Archive for January, 2015

Fact checking Obama and Republicans

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

Here’s a little exercise to demonstrate that I hold facts above party affiliations. Let’s look at that State of the Union address as a starting point to see how truthful President Obama was.

Then let’s look at Republican responses.

Those responses reflect a battle in the Republican party that is likely to continue for at least the next two years.

I’m relying on factcheck.org and politifact.com

President Obama

Here are the statements that they felt weren’t accurate:

more than half of manufacturing executives have said they’re actively looking to bring jobs back from China
A survey showed most “expressed interest” in it, but are not “actively looking” at doing it.

the only advanced country on Earth that doesn’t guarantee paid sick leave
Canada and Japan also don’t mandate paid short-term sick leave.

The U.S. has gained 11 million private sector jobs in five years.
This was actually true but somewhat misleading because dramatic public sector cuts in part as a result of Republican supported federal spending cuts reduced the net jobs growth to 6.4 million.

more of our people are insured than ever before
That’s based on some preliminary numbers. We don’t have the full 2014 federal numbers yet

Here are the topics that they felt were accurately discussed:

our deficits cut by two-thirds
Our unemployment rate is now lower than it was before the financial crisis
creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999
the only advanced country on Earth” that doesn’t guarantee “paid maternity leave to our workers
America is No. 1 in oil and gas
America is No. 1 in wind power
Factories are opening their doors at the fastest pace in almost two decades

Jodie Ernst

Inaccurate

We heard the message you sent in November loud and clear, and now we’re getting to work to change the direction Washington has been taking our country.
Exit polling suggests that voter’s primary concern was the economy (45%). This is evidenced by the fact that as the economy improved since the election, Obama’s approval ratings have also improved dramatically to over 50%. Republicans have focused their attention on veterans, the Keystone pipeline, Obamacare, and an abortion bill.

frustration with Washington’s dysfunction
While Congress has a historically low popularity rating of 11%, voters returned 95% of their representatives to office. They apparently expect their existing representatives to act differently.

We see the hurt caused by canceled healthcare plans and higher monthly insurance bills
We’ll also keep fighting to repeal and replace a health care law that’s hurt so many hardworking families

Fewer than 1 million people ended up with no healthcare coverage at all last year. That is consistent with the normal churn in the market place from previous years. The primary cause is job change. Average premium increases are at historic lows. The number of uninsured is also at historic lows meaning that more people are gaining insurance than losing it. The Kaiser poll taken right after the election shows only 29% support repeal. Only 9% indicated that the law figured into their vote.

the Keystone jobs bill
Keystone’s construction could support thousands of jobs and pump billions into our economy,
The pipeline will create only 50 long term jobs. It will create thousands of temporary construction jobs for the year or two it takes to build the pipeline. That construction will contribute $3.4B to the economy. That’s comparable to the costs to build the new Cowboy and Yankee stadiums combined. Roughly .02% of GDP. In other words a negligible amount.

we’ll work to correct executive overreach
Obama is on pace to issue fewer executive orders than any president since 1900.

cut wasteful spending
Recent reports indicate that Jodi Ernst’s extended family received over $460K in federal farm subsidies. Recent studies also support the claim that federal spending cuts have slowed economic growth and prolonged high unemployment.

we’ll defend life, because protecting our most vulnerable is an important measure of any society
Ireland is the only European country than bans abortion. The other countries that ban abortions in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Indonesia have large Catholic or Muslim populations. They include Yemen, Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Likely not the societies that Ms. Ernst intended to reference.

Accurate

President Obama has been delaying this bipartisan infrastructure project for years, even though many members of his party, unions, and a strong majority of Americans support it
many families feel like they’re working harder and harder with less and less to show for it
neighbors agonize over stagnant wages and lost jobs

Ted Cruz

not a word was said about radical Islamic terrorism
Obama vowed to combat “violent extremism” and asked for congressional authority to use force against the Islamic State.

Obama “could not bring himself even to bring” up the president’s executive action on immigration
Obama said he would veto legislation that attempted to undo his immigration order

Rand Paul

“liberal elites” wanted to regulate “what light bulbs we can use.”
President George W. Bush signed the bill that phased out traditional incandescent bulbs, in favor of more energy efficient ones.

