The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Class War Ahead

It Just Might Work This Time

A study of real income growth over time recently appeared in the prestigious Journal of Economic Literature. It found that the richest Americans, the “one percent” so frequently criticized by Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protestors, garnered an impressive fifty-eight percent of all income growth experienced over the past thirty-five years. During the Clinton Administration years, noted for an economic boom as well as attempts at federal government fiscal discipline, the top earners only captured forty-five percent of income growth. During the years of the George W. Bush Administration, their share skyrocketed to sixty-five percent of all growth.

This study is rather like the climate change studies I wrote about last time. It documents a trend with factual certainty. Exactly what the numbers indicate/portend and what to do in response is a little less clear.
A sign left behind by Occupy
Wall Street protestors in New
York City's Zuccotti Park

President Obama traveled to Osawatomie Kansas where he gave a major policy address that even his own supporters concede was also a major partisan political speech in his re-election campaign. In it, Obama laid heavy responsibility for the nation’s current economic distress, as well as our seeming inability to recover from it, on the wealthy, both individuals and businesses, for failing to play by the rules and pay a larger share as justified by their larger rewards.

Obama maintained, “This is not class warfare. It’s math . . . I will not support any plan that puts all the burden for closing our deficit on ordinary Americans. And I will veto any bill that changes benefits for those who rely on Medicare . . . We are not going to have a one-sided deal that hurts the folks who are most vulnerable.”

The Republican response was swift and unanimous – the President was indeed waging class warfare in an irresponsible, dangerous manner. Conservative pundits joined the chorus. “This is populism so crude that it channels not Teddy Roosevelt so much as Hugo Chavez,” sniped Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer in a savage deconstruction of Obama’s speech. “According to Obama, anyone who opposes his common sense solution for banks is just evil,” fumed Dan Gainor, Boone Pickens Fellow, on FOX News.

Their response was unsurprising. Thomas Frank, author of What’s The Matter With Kansas, expounds on the ability of conservatives to counter complaints against Wall Street and big business by branding critics as elitists, out of touch with the traditional values of mainstream Americans. It is an argument that “resonated powerfully among white swing voters crucial to the ascendance of the Republican Party over the last four decades,” adds Thomas Edsall in the New York Times.

Unfortunately for them, this argument has lost appeal in recent years, contends Michael Kinsley, writing at Bloomberg View. “Because of the financial crisis of 2008, the scandals that went with it, and growing income inequality, financial class war arguments are gaining more traction and the cultural class war has almost disappeared.” Likewise, exhortations by Republican GOP hopefuls that Americans just need an opportunity to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps fall flat because they “fail to address the anxiety and anger of those millions of Americans who suddenly find themselves with no job, no health insurance and no money to pay the mortgage,” Edsall rues.

No matter how you may feel about the practice, poll after poll suggests that the rhetoric labeled “class warfare” by conservatives is finally shifting political fortunes back toward Obama and the Democrats. It comes after a long drought of good news following the 2010 midterm elections. A November Wall Street Journal/NBC poll found respondents favored Democratic policies (i.e. elimination of tax breaks for the wealthy and tougher regulation of banks and corporations) over Republican policies (i.e. spending cuts, minimize regulations, and reject all tax increases) by a two to one margin.

An ABC/Washington Post poll found more than three fifths of respondents said the wealth gap had grown larger. Respondents favored the federal government “pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans,” again by a two to one margin.

An October CBS/New York Times poll found only twelve percent of respondents believed Obama Administration policies favor the rich, while sixty-nine percent believed Republican policies did. A more recent Washington Post poll found forty-seven percent of respondents agreed the GOP represents the interests of the nation’s rich – lower but still larger than those who said the same about Democrats.

A recent Gallup Poll found sixty-six percent of respondents favor increasing taxes on individuals earning over $200,000 per year. Seventy percent want to end corporate tax deductions to pay for Obama’s proposed American Jobs Act.

Perhaps most disturbing for conservatives, apparently Obama achieved this increase in populist sentiment without voters viewing him as a divisive figure. A FOX News poll found fifty-six percent of respondents believed Obama was pursuing his campaign strategy to bring Americans together. This included fifty-three percent of Independents and sixty-eight percent of moderates. It also included fifty-eight percent of individuals who earn over $50,000 annually.

Republican pollster Frank Luntz recently addressed the Republican Governor’s Association, where he told them he is “scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death.” He warned the group that OWS and other populist movements are “having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” He suggested conservatives carefully spin their arguments, taking care to avoid certain buzzwords that are currently harmful to them (i.e. “pay for performance” versus “bonus”).

However, some of Luntz’s suggestions hold chilling reminders for conservatives as to how badly the tone of the debate has shifted against them. He recommended using the phrase “taking from the rich” over “taxing the rich” because “Americans actually do want to tax the rich.” He also recommended they assert their desire to defend “hardworking taxpayers” rather than “the middle class” because “Americans don’t trust Republicans to defend [the middle class].”

Luntz even recommended avoiding the term “capitalism” because “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism but they think capitalism is immoral.” It comes back to an admonition I offered anti-government conservatives in June 2010. Even if they realized complete success in the mid-term elections, I warned, they were “in for a shock by how little confidence this same public has in their own panacea to all problems – free market capitalism,” whose “luster has dimmed considerably for most Americans in recent years.”

Conservatives have long claimed that private enterprise, even at its worst, is always more effective and efficient at running anything than government is. It became almost cliché because people accepted it as obvious. Nowadays, such claims carry far less credibility. I believe this is the principal reason why Obama is having such success without the usual elitist backlash often suffered by Democrats.

During his Osawatomie speech, Obama assured, “Now, unless you’re a financial institution whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers, or making risky bets that could damage the entire economy, you have nothing to fear from these new rules.” Conservatives counter this does not mean the President is against banks that do not play by the rules; they assure it means Obama and Democrats are against all banks and capitalism. This has been effective strategy for them in the past. So far this campaign, not so much.

As the OWS camps are slowly giving way to local ordinances and winter cold, both supporters and critics have been asking, “Now what?” of a movement whose goals were never especially clear. At least one Republican pollster seems to think they have already exerted political impact. Personally, I doubt they were the catalyst for Obama’s new boldness but it is likely they provide supporting comfort for him in its execution. The signs of things to come are there to read in the detritus left behind from their occupation stage – Class War Ahead.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Climate Of Skepticism

Both Sides in the Global Warming Debate Need to Back Down from Claims of Absolute Certainty

Reuters, the BBC, and other news organizations have run stories lately about a “drought” in snowfall at several prominent Swiss ski resorts. There has been no heavy snowfall since October, forcing several resorts to push back the start of the season. The stories include grim photos of snow-free slopes. Doctor David Stephenson, head of climate research at England’s Reading University, warns that in fifteen years time many Swiss resorts at lower elevations could have no snow at all. If snow-free Swiss Alps are not proof that something is amiss, what will serve to convince climate change doubters?

Unfortunately, global warming supporters pushing such stories are part of the problem. Doubters point to unrealized dire predictions as justifying their views. Much like the doubters, the supporters in this case falls into the trap of mistaking weather, the day-to-day meteorological conditions affecting a specific place, with climate, the long-term prevalent meteorological conditions of a region or larger area. Even extreme changes in weather ultimately have low impact because they are short lived. Conversely, even minute changes in climate have substantial impact because they persist.

Skiers overlook snow-free slopes at
the Swiss ski resort of Verbier

For the record, I am a supporter of global warming/ climate change and I also feel it is likely that human activities play some role in the observable trend. However, supporters must adhere to the same standards must as doubters. If a cool summer in a warm climate somewhere does not disprove global warming, a snow-free autumn in Switzerland equally fails to prove it. Meteorologists are already predicting December snows will break the drought.

A more relevant recent story is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's 2011 Arctic Report Card, which states “a new normal” for the Arctic, consisting of “less ice, thinner ice, younger ice.” The report has mentioned similar conditions in the past but this is the first time it declares them as enduring rather than transitory.

Even more germane are the recent findings release by the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study. The project was established by University of California physics professor Richard Muller, an ardent doubter prior to his role in the study. Muller openly expressed suspicions that past studies, including those by NASA, the Hadley Center, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had “concealed discordant data.” Among his funding source were the Koch brothers, who have donated large sums to organizations lobbying against human-caused global warming.

BEST reviewed and assessed the accuracy of existing land temperature data from fifteen previous studies, amounting to some 1.6 billion records dating back to the year 1800. The warming of the Earth about one degree Celsius since the 1950s, their primary finding, almost exactly matched the findings of the earlier studies. BEST verified that global warming was real and disproved claims that climate scientists proposing it were engaged in an elaborate hoax/fraud.

