The Goal Is To Hold the Line

Those Who Seek to Control Others Know Power, Those Who Seek to Control Themselves Know the Way*

— Lao Tzu; The Tao Te Ching

There’s been a lot of sturm and drang in the comments recently, not just today, about all is lost, there’s no way out, we’re doomed. This has often been married to doom and gloom about the primary, the differences between the candidates, and whether idealism, incrementalism, or pragmatism is the way to win the 2020 election. How about we all just step back, take a deep breath, and focus on the actual fight that is the 2020 campaign. That fight has five components:

  1. Winning the presidential election
  2. Keeping the majority in the House
  3. Winning back the majority in the Senate
  4. Holding the governors’ mansions and state legislatures currently in Democratic hands
  5. Flipping as many governors’ mansions and state legislatures as possible

The fourth and fifth components are important to set the conditions for a more representative redistricting after the 2020 census. The first three are important for other reasons. Maintaining the Democratic majority in the House is a necessary, but not sufficient requirement to return the US back to a solid political and economic footing. Retaking both the presidency and the Senate are both necessary and sufficient requirements to actually being able to do so. If the Democrats retake the presidency, but don’t retake the Senate, the next president will be a lame duck before her or his hand ever comes off the bible at the inauguration. No one they nominate, for political or judicial or diplomatic appointments, will ever get a vote. Nor will any legislation that passes a Democratic majority House, other than, perhaps, continuing resolutions to keep the government running at a previous year’s top line budget number. Right now the only way to reverse the damage that has been done, and to ensure that we get good policy on the climate and the environment, on immigration, on healthcare, on the economy including trade, and on criminal justice is to not just be able to pass laws through both chambers of Congress, but to have a Democratic president to sign that legislation and her or his political appointees in place to administer the executive branch agencies and fill judicial vacancies.

The only good news out of Senator McConnell’s court packing scheme, and that’s what it was a decades long strategy to achieve a Republican majority in the Senate and a Republican president to fill the vacancies that McConnell abused the Senate to keep vacant, is that almost every judicial vacancy that McConnell has filled was a judgeship that was held by a judge appointed by a previous Republican president. Retaking the Senate stops this before McConnell can replace the last batch of Bush 41 judicial appointees still serving, as well as the older Clinton and Bush 43 judicial appointees who will begin to retire. And it also stops him from replacing the next three Supreme Court judicial vacancies, vacancies that are likely to come open over the next several years whether we’d like them to or not. And yes, I fully expect that even as I write this, McConnell and members of the White House Counsel’s Office and Leonard Leo are working on Justice Thomas to get him to retire next year to both prevent a potential Democratic president from being able to replace Thomas after 2021 and to once again put the Supreme Court majority in play as a successful campaign strategy to both reelect the President and maintain a Republican majority in the Senate.

That reality recognized, this is all in our hands. We have the ability, we have the power to elect a Democratic president in 2020 and a Democratic majority in the Senate, as well as maintain the Democratic majority in the House. This is what the 2020 election is all about. And yes, it is about healthcare, immigration, climate, environmental, economic, foreign, defense, criminal justice, and trade policy, but it isn’t actually about whether to take an incremental approach versus a revolutionary approach. Or something in between. It isn’t really about a choice between VP Biden or Senator Warren or Senator Harris or Senator Sanders or any of the other Democratic primary candidates. The simple reality we face as Americans is that nothing positive, not a single damn thing, is possible on healthcare, immigration, the climate, the environment, the economy, foreign policy, defense policy, criminal justice, and/or trade policy if the President is reelected and if the Senate remains in Republican hands. The real issue right now isn’t whether VP Biden’s healthcare plan is too incremental or whether Senator Sanders is too idealistic and therefore unrealistic and improbable. And that either of them have the ability to deactivate Democratic voters because they’re not having their ideological pleasure centers tickled. At the Federal level, the real issue is electing a Democrat president with a Democratic majority Senate and maintaining the Democratic House. That’s it. Almost any of the Democratic primary candidates is acceptable given this reality. And even a one seat Democratic majority in the Senate is as well.

