Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Call Me Al

Ah, summer. Long days (but solstice behind us, getting shorter, all downhill from here).  Daylight streaming around the bedroom window shades by 5:30 AM. Heat. Exhaustion. Heat exhaustion!

It's an intensely busy time of year for me. No slack: just work, eat, sleep. Thus the dearth of summer posts to This Here Blog®. Which is a shame, because there are several interesting topics I'd like to be writing about, for want of time.

But I wanted to wrap a short post (famous last words!) around this photo. (Click on the image for a larger view.) It's a pretty little spread of Blackeyed Susans from my tallgrass prairie restoration, taken a few days ago.

Blackeyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

The particular area where this photo was taken has not been under management for very long, so the overall quality of the vegetation is not high. That's the reason for so many Blackeyed Susans. I'll explain.

This delightful native flower is on the "weedy" end of the spectrum by which botanists designate floristic quality, although for most purposes it would be a misunderstanding to call it a weed.

Better to say it is an "early successional" plant whose ecological role is to occupy somewhat disturbed ground that doesn't contain a rich compliment of higher quality vegetation. With proper management spanning years, that better vegetation will gradually appear and fill in, and Blackeyed Susan and similar plants will decline.

Thankfully, Blackeyed Susans will never disappear completely. They are always present in high quality prairies, albeit in much reduced numbers compared to weedy fields, which they can fill with huge displays.

Botanists assign to each species of native plant a number ranging from 0 to 10 that's called a "coefficient of conservatism" (CoC). Low numbers designate "weedy" species; high numbers designate "conservative" species. Conservative species tend to have greater fidelity to high quality natural areas, and tend to be absent from low quality or disturbed areas. Nonnative species are not assigned any CoC. Coefficients of conservatism are generally assigned at the state level, because particular species can vary in conservatism across regions. The Kansas CoC for Blackeyed Susan is mere 2, but I like it anyway.

The overall quality of an area's vegetation can be gauged by computing its "floristic quality index" (FQI), which is the mean CoC for all native species present, multiplied by the square root of the number of distinct native species. A larger FQI designates higher floristic quality. As you can see, the FQI incorporates both species diversity (more is better) plus the conservatism of the species present as a measure of quality.

For example, an area with 100 different species having an mean CoC of 4.5 has a FQI of 45. The FQI of a restoration site would be expected to increase over time.

One reason summers are so intensely busy for me is that I'm doing battle with a number of serious weeds, some of which can constitute an existential threat to the prairie. These are weeds in the most noxious sense of the word: exotic invaders which can transform the area if they're left unchecked. I estimate that I walk 10 to 15 miles per day on my weed rounds, taking a day off only when absolutely necessary.

Work days involve pulling myself out of bed at first light, working all day, getting home with just enough time to launder the day's work clothes, cook supper for the dogs, shower, get my own supper, and collapse into bed. I do manage a little correspondence, bill paying, and such before heading out for the day.

There's an upside to this frenetic activity. Covering so much terrain every day allows me to constantly see what's blooming throughout the season, and to stop for the occasional photo. I also collect seeds of desirable plants as I go.

And not just blooming flowers: I'm also in contact with the critters. Fawns bedded down in the grass. Momma turkeys flushed off their nests. A wondrous variety of songbirds, most of whom I don't yet know. And snakes: the ubiquitous garter snakes; huge rat snakes; occasionally bullsnakes.

There are also the venomous varieties: rattlesnakes and copperheads. The very day I photographed the Blackeyed Susans I encountered this rattler, who lay calmly coiled as I spent a few minutes photographing him. He did not rattle, which was disconcerting. I prefer rattlesnakes to exercise their epithet's prerogative, to let me know they're present.

Anyway, this one said his name is "Alfred". "But," he added, "you can call me Al. Call me Al."

 Alfred the rattlesnake

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

On Diversity

Last fall I wrote a series of essays reflecting on Pope Francis's remarkable encyclical, Laudato Si' (subtitled On Care For Our Common Home). I emailed those essays over a period of months to some Catholic acquaintances. Although raised a Catholic, I am no longer a believer, much less a follower of any religion. Nevertheless, I was struck by the urgency and moral clarity of the pope's message. I was particularly eager to see how Catholics I know would reconcile the pope's strong warning about how we are destroying God's creation (and our own home) with their previous denial of climate change and its implications for life on Earth. I'm sorry to report the initial reactions are not encouraging. If even the pope can't get through to hard-core Catholics, who can? Certainly not me.

In his book-length encyclical Pope Francis takes on climate change and much more. There's a section on the horrifying loss of biodiversity we are now experiencing. (As far back as the early 1990s E.O. Wilson warned that we are entering the sixth great extinction spasm in the 4 billion year history of life on Earth, and, unlike the others, this one is caused by human activity.)

The United Nations Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services has just released a scientific assessment (based on 3,000 scientific papers) warning that around 40 percent of the world's pollinating insects are in danger of extinction. That should hit you like a gut punch. Pollinators are crucial to maintaining the web of life on Earth, and also—if self-interest is what motivates you—to the world's human food supply. The loss of such a large number of them would have staggering implications for all of life, including us.

The U.N. assessment underscores the unnatural and disturbingly high rates of extinction we are now experiencing (we are losing tens of thousands of species per year). Last fall I mused on biodiversity in the seventh in my series of email essays on the pope's encyclical. I thought it might be useful to reproduce that essay for a wider audience, so here it is.



Years ago I asked a botanist in Missouri if I should be concerned about the proliferation of a native shrub, buckbrush, on my tallgrass prairie restoration site, and what if anything I should do about it. He discussed options, and said that "I would not use herbicides if there's much diversity."

Diversity is a big deal to biologists—not just to Pope Francis—because it epitomizes the health of biological communities. I have a fat book on my bookshelf entitled Restoring Diversity, along with a number of books on prairie conservation and restoration. The theme of diversity is intimately entwined with all ecological discussion. One of the great ecology books of all times is E.O. Wilson's The Diversity of Life.

Biologists sometimes need to quantify diversity for assessment and monitoring. An important numerical measure of the botanical "quality" of a natural area includes diversity. Called the "Floristic Quality Index" (FQI), it is an arithmetical product that's proportional to the square root of the number of native plant species that area contains. (The other factor in the product is the mean "Coefficient of Conservatism" of all the area's species; the CoC designates a "quality" coefficient to each species. So the product is FQI = average quality x square root of number of species.) In general, then, an area with a greater number of native species is regarded as higher quality than one with less species. I have for years calculated the FQI of my own restoration site.

Biological communities (of all types) that are not diverse are often referred to as being "depauperate." A useful sort-of synonym is "impoverished." Restoration typically entails trying to increase diversity. The diversity of my own site has increased substantially over the past 16 years, but there's tremendous room for more improvement. A lot of native species "came with" the place, but I've added many more by both purchasing and locally collecting seed. I have also increased the restoration's health and diversity by restoring more natural conditions (such as frequent fire) than what prevailed when the site was an overgrazed pasture.

Diversity is a complicated subject operating at multiple scales. It can involve the amount of genetic variation within a single species, and also (more commonly) the variety of different species in a particular area. Habitat fragmentation decreases diversity because smaller areas can support fewer total species. There's actually a mathematical relationship between the size of an area and the ultimate diversity it can support. Thus there are limitations to what is possible on my own restoration site, which unfortunately will never be bigger than some tens of acres. But compared to the land that surrounds it, it is already amazingly diverse.

In general, habitats with high (both inter- and intra-species) diversity are healthier and more resilient. In particular, they are more able to survive what biologists call "stochastic events," which are random natural disruptions (a severe prolonged drought, for example) that cause (temporary, it is hoped) damage to the biota of the area. The typical path to extinction involves reduced numbers, reduced range, and perhaps reduced genetic diversity (leading to "inbreeding"; think of the Florida panther as an example) of a species over time. A species thus weakened ultimately succumbs to some stochastic event or another and becomes extinct. Diverse ecosystems, then, have the resilience necessary to bounce back from severe disruptions.

Diverse ecosystems are healthier and more resilient because they contain a stronger web of connections. In his encyclical Laudato Si', Pope Francis repeatedly emphasizes the connectedness of things, which is true in theological, social, and purely physical or ecological respects. (So there's even connection in the connectedness!) The amount of biological interaction and, indeed, cooperation in a healthy ecosystem is staggering; most people are completely unaware of it. The connections span both scale and taxonomic hierarchy. It's hard to give a sense of how profoundly interconnected everything is by citing just a few examples, but I will try.

