Friday, March 30, 2012

In the Direction of Darkness

Until now I've resisted joining the media panic regarding oral arguments before the Supreme Court which seemed to suggest 5 of the Justices were set to overturn the Affordable Care Act.  Since the decision is not expected until June, I thought there would be plenty of time for cooler constitutional heads to prevail, and the evident political energy displayed this week would give way to judicial scholarship, which has overwhelmingly supported the constitutionality of the Act and specifically the so-called individual mandate, under the Commerce clause, in the same way that Social Security and Medicare were found constitutional. 

They would also have time to learn more about health care, health insurance and what they mean in the American economy--knowledge which some who studied the questions they asked doubt that they now have.  They would have time to discuss all this, and share what they've learned, what their reasoning is.

But then I saw this piece, which says that they may well make their decision without talking to each other at all, and that the decision will probably be made almost immediately.  Maybe today.   We just won't find out about it until June, in the thick of the pre-conventions presidential campaign. 

So in the heat of this moment, I am obliged to take seriously the prospect that this politicized court will ignore virtually every constitutional scholar's view that the Act easily falls within established law, and essentially roll back 80 years of progress, such as it is.  On the basis of a radically reactionary reinterpretation of the Constitution, this Court could substitute itself for the other two branches of government in a matter that has vast economic and social repercussions. 

The prospect has shocked many commentators, but I will let one speak for all, since E.J. Dionne's column drips with the contempt that this process so far deserves.  He uses the words "judicial dictatorship," and that's the prospect we're facing.  Having overturned the outcome of the 2000 election, and having institutionalized the single greatest threat to electoral democracy in our history with its Citizens United decision, this Supreme Court threatens to take over the government outright.

To do so in a presidential election year would be to make that even more obvious, and would turn the 75% of American who believe that the Court makes its decisions based on politics into 99%.

But the most specific impact will be on the U.S. health care system and the economy.  Gone will be restrictions on denying coverage for preexisting conditions.  Gone will be coverage extended to young adults on their parents policies.  And most of all, gone for a very long time will be the hope that the rank injustices and utter cruelties of health insurance in America will be stopped.

Ezra Klein offers the long-term hope that defeat of this admittedly complex law will lead to a single-payer system, but he doesn't expect that process to even begin for 10 years.  So another generation will have to endure rising costs, declining insurance coverage.  More Americans will go bankrupt paying for overpriced health care.  More American will die because they cannot afford medical care, or even basic insurance.  As Klein writes, "in the decades between here and there, there will be a lot of unnecessary suffering and deaths among the uninsured. That’s the real cost of losing this opportunity to insure 30 million people. And it’s a cost that too often gets swept under the rug in Washington’s handicapping of the political fallout."

And that's before the forces behind this Court and the Paul Ryan budget destroy medical care coverage for the most vulnerable population, older Americans, as they set about hollowing out Medicare until nothing remains of it but a phony name.

Given the challenges this country will face in the near future--those associated with the Climate Crisis in particular--this could be crippling, in what it does and what it portends.  The coming election is really about whether we're propelling ourselves into a new Dark Age, or reaffirming the movement away begun in 2008.  But this Court itself could--with a decision made on this very day--take that into its own hands, and carry this country a giant step in the direction of darkness.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Doing Something About It

Despite the political dangers in an election year, as the LA Times reported:

"The Obama administration announced long-awaited rules that would sharply limit the output of carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants, the gases that the vast majority of scientists say are the primary contributor to global climate change."

The new regulations mean that, for one thing, the era of King Dirty Coal plants is over. The move elicited the predictable political cacophony about gubment regulations throttling the freedom of corporations destroying life on the planet in sole service of their cancerous greed, as well as relative silence by the news media,  but may also surprise environmentalists depressed by the lack of rhetoric from the White House.  The words would be welcome, but doing something about it anyway is pretty damn good.  The Times story continues:

   "Yet by proposing the power plant rules and pressing forward with new car and truck fuel economy standards, the Obama administration has moved to cut pollution from the two largest domestic sources of greenhouse gases. Power plants themselves are the single greatest stationary source, accounting for 40% of the country’s output of carbon dioxide.

“I think the administration releasing a proposed regulation for greenhouse gases for new plants is as strong a signal that anyone can ask for about how seriously they are addressing the threat of climate change,” said Megan Ceronsky, an attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund."

Climate Crisis Update: Arctic Heating and Weather Disasters

In my most recent Climate Crisis update, I focused on some consequences of the fast melting Arctic ice.  In the update before that one, I reviewed some of the latest on this year's weird weather, which has been freakishly warm in much of North America, especially east of the Mississippi, but there have been unusual extremes of hot and cold in other parts of the world--as in Europe, where a killer cold spell was followed by a hot spell.  In this update, those two subjects come together: as scientists suspect this weird weather is causally related to Arctic melting.

