Kevin Drum - 2013

Leaked IPCC Report Says Climate Change Is Now More Certain Than Ever

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 2:16 PM EDT

Here's the latest from the IPCC:

An international team of scientists has found with near certainty that human activity is the cause of most of the temperature increases of recent decades, and warns that sea levels could rise by more than three feet by the end of the century if emissions continue at a runaway pace.

The scientists, whose findings are reported in a summary of the next big United Nations climate report, largely dismiss a recent slowdown in the pace of warming, which is often cited by climate change contrarians, as probably related to short-term factors. The report emphasizes that the basic facts giving rise to global alarm about future climate change are more established than ever, and it reiterates that the consequences of runaway emissions are likely to be profound.

This is no big surprise or anything, but nonetheless nice to see. The "slowdown" of the past decade has always been exaggerated by the climate deniers, and to the extent it exists, it's most likely the product of a natural fluctuation between energy being absorbed by the atmosphere vs. energy being absorbed by the oceans. Right now the oceans are warming at an unusually fast rate, but when the current fluctuation turns around, global warming will continue along its inexorable path. Other possible explanations for the slowdown include volcanic eruptions offsetting some of the greenhouse warming or a lower sensitivity to greenhouse gases than most scientists think, but my money is on the oceans.

(Not that ocean warming is any consolation. Not only does it raise sea level via thermal expansion, but it does tremendous harm to the ocean ecology as well.)

Chris Mooney has a bit more on the leaked report here. And if a three-foot rise in sea level doesn't seem like all that much, think again. Even a small rise in sea level has a huge impact on the floods caused by hurricanes. Tim McDonnell has more on that here.

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Pentagon Set for Extra Big Sequester Cuts Next Year

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 12:31 PM EDT

Rep. Chris Van Hollen tells Greg Sargent today that Democrats might have more leverage than people think in upcoming budget battles. That's because the sequester for next year requires bigger cuts in defense spending than domestic spending:

This hidden leverage, Van Hollen says, flows from a little noticed wrinkle in the design of the sequester that is only being focused on by Capitol Hill aides right now. Because of that wrinkle, defense programs are set to absorb a much bigger spending cut next year than non-defense programs are. If the sequester is not replaced, defense will be cut an additional $20 billion in 2014 below current levels.

…"There's no negotiating over the principle of parity," Van Hollen said. "If Republicans want to relieve the $20 billion cut to defense, we must increase non-defense spending by $20 billion. You can't boost defense at the expense of other investments. That's got to be a very clear principle."

I followed the link and I still don't understand why the Pentagon cuts are going to be bigger than the domestic cuts. I assume it has something to do with next year's sequester running for a full 12 months instead of the 10 months it ran this year. But that's true for the domestic half of the sequester too. Perhaps it has something to do with domestic spending mostly being monthly expenses, which means all the cuts have already been made on an ongoing basis, while lots of Pentagon procurement spending is multi-year. I'm not sure.

But one way or another, apparently everyone agrees that the Pentagon will get nicked extra heavily next year and budget negotiations are proceeding on that basis. Just thought I'd pass it along.

UPDATE: The answer is here. It turns out that it all hinges on a different definition of "security" between 2013 and 2014.

Agenda 21, Death Panels, Shariah Law, and Now . . . . ObamaCore

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 11:22 AM EDT

A few days ago I was thinking about the Common Core, a bipartisan set of standards for K-12 education that was adopted by most states in 2010 and is now slowly getting rolled out. The reason I was thinking about it is that CC has lately become yet another pet rock for the right, bitterly denounced as a liberal scheme to take over the schools and brainwash our children. How did this happen? What's the history behind this turnabout, which is especially peculiar given that CC grew out of the "accountability movement," which was originally associated more with the right than the left in the first place?

Today, Paul Krugman directs my attention to Bill Keller, who provides this brief potted history:

The backlash began with a few of the usual right-wing suspects. Glenn Beck warned that under "this insidious menace to our children and to our families" students would be "indoctrinated with extreme leftist ideology."

....Beck's soul mate Michelle Malkin warned that the Common Core was "about top-down control engineered through government-administered tests and left-wing textbook monopolies." Before long, FreedomWorks — the love child of Koch brothers cash and Tea Party passion — and the American Principles Project, a religious-right lobby, had joined the cause. Opponents have mobilized Tea Partyers to barnstorm in state capitals and boiled this complex issue down to an obvious slogan, "ObamaCore!"

....In April the Republican National Committee surrendered to the fringe and urged states to renounce Common Core. The presidential aspirant Marco Rubio, trying to appease conservatives angry at his moderate stance on immigration, last month abandoned his support for the standards. And state by red state, the effort to disavow or defund is under way. Indiana has put the Common Core on hold. Michigan's legislature cut off money for implementing the standards and is now contemplating pulling out altogether. Last month, Georgia withdrew from a 22-state consortium, one of two groups designing tests pegged to the new standards, ostensibly because of the costs....The Common Core is imperiled in Oklahoma, Utah, Alabama and Pennsylvania. All of the retreat, you will notice, has been in Republican-controlled states.

