2013 - %3, July

Global Warming Could Cause 50 Percent Increase in Violent Conflict

| Thu Aug. 1, 2013 2:01 PM EDT
Syrian rebels reposition in May.

This week the exiled head of the Syrian opposition movement said he would meet representatives of President Bashar al-Assad in Geneva, a promising turn for a conflict that has left 100,000 dead, including many civilians, since spring 2011. It has been a long, bitter battle, but for many Syrians one root of the violence stretches back to several years before al-Assad's troops began picking off anti-government protestors. Beginning in 2006, a prolonged, severe drought decimated farmland, spiked food prices, and forced millions of Syrians into poverty—helping to spark the unrest that eventually exploded into civil war.

The Syrian conflict is just one recent example of the connection between climate and conflict, a field that is increasingly piquing the interest of criminologists, economists, historians, and political scientists. Studies have begun to crop up in leading journals examining this connection in everything from the collapse of the Mayan civilization to modern police training in the Netherlands. A survey published today in Science takes a first-ever 30,000-foot view of this research, looking for trends that tie these examples together through fresh analysis of raw data from 60 quantitative studies. It offers evidence that unusually high temperatures could lead to tens of thousands more cases of "interpersonal" violence—murder, rape, assault, etc.—and more than a 50 percent increase in "intergroup" violence, i.e. war, in some places.

"This is what keeps me awake at night," lead author Solomon Hsiang, an environmental policy post-doc at Princeton, said. "The linkage between human conflict and climate changes was really pervasive."

Any cop could tell you that hot days can make people snap—last summer veteran police boss William Bratton argued that a warm winter contributed to a rash of murders in Chicago. But Hsiang and his colleagues wanted to see how this pattern held up across the globe, at different times and with different kinds of conflict, to gauge just how much the climate can lead to violence.

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House Republicans Talk Big But Can't Deliver Actual Spending Cuts

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 9:06 PM EDT

Brian Beutler has a entertaining little story today about the failure of House Republicans to pass an appropriations bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. Yes, I said entertaining. You have to be a lefty political junkie to see the entertainment value, but that's what most of you are, right?

So then: as we all know, Paul Ryan produces a budget every year. It's a conservative's wet dream because it slashes domestic spending across the board but never says exactly where those spending cuts are going to come from. So the tea partiers can all fantasize about huge budget reductions without having to figure out which programs they actually want to cut:

But many close Congress watchers — and indeed many Congressional Democrats — have long suspected that their votes for Ryan’s budgets were a form of cheap talk. That Republicans would chicken out if it ever came time to fill in the blanks. Particularly the calls for deep but unspecified domestic discretionary spending cuts.

Today’s Transportation/HUD failure confirms that suspicion. Republicans don’t control government. But ahead of the deadline for funding it, their plan was to proceed as if the Ryan budget was binding, and pass spending bills to actualize it — to stake out a bargaining position with the Senate at the right-most end of the possible.

But they can’t do it. It turns out that when you draft bills enumerating all the specific cuts required to comply with the budget’s parameters, they don’t come anywhere close to having enough political support to pass. Even in the GOP House. Slash community development block grants by 50 percent, and you don’t just lose the Democrats, you lose a lot of Republicans who care about their districts. Combine that with nihilist defectors who won’t vote for any appropriations unless they force the President to sign an Obamacare repeal bill at a bonfire ceremony on the House floor, and suddenly you’re nowhere near 218.

The lunatic wing of the Republican Party has long held views that are impossible to reconcile. This is one of them: they think they can slash spending without affecting anything useful. But it turns out that even their fellow Republicans don't agree. They simply can't cut spending as much as they want to. In March they passed the Ryan budget, with all of its gaudy promises. In July, the first time they tried to pass a Ryan-approved appropriations bill with actual numbers attached, they failed. And they failed even though this was really nothing more than a symbolic vote in the first place. It was just a starting point for further negotiations.

So now what? The tea partiers are true believers who refuse to compromise, and even the GOP's adults refuse to engage in a normal give-and-take with the Senate over FY14 spending. They're stuck, with Democrats smirking in the background and suggesting that if they want to be a governing party, maybe they should try some actual governing. It's hard to say what's next. 

Federal Gun Agency Gets Its First Permanent Director in Seven Years

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 8:13 PM EDT
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) flew back from North Dakota to cast the deciding vote to break a filibuster of Todd Jones' nomination to run the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Todd Jones to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the agency tasked with enforcing federal gun laws. Jones, an attorney and former Marine, has served as the acting head of the agency since 2011. He becomes its first permanent director since 2006, the year that the National Rifle Association successfully lobbied Congress to require that ATF directors be confirmed by the Senate.