Gardeners have heard of how legumes (such as peas and beans) are plants that can harbor certain bacteria in their root nodules that "fix" nitrogen, and thus increase the local fertility to the plant's benefit. You can buy powdered cultures to inoculate garden legume seed with this bacteria, which is known generically as Rhizobium.  But Rhizobium is actually a genus of bacteria containing many species, and each species of Rhizobium is adapted to a particular species or perhaps genus of leguminous plants. It turns out that tallgrass prairie has a multitude of native legumes: prairie clovers, leadplant, goat's rue, the indigos, the bush clovers, and many, many more. For the nitrogen fixation process to work, each of these disparate native legumes requires a particular cooperating species of Rhizobium. The plant might do OK without the proper Rhizobium present, but it will do better with it. So many connections.

Moreover, the root systems of many (perhaps most) prairie species are colonized by a type of fungus broadly called Mychorrhizae. The fungus's fine hyphal threads extend out from the plant's roots, and become in effect an extension of the plant's root system. It is a true symbiotic relationship: the roots exude carbohydrates that nourish the fungus, and the fungus assists with nutrient uptake from the soil which it directs to the plant's roots. The benefit to both is substantial. Some species of prairie plants don't require this association but do better if it is present; others have very coarse roots and require it for health or even survival. (Such requirement for the mycorrhizal association is referred to as "obligate"). As with Rhizobia, particular species of mycorrhizal fungi are matched to particular species of plants. If the required species of Mycorrhizae is not present, the plant may not do well, or may not be present at all. The fungal species and their host plants mutually require each other: Agricultural fields that have been tilled annually eventually lose their below-ground complement of native Mycorrhizae (becoming "depauperate"), and it can be difficult to reestablish some native plant species on those soils. It's worth noting that the most fertile and productive agricultural soils, such as in the midwestern U.S., were actually created by the complex connections and interactions occurring below-ground in tallgrass prairie over millennia.

These examples don't even scratch the surface of connections in nature, but they can give you a hint of why the connectedness of things is so important.

Some species of prairie plants won't take hold except in a community with a diverse mix of other high quality prairie plants, and a healthy compliment of below-ground processes. Even though I take liberties with the term in my own activities, it can take literally centuries for a particular area to truly be called a "prairie," because the connections that must be made, both below (tallgrass prairie can contain nearly two-thirds of its total biomass below the soil surface) and above ground, are slow and protracted.

The connections are unending. Some plants require very specific pollinators and can't survive without them. Some pollinators require very specific plant hosts and can't survive without them. Other relationships are a bit looser but still important. Monarch butterflies use milkweed species (genus Asclepias) for all phases of their life cycle. The butterflies are important pollinators of the milkweeds, but other insects pollinate them too. Hummingbirds are important pollinators of certain plants with very deep tubular calyxes, such as royal catchfly, where the hummingbird's long beak and tongue are required to access the deeply-contained nectar. The superior strength of the bumblebee (itself endangered by climate change) is required to pry open the tightly overlapping flower parts of the closed gentian; lesser insects cannot get inside to perform the pollination services. Evening primroses open at night, and so are serviced by evening- and night-flying pollinators such as sphinx moths.

Life on Earth is a true web of connections, and when those connections are weakened, other connections are in turn weakened or broken in a destructive cascade that's important even if it isn't immediately apparent to the casual observer. (If you live in a city you might be especially unaware of those connections and, in particular, of when they are broken.) You might wonder why we sometimes fixate on large "charismatic" or "keystone" species, not realizing that their presence or absence speaks to the overall health of the multitude of biological processes of an entire ecosystem that they sit atop. The northern spotted owl, for example, requires old-growth forest. Old-growth forest is itself a particular rich and complicated ecosystem with all kinds of connections at all biological scales. If owls aren't present, lots more is gone too. If we can save the owls, we're saving an entire (and important) habitat type.

As Pope Francis says, we should cherish nature because it is God's creation, and has value in His eyes. Because he saw that it is "good." All of nature, all creatures, give glory to God. But we should also understand that nature is the thing that sustains us in ways we can understand, and some that we can barely imagine. The web of life on Earth produces oxygen we breath. It filters our water. It stores our water and meters it out at a rate we can use. It prevents floods, protects our coastlines, minimizes erosion. It nourishes us. It handles the complex cycling of nutrients through the biosphere, so that life of all kinds can be continuously regenerated. Nature builds soil. It pollinates our crops. The list of so-called "ecosystem services" is practically endless, and we diminish them at our peril. We are all too good at thinking we're only pulling this thread or that, when in fact we are unraveling all kinds of natural complexity upon which we depend.

Pope Francis gets it right:
It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place. (paragraph 34)

For his part, biologist Edward O. Wilson, in The Diversity of Life, said this about what would happen if there suddenly were no insects:

So important are insects and other land-dwelling arthropods that if all were to disappear, humanity could probably not last more than a few months. Most of the amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals would crash to extinction about the same time. Next would go the bulk of flowering plants and with them the physical structure of most forests and other terrestrial habitats of the world. The land surface would literally rot. As dead vegetation piled up and dried out, closing the channels of the nutrient cycles, other complex forms of vegetation would die off, and with them all but a few remnants of the land vertebrates. The free-living fungi, after enjoying a population explosion of stupendous proportions, would decline precipitously, and most species would perish. The land would return to approximately its condition in early Paleozoic times, covered by mats of recumbent wind-pollinated vegetation, sprinkled with clumps of small trees and bushes here and there, largely devoid of animal life. (p. 133)

So many connections.

Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Escalation

As of yesterday we have heard the final word from Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republican senators, particularly those on the Judiciary Committee that would be responsible for vetting and forwarding any Supreme Court nominee for confirmation: President Obama can nominate a candidate to fill the court's vacancy if he wants, but the Senate will not hold hearings, will not consider any nominee, and there will be no votes. Republican committee members have pledged this position in a signed letter, at the behest of majority leader McConnell. Republican senators, indeed, will not extend the usual courtesy of even meeting individually with the president's nominee, should there be one.

McConnell acknowledged that President Obama has "every right to nominate someone," but also that the president "has the right to make a different choice. He can let the people decide and make this an actual legacy-building moment rather than just another campaign roadshow."

And there it is: If Obama moves forward to fulfill his constitutional obligation, the move should be construed as a "campaign roadshow." Somehow in McConnell's mind Obama would burnish his legacy by knuckling under to this latest and most extreme Republican obstructionism.

At the risk of seeming Trumpesquely crude, allow me to recount an anecdote from Obama's first term, when the pattern was developing that Republicans were bent on obstructing, by crippling the functioning of the Senate, everything the president attempted to accomplish. A friend told me that one thing, at least, was clear: Mitch McConnell should be strung up by his nuts.

Indeed, McConnell has been the masterful architect of Senate dysfunction lasting many years. His deliberate gumming up of the works has brought the institution almost to a halt. Recent Congresses have been the least productive in modern history. This is not your father's Republican party.

McConnell has asserted that, were the shoe on the other foot, Democrats would behave the same. Except there's no evidence for anything of the sort. There is no symmetry between the parties; no precedent for claiming Democrats are so thoroughly and systematically hostile to good governance in the manner of present day Republicans.

Where does it end? Chris Hayes has referred to the present situation as a one-way ratchet. Mitch McConnell is leading us into a new era of ever greater governmental dysfunction, the likes of which we've not seen since the Civil War. With bipartisan governance slayed and buried, it seems the only way to achieve any national progress is to control both Congress and the presidency. Gone is the possibility of big achievements like moonshots and interstate highways. Nothing substantial or politically difficult is now possible. Strong unified action on climate change? Forget it.

One sometimes hears that there are a few moderate Republican senators who have their doubts about stonewalling the nomination and confirmation process. But what does "moderate" even mean, beyond a little private and mostly subdued fretting about the current course? McConnell's obstruction has been going on for almost the entire Obama presidency, with nary a public whimper of any note from any Republican senator.

If there are actually any Republican moderates remaining in the Senate, now is the time to hear forcefully from them. If there's any integrity left, let's see it.

How about this: Is it possible that being a Republican no longer means what it used to? That it's time to say enough of destructive polarization? Do you, dear Senator, feel perpetually dirty, in need of a cleansing shower? Perhaps a party defection or two, a la Specter, could get the ball rolling for a Democratic takeover of the Senate in the coming elections. What better way to say you're sick and tired of the direction our government has been going, driven by a party you no longer recognize? How about it, Susan Collins? Or are you, in the end, just like all the rest, except with a little discrete hand wringing to assuage your conscience?

