Cold and Dark

Saying global warming isn’t real because it’s cold out is like saying the sun isn’t real because it’s dark out.

Ezra Klein

This week everybody was talking about a traffic jam near a bridge

Wednesday: Did something happen?

Well, almost everybody. Fox News barely covered the story the day it broke open, and now the strategy seems to be to use it as a segue to talk about Benghazi.

By now you may have heard too much about Bridgegate, or the same basic information repeated way too many times. So let me do a really quick sort:

  • What happened? Wikipedia has the essential facts. In September, Governor Christie’s appointees cut down access from Fort Lee, NJ to the George Washington Bridge into New York, causing massive traffic jams several days in a row.
  • Why are we talking about it now? Rachel Maddow has been covering this story for a month and the local media even longer, but it really broke open Wednesday, when a North Jersey newspaper released emails and texts that proved the jams were created intentionally for some punitive purpose. Thursday, Christie apologized to the state, claimed he knew nothing about it, and fired the deputy chief of staff who he claims misled him.
  • Who were Christie’s people trying to punish and why? That’s the mystery. The original claim was that they were taking revenge on Fort Lee’s mayor for not endorsing Christie’s re-election campaign. But that case seems really weak, given that many more important people didn’t endorse Christie and weren’t similarly punished. Maddow floated an alternate theory about judicial appointments and Fort Lee’s state senator, but Democrats in the NJ Senate have shot that down too. The latest theory has to do with Fort Lee’s billion-dollar development project whose value depends on its access to New York.

As always, the media is doing way too much speculating about whether Christie was really as disconnected from the wrongdoing as he claims. Basically, we’re all just predicting that the facts will eventually validate our prior opinions about Christie, whatever those happen to be. Better to just wait: Real investigations are happening, and they’ll probably produce solid information long before anybody has to vote on whether Christie should be president.

So far, the main beneficiaries of the scandal are the comedians. Jon Stewart, of course. And I enjoyed Andy Borowitz’s “All Lanes on George Washington Bridge Blocked by Chris Christie’s Ego“. (But enough with the fat jokes already; that should be out of bounds.)

After all the phony scandals they’ve tried to drum up about President Obama (IRS, Benghazi, his birth certificate, etc.), you’d think an authentic Republican scandal would be difficult for the conservative media to deal with. But they’re up to the job. Media Matters explains their game plan:

and the weather

The polar vortex came and went, and now the east coast is unseasonably warm.

Here’s the right point to make when deniers advance the global-warming-is-false-because-I’m-cold argument: Even when 2014 was just a few days old and wind chills were below zero for most of the country, there was a bet you could make that was almost a sure thing. No matter how it started, by its end 2014 will be yet another warm year. And by warm I mean: The global average temperature will wind up well above the 50-year average and the 20-year average. (When you get down to the five-year average, short-term randomness makes the bet iffy, as the graph below demonstrates.)

Deniers will tell you global warming is a religious belief that contrary evidence can’t touch. But in fact I can tell you exactly what would make me doubt: a genuinely cold year. If we had a year where the average global temperature fell below the 100-year average, with no obvious explanation like a massive volcano or a nuclear war, I’d have to rethink.

A decade cooler than the one before it would also impress me. Ezra Klein got this graph from the World Meteorological Association:

When Klein tweeted the quote at the top of this article, various conservatives tweeted back some version of:

no, it’s like saying “global warming is real because there’s a heat wave”

And that would be an excellent rejoinder if anyone ever made that argument.

In fact, if you look at environmentalists’ discussions of whether Hurricane Sandy or the Colorado brush fires or the Oklahoma tornadoes or any other weather event could be related to global warming, they are filled with nuance and explanations and acknowledgements that the connection between climate and specific weather events is probabilistic at best. And if you look at how the liberal portion of the mainstream media covers those discussions, as a rule they are likewise cautious and judicious. Unless you edit deceptively, you won’t find clips of top liberal pundits and spokesmen and political leaders saying anything remotely equivalent to this:

Which raises another interesting question: Who is the liberal equivalent of Donald Trump?

and Al Qaeda taking over Fallujah

The news that Sunni militants linked to Al Qaeda had taken control of Fallujah, the site of “the bloodiest battle of the entire Iraq War” — nearly 100 American troops died taking the city — re-opened a lot of the wounds of that struggle.

If you were against the war, it made you reflect on the pointlessness of it all. Thom Hartmann commented:

The freedom Bush promised the Iraqi people now looks like the freedom to die in a region-wide sectarian civil war that’s rapidly spiraling out of control.

