Thursday, June 28, 2012

There are no silver linings for the GOP today

What's with this silly new meme that the health care ruling isn't as bad for Republicans as it looks? 

No, wrong. It was a rout. A total defeat. It was a disaster for conservatives, who managed to somehow put their most-hated law in front of a court with 5 very sympathetic conservative justices (including, it seems, the crucial swing vote!) and still come away with essentially nothing at all.

Republicans got two things out of this:

1.  The court accepted Randy Barnett's strange economic activity/inactivity argument, and said economic inactivity falls outside the scope of the commerce clause.  The government, it turns out, cannot  force you to eat your broccoli, and broccoli-haters are safe, at least from criminal sanctions.  But the government has other perfectly allowable means to make you eat your vegetables, such as:
  • Reward you for eating broccoli
  • Tax you for not eating broccoli
In other words, us big-government liberals haven't actually lost any policy tools.  People are acting as if the federal government will be hampered by the inability to unconditionally compel economic participation, but guess what?  Nobody actually wants to do that.  It's not a useful economic tool in just about any circumstance.  What's especially silly is the idea that Roberts somehow accepted the ACA in order to open political space in which he could seriously damage the commerce clause power.  But liberals would happily take that trade, too: universal health care is among the most far-reaching ambitions of the progressive project.  Contra the Tea Party, we don't actually lie awake at night dreaming feverishly of the day when all economic behavior will occur at federal gunpoint.

The Court could have also noted that the commerce clause does not permit the federal government to legislate the weather on Venus, and while you might technically consider that a curtailment, it would have approximately the same effect on progressive policymaking as this ruling does.

2.  The Medicaid extension was limited, and states can now reject the federal money for it, and the coverage expansion requirements that come with it.  

They can, but they won't.  The federal matching funds are extremely heavily weighted in the states' favor, with 90% of the total spending coming from the nation's coffers.  (Initially, that number is actually 100%.)  For comparison, ordinary Medicaid matching funds range from about 65% to 50%--and nobody rejects those

Even if some podunk Republican governor in some podunk red state wants to make a statement by refusing the funds, his resistance can't last for long.  Rejecting the funds will put a serious strain on the state's poor, as they'll still be subject to the mandate (oops, I mean, personal responsibility tax?).  That in turn will open up a huge political opportunity.  State governments love handing out benefits when they can afford it, because it breeds a lot of political goodwill.  I don't care how die-hard an executive is, it's ridiculous to think that ideology could result in a 9:1 federal match being left on the table for more than one term.  Political challengers could truthfully make wild commitments to massively improve access to care (and on the cheap, too!).  Any enterprising executive will quickly realize that they're better off knuckling under, partisan preferences notwithstanding.  D or R, you probably like free money.

If anything, this new twist is lousy for Republicans, because it gives the dumber Republican governors enough string to hang themselves.  Reject the Medicaid expansion, get hammered by a Democratic challenger promising the world.

No, these things aren't silver linings, they're just speedbumps on the way to full implementation of the ACA. Federal provision and regulation of universal health care is proceeding apace, it's as big as ever, and it's here to stay.

But hey, maybe Mitt Romney will save you, Republicans.  

PPACA A-OK (but it was even closer than you thought)

Don't expect coherent posting from me for a while, just variations on "Woo!" and "Yes!" interspersed with some rhetorical random fist-pumping and, I don't know, ecstatic, amped-up Bon Jovi-style guitar riffs.

But before I get to that, let me make two observations about today's health care ruling:

First: it was way closer to being a total disaster than I ever imagined.  I was decidedly pessimistic about the whole affair, but I figured the court would ditch, at most, the mandate and guaranteed issue.  The law, however, contains dozens, if not hundreds, of smaller, almost completely unrelated provisions.  I didn't doubt that Scalia and Thomas, who have never exactly embraced practicality in their jurisprudence, would toss out the whole law without blinking.  But Alito and Roberts I was less certain of.  And there was of course Justice Kennedy to protect us, who always seems so sincerely tortured in these situations.  Justice Kennedy might want to kill the mandate, but would he really want to delete the entirety of the largest reform bill passed by Congress in forty-five years?  Of course not, don't be insane.

Turns out Kennedy was more than ready to kill the entire Act.  Roberts, by accepting the tax rationale, didn't just save the mandate, he saved every inch of the ACA.  It was a knife-edge decision; all or nothing.

Second: there's another way this might have gone horribly wrong for the administration, one that's been so far overlooked as best as I can tell.  Here's the vote breakdown on the Medicaid extension:

  • 3 justices deemed it unconstitutional, but severable using the Medicaid severability provision (which isn't in the ACA at all)
  • 2 justices deemed it constitutional
  • 4 justices deemed it unconstitutional and not severable, either
Notice anything funny there?  There's a plurality of justices who want to kill the entire law based on the Medicaid extension.  In other words, if we're just counting votes the normal way, the law should be dead.  And not only that, but dead at the hands of a minority of the Court, entirely drawn from the conservative wing and mostly consisting of the Court's most conservative members.  

What actually ended up happening is that Sotomayor and Ginsburg, who thought the provision was constitutional, nonetheless made a strange, hypothetical argument in the alternative: if the law did just so happen to be unconstitutional, well, they'd rather use the Medicaid severability provision than deep-six the entire Act.  So in the end, the Medicaid extension was deemed to be unconstitutional by a 7-2 majority, but severable by a different 5-4 majority.  

Now, there's been some confusion about the fact that Scalia's dissent appears to have been written as the Court's opinion, using strange phrasing that doesn't usually appear in dissents.  The conspiratorial view is that last-minute pressure from the White House forced Roberts to switch sides.  But I think there's a more likely explanation: the votes had been taken and the opinion was obviously shaping up as a disaster.  The mandate had been thoroughly tried in the court of public opinion, and been found wanting.  The Medicaid extension, by contrast, is not only popular, but highly sought-after by most states, who, after all, never miss an opportunity to gobble up federal money.  And this was a lot of federal money; a nine-to-one match, to be precise.  It's hard to imagine a way to more completely politicize and delegitimize the Supreme Court than to have a minority of conservative justices kill an enormous, landmark law based on states' inability to opt out of a provision that they're all going to opt into, anyway.  Faced with looming disaster, some votes were traded and creatively counted to make everything work out okay.  But as a result, Scalia and Company didn't know if they'd be dissenters or the majority until the very end.

Somehow, though, we dodged all these obstacles and everything worked out okay. Back to the good stuff.

Epic day

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A brief profile of the man who determines whether 40 million Americans get health insurance

I said some mean stuff about Justice Kennedy a few days ago, and if all goes according to schedule, I'll probably be saying some mean stuff about him in the days to come, too.

But right now, I'm going to say something a little bit nice about him, which is that one can hardly doubt that he is among the most earnest of all the Justices.  Someone who did not mean what he said would surely say things a little more memorably or find someone else to say them for him.  Watching Kennedy attempt to pour his opinions onto the page always feels to me a bit like watching someone trying to pull a very large and lumpy blob of clay through a very small opening.  Maybe it gets there eventually, but it's all twisted up and you can't really tell what it was supposed to be in the beginning.  And yeah, maybe it was ill-advised to let him do it, but my god, you can really tell he exerted himself in the process.

Inflation is a real thing, movie-people

Looks like the The Avengers is poised to overtake Titanic as the second highest-grossing movie of all time, having produced about $600 million and counting in domestic box office.  Titanic, for the record, pulled down $648 million.

"But wait!" you might say.  "I would not want to impugn The Avengers, because it is a rollicking thrill ride featuring Earth's mightiest heroes and the ever-sharp writing of Joss Whedon of Buffy fame, but is really it a cultural phenomenon on the order of Titanic?  Have thirteen-year-old girls and forty-year-old women alike flocked to see it five, six, ten times in the theater?  How could this quintessential piece of summer fluff, no matter how well-constructed, compare to James Cameron's magnum opus, which won basically every Academy Award in existence and forced its principals' careers down ludicrous paths as they tried to escape its shadow or build on their success, no one more ludicrously than Cameron himself, a blockbuster filmmaker turned deep-sea explorer?"

Well, it can't.  For reasons that continue to boggle my mind, movie grosses are always reported mechanically, with one absolute sum stacked up against the next, no matter what span of years separates the two.  You couldn't do this in any other economic arena, no matter how serious or unserious, because, like, inflation is a thing, guys.  It's a practice often leading to absurd results, most namely the way in which genre-defining, culture-altering hits such as Star Wars are regularly bested at the box office by cinematic gems like, oh, I don't know, Pirate of the Caribbean 3: Dead Man's Chest, or, god forbid, Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon.  What's bizarre, though, is the sheer determination with which the industry and news outlets alike ignore this incredibly important detail.  Nobody today looks at wages and says "Well, they're easily the highest they've ever been!"  Nobody looks at car prices circa 1950 and says "A new Ford for $8000?  What a bargain!"  In all other realms of life there is  acknowledgement that things just used to be a lot cheaper and money worth a lot more.  And yet barely anyone ever stops for a second to consider that this universally recognized reality makes all box office records you've ever heard next to worthless.  Even bringing it up triggers bored eye-rolls from just about everyone, because, inflation, you egghead?  What do you think this is, macroeconomic theory class?

I'd say that the movie industry has a vested interest in shilling its Next Biggest Thing, and ignoring inflation virtually ensures that its Next Biggest Thing will also be One of the Biggest Things of All Time.  But surely, after a while, this just hurts the industry too.  After all, if a movie grosses the same as Star Wars, Gone With the Wind, or (okay, even adjusting for inflation, this next one made a lot of money) Avatar, you'd expect it to be pretty darn good.  But when you say "I heard the new Shrek movie made the fifth-most money of all time, putting it ahead of the last Shrek movie!"  ...well, the whole thing starts to lose a little bit of its luster, doesn't it?

Anyway, turns out that if you adjust for inflation, order is restored to the universe.  Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon drops 103 places, barely edging out Meet the Fockers.  Tell me that doesn't seem more right to you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Re: the long national nightmare that is John Edwards

Apparently he's now split with Rielle Hunter.  I only know because a news item saying so popped up at the top of Slate and I clicked in morbid curiosity.  But the article seems to be drawn from an alternate universe in which Edwards is spooling up his reelection campaign:
For those keeping track at home, that was right about when details from Hunter's new memoir What Really Happened began to generate headlines everywhere from gossip tabloids to political websites.
Who is "keeping track at home"?  The guy didn't generate that kind of buzz when he was actually running for president.  Who is the audience for this stuff?  I know for a fact that the politicos haven't given him three seconds' thought since it was apparent he would never hold national office again... but a dull, vain, and fundamentally unserious presidential also-ran doesn't seem like much a draw for the Perez Hilton crowd, either.  Just go away, John Edwards.  Please.  Just go away.

Monday, June 25, 2012

One more health care post under the wire

Here's Simon Lazarus in The New Republic, criticizing the administration for not defending their law's legal merits:
 When Republican governors and attorneys general filed their lawsuit challenging the ACA, they knew that there was agreement among both conservative and liberal constitutional experts that their claims had little merit, in light of multiple decades-old precedents. So Republicans and their allies in the legal world organized a campaign to shift the legal—and, critically, the political—consensus. With characteristic acuity, the central legal architect of the Right’s strategy, Randy Barnett, predicted in December 2010 that, “if the Court views the Act as manifestly unpopular, there may well be five Justices who are open to valid objections they might otherwise resist.”

...the Obama administration and its congressional allies famously declined to prioritize public defense of the ACA. After the law was signed and the opposition lawsuits were filed, the White House ramped up its ACA messaging operation. But even then, the near exclusive focus was to spotlight ACA benefits, with virtually no rap about why the law is constitutional.
 He's right and he's wrong.  It can't be restated enough what a bamboozle the GOP has run on this, effectively transforming a settled constitutional question into an open constitutional question by exploiting the slack-jawed willingness of the punditocracy to accept all party assertions as roughly equivalent.

But was the better approach really for Obama and Co. to go on television and argue constitutional law?  It's a field that most people have even less direct experience with than the esoterica of large-scale health care delivery mechanisms. The administration is correct on the merits, but do average Americans--on either side--have any chance of figuring that out on their own?  No, they do not.

I've said it before and I'll say it again.  Constitutional law is essentially fraudulent.  Everyone--from the Supreme Court on down--values their actual political beliefs more than they value fuzzy divinations lifted out of a 220-year old piece of paper.  Lazarus admits as much in his own article, when he notes that an unpopular health care law is more likely to be overturned.  If focusing purely on legal arguments isn't going to convince the Supreme Court of the United States, why would we expect it to convince the broader population?

There are a lot of reasons the health care law is unpopular. First and foremost, it hasn't actually gone online yet; there's also the frustrating fact that many of the people who voted for it have spinelessly refused to defend it in public.  Barack Obama's reluctance to cite Wickard v. Filburn at the bully pulpit is not one of those reasons.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Americans don't realize economy is bad, still vote based on it

Aparently, Americans are relatively okay with the local economy--whatever locale they happen to inhabit.  On the other hand, they're extremely gloomy about the national economy.  If you follow the link, you'll see that Republicans are a lot more worried than Democrats or independents, but nobody is exactly buzzing with optimism here:

So, I find this graph... problematic.  

I've always assumed that the incredible power of economic conditions to drive election outcomes is because the actual economy transmits information to a wide audience with an alacrity that the political economy can't hope to match.  No matter what Mitt Romney or Barack Obama say or do, the majority of Americans will never hear their platforms in full, will never be able to recite their talking points, and will never know who bested whom in the daily rough-in-tumble of campaign politics.  But virtually everyone is at some level an economic actor, and when the economy tanks, tangible effects ripple out almost immediately to even the most parochial or low-information voters.

But I find it difficult to square this view with the findings here.  The seemingly-widespread belief that the economy is really, really bad right now seems to be grounded in people's evaluation of national conditions--conditions with which they have little firsthand experience.  Conditions they can only know about through the same unreliable news reporting that struggles to transmit political messages.  

How does this work?  Imagine a hypothetical world where the economy was exactly the same, but news organizations for some reason neglected to report any bad economic news.  Every day, the newspaper and television was filled with glowing reports of booming industry and rising employment.  Would people continue to honestly rate local conditions as being mediocre, and if so, still vote against the incumbent in large numbers?  Or do people need to have, I don't know, an 80% confidence rate in the local economy before incumbency becomes safe?  Maybe the transmutation of economic performance into political effects is so subtle that it's literally unconscious.

And if concerns about the nation at large are, in fact, important, why do they seem to matter so much more than political considerations, which get, if anything, larger amounts media coverage and emphasis?  Does Joe Schmoe, watching the nine o'clock news, space out during political segments and then perk up for the monthly unemployment figures?  Something in this picture doesn't really make sense.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Health care armageddon on Monday

While no one really knows what the court is going to do, overturning the ACA to any degree will make this one of the biggest Supreme Court decisions of all time.  (I was going to say "Regardless of what the court decides, this will be one of the biggest decisions of all time."  But that's not really true at all, is it?  Upholding the law means commerce clause powers remain pretty much exactly as expansive as everyone thought they were until 2011 or so.)

Plenty of ink has been spilled on this already, and I don't have much to add.  You want awful horse-racey coverage?  Go read literally any halfway respectable news outlet.

On second thought, don't.  Because that horse-race coverage is a huge part of the problem here.  I've read any number of godawful articles on the subject that start out by noting that overturning the law will be a huge defeat for the Obama administration... and then basically stop there, too.

Hey, how about breaking down what overturning the law will mean for everyone else?  A negative Supreme Court decision may or may not impact Obama's political fortunes come November--and, I think, could actually energize the Democratic base in a pretty major way--but there is absolutely no doubt that it would impact the lives of millions upon millions of people.  It would disrupt state governments in a way that's hard to even describe.  It would cause complete chaos of a sort that has nothing to do with party politics.  

But to read most of the reporting about the law, this decision is primarily about whether Obama gets to notch a W or an L over health care.  It casts the two options as roughly equivalent; a zero-sum, binary choice: Ds v. Rs.  Either way someone wins, either way someone loses.  Root for the home team.  And not only does that disguise the enormity of what's probably about to happen, it also enables idiots who attack the law without addressing its actual policy merits.  This is especially problematic when you consider that one Justice Anthony Kennedy is, forever and above all else, an idiot.  

Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The city of the future is really boring

Via Yglesias:
[N]ew guidelines [in Hollywood] will make it easier for developers to build more and higher buildings around subway stations and bus stops. Supporters, which include business groups and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, say it is a visionary change that will allow Hollywood to fully realize a decade-long transformation from a seedy haven for drug dealing and prostitution into a smartly planned, cosmopolitan center of homes, jobs, entertainment and public transportation.
I'm as much in support of the new liberal approach to city planning as anyone. But a "smartly planned, cosmopolitan center" of mixed commerce and residential space? That could describe virtually any growth area in the country right now. The future of city planning is bright, but it's also full of dully homogeneous cities.  If the planners get their way, everywhere from Charlotte to Hollywood to Dallas will look roughly like this:

I genuinely believe people will be happier living in these cities, but it's hard to deny you can't get rid of the blight and seediness and inefficiency without also getting rid of a lot of the local texture.

The policy solution, I think, is historic preservation; ultimately, I doubt it's really good enough.  Saving a few building fronts won't turn back the market forces the liberalizers want to unleash on our cities.  And anyway, the liberalizers hate historic preservation too.  Ultimately, this is a problem for philosophers and artists, not for planner and policymakers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Facebook buys rudimentary face-recognition technology; will soon be able to identify human beings by looking at them

In a canny business move, Facebook bought a company which has developed a program for identifying and automatically tagging people in pictures.  Predictably, privacy advocates are already starting to flip out, but have they considered the range of possibilities opened up by this technological advance?  Too long have human beings stared at their pictures in bewilderment, wondering things like "Who is that guy standing next to me?" and "Which of my friends is which?"  Soon, with the power the microchip and the Internet, we'll be able to conclusively resolve these eternal and perplexing questions.

Okay, so, obviously, I'm skeptical of the privacy concerns here.  There's already a platform that comes preloaded with some of the best facial recognition software imaginable: our brains.  It might be surprising to be identified by a computer, but it's hard to imagine very many contexts in which a person couldn't have done so, with twice the accuracy and half as much data about you.

Yes, this technology could probably be mildly abused in some contexts.  Someone with a very high level of access to Facebook--so basically, Mark Zuckerberg, or in some scenarios, national governments--might be able to conduct a sort of Facebook-wide search for an individual, identifying pictures he's appeared in and who he has appeared in pictures with.  Of course, in most situations, the exact same thing could be done with access to the pictures themselves, some functioning human eyeballs, and a little bit of clever detective work.

In the meantime, for the rest of us, this is actually a fairly amazing piece of technology.  It saves time and makes it easier to divine the social linkages that are the raison d'ĂȘtre of social networking.  Privacy advocates  sometimes appear to labor under the strange belief that social networks like Facebook exist in order to give account-holders a secret bubble in which to build unviewable profiles.  But that's not quite right, is it?  People join networks to see and be seen, and most of Facebook's supposedly-creepy new tech just serves as a means to that end.

Well, except, ten bucks says it doesn't work and tags people all wrong.  Facebook has 800 million faces to draw from, after all.  There's bound to be someone else on it who looks like you.  Most likely, in order to fix this problem, the system will be designed to draw its guesses from a narrow pool of people who the network already closely associates with you, meaning that it doesn't add a whole lot of new Creepy Spying Functionality above and beyond what the network is already capable of.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Adventures in relative measures, or, nice try, Slate

With all due respect to its authors, I'm not sure I see how this map should "panic the Obama campaign." It's a clever little piece of work showing that job growth in swing states is lower than the national mean.   (Well, with the inconvenient exceptions of Colorado and Indiana, two of the very swingiest of states.)  From a policy perspective, I guess that's interesting.  But from a political perspective, it's meaningless.  People don't assess the current administration by evaluating their state's performance in relation to the national average.  "I'm voting against Obama because, while he was president, Virginia grew less quickly than Texas" is not a sentence a swing voter will ever utter.  If job growth was to explode through the roof in California tomorrow, swing states would move even further from the mean and get even bluer on the map, but would anyone argue that Obama's reelection chances had been damaged?

Obama and co. should obviously be more than a little concerned about the anemic recovery (and not only because it hurts his reelection prospects--lots of people are suffering out there!).  But the only thing that matters on this map is the bit in the corner that says "national growth: 1.3%."

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thou shalt not impeach the integrity of the Supreme Court's motives

I'm not sure what I was expecting when I clicked on the NY Times' short article about Scalia's new book.  I should have known it would turn out to be the kind of legal journalism I despise.
Justice Antonin Scalia picked the right moment, then, to deliver more than 500 pages of hints, in a book to be published next week. He wrote it with Bryan A. Garner, and it is an overview and summation of the justice’s approach to making sense of statutes and the Constitution. 
It is also studded with telling asides and intimations about past and future decisions. 
Justice Scalia writes, for instance, that he has little use for a central precedent the Obama administration has cited to justify the health care law under the Constitution’s commerce clause, Wickard v. Filburn. 
In that 1942 decision, Justice Scalia writes, the Supreme Court “expanded the Commerce Clause beyond all reason” by ruling that “a farmer’s cultivation of wheat for his own consumption affected interstate commerce and thus could be regulated under the Commerce Clause.” 
That position is good evidence, particularly when coupled with Justice Scalia’s skeptical questioning at the arguments in the health care case in March, that the administration will not capture his vote.
Can't we all acknowledge that Scalia's objection to the health care law comes from party-driven ideology first and his detailed analysis of Supreme Court precedent second?  When we pretend that the justices are acting in good faith, we immunize their decisions from criticism.  It's the Curse of the Law Student: when you can't question the other side's integrity without causing fainting fits, every argument always ends, somehow, delving deep into the utterly pointless minutiae of constitutional law.  At which point everyone who isn't completely myopic stops caring. Whoever wins, we lose.

In reality, judges who decide on highly political issues are usually relying on the same highly political considerations as the rest of us.  They shouldn't be insulated from political criticism in the process.

The Times writer probably realizes this too--even a Supreme Court reporter couldn't fail to miss the ridiculous and convenient inconsistencies in some of the positions Scalia takes in the book:
Justice Scalia acknowledges one powerful limit on his commitment to textualism. Court precedents must ordinarily be respected even when they were based on misguided readings of the relevant texts, he writes, under the doctrine of “stare decisis,” which is (according to Mr. Garner’s “Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage”) Latin for “to stand by things decided.” 
But there are exceptions to the doctrine, Justice Scalia writes. For instance, he says, “the Supreme Court should not give stare decisis effect to Roe v. Wade,” the 1973 decision that identified a constitutional right to abortion.
But the strangeness goes mostly unremarked upon, because it would impolitic to suggest that the Sacred Nine think anything like normal human beings.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Our suicidal tendencies

One of the great problems of dystopian science fiction is that its societies can seem so implausibly self-destrutive.  It's hard to show an overall devolution of human welfare in a society where technological potential has increased, unless the people using fictional technologies are also treating each other worse than people do today.  But the results often just seem silly: oppressive governments inflicting misery just because.

Think about something like Fahrenheit 451.  Ray Bradbury paints a pretty bleak picture, and sure, the imagery is evocative, but did you ever stop and think about why the novel's firemen burn books?  Censorship happens in the real world, of course--but don't censors usually specifically target ideas they don't like?  There's no real implication of conventional political repression in the book; just pointless violence against bookowners, never mind their sympathies.  It's like if Time Warner Cable took over the world.  And at the end of the book (spoiler alert, I guess?) millions of people pointlessly die in a nuclear war that, ultimately, doesn't seem to benefit society's gatekeepers so much as the book-reading rebels hiding out in the woods.

