recall effort to a terrorist attack.

"This is ground zero," said Schmuki. "You remember what the term ground zero means? We have been attacked."

He continued, "Tuesday is going to be the beginning of our takeover. And we're going to follow it up the following week and then we're going to polish off the enemy in November 2012. Who's with me?"

I'm at a Tea Party Express rally in North Fond du Lac right now, so stay tuned for more fireworks this afternoon.

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A Wee Fiscal Timeline

| Sat Aug. 6, 2011 3:49 PM EDT

Steve Benen has a timeline for us today. I'm just going to steal the second half:

September 2010: In Obama's first fiscal year, the deficit shrinks by $122 billion. Republicans again condemn Obama's fiscal irresponsibility.

October 2010: S&P endorses the nation's AAA rating with a stable outlook, saying the United States looks to be in solid fiscal shape for the foreseeable future.

November 2010: Republicans win a U.S. House majority, citing the need for fiscal responsibility.

December 2010: Congressional Republicans demand extension of Bush tax cuts, relying entirely on deficit financing. GOP continues to accuse Obama of fiscal irresponsibility.

March 2011: Congressional Republicans declare intention to hold full faith and credit of the United States hostage — a move without precedent in American history — until massive debt-reduction plan is approved.

July 2011: Obama offers Republicans a $4 trillion debt-reduction deal. GOP refuses, pushes debt-ceiling standoff until the last possible day, rattling international markets.

August 2011: S&P downgrades U.S. debt, citing GOP refusal to consider new revenues. Republicans rejoice and blame Obama for fiscal irresponsibility. 

Congratulations, modern Republican Party! That was spectacularly fast work. The Bush-era party needed seven years to drive the economy into a ditch.

Tea Party Leader: Wisconsin Liberal Protesters Are Modern-Day Storm Troopers

| Sat Aug. 6, 2011 9:48 AM EDT

The Tea Party Nation is one of four right-wing groups touring Wisconsin this weekend in a last-ditch effort to bolster the six GOP state senators facing recall on August 9. It's anyone's guess if if the tour will make any difference—attendance at a Friday tour stop looked middling—but Tea Party Nation founder Judson Phillips won't let that stop him from stirring controversy.

Writing on Tea Party Nation's website Saturday morning, Phillips compares the Wisconsinites who recently protested Republican Gov. Scott Walker at the state fair (many of whom wore red t-shirts) to Adolf Hitler's storm troopers in Nazi Germany. That's right:

A few days ago, Governor Walker showed up to open the state fair. This was not a political event. It is one of those ceremonial events that a governor is obligated to do. His remarks were not political and in fact, consisted mostly of saying, "I declare the state fair to be open."

The Wisconsin Red shirts, the left's modern version of Brown shirts, were there to shout Walker down and generally ruin the fair for as many people as they could.

"Brownshirts" was the name given to the paramilitary wing of the German Nazi Party, known as the Sturmabteilung, or SA. The SA was founded by Hitler in the early 1920s. They earned their name because their uniforms were said to resemble those of Benito Mussolini's "Black Shirts," the armed squads who violently enforced Mussolini's fascist agenda. The brownshirts attacked Jews and non-Nazi Germans in the streets and suppressed any hint of opposition; their violent intimidation tactics helped fuel Hitler's ascent to power.

The liberals-as-Nazi-storm-troopers comparison wasn't Phillips' only attack in his Saturday missive, though it is his most incendiary. He also branded the people who protested the tea party tour as "not the brightest people," "paid union protestors," and as having "George Soros' money in their pockets." (Soros, of course, is conservatives' biggest bugaboo.) On Friday, Phillips accused liberals of wanting to "break the back of conservatives here in Wisconsin" through the recall process while also pushing Wisconsin toward financial ruin.

Amazingly, Phillips isn't the first to make this kind of comparison. In February, a posting on the site of Patriot Action Network, one of the four groups now touring Wisconsin, called the Service Employees International Union "Obama's brown shirts." And in March, Katherine Kersten, a fellow at a conservative Minnesota think tank called the Center of the American Experiment, asked in the pages of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune if the protesters at the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison were "Nazi brownshirts at work, busting up a meeting of political opponents in 1933 Germany?"

