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From the Annals of Unexpected Headlines

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 10:13 AM EDT

I would just like to say that this is not a headline I ever expected to see during my scan of the morning newspaper. That is all.

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Häagen-Dazs Says It Won't Use Fake DNA in Ice Cream

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Vanilla beans, or "natural flavoring solution"?

The Swiss firm Evolva is on the verge of bringing a novel vanilla-flavoring ingredient into the world: one neither grown on a tropical tree nor synthesized from petroleum. Evolva's version of vanillin—the most important of the many compounds that give vanilla beans their famous flavor and aroma—will be grown in yeast engineered through a process know as synthetic biology. (See my recent pieces on synbio here and here).

Will the market embrace this innovation? Is your ice cream, as the headline to one of my pieces recently had it, about to get weirder?

It's still way too early to tell, but one iconic ice cream brand, Häagen-Dazs, says it's taking a pass. Contacted by the environmental group Friends of the Earth, both Nestle, which markets Häagen-Dazs in the US, and General Mills, which does so in all other markets, affirmed that the brand "will not source vanilla flavor produced through synthetic biology."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Evolva downplayed the importance of Häagen-Dazs' no-synbio stand:

Regarding this recent press release by Friends of the Earth (FOE) related to vanillin, Evolva would like to reiterate that its vanillin is not intended to replace vanilla that is grown in Madagascar, Mexico or elsewhere. Madagascan vanilla is a great product. And if ice cream makers are currently using this vanilla, by all means they should keep using it. Our focus is the 99% of vanillin (NOT VANILLA) in the world that actually does not come from the orchid in Madagascar, etc., but rather from petrochemical plants or chemically treated paper pulp waste. We want to give people a better alternative to THAT vanillin. Further, as has been stated previously, our vanillin has been reviewed for safety and has been found to be safe for its intended use. FOE is fully aware of our approach because we have shared it with them several times, already.

But Evolva appears to be engaging in a bit of hairsplitting here. In its own press release, it trumpets its product as "natural vanillin for commercial application," produced "through a cost-effective, natural and sustainable route." And in a recent statement to the trade website Food Navigator, Evolva reiterated the "natural" claim: "For most markets, our vanillin can be labeled as a natural flavor as part of a natural flavoring solution."

Think the Southwest’s Drought Is Bad Now? It Could Last a Generation or More

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 5:55 AM EDT
Irrigation pipes on Southern California farmland.

Late-summer 2014 has brought uncomfortable news for residents of the US Southwest—and I'm not talking about 109-degree heat in population centers like Phoenix.

A new study by Cornell University, the University of Arizona, and the US Geological Survey researchers looked at the deep historical record (tree rings, etc.) and the latest climate change models to estimate the likelihood of major droughts in the Southwest over the next century. The results are as soothing as a thick wool sweater on a midsummer desert hike. 

The researchers concluded that odds of a decadelong drought are "at least 80 percent." The chances of a "megadrought," one lasting 35 or more years, stands at somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent, depending on how severe climate change turns out to be. And the prospects for an "unprecedented 50-year megadrought"—one "worse than anything seen during the last 2000 years"­—checks in at a nontrivial 5 to 10 percent.

To the right there's a map, pulled from the study, showing that the swath of land in question and its risk of a 35-year drought. It extends from Southern California clear to West Texas, encompassing population centers like San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson, and Albuquerque, along with a large chunk of the troubled US-Mexico border. (Note that in northern Mexico, drought prospects are even higher.)

This (paradoxically) chilling assessment comes on the heels of another study (study; my summary), this one released in early August by University of California-Irvine and NASA researchers, on the Colorado River, the lifeblood of a vast chunk of the Southwest. As many as 40 million people rely on the Colorado for drinking water, including residents of Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. It also irrigates the highly productive winter farms of California's Imperial Valley and Arizona's Yuma County, which produce upwards of 80 percent of the nation's winter vegetables.

The researchers analyzed satellite measurements of the Earth's mass and found that the region's aquifers had undergone a much-larger-than-expected drawdown over the past decade—the region's farms and municipalities responded to drought-reduced flows from the Colorado River by dropping wells and tapping almost 53 million acre-feet of underground water between December 2004 and November 2013—equal to about 1.5 full Lake Meads drained off in just nine years, a rate the study's lead researcher, Jay Famiglietti, calls "alarming."

