2012 - %3, May

The End Of White America

| Thu May 17, 2012 5:00 PM EDT

Thursday's New York Times had news sure to provoke demographic panic in some of the more unsavory corners of American society: the Census Bureau announced that non-white babies now account for the majority of births in the US. Here's the Times writeup: 

Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities — including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race — reached 50.4 percent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.

Such a turn has been long expected, but no one was certain when the moment would arrive — signaling a milestone for a nation whose government was founded by white Europeans and has wrestled mightily with issues of race, from the days of slavery, through a civil war, bitter civil rights battles and, most recently, highly charged debates over efforts to restrict immigration.

While over all, whites will remain a majority for some time, the fact that a younger generation is being born in which minorities are the majority has broad implications for the country’s economy, its political life and its identity. "This is an important tipping point," said William H. Frey, the senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, describing the shift as a "transformation from a mostly white baby boomer culture to the more globalized multiethnic country that we are becoming."

I'm generally skeptical of stuff like this, because the definition of "white" has never been static. White ethnics—Irish, Italians, Jews—were long excluded from whiteness on the grounds that they were racially inferior, but they were integrated into a more inclusive redefinition of whiteness post-World War II. The same is likely to happen in the next generation—people that we don't consider to be white today might identify as such in the future.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

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Rapid Retreat of Columbia Glacier

| Thu May 17, 2012 4:05 PM EDT

 

Columbia Glacier in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASAColumbia Glacier, Alaska, in 1986 (top) and 2011 (bottom): NASA

Alaska's Columbia Glacier is one of the fastest evolving ice rivers on Earth. It flows from its headwaters 10,000 feet up in the Chugach Mountains towards Prince William Sound. In 1980 it began a rapid retreat that continues today. From NASA Earth Observatory:

These two false-color images, both captured by the Thematic Mapper (TM) instrument on Landsat 5, show the glacier and the surrounding landscape in 1986 and 2011. Snow and ice appears bright cyan, vegetation is green, clouds are white or light orange, and the open ocean is dark blue. Exposed bedrock is brown, while rocky debris on the glacier’s surface is gray. The 2011 image has more snow because it was captured in May, while the 1986 image was captured in July... As the glacier has retreated, it has also thinned substantially, as shown by the expansion of brown bedrock areas. Rings of freshly exposed rock, known as trimlines, are prominent in the later image. Since the 1980s, the glacier has lost about half of its total thickness and volume.

The retreat has also changed the flow dynamics of the glacier. The medial moraine—a line of debris deposited when separate channels of ice merge (seen as a line down the center of the 1986 glacier)—divided the Main Branch from West Branch in 1986. Now the retreating terminus has effectively split the Columbia into two glaciers, with calving occurring on both fronts.

Would Mitt Romney Be the Most Right-Wing President Ever?

| Thu May 17, 2012 3:38 PM EDT

My former colleague Jamelle Bouie's cover story for the American Prospect suggests that if elected, Mitt Romney would be the most conservative president in recent memory:

These aren't idle expectations. If Romney wins the White House, it's a sure bet that Republicans will also win the Senate—Democrats are defending a disproportionately large number of seats this year—and maintain their majority in the House of Representatives. More important, Romney's agenda is almost entirely fiscal: cuts to taxes, cuts to entitlements, and cuts to domestic programs. All of this can be passed through budget reconciliation, which makes it immune to a filibuster. Republicans could force through their ideas without a single Democratic vote.

In terms of figuring out what you're actually voting for, it makes more sense to think about yourself as voting for a party rather than a candidate. That candidate will pursue the party's agenda within whatever objective structural constraints exist, meaning even if Barack Obama were the closet radical so many conservatives think he is, his policy agenda would still have been subject to the whims of Democratic centrists in the Senate.

If Mitt Romney wins, he'll likely be facing fewer of those constraints. The Democratic Party is a coalition of liberals and moderates. The Republican Party is currently dominated by conservatives. Obama had to tailor his policy preferences to appeal Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to beat Republican filibusters, but it's unlikely Democrats will be able to act with the same ideological discipline that Republicans have displayed over the past few years. 

