Ron Paul is right a lot Tuesday, Apr 13 2010 

Some readers might not believe it, but there was a period of time when I considered myself a “Ron Paul libertarian.” Paul is who inspired me to explore libertarianism and, indeed, politics in general. His run for presidency last election got me to not only explore political concepts differently but to also be actively engaged in the issues of the day, so he has always been an influential person in my political understandings. However, not long ago, I became disillusioned with Paul and suffice it to say I disagree with Paul on several key issues. There’s no need to go into the details of that transformation, but I should point out that I still agree with Paul on many things.

One thing that I particularly like about Paul is that he’s quick to criticize both of the political parties in the United States (even when he belongs to one of them). I don’t usually like to get involved in party politics, as they are usually inane, but I think Paul raises some great points that are hard to ignore. One salient point that he highlighted at last week’s Southern Republican Leadership Conference, much to the chagrin of many of the conservative Republicans in attendance, was the hypocrisy of mainstream Republicanism. He blasted them for their neoconservative tendencies. In his speech that drew both applause and ire, Paul pointed out, “The conservatives and the liberals, they both like to spend.” He condemned how “Conservatives spend money on different things.” To wit, “They like embassies, and they like occupation. They like the empire. They like to be in 135 countries and 700 bases.”

Certainly the right-wing loves to pay lip service to fiscal conservatism, balancing budgets, and keeping spending to a minimum. In practice, however, they act just the opposite, as the record clearly demonstrates. Paul, despite being a member of the Republican party, has no qualms mentioning this. Paul is right in lambasting them for their costly endeavors, which include the expansionist foreign policy, two wars in the Middle East, Wall Street bailouts, tax cuts without spending cuts, and radical spending on military. This is all okay by Republican standards, and they see no inconsistency in their rhetoric for small government and limited spending.

Republicans actually tend to outspend their Democrat counterparts. It was, after all, Bill Clinton who created a budget surplus and George W. Bush who accumulated more national debt than every other president combined (to use the words of Stephen Frank of the political science department and supported by King Banaian of the economics department). While Democrats do spend, they typically “spend money on different things,” like social programs, science, aide, education, and infrastructure. They also don’t tend go on and on about deficits, limiting spending, and so on.

The pattern is familiar. Ronald Reagan, for example, championed free markets, but very rarely ever adhered to the doctrine. Noam Chomsky refers to this as the “really existing free market doctrine,” namely because it rarely is ever consistent with “the official doctrine that is taught to and by the educated classes, and imposed on the defenceless.” George H. W. Bush railed against taxes—before he raised them. George W. Bush touted “no nation building,” before he began his senseless adventurism in the Middle East. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect anything else from politicians.

Indeed, to bring it to the present, Michele Bachmann, the congresswoman from Minnesota, claimed yesterday, “we’ve gone from the United States having 100% of the private economy private, to today the federal government effectively owns or controls 51% of the private economy” over the past 15 months of President Obama’s presidency (this is why she believes Obama is “anti-American” and “the most radical president” in U.S. history). Of course, it’s not very difficult to see how patently absurd her claims are. One of her examples is the bank bailouts. However, as FOX News’ Chris Wallace was quick to point out, it was President Bush who started those bailouts, which Bachmann responded was “unfortunate.” Certainly unfortunate for her argument. Even more unfortunate is that Obama’s actions don’t actually constitute “nationalization.”

As Ben Chabot of the Yale economics department keenly pointed out to NPR in 2008, “it’s not nationalization because they didn’t buy common stock with voting rights, so they don’t have a seat at the table.” The business press is in accord, and believe “the Obama plan is working.” But even if it was nationalization, there’s nothing “anti-American” about nationalization, as Harvard’s Richard Parker is quick to point out. He mentions our long history of government intervention and nationalization, beginning with “the Northwest Ordinance of 1789, and then the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.” He continues with mentioning the vast amount of land, airspace, roads, and valuable infrastructure that the U.S. government owns. During the two world wars, the U.S. government took over sizable portions of the economy—one reason for the U.S.’s recuperation from the Great Depression. After 9/11, Bush “effectively nationalized the private-security firms at airports, and replaced them with the federal TSA.” Needless to say, no one moaned about “anti-Americanism.” As I have always liked to mention, the United States has always been heavily involved in markets (having a Republican president or Congress makes no difference); fantasies about the “American free market system” are just that.

In my opinion, all this says something about the intellectual and moral culture of today’s Republicanism and our society in general. The underpinning assumption on which all this works is that what’s wrong for you is right for me. It’s a poor reflection that we cannot rise to even a minimal moral standard.

