Quick hits

1) Just rediscovered this great NYT Magazine feature from last year about the catastrophe (and a brilliant example of unintended consequences) of America’s policy of encouraging vegetable oil fuel:

Most of the plantations around us were new, their rise a direct consequence of policy decisions made half a world away. In the mid-2000s, Western nations, led by the United States, began drafting environmental laws that encouraged the use of vegetable oil in fuels — an ambitious move to reduce carbon dioxide and curb global warming. But these laws were drawn up based on an incomplete accounting of the true environmental costs. Despite warnings that the policies could have the opposite of their intended effect, they were implemented anyway, producing what now appears to be a calamity with global consequences.

The tropical rain forests of Indonesia, and in particular the peatland regions of Borneo, have large amounts of carbon trapped within their trees and soil. Slashing and burning the existing forests to make way for oil-palm cultivation had a perverse effect: It released more carbon. A lot more carbon. NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.

2) I gotta admit, I love helium balloons, but this was a really interesting and informative take,

There’s a natural resource found beneath Earth’s surface that’s been building up for hundreds of millions of years. It plays a pivotal role in some of society’s most important scientific and medical applications, from MRI machines to superconductivity to particle accelerators to the creation of the strongest magnetic fields on Earth. There is no known substitute for this unique resource; it’s truly irreplaceable.

There is no good way to synthesize this essential ingredient in any sort of substantial quantity, either. We have only what has naturally built up over our planet’s natural geologic history. The resource in question? The lightest inert gas found in nature: helium. Instead of mining, storing, and distributing it for these much-needed medical and scientific uses, we’re squandering it on balloons and squeaky voices. Here’s why that wastefulness must end.

3) And more fascinating stuff, “How a 6000 year old dog cancer spread around the world.”

4) Lost amidst the firehose of awfulness from Trump-related news these days was the pretty awful Supreme Court decision allowing Trump’s end-run around Congress on the border wall:

Like his travel ban, Trump’s desire for a wall along the southern border represents an early campaign promise on immigration that was later whipped into public policy. But, unlike the travel ban, which arguably rested, as Chief Justice John Roberts insisted, on a “comprehensive delegation” of legislative authority to the President, Congress has delegated no such authority to the nation’s chief executive to build a wall. Neither has it appropriated the necessary funds to build it. Instead, legislators turned down his many requests for border-wall funding…

But, without much explanation or grappling with the lower courts’ reservations, the five conservatives on the Supreme Court let the Trump Administration proceed with its plans this past Friday, as the litigation advances in the Ninth Circuit. The Administration’s application to the Court was filed, and granted, on an expedited basis, and the Justices like to say that such preliminary and swiftly issued orders do not represent their views on the merits of a given case. But, in the Trump era, the Supreme Court has bent over backward to give the government much of what it’s asked for, by considering an unprecedented number of requests for emergency or extraordinary relief, and granting many of them. The results, though often procedural, have had a substantive effect—from allowing the enforcement of a transgender ban in the military to stopping the deposition of a Cabinet secretary in the census litigation. The single sentence of reasoning the Court did muster in siding with Trump in the border dispute—stating that the opponents to the wall’s construction “have no cause of action” to question the basis for the Pentagon’s reprogramming of funds—tells us that a conservative majority would rather see this case go away quickly than confront hard questions about executive power and Congress’s role.

5) This Dana Milbank, “Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset” column was awesome.  And probably helped contribute to McConnell’s Senate floor freak-out:

Mitch McConnell is a Russian asset.

This doesn’t mean he’s a spy, but neither is it a flip accusation. Russia attacked our country in 2016. It is attacking us today. Its attacks will intensify in 2020. Yet each time we try to raise our defenses to repel the attack, McConnell, the Senate majority leader, blocks us from defending ourselves.

Let’s call this what it is: unpatriotic. The Kentucky Republican is, arguably more than any other American, doing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bidding…

Pleaded Schumer: “I would suggest to my friend the majority leader: If he doesn’t like this bill, let’s put another bill on the floor and debate it.”

But McConnell has blocked all such attempts, including:

bipartisan bill requiring Facebook, Google and other Internet companies to disclose purchasers of political ads, to identify foreign influence.

bipartisan bill to ease cooperation between state election officials and federal intelligence agencies.

bipartisan bill imposing sanctions on any entity that attacks a U.S. election.