Dumb question.

 Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Illegitimate Obama

President Obama has always carried the burden of implicit illegitimacy in the eyes of many Republicans. The conviction that he was not born in the United States, or is a closet Muslim, or has somehow risen without merit (with unwarranted academic credentials, for example) beyond his rightful place, has nagged the president since before the election in 2008. This, despite the fact that the evidence of his birth in Hawaii is unambiguous and unassailable, and always has been. We may as well add the place of Obama's birth to the right's mindless litany of denial, along with denials of matters of scientific certitude such as evolution and climate change. At least the right is consistent in its fact-denying obtusity.

I'm sorry to say that we must whack this dead horse one more time, so please bear with me. Obama's "first" birth certificate was placed in the public domain many months before the 2008 election, long before he became president. A copy was provided to the nonpartisan Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which placed high resolution photos of it on the web. Annenberg examined it for signs of authenticity, such as a raised seal. FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Center, said that its staffers "have now seen, touched, examined and photographed the original birth certificate. We conclude that it meets all of the requirements from the State Department for proving U.S. citizenship." Okay? Oh, no.

In the fall of 2008, FactCheck.org reported that Hawaii's Department of Health confirmed that Obama was born in Honolulu. Top officials in Hawaii's health department, including director Chiyome Fukino and the registrar of vital statistics, Alvin Onaka, stated that they personally verified the existence of the original documents. Now okay?

That should have been the end of it, but of course it wasn't, just as no amount of scientific evidence or consensus will convince climate change deniers. In 2011 the White House released the president's "long form" birth certificate. A public spectacle was made, intentionally, with advance media notice, of the president's personal attorney, Judith Corley, traveling to Hawaii to retrieve the certificate: all designed to ensure real time public awareness and scrutiny. Even Corley's correspondence with Hawaii's Director of Health was made public. Okay? Okay?

Yes, this gets wearying, but hang on. As has been stated from the beginning, the announcement of little Barack's birth was reported in Honolulu's two newspapers at the time, back in 1961. You can go back to the newspaper archives and see for yourself. By the way, newspaper birth announcements are reported by the hospital where the birth occurs, not by the family.

And hey, we even have a witness. In his comprehensive Obama biography author David Maraniss writes of contemporaneous correspondence referring to Obama's birth. In casual conversation the week of Obama's birth in 1961, obstetrician Dr. Rodney T. West remarked, during lunch with Honolulu Star-Bulletin journalist Barbara Czurles, that "Stanley had a baby! Now that's something to write home about."

"Stanley," you see, was the unusual name of Obama's mother, who was white; little Barack was black. The name and story was odd enough that Czurles mentioned it in a letter back home to her father, who worked at the state university in Buffalo, and who was also named Stanley. Thus the amusing story of Obama's birth became part of Czurles family lore decades before anybody knew the guy would someday be president. Maraniss writes that " 'Stanley had a baby' is the sort of anecdote that flits brightly around nursing stations and down hospital cafeteria waiting lines." (p 166) As sometimes happens, what would otherwise have been an unremarkable event is thereby recorded in history's testimony: "Stanley's baby" would one day become president of the United States.

The circle comes round. Not only has the "birther" nonsense delegitimized Obama in the eyes of more than a few Americans, but Donald Trump, one of the current candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, was long a prominent proponent of the preposterous "birther" conspiracy, and spent a fair amount of time and effort fanning the flames. In 2011 Trump claimed to have investigators on the ground in Hawaii looking into Obama's birth, and said at the time that "they cannot believe what they're finding." Wow, do tell. But Trump has never did tell us what amazing things his "people" found, and when now asked about Obama's birth just says he's no longer talking about it. Even despite all those "amazing" things? When in an interview during the current campaign a journalist opined that Obama was clearly born in the U.S., Trump brushed it off with: "You can believe that if you want." Shouldn't we demand more than that?

By the way, it's a delicious irony that nobody denies that Ted Cruz, another Republican and base favorite campaigning for the presidency, was born in Canada. Cruz claims that because his mother was a U.S. citizen he meets the "natural born" citizen qualification to be president, but many constitutional scholars say the matter is not so clear. In any case, we can be sure that Cruz, at least, accepts Obama's right to be president, because Obama's mother was also a U.S. citizen. She was born in Wichita, Kansas.

Conspiracy theories die slowly. As recently as September of last year, a poll found that 20% of Americans still believe Obama was born outside the U.S. 43% of Republicans believe Obama is a Muslim, something for which there is not a shred of evidence, and which is contradicted by Obama claiming to be and conducting himself as a Christian for decades. Thus has Barack Obama been systematically delegitimized in a long running Orwellian made-up reality, a narrative that more readily allows him to be marginalized politically—quite a tidy feat for conveniently dismissing an elected president.

So Obama was tagged as variously illegitimate from before the 2008 election, and fought that perception through most of his presidency. There's an intangible element to that illegitimacy that goes beyond just the birther stuff. Undoubtedly some meaningful fraction of the citizenry recoils at the notion of a black president on any terms, all the more so if they can tag him as a Kenyan Muslim impostor. Obama, whatever he is, is not one of us. And so, it is said from time to time, Obama doesn't love America. How could he?

Moreover, much of the Republican political establishment has always viewed Obama as illegitimate for the simple reason that they cannot abide a Democrat in the White House, and whenever one gets elected they operate in perpetual political extremity, with impeachments, government shutdowns, debt default threats, and various other miscellany. Particularly in this era of intense polarization, Republicans have demonstrated consistently that they cannot govern during times when they're not in complete control. They just don't know how to meaningfully share power.

All these factors were the perfect storm that culminated in the Obama presidency. It's little remarked but true: Republicans conspired to block the new president from the moment of his inauguration, even at a particularly dangerous time for the country. From PBS's FRONTLINE:

On the night of Barack Obama’s inauguration, a group of top GOP luminaries quietly gathered in a Washington steakhouse to lick their wounds and ultimately create the outline of a plan for how to deal with the incoming administration.

"The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority," Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told FRONTLINE.

Among them were Senate power brokers Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan. After three hours of strategizing, they decided they needed to fight Obama on everything. The new president had no idea what the Republicans were planning.

The era of Republican obstructionism had begun, even before the final echos of Obama's oath of office went silent. This despite the fact that the country was in the midst of a financial meltdown of frightful proportions, with a possible disintegration of the nation's economy unfolding before the country's eyes: a time when governing unity, not political war waging, should have been the prevailing concern.

But it was not to be. Exactly three Republicans out of 217 in the entire Congress voted for the President's stimulus bill at the very beginning of the new administration, at a time when the need was great and goodwill should have been abundant. This at a time when the economy was shedding more than three quarters of a million jobs per month, with devastation everywhere you looked. We should never forget the extent of the bloodletting, nor the extent of the Republican recalcitrance, even in that remarkable and frightful time.

Only three Republican votes! In the midst of a financial and economic meltdown! Lest you think the Obama stimulus was just some ill advised liberal concoction, you should know that economists have long and overwhelmingly found that it was appropriate and helpful. In November 2009 Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, and past adviser to John McCain, said "the stimulus is doing what it was supposed to do—it is contributing to ending the recession." But by then, nine months into the new administration, the political sniping had long been underway. An early and frequent refrain from John Boehner was: "Mr. President, where are the jobs?"

Here's where. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office has consistently said that the stimulus was effective, increasing "the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million." Of course, the stimulus was not nearly large enough to erase the entire job deficit cause by the deep recession (fourteen months old when Obama took office) and ensuing depression, but nobody ever claimed that it would. From a political perspective it's hard to imagine the stimulus being much bigger, even if the full extent of the devastation in the economy had been known. And even so, Obama made too many important concessions to win the three meager Republican votes he ultimately got.
 
Perhaps most telling, a panel of top economists polled by the Booth School at the University of Chicago—perhaps the country's most esteemed (though MIT will object), famous, and conservative economics department—subsequently found, twice, that the Obama stimulus was a good idea.

So: The Obama stimulus was signed into to law February 17, 2009, less than one month after Obama took office, with almost zero Republican support, despite the great need and immense economic turmoil. It sure looks for all the world that Republicans really had decided, from the very beginning, to not cooperate with anything the president attempted. And within a couple of months Republicans would be beating the president about the head and shoulders with the economic disaster they had handed him.

