Howl

After several weeks spent ginning up ferocious opposition to healthcare reform, culminating in a relentless and coordinated effort to incite howling mobs to shut down town hall meetings across the country, I would like to congratulate the conservative movement for their ingenious strategy of blaming the whole thing on "SEIU thugs."  Seriously.  It's brilliant.  Yadollah Javan would be proud.

The latest on the climate front:

Bjorn Lomborg, an influential figure among climate change sceptics, has thrown his weight behind a drive to forge a global deal to halt rising world temperatures at a summit in Copenhagen this year.

“It’s incredibly important. We need a global deal on the climate,” Mr Lomborg told the Financial Times....“If that disappoints some people who are sceptics, I am not the least bit unhappy.”

Hey, that's great!  Except, um, for what comes next:

He is concerned that the United Nations-led consensus that a climate treaty must focus on cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from rich countries is mistaken. “It’s a costly way to achieve very little,” he said.

Instead, Mr Lomborg argues, there are cheaper ways of halting temperature rises. These include tackling sources of climate change other than carbon dioxide, such as methane and soot; investing in new tech­nologies; adapting to the effects of climate change; planting more forests; and weighing up whether emissions cuts are cheaper to do now or later.

So what exactly is new here?  Lomborg has always accepted the fact of climate change, he's just argued that halting it isn't as important as cleaning up drinking water in Africa or tackling malaria or doing more agricultural research or whatnot.  He's never denied global warming, he just thinks it's not that big a deal.

So it sounds like nothing much has changed on that front.  The U.S. military, however, is slowly but surely starting to see reality:

The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.

....An exercise last December at the National Defense University, an educational institute that is overseen by the military, explored the potential impact of a destructive flood in Bangladesh that sent hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming into neighboring India, touching off religious conflict, the spread of contagious diseases and vast damage to infrastructure. “It gets real complicated real quickly,” said Amanda J. Dory, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy, who is working with a Pentagon group assigned to incorporate climate change into national security strategy planning.

....Ms. Dory, who has held senior Pentagon posts since the Clinton administration, said she had seen a “sea change” in the military’s thinking about climate change in the past year. “These issues now have to be included and wrestled with” in drafting national security strategy, she said.

Well, that's going to pose a problem for conservatives, isn't it?  What are they going to do when four-star generals start telling them they need to take climate change seriously?  Their heads will explode.

Which wouldn't be such a bad outcome, I suppose, would it?

Today I stormed the halls of corporate America.  And got my butt kicked.  Here's my sad but all-too-common tale.

My cell phone battery has slowly deteriorated into a state of decrepitude so pronounced that even I began to notice it.  Obvious solution: buy a replacement.  But then I got some junk mail from Verizon telling me that I had a $100 credit coming my way if I upgraded my phone.  Hurrah!  Why buy a new battery if I can get a whole new phone for free?

So I went to the Verizon store and picked one out.  Not much different from my current phone, but it had a couple of handy new features.  And since it retailed for $99.95, I'd get it for free!  Except, there's a problem:

I'm sorry, Mr. Drum, but you can't get that phone.

Why not?

It's only available if you're on a nationwide plan.

But I am on a nationwide plan.  I can call anywhere in the U.S. and Canada for one low monthly charge.

Sorry.  I didn't mean nationwide, I meant Nationwide™.

Oh.  Well, can I switch to a Nationwide™ plan?

Yes, but not like the one you currently have.  The cheapest Nationwide™ plan has more minutes than your current plan and costs $10 more per month.

So my free phone will actually cost me $240 over the life of the two-year contract?

Um, yeah.  Pretty much.

And why can't this new phone work on my existing plan?

Well, Verizon is really trying to get everyone to switch to the Nationwide™ plan.

Great.  I actually went into the store steeling myself for the fact that my "free" phone wouldn't actually be free.  There'd be a "transfer charge" or some alleged government waste disposal fee — or something — and I'd end up paying twenty or thirty bucks for one reason or another.  But $240?  My cynicism wasn't up to that.

So instead I got a cheap replacement phone.  No new features, just a slightly different shape.  A wee bit smaller and lighter.  Plastic case instead of metal, so it'll probably break before long.  But it works on my current plan, so it's really free.

