2013 - %3, April

Renewable Energy is Merely Another Front in the Culture Wars Now

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 11:55 AM EDT

Over at ClimateProgress, Ryan Koronowski reports on a study that showed liberals and conservatives were about equally likely to buy an energy efficient CFL light bulb if it cost the same as an old-school bulb:

But slap a message on the CFL’s packaging that says “Protect the Environment,” and “we saw a significant drop-off in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option,” said study author Dena Gromet, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business.

This reminded me of a line in a Jonah Goldberg op-ed this morning about our "infectious pessimism":

The obsession with "peak oil" and the need to embrace "renewables" because we're running out of fossil fuels are other symptoms of our malaise. Fracking and other breakthroughs demonstrate that, at least so far, whatever energy scarcity we've had has been imposed by policy, not nature....Humans are better understood as creators who've consistently solved the problems of scarcity by inventing or discovering new paths to abundance. As the late anti-Malthusian hero Julian Simon said, human imagination is the ultimate resource.

On the right, both climate change and questions about global limits on oil production have exited the realm of empirical debate and become full-blown fronts in the culture wars. You're required to mock them regardless of whether it makes any sense. And it's weird as hell. I mean, why would you disparage development of renewable energy? If humans are the ultimate creators, why not create innovative new sources of renewable energy instead of digging up every last fluid ounce of oil on the planet?

After all, there are plenty of reasons to think this is a great idea. If you're Bill Kristol, you want to do it to reduce the world's dependence on thuggish Middle Eastern dictatorships. If you live in Los Angeles (or Beijing), you want to do it to reduce smog. If you're Al Gore, you want to do it to reduce global warming. If you're James Hamilton, you want to do it because it will produce a more stable economy that doesn't bounce in and out of recession every time oil prices spike.

In other words, there are tons of good reasons to believe that we should be moving at warp speed to develop new sources of energy. You don't even need to believe in peak oil if you don't want to—though why you'd deny something so obvious is a mystery. Peak oil, after all, is only a question of when, not if.

I happen to agree that human ingenuity is, if not limitless, pretty damn close. So why not harness that ingenuity? Digging up ever more oil from ever more difficult and dangerous places is the sign of a plodding mind, not an ingenious one. If you truly believe in pushing the boundaries of human invention and creativity, you should be the world's biggest fan of renewable energy. That's our future.

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Study: Budget Cuts Are Making Us Sick

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

Two months ago, $85 billion in automatic slash-and-burn spending cuts to federal and state programs kicked in because Congress couldn't come up with a better way to deal with the deficit. Today, my colleague Tim Murphy reports on the ways those cuts are playing out across all 50 states, from shuttered Head Start programs to massive layoffs. If that weren't bad enough, a pair of prominent researchers said Monday that austerity policies are making people sick.

Oxford University political economist David Stuckler and Stanford University epidemiologist Sanjay Basu are publishing a new book this week detailing how austerity cuts are causing ill health across Europe and North America by driving up depression, suicide, and infectious diseases, and limiting access to medicines and healthcare. Reuters reports:

[T]he researchers say more than 10,000 suicides and up to a million cases of depression have been diagnosed during what they call the "Great Recession" and its accompanying austerity across Europe and North America.

In Greece, moves like cutting HIV prevention budgets have coincided with rates of the AIDS-causing virus rising by more than 200 percent since 2011—driven in part by increasing drug abuse in the context of a 50 percent youth unemployment rate.

Greece also experienced its first malaria outbreak in decades following budget cuts to mosquito-spraying programs.

And more than five million Americans have lost access to healthcare during the latest recession, they argue, while in Britain, some 10,000 families have been pushed into homelessness by the government's austerity budget.

Previous work by the same researchers has also linked rising suicide rates to austerity measures. But they maintain that the bad health effects are not inevitable, even in the worst crises, and point to the Great Depression as an example. "During the 1930s depression in the United States, each extra $100 of relief spending from the American New Deal led to about 20 fewer deaths per 1,000 births, four fewer suicides per 100,000 people and 18 fewer pneumonia deaths per 100,000 people," Kate Kelland writes at Reuters.

The austerity mentality may be on the decline. New numbers show that the US national debt is falling for the first time in six years; an influential study linking high levels of national debt to slower growth has been debunked; some are saying the era of austerity is over. Still, in a press conference Tuesday, Obama reiterated the importance of deficit reduction, so we're not out of the sick room yet.

As Basu told Reuters, "Ultimately... worsening health is not an inevitable consequence of economic recessions. It's a political choice."