When President Obama nominated Jones to head the ATF in January, politicos expected a gun-lobby showdown. But although the NRA has opposed all ATF nominations since the 2006 rule change and for decades has prevented the agency from fully enforcing gun laws, it unexpectedly announced on Tuesday that it would not take a position on Todd's confirmation vote. The Newtown, Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a trade association that represents gun manufacturers, announced its support for Jones the same day.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the co-chair of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, hailed the vote as a "critical step in the fight to reduce gun crime." Boston Mayor Tom Menino, the group's other co-chair, said, "After seven years without a permanent director at the helm, ATF will finally have the strong leadership it needs to stem the flow of illegal guns onto our streets and help keep our communities safe."

With the vote stalled at 59-40 through Wednesday afternoon, senators waited for Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) to arrive at the Capitol en route from her home state to cast the deciding vote needed to overcome a filibuster. Heitkamp, whose return to Washington was delayed because of an illness, was one of only four Democrats to vote against the Senate's failed gun reform legislation in April. All four voted to break the filibuster against Jones, as did six Republicans: Sens. Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), John McCain (Ariz.), and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

I emailed Sarah Binder, a political science professor at George Washington University, to ask how common it is for senators to fly into Washington to cast a deciding vote:

It's not very common (at all), but neither is it unprecedented. The example that comes to mind is a (roughly) similar situation when the 2009 stimulus vote was held open to give Sherrod Brown time to get back to Washington amidst funeral services for his mother in Ohio.

But other than that recent example, nothing else expressly similar comes to mind. There are older stories of the House GOP leadership holding open the vote on Medicare expansion in 2003 for several hours, and a House Dem open vote some years earlier (involving Rep. Jim Chapman and Speaker Wright). Both of those episodes entailed holding open a vote for the winning side to squeak by (if I'm recalling correctly!).

Richard M. Daley Wants To Make Your City More Sustainable

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 7:09 PM EDT
Millennium Park, Chicago.

This story first appeared in National Journal and The Atlantic Cities and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Richard M. Daley, who served six terms as mayor of Chicago from 1989 to 2011, was one of the first big-city mayors to focus on sustainable development. Some of his projects, such as the development of Millennium Park, flourished. Others are more likely to be remembered as flops—Chicago taxpayers may lose money on a solar-power deal Daley negotiated, and his administration spent millions of dollars on recycling initiatives that went nowhere.

Two years after leaving office, the longtime mayor is using his hard-won experience to head up a new company—launched by his investment firm, Tur Partners—that will help cities pursue money-saving infrastructure investments. Cities that agree to join The Sustainability Exchange, or TSE, will get a free analysis of their assets and potential projects, and will share information with other member cities. TSE will alert vendors when a city is planning a request for a proposal. And because the company is low-profit instead of nonprofit, when a city or region decides to go ahead with a project, TSE will take a cut of the savings the city realizes over time.

Five cities have already signed up to join the fledgling exchange, including South Bend, Indiana; Parma, Ohio; and New Orleans. National Journal's Sophie Quinton recently spoke with Daley and Lori Healey, his former chief of staff and now TSE vice chairwoman, about how their idea is taking shape.

Why is there a need for something like The Sustainability Exchange?

Daley: Everybody has problems with infrastructure. Whether it's a port, rail, water, lighting, waste—this is part of the sustainability effort that we're looking at. We're looking at working with groups of cities to identify the project, raise the capital from the private sector as well as the public, and document the results.

Healey: Most cities are not New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. They don't have either the technical or financial resources to plan out and implement these kinds of projects. The Sustainability Exchange creates a platform that allows cities to come together to access national expertise in these areas—at no cost to them—with the goal of executing a transaction in a much compressed time frame.

Democrats To Introduce Supreme Court Ethics Bill

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 4:01 PM EDT

The only federal judges not bound by an ethics code.

​Virginia "Ginni" Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, has been in the news recently after Mother Jones revealed her involvement in Groundswell, a secret effort by a group of conservatives to organize their fight against liberals, mainstream Republicans, and Karl Rove. Her political activity has once again raised questions about whether she is creating conflicts of interest for her husband, and whether he should be forced to recuse himself from cases that involve Ginni's work.

Such calls for Thomas to recuse from cases hit a fevered pitch when the Affordable Care Act was before the high court and Ginni was actively lobbying against it. As it turned out, there's no mechanism for concerned citizens to complain about a Supreme Court justice, or even a clear set of rules that the justices must follow in making recusal decisions. Supreme Court justices are exempt from the Code of Conduct for United State Judges, the rulebook that every other federal judge in the country has to follow.