Book Review: A Dance With Dragons

| Sat Aug. 6, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

a dance with dragonsA Dance With Dragons (Book Five of "A Song of Ice and Fire")

By George R.R. Martin

BANTAM SPECTRA

At 62, novelist and former Hollywood screenwriter George R.R. Martin is more famous than he's ever been. "A Song of Ice and Fire," his epic fantasy series, just finished its first season as an HBO television show, and his latest book, a 1,040-page tome called A Dance With Dragons, recently hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The HBO show, dubbed Game of Thrones after the first book in the series, has been a commercial success, spurring sales of all five novels. Martin has been praised as the American J.R.R. Tolkien and profiled in The New Yorker, and HBO has vowed to continue making Game of Thrones "as long as [Martin] keeps writing."

Martin is popular because his books are "fantasy for people who hate fantasy," or "The Wire in Middle Earth,"  as some reviewers have explained. Fair enough: Martin's descriptions are rich, his plotting detailed, and his writing engrossing. I'm a fan—I've read all of the books several times, and even the most flawed bits of the series (and A Dance With Dragons may be the most flawed) leave you desperately wanting to know what happens next.

But all is not well in Westeros. A Dance With Dragons is the fifth of at least seven books. At this point in the narrative, readers have been following the action in Martin's magical, medieval world for years. The number of named characters has risen into the hundreds, the series is laboring under its own weight, and Martin's most pedantic critics are beginning to negatively affect his work.

Playing Russian Roulette With the Economy

| Sat Aug. 6, 2011 1:32 AM EDT

As I said earlier, I think S&P was wrong to downgrade U.S. debt. It was a panicky reaction to a bit of ugly, but ultimately mundane political squabbling that hasn't really lasted very long in historical terms. If we're still threatening serial defaults in 2015, then fine. Pull the trigger. But nothing much has changed about our long-term entitlement problems lately, our demographic trends remain more favorable than in most countries, and progress on tough issues like Medicare and Social Security legitimately takes years, not months.

That said, it's true that our recent behavior has been unusually ugly, and S&P's case for downgrade isn't wholly without merit. What's more, whether I think they were right or not, they certainly telegraphed their intentions well ahead of time. This is from their statement tonight:

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.

Translation: Argue over the budget all you want, but Republican games over the debt ceiling simply aren't compatible with being a AAA superpower. Then, after some pro forma jabs at everyone for being unwilling to cut a better deal, they really lay into the GOP:

Compared with previous projections, our revised base case scenario now assumes that the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, due to expire by the end of 2012, remain in place. We have changed our assumption on this because the majority of Republicans in Congress continue to resist any measure that would raise revenues, a position we believe Congress reinforced by passing the act.

Translation: America's future fiscal stability will require higher taxes, and in the past we assumed that, political bluster aside, everyone knew that. But apparently not, and Republican intransigence on this point is endangering the country. Daniel Gross says this more pointedly:

It has long been obvious to all observers — to economists, to politicians, to anti-deficit groups, to the ratings agencies — that closing fiscal gaps will require tax increases, or the closure of big tax loopholes, or significant tax reform that will raise significantly larger sums of tax revenue than the system does now. Today, taxes as a percentage of GDP are at historic lows. Marginal rates on income and investments are at historic lows. Corporate tax receipts as a percentage of GDP are at historic lows. Perhaps taxes don't need to rise this year or next, but they do need to go up in the future.

....This calamity was entirely man-made — even intentional. The contemporary Republican Party is fixated on taxes. It possesses an iron-clad belief that the existing tax rates should never go up, that loopholes shouldn't be closed unless they're offset by other tax reductions, that the fact that hedge fund managers pay lower tax rates than school teachers makes complete sense, that a reversion to the tax rates of the prosperous 1990's or 1980's would be unacceptable.

Again: regardless of whether S&P is right or wrong, everyone knew this was coming. All along, deals have been on the table that would have ended the threat of downgrade — deals that a Democratic president proposed even though they included program cuts that were agonizing to most of his fellow Democrats. But Republicans simply refused to consider them. In the end, they preferred to gamble with the financial decline of the country rather than face the obvious reality that eventually revenues are going to have to increase as America ages. It's like watching someone mindlessly playing Russian roulette with five chambers loaded. One round has just gone off, and if nothing changes it won't be the last.