This is all doable. It is within not just the realm of possibility, but also probability and plausibility. But it is only doable if we both recognize the actual strategic objectives we’re trying to achieve and don’t give in to despair. One of the ways that tyrannies are able to subvert democracies, regardless of whether it is a democratic-republic like the US or a parliamentary democracy or any of the variations in between, is by exhausting the citizenry. Exhaustion and despair are the means to that end. The President, Senator McConnell, their trusted agents, their surrogates, and their supporters want everyone strung out, worn out, and so stressed out they can’t respond effectively. Americans are tired, they’re upset, they’re angry. Even the President and his supporters are angry and they’re getting everything they claim to want. They are the sorest winners in history. How about we give them something to actually be sore about!

It is within our power to turn this around. And to do so at the ballot box, which is the easiest way to do it. Trust me, you don’t want me to have to write the post about how to deal with this the hard way! The ways and means to do this are registering voters and getting out the vote and staying as calm and focused as possible. This means that the Democrats in Florida need to get their acts together and mobilize the Puerto Rican community in Florida. Both those who have been there for a long time and those who have arrived since Maria devastated the island. Do actual, real outreach. Get them registered. Get them motivated. Stay in regular contact. Remind them who has their back, who recognizes them as fellow Americans, and who doesn’t. Similar efforts need to take place, tailored to the demographic realities of each state, in each state to ensure the broad, multi-generational, ethnically and religiously diverse coalition that is the Democratic Party turns out to vote in such large numbers than no amount of shenanigans, no matter who is behind them, can thwart the will of the majority.

The fight right now is to elect a Democratic president, a Democratic majority in the Senate, maintain a Democratic majority in the House, maintain all the Democratic governors and state legislatures, and flip as many to the Democrats as possible. And the battlespace for the presidential election is the Electoral College, no matter how much we’d all like to see it placed in the dustbin of history.

We can do this. We can save ourselves. No one else will. But to do so we must stay focused, we must pace ourselves, we must not give in to despair and frustration and infighting. Because the alternative is simply unacceptable.

Open thread!

* Also translated as “Mastering others is strength, mastering yourself is true power” and “He who knows others is learned, He who knows himself is wise”, as well as several other variants depending on which translation one is referencing.

Acid Tripwire

Worse than the brown acid.

Daniel Rothman, professor of geophysics and co-director of the Lorenz Center in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, has found that when the rate at which carbon dioxide enters the oceans pushes past a certain threshold — whether as the result of a sudden burst or a slow, steady influx — the Earth may respond with a runaway cascade of chemical feedbacks, leading to extreme ocean acidification that dramatically amplifies the effects of the original trigger.

That’s from the MIT press release on Rothman’s new paper, published in PNAS.

The MIT release continues:

Scientists know that when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere dissolves in seawater, it not only makes the oceans more acidic, but it also decreases the concentration of carbonate ions. When the carbonate ion concentration falls below a threshold, shells made of calcium carbonate dissolve. Organisms that make them fare poorly in such harsh conditions.

Shells, in addition to protecting marine life, provide a “ballast effect,” weighing organisms down and enabling them to sink to the ocean floor along with detrital organic carbon, effectively removing carbon dioxide from the upper ocean. But in a world of increasing carbon dioxide, fewer calcifying organisms should mean less carbon dioxide is removed.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Rothman says. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

To answer that question, Rothman surveyed the carbon record for the last half-billion years of Earth history, and then built a mathematical model of the carbon cycle in the upper ocean to help him analyze the current, human-driven injection of carbon dioxide into the climate system.

When he introduced carbon dioxide at greater rates, he found that once the levels crossed a critical threshold, the carbon cycle reacted with a cascade of positive feedbacks that magnified the original trigger, causing the entire system to spike, in the form of severe ocean acidification. The system did, eventually, return to equilibrium, after tens of thousands of years in today’s oceans — an indication that, despite a violent reaction, the carbon cycle will resume its steady state.

