Friday, September 30, 2005

Those Vicious Democrats

Chris Matthews had Molly Ivins and Susan Molinari on last night to play Hardball. Topic-- the indictment of Tom DeLay. Here are Matthews' first five questions to Ivins.
Molly, why do Democrats hate Tom DeLay?
. . .
MATTHEWS: Well, you do. I mean, you're not—you're only one of them that hate him. What's this visceral contempt and anger against this guy?
. . .
MATTHEWS: Well, why do you—why do you—why do you really, deep down, really are thrilled at this defeat by the guy, the fact that he's lost his leadership, the fact that he's facing—he is indicted, facing trial? And, apparently, he's going to get mug-shotted. He is going to, God knows, go through the humiliation of arraignment and everything else. Why does that give you a giggle?
. . .
MATTHEWS: So, the guy has no moral compass whatsoever, but you have no problem with him personally?

Not stupid enough for you? Try his first question to Molinari:
MATTHEWS: . . . Am I wrong that Democratic liberals hate Tom DeLay?

Whether it's DeLay or Bush, it seems that "Democratic liberals" can't oppose anyone except for reasons of personal animus, visceral contempt, and anger. For reasons why people who aren't crazy with hatred might dislike Delay, click here. Also here. And here. Also, read the Hardball transcript. Ivins did great. Kicked Matthews's butt, and Molinari's too.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

More on Global Warming and Hurricanes

Previous posts have attempted to explain the connection between global warming and hurricanes. While it is impossible to attribute the strength of any one hurricane to global warming, the evidence is very strong that global warming will increase the future frequency of intense hurricanes. Skeptico points to a fine post by the climate scientists at RealClimate that explains the relationship between warming and hurricanes in a very accessible way.

Due to this semi-random nature of weather, it is wrong to blame any one event such as Katrina specifically on global warming - and of course it is just as indefensible to blame Katrina on a long-term natural cycle in the climate.

Yet this is not the right way to frame the question. As we have also pointed out in previous posts, we can indeed draw some important conclusions about the links between hurricane activity and global warming in a statistical sense. The situation is analogous to rolling loaded dice: one could, if one was so inclined, construct a set of dice where sixes occur twice as often as normal. But if you were to roll a six using these dice, you could not blame it specifically on the fact that the dice had been loaded. Half of the sixes would have occurred anyway, even with normal dice. Loading the dice simply doubled the odds. In the same manner, while we cannot draw firm conclusions about one single hurricane, we can draw some conclusions about hurricanes more generally. In particular, the available scientific evidence indicates that it is likely that global warming will make - and possibly already is making - those hurricanes that form more destructive than they otherwise would have been.

The key connection is that between sea surface temperatures (we abbreviate this as SST) and the power of hurricanes. Without going into technical details about the dynamics and thermodynamics involved in tropical storms and hurricanes (an excellent discussion of this can be found here), the basic connection between the two is actually fairly simple: warm water, and the instability in the lower atmosphere that is created by it, is the energy source of hurricanes. This is why they only arise in the tropics and during the season when SSTs are highest (June to November in the tropical North Atlantic).

. . .

But ultimately the answer to what caused Katrina is of little practical value. Katrina is in the past. Far more important is learning something for the future, as this could help reduce the risk of further tragedies. Better protection against hurricanes will be an obvious discussion point over the coming months, to which as climatologists we are not particularly qualified to contribute. But climate science can help us understand how human actions influence climate. The current evidence strongly suggests that:(a) hurricanes tend to become more destructive as ocean temperatures rise, and(b) an unchecked rise in greenhouse gas concentrations will very likely increase ocean
temperatures further, ultimately overwhelming any natural oscillations.

Scenarios for future global warming show tropical SST rising by a few degrees, not just tenths of a degree (see e.g. results from the Hadley Centre model and the implications for hurricanes shown in Fig. 1 above). That is the important message from science. What we need to discuss is not what caused Katrina, but the likelyhood that global warming will make hurricanes even worse in future.


Sully Accuses Rumsfeld

Yesterday, Andrew Sullivan reported a shocking accusation against Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The accusation concerns Captain Ian Fishback, who has described cases of abuse and torture of Iraqi detainees by the 82nd Airborne Division. The New York Times quotes Fishback's complaints that Army investigators have been uninterested in the substance of his accusations. The investigators, Fishback says, have been more interested in learning the identities of other Army personnel who have made accusations of prisoner abuse to Human Rights Watch, implying that the investigators are trying to intimidate accusors rather than investigate abuses. Sullivan goes beyond this accusation, and says that his sources tell him that investigators are telling Fishback that "his career in the Army is over. Meanwhile the peer pressure on him is enormous. I'm reliably told that he has been subjected to an unending stream of threats and acts of intimidation from fellow officers. "

Behind the scenes, according to Sullivan, Rumsfeld is pulling the strings.
Another source informs that the word is around that Rumsfeld has taken a strong interest in this. He is quoted by some as saying "Either break him or destroy him, and do it quickly." And no doubt about it, that may be just what they are doing. Expect some trumped up charges against Fishback soon, similar to what they did to Muslim Chaplain Captain James Yee, whom they accused of treason with no solid evidence and then, when those charges evaporated, went on to accuse him of adultery. The bottom line, as the NYT reports today, is that the military and the Bush administration are determined to stop any real investigation about how torture
and abuse came to be so widespread in the U.S. military. The scapegoating of retarded underlings like Lynndie England is an attempt to deflect real
responsibility for the new pro-torture policies that go all the way to the White House. It's a disgusting cover-up and it rests on breaking the will and resolve of decent servicemen and women brave enough to expose wrong-doing.
Citizen Cain endorses Sullivan's view that responsibility for pro-torture policies goes to the White House. But just how solid is the information that Rumsfeld has ordered that Fishback be "broken" or "destroyed?" Sullivan's writing is normally pellucid, but his exposition here is murky. He refers to a singular source who informs him that "the word is around that Rumsfeld has taken a strong interest in this." Sounds like maybe this source hasn't heard directly from Rumsfeld, but has heard from others of Rumsfeld's interest.

