Kevin Drum - February 2010

Who's Outlandish Now?

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 5:27 PM PST

Have environmentalists who focus on climate change really "undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish," as the Washington Post's Dana Milbank said a couple of days ago? Apparently not. The Wonk Room took a look at those claims and found that (a) they were true, (b) many of them didn't have anything to do with global warming, and (c) they weren't made by environmentalists anyway.

This is what happens when you take stenography from the Heritage Foundation. Any reporter past his senior year in high school ought to know better.

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Quote of the Day: On Justifying Selfishness

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 12:18 PM PST

From Matt Yglesias, on the question of whether broader access to health insurance would save lives:

To be even having this conversation is for the right-wing point of view to win the argument. It’s like the fake climate change “debate” — the point is not so much to actually persuade anyone of anything but simply to shift the rhetoric around. A lot of people have perfectly good selfish reasons to want to resist comprehensive climate legislation, but few people are comfortable self-consciously espousing selfish political beliefs. So it’s comforting and useful if they’re able to instead anchor themselves to the idea of some “controversy” over whether or not uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions are harmful.

And you see something similar here. There’s obviously a lot of discomfort with the idea of a highly moralized debate about the values implicated in the decision to support or resist efforts to expand access to affordable health insurance, so creating an air of technical controversy around the fact that the exact degree to which lack of insurance is harmful helps resterilize things.

Or to put it another way, "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." Some things never change.

Defending Torture the Old Fashioned Way

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 11:21 AM PST

Here is torture defender — and newly minted Washington Post columnist — Marc Thiessen explaining last year how the barbaric treatment of Khalid Sheik Mohammed yielded valuable information:

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques "led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the 'Second Wave,' 'to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into' a building in Los Angeles." KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast.

That was in the Washington Post. Here is Tim Noah, writing in the Post's Slate subsidiary the next day:

What clinches the falsity of Thiessen's claim [...] is chronology. In a White House press briefing, Bush's counterterrorism chief, Frances Fragos Townsend, told reporters that the cell leader was arrested in February 2002....But Sheikh Mohammed wasn't captured until March 2003.

How could Sheikh Mohammed's water-boarded confession have prevented the Library Tower attack if the Bush administration "broke up" that attack during the previous year? It couldn't, of course.

And Jonathan Bernstein, this morning:

I just saw torture apologist Marc Thiessen on CSPAN repeating, first of all, his argument that the Obama Administration is foolishly killing, rather than torturing, too many terrorists (today's news apparently notwithstanding; I turned it on too late to hear his explanation if any on that part of it), but more to the point his claim that torture and only torture prevented the Library Plot in Los Angeles from working.

I guess it's easy to see why the Post wants this guy writing for them on a weekly basis. He never lets the facts get in the way of a good story.

Mud Flinging and Climate Change

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 10:43 AM PST

A few days ago I summarized some of the controversies swirling around the most recent (2007) IPCC climate change report and asked, "Is there anything to them? Or just a whole bunch of mud being thrown on the walls by the usual suspects?"

Yesterday the pros at RealClimate went through all the complaints and basically concluded that there's only one actual error in the report: the claim that Himalayan glaciers would be mostly gone by 2035. "Fixing this error involves deleting two sentences on page 493 of the WG2 report," they say, and it was never central to the report's conclusions anyway. So where did the whirlwind come from?

To those familiar with the science and the IPCC’s work, the current media discussion is in large part simply absurd and surreal. Journalists who have never even peeked into the IPCC report are now outraged that one wrong number appears on page 493 of Volume 2. We’ve met TV teams coming to film a report on the IPCC reports’ errors, who were astonished when they held one of the heavy volumes in hand, having never even seen it. They told us frankly that they had no way to make their own judgment; they could only report what they were being told about it. And there are well-organized lobby forces with proper PR skills that make sure these journalists are being told the “right” story. That explains why some media stories about what is supposedly said in the IPCC reports can easily be falsified simply by opening the report and reading. Unfortunately, as a broad-based volunteer effort with only minimal organizational structure the IPCC is not in a good position to rapidly counter misinformation.

