2012 - %3, July

What's Up With Drilling and Earthquakes?

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 1:44 PM PDT

There has been increasing concern about the potential role of fracking in earthquakes. The worries prompted the the US Geological Survey to look into it, and scientists found that the increase in earthquakes is likely man-made, but probably caused more by wastewater disposal than fracking itself. Now, a fabulous new piece from EnergyWire looks a little more deeply at the wastewater connection.

Reporter Mike Soraghan visited Oklahoma, where state officials are taking their time investigating the connection between the industrial processes and a magnitude-5.6 quake that damaged homes and highways along the Wilzetta Fault last year:

The oil companies that operate the nearby wells say they couldn't have triggered the quake. But scientists say injection certainly can unleash earthquakes. University of Oklahoma seismologist Katie Keranen, who has been studying the earthquake since the day it happened, says there's evidence to back up Loveland's hunch.
"There's a compelling link between the zone of injection and seismicity," Keranen said at a seismological conference in April. She's one of a handful of scientists who see evidence of such a connection.
Like Loveland, people who see potential connections between the quake and drilling activities are resigned rather than resentful. Most seem ready to wait while the state gathers information.

The whole article is an informative read on the state of science and policy when it comes to these quakes.

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The State Department's Latest Exercise in Oxymoron

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 1:26 PM PDT
#Metaphors

This will make your head hurt:

Can a government document be both publicly available and properly classified at the same time? That is not a Zen riddle. It is a serious question posed in a provocative lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union, and on Monday a federal judge said the answer was yes.

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of Federal District Court in Washington ruled that [PDF here] the State Department had acted correctly in withholding more than half of 23 classified diplomatic cables sought by the A.C.L.U. — all of which had been posted on the Web months earlier by WikiLeaks...The State Department, acting as if the cables were still secret, withheld 12 of the 23 cables completely and released 11 with some redactions.

Did you get that? Wikileaks did what they do and went about wikileak-ing a load of top-secret State Department correspondence. The ACLU, being cute and wanting to prove a point, filed a lawsuit to try to force the government to own up to information that is now widely available to any child with a wireless router. The State Department responded by exercising its authority to withhold already publicly available information, and continued to deem—Oxford English Dictionary be damned—the cables classified.

A federal judge then concurred that state secrets that are definitely no longer secret can still be kept legally secret-ish by a secretive State Department. Basically, it's the same kind of maddening, circular logic used in that scene in ABC Family's pious, cheese-heavy teen soap The Secret Life of the American Teenager, when Adrian Lee and her lover Ricky are debating the true meaning of the word "before":

But to be serious for a moment, a ruling like this raises crucial questions for those wishing to blog, tweet, or report on the juicy details buried within a Wikileaks, or Wikileaks-style, data-dump. If a reporter were to write about publicly available documents that the State Department does not offically recognize as declassified, would that journalist be open to prosecution under the Espionage Act of 1917, simply because the government clings to a legal technicality? It's a situation in which the definition of the term "classified" is potentially in limbo.

This episode is merely another drop in the bucket of the $12 billion+  that the Obama administration has spent in the past year alone to pummel transparency.

The Republican Plan to Tax the Poor

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 12:37 PM PDT

How will Republicans pay for their proposal to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent of Americans? In part, by raising taxes on low- and moderate-income working families.

According to the watchdog group Citizens for Tax Justice, the GOP's tax plan would allow the expiration of tax breaks worth a total of $11.1 billion for 13 million working families. (Democrats want to keep those tax breaks in place.) That's enough money to make up for 40 percent of the value of the GOP's proposed tax cuts for the rich.

Here's a rundown of the GOP's proposed tax increases, and what they'll cost working families:

Child Tax Credit: A tax deduction for families with children
GOP proposal: End a portion of the credit for families making between $3,000 and $13,300
Savings to federal government: $7.6 billion annually
Tax increase for average family: $854 annually

Earned Income Tax Credit: A tax credit for people who work but have low wages
GOP proposal: Reduce EITC for some married couples (i.e., bring back the "marriage penalty") and for families with three or more children
Savings to federal government: $3.4 billion annually
Tax increase for average family: $530 annually

According to CTJ, virtually all of these tax increases would apply to families making less than $50,000—people for whom a few hundred dollars can make a huge difference. Unfortunately for them, the media is focused instead on how Obama's tax increases on incomes above $250,000 will make life intolerable for rich people.

