Friday, May 22, 2015

Monckton and Watts inadvertantly reveal global warming "Pause" to be clumsy fraud

The idiot climate denialist website, run by the idiot climate denialist Anthony Watts, is fond of running graphs proclaiming NO GLOBAL WARMING FOR ‘XX’ YEARS ‘X’ MONTHS. Most of these entries are written by another ignoble denier, Christopher Monckton. The British Daily Mail does similar things.

 Below are some recent examples from Watts/Monckton. (I've linked the WUWT articles, if you want to read them.) What Monckton did is to produce identical-looking graphs, month after month, with the time of the "pause" in global warming lengthening, ever lengthening, implying that since the time he started, the world has not warmed one tiny jot.

Below are the graphs from March 2014, November 2014, and April 2015. For each graph, Monckton took a carefully-selected stretch of time and added a linear regression line. Look closely though. Without meaning to, he has revealed his fraud. Notice anything odd? Join me underneath after you've thought about it ...

Okay, did you catch it? I’ll tell you. Ready?

 All these graphs start in different months.

 The first one starts in August 1996. The second starts in October 1996. The third starts in December 1996.

Notice the end date on the first graph -- March of 2014. Then look at the end date on the third graph -- April of 2015, thirteen months later. Monckton helpfully tells us the time period each graph covers -- the first covers 212 months, and the last one covers 221 months. Thirteen months have passed, but the third graph is only nine months longer than the first one.

In March of 2014, global warming had stopped in August of 1996. But in April of 2015, global warming hadn't stopped until December of 1996. What's up with that?

In almost any noisy time-sequenced dataset such as monthly averages of world temperatures, it is easy to find a stretch of time ending at the current datapoint that shows a flat trendline. You just need to do a little trial and error, find the longest recent stretch you can that has both ups and downs, and add a linear regression line. Nothing to it. That's clearly how Monckton started.

But as time goes on, Monckton has to keep changing the start date in order to find the flat trendline. This is an almost perfect example of cherry picking for the purpose of committing a fraud.

If in fact there had been “no” global warming over this period, he wouldn’t have to change the start date. He’d only have to change the end date in order to show that "no" global warming keeps happening. Which is the impression he wants to give.

Monckton keeps using a later and later start date. Why does he do that? Well, compare the rightmost part of the squiggly line on the first graph with the rightmost part of the squiggly line on the third graph. Notice what happens there? For most of the period between the time he drew the first graph and the time he drew the third one, the squiggly line is above his "flatline". In other words, for nearly that whole period, the Earth was warmer than the "no global warming" flatline.

If he drew a linear regression line from the beginning of his first graph to the end of his third graph, that regression line would slant upward. It would show that the Earth has warmed during this period. It would reveal his lie.

What to do? Well, since the average temperatures got warmer from the time of his first graph to the time of his third graph, in order to have a flat trendline, he's got to eliminate some readings from the left side that are below the trend. So he does. Compare the leftmost part of the squiggly line in the first graph to the leftmost part of the squiggle in the third graph. See that?

Monckton dropped the lower temperature readings at the beginning of the graph in order to maintain a flat trendline. He is purposely cherry-picking new dates in order to perpetrate a fraud.

To summarize: Monckton wants to pretend that the Earth has stopped warming. And yet, the average of the temperature readings went up in the thirteen months between March of 2014 and April of 2015. To hide this, he dropped the colder temps at the left end of his graph, and he wants you to think there has been "no global warming" during this entire period.

The whole exercise, of course, is a classic example of cherry-picked dishonesty. Monckton is intentionally selecting a stretch of recent time to create the false impression he wants to show. And since 1998 is so warm, he’ll be able to keep doing this for a while, probably at least a couple more years, regardless of what happens to global temperatures. As warmer temperatures continue to get added onto the right end of the chart, he can continue to chop colder temps off the left end.

And by the time the lefthand edge of his graph reaches that huge 1998 spike and his dishonest technique stops working, people will have forgotten he was doing this, because he’ll have gone on to some new dishonest technique.

After that he'll merely have to choose a flat line slightly higher than the one he's using now, continue to cherry-pick start points, and keep merrily on with his fraud.

Let’s also note that 1) he is cherry picking the dataset he wants to use (the Remote Sensing Systems satellite data, a.k.a. RSS), and 2) the time period he’s chosen is ridiculously short. Below is the real temperature trend, using some other datasets (the Met Office, NOAA, and NASA). I’ve circled the part in the upper-right-hand corner, which is the cherry-picked sub-selection that Monckton shows. In context of the overall dataset, it isn’t flat at all, but is part of a clear long-term upward trend –- which is why Monckton has to keep changing the start date for his cherry-picked subset of his cherry-picked data set.

 Because the Earth keeps warming.
The main difference between RSS and the other datasets is that RSS looks at lower troposphere temperatures, and the others are surface temps where humans live. Most of the troposphere is warming at a slower rate than the Earth's surface is, so it's easier for Monckton to cherry-pick a longer flat trendline with the RSS data.

Note also that all four of these data sets – RSS, Met, NOAA, and NASA – omit ocean temperatures, where over 90% of the earth’s excess heat is being stored. So you can take the graph above, and make the slope more than ten times steeper to show the actual amount by which the Earth has warmed during this period.
Stolen from here
So, did global warming stop in August of 1996, or in December of 1996? Neither. It continues. In fact, in the thirteen months while Monckton was producing these fraudulent graphs, between March of 2014 and April of 2015, the Earth continued to warm. During the period Monckton and Watts claim there was "no global warming." Even in the cherry-picked dataset that Monckton uses.

Of course, anyone knowledgeable about these matters will tell you that thirteen months is far too short a span of time from which to draw any conclusions at all. So is the five months at the beginning of the first graph, which Monckton had to hide because they reveal his fraud. So is the entire span of time contained in these graphs. But that's the point. Short-term cherry-picked time periods from a cherry-picked dataset mean nothing.

And to pretend it does mean something is fraud.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Great Expectations, part 2 -- The World that Was

As I showed in my previous article, Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the long-term course of the economy. Fewer Americans identify themselves as "middle class". They fear they will not be comfortable in retirement, and will have to retire later in life, if they can retire at all. They're convinced wealth in America is distributed unfairly, and that wealth disparity is increasing.

There are reasons for these fears and concerns. The "middle class" is a recent phenomenon in human history. There is no economic law that forces a middle class to exist. For most of the time civilization has been around, people have been divided into a tiny group of immensely wealthy rulers, and the great mass of extremely poor workers who support them. The middle class only came into existence about a hundred years ago. It was brought about by changes in policy, and it can be easily dismantled -- or can be saved -- by further changes to policy.

What created the middle class? What is its likely fate over the next generation or two?

What is the Middle Class?

Much of what follows is taken from Thomas Picketty's groundbreaking Capital in the Twenty-First Century, from which I will unabashedly steal a number of graphs and much of my analysis. (Buy the book. Read it. Learn it.) To have a clue as to where we're going, we have to understand how we got here.

To begin, let's ask the question, "What is the middle class?" We can answer this in any number of ways. One of the clearest and most meaningful is the approach Picketty takes. In the developed world today, we can divide people into three distinct groups based on ownership of capital. (And what is "capital"? I'll get to that in a minute.)

1) There is the bottom 50% or so, who own practically nothing. Half of all the people who live in developed countries have zero (or even negative) net assets. That is, if you take the value of everything they own, and subtract from that the amount of money they may owe, you will come out with zero net worth (or close to zero, or even negative net worth). Between them all, the bottom 50% may own about five percent of a nation's wealth.

2) At the other extreme, there are the richest 10%, who own around sixty to seventy percent of a nation's wealth. We can further divide this group into smaller subsets, which I will do later -- for now, treat them as a single group. Consider this for just a second -- we're talking about one tenth of the population, who together own significantly more than half of all the wealth that exists in the country. That's called "wealth disparity".

3) With fifty percent of the people on the bottom, and ten percent on top -- that leaves 40 percent in the middle. If the bottom half own as much as 5 percent of the nation's wealth, and the top group owns 60 to 70 percent, that leaves about 25 to 35 percent of the wealth -- between one quarter and one third -- to be owned by this middle 40%. This is the "middle class".

What I have just described is the situation as it exists in developed nations today. Each nation varies from the others in detail, but not in kind. This is true for America, Canada, France, England, Germany, Australia, China, Japan, Scandinavia -- virtually all developed nations, and most of the developing ones, too. About half the people own pretty much nothing. About one tenth own the lion's share of around 60 or 70 percent of everything. That leaves a group of about 40% of the people, who own between one quarter and one third of the things that can be owned.

From Piketty, Capital, p215. In Europe and America, the top 10% own between 60% and 70% of everything. The bottom 50% own about 5%. The middle class owns between 1/4 and about 1/3. This inequality is worse in America than in Europe, and was worse in the past than it is today.

I will note in passing that this wealth disparity is greater in the United States than it is in any other developed nation. The top 10% of Americans own a bigger share of America than the top 10% in England own of their country. The middle class in America owns far less of America than the middle class of France owns of France. The Scandinavian countries are most equitable and have the smallest wealth disparity. American wealth disparity is the greatest of all the developed nations.

Capitalists will say this is a Good Thing, and that it is one bit of proof that America is the Most Greatestest Country in the World Ever. Well, a capitalist would say that, wouldn't he? After all, if you're a capitalist, you can be richer here than you can be anywhere else. Not only can you be richer, but the contrast between the rich and everyone else is greatest here, which is emotionally satisfying if you're one of the rich.

As I said, this division -- from bottom to top: 50/40/10, owning roughly 5/30/65 -- This is the current state in the developed world. It was not always this way.

Before the Middle Class

For most of human history, there were really only two groups, not three. The top 10% owned about 90% of everything. Picture a city block with ten houses on it, and 100 people living in that block. Ten of the block's inhabitants together own nine of the houses. The other ninety people on the block are crammed into the last house at the end of the line. That was the state of the world from the invention of agriculture, in around 6000 BCE, up until about the beginning of the twentieth century.

We can subdivide those two groups. The top 10% had its own top group -- the top tenth of the top tenth, amounting to maybe 1% of the total population.  They owned about 50% of everything. You can think of them as royalty -- the kings and queens and princes, who never worked a day, and could acquire or appropriate anything they wanted. In out "city block" example, one person owns five of the ten houses on block. The rest of the wealthy people -- the next nine (think of them as "nobles" instead of "royalty") -- between them own four of the ten houses. The one King owns five houses, the nine nobles between them own four, and the last house is split between the ninety serfs.

The poorer 90% of the population was made up of A) tradesmen (who may have owned, say, a forge or a kiln or a loom), and B) peasants (who owned nothing). Wait -- "nothing"? Don't things like clothes and furniture count? No, they do not (but don't amount to much anyway). We're talking about economics here. We're concerned with what's called "capital", which you can think of as "stuff you can use to make money -- or to make other stuff." A house counts as "capital" because you can charge someone rent for living there. Clothes are not capital. The rags on your back can't be used to make money (unless perhaps you're in a very particularized sort of profession -- say, an actor -- and then they're not "clothes" but "industrial equipment").