Summary

The message 2014 voters meant to send was, “fix the economy”. Republicans have used their gains in this election as an endorsement of their larger agenda, but exit polls and even election results don’t support that position. This, however, reveals a weakness in Republican philosophy. It’s magic thinking. Their deep investment in their world view puts them in a bubble. They see a lot of other people who are in the bubble with them, but they don’t see how many people are outside that bubble. Even worse, they can’t understand why anyone would choose to be outside their bubble, and so comfort themselves with narratives about dependency or democratic deception.

Those outside the bubble, however, are reacting to facts on the ground. The solid economic growth news since that election resulted in a dramatic increase in President Obama’s approval ratings. His numbers are comparable to Ronald Reagan at the same point in his second term. Republicans successfully made the economy Obama’s responsibility in 2014. Now they are paying the price for that political gain.

The real reasons behind this solid growth are historically low interest rates, lower oil prices, a strong dollar, a robust stock market, recovering housing industry, increasing tax revenues, and increased government spending. The debt is going down (as a percentage of GDP), growth in healthcare spending is slowing, and the financial condition of programs like Medicare and Social Security are improving.

There are still foreign challenges, but we are very close to hammering out a deal with Iran. We have an historic agreement with China to reduce greenhouse gases. There is also a lot of momentum for Pacific Rim trade deals. Sanctions against Russia combined with the collapse of OPEC have dealt a crippling blow to their economy and stalled any future expansion plans much more effectively than any military response could have. Jihadism remains a worldwide concern. Pressure from a broad military coalition has stalled the advance of ISIS. Financial pressure has affected their ability to govern the areas they do control. Because of the collapse of OPEC and the recent changes in leadership, we are in a better position than ever to pressure Saudi Arabia to withdraw their financial support for Wahhabism and the madrasas that teach it.

The result has been an energized Obama on the offensive. That was the most obvious take away from the State of Union address.

Republicans have a majority in both houses of Congress, but are still struggling to build an effective governing coalition between moderates and radicals. This is further complicated by the 2016 Presidential election cycle. No better example than the number of Republican responses to the State of the Union address. I counted six.

Jodi Ernst’s speech wasn’t much of a rebuttal. Instead it was an attempt to promote Republicanism as a kinder gentler philosophy grounded in the nostalgia of rural Iowa. Jodi is this year’s version of Sarah Palin. My prediction is she will follow a similar arc. She will demonstrate similar weaknesses as she eventually has to discuss issues outside her comfort zone and respond to questions from those who will aggressively fact check her statements.

Ted Cruz made a spectacle of himself with his clumsy attempts to post his response on YouTube. The contents of that speech continued his straw man pattern of attacks against Obama. Every time he falsely accuses Obama of some action, and then attacks that imaginary weakness, he loses credibility with young voters.

Rand Paul is in a similar position. He has narratives that he feels work in his favor. He continues to repeat those narratives whether they are relevant to the current conversation or not.

I don’t think Republicans will be able to sort out their differences before the 2016 presidential primary season starts. Instead their squabbles will continue to play out both in Washington and on the campaign trail.

Here are two recent examples.

A moderate group of Republicans (mostly women) were able to water down an anti-abortion bill promoted by Republican conservatives. They are terrified that a conservative social agenda will derail Republican hopes for 2016. Here are some relevant quotes from that group.

“Week one, we had a speaker election that didn’t go the way that a lot of us wanted it to,” Rep. Charlie Dent (R-Pa.) said. “Week two, we were debating deporting children, and again, not a conversation a lot of us wanted to have then. And week three, we’re now debating rape and abortion — again, an issue that most of us didn’t campaign on or really wanted to engage on at this time. And I just can’t wait for week four.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) was one of the women who raised objections to the initial measure. “We have a responsibility,” she said, “as the elected body representing our constituents, to protect the most vulnerable among us and ensure that women facing unwanted pregnancies do not face judgment or condemnation but have positive support structures and access to health care to help them through their pregnancies.”

Then there are those promoting a conservative social agenda.