Science fiction is replete with this sort of self-destructive behavior on the part of ill-intentioned governments and corporations, and it mostly rings false.

But maybe it rings a little more false than it should.  Sometimes, it turns out, inexplicable forces--social forces? psychological forces?--can drive even real-life society to act implausibly suicidal as well.  Coming down through the tubes today is one very small example of this very bad behavior:
Virginia’s Hampton Roads region is at high risk for flooding, and lawmakers and officials in the state are trying to plan for the sea-level rise expected as a result of climate change. But they’re running into a problem: some Republicans refuse to accept the terms “sea level rise” or “climate change.”
The BBC reports how state Senator Ralph Northam, a Democrat, and state Delegate Chris Stolle, a Republican, worked together this year to get a bill passed that provides $50,000 for a “comprehensive study of the economic impact of coastal flooding on Virginia and to investigate ways to adapt.” The bill’s original draft contained the term “relative sea level rise,” but the version that eventually passed used the term “recurrent flooding” instead, at Stolle’s suggestion. “Other folks can go argue about sea-level rise and global warming,” Stolle told the BBC. “What matters is people’s homes are getting destroyed, and that’s what we want to focus on. To think that we are going to stop climate change is absolute hubris. The climate is going to change whether we’re here or not.”
Stolle went further in an interview with The Virginian-Pilot. He told the newspaper that “sea level rise” is a “left-wing term.”
Fortunately, it doesn't seem the change will affect the substantive outcome of the study.  But changes like this do certainly, as they accumulate, substantively affect efforts to mitigate climate change.  It's hard to fight back against a crisis that no one believes exists or won't name out loud.  And it's not like there's no history of  the results of climate studies getting buried by political forces, too.

What strikes me most, though, is the sheer pointlessness of the Republican opposition to climate science. The blame, of course, doesn't totally fall on the GOP--Democrats have diligently avoided the topic, too.  But Democrats at least face the risk of driving votes towards the opposition.  If the Republican party decided, in a concerted way, to start worrying about climate change, disaffected voters would have nowhere to go.  And public opinion, which is as informed by party views as much as anything else, would probably shift in favor of more proactive measures.  Everyone wins: after all, if sea levels rise and weather patterns change, Republican children will suffer, too.

Instead, we get stuff like this: unnecessary, self-defeating measures that would be hard to believe if it showed up in a piece of fiction.

If Romney commits a gaffe in a forest, and nobody's around...

Did anyone hear Mitt Romney's gaffe earlier?  Pundits on Twitter are already breaking it down.  Will it hurt his polling numbers?  Was it  better or worse than Obama's "private sector" gaffe last week?  As for what Romney actually said, it was... well... it was something to do with firefighters, policemen, and... uh... Wisconsin, maybe?  Or firing people.  Or something.  Honestly, I have no idea.

Obviously, about two minutes of trawling through Google will rectify my ignorance.  But before I go do that, let's stop and take a second to think about how silly this whole exercise is.

Romney's apparent gaffe can't hurt him if nobody knows what it was.  And yet, here I am, a guy with a Twitter feed composed entirely of Washington cognoscenti and political commentators, a guy who works in the office of a fairly notable politician, and a guy who habitually refreshes the New York Times homepage, and I don't have the first idea what even happened.  In fact, I always learn about this sort of thing way after the fact, weeks later, as the actual statement is slowly being rendered into meaningless mush by the relentless churning of the he-said-she-said commentary machine.

Obviously it's always dangerous to generalize from personal, anecdotal experience.  I could be a fluke here.  But I doubt it.  These things always seem make a very big splash in a pretty shallow pond.  And I think the point is instructive: it's good to remember that if you're politically aware enough to talk about politics, you probably far outstrip the average voter.  The last couple of years have seen a lot of debate about the power of economic fundamentals to drive elections, as compared to campaign ephemera.  It's a point I find convincing--not because politicians' arguments aren't compelling or their gaffes aren't damning, but because "what Mitt Romney said today" is not something most people know or care about.  By way of comparison, you don't have to watch CNN to know the economy is bad.