2013 - %3, January

Platinum Coins and Banana Republics

| Sun Jan. 13, 2013 6:12 PM EST

A couple of days ago Greg Sargent emailed to ask me why I was so opposed to the $1 trillion platinum coin as a way of evading the debt ceiling. After all, a lot of liberals argue that Republicans are threatening to turn the United States into a banana republic by refusing to allow our bills to be paid, so why shouldn't Democrats respond in kind? I think it's worth sharing my answer:

Fighting banana republic with more banana republic is far more dangerous than coin supporters think. It's one thing for Republicans to go crazy. It's another for craziness to essentially become institutionalized. When liberals stop fighting this kind of stuff, we really are on our way to banana republic-hood.

Is that self-explanatory? In the end, I think we'll end up with a negotiated solution of some kind to the debt ceiling standoff, so I don't consider the danger as great as some people do. But even if I'm wrong about that, I think there's a much bigger danger in the possibility of ridiculous unilateral legal hair-splitting becoming the norm in American politics. If that happens, then we really are just an unusually rich banana republic.

The answer to the debt ceiling nonsense is to force Republicans back into some semblance of responsibility and prudence. In the long term, it's the only way we survive. Barack Obama appears to understand that.

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Chart of the Day: We're Driving Less and Less and Less

| Sun Jan. 13, 2013 1:28 PM EST

Justin Horner points out today that, against all odds, Americans are continuing to drive less and less. Vehicle miles traveled per person plateaued in 2005 and then started declining dramatically in 2008. On average, Americans drove about 700 miles per year less in 2012 than they did in 2007.

So will this trend keep up? Horner offers three possibilities:

  1. The Interrupted Growth Hypothesis: VMT cuts are temporary and increases will resume once the economy picks up (although we know more VMT is not a required, or inevitable, part economic growth);
  2. The Saturation Hypothesis: car ownership and personal travel budgets have hit their limit, so no more growth is likely;
  3. The Peak Car Hypothesis: VMT has hit its peak, and history will now see a VMT decline of undetermined length.

In other words, he says, "in the future VMT will either go up, go down, or stay the same." His guess is that it will continue to go down.

Quick Reads: "Farewell, Fred Voodoo" By Amy Wilentz

| Sun Jan. 13, 2013 7:01 AM EST
book caption

Farewell, Fred Voodoo

By Amy Wilentz

SIMON & SCHUSTER

"I prepared to be very, very frightened," journalist Amy Wilentz writes of a trip to Haiti during the 1994 US military showdown over embattled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "Instead, I was dazzled." That sense of apprehensive wonder imbues this lyrical first-person survey of Haiti's exposure to "capriciousness and nature's indifferent hand"—from slavery and thuggery to earthquakes and disease. Creole proverbs abound as she gauges the temperature of Fred Voodoo, Haiti's version of Joe Sixpack. What emerges is a case study in what Wilentz views as a global erosion of human kindness.


This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

Sorry, Peeps: No Platinum Coin For You

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 5:21 PM EST

When it comes to the Most Important Political Topic Of Our Times™—namely the possible minting of a $1 trillion platinum coin—Ezra Klein advances the ball today. The idea behind this slow-news-week chimera is that the Treasury would mint the coin, deposit it at the Fed, and voila: the government has more money to spend even though we've hit the debt ceiling. Up to now, we've all argued about whether this is a good idea; whether it's legal; and whether President Obama would ever consider this option in the first place1. But there's always been another question rolling around in my head: would the Fed even accept the coin? If they won't, the whole idea runs aground instantly.

Well, it turns out they wouldn't: "Neither the Treasury Department nor the Federal Reserve believes that the law can or should be used to facilitate the production of platinum coins for the purpose of avoiding an increase in the debt limit," a Treasury spokesman told Ezra today.

So there you have it. Can we now please stop talking about this and find something else to chatter about next week?

1Answer: No, he wouldn't. I mean, seriously, folks. This is Barack Obama we're talking about here. Can you even imagine him buying into nutbaggery like this?

Lead and Crime: A Response to Jim Manzi

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 2:11 PM EST

A couple of days ago Jim Manzi posted a long and technical critique of my hypothesis that gasoline lead is strongly linked to the rise and fall of violent crime that we've experienced over the past half century. (Detailed in "Criminal Element" in our current issue.) It's the kind of critique that probably ought to be addressed by an expert, but unfortunately there don't seem to be any in my living room at the moment. Just me. So I'm going to respond myself, and hopefully others may respond in their own way later on.

A quick note: I spoke to Manzi while I was preparing my article on the lead-crime hypothesis, and I've also read Uncontrolled, his excellent book about the inherent problems with econometric analysis (review here). So I'm not surprised that he has some pushback. Nonetheless, I think he pushes back too much.

The rest of this is likely to get long and a little wonky, and it doesn't contain any fascinating new factlets about lead that I left out of my magazine piece. For that reason, I'm going to put it below the fold. However, if you make it all the way to the end, there's an irony to our disagreement that you might find amusing. Click the link for more.

Why the Government Should Pay Farmers to Plant Cover Crops

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Drought-stunted wheat in Texas, 2011.

Globally, 2012 will likely rank as one of the ten hottest in recorded history, The New York Times reports. If it does, "it will mean that the 10 warmest years on record all fell within the past 15 years, a measure of how much the planet has warmed." Here in the US, last year was far and away the hottest ever on record. In other words, climate change is no longer a theory or a model or an abstract worry involving future generations. It's happening, now—and if you want to see its likely effect on farming, look at the breadbasket state of Kansas, where the same prolonged drought that reduced corn and soy yields is now pinching the winter wheat crop, as I wrote a few days ago. On Wednesday, the UDSA declared much of the wheat belt a disaster area because of the drought's effect on the crop.

