Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Climate Change having "Natural Causes" is Far More Alarming

It strikes me that the set of climate deniers who say "yes the earth is warming, but it is natural causes not human behaviour" think somehow this is a sufficient and comforting explantion.  Actually it would be a far far more alarming explantion for the phenomena if one considers it rationally:
  • First off it means the world's collected climate experts know absolutely nothing about what could actually be causing this, since they have looked into every possible natural cause they can think of, and found no evidence to support any of them as driving the observed climate change.  No one should ever think smugly that science knows everything there is to know about something, but the idea that a major climate driver could elude human understanding means we are missing something huge, and it's hard to view that with any kind of aplomb.  This kind of scientific gap in our understanding of the world would almost certainly have to be much larger than climatology, it would likely be some form of physics or chemistry of which we have not even a theory to account for.  What mystery energy source could be injecting or retaining additional energy into the climate? 
  • Secondly and tied to the first, if we have no idea what is warming the planet, it means we have no possible way of knowing how bad this problem will get, how fast, and whether there is any possible way to stop it.  At least we know if we are causing global warming with our emissions, we can stop adding to the problem by reducing emissions, and maybe even solve the problem if we can find a way to remove carbon from the atmosphere (or in extremis, treat the more catastrophic symptoms through some kind of risky geoengineering scheme).  Will it warm 1 degree per decade?  10 degrees?  Maybe the Earth will actually end up like Venus, completely uninhabitable. Even geoengineer schemes, as suspect as they already are would be doubly dubious in an environment where we didn't actually understand the causes of climate change. 
  • Last, and I've made this point before, but a naturally warming planet is still something we need to deal with and prepare for.  Sea walls don't build themselves.  Coastal settlements still need to move inland.  Agricultural land suitable for growing food under new climate norms will still need to be located, and prepared for growing food, water supplies for areas destined to become especially arid must be located or those communities moved.  All of this is expensive, and you either invest up front and ameliorate some of the effects, or you pay through the nose to recover from various disasters. 
None of this should reflect any doubt on my part about the veracity of the science telling us that human greenhouse gas emissions are the overwhelming cause of global warming.  But it is more a statement on the irrationality of this particular (and in my experience, now most common) denialist position.  If you really do believe "natural causes" are the reason for warming you should be a major advocate for huge additional resources for science to get to the bottom of the actual causal mechanisms, and for money being spent to prepare for the predictable effects of such warming.

And no, you can't rely on some airy fairy idea of "natural cycles" - wheels turn until they break.  Mars was once warm enough to have liquid water on it.  Something about its climate cycle 'broke' and now it is far too cold for that (and its atmosphere too thin, as well).  The Earth was not always a place that life as we know it could survive.  It had vastly different atmospheric compositions, temperature ranges and so forth.  Think we could survive an atmosphere that was half as thick?  Or twice as thick?  Or with half the oxygen?  Or twice as much?  

You needn't be surprised that I have yet to see any climate change deniers of this sort make such calls.  Somehow the mystery source of knowledge they have (I believe they sit on it) also tells them that the warming will be modest and slow and adaptation is no problem.  But if you don't actually know what is causing the warming, you can't really have that assurance. The past 10,000 years or so have seen a climate pretty well suited to humans.  There is no reason to think that must continue.  A giant asteroid on course to hit earth would be "natural" too, but in no way would that obliviate any need to do anything about the problem.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Voter Fraud Dog Not Barking

In all the talk of voter fraud, there is one obvious absent sign of rampant voter fraud that we don't see much discussion of:  Voters complaining that someone else voted for them.  In particular when we are talking about in-person voter fraud, the kind that requiring photo ID could actually solve, if voter fraud was common, you should have voters complaining that they showed up to vote, and the polling worker informing them that someone using their name had already voted.  Similarly, if voter fraud was common, you should see lots of poll workers commenting that multiple people had showed up trying to vote using the names of people who had already voted.

