Today's Science Word: Epizootic

| Wed May 6, 2009 7:24 PM EDT

Sobering news today from ABC Science Online, via

An epizootic—the wildlife equivalent of a human epidemic—of black band disease has appeared in the Great Barrier Reef, say Australian researchers.
Scientists, who have been monitoring the progress of the disease, say this the first time an epizootic of this type has been documented in Australian waters.

Read Julia Whitty's excellent Fate of the Oceans piece for some sorely needed context on today's news about our seas.

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Who's Afraid of Social Security?

| Wed May 6, 2009 4:40 PM EDT

Ezra Klein, after noting that Steny Hoyer is trying to push ahead with Social Security reform, notes that congressional leaders are resisting the idea of naming a special commission to work on a proposal:

What liberals fear on Social Security reform is something like the proposed Conrad-Gregg Commission. A bipartisan commission that creates a set of recommendations and then fast tracks them through Congress. In general, the idea behind these proposals is that Congress can't change the commission's recommendation: It just votes up-or-down.

Well, I don't fear this, and I don't think Pelosi and Reid should fear it either.  It's true that my first choice is to do nothing for now and wait a decade or so to see how our finances shape up.  Trying to project 50 years in the future is dimwitted and we shouldn't pretend we can do it.

But the politics is a little bit different.  Even Republicans agree that privatization is off the table right now, which means that a bipartisan commission might very well come up with an acceptable set of tweaks that would balance Social Security's books.  And there's a genuine upside to this: at a fairly low cost it would take Social Security off the table for good.  No more endless whining from Pete Peterson and the Washington Post editorial board.  No more Republican kvetching about Social Security bankrupting America.  No worrying about yet another privatization plan rearing its zombie head the next time a Republican is in the Oval Office.  No more polls showing that more kids believe in UFOs than believe they'll get a Social Security check when they retire.  And Barack Obama would get a very nice post-partisan fiscal responsibility feather in his cap.

(Look: I don't care about postpartisanship very much, but obviously Obama does.  And he's a pretty smart guy.  I'm willing to let him play the game his way.)

So I say, give it a try.  If the commission proposal is no good, vote it down.  If it's OK, pass it.  And then we can spend the next eight years working on real long-term issues like healthcare and climate change.  What's the harm in letting Steny give it a try?

British Columbia Votes on Carbon Tax

| Wed May 6, 2009 4:32 PM EDT

North America's first carbon tax faces a critical test in upcoming elections in British Columbia. The results are likely to ripple across the continent.

Nature News points out that Canadian provincial elections don't normally garner international attention. But economists and environmentalists are viewing the election on May 12th as a test of several climate change policies. 

The incumbent Liberal Party government imposed a carbon tax in British Columbia in July 2008. It's been unpopular with many from the start because it boosted fuel costs during a time of record-high oil prices.

The opposition BC New Democratic Party (NDP) has vowed to "axe the tax," claiming it's ineffective and unfair to populations living in remote locations. Traditionally the NDP has been a greener party than the Liberals—leading some to accuse it now of attacking the carbon tax simply to chase votes in a tight election.

According to Nature News, economist Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the non-profit Carbon Tax Centre in New York, says: "We are keenly interested in watching this unfold. If [the tax] persists, it will give a big boost to the cause in the United States."

During Canada's 2008 federal election, the Liberal party campaigned for a green shift, hoping to put more tax burden onto polluters. They lost a bunch of seats for taking that stance and consequently the idea of a national carbon tax was scrapped.

A battle is also being fought in BC over independent power production. The Liberals have allowed private companies to apply for licenses for small hydroelectric projects that don't require building dams, claiming this is the most efficient way to boost renewable power production. Others claim company profits are incompatible with environmental stewardship and the NDP is campaigning to scrap this scheme too.

Tzeporah Berman of the climate-change advocacy group PowerUp Canada in Vancouver says British Columbia is going through are some of the world's first growing pains in adapting to  real climate policy. "The debate had been all abstract until now," says Berman. "It had been entirely possible to support a phase-out of fossil fuels and build-out in clean energy without having to face what those things mean in practice."

Developments in Canada are interesting to note in terms of a new political science study predicting the Obama presidency will likely break through a structural bias in American politics favoring the status quo and bring about significant changes in policy. The study predicts a shift in policy being twice as large as produced by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, 40 percent larger than Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and twice as large as FDR's election in 1932.

The prediction is based on a "pivotal politics" theory and employs the concept of the "gridlock interval" to assess the likelihood of policy change in Obama administration. You can download the paper [pdf] from PS: Political Science & Politics for free.

Weird Bird Smuggling News

| Wed May 6, 2009 4:13 PM EDT

Liquids? Nope. Gels? Nah. Aerosols? Uh-uh. Birds? Ah-ha!

Yesterday, a man attempting to smuggle songbirds into the US from Vietnam was betrayed by his flamboyant leggings:

Sony Dong, 46, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in March after an inspector spotted bird feathers and droppings on his socks and tail feathers peeking out from under his pants, prosecutors said.

"He had fashioned these special cloth devices to hold the birds," said U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek. "They were secured by cloth wrappings and attached to his calves with buttons."

The reason? American collectors shell out $400 per bird. They cost less than $30 each in Vietnam.

In other bird smuggling news, over at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, customs officers discovered that a Nigerian passenger was carrying a souvenir pigeon head concealed in some homemade soap. (HT @noahwilliamgray.)

More bird smuggling stories? Post 'em in the comments.

