Inside Alaska's New "War on Women"
On Wednesday, a Republican state senator in Alaska took to the floor to explain that the government should not pay for family planning services for low-income women, because anyone can afford birth control. "Even the most [sexually] active folks don't need to spend more than $2 or $3 a day for covering their activity," state Sen. Fred Dyson (R-Eagle River) said. He explained that it's easy for women to get access to birth control in Alaska, given that they can get it delivered via Alaska Airlines' express delivery program.
Dyson was talking about birth control as part of the debate on a controversial abortion bill. He is one of six Republicans senators cosponsoring the fast-moving bill, which would stop low-income women in the state from using Medicaid to fund abortions, except in the cases of rape, incest, or to "avoid a threat of serious risk to life or physical health of a woman." The bill outlines a list of 22 conditions that would qualify a woman for a Medicaid-funded abortion, such as risk of coma or seizures. Under Alaska law, since 2001, a woman could still only use state Medicaid to pay for an abortion that was "medically necessary"—but the definition was left up to the woman and her doctor. Critics of the bill say that the bill's new definition is much more restrictive. (Last year, more than 37 percent of abortions reported in Alaska were covered by Medicaid.) Recently, Alaska's Department of Health and Social Services tried to enforce the same restrictions contained in the bill, but Planned Parenthood sued the state over that decision. A court put the regulations on hold as the case unfolds. If this bill passes, it is expected to be challenged as part of that lawsuit. And it's expected to pass—Alaska has a Republican majority in the House, and Republican Gov. Sean Parnell opposes abortion.
Democrats in the state have been trying to limit the bill's effects on women, successfully adding an amendment to this bill last year that would have allowed at least 14,000 low-income Alaskans without children to get their family planning services—including STD testing and birth control—covered by Medicaid. (Right now, Alaska has chosen not to accept money through the government's Medicaid expansion.) But in February, the House Finance Committee stripped the amendment from the bill. State Sen. Berta Gardner (D-Anchorage), who proposed that amendment, says that if the state really wants to prevent abortions, lawmakers should focus on giving women access to birth control. "We know that the best and most efficient way to reduce abortions is to ensure that all women have access to contraceptive services. We do not understand the opposition to doing this," Gardner says, characterizing the Republican opposition as part of "the continuing war on women."
Debate has been ongoing about the bill, and whether the birth control amendment should be added back in. At a Senate floor meeting on March 5, Dyson explained that low-income women don't need their birth control paid for, because it's already easy to get: "No one is prohibited from having birth control because of economic reasons," he said, arguing that women can buy condoms for the cost of a can of pop and get the pill for the price of four to five lattes each month. He added, "By the way, you can go on the internet. You can order these things by mail. You can make phone calls and get it delivered by mail. You all know that Alaska Airlines will do Gold Streak, and get things quickly that way." (When reached by Mother Jones, Dyson says that he was referring to the fact that even women in tiny villages in Alaska can get their prescriptions delivered.)
Dyson's "latte" estimate is correct for the cheapest brands of the generic birth control pill—but it doesn't take into account the cost of doctor's visits to get a prescription, and alternative methods, such as IUDs. Additionally, according to our own birth control calculator, small co-pays on birth control add up to big expenses for women who don't have insurance, not including the costs of a doctors' visit associated with getting birth control. For example, a 25-year-old woman without insurance who takes the birth control pill until she hits menopause (estimated at age 51) will end up spending about $150 a month, or $46,650 over her child-bearing years (about $8,290 with insurance). Dyson told Mother Jones, "My guess is that most of those women, if they weren't able to pay, their partner would be able to. I don't see the costs being that big of an issue, in reality."
According to the National Institute for Reproductive Health, uninsured women are less likely to consistently use birth control due to high costs, and low-income women are four times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy than their higher-income counterparts. (The Obama administration's birth control mandate, which requires private insurers to cover family planning services, is changing that—it has increased the percentage of women who currently don't have to pay for the pill from 15 percent in 2012 to 40 percent in 2013.)
"It is frankly shameful for Sen. Dyson to claim that low-income people are buying lattes instead of birth control," says Jessica Cler, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. "It's truly puzzling that Dyson and his like-minded colleagues, including Gov. Sean Parnell and Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, think that they are responsible for making the personal medical decisions of Alaskan women."
Dyson disagrees, adding, "I don't think public money ought to be paying for Viagra, either."
Has the Conservative Political Action Conference Purged the Kooks?
