Political MoJo

New Research on Melting Ice Sheets

Fri Mar. 24, 2006 2:32 PM EST

The current issue of Science Magazine is devoted to ice—or, more specifically, the accelerating rate at which the world's ice sheets are melting. "Glacial earthquakes" have reportedly been rocking Greenland of late, as giant chunks of ice the size of Manhattan, lubricated by melting water, start stumbling into the ocean.

According to the findings in Science, the Earth's temperature by 2100 will probably be at least 4 degrees warmer than it is now, if current warming rates continue. The Arctic Ocean will be warmer than it's been in 130,000 years. Computer models indicate that warming could raise the average temperature in parts of Greenland to above freezing for multiple months, which could have a substantial impact on melting of the polar ice sheets, according to a paper by researchers led by Bette Otto-Bliesner of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. That melting could, in turn, raise the sea level by one to three feet over the next 100 to 150 years.

As Science puts it, "man is doing an experiment with the ice sheets, which is a scientifically interesting experiment, except it is going to have some serious consequences." As a result, island nations could be submerged, cities flooded, and millions of coastal residents could be exposed to destructive storm surges. According to researcher Julian Dowdeswell of Cambridge University, "the changing mass of the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica represents the largest unknown in predictions of global sea level rise over the coming decades," making scientists increasingly concerned that at the rate we're going, global warming because of greenhouse emissions could raise sea levels to catastrophic proportions.

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The Value of Health Insurance

| Thu Mar. 23, 2006 9:01 PM EST

Tyler Cowen links to a new RAND study purporting to show, among other things, that "insurance status has no real effect on quality"—in other words, the insured don't get significantly better care than the uninsured. I'm hardly the best person to pick apart this study, but on the face of things, that would be a surprising finding if true. A while back, I discussed a study by MIT economist Peter Doyle that used some clever methodology—he looked at car accident victims—and found that the uninsured really do get worse care from providers at critical moments than the insured do. Either way, the RAND study's certainly interesting.

TABOR Doesn't Work

| Thu Mar. 23, 2006 5:32 PM EST

While I'm poking around the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities site, I may as well post about their other report today, about Colorado. The story goes like this: Colorado enjoyed very strong economic growth during the 1990s. Conservatives say that success was all due to the "taxpayer's bill of rights" that the state adopted in 1992, which curtailed the legislature's ability to raise taxes. (TABOR was eventually repealed last year when voters realized that the state couldn't raise enough revenue to fund things that they actually needed and wanted, like education and infrastructure.)

Anyway, CBPP finds that Colorado's growth had nothing to do with TABOR; instead, it was due to government investments in the 1980s in education and infrastructure. This sounds a bit convenient—"Wow, liberal think tank finds that liberal policies are good for growth"—but the argument looks pretty solid. And it's important, because a lot of other states, including Maine, Ohio, and Oklahoma, are putting TABOR-like laws on the ballot this fall. A "taxpayer bill of rights" is something right-wingers like Grover Norquist have been pushing for a long, long time. But the laws only hurt the ability of states to raise money for stuff they need, and seem to have little effect on the economy.

UPDATE: See Greg Anrig for more on the damage TABOR has done to Colorado.

Line-Item Veto: Worse Than We Thought

| Thu Mar. 23, 2006 5:18 PM EST

Because no budget maneuver is too arcane or seemingly trivial for us to analyze, let's discuss the line-item veto again. Previously, we've argued that giving the president the power to strip out any part of a congressional spending bill he or she didn't like would invite abuse by the executive branch.

Now the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has their own report on the line-item veto, noting that the line-item veto powers sought by this administration would enable the president to withhold funding for all sorts of programs beyond earmarks—"pork," in other words. If Bush wanted to, he could withhold funds for months and months from, say, the Education Department, even if Congress doesn't approve. In his 2006 budget, Bush called for, among other things, a $3.4 billion cut to education, an $866 million cut to the Department of Health and Human Services, and a $277 million cut from the Environmental Protection Agency. Congress will likely (and sensibly) reject all of these cuts—unless, of course, the president can skirt around Congress.

You'd think this sort of thing would never pass muster with the Supreme Court since it violates the separation of powers in a major way. Still, the idea needs to be stopped. Letting the president basically write legislation on his own would be catastrophic, to put it very mildly.

Building roads on federal land: "We're open for business."

| Thu Mar. 23, 2006 4:12 PM EST

Via the LA Times: Gale Norton, who leaves office next week, closes her tenure with a characteristic flourish:

Guidelines issued by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton on Wednesday will make it easier for counties to lay claim to old trails and closed roads they would like to open across federal lands in the West, including national parks in Southern California.

In one of her final actions before leaving her post next week, Norton issued a policy dealing with right-of-way claims under a Civil War-era law that county officials in several Western states have tried to use to circumvent federal land-use restrictions on motorized access.

Norton's memo gives Interior officials nationwide latitude to grant rights of way to counties and other claimants and even approve road construction and improvements.

...But environmentalists said the secretary's guidelines amounted to an invitation to counties and other entities to claim everything from hiking trails to dry stream beds and start using them as roads.

"The barriers to [these] claims have been lowered to practically nothing," said Ted Zukoski, a Denver-based attorney with Earthjustice who was involved in a major court case on the matter. "The bar is so low that it has the effect of telling everyone: 'We're open for business. Make a claim.' "

For more on the Bush administration's dogged efforts to run roads through federal parkland, see, for starters, here and here, and here.