Sullivan continues, "He (Rumsfeld) is quoted by some as saying "Either break him or destroy him, and do it quickly." Does Sullivan have multiple sources who quote Rumsfeld saying this, or is this the same one source telling Sullivan that "some" others have told him of hearing this? It sounds like the latter. Sullivan gives no clue as to the placement of his source, or whether the source has heard about Rumsfeld's interest second, third, or fourth hand.

Given the seriousness of the charge, Sullivan should clarify how good his source's information is. Is he just reporting rumors, or is he in a position to know what Rumsfeld has said about Fishback?

If there's substance to this story, there should be a special prosecutor. Citizen Cain isn't a lawyer, but surely it cannot be legal for the Defense Secretary to tell underlings to "break" or "destroy" a military whistleblower. Perhaps the lawyers out there can leave comments about what statutes might be at issue in this instance. Would it make a difference if Rumsfeld said not "destroy him," but rather, "who will rid me of this meddlesome captain?"

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Hail Delong!

Did the Daily Howler analysts stand up and cheer? We did here at Citizen Cain, when we read J. Bradford Delong’s recent angry post about the press corps’ contempt for public policy. The immediate cause of Delong’s ire was Michael Crowley’s execrable New Republic article about Bill Clinton, in which Crowley ridicules Clinton for his interest in the details of foreign and domestic policy, and his concern with the welfare of people in remote parts of the world. Crowley regales us with tales of how Clinton has bored celebrities, regular folk, and journalists by discussing policy issues with them at length.

Delong then continues with additional examples of Clinton getting similar treatment—in reviews of My Life by Weston Kosova and Michael Isikoff in Newsweek and by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. His conclusion:

I have not yet figured out why so much of our elite press--the Crowleys, the Kakutanis, the Isikoffs, and the Kosovas--is so... what should I call it? Feckless. Corrupt (in the sense of well-rotted). Decadent. Why does Michael Crowley react with contempt to Clinton's interest in Lesotho, or New Orleans? Why do Weston Kosova and Michael Isikoff cover the government--rather than, say, cover something like advances in bartending--if they find debates over policy the equivalent of crossing the Gedrosian Desert? Why does Michiko Kakutani think it pointless and boring to wake up early to watch the inauguration of the first democratically-elected president in sixteen years in a country of 130 million people?

It is a mystery to me.

It is, however, one reason that we are saddled with an incompetent president like George W. Bush. As David Frum writes, it has long been clear to insiders that Bush is not a "diligent manager of the office of the presidency, [or] a close student of public policy, [or] a careful balancer of risks and benefits"--that, in short, George W. Bush is totally unqualified to be president, totally unprepared to make the decisions a
president has to make. But by and large the elite press has simply not cared about the necessary qualifications to be a good president, and fears a president who is qualified to be president. For, after all, strikes them as bizarre and weird for somebody to actually know where Lesotho is.
Citizen Cain has explored this theme in relation to the Nora O’Donnell’s lack of interest in discussing U.S. policy towards Iraq, and her preference for talking about strategies for managing U.S. public opinion about the war in Iraq. Bob Somerby has also developed this theme. See his posts on how Al Gore put Maureen Dowd to sleep by talking about the environment, energy, and health care, and on how Gail Collins found it so tedious to listen to Gore and Bill Bradley debate their health care plans.

Not everyone has to be interested in policy issues. It takes all kinds. Perhaps when choosing a date for Friday night, most people would prefer someone who is good at making small talk, and steering away from heavy topics. But it’s sad when our press corps evaluates our politicians using Dating Game criteria.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Liberal Loser

The Bush administration is on the run! Bush's approval ratings are at an all time low, and even members of his own party are disappointed in him. His mismanagement of the war in Iraq and the Katrina cleanup are now admitted by anyone who isn't completely servile. The press is become less servile, emboldened by Bush’s declining popularity.

So clearly, now is a time for liberals to vigorously oppose administration policies they disagree with, and even to start to advance a bold agenda of their own. Surely this should be the attitude of liberal pundits.

But not at Slate, where they are made of weaker stuff.  Unbelievably, Slate editor Jacob Weisberg counsels Democrats and liberals to roll over for Bush, at least when it comes to the conservative agenda for rebuilding New Orleans. Weisberg says:

Liberals, who have failed to muster any kind of social consensus for a major federal assault on poverty since LBJ's day, should welcome conservatives as converts to the cause. They should hold back on their specific objections—some of which are valid, some of which are not—and let Bush have his way with the reconstruction. Making New Orleans a test site for conservative social policy ideas could shake out any number of ways politically. But all of us have a stake in an experiment that tells us whether conservative anti-poverty ideas, uh, work. If the conservative war on poverty succeeds, even in partial fashion, we will all be better for its success. And if it fails, we will have learned something important about how not to fight poverty.

How foolish is this?  Let’s consider Weisberg’s arguments.
  • Liberals have failed to muster consensus for a major assault on poverty, so let's give up and let conservatives have a turn. What better time than now, when the Republicans are unpopular and Katrina has focused the country's attention on the problem of poverty, to try to advance an anti-poverty agenda that liberals think will work. Why should liberals, at this particular moment, abandon their objections to bad conservative ideas and give up on advancing their own agenda?