Florida Passes Law To Speed Up Executions

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 11:29 AM EDT

States across the country have spent the last few years reconsidering the wisdom of capital punishment. Over the past six years, five states have abolished the death penalty entirely, including Maryland just last month. But Florida, where the execution rate is second only to Texas, isn't having that conversation. Instead, Gov. Rick Scott (R) is currently considering a bill passed by the legislature this week that would speed up executions in the state by limiting "frivolous" appeals by inmates and shortening the time they spend on Death Row. (Florida has about 400 people on Death Row, 10 of whom have been there more than 35 years.)

Called the "Timely Justice Act," the bill would create new deadlines for certain filings and force the state to move faster towards an execution after a ruling by the state supreme court. Florida legislators behind the bill believe it will save money (executions currently cost state taxpayers about $24 million each) and bring closure to victims, but legal advocates say that it's likely to do nothing but raise the possibility that Florida will execute an innocent person. They're on pretty solid ground with that argument, given that 24 people on Florida's Death Row have been exonerated since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

It's not very hard to convict someone of a capital crime in Florida, which is the only state in the country that allows a jury to recommend a death sentence with only a simple majority vote of 7 to 5. Also, the state has one of the nation's worst indigent defense systems, ensuring that anyone facing a capital charge is likely to get a bad lawyer in the deal. Because of other state budget crises, Florida has slashed the money available for indigent defense, and it caps the fees in a capital case at $15,000, an amount that barely covers a lawyer's time in court through the trial. The fees are so bad that few lawyers will take capital cases. (Florida's indigent defense system is generally a mess. After the state legislature in 2009 set very low flat fees for private lawyers who are appointed to handle criminal defense cases, lawyers fled the system in droves. Things got so dire that at one point judges attempted to force lawyers to take the cases through "involuntary" appointments.)

The lawyers who do take the capital cases are often largely incompetent. Florida made the news a few years ago after one of its mentally ill death row inmates, Albert Holland Jr., won a US Supreme Court case in which Justice Stephen Breyer found that Holland did a better job of representing himself than his court-appointed lawyers did. The New York Times explains what sorts of representation Holland had gotten in Florida:

Consider Kenneth Delegal, who was assigned to defend Mr. Holland at a 1996 retrial on charges that he killed a Pompano Beach police officer in 1990. Mr. Delegal was removed from the case after being sent to a mental health facility. Later, the two men would see each other at the Broward County jail, where Mr. Delegal was held on drug and domestic violence charges.

The next lawyer, James Lewis, was a friend of Mr. Delegal’s and had shared office space with him. When Mr. Delegal went to court after his removal from Mr. Holland’s case, seeking to be paid about $40,000 for his work on it, the new lawyer testified on behalf of the old one, saying the fees had been “reasonable and necessary.”

Mr. Delegal died of a drug overdose about a month after the fee hearing, and a local paper asked his former colleague Mr. Lewis about his troubles. “I heard some rumors,” Mr. Lewis said, “but I chose not to know.”

The new Florida bill attempts to address the issue of terrible lawyers and the appeals they generate by setting competence standards for lawyers taking capital cases, and it would bar anyone found guilty twice of giving "constitutionally deficient representation" from handling another capital case for five years. But the bill doesn't provide any more money to pay for more competent counsel.

The bill's opponents haven't convinced Florida lawmakers of any of this. During a legislative debate last week, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) said, "Only God can judge. But we sure can set up the meeting." The bill awaits Scott's signature.

Chart of the Day: European Unemployment Hits New Record

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 11:13 AM EDT

Eurostat announced today that unemployment in the euro area reached a record 12.1 percent in April. That's not spread evenly, of course: unemployment was a mere 5.4 percent in Germany and a whopping 27 percent in Spain and Greece. Nor was it spread evenly across generations. Youth unemployment reached a staggering 24 percent overall, and was over 50 percent in Greece and Spain.

Let me repeat that: in Greece and Spain, more than half of those under age 25 didn't have jobs. This is pretty plainly a recipe for disaster.

In other news, Eurostat also announced that inflation in the euro area had dropped from 2.6 percent a year ago to 1.2 percent in April. So I guess austerity is working. It sure has kept inflation from spiraling out of control, anyway.

Democrats Are Starting to Sour on Obamacare

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 10:05 AM EDT

The Kaiser Health Tracking Poll is always interesting because they ask questions that nobody else does. This month, for example, they ask whether you've mostly been hearing good things or bad things about Obamacare, and far more people say they've been hearing bad things than good.

