I Think I Need A New Paradigm

Since starting this blog three years ago, I have continued to explore territory further from traditional libertarian camps. Much of my recent shifting has been influenced by reading fewer blogs and reading more books. Jesus For President strengthened the anti-war views of my libertarian past and added skepticism about the importance of private arms for personal security. Fast Food Nation and Salt, Sugar, Fat strengthened my growing concerns about negative externalities and unintended consequences in the food industry and added somewhat greater sympathies for unions and regulations. Affluenza strengthened my growing skepticism about the usefulness of GDP as a measuring stick and added skepticism about the value of much of our rising standards of living.

So Where Am I Headed Now?

Enter this video, shared by a Facebook friend.

I am more sympathetic than I used to be to some of these ideas. I strongly believe the cycle of debt-fueled growth is a harmful and unsustainable manifestation of short-term thinking that often masks external costs. I agree that it feels like we should be able to come up with a better way to channel the productivity increases of recent decades into fewer working hours and more freedom to pursue personal passions that could have greater benefits to the rest of humanity.

Not So Fast…

However, I strongly disagree when the video accuses companies of taking resources that used to be free and selling them to us for profit, or when it apparently claims that problems arise because money is artificially scarce. These claims may be emotionally or superficially appealing, but I believe they betray fundamentally flawed understandings of economics.

Money essentially represents resources, and it is resources that are truly scarce. Most resources cannot be free in the utopian sense that air is free because they have a limited supply. Sure, I “have to” pay money to my electric company, and they profit from it, but this setup has several advantages over a “free” energy source of wood. First, the electric company provides a greater amount of energy at a far greater efficiency than I could acquire myself. Despite the dirtiness of fossil fuels (and I am very excited about solar energy), they are said to at least be cleaner than the “free” wood burning of the past.

Additionally, those old forests were never really “free,” anyway. The “tragedy of the commons” indicates time and time again how freely available resources become exhausted. Conversely, private property rights incentivize owners to make energy sustainable to maintain their source of profits while simultaneously incentivizing consumers to use less energy so they can save money. When the buffalo was “free,” it was almost hunted to extinction. When resources are owned, they almost never run out.

Even if I somehow deserve some ownership of those limited resources, the electric company is still not simply taking something that would be free and selling it back to me; they are providing a valuable service by refining those raw fossil fuels into forms of energy I can actually use. So I voluntarily choose to pay my electric company for a larger, faster, cleaner, more sustainable, and more useful source of electricity than I could otherwise find for “free.”

On The Other Hand…

On the other hand, it is quite probable that I simply don’t understand Charles Eisenstein’s “gift economy” and need to read his book. Flawed ideas about resources do not necessarily invalidate many of his ideas, and the deep hunger for a better way is not necessarily a utopian fantasy.

“Cleaner” is still dirty enough to pollute countless rivers and lungs. “More sustainable” may not be sustainable enough. Why do I need “larger” amounts of energy, anyway? So I can drive farther to work? What do I do with my extra time from getting it “faster”? Check Facebook more often?

For years, I’ve extolled the virtues of markets that provide us with so much growth and innovation only to find myself wondering what all that innovation is really doing for us. The System now helps Brazilian students learn English by connecting them to online chats with lonely elderly Americans! The System keeps giving us better pills to increase our quality of life! The System gives us fancier treadmills with cup holders and customizable TV screens! Isn’t that awesome?!

But what if the American seniors are only lonely because the System made transportation so cheap that the rest of their family moved away? What if we only need those pills to offset all the negative health effects we got when the System gave us television and TV dinners? What if we only need those treadmills because the System made our lives so convenient that we didn’t have to walk anywhere? (Maybe we are paying for things that used to be free…) When I start peeling back the layers of “why,” I feel like I don’t have to go very far before I wonder if we’re really making much progress.

I used to like to say it was the Government that kept setting up new programs to fix the very problems caused by the old programs (see the old yarn about government breaking your leg and giving you a crutch). But I’m starting to realize that this happens with the whole system, businessmen and regulators all mixed in together! At least with the Government paradigm you have a convenient entity to blame. If it’s the entire System that’s breaking our legs and inventing newer, shinier, foldable crutches paid for by tiny ads on the handles… then maybe we have no one to blame but ourselves. And when I dare to think this way I lose all interest in the ideological turf wars about whether the Auto-Syncing Wi-Fi enabled LED SmartBulb 3000X was the product of profit-seeking market innovation or government research and regulation. How did we end up in a world where fancy lightbulbs made us so excited in the first place?

…Maybe I’m Starting To Shift

For a while I dealt with my growing unease by appealing to technology as a savior. Solar panels and electric cars will free us from pollution. Self-driving software will free us from road deaths and unproductive commutes!  3d printers and asteroid mining will save us from manufacturing scarcities and stagnation! Maybe Bitcoin will even save us from the financial system! But if new technology merely solves the problems old technology gave us, why should we assume the new forms won’t create new problems that lead to new “treadmills” that we have to discretely add back in to our increasingly compartmentalized days that are still only twenty-four hours long? What if new technology just distracts us even further?

I used to relish every new Apple product presentation with religious fervor. Now I think future civilizations will find our archives of “incredible” and “amazing” new ways to swipe a screen and won’t believe it was real.

I think I need a new paradigm.

I thought I had achieved political enlightenment when I stopped seeing things from a left-right Democrat-Republican paradigm and started seeing things from a freedom-authoritarian paradigm. The real question wasn’t whether Democrats or Republicans should grow government; the real question was whether or not we should grow government at all! But I’m starting to think that this “mind-blowing” revelation is just another axis on the same false plane of economic progress.

Maybe I need to look at things from a third dimension – a more spiritual plane that considers the purposes behind our clamor for conveniences, a paradigm that accounts for the unintended consequences of each “new” and “improved” innovation. This kind of thinking is certainly not exclusive to religion, though I find it quite at home with the teachings of Jesus Christ; it seems more difficult to help “build the kingdom of God” when your money is tied up in mortgages and your time is tied up cleaning, mowing, fixing, and organizing the properties he “blessed” you with. Have I gained the whole world wide web in my pocket, but lost my sole purpose for living? Maybe the real question isn’t whether a bigger or smaller government is better for economic growth; maybe the real question is whether or not we still want economic growth at all!

Gasp! Surely not! Old paradigms do not quickly surrender to such heresies. Whatever complaints one may have about the diminishing returns of Western materialism, surely we do not need to throw the air conditioning and the antibiotics out with the neo-Luddite bathwater! The march of progress may have a few unpleasant side effects, but it would be foolish to presume that life is not better now than it was a hundred years ago. Life will never be perfect and people will always have something to complain about, so just keep your head down and play along and if you don’t like the treadmills or the Taco Bells just ignore them and make different choices. What’s so hard about that?

Well, I don’t know. This is the cognitive dissonance I have recognized but not yet resolved. What good are power windows if they make your muscles atrophy from lack of use? Is there a point at which the march of progress stops making life better and just makes it more complicated? Can we filter the “bads” the System gives us and keep the “goods,” or are they inseparably linked? How much can a citizen free himself from the consequences of the System’s conveniences without uprooting all of them, and how does one reach those limits, and how does one extend them?

These are the kinds of questions I’ve started asking. These are the kinds of ideas at which I’ve started directing my meager grasps of economic principles and political insights. These may just be the silly and pretentious existential musings of a privileged blogger, but I’m willing to take that risk to see where it leads me…

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Does Game Theory Explain Why Everyone’s Becoming More Libertarian About The War On Drugs?

Marijuana shops opened in Colorado this year, and the sky has not yet fallen. But the trend of former politicians denouncing failed drug policies has suddenly caught up to those still in office, and politicians both red and blue are now falling over themselves to sound more libertarian than the next guy.

Barack Obama – the sitting president of the United States – admits on the public record that he doesn’t think marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol. Chris Christie says “we will end the war on drugs,” and Rick Perry wants to move towards decriminalization. (Yes, that means the moderate/establishment wing, the evangelical wing, and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party are all now moving in this direction.) Obama’s attorney general Eric Holder wants to reduce drug-related sentencing, and conservatives at CPAC are arguing that it’s actually conservative to put fewer people in prison for drugs so we can reduce government spending on prisons, reduce government intrusion in our personal lives, and reduce crime by stopping the inevitable networking of non-violent drug dealers that leaves them no job options when they get out besides the violent skills they picked up in prison.

All of this is music to my ears.

The cynic would say these politicians are just responding to reality and the shifting opinions of the electorate. It’s true that public polling on marijuana legalization has approached and fully crossed the 50% threshold in recent years. It’s true that tight budgets and bloated prisons, combined with renewed small-government fervor, are incentivizing enough common sense to begin to shift power away from the “prison industrial complex.”

These kinds of explanations are likely enough, but I wonder if that’s the whole picture. After all, it’s easy to find polls on other topics that haven’t created such a shift in the rhetoric of both major parties. So here is my pet theory: Perhaps it has something to do with the growing threat of libertarian politics.

What threat, you may say? Didn’t Gary Johnson only get about 1% of the vote in 2012? Where is the Libertarian Party coming close to winning even statewide elections anywhere? My argument is not that they are winning (outside the Republican Party, that is), but that they are picking up enough votes that both Democrats and Republicans are starting to worry about them.

In this month’s special election for FL-13, the Libertarian candidate picked up 4.8% of the vote in what appears to be the first time they fielded a candidate there. I haven’t done an extensive analysis, but there appear to be multiple districts in 2012 where the Libertarian candidate out-performed the difference between the two major parties, potentially tipping races in both directions.

