Kevin Drum - October 2012

Scary Climate Change Stories Aren't Working. What's Next?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 11:23 PM PDT

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, which he calls "a window into the way ahead," Nick Kristof chides the media and our political class alike for paying too little attention to climate change:

Politicians have dropped the ball, but so have those of us in the news business. The number of articles about climate change fell by 41 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to DailyClimate.org.

HThere are no easy solutions, but we may need to invest in cleaner energy, impose a carbon tax or other curbs on greenhouse gases, and, above all, rethink how we can reduce the toll of a changing climate. For example, we may not want to rebuild in some coastal areas that have been hammered by Sandy.

....Democrats have been AWOL on climate change, but Republicans have been even more recalcitrant. Their failure is odd, because in other areas of national security Republicans pride themselves on their vigilance. Romney doesn’t want to wait until he sees an Iranian nuclear weapon before acting, so why the passivity about climate change?

Let's do something useful here. Yesterday I wrote a discouraged post suggesting that the world was unlikely to seriously respond to climate change in time to prevent catastrophe, so maybe we should spend more time instead thinking about adaptation and geoengineering, the latter as a last-resort option. I got a lot of pushback on this, which I probably deserved, since it sounded like I was giving up entirely on the idea of fighting greenhouse gas emissions. I wasn't, but I was talking out loud about the likelihood that even if we keep up the fight, it probably won't be enough. There are just too many big forces pushing in the opposite direction.

One emailer who pushed back suggested we just needed to keep fighting relentlessly. It worked for Republicans on tax cuts, after all, so it could work for us on climate change. I told him I didn't buy that. Republicans are working with self-interest in the case of taxes. Everyone likes low taxes, so it's easy to convince them that low taxes are worth fighting for because they're also good for the economy. But in the case of climate change, we're working against self-interest. Way against. We have an invisible, far-future bogeyman we want to stop, but to do so requires considerable personal sacrifice right now today. It will cost us money in higher energy prices, force us to do things we don't want (eat less meat, stop using plastic bags, give up our SUVs, etc.), and make us change our habits. Sure, there's low-hanging fruit that's an easier sell, but it's nowhere near enough. There's just no getting around the hard stuff. So I don't think that merely fighting relentlessly will be enough.

But my real gripe, I said, was that the liberal strategy basically amounts to writing scary stories—something I've done my share of. And there's good reason for that: climate change is scary stuff, so merely writing about it accurately is inherently scary. Still, we've been writing these scary stories for more than two decades now, and I think that's long enough to conclude that they don't work very well. So while I agree with Nick Kristof that the press should write more about climate change, that mostly amounts to writing more scary stories. And I just don't think that's going to do the job.

So here's the something useful: if you agree with me that the scary story strategy has proven insufficient, what should we be doing instead? The answer can be either substantive (concentrate more on green R&D, for example) or rhetorical (use something other than scary stories to convince people they should endure a considerable amount of inconvenience in order to fight climate change). In either case, you should assume that Republicans and the fossil fuel industry will continue to fight us tooth and nail. No ponies allowed.

So that's the question: what's next? If scary stories aren't doing the job, what will?

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The Case Against the Case Against Obama

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 2:57 PM PDT

Jon Chait practically reads my mind today:

I decided to support Barack Obama pretty early in the Democratic primary, around spring of 2007. But unlike so many of his supporters, I never experienced a kind of emotional response to his candidacy. I never felt his election would change everything about American politics or government, that it would lead us out of the darkness. Nothing Obama did or said ever made me well up with tears.

Possibly for that same reason, I have never felt even a bit of the crushing sense of disappointment that at various times has enveloped so many Obama voters. I supported Obama because I judged him to have a keen analytical mind, grasping both the possibilities and the limits of activist government, and possessed of excellent communicative talents. I thought he would nudge government policy in an incrementally better direction. I consider his presidency an overwhelming success.

It took me longer than Jon to decide between Obama and Hillary Clinton, but otherwise this mirrors my reaction precisely. In a way, though, all it shows is that both Jon and I missed something in 2008. I simply never took seriously any of Obama's high-flown rhetoric—Hope and change, Yes we can! You are the solution, etc.—dismissing it as nothing more than typical campaign windiness. From the first day, I saw Obama as a sober, cautious, analytic, mainstream Democrat: a little to the left of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, but fundamentally right smack in the middle of American liberalism. He'd get a bunch of good stuff done, but on other stuff he'd either never support a progressive position in the first place (Afghanistan, cramdown, etc.) or else he'd support it but fail to get his program through Congress (Guantanamo, cap-and-trade).