Considering how much of the Colorado River Basin, which encompasses swaths of Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, are desert, it's probably not wise to rapidly drain aquifers, since there's little prospect that they'll refill anytime soon. And when you consider that that the region faces high odds of a coming megadrought, the results are even more frightening. (Just before Labor Day, over fierce opposition from farm interests, the California Legislature passed legislation that would regulate groundwater pumping—something that has never been done on a statewide basis in California before. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign it into law.)

Yet another study, this one released in mid-August by researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the US Geological Survey and covered by my colleague Julia Lurie here, found that the drought now gripping most of California has been so severe that it has caused the state's mountain ranges to rise by as much as a half inch since 2013 alone. That's because water, in the form of snow on mountain peaks and flow in streams, weighs down on the tectonic plate upon which the mountains rest. When it's not replaced, as happens during a drought, the plate rises "like an uncoiled spring," as the Scripps Institution of Oceanography put it in a press release. Scripps added, thankfully, that the "uplift has virtually no effect on the San Andreas fault and therefore does not increase the risk of earthquakes." Whew.

But the "uplift effect" doesn't just happen in mountain areas. The researchers estimate that across the West, loss of surface water has caused the land to rise 0.15 of an inch since 2013. Such a tangible change over so short a time illustrates the "the dire hydrological state of the West," the Scripps press release states.

Powerful Reporting From Steven Sotloff, the Second Journalist ISIS Executed

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 6:27 PM EDT

Steven Sotloff (center with black helmet) talks to Libyan rebels on the Al Dafniya front line near in Misrata, Libya in 2011.

A video released today appeared to confirm the worst fears for the fate of captured American journalist Steven Sotloff: a beheading at the hands of Islamic State extremists. The video's authenticity has not yet been confirmed by US officials, but the New York Times reports that Sotloff's family believes he has been killed. If so, that means the 31-year-old Sotloff—who went missing a year ago while reporting in Syria—becomes the second American journalist executed by the Islamic State.

Last month, a video surfaced showing ISIS fighters executing American journalist James Foley. Many on the Internet seethed that the gruesome circumstances of his death appeared to overshadow his important work. The same shouldn't happen to Sotloff. Ignore the sensational headlines and instead explore some of the brave, intelligent journalism he devoted his life to producing:

"Syrian Purgatory": In this 2013 piece for Foreign Policy, Sotloff traveled to a Syrian refugee camp to report on the hundreds of thousands displaced by the civil war there. His chilling opening sets the tone for a story about the plight of refugees and the pitfalls of humanitarian aid: "It was less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and the winter wind cut to the bone. When I asked why she didn't have a blanket like everyone else at the Atmeh refugee camp, [Um Ibrahim] shrugged and looked down. 'I sold it to buy bread for my children.'"

"From Bread Lines to Front Lines:" Again in Foreign Policy, Sotloff went to Aleppo—one of the most devastated cities in Syria—to show how traumatic the daily lives of ordinary Syrians had become by late 2012. "The 21-month long Syrian revolution is taking its toll on residents of the country’s largest city," he wrote. "With everything from medicine to firewood in scarce supply, and with winter bringing temperatures down to near freezing, people here are struggling to cope with a war they just hope will end."

"The Other 9/11: Libyan Guards Recount What Happened in Benghazi:" For this TIME article, Sotloff—who covered Libya extensively for the magazine—interviewed Libyan security guards present when the US consulate in Benghazi was attacked. The result is a vivid, meticulous timeline of the events of September 11, 2012. One example: "Abdullah ran towards the cantina east of C villa where a grenade exploded nearby. 'I remember the shrapnel that landed in my leg was very hot and I was shaken, a bit dizzy,' he recalled. A group of attackers then passed him on the way to encircling the cantina. They shot him twice in the leg. Others beat him so hard he lost consciousness."

"Libya's New Crisis: A Wave of Assassinations Targeting Its Top Cops:" Here, Sotloff reported on the deadly aftershocks of the Benghazi attacks. In explaining the rash of killings of major Libyan security officials, Sotloff paints a compelling picture of the deterioration of post-Qaddafi Libya. "But the biggest loser today is a Libyan state stumbling from one crisis to the next," he writes. "The government has not investigated the bombings and no one has been prosecuted."