But that was just the beginning. A year later not a single Republican in the Congress voted for the president's health care plan. Not one!

Not only did no Republican vote for Obamacare, but Republicans were and are furious that the law passed on party line votes (as if that somehow delegitimizes the law) in the House and Senate, at a time when Democrats had control of both houses. But Republicans have it backward: the real outrage was that it should have required a party line vote in the first place: that a solid wall of Republican opposition was intent on utterly blocking every Obama initiative.

Republicans had no reason to cry foul. That Obama intended to reform healthcare was no secret, and he had a strong electoral mandate to do so. Health reform was one of the top issues of the 2008 election, and Obama and Hillary Clinton debated it furiously during their protracted nomination battle. The voters knew what they were getting. Republicans claimed they were locked out of the health reform legislation proceedings, but it's more correct to say they were unwilling partners, and as we have seen that fits the pattern that was already unfolding.

Importantly, Republicans were equally represented beside Democrats in the "Gang of Six" of the Senate Finance Committee that took the lead role in drafting the most important parts of the health reform law. The group consisted of Democrats Max Baucus (chairman), Jeff Bingaman, and Kent Conrad, and Republicans Mike Enzi, Chuck Grassley, and Olymia Snowe. For his part, Grassley showed his bad faith by campaigning back home in Iowa that he was going to torpedo the law even as he was ostensibly helping to draft it. Grassley is famous for proffering the "pulling the plug on Grandma" snipe.

Scorched earth opposition is just how things have been during the Obama administration, by any measure. Anything Obama is for is automatically opposed by Republicans, regardless of their previous positions. The pattern has played out repeatedly. For example, Chuck Grassley was a proponent of the individual mandate before it became part of Obamacare, at which point he discovered that he was against it on constitutional grounds—despite the fact that the mandate's constitutional legitimacy was specifically affirmed by the Supreme Court! Same for other Republicans, including some big names outside of government such as the ever-shifting Newt Gingrich. Truth be told, all of Obamacare's major provisions are Republican ideas, but Obama being for a thing is all that's needed to turn Republicans against it.

During Obama's tumultuous first term, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell famously said his number one priority was to make "President Obama to be a one-term president." Granted that comment was plausibly stated in the context of electioneering, but it was consistent with Republican scorched earth obstructionism from the first moments of the Obama presidency, and also evinced a dearth of vision for anything promoting the national good that he might instead have articulated.

Indeed, McConnell, from his position in the minority, engineered a strategy of blocking or slowing Senate business, almost without exception, by relentless use of Senate rules such as the filibuster. Such systematic obstruction in the Senate is unprecedented in modern times. The only reason Democrats were able to pass big legislation in the first half of Obama's first term was because they had, until Ted Kennedy's death, a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes in the Senate. Were it not for that, there would be nothing noteworthy to show for Obama's eight years. The McConnell-led obstruction is the principal reason that Congresses beginning in 2011 and 2013 were the least productive in modern history. (McConnell amazingly thought that Republican control of the Senate starting in 2015, when he, McConnell, became majority leader, would usher in a new era of cooperation, despite his years long filibuster blitz while in the minority.)

Contrast Republican obstruction during the Obama presidency with Democrats' cooperation during the Bush presidency. There were some major Bush initiatives where Democrats could have dug in their heels, ostensibly on principle, were they so inclined. They might even have said that Bush had no mandate, since he lost the popular vote by half a million, and was appointed by the Supreme Court.

But Democrats, by inclination, govern cooperatively. For example, Democrats voted in favor of the Bush tax cuts that largely benefited the rich, for the ill advised invasion of Iraq, and for the Medicare prescription drug program. The latter program was of course supported by Democrats, but they were unhappy that the plan was not paid for, and that the law, incredibly, prohibited the government from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug prices. And how about Democrats, implored by the Bush administration and Bush's Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, crucially supporting, in the fall of 2008, the publicly-reviled Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that ended up bailing out the big banks? Democrats carried the Bush administration's water on that vote, perhaps because they understand their responsibility to govern, and all the more so in difficult times.

During the Obama presidency Republicans have not merely been an unreliable governing partner; they been openly hostile to the very notion of cooperative governing. Little wonder that the president looks to promote his governing agenda through whatever legal actions taken solely by the executive are available to him, even though such "executive action," particularly by a president they deem sub-legitimate, further infuriates Republicans.

It must be said that the president's executive actions on immigration are not just consistent with actions by past presidents, but also that they were taken as a final resort after years of haranguing the Congress to act. Obama has always acknowledged that executive action was not optimal, and that by his lights the preferred route to reform was through the legislature. The Senate ultimately did vote in favor of bipartisan immigration reform, but the House under John Boehner refused to even take it (or its own alternative) up, let alone bring it to a vote. It's widely believed the Senate bill would have passed the House with little difficulty had it been brought to the floor.

Which brings us to the present, and the death of Antonin Scalia.

From the first hours of the news of Scalia's death, Republicans, from Mitch McConnell on down, have opined that the Supreme Court vacancy not be filled until Obama has left office—despite there being almost a year remaining in the Obama presidency! That black boy in the White House just don't get no respect. Never has.

Outright Republican obstruction of an Obama nominee—any nominee—seems, even at this early stage, almost a fait accompli. Senate judiciary committee chairman Chuck Grassley might not even hold hearings. Mitch McConnell need not schedule floor debate or a vote. Alternatively, a vote could be held, but with that solid wall of Republican opposition we've come to expect denying any Obama nominee a seat on the court. (Democrats would have to peel off four Republican senators to confirm, which is unlikely. Hey, Republicans could even have a couple of their senators vote for the president's nominee, just to make it look less like a party line vote. Alternatively, if the process moved forward but with a Republican filibuster, Democrats would need an impossible fourteen crossover votes.) Isn't that just remarkable to contemplate?

Why wait to fill the vacancy? McConnell said that voters (through the upcoming election) should have a say in determining the new justice, but that's a decidedly extra-constitutional argument, not least because we already have a president who's charged with the constitutional duty to appoint. To the extent that voters have a "say," they already voiced it when they reelected Obama by a large margin in 2012. That was the relevant choice of who would appoint justices for the next four years. Ted Cruz said that if Democrats want to fill this vacancy, they need to win the upcoming presidential election. Um, no. They won the last one, and that's the election that's currently in effect. Republicans aren't required to like it, but they do have a constitutional obligation to act.

Grassley said that Supreme Court vacancies have not been filled in election years going back 80 years, but in point of fact Justice Anthony Kennedy, currently on the bench, took his seat in an election year, 1988—confirmed overwhemingly by a Democratically controlled Senate. (Also see the postscript below.) So maybe Grassley means nominations have never happened in election years. If true that is surely a historical accident. It certainly seems unacceptable that presidents be disqualified from performing their constitutional obligations for one fourth of their time in office. It's quite enough that nothing much typically happens in the lame duck period after an election, but we're a long ways from that.

So maybe Republicans actually mean just this election year, what with the end of the illegitimate president at least in sight, and the means to hang on until that end apparently available to anybody ruthless enough to exploit them. Republicans might argue that the country is just too deeply divided for things to proceed under normal order, but, as we have seen, those divisions are largely a thing of their own making, and they're only making them worse by impeding the constitutional process.

This is silly. Not just silly, but outrageous. Political scientists Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann told us four years ago that our political dysfunction is "even worse than it looks," and in this era of obstruction the typically nonpartisan Ornstein and Mann laid the blame squarely at the feet of Republicans. As I have frequently said, Republicans can no longer govern. They continue to prove me correct. Obama has not just a prerogative but a constitutional duty to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. A substantial amount of time remains in his presidency. There is no good reason outside of partisan politics to impede the normal functioning of this process, and partisan politics in not an acceptable reason. The Republican Senate refusing to cooperate would be a fitting but deplorable capstone to eight long years of single-minded obstruction, during which they've demonstrated time and again that this president isn't worth the time of day.


Postscript: In all of U.S. history it has never taken more than 125 days to confirm, reject, or withdraw a Supreme Court nominee. In modern times 2 or 3 months is the norm, sometimes less. As of now there are 339 days remaining in Obama's presidency, but of course he hasn't yet made a nomination. He will soon.

Senator Rob Portman says it is "common practice" to not nominate or confirm justices during the final year of a president's term, but that is just not so. Since 1900 there have been several nominations and confirmations of justices during presidential election years, and in no case has the president ever failed to nominate a replacement when there's a vacancy, nor has the Senate ever failed to consider a presidential nomination. We've seen that Anthony Kennedy, currently sitting, was confirmed in an election year but nominated in the previous year. In 1938 Stanley F. Reed was nominated and confirmed in an election year. Chuck Grassley says it hasn't happened in the last 80 years, and conveniently begins his interval after Reed. But who cares? Presidents always nominate to fill vacancies, without exception. If the nominations don't occur in election years, it's not because of policy, propriety, or custom; it's because there have been no vacancies in those years.

Remarkably, President Eisenhower made three recess appointments to the Supreme Court, one in an election year! One wonders how long Republicans will persist in feigning a gloss of "normalcy" to justify their reprehensible obstruction.

Update Feb 17: Comments by former Senator and Majority Leader George Mitchell [my transcription]:
Well, there's no historical basis for the actions being taken by the Republicans, there's no constitutional basis, there's no legal basis, and there's surely no moral basis, and really the only basis is politics.

And I think it's a very unfortunate intensification of the increased partisanship that has already brought the Senate and the House into such disrepute and disdain in the country. A lot of the anger that's out there on both sides is overtly, openly, directed toward the Congress, and this just makes it more difficult. I think it's very, very unfortunate.

It's kind of an insult to the intelligence of the people to say the American people should decide.They decided; they elected Barack Obama twice, the second time by 5 million votes. And the Constitution prescribes a 4-year term. It isn't a 3-year term, or a 3 1/2 year term or a 2 1/2 year term. And I think given the importance of the Supreme Court in our society, given the delicate balance that exists, everyone should have as their objective filling this seat with the best, most qualified person as soon as possible.


Copyright (C) 2016 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Reddest Herring

Ted Cruz, Republican senator and candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, says the earth hasn't warmed for eighteen years. Cruz, a climate change denier, chaired a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness that mostly featured witnesses who deny climate change, even as talks were underway in Paris to negotiate a worldwide response to global warming.

"According to the satellite data," Cruz said in his opening remarks, "there has been no significant global warming for the past 18 years. Those are the data. The global warming alarmists don't like these data, they are inconvenient to their narrative. But facts and evidence matters."

Cruz's claim highlights the danger of taking scientific instruction from a slick demagogic opportunistic ideologue who is not himself a scientist. Cruz has called climate change "pseudoscience," even though the greater scientific enterprise broadly, and by every imaginable measure, accepts the reality of anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. Tens of thousands of scientists worldwide, in a multitude of disciplines and specialties, are involved in climate related research. All the world's top scientific academies and societies concur. My post from two and a half years ago is still a good overall introduction to the overwhelming scientific consensus, and both consensus and certainty have increased in the intervening time. Prominent during these last couple of years was the release of a the IPCC's Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in September 2013, and the record-setting warmth of 2014.

So what about that satellite data that show, according to Cruz, that the earth has not been warming? Golly, if we're using satellites to measure the earth's temperature, we ought to have a good picture of what is going on, right? Well, it isn't that simple.

Satellite global warming measurements of the kind described here are actually one of the most fraught and difficult specialties in climate science. The first thing you should understand is that the satellites being discussed don't measure the earth's surface temperature; they "measure" the temperature of a particular part of the atmosphere called the mid-troposphere, and somewhat indirectly. The troposphere is the lower layer of the atmosphere, between the Earth's surface and the upper atmosphere, which is called the stratosphere. Climate change models predict tropospheric warming and stratospheric cooling in a climate that's warming overall, and most scientists say that's what we're observing. This is apart from what we're observing at ground level, which is unambiguous warming.

The satellites specifically examine the troposphere over tropical latitudes—not the entire planet—because climate models predict disproportionately greater warming (called "tropospheric amplification") in this region of the atmosphere as the planet warms. A few scientists say they're not seeing enough mid-tropospheric warming, and climate change deniers and skeptics line up behind those particular scientists. One of them, Dr. John Christy, was a witness at Cruz's hearing.

The contention by some of insufficient tropospheric amplification since 1998 is where Cruz's bald "no significant global warming for the past 18 years" assertion comes from. Note that Cruz doesn't explain when he makes his claim that he's ignoring the more direct and straightforward ways that surface (not tropospheric) temperature is measured, and the broad agreement of warming among the several independent agencies that do that measuring. Presenting as conclusive only "facts"—contested facts, at that—that misleadingly advance your position before an uninformed public, while ignoring context, caveats, and stronger contradictory evidence, is dishonest and dishonorable, at least outside of debate tournaments where you have to argue whatever side you're assigned. The silver-tongued Cruz was a star debater in high school and college, and listening to him you constantly get the impression he's craftily and disingenuously pulling one over on you while arguing his assigned side.

With respect to temperature inferences of the troposphere, I placed scare quotes around the word "measure" above because satellite readings don't involve taking the troposphere's temperature with actual thermometers. This gets technical really fast, but the polar orbiting satellites use microwave sounding units to measure "the intensity of upwelling microwave radiation from atmospheric oxygen, which is related to the temperature of broad vertical layers of the atmosphere." [Quotation found here.]

Some of the difficulties in these measurements involve calibration of the equipment, warm-target bias, deterioration of the sensors, reconciling the measurement record over successive iterations of equipment, diurnal variation, and so forth. For example:

The satellite time series is not homogeneous. It is constructed from a series of satellites with similar but not identical sensors. The sensors also deteriorate over time, and corrections are necessary for orbital drift and decay. Particularly large differences between reconstructed temperature series occur at the few times when there is little temporal overlap between successive satellites, making intercalibration difficult.

Corrections are constantly applied to the resulting datasets to accommodate these difficulties, especially as they become better understood. Read more about all of this in the "Trends from the record" section of the quoted article.

There are multiple groups of scientists who produce datasets from these tropospheric satellite measurements, and they don't all agree [see *footnote]. The two most prominent datasets are one called UAH, produced by Dr. John Christy (as I said, one of Ted Cruz's witnesses) and Dr. Roy Spencer, both of the University of Alabama, Huntsville; and another called RSS, produced by Remote Sensing Systems, a private research company that works for NOAA and NASA. Most scientific experts seem to agree that the satellite data shows the expected tropospheric warming, but the UAH group does not. It all comes down to how adjustments are made to the raw satellite data. Adjustments made to the UAH data over time have brought it closer to the RSS data, but differences remain. Both datasets, and indeed the models underlying computer simulations of tropospheric amplification, continue to be revised as additional understanding emerges.

Ted Cruz hangs his hat on the findings of the UAH team—which is arguably a scientific outlier in this particular debate—and proclaims them conclusive. My advice is that unless you have truly mastered the arcane science of satellite tropospheric measurements, and can lay aside your subjective or ideological biases, you should leave this sleeping dog lie. It is highly unlikely that anybody reading my words—me included—will be equipped to reach a conclusion based on solid understanding of the science. As always, we non-experts ought to be guided by what we are equipped to gauge, which is the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

I should add that many—perhaps most—experts do find the expected tropospheric amplification in the satellite record. But even if you conclude this is a contested area of climate science, you should place it in proper perspective. There are so very many concurring lines of evidence all showing anthropogenic warming, which is why the scientific consensus is so strong. Some of them are: direct surface measurements (on land and at sea) with a vast network of actual thermometers; the alarming, accelerating melting of ice sheets in polar regions, and of glaciers worldwide; the concomitant rise in sea levels, along with increased flooding in coastal areas; a temporal change in the onset of the seasons (eg., spring arrives earlier), based on plant bloom times and numerous other data; observed migration of legions of plant and animal species to higher latitudes, far beyond their historical ranges; equatorial fish species found at high latitudes (such as swordfish off Iceland) for the first time ever; invasive species (such as pine bark beetles) exploiting new habitats that were previously too cold.

The list is practically endless. Here's one of my personal favorites: Armadillos, whose native range is the warm, deep south, are now common in my neck of the woods—er, prairie. A couple of decades ago they did not exist here. Now they're numerous, featuring prominently as disgusting roadkill on our highways. Here are some of my own armadillo photos from near my tallgrass prairie restoration.

Ted Cruz's contention that the earth has not warmed for 18 years is egregiously false. Surface temperature measurements made by multiple teams working independently (these include NASA, NOAA, and JMA—the Japan Meteorological Agency) confirm that the ten hottest years ever recorded (since the instrumental record began in the 1800s) all occurred since 1998, in Cruz's 18-year window. Last year, 2014, was the hottest year ever, and 2015 will easily blow through that record.