Is Social Security in shambles? Saturday, Apr 10 2010 

The answer to this question requires some careful examination that goes beyond the platitudes that we are supposed to take as self-evident. What we’re constantly told is that Social Security is in shambles. It’s bankrupt. The elderly on Social Security are outpacing workers who contribute to it, and we’re headed for a crisis very soon. Even King Banaian, the chairman and a professor of the economics department at SCSU, says we suffer from “cognitive dissonance”; it’s “part of the angst that grips” us, though none of us “want to hear of big changes.” Ed Morrissey from the Hot Air blog says it was foolhardy to listen to those who “assured us that Social Security was safe for decades without reform.”

The reason for this maelstrom is because, as The New York Times reports, “the system will pay out more in benefits than it receives in payroll taxes” this year. The recession has claimed millions of jobs and, as a result, tax receipts are down. At the same time, the Baby Boomer generation is beginning to retire en masse and will be collecting their Social Security benefits. By 2016, “indefinite deficits” are expected. Naturally, we should be frightened.

Indeed, Social Security looks like it is in shambles. Save some major reforms, which may very well including privatizing the system, the entire program appears to be heading for collapse. In fact, we’re probably better off getting rid of it entirely.

That much seems like common sense. If you collect less than you handout, you’re eventually going to go broke and the system cannot continue as is. This common sense is what drives the usual iterations about how Social Security is doomed. But, as with everything claimed to be common sense and self-evident, we should force ourselves to ask if it’s true. The assumption, of course, is that you don’t question it. It’s easy to parrot what the demagogues and pundits are saying on television and blogs; it requires some effort to look a bit beyond the rhetoric and platitudes.

Is it true that a fiscal disaster is on its way? As it happens, it’s not. In fact, if we bother to compare our Social Security system to the pension systems of other highly developed nations, just as the OECD has done, we find that the United States has one of the least generous pension systems for the elderly. Yet the fiscal hawks keep pushing on us “the great deficit scare,” though prominent economist such as Robert Eisner have been telling us for a long time now how absurd their claims are. Eisner’s book is over a decade old now, but we can learn some valuable lessons from it. Moreover, Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research warns that the policies deficit hawks want to push through, which are are not based on sound economics, would be much more devastating than any projected deficit.

It’s certainly true the American population is aging, and faster than the workforce is growing (or will be soon). In economics, the technical literature refers to this as the dependency ratio. It tells us the number of dependent people (children under the age of 15 and adults over the age of 65) for every 100 productive people (people aged 16 to 64). The United States does not have the largest dependency ratio—far from it, in fact. And when we actually bother to look, the dependency ratio is not currently at the highest it’s ever been (nor will it be for a long time). That was around 1965. There was a problem in the 1960s, a more significant problem than we face today, back when real GDP was almost a quarter of what it is today (i.e. when we were much poorer).

What did they do about it? Did they say the rights to a decent life in a highly developed nation simply “are not natural rights of the people,” and therefore we should just stop helping the young and the elderly find a more decent life? Actually, that’s not what they did. They increased expenditures. That’s how they dealt with the unprecedented dependency ratio, one we won’t come close to experiencing for a long time. The solution to the current “crisis” is the same. You increase expenditures to ensure disadvantaged people can still live a life that isn’t marred by poverty, sickness, and starvation—so that people’s basic needs are met. There’s a consensus in every rich and developed nation that safety nets are a society’s moral obligation. In fact, the world came together and agreed on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms these rights, calling them “indispensable for [a person’s] dignity and the free development of his personality.”

When we actually look at the published literature, there is an almost unanimous agreement that there is no “crisis,” that the dangers of an aging society are being way overblown (it is argued, in fact, that an aging society is beneficial), and that the problems that do lie ahead are quite manageable (in the same way the bigger problems of the 1960s were managed). What’s pointed out is that any fiscal problem that might possibly arise is easily addressed. For example, the Social Security board of trustees report that future problems (because there isn’t one currently) could be remedied with a simple increase on the payroll tax. The estimated 75-year actuarial deficit for OASDI is just 2% of taxable payroll (so you increase it from something like 14% to 16%). The OECD also came out with a major report on easy solutions for any possible future problem that might occur with the pension system, none of which included abandoning the pension system. One reason is because it’s recognized that there is a moral obligation on our part and that there is in fact something that separates us from primitive animals that might simply “let nature take its course” (one of the more repugnant euphemisms I’ve heard).

So the solution, then, is quite simple. We don’t need to get rid of Social Security. Nor is there a need for “big changes” or major reform.

Are most economists against government intervention? Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Do most economists think government being involved in markets is a bad thing? The answer to that probably depends on the market. If markets are efficient, there’s probably no need for government to get involved. If markets are inefficient, there’s probably a good reason for government to interfere to attempt to increase efficiency and so there could be an economic argument in favor of government intervention. So the question now is whether markets are efficient or not.