Aha! It's Fox News at work! But no. If you go to the next question, you find that Republican views of Obamacare have stayed pretty stable: most of them hate it, but they've hated it from the start. It's Democrats who are slowly but steadily souring on the law. Three years ago, around 70 percent had a favorable view of Obamacare. Today that's dropped to under 60 percent.

Why? Hard to say, since there are no questions that delve into that. Nor is there any clue about how this breaks down between middle class workers, who are mostly unaffected by Obamacare, and low-income workers, who are. Stay tuned to see if this turns around over the next 12 months, as Obamacare starts to roll out in earnest and informational campaigns start to swing into high gear.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 30, 2013

Tue Apr. 30, 2013 9:29 AM EDT

Capt. Paul Gates, commanding officer of Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, pauses during a dismounted patrol with Afghan National Civil Order Policemen (ANCOP) during Operation California in Kajaki district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 28, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Trent A. Randolph/Released.

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A Brief History of CIA "Ghost Money"

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 9:24 AM EDT
(Foreign-policy metaphors...)

On Monday morning, the New York Times ran a story reporting that for the past decade the CIA has been funneling tens of millions of dollars, off-the-books, directly to the office of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The payments, occasionally dropped off in plastic bags, were part of the intelligence agency's attempts to buy access in Karzai's government and encourage support for the war against Al Qaeda and extremist elements. The CIA continued to transfer hundreds of thousands in cash, even as it became increasingly clear that the cash wasn't doing much to curb Karzai's tendency to defy and frustrate the United States government. Afghan officials have used the payments for an assortment of expenses, including underwriting "informal negotiations" and buying off warlords, some of whom are connected to the Taliban.

"We called it 'ghost money,'" Khalil Roman, Karzai's former deputy chief of staff, told the Times. "It came in secret, and it left in secret."

Since the news broke, Karzai released a statement admitting his office accepted the funds, but claiming that the small fortune was used only for legitimate and noble purposes, such as rental costs and helping "injured people." (Years ago, it was reported that Karzai's now deceased half-brother was a paid CIA asset.)

The Times report notes that though intelligence agencies will often pay foreign officials for information or influence, pouring satchels of "ghost money" directly into a foreign leader's office is a less common practice. However sketchy this sounds (and however corruption-infected the Karzai government may be), such transfers do not violate American law. "Under US law, there are statues that prohibit the payment of bribes in securing contracts, if you're [a part of] a corporation; but such laws don't necessarily apply to the US government itself," John Prados, a senior research fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University, says. "There is no provision in any executive order that governs the intelligence community that prevents this kind of thing...Cash is the mainstay of American covert operations in Afghanistan."

And this is not new. Here are a few other episodes in recent history in which the CIA has secretly sent wads of "ghost money" to the offices of foreign leaders:

Iran

Following the Western-backed coup in 1953 against democratically elected Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, CIA officer Kermit "Kim" Roosevelt, Jr. (grandson of Teddy) sent over $1 million cash to General Fazlollah Zahedi, who replaced Mossadegh as prime minister.

South Vietnam

As American intervention in Vietnam deepened, the CIA lavished three-quarters of a million dollars on South Vietnamese leader Nguyen Van Thieu between 1968 and 1969. He had come to power following years of chaos caused by the CIA-supported coup against South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963.

The Congo/Zaire

Being a vicious anti-communist authoritarian, President Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire received CIA dollars of appreciation during several decades of the Cold War. He rose to power in the early 1960s with the help of a lot of foreign-supplied guns and cash, much of which was provided to him by you know who.

Jordan

Between the 1957 and 1977, the CIA allegedly paid millions of dollars to King Hussein of Jordan. Accounts of how these annual payments were used vary greatly. Some reports detail payments for extra security for the royal family, sports cars, and intel gathering.

Panama

Manuel Noriega, former US friend and military ruler of Panama, was on the agency payroll during his epic streak of racketeering, drug running, and money-laundering, as he turned Panama into his own private piggy bank. Shortly before Christmas 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered the invasion that got rid of him.

This is the kind of thing that "ghost money" buys you.

5 Butterfly Species Just Vanished While No One Was Looking

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 5:05 AM EDT
Some of Florida's butterflies go missing for years and then come back. The Meske's skipper was AWOL for a decade before returning.