Most game theory political analysis focuses on how the shifting whims of the electorate affects the two major parties (in this case, since the electorate is allegedly becoming “more liberal,” pitting claims that this means the Republican Party is doomed against more boring claims that the party will simply become more liberal as well. But perhaps that analysis is too simple, and there’s a third player here. Perhaps a growing libertarian presence is also influencing both parties to become more libertarian to reduce the risk of those candidates spoiling races for either of them.

At least that’s what almost seems to be happening with the War on Drugs.

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Why NPR Is My Favorite News Source

NPR is doing their spring fundraising thing, which means I do my usual thing where I admit that I get utility from their reporting but not enough to give them money because I probably wouldn’t listen to them if I wasn’t driving to work and the marginal utility of any one of my dozens of news sources is not really that high and anyway I’m pretty sure my tax dollars support them somehow so I have no incentive to stop being a free rider.

This year, however, I changed my mind. I’ve long recognized that even though many would consider me conservative I much prefer NPR to Fox News, but I generally just thought of it in terms of outright bias and overall focus. Thinking in the framework of my recent post on the politics of outrage, though, I realized explicitly why I prefer NPR so much:

NPR almost never peddles outrage!

Yes, they still have bias like every other form of media, but rarely does the bias imply bad faith on the part of those who disagree. Rarely does it suggest that opposing tribes are evil incarnate. I’ve always thought their random pieces on economic developments in Mauritania (or whatever) were more interesting than the latest tirade about a third-rate Obama staffer’s obscene tweets (or whatever), but I’d never acknowledged the value of the outrage difference – a difference that is generally maintained even when NPR is presenting their angles on more relevant and boring topics like mainstream US political news.*

I realized that I consider non-outrage news both very rare and very important, and I am very interested in ensuring that this sort of news sticks around. So I pledged. It was an amount smaller than their smallest suggested amount, so I’m not looking for congratulations. Nor am I looking forward to the inevitable (and presumably just as calming) slew of snail mail petitions now that they have my address.

But I did want to express my appreciation for a news source that reliably provides more helpful context than unhelpful outrage about current events. I will save the discussion about the political philosophy implications of profit-seeking vs. non-profit media corporations for another day.

*Note: my overall impression of NPR may be disproportionately skewed by Morning Edition and All Things Considered, the programs on during my typical commute.

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The Politics of Outrage

So much of political coverage is about generating outrage against other tribes. This outrage is in high demand and easily supplied, but it ultimately leads to a market failure. It satisfies our short-term desire for confirmation bias, but by causing us to think other tribes are more evil than they actually are, it reduces our long-term ability to win people over to our side and make the world a better place.

The Details: What Outrage Looks Like

Whether it’s Democrats against Republicans, Republicans against Democrats, or libertarians against the government, time and energy is consistently diverted from arguing the merits of one’s position to the weaker but more enticing strategy of simply portraying the people who hold the opposing position as embodiments of evil.

Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s words as indicators of how “out of touch” the Evil Opponent is (47% are takers! You didn’t build that!). Sometimes the outrage focuses on the Evil Opponent’s actions as indicators of the Evil Opponent’s lack of moral fortitude or love for America (He cut a kid’s hair in college! He “bowed” to a leader of a country I can’t find on a map!). Sometimes the outrage manifests as a remarkable fascination in the details of the Evil Opponent’s personal life (Zimmermann’s boxing! Now he’s not boxing!) Sometimes it doesn’t really matter what the person said or did as merely mentioning his or her name is enough to foment outrage from the appropriate base (Kochs! Obama! Limbaugh! Obama! Palin! Fluke! Obama!)

The mainstream media uses outrage whenever possible, but the most frequent peddlers include websites such as TheBlaze, HotAir, MotherJones, and ThinkProgress. You can generally tell how high HotAir has their Outrage Meter by how many times they mention Reid on their home page (at the moment, it’s 4, accompanied by words like liar, pain, and un-American.) You can generally tell how high ThinkProgress has their Outrage Meter by how many pictures of old white men they have on theirs (at the moment, only 2, but I’ve seen Republican men in every single above-the-fold photograph before). Outrage meters tend to spike as we approach elections, as it becomes more important than usual to expose Evil Opponents to try to prevent them from gaining power.

The Economics: Why Outrage Persists

The proliferation of such outrage can be explained with basic economics. The supply of outrage-inducing material is very high, and the cost of production is lower than it has ever been. No one is perfect; the worst 10% of things any given individual has ever done or said could probably be thrown into the outrage machine to generate results. Additionally, the worst 10% of people in any given political group generate even larger supplies of words and actions that can be thrown into the outrage machine to smear the entire group. Furthermore, thanks to social media, cellphones, YouTube, and more, technology now enables us to discover and promote a greater proportion of the worst things individuals or groups say or do than ever before.