That code would have prohibited the justices from a number of controversial activities the Supreme Court has engaged in over the past few years. In 2011, for instance, Thomas and Justice Antonin Scalia headlined a fundraiser for the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society. Ordinary federal judges couldn't have done that. Both also have attended hush-hush political events hosted by Koch Industries that are billed as efforts "to review strategies for combating the multitude of public policies that threaten to destroy America as we know it." Koch Industries is owned by the right-wing Koch family that's been dumping millions of dollars in the Republican politics, particularly after the court decided in Citizens United to allow unlimited corporate money into the electoral system. The code also requires federal judges to recuse themselves from cases in which a spouse or family member has a financial interest, a rule that might apply to the Thomases.

Several members have decided to try to do something about the appearance of impropriety by some of the justices. On Thursday, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sen. Chris Murhpy (D-CT), and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), plan to introduce the Supreme Court Ethics Act of 2012 that would force the high court to adopt an ethics code much like the one that binds lower court judges. The idea has support from legal scholars, who've been urging the court to adopt such a code since last year. More than 125,000 people have signed a petition calling on Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. to apply the Code of Conduct to the court. But Roberts has been pretty adamant that he thinks the justices are perfectly capable of policing themselves without the need for silly codes (codes which most of the sitting justices once had to abide by on a lower court). 

Without buy-in from Roberts, any attempt, even by Congress, to require the justices to give themselves a written code of ethics is probably a tough sell. The new bill, if it could even pass through the full Congress (also doubtful), could set off an epic separation of powers battle between the two branches of government. A spokesman from Slaughter's office says that the bill is absolutely constitutional, as Congress has the authority to regulate the administration of the court—setting the number of justices and whatnot. Still, it's possible that the court could put up a fight—a fight that might ultimately have to be decided by....the Supreme Court.

Here's Why Some People Think the Smurfs Are Jew-Hating Communists

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 3:58 PM EDT

Smurfette Katy Perry invades Czechoslovakia.

The Smurfs 2
Columbia Pictures
105 minutes

Ever since The Smurfs—the Belgian TV and cartoon franchise—kicked off in 1958, the little blue creatures have gained an enviable international presence. The Smurfs have been on money. They've been featured in a UNICEF ad campaign in which the peaceful Smurf village is indiscriminately carpet bombed. And in summer 2011, the big-screen Smurfs adaptation, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Sofía Vergara, was a box-office hit; the Smurfs even got to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

And with The Smurfs 2 hitting theaters this week, it's a good time to revisit another important piece of the Smurf legacy: The lovable blue-skinned animals might also be rabid totalitarians and raging anti-Semites.

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North Carolina Legislators Also Did a Lot of Environmental Damage This Year

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 3:14 PM EDT

The news might have flown under the national radar, what with all the motorcycle safety laws that actually deal with abortion and horrible voter ID bill action that's been happening in the North Carolina this summer, but the state's environmental laws were another casualty of this legislative session.

First, the legislature passed a law tossing out all the members of the state's Environmental Management Commission and nearly all of the members of the Coastal Resources Commission (which was better than the original law, which would have fired a bunch of other people as well). And before wrapping up last week, the legislature also approved a one-year moratorium on localities passing their own environmental rules. That bill is now sitting on Republican Gov. Pat McCrory's desk awaiting approval.

The Charlotte Observer has a wrap up of all the environmental malfeasance that went down in this legislative session. Among other things, one bill that's still awaiting McCrory's signature "prohibits local governments, for a year, from passing environmental rules that state or federal governments also address." That could be a big problem, the Observer reports:

But Robin Smith, a former assistant N.C. secretary of the environment who writes an environmental law blog, said restricting local rules could backfire. State rules often require that local ordinances be adopted, she said, and local conditions sometimes demand local rules.
"It is difficult to predict how big a problem the moratorium would be given the very different circumstances in cities and counties across the state, but it seems an unnecessary gamble,” she wrote last week.

Dan Crawford, director of governmental relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, tells Mother Jones that they're now lobbying hard to get McCrory to veto the bill. "Federal guidelines are meant to be a floor, not a ceiling," he said.

Crawford said this was the worst he's seen in 15 years of lobbying on environmental issues. "I can't think of a time where it's been any worse," he said. "We were in the bull's eye."

 

The NSA's Biggest Surveillance Program Yet: X-KEYSCORE

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 2:57 PM EDT

Glenn Greenwald's latest disclosure from the Snowden files is an NSA program called X-KEYSCORE, which provides access to a truly vast amount of information. How vast?

The quantity of communications accessible through programs such as XKeyscore is staggeringly large....The XKeyscore system is continuously collecting so much internet data that it can be stored only for short periods of time. Content remains on the system for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for 30 days. One document explains: "At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours."

To solve this problem, the NSA has created a multi-tiered system that allows analysts to store "interesting" content in other databases, such as one named Pinwale which can store material for up to five years.

