Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Fairness of Free Markets

Walter Williams tells us that:
in a society of voluntary relationships income is not “distributed”; it is earned—earned by individual efforts to please one’s fellow man. One person is not poor because another is rich. The fact that people earn income reflects the morality of free markets. It is their ability and willingness to please their fellow man that enables them to have a claim on the productive assets of the society.
Is this true? Let's consider a hypothetical voluntary relationship.

Suppose you are driving off the beaten path in Death Valley with your wife and child and your car breaks down. I pass by. I'm your only hope of survival. You need water and a ride. I've got both. But I want $10M of your future earnings in exchange. I've got a contract and you can choose to sign it or not. If you do, should it be enforced? If you sign it you do so in a state where you are perfectly lucid. You are rational. Should a court enforce this contract in a free market world and respect my property rights?

According to the law today this contract would be ruled unconscionable and declared unenforceable. One party took advantage of its position of superior bargaining power in order to craft a contract that is excessively unfair.

Reading Williams you'd think that the court's action is unfair. You can't have a court come in violate a freely agreed upon contract. I've earned the $10M in your future compensation. I helped my fellow man.

That's a pretty bizarre stance in my world and I doubt very much Williams really believes this. He uses this definition of fairness in his economic arguments, but does he use it in his home? Let's suppose he had two children and let's suppose they happened to be stranded in town and wouldn't get a ride for 8 hours. Child A is hungry and Child B has $20. Child B says that she'll give Child A $10 provided Child A licks her boots. Child A after a few hours is desperate enough and does so. What would Williams say to his children when he finally arrived to pick them up and Child A complained? Would he say "Good job. You both helped your fellow man. One was able to be fed and the other was able to be entertained. A mutually beneficially transaction. This is a just and right a system as could possibly be devised."

When right wingers start arguing about economics they'll defend boot licking and bum fights. The bum knows what's in his own best interest so he and another bum should be allowed to fight each other in hopes of gaining meager compensation. I doubt very much these right wingers would say the same to their children that received boot licking for modest compensation. I bet they'd be outraged. I bet they'd say that their children should feed these hungry people rather than demand that they humiliate themselves.

But that all changes when they enter a blog comment section and start arguing.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Quote Of The Day

The crises of the mid-1990's hit countries that had, in general, embraced the policies of the Washington Consensus. The pattern was the same in each case. Following financial deregulation, countries enjoyed strong capital inflows and booming stock markets. Some seemingly minor event produced a reversal in market sentiment and a sudden flight of capital, producing an economic crisis. Following the crisis, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and world markets sought to impose the 1980's package of public expenditure cuts and economic contraction, which only exacerbated the problem. Finally, in retrospect, the victims were blamed for minor divergences from the free market ideal which, before the crisis, had been seen as unimportant, or even praiseworthy.

John Quiggin, Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland writing in Zombie Economics

Documentary About Terrorism Against Cuba

If you get Netflix instant streaming and you'd like to see a documentary about the various acts of terrorism directed against Cuba you can watch Will The Real Terrorist Please Stand Up. It's interesting to see the various unrepentant terrorists interviewed. One thing I learned is how in Miami the Cuban exile community has actually engaged in a lot of terrorism against Americans. When policies are enacted that they object to they can bomb related people in the city. One person interviewed says that more bombs were going off in Miami than in many other war torn regions, like Beirut, and yet it's odd that people don't seem to notice. The US government seems uninterested or unwilling to put a stop to it, so the terrorists get their way.

Except for the title it doesn't seem to me the film tries hard to cause anyone to reach a particular conclusion. They just interview the various people and allow them to speak for themselves. Quite informative.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Manufacturing Consent-The Documentary

If you haven't seen the documentary done about Chomsky and Herman's book, it's definitely worth watching. I've embedded it here.

It was at the time the most successful documentary ever made by a Canadian producer. It was huge overseas. Shown in about 30 countries. Where it was shown in the US it tended to sell out, but it wasn't shown on television here. In fact it was barely reviewed. The NY Times did review it in a sort of positive review you can read here. The thesis seems to be, according to the NY Times review, "that the government is most responsive to the wishes expressed by the minority of citizens who vote." Huh? It's pretty hard to understand how someone could watch this movie and miss the point so badly.