In our city block, a group of maybe 20 people -- the tradesmen -- jointly own that last house, and they use it to produce goods and services. The final 70 people own nothing, and have to rent rooms to from the people who do own something. They earn their money to pay rent by working for the tradespeople -- or, more likely, by working as farmers to produce food for the nobles and the King.

This was the state of the world up through the seventeenth and eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries. The wealthy 10% owned the land and the farms, which were worked by peasants, who paid rents to the nobility in order to purchase the privilege of working the land. A few tradespeople made tools that the peasantry bought from them -- and made weaponry, and built houses and castles that were purchased by the nobles and kings. But often, even the forges and kilns of the tradespeople were owned by the nobility, and were only rented by the tradespeople.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most wealthy people got their income from two sources -- either from rents, or from interest on money they'd loaned to the government. Governments, you see, would often borrow money -- sometimes for public works (roadbuilding, dams and flood control, police and constabularies, and so on), and often to pay for wars. Landowners would loan this money to the governments, which would tend to run long-term debts. The interest payments made by the government to the lenders would be financed by taxes and by conquest.

So the major forms of capital before the nineteenth century were: 1) land and real estate, from which the owner could obtain income in the form of rents, and 2) government debt, which furnished (usually) reliable interest payments. The people who owned capital -- and who lived off of this capital -- were "capitalists". All other people were serfs.

This pattern changed slightly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Real estate and rural lands were reduced in importance with the coming of factories. Now, buildings, mines, machinery, and urban land (along with the ever-reliable government debt) became the things to own. Financial assets also became important -- investors could own companies, and then ever-more elaborate investment entities and various forms of "intellectual capital" including patents and trademarks.

The nature of capital changed --but not its distribution. Serfs moved into the cities, and technological changes made it possible to support the population with fewer people working the farms. Throughout the nineteenth century, the "developed world" still had about 10% of the population owning about 90% of everything, and the great mass of serfs now working the factories and the streets instead of merely the land. There still existed no "middle class".

Growth, Inheritance, Inflation

The world as I've just described it was quite stable. There were wars and various forms of civil unrest from time to time, even the occasional plague or banking crisis to mix things up a bit. But certainly until the eighteenth century, technological change was glacially slow, and population grew no faster.
From Picketty, Capital, p96.

The data Picketty presents shows that, over a period of centuries -- even millennia -- annual population growth averaged on the order of 0.01% or less. It stands to reason -- if the world population was in the tens of millions two thousand years ago (it was actually far more than that), then annual growth of even 1% per year would mean we'd have over 4,000,000,000,000,000 people today -- almost a half million times the number of people we actually have.

The same sorts of considerations apply to economic growth. The lot of most people changed very slowly, if at all. It could take dozens of generations to see any difference in the lives of most people.

Consider this fact carefully. For most of human history, economic growth rates were very slow indeed. Today, if our economy doesn't grow at a rate of at least 2 or 3 percent every year, we consider that to be a crisis. Until the eighteenth of nineteenth century, it might take many generations to see an economic growth of 2 or 3 percent.

From Picketty, Capital, p 102
With little growth (in either population or the economy), there also was little inflation. Prices for things like food or housing or clothes -- or land, or labor, or ships or raw materials -- remained virtually constant for centuries at a time. Writers and novelists and economic theorists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries could talk about the prices of good and services, or the incomes of tradespeople, or the wealth obtained by selling a parcel of land -- and those prices, whether expressed in gold or in national currency (the pound, the franc, the ruble) would be comprehensible and pretty much the same two or three hundred years later.

The world is different now from how it was before the beginning of the twentieth century. The distribution of wealth has changed -- there is now a middle class. We now have the phenomenon of inflation. Population growth and economic growth is now far greater that it has ever been.

Are there laws of economics, as inevitable as the laws of physics, that brought about these changes? Is there any force that will ensure the middle class continues into the future? I showed last time that actually fewer people consider themselves "middle class" than there used to be, and they have a profound unease about what is to come.

What created the sea change in world economics? Where is it likely to go? I'll address these questions in my next post.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Great Expectations -- reality vs perception, part 1

America is going through great changes. We always have done so -- it is the nature of our nation, and the nature of the times. But this is a recent phenomenon. In ancient eras, it could be millennia between great social transformations -- the discovery of fire, the invention of hunting or agriculture, the creation of the nation-state. Today, changes of comparable scale happen at least every generation, perhaps every decade.

How do Americans feel about where we are, where we've been, and where we are going? How accurate are their perceptions? America was built on the concept of giving one's descendents a better world than one inherited. Is that idea still possible?

Let's start with an overview of where we are, and how we feel about it. Gallup polling furnishes a wealth of data we can draw upon to form some idea of how Americans feel about our present, our recent past, and our future. In another article, I'll present some long-term objective data about where we have been and where we are likely to end up. For now, let's take a snapshot of how Americans are feeling.

According to recent Gallup polling, Americans are pretty pleased with the Obama economy. A record 81% of Americans say they are "satisfied" with their current standard of living, and with the things they can buy and can do. Of course, that question addresses only how Americans feel about their current situation, not whether they think they would continue to be satisfied if nothing were to change. Still, it's a good place to start. To an overwhelming extent, Americans say they are "satisfied".

If past is prologue, Americans expect things to change. A full 61% of Americans say their standard of living is getting better, nearly twice as many (33%) who felt that way in October of 2008, just before Barack Obama was elected President. Note that this is not merely a question about whether Americans' lives have gotten better. It is about expectations, which implies that if their expectations were to be dashed, they would not be so satisfied.

There is good reason both for Americans' feeling that things have improved, and for their expectations for the future. Since President Obama's election, Gallup's "Standard of Living Index" has improved from a low of 14 in October and November of 2008, to today's stunningly-improved high of 50. Of course, Gallup being a pollster, this "Standard of Living Index" is not based on any objective criteria or econometric data, but only on how people say they feel about how well they're doing. This index is a combination of the previous two questions, a combination of: "Are you satisfied with how things are?" and: "Are things getting better?" It says nothing whatever about a question like, "Are you over or under the federal poverty level?"

Americans do seem to love the direction of the Obama economy. Whether they are "objectively" doing better or not, they say they are "satisfied."

But let's look a little deeper. What is it, exactly, that Americans are happy with? Are they getting ahead in the world, in their own estimation? Are they moving up? Is that why they're so happy?

According to Gallup, no. Between 2001 and 2009, between 55% and 63% of Americans considered themselves "middle class". Since 2009, that number has fallen to 51%, with a low of 50% in 2012. Between 2001 and 2009, between 33% and 42% of Americans considered themselves "working or lower class". Since 2009, that number has risen to 48%. Those considering themselves "upper class" fell from 3% in 2001 to 1% today.

Paradoxically, though Americans say they are satisfied with their economic lot -- and even feel it is "getting better" -- increasing numbers of them feel they are losing ground, class-wise. Perhaps being "satisfied" is not synonymous with "doing well" -- or even with "doing well enough."

What does this mean, that Americans both say they are happy with where they are -- even that they are doing better, and expect to continue doing better -- and yet that they feel they are falling in American's class structure? Perhaps it means they are convinced the whole economy is improving so much that their improvement isn't quite keeping up. To put it in technical terms, perhaps they are aware the GDP is improving faster than the rate of increase of their incomes.

Something like that explanation seems likely. According to Gallup, a significant majority feel the distribution of wealth in America is "unfair". The number of people who feel this way has fluctuated between 59% and 68% from 1985 to the present, with a peak in 2008. The idea of "unfairness" actually hit a low point shortly after the inauguration of G. W. Bush, but then rose throughout his presidency, indicating that his policies struck Americans as increasing unfairness. The current number, at 63%, is almost precisely halfway between the two extremes. The economic collapse of late 2008 caused a significant drop in this number -- Americans apparently felt the crisis improved economic equality.

A small minority of Americans -- around one third, between 27% and 37% -- feel the distribution of wealth is "fair".

In what way do Americans think the distribution of wealth is "unfair"? Do those lazy poor people have things too easy, what with all those giveaway programs? Are rich people being strangled by outrageously high taxes?

The following graph is particularly stunning. The change in American attitudes that it displays is nothing short of amazing. When asked, "Do you think our government should or should not redistribute wealth by heavy taxes on the rich?" increasing numbers of people think the government should do that, and the numbers have dramatically altered since the 1940s.

In the late 1930's, at the end of the Great Depression, 54% of Americans were opposed to this idea of redistribution, and only 35% agreed with it. By the late 1990's, the gap had narrowed to 51% opposed and 45% supportive. That has now completely reversed -- 52% of Americans agree that the government should redistribute wealth through higher taxes on the rich, and only 45% disapprove of this idea.

It is unfortunate that the question was apparently not asked between the late 1930's and the late 1990s, so we have little idea when the majority of the change happened.With more regular polling since about 2006, we can see that the numbers are fairly volatile. Even so, the magnitude of the change is striking, and the overall trend is undeniable. The idea of redistribution through aggressively progressive taxation is quite popular, and will figure in the next article.

To what can we attribute this amazing turnaround in attitudes? Perhaps it is the realization that programs once criticized as being "redistributive" actually work to improve Americans' lives. Not only do they work; they are necessary to the well-being of America.

As one example, consider Social Security. Though there is a segment of political rhetoric dedicated to convincing us that the program is near-bankrupt, and that it will not be there for the next generation of retirees, according to Gallup, Americans are increasingly relying on Social Security. Just since 2001-2002, the percentage of Americans asked if they think Social Security to be a major source of their retirement income has risen from 27-28% to 36%.

According to the linked article, this increase exists in all age groups; the campaign to convince younger Americans that the program won't be there for them, or to pit younger against older Americans, seems to be failing. In the period 2005 to 2014, among Americans 18 to 34, the percentage expecting to rely on Social Security as a major source of retirement income increased thirteen points from 13% to 26%. Though the number of adults aged 55+ who expected to rely on Social Security increased in that period only 6 points, it was already very high -- it went from 42% to 48%.

In contrast, though powerful forces have been urging Americans to rely on private investment programs such as IRAs and 401(k)s, the number who expect these programs to furnish a major source of their retirement income has dramatically decreased, from 58% in 2001 to only 49% today, with a low of 42% just following the worldwide economic collapse of 2008.

This question of retirement matters, for it relates to how Americans view themselves, both now and in the future, and how they view the assets they own (as I will deal with in the next article). According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who are retired, and who are comfortable in their retirement, is falling, from 52% in 2002 to 40% today (with lows of 34% and 31% in 2009 and 2012). The number who are not yet retired, and who say they are comfortable now, but who do not think they will be comfortable in retirement, has remained relatively stable in the range 20% to 29%. The number of non-retirees who say they are not comfortable now, and do not expect to be comfortable in retirement either, has increased from around 20% in 2002-2004 to 30% today, with a peak of 36% in 2012.

Talking to people who are not retired, and separating the questions of whether one is comfortable now, and whether one expects to be comfortable in retirement, yields other revealing results. The number who say they are comfortable now has fallen, from 74% in 2002 to 63% today, with a 2012 low of 57%. The pattern of those who expect to be comfortable in retirement matches this trend, but shows a profound pessimism. The line very nearly parallels the "current comfort" line, but is lower -- falling as it falls, from 59% in 2002 to 48% today, with again a lowpoint in 2012, of 38%.

This is important. Significantly more people view themselves as being comfortable today, than who feel they will get along well in retirement, with a gap of around 15%. And note that less than two-thirds say they are "comfortable" today, even though the very first graph presented in this article said that 81% of Americans are "satisfied" with their current lot.

Clearly, "satisfied" is a very different thing from "comfortable." Almost 20% more people are "satisfied" than are "comfortable" -- and 15% less than that think they will be "comfortable" in retirement.

This does not seem to imply that all Americans are happy with their current lot. Being "satisfied" may be something like "resigned to". It certainly does not necessarily mean people think they will be able to accumulate sufficient wealth to have a "comfortable" retirement.

There may be good reason for this possible sense of unease. Americans expect that they will be required to work longer before they are able to retire. The number who expect to retire before age 65 has fallen quite a lot since the mid 90s, from 49% to only 32% today, with a low point of 27% in 2012-2013. In contrast, the number who expect to have to work beyond age 65 has more than doubled, from a mere 14% in 1995 to more than a third -- between 36% and 39% -- in recent years.

These expectations may be a bit too pessimistic, however. Predicting the future is dangerous, but we can compare what actually happened in the past to what people expected to happen. When retired people were asked at what age they retired, the number of younger retirees can be seen to have fallen over the years (i.e., people worked longer before they retired), but not quite as dramatically as was feared. In 1991-1996, between 70% and 76% of respondents said they retired before age 65, as contrasted with around 49% of people in that era who said they expected to be able to retire that early. The number of under-65 retirees has fallen some, but not much, to around 65% today (give or take a few percentage points).

This may, however, be due to forced retirements, as employers push out older (and therefore more expensive) workers, in favor of younger, cheaper labor. If someone is forced to retire before he or she is ready to do so, that could well contribute to the expectation of being unable to retire in comfort. Note, though, that the number who retired past age 65 has more than doubled, from 7-8% in the early 90s to around 20% in 2014-2015.

All this, however -- everything above -- is a matter of surveys. The questions about when people actually retired are the only ones that deal with real data, as contrasted with perceptions. Perception is not necessarily the same as reality.

But does that matter? If people say they are happy with the way things are, does it matter whether they are objectively richer or poorer, healthier or longer-lived, better-off or barely getting by?

To some extent, that question deals with Orwellian brainwashing, and the ability of elites to convince serfs to be happy with serfdom. Or does it? It is meaningful to ask whether people are "justified" in being "satisfied"?

Let's look next time at a long view of how our economy has evolved, on the scale of centuries. There are aspects that are very special about where we are now. There is nothing -- there is no "law of economics" -- that requires we stay here. We can choose to return to a prior state, or to stay where we are, or to progress so some desired condition. Let's look at the possibilities.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What passes for progress

It seems a deal has been struck in the Senate to move forward on an anti-sex trafficking bill.
Republicans have been using this bill as an excuse not to vote on the nomination of Loretta Lynch for Attorney General. Yes, Republicans hate Eric Holder so much that they have forced him to say on as AG rather than vote on his immensely qualified replacement. So far, Ms Lynch has been waiting for a vote for 164 days, more than twice as long as the last five AG’s combined. This reveals that Republican complaints about Holder were not serious – being nothing more than political theater, they really weren’t in all that much hurry to replace him.
Apparently Republicans in the Senate are unable to walk and chew gum (it’s rumored that as a birth control measure, Senator McConnell’s wife used to give him a stick of gum at bedtime), so it wasn’t possible for them to have a vote on Ms Lynch before the sex trafficking bill was finalized. And in order to ensure it took as long as possible for that bill to clear, Senate Republicans inserted a clause that would force victims of sex trafficking to bear any children conceived from being raped by their victimizers, rather than allow fees paid (not tax money) to be used for abortions.
Details of whatever resolution has been reached are not yet available, though they should be coming out later today. The Senate should now be able to take up Ms Lynch’s nomination in the next few days, unless someone has given Mitch McConnell a stick of gum.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Some Cold Facts

The right-wing and denialist blog suyts space has a recent post attempting to convince the gullible that no sea ice has melted since 2001. This silly notion has been occasionally making the denialist blog-rounds for some time. Oddly enough, the same blog had a similar post on the same topic over a year ago, claiming that there had been no ice melt since 2004 -- and the level at which we had a "flat trendline" then was lower than it is today. Apparently, new ice has appeared to raise the level that had existed between 2004 and 2013. Imagine that.

What does this mean? It means the loss of global sea ice is a chaotic process, even though it has a definite long-term trend. I suspect the author of suyts space is desperate to distract people from the fact that Arctic ice has just had its lowest winter maximum ever. It is important for purveyors of fantasy to get out ahead of reality whenever possible.

Denialists these days are obsessed with the fact that the area covered by Antarctic sea ice in the winter has been slightly greater the last few years than it used to be. What they won't admit is that this phenomenon is known to be caused by the same forces that are causing the Arctic ice collapse, that is, "global warming." Indeed, climate denialists try to imply that the slight increase in seasonal Antarctic ice somehow "disproves" the existence of climate change, rather than being a symptom of it. I'll deal with that in a future post as well.

In the meanwhile, I decided to create some global sea ice graphs of my own, and I found a wonderful source for data, the National Snow and Ice Data Center. This post and at least the next two will use data from that source.

