Saturday, October 10, 2015

Weekend Update: GOPers, Guns and El Nino

Though I saw the GOPer earthquake/meltdown coming, I was still amazed by a story Friday, written by a veteran political reporter (Karen Tumulty) and published in the Washington Post:

Less than a year after a sweeping electoral triumph, Republicans are on the verge of ceasing to function as a national political party.

That's something that was unthinkable, even during Watergate. "Ceasing to function" is of course the scary part in terms of shared governance.  "as a national political party" is an interesting characterization, for there is a strong argument that the Republican party electorally is becoming regional.  We aren't Red States and Blue States, the freshman Senator from Illinois famously said in 2004, we are the United States.  But are we?  If not entire states all the time, we do have Red and Blue congressional districts that are divided by more than party label.  And some of those Red Staters aren't interested in the interests of the United States, or the world.

But responding to the latest congressional GOPer crisis--the sudden end to the heir apparent's ascension to Speaker, and the resulting chaos that leaves no credible candidate for the job but Paul Ryan, who so far is refusing to run for it--Tumulty describes the tumult in her second graph/sentence:

The most powerful and crippling force at work in the ­once-hierarchical GOP is anger, directed as much at its own leaders as anywhere else.

Jonathan Chiat analyzes how this plays out rationally, if not reasonably:

"What actually separates the insurgents from the Establishment is not ideology but tactics. The insurgents refuse to accept the constitutional limits of their power, and believe that more frenzied assertions of their core beliefs, combined with a periodic willingness to shut down the government and threaten a currency default, can prevail over President Obama through force of will. The insurgents mistakenly interpret disagreements over means as disagreements over ends; when Republican leaders express reluctance to shut down the government over Obamacare or Planned Parenthood, the insurgents take this as actual support for those programs."

Ryan's refusal may well be sincere--it's worse than a thankless job, and a former vice-presidential candidate doesn't need the prestige.  But if it's tactical, in order to let support build until he's crowned by acclamation, he risks what is starting to happen: rabid righters rebelling against Ryan basically because people they don't like support him, and he's unlikely to do crazy stuff like defaulting on the debt or shutting down the federal government.  So it seems he's going to have to declare in or out pretty soon. Update: Maybe too late. By late Saturday, Reuters has a story that their opposition is growing.

But even that may not be enough.  The New York Times Saturday suggests that rabid right insurgents want to take away much of the Speaker's power, which the story opines Ryan is unlikely to like.  If such demands are made, a Saturday Washington Post story also asserts, Ryan won't take the job.

Why would he? He's the most powerful chair of the House's most powerful committee.  And if insurgents get their way and distribute much of the Speaker's power to others, including committee chairs, he'll become more powerful by staying put.  Only big pressure to save the party might sway him.  But aren't the GOPers billionaires more rabid than right?

Of course, if the rabids prevent the US from honoring its debts on the debt ceiling vote in November, such "power" will be dismally irrelevant.

Land of Guns

President Obama had to hurry to comfort mourners and survivors of the gun massacre in Oregon but couldn't get it all done before there were two more campus shootings.

But it turns out these were fairly ordinary days in America.  Data published in the Guardian shows that in 1,004 recent days, there were 994 mass shootings, almost one a day on average, when "mass shooting" is defined as four or more victims.  Check out the chart.

Nick Kristof in the New York Times sifts more stats: more Americans killed by guns in America than died in all wars since (and including) the American Revolution.  And this one:

In America, more preschoolers are shot dead each year (82 in 2013) than police officers are in the line of duty (27 in 2013), according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI.

Kristof suggests ways of breaking the impasse and doing something about gun violence, for example by treating this as a public health issue.  He notes however that Republicans in Congress have forbidden the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence.

Meanwhile President Obama is considering using executive action to redefine what constitutes a gun dealer to include large-volume dealers at gun shows, so buyers would have to pass background checks.  This idea has been around since 2013, and seems to be the same as what Hillary Clinton proposed through aides the other day.