  • Liberals should roll over for Bush, even when we think he's wrong, for the sake of providing an experiment in right-wing anti-poverty ideas.  Great-- and send the message that liberals are willing to sacrifice the quality of life for poor people for the sake of an experiment conducted by politicians who manifestly do not have poor people’s best interests at heart.  For instance, liberals want to provide Section 8 housing vouchers to homeless victims of Katrina, giving them maximum flexibility to find housing where it most suits them.  The Bush administration, by contrast, wants to put homeless victims of Katrina into massive new temporary trailer home parks that would be concentrations of poverty, isolated from opportunity.  Obviously a terrible idea.  But what the heck—let’s do it, as an experiment.  Pathetic.

  • If Republicans are allowed to try out their pet ideas and they fail, then we will “have learned something important about how not to fight poverty” and by implication, we won’t repeat the same mistake.  Weisberg seems to have forgotten that the Republicans are the faith-based party, and won’t likely accept real world failure as proof that they were wrong.  Weisberg also assumes that we all agree on what success means—for Weisberg, as for Citizen Cain, success means less poverty, and a better life for those who remain poor.  But is that really the objective of, for instance, Bush’s suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act in Katrina-ravaged areas? As a result of Bush’s action, federal contractors will be able to pay workers less than the prevailing wage.  Do we really need to conduct an experiment to tell us whether lower wages reduce poverty?  But terminating Davis-Bacon is a dream of the right-wing.  Suspending it for post-Katrina rebuilding will just whet their appetite for eliminating it all together, regardless of its impact on poverty.

  • If some anti-poverty program “works” in New Orleans, then it will work everywhere.  But giving lots of tax breaks for businesses that operate in hurricane-ravaged areas will no doubt increase business activity in those areas, at the expense of business activity in other areas.  That doesn’t mean that reducing business taxes nationwide will be good for the national economy, for our finances, or for the poor. Conservatives will say, “look, giving big tax breaks to business works!  Let’s do the same for the whole country.”

Josh Marshall provides a bracing contrast to Weisberg’s sad, pathetic approach.  Instead of writing off the poor in the Gulf Coast, Marshall has been keeping track of who in Congress supports, doesn’t support, or doesn’t take a position on legislation to overturn the Gulf Coast wage cut.  This is the same approach the Marshall followed, to great effect, in the Social Security debate.

Let’s hope Marshall’s approach prevails among liberal pundits.  Weisberg’s way is the way of defeat.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Krauthammer's Rationalization

Clinton-hating, W-loving conservatives are having a tough time swallowing the "joint statement" in which North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear program and the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia agree to provide energy assistance and not to attack North Korea. After all, the right-wing has been contemptuous of Clinton for making a bilateral deal with similar terms back in 1994.

But Charles Krauthammer has figured out a way to have his cake and eat it too. In today's Washington Post, he puts forward this rationalization:

Why is the Beijing agreement different from the worthless "Agreed Framework" Bill Clinton signed in 1994 and North Korea violated (we now know) from the very first day? That agreement was bilateral. This one is six-party, but the major player is China.

No doubt that's a difference, but it isn't exactly clear why it is so important. Krauthammer rightly notes that China has leverage with North Korea that the United States lacks because of trade ties. But Krauthammer provides no reason to believe that China will utilize this leverage to make the agreement work, nor that such leverage will be effective. He just speculates that maybe China will do so, and maybe it will work.

The more important difference between the Clinton and Bush agreements is that, as Fred Kaplan has pointed out, the Agreed Framework was an actual agreement with a specific timeline of obligations. The new agreement, according to Kaplan, is merely a "preliminary step before the real negotiations—where, if history holds, North Korea will frustrate us with tricks and backtracking, and we just have to hang on tight." Moreover, this is an agreement that we could have had, Kaplan says, two years ago, before the North Koreans before the North Koreans "dropped out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked the international inspectors out of their nuclear reactor, unlocked 8,000 fuel rods, and reprocessed them into enough plutonium to build several atomic bombs."

In addition to making the "joint statement" seem better than it is, Krauthammer ignores the real accomplishments of Clinton's so-called "worthless" Agreed Framework. In the absence of this deal, North Korea could have built dozens of nuclear weapons by now, instead of the handful they are thought to have. But Krauthammer, desperate for a way to make sainted Bush look better than wicked Clinton, ignores all that and focuses instead on the fact that China's on board this time.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Blogging Is Hard

Blogging is hard. It's hard work!

So I'm taking some time off. Next post will be Friday at the earliest.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Sucking up to Bush

Michael Barone's latest syndicated column is a big wet kiss to Bush. Consider, if you can stand it, the following:
In Jackson Square, Bush found his voice for the first time since the levees broke. He described the people he had seen on the ground and the recovery work that had already been done. He promised to rebuild the Gulf Coast and re-engineer New Orleans, and added -- wisely, in view of Louisiana's heritage of corruption -- that inspectors general would oversee the spending.
The whole world is wondering whether we can trust the idiots who can't account for nearly $9 billion meant for reconstruction of Iraq. Don't worry, Barone assures us. Our brilliant Preznit is going to make inspectors general keep an eye on those bad boys in Louisiana.
Bush's liberal critics have been hoping that the Katrina disaster would increase support for big government, and they have a point when they say that there are some things only government must do and that it -- or they: local, state, federal -- must do them well. Bush's proposals use government differently. Like the GI Bill of Rights and the no-down-payment VA home mortgages of Franklin Roosevelt, Bush's Worker Recovery Accounts and Urban Homesteading would help people out, but only those who in turn do something to lift themselves up.
So let's get this straight. Liberals are salivating at the prospect of a return to big government. But Bush has a better way. Unlike those feckless liberals, he's going to be like Franklin Roosevelt. Is there any other way to read this? Yes, it really is that stupid. Barone continues directly:

And his Opportunity Zone turns on its head the liberal notion that the most effective way to help the poor and helpless is to tax everyone else heavily and hand out money to those in need.

Instead, Bush will borrow money heavily and hand it out to his contractor friends and give it away in tax breaks. The policy innovations from this White House have completely confounded liberalism.
Lower taxes and less bureaucracy, Bush is saying, will enable people in the private sector to build the kind of self-propelling economy that offers everyone a chance out of poverty.
Apparently Barone is letting Karl Rove write his columns for him.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Trent Lott -- Villian, Bully

As we're all trying to figure out who is most to blame for the damage caused by Katrina, let's not forget Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. Two recent stories describe remarkably similar incidents in which this bully used his power to thwart implementation of laws that would have protected his state and limited the damage caused by Katrina.

On September 7, the Washington Post informed us that:
In Mississippi, 20 glittering casinos sprouted at the water's edge. An Army official tried to impose a moratorium on casino projects along the coast in 1998 but was outmuscled by developers and Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.). All those casinos, which employed 16,000 people, now lie wrecked and broken.
The article explains:
In 1998, Deputy Assistant Army Secretary Michael L. Davis tried to stop the Army Corps of Engineers from rubber-stamping casino applications without studying the impact dredging would have on marshes that shelter wildlife, purify drinking water and help prevent flooding. This angered Lott, then Senate majority leader, who had recently flown to Las Vegas in a casino executive's jet and had raised $100,000 for Republicans at a casino-industry fundraiser.

Lott got the moratorium lifted, then he got the Army to launch an investigation of Davis. No wrongdoing was found, but Davis was removed from Gulf Coast permitting issues.
It turns out that Lott didn't bully only Davis. The September 19 New Yorker has an brief article by Jane Mayer based on an interview with Clinton's EPA Administrator, Carol Browner.

Last week, speaking from her office at the Washington consulting firm where she now works, she recalled the difficulties that her department experienced years ago when they tried to persuade legislators, including Mississippi Senator Trent Lott, that building on wetlands was environmentally risky. Developers, and the politicians who supported them, argued that gambling would attract commerce to the state.

The proposed casinos, Browner said, “were supposed to be in the water because the state didn’t want them on the solid land.” (To accommodate the moral qualms of conservative locals, the legislature relegated gambling to “navigable waters.”) She went on, “But they were huge, and they were right up against the shore. If you put structures this big into an estuary, you’re disrupting the aquatic life and changing the habitat and eradicating the wetlands, which has a huge effect on drainage. The wetlands act like a sponge in a storm. They’re an incredibly smart and helpful part of nature. But they have to be kept moist, like a sponge on your kitchen counter. If they’re dried out, and developed, they don’t work. The shoreline’s a very important buffer in a storm.”

Browner said that Lott was not alone among politicians in his disregard for the environment. “For fifty years,” she pointed out, “there’s been significant inattention to the environmental consequences of developing the wetlands.” But Lott was particularly single-minded in his support of casino development.

Mayer quotes Browner describing how when she first became Administrator Lott put a "hold" on an EPA nominee as a "warning" to her.

Then, in 1997 another EPA nominee needed Senate confirmation and Lott put a hold on that nominee too. According to Browner, Lott said, "It’s not about the nominee. . . . It’s because I want you to fire another employee, because he’s standing in the way of wetlands permits needed for casinos." Browner continues:

“He wanted me to fire this guy who was handling the wetlands permits down in our regional office in Atlanta,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it if I’d wanted to. I told him I wasn’t going to. It’s the job of the E.P.A. to enforce Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which covers all wetlands permits, and this guy was doing his job.” Browner said that she did not tell the employee in Atlanta, because she didn’t want him to feel pressured. “Lott thought the guy was working with the Army Corps of Engineers to hold up the casino permits, and he was determined to get rid of him.”

Browner said that Lott kept the hold on the nominee for several months. “We couldn’t get the confirmation through,” she said.

Then Browner hears that the wetlands permit officer had changed duties within EPA.
“I called Lott,” Browner said, “and I told him that I didn’t fire the guy but
that he was gone. That very night, the E.P.A. nominee was confirmed.”
Mayer's article never explains how it was that the permits got approved, nor why the wetlands permit officer changed duties. In any case, according to these articles, Trent Lott sought to get federal government employees fired in two separate incidents because they were implementing laws to protect the environment and to limit flooding. Lott therefore played a key role in damaging wetlands that could have limited flooding, and in promoting the construction of casinos that were doomed from the moment they were built.

No doubt Lott will lead an effort to generously compensate his casino owner friends for their losses, and to allow them to destroy additional wetlands when they rebuild. Don't be surprised if he tries to squash civil servants who may get in his way.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

More on Moral Hazard

A few weeks ago, before Katrina hit, Malcolm Gladwell had a great article in the New Yorker about the concept of moral hazard in health care. He shows how the Bush administration's health care policy is built around the idea that we can reduce costs by creating economic incentives for people to limit their consumption of health care. Thus, the Bush administration opposes the goal of universal insurance, and instead promotes tax-free Health Savings Accounts, out of which people can pay for routine health care costs. When people have to pay for their own health care, they'll consume more wisely, and get only the health care they need.

Gladwell shows how wrong-headed this approach is when it comes to health care. Health care costs are driven not by over-consumption of routine care, but rather by underconsumption of preventative care, leading to the transformation of minor medical conditions into expensive, major health problems. Nonetheless, the Bush administration's policies are designed not to promote essential preventative care, but to make sure that generous insurance doesn't encourage people to frivolously overconsume health care.

Somehow, though, an administration that is acutely sensitive to the minimal dangers of moral hazard in health care, completely forgets about the concept when it comes to rebuilding after Katrina. Strange, given that the moral hazard created by insuring against the risks of living in a hurricane zone is undoubtedly much greater than the risk of insuring people's health.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Moral Hazard and Rebuilding

Even before Katrina hit, the amount of economic damage caused by hurricanes every year was growing. But hurricanes have been more damaging not primarily because hurricanes are becoming more powerful, but because more and more building takes place in the zone affected by hurricanes.

Which brings up the concept of "moral hazard." In insurance, moral hazard signifies the incentive that the insured can have to behave in a risky way, or to commit fraud. Moral hazard is the reason that an insurance company won’t sell a $200,000 policy on a house that’s worth $100,000. The temptation to commit arson would be too strong. Similarly, in setting disability insurance or unemployment insurance levels, we have to balance the moral imperative to supply a decent standard of living to the unfortunate with the moral hazard generated by making it appealing to be unemployed or disabled.

People are encouraged to live in hurricane-plagued areas by a variety of government policies. The federal government subsidizes flood insurance. State insurance commissions prohibit higher premiums for property in coastal areas. And governments pay to help rebuild hurricane-ravaged areas.

President Bush has outlined an approach to rebuilding after Katrina that seems to be based on encouraging continued renewed population growth along the Gulf Coast by providing tax relief for businesses in hurricane-affected areas, and by using federal money to rebuild infrastructure. The President’s speech also mentions, sensibly, improved building codes. Press coverage has focused on whether the President can regain political strength by a show of generosity, whether conservatives in Congress will support the big spending that the President’s plan requires, and whether or not it is responsible to embark on a huge new program along with a war, while preserving tax cuts for the rich.

Sensible questions all. But what about whether it’s a good policy to encourage building in places that are so vulnerable? No one seems to be asking that question of the President’s plan.

So what’s the alternative? Citizen Cain certainly doesn’t want to be heartless toward the victims of hurricanes. But he also doesn't want to encourage people to build homes that will be destroyed by hurricanes. So here is the Citizen Cain plan:
  • assistance with paying for housing and finding work for people displaced by the hurricane. Receiving assistance should not be contingent on staying in the hurricane-affected areas, but should be equally available to those who choose to move out of the hurricane zone;
  • revision of state and federal insurance policies on the principle that people who choose to live in dangerous areas should bear more of the financial risk of doing so. New Orleans, however, would be an exception to this rule;
  • massive federal assistance for rebuilding infrastructure in New Orleans, and for strengthening levees, wetlands, and sea barriers that protect the city, but much more limited federal assistance for rebuilding other hurricane-damaged areas.

And why does the Citizen Cain plan favor New Orleans at the expense of other areas? Several reasons:

  • a port at the mouth of the Mississippi River is vital to American commerce;
  • New Orleans has been made more vulnerable by federal policies that have raised the level of the Mississippi, lowered the level of the land (through oil drilling) destroyed wetlands and barrier islands, and created navigation channels that funnel storm surges right to the city;
  • we can’t protect everything. New Orleans is the most valuable piece of property in the hurricane-ravaged area, economically, culturally and gastronomically. So let’s protect it with all the levels and dikes that are required, spend what it takes to make it a vital place once again, and adopt a policy for the rest of the Gulf Coast that respects the concept of moral hazard.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Cooper Blazes New Ground

How dumb can our public discourse get? Let Anderson Cooper show you. Last night on Newsnight with Aaron Brown, Cooper was discussing the grim task of recovering the dead from New Orleans. Here's what he had to say to the EMS worker he was interviewing

And do you -- you know, people refer to them a lot as "bodies" and "corpses." I
mean, they're not. They are people. They're our neighbors. They're our fellow

Cooper's profound insight: dead people are "people," not "corpses." Does it get any dumber than that? Yes, sadly, it does. They're not corpses, Cooper explained, because they're "our neighbors . . . our fellow countrymen." And if a German tourist was killed, would his body be a corpse, one wonders. Perhaps in death it would become a neighbor.

The discussion over whether it was offensive to refer to "refugees" of Katrina was ridiculous. But this sinks to a whole new level.


Monday, September 12, 2005

Media Matters versus the Washington Post

On Friday I discussed a story in Thursday’s Washington Post that provided some history on funding for the Army Corps of Engineers. The piece included the claim that “overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years.”

Media Matters has evaluated this claim, and found that:

In fact, the Clinton administration's budgets for 1996-2000 requested many times more money for the Lake Pontchartrain Hurricane Protection program that the Post referenced than the Bush administration did for fiscal years 2002-2006, and Clinton also proposed significantly more federal money for other key flood-control projects in New Orleans and budgeted more money for the New Orleans district of the Army Corps of Engineers.
Who’s right? Washington Post, or Media Matters? Or are they both right? Or both wrong? We’ll check it out, and get back to you.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Beware the Coming Era of Flood Control

John Tierney makes an important point in his column in today's Times. Set aside the way he focuses blame for the inadequate condition of New Orleans levees on Congress. Congress deserves blame, though Tierney should blame Bush too; he isn't exactly powerless.

In any case, the important point in Tierney's column concerns what will happen if Congress investigates the poor preparation for a hurricane in New Orleans.
My daring prediction is they would make two discoveries. First, that mistakes were made by many people outside Congress. Second, that more money must be spent on flood protection throughout America.

Amen. The Army Corps of Engineers is a big piggy bank as far as Congress is concerned. After Katrina, every Congressman is going to want a big "flood control" project.

Before we set off down that road we should remember several points:
  • Flood control projects can make floods worse. The Mississippi River wants to overflow it's banks. Building levees the length of the river not only destroys wetlands, it also insures that the river will be higher, and flooding worse, downstream, i.e. in New Orleans.
  • It isn't possible or economically productive to protect every piece of property against floods. We need a policy of flood control for vulnerable cities, especially New Orleans, and of preventing flood plain development elsewhere. Instead, I fear that we'll adopt a post-Katrina policy of mastering nature by trying to prevent floods everywhere.
  • New Orleans is a special situation, uniquely vulnerable among American cities to flooding. What makes sense for New Orleans doesn't make sense for the rest of the country.

I highly recommend Rising Tide, John Barry's superb history of the 1927 Mississippi River flood. This huge man-made disaster was caused by the Army Corps's "levees only" policy for controlling flooding. After the disaster, the Corps alleviated flooding problems along the length of the Mississippi by building channels at the mouth of the Mississippi to speed the river's flow and to push sediment beyond the mouth of the river and into the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, this approach led to the erosion of the barrier islands that used to give New Orleans some protection from ocean storm surges.

After 1927, flood control policy started to incorporate floodways, in addition to levees and "channel improvements." Future flood control policy has got to make even more use of floodways-- areas designated for flooding when rivers run high. But this isn't the sort of policy that involves big spending projects like levees and navigation channels. It also requires excluding or discouraging development from substantial portions of land. So it's not the sort of thing the Congress is likely to be enthusiastic about.

So beware projects in the post-Katrina world that are sold as "flood control." They may be the opposite.


Friday, September 09, 2005

To Hume It May Concern

Yesterday's Washington Post contains a good article by Michael Grunwald about recent history and funding of Army Corps projects in Louisiana. Some of the information in this article reinforces the case that the Bush administration did a poor job in preparing for the impact of a hurricane on New Orleans, a city uniquely vulnerable to a natural disaster. Other pieces of information in the article provide context that puts the Bush administration in a better light. At least, the article does make Citizen Cain reconsider his previous position that the Bush administration did a lesser job of maintaining levees in New Orleans than its predecessor. Maybe it did; maybe it didn't. We need more information (more on this below). Nothing in the article, I should add, undermines the conclusion that the Bush administration was negligent in preparing for and conducting relief operations.

Start with the information that puts Bush in a bad light:

Louisiana's politicians have requested much more money for New Orleans hurricane protection than the Bush administration has proposed or Congress has provided. In the last budget bill, Louisiana's delegation requested $27.1 million for shoring up levees around Lake Pontchartrain, the full amount the Corps had declared as its "project capability." Bush suggested $3.9 million, and Congress agreed to spend $5.7 million.

Administration officials also dramatically scaled back a long-term project to restore Louisiana's disappearing coastal marshes, which once provided a measure of natural hurricane protection for New Orleans. They ordered the Corps to stop work on a $14 billion plan, and devise a $2 billion plan instead.

So the Bush administration slashed funding for projects that, while they may not have saved New Orleans from disaster, could have helped limit the damage. But Grunwald also points out that while the Louisiana congressional delegation asked for more money for flood control, they also asked for more money for all sorts of Army Corps projects, including highly questionable navigation projects. So Louisiana legislators deserve blame, along with the Bush administration, past administrations, and the Army Corps generally, for failing to prioritize projects that would protect New Orleans. Louisiana politicians seem to have treated the Corps as a piggy bank for public works projects, without a lot of careful thought about what was worth funding and what wasn't.

Tim Searchinger, an attorney with Environmental Defense, puts it well:
It has been explicit national policy not to set priorities, but instead to build any flood control or barge project if the Corps decides the benefits exceed the costs by 1 cent . . . [snip] Saving New Orleans gets no more emphasis than draining wetlands to grow corn and soybeans.
This approach, in fairness, seems to long pre-date the Bush administration, though it would be interesting to know if one administration or the other was better on this score.

Furthermore, the Post story reports that "overall, the Bush administration's funding requests for the key New Orleans flood-control projects for the past five years were slightly higher than the Clinton administration's for its past five years." Interesting, but more context is needed. Bush slashed the funding the Corps requested for levees around Ponchartrain. Did Clinton similarly slash Corps requests, or were these projects still in the planning stages and not yet ready for significant funding? Citizen Cain doesn't know. If the Clinton adminstration provided all the funding that the Corps could usefully spend on New Orleans flood control projects at the time, then surely it was acting more responsibly than the Bush administration. Moreover, we have heard recently about studies and reports beginning in 2001 that identified a New Orleans levee break caused by a hurricane as one of the most worrisome potential disasters to face the United States. Was this fully understood prior to 2001? If not, this would tend to put the Clinton administration in a better light in comparison with the Bush administration, who was warned that New Orleans levees ought to be a priority.

The Post story is a good start, but we need a fuller accounting of how different administrations have approached flood protection for New Orleans, given the different contexts of different times. Given his good work on yesterday's story, Citizen Cain gives this assignment to Grunwald. Citizen Cain, however, forbids Britt Hume from working on this story.

Yesterday, Hume continued his disgraceful attempts to defend the Bush administration against charges that it failed to adequately prepare for and respond to Katrina. In his Special Report, Hume said:

Democrats, and some former government engineers, blamed President Bush for cutting the budget for the Army Corps of Engineers, claiming the cuts left New Orleans unprepared for a major storm.

But The Washington Post reports the Bush administration has granted the corps more funding than the previous administration over a similar period and that Louisiana has received far more money for civil works projects than any other state. The paper says much of the funding has been spent not on flood control, but on lawmakers' pet construction projects, including a brand new $750 million canal lock in New Orleans unrelated to flood control.

Notice how Hume makes it appear as if the Post article fully exonerates the Bush administration. He leaves out mention of the slashes in Army Corps requests for flood control in New Orleans. Moreover, he uses a bizarre construction to imply that the President's role is to "grant" funding to government agencies, while Congress determines how the money is spent. "[T]he Bush administration has granted the corps more funding," but sadly "much of the funding has been spent not on flood control, but on lawmakers' pet construction projects, including a brand new $750 million canal lock in New Orleans unrelated to flood control."

See? Bush "granted" the money, but lawmakers spent it unwisely. Beyond this bizarre portrayal of how government budgets work, Hume manages to imply that Bush wanted to spend more on flood protection, but was thwarted by congress. As Grunwald makes clear, this implication is completely false.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Providing “Balance,” and Getting it Wrong

Obviously, one of the biggest stories to come out of Katrina is the issue of federal government performance in disaster relief. This is a story, that when told straight, reflects very badly on the Bush administration. However, the mainstream press loves “balance.” In general, they are very uncomfortable saying “the Bush administration responded in a desultory and clueless way” unless they can also say that some Democrat somewhere was equally bad.

Therefore, the press is eager to buy stories about poor disaster relief performance by State and local Democratic officials. And this line of inquiry is, of course, entirely legitimate. However, press eagerness to supply balance has allowed right-wingers to circulate of some questionable stories—including stories that repeat false assertions about state or local government actions, and that falsely claim that poor federal performance in disaster relief was actually caused by poor state and local efforts.

Media Matters has been doing superb work documenting the spread of disinformation about responsibility for the inadequacy of relief efforts in the wake of Katrina. For instance, they show how Bob Williams, with the right-wing think tank Evergreen Foundation, has been falsely claiming that federal efforts were hampered because the governor of Louisiana had not requested assistance. This assertion is doubly false—the governor did request assistance three days prior to Katrina reaching land, and in any case the federal government has authority to act even in the absence of a request from the State. Despite Williams’s lack of identifiable expertise in disaster relief, he has received time on CNN's Lou Dobbs Tonight, ABC's World News Tonight, Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, and MSNBC's Connected: Coast to Coast. Josh Marshall has documented how the false claim about Louisiana’s failure to request assistance made it into Newsweek and the Washington Post. In the latter case at least, the source for the story was a "senior Bush official."

Williams has also claimed that state and local officials urged a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans only after President Bush called to urge them to do so. The Power Line blog has repeated this tale, along with the interpretation that the President’s smart thinking saved many New Orleans residents. Britt Hume, who has been assiduously looking after Bush administration interests, has also repeated this tale. Media Matters shows that this story is unfounded, and that a press conference to announce the evacuation was about to occur when Bush made his call.

Monday, September 05, 2005

The Vast Power of Rationalization

Dennis Byrne and Niall Ferguson stand in awe of the vast power of nature, and can’t imagine why anyone would blame government at any level for the destruction caused by Katrina. In the Chicago Tribune, Byrne writes:

The ease and earnestness with which people express the knee-jerk belief that one of the most destructive and powerful forces in nature could have been defeated "if only . . ." belies a troubling level of ignorance or naivete. An "average" hurricane packs the energy of hundreds of atomic bombs. Or the equivalent of a half-year's supply of energy for the U.S.

To suggest that all "they" have to do to beat such a force is to build a sea wall 10 feet higher is screwy. So is the idea that all the food, water and shelter that a million refugees need can be positioned, as if overnight, within a day's ride of the destruction. Just assembling hundreds of buses, flatboats, helicopters, ice bags, hot meals and other necessities is a logistical miracle.

Rational people don’t believe that humans can "defeat" hurricanes, avoid all damage, fix every problem over night, or build a perpetual motion machine. Once Byrne is through beating the crap out of this straw man, he might address the question of whether better preparation, including a higher levee, might have limited the damage. He might address how well disaster management services performed in this disaster in comparison with other disasters.

Byrne continues:

Maybe the finger-pointing comes from today's mindset that someone else always must be ready and in charge of ensuring our safety and comfort. Or from an arrogance that we can plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe. Or maybe it is simply partisan and ideological bunk, opportunistically tossed Bush's way.

We can’t plan in advance for every imaginable catastrophe. But experts have repeatedly identified the Katrina scenario– a hurricane hitting New Orleans, leading to a breach of the levees– as one of the most worrisome potential natural disasters. In fact, in 2001 FEMA identified the three most serious threats to the nation as a terrorist attack in New York City, an earthquake in San Francisco, and a hurricane hitting New Orleans. Byrne pretending that he doesn’t know this is partisan bunk, opportunistically tossed at Bush’s critics.

Ferguson’s LA Times column is about the important philosophical questions raised by Katrina– why does God allow such horrors to occur? What would Leibniz say? But when he turns to the question of government responsibility for dealing with the hurricane, he turns dismissive.

The banal response was, of course, to blame the city, state or federal authorities for sins of omission — a charge that prompted one of the city's former planning officials to declare defensively: "We are all responsible." For a hurricane?
At the risk of being banal, I’ll point out that while no human is responsible for a hurricane, specific people are responsible for building and maintaining levees, managing government responses to emergencies, and funding these activities. Just because Man cannot tame Nature is no reason to avoid a discussion of who has done their job properly and who has not.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Broder Reports from Neptune

Nearly everyone on planet earth can tell that the Bush administration did a poor job preparing for and responding to Katrina, and that the political consequences for Bush are potentially ominous. And it isn’t just Paul Krugman who is saying so, though he may have said it best. The likes of David Brooks, Howard Fineman, Mort Zuckerman, Gloria Borger, Jim Pinkerton and Jack Cafferty have noticed that Bush has some serious explaining to do. Some are even starting to notice the connection between the Bush administration's incompetence in New Orleans and it's incompetence in dealing with Iraq.

But David Broder sees it differently. Today’s column finds that "it took almost no time for President Bush to put his stamp on the national response to the tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the Gulf Coast."

one thing seems certain: [Katrina] makes the previous signs of political weakness for Bush, measured in record-low job approval ratings, instantly irrelevant and opens new opportunities for him to regain his standing with the public.

We have seen this before. Bill Clinton was foundering in his third year in office when the destruction of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City shocked the nation and set the stage for his flawless performance of the symbolic rites of healing and comfort for the victims.

Broder doesn’t seem to notice that one element is missing– flawless performance, whether in performing "symbolic rites" or in paying attention to the basic requirements of governance, the Bush administration’s performance has been dismal. People are noticing, but not David Broder.

Broder makes some reasonable points in the last half of his column about the weakness and inadequacy of Congress in setting policy and performing its oversight functions. But in evaluating Bush’s preparation for and response to Katrina, he is bizarrely out of touch.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Hanson Delivers

The always reliable Victor Davis Hanson produced another column of surpassing dumbness and moral bankruptcy today. He thinks that "The Western World Shows Too Much Softness in (a) Different Kind of War." His evidence:

  1. The American military captured a suspected terrorist in Iraq, then turned him over to the Iraqis, who then released him. After getting his freedom, he shot an American officer.
  2. A Palestinian suicide bomber, "apparently" having "interpreted recent Israeli magnanimity as a new sign of weakness," blew himself up at a bus station in Israel last week.
  3. "Although no one has died at Guantanamo, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) compared Guantanamo to something out of the Third Reich or the Soviet gulag."
  4. Some people are complaining about restrictions on immigration, and yet some immigrants have done bad things.
  5. Blah blah blah harumph.

We can’t afford such softness, you see, because we’re fighting for "our very survival as we struggle to find the proper way of defeating a vicious enemy without losing our liberal soul."

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out how stupid this is, but someone’s got to do it.

  1. If Hanson’s point is that suspected terrorists should be locked up forever, even in the absence of substantial evidence of guilt, then he’s already lost his liberal soul.
  2. Hanson has absolutely no reason to believe that the suicide bombing was inspired by "recent Israeli magnanimity." Maybe it was inspired by the same things that inspired more than one hundred suicide bombings prior to the RIM– desire to drive Jews out of the West Bank, or out of the Middle East.
  3. Let go of the whining about Dick Durbin! He didn’t say that Guantanamo was as bad as something out of the Third Reich or the Soviet gulag. He said that an FBI agent’s description of horrors occurring at Guantanamo sounded like something that would have occurred in the Third Reich or the Soviet gulag. Absolutely true.
  4. Oy.
  5. Good point.

My favorite parts of Hanson’s columns are the bogus historical arguments. This is a good one:
"This fight is quite different from past conflicts. None of the jihadists have uniforms." Okay, that isn’t quite fair. Here’s the full quote:

This fight is quite different from past conflicts. None of the jihadists have uniforms. Their first, not last, resort is terrorism.

Not much better. The distinguished Stanford historian seems to have forgotten the conflict in Northern Ireland. And what about the Roman struggle against the Zealots?

And how about this History lesson:

Our forbears believed that they did not have to be perfect to be good. To them, war, like poverty and depression, was another of the tragedies of the human experience where there were no good choices, the least ghastly being victory at all costs.

Really, Professor Hanson? Is this true of all of our forbears at all times? In Hanson-world History teaches that Americans never opposed brutal military tactics during Vietnam or the Spanish-American war. Thoreau never wrote "On Civil Disobedience." In Hanson’s past, we were a unified, martial, and brutal people. Those were the days.


Thursday, September 01, 2005

More on Global Warming and Hurricanes

The righty blogosphere is mobilizing to ridicule the idea that global warming might be making hurricanes stronger. While they are correct that global warming isn’t necessarily responsible for Katrina’s devastation, they incorrectly discount the relationship between global warming and a general upward trend in hurricane intensity.

Andrew Sullivan notes that the New York Times published an article that quotes several hurricane experts who doubt that recent trends in hurricane intensity are significantly related to global warming. Sullivan writes, "When the New York Times is debunking the idea, partisan liberals might want to reassess it." No no no no no!

First of all, there’s no rule that says that the New York Times defines the far left of acceptable opinion on every issue. Secondly, the New York Times doesn't get the last word on scientific questions, whether or not they're arguing against a position that liberals favor. And while the New York Times article is reasonable, and fairly calls into question the idea that Katrina (or any specific weather event) can be directly tied to global warming, Sullivan should note that this article also cites MIT hurricane expert Kerry Emmanuel, whose recent article in Nature shows that the power of Northern Hemisphere tropical cyclones has increased 70 to 80 percent in the last 30 years. Emmanuel believes that increases in hurricane intensity in the last two years are primarily the result of a natural cycle in ocean temperatures, but that the longer-term trend is influenced by global warming.

The Blazer Blog questions whether global warming even involves warmer ocean temperatures.
Ok, I'm no brainy scientist, but if hurricanes feed off of warm water, and they're saying that the water in the Gulf of Mexico is warmer because of global warming, how do you explain that if global warming is happening, the ice caps melt, and that COLDER water moves south, so wouldn't the average ocean temerature go down, not up?
Citizen Cain is no brainy scientist either. But it doesn’t take a brainy scientist to search the web and find authoritative statements contradicting Blazer Blog’s reasoning, such this one from the Environmental Protection Agency:

Global temperatures are rising. Observations collected over the last century suggest that the average land surface temperature has risen 0.8-1.0°F (0.45-0.6°C) in the last century. The surface of the ocean has also been warming at a similar rate.
James K. Glassman thinks that anyone who suggests global warming has anything to do with Katrina is a disgusting extremist who is only trying to “win support for the failed Kyoto Protocol. He states flatly that “Katrina has nothing to do with global warming. Nothing.” He cites the National Hurricane Center data that show that there were more category 3, 4 and 5 hurricanes in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s than in subsequent decades. This data refers to the strength of hurricanes when they hit land in North America.

No one disputes that there is a natural cycle of ocean temperature and surface pressure over the Atlantic Ocean that influences the intensity of hurricanes. Moreover, this natural cycle has a bigger impact than the half a degree or so increase in ocean temperature attributable to global warming. However, Glassman failsto point out that most scientists agree that global warming will eventual result in greater hurricane strength. There is some controversy over whether this is already occurring, but little doubt that we need to control global warming if we want to prevent storms from becoming still stronger in the future.