Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Natural disaster’ with human prints on it

If Tornado Alley were a battlefield, historically this time of year the cannons would be silenced. Not so this December. All hell has broken loose. The weather map has been a work by Jackson Pollock: all splatters.

It's impossible to cite a cause for such weirdness across a swath of Dixie, including killer tornadoes in North Texas. The staggering nature of the storms, however, fits into what climatologists say:

The more heat in the air and oceans, the stronger the storms. Embodying that right now is the strongest El Nino in 50 years.

Sadly and tellingly, this is immaterial to most red-state lawmakers. They are sworn to plug their ears and hum real loud when science speaks.

That doesn't just apply to evidence that far-off glaciers are dwindling rapidly. It doesn't just apply to sea-level rise. Heck, that's the coasts' problem.

No, these days Texas and Oklahoma have an even more compelling example of when "natural disaster" is recast by human hands, and it appears policymakers will hear nothing of it.

A growing chorus of seismologists asserts that a rash of earthquakes in the region is caused by fracking and deep-water injection from oil and gas activities.

Cliff Frohlich, associate director of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Texas, who's researched dozens of quakes in recent years in the North Dallas area, told USA Today the link is "definitely established."

Members of the archaically named Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas, say evidence is insufficient to say that.

The difference between the two points of view is that one is held by scientists and the other is held by elected officials. The latter also happen to be members of a party that has made resistance to science a central feature and an election-cycle virtue.

That resistance would apply to geology and seismology, climatology, and basic biology. The latter would apply to evolution and to sex education that generally skirts the "education" part.

With its allegiance to the religious right, today's Republican Party is one which believes its elephant origins are stork-delivered.

Lest we assume that most of these policy positions are sustained by one's interpretation of the Good Book: Understand what it's really about. The Good Book calls it mammon. The oil industry calls it profit.

Ever since black gold became Texas Tea, the oil industry has spread its profit among those policymakers who help make Big Oil more profitable, or at least who get out of its way.

The strength of Ted Cruz' appeal to tea party zealots aside, one key reason why the Texas senator stands to have staying power in the Republican race for president is a $15 million donation to his super PAC from billionaire oil and gas developers Farris and Dan Wilks.

That was in July. In one fell swoop, Cruz had raised more money from two donors than Bernie Sanders had raised from an army of small donors.

Do you think Cruz as president, or senator, would be inclined to listen to the seismologists of the world on these matters? What about the climatologists?

That's right. He would plug those ears those with his fingers and hum loudly. What the senator wants to hear is the "ka-ching" of petro dollars.

He's not alone. Consider what happened in the last Texas Legislature. Republicans who talk a righteous game about "local control" of governing matters took control away from cities like Denton that would block fracking in their midst. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it with relish, and a "ka-ching" in the background.

         So it goes with those whose chief concern is the next election cycle, the next business cycle, the next call from a donor. Disaster? To miss that phone call, now that would be a disaster.

          Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, December 21, 2015

And good will toward – government?

Everyone knows the adjective form of "good": Good tidings. Good cheer. Good grief.

But there's the noun form, too: The condition of good or goodness. The common good. The greater good.

So we ask today: Is government any good?

To be honest, that's a silly question, considering the schools and roads it enables, the old-age pensions and medical care for those without the means. Still, with the anti-government drone so prevalent and blaring: Well, what good is government?

Here's some: Over the last four years homelessness among veterans has declined by 50 percent nationwide. That's right.

Credit goes to Housing-First, a program administered by Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro. In cooperation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, it employs vouchers to get homeless veterans into long-term housing and can be used to combat homelessness in general.

Castro told Mic.com http://tinyurl.com/jykdhr4 that ongoing subsidized housing for these veterans, rather than fostering dependency, is a stabilizing condition that allows veterans "to help take the responsibility necessary to improve their lives," whether their needs are employment, education or job training, drug or alcohol treatment, or mental health.

Of course, the best way to have fewer homeless veterans is to have fewer wars, particularly the elective, speculative type. (That government-as-the-problem thing.)

But what about  simply solving problems? What about putting good minds behind doing the right thing?

Through the end of January we are in the enrollment period for the Affordable Care Act, and a lot of Americans still remain in the dark about the requirements and the benefits.

A team of very smart people enlisted by the Obama administration went on a test-marketing spree to see which of several letters to qualified citizens made them more likely to sign up for health coverage. The objective: to stop wasting effort at missives that don't pay off; to get people to get with the program.

The work of that team is getting recognized for doing good things, not only in dealing with citizens but cultivating smarter behavior by bureaucracies. Officially it's called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

I hate that name. It sounds like mind control, or at least it would lead Sarah Palin to claim so. What it is better known as is the Nudge Unit, which fits it perfectly.

The Nudge Unit figures out incremental ways to govern better. After a short run, the results are very good. Not only has the Nudge Unit come up with common-sense means of doing things better, but the New York Times reports the ideas could save "millions and possibly billions of dollars."

An example was a simple message programmed into computer printers that reminds federal employees to make two-sided printing their default setting. With its success thus far, one simple flourish could save up to half a billion pages of paper a year across the government, the Nudge Unit estimates.