Inside the Washington Political Class

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 12:19 PM PDT

In the New York Times Magazine last week, Mark Leibovich profiled Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic super-moneyman known as "The Macker":

The Washington Political Class, as it’s called by those in the media who are often a part of it, represents a vast and self-perpetuating network of friendships and expedient associations that transcend even the fiercest ideological differences. Membership in the class is the paramount commonality between the various tribes — the journalists, the Democrats, the Republicans, the superlawyers, superlobbyists, superstaffers, fund-raisers, David Gergens, Donna Braziles and Karl Roves. They argue on television and often go into business with their on-air combatants. They can be paid tens of thousands of dollars to do their left-right Kabuki thing in front of big organizations. The Macker did this with Rove a while back — a luncheon speech at the Exxon Mobil headquarters in Texas. He has a few joint events planned with Barbour for the fall. He has also done partisan duets at a combined 50 grand a pop with “my great friend, Eddie Gillespie,” a Barbour protégé and former R.N.C. chairman whom McAuliffe bonded with in the greenroom between their many on-air donnybrooks over the last decade. “I have a love-hate relationship with Terry,” Gillespie joked in one of their public debates. “I love Terry. And I hate myself for it.”

I missed this when it came out, but a friend brought it to my attention today. "Reading this is like reading The Valachi Papers," he says. Click the link and decide for yourself.

Fantasy Republicans vs. Real-World Republicans

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 11:58 AM PDT

Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers argue that it's a "standard Republican talking point" that the Obama stimulus failed. As an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee put it, "Zero jobs, zero jobs, zero jobs were created." Reihan Salam comments:

Note the importance of defining “the standard Republican talking point” as “it didn’t reduce unemployment.” Having encountered many criticisms of the stimulus, I can attest that while many people did indeed embrace this strong form of the critique, i.e., that it did not reduce the jobless rate relative to a counterfactual in which the stimulus law was not passed, others relied primarily on the notion that the benefit did not exceed the cost.

Among the commentariat, Salam is probably right — though even there, I don't recall seeing a whole lot of examples of this. But have any actual working politicians on the right ever said this? I can think of dozens of examples of Republican politicians insisting that the stimulus didn't create one single job, but I can't think of any Republican politician on the national stage who took a more moderate line, acknowledging that jobs were created but at too high a cost. Even among the scribbling class, the folks who tried to show that the cost per job was too high usually did it with a caveat: "even if you accept CBO's figures etc...." They never said they actually did accept those figures.

This is one of the key differences between Democrats and Republicans. Both sides have a moderate wing, even if it's pretty small on the GOP side. But among politicians themselves, the Republican moderate wing simply has no influence. It's just an ineffectual knitting circle. For better or worse, there were plenty of Democrats who voted for the PATRIOT Act, supported the Iraq war, voted for the bankruptcy bill, and so forth. But where are the Republican members of Congress who supported the stimulus or healthcare reform or Dodd-Frank or student loan reform? You can count them on one hand. It's all very well to say that there were "others" who took a moderate line on the stimulus, but the truth is that they never had any real-world impact. In the real world, "zero zero zero" has been pretty much the unanimous Republican line.

Pennsylvania: No In-Person Voter Fraud Either Now or Anytime in the Past

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 10:51 AM PDT

Here's a pretty remarkable document. It comes via TPM's Ryan Reilly, and it's an agreement between both sides in a suit filed against Pennsylvania's new voter ID law. Supposedly, these laws are designed to reduce voter fraud, but the only kind of fraud that voter ID addresses is in-person fraud: the kind where someone walks into a polling place and pretends to be someone else. And yet, the state of Pennsylvania says they have no knowledge of such fraud ever occurring, or any expectation that it will occur in the future:

In a way, there's less here than meets the eye. The state's attorneys merely want to argue that the voter ID law is constitutional, and they probably think they can do this without any evidence of actual fraud. After all, in the Crawford case the Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law even though the majority opinion conceded that "the record contains no evidence that [] in-person voter impersonation at polling places has actually occurred in Indiana." Pennsylvania's lawyers probably figure this means they don't need any evidence either, and as lawyers that's all they care about.

Still, it's sort of a remarkably bald admission. The truth is that voter fraud is vanishingly rare in the United States, and in-person voter fraud is all but nonexistent. Everyone knows this, including the courts. That's not why Republican legislatures pass these laws.

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Greenland's Summer Mega Melt

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 10:39 AM PDT

 Extent of surface melt over Greenland's ice sheet on July 8, 2012 (left) and July 12, 2012 (right), melting shown in pink: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences LaboratoryExtent of surface melt over Greenland's ice sheet on 08 July 2012 (left) and 12 July 2012 (right), melting shown in pink: Jesse Allen, NASA Earth Observatory and Nicolo E. DiGirolamo, SSAI and Cryospheric Sciences Laboratory Satellites recorded an unprecedented rate of ice sheet melt in Greenland this month. Over the course of four days in July virtually the entire surface melted—an area larger than at any time in more than 30 years of satellite observations.

On average about half the surface area of the ice sheet melts in summer. But between 08 and 12 July 2012 the melt spread from 40 percent to 97 percent of the Greenland ice sheet.

A researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena was analyzing radar data from the Indian Space Research Organisation's (ISRO) Oceansat-2 satellite last week when he noticed that most of Greenland appeared to be melting.

The extreme melt coincided with a heat dome over Greenland—one of a series of unusually strong ridges of warm air dominating Greenland's weather since May. Each successive ridge has been stronger than the previous one this summer.

Atmopsheric carbon dioxide measurements at Summit, Greenland, 1985-2010: NOAA | Earth System Reserach LaboratoryAtmospheric carbon dioxide measurements at Summit, Greenland, 1996-2010: NOAA | Earth System Research Laboratory

Even the NOAA observatory Summit Station in central Greenland—2 miles (3.2 kilometers) above sea level and near the highest point of the ice sheet—showed signs of melt. Such widespread thawing has not occurred since 1889, according to ice-core analyses.

"Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time," said Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data. "But if we continue to observe melting events like this in upcoming years, it will be worrisome." 

Adventures in Conservative Denialism, Part 73

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 10:15 AM PDT

I would really appreciate it if someone could put me into suspended animation for the next few months and wake me up on November 5th. Thanks very much.

Why? Because I'm not sure I can take another 14 weeks of this campaign. The mountain of idiocy building up around "you didn't build that" has just about reached wrist-slitting proportions, both because of the sheer rapturous levels of dishonesty surrounding the quote itself and because of the ensuing, more intellectually-minded dishonesty that's now dedicated to proving that the government has never done anything for anybody — not no how, not no way. The latest is Gordon Crovitz, who has decided to see if he can con the Wall Street Journal's readership into believing that government research dollars had virtually nothing to do with the invention of the internet:

It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet....By the 1960s technologists were trying to connect separate physical communications networks into one global network—a "world-wide web." The federal government was involved, modestly, via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network....Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an email to fellow technologists in 2004 setting the record straight: "The creation of the Arpanet was not motivated by considerations of war. The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks."

If the government didn't invent the Internet, who did?

Etc. etc. Crovitz seems to be under the peculiar impression that Xerox's invention of Ethernet was the key to the development of the internet. Whether he really believes this, or just figures his readers will believe anything, is hard to say. In any case, Crovitz liberally quotes from Dealers of Lightning, a history of Xerox PARC by Michael Hiltzik, and thanks to the invention of the internet Hiltzik himself can set the record straight:

Crovitz confuses AN internet with THE Internet. Taylor was citing a technical definition of "internet" in his statement. But I know Bob Taylor, Bob Taylor is a friend of mine, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that he fully endorses the idea as a point of personal pride that the government-funded ARPANet was very much the precursor of the Internet as we know it today. Nor was ARPA's support "modest," as Crovitz contends. It was full-throated and total. Bob Taylor was the single most important figure in the history of the Internet, and he holds that stature because of his government role.

....[Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn] did develop TCP/IP--on a government contract! And Berners-Lee doesn't get credit for hyperlinks--that belongs to Doug Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute, who showed them off in a legendary 1968 demo you can see here. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web--and he did so at CERN, a European government consortium.

....As for Ethernet, which Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs invented at PARC (under Taylor's watchful eye), that's by no means a precursor of the Internet, as Crovitz contends. It was, and is, a protocol for interconnecting computers and linking them to outside networks--such as the Internet. And Metcalfe drew his inspiration for the technology from ALOHANet, an ARPA-funded project at the University of Hawaii.

So the bottom line is that the Internet as we know it was indeed born as a government project. In fact, without ARPA and Bob Taylor, it could not have come into existence.

There's more, and you should probably read the whole thing. But here's what I really don't get: Crovitz isn't just wrong, he's wrong in a laughably obvious way. No one who knows the first thing about the development of the internet would buy his story. It would be like some liberal writing a column suggesting that it's a "myth" that Democrats were responsible for widening the Vietnam war.

So why would Crovitz be willing to write something so publicly and embarrassingly false? I don't know. But that's where we are. It's become almost a game, with conservatives one-upping each other with ever more ridiculous claims to see just how far they can go. The answer, apparently, is pretty far. It's now so important for conservatives to claim that nothing good has ever come out of the federal government that they're literally willing to say anything. After all, how many of Crovitz's readers will ever read Hiltzik's response? One percent of them? Mission accomplished.

NOTE: One of the things that gets me about this nonsense is how one-sided it is. Can you imagine a liberal writing a column claiming that private industry played virtually no role in the development of the internet? I can't. We often cite the internet as an example of government support for basic research and infrastructure, but we'd never pretend that private industry didn't play a big role too.

Corn on MSNBC: Romney's Foreign Policy Just Like George W. Bush's

Tue Jul. 24, 2012 9:36 AM PDT

Iraq War veteran Jon Soltz and Mother Jones' David Corn take a closer look at Mitt Romney's foreign policy, revealing that—both in terms of ideals and advisers—it's not a far cry from George W. Bush's approach.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

Yes, the Social Sciences are Pretty Useful. Here's Proof.

| Tue Jul. 24, 2012 9:32 AM PDT

I've written before about the value of early childhood interventions, including not just pre-K schooling, but also things like home nursing visits that begin at the moment of birth. One of the reasons that more and more people are starting to focus on this is because of the results of the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, in which a group of Romanian orphans were randomly assigned either to foster homes or to remain in their orphanages. The Romanian children are now entering their teen years, and the LA Times reports on the latest results from the project:

In the new study, the team scanned the brains of 74 of the Bucharest children, now ages 8 to 11, using magnetic resonance imaging. What they found was striking: Brains of children who had remained in institutions had less white matter — the type of tissue that connects different regions of the brain — than orphans who were placed in foster care or children living with their own families.

Reductions in white matter have been found in numerous neurological and psychiatric conditions, including autism, schizophrenia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. Study senior author Charles Nelson, a developmental neuroscientist at Children's Hospital Boston, said the white-matter changes were probably related to a difference that the scientists had noticed earlier in the project: Children in institutions had less electrical activity in their brains — specifically, a kind known as "alpha power" — than those who had gone to foster homes.

"If a normal kid is like a 100-watt light bulb, these kids were a 40-watt light bulb," Nelson said.

You want to know the value of the social sciences? Here you go. There are two big things we could do if we really wanted to improve our childrens' future: aggressively get rid of all the remaining lead in our soil and in old houses — all of it — and spend a bunch of money on high-quality early childhood interventions among poor and working-class families. If we don't think we have the money — an argument I'll put off to another day — we should take it out of the K-12 budgets. We'd be better off with 100% more pre-K and 20% less K-12 than we are with our current funding priorities.

The investment return on these two things is probably astronomical. Unfortunately, like all good things, they cost money and require rigorous execution, something that's nearly impossible because one of our major parties will never consider shifting money out of K-12 and the other is run by nihilists who are unwilling to spend money on anything other than national defense. So instead we twiddle our thumbs, doing nothing until the evidence in favor of these child-centered programs is literally bulletproof, something that might take a while since social science evidence is, by its nature, almost never bulletproof.

In the meantime, though, there's plenty of bipartisan support for ethanol subsidies. Welcome to America.

For more on this topic from me, click here. And here. For a terrific cover story on the topic from Jon Cohn in the New Republic, click here.