War supporters, on the other hand, blamed President Obama for pulling our troops out and thereby squandering the gains they had made. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a statement:

When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America’s enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever.

It’s given me an I-didn’t-want-to-be-right feeling.

Lots of folks were against starting the war. But after it got going, I kept hearing people say, “I want to get our troops out, but we can’t just cut and run.” So in 2005, when “only” 1800 or so American troops had died in the Iraq War and the price tag was still only in the hundreds of billions, I wrote a piece called “Cut and Run“, where I advocated exactly that: Don’t wait until something-or-other happens that will allow us to save face and make a graceful exit. Just get out of Iraq as fast as possible.

What are we fixing? What do we expect to get better if we stay for another year or five years or ten years? …

It is hard to let go of the fantasy that some good can salvaged from the thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars that have already been sacrificed to this war. Americans like to believe in happy endings. We want to be told that one more push will make it all worthwhile.

But we need to face reality. The dead soldiers and spent dollars are gone and they have accomplished nothing. We are like the gambler who stays at the table because he cannot admit that he has already lost more than he can afford. One more game, we think, and we can win it all back. Or at least some of it.

We can’t. It is a hard truth, but it is a truth.

So we stayed for another six years and lost another 2600 or so American soldiers, killed tens of thousands of Iraqis, and added trillions to our national debt. And the result is … what? What did we fix?

We could have followed the McCain/Graham plan and kept troops there for many years more, and lost many more of them. And when we eventually left and things fell apart, they could still say, “We didn’t stay long enough.”

Anyway, here’s the lesson I want us to learn from Iraq. When we as a country make a mistake, the right time to stop making it is now, not “in six months” or “after we stabilize the situation” or whenever. Now. Cut-and-run was the right answer in 2005 in Iraq. It often is.

and the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty

LBJ declared the war in his 1964 State of the Union address. Watching the movie newsreel coverage brings home just how long 50 years can be.

The anniversary evoked a longer-term look at poverty and the programs that are supposed to fight it. The best retrospective, I think, was Paul Krugman’s.

For a long time, everyone knew — or, more accurately, “knew” — that the war on poverty had been an abject failure. And they knew why: It was the fault of the poor themselves. But what everyone knew wasn’t true, and the public seems to have caught on.

The narrative went like this: Antipoverty programs hadn’t actually reduced poverty, because poverty in America was basically a social problem — a problem of broken families, crime and a culture of dependence that was only reinforced by government aid. And because this narrative was so widely accepted, bashing the poor was good politics, enthusiastically embraced by Republicans and some Democrats, too.

But in recent years something has changed: It’s become obvious that people are poor because wages don’t track productivity any more. People who have strong values and work hard can still be poor, and lots of lower-middle-class people now see their jobs as vulnerable and their economic security virtually non-existent without a government safety net.

On its 50th birthday, the war on poverty no longer looks like a failure. It looks, instead, like a template for a rising, increasingly confident progressive movement.

Over at The Atlantic, Peter Beinhart looks at the conservative approach to poverty.

the new Republican anti-poverty speeches have a depressingly theological quality. They usually begin with a catechism: Washington can’t effectively fight poverty. … Rarely is serious evidence offered for these assertions, because they are not statements of fact; they are declarations of faith. In truth, there’s ample evidence that some Washington programs significantly reduce poverty.

Starting with ideology leads to proposals that are “epistemologically backward”.

They don’t start with the assumption that since poverty is bad, any method of fighting that has proven effective has merit. They start with the assumption that since the federal government is bad, the only anti-poverty measures with merit are those that circumvent it. That doesn’t mean all the ideas Cantor and company propose are ineffective. But they’re disproportionately ineffective because proven effectiveness wasn’t the key criteria for their selection. Ideological comfort was. Until that changes, the GOP’s new focus on poverty won’t improve its own fortunes or those of America’s poor.

But more people should be paying attention to … lower healthcare inflation

Yeah, I know, it’s not as juicy as the bridge scandal. But Salon’s Brian Beutler makes a good case that

The furthest-reaching political news of the week … came in a seemingly boring actuarial report from a government agency most people probably have never of, showing that for the first time since the 1990s, total U.S. healthcare spending grew at a slower rate than the U.S. economy at the beginning of the current decade.

That’s important for two reasons: Specifically and in the medium term, ObamaCare. The fear was that getting more people covered would be too expensive, and the cost savings the law promised would never appear. But if the ACA is responsible for healthcare costs slowing, then it’s already a success. And even if it’s not, if the inflation slowdown is caused by something else entirely, ObamaCare still avoids its nightmare scenario.

More generally and longer term, the entire conservative narrative is based on those exponential curves projecting “unsustainable” growth in government spending.

What if “current policy” doesn’t do this?

And that, in turn, is based on projections of runaway healthcare spending. As Kevin Drum puts it: “Washington doesn’t have a spending problem. It has a health care problem. Period.” Beutler elaborates:

the slowdown [in healthcare inflation] threatens the pretext for key elements of the conservative policy agenda. If it’s permanent, it destroys the pretext completely. In a perverse way, the right needs healthcare inflation to return to unsustainable levels because without it, the enormous challenges of privatizing Medicare and crushing Medicaid become impossible.

and I wrote about atheism.

I’ve written before about the myth of Christian persecution in America. One reason that myth is so easy to sell to Christian fundamentalists is that many of them have no clue what it’s like to belong to a religious group that actually does suffer discrimination — atheists, for example. Two recent stories bring home the routine disapproval that atheists face in America. (A Christian pastor is surprised how quickly things get serious when he starts “a year without God”, and an atheist trying to give money away is compared to the KKK.) I discuss them in “To Experience Real Religious Discrimination, Turn Atheist“.

While researching that article I scanned the Friendly Atheist blog and ran across this hilarious video by dancer-turned-biologist Dr. Carin Anne Bondar. I’m sure you were all wondering: What if Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball” hadn’t been a metaphor for the disruptive impact of breaking up with someone, and instead had symbolized the shock of discovering that evolution is true?


In other religious news, AlterNet’s Amanda Marcotte explains the logic of a Satanist group proposing a statue of Baphomet for the Oklahoma capitol grounds.

Christian fundamentalists in Oklahoma managed to get a Ten Commandments monument placed on capitol grounds in 2012. Though the supporters of the monument deny it, it’s an obvious attempt by fundamentalists to get the state government to endorse Christianity above all other religious beliefs, in a direct violation of the Constitution’s ban on state establishment of religion. … No doubt the Satanists expect Oklahoma to reject their petition, which is the point, of course. By rejecting the petition, the legislature will make it clear they really are elevating one religion over another, strengthening the ACLU’s case against the state.

Here’s the weird thing about this issue: It’s the conservatives, the people who claim to respect government the least, who want the government to endorse their religion. That’s the question we should keep asking the right-wing Christians: Why is it so important that the government endorse your religion?

You also might be interested in …

Coal is supposed to be the cheap form of energy. But that’s only if you ignore the cost of stuff like nine counties of West Virginia going without water since Thursday, due to a spill of 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol (a chemical used in processing coal) by the Elk River “near the intake facilities for the West Virginia division of American Water Works.”

The chemical is so dangerous that “American Water customers are being advised not to drink, cook with, bathe in or boil their water … to stop using water for everything other than flushing toilets and fire suppression.”

In a twist that would be cheesy in a movie, the corporation behind the spill is called Freedom Industries. Freedom didn’t find the “leaking storage unit” itself, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection did after it received reports of a “strange odor” in the area. So this is a story of government regulators interfering with Freedom.


Add Iowa to the list of places where a comprehensive investigation of voter fraud turned up nothing worth turning up. And in Ohio, an investigation turned up 17 cases of non-citizens voting, out of 5.6 million voters. The 17 were not part of any organized effort, and all had driver’s licenses that would pass photo-ID muster.


If you’ve been worrying that maybe you practice (or suffer from) reverse racism, it’s good to know that comedian Aamer Rahman has been thinking it through.


Normally my book reviews don’t get a lot of page views, but last week’s review of Angry White Men is over 3000 hits, making it #7 on the Sift’s all-time list. And that brings up a curious thing about viral posts: In my experience, the region between 3000 hits and 8000 hits is virtually unpopulated. There are four posts between 3145 (where AWM was at last count) and 2662. The next post up is at 7957. No idea why.

and let’s end with a cartoon too good not to mention

(This one is pretty good too.) You want an apt metaphor for sexism and racism and all the other forms of institutionalized privilege? They’re like The Matrix.

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  • By Service Plan | The Weekly Sift on March 3, 2014 at 10:59 am

    […] on January 13 when everybody was talking about the polar vortex and the airwaves were full of deniers explaining […]

  • By The Yearly Sift: 2014 | The Weekly Sift on December 29, 2014 at 8:34 am

    […] Most prescient comment. You may remember that January opened with a polar vortex, provoking the usual round of I’m-cold-so-global-warming-is-a-myth articles. I’m proud of this response on January 13: […]

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