Why S&P Is Wrong

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 8:44 PM EDT

In what sounded at first like something from the Onion, Standard & Poor's postponed its planned downgrade of US debt for a few hours today after the White House pointed out that it had made a $2 trillion arithmetic error in its calculation of future deficits. Seriously. These guys are supposed to have the most sophisticated stable of financial analysts on the planet, but apparently they can't come within $2 trillion of figuring out something that's a simple matter of looking through OMB tables and CBO reports.

But set that aside for the moment. What's $2 trillion between friends? We all agree on the rough size of America's fiscal woes and $2 trillion one way or the other isn't all that decisive. So the question of the day is: Should S&P have downgraded our debt? Felix Salmon says emphatically yes:

The US does not deserve a triple-A rating, and the reason has nothing whatsoever to do with its debt ratios. America's ability to pay is neither here nor there: the problem is its willingness to pay. And there’s a serious constituency of powerful people in Congress who are perfectly willing and even eager to drive the US into default. The Tea Party is fully cognizant that it has been given a bazooka, and it's just itching to pull the trigger. There's no good reason to believe that won’t happen at some point.

I hate to let anyone one-up me in my contempt for the absurd stranglehold the tea party holds over John Boehner and a cowering GOP, but this really, really just isn't true. Yes, there were a few tea partyish lunatics in Congress who apparently intended to vote against a debt ceiling increase no matter what. About 20 or 30, I think. And yes, the tea party contingent brought us to the brink of a partial government shutdown, which would have been bad news for the economy.

But in the end—and no one who has even a nodding acquaintance with political history should be surprised that it took until the 11th hour—a deal was cut. What's more, even if a deal hadn't been cut by August 2nd, we wouldn't have defaulted on our debt. A bunch of government services would have been temporarily put on hold, but bondholders would have been completely unaffected. This is a really important point. It's true that a temporary government shutdown would have been bad, but this has happened before. It's ugly and stupid and unnecessary, but it's politics. America's debt, however, was never at any risk.

On a similar note, here's Ezra Klein:

S&P is downgrading their estimation of our political system, not our actual ability to pay our debts.…Of course S&P is downgrading our political system. Did you see the nonsense we pulled over the past few months?.…Why shouldn’t S&P downgrade our debt?

Answer: because S&P shouldn't be in the business of commenting on a country's political spats unless they've been going on so long that they're likely to have a real, concrete impact on the safety of a country's bonds. And that hasn't happened yet. There's no serious macroeconomic reason to think America can't service its debt and there's no serious political reason to think the tea party has anything close to the power to provoke a political meltdown in which we won't pay our debt.

Look. The United States has been running up big debts for the past couple of years because we're trying to climb out of an epic recession: Jobs and economic recovery are exactly where our fiscal spotlight should have been. As a result, we've been focusing on our long-term debt for, literally, less than a year. Pretending that our political system is fundamentally broken because we haven't solved our long-term entitlement problems in a few months is staggeringly panicky and ahistorical, and S&P's weird obsession with hitting a $4 trillion target for medium-term deficit reduction is economically vacuous. If we still can't get our act together in four or five years, then fine. We deserve a downgrade. But a few months? That's crazy. It's the kind of hair-trigger reaction that belongs on cable shoutfests, not in the boardroom of a sober, 150-year-old financial firm.

Ezra predicted that in its downgrade S&P might call out Republicans for refusing to accept any deal that increases taxes. In their statement tonight they did in fact do this, albeit pretty gingerly. I think that's great, and I welcome it. But it still doesn't mean that S&P is right to use its rating authority as an excuse for political tsk-tsking. It should care only about the safety of US bonds, and for the moment anyway, there's no legitimate reason to think either that we can't pay or that we won't pay. The bond market, which has all the same information as S&P, continues to believe that US debt is the safest in the world, and in this case the market is right. S&P should stop playing dumb political games and stick to its core business.

Front page photo by TreyDanger/Flickr

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week: Mark Rothko, Martha Stewart, and the History of the High Five

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 8:06 PM EDT

Mother Jones guest blogger Mark Armstrong is the founder of Longreads, a site devoted to uncovering the best long-form nonfiction articles available online. And what better time to curl up with a great read than over the weekend? Below, a hand-picked bouquet of five interesting stories, including word count and approximate reading time. (Readers can also subscribe to The Top 5 Longreads of the Week by clicking here.)

Don't (Completely) Trust the Polls in the Wisconsin Recalls

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 7:22 PM EDT

Mike Tate, chair of the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, was positively sunny earlier this week in a call with reporters about the state of play in Wisconsin's looming recall elections. Against a slate of six GOP state senators, Tate said, internal polling showed Democrats leading in three races and neck-and-neck in the other three. But there's a big problem with any Wisconsin recall polling, Democratic or Republican: The Badger State is in uncharted territory.

The state has never before held nine recall elections in the middle of the summer. (Nor has so much money been showered on Wisconsin elections.) That means pollsters have no frame of reference to gauge what the turnout will be in the August 9 recalls, which target the six GOPers, or in the August 16 recalls, which target two Democratic senators. (One Democrat, Dave Hansen, already won his recall—more on that later.) That's a big deal, because in summer elections like these, turnout is everything.

Here's Greg Sargent quoting the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's pollster:

"We don't have a precedent for this," Mark Mellman, the well respected Dem pollster who is conducting recall polling for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, acknowledged to me. "The nature of the turnout is so uncertain that it really will make a huge difference. We’re dealing with big uncertainties."

Mellman said that three of the key races—though he wouldn't specify which—are so close that if turnout doesn't break the Dems' way, it could throw them to Republicans. He described them as "all very close races that could go either way."

Democrats understand this. At a Friday afternoon rally in the town of Waupun, Jessica King, a Democrat challenging GOP Sen. Randy Hopper in Wisconsin's 18th district, repeatedly urged the lively three-dozen or so attendees to ask at least one more friend, one more family member, one more somebody, to get out and vote on Tuesday. King knows how crucial turnout is: In 2008, she lost to Hopper by 163 votes out of more than 80,000. "It really comes down to who gets out the vote," she told the crowd.

One of the few available indicators of how the turnout will look next week was the re-election victory of Democrat Dave Hansen in mid-July, the first general recall election of the summer. Hansen cruised to victory, and the turnout neared 31,000—a figure suggesting an energized electorate in Hansen's Green Bay-area district. So the big question is: Can Democrats replicate that energy in six districts scattered throughout the state? Their hopes of snatching back the majority in the Wisconsin senate depend on it.

Story of the Week: Sheep Tweak Tree Ring Data

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 5:04 PM EDT

Precipitation, elevation, and even cloud-cover affect tree ring growth, but now there's another factor for scientists to consider: sheep. A new (ewe?) study out of Norway shows that the number of livestock in an area affect tree rings more than temperature.

The study compared 206 birch trees growing in Norway for 9 years at three different levels of sheep density: no sheep, 25 sheep per square kilometer, and 80 sheep per square kilometer. Researchers found that the more sheep around, the slimmer the tree rings. Trees that grew up in a sheep-less environment had rings three times wider than the trees that grew up around the most sheep.

This isn't to say that all tree ring data used to estimate past climatic conditions is invalid, but it is another element to factor in. Study lead author James Speed said, "Our study highlights that other factors interact with climate to affect tree rings, and that to increase the accuracy of the tree ring record to estimate past climatic conditions, you need to take into account the history of wild and domestic herbivores. The good news is that past densities of herbivores can be estimated from historic records, and from the fossilised remains of spores from fungi that live on dung."

So, basically, next step: study shrooms that grew on sheep poop centuries ago. Sounds exciting. Until then, the sheep study will likely give fuel to those who maintain that tree ring data are not a reliable indicator of climatic history, despite the fact that scientists also use things like coral records and ice cores to estimate past temperature changes. As Mother Jones has reported in the past, sometimes the controversy has come from very particular tree ring data sets calculated in scientifically unsound ways. If nothing else, this study involving sheep has uncovered a way to make tree ring data more accurate. Whether climate skeptics will see this as a positive or a negative is up for debate.

 

Winners and Losers on a Warming Coral Reef

| Fri Aug. 5, 2011 4:33 PM EDT

The winners: Acropora corals. Credit: Albert Kok at Wikimedia Commons. The winners: Acropora corals. Credit: Albert Kok at Wikimedia Commons.

After 14 years of tracking coral colonies at Sesoko Island, Okinawa, Japan, through two coral bleaching episodes—1998 and 2001—the big coral winners and losers on the reef have been announced...

  • The winners: Porites, faviids, and Acropora colonies
  • The losers: pocilloporids

Except it's not that simple, the authors of a new study warn. Since 14 years is hardly the long long run.

 

The losers: Pocillopora corals. Credit: Mila Zinkova at Wikimedia Commons.The losers: Pocillopora corals. Credit: Mila Zinkova at Wikimedia Commons.

 

In a new paper in the current issue of MEPS we get a sense of what happens in the short long term aftermath of a big coral bleaching event. 

Background: Coral bleaching occurs when water temperatures rise, stressing the coral animals enough to expel their symbiotic partners—the zooxanthellae. These single-celled plants give corals their beautiful colors and help feed them through photosynthesis. In some plant-animal partnerships, the zooxanthellae entirely feed their corals, making those species more vulnerable to bleaching.

In the past 30 years, rising sea surface temperatures have stressed and bleached corals worldwide.  Yet few researchers have looked at what recovery looks like over time—whether the species of corals that fare better in the short term also fare better in the long term.

 

A partially bleached faviid coral. Credit: Nhobgood at Wikimedia Commons. A partially bleached faviid coral. Credit: Nhobgood at Wikimedia Commons.

 

At Sesoko Island, the researchers found that although species richness recovered after 10 years, the composition of coral species on the reef had changed. The pocilloporids were nearly completely gone. Among their other findings:

  • Short-term winners were generally heat-tolerant encrusting and massive corals, like Porites, faviids, and small (<5 cm/2 in) Acropora colonies. 
  • Ten years after the thermal disturbance the community was still structurally different from the original community, consisting of a combination of survivors that were either:
  1. Tolerant to stress

  2. Surviving as fragments that experienced rapid regrowth

  3. Regionally persistent colonies that recruited locally

 

Credit: R. van Woesik, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09203.Credit: R. van Woesik, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09203.

 

The last point is interesting because it means that having healthy reef neighbors enabled some species to recover—thanks to seeding from nearby islands. 

Yet even the short long term winners may not survive the long long term. The authors close with these strongly cautionary words: 

The present study suggests that as the oceans warm even further, the coral assemblages will change. Reefs may soon essentially only support heat-tolerant coral species. The narrowing of genetic diversity within communities is likely to impact other dependent species such as fishes and crustaceans, especially if important reef-building branched corals, such as Acropora, Stylophora, Pocillopora, and Porites cylindrica, become rare on account of their inherent sensitivity to thermal stress. Bleaching may also become punctuated over the next several decades. In the short term, the remnant yet hardy populations may show some resistance to the higher water temperatures, and bleaching may be reduced for a decade or more if Acropora and pocilloporids are removed from local reefs. However, reduced bleaching may give false hope because once the inevitable temperature threshold of the remnant communities is surpassed, widespread coral mortality will follow. Given that even the hardiest coral genera have their limits, global temperature increases will eventually lead to an exponential rate of local, regional and global reduction of coral species. To what extent this reduction of coral species will occur will depend on how rapidly and by how much the ocean temperatures increase, which depends on the fossil-fuel-emission pathway that humans choose.

 

Coral recovery underway on a reef. Credit: Bruno de Giusti at Wikimedia Commons. Coral recovery underway on a reef. Credit: Bruno de Giusti at Wikimedia Commons.

The paper:

  • van Woesik R, Sakai K, Ganase A, Loya Y (2011) Revisiting the winners and the losers a decade after coral bleaching. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 434:67-76. DOI:10.3354/meps09203.