It's not clear precisely what's available through X-KEYSCORE, but it appears to be exclusively foreign signals intelligence: phone conversations, emails, chat, etc. Because it's non-U.S., this includes the content of the communications, not just the metadata:

An NSA tool called DNI Presenter, used to read the content of stored emails, also enables an analyst using XKeyscore to read the content of Facebook chats or private messages. An analyst can monitor such Facebook chats by entering the Facebook user name and a date range into a simple search screen. Analysts can search for internet browsing activities using a wide range of information, including search terms entered by the user or the websites viewed....The XKeyscore program also allows an analyst to learn the IP addresses of every person who visits any website the analyst specifies.

But does this include U.S. persons, or only foreign nationals? This is where things get a little murky:

Under US law, the NSA is required to obtain an individualized Fisa warrant only if the target of their surveillance is a 'US person', though no such warrant is required for intercepting the communications of Americans with foreign targets. But XKeyscore provides the technological capability, if not the legal authority, to target even US persons for extensive electronic surveillance without a warrant provided that some identifying information, such as their email or IP address, is known to the analyst.

....The NSA documents assert that by 2008, 300 terrorists had been captured using intelligence from XKeyscore.

....While the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008 requires an individualized warrant for the targeting of US persons, NSA analysts are permitted to intercept the communications of such individuals without a warrant if they are in contact with one of the NSA's foreign targets....An example is provided by one XKeyscore document showing an NSA target in Tehran communicating with people in Frankfurt, Amsterdam and New York.

Greenwald suggests that this validates Snowden's statement in an earlier interview that "I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone, from you, or your accountant, to a federal judge, to even the President if I had a personal email." But that's not clear at all. X-KEYSCORE appears to be a database search tool, not a real-time surveillance tool, nor does it appear to give anyone "authority" to wiretap a U.S. citizen. Rather, it provides access to tremendous volumes of foreign communications, which can then be searched by NSA analysts.

As Greenwald points out, there are known "compliance problems" with NSA's surveillance programs, since communications by U.S. persons end up in this database if the other end of the conversation is overseas—and these communications can therefore end up on an analyst's desktop. The NSA's minimization procedures are supposed to prevent such "inadvertent" targeting of U.S. persons, but as Greenwald reported earlier, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule.

Anyway, this is my best guess about what this all means. But I might have missed something. Read the entire story for more.

It's Not What You Know, It's Who You Know. Seriously.

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 1:14 PM EDT

You know the old saying, "It's not what you know, it's who you know"? Well, Kelly Shue of the University of Chicago has found an intriguing way to test this. At Harvard Business School, students are randomly assigned to sections, where they presumably build strong friendships. (Stronger than the average friendship from just being at Harvard, anyway.) So what effect does this have on success later in life?

I test whether executive and firm outcomes are more similar among section peers than among class peers. I find evidence of significant peer effects in firm investment, leverage, interest coverage, and firm size, with the strongest effects in executive compensation and acquisition activity. Section peers are 10% more similar than class peers in terms of compensation and acquisitions.

In other words, if you get randomly assigned to a section with successful peers, you're more likely to go along for the ride. I don't have access to the article itself, and there are several possible explanations for this effect, but the most likely one is that friends help friends, and it's nice to have friends who are successful. I hope there's some followup research along these lines. It has some pretty obvious implications for diversity in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces.

The Peculiar Anti-PC Case for Larry Summers as Fed Chairman

| Wed Jul. 31, 2013 12:18 PM EDT

Who do you support to replace Ben Bernanke as chairman of the Fed? Janet Yellen or Larry Summers? Ezra Klein reports today that Yellen supporters are blanketing the airwaves with endorsements, but Summers supporters are oddly reticent to speak publicly. Nonetheless, he figures it's worthwhile to pass along the (anonymous) pro-Summers case that's making the rounds of the White House.

The argument comes in five parts, and for what it's worth, I consider #1 ridiculous, #2 doubtful, and #3 and #4 perfectly reasonable. You can read them and decide for yourself. But I was pretty taken aback by #5:

Backlash to the gender issue. This isn’t part of the case for Summers, exactly, but it’s part of the psychology of his supporters right now. People involved in the White House’s Fed search really, really don’t like the implication that they’re sexists. They see the allegation that gender is playing a role here as absurd and offensive and an effort to back them into making a choice based on political correctness rather than the merits. It’s a bit hard to gauge this, but my sense is the intense anger over the allegations is hardening people’s positions, as they don’t want to submit to a pressure campaign they consider deeply unfair.

I don't get this. What I've seen are lots of gender-coded complaints coming from conservatives about how Yellen would be little more than a PC diversity choice. This is ridiculous and has gotten lots of pushback. I've also seen lots of liberals saying that it would be great to break one of the last glass ceilings in Washington and have a woman in the top spot at the Fed.

But what I haven't seen are arguments that Team Obama would be outing themselves as sexists if they chose Summers. Have I just missed them? Maybe. But if Ezra is right about this, it sure seems as if the Obama folks are being a little hypersensitive.