Let's revisit the boiling frog controversy, shall we?  Basically, it's an urban legend: it says that if you toss a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will jump out (or try to).  But if you put it in a pot of cold water and turn up the heat slowly, it will sit idly by as it boils to death.  Turns out it's not true, though: the second frog will indeed try to jump out when the water temperature gets too high.

So why the persistence of the legend?  If it's such a useful metaphor, why don't we have any good substitutes?  Well, James Fallows, who started all this, says we do.  For example, people with cats slowly get accustomed to the smell of a litterbox in their home:

So, to answer Kevin Drum's question: we don't cling to the frog story, even knowing it's false, because there is no possible other illustration from the realm of shared human experience that would illustrate progressive desensitization. The litterbox problem is one that is actually true — and I bet a million times more people have experienced it than have actually seen a boiled frog. There's some other psycho/linguistic reason why the boiled frog story has caught on. But for the moment, this is my candidate for a new image: the reeking kitty-litter box. If someone has a better candidate, great.

Two similar suggestions are here.  But there's a problem: none of them are a substitute for the boiling frog.  The difference is simple.  In the case of the litterbox, we're slowly acclimating to something unpleasant.  There are a million examples of humans doing this.  But the frog is doing something else entirely: it's dying.  Nobody ever died from an overripe litterbox.

That's the power of the frog metaphor.  Not merely that we can get used to unpleasant things, but that we'll literally allow ourselves to be killed as long as the pain is turned up slowly enough.  And that's not all: not only will we die, but we'll hardly even notice that it's happening.

Now, I'd argue that the reason there are no good substitutes for the frog metaphor is because this never happens1.  No normal animal, human or otherwise, will fail to react to death-inducing pain.  Period.

So that explains that.  But we're still left with a question: why then is the boiling frog metaphor so popular and enduring?  If, despite being technically wrong, it were a genuinely useful illustration of a rare but not unheard-of human condition, that would be one thing.  But it's not.  So what gives?

That's a little more difficult, but I think I'd chalk it up to the common human desire to incite dire fear about things we dislike.  (This is probably a very rational desire, too, since it's hard to get people to rouse themselves from their sofas unless you get them pretty riled up.)  So it's not enough to say, for example, that healthcare reform will lead to higher taxes and a somewhat bigger role for government in our lives, just as it's not enough to say that post-9/11 security measures will put everyone under a little more scrutiny than we're used to.  In both cases, we want to make a much more dramatic point: maybe not literally death, but the end of freedom as we know it.  The frog is a pretty useful and homey way of illustrating it.  The boiling frog is the demagogue's best friend.

1Climate change (and related slow-motion catastrophes) may seem like examples of this, but they aren't.  Even if climate change does end up killing a lot of people, it won't be because we never noticed the pain it was causing.  Just the opposite: it's because the pain is too subtle to notice.  If it ever gets to the point where we're all genuinely suffering and we know the source, we'll notice it and try to do something about.  It might be too late by then, but we'll try.

Chart of the Day

Via Zubin Jelveh, this chart comes from Princeton economics professor Hyun Song Shin.  The data is taken from the Fed's Flow of Funds report, which shows you — unsurprisingly — how much money is flowing through various sectors of the economy.

Basically, from 1954 through 1980, the household sector grew 10x.  The corporate sector grew 10x. Commercial banks grew 10x.  And the securities sector grew 10x.  All very balanced.

The came the great deregulation. Between 1980 and 2008, the household, corporate, and commercial bank sectors once again grew by about 10x.  But securities dealers?  They exploded.  The securities sector grew by nearly 100x.

And then imploded, taking the rest of us with them.  Roughly speaking, though, the securities sector still needs to shrink by a factor of about five before they get back to the size they should be.  Here's Shin:

Overall, it would be reasonable to speculate that the securities sector that emerges from the current crisis in sustainable form will be smaller, with shorter intermediation chains, perhaps less profitable in aggregate, and with less maturity transformation. The backdrop to this development will be the regulatory checks and balances that are aimed at moderating the fluctuations in leverage and balance sheet size that were instrumental in making the current financial crisis the most severe since the Great Depression.

I'm not feeling especially optimistic right now about the the creation of new "checks and balances that are aimed at moderating the fluctuations in leverage and balance sheet size," but here's hoping he's right.

Thanks to Deborah Byrd blogging at EarthSky for the heads-up that today is Earth Overshoot Day. The day when we overdraw our ecological bank account.

This year it falls on 25 September. Starting today, we're utilizing resources at a rate faster than what the planet can regenerate in a calendar year.

Which means for the next 97 days, we're using up our capital investment. You know, the air, waters, oceans, forests, species, topsoil that keep us alive. The problem's called ecological overshoot.

We first went into overshoot in 1986, according to the Global Footprint Network. Before then we consumed resources and produced carbon dioxide at a rate consistent with what the planet could produce and reabsorb in a year. By 1996 we were using 15 percent more resources in a year than the planet could supply. Earth Overshoot Day fell in November that year.

Now we're now stripping resources 40 percent faster than the planet can produce them.

'Course a thrifty Homo sapiens would batten down the hatches, tighten the belt, and shift to extreme emergency savings mode. Unless he or she didn't really feel overdrawn? Like everything was still super affordable and super expendable and super infinite?
 

Hopes for a significant breakthrough on climate change at the G20 were dashed Friday with the issuance of a final communique that was even more underwhelming than the drafts that leaked earlier in the week.

The final statement from the leaders called for greater focus on climate change, but included no new specific commitments. "We underscore anew our resolve to take strong action to address the threat of dangerous climate change," said the statement.

On financing for developing countries for climate change adaptation, mitigation, and technology development, they emerged with essentially the same agreement that they made in Italy in July, calling on their finance ministers to come to the next meeting with "a range of possible options for climate change financing to be provided as a resource to be considered in the UNFCCC negotiations at Copenhagen."

The most notable agreement was perhaps an expression of shared interest in ending fossil fuel subsidies, though there were no specifics offered to that end either. Instead, the leaders merely  pledged to "rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption," keeping in mind the need to transfer some of those subsidies to programs that support those most economically vulnerable to fuel price increases.

The man's a rock. He doesn't twitch. He doesn't sway. The wattage of his smile doesn't waver. Is this a good thing? Is it supernatural? If only he could stare down global climate change with a smile.

Seeing is believing.

 

 

Barack Obama's amazingly consistent smile from Eric Spiegelman on Vimeo.

Warren Hellman, the patron saint of the Best. Festival. In. San Francisco. Ever. is plunking down $5 million to seed the creation of what's being called the Bay Area News Project, a journalism outfit that'll be linked with KQED public radio and television, UC Berkeley's J-School, and it looks like The New York Times.  Alan Mutter has the best summary of the deal, and Dave Cohn just put up a smart post about what he hopes Hellman's project does. Lots of details still to be worked out, so I think it's way too early to say much more than that I'm really hoping this works out.

Okay, that having been said, I've got a couple more things to say.

While the broader economy might be showing signs of improvement, the US housing market remains a disaster. And if a recent Moody's analysis holds true, real estate could remain that way for the next decade or more, and even longer in states devastated by the housing meltdown, like California and Florida. "For many reasons, the rebound will be disproportionately small compared to the decline," Moody's analysts said this week. "It will take more than a decade to completely recover from the 40 percent peak-to-trough decline in national home prices." The hardest-hit states, meanwhile, "will only re-gain their pre-bust peak in the early 2030s."

Ouch. This kind of analysis suggests that America's economic recovery will be a protracted one, looking more like a W than a V. Granted, the Moody's projection looks at us returning to housing-bubble peaks, when in fact the housing market needn't—indeed, shouldn't—return to the overinflated prices that preceded the collapse. Its analysis, nonetheless, goes to show that normalcy in the housing market is a long way off—bad news, given that real estate plays such an integral role in our economic health (if this crisis taught us anything, it taught us that).

While the leaders of the Group of 20 met in Pittsburgh this week to discuss a climate treaty and banking regulations, a few thousand demonstrators hit the streets to speak out on a variety of issues, from Tibet to trade.

The protests paled in comparison to the 1999 WTO melee in Seattle. But they were notable for their use of technology to organize and raise hell. Organizers compiled a list of potential protest spots on Google Maps. The list was comprised mostly of banks and food chains, including 11 Starbucks locations. (Which once again raises the question: What does breaking windows at big-name retailers have to do with sending a message to world leaders?) Protesters also used Twitter to spread the word. The G20pgh feed, run by the Pittsburgh G-20 Resistance Project, has been particularly active. One tweet from last night read, "RIOT POLICE MARCH DOWN FORBES, SENDING STUDENTS SPRINTING TOWARD TOWERS. TEAR GAS SHOT AT CROWD." Another: "POLICE JUST PILED OUT OF BUDGET TRUCKS. SOUND CANNONS BEING FIRED AT CROWD. COPS HAVE GAS MASKS ON." The Resistance Project also boasts more than 750 supporters on Facebook.

Is Copenhagen Dead?

Is the Obama administration giving up on reaching a comprehensive international climate change agreement this year? A statement released on Friday by John Podesta, who headed Barack Obama's presidential transition, is a big hint that the White House is looking to dramatically downplay expectations.

In the statement, Podesta, the head of the Center for American Progress, and Rajendra Pachauri, the chair of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, declare, "The world's leading economic powers remain inactive in preventing an increase in the serious impacts of climate change." The pair do not explicitly criticize the United States and the Obama administration. But their statement suggests that the Obama administration has not succeeded in leading the major global powers toward effective action:

While current impacts of climate change may not have reached alarming proportions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that will happen soon enough if we do not take early action. What is causing increasing concern, as the December UN climate summit in Copenhagen draws ever nearer, is the continuing deadlock in political action to deal with this challenge.

Podesta and Pachauri note that the commitment reached last July by G-8 countries—including the United States—to reduce global greenhouse emissions by 50 percent by 2050 is not sufficient and that the ongoing negotiations in advance of the Copenhagen conference do not "reflect this imperative."

The two paint a bleak picture of the road to Copenhagen:

As MoJo's Andy Kroll noted yesterday, lawmakers and Obama administration officials have agreed to cut the “plain vanilla” provision from legislation establishing the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA), an office that would safeguard consumers by regulating financial products.

But apparently this dilution isn't enough for those set against regulatory reform—in particular the Chamber of Commerce, which earlier this month launched a $2 million ad campaign claiming, among other things, a local butcher couldn’t extend credit to his customers without government interference if the CFPA is created. However, according to CNN, a memo on the CFPA by House Financial Services Committee chair Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass) "makes it clear that lawmakers don't want to regulate merchants and retailers who give their customers credit or layaway plans."

Yesterday morning, a small group of the bill's opponents gathered at the Chamber of Commerce's headquarters in Washington DC to try another line of attack. The keynote speaker, Sen. Walter Minnick (D-Idaho) who sits on the committee that will determine the bill’s fate, expressed his dissatisfaction with the creation of an additional regulatory agency. (He also thanked the Chamber for its good behavior at a Senate hearing on the proposal on Thursday: “I was just delighted that none of your members were throwing shoes.”)