Monday, January 23, 2012


2011 was a year in climate extremes. In part, it was driven by socioeconomics and development patterns as much as actual climate:
[T]he long-term rise in the costs of global disasters is probably due mainly to socio-economic changes, such as population growth and development in vulnerable regions. That conclusion is backed up by a forthcoming study — supported by Munich Re — by economists Fabian Barthel and Eric Neumayer at the London School of Economics. Their analysis of events worldwide between 1990 and 2008 concludes that “the accumulation of wealth in disaster-prone areas is and will always remain by far the most important driver of future economic disaster damage” (F. Barthel and E. Neumayer Climatic Change; in the press). Any major weather event hitting densely populated areas now causes huge losses because the value of the infrastructure has increased tremendously, they note, adding that if the 1926 Great Miami hurricane happened today, for example, it would cause much more damage than it did at the time.

However, weather-related events are generally on the rise. Thanks to a relatively quiet Atlantic hurricane season, damage caused by extreme weather was actually lower in 2011 than in four of the previous five years. But weather accounted for about 90% of the year’s 820 recorded natural disasters, which caused at least 27,000 deaths. These disasters include flooding in Thailand, a series of tornadoes that hit the United States Midwest and southern states last spring, and storms and extreme rainfall over parts of the Mediterranean in November.

Since 1980, the report notes, the number of severe floods has almost tripled, and storms have nearly doubled, which insurance experts link, in part, to the impact of climate change (see ‘Catastrophe count’). “It would not seem plausible that climate change doesn’t play a role in the substantial rise in weather-related disasters,” says Ernst Rauch, head of Munich Re’s Corporate Climate Centre.
NOAA sums up 2011 in a nice powerpoint presentation (.pdf) here. (Despite being a La Niña year, 2011 was hot.) NOAA also lists the extremes (.pdf). Peter Gleick takes a look at the images that tell much of the tale.

David Brooks: consummate insider, with nothing more than complete and utter disdain for “The People,” not to mention the very ideas of openness and transparency in government. Trust the experts, and no need to vet them — they know better than the proletariat ever will. After all, what could the people possibly do other than get confused by so much information that they're too stupid to understand?:
David: Can you think of a case when we have learned something from a disclosed tax return that was in any way useful? From Romney we’ll probably learn that he’s rich. We knew that. We’ll probably learn that he pays a 15 percent capital gains rate. This has been one of the most well-documented aspects of the private equity business. We’ll probably learn that he gives away a lot in charity. He’s conservative. Conservatives generally give much more to charity than liberals, even excluding church donations. There’s no surprise there.

Gail: No fair diverting the discussion with that charity thing. I don’t think Mitt would have brought up the 15 percent figure at all if he didn’t think he was in a corner. And while I don’t know if it’ll affect the election, it seems like an excellent education for the American public in how the tax system works to the advantage of certain citizens.

David: My own view is that the desire for full disclosure stems from a few things. First, pure prurience. Second, members of what used to be called the New Class perpetually labor under the delusion that other people dislike the rich as much as they do and if they can only disclose that someone is rich that will end their political chances. Third, there is a misbegotten ideology haunting the land, the ideology of sunshinism. This is the belief that everything should be made public.

Gail: I can’t believe you’re against sunshinism. We’re in the shining-of-sun-into-dark-corners business. And we’re only asking the man who wants to determine the future of our tax code how he made the current one work for himself.

David: Sunshinism is a destructive ideology. Forcing people to financially undress in public is just one of those incursions that repels decent people from running for office.

Gail: I repeat that we’re not talking about a guy running for the Planning and Zoning commission here. It’s not irrational for us to know what particular tax breaks a major presidential candidate has held near and dear in his own personal wealth-building life.

David: It also destroys people’s faith in government. Have you noticed that as democracy has become more open, cynicism has skyrocketed and the effectiveness of government has gone down the toilet? Bill Galston of the Brookings Institution has the best observation on this — that parts of government should be hidden for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothes.