An entomologist hired by the state of Florida to find any surviving members of five rare butterflies species spent six years on the search instead of the two without finding any. "I thought I was going to find some at some point so I just took a lot more time," Marc Minno told the Miami Herald. "They're just not there." He concluded that the Zestos skipper and the rockland Meske's skipper—which haven't been seen in more than a decade—should be declared extinct, that the Zarucco duskywing is likely extinct too, and that the nickerbean blue and the Bahamian swallowtail are now gone from their North American range: the coastal and inland forests of southern Florida. From the Miami Herald:

Considering that there have been only four previous presumed extinctions of North American butterflies—the last in California more than 50 years ago—Minno finds the government response to such an alarming wave frustrating. "There are three butterflies here that have just winked out and no one did a thing about it," Minno said. "I don't know what has happened with our agencies that are supposed to protect wildlife. They're just kind of sitting on their hands and watching them go extinct."

Worse, because these species were never listed as threatened or endangered they now fall into a limbo where the government won't declare them extinct either. "There is no requirement for us to do anything as far as a formal announcement that it's gone," Ken Warren, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service's South Florida office, told the Miami Herald. Meanwhile Minno argues that something is badly awry when species vanish before the feds even begin the process of considering whether or not they're in trouble.

Alarmed over the backlog of 757 species awaiting listing, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and won a settlement in 2011 "requiring the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018." Unfortunately that may already be too late for these five butterflies species.

The problems facing butterflies in Florida and elsewhere are complex and poorly understood, but include: climate change; urban sprawl; pesticides; hurricanes; invasive species; and all the perils associated with the genetic bottlenecks that accompany species in sharp decline. Last summer an effort was made to begin captive breeding of Florida's Schaus butterflies, but only a handful of individuals could be found in the wild and none was a female. 

We Are All Free Traders Now

| Tue Apr. 30, 2013 12:28 AM EDT

Paul Krugman wonders why the Great Recession hasn't set off a round of tit-for-tat protectionism:

Why aren’t politicians — even conservative politicians — looking at the situation and saying, hmm, a tariff won’t increase the deficit, it won’t involve debasing the currency, but it could clearly help create jobs?

One answer might be the “Smoot-Hawley caused the Depression” thing; this isn’t true at all, but it might be serving the purpose of a noble lie.

Or maybe it’s the structure of trade agreements. The countries that arguably could really, really use some protection right now are inside the European Union, so no go. Countries outside still know that any protection they impose will lead to big problems at the WTO; the United States has to know that a protectionist response would break up the whole world trading system we’ve spent almost 80 years building.

So here’s a thought: maybe the secret of our protectionist non-surge isn’t macroeconomics; it’s institutions.

I agree that institutions play a role here. Inertia is a powerful thing, and there's not much question that free-ish trade is now a well-established status quo in most of the world.

I don't think that really explains things, though. If it were truly just institutional inertia at work here, you'd expect to see lots of politicians calling for protectionism but not getting anywhere. The demagogues would do their demogoguing, but fealty to the status quo would be too powerful for them to have any impact.

But that really isn't what we've seen. Generally speaking, we've barely seen anyone even advocating protectionist measures. It hasn't been complete silence, but it's been pretty close. In the U.S., in particular, the worst you can say is that the forward movement toward signing more trade agreements might have slowed slightly. But enthusiasm for those trade agreements hasn't really ebbed at all.

No, the answer is simpler: the trade economists have won. They've spent decades beating into us that free trade is a net positive for everyone, and by now we're all convinced. In fact, we're so convinced that it barely even occurred to anyone to respond to the Great Recession by calling for us to close our borders. In the world of ideas, this has been one of the 20th century's most complete victories.

I'd also call attention to a point made by Tyler Cowen: over the past two decades, virtually all of the job growth in America has been in the non-tradeable sector. Because of this, the political power of the manufacturing/mining/agriculture industries has been shrinking steadily.

Put these three things together—genuine belief in trade, the declining political influence of the tradeable sector, and the sheer institutional difficulty of limiting trade—and it's no surprise at all that protectionism has had only a minuscule resurgence over the past few years. It's a battle that's largely over and done with.

Corn on Hardball: The All-Too-Familiar Call for War in Syria

Mon Apr. 29, 2013 7:46 PM EDT

The arguments for American intervention in Syria are, in many ways, the same arguments that politicians made for intervention in Iraq—and are still making for Iran. "All the military options are really difficult, they might not be effective," says DC bureau chief David Corn, "but they don't care as long as we're in it." Listen to Corn and Time's Bobby Ghosh discuss the need for caution in Syria on MSNBC's Hardball:

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