Another wrinkle was to text-message just-graduated high school seniors about the next steps needed to enroll in college. The messages nudged up enrollment figures by 3 percent. That may not sound like a lot, but tell that to the families involved. The cost? Almost nothing.

Right now a lot of college students are fearing lifetimes saddled by debt. Many don't know about a federal program to set payments at 10 percent of one's monthly income – paying it off, but more slowly. The Nudge Unit has proposed an email campaign to bring this matter to students' attention. A targeted effort has shown great promise.

This is called the public good. We can do better. As the program to find homes for homeless veterans shows, government can do good.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Who will be crowned king of the trolls?

        Charles Barkley calls Twitter "a place where fools go to feel important."

He's talking about you, Donald.

         You've built a fool's paradise, constructed in planks of 140 words or less. Like many who find that kind of fame salutary, your ambitions are destined to go no further than that.

It is somehow newsworthy that Donald Trump has stirred roughly 11 percent of our citizens into a frothy lather (support from 28 percent of Republicans polled, with Republicans representing about 40 percent of us).

The only way this is of any electoral significance is in the media's absurd horse-race fixation with polls. With what Trump has been saying, more likely that Charles Barkley will ascend to the White House, and I mean by a lot.

True: Trump has more people on his side nationwide than his Republican competitors. Ted Cruz? A whopping 7 percent of Americans in general. Ben Carson and Marco Rubio? Maybe 6 percent apiece. What dazzling phenomena they are.

With what they've been saying, all seem to have an equal chance of being president: zero.

These players are fighting with all their might to be the favorite of the right-most fringe of the political spectrum. Winning that battle won't make any of them president. But one can be crowned king of the trolls.

Let's face it, though. In the land of Twitter, a troll can live like a king.

We are left to wonder at this point if any of the above actually has the GOP nomination as his objective. Or is this simply about some traveling trophy for a one-upmanship fest in idiocy?

Trump says he'd block all Muslims from entrance.

Cruz says he'd carpet-bomb a whole region.

Carson rejects anything science says except his own.

Rubio will second that, except that he begs off because he's no scientist. But then, what do they know anyway?

Today's GOP field reminds one of the wall of one-liners on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." Americans tuned in weekly for the predictably lame and generally nonsensical banter. Let's just say we were bored then.

A trademark line about the festivities each week on that show came from Arte Johnson, wearing a German helmet: "Veeery interesting, but stoopid."

Stupid? Is that an unfair portrait of thoughtful discourse? Well, Charles Krauthammer calls Trump's racist screeds "strategically idiotic" and ruefully exclaims that whatever becomes of Trump politically, his claims are "indelibly affecting both this race and the Republican future."

By "affecting," Krauthammer means, "fitting the party with leg irons."

Meanwhile, we are told Cruz has surged in Iowa. That's a big deal. Iowa is where the victorious campaigns of Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann and Pat Robertson all took flight.

Cruz, a man reviled even by Republican counterparts in the Senate, is headed – behold, a shooting star -- for the pantheon inhabited by other hard-right flameouts.

We speak of a hall inhabited by presidential aspirants Pat Buchanan, George Wallace and Strom Thurmond.

But whereas these busts are recognized in this shrine with busts alone, a whole veranda is being reserved for Trump. He would have it no other way.

For all of his life, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has been a man of measured words. So, too, with his new role as essayist for Time magazine. However, regarding Trump's candidacy, he is, um, blunt.

Trump, he writes, employs "a cynical strategy of using misinformation, half-truths and deception in order to gain access to a position that should only be held by those who would be repulsed by that strategy."

Electing Trump, he adds, "would be like asking the clown at a child's birthday party to start juggling chainsaws."

Very interesting. But stupid.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

That behind-the-scenes climate-change cabal

The arrival of the Beatles. The Civil Rights Act. LBJ's rout of Goldwater. All vied for "Biggest Story" of 1964. But another might have eclipsed them all: the Surgeon General's report definitively linking smoking with cancer.

Why so big? Well, that year four of 10 American adults smoked. Yes, this cancer thing was big news.

Now here we are in 2015. You may believe that ISIS is the biggest story in the world, but face it: If most climate scientists are right, the biggest story is bigger than that, with sea-level change, the exhausting of life-giving glaciers -- you know.

You may not believe all that, but it's sort of like the smoking debate. Either we are harming ourselves, or . . .

It's no big deal.

It is possible that the nations represented in Paris at the Global Climate Summit, all 190 of them, could be wrong along with just about every scientist who studies the climate full-time?

They could all be in it together, or so I'm told -- a big-government cabal, a freedom-killing, one-world-government conspiracy. (Among those in the cabal, by the way, is the mayor of Aspen and representatives of the Colorado ski industry. They attended the Paris conference to share their alarm about slushy, mushy, abbreviated winters.)

          Well, we can confirm the presence of a cabal, just not that one. The real cabal is described in the 2010 book and documentary, "Merchants of Doubt." In it, authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detail two audacious campaigns:

The first was waged by the cigarette industry to inject doubt and disinformation into the inquiry regarding cigarettes' health effects, to "create a debate."

The second campaign is waged now by fossil-fuel industries to seed doubt in your mind about the human role in climate change.

In both cases, among industry foot soldiers have been scientists paid handsomely to lend their names to the cause. What would amaze most Americans is that, in many cases, they were the same scientists.

Big Tobacco's doubt-seeding effort didn't just involve scientists, though. It involved public relations giant Hill and Knowlton, for one. The PR firm advised that the only way to fight science was with science: "Scientific doubts must remain."

This involved a ton of money -- millions funneled for "biomedical research" through the Tobacco Industry Research Council. As Oreskes and Conway tell it, by the mid-1980s, the effort had hit the $100 million mark, exceeding "any other source except the federal government."

Here we are today, and Big Tobacco seems like Tom Thumb compared to the interests of the oil, coal and other industries trying to deny, derail and redefine science.

This means having researchers and testifiers on retainer. See them hustling from climate conference to climate conference.

More pertinently, though, now industry has even pricier folks on retainer: politicians.

Hear the Republican presidential contenders on the climate issue and you can see them in a 1950s board room talking about how to get more of America's youth to smoke Viceroys.

Even if smokes aren't good for you, they can't be bad for you, right? So goes the company line. The point here is that industry-beholden types need not have science on their side to say what they believe.

When a panel of scientists recently was asked to rate, without candidates' names attached, statements from the presidential field, a climate scientist from Penn State said of Ted Cruz's statements, "This individual understands less about science (and climate change) than the average kindergartner."

This distinction, of course, Cruz will wear as a badge of honor to parade before the tea party faithful in Iowa.

Yes, it's 190 nations concerned about the state of the planet, and one nation – Tea Party Nation – saying, "No big deal."

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In 'poisoned environment,' growing our own terrorists

        You bet it was political. Moments after it happened, we were all certain.

That was in 1995 when Timothy McVeigh's fertilizer bomb made rubble of the Oklahoma City federal building, killing 168.

You bet it was political as well last week when a wide-eyed, white-bearded Obama-hater was charged with the deaths of three and the wounding of many, outside a Planned Parenthood clinic lin Colorado Springs.

You bet. And without question you can credit political discourse that has run so far off course as to be in the craggy ruts and roots where killers like McVeigh and Eric Rudolph would hide.

You may remember Rudolph, the "pro-life" terrorist who set off bombs at Atlanta's Olympic Park and at a women's clinic in Alabama. He is among a growing list of players in a home-grown holy war – physicians slain, clinics firebombed and vandalized.

And who's to blame? Let's see. For one, blame the con artists at the fraudulently named Center for Medical Progress. They constructed a lie via doctored video to convict Planned Parenthood of a crime that it didn't commit.

Accused Colorado Springs killer Robert Dear, who uttered, "No more baby parts," was regurgitating a line that has come from, among others, presidential candidate Carly Fiorina with claims about the aforementioned video that independent observers like Politifact labeled inflated and false.

Or maybe Robert Dear was stirred to act by the tea party Republican who represents Colorado Springs in Congress, Rep. Doug Lamborn. He's of those trying to get the most political mileage of fallacious claims of "trafficking body parts."

Last week's incident, therefore, was a confluence of pathologies all tucked into the mind of the American political right. You had a man heavily armed and isolated. Neighbors knew him for unsolicited rants against President Obama, a president so heinous as to have won a Nobel Peace Prize and to be pronounced again quite recently as the most popular world leader.

We haven't heard about Robert Dear's religious proclivities. Undoubtedly, however, like Eric Rudolph and the murderers of a total of eight abortion providers since 1993 -- and like ISIS and al-Qaida – Dear assumes God to be on his side.

You bet, this is domestic terrorism. Though we don't know which walking ideological time bomb will explode next and take many others with him or her, we know pretty well what the likely targets will be.

One problem, of course, is that our means of sharing news and information has so dramatically changed (read "hype and propaganda") that many variants of religiously righteous violence are being born.

Consider the Indiana man who, pleading guilty to setting fire to an Ohio mosque, told the judge he'd been "riled up" watching Fox News.

That's the same highly informed state of mind that motivated someone to spread feces and shred the Quran on the floor of a mosque in Pflugerville, Texas.

A Planned Parenthood official was absolutely right in describing events in Colorado Springs as the result of a "poisoned environment." The poison is a concoction of ignorance and politically motivated spin.

No spinning this: According to the National Abortion Federation, over that last 30 years over 200 incidents of bombing or arson have occurred at clinics like the one targeted in Colorado Springs. This despite what happens in the clinics in by and large is basic health care – checkups, contraception, even fertility counseling.  And the people being served are poor women.

With these things in mind, Americans should be much more afraid of a certain strain of believer in their own midst than desperate Muslim refugees who simply seek peace for their families.

Dear Homeland Security: We know the "vulnerable targets" in our homeland. They are in place to serve the vulnerable.

Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.