The demand for outrage-inducing material is also very high. People are simply more interested in clicking, reading, and sharing news that makes them excited and angry than news that makes them calm and happy.

When so many people want something that is so easy to supply, we should not be surprised to see so much of it. Websites publish outrageous posts for the same reason politicians create more commercials slinging mud at their opponents than dusting themselves off – it might not change many minds, but it’s more effective at involving people who already have their minds made up.

These incentives create tensions for content creators who don’t necessarily want to get sucked into the outrage machine. My most popular post of all time is also probably the most outrage-inducing post I’ve ever written. I could probably generate more page views by cranking up the Outrage Meter more often, but if I believe outrageous page views ultimately create negative utility, why would I want to maximize that?

The Problems: Why Outrage Is Harmful

One problem with outrage is that, while it may be very effective at reinforcing your side’s existing biases about the other side, it is extremely ineffective at winning people over to your side. While we love to throw outrage at them, we are very good at dismissing outrage against us as irrelevant and actually turning it into another reason to be outraged at them (Oh there they go again bringing up Seamus / Benghazi / whatever).

Sometimes the outrage is so great it produces visible backlash (think 2012′s “legitimate rape“), but even then the accusing side tends to overplay their hand, allowing the defending side to spend less time rationalizing their weakness and more time accusing the other side of exploiting it.

To be sure, there are injustices worthy of outrage, but the worthy outrageous things that don’t outrage us are just as revealing of our biases as the less worthy things that do. I had to stop and ask myself why the TSA terrors and NSA surveillance have outraged me far more than Michael Dunn’s murder and essential acquittal.

Am I more concerned about laws that merely take away liberties than about laws that enable racists to kill people they stereotype as dangerous and get away with it? And is it just a coincidence that my outrage seems to correlate less with the level of injustice and more with how closely the victims match my ethnicity and income level?

The biggest problem with an abundance of outrage is that over time it gives you a very unbalanced impression of your political opponents. You begin to assume your opponents are always acting from malicious intentions rather than good ones, which hampers your ability to understand them or admit errors in your own thinking.

Liberals think virtually all conservatives are racist compassionless homophobes. Conservatives think virtually all liberals are socialist Marxist environmentalists. Libertarians think virtually all government employees are corrupt, power-hungry statists.

A consequence of assuming your opponents are acting in bad faith more than they really are is that it makes you more gullible to believing partially-true (or downright false) stories about something outrageous they did. That’s how anti-government crusaders got outraged about voluntary chicken nuggets and liberals got outraged about a fabricated anti-science memo – they already believed it was something those people were probably doing anyway.

The more boring but more persistent consequence is that it decreases your overall ability to get along with members of the other tribes. If you believe the worst 10% of an opposing tribe is representative of the whole tribe, you’ve probably spent more time reading about them on the Internet than you’ve actually spent with them. But once you believe that, why bother trying to spend time with them?

At times I’ve despaired about whether the United States is getting too big to govern. I see pro-Russian and pro-European factions fighting in Ukraine and it makes me wonder… are we always destined to split off into warring tribes? I don’t know, but if I can get more people to recognize outrage and reduce their demand for it, I’ll feel like I’ve done something to help.

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Uganda, Homosexuality, and Evangelical Signaling

I used to say that, whatever American evangelicals had to say about banning gay marriage, hardly any of them seemed to be trying to ban homosexuality itself, and that this distinction said a lot about what both conservatives and liberals think conservatives believe about the intersection of legislation and morality. Muslims in Iran may kill homosexuals, but Christians in America do not.

But apparently that’s not quite true in Uganda, where evangelical Christian president Yoweri Museveni just signed into a law a bill that, as I understand it, would put those repeatedly convicted of homosexual sex in prison for life (a slight reduction from the originally proposed death penalty). I’m hesitant to hastily judge brothers from an unfamiliar culture on a continent I have never visited, but Jesus prevented the religious leaders of his day from stoning a woman caught in adultery, and even remembering the call to “go and sin no more” I’m having trouble understanding how he would approve of his followers laying similar legal sentences on those caught in other types of Levitically-denounced sexual activity.

Even more disturbing is the apparent right-wing American evangelical influence on the creation of this law. I think the media is likely exaggerating the connection, and much of it seems to be guilt by association (Rick Warren is bad because he was once buddy-buddy with one of these guys, but Barack Obama is not bad because he was once buddy-buddy with Rick Warren?), but even the most charitable interpretations of such claims are, well, not very charitable. This is compounded by the fact that I can find lots of media attempts to connect American conservatives to this shameful Uganda law, but I have neither heard nor found any attempts by conservatives to defend or disassociate themselves.

I find it hard to believe that a significant number of conservative Americans agree with this law, but I also find it hard to explain their silence in the face of the recent flood of accusations (please point me to any defenses I may have missed). This would be a perfect opportunity for right-wing evangelicals to denounce the sort of theocratic legislating that liberals often caricature them as wanting, signaling that their real political beliefs are at least not that unreasonable, campaigns against gay marriage and potentially misrepresented but admittedly vague state laws included.

But “politics is not about policy.” Are American conservative evangelicals so caught up in political tribalism that they are afraid of signaling disagreement with others who are on “their side” when it comes to homosexuality, even if they are extreme enough that such association damages the credibility of their religious beliefs? Yet I have not generally found that to be true in other instances, as the average evangelical is more than happy to hastily disassociate themselves from the protestors of Westboro Baptist, for instance.

I have never liked the far-left attempts to compare the Tea Party with the Taliban, as if throwing acid on women who don’t cover their heads is somehow remotely equivalent to thinking bosses should be able to let employees buy cheap, publicly available birth control pills with their own money. The Taliban kills their political/religious opponents; the Tea Party does not. But unless the Tea Party starts to disassociate themselves from these alleged connections to those putting their opponents in prison for life, such comparisons might start to make me a little more uncomfortable than they ever did before.

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When Capitalism and the Internet Make Food Better

There has been a flurry of activity in recent days from food companies responding to consumer demands to improve the quality of their products. New York Times provides a summary:

Chick-fil-A said on Tuesday that within five years it would no longer sell products containing meat from chickens raised with antibiotics…

A growing number of restaurant chains, including Chipotle and Panera Bread, have made commitments to serve meat only from animals raised without antibiotics, and consumers have responded enthusiastically…

Subway announced last week that it would eliminate azodicarbonamide, a chemical that commercial bakers use to increase the strength and pliancy of dough, but, as noted by the consumer crusader Vani Hari, is also used for the same purposes in yoga mats and shoe soles.

And on Tuesday, Kraft said it was taking sorbic acid, an artificial preservative that had come under attack by consumers, out of some individually wrapped cheese slices…

These are pretty exciting times. It looks like the Internet is continuing to help spread information and ignite and amplify voices to demand change in the marketplace. This is exactly what I predicted two years ago when the Internet facilitated a revolution in “pink slime” meat:

Consumers have always been able to demand products that businesses had incentives to supply. But now technology lets us join together in large enough numbers to demand that businesses stop doing sketchy things that they then have the incentives to stop doing, even if the slow-moving, lobby-infested government never says they have to.

It’s not perfect, and sometimes I think this technology also allows the public to unfairly criticize businesses or go too far, but in general I think it’s pretty awesome. Individual consumers are becoming more empowered than ever before, and I’m excited to see what we do next.

The last two years appear to have empowered individuals even further. And this empowerment continues to prove that consumers can make companies respond faster than government can; the FDA has dithered for decades in regulating antibiotic use and only barely took some limited, voluntary steps last year after an alarming CDC report about growing antibiotic resistance. But it seems to be the consumers who have ultimately extracted such “regulation” from a growing number of companies.

It’s hard to overstate how beautiful are these examples of capitalism creating good out of an industry that has long been associated with its underside. I recently read Salt, Sugar, and Fat, which details the last hundred years of companies competing to churn out cheaper, tastier, more addicting – and more health-destroying – products. (Sure, people choose to buy them, and most regulation would probably have been worse, but even the most hardcore libertarian has to at least admit that the Nash equilibria have not been very optimal.) I also recently read Fast Food Nation, which details the last hundred years of companies exploiting information and power asymmetries to hurt agriculture industry employees, pushing me the farthest to the left in my sympathies for labor movements that I have ever been (not that that’s saying much).

But if the twentieth century was marked by food companies competing to win the most customers by lowering the health quality of their products, perhaps the twenty-first century will be marked by food companies competing to win the most customers by improving the health quality of their products. When the customer cared most about price, taste, and convenience, they each tried to outdo each other by piling on more sugar or salt or sourcing chickens raised in the cheapest (and dirtiest) available environment. But when the customer cares more about health, they now try to outdo each other in removing questionable items from their ingredients so that they don’t lose their customers to whoever’s doing more.

This won’t lead to utopia. The consumer is a contradictory, multi-headed beast. Plenty of consumers still want cheap, junk food and will only pay so much for improved health. Even individual consumers do not consistently know what they want in the ever-changing dynamics of food choices. But the recent activism and responses proves there are plenty of relatively painless ways companies can improve their options once the demand shifts the equilibria just enough to make it so. I suspect there is still plenty of low-hanging fruit on this tree.

And one of the key differences is the increase in technology. The Internet allows us to learn more about how companies are creating their foods and what might be problematic about those processes (reducing information asymmetry). The Internet also allows us to group together to amplify our voices loud enough to be heard on these matters, encouraging companies to respond to the slightest worry about a drop in quarterly profits before it even happens (reducing power asymmetry). And that is a beautiful thing.

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The Triple-Fail Right-Wing Freakout About Our New Dictator Obama

I didn’t watch the State of the Union.

I was too busy playing with my son and doing an Insanity workout with my wife. I’ve started trying to fast from news and social media every Tuesday to spend more time on other things and I’m noticing that I don’t miss much. News doesn’t happen that fast and I might add Thursdays and maybe even Saturdays to the mix.

So on Wednesday I decided to listen to last year’s speech and this year’s speech back-to-back to get more perspective and detach myself even further from its fleeting role in the useless daily news cycle (h/t @NickSacco55).

It was amusing to hear Obama talk in 2013 about protecting us from hackers who “infiltrate private e-mail” - right before we learned the NSA was doing just that – but I mostly noticed how little the speech changed in 2014. Same congratulatory statistics about oil output and manufacturing jobs and the Affordable Care Act. Same hopes to do something about gun control and climate change (though mentioning fewer specific climate disasters after a less disastrous year). Same misguided economic calls to equalize pay and raise the minimum wage (apparently $10.10 is better than last year’s $9).

And, yes, the same appeals to Congress to pass the bills he wants and the same promises to circumvent them if they don’t play along.

Of course, this didn’t stop the right-wing outrage machine from declaring the Glorious Appearing of Obama the Dictator. Our patron saint of hyperbole, Glenn Beck, said “every American should write in those diaries that this was the State of the Union where our President declared he would become America’s first dictator” because “he said he would use his executive power to get his way” and “simply seize control and do whatever he wants to do.”

Beck is claiming that this week we saw a uniquely frightening emergence of a presidential dictator. But Beck is wrong, and so are his thousands of listeners, commenters, and sharers. In fact, they’re triply wrong.

1. Obama does not see himself as an all-powerful dictator.

Obama said, “Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.” Potentially frightening expansion of power, sure. But that was right after saying “Some [steps] require Congressional action.”

Obama is talking about using his executive power to do things, but that list of things clearly does not include anything that requires Congress. That’s why Obama said he would issue an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors, but he called on Congress to pass a bill for the rest of America because he knows he can’t do that! If Obama really said he would “do whatever he wants to do” to “get his way,” why did he keep asking Congress to pass the bills he wants?

Let’s also not forget Obama’s recent New Yorker interview, where he recognized that

“a lot of people have been saying this lately on every problem, which is just, ‘Sign an executive order and we can pretty much do anything and basically nullify Congress.’ …Before everybody starts clapping, that’s not how it works. We’ve got this Constitution, we’ve got this whole thing about separation of powers. So there is no shortcut to politics, and there’s no shortcut to democracy.”

Maybe those are just words, but maybe so were his other words. Maybe we should look at his actions, instead. After all, even if Obama doesn’t think he has unlimited power, he still may think he has a lot more than we want him to. But is that something new that’s worth writing down in our diaries?

2. Obama has already been circumventing Congress.

It takes a short memory to conclude that Obama’s 2014 SOTU speech indicated some new expansion of power. Just last year, Obama said that “if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.  I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future” to curtail climate change. He celebrated “a new executive order that will strengthen our cyber defenses.” And while Obama only begged Congress to vote on background checks in his 2013 address, Biden had talked about “executive action that can be taken.”

Yet somehow some of the same conservatives who freaked out in 2013 that Obama was getting ready to ban all guns by executive order are now freaking out that in 2014 Obama just now declared his dictatorship! I suspect these conservatives reconcile their cognitive dissonance with a classic Appeal to the Future. Obama has always been about to do terrible things, but when those things never actually come (pretty sure I can still buy a gun at Wal-mart), they just forget about it and move on to the next terrible thing. Now he’s gonna be a dictator. Any day now!

Obama issued 147 executive orders in his first term. Maybe we should focus on how bad all of those actually may be instead of living in a bizarro world where he hasn’t issued any but he’s about to issue some really bad ones!

3. Lots of presidents have been circumventing Congress.

But not only is “going around Congress” nothing new for Obama, it’s nothing new for presidents in general! In fact, Obama issued fewer first-term executive orders than George W. Bush (173), Bill Clinton (200), George H. W. Bush (166), Ronald Reagan (213), Jimmy Carter (320!), Gerald Ford (169), Richard Nixon (247), Lyndon B. Johnson (325!), John F. Kennedy (214), Dwight D. Eisenhower (266), and Harry S. Truman (504!!).

Now all executive orders are not created equal, and executive orders aren’t the only way a President can expand the power of the executive branch, but it’s a decent proxy to show that Presidents have been expanding their power for a really long time, and even in recent years, I think it’s pretty difficult to claim that Obama has expanded the power of the Presidency more than George W. Bush did from 2000 to 2008.

It’s actually a pretty good litmus test for partisan demagoguery to see which executive orders you freak out about. Believing that Obama is the first president to just now start doing whatever he wants is wrong on every possible level.

Of course, the expansion of presidential power is a huge issue of legitimate concern. But the frustrating irony of the triple-fail partisan freakout is that this myopia is the very thing that allows such expansion to occur. It strains the credibility of the “obstructionist” opposition that justifies the expansion to the other side. Too may conservatives gave Bush a pass on his CIA droning and NSA spying and TSA checkpointing just as too many liberals have given Obama a pass on his entrenchment of all three.

Thus as Obama talks about wielding executive powers, too few on either side pressure him to unilaterally limit the very abuses he has the power to undo – the liberals because they’re ignoring it and the conservatives because it would force them to admit that Obama’s already been wielding powers that Bush started in the first place. So we don’t ask for specifics on Obama’s vague platitudes about “prudent limits on the use of drones” and “reform” of “our surveillance programs” because we’re too busy freaking out about the more attractive soundbytes about “where I can take steps without legislation.”

The above cartoon is more amusing and less hysterical than the Beckian outrage, but it conveniently ignores that Obama still talked about going through Congress on many things, that he’s already been ignoring Congress on other things, and that he’s not doing anything that different from pretty much all of his predecessors.

But partisan demagoguery can’t handle that much truth.

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Global Climate Snapshot: State of the Planet 2013

Happy New Year and welcome to the second annual installment of the unofficial Global Alarm Bell Index (GAB Index). I know you’ve all been desperately waiting to see if the GAB Index increased in 2013, so let’s get started.

Global Temperatures: 3 Alarm Bells


NOAA says 2013 was the fourth-warmest year on record, and the hottest since 2010. Nine of the warmest ten years on record have occurred since 2000. Etc, etc. What they don’t say is that all of those warm years have been measuring within such a narrow range that the increase in temperatures has all but stopped – the decade 2004-2013 was only 0.1 degree Celsius warmer than the decade before it. This is the lowest decade-to-decade increase since 1982, and barring a ridiculously record hot year next year, the decadal increase will drop safely below 0.1 degree / decade in 2014.

It’s going to take a lot more than the pace of the last 15 or so years to hit the predicted 2-6 degrees of warming by the end of the century; we’re barely on pace for 1 degree right now, and even scientific journals like Nature are starting to publish acknowledgements of the pause and trying to explain why their earlier models didn’t predict it. Some say the heat is all hiding in the ocean and will be reflected in the surface temperature data any time now, but until that appeal to the future actually happens, I’m arbitrarily dropping the alarm bells from 4 to 3.

Arctic Sea Ice: 8 Alarm Bells

After a very alarming record low in 2012, the arctic sea ice made a remarkable recovery in 2013, leaping back to only the 7th worst minimum ever with record increases in both percentage and absolute terms. This provides at least some assurance that things can get better more quickly than we previously thought. Some are quick to claim this as a complete recovery, but the records were only possible because the previous values were so low, and the overall trend is still markedly downward. So I’m only going to arbitrarily dial back the Alarm Bells here from 10 to 8.

Antarctic Sea Ice: 0 Alarm Bells


The other side of the globe continues to paint a different picture. 2013 Antarctic sea ice remained above average for the entire year, reaching the second-highest minimum on record and the third-highest maximum on record. Meanwhile, the top five maximums and top six minimums in the 35-year record have all come since 2000, pointing to an continuing increase in ice.

Claims that the ice is thinning and will start to show up in the surface data remain an appeal to the future. There are also claims the the land ice is really what matters because it is melting and contributing to sea level rise, but as we shall see below, that’s not an increasing concern yet, either. I’m going to have to stick with 0 Alarm Bells for the second year in a row.

Atlantic Hurricanes: 0 Alarm Bells

Despite early predictions of an active season with 7-11 hurricanes and 3-6 major ones, the 2013 Atlantic Hurricane season was a complete dud, with 0 major (Category 3+) hurricanes for the first time since 1994 and the fewest total hurricanes (2) for the first time since 1982.

atlantic-hurricanes-2013This makes the 10-year moving average of major hurricanes the lowest since 2003, hinting that we may be coming off a peak that looks remarkably similar to a sinusoidal peak from the 1950′s. The record year of 2005 (Katrina, et. al.) is increasingly looking like an outlier and not a new normal; in fact, the United States has not had any major hurricanes hit landfall since that season, a “drought” that is its own record. If activity picks up instead of continuing to decline we will raise the alarm bells again, but for now I am arbitrarily dropping them to 0.

Pacific Hurricanes: 3 Alarm Bells

In my efforts to include as much data as possible (and do as little cherry-picking as possible), I have decided to add Pacific ocean activity to my snapshot, especially since it is much larger than the Atlantic Ocean. It’s also much more complicated – I’m still getting used to the hurricanes, cyclones, and typhoons and how to understand all the trends therein.

I can tell you that the 9 hurricanes and 1 major hurricane of the 2013 Pacific season were respectively average and below average for the area and well below the record 1992 year. Furthermore, the six strongest Pacific seasons are all from 1992 and earlier, suggesting things are not getting worse.

But apparently that’s just the eastern Pacific. The western Pacific typhoon season spawned an above-average 13 typhoons with 5 “super” typhoons. In particular, Hayian/Yolanda devastated the Philippines and apparently was the strongest storm ever to strike land and may have the strongest wind speeds ever recorded. So that’s something. I’m still looking for good historical data on year-by-year seasonal activity.

So, in summary, the Eastern Pacific was weak but the Western Pacific was strong and involved a record-breaking storm, which I think arbitrarily warrants like three alarm bells.

US Tornadoes: 0 Alarm Bells

The 2013 tornado season was a dud, with perhaps the fewest tornadoes on record in the United States. There were only 28 F3+ tornadoes, which will add to the trendless major tornado graph below once the NCDC adds another little blue line on the end that will be very similar to 2012′s:

There was a notable tornado that struck Oklahoma, apparently being the widest ever reported, but since the data is not as extensive on that I don’t think it warrants any alarm bells. I am going to arbitrarily assign 0 alarm bells for tornadoes for a second year in a row.

Sea Level Rise: 2 Alarm Bells

My source for sea level data has only updated through the first nine months of 2013, where they have the sea averaging about 2.63mm higher than 2012. The Colorado site still says the same average long-term rise of 3.2mm/year that it said a year ago, which is still a pace of far less than half a meter by the end of the century (in other words, not that scary).

But that’s assuming the increase stays constant. Of course, it could accelerate, but if anything it’s actually decelerating. The data’s not long enough to do much with 10-year moving averages, but the decade ending in 2013 only averaged a rise of 3.13mm/yr which is slightly less than the 3.26mm/yr for the decade ending in 2003. The last five years also had a lower increase in average from the previous five years than the two previous five-year periods.

OK, enough with the arbitrary data crunching. The point is that the measured sea level is rising, but very slowly and definitely not accelerating anywhere near fast enough to reach terrifying predicted levels. So I’m going to keep the modest 2 alarm bells from sea level rise for a second consecutive year. If the deceleration becomes more pronounced next year, I may drop it lower.

US Drought: 3 Alarm Bells

Drought in 2013 wasn’t quite as bad in the US as 2012, but over half the country was considered to be in some level of drought for almost the entire year, according to the Drought Monitor. Depending on which level of droughtness you look at, the metric either went up or down a bit, but still pretty elevated compared to the rest of this century so far.

us-drought-2013I decided that my arbitrary Drought Point Index was double-counting extreme levels of drought, so I arbitrarily re-jiggered it and come up with 139 Drought Points for 2013, which is slightly lower than the 141 Drought Points from 2012, but the last two years are still easily the two highest values in the (short) 13 year history.

That’s the most quantifiable data I can find. However, NCDC has their own Palmer drought indexes here, and they all look something like this…. a.k.a. no trend at all and definitely no drought as bad as the 1930′s:

us-palmer-drought-2013Actually these Palmer indexes don’t even make the last two years look as bad as 2000-2002, much less the 30′s or even 50′s. So even though I like my Drought Monitor stats because they precisely assign four levels of drought across the whole country to percentages of two decimal places each, I’m gonna have to place more emphasis on these longer-term data points which do not indicate any long-term increase in drought; we had a really bad PHDI score in 2012 but it didn’t stay bad two years in a row. So I’m gonna arbitrarily drop the drought alarm bells from 5 to 3 this year while continuing to not weight them very highly in my arbitrary Global Alarm Bell index.

Total Adjusted 2013 GAB Index: 2.61 Alarm Bells

Global temperatures are pausing; sea level rise is decelerating; Antarctic sea ice is still growing; hurricanes and tornadoes and drought still aren’t increasing. The only thing that’s still really bad is Arctic sea ice but even that’s not as far gone as we thought.

So after carefully feeding these arbitrary values into my arbitrary Alarm Bell Weighting Algorithm, I have calculated a Total Adjusted 2013 Global Alarm Bell Index of 2.61 Alarm Bells, which you will notice is a remarkable decrease from the 2012 GAB Index of 3.46, giving us a Global Alarm Bell Anomaly of -0.85 Alarm Bells! To help you properly adjust your concern level, let me reprint my handy dandy Alarm Bell Response Chart:


I guess you all did such a good job planting trees last year that all you need to do this year is double-check on that ocean to make sure your house can handle a storm surge that might be 2.5mm higher than last year’s.

Thanks again for reading this far. We’ll re-visit the State of the Planet in about a year and see how those alarm bells are ringing.

Posted in Global Climate Snapshots | 1 Comment