There's also been quite a bit of noise about arming more people to defend themselves against crazy shooters, along with louder condemnation of any kind of gun control (using false history and a phony Hitler quote to suggest the Nazis triumphed because they enacted gun control. They didn't enact gun control, and they encountered armed resistance.)  The latest poster child for giving more people more guns was a woman shopper who whipped out her concealed pistol to shoot at shoplifters.

El Nino Update

National Weather Service updated their El Nino forecasts, with even the official pronouncements bringing good news for northern California: an 80% likelihood of normal precip this winter (after several years of way below normal), and a 40% chance of above normal.

But a NASA climate expert at the Jet Propulsion lab said this was typically conservative--that the El Nino is so strong that northern California will get lots of rain, including a restored snowpack in the Sierras, maybe twice normal.

The problem with all these forecasts is that they are based on comparing this year's data with previous El Ninos and their effects.  Two problems actually: first, the number of El Ninos with data attached is pretty small.  Second, this isn't 1950 or even 1996 in terms of the other phenomena affecting weather that seem caused or exaggerated by global heating and its effects in the atmosphere and especially in the oceans.

So if it starts raining and raining a lot in November, it's encouraging. But we won't know about how this El Nino interacted with the Blob etc. until looking back at this winter.  However, maybe it's wishful thinking, but the feeling here is yeah--it's gonna rain and rain.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Sixty Days to Save The World

In sixty days, the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference will be underway.  In the strange trenches of pre-conference negotiating and writing of a draft agreement, some progress has reportedly been made--principally by reducing the early draft of 84 pages to 20.

Progress towards the goals of the agreement has been more substantial.  The United States and China continue to up their game, especially with China's surprise announcement of a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon.  The big missing piece in the global picture also started to move into place when India announced its own commitments and plans to address the climate crisis.  India had been resisting such action, resenting the burden placed on developing countries, but it is especially vulnerable to early and dire effects, so constructive engagement became a better policy.

Some warn however that the goals announced so far aren't sufficient to bring future heating under the 2 degree C goal.  That is the announced goal of the UN conference, reflecting the scientific consensus that this is the upper limit of global temperature rise before global heating gets completely out of control.  So there's negotiating ahead, with the real goal of getting some kind of meaningful binding international agreement for the first time.  The idea is to turn the ship around, and hope that near-future efforts will pick up speed in time.

Another good sign that this is happening is that the UN development goals for the future that seek to dramatically reduce global poverty, are also sustainable development goals that make clean energy and other efforts to address the climate crisis an integrated part of the plan.  This is a recognition that there cannot be a conflict between economic development and climate crisis efforts, as well as a recognition of the link that Pope Francis emphasizes, between the climate crisis and those who will suffer most from its effects: the world's poor.

Americans may be surprised that addressing the causes of the climate crisis is embraced by nearly every nation in the world, and by every political party in every country that has real elections (although of course the means advocated vary widely.)  The only exception is the US Republican party.

 So rigid and extreme has this party (and this "brand") become that it's big news when a few GOPers finally dare to take the climate crisis somewhat seriously. But polls suggest a majority of Republican voters at least see the threat of the climate crisis.  Something's got to give, sometime.

The political leadership of the party is also increasingly out of step with major elements of its constituency.  In a notable announcement, six major US banks urged global leaders to make a climate agreement in Paris.  Many corporations support efforts to address the causes of global heating, but this is a significant advocacy for the global commitments themselves.

Meanwhile, the effects of past carbon pollution are about to become even more obvious, according to a British study, which says that the world will be much hotter this year and next as those effects combine with other climate phenomena.

But the kind of news that either scares people into denial or scares them into support and action is this: photos of visibly starving polar bears. It's one thing to read that it's probably too late to save the polar bears from the effects of the climate crisis, but it is another to watch a species die, especially one so close to ours.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Guns and Bombs

Umpqua Community College
Responses to the Oregon gun massacre and the continuing failure of gun policy in America have continued, as President Obama once again becomes the Mourner-in-Chief.