Cute Animal vs. Global Warming

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:30 PM EDT

The Fish and Wildlife Service said today that it will launch a year-long review to see if the American Pika is endangered by global warming. The American Pika is a small, furry, rabbit-related mammal whose habitat and range, conservationists say, has been severely restricted by global warming. The pika, not to be confused with the jerboa or Pikachu, lives in cold, mountainous regions of the Western US. As those foothills and mountains have warmed, the pika has been forced to make its home in higher elevations. Problem is, there's a limit to how high they can go: the higher the elevation, the smaller the habitat.

If the pika receives endangered status next year, it will be the first mammal in the lower 48 states to receive protection due to global warming. The pika might make a great mascot against global warming. It's small, furry, cute, has big ears and shiny eyes... to further the cuteness factor, the pika communicates with "whistles" and actually gathers wildflowers to nibble on. Take that, polar bears.

Mahmood Karzai Defends Brother's "Warlord" VP Pick

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:29 PM EDT

A few days before departing Afghanistan for his meeting Wednesday in Washington with President Obama, Hamid Karzai announced the second of his two vice presidential picks: Mohammad Qasim Fahim, former leader of the militant group Jamiat-e-Islami. Fahim is a deeply controversial figure accused of numerous human rights violations during his time as a militia commander during the Afghan civil war. Human Rights Watch says that, by picking him, Karzai is "insulting the country." In 2005, the group put out a report called "Blood-Stained Hands," (.pdf) which found "credible and consistent evidence" that Jamiat-e-Islami had been involved in "widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law."

Fahim previously served as Afghanistan's vice president in the years immediately following the 2001 US invasion, but was ousted by Karzai in 2004 in favor of Ahmad Zia Massood, brother of the slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Massood, assassinated by Al Qaeda just days before 9/11. Why the Afghan president has decided to resuscitate Fahim's political career was among the questions I posed Wednesday to Karzai's brother Mahmood, who spoke with me by phone from Afghanistan. He defended his brother's VP choice, describing Fahim as a true Afghan patriot. Some edited excerpts from our conversation:

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Quote of the Day - 5.6.09

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:38 PM EDT

From Governor John Baldacci of Maine, after signing a law allowing same-sex marriage:

"In the past, I opposed gay marriage while supporting the idea of civil unions.  I have come to believe that this is a question of fairness and of equal protection under the law, and that a civil union is not equal to civil marriage."

Good for him.  But I wonder if this is an example of how gay marriage opponents are going to end up losing this battle entirely when they could have won at least a partial victory if they'd been less strident in their opposition.  If they had actively supported civil unions, that could have become the de facto standard across the country, accepted by courts and legislatures alike.  But the ferocity of their opposition to any form of marriage equality might have been instrumental in convincing a lot of people like Baldacci that half measures are impossible.  And if half measures are impossible, then full marriage rights are the only alternative.

In the long run, maybe none of this matters.  But in the medium term, marriage opponents have adopted an attitude of such extreme intolerance that fewer and fewer people want anything to do with them.  And with that, the cultural battle was lost.

The Bailout Makes A Profit*

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:37 PM EDT

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that the $700 billion bank bailout has finally made a profit. The bad news is that it's for this week.

Paul Keil at ProPublica reports that $125.2 million came in and only $45.5 million went out through the bailout program over the last week, for a "profit" of $79.7 million. More from Keil:

In American Violet, Roses for Nicole Beharie

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:33 PM EDT

In a homespun start to the movie American Violet, Dee Roberts (the exceptional Nicole Beharie), a young mother of four, lovingly waters her potted violets. Before the roots have drunk their share, a police task force has swooped into Dee's housing project in Melody, TX, and conducted a military-style raid. Dee's daughter, caught in the eye of the storm, holds her grandmother's heirloom pottery in the parking lot. There are gunmen on all sides. She is saved; the dish breaks. This overwrought metaphor of family ruin is realized when Dee is then arrested at the diner where she works, charged with distributing narcotics in a school zone.

Once in jail, Dee is assigned to a court-appointed lawyer who, the film suggests, is really there to represent the local DA's interests in furthering prosecutions. Claiming that the police have incriminating audio tapes, the lawyer urges Dee to accept a plea bargain that would spring her from jail. But Dee will have none of it. Innocent, she'd rather wait it out in jail than accept a guilty plea that would label her a felon and deny her future government assistance. Who will win, Dee or the slimy DA? Is the answer a surprise?

Who Ran the Memory Hole?

| Wed May 6, 2009 1:56 PM EDT

Back in 2005, when he was counselor to the secretary of state, Philip Zelikow wrote a memo suggesting that the legal basis for torturing terror suspects was pretty shaky.  It didn't go over well: "The White House attempted to collect and destroy all copies of my memo," he wrote a few days ago over at FP's Shadow Government blog.

Fine.  But who tried to send Zelikow's memo down the memory hole?  Can you guess?

Zelikow tells Mother Jones that he doesn't know for sure who in the White House ordered the suppression of his memo, but he says that his "supposition at the time" was that the office of Vice President Dick Cheney was behind the cover-up. In an email exchange with Mother Jones, Zelikow notes that Cheney's office did not have the authority to request that his memo be deep-sixed: "They didn't run the interagency process. Such a request would more likely have come from the White House Counsel's office or from NSC staff." But that request did not reach him in written form. "It was conveyed to me, and I ignored it," Zelikow recalls. But he suspected that Team Cheney was probably behind it.

Democrats in Congress want to try to find a copy of Zelikow's memo, and they also want to try to find any record of who ordered the memo destroyed.  Stay tuned.