That's about how I figured it, but I'll bet there's a more interesting story to be written here by some scholar of the right. I'd really like someone to do it.

NOTE: I should add that I personally have no opinion about the Common Core. I haven't spent any time looking at it or listening to the debates that led up to it. I'm only curious about this on a political basis. How is it that something which was entirely bipartisan up until 2010 managed to morph into a conspiratorial threat to the American way of life in only two years?

How Many Database Queries Do NSA Analysts Perform Each Day?

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 10:50 AM EDT

Last night, based on a statement from the NSA's director of compliance, I wrote that NSA analysts performed about 600,000 database queries per day. This prompted several suggestions on Twitter that perhaps I was unfamiliar with SQL and had no idea how databases work. For example, this one:

@ggreenwald @kdrum select * from news.articles where technical_literacy < 0 limit 600000

Snark aside, this tweet is pointing out that a single query can return many records from a database, so perhaps the NSA's estimate referred to the total number of records they retrieved, not the actual number of queries they made. Maybe! But according to the New York Times, the NSA guy said "the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month." Is it possible that he misspoke? Or that the reporter misinterpreted him? Sure. But it doesn't sound like it. There's nothing there about the number of records retrieved. He said the agency "performs" 20 million queries per month.

As I mentioned last night, it's possible that many of these are automated queries for one purpose or another. Actual human beings might perform only a fraction of them. Until there's some clarification from NSA, though, there's no particular reason to think that. For now, anyway, it sounds like he's talking about actual queries from NSA analysts.

The Great Emo-Prog vs. O-Bot Debate

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 10:31 AM EDT

Atrios today:

I try to avoid the emoprog-obot debates. I don't really get them really. It's just posing. I never claim to have the ultimate authority over things but, honestly, I'm really not posing. That I imagine I call-em like I see-em doesn't mean I think I'm always right, it just mean that I'm mostly not being a hack. Tell me I'm wrong when I am! I listen.

The surveillance state is obviously out of hand, super expensive, and quite likely totally pointless (for its expressed purpose) and incompetent. I don't even consider this to be a comment on Obama, except to the extent that he is dishonest/supports dishonesty on this issue.

Translation: If you express anything short of absolute condemnation of everything the NSA has done, your Twitter feed quickly fills up with hysterical proclamations from the emo-progs that you're a right-wing shill, a government lackey, a useful idiot for the slave state, and an obvious fool. Conversely, if you criticize the NSA's surveillance programs, your Twitter feed quickly fills up with equally hysterical proclamations from the O-Bots that you hate Obama, you've always hated Obama, and you're probably a racist swine who's been waiting ever since 2009 for a chance to take down the nation's first black president.

This happens with other subjects too, of course, but the Snowden files have brought it out more than usual. I'll confess that although the leftier-than-thou types have always been around, I've long been skeptical of the idea that Obama has a core group of supporters from 2008 who really do consider him The One, a shining beacon of light who can do no wrong. But I'm the one who was wrong. I don't know how many there are, but they're definitely out there.

UPDATE: Atrios adds a bit more here. "It's not that I think everyone to 'the left' of me is a posing emo-prog and everyone to 'the right' of me is a posing o-bot. There are people genuinely to the left and to the right of me on policy....But there are also people who seem to enjoy judging your worth by how righteously you dislike or like the Obama administration. It's annoying." Yep. We're talking about two particular subsets of the left here, not everyone who happens to disagree with us.

The NSA Makes 600,000-Plus Database Queries Every Single Day

| Mon Aug. 19, 2013 12:06 AM EDT

On Thursday, after reading that the NSA violated its surveillance rules 865 times in the first quarter of 2013, I wondered how big a percentage that was. On Friday, they provided an answer:

The official, John DeLong, the N.S.A. director of compliance, said that the number of mistakes by the agency was extremely low compared with its overall activities. The report showed about 100 errors by analysts in making queries of databases of already-collected communications data; by comparison, he said, the agency performs about 20 million such queries each month.

Holy crap. They perform 20 million surveillance queries per month? On the bright side, if you assume that their internal auditing really does catch every "incident," it means they have a violation rate of about 0.001 percent. On the less bright side, they perform 20 million surveillance queries per month.

That's genuinely hard to fathom. Is some of that automated? Or is that truly 600,000-plus human queries each and every day? The mind boggles.

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British Security Authorities Detain Glenn Greenwald's Partner for 9 Hours at Heathrow Airport

| Sun Aug. 18, 2013 4:43 PM EDT

Earlier today British security officials at Heathrow Airport detained Glenn Greenwald's partner, a Brazilian citizen, under the authority of schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act of 2000. David Miranda was transiting through Heathrow on his way home after a trip to Berlin, where he had visited Laura Poitras, Greenwald's partner in exposing the NSA's surveillance programs. British authorities ended up holding Miranda for nine hours, the maximum allowed, and then confiscated his cell phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs, and game console before finally releasing him.

This is more than just shocking. It's stupid. Criminally, insanely stupid. I can hardly think of a better way of convincing skeptics that security authorities can't be trusted with the power we've given them.