In the bowels of the National Harbor convention center in suburban Maryland on Thursday, a nonprofit called Empact America schooled attendees about the threat of a terrorist attack by way of an electromagnetic pulse. Former Reagan Defense Department official Frank Gaffney articulated his view that anti-tax activist and American Conservative Union board member Grover Norquist is an undercover agent for the Muslim Brotherhood. Ginni Thomas, a Daily Caller contributor and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, alleged that President Barack Obama may be guilty of providing material support for terrorism. At least one panelist suggested that Speaker of the House John Boehner was a part of the Benghazi cover-up. (Who can say?)
But this gathering of very concerned right-wingers wasn't an official part of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference underway in the same facility. The panelists were the "uninvited"—a motley crew of conservative activists who had been shunned by CPAC organizers and assembled, for the second consecutive year, as a sort of shadow convention by Breitbart News. After building a reputation for catering to conspiracy theorists and bigots (especially during the first five years of the Obama administration), CPAC, the nation's largest annual conservative political shindig, seems to have turned down the volume.
That is, CPAC is getting soft.
Just consider the recent history. In 2012, CPAC organizers opened up their conference to folks like John Derbyshire (since fired from the National Review for telling his kids to avoid black people), and the founder of VDare.com, celebrating the first English child born in North America. Last year, Wayne Allyn Root, who attempted to swing the 2012 election by claiming Obama attended Columbia as a foreign exchange student, spoke from a CPAC side stage. Three years ago, Thomas Woods, a founder of the secessionist group League of the South, spoke at a CPAC breakout session and held a book signing. Last year, a Fox News commentator made a rape joke about a rape victim. There have even been CPAC panels on the supposed Muslim Brotherhood takeover of CPAC.
None of these figures appear on the CPAC schedule this year. Nor does Pamela Geller, who once published a scoop claiming that Obama was the secret love child of Malcolm X. She was exiled from CPAC in 2013. Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), a leader of the movement that believes the conservative movement is being co-opted by stealth Islamists, didn't make the trip this year. Bishop Harry Jackson, who claims gays are trying to "recruit" children, is nowhere in sight, even though he's from suburban Maryland. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), the Republican party's most prominent anti-immigrant voice, didn't get a speaking slot.
Oh, at this year's CPAC there was still the Georgia man who travels the country dressed up as Declaration of Independence signer Button Gwinnett. There were plenty of bow ties. And two college-age bros walked around in American-flag boxers and boat shoes—which is to say, they walked around like college-age bros. CPAC was still, very noticeably, CPAC. There was the now-annual controversy about refusing to allow an LGBT conservative group, GOProud, to cosponsor the conference. Donald Trump was there, Donald Trumping.
But for the first time in a long while, the lunatics haven't taken over the CPAC asylum. At least not yet.
What the Ukraine Crisis Means for the Energy Industry
Here's how it's been in Ukraine: Cheap natural gas and massive loans from Russia; crooks and oligarchs in both Ukraine and Russia skimming money from the energy sector; and understandably squeamish foreign investors balking at having skin in the game.
On top of all that, there's the ever-present risk for Western Europe of Russia turning off the gas tap. Most of Russia's gas exports to Europe go through Ukraine's pipeline system; Russian exports account for 60 percent of Ukraine's gas consumption and around a third of Europe's as a whole. Russia has long been able to use Ukraine as an energy choke point.
It all came to head in recent days, as then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was forced from power and Russian-backed troops seized control of government buildings on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula. On Tuesday, Russia decided to cancel the economic lifeline it extended last year to Yanukovych, a deal that had included a hefty 30 percent discount on natural gas and the purchase of Ukraine's debt. "That is not linked to politics or anything," Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted. "We had a deal: We give you money and lower gas price, you pay us regularly. We gave money and lowered the gas price but there are no payments. So Gazprom [Russia's state-run gas company] naturally says this is a no go."
Now, American and European leaders are confronting the question of how to deal with Russia's significant influence over the world's hydrocarbon economy while also helping Ukraine's fledgling government stand on its own two feet and clean up its energy act.
Here are four things you need to know about the role of energy in the current crisis:
1. The United States is rushing to push more gas onto the market to undercut Putin's power. Russia's presence in Ukraine is prompting calls, especially among congressional Republicans, to loosen export restrictions on US natural gas in the hopes of diminishing Russia's ability to use gas as a diplomatic weapon, like it did in 2006 and 2009. With America's newfound dominance in gas production (in 2013, the United States surpassed Russia to become the biggest producer of oil and gas, thanks in part to fracking) comes greater power in energy diplomacy.