“That GOP leadership, that establishment, they’ve got to get their stuff together. I love what they believe in, I believe in it too. But they’ve got to get tough, man. You know what? It’s not just the New England Patriots who are dealing with deflated balls right now,” Sarah Palin

“If we nominate a candidate in that mold, the same people who stayed home in 2008 and 2012 will stay home in 2016 and the Democrats will win again,” Ted Cruz talking about Mitt Romney

The reason Republicans lost in 2014 is that their message of social conservatism, xenophobia, magic thinking, and randian individualism was rejected by women, young people, minorities, and educated professionals. It shouldn’t be surprising that the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party rejects this assessment. They feel that the reason Romney lost is because he wasn’t conservative enough. The establishment wing of the Republican Party has failed so far to find the common ground that would allow them to advance an agenda soft on social issues and hard on financial ones.

The improving economy presents a second serious problem for establishment Republicans. They have to figure out how to get on board. If this growth continues for the next six months without any significant financial legislation getting signed, it is going to be difficult for them to take credit. Their 2014 strategy of blaming the economy on Obama has backfired. Significant financial legislation, however, is going to require some compromise with Democrats. That means some increase in taxes or government spending or both. To get that passed will require a coalition of moderates and Democrats that can overcome Tea Party opposition. If they succeed in passing significant legislation over the objections of the Tea Party and their supporters, the Tea Party almost certainly will take another scorched-earth run at wresting control from the establishment in 2016.

Have to careful what you wish for, but as a progressive, I’m not sure that I could have come up with a better scenario to guarantee another Democratic victory in 2016.

Anthropocene

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

“Men still live who, in their youth, remember pigeons; trees still live who, in their youth, were shaken by a living wind. But a few decades hence only the oldest oaks will remember, and at long last only the hills will know.”

–Aldo Leopold, “On a Monument to the Pigeon,” 1947

It is hard to imagine how plentiful a species the passenger pigeon was. In the 19th century, it was likely the single most abundant bird in the world. Their huge flocks would block out the sun. Their sheer numbers discouraged natural predation. They ate literally everything in their path leaving behind, in the words of Aldo Leopold, “a world plated with pigeon ejecta”

The passenger pigeon disappeared in a very short time because of human predation. The impression of the people at the time was that the population was infinite. But in less than 30 years passenger pigeons were reduced from an estimated 136 million breeding adults to a dozen or so flocks. The last known passenger pigeon died in captivity at the age of 29 in 1914. Last year was the 100th anniversary of the extinction of this species.

Last year a group of scientists gathered to discuss whether or not the earth has entered a new epoch called the Anthropocene. This epoch is the time period where human activity is the primary cause for large scale changes that are taking place on the earth.

The current epoch is called the Holocene. It began with the retreat of the glaciers 12,000 years ago and continued with the spread of humans across the globe. The Holocene represents a period of general warming of the earth.

In connection with all of the research being conducted to understand how human activity is affecting our climate, there is some new research attempting to measure more specifically what this human activity is.

The basic challenge is that humans have the same expectations of the earth’s capacity today that they had 100 years ago. Our aspirations are infinite but the earth’s resources are finite.

The result has been a “Great Acceleration” of human activities starting in the 1950’s that decrease the earth’s resources. These activities range from population, to water use, to GDP growth, to international tourism. All of these activities change the earth’s resources from greenhouse gases, to surface temps, to ozone loss, to ocean acidification, to tropical forest loss.

Great Acceleration

The authors of the study summarize their findings in the following quote.

Of all the socio-economic trends only construction of new large dams seems to show any sign of the bending of the curves – or a slowing of the Great Acceleration. Only one Earth System trend indicates a curve that may be the result of intentional human intervention – the success story of ozone depletion. The leveling off of marine fisheries capture since the 1980s is unfortunately not due to marine stewardship, but to overfishing.

A related study examined how this activity has pushed four key areas past core boundary values where continued activity would drive the affected systems into a new unstable state. Two are entering a zone where the affected system is already unsustainable and the damage may already be irreversible. Extinction is an example of irreversible damage.

biosphere boundaries
(click to see a larger image)

The two areas where we are in danger are loss of biosphere diversity and alteration of biogeochemical cycles (overuse of phosphorus and nitrogen). The two areas where continued human activity will start to cause changes, but those changes may still be reversible are climate change and land use.