Even so, Romney seems uniquely suited to fitting the "warm body" standard—that all Republicans need is a president ready to rubber-stamp whatever Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) comes up with—that Bouie refers to at the beginning of his piece. The best explanation I've seen for the two Romneys (The moderate Massachussetts governor and the conservative standard-bearer) comes from Reason's Peter Suderman, who compares Romney to a business consultant who views his task as "presenting the customer with a slicker, better packaged, but fundamentally unchanged version of itself." When the client was liberal Massachussetts, Romney was a moderate. As the leader of the post-Tea Party GOP, he will as conservative as his clients need him to be. 

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin is on vacation.

Rep. Mike Coffman Isn't Sure What Country the President Is From

| Thu May 17, 2012 2:40 PM EDT
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.)—last seen in these parts warning that undocumented immigrants would vote en masse for Obama this fall—suggested at a fundraiser last weekend that President Barack Obama might not have been born in the United States. It was awkward:

"I don't know whether Barack Obama was born in the United States of America. I don't know that," Coffman said. "But I do know this, that in his heart, he's not an American. He's just not an American."

After a short pause, which Elbert County Republican Chairman Scott Wills recalled as "deafening silence," Coffman was met with applause, tentative at first.

This comes just one month after another GOP freshman, Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, expressed her own doubts about the President's place of birth.

Okay, so birthers are still a thing, and will probably always be a thing; cut the head off a conspiracy theory and it sprouts eight more. (There are still people who maintain that Zachary Taylor ate poisoned cherries!) But here's the problem for Coffman: As David Nir notes, Coffman's not running in the same district that elected him in 2010:

Colorado's 6th Congressional District was made significantly bluer in redistricting, going from a seat John McCain won by a 53-46 margin to one Barack Obama won, 54-45. That's made Coffman extremely vulnerable this year, yet he's still acting as though he's running in the district that repeatedly elected Tom Tancredo to Congress.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has listed Coffman's seat as a "Red to Blue" pickup, meaning it's going to be a top battleground in the fall. Running a birther campaign and smearing Latinos—a rapidly growing demographic in the Mountain West—might not be the best strategy if he wants to keep his job.

Last 12 Months Hottest in Recorded US History

| Thu May 17, 2012 1:53 PM EDT

 Average national temperature records May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

Record average national temperatures from May 2011 to April 2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The last 12 months were the hottest 12 months in US history since record-keeping began in 1895. This according to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center's latest State of the Climate report.

This historic heat broke the prior record set from November 1999 to October 2000 by 0.1°F.

 

Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.Ten warmest 12-month periods in contiguous US since 1895: NOAA/NCDC.

 

But what's really interesting is if you put this new record in context of the current trend. As you can see in the chart above, all 10 of the hottest 12-year periods have occurred since 1999. 

In the US, the 12 months between May 2011 and April 2012 ranked as:

  • the 2nd warmest summer on record
  • the 4th warmest winter on record
  • the warmest March on record
  • during this time 22 states saw record warmth
  • during this time 19 states saw top 10 hottest

 

Contiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDCContiguous US temperature January-April 1895-2012: NOAA/NCDC

 

The average temperature in the contiguous US from January to April 2012 was of 45.4°F—that's 5.4°F above the 20th-century average for that period. It shattered the prior record set in 2006 by a huge margin of 1.6°F. 

The chart above shows the hot first quarter of 2012 charted against the long-term average since 1895. Specifically:

  • The warming trend of 1.9°F per century is shown by the red line
  • The long-term average can be seen in the gray line
  • Actual temperatures from January to April 2012 are shown in the blue points/line
  • The green line is a 9-point binomial filter, which shows decadal-scale variations.

 

United States Drought Monitor as of 1 May  2012.: climate.govUnited States Drought Monitor as of 1 May 2012.: climate.gov

 

The gnarly partner to all this heat is drought. The US Drought Monitor (USDM) map above shows the state of drought in the lower 48 as of 1 May 2012. That's a lot of dry territory.

Drought is assessed on the D-scale (D0 to D4)—similar to the scale used for hurricanes and tornadoes—and designed to reflect the unusualness of a drought episode. D1 conditions (pale yellow) are expected to occur only ~10 to 20 percent of the time. Much-rarer D4 conditions are expected no more than every 50 years (darkest orange).

 Heat anomalies central and eastern tropical Pacific: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

Heat anomalies central and eastern equatorial Pacific in past 12 months: NWS/Climate Prediction Center

One mastermind behind these temperature and drought anomalies in the US is the state of sea surface temperatures in the top ~1,000 feet (300 meters) of the equatorial Pacific Ocean. These reflect our current position in the El Niño/La Niña/Southern Oscillation (ENSO).

The strong La Niña that held sway for most of the last couple of years dissipated in April. The Climate Prediction Center forecasts a return to ENSO neutral conditions this summer—with a strong caveat that at least half the climate models predict a swing to El Niño.

But the ENSO pattern has been changing in recent years too (I wrote more about that here). So we really don't know what's in store, other than the likelihood—based on the trends—of more extremes and, with them, more costly weather and agricultural disasters.

Info About Fracking Concerns Limited in Pennsylvania

| Thu May 17, 2012 1:18 PM EDT

Pennsylvanians say that the state is ignoring their health complaints that they believed could be related to natural gas extraction. Residents say they have a hard time reaching state offices when they are seeking information or trying to register concerns, and the state hasn't done a good job of tracking health issues, according to the Associated Press:

"Everybody kind of just passed the buck," said Sheri Makepeace, a northwestern Pennsylvania resident who said that starting last year she tried calling the Department of Health and other agencies over fears that nearby drilling created health problems. "I've talked to so many different people and have gotten so many different stories."

This story follows up on one from last month in which the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported that it had received just 30 health complaints related to natural gas extraction in the state. After that article came out, residents pointed out that it's actually really difficult to report things to the health department. The recorded message at the phone number listed for health information and referral in the department doesn't list gas-related issues as one of the menu options, or anything remotely close.

As one researcher working on this topic told me, she called that number numerous times and "never reached a human." She either got a busy signal, she said, or was asked to leave a message. It made one wonder how many complaints the department is actually recording and addressing.

This latest story also comes after doctors and environmental activists in the state have raised concerns about a new law that they argue limits what doctors can do with information related to natural gas extraction. The law, passed in February, allows doctors to access information about the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing in order to treat patients who may have been exposed. But the law also puts limits on how the doctors can use and share that information, requiring them to sign a non-disclousre agreement about whatever information they obtain. Opponents argue that this hampers doctors' ability to study how many people are seeking treatment and to what they might have been exposed, closing down yet another avenue for information. 

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How Toxic Was "The Ricketts Plan" on Jeremiah Wright? This Toxic.

| Thu May 17, 2012 1:10 PM EDT

On Thursday morning, the New York Times reported that a Republican super-PAC funded by wealthy conservative Joe Ricketts was considering a plan to turn Jeremiah Wright into Obama's running mate in the 2012 election. By early afternoon, the Ending Spending Action Fund was already repudiating "The Ricketts Plan" to defeat Obama. That was fast.

Here's the super-PAC's statement:

Joe Ricketts is a registered independent, a fiscal conservative, and an outspoken critic of the Obama Administration, but he is neither the author nor the funder of the so-called “Ricketts Plan” to defeat Mr. Obama that The New York Times wrote about this morning. Not only was this plan merely a proposal – one of several submitted to the Ending Spending Action Fund by third-party vendors – but it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects and it was never a plan to be accepted but only a suggestion for a direction to take. Mr. Ricketts intends to work hard to help elect a President this fall who shares his commitment to economic responsibility, but his efforts are and will continue to be focused entirely on questions of fiscal policy, not attacks that seek to divide us socially or culturally.

In America today, really overt bigotry is toxic. It just is. If you want to exploit bigotry effectively, you have to do so with some kind of plausible deniability, and in 2012 just getting a "extremely literate conservative African-American" to narrate your racist ad just won't cut it. It's not clear, though, that Ricketts understood this before the Romney campaign started trying to distance itself from the "The Ricketts Plan" on Thursday. The third page of "The Ricketts Plan," presumably referring to the airing of a hypothetical Wright ad during the 2008 election, states "If the nation had seen that ad, they'd never have elected Barack Obama." If the quote is accurate, and Ricketts thought a Wright ad would have changed the outcome of the 2008 election, it's hard to believe he never seriously considered running one this time around.