"One immediate step the president can and should take is to dramatically expedite the approval of US exports of natural gas," House Speaker John Boehner said on Tuesday. Adding new supplies to the global market—the United States is already in the process of approving a range of proposals to export gas—"sends a clear signal that the global gas market is changing, that there is the prospect of much greater supply coming from other parts of the world," Carlos Pascual from the State Department told the New York Times.
But Tim Boersma, a fellow in the Energy Security Initiative at the Brookings Institution, warns that there are going to be no easy and fast solutions to the energy dominance Russia has established in Ukraine. "At the end of the day, what will not really change—whether we like it or not—is that Ukraine is an important transit country for natural gas," he says. "The notion that some people have put out there that Ukraine could become independent of Russian gas in not realistic at all."
2. Russia isn't as powerful as you might think. But for all the Russian posturing, and the canceled energy deal, Ukraine—and Europe more broadly—does have some leverage over Russia to prevent the situation from deteriorating further, says Edward Chow, an energy and security analyst at Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "Interestingly, the gas pipelines, as well as critically important gas storage facilities, all go through Western Ukraine," he says. "Until Russians build additional bypass pipelines…they are still highly dependent on Ukraine to transit gas exports to Europe." And Ukraine's supplies, mostly in the pro-reform western part of the country, could withstand a four-month Russian blockade, according to Reuters.
Tim Boersma from Brookings says Europe is in a good place right now to apply pressure: "Both parties have a lot to lose here," he says. "But I would argue that Russia has more to lose than Europe at the moment. Russia needs European markets. Russia needs European demands. It is making roughly $100 million dollars a day from hydrocarbons."
"Making matters worse would not really be good for Russia," Boersma says. "As a hydrocarbon state, it essentially needs these revenues."
Ukraine is already flexing its muscle as a consumer, and other countries are willing to help. The government's energy minister announced yesterday that Ukraine is planning to reduce its reliance on Russian imports, filling the gap with Slovakian and German gas.
Meanwhile, because of an unusually mild winter that has resulted in lower heating demand throughout Europe, gas storage across the continent are up 13 percentage points from the same time last year, the highest since 2008, according to reporting by Bloomberg Businessweek. More gas in the tanks could mean Europe is more willing and able to hold its ground with Russia.
Reuters is also reporting that the European Union is trying to loosen the grip Russia has over Ukraine by offering energy to Ukraine through "reverse flows" of gas, sending back gas back east so Ukraine doesn't have to rely on imports from Russia. And there's also plenty of talk about Ukraine exploiting its own shale gas reserves via fracking, which some argue would help cure its addiction to Russian gas. In 2013, Chevron and Shell signed separate deals to explore extracting shale gas in Ukraine.
3. Now is the time to clean up Ukraine's corruption. Ukraine has been hooked on cheap Russian gas for too long, says CSIS's Chow. That has stifled incentives to modernize the economy and look for energy alternatives, all the while lining the pockets of the rich and powerful to the tune of billions of dollars every year. Chow says graft is endemic in Ukraine's oil and gas industry. (Transparency International ranks Ukraine 144 out of 177 countries for perceptions of corruption).
"There was a so-called gas mafia that was around Yanukovych, but he wasn't alone," says Chow. "So this goes way back in time: Basically, the gas lobby siphoned off money through the flow of Russian gas through Ukraine to Europe. It's a corrupt scheme."
Chow hopes that the country's fresh batch of leaders—with the mandate of a street revolution behind them and motivated by Putin's "historic overreach"—will tackle the corruption that has infected politics and business since the country's independence. "This is a once-in-a-long-while opportunity to finally fix the Ukrainian energy sector" by attracting foreign investment and making the gas deals transparent to the outside world says Chow.
4. The United States and European Union are making energy reform central to their aid packages. Bill Gibbons, a spokesman for the US Energy Department, said on Tuesday that the Obama administration is directing part of the $1 billion loan guarantee that John Kerry delivered to Kiev this week to "energy security, energy efficiency and energy sector reform." The European Union's $15 billion package is also aimed, in part, at modernizing Ukraine's gas transit system.
With patrons of this much-needed aid linking their help to energy reform, there might well be a bigger chance of success, says Chow. "If you don't do it now, when are you going to do it?" he asks. "Because Russia is not going to be interested in helping individuals from the new [Ukrainian] government extract rent like the previous government unless they can cooperate on other fronts. So this is quite a good opportunity to clean things up."
Science Says Your Soul Is Like a Traffic Jam
Who are you?
The question may seem simple to answer: You are the citizen of a country, the resident of a city, the child of particular parents, the sibling (or not) of brothers and sisters, the parent (or not) of children, and so on. And you might further answer the question by invoking a personality, an identity: You're outgoing. You're politically liberal. You're Catholic. Going further still, you might bring up your history, your memories: You came from a place, where events happened to you. And those helped make you who you are.
Such are some of the off-the-cuff ways in which we explain ourselves. The scientific answer to the question above, however, is starting to look radically different. Last year, New Scientist magazine even ran a cover article titled, "The Great Illusion of the Self," drawing on the findings of modern neuroscience to challenge the very idea that we have seamless, continuous, consistent identities. "Under scrutiny, many common-sense beliefs about selfhood begin to unravel," declared the magazine. "Some thinkers even go so far as claiming that there is no such thing as the self."
What's going on here? When it comes to understanding this new and very personal field of science, it's hard to think of a more apt guide than Jennifer Ouellette, author of the new book Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. Not only is Ouellette a celebrated science writer; she also happens to have been adopted, a fact that makes her life a kind of natural experiment in the relative roles of genes and the environment in determining our identities. The self, explains Ouellette on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream above), is "a miracle of integration. And we haven't figured it out, but the science that is trying to figure it out is absolutely fascinating."
The question of whether the self could be said to exist at all is just one of the major scientific questions that Ouellette takes on in her new book. Nearly as thorny is the question of what actually gives you your (apparent) identity in the first place. You might think of the two issues in this way: For modern science, the question is not just who we are, but also, if we are.
To determine who she is, Ouellette naturally started with her genes. Fortunately for the book (and perhaps for her), she was able to get her genome analyzed by the genetic testing company 23andMe before the Food and Drug Administration stepped in late last year to challenge its provision of health-related genetic analyses. In response, 23andMe stated in December that it would now only offer raw genetic data and ancestry information, while it awaits FDA approval for health-related products. In the meantime, Ouelette defends what she received from the company: "They're very careful, I found, in their results, telling you that this basically just gives you a sense of what risk factors might be," Ouellette says. "I never had a sense that it was an oracle in any way. They actually linked to relevant papers, they ranked how valid the studies were, if they were preliminary, if they were very robust with a high sample size.”
From this inquiry, Ouellette learned that she might have a somewhat elevated risk of Type 1 diabetes, but also a lower than average risk of Alzheimer's. But it is crucial to bear in mind that all of these risks are relatively slight and merely statistical in nature. For instance, Ouellette's chance of getting Alzheimer's, based on this analysis, is only 4.9 percent, compared with a 7.1 percent chance for members of the general population. Which underscores one of the key through lines of the book: Your genes are very important, but they are far from everything.
In fact, although you wouldn't know it from a conventional wisdom that endlessly pits "nature" and "nurture" against each other, the two aren't actually opposed at all. Every expert Ouellette spoke with for the book agreed with this: Genes and environmental factors work together to make us who we are, meaning that setting them in opposition to one another is simply misinformed. "That's kind of empowering," Ouellette says, "because I think that sometimes we get caught up in things like genetic determinism. Genes are very, very important, and they certainly do impose constraints, but there's also a very strong sense in which we have a lot of role in shaping how we are perceived and who we think we are."
To see this, consider the ultimate repository of everything that we are: the so-called "connectome," which is defined as the sum total of all the connections between the hundreds of billions of nerve cells, or neurons, in our brains. Genes shape many aspects of how our brains form and develop—how the connectome gets wired—and, accordingly, research repeatedly shows that major behavioral traits like personality are partly inherited. But at the same time, your life experiences also change the connectome daily. "Everything that we do changes who we think we are," says Ouellette. One scientist interviewed in Ouellette's book calls the connectome "where nature meets nurture."
Needless to say, the science of mapping the human connectome is currently in its infancy. There are an estimated 100 billion neurons in the human brain, and as for the connections between them? Sheesh. There may be as many as 100 trillion synapses, or spaces where these neurons exchange information. So far, only one connectome has been mapped, and that was for a much simpler organism—the microscopic roundworm, or nematode. "It took them 10 years just to get the nematode," says Ouellette, "and the nematode only has 302 neurons."
Out of this unimaginable complexity emerges the self as we think we know it—and scientists have identified many of the component parts. For instance, there are specific brain regions associated with recognizing yourself in the mirror, feeling that you're in your own body, feeling that your body begins and ends somewhere, and recognizing where you are in space. So how then can anyone argue that there is not actually such a thing as a self?
Much depends on what you mean by the "self" in the first place. If you think of your self as an essence—something you'd describe with adjectives like "unified," "continuous," and "unchanging"—well, science has some bad news for you. New Scientist, for instance, cites an array of neuroscience experiments showing how easy it is to make us believe we are outside of our bodies, or that we're in the body of a mannequin, or that a rubber hand on a table is our hand…and much else. The hand experiment is particularly disturbing. Watch it:
In other words, while you tend to think of your body as a self-contained entity, and to believe there are clear lines of demarcation between your body and other bodies, there are quirks in the brain that allow this sense to break down. And dropping acid—another self-experiment that Ouellette undertook for the book—further undermines this assumption. "I dropped acid, and you get disembodied," Ouellette says. "The acid actually messes with those parts of the brain, the ability to distinguish between self and other."
And then on top of that, there are all the problems associated with memory. We would all surely agree that our memories comprise a central part of who we are, yet an array of psychological interventions can cause us to think we made choices we didn't make, remember things that didn't actually happen to us, and so on. "Every time we remember something, we are rebuilding it," Ouellette says. "We're not actually remembering what happened, we're remembering what happened the last time we remembered it. And as a result, we embellish; little bits and details get changed." Memory is also culturally determined: Research has shown, for instance, that Americans tend to retain a particular type of memory, focusing on events that are more personal and individual. In China, by contrast, events of grand cultural or historical significance are more likely to be remembered.
Ouellette's conclusion from all of this, therefore, is that while it would be going too far to say there is no such thing as the self at all, our understanding of what the self actually is must be dramatically revised. "It's not right to say it's an illusion," she says, "but it is a construct. But it's not what you think it is." More specifically, Ouellette ultimately concludes that the self is an emergent property of the billions of neurons of our brain all interacting with one another. What's emergence? "A system in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," writes Ouellette.
"A traffic jam is emergent," she explains. "You have all these cars interacting. If it gets dense enough, enough interactions, you're going to get a traffic jam. But that traffic jam is real." It is more than the sum of all its cars. Something similar goes for the self.
This also means the self is very fragile. Damage the brain or cease its function, and the self may dissipate. Die, of course, and the story is the same. "I expected people to object more to my take on what happens to your conscious self after you die," Ouellette confesses. "Because I basically say there is no soul. Or rather, your soul is this conscious thing that is emergent, and once all that activity that leads to the emergent phenomenon disappears, so does that, it's gone."
The good news, though, is that during the time we have, all the science that Ouellette relied upon to learn about her own self—genome and brain scans, personality tests, and even virtual identities—can only get better, and better, and better. The next few decades are going to be a great time to get to know yourself. You just have to be clear about what that actually means.
To listen to the full podcast interview with Jennifer Ouellette, you can stream below:
This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of the recent discovery of a 30,000-year-old "giant virus" frozen in Arctic ice, and about a case currently before the Supreme Court that turns on how we determine, scientifically, who is intellectually disabled.
To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013" on iTunes—you can learn more here.
Luminous Photos of Scotland's Pigeon-Obsessed Flight Club
For the doo fliers of Scotland, keeping pigeons isn't just about having the fastest or finest birds. It's about stealing your fellow fanciers' doos (male pigeons—horseman thief pouters, in particular) and hens, enlisting your own sex-starved flock as bait. "Men and women of all ages fly against neighbors, friends, or relatives and have been doing so for hundreds of years," explains Robert Ormerod, whose luminous photographs capture a hobby that offers an escape from the mean streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow with an endless aerial battle.
Dylan Leppage with one his doos in his room in the Sighthill area of Edinburgh. Dylan's stepfather encouraged his interest in doos after he was expelled from school. Some families have flown pigeons for generations.
Father and son Ian and Mark Wilson dye their newest pigeons yellow. The color helps the bird attract members of the opposite sex. Doo flyers sent their birds out to entice members of the opposite sex, which are then lured back to their huts.
A pigeon sits on a carrying box. In the housing schemes of Edinburgh and Glasgow, doos are flown from lofts, sheds, bedrooms, and living rooms.
Billy Casment, 12, at his home in Niddrie.
A baby pigeon. Doomen tell stories of pigeon fliers who eat and sleep with their birds and even those who have left their wives or girlfriends for their flocks.
Paul Smith, 43, with one of his birds in the Muirhouse area of Edinburgh. Paul found solace in flying pigeons after his 17-year-old son was stabbed and killed during an argument.
Pigeons fly near a high-rise apartment building in Glasgow
The Pentagon's Phony Budget War
This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Washington is pushing the panic button, claiming austerity is hollowing out our armed forces and our national security is at risk. That was the message Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered last week when he announced that the Army would shrink to levels not seen since before World War II. Headlines about this crisis followed in papers like the New York Times and members of Congress issued statements swearing that they would never allow our security to be held hostage to the budget-cutting process.
Yet a careful look at budget figures for the US military—a bureaucratic juggernaut accounting for 57 percent of the federal discretionary budget and nearly 40 percent of all military spending on this planet—shows that such claims have been largely fictional. Despite cries of doom since the across-the-board cuts known as sequestration surfaced in Washington in 2011, the Pentagon has seen few actual reductions, and there is no indication that will change any time soon.
This piece of potentially explosive news has, however, gone missing in action—and the "news" that replaced it could prove to be one of the great bait-and-switch stories of our time.
The Pentagon Cries Wolf, Round One
As sequestration first approached, the Pentagon issued deafening cries of despair. Looming cuts would "inflict lasting damage on our national defense and hurt the very men and women who protect this country," said Secretary Hagel in December 2012.
Sequestration went into effect in March 2013 and was slated to slice $54.6 billion from the Pentagon's $550 billion larger-than-the-economy-of-Sweden budget. But Congress didn't have the stomach for it, so lawmakers knocked the cuts down to $37 billion. (Domestic programs like Head Start and cancer research received no such special dispensation.)
By law, the cuts were to be applied across the board. But that, too, didn't go as planned. The Pentagon was able to do something hardly recognizable as a cut at all. Having the luxury of unspent funds from previous budgets—known obscurely as "prior year unobligated balances"—officials reallocated some of the cuts to those funds instead.
In the end, the Pentagon shaved about 5.7 percent, or $31 billion, from its 2013 budget. And just how painful did that turn out to be? Frank Kendall, who serves as the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, has acknowledged that the Pentagon "cried wolf." Those cuts caused no substantial damage, he admitted.
And that's not where the story ends—it's where it begins.
Sequestration, the Phony Budget War, Round Two
A $54.6 billion slice was supposed to come out of the Pentagon budget in 2014. If that had actually happened, it would have amounted to around 10 percent of its budget. But after the hubbub over the supposedly devastating cuts of 2013, lawmakers set about softening the blow.
And this time they did a much better job.
In December 2013, a budget deal was brokered by Republican Congressman Paul Ryan and Democratic Senator Patty Murray. In it they agreed to reduce sequestration. Cuts for the Pentagon soon shrank to $34 billion for 2014.
And that was just a start.
All the cuts discussed so far pertain to what's called the Pentagon's "base" budget—its regular peacetime budget. That, however, doesn't represent all of its funding. It gets a whole different budget for making war, and for the 13th year, the US is making war in Afghanistan. For that part of the budget, which falls into the Washington category of "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO), the Pentagon is getting an additional $85 billion in 2014.
And this is where something funny happens.
That war funding isn't subject to caps or cuts or any restrictions at all. So imagine for a moment that you're an official at the Pentagon—or the White House—and you're committed to sparing the military from downsizing. Your budget has two parts: one that's subject to caps and cuts, and one that isn't. What do you do? When you hit a ceiling in the former, you stuff extra cash into the latter.
It takes a fine-toothed comb to discover how this is done. Todd Harrison, senior fellow for defense studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, found that the Pentagon was stashing an estimated extra $20 billion worth of non-war funding in the "operation and maintenance" accounts of its proposed 2014 war budget. And since all federal agencies work in concert with the White House to craft their budget proposals, it's safe to say that the Obama administration was in on the game.
Add the December budget deal to this $20 billion switcheroo and the sequester cuts for 2014 were now down to $14 billion, hardly a devastating sum given the roughly $550 billion in previously projected funding.
And the story's still not over.
When it was time to write the Pentagon budget into law, appropriators in Congress wanted in on the fun. As Winslow Wheeler of the Project on Government Oversight discovered, lawmakers added a $10.8 billion slush fund to the war budget.
All told, that leaves $3.4 billion—a cut of less than 1 percent from Pentagon funding this year. It's hard to imagine that anyone in the sprawling bureaucracy of the Defense Department will even notice. Nonetheless, last week Secretary Hagel insisted that "[s]equestration requires cuts so deep, so abrupt, so quickly that…the only way to implement [them] is to sharply reduce spending on our readiness and modernization, which would almost certainly result in a hollow force."
Yet this less than 1 percent cut comes from a budget that, at last count, was the size of the next 10 largest military budgets on the planet combined. If you can find a threat to our national security in this story, your sleuthing powers are greater than mine. Meanwhile, in the non-military part of the budget, sequestration has brought cuts that actually matter to everything from public education to the justice system.
Cashing in on the "Cuts," Round Three and Beyond
After two years of uproar over mostly phantom cuts, 2015 isn't likely to bring austerity to the Pentagon either. Last December's budget deal already reduced the cuts projected for 2015, and President Obama is now asking for something he's calling the "Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative." It would deliver an extra $26 billion to the Pentagon next year. And that still leaves the war budget for officials to use as a cash cow.
And the president is proposing significant growth in military spending further down the road. In his 2015 budget plan, he's asking Congress to approve an additional $115 billion in extra Pentagon funds for the years 2016-2019.
My guess is he'll claim that our national security requires it after the years of austerity.
Mattea Kramer is a TomDispatch regular and Research Director at National Priorities Project, which is a 2014 nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She is also the lead author of the book A People's Guide to the Federal Budget.To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.
Can Bobby Jindal Drive Out the GOP's Demons?
Illustration by Marc Burckhardt
BOBBY JINDAL has never been one to wait. And so in November 2012, just one week after Barack Obama was reelected in a race the conservative establishment had long refused to believe it might lose, the 41-year-old governor of Louisiana stuck a knife in Mitt Romney's back.
The party's old guard was reeling and Jindal seemed poised to take advantage and confirm that he was a contender to lead the party in 2016. In winning a second gubernatorial term one year earlier, Jindal had crushed his top Democratic challenger by nearly 50 points, helping Republicans take control of the state Senate for the first time since Reconstruction. As Romney exited the national stage, Jindal was locking down the chairmanship of the Republican Governors Association (RGA), a perch that is generally considered a steppingstone to bigger things because of its access to a national network of conservative donors. And in his personal story and ethnic heritage, he offered a walking counterpoint to his party's demographic stagnation.
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You Can Help Scientists Understand the UK's Massive Floods
This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
"You can't link climate change to specific weather events." That is the accepted wisdom that has been trotted out repeatedly as the wettest winter in at least 250 years battered England and Wales. But the accepted wisdom is wrong: It is perfectly possible to make that link and, as of today, you can play a part in doing so.
A new citizen science project launched by climate researchers at the University of Oxford will determine in the next month or so whether global warming made this winter's extreme deluge more likely to occur, or not. You can sign up here.
The weather@home project allows you to donate your spare computer time in return for helping turn speculation over the role of climate change in extreme weather into statistical fact. That debate has been reignited by the devastating winter weather and the flooding and storm damage it wrought (more on that debate here).
The research that links global warming to particular extreme weather events is called attribution and has already notched up notable successes. The Oxford team showed in 2011 that climate change was loading the extreme-weather dice as far back as 2000, in a study that showed serious flooding in England that year was made two to three times more likely by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. The killer heat waves in Europe in 2003 and 2010 were also made far more likely by global warming, similar research has demonstrated, while another new study shows how Hurricane Katrina would have been far less devastating had it happened 100 years ago.
The attribution studies work by taking a period of time in which an extreme weather event occurred and rerunning it many thousands of times in climate models. One set of models starts with the actual real-world conditions—i.e., with high levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases—and reveals how frequently the extreme event occurs. Another set of models starts with atmospheric and ocean conditions that would have existed without the carbon emissions pumped into the air by human activities and therefore shows how frequently the extreme event occurs would occur in an unwarmed world.
Comparing the frequency of the extreme event in each set of models gives a measure of how heavily global warming has loaded the extreme-weather dice—or not. The models have to be run many thousands of times because the extreme events being studied are, by definition, rare. Many repetitions are required to generate robust statistics, and that's why they need your computer time: It's a huge computing task. Nathalie Schaller, a member of the Oxford team, explains the experiment further in this video:
The researchers do not know what the result of this new experiment will be, and they will post the results of the computer model runs as they come in, on their site and this blog. The science will unfold live before your eyes, and theirs, at the same time.
They estimate that a total of roughly 30,000 reruns of the English winter of 2013-14 will be needed to reach a definitive conclusion. That should take a month, depending on how many people sign up.
To give you a sense of what the results will look like, the team have generated some illustrative graphs, based on previous data but not pertaining to the new experiment. The plots show the chance of the total winter rainfall exceeding 450 millimeters in a particular year (the winter of 2013-14 saw 435 mm fall on England and Wales, the highest in records dating back to 1766).