"The Alawite Towns That Support Syria's Assad—in Turkey:" TIME featured some of Sotloff's early reporting on the war in Syria. In 2012, he traveled to Turkey to report on Turkish Alawites' support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In doing so, he put himself in the thick of anti-American protests. "When an American journalist stops to ask about the group's activities, though, a burly man in his 30s hisses him away, shouting, "America is funding terrorists in Syria!'"

Republicans Mysteriously Decide to Become Hawkish Again

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 5:08 PM EDT

Apparently the kinder, gentler version of the Republican Party is quickly disappearing:

Remember when the Republican Party was quickly shifting toward a new brand of Rand Paul-esque foreign policy non-interventionism?

No more.

Less than a year ago, just 18 percent of GOPers said that the United States does “too little” when it comes to helping solve the world’s problems, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 46 percent.

....The results echo a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll which showed higher GOP support for airstrikes in Iraq.

So what to account for the shift?

Hmmm. That's a poser, isn't it? What, oh what, could account for the shift?

Well, let's cast our minds back a year or two. We were fighting in Libya, a war that President Obama got us involved in. We were fighting in Afghanistan, a war that Obama ramped up as soon as he took office. We were fighting drone wars in Yemen, Pakistan, and Somalia, all thanks to Obama.

Then what happened? The civil war in Syria heated up, but after a brief bout of indecision Obama decided not to get deeply involved. Russia ramped up military action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved. ISIS took over a huge chunk of Iraq, and Obama decided not to get deeply involved.

So let's review. A year or two ago, we were involved in three overseas wars, all of them supported by Obama. At the time, Republicans were unaccountably dovish about military interventions. Today, Obama is refraining from getting deeply involved in three overseas wars. And guess what? Republicans have suddenly become hawkish again.

Yep, this is a poser. What could possibly account for this change in Republican attitudes?

ISIS Is a Problem That Only Iraqis Can Solve

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 2:24 PM EDT

Christopher Paul and Colin Clarke studied 71 insurgencies during the post-WWII period and concluded that every successful counterinsurgency has shared several characteristics. They apply the results of their research to the problem of the ISIS insurgency in Iraq:

First, we found that in every case where they succeeded, counterinsurgent forces managed to substantially overmatch the insurgents and force them to fight as guerrillas before getting down to the activities traditionally associated with counterinsurgency....U.S. air power could make a significant contribution toward that end. Airstrikes will help curb Islamic State advances in strategically important parts of Iraq and thus, help bolster the Iraqi government and security forces, at least in the short term.

Second, we concluded from the research that “effective COIN practices tend to run in packs”....Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) techniques identified three COIN concepts critical to success. These three concepts were implemented in each and every COIN win, and no COIN loss implemented all three: Tangible support reduction; commitment and motivation; and flexibility and adaptability.

....U.S. support to an Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy to defeat the Islamic State must focus on reducing tangible support to the insurgents, increasing the commitment and motivation of the Iraqi military and security forces and increasing the government’s legitimacy among Iraqi Sunnis.

It's been a long time since I spent much time reading about COIN and COIN strategies, but this basically sounds right to me. And it should send a shiver down the spine of anyone who thinks the US should get deeply involved in fighting ISIS.

Here's why. One of the key factors that I remember identifying during the height of the Iraq insurgency was local commitment. In a nutshell, it turns out that virtually no postwar COIN effort led by a big Western country has been successful. Western help is OK, but the COIN effort has to be led by the local regime. It's not a sufficient condition for success, but it's a necessary one.

Paul and Clarke are basically confirming this. Sure, American air strikes might help in terms of the sheer firepower needed to successfully fight ISIS. But of the other three key COIN practices, two are purely local and the third is mostly local. There's very little the United States can do to help out on these fronts. Only the Iraqi government can increase its legitimacy among the Sunni minority, and only the Iraqi government can properly motivate its military. (The US can provide training and materiel, but it can't provide commitment and motivation.) Even the problem of reducing tangible support for the ISIS insurgents is mostly something only the Iraqi government can do. The US can help, but only if Iraqis are leading the way.

