Saturday, July 12, 2014

Obama Admits His Failed Presidency

President Obama finally admitted the truth in Austin, Texas:

The crisis in 2008 hurt us all badly -- worse financial crisis since the Great Depression. But you think about the progress we’ve made. Today, our businesses have added nearly 10 million new jobs over the past 52 months. (Applause.) Our housing is rebounding. Our auto industry is booming. Manufacturing is adding more jobs than any time since the 1990s. The unemployment rate is the lowest point it’s been since September of 2008. (Applause.)..  So a lot of this was because of the resilience and hard work of the American people. That's what happens -- Americans bounce back.

But some of it had to do with decisions we made to build our economy on a new foundation. And those decisions are paying off. We’re more energy independent. For the first time in nearly 20 years, we produce more oil here at home than we buy from abroad. (Applause.) The world’s largest oil and gas producer isn’t Russia; it’s not Saudi Arabia -- it’s the United States of America. (Applause.)

At the same time, we’ve reduced our total carbon pollution over the past eight years more than any country on Earth. (Applause.) We’ve tripled the amount of electricity we generate from wind. We’ve increased the amount of solar energy we have by 10 times. We’re creating jobs across the country in clean energy. (Applause.)

In education, our high school graduation rate is at a record high; the Latino dropout rate has been cut in half since 2000. (Applause.) More young people are graduating from college than ever before....The Affordable Care Act has given millions more families peace of mind. They won’t go broke just because they get sick. (Applause.) Our deficits have been cut by more than half.

We have come farther and recovered faster, thanks to you, than just about any other nation on Earth...  For the first time in a decade, business leaders around the world have said the number-one place to invest is not China, it’s the United States of America. So we’re actually seeing companies bring jobs back. (Applause.) So there’s no doubt that we are making progress. By almost every measure, we are better off now than we were when I took office." (Applause.)

By the way, if you think President Obama doesn't have the fire and the eloquence of candidate Obama, and if you think the 2014 elections are a foregone conclusion, you need to see this speech from Austin, Texas.

"The truth is, even with all the actions I’ve taken this year, I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years. So it’s not clear how it is that Republicans didn’t seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did. (Applause.) Maybe it’s just me they don’t like. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some principle out there that I haven’t discerned, that I haven’t figure out. (Laughter.) You hear some of them -- “sue him,” “impeach him.” Really? (Laughter.) Really? For what? (Applause.) You’re going to sue me for doing my job? Okay. (Applause.) I mean, think about that. You’re going to use taxpayer money to sue me for doing my job -- (laughter) -- while you don’t do your job. (Applause.)....

We could do so much more if Republicans in Congress would focus less on stacking the deck for those on the top and focus more on creating opportunity for everybody. And I want to work with them. I don’t expect them to agree with me on everything, but at least agree with me on the things that you used to say you were for before I was for them. (Applause.) You used to be for building roads and infrastructure. Nothing has changed. Let’s go ahead and do it. (Applause.) Ronald Reagan passed immigration reform, and you love Ronald Reagan. Let’s go ahead and do it. (Applause.)

Let’s embrace the patriotism that says it’s a good thing when our fellow citizens have health care. It’s not a bad thing. (Applause.) That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing when women earn what men do for the same work. That’s an all-American principle. (Applause.) Everybody has got a mom out there or a wife out there or a daughter out there. They don’t want them to not get treated fairly. Why would you be against that?

It’s a good thing when parents can take a day off to care for a sick child without losing their job or losing pay and they can’t pay their bills at the end of the month. It’s a good thing when nobody who works full-time is living in poverty. That is not radical. It’s not un-American. It’s not socialist. That’s how we built this country. It’s what America is all about, us working together. (Applause.)

Friday, July 11, 2014

Eye of the Storm

As we've noted here, El Nino and the climate crisis itself are phenomena of nature that take a long time and particular circumstances to develop, but once they take hold, there's nothing that can be done to stop them until they've played themselves out.  The best that can be done is to blunt their effects, and (in the case of the climate crisis) take steps to see it doesn't get worse or ever happen again.

We may be part of a similar political phenomenon, though politics is only its location and not totally its cause.  It may be so powerful that it can't be stopped until it plays itself out.  Though it's not clear where it will end up, it is obvious where it is going.

Right now we might call it the revolt of the reactionary right, a kind of apocalyptic extremism pushing the US into political crisis, and perhaps constitutional crisis.

Republicans in Congress, in some states and in the rabid right media are converging on one point: the presidency.  Over the past weekend, House Speaker John Banal repeated his demand that House Republicans sue President Obama over still unspecified actions in violation of his legal mandates.  On Tuesday it was reported that the House will make a circus out of this for the next three weeks, scheduling a vote perhaps hours before the House goes on one of its frequent recesses.

A GOPer Senate candidate in Iowa upped the ante by accusing President Obama of being a dictator.  And for some the lawsuit is not enough--they want Congress to impeach President Obama.  That demand was connected to a kind of political threat not so viciously made since the days of Joe McCarthy when Sarah Palin said
"we should vehemently oppose any politician on the left or right who would hesitate in voting for articles of impeachment."

Jonathan Bernstein wrote a perceptive post that outlines the growing pressure within the Republican party to push for impeachment, the unprecedented nature of this proposal, and the likely bad outcome for Republicans and the country.

In a comment on that post, I wondered if Banal's lawsuit was to short-circuit the calls for impeachment, though some observers thought it was to be a kind of warm-up for impeachment.  On Wednesday Banal  said he "disagreed" with the calls for impeachment so far.  On Thursday the lawsuit (itself unprecedented) was unveiled--it focuses on President Obama's "failure to enforce the Affordable Care Act" as passed by Congress--the same act that Republicans have voted a zillion times to repeal.  And a law that (on the same day) is proving to be working.

Update: The commentary on Friday had to do with whether the courts would find that Congress has the "standing" to even sue.  Here's Jonathan Bernstein on that. There's also the likelihood that this could go on for more years than President Obama has in office.  BUT (and this is just my conjecture), an early decision by a court that the House of Representatives does not have standing and therefore the suit is thrown out, and the only remedy available is impeachment: this could lead to a renewed and even more frenzied impeachment push. 

For her fiery call, Sarah Palin received a certain amount of ridicule (including Borowitz: Americans Unhappy To Be Reminded That Sarah Palin Still Exists.) But it is not really clear that this is over.  Some Republicans may feel President Obama's tepid poll numbers, and the ongoing if premature debate over the success or failure of his presidency, create a political context sympathetic to their actions.  But the poll numbers are changeable (when the polls aren't bogus) and the debate has two sides.

For example there's the position that Obama did what any Democrat would have done as President (Bernstein has proposed this.)  Jonathan Chiat disagrees.  He notes how only President Obama's steadfastness in sticking with the comprehensive Affordable Care Act when others in his administration were ready to cave and accept an increment or two, kept the bill together long enough for passage.

I would add another example.  Both Bernstein and Chiat agree that any Dem would have proposed a big stimulus package.  But the difference may be in what was in that package.  I'm not sure all other Dems would have insisted that a chunk of spending be devoted to embryonic clean energy projects.  Yet that seeding was important and possibly crucial to the tremendous growth in clean energy we see today, to the point that it is a real economic as well as ecologic force.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Two Weather Makers for 2014 and Beyond

As "The World Set Free," that great episode of Cosmos said, climate is the general outline of weather and it is pretty predictable.  The day to day weather within it is still pretty unpredictable more than a day or so in advance.  But there are a couple of phenomena that do determine weather, and both are making news.

One is our old friend El Nino.  As this pretty thorough ABC article explains, it occurs when several small things happen at the right times, and then it takes on a life of its own. In a way, that's a relevant model for the climate crisis itself.  When El Nino gets established it can last for two years or so.  Right now the relevant scientists are 80% sure El Nino is developing.  It's likely to be felt in fall and winter.  As this article notes, the early effects are already being felt in India, where the monsoon season is dryer, and food prices are going up.

The general effects of El Nino are increased global heating and more extreme weather.  It moves the rain around so that some areas get a lot more than usual, and others a lot less, causing flooding and drought respectively.  Since El Nino releases heat from the oceans, there's speculation that this time it will be even hotter because the oceans may be holding much of the carbon-caused heating that's happened in the past few years.  Record-breaking global temps for the next year or two at least would then be likely.

How big an El Nino this one might be is still an open question. One reason is that there isn't enough good information, although there could have been more.  As the ABC article notes, real systematic study of the phenomenon only began after the El Nino of the early 1980s.  A system of buoys with measuring instruments was created--but in the US financial crisis of 2008, support for maintaining them was dropped.  So we're getting less information than we could be.

The question of whether this will be a "normal" or "super" El Nino is closely watched here in California, because it may be the difference between some rain and a lot of rain, maybe even enough to break the drought.  In any case, El Nino tends to push weather to the extremes, both in extent and duration.

Another major phenomena determining weather is the jet stream.  Last winter and this spring and summer have been characterized by unusually extreme weather hanging around for a long time.  There was also the "polar vortex" bringing Arctic cold south into the U.S.  Now a series of studies suggest that unusual "waves" in the jet stream that sort of move cold and hot air around in unfamiliar patterns, can and did cause such extremes.  Moreover, a cause of these waves may be global heating.

What nobody knows is the combined effect of these two phenomena happening together.  But we may well find out very soon.

Update: Because of these and other effects of global heating and the climate crisis, the UN today said that the "normal" baselines for predicting weather are no longer normal, and must be updated if forecasts are to be anywhere near accurate.

Paul in Pittsburgh

Paul McCartney played Pittsburgh the other night.  I wasn't there but some of my genes were--my niece Megan and her husband Steve were there.  I've seen films of Paul's most recent tours and the concerts are great, not only for the great music but for the audiences--two, three, four generations of Beatles fans, ecstatic and singing along.  And McCartney fans--there's a generation or two in there somewhere that knew him first from Wings or after.

Megan and Steve even had a Beatles-theme wedding.  I guess the Beatles mixes I made for Megan and her sister Sarah when they were little were not in vain.

I was present for a Paul McCartney concert back in 1976 at the RFK stadium outside Washington.  We were high up and far away but someone brought binoculars and passed them around.  I got them during a ballad with Paul at the piano.  When I got him in focus I was startled to see him apparently looking right at me.

In its account of the Pittsburgh concert--only the second on his current US tour, which almost didn't happen because of his recent illness--the Post Gazette published his set list.  I've heard his recent concert versions of many of these tunes.  So I did the best I could do--I listened to the music playing in my head.

Speaking of Sports

Baseball: The SF Giants were so far ahead in their division that one of the worst months it is possible for a contending team to endure has left them in a two-team race with the Los Angeles Dodgers that will probably continue the rest of the season, if--IF--they can right the ship after the All-Star break.  They had a couple of games returning to form, Hunter Pence turns out to be a terrific lead-off hitter,  Brandon Belt is back and taking up with where he left off as a power hitter, Joe Panik is turning into a skilled major leaguer who can deliver timely hits, and the starting pitching is coming around--the miracle of Lincecum in particular.  Relief pitching is still shaky and it will have to stabilize for them to stay at or near the top.  Their series with Oakland--now the team with the best record in the majors, replacing the Giants--suggests the NL pennant may not be worth all that much anyway.

Meanwhile the Pittsburgh Pirates continue to scorch the league, with Gregory Polanco already a star, even beside the Hall of Fame numbers that Andrew McCutchen has been putting up for the past month or so.  Their test will be to maintain this momentum after the break.  They have very difficult competition in their division: the Brewers, Cardinals, Reds and Pirates are all separated by no more than 4.5 games. They'll need nerves of steel to win the division or even a playoff spot, but on the other hand they are only 4 games above .500 but only 3 games out of first.

Basketball: I hate myself for being at all interested in millionaire basketball free agents shopping for multimillion dollar contracts, but I've been watching old Lakers and Bulls games on tape so the NBA has my attention.  The news changes every day, and what's becoming clear is that some of these guys may well decide based on what other guys decide.

 LeBron may well stay in Miami but it feels to me like Bosh goes to Houston regardless.  The Lakers are working the PR machine to make it seem like Carmelo Anthony is seriously considering joining Kobe and Pau Gasol as the nucleus of a contending team.  Melo would take a pay cut from the Knicks to do so.  A NYC paper is reporting that Melo wants to recruit LeBron but the Knicks don't seem to have that kind of money available--and LeBron has announced he's looking for the money.

For the Lakers hopes with Melo, the wild card is Gasol, also a free agent.  He's being actively courted by several teams who actually want him, while the Lakers have been rumored to be trading him most of the past several seasons.  Do you stay somewhere you've been dissed by management?  I would be surprised if he stays with the Lakers, but he seems to like living in Los Angeles.

  Right now the Knicks don't look in great shape for next season and if they lose Melo to LA or Chicago and that money is available, we'll see how creative and persuasive Phil Jackson can be.  The Lakers aren't in great shape either without landing a superstar or a couple of stars. Still, this conventional wisdom that Kobe is too old and is only a "nominal" superstar will be proven wrong.

World Cup: Uh, what's the World Cup again?

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Stress, Smoke and Mirrors

All stressed out, especially about the effects of being all stressed out?  Or are you worried that you aren't a Type A personality, the go-getter hero of capitalism with the relentless predatory drive to achieve, cheat and win, and then die of an heroic heart attack?

Hey.  Light up a cigarette and relax.

NPR is doing a series on stress.  They commissioned a poll which is mostly non-scientific nonsense, yielding such stunning results as people in poor health feel a lot of stress. Wow!

 But in Monday's story on the subject they did come up with some important news.  (News only because it hasn't been widely reported, to my knowledge.  The actual information has been available on the Internet for decades.)

It turns out that in reviewing these documents posted by court order since the 90s,  public health researcher Mark Petticrew found that much of the research that made "stress" famous, that "discovered" the Type A personality, was funded and controlled by Big Tobacco:

"What they've discovered is that both Selye's work [which established that any kind of stress caused bad health outcomes] and much of the work around Type A personality were profoundly influenced by cigarette manufacturers. They were interested in promoting the concept of stress because it allowed them to argue that it was stress — not cigarettes — that was to blame for heart disease and cancer.

"In the case of Selye they vetted the content of his papers and agreed the wording of papers," says Petticrew. "Tobacco industry lawyers actually influenced the content of his writings, suggesting to him things that he should comment on."

They also, Petticrew says, spent a huge amount of money funding his research. All of this is significant, Petticrew says, because Selye's influence over our ideas about stress are hard to overstate. It wasn't just that Selye came up with the concept, but in his time he was a tremendously respected figure."

Why does this not surprise me?  I've already told the story here of my encounter Big Tobacco paying off a newspaper to censor anything negative about Big Tobacco.  This story is entirely credible on the face of it.  It's especially credible because it fits into Big Tobacco's obsessive attention to marketing.  Sure, a lot of scientific research has been funded by the Defense Department and other organizations with a purpose, but Big Tobacco wasn't interested in discovering or creating anything--they only wanted to manipulate "research" to help them sell cigarettes, and to prevent for as long as possible any attempt to regulate tobacco as a serious health threat.

As for stress, the NPR story also mentions that later research casts a lot of doubt on the whole Type A idea, though that mythology is firmly entrenched in popular culture.  Most of the research that links high stress to heart disease was funded by Big Tobacco, while all but one of the studies that weren't find a much weaker link.  The NPR story concludes:

But some scientists now argue that our usual narrative of stress — that stress is universally bad for health — is too one-sided and doesn't reflect the reality that some degree of stress can actually benefit people. Stress isn't always a bad thing.

Still, the narrative of stress promoted by the tobacco industry through research and marketing is alive a well. A ghost from a long time ago continues to shape how we see, and experience, stress.

Mr. Butts is still in our heads.  Want to ask him what he thinks of the climate crisis?

Monday, July 07, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

"True silence is the rest of the mind, and is to the spirit what sleep is to the body, nourishment and refreshment."
 William Penn

"People Prefer Electric Shocks to Being Alone With Their Thoughts"
The Atlantic