Cruz is an ideological advocate driven by ambition, not a seeker or elucidator of truth. The senator showed himself to be deeply unserious in an interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, while talking about his subcommittee hearing, when he said this:

You and I are both old enough to remember 30, 40 years ago, when, at the time, we were being told by liberal politicians and some scientists that the problem was global cooling. That we were facing the threat of an incoming ice age. And their solution to this problem is that we needed massive government control of the economy, the energy sector and every aspect of our lives. But then, as you noted, the data didn't back that up. So then, many of those same liberal politicians and a number of those same scientists switched their theory to global warming.

Yeah, that's it. Forget science; what we have is just a story of  "liberals" looking to control your life. After a false start with cooling, they "switched their theory" and are giddy with joy over how well global warming is working out for their control agenda.

To imply that scientific interest decades ago in cooling trends—whether real, perceived, or theoretical—casts any doubt at all on what science now understands is a nonsensical non sequiter, intended to paint scientists as bumbling and incompetent, or even scheming and manipulative. Cruz apparently doesn't understand that part of science's job is sorting out both opposing and reinforcing factors that influence climate in all directions, and understanding their interplay. That all takes time and effort. It would be unthinkable that we wouldn't know a lot more now than we did four decades ago, particularly given the immensity of the scientific effort in understanding climate over that time.

Anyway, imminent "global cooling" was never widely accepted by the scientific community, nor was it a crisis that demanded government control over "every aspect of our lives." The cyclical (though aperiodic) nature of ice ages has, of course, been long understood. It's been approximately 20,000 years since the last ice age peaked, and we're currently experiencing conditions in the earth's axis and orbit that would normally favor the buildup of ice sheets yet again. But hey, ice ages take time! As in thousands of years to actually get going. They don't come on suddenly or unexpectedly, or catch you off guard.

There had also been conjecture decades ago (and there's ongoing study now) about the amount of cooling we could expect from human-emitted reflective particulates in the atmosphere, which have the effect of blocking sunlight. But Ted Cruz's "30, 40 years ago" climate science was truly in its infancy compared to now. Even then, cooling was little more than an interesting idea to ponder, even if it did get some attention in the national media. And if the "data didn't back that up," well, following the data is what science does.

What's missed in this dodge is that even decades ago, from the time of Cruz's distant memory, the notion of anthropogenic global warming was starting to get traction in the scientific community. I suppose that shouldn't be surprising, because the underlying physics is so compelling. Indeed, at a basic level, the physics behind the so-called "greenhouse effect" caused by concentrations of certain gasses in the atmosphere has been well understood for at least two centuries, and is utterly uncontroversial. The thing that had to be worked out was how to quantify the influence of feedbacks, which is where much of the action occurs in climate change. It's worth noting that even Exxon's own scientists were warning, as far back as the 1970s, about the dangers of global warming. Scientific understanding and certainty has increased many-fold since that time.

So Cruz's suggestion of scientists bouncing from one thing to another, casting about for a crisis, was never correct. The notion that hapless scientists can't make up their minds—cooling? warming? which is it?—is a flagrant red herring, wrong in fact, and even worse in intent. Cruz's implicit ridicule notwithstanding, the real takeaway message of these past several decades is how science, when engaged, is able to figure things out and reach overwhelming consensus.

Setting aside Ted Cruz's glib chortling about climate science, it's interesting to ponder the interplay of natural and man-made phenomena that are both driving the climate, potentially in opposite directions. It apparently is indeed the case that, absent human activity, the Earth would now be in the very early stages of descent—culminating thousands of years hence—into a full blown ice age. But human activity is no longer off the table as a driver of climate. In fact, human activity increasingly and amazingly predominates over natural factors.

Don't allow your personal incredulity get in the way of grasping this astonishing fact. Noted climate scientist James Hansen, formerly director of NASA's Goddard Institute For Space Studies, has written persuasively that Earth will never again experience another ice age so long as humans are around to stop it! It turns out that ice ages, seemingly so colossal and inexorable, are no match for a little anthropogenic warming. And I do mean "little." Hansen says it is trivially easy to short circuit ice ages. You can read Hansen's authoritative explanation in his book Storms of My Grandchildren (which I highly recommend), or a passable explanation in my Of Ice Ages and Men.



*Footnote: I wrote above that "there are multiple groups of scientists who produce datasets from these tropospheric satellite measurements, and they don't all agree." Though true, these words make me uncomfortable, because they could be used out of their very specific context to play into the mistaken assumption among poorly informed laymen that climate science and scientists are inherently conflicted about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. They aren't.

Scientists can and do argue among themselves about certain particulars, but the broad picture that emerges from the greater scientific enterprise is one of overwhelming consensus on the reality of anthropogenic climate change. Political and media forces on the right work to paint a false picture of scientific uncertainty, much as tobacco companies tried to do regarding the dangers of cigarette smoking decades ago. This is what climate scientist Michael E. Mann calls "sowing doubt and confusion." Unfortunately, it works.

Think about the consensus this way. If, as is commonly said, 97 percent of scientists with subject matter expertise accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change, then as a matter of simple arithmetic 3 percent do not. And 3 percent, though very small, is not zero. We can presume—in fact we know—that not all of that 3 percent are cranks, charlatans, and shills; some really are highly credentialed, expert scientists. When you see a credentialed scientist persuasively denying the reality of climate change, always remember that he's outnumbered by 32 equally competent and credentialed scientists who take the opposite position. It's really all you can do.

Because most of us aren't experts on the science, we are in no position to evaluate individual claims on their scientific merits. It's important that we not just resort to picking the "side" that aligns with our prejudices by lining up behind a scientist who persuasively tells us what we want to hear. Fortunately we are, even as non-experts, competent to gauge where the greater scientific enterprise stands, and it's pretty easy to see that the scientific consensus on climate change is overwhelming. You can get a quick overview of that consensus here.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Carson Believes Otherwise

Host George Stephanopoulos interviewed Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson on ABC's This Week Sunday morning news program. You can, of course, find references to this interview from bewildered commentators and observers all over the web. You can watch the video here.

The interview is yet another example of Carson being Carson. I suppose by now we shouldn't be surprised by anything Dr. Carson says, except for the fact that this guy is polling near the top of the Republican presidential field. Below is my transcription of the very strange part wherein Carson explains how we could have gotten Osama bin Laden, with the train of thought then abruptly jumping the tracks from Afghanistan to Iraq.

The transcript stands on its own. I see no need for any comments by me.

From ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos:

George Stephanopoulos: "You are the only Republican, the only major candidate, who opposed President Bush's decision to invade Afghanistan after 911, and I want to show what you said at the debate."

Dr. Ben Carson at Republican debate: "Declare that within five to ten years we will become petroleum independent. The moderate Arab states would have been so concerned about that they would have turned over Osama bin Laden and anybody else you wanted on a silver platter within two weeks."

Stephanopoulos: "That's what you said he [Bush] should have done, but how would that have worked ... how would you have gotten the moderate Arab governments to turn over Osama bin Laden in two weeks? He'd already been expelled by Saudia Arabia. He was already an enemy of those moderate governments."

Carson: "Well I think they would have been extremely concerned if we had declared, and we were serious about it, that we were going to become petroleum independent, because it would have had a major impact on their finances, and I think that probably would have trumped any loyalty they had to people like Osama bin Laden."

Stephanopoulos: "But they didn't have any loyalty to Osama bin Laden ... the Saudis kicked him out ... he was their enemy. "

Carson: "Uh, well you may not think that they had any loyalty to him, but I believe otherwise."

Stephanopoulos: "So you believe that had President Bush simply declared energy independence they would have turned over Osama bin Laden. How would they have gotten him out of the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan?"

Carson: "I think they would have known where he was. You know, there were indications, for instance during the Clinton administration, that they knew exactly where he was, but didn't necessarily pull the trigger. If we could tell where he was, I'm certain that they knew where he was."

Stephanopoulos: "But at that point we had some idea but we didn't know for sure ... I simply don't understand how you think this would have worked."

Carson: "Well here's the point. Here's my point. My point is, we had other ways that we could have done things. I personally don't believe that invading Iraq was an existential threat to us. I don't think Saddam Hussein was an existential threat to us. That's a very different situation right now. Now we have global jihadists who want to destroy us and our way of life..."

Stephanopoulos (interrupting): "But Sir I wasn't ..."

Carson: "That is a completely different situation."

Stephanopoulos: "I wasn't asking about invading Iraq, I was asking about invading Afghanistan, which had been harboring Osama bin Laden."

Carson: "Well I was primarily talking about Iraq ... you know I wasn't particularly interested in going into Afghanistan, but I do think that we should have taken agressive action, and I think, you know, creating a base that did not require tens of thousands of our troops, that required a group, and I think that we probably have that number pretty close to right now, about ten thousand or so, uh, and being able to use our drones and being able to use our intelligence and things of that nature, I think that's probably all that was necessary in Afghanistan."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Pope Francis: "Solid." "Disturbing."


The following is an adaptation of an email I sent to some Catholics I know. It's part of a series of emails from me regarding Pope Francis and climate change. Tomorrow the pope arrives in the U.S. for his first ever visit, so I thought this would be especially timely to post here.



We've been looking at how to determine whether there's a strong scientific consensus on climate change. We've seen that Pope Francis clearly accepts that consensus. In his encyclical Laudato Si', Francis wrote that "a very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climactic system." <23> You can't put it more plainly that that. And note the adjectives: Solid. Disturbing.

Not surprisingly, most leaders on the political left accept the consensus. And amazingly, it's really hard to find anybody on the right who does. If, as I have argued, the scientific consensus is overwhelming, it's nothing short of stunning that one half of our political divide fails to acknowledge or respond to it. Why is that? How on earth can science be a partisan issue?

Marco Rubio, when asked what he thinks about global warming, responds that he's "not a scientist." Many Republican politicians have adopted that very response as a preferred way to deflect demands that they take a stance. Hey, don't ask me: I'm just a guy who wants to be president.

Jeb Bush admits that the climate is changing, but says we don't know why. "I don’t think the science is clear what percentage is man-made and what percentage is natural. It’s convoluted. And for the people to say the science is decided on, this is just really arrogant, to be honest with you."

Bush continues: "It’s this intellectual arrogance that now you can’t even have a conversation about it. The climate is changing, and we need to adapt to that reality."

Ask yourself: When was the last time you noticed a Republican wanting to "have a conversation" about climate change? Seriously.

Pope Francis would say all those mealy-mouthed evasions are a shameful dodge. Really, he would. Allow me to quote the pope. In his Encyclical Laudato Si', Francis notes that "as often occurs in periods of deep crisis which require bold decisions, we are tempted to think that what is happening is not entirely clear." <59> Sound familiar?

But it is clear. Far from being "convoluted," science tells us by overwhelming consensus that humans are heating up the planet, and that devastating consequences are likely, starting now, and continuing to worsen for many centuries. If you've still not familiarized yourself with that overwhelming scientific consensus, you can do so easily, here.

Obviously, Marco Rubio doesn't need to be a scientist—and neither do you. He only needs to take an honest look at what science says with near unanimity. But doing so would put him in a dangerous position relative to Republican politics, and so weasel-words are his best bet. Dodge and deflect. Don't look too close. "I'm not a scientist."

"This," says Pope Francis, "is the way human beings contrive to feed their self-destructive vices: trying not to see them, trying not to acknowledge them, delaying the important decisions and pretending that nothing will happen." <59> Yeah, that too is a direct quote.

What's needed is leadership, but on the political right especially we're not getting any. The pope tells us that "we still lack the culture needed to confront this crisis. We lack leadership capable of striking out on new paths and meeting the needs of the present with concern for all and without prejudice towards coming generations." <53>

Think about it: The left is ready, willing, and eager to take action, but the current political impediments make action impossible outside what the president can do through executive and regulatory authority. If a solid contingent of Republican politicians were to abandon ideology and embrace the need for action, a nonpartisan consensus could emerge that would finally launch the U.S. into its essential leadership role on climate change.

The only thing that will convince Republican politicians to get serious is for the Republican electorate to demand it. That's where you come in, dear Republican voter. Think about it. Just like Marco Rubio, you don't need to be a scientist. You don't need to master the science of climate change. All you need is the intellectual honesty to acknowledge what people who are scientists are overwhelmingly telling us. And that will take less than half an hour of your time. Again, you can do so here.



Numbers in angle brackets <> are paragraph numbers in the encyclical. Read it for yourself.

 Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, August 22, 2015

A Really Big Number

Way back in the early to mid 1980s I began my professional IT career working in higher education. Back then our administrative computer, which cost on the order of a quarter of a million early-1980s dollars, had two "hard drives" with a storage capacity of 300 megabytes (MB) each. That means each drive could store around 300 million characters, or "bytes", of data.

Each drive was in its own standalone cabinet about the size and appearance of a slightly undersized washing machine. The storage media was a "disk pack" consisting of a stack of ten "platters" the size of extra-large dinner plates, all attached to a central spindle. There was a space between one platter and the next so that read-write heads could track across each platter's surface. Data was magnetically encoded on both the upper and lower surface of each platter, meaning there were twenty  (ninteen actually, but never mind) data surfaces in the pack. The entire disk pack assembly was perhaps 12 to 14 inches in diameter and maybe 10 inches tall, and weighed a fair number of pounds. A pack could be removed from its cabinet by opening the "washing machine" lid, engaging a special holder, and screwing the pack off the drive mechanism.

That computer, with its 600 MB of data storage, ran the entire business of the university: purchasing and billing, payroll, student transcripts, course schedules, class rosters, and so on.

Although we would certainly have been happy for a little more, 600 MB of storage seemed perfectly acceptable. We might have been able to conceptualize a few gigabytes (GB) of capacity, but we didn't have occasion to do so. (Whereas a megabyte is approximately one million characters of data, a gigabyte is about one billion: a thousand times as much. So 600 MB is approximately 0.6 GB.) And while 600 MB seems paltry by today's standards, it was extraordinarily large by the standards of personal computers (PCs) of the day, which typically didn't have hard drives at all. So for us, gigabyte-denominated storage was conceivable but out of reach. Terabyte (TB) denominated storage was unimaginable, the stuff of futuristic science fiction. (A terabyte is approximately a trillion characters, or 1,000 GB, or 1,000,000 MB).

As everybody knows, things changed rapidly. By the mid to late 1990s, storage capacity of multiple gigabytes became common. A computer system with a terabyte of storage was conceivable, sometimes talked about reverently, but was very uncommon. You might find one in a supercomputer center modeling large scale weather patterns, esoteric chemical reactions, or nuclear explosions.

Without us hardly noticing, something extraordinary happened. Today my personal laptop computer has two hard drives, each with 750 GB of capacity, for a total of 1.5 TB. That's 2,560 times the storage of that 1980s quarter-of-a-million dollar enterprise computer.

I have a variety of external hard drives, in the range of 1 TB to 4 TB, used for doing backups. A 4 TB external drive can be had today for perhaps 150 dollars. An early 1980s 300 MB hard drive would have been priced in the tens of thousands of dollars, back when that was real money.

Just as remarkable, my hand-held digital voice recorder has a solid state memory card (microSD) providing 32 GB of nonvolatile storage on a card smaller than my little fingernail! That's around 70 times the capacity of one of those 300 MB washing machines. I could easily swallow it like an aspirin tablet. Your smart phone probably has one too.

Times change. Our conception of size and scale changes. Numbers that seemed astronomical then are commonplace now.

It's the same with lots of things. Unfortunately, people don't always know how to think about what they perceive to be large numbers, and what those numbers mean. Scales that are not familiar or are not commonplace can seem exotic and extreme, even unimaginable.

For example, consider the national debt. The official debt of the United States is currently on the order of 18 trillion dollars. Many consider that number to be so unimaginably huge that all they need do is utter it to "prove" the U.S. is on the road to ruin, and will arrive there soon. Persons hearing that utterance will nod in unison with tightened lips and grim faces. Oh, the horror!

You see, people just know that the debt is completely out of control and is utterly unsustainable. Why? Because $18 trillion is a really big number. And true enough, we have never before seen anything like it. Something has to be done, and soon.

But is that so? Are we really thinking correctly when we talk about scale as an absolute, outside of some context, with no reference point, no understanding of what it means or how it fits with the scale of other things to which it is related? Could it be that the notion of a really big number is arbitrary, or at least relative and subject to change? Could it be that those who try to persuade us by doing nothing more than bandying about really big numbers are pulling a fast one on us, or are perhaps even profoundly ignorant themselves about what those numbers mean?

So let's provide some context, beginning with another story from way back.

In the early 1980s I visited the very large and expensive home of a high-powered business executive, and overheard in conversation that the mortgage payments on that home were something like $3,000 per month. That was an extraordinary number back then, by the standards of workaday Americans. I could barely fathom how anybody could manage a $3,000 mortgage payment every month. My dad's (who was himself in management, in the upper middle class of society) mortgage payments on his nice large house were probably not more than a couple of hundred dollars.

The first thing to notice is something that everybody understands implicitly: scale does change over time. The notion of a $3,000 per month mortgage just doesn't boggle the mind today quite like it did back then.

There's a second thing that's just as important. The amount of debt a person can comfortably carry is highly dependent upon the size of that person's economy. In the case of individuals and families, the size of one's economy usually has to do with the amount of employment and investment income that person or family receives. As a general rule, the more you earn, the more debt you can service without difficulty. There isn't really an absolute amount of debt that is reasonable in every situation; it just depends.

It's the same for governments and national economies—although please note there are important differences between governments and families, differences which politicians routinely misunderstand in other contexts. It is nevertheless generally the case that the amount of debt a government can comfortably carry is highly dependent upon the size of the economy in which that government operates. In the government's case, income comes mainly from tax revenue, and tax revenue increases as the economy's size increases.

So the amount of debt a modern country with a large economy can carry is greater than the amount of debt that a country with a small economy can carry—just like how the much smaller size of my dad's economy meant his mortgage payments necessarily had to be far smaller than that of the rich executive.

Two things are thus happening simultaneously that affect how we think about the scale in which we describe debt. First, the real value of debt erodes (decreases) whenever the rate of inflation is greater than zero, as it almost always is. The inflation effect is one reason $3,000 mortgage payments don't seem so unusual today as they did three decades ago.

Second, whenever an economy's growth rate is greater than zero, that economy's size increases, and, as we have seen, the amount of debt that can be carried increases as well.

Because inflation and economic growth are both happening more or less continuously, it can be hard to say what we mean by a dollar of debt at some particular point in time. A dollar isn't a fixed quantity of value; its purchasing power is almost always declining, but this is compensated by the fact that incomes (personal and national) are always, for the most part, increasing.

Because a dollar's value is always changing, it can be hard to compare dollar-denominated quantities across time. For example, in the 1940s the price of a movie ticket was less than a quarter; today it can be ten dollars. Economists compare quantities denominated in "nominal" dollars (the dollars at a particular point in time) over different time periods by converting them to "constant", or "real", or "inflation-adjusted" dollars. So one way to compare the size of dollar-denominated debts from different periods is to convert those nominal debt quantities to constant dollars.

But because national economies don't get bigger by just inflating—they actually grow in productive capacity and, indeed, raw size (for example, an increasing population means more workers and more consumers)—a useful way to compare national debt over time is to state that debt as a ratio, with the debt (in nominal dollars) as the numerator, and the economy's size (also in nominal dollars) as the denominator. The economy's size is usually referred to as Gross Domestic Product, or "GDP".  GDP is just the total dollar value of all the goods and services the economy produces in a year. The ratio is thus a percentage, often referred to as "debt-to-GDP". Although there are other factors worth considering (such as prevailing interest rates), GDP is a useful indication of the debt-carrying capacity of a country, and the debt-to-GDP ratio allows us to compare a country's debt burden over time.

So how has U.S. debt looked over time? As a fraction of the economy, U.S. debt was at its highest point ever at the end of World War II. That's not surprising, because the U.S. borrowed heavily to fund the war effort, and even before that was doing a good bit of deficit spending during the Great Depression. In 1945, at war's end, the public debt was 112% of GDP. That's by far the highest debt burden in all of U.S. history. By contrast, the public debt for 2014 was a bit over 70% of GDP.

Remarkably, that historically high debt was never paid off; it was never even materially reduced! The 1945 debt was $258 billion. It ticked down ever so slightly for a few years, but by 1953 it was $266 billion. By 1955 it was $274 billion. 1960: $286 billion. 1965: $317 billion. 1970: $370 billion. Up, up and away!

If the debt in 1945 was the highest (relative to the economy) it has ever been, and was never reduced (in nominal dollars), how is it that we're not constantly bemoaning that immense WWII debt burden that we're still dragging around to this very day?

The answer is simple. The post-war economy entered a period of explosive growth. The two decades after World War II were a period of rapidly increasing prosperity and economic expansion. It is no exaggeration to say this was the period when the modern American middle class came into being. The resulting "baby boom" is just one indication of how things were changing. Because the economy (that is, GDP), was growing so rapidly, the debt-to-GDP ratio was constantly falling despite the fact that the debt was increasing in nominal dollars. (That is, the ratio's denominator was growing far faster than its numerator, so the ratio was shrinking.) A person of that time looking worriedly at the growing debt was obviously missing something crucially important. That should tell you that nominal dollars don't say much about the burden of debt, and the same lesson applies to today as well. Just as you could afford a more expensive house if your income was surging, the U.S. could comfortably carry a larger debt as its economy was rapidly growing.

Debt can be counter-intuitive; that war debt—huge at the time—was never paid off: It just withered away to insignificance.

If you're interested in knowing the actual post-war debt-to-GDP ratios of the United States, here are some. As already stated, the ratio was 112% in 1945. By 1947 it was already down to 90%. By 1950 it was in the mid-70s. Within a decade after the war it was in the mid-50s. It bottomed out in 1974 in the mid-20s. From there it began to tick up again.

We have recently experienced a period of rapid change. The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio has doubled since the beginning of the financial crisis (a.k.a. the "Great Recession") of 2008. That should not be surprising to anybody. The period 2008 to the present has been a true economic depression—eclipsed only by the "Great Depression" of the 1930s—for the U.S. and, especially, the world. (Some countries, including some in Europe, have actually experienced greater economic devastation than they did in the 1930s.) "Economic depression" is defined informally as a prolonged downturn in economic activity. Or, alternatively, as a prolonged period of below normal economic activity. In such circumstances, the debt-to-GDP ratio increases due to effects on both the ratio's numerator and denominator. The denominator shrinks because economic activity—GDP—declines. The numerator grows because the government cannot sustain its operations without increased borrowing, due to decreased tax receipts from the weak economy (including no taxes paid by millions of laid-off workers), and increased social safety net expenditures. An increasing debt-to-GDP ratio is an expected consequence of economic recessions and especially depressions.

But the U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is still well below what it was at the end of World War II. That should give you an indication of the comparative debt burden between now and then. And as the post-war experience shows, the best way to decrease the burden of debt is not to decrease the nominal amount of debt itself (because, paradoxically, government debt can actually be beneficial to the economy during periods of profound economic weakness), but instead to restore and sustain economic growth. Trying to shrink the debt by shrinking government has the perverse effect of shrinking the economy, and thus worsening the debt burden.

The annual budget deficit has declined dramatically from the trillion+ dollar deficits during the depression's worst years. That's exactly what you'd expect as the economy once again begins to grow. A growing economy (denominator) and slower debt growth (numerator) will both favorably affect the debt-to-GDP ratio, but future prospects depend on many factors—some with currently unknown trajectories—such as the rate of increase in health care costs. (Health care spending is the single biggest factor that will affect the government's fiscal position going forward.)

I'm not going to advance an opinion about the future, but I do want you to think about the past and the present. This all began as a story about scale and, especially, really big numbers. Is $18 trillion a really big number? Does that question even have a meaningful answer? Compared to what? In what context? If somebody tries to tell you that the U.S. national debt is unsustainable because it's $18 trillion, and, by implication, $18 trillion is a really big number, it's a strong clue that he doesn't actually know what he's talking about.



Postscript - Here are 2014 public debt-to-GDP ratios for select countries, according to the CIA's The World Factbook. Japan: 228. Greece: 175. Italy 134. Ireland: 119. Spain: 98. France: 96. Canada: 93. United Kingdom: 87. Germany: 75. United States: 71. Israel: 67. Finland: 60. Brazil: 59. Venezuela: 51. Poland: 46. Denmark: 44. Mexico: 41. Argentina: 38. South Korea: 37. Taiwan: 37. Switzerland: 35. Australia: 35. Norway: 30. China: 22. Russia: 13. Iran: 11. Saudia Arabia: 2.

Copyright (C) 2015 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved