Thursday, January 29, 2015

Skull Fossil Offers New Clues on Human Journey From Africa

Anthropologists discovered a 55,000-year-old skull fossil in the Manot Cave in western Galilee in 2008, and it was subjected to years of analysis. Credit Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Anthropologists exploring a cave in Israel have uncovered a rare 55,000-year-old skull fossil that they say has a story to tell of a reverberating transition in human evolution, at a point when and where some early humans were moving out of Africa and apparently interbreeding with Neanderthals.
The story is of when the Levant was a corridor for anatomically modern humans who were expanding out of Africa and then across Eurasia, replacing all other forms of early human-related species. Given the scarcity of human fossils from that time, scholars say, these ancestors of present-day non-African populations had remained largely enigmatic.
From the new fossil find, which could be closely related to the first modern humans to colonize Stone Age Europe, it appears that these people already had physical traits a bit different from the Africans they were leaving behind and many other human inhabitants along the corridor.
Could this support recent genetic evidence that modern Homo sapiens and their Neanderthal cousins interbred, perhaps in the Middle East and most likely between 65,000 and 47,000 years ago? The discovery team urged caution on the interbreeding issue, but noted anatomical features of the cranium suggesting that some human-Neanderthal mixture had presumably occurred before any encounters in Europe and Asia.

(More here.)

An ‘expensive’ placebo is more effective than a ‘cheap’ one, study shows

January 28 at 4:00 PM WashPost
Parkinson's Disease patients secretly treated with a placebo instead of their regular medication performed better when told they were receiving a more expensive version of the "drug," researchers reported Wednesday in an unprecedented study that involved real patients.
The research shows that the well-documented "placebo effect" -- actual symptom relief brought about by a sham treatment or medication -- can be enhanced by adding information about cost, according to the lead author of the study. It is the first time that concept has been demonstrated using people with a real illness, in this case Parkinson's, a progressive neurological disease that has no cure, according to an expert not involved in the study.
"The potentially large benefit of placebo, with or without price manipulations, is waiting to be untapped for patients with [Parkinson's Disease], as well as those with other neurologic and medical diseases," the authors wrote in a study published online Wednesday in the journal Neurology.
But deceiving actual patients in a research study raised ethical questions about violating the trust involved in a doctor-patient relationship. Most studies in which researchers conceal their true aims or other information from subjects are conducted with healthy volunteers. This one was subjected to a lengthy review  before it was allowed to proceed, and, in an editorial that accompanied the article, two other physicians wrote that "the authors do not mention whether there was any possible effect (reduction) on trust in doctors or on willingness to engage in future clinical research."
Nor would such a ruse be allowed in clinical practice, said Ted J. Kaptchuk, director of the Program in Placebo Studies and Therapeutic Encounter at Harvard Medical School.  "I don't think it has a direct practical application," Kaptchuk said. "Telling people something is expensive, that's deception. That's not allowed in clinical practice."
Nevertheless, he said, the research is "provocative" and adds to the body of proof about how the placebo effect augments treatment of disease, especially when medication is provided. While most people think of a placebo as a sugar pill that replaces a real medication, the impact more commonly comes from "the engagement between patients and clinicians," in particular the way doctors create expectations that their efforts will help, Kaptchuk said. That includes a good relationship between doctor and patient; certain medical rituals, such as taking blood pressure and a medical history; and the "color, shape, number and cost" of the placebo drug, according to the institute's Web site.
In a 2008 survey of internists and rheumatologists, half said they regularly prescribed placebo treatments, and 62 percent agreed they are ethically permissible. Only two percent acknowledged using sugar pills, but 41 percent said they prescribed over-the-counter painkillers, and 38 percent said they prescribed vitamins.
In the study released Wednesday, 12 Parkinson's patients were told they were receiving injections of a new drug to help their brains produce dopamine, the neurotransmitter deficient in Parkinson's patients, instead of their regular drug, levodopa. They were told that one injection was a $1,500 version of the drug and another was a $100 version. In fact, they were given common saline both times.
The researchers found that the patients performed better on motor skills tests when they believed they were on the expensive drug, an effect that increased when they were given the expensive placebo first. Neither placebo was quite as good as levodopa, but the expensive version came close. There was no follow-up to determine how long the improvements lasted because the patients were put back on their regular drug regimens.
"I attribute this to patients' perception of greater quality intervention when cost is higher than what they would have been accustomed to," said Alberto Espay, director of the Gardner Center for Parkinson's Disease and Movement Disorders at the University of Cincinnati, who led the study.
When the researchers looked at functional MRI tests of the participants' brains, however, they found that the cheap placebo activated certain areas more than the expensive one, a result they did not expect. Espay suggested that patients might have been trying harder when they believed they were on a less costly medication.
The study noted that "our findings complement the well-known patient preference of brand name over generic, as recently confirmed in a study of similar design to ours."
Espay said the challenge now is to "harness" the knowledge in patient care. Because outright deception is ethically impermissible, other ways of enhancing the effectiveness of medication should be explored, he said.
"There is a lot that we can explain to patients about the benefits of medication that will enhance the benefit that they will get from them," Espay said.

(More here.)

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today

Czar Putin’s Next Moves

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
JAN. 28, 2015

ZURICH — Last March, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine, supposedly in defense of Russian-speakers there, was just like “what Hitler did back in the ‘30s“ — using ethnic Germans to justify his invasion of neighboring lands. At the time, I thought such a comparison was over the top. I don’t think so anymore. I’d endorse Mrs. Clinton’s comparison purely for the shock value: It draws attention to the awful things Putin is doing to Ukraine, not to mention his own country, whose credit rating was just reduced to junk status.

Putin’s use of Russian troops wearing uniforms without insignia to invade Ukraine and to covertly buttress Ukrainian rebels bought and paid for by Moscow — all disguised by a web of lies that would have made Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels blush and all for the purpose of destroying Ukraine’s reform movement before it can create a democratic model that might appeal to Russians more than Putin’s kleptocracy — is the ugliest geopolitical mugging happening in the world today.

Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values. If Putin the Thug gets away with crushing Ukraine’s new democratic experiment and unilaterally redrawing the borders of Europe, every pro-Western country around Russia will be in danger.

“Putin fears a Ukraine that demands to live and wants to live and insists on living on European values — with a robust civil society and freedom of speech and religion [and] with a system of values the Ukrainian people have chosen and laid down their lives for,” Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s finance minister, told a Ukraine seminar at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last week.

(More here.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

AIEEE! You're stealing my oil!

Murkowski's primal scream on ANWR points to Alaska's precarious balance (+video)

Alaska's Sen. Lisa Murkowski is livid over President Obama's move to ban oil development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). To her, it betrays the promise America made to Alaska in statehood.

By Francine Kiefer, Christian Science Monitor staff writer, JANUARY 26, 2015

WASHINGTON — On Monday, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski again gave voice to the Alaska congressional delegation's primal scream.

Last week, she did it in a written statement that all but called the Obama administration economic occupiers of Alaska. On Monday, she wanted to make sure she was heard. In a fist-pounding press conference, she said that President Obama has declared “war” on her state. “The fight is on and we are not backing down,” she said.

Such strident rhetoric is not all that unusual in the Capitol. But rarely is it accompanied by such evident passion.

Mr. Obama’s proposal to declare millions of acres of the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) as wilderness – giving them the highest possible federal protection from drillers – is nothing less than a violation of the state's “sovereignty,” Senator Murkowski said. And she vows to use every tool available – legislation, the budget, and the courts – to undo it.

(Continued here.)

Budget Forecast Sees End to Sharp Deficit Declines

By JONATHAN WEISMAN, NYT, JAN. 26, 2015

WASHINGTON — The federal budget deficit will continue to inch downward through next year, but even with the economy on an upward trajectory, the government’s red ink will begin to rise in 2017 and expand with an aging population, the Congressional Budget Office said Monday.

The new budget projections effectively signal the end of the steep decline in deficits as the economy climbed out of the recession. Lawmakers now face a familiar and politically vexing problem: What to do about increases in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security spending that reflect the nation’s demographics, not its economic health?

“The past will catch up to us no matter how fast we run from it,” said Senator Michael B. Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

The forecast might not change President Obama’s policy proposals, which will come out on Monday, but it will fortify a Republican Congress’s resolve to pass budgets this spring that would fundamentally reorder health care spending, preserve tough spending caps and force Washington to at least look at Social Security. Democrats will say those spending plans are contradicted by efforts to overhaul the tax code without producing any more tax revenue.

And a budget season that will begin in earnest with the release of the president’s tax-and-spending plan for the fiscal year 2016 will underscore a partisan divide over post-recession policy making.

(More here.)

Save the New Ukraine

By BERNARD-HENRI LÉVY and GEORGE SOROS, NYT, JAN. 27, 2015

A NEW Ukraine was born a year ago in the pro-European protests that helped to drive President Viktor F. Yanukovych from power. And today, the spirit that inspired hundreds of thousands to gather in the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, is stronger than ever, even as it is under direct military assault from Russian forces supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The new Ukraine seeks to become the opposite of the old Ukraine, which was demoralized and riddled with corruption. The transformation has been a rare experiment in participatory democracy; a noble adventure of a people who have rallied to open their nation to modernity, democracy and Europe. And this is just the beginning.

This experiment is remarkable for finding expression not only in defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity from the separatists, but also in constructive work. Maidan’s supporters have moved from opposition to nation building.

Many of those in government and Parliament are volunteers who have given up well-paying jobs to serve their country. Natalie Jaresko, a former investment banker, now works for a few hundred dollars a month as the new finance minister. Volunteers are helping Ukraine’s one million internally displaced people as well as working as advisers to ministers and in local government.

(More here.)

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Did he really say that?

John Kasich Compares Federal Debt To A Burning Rome, Says Republicans Share Blame

Shahien Nasiripour
Posted: 01/25/2015 12:23 pm

Ohio Gov. John Kasich on Sunday compared the growing federal debt to the so-called great fire of Rome, appearing to lament what he perceives as a lack of action by policymakers to reduce government spending.

The U.S. government’s total debt in December surpassed $18 trillion, according to the Department of the Treasury. Kasich, a Republican and potential 2016 presidential contender, said his fellow party members shared the blame.

“We’re fiddling around while Rome burns,” Kasich said on "Fox News Sunday," referring to the blaze in A.D. 64 that spawned the popular legend that Roman leader Nero played a fiddle while most of the city was destroyed.

Kasich led the House Budget Committee during the latter years of former President Bill Clinton's administration, when Democrats and Republicans, buoyed by the technology revolution of the 1990s, were able to find agreement on spending issues to produce budget surpluses that in late 2000 led the Clinton administration to project a $5 trillion cumulative budget surplus during the 10 fiscal years beginning in October 2001.

(More here.)

Decades of isolation from development have protected reefs in Cuban waters

Unspoiled Coral Reefs Awe Scientists

Nature Conservancy

Cuba has a secret: This country's thousands of miles of coral reefs appear to be healthier than others in Caribbean waters.

Preliminary assessments indicate that the reefs do not exhibit the widespread disease and mortality occurring in places like the Florida Keys, Jamaica and Mexico, in part due to the decades of isolation from mass tourism as well as limited agricultural practices.

A study of the health of Cuba’s reefs can provide valuable insights into coral reef conservation for the Caribbean, and possibly, the world.

(The article is here.)

Will efforts to save corals be overwhelmed by climate change?

As Oceans Heat Up, a Race to Save World's Coral Reefs

Laura Parker, National Geographic
JANUARY 15, 2015

MIAMI—Early one December morning, Chris Langdon, a biological oceanographer at the University of Miami, zipped up his wet suit and dropped overboard just off Key Largo to inspect a section of Florida's ailing coral reef. His living "laboratory," 15 feet down, is the size of several football fields. Last summer a large bleaching event turned much of the coral white.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures rise or fall. Even a slight fluctuation can set it off. The result is dramatic and often fatal. The coral polyps expel their source of food—the algae that live within the coral and provide its vivid hues. Without food, the coral turns white and eventually dies.

Langdon's morning dive was part of his continuing work to understand the effects of climate change in the oceans, such as rising water temperatures and rising levels of acidity. He has focused on coral reefs because of their critical role in feeding the world's populations. (Can Miami Be Saved? Read the February issue of National Geographicmagazine.)

(Continued here.)

As seas rise, Florida’s bill is coming due

Photo: DownState News
Treading Water: Adaptations will buy time, but can they save Miami?

By Laura Parker
National Geographic

Frank Behrens, a gregarious pitchman for a Dutch development company that sees profit, not loss, in climate change, cuts the engine on our 22-foot Hurricane runabout. We drift through brackish water toward the middle of privately owned Maule Lake in North Miami Beach.

It’s not quite paradise.

The lake, like so many others in Florida, began as a rock quarry. In the years since, it has served as a venue for boat races, a swimming hole for manatees, and a set for the 1960s TV show Flipper. More recently, as if to underscore the impermanence of South Florida’s geography, more than one developer has toyed with partially filling in the lake to build condos. Behrens is promoting a floating village with 29 private, artificial islands, each with a sleek, four-bedroom villa, a sandy beach, a pool, palm trees, and a dock long enough to accommodate an 80-foot yacht. The price: $12.5 million apiece.

Dutch Docklands, Behrens’s firm, has optioned the lake and is marketing the islands as a rich man’s antidote to climate change. As for the risks from rising sea levels, well, that’s the beauty of floating homes. The islands would be anchored to the lake bottom with a telescoping tether similar to those that enable floating oil rigs to ride out the roughest hurricanes.

(Continued here.)

Attacking fellow Republicans with abandon

GOP clown car runs into ditch

By Roger Simon, Politico.com
1/24/15 8:04 PM EST

DES MOINES — The Republican Party’s clown car has become a clown van.

With nearly two dozen possible presidential candidates, the GOP is having a seriousness deficit. There can’t possibly be that many people who are real candidates.

But they can ride in the clown car from event to event, and nobody can stop them.

At the Freedom Summit here Saturday, two dozen speakers ground through 10 hours of speeches in front of more than 1,000 far-right Republicans.

As it turned out, clown car candidates are not necessarily funny. Since they have nothing to lose, they can attack their fellow Republicans with abandon.

(More here.)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

When the South Wasn’t a Fan of States’ Rights

The strange, often forgotten, history of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850

By ERIC FONER, Politico.com
January 23, 2015

Whenever I lecture to non-academic audiences about the Civil War era, someone is bound to insist that the South fought for states’ rights rather than the long-term survival of slavery. In an extreme version of this view, Abraham Lincoln was not the Great Emancipator but a tyrant, the creator of the leviathan national state that essentially enslaved white Americans. This reading of the conflict is why a remarkable number of libertarians, self-proclaimed defenders of individual freedom, sympathize with the Old South, and why some even make excuses for slavery.

But this history omits one important part of antebellum history: When it came to enforcing and maintaining the peculiar institution against an increasingly anti-slavery North, the Old South was all too happy to forget its fear of federal power—a little-remembered fact in our modern retellings of the conflict.

The slavery exception to otherwise robust support for states’ rights was a recurring feature of antebellum Southern politics. Southerners wrote into the Constitution a clause requiring the return of slaves who escaped from one state to another, and in 1793, only four years after George Washington assumed the presidency, they persuaded Congress to enact a law putting that clause into effect. Ironically, when it came to runaway slaves, the white South, usually vocal in defense of local rights, favored robust national action, while some northern states engaged in the nullification of federal law, enacting “personal liberty” laws that barred local officials from cooperating in the capture and return of fugitives.

(More here.)

Friday, January 23, 2015

The West’s four-part strategy to deal with radical Islam

DAVOS, Switzerland

The conversation at Davos is often dominated by economics, and this year it’s no different. But the shock of the Paris terror attacks lingers, and discussions at the World Economic Forum here often turn to radical Islam. I posited in my previous column that the solution does not lie in more American military interventions in the Middle East. What, then, is the answer?

The problem is deep and structural (as I wrote a few weeks after 9/11 in Newsweek, in an essay titled “Why They Hate Us”). The Arab world has been ruled for decades by repressive (mostly secular) dictatorships that, in turn, spawned extreme (mostly religious) opposition movements. The more repressive the regime, the more extreme the opposition. Islam became the language of opposition because it was a language that could not be shut down or censored. Now, the old Arab order is crumbling, but it has led to instability and opportunities for jihadi groups to thrive in new badlands.

Over the past few decades, this radical Islamist ideology has been globalized. Initially fueled by Saudi money and Arab dissenters, imams and intellectuals, it has taken on a life of its own. Today it is the default ideology of anger, discontent and violent opposition for a small number of alienated young Muslim men around the world. Only Muslims, and particularly Arabs, can cure this cancer.

That does not leave the United States and the West helpless. Washington and its allies can support Muslim moderates, help their societies modernize and integrate those that do. But that’s for the long haul. Meanwhile, Washington and its allies must adopt a strategy that has four elements: intelligence, counterterrorism, integration and resilience (ICIR).

(More here.)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Citizens United should be seen as an aberration, not a new American standard

How to Make Our Democracy Work for Everyone

By [former Senators] Alan Simpson, Bill Bradley and Bob Kerrey
Roll Call, Jan. 22, 2015

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission. Rather than lamenting the verdict by cataloguing its considerable damage to American elections, we prefer to focus on two things: The erosion of democracy that happens in between elections, and feasible solutions to restore, as the Declaration of Independence asserts, “the consent of the governed.”

In between election days, money has two pernicious effects on the governing process.

First, it stands in the way of legislating sensible, comprehensive solutions to nearly every issue that ordinary Americans care about.

From deficit-reduction to energy and climate, public health to tax reform, bold policies and big ideas don’t stand a chance under the onslaught of political money.

We all pay a personal price for this terribly broken political system. Whether it’s a husband’s job shipped overseas, a woman faced with shuttering her small business, a new graduate struggling with loan payments, or a child suffering from chronic asthma, we pay for the ways in which well-financed interests are able to bend legislation to their benefit or block good policy ideas at the starting gate.

(Continued here.)

Blame it on the vagus nerve

Why Rich People Don't Care About You

Posted by Ross Pomeroy, January 22, 2015, RealClearScience

Examine the income ladder of the United States, and you'll soon stumble upon a surprising fact: Rich people donate a smaller portion of their income to charity than poor people. In 2011, people in the bottom 20% donated 3.2 percent of their earnings. People in the top 20% donated just 1.3 percent.

Similar trends show up in the psychology lab, too.

"What we've been finding across dozens of studies and thousands of participants across this country is that as a person's levels of wealth increase, their feelings of compassion and empathy go down, and their feelings of entitlement, of deservingness, and their ideology of self-interest increases," Paul Piff, an Assistant Professor of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine, announced in a 2013 TEDx talk.

In one study, Piff brought rich and poor members of the community into the lab and gave them each $10. Participants were told that they could keep the money or share it with a stranger. The poorest subjects, those making less than $25,000 a year, gave 44% more than those making between $150,000 and $200,000.

(Continued here.)

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

It's the 'Golden Rule' that's paramount, not religion

How secular family values stack up

By PHIL ZUCKERMAN, Los Angeles Times

More children are “growing up godless” than at any other time in our nation's history. They are the offspring of an expanding secular population that includes a relatively new and burgeoning category of Americans called the “Nones,” so nicknamed because they identified themselves as believing in “nothing in particular” in a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center.

The number of American children raised without religion has grown significantly since the 1950s, when fewer than 4% of Americans reported growing up in a nonreligious household, according to several recent national studies. That figure entered the double digits when a 2012 study showed that 11% of people born after 1970 said they had been raised in secular homes. This may help explain why 23% of adults in the U.S. claim to have no religion, and more than 30% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 say the same.

So how does the raising of upstanding, moral children work without prayers at mealtimes and morality lessons at Sunday school? Quite well, it seems.

Far from being dysfunctional, nihilistic and rudderless without the security and rectitude of religion, secular households provide a sound and solid foundation for children, according to Vern Bengston, a USC professor of gerontology and sociology.

(Continued here.)

Say It Like It Is

Thomas L. Friedman, NYT
JAN. 20, 2015

I’ve never been a fan of global conferences to solve problems, but when I read that the Obama administration is organizing a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism for Feb. 18, in response to the Paris killings, I had a visceral reaction: Is there a box on my tax returns that I can check so my tax dollars won’t go to pay for this?

When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. And this administration, so fearful of being accused of Islamophobia, is refusing to make any link to radical Islam from the recent explosions of violence against civilians (most of them Muslims) by Boko Haram in Nigeria, by the Taliban in Pakistan, by Al Qaeda in Paris and by jihadists in Yemen and Iraq. We’ve entered the theater of the absurd.

Last week the conservative columnist Rich Lowry wrote an essay in Politico Magazine that contained quotes from White House spokesman Josh Earnest that I could not believe. I was sure they were made up. But I checked the transcript: 100 percent correct. I can’t say it better than Lowry did:

“The administration has lapsed into unselfconscious ridiculousness. Asked why the administration won’t say [after the Paris attacks] we are at war with radical Islam, Earnest on Tuesday explained the administration’s first concern ‘is accuracy. We want to describe exactly what happened. These are individuals who carried out an act of terrorism, and they later tried to justify that act of terrorism by invoking the religion of Islam and their own deviant view of it.’

(More here.)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Pope Francis on climate change: 'Man has gone too far'

"It is man who continuously slaps down nature.... We have, in a sense, lorded it over nature, over Sister Earth, over Mother Earth. I think man has gone too far. Thank God that today there are voices that are speaking out about this.” — Pope Francis

(Source here.)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Massive destabilization of the 'Earth System' could occur within century

Scientists: Human activity has pushed Earth beyond four of nine ‘planetary boundaries’

By Joel Achenbach, Washington Post, January 15

At the rate things are going, the Earth in the coming decades could cease to be a “safe operating space” for human beings. That is the conclusion of anew paper published Thursday in the journal Science by 18 researchers trying to gauge the breaking points in the natural world.

The paper contends that we have already crossed four “planetary boundaries.” They are the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous (used on land as fertilizer) into the ocean.

“What the science has shown is that human activities — economic growth, technology, consumption — are destabilizing the global environment,” said Will Steffen, who holds appointments at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Center and is the lead author of the paper.

These are not future problems, but rather urgent matters, according to Steffen, who said that the economic boom since 1950 and the globalized economy have accelerated the transgression of the boundaries. No one knows exactly when push will come to shove, but he said the possible destabilization of the “Earth System” as a whole could occur in a time frame of “decades out to a century.”

The researchers focused on nine separate planetary boundaries first identified by scientists in a 2009 paper. These boundaries set theoretical limits on changes to the environment, and include ozone depletion, freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms.

(Continued here.)

Saturday, January 17, 2015

FLASH! Congress to decide whether climate change is real or not!

Does climate change exist? The Senate is about to let us know: An amendent to the Keystone XL pipeline bill hopes to force Republican climate change deniers to state whether they agree with the science or not.

Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, The Guardian

Congress is to vote on whether climate change is real. Seriously.

The measure, which will come up in the debate about the Keystone XL pipeline, will ask the Senate to vote on whether climate change is real, caused by human activities, and has already caused devastating problems in the US and around the world.

It is intended to force Republicans who deny the existence of climate change – and they are a majority in Congress – to own their anti-science positions, said Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont behind the amendment.

“The bottom line is that I think as a nation that we walk down a very dangerous road when the majority party in the United States Congress is prepared to reject science,” Sanders told the Guardian. “I think it is important for Republicans to tell their constituents, to tell the American people, and to tell the world whether they agree with the science or not.”

That could make for some very awkward moments.

Sanders’s amendment has no chance of passage in the Republican-controlled Congress – and he acknowledges that is not the point.

(More here.)

Friday, January 16, 2015

The perfect trifecta: Befouling earth, air and water

Ocean Life Faces Mass Extinction, Broad Study Says

Carl Zimmer, NYT
JAN. 15, 2015

A team of scientists, in a groundbreaking analysis of data from hundreds of sources, has concluded that humans are on the verge of causing unprecedented damage to the oceans and the animals living in them.

“We may be sitting on a precipice of a major extinction event,” said Douglas J. McCauley, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and an author of the new research, which was published on Thursday in the journal Science.

But there is still time to avert catastrophe, Dr. McCauley and his colleagues also found. Compared with the continents, the oceans are mostly intact, still wild enough to bounce back to ecological health.

“We’re lucky in many ways,” said Malin L. Pinsky, a marine biologist at Rutgers University and another author of the new report. “The impacts are accelerating, but they’re not so bad we can’t reverse them.”

Scientific assessments of the oceans’ health are dogged by uncertainty: It’s much harder for researchers to judge the well-being of a species living underwater, over thousands of miles, than to track the health of a species on land. And changes that scientists observe in particular ocean ecosystems may not reflect trends across the planet.

(More here.)

Ho hum, just another banner year for soaring temperatures

2014 Was Hottest Year on Record, Surpassing 2010

By JUSTIN GILLIS, NYT
JAN. 16, 2015

Last year was the hottest in earth’s recorded history, scientists reported on Friday, underscoring scientific warnings about the risks of runaway emissions and undermining claims by climate-change contrarians that global warming had somehow stopped.

Extreme heat blanketed Alaska and much of the western United States last year. Several European countries set temperature records. And the ocean surface was unusually warm virtually everywhere except around Antarctica, the scientists said, providing the energy that fueled damaging Pacific storms.

In the annals of climatology, 2014 now surpasses 2010 as the warmest year in a global temperature record that stretches back to 1880. The 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 1997, a reflection of the relentless planetary warming that scientists say is a consequence of human emissions and poses profound long-term risks to civilization and to the natural world.

Of the large inhabited land areas, only the eastern half of the United States recorded below-average temperatures in 2014, a sort of mirror image of the unusual heat in the West. Some experts think the stuck-in-place weather pattern that produced those extremes in the United States is itself an indirect consequence of the release of greenhouse gases, though that is not proven.

Several scientists said the most remarkable thing about the 2014 record was that it occurred in a year that did not feature El Niño, a large-scale weather pattern in which the ocean dumps an enormous amount of heat into the atmosphere.

Longstanding claims by climate-change skeptics that global warming has stopped, seized on by politicians in Washington to justify inaction on emissions, depend on a particular starting year: 1998, when an unusually powerful El Niño produced the hottest year of the 20th century.

(Continued here.)

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The 'one percent' avoiding their fair share of taxes … again

How Government Helps the 1 Percent

By E.J. Dionne - January 15, 2015

WASHINGTON -- You may think that government takes a lot of money from the wealthy and gives it to poor people. You might also assume that the rich pay a lot to support government while the poor pay a pittance.

There is nothing wrong with you if you believe this. Our public discourse is dominated by these ideas, and you'd probably feel foolish challenging them. After Mitt Romney's comments on the 47 percent blew up on him, conservatives have largely given up talking publicly about their "makers versus takers" distinction. But much of the right's rhetoric and many of its policies are still based on such notions.

It is thus a public service that the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) has issued a report showing that at the state and local level, government is, indeed, engaged in redistribution -- but it's redistribution from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy.

It's entirely true that better-off people pay more in federal income taxes than the less well-to-do. But this leaves out not only Social Security taxes, but also what's going on elsewhere.

The institute found that in 2015, the poorest fifth of Americans will pay, on average, 10.9 percent of their incomes in state and local taxes and the middle fifth will pay 9.4 percent. But the top 1 percent will pay states and localities only 5.4 percent of their incomes in taxes.

(Read more here.)

EPA's plan to cut methane emissions lets current polluters off the hook

Obama's Methane Crackdown to Come Slow and Easy: Cautious approach to regulating oil and gas industry disappoints environmentalists, who regard the plan as a 'toe in the water.'

By Neela Banerjee, InsideClimate News
Jan 14, 2015

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration on January 14 rolled out its long-awaited plan to control the oil and gas industry's emissions of methane, saying it would cut leaks of the potent global-warming pollutant nearly in half in the coming decade.

The White House called its approach a crucial step to achieving the ambitious greenhouse-gas emissions targets President Obama announced last November in Beijing, but some environmental advocates said the plan, which relies heavily on voluntary efforts, failed to go far enough.

The methane plan calls for the Environmental Protection Agency to propose methane reductions at new oil and gas sites by summer 2015 and issue a final rule next year. The goal is to cut the industry's emissions 40 to 45 percent below the 2012 level by the year 2025.

Despite being an important expansion of greenhouse gas regulations under the Clean Air Act, the proposed rule would not address methane leaking from existing oil and gas wells and delivery networks. Rather, the administration said it would work with industry on voluntary efforts to cut methane from existing oil and gas sites, which studies have found to be riddled with leaks.

(Continued here.)

In the Millennials vs. Boomers battle, a case of blaming the victim

Millennials: A product of baby boomer missteps

By Meg Fry, NJBIZ
January 9, 2015 at 12:18 PM

What a way to throw down the gauntlet.

Round of applause for Ross Pomeroy and William Handke at Real Clear Politics for giving a hoot and calling it as they see it.

“For the first time in America’s history, an entire generation of her citizens are poorer, more indebted and less employed than the preceding generations,” they write.

And as lazy and narcissistic as the older generations may paint us, according to Pomeroy and Handke — and us young things over at NJBIZ, too — millennials are not to blame.

“This is a classic case of blaming the victim,” Pomeroy and Handke said.

Here comes the boom — you ready for it?

We’re a product of the Great Recession.

(Continued here.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Charles Krauthammer: Raise gas tax a buck a gallon

The Case for a Revenue-Neutral Gas TaxWhy it actually makes sense to raise it by $1 per gallon

By Charles Krauthammer

or 32 years I’ve been advocating a major tax on petroleum. I’ve got as much chance this time around as did Don Quixote with windmills. But I shall tilt my lance once more.

The only time you can even think of proposing a gas-tax increase is when oil prices are at rock bottom. When I last suggested the idea six years ago, oil was selling at $40 a barrel. It eventually rose back to $110. It’s now around $48. Correspondingly, the price at the pump has fallen in the last three months by more than a dollar to about $2.20 per gallon.

As a result, some in Congress are talking about a ten- or 20-cent hike in the federal tax to use for infrastructure spending. Right idea, wrong policy. The hike should not be 10 cents but $1. And the proceeds should not be spent by, or even entrusted to, the government. They should be immediately and entirely returned to the consumer by means of a cut in the Social Security tax.

The average American buys about twelve gallons of gas a week. Washington would be soaking him for $12 in extra taxes. Washington should therefore simultaneously reduce everyone’s FICA tax by $12 a week. Thus the average driver is left harmless. He receives a $12 per week FICA bonus that he can spend on gasoline if he wants — or anything else. If he chooses to drive less, it puts money in his pocket. (The unemployed would have the $12 added to their unemployment insurance; the elderly, added to their Social Security check.)

(More here.)

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Ways of Looking at the Prophet

Devout Muslims see him as the model for human behavior. Non-Muslims have seen him as lustful, barbarous or worse.

By Eric Ormsby, WSJ
Jan. 9, 2015 5:13 p.m. ET

The Prophet Muhammad might justly be described as the Jekyll and Hyde of historical biography. For centuries, he has been “alternately revered and reviled,” as Kecia Ali, an associate professor of religion at Boston University, notes in her excellent overview of the abundant literature. As a result, Muhammad presents two violently incompatible faces to the historian. For devout Muslims, relying both on the Quran and the vast corpus of sacred traditions, the hadith, he serves as the unimpeachable model for human behavior, not only in matters of faith and ritual but in the most humdrum aspects of daily life, from marital and business relations to personal hygiene, including even the proper use of the toothpick. For non-Muslims, drawing on the same sources, he has been viewed from the earliest times as lustful and barbarous, as a raving impostor aping the ancient prophets; nowadays he is further charged with misogyny and pedophilia. The contrast is so stark as to appear irreconcilable.

The Lives of Muhammad
By Kecia Ali
Harvard. 342 pages, $29.95

Instead of attempting to skirt this divergence, Ms. Ali uses it to structure her inquiry. Each of her chapters is prefaced by a capsule account of some episode in the Prophet Muhammad’s career taken from traditional Muslim sources, most of which involve some age-old point of contention. She follows these up with lively and often intricate discussions of Muslim and non-Muslim reactions. In this manner, she addresses such fraught matters as Muhammad’s “multiple wives” or the brutal seventh-century massacre of the Jewish tribe of the Banu Qurayza in Medina.

Two of the book’s best chapters deal with the most prominent of Muhammad’s 12 or so wives: the saintly Khadija, a Meccan businesswoman 15 years older than he; and the more spirited—and controversial—Aisha, the child-bride who became Muhammad’s “favorite wife” in later years. For both Muslim and non-Muslim biographers, Khadija represents a model wife. She is Muhammad’s comforter in moments of doubt or distress—an “angel of mercy,” according to the modern Egyptian biographer Muhammad Husayn Haykal—and their household is an abode of domestic felicity. Much is made of the fact that Muhammad took other wives only after Khadija’s death.

(More here.)

The Time of the Assassins

The Arab world has no counterforce to the murderers in our midst

By HISHAM MELHEM, Politico.com
January 09, 2015

There is something malignant in the brittle world the Arab peoples inhabit. A murderous, fanatical, atavistic Islamist ideology espoused by Salafi Jihadist killers is sweeping that world and shaking it to its foundations, and the reverberations are felt in faraway continents. On the day the globalized wrath of these assassins claimed the lives of the Charlie Hebdo twelve in Paris, it almost simultaneously claimed the lives of 38 Yemenis in their capital Sana’a, and an undetermined number of victims in Syria and Iraq. Like the Hydra beast of ancient Greece this malignancy has many heads: al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Sunni Salafists and Shiite fanatics, armies and parties of God and militias of the Mahdi. This monstrous ideology has been terrorizing Arab lands long before it visited New York on 9/11, and its butchers assassinated Arab journalists and intellectuals years before committing the Paris massacre of French journalists, cartoonists and police officers.

The devil’s rejects of this ideology engage in wanton ritualistic beheadings while intoxicated with shouts of Allahu Akbar, oblivious to the fact that most of their victims are Muslims. They are perpetuating mass killings and rapes, uprooting ancient communities, declaring war on the great pre-Islamic civilizations and religions of the Fertile Crescent, and managing to turn large swaths of Syria and Iraq into earthly provinces of hell.

The time of the assassins is upon us. And the true tragedy of the Arab and Muslim world today is that there is no organized, legitimate counterforce to oppose these murderers—neither one of governments nor of “moderate” Islam. Nor is there any refuge for those who want to escape the assassins.

Instead, there is only the grim promise of further disintegration. Last year, the area stretching from Beirut on the Med to Basra at the mouth of the Gulf became a long front of Sunni-Shiite bloodletting. The religious and ethnic minorities in the region are cowering with fear and loathing. In this fragmented world identity politics and parochial loyalties are the powers that move the people. The region is being contested now by the Islamic State and Iran, which is for all intents and purposes a prominent, even if not fully recognized, member of the international coalition fighting the dark forces of the Islamic State. Just think of this surreal scene; Iran the only Shiite theocracy in the region is fighting the Islamic State, the radical claimant of an ephemeral Sunni Caliphate. In 2014 many Arab lands, from Yemen to Libya, oscillated between despair and disintegration. There is no room for moderation or reform or tolerance in theses societies. The weak nation-states are getting weaker and falling apart at the seams. Without reconstituted nation-states there can be no serious societal, political or religious reform.

(More here.)

Friday, January 09, 2015

Forget the 1%: It's the 0.1%

Saez and Zucman, 2014 via Slate
1/1000 Of The US Now Controls More Than 1/5 Of The Wealth

SCOTT BIXBY, WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM
JAN. 5, 2015, 7:38 AM

Forget the 1% — the real winners of the post-collapse economy are America’s top one-thousandth.

Using data gleaned from tax returns to estimate the distribution of household wealth in the United States since 1913, economists Emmanuel Saez, of UC-Berkeley, and Gabriel Zucman, of the London School of Economics, have determined that the top 0.1 percent of American households control more than 22% of the nation’s wealth.

Or, in layman’s terms, one-thousandth of the country controls one-fifth of the wealth:

Notice anything terrifying?

(Read more here.)

A Pipeline and a Pie in the Sky

Timothy Egan, NYT
JAN. 8, 2015

LOS ANGELES — The Koch brothers Congress, purchased with the help of about $100 million from the political network of the billionaire energy producers, got down to its first order of business this week: trying to hold off the future.

Meanwhile, here on the other coast, one of the most popular politicians in America, Gov. Jerry Brown of California, bounced into his fourth and final term by trying to hasten that future. The contrasts — East and West, old and new, backward-looking and forward-marching, the beholden and behold! — could not have been more stark.

The 114th Congress is trying to rush through the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from the dirty tar sands of Canada to the Gulf Coast. The State Department has estimated that the total number of permanent new jobs created by the pipeline would be 35 — about the same as the handful of new taco trucks in my neighborhood in Seattle. This, at a time when the world is awash in cheap oil.

Governor Brown, having balanced a runaway California budget and delivered near-record job growth in a state Republicans had written off as ungovernable, laid out an agenda to free the world’s eighth-largest economy — his state — from being tied to old energy, old transportation and old infrastructure. He doubled down on plans to build a bullet-train network and replumb the state’s water system, while setting new goals to reduce dependence on energy that raises the global temperature.

(More here.)

Blasphemy and the law of fanatics

By Fareed Zakaria
Opinion writer January 8 at 7:47 PM, WashPost

As they went on their rampage, the men who killed 12 people in Paris this week yelled that they had “avenged the prophet.” They followed in the path of other terrorists who have bombed newspaper offices, stabbed a filmmaker and killed writers and translators, all to mete out what they believe is the proper Koranic punishment for blasphemy. But in fact, the Koran prescribes no punishment for blasphemy. Like so many of the most fanatical and violent aspects of Islamic terrorism today, the idea that Islam requires that insults against the prophet Muhammad be met with violence is a creation of politicians and clerics to serve a political agenda.

One holy book is deeply concerned with blasphemy: the Bible. In the Old Testament, blasphemy and blasphemers are condemned and prescribed harsh punishment. The best-known passage on this is Leviticus 24:16 : “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.”

By contrast, the word blasphemy appears nowhere in the Koran. (Nor, incidentally, does the Koran anywhere forbid creating images of Muhammad, though there are commentaries and traditions — “hadith” — that do, to guard against idol worship.) Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan has pointed out that “there are more than 200 verses in the Koran, which reveal that the contemporaries of the prophets repeatedly perpetrated the same act, which is now called ‘blasphemy or abuse of the Prophet’ . . . but nowhere does the Koran prescribe the punishment of lashes, or death, or any other physical punishment.” On several occasions, Muhammad treated people who ridiculed him and his teachings with understanding and kindness. “In Islam,” Khan says, “blasphemy is a subject of intellectual discussion rather than a subject of physical punishment.”

(More here.)

Is the GOP a political party or a tribe?

What's Really Wrong With the GOP

Rep. Alan Grayson
U.S. Congressman for Florida's 9th District
Updated: 01/08/2015 4:59 pm EST

For a five-month period that ends this week, every single elected Republican in Congress was a white Christian.

Let me repeat that: every elected GOP Member of the House and Senate was a white Christian.

Eric Cantor is Jewish. He left office on August 1 last year. Since then, the entire elected GOP caucus, in both the House and the Senate, has comprised only white Christians.

13 percent of America is African-American. 9 percent is of mixed race. 5 percent is Asian. 24 percent does not identify itself as Christian. 0% of those groups served as elected Congressional Republicans during the past five months.

GOP motto: "We're monochromatic!" The GOP: Is it a political party, or is it a tribe?

(Continued here.)

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Which is the real spoiled generation: Boomers or Millennials?

The Most Entitled Generation Isn't Millennials: It's Baby Boomers

By Ross Pomeroy & William Handke - January 8, 2015

For the first time in America’s history, an entire generation of her citizens is poorer, more indebted, and less employed than the preceding generations.

That generation is the Millennials – our generation.

The culprit, say some social commenters, are Millennials themselves. In this telling, we are a lazy cohort of entitled and narcissistic brats– the proverbial “Generation Me.” But this is a classic case of blaming the victim.

The true cause of this unfortunate situation is clear: it’s the economy. The Great Recession stymied economic growth, halted job creation, kept older Americans in the workforce longer, and encouraged younger Americans to continue debt-financed schooling.

Moreover, the Great Recession was not merely a one-off calamity – it was a symptom of economic ills long perpetuated and ignored. And the criticism and labels that have been heaped upon Millennials bear much more resemblance to the type of intergenerational stereotyping that has always existed (“Darn kids these days.”) than to any measurable reality.

The truth: The economic tragedy of the Millennial generation was written before many of us had even learned to read – by Baby Boomer parents and grandparents who, at once, genuinely love and care for us, but have also created or perpetuated institutions, policies, and economic realities that have now hobbled us.

Our generation has been called “entitled.” We beg to differ. If any generation is entitled, it’s our parents’ and grandparents’ generation: the Baby Boomers.

(Read more here.)

Trade deal would benefit Wall Street and big corporations at the expense of the rest of us

Robert Reich: The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a disaster in the making

The former secretary of labor on the impending trade deal -- and why it will only further empower Wall Street.

ROBERT REICH, ROBERTREICH.ORG
Salon

Republicans who now run Congress say they want to cooperate with President Obama, and point to the administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, as the model. The only problem is the TPP would be a disaster.

If you haven’t heard much about the TPP, that’s part of the problem right there. It would be the largest trade deal in history — involving countries stretching from Chile to Japan, representing 792 million people and accounting for 40 percent of the world economy – yet it’s been devised in secret.

Lobbyists from America’s biggest corporations and Wall Street’s biggest banks have been involved but not the American public. That’s a recipe for fatter profits and bigger paychecks at the top, but not a good deal for most of us, or even for most of the rest of the world.

First some background. We used to think about trade policy as a choice between “free trade” and “protectionism.” Free trade meant opening our borders to products made elsewhere. Protectionism meant putting up tariffs and quotas to keep them out.

In the decades after World War II, America chose free trade. The idea was that each country would specialize in goods it produced best and at least cost. That way, living standards would rise here and abroad. New jobs would be created to take the place of jobs that were lost. And communism would be contained.

For three decades, free trade worked. It was a win-win-win.

But in more recent decades the choice has become far more complicated and the payoff from trade agreements more skewed to those at the top.

Tariffs are already low. Negotiations now involve such things as intellectual property, financial regulations, labor laws, and rules for health, safety, and the environment.

It’s no longer free trade versus protectionism. Big corporations and Wall Street want some of both.

(Continued here.)

Europe Is Under Siege

The Charlie Hebdo massacre represents a direct attack on perhaps the most crucial Western ideal.

Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic, Jan 7 2015, 4:44 PM ET

The European Parliament complex in Brussels, where I happen to be sitting at the moment, is meant to be a monument to post-World War II continental ideals of peaceable integration, tolerance, free speech, and openness. All of these notions seem to be under attack at once, and what is striking to me, as a relatively frequent visitor to Europe over the past year, is that not many people—until a few hours ago, at least—seem to believe that their union, and their basic freedoms, are under threat.

The massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo falls into the category of events that are shocking in their intensity and brutality, but not at all surprising. This attack, which killed at least 12 people, including journalists and two police officers, was utterly, completely predictable. The brittle, peevish, and often-violent campaign to defend the honor of Allah and his prophet (both of whom, one might think, are capable of defending themselves with lightning bolts and cataclysmic floods and such, should they choose to be offended by cartoons) has been pursued in earnest since the 1989 Iranian-led crusade (I use the word advisedly) to have Salman Rushdie murdered for writing a book. In 2011, of course, the offices of Charlie Hebdo were firebombed—the equivalent of the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center, an attack that should have told us more about long-term jihadist intentions than it unfortunately did.

And Europe has had specific, sometimes fatal, warnings about the capabilities and desires of jihadists in recent months—the car attacks in France, conducted by men shouting “Allahu Akbar,” and, most obviously, the assault on the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May, in which four people were murdered, allegedly by Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen of Algerian origin who apparently spent time in the Middle East in the employ of ISIS.

(More here.)

France and the New Charismatic Jihad

Worries about autonomous jihadist cells appear to have been realized in Paris.

By Reuel Marc Gerecht, WSJ
Jan. 7, 2015 7:00 p.m.

The terrorist attack in Paris on Wednesday—with 12 people killed by masked men yelling Islamist slogans—has been a long time coming.

After the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., Western counterterrorist experts probably feared European radical Muslims more than they did Islamic militants in the Middle East. Since the early 1990s, when Algeria’s savage war between the military junta and Islamists began to spill over into France, the French internal-security service, now known as the Direction central du renseignement intérieur, or DCRI, began to ramp up its capacity to monitor Muslim militants.

On Nov. 27, 2001, France’s premier counterterrorist magistrate, Jean-Louis Bruguière, was pessimistic about “autonomous” jihadist cells in Europe and North America that “don’t need to receive orders to pass into action.” The Iraq War added to this widespread anxiety. Many believed that the Anglo-American invasion would provoke a maelstrom of holy warriors against the West.

It didn’t happen then. But it may be happening now.

The lethal attack in Paris on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo —which has made a specialty of mocking both sides of the too-much-Islam-in-Europe debate, and in 2012 famously published caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad —probably isn’t a lone-wolf affair. But it may represent what Mr. Bruguière feared: native jihadist cells that can act independently of foreign terrorist organizations, like al Qaeda or Islamic State, but may act in concert, and certainly in sympathy, with these groups.

(More here.)