Uncle Bucky makes out like a...Bush

| Thu Mar. 23, 2006 2:15 PM EST

George W. Bush's Uncle Bucky (William H.T. Bush), brother of George H.W. Bush, has collected about $1.9 million in cash, plus $800,000 in stocks, from the recent sale of Engineered Support Systems, Inc. ESSI, of which Bush was a director, was sold to DRS Technologies for $1.7 billion at the end of January, after the company experienced record growth from expanded military contracts, most related to activity in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The contracts, some awarded on a no-bid basis, include a $77-million deal to refit military vehicles with armor for use in Iraq.

Securities and Exchange Commission filings indicate that there are two investigations of ESSI in progress. One involves a stop order from the U.S. government on field generator units. It seems ESSI did not tell its shareholders about the stop order until seven months after it was issued. During that seven month period, several of the company's executives, including William Bush, cashed in millions of dollars worth of stock and stock options.

DRS is not commenting on the investigations (the second one involves an insurance contract), other than to say it is cooperating with SEC officials.

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Sudden increase in tracking down Vietnam deserters appears tied to Iraq war

| Wed Mar. 22, 2006 9:00 PM EST

Patriot Daily has a good analysis of the current trend of the U.S. military to track down Vietnam war deserters in what the authors call "an effort to set an example to deter the growing number of Iraq War military resisters who are fleeing to Canada." Since the war in Iraq began, at least 8,000 soldiers have deserted, a number which represents a decrease in desertions since September 11, 2001. The U.S. military denies that it has stepped up its campaign to find deserters, but there is some evidence to the contrary.

At least one Marine official has acknowledged that his office was being more aggressive in tracking down Vietnam war deserters. Chief Warrant Officer James Averhart said that he had ordered cold cases reopened, and that in his first year on the job, his sqad had brought in 27 deserters.

One case of particular interest is that of U.S. Marin Allen Abney, who lives in Canada but who has crossed the border "hundreds of times" to shop to take other trips. Just this month, he crossed the border and was arrested and transferred to military custody. Abney's case received publicity in both the American and Canadian press, and perhaps coincidentally, he will probably be released soon. Abney, like many soldiers, did not apply for amnesty under either the Ford clemency plan or the Carter amnesty plan. Though the Carter plan was much less punitive than the Ford plan, it gave unconditional amnesty to draft evaders only.

What Fiscal Conservatism Means

| Wed Mar. 22, 2006 6:43 PM EST

Andrew Sullivan has been arguing for the past few days that, just because Bush has failed to make sweeping budget cuts during his time in office, doesn't mean that small-government fiscal conservatism has been discredited as an ideology. Strictly speaking, that's accurate, I guess, although I'd like to see more people start discrediting fiscal conservatism, because if a Republican ever came to power who was more willing to cut government programs than George W. Bush, it would be catastrophic.

Just to get beyond numbers here, Rose Aguilar has a good piece in Alternet today that does some reporting on what many of the government discretionary programs that pundits like Sullivan want to cut actually mean for real-life people. Here's an example:

Every month, 80-year-old Sally Shaver pays someone to drive her to the Harvest Hope Food Bank in Columbia, S.C., to pick up a box of fresh produce, baked goods, dry cereals, juice, canned goods and cheese. "It really helps me out because after paying for my rent, phone bill and medication, I barely have enough for food," she says. "If I could work, I would, but I have an artificial knee and a pacemaker, and I can't get around.

Shaver, who worked as a nurse's aide for most of her life, brings in $451 a month in social security. Her fixed income qualifies her for the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), which is designed to improve the health and nutrition of low-income senior citizens, pregnant women, postpartum mothers, infants and children.

Last year, CSFP provided 536,196 people with a monthly box of food. Bush's proposed budget for 2007 calls for a nationwide elimination of the entire program.Now from reading Sullivan's recent posts, I take it his brand of "fiscal conservatism" would preserve all the "good" programs for the poor—perhaps like the one above—while cutting all the "bad" stuff, like agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare and entitlements for the middle class and the like. ("[T]he bottom line," writes Sullivan, "is that the middle class and the prosperous elderly are far too pampered by government in this country.")

That's all well and good in theory—I'd love to see corporate welfare ended, too—but in practice, when "fiscal conservatives" come to power, it's only programs like the CSFP that ever get put on the chopping block, partly because 80-year-old Sally Shaver doesn't have an army of lobbyists working in D.C. That's how fiscal conservatives are always going to operate—cut programs for the poor while keeping their grip on power by catering to business interests. There's no "magical" fiscal conservatism that will somehow get voted into office someday and do all the things Sullivan would like to see.

Globalization and Fashion

Wed Mar. 22, 2006 6:17 PM EST

Who says fashion has to be frivolous? Northeastern Kenya is home to 127,000 refugees from Somalia, and some of the women have taken an interest in girls' volleyball. But the traditional women's hijab can be a major nuisance when trying to play in 100 degree heat. Enter the "sporty hijab" by Nike, which modifies the conventional design with lighter fabric. "Our arms will be free now," said Hamdi Hassan Hashi, 27. Nike has committed to providing 700 "conservative, comfortable and suitable for serving" uniforms, and are teaching local girls to sew the garments out of locally produced materials as well.

Meanwhile, there's an untapped denim market in the Muslim community. Al Quds jeans target comfort-seeking Muslims, with extra baggy fits for added flexibility, lots of pockets for storing things during prayer and green seams (the sacred color of Islam). Produced in a Pakistani plant with 15, 000 employees, the denim are made "for and by Muslims." For now, Al Quds are only available in Italy—not surprisingly, the fashion capital of the world.

Why Worry About Invasive Species?

| Wed Mar. 22, 2006 4:57 PM EST

Let's talk about invasive species for a bit. Last Sunday, the New York Times printed a strange op-ed by George Ball, president of the seed and plant company W. Atlee Burpee & Company, which argued that environmentalists—or, in his marvelously neutral language, "botanical xenophobes"—should stop worrying and let his company sell exotic and non-native plans to anyone who wants them: