Monday, December 31, 2007

Picture of the Year

Impact of Global Warming on California

AP prognosticates on the impact of climate change in California:
California is defined by its scenery, from the mountains that enchanted John Muir to the wine country and beaches that define its culture around the world.

But as scientists try to forecast how global warming might affect the nation's most geographically diverse state, they envision a landscape that could look quite different by the end of this century, if not sooner.

Where celebrities, surfers and wannabes mingle on Malibu's world-famous beaches, there may be only sea walls defending fading mansions from the encroaching Pacific. In Northern California, tourists could have to drive farther north or to the cool edge of the Pacific to find what is left of the region's signature wine country.

Abandoned ski lifts might dangle above snowless trails more suitable for mountain biking even during much of the winter. In the deserts, Joshua trees that once extended their tangled, shaggy arms into the sky by the thousands may have all but disappeared.

"We need to be attentive to the fact that changes are going to occur, whether it's sea level rising or increased temperatures, droughts and potentially increased fires," said Lisa Sloan, a scientist who directs the Climate Change and Impacts Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "These things are going to be happening."

Among the earliest and most noticeable casualties is expected to be California's ski season.

Snow is expected to fall for a shorter period and melt more quickly. That could shorten the ski season by a month even in wetter areas and perhaps end it in others.

Whether from short-term drought or long-term changes, the ski season already has begun to shrivel in Southern California, ringed by mountain ranges that cradle several winter resorts.


Because California has myriad microclimates, covering an area a third larger than Italy, predicting what will happen by the end of the century is a challenge.

But through a series of interviews with scientists who are studying the phenomenon, a general description of the state's future emerges.

By the end of the century, temperatures are predicted to increase by 3 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit statewide. That could translate into even less rainfall across the southern half of the state, already under pressure from the increased frequency of wildfires and relentless population growth.

Small mammals, reptiles and colonies of wildflowers in the deserts east of Los Angeles are accustomed to periodic three-year dry spells. But they might not be able to withstand the 10-year drought cycles that could become commonplace as the planet warms.

Scientists already are considering relocating Joshua tree seedlings to areas where the plants, a hallmark of the high desert and namesake of a national park, might survive climate change.

"They could be wiped out of California depending on how quickly the change happens," said Cameron Barrows, who studies the effects of climate change for the Center for Conservation Biology in Riverside.

Farther north, where wet, cold winters are crucial for the water supply of the entire state, warmer temperatures will lead to more rain than snow in the Sierra Nevada and faster melting in the spring.

Because 35 percent of the state's water supply is stored annually in the Sierra snowpack, changes to that hydrologic system will lead to far-reaching consequences for California and its ever-growing population.

Some transformations already are apparent, from the Sierra high country to the great valleys that have made California the nation's top agricultural state.

The snow line is receding, as it is in many other alpine regions around the world. Throughout the 400-mile-long Sierra, trees are under stress, leading scientists to speculate that the mix of flora could change significantly as the climate warms. The death rate of fir and pine trees has accelerated over the past two decades.

In the central and southern Sierra, the giant sequoias that are among the biggest living things on Earth might be imperiled.

"I suspect as things get warmer, we'll start seeing sequoias just die on their feet where their foliage turns brown," said Nate Stephenson, a U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who is studying the effects of climate change in the Sierra Nevada. "Even if they don't die of drought stress, just think of the wildfires. If you dry out that vegetation, they're going to be so much more flammable."

Changes in the mountain snowpack could lead to expensive water disputes between cities and farmers. Without consistent water from rivers draining the melting snow, farmers in the Central and Salinas valleys could lose as much as a quarter of their water supply.

Any drastic changes to the state's $30 billion agriculture industry would have national implications, since California's fertile valleys provide half the country's fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists' study.

"Obviously, it's going to mean that choices are going to be made about who's going to get the water," said Brian Nowicki, a biologist with the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson, Ariz.


Among the biggest unknowns is what will happen along California's coast as the world's ice sheets and glaciers melt. One scenario suggests the sea level could rise by more than 20 feet.

Will the rising sea swamp the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest harbor complex, turning them into a series of saltwater lakes? Will funky Ocean Beach, an island of liberalism in conservative San Diego County, become, literally, its own island?

Among the more sobering projections is what is in store for marine life.

The upwelling season, the time when nutrient-rich water is brought from the ocean's depths to the surface, nourishes one of the world's richest marine environments.

That period, from late spring until early fall, is expected to become weaker earlier in the season and more intense later. Upwelling along the Southern California coast will become weaker overall.

As a result, sea lions, blue whales and other marine mammals that follow these systems up and down the coast are expected to decline.

The changing sea will present trouble for much of the state's land-dwelling population, too. A sea level rise of 3 to 6 feet would inundate the airports in San Francisco and Oakland. Many of the state's beaches would shrink.

"If you raise sea level by a foot, you push a cliff back 100 feet," said Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "There will be a lot of houses that will fall into the ocean."

Sunday, December 30, 2007


John Robb has written a suggestive scenario on how the US could end up privatizing virtually everything over the next couple of decades. Even security could end up as privatized as health care is now. As I wrote to John this morning, I think his scenario can be extended by considering the parallel experience that the Russia went through as the Soviet Union collapsed in the face of a disastrous war of choice in the middle east.

The legal & economic dynamics of the Soviet collapse ensured that the most valuable assets of the Soviet economy (factories, mines, oil fields, etc) wound up in the hands of well-connected members of the old nomenklatura elite, while the mass of the Soviet population — both white collar workers and proletarians — experienced a catastrophic loss of income, personal status, and national pride. For the vast majority of Soviet citizens the obscene enrichment of former nomenklatura elites and black marketeers appeared as the essence of the new liberal capitalism vaunted by Yeltsin and his economic advisors such as Jeffrey Sachs. Only by understanding this historical context can one make sense of why post-Soviet Russia, despite having the formal aspect of a democracy, did not end up generating the sorts of political norms necessary to support liberal democracy. Instead, we ended up with Putinism, which indeed the majority of Russians rightly see as highly preferable to the kleptocratic chaos of the 1990s.

The political implications of the Russian case apply equally well to Robb's Club-for-Growth-wet-dream scenario of radical privatization of all government activity in the United States. If such a radical privatization takes place, cui bono? Can there be any doubt that those who will walk away with the assets will be the new class of hyper-wealthy financiers--hedge fundies and private equity types? The little guy (and by this I mean the bottom 99% of the population) will get nothing out of this process, except a more insecure, unstable existence.

What would such a restructuring of risk mean for American democracy? Modern democracy depends upon the allegiance of ordinary citizens who see opportunities for advancement, in both material and status terms, within the context of legal and electoral institutions. (This is why all modern democracies are obsessed with maintaining stable economic growth.) Where such opportunities are perceived to be stable and reliable, elites and voters alike will tend to defend the long-run integrity of democratic institutions when they are threatened, rather than opt to subvert them to gain short-term payoffs. On the other hand, political economies in which all gains go to a few well-placed elites and life is increasingly uncertain for the many, the norms of stability and fair play which are required for liberal democracy to function evaporate. Formal democratic institutions may survive as a legitimation mechanism, but they will command little respect or real power.

In short, Robb's scenario suggests the effective end of meaningful democracy in the United States. If that happens then Americans in 2025 will become as cynical about our political institutions as Russians today are about Western democratic ideals. And when that happens, the prospect for a fascist takeover of the United States, appropriately wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross, will be more than likely.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Predictions for 2008--and 2012, too!

Small Precuations went on the record years ago with the observation that Bush will go down in history as "the Lyndon Johnson of the right": that is, as a President who, by pushing for the maximalist ambitions of his party's base, exposed the problems of the underlying political vision of that base, and, specifically, by embroiling the country in an endless land war in Asia, destroyed the dominant political coalition of the previous generation which he had inherited.

The 1968 Election: A Precedent?
Assuming this is a correct general analysis, it suggests that the 2008 election may have strong parallels to the election of 1968, the election which determined LBJ's successor. In that election, the defining issue was what to do about the needless, immoral war that President Johnson had presided over. The Texan president was massively unpopular, and the struggle among the Democrats to succeed him was between the establishment candidate, Hubert Humphrey, who represented the moneyed wing of the party, and who vowed to carry on the President's legacy, and Eugene McCarthy, who represented the animal instincts of the party base and who in many ways repudiated the sitting President. This struggle infamously culminated in the disastrous party convention in Chicago, at which the Democrats ultimately settled on the establishment candidate, Humphrey.

On the other side of the aisle, the party of opposition, the GOP, had to choose between an anti-war candidate of change (George Romney) and a scheming, unlikable man whose candidacy was rooted in claims of experience based on eight years as an understudy in the White House a decade earlier (Richard Nixon). Nixon generally managed to be evasive about what his real position was that epoch's land war in Asia, namely Vietnam.

In the general election in 1968, Nixon of course beat Humphrey handily, partly aided by a third party candidate splitting the vote. Once in office, he chose to continue the war that his Democratic predecessor had begun, while in general driving the opposition Democrats into deranged paroxysms of loathing. Four years later, the party establishment having been completely discredited, the Democrats gave in to the base’s desire for a candidate that represented their true feelings, nominating George McGovern, who was then eviscerated in the general election by the Nixon, despite his personal unpopularity. Of course by 1972, Nixon wasn't merely unlikable; he was an outright political criminal.

Will History Rhyme in 2008?
Certainly the Republicans in 2008 seem to be having the same struggle over the soul of their party that the Democrats did in 1968. They are currently ripping themselves apart trying to decide between candidates who represent the moneyed wing of the party, who vow to carry on the President's legacy (e.g. Mitt Romney, Rudy Guiliani), and ones who represent the animal instincts of the party base and who in many ways repudiate the sitting President (e.g. Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul).

Prediction #1: My guess is that the GOP of 2008 will ultimately reach the same conclusion that the Democrats did in 1968, and go with the establishment candidate, Romney (or, outside chance, McCain).

In the meanwhile, the Democrats in 2008 have to choose between a clear anti-war candidate, Barack Obama, and a scheming, unlikable woman whose candidacy is rooted in claims of experience based on eight years as an understudy in the White House a decade earlier, and who inspires intense loathing among Republicans—that is, Hillary Clinton. In another odd parallel to 1968, Clinton seems to be generally getting away with the Nixonian strategy of being evasive about what her real position is on this epoch's land war in Asia, namely Iraq/Afghanistan, while questioning the experience of her competitor.

Prediction #2: Just as Nixon prevailed among the Republicans in 1968, so Clinton will grab the nomination the Democrats in 2008.

Prediction #3: In a Romney-v-Clinton general election next year, Clinton will win handily (possibly aided by a third party candidate splitting the vote!).

Prediction #4: Once in office, I have little doubt that Clinton will choose the Nixonian route of continuing the Asian land war that her Republican predecessor has begun, while in general (again, like Nixon) driving the opposition into deranged paroxysms of loathing.

And 2012?
Prediction #5: If all this happens, moreover, it seems likely that the Republicans, their party establishment completely discredited, will in 2012 give in to the base's desire for a candidate that represented their true feelings, and actually nominate a real candidate of the religious right—who Clinton will then eviscerate in the general election despite her personal unpopularity.

It remains to be seen whether Clinton will also replicate Nixon's other political traits. What we know for sure is that it wouldn't come as a surprise to a lot of people on the right.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nationalism vs. Cosmopolitanism

Charles Simic, with pointed observations on Serbian nationalism in the late 1980s, that are more than relevant to today's pro-torture GOP:

Of course, I was naive. I didn't realize the immense prestige that inhumanity and brutality have among nationalists. I also didn't grasp to what degree they are impervious to reason. To point out the inevitable consequences of their actions didn't make the slightest impression on them, since they refused to believe in cause and effect.

The infuriating aspect of every nationalism is that it doesn't understand that it is a mirror image of some other nationalism, and that most of its pronouncements have been heard in other places and at other times. Smug in their own ethnocentricity, indifferent to the cultural, religious, and political concerns of their neighbors, all they [need is] a leader to lead them into disaster.

.Along the same lines of reasoning, there's a helpfully reductionist article in the current World Policy Journal that argues that the red-state/blue-state divide is actually a nationalist/cosmopolitanist divide, and in fact is a division that cleaves the heart of every modern polity.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Reagan lesson

Kevin Drum gets the historical context for the Iranian NIE just right:
There may have been multiple reasons why Iran shut down its bomb program, but I think you'd have to do some pretty serious special pleading to argue that our invasion of Iraq wasn't one of them. And if that's the case, it's pretty good evidence that sticks have a place in foreign policy, just as Hillary says.

This isn't an argument that the Iraq war was a good idea. It's an argument that once Bush made the decision to go to war, it was foolish not to take advantage of one of the resulting upsides. Iran was pretty clearly spooked after we crushed Saddam with such stunning ease, and was pretty clearly ready to do a deal with us. But the Bush administration was so blinded by its own world historical importance, and so dominated by triumphant neocon ideologues, that it refused to see the deal that was in front of its own face.

Compare this to Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union. It's true that the playground story of how Reagan stared down the Soviets and brought down the wall is tiresome: there were lots of reasons the Soviet Union fell, among them internal bleeding from the Afghanistan war, the mid-80s collapse in oil prices, and the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev. Still, we now know that Reagan's defense buildup and enthusiasm for SDI was also part of it. But unlike Bush, Reagan was smart enough to take yes for an answer. When the other guy blinked, Reagan ignored the hawks in his own administration and signed the INF treaty with Gorbachev in 1987. Four years later both the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain were gone.

Bush did the opposite. He wasn't willing to push back against Dick Cheney and the rest of the hawks in his administration, and so the chance to do a deal with Iran passed. But the chance was there, and if I were Hillary Clinton I'd argue that the threat of force was part of the reason. The only thing missing was a president smart enough to take advantage of it.
This is a point Small Precautions has made repeatedly over the years: the neocons fundamentally misunderstood the Cold War at the time, and even more fundamentally misunderstood why the Cold War ended. Reagan's primary credit for "winning" the Cold War was not primarily in his militarist build-up, but in actually believing Gorbachev when Gorbachev said he wanted to end the conflict. In doing this, he ran squarely against his neocon advisors, some of whom actually resigned in protest because they thought Reagan was going soft and being duped by the Russians. The Team B guys got the Cold War totally wrong, and then took credit for winning it, when it fact their intransigience was the primary obstacle to us actually securing victory. Alas, Bush is not nearly the man that Reagan was, and instead of listening to the sincere offers of motion in his favor, he pursued the maximalist visions of ideological rollback against the Iranians being promoted by the same Team B idiots.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Nice gig

From Craigslist, an job opening:
Limo Driver / Bodyguard

$20 per hour. Cash. You'll drive fun people in provided private limo.

Will average 15 to 30 hours per month, usually weekend nights. Primarily in Santa Rosa and to North Bay locales. Average work hours will be 8 PM to 2 AM with some nights up to 4 AM.

Candidate should be over 21, have clean driving record and professional, yet rugged and intimidating appearance. Knowledge and fluency in the Russian language a plus, but not required.
Fun people, indeed!

Geo-economic risks

The pessimistic take:
Today you have the following: trade protectionism and asset protectionism (the increasing restrictions to foreign direct investments in the United States); hedgy and trigger-happy investors and rising geopolitical risks; the risk of a disorderly fall in the U.S. dollar that is now sharply weakening; a slush of financial and credit derivatives that are a black box of opaque financial innovation that no one truly understands; increasingly risky investment strategies based on growing levels of leverage (i.e. the ability to multiply risk bets by borrowing a lot to finance such bets); frothy markets where years of easy money created bubbles galore—the latest in housing—that have now started to burst; greater opacity and lack of transparency as there is no supervision or regulation of the activities of many highly leveraged and opaque financial institutions; risk management techniques in financial institutions that fail to truly test the risk of large losses in extremely rare events (such as a major market meltdown like in 1987 or in 1998 at the time of the near collapse of Long-Term Capital Management, then the biggest U.S. hedge fund); risk-hedging strategies that—like in 1987—can hedge nothing once everyone is rushing to the doors and dumping assets at the same time (with this summer’s liquidity crunch a perfect example of the vulnerabilities associated with the poor management of liquidity risk); a housing market whose rout has already triggered systemic effects through the subprime carnage; and the fact that subprime mortgages had been pooled in mortgage-backed securities and that these in turn were repackaged in other risky, complex, and illiquid securities (the various tranches of collateralized debt obligations) that were then given a misleadingly high rating by the rating agencies.
Don't let anyone get away with acting surprised if the meltdown comes....

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Hunter's Point

Small Precautions doesn't usually comment on local Bay Area issues, but this fantastic video about life in the Aitch Pee is an occasion:
There's been a full-blown gang war going on in the Western Addition, with virtually no attention, and no besmirching of San Francisco's limpid image.