Gail: Let me stress, we are not asking anybody to take off their clothes. But I am not going to get behind the idea that it’s better for people to know less about their government. I don’t like the idea of disillusioning the public, but that horse is pretty much out of the barn.
As Corey Robin would likely argue, Brooks (who loves Burke, by the way) is simply representing the conservative id:
“The Reactionary Mind” certainly cuts hard against the common view that the radical populist conservatism epitomized by Sarah Palin represents a sharp break with the cautious, reasonable, moderate, pragmatic conservatism inaugurated by the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke. For Mr. Robin even Burke, that great critic of the French Revolution, wasn’t a Burkean moderate, but a reactionary who celebrated the sublimity of violence and denounced the inability of flabby traditional elites to defend the existing order.

This counterrevolutionary spirit, Mr. Robin argues, animates every conservative, from the Southern slaveholders to Ayn Rand to Antonin Scalia, to name just a few of the figures he pulls into his often slashing analysis. Commitment to a limited government, devotion to the free market, or a wariness of change, Mr. Robin writes, are not the essence of conservatism but mere “byproducts” of one essential idea — “that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.”
Robin elaborates in a long piece in the Chronicle, summarizing the main thrust of his recent book:
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument for why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty; agency, the prerogative of elites. Such was the threat Edmund Burke saw in the French Revolution: not merely an expropriation of property or explosion of violence but an inversion of the obligations of deference and command. "The levelers," he claimed, "only change and pervert the natural order of things."
The occupation of an hair-dresser, or of a working tallowchandler, cannot be a matter of honour to any person—to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.
By virtue of membership in a polity, Burke allowed, men had certain rights—to the fruits of their labor, their inheritance, education, and more. But the one right he refused to concede to all men was a "share of power, authority, and direction" they might think they ought to have "in the management of the state."

One of the reasons the subordinate's exercise of agency agitates the conservative imagination is that it takes place in an intimate setting. Every great political blast—from the storming of the Bastille to the March on Washington—is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. Politicians and parties talk of constitution and amendment, natural rights and inherited privileges. But the real subject of their deliberations is the private life of power. "Here is the secret of the opposition to woman's equality in the state," Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote. "Men are not ready to recognize it in the home." Behind the riot in the street or debate in Parliament is the maid talking back to her mistress, the worker disobeying his boss. That is why our political arguments—not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else—can be so explosive: They touch upon the most personal relations of power.

When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power. "The real object" of the French Revolution, Burke told Parliament in 1790, is "to break all those connexions, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination; to raise soldiers against their officers; servants against their masters; tradesmen against their customers; artificers against their employers; tenants against their landlords; curates against their bishops; and children against their parents." Nothing to the Jacobins, he declared at the end of his life, was worthy "of the name of the publick virtue, unless it indicates violence on the private."

Historically, the conservative has sought to forestall the march of democracy in both the public and the private spheres, on the assumption that advances in the one necessarily spur advances in the other. Still, the more profound and prophetic stance on the right has been to cede the field of the public, if he must, but stand fast in the private. Allow men and women to become democratic citizens of the state; make sure they remain feudal subjects in the family, the factory, and the field.

No simple defense of one's own place and privileges, the conservative position stems from a genuine conviction that a world thus emancipated will be ugly, brutish, and dull. It will lack the excellence of a world where the better man commands the worse. This vision of the connection between excellence and rule is what brings together in postwar America that unlikely alliance of the capitalist, with his vision of the employer's untrammeled power in the workplace; the traditionalist, with his vision of the father's rule at home; and the statist, with his vision of a heroic leader pressing his hand upon the face of the earth. Each in his way subscribes to this statement, from the 19th century, of the conservative creed: "To obey a real superior ... is one of the most important of all virtues—a virtue absolutely essential to the attainment of anything great and lasting."
Nevertheless, as far as disclosure and openness goes — which brings us back to Brooks' original point — there are certainly limits to its effectiveness; Elizabeth Rosenthal visits the issue in a relatively insightful piece in the NYTimes:
Everyone agrees that openness is a virtue in a democracy. So what is going wrong?

One fundamental problem is that disclosure requirements merely get information onto the table, but themselves demand no further action. According to political theory, disclosure is both a citizen’s right and a tool to ensure good government and consumer protection, because it provides information that leads to informed decisions. Instead, disclosure has often become an endpoint in the chain of responsibility, an act of compliance with the letter of the law rather than the spirit of transparency.