Below is the first in a series of sea ice graphs. It is the average yearly sea ice area from 1980 through 2014. I have added a linear trendline. In any chaotic dataset, it is always possible to cherry pick sub-spans which allow one to create flat trendlines (which is what we see happening on suyts space), or even trendlines that slope in the direction opposite to the overall trend (suyts could have done that by starting at the point where his 2004 trendline began, and running up to the current day). Doing so, however, is an exercise in political propaganda, not a scientific practice.

In the graph below, you will notice the actual ice area sometimes goes above the trendline, and sometimes goes below the trendline. This is normal for any chaotic process. You will also notice that the trendline is trending unequivocally down. That's because global sea ice is decreasing.

fig 1 - Yearly sums of Arctic average ice area and Antarctic average ice area

You will also notice that the divergences above and below are getting larger. This is also normal for a chaotic process that is becoming increasingly unstable, signaling an impending total collapse.

The last two years diverge particularly high -- that is, the average level of global sea ice has been higher for the last two years. 2006, 2007, and 2011 diverged particularly low. Denialists will stress the last two years and ignore the others, because that’s how they roll. (They are irrational in the extreme.) Denialists will claim that climate scientists likewise concentrate only on the extremes below the trend line, but that is false, since the high numbers are also due to climate change. Human production of greenhouse gasses is destabilizing the climate in a variety of destructive ways.

Let me also point out, it makes little sense to sum up northern and southern hemisphere ice in this way. Sea ice in the north and south are subject to entirely different processes. The north is a sea surrounded by land which is covered by steppes. The south is a continent covered in an ice sheet, surrounded by water. Adding the sea ice from these two areas is like adding the scores of the Bears and the Cubs into a “Chicago sports score.” Not only does this score tell you nothing meaningful, but it excludes the White Sox, the Black Hawks, and the Bulls. In a similar way, we are leaving out land-based glaciers, the Greenland ice sheet, and the Antarctic ice sheet -- as well as ignoring the volume of the sea ice, which tells us how much ice there actually is.

If we are to concentrate only on sea ice, and only on area, I will have a recommendation for a much better way to do that in my next blog post.

Below are two more graphs, showing the sum of each year’s minimum sea ice, and maximum sea ice – that is, each year’s Northern Hemisphere max plus that year’s Southern Hemisphere max, or Northern plus Southern hemisphere min.

On these graphs, as on the graph above, the scale at the left is in millions of square kilometers. The scale differs on each graph in order to fit the graphs to a consistent size, but I can create them to a consistent scale if readers want to see that.

fig 2 - Yearly sums of Arctic Minimum and Antarctic Minimum ice

fig 3 - Yearly sums of Arctic Maximum and Antarctic Maximum ice

As with the yearly average graph, I have added linear trendlines. You can again see rapid collapse, particularly in the yearly minimum. This will become even more apparent when I separately graph each hemisphere. You an also see that the yearly maximum is trending rapidly down even with the Antarctic sea ice winter maximum increasing, because the Arctic ice is decreasing faster.

As with the “Average” graph, the last two or three years have been significantly above the trendline. This means nothing, because this is a chaotic process. You can see the Minimum graph shows the final year (2014) as lower than the year previous (2013) – the brief recent upward divergence has already ended, which is why this winter’s (2015’s) Arctic maximum has set a new record low (which will affect the graphs next year).

Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Non-Governing Coalition

In the wake of the Israeli elections, Prime Minister Netanyahu has to form a new governing coalition. Too bad his rightist allies in the US Senate can't take a lesson from him. They seem unable to govern, even with a clear majority. Follow me here.

The funny thing about Hillary Clinton's press conference the other day dealing with her emails is that she seemed to be enjoying herself. Reporter after reporter asked pretty much the same nonsense questions. She took it all in stride, and didn't seem to take any of it too seriously -- because it is, after all, nonsense.

As I said nearly two weeks ago, right after the press conference, there's nothing here.The point of the faux scandal is to attempt to put Ms. Clinton on the defensive. Treating this faux news story with the contempt it deserves it the right approach.

The current chef Benghazi persecutor, Trey Gowdy, has now demanded to be given Ms. Clinton's email server -- or at least, to have it turned over to a third party. Of course, he's not going to get that. All the official and government emails were sent to other people in the government, so they're already available and already saved on other government servers. Anything private is, well, private, and he has no right to any of it.

It isn't clear what he's looking for -- well, yes, it is. It wouldn't be clear, if we assumed he wanted something relating to Ms. Clinton's duties as Secretary of State, because all that information is already in his hands. Gowdy is (supposedly) asking as part of his Yet Another Investigation Into Benghazi. What he's really looking for is something, anything, that can be presented as tawdry personal dirt. There isn't any other possible reason for the request, since investigation after investigation has already concluded there's nothing more to investigate. Even the investigation run by Republicans said that.

What we're seeing, of course, is really not Yet Another Investigation Into Benghazi, but yet another example of the inability of Republicans to govern. Their only concern -- their obsession -- is political machinations. They cannot actually do the People's work.

Interfering in negotiations to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb is one example. Shutting down the government in 2013 is another (and Republicans will have at least three chances to do that again this year). Republicans are unable to govern, even when they've got complete control of Congress. We saw it in their fumbling over passing a clean DHS funding bill. Or their inability to bring the bipartisan Senate immigration bill to the House floor. House Speaker Boehner said he'd instead pass a series of smaller reform bills. He couldn't even do that.

We see it in Republicans' inability to even pass an anti-human trafficking bill. Some Republican Senate moron had the bright idea to stick a poison pill into their own bill -- unnecessary and divisive anti-abortion language, preventing the victims of human trafficking from using federal funds for abortions if their victimization leads to unwanted pregnancies. Senate Majority Moron Mitch McConnell has claimed the language is no big deal -- he says there are enough exceptions that victims who need abortions can get them anyway. If it's no big deal though, then the language doesn't need to be there, does it? So just remove it.