UPDATE: Times spokeswoman Eileen Murphy emails my colleague Nick Baumann with a response to Ricketts' statement:

We have done a post on his statement, and will report further on this.... That said, they're not actually denying anything in our piece. We reported that it was a proposal awaiting final approval. And yes, we certainly stand by our reporting.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

RIP Chuck Brown

| Thu May 17, 2012 11:21 AM EDT
Chuck Brown, the Godfather of Go-go.

Judging by my college experience, for folks outside of the DC area, Go-go music probably conjures images of mod dancers in high boots. Within DC, though, it refers to the city's predominant musical genre, pioneered by the incomparable Chuck Brown, known as the Godfather of Go-go, who died Wednesday. The Root's Natalie Hopkinson, who recently wrote a history of Go-go music, has a great retrospective on the social and cultural trends that birthed Go-go:

In the years that followed the uprising, Chuck would tell the kids more than just that. At a time when urban planners and policymakers ceded authority over inner-city Washington to the hustlers and the pimps, Chuck Brown showed kids how to play music. He showed them how to hype the audience through West African-style call and response, how to slow down ecstatic crowds to groove to the same sultry, slow-boiling conga beat. He showed them how to knit the audience into a community and to train them to come back, night after night, generation after generation.

Chuck taught D.C. natives to take those charred ruins of the civil rights movement in riot-blackened places like U Street and use them to make art. Not the kind of art that crosses over onto pop-music charts or that gets co-opted by multinational entertainment companies or even gets an NEA grant, but, nonetheless, the kind that generations of black Washingtonians have used for fellowship.

Despite the migration of DC residents south, either permanently or to historically black colleges and universities, Go-go never quite managed to make it beyond the DC metro area. Some artists tried—you can hear it's influence in a few nationally released tracks, like Jill Scott's "It's Love," Ludacris' "Pimpin' All Over the World," and of course Wale's "Pretty Girls," but it remains a DMV (DC-Maryland-Virginia) thing. There's really nothing on Earth like a go-go, and absent the immediacy of being there, hearing the music, and dancing to it maybe the genre's appeal just can't really be understood. I'll spare MoJo readers an account of my first time at a Go-go, but aside from his profound role in shaping the culture of the city, every semi-awkward dude in DC owes Brown a debt of gratitude for his contributions to a genre of music that tends to be less uh, labor-intensive for men.

Anyway, here's Chuck Brown's Bustin' Loose:

One of the great things about Go-go is bands doing covers of pop songs. This Rare Essence version of Ashlee Simpson's Pieces of Me is one of my favorites, just because it's weird.

Adam Serwer is filling in while Kevin Drum is on vacation.

Today's Sign of the Apocalypse: The Butt-Steered "Personal Mobility Device"

| Thu May 17, 2012 11:19 AM EDT

Honda is introducing a new "personal mobility device" that saves people not only from the horror of walking, but also from using their hands to steer. The latest marvel of human innovation, the Uni-Cub is designed to be steered with your butt:

Designed to mimic the speed and height of walking, the Uni-Cub's lithium batteries power a trick wheel that can move any direction. Using sensors on the seats, riders simply shift their weight in the direction they wish to travel -- there's also a smartphone control app -- and the unit rides high so that the riders have eye contact with people not cool enough to glide around the office up to 3.7 miles on a charge.

If this were intended for people with disabilities that make them unable to walk, that might be one thing. But the ad features perfectly mobile people using these futuristic unicycles to move around their office building. Sometimes, real life gets a little too much like Wall-E.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for May 17, 2012

Thu May 17, 2012 10:39 AM EDT

First Lt. Daniel Loeffler, a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, drives a Lightweight Tactical All Terrain Vehicle on Forward Operating Base Warrior, May 12, 2012, Ghazni Province, Afghanistan. Loeffler is a logistics officer for 1st Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. US Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod.