2012 - %3, November

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 14, 2012

Wed Nov. 14, 2012 11:44 AM EST

Army Staff Sgt. Mathew Fox waits to engage a target in the live-fire stalk event during the 2012 International Sniper Competition at the U.S. Army Sniper School on Fort Benning, Ga., Nov. 3, 2012. Fox, a sniper, is assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division's 3rd Brigade, 2nd Battalion, 69 Armor Regiment. U.S. Army photo by Ashley Cross.

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Glenn Beck's New Book Looks Incredible

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 11:15 AM EST
How it begins.

Glenn Beck's new novel, Agenda 21, is set in a dystopian future in which in the implementation of a United Nations treaty on sustainable development has turned the United States into a police state where workers spend their waking hours attempting to minimize carbon emissions and to have children with as many different partners as possible, as ordered by the central government. I should just end this post right there, really, but the rest of the book's blurb is too good to pass up:

Woken up to the harsh reality of her life and her family's future inside the Republic, Emmeline begins to search for the truth. Why are all citizens confined to ubiquitous concrete living spaces? Why are Compounds guarded by Gatekeepers who track all movements? Why are food, water and energy rationed so strictly? And, most important, why are babies taken from their mothers at birth? As Emmeline begins to understand the true objectives of Agenda 21 she realizes that she is up against far more than she ever thought. With the Authorities closing in, and nowhere to run, Emmeline embarks on an audacious plan to save her family and expose the Republic—but is she already too late?

It's like The Giver, but for conservatives who think the end times are coming. (It's nothing like The Giver.) Beck's novel sounds absurd, but it actually taps into a very real concern on the far right, centering on Agenda 21, a non-binding United Nations declaration to promote sustainable development and global harmony that was introduced two decades ago and never ratified by the US Senate.

Some conservatives, including Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), have long argued that the internationalist endorsement of sustainable development—that is, leaving a little bit of Earth for future generations when we can manage it—amounted to a dangerous step toward collectivism. As Bachmann put it, "They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, [and] take light rail to their government jobs." This, in turn, has had serious policy consequences at the state and local levels, with activists fighting everything from public transit to zoning plans to manatee habitats under the auspices of taking on the blue helmets.

Obviously in the event of an actual invasion by United Nations manatees, you should disregard this post entirely and go buy Glenn Beck's book.

The 5 Unfinished Items That Will Shape Obama's Food and Ag Legacy

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 7:03 AM EST

President Barack Obama enters his second term with a complex record on food and farm policy. Eight months into the first term, I assessed the administration's record like this:

Like a tractor driven by a drunk, the Obama administration keeps zigzagging on food/ag policy–sometimes veering in the direction of progressive change, other times whipping back toward the agrichemical status quo.

That assessment held up pretty well—the "whiplash" I was getting from the early policy zigzags has settled into a permanent state. And that's reflected in the impressive list of unfinished food and ag policy business the administration carries into its second term. On all of these issues, the administration could go either way, and there's no telling now which.

But one thing is pretty clear: The time frame for resolving them in progressive ways is limited. "The window for getting things done is about 18 months,"  said Scott Faber, vice president for governmental affairs for the progressive Environmental Working Group. After that, the political class will be engulfed in the 2014 midterm elections—and the administration will likely turn cautious, reluctant to offend interests that might fund the opposition.

Here they are:

1. The farm bill: The basic outlines of food and farm policy are set out in the once-every-five-years farm bill. Congress and the president were due to hammer one out in the 2011-12 session. The White House gave Congress very few signals of what it was looking for in the farm bill, and Congress responded with proposals that enshrined agribusiness as usual (with the tweak of replacing direct payments to corn, soy, and other commodity-crop farmers with new crop-insurance subsidies), adding a bracing dose of austerity for people who rely on government aid for food.

The Senate ended up with a farm bill version that I judged could have been worse (but was actually pretty bad); the House ag committee responded with one that preserved the worst parts of the Senate plan (sellouts to agribiz interests in the form of crop-insurance subsidies) and added deep cuts to the critical food-aid program SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. But then the bill died in the House before the election, buried in a war among GOP factions over just how deeply SNAP could be cut and whether insurance subsidies favored by Big Ag interests could be tolerated in an age of fiscal austerity.

Now the farm bill has entered a chaotic phase. The lame-duck Congress could still get it together to pass one, but Ferd Hoefner, the policy director of the Washington-based National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told me it's "a long shot" that the Senate and House versions will be reconciled before the clock runs down on 2012. If a deal hasn't been worked out by the holiday recess, then the farm bill process starts from scratch along with the new Congress in 2013.

If that happens, will the administration use the political capital it won in the election to push a progressive new farm bill? That's "theoretically possible," Hoefner told me; but it's "probably unlikely, given that they basically just sat and watched the process" in 2012. In other words, in the coming year, expect Obama to sign something that very much resembles what the House and Senate came up with last year.

CHARTS: On Wind Power, China Kicks Our Butt

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 7:03 AM EST
Wind turbines at China's Tianjin Eco-City.

Despite recent strides toward climate action, China is still the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and one of the biggest consumers of coal —and hence the archetypal global warming scapegoat. But on at least one count, a new study says, China is kicking America's butt, and probably will be for decades: wind energy.

As of 2011, North America (predominated by the US) claimed 22 percent of the world's total wind power capacity, four points behind China, according to analysis released today by the Global Wind Energy Council. By 2015, China's lead could be up to eight percent over the US. And over the next two decades, the gap could widen even more.

Check out the chart below, from the report. The concentric circles represent that total global capacity in 2020 (inner) and 2030 (outer); the colors represent the shares of that total held by various regions or countries:

Courtesy Global Wind Energy CouncilCourtesy Global Wind Energy Council

Corn on MSNBC: Will the Tea Party Let Boehner Make a Deal With Obama?

Wed Nov. 14, 2012 5:07 AM EST

David Corn, The Grio's Joy Reid, and Bloomberg View's Bill Cohan joined Martin Bashir on MSNBC to discuss the upcoming showdown between President Obama and the House Republicans over the so-called "fiscal cliff" negotiations.

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

President Obama's Brand New Tax Plan That's a Year Old

| Wed Nov. 14, 2012 1:24 AM EST

Back in 2011, when President Obama was negotiating with John Boehner over extension of the debt ceiling, he offered up a deal that included $800 billion in tax increases (over ten years). While Boehner was waffling, a bipartisan committee produced a deal that would raise taxes by $1.2 trillion. Obama went back to Boehner and said he couldn't stick with the old deal when a bunch of Republicans had already agreed to $1.2 trillion, so that was his new offer. Boehner turned him down and talks collapsed.

Now a year and a half has passed and Obama just won reelection. So what's his offer now? $1.6 trillion over ten years. Take that, Republicans! The reaction from liberals has been generally positive: they're impressed that Obama is opening with a strong hand and upping the ante now that he has a mandate from the public.

But there's really no news here. Obama's proposal is the same one he campaigned on. A brief description is here, and a more detailed description from the Tax Policy Center is here. Here are the big ticket items:

  • Allow the Bush tax cuts on high earners to expire. $849 billion
  • Limit itemized deductions to 28 percent, close some loopholes and deductions on high earners, eliminate tax breaks for oil and gas companies, eliminate the carried interest loophole, plus a few other items. $584 billion
  • Create a special "Buffett Rule" tax rate for millionaires. $47 billion
  • Restore the estate tax to 2009 levels. $143 billion
  • Limit corporate income shifting to low-tax countries. $148 billion
  • Other miscellaneous tax increases and reductions. About -$200 billion
  • Total: $1.6 trillion

Bottom line: there's nothing special about this proposal. It's pretty much the same as the one in his 2013 budget, and it's pretty much the same one he's been running on for the past year. It surely didn't come as any surprise to Boehner or the rest of the Republican caucus, and it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone else either.

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The Feds Should Quietly Allow Colorado and Washington to Experiment with Marijuana Legalization

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 9:39 PM EST

Colorado and Washington both passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana in last week's election, and in both cases the new laws include product-labeling requirements, a ban on sale to minors, and substantial taxes. Mark Kleiman, co-author of Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Know, says he'd like to know how this kind of a regulatory regime works out, and all the studies in the world won't tell us. You just have to try it and find out what happens. So he hopes that President Obama will quietly allow the two states to give it a try:

The federal government could shut down both of those experiments, if it were determined to do so....But it would make it impossible to learn anything useful from the Colorado and Washington experiments.

So why shouldn’t the federal government cut Colorado and Washington some slack? As long as those states prevent marijuana grown under their laws from crossing state lines and thereby subverting marijuana prohibition in the rest of the states, the Justice Department could step back and let the consequences of the new policies play themselves out. They might succeed, or they might fail. In either case, the rest of us could learn from their experience.

I doubt that either state can effectively prevent locally-grown marijuana from crossing state lines, but hell, they can't prevent it now either. So I'm with Mark: there's no need to announce any public change of policy, but Obama should tell DEA to lie low for a while and see how Colorado and Washington do. A controlled experiment like this is the best way of finding out the effect of full legalization of marijuana. Does it lead to higher consumption? Is it a gateway drug? Will it reduce consumption of alcohol?

Three years ago, in a story given the most peculiar headline ever by my editors, I predicted that the answers would be (a) yes, moderately; (b) no; and (c) quite possibly. And since substitution of alcohol consumption with marijuana use would probably be a net positive, it's well worth a try.

I also predicted this would take a while: "Ten years from now," I concluded, "as the flower power generation enters its 70s, you might finally be able to smoke a fully legal, taxed, and regulated joint." If the feds agree to back off, I will have been seven years off. At least for some of us.

New Group Unveils Its Plan to Get Money Out of Politics

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 7:17 PM EST

The 2012 election wrapped up barely a week ago, which means that fundraising for the 2014 midterm election has begun in earnest. But a new campaign to get money out of politics has just launched as well. Represent.Us says its goal is to pass the American Anti-Corruption Act, a nine-point plan to crack down on lobbyists, strengthen the flimsy law intended to prevent super-PACs from coordinating with campaigns, and put a stop to undisclosed donations funneled through dark-money nonprofits. (Represent.Us is a project of United Republic, a campaign finance reform group that, like many of the outside spending organizations it takes aim at, is a 501(c)(4).)

Represent.Us boasts a high-profile, bipartisan board of advisors, among them former Federal Elections Commission chair (and Stephen Colbert's "personal lawyer") Trevor Potter, Lawrence Lessig, disgraced lobbyist-turned-reformer Jack Abramoff, representatives from Occupy Wall Street and the DC Tea Party Patriots, and even Teddy Roosevelt's great-grandson, Theodore IV. The group hopes to to convince 1 million American citizens to join its cause, building on popular revulsion to what it deems "the worst political corruption in American history."

After that, Represent.Us plans to introduce the Anti-Corruption Act to Congress by the end of 2013 and rally cosponsors. It's also got its eye on 2014: The group says it will wage a "hard-hitting campaign" against members of Congress who fail to sign on. No word yet on how it would fund its efforts to unseat those incumbents.

Here's the group's call to action:

October Was Looking Kinda Normal Until Sandy Broke the Record Books

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 7:00 PM EST

 Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

Precipitation associated with Sandy, 23-31 Oct 2012 (preliminary): NOAA National Climatic Data Center

According to NOAA's National Climatic Data Center State of the Climate Report, post-tropical cyclone Sandy made landfall with a central minimum pressure of 946 millibars—potentially a record low for the Northeast coast, pending further assessment. The storm also rated as the largest hurricane to form in the North Atlantic  in terms of wind spread, with a gale diameter of 945 miles.

This month's report focuses on Sandy as the monster rampaging through October. Here are a few other noteworthy  stats associated with that storm:

  • The observed water level at The Battery in New York City of 13.8 feet set an all-time record there, topping Hurricane Donna's 1960 record by more than three feet.
  • The Delaware River in Philadelphia set a new record high water level of 10.6 feet, beating out the previous high of 10.5 feet set in April 2011. 
  • Sandy's blizzard dropped more than a foot of snow in six states from North Carolina to Pennsylvania, shattering October monthly and single storm snowfall records. Snowfall totals in the highest elevations approached three feet.

 

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

Aside from Sandy's mayhem, October was shaping up to be a relatively benign month by 21st century standards. The average temperature in the lower 48 was 53.9°F—0.3°F below the long-term average. That ended a 16-month streak of above-average temperatures starting in June 2011.

But even October couldn't mitigate the bigger picture for the year. The period between January and October 2012 saw the warmest first ten months of any year on record for the contiguous US dating back to 1895.

  • The national temperature of 58.4°F was 3.4°F above the 20th-century average and 1.1°F above the previous record warm between January and October 2000.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up as record warm in 21 states.
  • The first 10 months of 2012 racked up among the 10 warmest in 25 states.
  • Only Washington state saw temperatures near average for the period. 

 

NOAA National Climatic Data Center

NOAA National Climatic Data Center 

As you can see from this graph, previous record hot years dating back to 1895 were wiped out by 2012's heat so far (click graph for larger image). That heat led to a few other costly complications in terms of drought and crop failures:

  • January-October 2012 was the 16th driest period on record for the lower 48: precip totals 1.9 inches below the average of 24.78 inches.
  • Drier-than-average conditions were present from the Southwest, through the Rockies, across the Plains and into the Midwest.
  • Nebraska and Wyoming were record dry for the period. Nebraska's statewide precipitation total of 11.92 inches was 9.4 inches below average, while Wyoming's precipitation of 6.57 inches was 5.2 inches below average.
  • The Gulf Coast, parts of the Northeast, and the Pacific Northwest were wetter than average during January-October.
  • Washington's year-to-date precipitation total was 33.23 inches, 7.36 inches above average, and the fourth wettest January-October on record.

From the report:

The U.S. Climate Extremes Index (USCEI), an index that tracks the highest and lowest 10 percent of extremes in temperature, precipitation, drought and tropical cyclones across the contiguous U.S., was nearly twice the average value during the January-October period, and marked the second highest USCEI value for the period. Extremes in warm daytime temperatures, warm nighttime temperatures, and the spatial extent of drought conditions contributed to the record high USCEI value.


The Democrats' Southern White Problem

| Tue Nov. 13, 2012 6:46 PM EST

One of the key takeaways from the 2012 election is the fact that President Obama did well among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but poorly among whites. According to the national exit polls, Obama won only 39 percent of the white vote. That compares to 43 percent in 2008 and 41 percent for John Kerry in 2004.

But that's misleading. I don't have access to the internals of the exit polls, but Pew did a survey shortly before the election that showed Obama winning by three percentage points. This is pretty close to the final result, so their detailed breakdowns are probably pretty accurate too. So what do they say about the white vote? Here it is in colorful bar chart format.

One of these bars is not like the other. Obviously Democrats could stand to do better with white voters in the West and Midwest, but the real reason for their poor national showing among whites is the South. Overall, Obama won about 46 percent of the white vote outside the South and 27 percent of the white vote in the South. That's a difference of nearly 20 points. In other words: Democrats don't have a white problem. They have a Southern white problem, and that's a whole different thing. The press should be more careful about how they report this.