The recent much-noted New Yorker piece eviscerating Hans Von Spakovsky touches on this topic:
Von Spakovsky offered me the names of two experts who, he said, would confirm that voter-impersonation fraud posed a significant peril: Robert Pastor, the director of the Center for Democracy and Election Management, at American University, and Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. Pastor, von Spakovsky noted, had spoken to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights about being a victim of election fraud: voting in Georgia, he discovered that someone else had already voted under his name.

When I reached Pastor, he clarified what had happened to him. “I think they just mistakenly checked my name when my son voted—it was just a mistake.” He added, “I don’t think that voter-impersonation fraud is a serious problem.”
If this was a serious problem, there should be many living voters arriving at the polls to discover someone else had stolen their votes.  In fact, even if absentee voting fraud was common, the same sort of thing should happen.  Now, you might claim that the reason this doesn't happen is because there are all sorts of dead and imaginary voters registered, so that there's no risk of a real honest human asking for their legitimate ballot and being denied because "Mickey Mouse" had already voted or whatever, but that's a voter registration problem, not a polling place problem. 

Anyway, I know no amount of rational examination of this issue is going to make it go away (Chris Hayes compared voter fraud believers to climate deniers this morning on his show, and I think the comparison is apt - both groups deny reams of evidence to continue believing in improbably large secret conspiracies to rig systems toward some desired outcome) but at least it's one more bullet to fire.  

Labour Organizing As Warfare

Matt Stoller tweeted a link to this excellent piece on recent changes to the US labour organizing strategic landscape.  In one of the most remarkably under-reported stories I've ever seen, Walmart workers across 12 cities in 9 states staged a series of wild-cat strikes in early October and unlike almost every other attempt by workers to organize against Walmart, came out ahead.  In the past at Open Left, I noted a couple Canadian Walmart stores that unionized, and Walmart's answer invarably was to suddenly declare the store "unprofitable" and close it down (only to open a new store shortly after in the same geographic area). 

At the current moment, the total impact of these actions has been small, involving a relative handful of workers, which perhaps justifies why this isn't getting more media attention, but the fact that such small labour actions suceeded should make anyone interested in labour power pay attention, because it looks like some labour groups have figured out a new way to fight back in the globalization era.  From the first link:
The Elwood facility, owned by the company RoadLink, processes a staggering 70 percent of Walmart’s domestic goods, and the strike there has radically altered the balance of power in the workplace. Mike Compton, a former striker who is now back at work in the warehouse told me about the new climate of the warehouse. “Managers are being overly nice,” he said.
This is where the post title comes from.  This is an application of war doctrine to the labour rights question.  There's a famous quote (attributed to several famous military leaders) that goes "amateurs study strategy, professionals study logistics."  Sun Tzu's line about armies marching on their stomachs also comes to mind.  Walmart has spent decades developing a lean, mean, "just-in-time" supply chain which means they deliberately keep as little stock in each store and warehouse as possible.  This makes them highly vulnerable to supply chain disruptions.  That the US rail system has particular nodes where high volumes of goods go through only makes Walmart more vulnerable to well organized pinpoint labour strikes (and the word strike here can be understood both as a labour disruption, and a military tactical attack).

This is turning the system of neoliberal globalization against itself.  Rather than relying on trying to reach critical mass of front line clerks sufficient to make Walmart unable to get by on scabs and store closures, find the vulnerable points in the system and organize just enough workers there to have an impact.

This logic can be extended to other organizations too.  Walmart's supply chain model has been highly influential on other retailers and even other industries.  I suspect the more globalized a company is, the more vulnerable they are to this. 