The reason I bring up the topic is because of something professor Komai of the economics department brought up in my managerial economics class today. (Dr. Komai is definitely one of the best professors I have had at this university.) She said only a small amount of economists are totally against government intervention, but they seem like a majority (because they make a lot of noise). The reason, she says, is that most economists do agree that government probably should not be involved in perfectly competitive markets, because perfectly competitive markets are efficient. At the same time, however, perfectly competitive markets exist virtually nowhere. Thus, when markets are not perfectly competitive, there is market inefficiency and perhaps a good reason for government to get involved to try to increase the efficiency of the market.

Most markets are oligopolies and a small amount are monopolies (which are even more inefficient). Therefore, there are compelling economic reasons for government to get involved to try to increase competition or otherwise reduce inefficient behavior. This is one argument in favor of government involvement in markets—there are others as well—but this one is particularly convincing.

One example, which was brought up in class, is the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. It is one of the many antitrust laws passed throughout American history and is specifically aimed at preventing the rise of corporate power. The late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were interesting times. This was the time of when the Republican Party was still a fairly young party (it was formed in the middle of the nineteenth century). At some level, Republicans of this era represented the true ideals of Republicanism. William H. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, for example, were completely against big corporations. The history of these presidents, particularly their domestic economic policy, is quite fascinating, and there is great literature and documentaries on this topic. These early Republicans are what were called “trust busters.” They saw government power as one counterweight to corporate power, which they found subversive. So they busted trusts, so to speak, and they increased regulations. Roosevelt’s Square Deal endorsed these principles and was totally supportive of progressivism. Those were the ideals of early Republicanism. And I believe many of these ideals have been lost in today’s Republican Party.

Update (3/31/2010): I just want to clarify that I do not mean to misconstrue the position of Dr. Komai. She has made it clear to me in class that she prefers to stay in the center or the middle of issues. It’s not my intention to brandish her as a leftist of some sort who is automatically in favor of government intervention in markets. That’s not my position either.

The point that I think ought to be taken here is that market fundamentalism is misguided. We often here that governments are inefficient and that we should “just let the markets work.” It might certainly be true that governments are inefficient, but less heard is the fact that markets can also be inefficient. I personally do not think this message is conveyed a lot—certainly not as much as the message of government inefficiency is. So my point isn’t to say governments are great, that we should have intervention everywhere, and so on and so forth; instead, I am pointing out that markets are not as great as they are lauded by some on the right, particularly market fundamentalists and Austrian economists. It’s simply my feeling that when people are taught about markets, especially in courses that introduce the principles of economics, they usually are not hearing the complete side of both stories. What’s being projected, I think, is skewed a bit. That’s the part I take issue with. We can, of course, always quibble about the right balance of things—but that’s not quite my objective here.

Haiti Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

Please see this post from The China Rose blog for information about the recent earthquake in Haiti, as well as relevant context to the tragedy and Haiti’s history of poverty and instability. As Haitian streets run with blood and its air fouled by the stench of piled-up corpses, let this tragedy remind us of the human suffering that exists in the world and serve as an opportunity to learn something about the history and lived realities of Haitians, which has got little to do with “bad luck.” For those of us with money, a donation cannot help the hundreds of thousands now feared dead, but it could make a difference for the poor masses of Haiti, who lived in extreme poverty and on less than a dollar a day even before the earthquake struck.

While the tragedy in Haiti is almost universally recognized as such, the response from right-wing extremists (or is it mainstream?) has been rather shocking and saddening. Rush Limbaugh, for example, claims President Obama’s response to the disaster will be used to “burnish” his “credibility in the light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made to order for him. That’s why he could not wait to get out there” to offer support for the those devastated by the disaster. And while the right will continue to decry government spending as “inefficient” and “evil,” the Haitians rummaging through the debris of what was once their homes, their neighborhoods, their schools, or their places of worship, I’m sure, think quite differently of it. Meanwhile, as Limbaugh is busy throwing political jabs at Obama’s offer to provide relief to those enduring the pangs of sudden and utter disaster, Pat Robertson, the voice of conservative Christianity, claims that the earthquake (and the rest of Haiti’s ills) was a consequence of “a pact to the devil” Haitians made over 215 years ago to liberate themselves from France’s colonial rule.

Robertson, who also claims the September 11 attacks were God’s punishment on Americans for being too secular, claimed on the Christian Broadcasting Network‘s The 700 Club, “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other. Desperately poor.”

Mr. Robertson would do good to first read some history. First, the Haitian Revolution of 1791 was well before Napoleon III’s time. Instead, the Haitian slaves spent most of their time fighting the powerful armies of Napoleon Bonaparte (i.e. Napoleon I). Napoleon III was not yet born by the time Haiti gained independence in 1804. Robertson’s ignorance of basic historic facts reflects the level of thinking required to make such bizarre and perverse statements. But, “You know, … whatever.” As for this “pact to the devil,” Robertson again faces a contradictory reality. According to Jean Gelin, a Haitian pastor who commented in 2005 on this supposed pact, “One would agree that such a strong affirmation should be based on solid historical and scriptural ground.” However, Gelin continues, “it is nothing more than a fantasist opinion that ultimately dissipates upon close examination.”