Apparently, though, a lot of lefties really did buy the hype. Or so it seems. To this day, however, I wonder just how many of the people who are disappointed in Obama are liberals who took the campaign oratory seriously vs. moderates who are simply worn down by the long economic downturn and hesitant to give Obama another four years. Somebody ought to do a poll....

Chris Christie Probably Really Doesn't Give a Damn About Presidential Politics Right Now

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 12:06 PM PDT

Why has Chris Christie suddenly embraced President Obama as a long-lost brother in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy? This joins many other great questions of the universe. Who is John Galt? Who promoted Peress? Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? What did he know and when did he know it? What is the meaning of life?1 But today Dan Amira takes a crack at it anyway:

Some might conclude that Christie is looking out for his own political future (again?), either as a Republican governor running for reelection in a blue state or as a straight-talking Republican presidential candidate hoping to win the support of independents. Or it may be that Christie, as he told Fox & Friends this morning, just doesn't "give a damn about presidential politics" right now. But Romney surely still does, and he probably wouldn't mind if Christie toned it down a bit.

I find this oddly fascinating. I sort of give Christie the benefit of the doubt here. Partly this is because he does seem to be a genuinely emotional guy and may simply be reacting to the moment. But the other reason is that I find it hard to believe that Christie truly thinks he has a chance of winning the Republican nomination in 2016 regardless of what he does. We've been through this all before, but he's (a) kinda sorta pro-choice, (b) thinks climate change is real, (c) is in favor of gun control, and (d) when someone asked him about tea-partyish concerns over Sharia law he famously said, "It's just crazy. And I'm tired of dealing with the crazies." I know people can convince themselves of all sorts of things, but you'd really have to be living in la-la land to think the Republican Party is going to nominate anyone like that sometime soon.

But regardless of whether I'm right or wrong, Christie's comments have been over-the-top enough that I doubt they're solely a product of being overcome by emotion. Christie, I'd guess, has pretty much given up on the prospect of Romney winning next week. I wonder if he knows something the rest of us don't?

1In case you're actually interested: (1) a pissed-off genius inventor, (2) bureaucratic inertia, (3) it depends, (4) probably quite a bit and rather a long time ago, and (5) 42.

America's Recovery Looks Pretty Good If You Compare It to Everyone Else's Recovery

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 9:49 AM PDT

If you want to evaluate Barack Obama from a progressive point of view, you have to ask, "compared to what?" Or, as Matt Yglesias puts it today, "compared to whom?" He concludes that if you compare Obama to actual Democratic presidents of the past half century, he comes out looking pretty good.

I agree, but more interestingly, he also makes a similar argument for how well Obama did steering the United States out of the Great Recession:

A better comparison class might be to ask "how's Obama doing compared to other leaders steering their country through the Great Crash of 2007-2008"?

Here I think he looks pretty good but not great. The United States is doing better than Japan or the eurozone or the United Kingdom. On the other hand, we've done worse than Israel or Sweden or Australia or Canada. You can say maybe that small countries just have it easier, and maybe that's right but I think it's hard to test. Certainly Japan and the UK don't seem to have it much easier than the US in virtue of being smaller. The comparative approach leads you, I think, to what's more or less the intuitive conclusion that under Obama the American economy has done okay considering the circumstances but not nearly as well as it might have done. And so since swing voters mostly vote retrospectively based on macroeconomic performance, you wind up with a close election.

No big argument here, though I'd actually be a little more charitable towards America on this score. Japan and the UK are pretty big countries, so if anything, I think their difficulties suggest that things really do get harder as you get bigger. In some ways a global behemoth like the United States has maneuvering room that, say, Switzerland doesn't, but in other ways it's hemmed in in ways that Switzerland isn't.

Given that, the truth is that the United States looks pretty good despite all the half measures from Obama and the endless obstructionism from Republicans. Russia has done better than us thanks to its booming resource sector, but aside from them I'd say we've probably done better than nearly all the other big economic zones in the world, including China, Europe, Japan, the UK, and India. There are lots of reasons for this that aren't related to fiscal and monetary policy, but you still have the raw fact that, when you ask "compared to what?" America's economic recovery looks surprisingly good.

Are Obama's Good Polling Numbers Hurting Him?

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 9:05 AM PDT

A couple of days ago, after I posted a bunch of poll models showing Obama with a fairly sizeable electoral college lead, a friend wrote to me:

Rs vote no matter what, rain, shine, or submerged subways. And the aggregators are putting the fear of God into them, firing them up even more. In contrast, lots of lefties see the odds and plan to do something else on election day.

As much as I'm not surprised to see the recent attacks on Silver, et al., I welcome them. There needs to be a lot less confidence in those numbers, regardless of how strong they are.

Dems look for reasons not to vote and Silver and others — or "reality" — serves that up. Some superstitious fear now would be a good thing. I think Palin scared the bejeezus out of the left in '08, but they lack that oddball character on the right these days.

This is a fairly common sentiment. And it makes sense. It's entirely reasonable to think that projecting an air of confidence might make your supporters overconfident and decrease turnout on Election Day. Better to keep them running scared.

But there's an odd thing about this: professional politicians apparently don't believe it. At all. Oh sure, they'll keep sending out the scary emails all the way through November 6. "Folks, there are a bunch of races that are simply too close to call," screams the latest plea in my inbox from Dick Durbin. "Contribute $7 now, before time runs out." (Really? $7?) Publicly, though, presidential campaigns pretty much never do this. In fact, they usually go to absurd lengths to demonstrate that their campaign is a juggernaut that will sail to victory. They apparently believe—and so do I—that people are energized by being associated with a winner. Confidence in victory boosts turnout, it doesn't suppress it.

Question: is this true, or is it just old-school conventional wisdom with no real basis in reality? I wonder if there's any actual research that's on point here?

Niall Ferguson's Slow Road to Oblivion

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 8:41 AM PDT

Dan Drezner tips me off today to an essay by the soon-to-be irrelevant Niall Ferguson in the soon-to-be defunct Newsweek. In it, Ferguson decides to go public with his fever dreams of what an Obama White House might do to swing the election over the next couple of days:

If the White House could announce a historic deal with Iran—lifting increasingly painful economic sanctions in return for an Iranian pledge to stop enriching uranium—Mitt Romney would vanish as if by magic from the front pages and TV news shows. The oxygen of publicity—those coveted minutes of airtime that campaigns don’t have to pay for—would be sucked out of his lungs.

....[There is] an alternative surprise—the one I have long expected the president to pull if he finds himself slipping behind in the polls. With a single phone call to Jerusalem, he can end all talk of his being Jimmy Carter to Mitt Romney’s Reagan: by supporting an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

"Could this be the worst international affairs column of 2012?" Dan asks. I'd put it a little differently: I suspect that future generations will use Ferguson as the archetypal example of a perfectly decent scholar inexplicably deciding to pursue a career as an egregious hack. Personally, I'd rather be a decent scholar, but I don't really have that option any longer, so here I am. Ferguson's case is more mysterious. Why would anyone knowingly trade what he used to be for what he's so rapidly morphing himself into?

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Public Service Announcement re: Election Day

| Wed Oct. 31, 2012 7:49 AM PDT

We don't know who will win Tuesday's election. That is all. 

A Case Study of Republicans vs. Democrats on FEMA

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 2:35 PM PDT

Mitt Romney apparently still thinks that downsizing and privatizing the functions of FEMA is a good idea. After all, everyone knows that federal bureaucracies are cesspools of incompetence.

Except....it turns out that they're only cesspools of incompetence during certain eras. See if you can spot the trend here:

George H.W. Bush: Appoints Wallace Stickney, head of New Hampshire's Department of Transportation, as head of FEMA. Stickney is a hapless choice and the agency is rapidly driven into the ditch: "Because FEMA had 10 times the proportion of political appointees of most other government agencies, the poorly chosen Bush appointees had a profound effect on the performance of the agency."

Bill Clinton: Appoints James Lee Witt, former head of the Arkansas Office of Emergency Services, as head of FEMA. The agency is reborn as a professional operation: "As amazing as it sounds, Witt was the first FEMA head who came to the position with direct experience in emergency management....On Witt's recommendation, Clinton filled most of the FEMA jobs reserved for political appointees with persons who had previous experience in natural disasters and intergovernmental relations."

George W. Bush: Appoints Joe Allbaugh, his 2000 campaign manager, as head of FEMA. Allbaugh explains that his role is to downsize FEMA and privatize its functions: "Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters." Once again, the agency goes downhill: "[Allbaugh] showed little interest in its work or in the missions pursued by the departed Witt....Those of us in the business of dealing with emergencies find ourselves with no national leadership and no mentors. We are being forced to fend for ourselves."