“In the beginning, disclosure was a means to an end, and now it’s often an end in itself,” said Kevin P. Weinfurt, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Duke University. “People think, ‘If we’ve disclosed we’ve fulfilled our responsibilities.’ ”

Indeed, disclosure has taken on the gestalt of confession: Dump the information and be absolved of further moral or legal responsibility. How did car-crazy cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix earn an A+ in a study by the Roberts Environmental Center at Claremont McKenna College? By being superb at disclosing, not controlling, emissions. Clyde Wilcox, a political scientist at Georgetown University, said: “Disclosure by itself is not the solution to any problem. It’s a path to earn trust. But just saying things is not enough, unless you also do something.”

Part of the problem is that the goals of disclosure are often unclear, said Dr. Weinfurt, who has studied disclosure in medicine. “We want the information, but often no one knows exactly what to do with the information once they get it.”

For example, how should one respond to the government disclosure letters sent to homes in the United States with information about local water quality, containing lists of chemical compounds in parts per million? And what was the appropriate reaction to the Homeland Security Department’s recently abandoned program to disclose risk assessments with color-coded warnings at airports ranging from safe green to “severe” red?

Unlike the restaurant-grading system, such threat-level disclosure “is ineffective because there’s no way to act on it,” said Archon Fung, co-founder of the Transparency Policy Project at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Many disclosure programs today cloud rather than clarify a particular situation. As disclosure statements have become more numerous and more complicated, “consumers just ignore them or don’t understand what they say,” said Jeff Sovern, an expert in consumer law at St. John’s University.


But information overload, not consumer laziness, is often to blame, Professor Sovern says. At real estate closings, in less than an hour, buyers sign reams of paper they are seeing for the first time — including the mortgage disclosure form — to take ownership of a residence they’ve already chosen. Everyone signs, Professor Sovern says, adding: “Predatory lenders try to distract people with lots of paper. I think disclosures sometimes create the illusion of consumer protection — enabling legislators to claim credit for consumer protection, without the reality.”

When the Food and Drug Administration in the 1990s first mandated that drug makers list medicines’ side effects in order to advertise prescription drugs, there was a firestorm of protest from the industry. Now the litany of side effects that follows every promotion is so mind-numbing — drowsiness, insomnia, loss of appetite, weight gain — as to make the message meaningless.

Extolling the virtues of transparency, Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously wrote in 1913 that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But in the cynical world, companies and political groups often deflect that light or diffuse it into 1,000 incomprehensible components.

While regulators and consumers see disclosure as a way to improve transparency, companies often regard it as a risk-management strategy. “Often the goal of disclosure is to reduce or eliminate the legal risk,” Dr. Weinfurt said. “It is so they can say, ‘Hey we told you so.’ ”


So perhaps the answer is not just more information. “I don’t necessarily think that more is better,” said Professor Fung of Harvard. “I’d like to see an effort toward prioritizing what information is really important and then some effort in providing the data in a way that is simple and effective.” 
(Also relevant in this entire debate regarding the will of the people, disclosure, tools like Brooks distorting social science to fit their pre-determined notions, and Brooks' unfettered love of  “Trust us, we're experts” technocracy, is this piece by Cosma Shalizi and Henry Farrell, which I pointed to in an earlier post. Check it out.)

While the intertubes was rightfully concerned with SOPA/PIPA this past week, many seemed to not notice a fairly significant Supreme Court decision on copyrighting of works already in the public domain:
The Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a federal law that restored copyright protection to works that had entered the public domain.

By a 6-to-2 vote, the justices rejected arguments based on the First Amendment and the Constitution’s copyright clause, saying that the public domain was not “a category of constitutional significance” and that copyright protections might be expanded even if they did not create incentives for new works to be created.


The precise number of affected works is unknown but “probably number in the millions,” Marybeth Peters, the United States register of copyrights, said in 1996.

The law was challenged by orchestra conductors, teachers and film archivists who said they had relied for years on the free availability of such works.


In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, joined by Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that the clause meant to require a utilitarian approach, one under which authors were granted limited monopolies in order to encourage them to produce societally valuable works.

“Does the clause empower Congress to enact a statute that withdraws works from the public domain, brings about higher prices and costs, and in doing so seriously restricts dissemination, particularly to those who need it for scholarly, educational, or cultural purposes — all without providing any additional incentive for the production of new material?” Justice Breyer asked. The answer, he said, was no.

“The statute before us,” Justice Breyer wrote, “does not encourage anyone to produce a single new work.”