I would like to congratulate Mr. Robertson, however, for making at least one true statement. It’s true “something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it.” What happened is what’s been described as “the greatest of all the slave revolts,” which “forever altered the fate of black people in the Americas.” This “pact to the devil” that liberated Haiti from its racist overlords was really what normal people call Enlightenment thinking. That the Haitian Revolution closely followed the American and French revolutions is no accident of history. The great leaders of the Haitian Revolution, like Toussaint L’ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, took seriously the idea “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” They believed, as their contemporaries in this Age of Reason did, that power lies in the people, not kings and nobility. They challenged the religious orthodoxy of the Divine Right of Kings. These were the true roots of liberation theology—an understanding of Christianity that stresses the scriptural teachings of freedom, social justice, human rights, and supporting community—a striking contrast to Western and conservative understandings of Christianity, to be sure. That Mr. Robertson “might not want to talk about it” is understandable.

However, this Haitian revolution went beyond “the limited definition of freedom adopted by the French and American revolutions,” writes Haitian historian Patrick Bellegarde-Smith. Instead, continues Bellegarde-Smith, the Haitian Revolution that Robertson describes as “a pact to the devil,” was based on the “universal freedom for all humankind.” That slaves could rise up and overthrow the slave regime in the 1790s, the first time in the Western Hemisphere and perhaps in the history of the world, indeed was nothing short of a great inspirational source for those still suffering under the grips of slavery and those wishing to liberate them, from Fredrick Douglass in the United States of America to Simón Bolívar in South America.

Once again, “Even in its hour of utter devastation,” to again quote Cunningham, “Haiti, the western hemisphere’s poorest country, teaches the rest of the world some valuable truths.” The question is if anyone’s paying attention.

So much ado, but about what? Thursday, Jan 14 2010 

I get tired writing about global warming (read: anthropogenic climate change). As far as I am concerned, the main conclusions are settled. The main conclusions that I’m talking about is the mainstream consensus outlined by the IPCC and supported by every major academy of science in the world and virtually every scientist publishing research on the matter. The consensus is that human activity is responsible for recent climate change, that this climate change has adverse effects, and that the effects are going to worsen if we continue down the “business as usual” path. That’s settled, no question about it. I would like to leave the quibbling over minor uncertainties, model improvements, and further refinement of the theory to the more capable scientists who publish legitimate research in the technical literature. I find myself, however, having to defend against the main conclusions of the theory of anthropogenic climate change, because people find opportunity to attack it whenever it becomes politically convenient. That’s essentially what we call partisanship (i.e. hackery). These people like to pretend they are engaging in some sort of scientific inquiry, so label themselves “skeptics.” But we know this is not true—the real skeptics (e.g. Lindzen) are few and far between—so I label them “septics,” borrowing the term from William Connolley, who explains the meaning on his blog.

Again, we find the septics at the SCSU Scholars blog making a bunch of ado, in their regular fashion. But about what? Essentially, nothing. Dr. Banaian, professor and chairman of the economics department at SCSU, using a satirist’s Web site for reference (though, be careful in pointing out the fact, or you’ll be accused of ad hominems), complains about the use of principal components analysis (PCA)—a statistical procedure used in the analysis of data—in a 1998 paper written by Michael E. Mann, Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes (hereafter referred to as Mann et al.). The problem for Dr. Banaian lies in the fact that, as he explains it, “PCA is a technique that, in the social sciences, has been found to be highly sensitive to the inclusions of new proxies.” This might be true, in part, he says, in the natural sciences, but he’s not really sure, probably, in part, because he hasn’t read about it. That might be a wild supposition, but given that the professor even admits to us that he hasn’t even bothered to read the paper he criticizes, it’s not beyond legitimate possibility. This, he says, “increases my skepticism,” though “septicism” probably would have been more fitting.

I try to point out to the professor that the Mann et al. paper, the basic conclusion of which is that contemporary warming is anomalous (differing from previous warming), is valid and supported by virtually the entire scientific community that’s spoken on the issue, including those scientists who have published criticisms of the Mann et al. paper. Dr. Banaian says Mann et al. are wrong, I say they are correct. I better provide some evidence, right? One might reasonably make that assumption, so I link to a report done by the National Academies of Science (NAS), which concluded, “The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) … that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years … has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence …” Summarizing the report, Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, writes that the the NAS “affirms [the] hockey-stick graph,” while Roger A. Pielke, Jr., a critic and pretty close to being a skeptic himself, writes, “the NAS has rendered a near-complete vindication for the work of Mann et al.” In addition to the NAS report, I linked to two peer-reviewed articles that support Mann et al.‘s use of PCA and the accuracy of their reconstruction of past temperature. The first paper, by Wahl and Amman (2007), is a response to McIntyre (who Dr. Banaian later appeals to) and McKitrick. Wahl and Ammann say, “the Mann et al. reconstruction is robust against the proxy-based criticisms addressed. In particular, reconstructed hemispheric temperatures are demonstrated to be largely unaffected by the use or non-use of PCs to summarize proxy evidence from the data-rich North American region.” Moreover, I provide a link to a blog post written by climate scientists discussing McIntyre and McKitrick (the people the aforementioned satirists relies on) and the various “false claims” they make regarding Mann et al.‘s use of PCA.