Allbaugh quits after only two years and George W. Bush downgrades FEMA from a cabinet-level agency and appoints Allbaugh's deputy, Michael Brown, former Commissioner of Judges and Stewards for the International Arabian Horse Association, as FEMA's head. A former employer, Stephen Jones, is gobsmacked when he hears about it: "Brown was pleasant enough, if a bit opportunistic, Jones said, but he did not put enough time and energy into his job. 'He would have been better suited to be a small city or county lawyer,' he said."

Barack Obama: Appoints Craig Fugate, Florida's state emergency management director, as head of FEMA. Fugate immediately revives FEMA, receiving widespread praise for the agency's handling of the devastating tornadoes that ripped across seven Southern states last year: "Under Fugate's leadership, an unimaginable natural disaster literally has paved the way for a textbook lesson in FEMA crisis management....Once the laughingstock of the federal bureaucracy after the bumbling, dithering tenure of director Michael Brown, FEMA under Fugate prepares for the worst and hopes for the best rather than the other way around."

The lesson here is simple. At a deep ideological level, Republicans believe that federal bureaucracies are inherently inept, so when Republicans occupy the White House they have no interest in making the federal bureaucracy work. And it doesn't. Democrats, by contrast, take government services seriously and appoint people whose job is to make sure the federal bureaucracy does work. And it does.

More on this subject from Jon Cohn here and Ed Kilgore here.

Romney Doubles Down on Deceitful Jeep Ad in Ohio

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 11:00 AM PDT

Earlier this morning I said I was skeptical that being called a liar by a bunch of Ohio newspapers outweighed the benefits of running deceitful ads aimed at scaring Ohio autoworkers about their jobs getting shipped to China. Obviously the Romney campaign agrees with me, because they're now gleefully expanding their ad buy:

A Dem source familiar with ad buy info tells me that the Romney campaign has now put a version of the spot on the radio in Toledo, Ohio — the site of a Jeep plant. The buy is roughly $100,000, the source says.

The move seems to confirm that the Romney campaign is making the Jeep-to-China falsehood central to its final push to turn things around in the state. The Romney campaign has explicitly said in the past that it will not let fact checking constrain its messaging, so perhaps it’s not surprising that it appears to be expanding an ad campaign based on a claim that has been widely pilloried by fact checkers.

In 2004, Ohio was ground zero for the Swift Boat smear campaign. In 2008 Ohio was ground zero for all things related to Joe the Plumber. In 2012 it's already been ground zero for Mitt Romney's fraudulent welfare ad and is now ground zero for a flatly dishonest ad about Jeep assembly being moved to China. At some point, you'd think that Ohio voters would get tired of Republicans treating them like chumps. Maybe this is the year.

Is It Time to Start Adapting to Climate Change?

| Tue Oct. 30, 2012 10:00 AM PDT

Andy Sabl has kinda sorta given up on the prospect of collective action to head off climate change:

A few minutes ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a press conference (no video or transcript yet, but I’ll be happy to provide it later if I can find it) again gave a version of the line I’ve been hearing from him since last night: “We have a new reality, in terms of weather patterns, but we have an old infrastructure....I don’t think anyone can sit back any more and say, ‘well, I’m shocked by that weather pattern.’”

....The governor has said he’ll keep pushing this. I hope he does. Against my inclination, I’m starting to side with Matt [Kahn] on this: given how far climate change has already gone, and how many interests stand against quick action, we can’t assume a climate future that resembles the past. But the reward to acknowledging climate reality will be (where local politicians aren’t climate deniers, and only there) urban areas that are far better designed to accommodate the new reality than they have been up to now.

If you were teaching a graduate seminar in public policy and challenged your students to come up with the most difficult possible problem to solve, they'd come up with something very much like climate change. It's slow-acting. It's essentially invisible. It's expensive to address. It has a huge number of very rich special interests arrayed against doing anything about it. It requires international action that pits rich countries against poor ones. And it has a lot of momentum: you have to take action now, before its effects are serious, because today's greenhouse gases will cause climate change tomorrow no matter what we do in thirty years.

I have to confess that I find myself feeling the same way Andy does more and more often these days. It's really hard to envision any way that we're going to seriously cut back on greenhouse gas emissions until the effects of climate change become obvious, and by then it will be too late. I recognize how defeatist this is, and perhaps the proliferation of extreme weather events like Sandy will help turn the tide. But it hasn't so far, and given the unlikelihood of large-scale global action on climate change, adaptation seems more appealing all the time. For the same reason, so does continued research into geoengineering as a last-resort backup plan.

I'd like someone to persuade me I'm wrong, though.