At the moment, there's little evidence that the Iraqi government is capable of doing any of these three things. The new government of Haider Al-Abadi might be able to make progress on these fronts, but it hasn't demonstrated that yet. Until it does, more US help is almost certainly doomed to failure.

Instinctive hawks should think long and hard about this. The record of the United States in counterinsurgencies is dismal. If the conditions are just right, we might be able to do some good in Iraq. At the moment, though, the conditions are appalling. We can put a few fingers in some dikes, but unless and until the Iraqi government steps up to the plate, there's virtually no chance that deeper US involvement will turn out well.

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Surprise! Eric Cantor Lands $3.4 Million Job on Wall Street

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 1:56 PM EDT

After Rep. Eric Cantor lost his primary to a tea party challenger in June, he could have stayed on as a lame duck, collecting his salary and voting as a full member of Congress through January 2015. Instead, Cantor decided to step down from his job as the GOP's majority leader and resign his seat early. Cantor claimed that the decision to call it quits was in the interests of his constituents. "I want to make sure that the constituents in the 7th District will have a voice in what will be a very consequential lame-duck session," Cantor said at the time, explaining that he'd timed his decision so his replacement could be seated as soon as possible.

No one believed it—on August 1, the Huffington Post's Arthur Delaney and Eliot Nelson wrote that voters would soon hear about "Eric Cantor's forthcoming finance job." A month later, their prediction has proven true: On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Cantor will soon start work at Moelis & Co, an investment bank. Cantor—whose experience prior to becoming a professional politician largely consisted of working in the family real estate development business—will earn a hefty salary for his lack of expertise: According to Business Insider, he's set to make $3.4 million from the investment firm. "Mr. Moelis said he is hiring Mr. Cantor for his "judgment and experience" and ability to open doors—and not just for help navigating regulatory and political waters in Washington," the Journal reported.

Democrats sell out, too. In 2010, former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh announced his plans to retire in 2010 in a New York Times op-ed that bemoaned the lack of bipartisan friendships in the modern Senate and attacked the influence of money in politics. Yet shortly after he left Congress, Bayh signed up with law firm McGuireWoods and private equity firm Apollo Global Management and began acting as a lobbyist for corporate clients in all but name. Less than a year later, he joined the US Chamber of Commerce as an adviser. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) pulled a similar trick, promising "no lobbying, no lobbying," before taking a $1-million-plus job as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's main lobbying group.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, 417 ex-lawmakers hold lobbyist or lobbyist-like jobs.

Inflation Is Still the Great Bogeyman of the Rich

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 12:26 PM EDT

Paul Krugman is trying to figure out why wealthy elites are so damn obsessed with the dangers of moderately higher inflation. After all, in a deep recession, inflation is likely to spur economic growth, and that helps rich folks. Their assets increase in value and they become even richer. So what's their problem?

In a post yesterday, Krugman refers to my suggestion that it's mostly a case of septaphobia, or fear of the 70s. The idea here is that inflation really did run out of control in the 70s, and it really did take a massive recession engineered by Paul Volcker to rein it in. If that was one of your seminal experiences of the consequences of loose money, then it's no surprise that you fear inflation. But Steve Randy Waldman says this is "bass-ackwards":

Elites love the 1970s. Prior to the 1970s, during panics and depressions, soft money had an overt, populist constituency....The 1970s are trotted out to persuade those who disproportionately bear the burdens of an underperforming or debt-reliant economy that There Is No Alternative, nothing can be done, you wouldn’t want to a return to the 1970s, would you?

Quite right. Because the high inflation of the 70s really was painful for the middle class, the 70s do indeed serve a very useful purpose to elites who want to keep fear of inflation alive. But that begs the question: Why do they want to keep fear of inflation alive? The fact that elites have hated inflation forever isn't an answer. During the days of the gold standard, high inflation really did hurt the wealthy. But today's economy is vastly different from the hard-money + financial repression economy of the 70s and before. Inflation is much less threatening to the rich than it used to be. Why haven't they figured this out?