A bipartisan bill with severe new sanctions on Russia for its cybercrimes.

McConnell has prevented them all from being considered — over and over again. This is the same McConnell who, in the summer of 2016, when briefed by the CIA along with other congressional leaders on Russia’s electoral attacks, questioned the validity of the intelligence and forced a watering down of a warning letter to state officials about the threat, omitting any mention of Russia.

6) This is such a great take on climate change from Henry Farrell.  So going to use it going forward, “Don’t ask how to pay for climate change.  Ask who.”

In both venues, some version of the perpetual question will undoubtedly be raised: “How will you pay for the costs of dealing with climate change?”

Despite its pervasiveness, this is a profoundly wrongheaded line of inquiry. Asking how to pay for the impact of climate change implies that these costs are a matter of choice. The reality is that global warming will impose massive costs, regardless of whether policymakers respond or not. Thus, the real question is not “How would you propose to pay?” but instead “Who is going to pay?” and “How much?”

People are already paying for climate change with their lives. Rising temperatures are killing more than 150,000 people every year. This death toll is estimated to increase to 1.5 million people annually by the turn of the century. Some are confronting the likelihood of failed crops; others have been forced to flee floodplains.

Those currently paying for the effects of climate change are the most vulnerable—people in the developing world, the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the very young. As the world changes, more people are going to suffer the cost of heat waves, rising water, damaged or dying ecosystems, and flooded coastal cities. This will create what political science and public policy experts describe as “existential politics,” in which different groups fight to preserve their entire way of life.

7) I had no idea there were two different approaches to order of operations in math.  Had a lot of fun reading this.  Also… it’s 1.  “This math equation is dividing the internet, and no one can agree on an answer”


8) Josephine Wolff in Slate, “You Have a Moral Obligation to Claim Your $125 From Equifax
Help make sure that companies pay the consequences for data breaches.”   Done.

9) The brain-eating amoeba that thrives in hot summer lakes and rivers and is super rare but super likely to kill you if it gets you.  I remember when somebody dies of this in Jordan Lake, not far from us, about 15 years ago.

10) Wow– loved learning the history behind “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  Especially because we used to listen to a sanitized for kids version of “John Brown’s Body” on car trips many years ago.  Had no idea of the original lyrics– wow:

John Brown’s body lies a-moldering in the grave

11) In more modern music, I’ve been frustrated in my attempts to find contemporary rock that I really like.  The Pandora alternative station served up Meg Myers’ “Tear me to Pieces.”  Good stuff!  In discovering more Meg Myers, I quickly came across this pretty amazing video for “Desire.”  Oh my.  So good and the comments on it are hilarious and so worth reading.  And the Meg Myers spotify playlist brought be Chløë Black’s “Spaceman” which I also really liked.  I’m also taking your recommendations :-).

12) Much needed post from Drum, “No, Joe Biden Didn’t Cause Mass Incarceration.” (And shame on Vox’s editors for letting one of their less-informed writers suggest otherwise):

Incarceration rates approximately quadrupled between 1970 and 1994, and flattened almost immediately thereafter. The 1994 crime bill simply didn’t have anything to do with it.

I realize this is politically impossible, but sometimes I wish Joe Biden would just flat out defend the 1994 bill. “You know what happened after that bill passed?” he should ask. “Crime went down, that’s what.” This would be pretty misleading since we all know what really caused the crime decline,¹ and it’s unlikely the 1994 bill had much impact on its own. Still, it’s at least a true statement.

¹The phaseout of leaded gasoline. But you already knew that, right?

13) David Graham on one of the dirty secrets of political fundraising:

Broadly speaking, U.S. campaign-finance laws have been written to prevent nefarious influence by donors over politicians. To that end, the government limits (for now, at least) how much an individual can give to a candidate. It prevents “straw donations,” in which an individual routes donations through other people, since that would give a single individual undue influence. It prevents donations from foreigners to U.S. political campaigns. It requires that campaigns and some other bodies disclose who has given to them. The unifying principle is the presumption that the public needs to worry about who might influence a politician. Scam PACs bypass that principle. Here, it’s not the donors who are taking advantage—it’s the donors who are being taken advantage of, by operators who have spotted a shadow in the law in which they can operate.

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