What would a farming system designed to meet the challenge of climate change look like? US policymakers have bought themselves time to consider that question. Since the Great Depression, US farm policy has been governed by five-year plans known as farm bills, which shape the agricultural landscape through a set of government-funded incentive programs. The previous farm bill expired last year, and Congress failed to come up with a new one, instead patching a one-year, modified extension of the old one to the fiscal cliff deal. That means 2013 will be another farm bill year; another opportunity to come up with climate-ready farm policy.

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Quick Reads: "Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread From the Data" By Charles Wheelan

| Sat Jan. 12, 2013 7:01 AM EST
book cover

Naked Statistics: Stripping the Dread From the Data

By Charles Wheelan

W.W. NORTON & COMPANY

A couple of years ago, Google's chief economist predicted, "The sexy job in the next 10 years will be statisticians." (Hello, Nate Silver!) If you aren't quite ready to spend your life running regressions, Naked Statistics provides a taste of the hot data action. With a dollop of corny jokes and just a dash of math, Charles Wheelan (a Dartmouth prof) offers a conversational introduction to the concepts you need to understand everything from why "rich nerds" should have seen the 2008 Wall Street collapse coming to the best strategy for winning a car on Let's Make a Deal. If your interest in statistics is above average, this book is worth sampling.

 

This review originally appeared in our January/February issue of Mother Jones.

How Season 2 of "Girls" Resembles Season 6 of "Californication"

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 10:17 PM EST
Two peas—in a terrible, patience-killing pod.

Last year, Lena Dunham's Girls on HBO was the next big thing—a profoundly bland and unstoppably irritating trek through a Brooklynite's perdition of unpaid internships, failed orgasms, and daunting First World Problems.

When it premiered last April, the series marked a new low for the premium cable network, even managing to surpass John From Cincinnati in its level of galling unwatchability. The inaugural season was practically drowned in its commitment to a mumblecore-hued comic universe defined by limp execution, clumsy timing, and deafening familiarity. It was inertia disguised as quirkiness, stock narrative masquerading as bold art, and peskiness paraded as high comedy.

Season 2 premieres on Sunday, ushering in another 10-episode, two-month reign of Girlsmageddon. And I'll be the first to admit there's been a noticeable improvement: Girls season 2 is definitely less of a crime against humanity than Girls season 1. But the modest boost in quality is nothing to write home about.

In the first four episodes, we find that some things have changed, but most have stayed exactly the same—preserved by the emotional permafrost of twentysomething New Yorkers.

Corn on Hardball: Will the Far Right Keep Congress from Acting on Gun Control?

Fri Jan. 11, 2013 9:01 PM EST

The Obama administration's gun task force is set to deliver its recommendations next week. But if gun control legislation gets to Congress, even a moderate bill could run up against hard opposition from today's Republican leadership, who are worried about catering to their supporters on the far right. DC bureau chief David Corn and The Grio's Joy Reid talk about what will happen when the gun control debate hits Congress on MSNBC's Hardball.

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

New Federal Report: Climate Change Is Really, Really Scary

| Fri Jan. 11, 2013 6:09 PM EST

Say what you want about the Obama administration's relative ignoring of climate issues: Many of his top scientists are paying rapt attention, and they think we're about to get our butts kicked—although dumping the news at 4 p.m. on a Friday gives some indication of where it sits in federal priorities.

The National Climate Assessment is produced by the US Global Change Research Program, which is tasked with collating climate research from a wide variety of federal agencies and, every few years, distilling it into one major report. The latest, a first draft, is the third such report (the last was in 2009), product of a 1990 law that requires the White House to produce semi-regular updates on climate science to Congress. Today's report echoes the themes of earlier editions, and paints a picture that is all the more grim for being an unsurprising confirmation of the dangers we've come to know all too well. Here's the top six things for you to worry about this weekend, according to the report:

  1. Climate change is definitely caused by human activities. Always nice to hear government officials acknowledge this essential fact. And the report concedes that our only hope of curbing warming is to kick our addiction to greenhouse-gas spewing fossil fuels.
  2. Extreme weather is increasing, and that's our fault, too.  In particular, searing temperatures, heavy rain, and prolonged drought.
  3. Weather isn't the only threat we have to worry about. The list sounds like the side-effect warnings at the end of a prescription drug commercial: decreased air quality, insect-borne diseases, and "threats to mental health" are all on the docket for the coming decades.
  4. Our infrastructure is getting hammered, and we're not spending enough to save it. Floods are destroying farmland; extreme heat is damaging roads, rail lines, and airports; and military installations are at risk.
  5. Food and water security will be up in the air. Especially in water-scarce regions like the Southwest, decreasing snowpack and shrinking groundwater supplies will spark competition for water between "agricultural, municipal, and environmental" uses. At the same time, heavy floods could put water quality at risk with sediment and chemical contaminates. And by mid-century, efforts to artificially protect agriculture (like expanded irrigation) could be over-ridden by temperature and precipitation extremes.
  6. Climate change is hitting plants and animals just as hard as us. Beaches, forests, wetlands, and other ecosystems could shrink or disappear, especially a problem when they play a role in mitigating the impact from extreme weather. And warming, acidifying seas could slam sea life.

The report is sure to get thoroughly dissected by reporters in the coming week; keep an eye out for more details to come.