The problem is that even though scientists are raising the alarm on a number of fronts, humans haven’t changed their behavior.

Here are just a few examples of items in the news over the last month.

  • 2014 was the hottest year on records
  • Climate change is killing the big trees of the coastal California forests
  • New research refines models on sea level rise and predicts rapid rise as ice sheets melt
  • Ocean life faces broad extinction
  • Even with all of this information, climate science in this country is politicized and most just aren’t that much concerned that we are reducing the time until everyone on the planet will experience serious changes in their lives. People in coastal areas will likely be affected first. Rising sea level and loss of barrier reefs combined with more intense storms means severe irreversible damage. The government of Kiribati has purchased land in Fiji for their 110,000 inhabitants to move to when their island disappears. The Marshall Islands invested in a sea wall which was overtopped by a heavy storm last year. The massive flood damaged the only airport and contaminated fresh water resources that were already in short supply.

    If the bee population continues to collapse, the fruit industry will not be far behind. In China, humans have been forced to take over the job of pollinating fruit trees because they inadvertently killed off their wild bee population. In their rush to expand fruit production, they killed the bees with pesticides and destroyed the natural habitat that wild bees needed to recover.

    Forests are stressed around the world because of climate change and deforestation. The remaining trees are more susceptible to disease. Invasive species have already wiped out Elm, Ash, and Chestnut trees in this country. We are also losing Beech, Redwood, and Sequoia.

    The Asian Carp is perilously close to the great lakes, which would dramatically change the ecology of the biggest single source of freshwater in the world. The lakes are also threatened by algae pollution from excess fertilizer run off.

    Our challenge as a species is that we are myopic. We care about our own survival first. We are wired to think locally. The problem is that there are seven billion of us now on the planet and our combined local actions threaten all of us globally. We are collectively “taking” more from the earth than the earth is able to sustain. The result is that systems which have operated reliably for millennia are starting to break down. When those systems ultimately fail, NOTHING replaces them. Instead the earth dies just like the carrier pigeon.

    Caliphate

    Saturday, January 17th, 2015

    The recent Charlie Hebdo attack has again raised the prospect of global radical Islamic terrorism.

    Unfortunately, the reaction in the US continues to be myopic and uninformed.

    Here’s just a sample.

    Network national security analyst KT McFarland blamed the shooting at Charlie Hebdo headquarters on France’s “really strict gun control” and “politically correct” policies that treat everyone equally. Echoing disdain for policies that treat everyone equally, co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck added that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio threatens the city’s security by demoralizing the New York Police Department and painting the NYPD with “a racist brush” when officers act on that principle.

    Strategic analyst Ralph Peters cited the shooting to attack Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), invoking the recently released Senate Intelligence report on CIA interrogation techniques. Peters proclaimed that “these terrorists who did this monstrous attack in Paris are the people Senator Feinstein doesn’t even want to waterboard,” adding that the Obama administration is too “soft on radical Islam.”

    Breitbart.com editor-at-large Ben Shapiro used the tragedy to invoke tired Benghazi smears of Hillary Clinton and President Obama, asking when they would “recommend we arrest the rest of the Charlie Hebbdo staff for inciting Islamic violence?”

    Outnumbered hosts agreed that Americans “are being hunted” by terrorists, and network host Kennedy added that “I think the best thing that Americans can do is arm themselves.”

    Ingraham blamed the tragic attack in Paris on France’s immigration policy, saying “the principle of multiculturalism and open borders… is pure insanity, a suicide pact.”

    While wrong-headed partisan responses from conservative pundits is not surprising, these also continue a false narrative about why all of this is occurring.

    Jihadist attacks to not occur because of there are too few guns in citizens’ hands. They did not occur because of political correctness. They do not occur because we are too soft or because there is too much free speech. Jihadists are not hunting Americans. They don’t attack because of our immigration policy or the immigration policies of any other western country.

    Jihadist attacks occur because disaffected young men (mostly) are radicalized by an idea and inspired to sacrifice themselves and others to support that idea.

    Jihadists have no monopoly on disaffected young men. There is a long list of young men who carry out murderous suicidal attacks in this country who are motivated by any number of other twisted ideas that have nothing to do with Islam. It is the same quirk in the maturation process of young men that armies through the ages have been able to take advantage of. They need a cause that they can commit themselves to.