Sort of.  Actually, it cost me $50.  Why?  It took me a while to decipher what the clerk was telling me, but even though it's a $79 phone (regular price, not any kind of special deal) and I had a $100 credit, I was required to pay $50 at the register and then send in my receipt to get a $50 mail-in rebate.  So now I have to do that.

What's really remarkable about all this is that I suspect most people don't even complain about it.  It's just the way corporations treat us these days and complaining about it is useless.  It's not as if any other cell phone company would have treated me any better, after all.  They make their money on people who buy high-minute plans and send lots of text messages and download tunes and upgrade to email and broadband.  I don't do any of that, so they don't really care about my business.  And why should they?

End of rant.  But since every post is required to have a political point of some kind these days, here it is for this one: there was nothing unusual about my experience.  Barely even anything to get upset about, really.  So if you wonder why I'm not bothered by the idea of government-funded healthcare, that's why.  Frankly, my dealings with the government, on average, are better than most of my dealings with corporations.  The government might sometimes provide poor customer service just because they lack the motivation to do better, but corporate America routinely provides crappy customer service as part of a deliberate and minutely planned strategy.  I'll take my chances with the feds.

Robots in Our Future

Gregory Clark says that although unskilled laborers have done relatively well for the past two centuries, that's about to change:

The economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology's role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.

....[In] recent decades, when average U.S. incomes roughly doubled, there has been little gain in the real earnings of the unskilled. And, more darkly, computer advances suggest these redoubts of human skill will sooner or later fall to machines. We may have already reached the historical peak in the earning power of low-skilled workers, and may look back on the mid-20th century as the great era of the common man.

I recently carried out a complicated phone transaction with United Airlines but never once spoke to a human; my mechanical interlocutor seemed no less capable than the Indian call-center operatives it replaced. Outsourcing to India and China may be only a brief historical interlude before the great outsourcing yet to come — to machines. And as machines expand their domain, basic wages could easily fall so low that families cannot support themselves without public assistance.

With the march of technology, the size of a future American underclass dependent on public support for part of its livelihood is hard to predict: 10 million, 20 million, 100 million? We could imagine cities where entire neighborhoods are populated by people on state support.

Of course, this is roughly the argument people made in the 19th century too: if machines can spin cotton and mine coal and harvest crops, what's left for unskilled laborers to do?  The answer, of course, turned out to be: something else.  Productivity increased so dramatically during the Industrial Revolution, and with it the quantity of goods produced, that everyone stayed employed even though population increased and the labor content of most commodities went down.  The nature of the work changed, but 10% of a thousand, it turned out, kept as many people employed as 50% of two hundred.

So is Clark just engaged in neo-Ludditeism?  Maybe.  But there really does seem to a fundamental difference between machines that take the place of muscle power and machines that take the place of brain power — though it's hard to say for sure since we haven't really seen what computers can do yet.  Probably a lot more than most people think, though.  Clark's IVR transaction with United Airlines may seem trivial — an example of automated phone hell, in fact — but Thomas Newcomen's atmospheric engine seemed barely worth the trouble too at the time.

The only reason the Industrial Revolution didn't put millions of people out of work is that it created lots of new jobs that required just enough human judgment that they couldn't be done by machine.  But once computers can provide that judgment, then what's left?  According to Clark, high taxes on everyone else.  Don't anyone tell Newt Gingrich.

Netroots Nation

Quick housekeeping note.  I'll be at Netroots Nation in Pittsburgh on Friday and Saturday of next week.  It's always nice to meet people who read the blog, so if you'll be there too and happen to see me wandering the hallways, be sure to stop me and say hi.

I'll also be moderating the noon keynote panel on Saturday, "Building a 21st Century Economy."  The panelists, who will be doing most of the actual talking, are Jon Corzine, governor of New Jersey; Anna Burger, chair of the Change to Win labor coalition; and Dean Baker, the economist who's been warning us about the housing bubble longer than just about anyone.  Should be a good session.  If you have any questions you'd like tossed at these guys, leave 'em in comments.

