Climate Tipping Point Coming Faster Than IPCC Thought

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:18 PM EST
Two reports released recently—one from the UN's Environmental Programme and the other by the World Bank—warn that dramatic, irreversible climate shifts are coming faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipated. In the IPCC's last report, published in 2007, it expected that global sea levels could rise up to two feet: the UN document says it may be more like six feet. More disturbingly, it says that "we may have already passed tipping points that are irreversible within the time span of our current civilization."

Although we've covered tipping points in previous issues of Mother Jones, it's still disturbing to hear the UN say they may have already been tipped, and not in our favor. For those who are interested, the World Bank report goes into further detail about tipping points as seen in the Andes, coral reefs, Gulf of Mexico wetlands, and Amazonian forests that may or may not be too far gone to do anything about.

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Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:16 PM EST
Ignacio ChapelaIn April 2002, I sat in the office of UC Berkeley environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela as an ancient telephone chortled incessantly with calls from scientists and journalists curious about his latest study, a paper published in Nature showing how genes from GM corn entered local varieties of the plant in Mexico, where GM crops are banned. Samples of the corn sat in vials on his desk. An international controversy had erupted over the experiment, and earlier that month the prestigious journal published an unprecedented near-retraction. “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” said a terse editorial note. Chapela admitted to making a few interpretative mistakes, but stood by his findings even when a study by a different team of researchers in 2005 was unable to replicate his results. His findings were finally corroborated this week by scientists from Mexico, the United States, and the Netherlands who looked at thousands of seed samples from hundreds of Mexican corn fields and found that around 1 percent of them had genes that had jumped from GM varieties. Even before this week, major detractors agreed with Chapela's main point. Corn disperses pollen easily, so one should expect that GM pollen carried by the wind has mated with local corn varieties in much of the world.

Although neither expensive--total cost $2000--nor surprising, Chapela’s study was attacked because it provoked ongoing feuds. Disagreements about what might happen when GM crops interbreed with their unaltered neighbors are now more than a decade old. Scientists still debate whether transgenics will diminish genetic diversity in local crop varieties, kill beneficial creatures, or reduce the ability of entire plant populations to survive.

Scientists already know that pollen from GM crops can kill beneficial insects. For example, the Bt gene in corn poisons pests like the European corn borer but could also inadvertently wipe out the valuable Typhlodromalus aripo. The T. aripo, as it is known, eats both corn pollen and the ignominious green mite, which wreaked havoc on Africa’s cassava crop in the 1980s and early 90s. The mite was accidentally introduced from South America and scientists combated it in 1993 by importing the T. aripo from Brazil. After it went to work eating mites, it immediately increased cassava yields by 35%. The addition of Bt pollen to that diet could be a boon to the mites and a disaster for T. aripo and farmers. “If it destabilized cassava,” says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a Berkeley researcher who has done computer modeling on GM crops, “it could destroy the basic food staple for 220 million Africans in an area twice the size of the United States.”

Accepting such risks becomes even more difficult given that Bt is probably only a temporary solution to insect invasions. Last February, University of Arizona researcher Bruce Tabashnik documented the first case, in GM cotton, of insects developing a resistance to the Bt gene. “My own experience in the history of insect resistance is that they develop resistance to whatever control measure is used against them,” he told me in 2002. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”

The Home Mortgage Deduction

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:59 PM EST
The home mortgage deduction is regressive, pushes up housing prices, motivates people to buy bigger houses, and doesn't increase homeownership rates anyway.  So Ed Glaeser says we should get rid of it:

Now, I do understand that drastically reducing the cap on the mortgage interest rate now, in the midst of a housing crash, would be kicking the markets when they are down. Yet this crisis provides us with an opportunity to act that will be lost if we wait until housing prices rise again.

So here is my utterly quixotic proposal. Enact legislation now that will gradually decrease the cap on the mortgage principal for which homeowners can deduct interest payments by $100,000 a year over the next seven years until it hits $300,000.

Sure, fine by me.  The home mortgage deducation is a perfect example of a policy that might have made social sense at one time, but outlived its usefulness years ago and now continues a zombie-like existence as one of the third rails of American tax policy.  But why bother decreasing the cap?  Why not just decrease the amount of interest you can deduct from 100% to 95% to 90% and eventually to zero over 20 years, starting, say, in 2011?  And replace it each year with a proportionate increase in the standard deduction.  (Or maybe something else.  Ideas welcome.)