I'm not sure, but I do want to note that both Krugman and Waldman have at least partly misunderstood me. Although I do think that septaphobia is a real thing, I mainly think it's a real thing for the non-rich. It's primarily the middle class that fears a rerun of the 70s. That might have been a bit muddled in my initial post (which Krugman linked to), but I made this clearer in a subsequent post about the roots of inflation phobia:

So what's the deal? I'd guess that it's a few things. First, the sad truth is that virtually no one believes that high inflation helps economic growth when the economy is weak....Second, there's the legitimate fear of accelerating inflation once you let your foot off the brake....Third, there's the very sensible fear among the middle class that high inflation is just a sneaky way to erode real wages....Fourth, there's fear of the 70s, which apparently won't go away until everyone who was alive during the 70s is dead. Which is going to be a while.

Krugman responds to Waldman here, and even though Waldman says my argument is bass-ackwards, I actually think he and I mostly agree. Krugman may be right that higher inflation would help the rich right now, and that they'd support it if they were smart. But Waldman argues there's more to it. Basically, he thinks the rich are fundamentally conservative: inflation might help them on average, but there are still going to be plenty of losers whenever there's an engineered change to the economy. Since the rich, by definition, are already doing pretty well, why risk it?

I think that's probably right, though Waldman probably overstates its importance. Wealthy elites aren't that conservative, especially when it comes to making money. Still, it's almost certainly a significant factor. But I also think Krugman is right about false consciousness. In fact, that was #1 on my list above: the fact that virtually no one really, truly believes in Keynesian stimulus. (Waldman makes this point too.) If rich elites really did believe that a bit of high inflation would get the economy booming, I think they'd swallow their innate conservatism and support it. But they don't. Almost no one really believes it in their guts.

That's a failure of the economics profession, perhaps, but it's also a legacy of septaphobia. After all, if you take a look solely at the surface—and that's what most of us do, rich and poor alike—what's the lesson of the 70s? That's easy: Inflation got out of control and the economy went to hell. Then Paul Volcker reined in inflation, and the economy boomed. What's more, the rich have prospered mightily in the 30 years of low inflation since then. So why mess with a good thing?

So yes: It's septaphobia, both in a real sense and as a useful morality tale. It's false consciousness from wealthy elites who don't really believe that inflation will spur the economy. And it's the innate conservatism of the rich, who don't have much incentive to accept change when they're already doing pretty well. Add to that the fact that inflation phobia is an easy sell to voters because the middle class really does have reason to fear inflation, and you have everything you need to make it nearly impossible to convince people that a bit of higher inflation would be a good thing right now. And so we stagnate.

Putin Brags About How Fast He Could Take Ukraine

| Tue Sep. 2, 2014 10:58 AM EDT

Here's the latest from Russia:

Vladimir Putin has said Russian forces could conquer the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, in two weeks if he so ordered, the Kremlin has confirmed.

Moscow declined to deny that the president had spoken of taking Kiev in a phone conversation on Friday with José Manuel Barroso, the outgoing president of the European commission....Barroso asked Putin about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine. Nato says there are at least 1,000 Russian forces on the wrong side of the border. The Ukrainians put the figure at 1,600.

"The problem is not this, but that if I want I'll take Kiev in two weeks," Putin said, according to La Repubblica.

The Kremlin did not deny Putin had spoken of taking Kiev, but instead complained about the leak of the Barroso remarks.

Yes, the leak is the real problem here. Invading Ukraine is a mere piffle.

Gemma Ray's Latest Is Fresh and Unsettling

| Mon Sep. 1, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Gemma Ray
Milk for Your Motors
Bronze Rat

A perfect master of noir pop, British-born Gemma Ray turns a familiar recipe—twangy guitars, dreamy melodies, hazy rhythms and wistful voices—into something fresh and more than a little unsettling. Milk for Your Motors transcends artful background music because her songs are smart and unpredictable, encompassing the nostalgic desire of "When I Kissed You" ("I want to remember how I kissed you / ’round the back of the air-raid shelter") and the gruesome dark comedy of "Waving at Mirrors" ("It was all a terrible mess / Which came from nothing less / Than a moment carelessly spent applying make up instead of driving") Aching and wry at once, Ray is a mesmerizing presence, mixing brainy cool and genuine passion with precise skill. For added hipster cred, note cameos by Howe Gelb (Giant Sand) and Alan Vega (Suicide), who references his own classic "Dream Baby Dream" on the spooky "Out in the Rain."