As far as I know Chomsky never watched the film. He apparently was a bit annoyed because though there was an overwhelmingly positive response he found that people looked to him like he was the leader of a movement. I suppose this violates his anarchist sensibilities. But he doesn't blame the creators and thinks they did the best they could. People naturally react this way apparently.

Friday, November 25, 2011

You Are Irrational

In this Ted Talk Dan Ariely explains how humans decisions are easily manipulated such that they are irrational.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Should We Vote For Obama?

There's only one guy that I read religiously and that's Glenn Greenwald. If he writes it in his column I read it. I think he would advise the left not to vote for Obama in 2012. Obama is killing US citizens with no due process, gets lavish praise from people like Dick Cheney for his handling of our overseas wars, aggressively punishes whistle blowers, pressures attorneys to let Wall St bankers skirt the law. He's an absolute disaster. Greenwald seems to side with Ralph Nader who likes to point out that these spineless liberals repeatedly demonstrate that they just have no breaking point. You can give them absolutely nothing and they'll still vote for you as long as you have a D next to your name. You've got to communicate that you have your limits or they will give you nothing.

You know what though? I think we did communicate that in 2010. Democrats stayed home instead of voting. And what do we have to show for it? Did the Democrats move to the left? We got Republican majorities in Congress. And what has this done for us?

We've got an economic crisis right now and it could be solved. Yeah, we have a deficit problem. We also have an unemployment problem. We also happen to have corporations and wealthy individuals sitting on record amounts of cash. You can solve the deficit problem by raising revenue and by cutting expenditures. But you don't want to cut expenditures when unemployment is as high as it is. In fact you want to increase them. So what you do is of course you raise taxes back to something like the prosperous 90's level, or the even more prosperous (and more progressive tax era) pre-80's level. You use the revenue to reduce the deficit and also spend some of it to spur demand. This improves the employment situation.

OK, that's my fantasy solution and I recognize that Republicans aren't going to go along with that. But in a reasonable political climate what you do is you compromise. Maybe I'm not going to get spending increases. But I can at least get some revenue increases in a sane world. I might offer some spending cuts in a compromising move.

But that's not feasible post 2010. These Republicans won't budge. No compromise. You cut spending. In exchange we'll give you nothing. That's the Republican compromise. That's insanity. This is the result of the 2010 election. Is this good for the country? Had Democrats won I wouldn't be happy with the results. But it would be better than this.

Obama is a war criminal. If the Nuremburg standard were applied he'd be hanged. But that's true of every American president since FDR. And it will be true of the next President whoever he is. I think the question is, do you want a war criminal that crushes the American poor or do you want a war criminal that might throw the poor a bone?

Or do you want a war criminal that will wreck the climate at an extremely fast pace. Obama is nothing to brag about on the environment. But at least he's not a member of the lunatic fringe climate denying anti science crowd. He says climate change cannot be denied, and economic growth must be sustainable in that it must combat this change. This may be rhetoric. He may do what his fossil fuel burning owners demand in the long run. But the Republicans can't even acknowledge the basic facts.

It's up to us to do the work that provides voters with a real choice. But suppose November 2012 comes and we haven't done the work required. Should we step aside and let a Republican win? These are real people that will suffer immensely with prolonged unemployment and the minimal benefits they have getting slashed.

Take an issue like a Boeing effort to undermine their union. The National Labor Relations Board's job is to flag violations of labor laws. Under Bush there's no problem. Bush just didn't enforce the laws, so Boeing can run rough shod over the union. Obama serves the same cronies, but he had to appoint members to the NLRB and he did go ahead and appoint some pro labor people. So what did they do? When Boeing broke the law they actually did something about it. Boeing is outraged of course. And Obama is doing what he can to help them out. He's appointed a former Boeing director to head the Commerce Department. So both Democrats and Republicans work to undermine unions and people on behalf of corporations. But under a Democrat you still have a bit of a chance. Under a Republican it's just blatant law breaking on behalf of wealth. That's real people that suffer. Do we stand back and let Romney walk into the White House? That's imposing unemployment and reduced wages on a lot of real people that will suffer.

What we need is a Presidential candidate that actually cares more about what people think than what wealthy corporations think. Then the war crimes would be scaled back, the police state can be rolled back, health care can be fixed, etc. Our best hope is that the occupy movement (possibly in conjunction with the Tea Party) can produce something like that. But if they haven't by November 2012 I think you do have to support the least worst option, and that is Obama over Romney.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Fake USPS Crisis

Here's a bizarre one. You hear how terrible the US Post Office is. They lose tons of money supposedly. They operate at a loss. Government is terrible at everything. They should be abolished and privatized (even though it is explicitly authorized in the Constitution).

But have you heard why it is they are losing money?. In an absurd move Congress passed a law that mandated that the USPS prefund pensions, including health benefits, out for a full 75 years. And they had 10 years to do it. This means funding pension liabilities for people that not only don't work yet. We're talking about liabilities for people that haven't even been born. That's $105 billion in 10 years. On top of that none of this money applies to current retirees. That's additional funding that is required. Almost no large businesses could have a burden like that imposed on them and survive.

And here's another kicker. The USPS previously operated under a retirement plan called the Civil Service Retirement System. Since then a different system has replaced it. But the Post Office overpaid into the CSRS to the tune of $82 billion. The US Treasury has not refunded the money. If the USPS could get their hands on the money that is due to them then that, combined with the money they've already contributed to the 75 year forward retirement fund covers the requirements and the USPS operates in the black.

Democracy Now covers it here. Ralph Nader has some details here. What we are dealing with here is elements acting on behalf of private wealth and profit seeking, like AEI, are seeing to it that the rules are rigged so the USPS can't function. Then when they don't function they point to them and act like they are defective. Then they can be privatized.

More on Freddie and Fannie

Another good summary of the arguments against AEI on this point. A couple of interesting tidbits.

1-Peter Wallison of AEI prior to the mortgage crisis criticized Fannie and Freddie because they served to retard the issuance of mortgages to sub prime borrowers. He's now the lead proponent of the theory that their excessive lending to sub prime borrowers is the problem.

2-Wallison's colleague at AEI, Ed Pinto, played 3 card monte in an effort to place the blame with Fannie and Freddie by saying that Fannie and Freddie had tons of sub prime AND OTHER HIGH RISK MORTGAGES and when you group all together it was a huge number. These so called other high risk mortgages had a default rate that was very close to the national average and much lower than the default rate of sub prime. By grouping them together though you are given the illusion that Fannie and Freddie had a lot of sub prime.

3-Wallison was appointed to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission and he presented these arguments. They were regarded as so outlandish by even the Republican members of the FCIC that these Republicans were asking each other if Wallison was on the take (which he is in a sense). We have their emails in which they wonder about this. The Republicans did have their own dissents from the FCIC findings but they would not join Wallison in his dissent and instead wrote their own dissent separately so as to be in no way associated with him.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Welfare and the War on Drugs

It's starting to make some sense to me why liberals talk about institutional racism against blacks. People I know don't regard blacks as inferior or evil by race. But people do recognize that blacks as a group have more social problems relative to other races. Higher incarceration rates. Higher broken family rates. Lower educational attainment rates. Lower family income. This is all true. Why? I think when you fail to recognize the institutional factors that contribute to this while laying the blame at the racial group as a whole, that's what a liberal means with institutional racism. And I think it's fair to call it racism.

In my view one of the major reasons for social problems in the black community is the war on drugs. Glenn Greenwald recently debated the war on drugs, and you can watch here. His opening statement is quite powerful. You might be shocked at just how unfair drug policy is to African Americans. I was taken aback. There's some great info here. That source indicates that drug use is actually higher among whites. Blacks are 14% of all illicit drug users, yet they are over half of the prison population. The war on drugs was crafted as a racist policy by design. It was based on the presumption that black were inferior and dangerous.

What are the consequences? By 1991 29% of all black males had spent time in prison. Compare to 4.4% of whites. It's pretty tough to be married when the father is in prison. It's tough to get a job when you have a criminal record. Even if you are a law abiding black citizen and you live in a black community this will affect your home's value. It affects your ability to get a loan on favorable terms. The result is that for every dollar of wealth white people have black people have 8 cents.

The one thing that can alleviate suffering a bit for black children is welfare for dependent mothers. This is your lifeline. So what might you think if you were a black person and you knew that your lifeline was being pointed to as the cause of the social problems in the black community? You'd wonder if these people were racist.

Thomas Sowell loves to blame welfare for black social problems. He does so in this hour long program on PBS. Gosh, black families weren't broken prior to 1962 when welfare legislation was passed. I guess welfare is the cause.

In my view Sowell isn't so great when it comes to allowing facts to inform your theory. I haven't seen him provide plots of the number of children headed by single parent families through the years. Did it take off in 1962? I'm not sure. I'm trying to find some data myself. Here's what I was able to find, via this link.

This of course doesn't break it down by race, but there's no noticeable downturn in 1962. In fact it looks bad just after 1970, right about the time the war on drugs began. I found another chart that does break down single parenting by race. Unfortunately data for black families only goes back to 1970.

I think what you can conclude here is that much of the spike in single parenting that you see around 1970 is the spike due to the increase in black families. That makes good sense. When you lock up a large proportion of black males you'd expect the number of single parent black families to rise.

With regards to Sowell's theories that welfare is to blame, take a look at this plot of the amount of welfare going to families and children. Doesn't it take off right about the time the war on drugs started?

If I were black I could see getting pretty ticked listening to the Tea Party object to welfare because it is unconstitutional. Where is your outrage about the war on drugs? Where does the Constitution say you can craft laws that provide extra punishment to people that use a drug more common amongst one racial group and less punishment to people that use a virtually identical drug more common amongst another racial group? You crush the black family with an unconstitutional law, but you only object to the unconstitutional law that provides the black family with a little bit of assistance in light of the devastation imposed on him. Are you a racist? I can sympathize with a black person that thinks that way.

However I don't think my tea partying friends are racist. What I think is that the corporate pressure is working to emphasize the evils of government growth that harms profits while downplaying the government growth that helps profits. So the prison industrial complex and weapons manufacturers profit greatly from the drug war. So the tea party doesn't emphasize that. The corporate elements within the tea party like that unconstitutional behavior.

Principled tea partyers need to recognize that they are being played. They can join forces with OWS and object to the drug war. It is unconstitutional. And it is destructive to minorities.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Walk of Shame

You may have seen images of peaceful protestors at UC Davis being sprayed with chemical agents. Here's a link to the video. A couple of images below.

Watch this incredible video of the Chancellor of the school walking to her car. She had refused to leave the school building because students had gathered because of their outrage associated with what had happened. The students apparently decided to line the pathway to her car and remain in silence. It's very powerful.

Glenn Greenwald comments here. Read an open letter from an untenured professor at UC Davis calling for the Chancellor's resignation and describing the events that lead to the pepper spraying incident. Also read this NY Times column written by a 70 year old poet laureate clubbed and shoved, along with his wife, because he went there to see what was happening and couldn't believe the stories of police brutality.

Charles Krauthammer's Strategic Incompetence

Have you ever had to deal with health care companies? Most of us have. It's common for them to deny legitimate claims. My wife and I have a method. We always tried to pay what we thought was our co-pay at the doctors office. That way if we ever got a medical bill in the mail we knew not to pay it. We knew we were seeing it because there was an error of some kind. Probably our health care provider denied a claim or didn't pay all that they should have.

I'm dealing with it in a big way with Aetna right now. I've been fighting with them for 5 months to get compensation that is due to me. I'm amazed at their incompetence. And I also have noticed that their incompetence always serves to improve their profit margins. Is it strategic incompetence?

Here's Charles Krauthammer in a debate prior to the presidential election in 2008 telling us the Democrats plan for troops in Iraq. Have a listen.

It's unequivocal. Hillary and Obama will immediately begin troop withdrawals. Well, that's pretty incompetent. Even I knew that was silly. I had listened closely enough to know that they were calling for troop expansions in the region.

So while Obama wasn't really promising that he'd scale back the wars his critics were pretending that he was. Is Krauthammer this incompetent? Or is he a genius?

Because think about what Krauthammer gets with Obama. An expansion of the wars. More mercenaries. Now we have due process free assassinations for US citizens. The surveillance continues. Guantanamo stays open. War opponents vote for Obama based on an expectation, delivered by Krauthammer, that Obama was somehow different from Bush. Krauthammer has in Obama everything he could want in a war mongering president. And it's the liberals that delivered it to him. Sure, he'd have preferred McCain, but this isn't bad.

Pretending that mainstream Democrats are liberals is really useful for the right wing.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The 53%-Proud To Be Slaves

It's kind of like 1984. In the future world people will be conditioned so that they are proud to be trampled on. Proud to spend no time with their wife and kids. Proud to sacrifice it all for the wealth of another.

I was just checking out the right wing answer to the "I Am the 99%" letters. It's the 53%-ers. I think they have a perception that the bottom 47% of income earners don't pay federal taxes, which is nonsense. But here's one on the top of the screen at the moment. A proud 53%-er.

Work 50 hours a week to get yelled at and that's good enough to allow you to afford the clearance racks. This is a badge of honor.

I might respect this guy. He should be proud that he's able to sacrifice in this way and able to deprive himself of luxuries. But I think he should not regard his condition as just. We can do better than this.

A liberal replied to an apparently popular post from a 53%-er. Letter from a liberal to a young marine. It captures my sentiments well. Via Reddit.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Blaming Freddie and Fannie

The 2008 financial crisis looks to me like very clear evidence that the more unregulated free market economic system that has been implemented in the US since 1980 has failed relative to the more regulated market system that existed prior. This disconfirms a lot of right wing economic theory in my mind.

But of course in the mind of right wingers it doesn't and a key pillar of the argument is that the blame lies with Freddie and Fannie. The theory is that the government not only encouraged, but mandated that banks issue risky loans. That's Thomas Sowell's assertion here.

But as far as I can tell that's just not true. The Community Reinvestment Act did not require banks to make loans to the poor and risky. What it did was disallow redlining. Redlining was a process whereby services and the costs associated with them were determined by simply drawing a "red line" on a map and saying those on one side of the line get one set of services at a certain cost and on the other side people get other services and costs. The effect was to generally make things tougher for minorities. What the CRA did was it required institutions to use consistent standards that were not based on which side of the tracks someone lived on but based on other factors, like a person's financial status.

There were a number of causes for the crisis in 2008. Several are discussed in this article that also addresses this myth that Freddie and Fannie are to blame. These causes don't support free market dogma. But why are people blaming the CRA? In fact CRA regulated institutions were less likely to make subprime loans. Further they were less likely to repackage and sell them. According to Wikipedia "every empirical study that has looked at CRA loans has concluded that they were safer than subprime mortgages that were purely profit driven, and CRA loans accounted for a tiny fraction of total subprime mortgages." Wikipedia cites this paper from Michael Simkovic out of Seton Hall and Harvard to justify that claim.

So if every empirical study shows that Freddie and Fannie were not responsible where are these claims coming from? The paper from Simkovic provides insight, so I will quote it below:
A. Industry has sought to defend itself by blaming government

Arguments that government policy primarily caused the financial crisis have generally been made in the context of advocacy paid for by the financial industry rather than through empirically substantiated academic scholarship. Many of the most forceful proponents of these arguments—such as mortgage consultant Edward Pinto and Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission dissenting member Peter J. Wallison136—are not academics but are instead affiliated with “think tanks” such as the American Enterprise Institute (“AEI”) which fundraise based on their efforts to deflect blame for the financial crisis from private financial institutions and which are committed to advocating free market ideology and limited government.137 AEI “is governed by a Board of Trustees, composed of leading business and financial executives.”138 During the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, the vast majority of its revenues came from annual donations.139

AEI’s 2009 report trumpeted Wallison and other AEI-funded writers efforts to deflect blame for the financial crisis from private financial firms and to place the blame for the financial crisis on government policies.140 The report also highlighted AEI’s ability to influence “Financial Regulation’s Future” because of Wallison’s role on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission.141 The report suggested that Wallison would likely use the opportunity to blame the GSEs for the financial crisis and to combat more comprehensive financial regulation.142

AEI’s 2010 annual report points out that in his role as a dissenting member of the FCIC, Wallison did in fact blame government policy for the financial crisis.”143 The report reiterates Wallison’s opposition to regulation and his ability to influence legislation.144

Wallison’s unwavering efforts to blame GSEs and government policies for the financial crisis were noted by other members of the commission, including fellow Republicans, who were often critical of his single-minded approach.145
For further analysis of Wallison and Min's apologetics for the financial industry, go here. I keep coming back to this point. You might think it strange that such smart people can argue in this way when all of the empirical evidence is against them. But it makes perfect sense when you recognize that confusing people on behalf of wealth is their job.

Monday, November 14, 2011

A Huge Win for OWS

There's oil in the tar sands of Canada. Lots of it. Oil companies of course want to exploit it, and part of that involved building the Keystone Pipeline.

Extracting oil from tar sands is a lot more energy intensive. You have to heat the ground and burn a lot of fossil fuel just to get the fuel out. That of course generates a lot of CO2 emissions. But the larger issue is just the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere that will result if we exploit the tar sands like we exploited Saudi Arabia.

NASA's lead climate scientist has run the numbers. What does he say? We go this route and "it's essential game over." The game being human civilization as it exists today. See further discussion here and here.

So this has caused unusual activity in the scientific community. Scientists leaving their offices and protesting in Washington. As Naomi Klein discusses here they really didn't think there was any way to stop the corporate freight train. They've got all the money. What do we have? We have the majority of little people. But if you aren't organized, who cares?

Then came Occupy Wall St. The result? Obama for once did not cave to wealth. He delayed approval, which will scare off investors and stave off the day of reckoning. A huge win.

Of course the corporate lackeys are ticked. Profits above all else. The science and the facts be damned. The Wall St Journal says "But what about jobs!!" Jobs claims are bogus anyway, but does anybody really think the WSJ cares about jobs? They care about profits, which benefit owners. They'll be back, fighting for wealth and ownership and against people. But we've won for once.

Contrast OWS with the Tea Party Again

The so called liberal media (AP in this case via NPR) informs us that police at Berkley were shown in video "pulling people from the steps and nudging others with batons." Watch the video which shows the nudging. Makes sense to Colbert. He comments here.

This is just one of dozens of videos you can watch of protestors getting assaulted. This is another difference between the Tea Party and OWS. OWS protestors get beaten without provocation routinely. Also arrested. Not so for the Tea Party.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Contrast OWS with the Tea Party

Interesting graphic here. A couple of interesting facts:

1-OWS protestor is more likely to be employed (though the Tea Partyer is more likely to be retired).
2-The Tea Partyer is older and less educated.
3-Look at the contrast in the number of arrests. 50 in 3 years for the Tea Party. 1500 in just a couple of months for OWS. Which does the establishment prefer?

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Confronting Global Warming Skeptics

I want to formulate a basic case regarding global warming based on some study I've been doing in response to global warming denial. In addition to the basic case I want to address some common skeptical claims.

I think a good place to start if you are trying to formulate an opinion about this is to look at the strength of the scientific consensus. Some of this is complicated and most of us aren't experts. Relying on experts is rational as a starting point. What do they say?

The scientific consensus is pretty overwhelming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was a massive effort to assess the scientific consensus. It concluded that global warming is real, the recent spike is the result of human emission of greenhouse gases, and that it represents a serious threat to human kind as well as other living species. No scientific body of international standing rejects these conclusions. Studies show that 98% of climate scientists accept the IPCC conclusions and in fact the greater the level of expertise (as measured by the number of papers published) the more likely the scientist was to accept the IPCC consensus.

So why believe that global temperatures are rising? Because multiple peer reviewed studies show that it is. Take a look at this chart of global temperatures based on multiple studies.

You might ask, what are these based on? How can one know what the temperature was 2,000 years ago? The answer is that there are various proxies that can be used to attempt to answer that question including tree rings, coral, ice cores, and glacial records. These are imperfect of course. And the error bars generally enlarge the further away you get from the present day. But these various studies based on various proxies tend to converge on a similar conclusion.

The first historical temperature reconstruction produced a graph like this and it was referred to as the hockey stick. It was used by the 2001 IPCC Report, and, though the creators of it made obvious reference to the uncertainty associated with it, the IPCC literature presented it in a graphic without error bars. Global warming skeptics were outraged and aggressively attacked the scientists that produced the graph, even though the scientists presented the results tentatively and with generous error bars. It rose to the level of Congressional hearings. Wikipedia has a summary here. The whole Wiki entry is worth reading, but in summary the skeptics have made several runs at discrediting the chart. The first ended in disgrace (Saul and Baliunus). Next was an effort by a guy named Stephen McIntyre, which apparently did provide some decent correctives, but didn't change the overall conclusions. More recently a Koch funded study has tried again and failed (as I mentioned here). At least to this point. Meanwhile over a dozen peer reviewed scientific studies have been published confirming the general accuracy of the original study.

So what about CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere? Here is a historical chart.

Makes sense. You take massive amounts of hydrocarbons out of the ground and release the CO2 to the atmosphere and you get an increase in the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere.

But why believe this is the cause of warming? There are a number of good reasons.

Here's one reason explained in some detail, but I'll offer the quick version. CO2 levels have increased dramatically relative to the past several hundred thousand years and CO2 absorbs infrared radiation. There's no debate on that. But here's the key. Outgoing IR radiation can be directly measured. The amount of outgoing IR radiation has dropped at precisely the frequency at which CO2 absorbs IR radiation. That means this radiation is being absorbed rather than released to outer space. Effectively it is like putting on a blanket.

Another reason is that the stratosphere is cooling while the troposphere is warming. That is, the very top part of our atmosphere has been cooling while the atmosphere closest to the ground is warming. View the surface and upper air temperature historical plot here. That's pretty bizarre, right? What can account for that?

It was a long ago predicted consequence of warming due to man made CO2 emissions (see that prediction here). Go here for a good description of the causes. I don't think I can summarize it any better than it is done at that link.

These are not the only reasons. Several more are discussed here. Once again, in the scientific community the consensus is strong.

There are legitimate scientists that dissent. There are two main categories to the objections. The first is the claim that solar forcing explains the recent warming. The second is that the recent warming can be explained by what is known as the Cosmic Ray Flux (CRF) and its effect on cloud formation. A brief overview of these views and discussion of why they are by and large rejected in the scientific community is offered in this Youtube video.

So now, on to some of the questions that arise from the right wing disinformation effort.

Didn't scientists predict a global ice age back in the 70's?

The short answer is no. Time magazine had an article that made this claim but failed to provide a source. Surveys of the scientific literature revealed that at the time about two thirds of the experts expected global warming and a third expected global cooling (not an ice age). You'll notice based on the hockey stick graph that temperatures had been falling prior to the 70's. This was due to pollution from coal fire plants. There was debate about which effect would dominate. Would it be the cooling from the aerosols or the warming from the greenhouse gases? It's impressive that despite the history of cooling the majority of experts still expected warming and they were right. Since then there has been a lot more good research and the debate has been resolved. The warmers were right. For an overview watch this video.

Hasn't CO2 concentration changes lagged temperature rise in the past by 800 years? Doesn't this mean the rise in CO2 in the atmosphere is an effect of warming, not a cause?

Often CO2 rises have lagged the temperature increase, but not always. There are a number of different mechanisms that can drive a temperature increase, including the earth's orbital variation, volcanoes, solar irradiance, meteorites, possibly cosmic rays. In the present case we know it is greenhouse gases because scientists have managed to rule out alternative causes and because we are observing the predicted effects of temperature rise through artificial greenhouse gas emissions.

What causes the CO2 concentration changes to lag the temperature changes? Let me explain with an example using the earth's wobble as the dominant forcing mechanism.

The angle of the earth's axis to the sun varies from about 24° to 21°. When the angle is 21° there is less direct sunlight in the polar regions and ice forms there. Imagine what would happen as the tilt shifts towards 24°. More direct sunlight on the cap melts some ice at the cap. Melted ice converts to water. Water absorbs more heat than ice. Ice reflects radiation. So now with more water and less ice the earth as a system absorbs even more heat. That heat melts more ice and you create a positive feedback. Runaway warming and ice melting.

CO2 is trapped in ice. So as ice melts CO2 is released. This is why the CO2 concentrations lag the temperature change.

This process can reverse. As the earth's axis heads back to 21° we again get the freezing of the polar ice caps. Once again you go from a state where water is absorbing radiation to ice reflecting the radiation. This is a cooling positive feedback. The additional ice and snow can trap CO2 and methane from escaping to the atmosphere, once again creating a positive cooling feedback. The CO2 drop in the atmosphere once again lags the cooling.

The real concern is not the temperature effect of CO2. It's that the slight warming caused by CO2 can create a positive feedback due to the ice and other effects. At that point you can have runaway warming that can't be stopped even if you stop producing CO2 artificially.

What about the hacked emails? Don't these show a conspiracy within the scientific community to mislead the public?

Absolutely not. Multiple independent studies have confirmed there was no wrongdoing. For a fun video explanation of part of the issue, go here.

Isn't the sun the dominant climate forcing mechanism?

Of course. Without the sun there would be no climate. And solar output does vary. Approximately every 11 years the sun's polarity flips, and this results in altered solar output. But the conclusion in the scientific community is that recent solar changes cannot account for the rise in temperature we've experienced. The sun's output has been quite stable, following it's 11 year cycle regularly. Yet temperatures are rising. Why? The consensus of the experts is the greenhouse gases.

In times past CO2 concentrations were much higher. Today they are much lower. Why wasn't it a problem then?

Because the concern is not strictly the CO2 concentrations but the combined effect of the various temperature forcing mechanisms. Take the Huronian Glaciation. About 2 billion years ago the entire globe was covered in ice. Remember what I said about the feedback mechanism. An ice covered globe reflects solar radiation. That means when the entire globe is covered in ice solar output could increase a lot and yet you still may not be able to extract yourself from the snowball earth condition. That solar heat is just not absorbed.

And the reality was the sun's output was in fact much lower then than it is today. Solar heat was about 75% of what it is today. How did the earth ever come out of the snowball condition?

The answer is CO2. Volcanoes continued to erupt. When they did they emitted CO2. And there was no vegetation to extract the CO2 from the atmosphere. It took a really long time, but finally the concentration was high enough (about 1000 times what it is today) that ice started to melt. Once again the positive feedback kicked in. The ice melted rapidly. After it was all melted the earth continued to warm. Even with the sun producing a mere 75% of the output it is making today the earth was still much warmer thanks to the greenhouse effect. Vegetation began extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and though solar output increased the temperature on earth began to drop.

But why do I hear so much criticism about global warming in the media and from the right wing think tanks? These are smart people. They must know something.

Of course they are smart people, and they may know what the scientific community knows. But what is there job? Informing you? Or serving their owners and customers. I work for a corporation. In my professional capacity who do I serve? The owners and customers. Is Rush Limbaugh any different? Is the American Enterprise Institute any different? Limbaugh works for a mega corporation. His customers (advertisers) are mega corporations as well. He's going to spin tails that serve their interest. AEI is going to funnel money from Exxon to climate science denial efforts. Why? It serves their profit agenda. AEI's job is to confuse you for the interest of profit. They do it for economic matters. Why wouldn't they do it for environmental matters? You should expect spin and lies from them. That's what they deliver. Stop listening to them if you want to be informed.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

When Republicans Become Keynsians

To grow this economy we need to cut spending. The deficit is an enormous burden on job creation, as are taxes. So, say the Republicans, let's cut taxes. And cut spending even more. On education, health services, research, welfare, etc.

What about defense? Can't do that!! That would cost us jobs. Krugman has a good article on the recent flip flop from Republicans here. It's the weaponized Keynzians. Stimulus to create stuff we blow up? Good. Stimulus to help average Americans? Bad. Yglesias likewise comments.

And I agree with Yglesias. For once the Republicans are right. Cutting defense spending would be a real blow to the economy. It's probably true that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented our economic situation from being even worse. That's an absurdity, but it's a consequence of our consumption based economy.

Notice the pattern though of the right wing apologist. When it comes to government spending that helps the average guy they talk about waste, misallocation of resources, Milton Friedman is awesome, etc. When it comes to spending on war? A lot of chirping crickets. Austerity is for poor people. For the rich? Socialism.