In a New York Times story on this subject:The question really is not whether the loss of the sea ice can be affecting the atmospheric circulation on a large scale,” said Jennifer A. Francis, a Rutgers University climate researcher. “The question is, how can it not be, and what are the mechanisms?”

The story continues: "A report released on Wednesday by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that issues periodic updates on climate science, confirmed that a strong body of evidence links global warming to an increase in heat waves, a rise in episodes of heavy rainfall and other precipitation, and more frequent coastal flooding."

A summary of evidence based on recent weather:    "United States government scientists recently reported, for instance, that February was the 324th consecutive month in which global temperatures exceeded their long-term average for a given month; the last month with below-average temperatures was February 1985. In the United States, many more record highs are being set at weather stations than record lows, a bellwether indicator of a warming climate."

And March may turn out to be more extreme than February.

The mechanism that may be at work involving the Arctic has to do with the effect of longer iceless periods on the water changes the pattern of heating and cooling from the ocean, and may then change the Jet Stream.  That's the contention of one scientist quoted in the Times story, and although it is not yet a consensus view (according to the Times,) the story does make this general statement:

 "Yet mainstream scientists are determined to figure out which climate extremes are being influenced by human activity, and their attention is increasingly drawn to the Arctic sea ice."

Other stories concerning the IPCC Report emphasize the basic finding that the frequency and extent of at least some kinds of extreme weather are linked to the Climate Crisis, and the future threat, especially to vulnerable places in the world.   For example, from the Independent:

    "Global warming is leading to such severe storms, droughts and heat waves that nations should prepare for an unprecedented onslaught of deadly and costly weather disasters, an international panel of climate scientists says in a report issued on Wednesday.

The greatest danger from extreme weather is in highly populated, poor regions of the world, the report warns, but no corner of the globe - from Mumbai to Miami - is immune. The document by a Nobel Prize-winning panel of climate scientists forecasts stronger tropical cyclones and more frequent heat waves, deluges and droughts."    

The Montreal Gazette led with this conclusion:

A future on Earth of more extreme weather and rising seas will require better planning for natural disasters to save lives and limit deepening economic losses, the United Nations said on Wednesday in a major report on the effects of climate change.

Another study making news Wednesday:

"By 2050, global average temperature could be between 1.4°C and 3°C warmer than it was just a couple of decades ago, according to a new study that seeks to address the largest sources of uncertainty in current climate models. That's substantially higher than estimates produced by other climate analyses, suggesting that Earth's climate could warm much more quickly than previously thought."

Monday, March 26, 2012

Best Thing in the World Today

Rachel Maddow has a "Best New Thing in the World Today" segment, but I'm not bound to new.  Today's Best Thing(s) are perennials, but given new bestness by Science.  However dubious two new studies are, I'll take them.

One says that popcorn is not only low in calories, it's high in antioxidants, and so may be better for you than fruit.  And they laughed when I said popcorn is my favorite vegetable.

And speaking of antioxidants, chocolate has been known as another good source, but besides that, chocolate eaters weigh less than non-chocs.  So it's like a weight loss aid, see?  No, I don't really buy it either, but it's a cheery rationalization anyway.


The federal gov may be running an unsustainable deficit but it is the Republican party that is morally and intellectually bankrupt.  The morality of lying has long since become entrenched doctrine with these pious hypocrites.  Combine that with the bankruptcy of ideas and you come up with the latest Paul Ryan budget.  It's worse than the last one.  It still ends Medicare as we know it, and it still doesn't balance the federal budget.  It just gives more money to the ultra rich plutocracy.  But why listen to me--here's E.J. Dionne:

"Paul Ryan made absolutely clear that he is not now and never was interested in deficit reduction. After a couple of years of being lauded by deficit hawks as the man prepared to make hard choices, he proposed a budget that would not end deficits until 2040 but would cut taxes by $4.6 trillion over a decade while also extending all of the Bush tax cuts, adding an additional $5.4 trillion to the deficit. Ryan would increase military expenditures and then eviscerate the rest of the federal government.

Oh yes, Ryan claims he’d make up for the losses from his new tax cuts with “tax reform” but offered not a single detail. A “plan” with a hole this big is not a plan at all. Ryan’s main interest is in cutting the top income tax rate to 25 percent from the current 35 percent. His message: Solving the deficit problem isn’t nearly as important as (1) continuing and expanding benefits for the wealthy and (2) disabling the federal government."

Among the functions of that federal government, by the way, is the effort to secure loose nuclear material throughout the world that could easily be used in bombs by terrorists or just a Stand Your Ground neighborhood watch captain.  It requires expertise, intelligence, determination and attention, and its success can be measured in what has not happened.  But a party and a faction that is morally and intellectually bankrupt is not interested in that.  They're upset because President Obama is trying to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world, including ours.  It would not surprise me if the Rabid Right soon started talking about the Second Amendment guaranteeing them the right to have their own nukes.

Morale Boost

Obama supporters feeling nervous today because of all the noise surrounding Obamacare and the threat the Supremes are going to deep six it, may be in the mood for some good news.

The good news is Romney.  A Suffolk University shows President Obama with a 10 point lead over Romney nationally, and that's the closest GOPer to him.  Even better, the numbers are 47% to 37%.  When the leader flirts with 50% and the opponent is below 40%, it has the potential to hold.

Then there is this from John Cassidy in the New Yorker, who writes that he's "tried his best" to put a positive spin on the Romney campaign to encourage a competitive race, but:

"After the last week, though, I’ve come to the conclusion that trying to rescue Romney’s Presidential bid may be a hopeless task. Really, what prospect is there for a campaign that, on the day it should have been celebrating a big win in Illinois, suggests that its man’s political positions have all the permanence of a child’s drawing on an Etch A Sketch? A campaign which now, after getting its derriere handed to it in Louisiana, has the temerity to issue a statement calling its opponent, Rick Santorum, “pathetic”? There isn’t much hope: that’s my answer. The Romney campaign consists of a weak candidate and a back-room staff that would have difficulty contesting a city-council election."

The rest of the post is also entertaining.

Full Court Press

The Supreme Court began hearing arguments today on the constitutionality of provisions of the Affordable Care Act.  Fully three-quarters of Americans in one poll expect the decision to be based on politics.  Only 17% believe it will be based on law, and one of those cynical pundits suggested that this 17% was delusional.

However, virtually all constitutional experts and the most experienced and knowledgeable journalists agree that Obamacare is constitutional, and that according to the law it isn't even close.  While this court has been overtly political in other key cases, the notorious Citizens United being the most obvious, I saw where one seasoned observer doesn't expect it to be a close vote.  He figures it will be upheld by a vote of 6-3 or even 7-2. 

On political grounds, there is the absurd wrinkle that the individual mandate was a Republican idea at a time when some of these Justices were appointed and approved by Republicans.  (Rachel hammered at the hypocrisy tonight.)

But for all the babble and the demos this week, this ain't the court where the NCAA March Madness plays.  The final score by the Supreme Court  won't be known until the end of June.   

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"I'm Yertle the Turtle!
Oh, marvelous me!
For I am the ruler
of all that I see!

"I am the ruler," said Yertle
"of all that I see.  But I don't see enough.
That's the trouble with me."

Dr. Seuss

Climate Crisis Update: Planetary Emergency

One of the major focal points of concern regarding the Climate Crisis is the Arctic. Professor Stephen Salter, described by the BBC as an "eminent engineer," made recent headlines in the UK by telling members of Parliament that imminent release of methane in the Arctic constitutes a "planetary emergency."

As scientists observe Arctic melting proceeding faster than their worst predictions, there is fear that it will all be gone in summer in a few years.  If that happens, there could soon follow a catastrophic release of methane into the atmosphere, which would accelerate global heating and change the world's climate dramatically.  Though scientists warning of the Climate Crisis get called alarmists by their oil-fed opponents, thus conveniently mollifying the fearful, ironically those scientists have been slow to talk about the methane problem.  But it is certainly contributing to the marked increase in pessimism among them.

Salter is himself promoting a kind of technological fix: a series of towers that would send ordinary seawater in very small droplets into the atmosphere to whiten clouds and slow down the melting.  Being an engineer he's worked out the plans so the project is doable, and the actual technology appears to be almost ready.

But while the world government on Star Trek could declare a planetary emergency, no such body exists on planet Earth at the moment.  That doesn't preclude action but it makes it more complicated.  Further, there is a lot of suspicion of technological fixes, especially since one of the most prominently proposed--and backed by such towering intellects as the authors of Freakanomics--is proving on second look to not only be useless but counterproductive--contributing to increasing Arctic temperatures and hastening the heating.  Still, it would help if Salter were taken seriously enough to have his approach discussed and tested.  Or we could wait until Rick Santorum gets around to taking care of it.

One effect of Arctic melting and other Climate Crisis phenomena--the rising of sea levels along densely populated coasts--got another round of estimates last week, and they are not good.  A new analysis of the U.S. coasts where nearly 4 million people live suggests coastal flooding may soon become much more frequent.  (There's an interactive map about this at Climate Central.)

Too much water in some places is a big problem, calling for infrastructure investments now.  But potentially a greater problem is too little water--especially fresh water--elsewhere.  The concerns about the effects of droughts and pollution, of environmental degradation and the Climate Crisis as they erase water supplies for huge areas and populations is being taken with increasing seriousness and urgency.  Last week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the latest to warn--to officially warn--of the growing possibilities of massive water shortages, and of wars over them that would threaten to involve a great many nations, including ours.  Global and U.S. issues related to water resources was the topic of a recent roundtable discussion here.  All of these are urgent issues, and not even in the future.  But so far they are not being urgently addressed, except incrementally.  What is an evolving planetary emergency is lost in the fog.