Each rerun winter is represented by a dot, with blue dots coming from the set representing the real-world conditions and green dots coming from the set representing the modeled world without climate change. If the blue dots plot above the green dots, then climate change has made that event more likely, and vice versa. If the dots plot in the same place, then climate change has not affected the chances of that event happening.
In the plot below, containing just 120 simulations of the winter, it is hard to discern any convincing trend. That is because when examining extreme events, many simulations are needed to generate a robust result.
The small dots represent uncertainties in the estimates, University of Oxford
But in the following plot, with over 2000 simulations, the trend is much clearer. The new experiment is likely to need 5,000 reruns of the winter under real-world conditions and 24,000 reruns of the winter as it would have occurred in world without climate change.
University of Oxford
Predicting the impacts of climate change rightly takes up much of the time of climate change researchers, but this use of climate models reveals the extent to which climate change ands extreme weather is a danger right here, right now.
It is rare that anyone with a computer can participate in cutting-edge scientific research, particularly on such a relevant and important topic, but the weather@home project presents that opportunity. The Oxford team would be grateful if you took it.
Facebook Aims to Crack Down on Illegal Gun Sales
Facebook has officially decided that it doesn't like shady gun deals. On Wednesday, the social-sharing behemoth announced significant policy changes aimed at policing gun trafficking on its platform: The company will delete posts that offer to buy or sell guns without background checks, block users under the age of 18 from viewing gun listings, and require all gun pages and groups to prominently refer to laws governing gun sales. Facebook will also apply controls to its photo-sharing subsidiary Instagram, which has also grown as an outlet for gun trafficking.
The move comes after weeks of pressure spearheaded by Moms Demand Action, the grassroots advocacy group formed after the Sandy Hook massacre that recently merged with Michael Bloomberg's Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Moms Demand Action says it drew more than 230,000 supporters for a petition urging Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom to deal with the issue. "Our campaign showed how easy it is for minors, felons and other dangerous people to get guns online," founder Shannon Watts said in a statement. "We are happy that these companies listened to American mothers and we believe these changes are a major step toward making sure people who buy or sell guns on their platforms know the law, and follow it."
Exactly how Facebook will go about enforcing the new policies is unclear, and it remains to be seen how effectively the company will be able to control such activity on its pages. But at a minimum these changes—which also allow Facebook users to flag suspicious posts—should help diminish the opportunity for kids and felons to acquire firearms.
Yet, would-be criminals may simply flock elsewhere, as there remains at least one major social-sharing site where such deals can easily go down: Reddit. As we were the first to report back in January, Reddit hosts thousands of for-sale listings for military-style assault rifles, semi-automatic handguns, high-capacity magazines, and other weaponry. The site appears to be particularly ripe for dubious gun deals, because most of its users operate anonymously—and because, as a company official confirmed to us, Reddit does not track the gun transactions on its site and has no idea whether they are conducted legally. That didn't stop the company from granting its users permission to engrave Reddit's official logo on assault rifles.
Moms Demand Action says that it plans to keep pressuring companies to act in the interest of gun safety, though according to a spokesperson the group has had no conversations with Reddit yet.
The State Department Is Actively Trolling Terrorists on Twitter
Here's one way the US government is trying to combat terrorism without the use of controversial explosions. A tiny portion of your tax dollars—just a few million dollars annually—is funding the State Department's trolling of jihadists on Twitter.
One of the State Department's official (and verified) Twitter accounts, called "Think AgainTurn Away" and going by the handle @ThinkAgain_DOS, is devoted to speaking "some truths about terrorism" online. If you follow the account, you'll notice that this truth often manifests itself in the form of the State Department directly tweeting at Islamists and their supporters in English, and countering their beliefs.
This kind of thing isn't unusual for the State Department. The Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications was established in 2010 to coordinate messaging to target violent extremism on the internet, especially that of Al Qaeda and affiliates. CSCC (an interagency center that is housed at State) initially focused on non-English online forums where the State Department saw jihadists attempting to recruit and raise money (message boards, comments on Al Jazeera Talk, etc.) Late last year, CSCC made a move into English-language websites, with the small team of analysts and microbloggers expanding their fight on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere, under the banner of the US State Department. @ThinkAgain_DOS is just one of their tools in this digital-outreach turf war. (CSCC has used the phrase "Think again. Turn away" on other online posts.) Here's a sample:
(Here is the context for the Al Qaeda-Assad oil accusations.)
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