But no, McConnell insists the poison pill has to stay in, and to force the issue, he won't allow a vote on Loretta Lynch until the bill passes with the anti-abortion language in.

Wait, what? What has Loretta Lynch got to do with the anti-abortion poison pill in the human trafficking bill?

Well, nothing.

Ms.  Lynch has already been waiting longer for her confirmation than the last five Attorneys General combined had to wait for theirs. The really funny part of that is how anxious Republicans are to get rid of the current Attorney General, Eric Holder. They absolutely hate him. Or at least, for six years, they've pretended to hate him. More than likely, it was all political posturing (like Trey Gowdy's pretend "investigation"). Faux News viewers fell for it, which is all that matters.

Will Democrats cave on this issue, and vote to keep the nonsense anti-abortion language in the  human trafficking bill? There's no reason for them to. If they don't, Republicans will be seen as once again trying to load legislation up with bags of flaming dog poo, as they did in forcing the 2013 shutdown, and as they did in the silliness over DHS funding. Eventually, as with DHS and the 2013 spending bill, they'll have to just take their bag of dog poo out and let the clean bill pass. In the meanwhile, Democrats are stuck with Eric Holder staying on as Attorney General. Oh my, what ever shall we do?

As with the posturing above, the point of Trey Gowdy's faux "investigation" isn't the investigation, just as the dog poo in the above bills proved the machinations weren't about the bills. Trey Gowdy is trying to embarrass the former Secretary of State and likely 2016 presidential candidate, nothing more. He's seizing on the email faux "scandal" as one way to do it. Nothing else has worked. Ms. Clinton was scoring easily 10 to 15 points ahead of even the closest of the likely Republican candidates.

So, how's this latest tactic working out for Republicans? Well, think about it. Before the email thing broke, Ms. Clinton was polling at least 10 to 15 points ahead of any possible Republican candidate. Now, three weeks later, she's polling at least 10 to 15 points ahead of any possible Republican candidate. Not much of a change.

The people who support Ms Clinton know it's a nothingburger. The people who hate her already hate her. No one has any real expectation that anyone will be swayed by this nonsense, but it's not about that. Republicans will use these faked "investigations" as a way to keep the nutty base engaged, keep them riled up, prevent them from thinking about any actual issues -- because Republicans lose on issues -- and, they hope, get them to the polls.

That's all Republicans have. They're in a constant campaign posturing mode. They sure can't govern.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Israeli Elections Today

I don't have any information at the moment. Israel is 6 - 9 hours ahead of us here in the States, so their day is already finishing as I write this. Election returns should begin to become available, although the question of who will be able to form a coalition government will not be known for some days yet.

Discuss. I will add data as I find it.


(first update 8:30 am CDT):

Israel is 6 hours ahead of US Eastern Daylight Time, 7 hours ahead of CDT, 8 hours ahead of Mountain Daylight Time, and 9 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight Time.

Polls opened at 7 AM in Jerusalem, and the first exit polling is expected around 10 PM, but that is generally considered unreliable.  In the last election in 2013, almost six million votes were cast, in over 10,000 polling places. The voter turnout then was 67.8 percent of eligible voters.

There is a good rundown of some of the issues in the Israeli election here.

In  recent days, Prime Minister Netanyahu's popularity in Israel seems to have taken as hit, as his campaign appearance before the US Congress at the invitation of Republicans appears to have backfired. In an attempt to drive up the far-right vote, he responded in recent days by taking a very hard line on Palestinian statehood. This is a risky gamble, as it might also fire up his opposition.


(Update 3:00 pm CDT):

There is this interesting development:
Increasingly worried that he could lose Tuesday’s elections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel lashed out at the country’s Arab voters, expressing alarm that a large turnout by them could determine the outcome. Opponents accused him of baldfaced racism.

(Update 3:30 pm CDT):

For what it's worth, results seem to be coming in earlier than expected:
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and his chief challenger, Isaac Herzog of the center-left Zionist Union, appeared to win about the same number of seats in Parliament in Tuesday’s election, according to Israeli news media and exit polls, promising a protracted and messy process of forming the next governing coalition.

After a divisive campaign that was seen as a referendum on Mr. Netanyahu’s tenure, an intense push in the final days apparently brought a surge in votes for both major parties, with each expected to take about 27 of the 120 seats.
Together, Each of these two parties looks to take about 22.5% of the total number of seats, which will leave them both scrambling to form a ruling coalition. It would be amusing, of course, if neither of them is able to.

If these preliminary numbers turn out to be the final count, this would be a drop of almost 13% for  Netanahu's Likud party, which won 31 seats in the 19th Knesset in the election of 2013 -- itself a drop of eleven seats from the 18th Knesset. This is a pretty clear trend that doesn't look good in the long run for Likud.


(Update 9:00 pm CDT):

Here's the latest.  It appears that the Likud Party may have the narrowest of pluralities, with 27 or 28 seats as compared to the Zionist Union Party's 26 or 27.
Mr. Netanyahu and his allies seized on the early numbers to create an aura of inevitability, celebrating with singing and dancing. While his opponents vowed a fight, Israeli political analysts agreed that he had the advantage, with more votes having gone to the right-leaning parties likely to support him.

It was a turnabout from the last pre-election polls published Friday, which showed the Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog, with a four- or five-seat lead and building momentum. To bridge the gap, Mr. Netanyahu embarked on a last-minute scorched-earth campaign, promising that no Palestinian state would be established as long as he remained in office and insulting Arab citizens.
In what seems to be a typical right-wing pattern there as well as here, Mr. Netanyahu may still win by having played up some of the darkest aspects of political prejudice and mysanthropy.