However, this is far from definitive proof by supporters. First, while BEST’s results are the biggest, most comprehensive, and impartial study to date, their results are only as good as their data. Muller has said, “The [land based] temperature station quality is largely awful.” At least seventy percent of the stations have the potential for error between two to five degrees. “The margin of error for the stations is at least three times larger than the estimated warming,” Muller concludes.

Libertarian scholar, Peter Ferrara, writing in Forbes, takes exception with almost everything about the study. While BEST attempted to debunk criticisms of “urban heat island effect,” Ferrara points out the data still comes “from temperature stations on land, which covers less than thirty percent of the earth’s surface.” However, he is only warming up to his topic.

Ferrara notes that weather satellites show no warming in the upper atmosphere since their record began in 1979. Weather balloons independently confirm their results. The UN’s climate models project human-made global warming would result in a “hotspot” in the troposphere, about six miles above the Earth’s surface, in tropical areas. However, weather balloons and satellites actually show a slight cooling there.

Ferrara also holds the UN model’s assumptions up to doubt. Atmospheric temperature data from NASA’s Terra satellite demonstrates much more heat escapes back out to space than is assumed captured in the atmosphere by greenhouse effects under the UN’s climate models. A major experiment by the European Organization for Nuclear Research suggests the sun’s cosmic rays, resulting from sunspots, have a much greater effect on Earth’s temperatures than assumed by the UN’s model.

Mueller admits BEST’s warming trend is not uniformly constant but a majority decision, with fully one-third of all land-based stations reporting global cooling. Moreover, Ferrara argues their records do not show persistent warming following persistent growth of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Rather, it shows an up and down pattern of temperatures, more consistent with natural causes.

Ferrara’s questioning, while providing healthy skepticism to the debate, comes not from a dispassionate skeptic but a lifelong global warming denier. He engages in elaborate spinning of data to reinforce predetermined bias. Because error could exist, it must exist. If there is any room for doubt, dismiss the concept as worthless. There are a lot of babies lying next to bathwater on the ground at the bottom of Ferrara’s ivory tower. He accuses climate change supporters of “religious orthodoxy” and a “fading catechism” but smugly concludes that global warming is not merely over-hyped but entirely imaginary.

Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, deplores the absolutism this topic inspires in the scientific community. “Not only is it poor science to claim absolute truth but it also leads to the kind of destructive and distrustful debate we've had in last decade about global warming,” he writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Botkin has been warning about the possibility of human-induced global warming since the 1970s. However, he raised hackles with colleagues in 2007, when concerns over global warming were at their height of popularity, by insisting, “Global warming doesn't matter except to the extent that it will affect life – ours and that of all living things on Earth. And . . . the evidence that global warming will have serious effects on life is thin. Most evidence suggests the contrary.”

I differ with Botkin, finding the impact more noticeable than him. However, I concede his take is more reality-based than frantic warnings issued by some ardent supporters. Despite disturbing trends, the polar ice caps have not melted, polar bears are not extinct, and New York City is not sitting under ten feet of water.

A new study funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation stresses global warming is real and will have multiple serious impacts. However, it also warns that severe estimates, such as those put forth by a 2007 UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), are unlikely. For example, the UN IPCC report estimated that Earth surface temperatures could rise from four and a half to eleven and a half degrees Fahrenheit. The new study suggests four degrees is actually the upper limit of the potential rise.

If climate change supporters want to build credibility with doubters, we need to be our own best skeptics and critics. Dire predictions are causing us to lose credibility and shore up the scoffing of global warming deniers. We need to end cherry picking data to find egregious but isolated examples of unseasonal warming. Likewise, no more doomsday prophesizing geared more toward eliciting donations than knowledge. On the other hand, doubters need to end cherry picking data to find examples at odds with models and stressing them exclusively as disproving the model.

What is needed is a climate of true skepticism, in which data trends are recognized as valid but not definitive. Science works best when all attempt unbiased analysis of an issue from the same vantage point, instead of taking sides around it. Unfortunately, there is as little of that in the air right now for climate change as there is snow in Switzerland. What is more, given this topic’s controversial and often combative past, the chance of any developing sometime soon has about the same chance as a snowball in hell.