Well, one might think this is all well and good. Science, after all, is an objective field in which one can appeal to evidence, and the evidence can be judged on its merits. If someone has a differing point of view, they can provide the scientific evidence to support it. So it would be reasonable to assume that evidence should be welcomed when there’s a contradictory claim. It helps you evaluate the claims being made. But it’s dangerous not to drink the Kool-Aid. The cost of not jumping on the politically-convenient (but scientifically-bankrupt) bandwagon of the septics is that I get derided for posting “a link dump”—because contradictory evidence isn’t welcome. Instead it constitutes “linking dumping” to “the cross-referencing, daisy-chain-refereeing bunch from the Mann gang.” I never link to Mann nor anyone from his “gang,” but these types of facts are not supposed to matter. (Although, even if I had linked to Rutherford et al., which includes Mann, and the defense they provide for the methods used in the Mann et al. paper, so what?) I ordinarily would not think much of this; it’s the typical rhetoric the septic retches up whenever confronted by an “inconvenient truth” (science). The thing is, you don’t typically see the type of anti-intellectualism displayed among self-professed scholars. The septics I usually speak with on a near-daily basis, though their rhetoric is virtually identical, don’t usually come from academia. Perhaps that says something. But when you get accused of being a “pedant” trying to enter “Valhalla,” I think this says something quite serious about the culture of this so-called “skepticism,” which has always had at its roots a derision of science and an acceptance anti-intellectualism. I personally find it to be pretty dangerous.

But let’s say we ignore the rhetoric and accept Dr. Banaian’s argument. Does it mean anything? It means nothing. We’re talking about a 1998 paper that has been updated by the authors and commented on multiple occasions over the years, and further supplemented by numerous, independent research that has all come to the same basic conclusions that Mann et al. came to in their paper. Any suggestion that the Mann et al. paper is crucially relied on to support the basic conclusions made by the IPCC or even that contemporary warming is anomalous is transparently absurd. So even if Mann et al.‘s paper was invalid (though it wasn’t), it says nothing about our understanding of climate reproduction or contemporary warming. The so-called “hockey stick” graph that appears in the Mann et al. paper is but one of many “hockey sticks” that exist in the literature on climate reconstruction. See, for example, this image put together by Robert Rhode; a similar image is found in the IPCC’s latest report (Chp. 6 of the WGI contribution) and elsewhere. Mann et al.’s (1999) graph is the plain blue line in Rhode’s image.

The literature on the issue is robust. Contemporary warming is anomalous—unprecedented within the past 1,000 years. The cause is explained by the theory of anthropogenic climate change. We can and should dismiss the feverish rhetoric as ado about absolutely nothing.

Glenn Beck: hypocritically unconstitutional? Sunday, Oct 11 2009 

Glenn Beck has certainly gotten a lot of disrespect on this blog (less than he certainly deserves), but it’s probably not particularly helpful to attack individuals in such a manner. He’s just a television pundit, after all. I have to admit, though, it’s really easy to do. And, unfortunately, he reaches a lot of people with his faux libertarianism (shooting untried suspects in the head has nothing to do with the philosophy). That could make him a potentially dangerous person, so it might be fair to say his statements deserve careful attention and scrutiny.

The crying talking head has, in the past, criticized international law. Opines Beck, “Once we sign our rights over to international law, the Constitution is officially dead. When you say things like, ‘We are not going to put the Constitution behind international law,’ you say that in the international court, if you say that on the floor of the United Nations, you are a freak show.” So what Beck is arguing is that when we adhere to international law and regulations, we are ignoring our U.S. Constitution. He continues, “Let me tell you something. When you can’t win with the people, you bump it up to the courts. When you can’t win with the courts, you bump it up to the international level.” Words of wisdom? In literature, you’d call that foreshadowing.

So what does Mr. Beck do when he doesn’t like a satirical Web site about him being published on the Internet? You probably guessed it: he filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization to have the site taken down. The site in question is, a purely satirical Web site that mocks Mr. Beck’s style of argumentation. Writes the authors of the Web site, “We’re not accusing Glenn Beck of raping and murdering a young girl in 1990 – in fact, we think he didn’t! But we can’t help but wonder, since he has failed to deny these horrible allegations.” Perhaps we could argue that it’s in bad taste, but I think it’s abundantly clear that it is Constitutionally protected speech. Mr. Beck and his lawyers know this too. That’s why they aren’t filing a libel suit against the Web site’s owners. They know the authors of this site are Constitutionally protected. They know they wouldn’t “win with the courts.” So, as Mr. Beck declared with great prophetic wisdom, “you bump it up to the international level.” Yeah, that’s one way to stifle free speech you don’t like.