Or replace it with nothing at all, in the name of fiscal responsibility.  Not many votes in Congress for that, though, are there?

The Dow

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:40 PM EST
Matt Yglesias is annoyed at the undue attention paid to the Dow Jones Industrial Average:

Not only is it obviously stupid for political commentators to be assessing the quality of economic policy by tracking the ups-and-downs of the stock market but the fact that the commentators who want to do this keep wanting to specifically use the Dow Jones Industrial Average just highlights their ignorance....Why not use the S&P 500? Or the Wilshire 5000?

To be clear, that wouldn’t make this idea any less dumb on the merits. But if we’re going to have stock-based punditry then it could at least be informed stock-based punditry. Back in the real world, the key issues are the trajectory of employment and income.

Clearly, the answer is that nobody makes or loses money based on betting on the unemployment rate.  And we don't have exciting video of traders going nuts on exchange floors when hourly wage numbers are announced.  And anyway, all that stuff is only available on a monthly basis.  You can hardly run a 24/7 cable show based on that, can you?

In CNBC's defense, it's worth noting that they're just giving the people what they want.  Lots and lots of fairly ordinary people have money invested in the stock market, but virtually nobody has a bunch of money invested in derivatives based on, say, the TED spread, even though right now it might be more important than the DJIA.  What's more, it's sort of interesting just how good a proxy for the economy the Dow Jones is.  Take a look at a historical chart and you'll see that its ups and downs correlate pretty well to the overall state of the economy.  If you're looking for a sexy, fast-moving, gut-wrenching indicator of the economy's animal spirits, you can do a lot worse than the DJIA.

And why the DJIA instead of the S&P 500?  It's the power of the first mover.  The S&P didn't get started until 1923, and even then was published only once a week.  Boring!  By the time they finally got around to doing things daily, the DJIA was the king of quotes, and it's stayed that way ever since.  And since the two indexes follow each other so closely anyway, I guess there's never been any really compelling reason to switch loyalties.  Plus it helps when the guys who own the average also happen to own the country's biggest financial newspaper.  That kind of synergy is hard to beat.

Video: Mardi Gras Was Even More Awesome in 1941

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:33 PM EST
Want to know what Mardi Gras looked like during WWII? Watch this 1941 home video:

From the Prelinger Archives, via BoingBoing.

Happy Fat Tuesday!

Liberals Fight Gun Control To Win Abortion Rights

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:13 PM EST
Last year, liberals in DC were furious with the US Supreme Court for striking down the city's strict gun-control law. In DC v Heller, the high court found that individuals have the right to bear arms, and not just within the 2nd Amendment's famous "well-armedregulated militia." Since then, gun-rights groups have used that decision to challenge gun-control statutes all across the country. Strangely enough, the National Rifle Association is getting some help in at least one of those case from liberal Yale law profs and other activists normally on the other side of such fights. Why?

Legal Times' Tony Mauro explains that the liberal lawyers see progressive benefits to the cases. Doug Kendall, founder of the Constitutional Accountability Center, tells Mauro that if successful, the lawsuits "would have a "lift-all-boats" effect, strengthening free speech, and possibly even abortion and gay rights, at the same time that it bolsters the right to bear arms." Of course, gun control groups aren't so happy about the new-found alliance. The legal director of the Brady Center to End Gun Violence tells Mauro, "It's unfortunate that they would choose to participate in a gun case to grind that particular ax." Still, given that most people think gun control laws don't work, maybe trading useless gun control measures for stronger legal protections for the rights of women, minorities and gays is actually a pretty inspired idea.

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Gov't Spending Freeze: A Future GOP Tactic?

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 12:07 PM EST

I've long worried that the Republicans have a hidden ace card, and I think we're seeing its first playing.

Here's what worries me. The Republican Party, newly enamored with fiscal responsibility, can make a plausible-sounding argument that after the stimulus bill, the Wall Street bailout, the auto industry bailout, and the homeowner bailout, the federal government simply does not have money left to spend. The American people are tightening their belts -- it's time for the government to do the same. Here's Congressman Tom Price, head of the very conservative Republican Study Committee, essentially making that argument while calling for a freeze in government spending.

"Put simply, government spending is out of control," said Chairman Price. "The American people are making tough economic choices, but this Congress is failing to make tough choices as well. As we sink further into debt, Democrats in Congress continue to endorse the causes of the problem rather than embracing a solution. With federal deficits possibly approaching three trillion dollars, a freeze on new government spending is the least we can do. Washington likes to talk about fiscal restraint, but the American people demand more than lip service. It's time to make responsible policy a reality rather than a talking point."

Quick note: I haven't heard or seen that three trillion dollar figure anywhere else. President Obama's fiscal responsibility summit yesterday was meant to suggest to the American people that Democrats can be the party of thrift, that a public worried that the government may spend beyond its means need not turn to fundamentalists like Price. I think we'll see more of this back and forth as Obama tries to move his budget through Congress in the coming weeks.

Update: Looks like the Republican leadership in the House is already making this a major issue.

Virginia Senate Panel Kills Police Prayer Bill

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:50 AM EST

A Virginia state Senate committee voted Monday to kill a bill that would have allowed state police chaplains to recite prayers in the name of Jesus and other deities at official events.

The decision ended a dispute that erupted last September, when Virginia's police superintendent issued an order requiring chaplains to offer nondenominational prayers in public. Six chaplains resigned, and a handful of Virginia pols took up the issue, alleging the request was an attack on Christianity. At the time, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith painted the chaplains as victims, saying the state was requiring the men to "disregard their own faith while serving," which infringed upon "their First Amendment rights," leaving them "little choice but to resign."

The situation is stark, but not in the way Griffith sees it: The very law that allows the chaplains the right to identify as Christians also bans the government from sponsoring any particular religion. The chaplains are sworn government personnel who appear in uniform and are paid when they deliver invocations and benedictions at public events. In that capacity, they are representatives of the state, not of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. As one chaplain put it, "When I don my police uniform, I am no longer representing my congregation as a Jewish clergy. Instead, I am representing the government, and therefore the public is my congregation."

Obama Sets off GOP Civil War

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:48 AM EST

Here's a real political diss. Speaking to The Washington Times, Republican Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, who has said he's happy to accept the stimulus funds for his state, had some choice words for his fellow GOPers on Capitol Hill:

The Republican governor of Utah on Monday said his party is blighted by leaders in Congress whose lack of new ideas renders them so "inconsequential" that he doesn't even bother to talk to them.

"I don't even know the congressional leadership," Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. told editors and reporters at The Washington Times, shrugging off questions about top congressional Republicans, including House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. "I have not met them. I don't listen or read whatever it is they say because it is inconsequential - completely."

Just a week or so ago, Congressional Republicans were crowing that their lockstep opposition to President Obama's stimulus bill had brought them back from irrelevance and marginalization. Perhaps. But it has also sparked a civil war within the party between practical, give-me-the-money governors (such as Charlie Crist and Arnold Schwarzenegger) and ideological conservatives who are talking about eschewing some of the stimulus funds (notably, Bobby Jindal, Mark Sanford and Haley Barbour) and a clash between those pragmatic governors and the GOP's leaders on Capitol Hill. Good work, everyone. Obama's stimulus has become a wedge issue within the Republican Party.

On Monday night, I discussed this on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show:

Carbon Fail

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:28 AM EST
This is a huge disappointment.  The Orbiting Carbon Observatory, which was designed to fill in missing gaps in our understanding of greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere, failed to reach orbit:

Three minutes [after liftoff], during the burning of the third stage, the payload fairing — a clamshell nose cone that protects the satellite as it rises through the atmosphere — failed to separate as commanded.

....“The fairing has considerable weight relative to the portion of the vehicle that’s flying,” said John Brunschwyler, manager of the Taurus rocket program for Orbital Sciences of Virginia, which built both the rocket and the satellite.

“So when it separates off, you get a jump in acceleration,” said Mr. Brunschwyler. “We did not have that jump in acceleration. As a direct result of carrying that extra weight, we could not make orbit.”  The satellite fell back to Earth, landing in the ocean just short of Antarctica.

More here from Jonathan Hiskes at Gristmill about what the OCO was supposed to do.