Hillary Clinton was impressive in her town hall, talking with emotion about gun violence and in general about the changes in law and practice she advocates.  One of her bolder proposals she left to a staff member to explain to the media--something that can be done administratively by the President, which perked up a lot of ears in the general despair that anything will get done soon.  Here and here are articles on a couple of different proposals she made, or is said to make.  And here is some video on the subject from the town hall.

Of all the resonances--about Oregon gun laws, etc.--that have emerged, there's video of an appearance in this very Oregon town by Robert F. Kennedy during his campaign in 1968, in which he advocates for common sense gun control measures, and not to a friendly audience.

So this has been going on a long time.  The state of the debate is suggested in this series of opinion pieces from CNN: "Why We're Still Debating Guns in 2015." It doesn't actually answer that question but the accumulation of views demonstrates that we certainly are.  (Anyway everybody knows the answer: it's money.)

As usual it is the "humorists" who cut through the platitudes and tortured policy discussions.  Australian comic Jim Jeffries video on the subject has reputedly "gone viral."  Andy Borowitz at the New Yorker titles his latest column: Americans Opposed to Being Shot Seek Representation in Washington.

And while this ritual goes on, one of those stories that happens literally every day in America surfaces: an 11 year old shot and killed an 8 year old in an argument over puppies.  A moment that once might have ended with at worst a bloody nose has now forever deformed the lives of two families and their community, killed a child, and left an 11 year old with a murder charge.

Why has nothing been done on such an obvious and tragic problem, even as we learn of the lives ended in this latest massacre?

There is a lot of despair about this.  Some other problems that have been destroying lives for a long time but aren't discussed as much, aren't political issues as much, like mandatory prison sentences, capital punishment, the war on drugs, are actually being addressed at least somewhat, but quietly, or piecemeal in the states.

 It may be that these gun massacres that rivet attention on the topic for a few days or weeks are counterproductive because they force everyone into their rigid political positions, with the opportunity that outrage provides both sides, all sides, to raise money.  Unfortunately, they keep happening.  Plus the powers that are not opposed to people being shot (the NRA) are still powerful, or seem to be.

It may be that a woman President could be the right person to get something done, if she sticks with it. Something isn't enough, but at least it could be something.

Update 10/6: President Obama called for voters who are part of the coalition of  Americans Opposed to Being Shot (and forming such a group is actually not a bad idea) to take positions on gun regulations into account in the candidates they vote for.  Now some powerful Democrats in the Senate want to make those positions clearer by forcing votes on gun legislation

Now to bombs--specifically the bombs that rained down on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.  That organization and the UN have made a very good case for an international investigation, with possible charges of war crimes.

It seems undisputed that the coordinates of the hospital were known to all combatants, and that the US forces were notified while the bombing continued for some 30 minutes.  Doctors Without Borders denies that Taliban fighters were firing from the hospital grounds, and while the Afghans still maintain this, it seems the US is less willing to confirm.

 Nothing that the US military has said so far seems trustworthy (so I'm not bothering to link to anything.) Although my intuition was that the attack was prompted by Afghan forces, and the latest US statements finally say that, there is still no excuse for the US military to have begun this attack, and even less to have continued it.

There are screwups that kill people, including innocents and your own in every war--that's what letting lose "the dogs of war" means, and why it is such a fatal step.  But this is an extremely serious situation, because this is an international humanitarian organization that provides services that no government and no military provides.  It puts every such mission and every such organization everywhere in question.

 Right now everything coming out of the Pentagon sounds like ass-covering.  That has to stop.  An investigation with judicial powers by an impartial international entity is necessary and right.

Update 10/6: The Pentagon began singing a different tune, and the White House pledged review and changes. Whether this is higher ups throwing underlings under the bus or an accurate assessment of who is responsible remains to be seen.  An international review however is still appropriate.