As an example of the type of parodying the site does, here is what Mr. Beck said in an interview with Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in U.S. Congress: “No offense and I know Muslims, I like Muslims, I’ve been to mosques, I really don’t think Islam is a religion of evil. I think it’s being hijacked, quite frankly. With that being said, you are a Democrat. You are saying let’s cut and run. And I have to tell you, I have been nervous about this interview because what I feel like saying is, sir, prove to me that you are not working with our enemies. And I know you’re not. I’m not accusing you of being an enemy. But that’s the way I feel, and I think a lot of Americans will feel that way.” Well, perhaps, posits this Web site, Mr. Beck should prove to us that he has not “raped and killed a young girl in 1990.” They know he didn’t and aren’t accusing him of it, they just want to get to the bottom of it. Of course that’s not really the case. No one actually believes that, as the site explains; it’s created to show how “Glenn Beck definitely uses tactics like this to spread lies and misinformation.” As Mr. Beck asks, “What’s wrong with asking questions?” In the legal response to Mr. Beck’s complaint, the Web site’s lawyer writes that the site “has merely presented Mr. Beck with a mirror. If Beck does not like what he sees, the Respondent is not to blame.” (The Web site’s legal response is down due to traffic; but if you do get the chance to read it, do so. It’s quite genius.)

On a much serious but unrelated note that deals with rape, however, the Huffington Post published a story that I found quite disappointing. The Huffington Post points to a horrific story of a young woman, Jamie Leigh Jones, who was gang-raped by her coworkers at KBR, Inc., a subsidiary of Halliburton. She was then locked in a shipping container for over a day, without food or water. KBR/Halliburton’s defense was that the horrendous attack was considered an injury “arising in the workplace” and was therefore necessary to be adjudicated through private arbitration rather than through courts. The Department of Justice agreed. In September, however, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Jones. Al Fraken, the new U.S. Senator for Minnesota, passed a new amendment, heeding Jones’ calls, that calls for punishing contractors that “restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery and discrimination cases to court.” It passed, but not unanimously. Thirty Senators (all Republican, surprise) voted against the amendment to Defense Appropriations bill. The Huffington Post link lists those Senators. They really ought to be ashamed.

Franken is Minnesota’s next senator Tuesday, Jun 30 2009 

Sorry for the lack of activity on this blog as of late. I have just a quick post about the new Senate outcome. I should have a new post coming soon after this one.

The Minnesota high court ruled today that Al Fraken should be its next senator. The Minnesota Supreme Court dismissed Norm Coleman’s appeal of a lower court’s decision that also favored on Franken’s side. Coleman’s concession puts an end to nearly 8 months of appeals by both candidates over the closest and costliest race in the history of the Senate. This is, of course, after Coleman said Franken’s earlier appeals were irresponsible, costly, not what Minnesotans wanted, etc.

This now puts the Democrats in the Senate at 60, which is the amount necessary to override a filibuster. How often this might occur is far from certain. It should certainly be interesting to see how things play out from here.

Republican leadership on gay marriage Saturday, May 16 2009 

Recently, Michael Steele, the Republican National Committee Chairman, stated gay marriage is bad because it might hurt small businesses. “Steele said that was just an example of how the party can retool its message to appeal to young voters and minorities without sacrificing core conservative principles. Steele said he used the argument weeks ago while chatting on a flight with a college student who described herself as fiscally conservative but socially liberal on issues like gay marriage.” (Note to the AP writer: that’s called a libertarian.) If this is what he calls retooling and thinks it will actually appeal to young voters, then the GOP is in for a long ride down.

His argument is that if gays can marry, then this will cost businesses through financial responsibility: “You just cost me money.” News flash for the Chairman: the business would incur the same cost for a heterosexual marriage. If incurring costs is wrong, then we should outlaw heterosexual marriages as well. Alas, Chairman Steele has still not been able to say why incurring costs for heterosexual marriages is any more morally, legally, or logically acceptable than incurring them for homosexual marriages (nor will he ever be able to). So, in fact, Steele has said nothing new and has proved nothing.

Furthermore, yes, there is a cost to allow gay marriages, just as there is a cost to allow blacks to vote. The question is not whether there are costs. The question is whether the costs are justified—if the benefits outweigh the costs. If all we ask is whether there is a cost associated with a particular action, then we are merely acting as ethical egoist, which we know is a morally bankrupt moral theory (cf. The Moral Economy). We might say a business incurs a cost when it has to update its facilities to ensure it provides for a safe work environment for it workers. The real question is, to what end are these costs being incurred?

Keep trying, Michael Steele. Keep trying.