Justice Breyer said the majority’s approach did not take adequate account of the importance of free expression. “By removing material from the public domain, the statute, in literal terms, ‘abridges’ a pre-existing freedom to speak,” he wrote, referring to a key word of the First Amendment.

Justice Breyer added that the decision upholding the law would have negative practical consequences, as owners of copyrights now charge for works that were once free. “If a school orchestra or other nonprofit organization cannot afford the new charges, so be it,” he wrote. “They will have to do without — aggravating the already serious problem of cultural education in the United States.”
As Jason Mazzone adds:
Perhaps the only thing right about the Golan opinion is its timing: it arrives on the same day as the web-wide protests against the astonishing threat to freedom of speech that is SOPA.
What does this all mean? Not good things for those interested  in free speech or wider dissemination of cultural content, but perhaps grassroots lobbying — à la the protests against internet censorship — could help?:
There's no question that copyright restoration burdens speech; before Congress acted, we were all free to copy "Peter and the Wolf," to perform it, or to use its melodies in our own compositions. After restoration we can't do any of that without permission—which costs money. And there is no history of copyright restoration comparable to the history of copyright term extensions in Eldred. That doesn't matter, the court said in Golan, because Congress is free to restore copyrights without First Amendment review so long as doing so doesn't erase copyright's fair-use doctrine (a limited exception to copyright for teaching, criticism, and some other purposes) or its distinction between expression (copyrightable) and pure ideas (not copyrightable). The fair-use doctrine and the idea-expression distinction are the only "traditional contours" of copyright that Congress cannot disturb.

That's cold comfort to the artist who wishes to use a re-copyrighted work, or the archivist who wishes to digitize it and is now restricted to using whatever little snippet might qualify as "fair." As for the idea-expression distinction, in many cases that's no use at all. Major metropolitan orchestras will be able to afford to license the Shostakovich's symphonies that were once in the public domain. But less well-heeled regional orchestras or high schools won't. And it matters little that those orchestras remain free to communicate the "ideas" behind Shostakovich's work. What matters is the music, and that's back under copyright.

So, what's next? For teachers, scholars, artists, librarians, and others concerned with Congress's incessant expansion of the scope and duration of copyright, Golan makes clear that we can expect no help from the Supreme Court. Which brings me back to where I started—Wednesday's huge, and thus far effective, protests against SOPA and PIPA. Those protests demonstrated that the tech industry, allied with the online grass roots, could overcome Hollywood's pro-copyright lobbying muscle. It's too early to say for sure, but it's possible that those protests marked the end of Hollywood's and the publishing and music industries' lock on copyright policy. Someone might test that by proposing that legislation be offered to return to the public domain all the works that the Supreme Court says Congress had the right to take out in 1994. Those works belong to all of us. And I, for one, want them back.
As for SOPA/PIPA, Mark McKenna makes some similar points as Glenn Greenwald and Julian Sanchez regarding the odious copyright laws already on the books:
There are three general points to emphasize here. First, no one should breathe easier when advocates of PIPA and SOPA assure us that these bills target only “piracy” or “sites dedicated to infringing activity,” because copyright and trademark owners’ understandings of those terms go far beyond the core cases they use to attract public support. “Piracy,” in their view, isn’t just about counterfeit pharmaceuticals sold to unsuspecting consumers. It’s also about linking to websites or reselling authorized goods, and it could well include any unauthorized use of their work or the trademark.

Second, intellectual property law is already full of draconian measures justified on the grounds that they will be applied in only the most egregious cases. Just to name a couple of examples: Both copyright and trademark infringement can give rise to criminal liability in some circumstances, and copyright law provides for statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringed work, even in cases lacking any evidence of harm to the copyright owner. These remedies are allegedly carefully bounded so that they apply only in the most egregious cases. But the history of IP enforcement is one of continual boundary pushing by rights holders (and the government acting on their behalf) and continual acquiescence of the courts. Despite an unambiguous statutory requirement that the government prove both that the defendant was using a mark that is substantially indistinguishable from the allegedly counterfeited mark and that the defendant’s use be likely to cause confusion, the government argues in counterfeiting cases that a mark is substantially indistinguishable when it causes confusion, effectively collapsing the requirements. Juries award huge statutory damage awards in cases with defendants who downloaded a few songs for personal use. (In one such case, the judge substantially reduced the jury’s award—though only after the third trial—reportedly making him the first judge to reduce a damage award in a copyright case.)