....What apparently has happened is that interested quarters, after the Himalyan glacier story broke, have sifted through the IPCC volumes with a fine-toothed comb, hoping to find more embarrassing errors. They have actually found precious little, but the little they did find was promptly hyped into Seagate, Africagate, Amazongate and so on. This has some similarity to the CRU email theft, where precious little was discovered from among thousands of emails, but a few sentences were plucked out of context, deliberately misinterpreted (like “hide the decline”) and then hyped into “Climategate”.

You should read the whole thing if you're even minimally interested in this stuff. It really does look like there's nothing much here. Basically, we had the CRU emails, which were genuinely embarrassing even if they didn't affect the science much, followed by the glacier debacle, and that was enough to make pretty much any other allegations look like they might be plausible too. So the anti-warming forces went to town.

So where does this leave us? As the RealClimate folks — following the lead of plenty of others — point out, even if the science of climate change hasn't been dented, it's pretty plain that the IPCC has been massively outgunned on the PR side of things. It's not clear yet what the answer is to this, but either the IPCC itself needs to get bigger and more organized, or else climate scientists who deal with the press need to step up their game individually. Or both. One of their problems, of course, is that any legitimate researcher faced with an allegation of error is going to want to take the time to genuinely look into it, and that automatically limits them. There are only so many "errors" they can look into, and the ones they do investigate will take some time to adjudicate. That's just the nature of science — and it's why, for example, it took until yesterday for RealClimate to address all this stuff even though it's been swirling around for a while. The debunkers, conversely, have no such limitations. They're free to throw as much mud against the walls as they want, and their allegations can be turned into a feeding frenzy on blogs and the popular press in hours or days. There's no need for caution.

The press itself is plainly unable to referee this stuff. The source material is highly technical and obviously far beyond their ability to understand, while the PR efforts of the debunkers are the kind of thing they're trained to deal with in an "objective" way. It's a recipe for disaster. One way or another, then, the climate community needs to step up its game. Kate Sheppard has some ideas here.

Stupid and Loathsome in the Golden State

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 9:41 AM PST

The LA Times reports that California suffered a political triple whammy last week:

First came the end of the once-promising drive for a state constitutional convention....Last week's second blow came when the Assembly rejected Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) as lieutenant governor....The final blow was the revelation that Assembly Speaker Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) and more than a dozen Democrats in Congress have together donated $160,000 from their political treasuries for a November ballot measure to scrap Proposition 11 — the same 2008 redistricting measure described above that caught them by surprise when it passed. They want to wrest back their power to pick their own voters before the reform affects a single election season.

The constitutional convention always seemed like a longshot to me, so I guess its failure doesn't come as a big surprise. But rejecting the eminently qualified and reasonable Maldonado for the inconsequential job of lieutenant governor — apparently because Dems were unwilling to allow a Hispanic Republican to gain a higher profile — was both stupid and loathsome. And making the repeal of Prop 11 their highest priority is — well, let's just go with stupid and loathsome again. These guys aren't really worth a trip to the thesaurus.

The depth of California's political suckitude is hard to fathom. It's like a contest from hell, where both parties try to outdo each other in sleaze and contemptibility. Republicans have a pretty big lead, but it's not insurmountable. Apparently Democrats are out to prove it.

Yet Another Nutritional Update

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 9:12 AM PST

Apparently scientists are changing their minds yet again. Here's the latest on saturated fat:

For the current study, researchers led by Dr. Ronald M. Krauss, of the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Center in California, pooled data from 21 studies that included a total of nearly 348,000 adults.

Participants, who were generally healthy to start, were surveyed about their diet habits and then followed for anywhere from five to 23 years. Over that time, 11,000 developed heart disease or suffered a stroke. Overall, Krauss and his colleagues found, there was no difference in the risks of heart disease and stroke between people with the lowest and highest intakes of saturated fat.

The article quotes Dr. Robert Eckel, a professor of medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, cautioning against "over interpreting" the results. So don't go mainlining sticks of lard just yet. But apparently all that animal fat isn't quite the heart attack on a plate we've been led to believe.

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Inside the Tea Parties

| Tue Feb. 16, 2010 12:21 AM PST

Pam Stout used to think that the federal government was a generally useful to thing have around:

But all that was before the Great Recession and the bank bailouts, before Barack Obama took the White House by promising sweeping change on multiple fronts, before her son lost his job and his house. Mrs. Stout said she awoke to see Washington as a threat, a place where crisis is manipulated — even manufactured — by both parties to grab power.

....Worried about hyperinflation, social unrest or even martial law, she and her Tea Party members joined a coalition, Friends for Liberty, that includes representatives from Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, the John Birch Society, and Oath Keepers, a new player in a resurgent militia movement.

....The ebbs and flows of the Tea Party ferment are hardly uniform. It is an amorphous, factionalized uprising with no clear leadership and no centralized structure.....They are frequently led by political neophytes who prize independence and tell strikingly similar stories of having been awakened by the recession. Their families upended by lost jobs, foreclosed homes and depleted retirement funds, they said they wanted to know why it happened and whom to blame.

That is often the point when Tea Party supporters say they began listening to Glenn Beck. With his guidance, they explored the Federalist Papers, exposés on the Federal Reserve, the work of Ayn Rand and George Orwell. Some went to constitutional seminars. Online, they discovered radical critiques of Washington on Web sites like ResistNet.com (“Home of the Patriotic Resistance”) and Infowars.com (“Because there is a war on for your mind.”).

If you think these folks have a serious chance at building a movement, this piece is pretty scary. But if you think they're such obvious cranks that they'll never be able to organize beyond the PTA level, it's actually a bit of a relief. I'm mostly in the latter camp. What's more, if writer David Barstow is right, their energy is largely driven by hard times. Once the recession starts to abate, they're going to lose a lot of steam.

But whether or not you agree, the whole piece is worth reading.

George Bush's Fact Problem

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 4:34 PM PST

Former Bush press secretary Dana Perino, responding to a Jonah Goldberg post about press strategies, says:

....it reminds me of something I used to say at the White House when people would complain that we had a communications problem on this or that. Sometimes that was true, but that was usually because we had a fact problem.

Surely this deserves a followup. Perino says that when Bush had a problem getting his point of view across, it was "usually" a fact problem. That sounds like a lot of fact problems. I'd really like to hear more about this.

The Jet Set

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 3:52 PM PST

Gerald Seib writes about our broken political system:

On a personal level, senators today lack the natural human bonds that would make it easier for Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, to come together in compromise.

One Senate veteran said the institution became a less pleasant place when lawmakers were given stipends to cover trips back home every weekend, rather than once a month. Senators now commute to Washington rather than live there. They don't see one another's families on weekends, and don't develop as many friendships across party lines. Thus, they find it easier to alienate one another.

Another part of this is the 3-day workweek, which makes commuting home a lot more practical for members of Congress who live west of the Mississippi.

But the only reason I'm mentioning this is that it's striking how often it comes up. The biggest factors in the changing political culture of Washington DC are things like the increasing ideological separation of the parties, the rise of the filibuster, and the growth of polarization based on hot button social issues, and those deservedly get a lot of attention.  But the commuting issue comes up at least as often. If longtime congressional watchers are to be believed, it's as big a problem as any of the others.

I'm not sure if that's true, and if it is I'm not sure if it's cause or effect. But I'd sure be willing to cut back travel stipends and go back to a four or five-day workweek to find out.

In the Economy We Trust

| Mon Feb. 15, 2010 2:20 PM PST

After Vietnam and Watergate, American trust in government plummeted. But how about since then? Has trust continued to decline? John Sides says it's actually gone up and down since the 60s, influenced largely by one thing:

What drives the trend in political trust? By and large, it is the economy. People trust government when times are good. They don’t trust it when times are bad. For the presidential election years from 1964-2008, I merged the trust measure with the change in per capita disposable income, courtesy of Douglas Hibbs....The relationship is striking. The economy explains about 75% of the variance in trust. If you delete 1964, which looks like a potential outlier, the economy still explains 73% of the variance.

In a way, this isn't surprising. It certainly gibes with the well-known fact that presidential elections are largely driven by incumbency and the economy and not much else.

But I have to confess that this one of those results I prefer not to focus on too much. It's sort of like talking about how important luck is in life results. It might be true, but it also induces a sort of fatalism that can be damaging in the long run. It's good for society if people think they have more control over their destiny than they do, and it's good for politicians to think there are things they can do to make people better off and increase their own chances of reelection. If incumbency and the economy are pretty much all there is to it, why bother spending time on actual legislation? It's just a bunch of hard work that probably won't pay off anyway.

And it probably won't. But let's keep quiet about that.