British citizens want to know if any government ministers were involved in this. As an American citizen, I'd like to know if any American officials were involved in this.

The Creepy Cult of Secrecy at Amazon and Apple

| Sun Aug. 18, 2013 11:38 AM EDT

Steve Kovach directs our attention to this excerpt from a New York Times story about Amazon and Jeff Bezos:

He gives interviews only when he has something to promote, and always stays on message....Even a number as basic, and presumably impressive, as how many Kindle e-readers the company sells is never released....There are fewer leaks out of Amazon than the National Security Agency.

....“Every story you ever see about Amazon, it has that sentence: ‘An Amazon spokesman declined to comment,’ “ Mr. Marcus said.

Drew Herdener, an Amazon spokesman, declined to comment.

I am reminded of this parting shot from Ed Bott after writing a long rant about Apple's "mind-bogglingly greedy and evil" end user license agreement for its ebook authoring program:

Oh, and let’s just stipulate that I could send an e-mail to Apple asking for comment, or I could hand-write my request on a sheet of paper and then put it in a shredder. Both actions would produce the same response from Cupertino. But if anyone from Apple would care to comment, you know where to find me.

I don't really have anything insightful to say about this, aside from the fact that I tend not to trust people or institutions who are obsessive about secrecy. Keeping the media at arm's length is fine, but there's a point at which it starts to seem creepy and sociopathic. And at least to my taste, Apple and Amazon long ago passed that point.

The Murder Rate Is Down 40% in Jamaica

| Sat Aug. 17, 2013 11:37 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias tweets tonight: "Hoping @kdrum will write something about the lead situation in Jamaica after reading this." Here's what "this" is:

Gunshots every night, burned-down businesses and corpses — up to a half-dozen a day — used to define the neighborhood of Mountain View on the eastern hillsides of Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. But not anymore.

Now, the nights are filled with barefoot soccer matches under streetlights or block parties that bring together former rivals from local gangs. No one has been murdered in Mountain View for three years....After more than a decade fighting lawlessness, with limited success, this small island with a reputation for both carefree living and bloodshed has begun to see results. Jamaica’s murder rate, while still high, has fallen by 40 percent since 2009, and a respected study recently reported that “Jamaica has fallen from one of the more corrupt countries in the Americas to one of the least.”

First things first: I don't have any rigorous data on either Jamaica's use of leaded gasoline or on Jamaica's crime rate. And obviously there are more factors involved in a sudden decline in violence than just lead. The Times story above, for example, is all about the drug trade in the Caribbean.

Still, I was kind of curious. So I did a bit of quick googling, which informed me that Jamaica started replacing leaded gasoline with unleaded in 1990 and banned leaded gasoline completely in 2000. That's a pretty steep drop (it took the United States a full two decades to go from introduction to complete ban). So what you'd expect is a fairly steep drop in violent crime with a lag of 20 years—i.e., starting around 2010. What we got was a 40% drop in murder between 2009 and 2013.

Pretty remarkable, no? It fits the lead hypothesis like a glove.

Again: this is just murder, not violent crime in general. And all I have here is a horseback estimate of how quickly leaded gasoline was phased out in Jamaica. What I don't have is a time series of blood lead levels in small children going back to 1990. So don't take this too seriously. But don't dismiss it either. It's yet another data point that suggests leaded gasoline really does have a significant impact on violent crime.

Judge Puts Another Roadblock in Front of California Bullet Train

| Sat Aug. 17, 2013 1:08 PM EDT

Sacramento Superior Court judge Michael Kenny has delivered another blow to California's bullet train:

Kenny ruled that the state failed to identify where it would get all of the money required to complete an initial $31-billion operating segment between Merced and the San Fernando Valley. The state has also failed to obtain environmental clearances for the entire segment, the judge found.

In addition to $9 billion from state bonds, the rail agency has $3.2 billion in federal funds, leaving it about $19 billion short. It has not completed any of the four massive environmental reviews that would be necessary to build the line along that route, as required by the 2008 ballot measure, Proposition 1A.

The measure "required the Authority to identify sources of funds that were more than merely theoretically possible, but instead were reasonably expected to be actually available when needed," Kenny said in his 15-page ruling. The state's business plan identifies only potential funding, without commitments, agreements or authorizations, he said.

This has the potential to be a major setback. California's HSR authority has been desperately trying to break ground on something, in the hopes that once some land has been acquired and a few miles of track have been laid, it will be impossible to stop. This "camel's nose" approach is fairly common in large public works projects, and opponents are therefore equally desperate to keep those first few miles from being built.

So far, Kenny hasn't actually halted construction work, and the rail authority says it's moving full speed ahead regardless. But there will be further hearings, and it's possible that Kenny or another judge could eventually prohibit any groundbreaking until all the environmental reviews are done and funding is fully in place. That could easily be a death knell for the entire project, since funding right now is a mirage. It's plainly not going to come from the feds; private funding is highly unlikely; and state legislators have been steadily losing their initial enthusiasm for the project. It's not game-over yet, not even close. But this is a big deal.