Given this history, and the recent efforts of ICE and private plaintiffs discussed above, there is absolutely no reason to believe any new remedial measures would be confined to the truly egregious cases on which those measures are sold to the public. Much as the Patriot Act was sold as necessary to protect us from terrorism but has in fact been used primarily in prosecuting drug cases, any new copyright or trademark measure should be expected to apply to new and unexpected cases far outside the core of either system.

Third, and finally, anyone who has been concerned about the scope of PIPA and SOPA should not be satisfied with the defeat of those bills, or even with defeat of their inevitably forthcoming cousins. Bad as those bills are, they expressly authorize conduct that is already occurring. Opponents need to turn their attention to existing law and demand that it be scaled back as well. Otherwise their victory this week will have been a pyrrhic one.

Having had time to revisit some of his writings, Gregory Sumner reflects on the passing of Vaclav Havel:
Since his passing in December I have revisited texts I had not looked at for twenty years—Letters to Olga, Disturbing the Peace, Open Letters—and am pleased to find them undiminished in their honesty, subtlety, and ironic humor. Havel’s optimistic but doggedly anti-utopian spirit lives on, beyond the absurd stage-set in which the playwright found himself during the grayness of “post-totalitarian” Communist rule. He understood that the pathologies and inertia besetting the world around him in the 1970s and 80s were but an extreme case of a more widespread cultural crisis: the alienation of people from their work; the estrangement so many feel from their communities, their friends and families, their highest aspirations—in short, the things that make life worth living. His commentary from more than three decades ago applies to our slick, hyper-technological consumer society today:
It is as though after the shocks of recent history…people had lost all faith in the future, in the possibility of setting public affairs right, in the meaning of a struggle for truth and justice. They shrug off everything that goes beyond their everyday, routine concern for their own livelihood; they seek ways of escape; they succumb to apathy, to indifference toward suprapersonal values and their fellow men, to spiritual passivity and depression.
What is potentially so exciting about the insurgencies of the past year is their challenge to this apathy, the way they have forced the problems of inequality and abuse of power to the surface. The people taking to the streets, and the millions more who agree with the critique if not always the style of their fellow citizen-activists, are united in grasping that the bargain as it has evolved is unsustainable, that political and economic elites, aloof from the sources of their often lavish perquisites, have to be held to account. Greed and selfishness in all their forms must be exposed, condemned, curtailed, in the name of the common good. “It really is not all that important,” Havel wrote in 1984, “whether, by accident of domicile, we confront a Western manager or an Eastern bureaucrat in this very modest and yet globally crucial struggle against the momentum of impersonal power.”

As we act, each in our own ways, for a better world, it is important to maintain our balance and our bearings, to be mindful of the shortcomings of those whom we would challenge—to keep an eye out for our own ideological posturing, self-satisfaction, and hubris. To Vaclav Havel, a humane response to “impersonal power” involved not only militancy but an attitude of openness and questioning, humility, and a sense of the limitations of our vision. “Anyone who takes himself too seriously soon becomes ridiculous,” he reminds us, “while anyone who always manages to laugh at himself cannot be truly ridiculous.” As we move into new phases, new fronts in the fight for social justice, we should avoid black–and-white, reflexive thinking. As Havel said in early 1989:
It is not hard to demonstrate that all the main threats confronting the world today, from atomic war and ecological disaster to a catastrophic collapse of society and civilization—by which I mean the widening gulf between rich and poor individuals and nations—have hidden deep within them a single root cause: the imperceptible transformation of what was originally a humble message into an arrogant one.

An ethical analysis of the climate denial machine.

Bad air quality and social unrest in China.

Ai Weiwei: The Evolution of a Dissident.

Our wasted health care dollars. At the same time, Zeke Emanuel reminds us liberals of the various trade-offs when it comes to health care spending in the larger context of controlling costs.

Drones and democracy. The answer to Singer's question, by the way, is an overwhelming yes.

Pretty and crazy snake pics.

Andy's making his Oscar nomination picks. On the basis of having watched 4 films in 2011.

My beloved Leonard Cohen gets a nice write-up in the Guardian.

YES YES YES. Here's the new Leonard Cohen record.

Heather's Happy Link of the Day: Wifey is growing plants. Yay.

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