    If it isn’t something uniquely sinister in young Muslim men, what is it that continues to cause attacks from radicalized Islamic fundamentalists on western targets?

    It’s the Caliphate, stupid

    The Caliphate is an Islamic state led by a person who combines both political and religious leadership. This is not all that different from revisionist history preached by fundamentalists who claim the founding fathers intended to create a Christian nation.

    This exploration of the Caliphate as the root of jihadism is based on some very thoughtful analysis published in a column by Canadian Columnist Gwynne Dyer.

    The first question to ask is why is a caliphate at the root of this terrorist activity?

    The answer is simple.

    There is a civil war going on in Islam. Since Islam is a religion without borders, this war also has no borders. The vast majority of the casualties in this war are Muslim, but what gets reported in the west is when this war occasionally overflows into western countries.

    The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernization of the Muslim world. Should the Muslim world continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

    It has become a war because most Muslims across the world find modernization very attractive. Those who oppose democracy, equality, consumerism, etc. are a minority even in their own countries. They understand that the only way to preserve the way of life they feel is required of all devout Muslims, is to create a conservative Caliphate. This Caliphate can impose the harsh policies of Sharia law on the majority of the population who would not follow the fundamentalist interpretations of the Quran given a choice.

    They use the west to recruit followers by inventing a narrative that says that modernization and western culture itself is a plot to undermine Islam. The main strategy to prove their point are attacks INTENDED to trigger a military response. The US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq established the jihadi movement as a legitimate political force. Decades earlier the same tactics prompted the same response from Russia in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

    To the degree that these attacks also trigger mistreatment of Muslim minorities in other countries or acts that even the Muslim mainstream considers offensive (burning Qurans and public ridicule of Mohammed), the fundamentalists win.

    So it should be no surprise that when ISIS declared that their intention was to create a Caliphate in northern Syria and Iraq, fundamentalist Muslim fighters from around the world poured into that region to help.

    The second question is also obvious. What does the west do?

    The answer to this question is more difficult.

    The west cannot stop being an engine of cultural change. That is in our nature. So it will always be viewed by a fundamentalist minority as a threat.

    The west also cannot stand idle while terrorists continue to attack. These are issues of security and law that demand a response.

    But the west can’t continue to treat this ideology as a movement of rational people. This is similar to the challenges that the US faced with Japanese kamikaze attacks. How do you defend yourself against someone who is not only willing, but eager to die for their cause?

    The solution lies in our own culture and our own values.

    Our greatest asset in the United States in this conflict of ideas is the fact that our success as a nation is testimony to the power of freedom, liberty, and religious pluralism. If we compromise religious liberty in the name of defeating Wahhabis, we lose. We become who the Islamist said we were.

    The best way to prove that secular society is preferable to an Islamist one is to prove that all human beings including Muslims prefer to live in these types of societies, over those ruled by Sharia and clerics, out of their own free will and not by coercion.

    It may seem counter intuitive, but the best way to defeat this idea is to welcome Muslims who are willing to live by our laws into this country.

    Just as the Wahhabists and Salafists use our freedom of speech to spread their message, we have to spread our message of freedom and liberty by demonstrating that western societies are able to walk our talk.

    We also have to shut off the flow of money from Saudi Arabia that supports the spread of this fundamentalist ideology. We are finally in the position to do so because of the collapse of the OPEC cartel.

    “We can’t kill our way to victory,” Adm. Michael Mullen famously said of the Afghan war.

    We can’t spy our way to victory.

    We can’t torture our way to victory either.

    We can’t close the borders and expect to be safe.

    We can’t silence the voices of those who disagree with us and assume that disagreement will end.

    Ideas can’t be killed. But they can be defeated by a better idea. The current jihadi movement is built on a couple of lies. People live better lives under Sharia law. Western culture was created to defeat Islam.

    We defeat jihadism by demonstrating that peace loving people live better lives when they get to decide for themselves how they would like to live.

    We defeat jihadism by demonstrating that law abiding Muslims are more welcomed and free to practice their religion in the United States than any other place is the world.