More denialism Tuesday, Apr 14 2009 

Global warming denialism is still strong, particularly by those on the right for some reason. Perhaps it’s because they adhere to the idea that if we want to solve this problem, it’s going to hurt and we can’t have that happen. Of course, they’re wrong on that point. (Check out some of Amory Lovins’ work, for example.) They hate the answer, so they hate the theory. Never mind they’ve got the answer completely misconstrued–attacking a theory because you disagree with its result is not the way to go. You should be critical of the basis of the theory. Unfortunately, this is lacking in the “debate” on global warming.

Some in St. Cloud still seem to be fascinated with the subject after Bachmann’s recent “visit” to campus. This is good, but they’re still attacking the theory because they disagree with what it says, not the scientific basis for it. See, for example, this recent post by King Banaian, an SCSU economics professor and chairman of the department. There’s an interesting discussion taking place there, but let’s evaluate some of the claims.

The Earth’s climate is driven by the receipt and redistribution of solar energy. Despite this crucial relationship, the sun tends to be brushed aside as the most important driver of climate. Calculations on supercomputers are primitive compared with the complex dynamism of the Earth’s climate and ignore the crucial relationship between climate and solar energy.

Yes, of course; the sun is an important driver of climate, but it is not by any means the only driver. Greenhouse gases, for example, also play a crucial role in the climate. So it’s important to look at all the meaningful forcings. And, as it happens, scientists have. The journalist (no wonder) here is flatly incorrect; solar variation has been accounted for in the models. What we find is that solar irradiance had a radiative forcing of .12 W/m^2 (watts per square meter) in 2005. What this means is that it does have a positive radiative forcing (increases temperatures), but it is small, especially when we compare it to human activities (emitting CO2 and methane, land use, etc.), which has a radiative forcing of 1.6 W/m^2. So, clearly, human’s impact on climate is much more profound than that of solar variation.

“To reduce modern climate change to one variable, CO2, or a small proportion of one variable – human-induced CO2 – is not science. To try to predict the future based on just one variable (CO2) in extraordinarily complex natural systems is folly. Yet when astronomers have the temerity to show that climate is driven by solar activities rather than CO2 emissions, they are dismissed as dinosaurs undertaking the methods of old-fashioned science.”

Again, it’s not being reduced to one variable. Many are being accounted for, including solar variation. “Ah, but CO2 doesn’t account for much of the atmosphere, and certainly only a tiny amount is human-induced, so that can’t be the answer.” Wrong. It’s true that human-caused CO2 makes up a small amount of the atmosphere. But that’s not the point at all. Ice core data has shown that CO2 levels are higher now than they have been for at least 650,000 years; other evidence (see Pearson and Palmer, 2000, for example) suggests it may have been on the magnitude of 20 million years. The rise in CO2 and other greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution is unambiguous. (And CO2 levels keep going up, and are expected to for a long time.) It’s important to keep in mind that CO2 has a long atmospheric lifetime (about 100 years–water vapor’s is about 10 days). So this means that humans are causing greenhouse gases to increase at a rate faster than carbon sinks can accommodate, which simply means temperature is going to rise. The radiative properties of greenhouses gases, known for over a 100 years now, explains this very well.

Over time, the history of CO2 content in the atmosphere has been far higher than at present for most of time. Atmospheric CO2 follows temperature rise. It does not create a temperature rise. CO2 is not a pollutant. Global warming and a high CO2 content bring prosperity and longer life.

I’ve addressed the “CO2 follows temperature rise” in an earlier post here. The argument that CO2 is not a pollutant and that increasing CO2 is actually a good thing are interesting ones. Given all the negative impacts that global warming is expected to bring or, indeed, has already brought about, it’s hard to imagine how CO2 increases could be beneficial. One argument is that plants love CO2, so production will increase. This is a seriously strained argument. New Scientist does a good enough job at debunking this myth.

Michelle Bachmann, Chris Horner, and Alfred Pekarek, oh my! Thursday, Apr 9 2009 

Today, Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann paid a visit to SCSU. She represents (in one way, at least) Minnesota’s Sixth Congressional District, which includes St. Cloud. Her ridiculous and frankly embarrassing statements made time again in public don’t really merit repeating here. Instead, I want to focus mostly on the claims that Chris Horner made today, presenting his case against cap and trade and the scientific consensus on global warming. He was brought along as a speaker by Congresswoman Bachmann, because she was so impressed with his rhetoric that he displayed in Washington a few weeks ago. Congresswoman Bachmann didn’t have much to say, except for some prepared remarks that were brief.

So, who then is Horner? He is an attorney and fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. He’s written a few partisan books, talked a lot, etc. There was also Alfred Pekarek, an SCSU assistant professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences department who studies mostly rocks. But he’s an ardent global warming denier who has happened to write some nonsense for the AAPG. (The AAPG, in 2007, became the last major scientific organization to affirm human’s role in global warming, after falling out of line with the scientists who work with them.) Of course, Dr. Pekarek has published no peer-reviewed scientific papers on the subject, but he was mostly there as a figurehead anyway. Horner did all the talking. So what did Horner have to say?

The topic of the discussion was cap and trade, whereby the government sets a cap for carbon emissions and companies are given allowances for polluting so much. If you fall below this limit, you can trade (sell) your allowances to other companies that don’t meet this limit. The idea is that the free market will take over and corporations will stop polluting the air. Quite frankly, I don’t care for cap and trade, and I think it’s a stupid idea. It doesn’t work and so emissions don’t go down. That automatically eliminates it as any solution. This was part of Horner’s argument too, but mostly he was worried about it being anti-competitive, against the consumer, big interests, etc. That’s all well and fine, I don’t care to debate him on that issue since it doesn’t interest me (I’ve already stated it’s not a solution).

However, in what could be called the second part of his presentation, which was nominally called a question-and-answer session, Horner went on about the perceived lies in the global warming debate, though it isn’t much of a debate anymore. Horner really focused on three main things in his drivel, which, by now, has become old, tired, and thoroughly refuted: The IPCC sham, historical temperature record, and the relationship between solar forcing and temperature.

Horner took issue with the claim that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is made up of over 2,000 scientists who author their authoritative assessment reports. But the IPCC only claims to have 450 lead authors, not over 2,000, and 800 contributing authors. Furthermore, they release four reports (one of which is a synthesis of the other three). Only one deals with the actual physical basis for global warming, which is the Working Group I report. The IPCC claims this report was made by some 600 authors (lead and contributing) and reviewed by over “620 expert reviewers.” In its annex (PDF) they list all of their authors and their reviewers for that report. Wikipedia will actually make it easier for you, as it has a list of the contributors and their roles. Overwhelmingly these contributors come from the field of climatology or atmospheric sciences. That’s certainly a lot more than the Oregon Petition can say. (Never mind that every major national science academy in the world accepts the IPCC’s conclusions as the consensus on global warming.)

One thing Horner could not stop repeating is that in the historical temperature record, temperatures led CO2 emissions. What this means is that the the Earth saw a temperature increase before there was a CO2 increase (so temperature drove CO2 to go up, not the other way around), which Horner then construed to mean that CO2 could not be possibly be causing the current global warming. Well, of course, Horner is dead wrong. It is true that in the historical temperature record going back 600,000 years, CO2 lags behind temperature increases by about 200 to 1,000 years. This is because temperature increases cause increases in CO2, and this CO2 in turn causes a temperature increase (this is called a positive feedback in the technical literature). And we actually have a pretty good understanding of what caused these temperature to go up, which is something called orbital forcings, meaning small changes in the Earth’s orbit (Milankovitch cycles) change how much sunlight hits the planet, one of the reasons for ice ages and glaciations. This increased the CO2 in the atmosphere (by mechanisms I don’t care to go in detail about here), and after a certain period of time the CO2 took over as the main contributor to the temperature increases. (That is, temperature increased for some 5,000 years, only during 800 or so of which temperature led CO2; CO2 caused the other 4,200 years of warming.) That’s what the ice core record shows. So it’s very clear, still, that CO2 is a greenhouse gas that causes temperature to go up. The climate record shows this. But it’s also elementary physics and chemistry. The radiative properties of CO2 have been known for over 100 years. That there was a lag in the historical record in no way contradicts our understanding of how CO2 affects temperature, and it is this understanding that we use to explain the current global warming. For the sake of brevity, this post by RealClimate explains quite well the relationship between human activity and CO2 increases, and how it’s causing current global warming.

Finally, Horner points to the Sun as the main contributor to global warming. He says the Sun’s output matches quite well with variations in temperature. Again, this is flatly incorrect. A 2006 paper published in Nature by Foukal et al. showed that the Sun’s brightness has not increased over the past 1,000 years and that it has, in fact, contributed very little to the current global warming. When you look at recent solar variation, it doesn’t even come close to fitting the temperature record. The most liberal numbers, by Scafetta and West, suggest the Sun has contributed some 45 to 50 percent of the temperature increase between 1900 and 2000, and only 25 to 30 percent between 1980 and 2000. Likewise, the IPCC has found that the Sun slightly contributed to the increase in temperature between 1750 and 1950, but little after that. So when you take the Sun out of the equation, you simply cannot explain current warming.

Horner did address several other points, but this post is already getting quite long. I’d be glad to address them some other time. Suffice it say Horner is way off base with the scientific community, as are Congresswoman Bachmann and Dr. Pekarek. Instead, they wish to politicize the issue so they can propagandize and use all sort of rhetoric to win over gullible partisans. What we should do is focus on the science, and the peer-reviewed published literature is unequivocal on it stance on anthropogenic global warming.

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