You can read some kickass good tales in this new anthology, Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming. It's from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Penguin Classics and brings together established writers and fresh voices with personal reflections on global climate change. There's an interactive version of the book you can read free online. Or buy the hardcover. Great stories, some from friends of mine, on everything from climate change on coral reefs to the joys of bicycling.

Two of my favorite subjects intersect on the blog Why Would You Knit That, complete with a subversive dissection: "Introducing Mr. Knitted Lab Rat and Mr. Knitted Frog:
(I call them "Mr." because I don't see obvious signs of knitted ovaries or a uterus, duh)"

The DNI's Testimony

I was browsing through the testimony of DNI Dennis Blair to the Senate Intelligence Committee last April and came across a question about the Afghan insurgency.  Specifically, how big would the Afghan army need to be to extend security throughout the country, and how much would it cost?  Here's the answer:

Answer: (U) The most recent edition of the U.S. Army Counterinsurgency Handbook suggests a ratio of 25 counterinsurgents to every 1,000 residents within an area of operations. The CIA World Factbook puts the 2009 estimated population of Afghanistan at 32,738,376.  Using this ratio leads to a need for roughly 818,000 security personnel to secure Afghanistan. However, most of the insurgents are in Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, and Pashtuns make up approximately 40% of the population — about 13 million.  Applying the 25-per-1,000 ratio to the Pashtun population equals roughly 325,000 security forces to extend security through the Pashtun areas.

(U) The Afghan defense operating budget (taken from the Afghanistan National Yearly Budget Report) for the Fiscal Year 2008 was projected at $242 million dollars.  Since there are currently 83,094 soldiers in the Army, we assume that this amount of $242 million equates to $2,912 dollars per soldier.  If the ANA were to increase the number of soldiers to 325,000, then Afghanistan would need to budget $946 million dollars per annum....

Really?  That's it?  I realize this is the unclassified version of his testimony.  I also realize that counterinsurgency is mostly the Pentagon's bailiwick, not the intelligence community's.  Still.  This is the level of analysis that a blogger might provide with about five minutes of googling.  Does the Senate really accept testimony this shallow from the DNI?  Is there really, literally, nothing more sophisticated they can offer up for unclassified public consumption?

Steven Aftergood adds that "some of the DNI’s statements are surprisingly flimsy."  For example, Blair claims that Russia prepared for a military exercise to disrupt U.S. satellites:

It turns out that the DNI’s statement was simply lifted, almost word for word, from a news story that appeared in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta on May 14, 2003.  (It was also picked up by the online Newsmax.com on May 18, 2003.)  The Russian story lazily attributed its claim regarding the anti-satellite exercise to “certain reports.” The DNI repeated the Nezavisimaya Gazeta item nearly verbatim, presenting it as an established fact, with no attribution at all.

In fairness, there were some interesting bits and pieces in Blair's testimony, too.  Still, even in an unclassified setting the intelligence community owes the American public better than this.

Not enough justice, mind you. Still, in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine, Deborah Solomon has a satisfying interview with Bush's former attorney general, who resigned in disgrace over the attorneys generals firing scandal. Upshot: Gonzales has had no law firm job offers, has no book publisher, hasn't talked to Bush, who isn't helping out with legal bills, and a considerable portion of Texas Tech's faculty signed a letter protesting his appointment. Read the whole thing. It'll make you feel somewhat better. (H/T @GregMitchell)

Clara Jeffery is Co-Editor of Mother Jones and a Twitter newbie. You can follow her here.

WWF reports that ExxonMobil has ignored a petition from more than 50,000 people demanding they suspend activities harming the Western gray whale—one of the world’s most endangered whales (Red List: Critically Endangered, only 35 reproductive females left).

Thousands of signatures from around the world were delivered to the CEO of ExxonMobil in Texas and in Moscow just as the first whales arrived at their summer feeding grounds. Sadly, the whales' breeding grounds are ground zero for Exxon’s Sakhalin I oil and gas project.

The petition urges Exxon and other oil companies to suspend all oil and gas development near the whale’s habitat off Sakhalin Island and calls for the creation of the Sakhalin Marine Federal Wildlife Reserve. Despite requests for a response within a two week deadline—and despite ExxocnMobil's claims to "seek to eliminate incidents with environmental impact"—Exxon remains silent.