This pattern matches the geological record, Rothman found. The characteristic rate exhibited by half his database results from excitations above, but near, the threshold. Environmental disruptions associated with mass extinction are outliers — they represent excitations well beyond the threshold. At least three of those cases may be related to sustained massive volcanism.

“When you go past a threshold, you get a free kick from the system responding by itself,” Rothman explains.

I should emphasize that all this is a theoretical approach to the question. Rothman is a mathematical geologist, not a field guy, and his business is building formal representations of complicated systems to probe action in the real world that can’t be measured or experimented upon directly.

His prediction, then, is just that, a statement about the likelihood, not the certainty of a given outcome.  But that caveat doesn’t mean this is “just a theory.” Quite the reverse: because the model builds in solid and known physics, and is driven by dozens of observations in the historical record, this theory is one supported both by the math and the gold-standard of empirical measurement.

It’s scary, in other words, because it represents a rigorous attempt, using stable, well established knowledge, to depict a scary, inhospitable future:

In other words, if today’s human-induced emissions cross the threshold and continue beyond it, as Rothman predicts they soon will, the consequences may be just as severe as what the Earth experienced during its previous mass extinctions.

I should add that I know Rothman a little — my students made a short film about a lovely little piece of work he and his students did on the branching networks of ground water drainage systems.  Just i that one encounter, on a question he tackled mostly for fun, it was easy to see that he’s an impressive thinker, combining mathematical intuition with a nose for earth-science problems that can be expressed in tractable systems of equations.

That doesn’t make this work right; it does make the suggestion that there is a chance we’re close to a trigger of a runaway feedback in the oceans a prediction to take very seriously indeed.

The TL:DR of all this?  One — there’s a risk that major and on human-lifetime scale irreversible changes for the worse are either very near or already baked into the way we’ve hacked the climate system.  The need to squelch that hack, to stop pouring carbon into the atmosphere, is thus even more urgent than we thought.

A second implication amplifies that urgency:  Rothman’s math is simple (at least for him). It exposes one vulnerability, one potential feedback that could go against preserving the basic ecological support system human society depends on. But the climate system is big, incredibly complicated, and potentially hides a bunch of such triggers.

You can read this study, that is, as a case study, an example of how something seemingly well removed from direct warming issues (the physics and chemistry of the shells of microscopic ocean animals) can produce profound global effects.  So, if acid oceans haven’t terrified you enough, remember that where there’s one such hidden mechanism of major disruption, there may well be others.

As most of you know, I have a son. He’s nineteen now, and I find so much of my dread these days is bound up in my fear that I will leave him a world that is vastly more precarious than the one I inherited from my parents.

I do not have a good answer for myself on that, but it is one more reason why current politics seem to me to be life-or-death.  If we have any time left at all to keep the damage from climate change manageable, we don’t have that many years.  The longer the GOP holds power, the worse our chances become.  Go Science! is not the rallying cry that will win next year — but it’s damned important, even so.

And on that cheery note: have at it!

Images:  Joseph Wright of Derby, The Orrery, c. 1766

Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, 1498


Poverty Kills. So Does The Color Bar

Today, The Guardian reported on an analysis of life expectancy by neighborhood in 500 American cities.  In that study, Chicago stood out, for all the wrong reasons.  The predominantly white, lakeside Streeterville district is a lovely place to live — for a long time, to ninety.  A few miles away, in the mostly black, Englewood neighborhood, average life expectancy is just sixty.  That thirty year gap is the largest within a single city in the study.

The implication:

“There’s a concept that is increasingly being understood, that your zip code has as much to do with your health as your genetic code,” said Dr Marc Gourevitch, chair of the NYU department and the principal architect of the health dashboard.

“Another way to look at that is that your zip code shouldn’t determine whether you get to see your grandkids. And at some level, that’s how I see and feel about these kinds of data. It’s shocking.”