In another strain of finding a vulnerable point to strike, there is talk of a "Black Friday" strike.  This would hit Walmart on the biggest shopping day of the year (so named, I hear, because it is the day that many retailers actually become net profitable for the year, going from "red" ink to "black" in their books).  This strikes me as more likely to leave room for Walmart to simply fire any front line workers who walk off, but perhaps they'll settle very quickly rather than lose out on the single biggest shopping day, even if at only a handful of stores.  It's got a shot because a disruption to Black Friday profits has the possibility of hitting the Q4 results measurably.  It also will generate a lot of media attention in a way that some workers striking in a warehouse does not.  The media would love to air footage of people lined up for gate-crasher deals at some Walmart store and the store not opening because the workers had struck.  If Walmart is foolish enough to have the managers try and open the store themselves, we'll likely get footage of chaos, and if anyone is hurt (which already happens almost every year), all the more blowback against Walmart.

It might not work, but it has been several decades of slow decline for organized labour and it's encouraging to finally see some tactics employed that don't rely on past tactics which have now been rendered next-to-impossible via the legally slanted playing field. 

But do read this piece from up top.

Friday, October 5, 2012

PBS Must Be Killed Because It Shows Government Works

 PBS is by far the most trusted TV news source, NPR listeners show up as the best informed or the second-best informed, and a majority of Americans watch or listen to PBS or NPR on a weekly basis. Americans, as is their habit, dramatically overestimate the amount of money public broadcasting costs them and yet remarkably still want that funding maintained or increased. Most importantly, PBS is not just the most trusted source of news, it is by one reputable study, repeatedly the most trusted institution in America by a country mile. This is a phenomenal success story. PBS and NPR are educating the public (their mission), the public trusts them, and for pathetically little money in both absolute terms ($1.35 per American per year) and in comparison to their international peers (most of whom get at least 10 times the amount of per-citizen funding, and some far far more).

This is not a fluke. Public broadcasting is a great success story of modern governance. Not just in America, but the public broadcasters in Canada (CBC), Australia (ABC), Britain (BBC), Ireland (RTE), the Netherlands (NPO) and many other nations are popular, informative and even entertaining. They bring programming that for-profit broadcasters do not. Off the top of my meagre head, I can name Doctor Who (BBC), Degrassi High (CBC), Little Mosque on the Prarie (CBC), Nova (PBS), Top Gear (BBC), Frontline (PBS), The Fifth Estate (CBC), The Nature of Things (CBC), Four Corners (ABC), Panorama (BBC) and of course Sesame Street (PBS) as internationally renowned and popular programs brought to the world by public broadcasting. I listen to a lot of podcasts on my MP3 player in the car and the ABC and Radio New Zealand put out some fantastic informative programming. Public broadcasting works well basically everywhere I have ever paid attention to it (admittedly I'm mostly limited to English speaking countries). All of this serves to explain why Movement Conservatives want to kill PBS, and so far as I am aware, want to kill public broadcasters in every nation where they hold power.

Conservatives cannot abide this lasting testament to the competence and workability of public institutions. It belies all their ideological predictions. "State" broadcasters (as they pejoratively call them) are supposed to behave like the Soviet Union's Pravda or North Korean television. Propaganda and lies, dated production values and bland, uninspired presentation. If their ideas actually reflected reality, there would be no need for conservatives to make a point of killing PBS, public opinion would have long killed off the public broadcasters in every free society. It defies them that this hasn't happened. Decades after Thatcher declared "there is no alternative" and Reagan said "government is the problem" these institutions remain, weakened somewhat, but still valued.

If you imagine the world today in some alternate universe where there were no public broadcasters, and you arrived there from here, and suggested that someone set one up, you would be laughed out of the room by the conventional wisdom. Again and again we hear how government cannot work, government is inefficient, bureaucrats just sit on their butts unless they have some hard driving greedhead flogging the whip of quarterly results to keep them motivated. People in that alternate world wouldn't believe that government could successfully operate national television and radio networks that were informative, popular and entertaining. I suspect many people in this universe believe government cannot do so, and yet right under their noses, they are.