Among the likely factors accounting for the disparity are the usual suspects: violence, trauma associated with fear of/proximity of violence, environmental and public health deficits, which can in turn feed back into social strife — as the Guardian story notes:

But health inequities also drive violence. Take lead poisoning. For decades, Englewood had one of the highest rates of residential lead contamination in the country. Research has shown that lead poisoning in children is associated with dramatic spikes in impulsiveness and aggression.

The larger interpretation: access to health care is only one piece of the health inequality puzzle. An important one, to be sure, but not the only one, and likely not in itself close to sufficient to deal with something like a full-generation gap in the amount of time each of us can hope to spend on this earth.  Addressing poverty, access to city services, open space, good schools, and absolutely clean air and water are all part of the puzzle.

This is, btw, why Elizabeth Warren keeps impressing me so much.  Her theory of government is one that encompasses not just a specific program or policy need, but a view of how government can address root causes and broad enabling possibilities.  I get some of that of Harris too, and some of the others, including a couple with whom I disagree on the specifics, similarly have an idea of what government is for.  Sanders and Biden, not so much.

But back to the matter at hand:  poverty kills, early and often.  We know (as the Guardian article goes into a bit) at least some of the things that work to defang that toxin.  That the GOP doesn’t see the necessity to do that is kin to the same impulse that doesn’t see what’s wrong in refusing soap and toothpaste and minimal care to those it stuffs in the American Gulag.  We can do so much better.

Image:Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn – Christ with the Sick around Him, Receiving Little Children (The ‘Hundred Guilder Print’) c. 1646-50

Midwest Flooding: Waters Receding

Offutt Air Base in Omaha had to move planes to Lincoln as the runways flooded. Side note: I was born there and pretty sure my blood runs Air Force Blue.

My brother and niece were stranded here. They came out for spring break and then the town they and my parents live in became an island as the Loup flooded and many levies broke. (The farmer who died when the bridge washed out is from there, too)

My sister-in-law is a nurse and couldn’t get to work because all roads out of town were underwater. She finally made it to work through a three-hour route (she’s twenty minutes from it normally) and my brother made it home yesterday with just a few long, out of the way roads.

More roads are opening up, but many highways are with escorts only.

The Nebraska State Patrol is posting some great photos. Here are their animal rescues:

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He seems to be enjoying the boat ride.


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You’ve come to save me? I love you.

And this haunting photo was not far from where my parents (who are thankfully dry  – even though they live next to a levy):

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The little town of Genoa had to completely evacuate. This is one of their bridges.

Here’s the Governor flyover video:

I know we have some Nebraska and Iowa jackals, are you all okay? Anyone at risk as all this water moves downstream?

But you know…climate change is a liberal conspiracy.


My Views On Nuclear Power

Last night we learned that Cory Booker feels that nuclear power will be important in our response to global warning.

So let me give a short summary of my feelings about nuclear power. They haven’t changed since I wrote this in August 2017.

We need nuclear power. I think that we can make it work. But there are a lot of reasons we might not. The fear of radioactivity is a big one. It’s irrational, it comes from a lack of education, the media fan it, and it seems impervious to any sort of persuasion.

The belief that there is no way to deal with the wastes is related, but separate. The repository at Yucca Mountain would be just fine except for politics. Nevada has decided that it won’t take other states’ radioactive garbage. So there. I can sorta sympathize, but not really. We do have a lot of empty space out here in the west, and not many people.

The time it takes to build a new reactor and the cost overruns, as they exist now, are disqualifying. This seems to be a problem in all sorts of areas, though. The solution may have more to do with contracting practices and bad incentives than anything else.

The new, smaller reactors that are being developed may be part of the solution. But it will take time to have them ready to go. Older reactors should not be shut down simply because natural gas is now cheap. Booker is right about that.

Overall, don’t give up on nuclear power. Learn about what radioactivity is. The nuclear industry and its proponents at DOE have to do a better job.