It's obvious that Romney's glib and by-the-way remark to Jim Lehrer has touched a nerve in America. People don't think about public broadcasting very often, but here is the Republican nominee for President officially promising to kill public funding for one of the last few things (along with Courts and the Military) that a majority of them (76% in PBS' case) actually trust. If you think about the recent polls on public broadcasting government funding, the fact that maintaining or increasing that funding remains far more popular than cutting it should be remarkable, as these surveys take place in very tough economic times. America is not alone in this regard, Ireland, who have suffered far worse than the US in the economic collapse still maintain RTE with almost as much public funding as America gives its broadcasters (over $200M in 2011).

Don't let them get away with it. There's very little reason to believe PBS and NPR could survive the loss of their public funding in any worthwhile or recognizable form (if at all). America already grossly underfunds these broadcasters which already significantly reduces their effectiveness. I get as annoyed as any other liberal at "nice polite republicans" and their frequent forays into beltway conventionalism and "both sides do it" false equivalencies. Yet I see this as a consequence of NPR's inadequate public funding. Having to rely on various wealthy donors to survive, is it any suprise that the editorial slant of NPR skews towards the views of that class of people? For all that NPR is still far and away better than anything else on the average American's radio dial. I even include most progressive talk radio stations in that too. Sirius Left and whatnot are better than listening to Limbaugh or some overly excited Top-40 formula station, but generally nowhere near as informative or sophisticated as NPR. Even if you really like listening to liberals call in to grouse about conservatives on the air to an appreciative host, that is qualitatively different from what NPR does with its airtime. It's not a fluke that for-profit broadcasters do not do programs like Wait Wait, Prarie Home companion, Dianne Rehm or even Car Talk. Public broadcasting fills a different niche, one that is not fulfilled by for-profit operators. Conservatives try and say that if liberals like PBS so much, we should fund it out of donations from our own pockets. This defeats the purpose of a public broadcaster. A charity network is a qualitatively different creature, even assuming such a thing could survive.

To play off something a twitter wag dubbed, it isn't surprising that a Fat Cat wants to eat the Big Bird. Don't let Wall Street consume Sesame Street.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Torture: Another Liberal Cassandra Moment

Cassandra, the Greek figure tragically doomed to be right about everything and have no one heed her warnings:
It seems likely that a President Mitt Romney would rescind the executive order issued by President Barack Obama outlawing torture. His own policy advisers have told him to do so, according to a memo obtained by the New York Times. (Mitt Romney’s advisers are doing everything they can to encourage the liberal debate over the morality of supporting Obama in the face of his miserable civil liberties record.)

The memo was drafted last year by the Romney campaign’s “national security law subcommittee,” which is made up of 18 lawyers, 15 of whom are George W. Bush administration veterans. The lawyers call on Romney to “rescind and replace” the executive order banning torture and once again allow “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The lawyers also recommend that Romney first make a show of ordering a “review” of torture policy to help make the candidate look “open-minded and empirically driven.” (Jesus Christ.)
Pareene (who is really excellent and under-appreciated) goes on to speculate that Romney may try to spring torture on Obama in the debates.  May all liberals take a "we told you so" stage call.  Torture is now completely just another partisan issue.  Vote Team R if you like tax cuts and making the bad guys suffer like they deserve!  Vote Team D if you like to "coddle" terrorists.  It will even be something Republican candidates feel proud in raising in debates with Democratic opponents.  It gets worse:
In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism, while 53 percent said it should not. In my YouGov poll, 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.
Obama and Holder's refusal to prosecute the Bush administration war criminals should rightly haunt him.    Romney's likely going down in flames, so the people in Gitmo and Bagram are relatively safe from waterboarding, freezing rooms and prolonged stress position agony for another 4 years at least (not safe from being held without rights for absolutely no cause for those four years of course) but after that, President Christie can proudly announce the "adults" are back in charge as he cuts loose the CIA's best sadists to do what they love.  It's just one Executive Order away...