(final update 8:30 am CDT 3/18):

With the counting all but finished, Netanyahu's Likud Party has won 30 of the 120 seats, to Herzog's Zionist-Union Party's 24, in what amounts to a clear victory. Herzog has conceded defeat, and Israeli pollsters are scrambling to discover how their projections were so far off. Netanyahu has pledged to work "quickly" to form a new government.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

It Seemed Like a Good Idea...

It seemed like such a good idea at the time...
Forty seven senatorial morons, led by Head Idiot Tom Cotton, wrote an insulting letter which has created blowback from across the country. Surprisingly, they were surprised.
Some Republican senators admitted Wednesday they were caught off guard by the backlash to a letter warning Iranian leaders against a nuclear agreement with President Barack Obama. And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Republicans — many of whom blessed the missive during a brisk signing session at a Senate lunch a week ago, as senators prepared to flee a Washington snowstorm — should have given it closer consideration.

This was after Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said,“I find it hard to believe that they understood the severity of what they were doing." Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the letter, as did former SoS Madeline Albright, and Maine's Independent Senator Angus King.

But it wasn't just Democrats who voiced objections. So did The Washington Post. The Wall Street Journal (!) questioned the wisdom of the letter, as did Fox "News" blonde Megyn Kelly.

Oh, and also, Germany.
[German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier], whose country is among the group of six nations negotiating with Iran, said the March 9 letter warning that a nuclear deal may not last beyond the Obama Administration injected a new element of distrust into the already difficult talks.

“It would have been difficult enough without the letter of the 47,” Mr. Steinmeier said in an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington. “Now it has become somewhat more difficult.”
Read that quote again. Notice: it is a group of six countries involved in these negotiations with Iran, including the entire UN Security council -- that includes Russia and China as well. It's not just President Obama going rogue and refusing to recognize the authori-tay of the Republican Party. Pretty much the entire planet wants these talks to work, and will be involved in enforcing any deal that is reached.

Not all Republicans idiots are contrite. Kentucky Idiot Senator Rand Paul admitted the letter was really addressed to President Obama, thus giving away the game. It wasn't intended to inform Iran about how the American constitution works. It was really all about insulting and undercutting the President, regardless of the damage caused to the world, to the prospects for disarming Iran, and to America. Republicans don't care about any of that trivia.

Louisiana Governor Idiot Bobby Jindal said that every 2016 presidential hopeful should show support for the 47 Moron letter "to make clear to Iran that they are negotiating with a lame duck president," apparently to send the message that no president should be allowed to negotiate with any foreign country during a second term. Republican presidential Wannabe Idiot Jindal doesn't want to do anything meaningful if (Dog forbid) he should ever become president.

Most of the 47 Morons seem to be standing behind this idiocy. A willingness to violate the Logan Act should, one might think, make one ineligible to hold public office in America. We can do our best to make this an issue in the 2016 campaign -- "Have you ever intentionally attempted to interfere with a presidential negotiation with a foreign country?"

Some Republican idiots tried to back away from the letter. It was all a joke you see:
“The administration has no sense of humor,” one aide complained, after reports that the letter was likely a felony offense, and could amount to treason.
Apparently, at least some Republicans are not interested in getting caught committing treason, so we're supposed to now imagine it was meant as gentle ribbing, rather than an attempt to side with Iranian hardliners in their effort to help Iran get a nuclear bomb, or at least to cause a major war.

Yeah, right.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Ferguson Police Chief Resigns

The chief of police of Ferguson, MO has resigned, only days after the release of a US Department of Justice report documenting racial bias in that town, following the murder last August of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.

Four other members of the Ferguson police department have already resigned, and a fifth has been fired, in the wake of revelations about police profiling, and discriminatory arrests, fines and stops, along with racist emails and a pervasive atmosphere of racial bias.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Memo to Republicans: You've Got Fail

Hillary Clinton held a press conference today to answer questions about email.

A week ago, the New York Times reported that during her time as Secretary of State,  Ms. Clinton had used a private email server to conduct both personal and official business. The Times speculated on whether any rules may have been broken. None were, since the current restrictions on official State Department email use were not in place until John Kerry took over as SoS. Before Ms. Clinton, Colin Powell had also used personal email for state business, eliciting no one's concern.

Further, this was already an old story, since the State Department had requested last October for all former Secretaries of State to turn over all their old emails, and Ms. Clinton had complied shortly thereafter, producing 55,000 pages of documents. She has since asked that all those emails be made public. The State Department is reviewing them to remove any classified or personal material, and is expected shortly to comply with her request. Despite this, speculation rages from the usual suspects about what non-data she isn't hiding in the emails she has completely released.

Only three other former Secretaries of State ever used email at all --  Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Madeleine Albright.. Ms Rice and Ms Albright apparently hadn't made extensive use of email, and didn't produce any documents when the State Department requested them. General Powell hadn't retained any emails, having deleted them all, eliciting no one's concern, and so he didn't produce any either. Reportedly, speculation isn't raging about what these three aren't producing.

The server that Ms Clinton had used was one owned and operated by the Clinton family, and habitually used by the former president, William Jefferson Clinton. It was kept physically secure by the Secret Service, and its software was kept secure by the fortune of the Clinton family, who were able to afford the best software security available. There is no evidence of the server being less secure than any government servers, nor any evidence that any sensitive communications were compromised. This complete lack of anything to be concerned about seems to have led to raging speculation about how insecure the server wasn't.

The majority of emails sent to and from Ms, Clinton's account had either come from, or were sent to (or cc:'ed to) other people who worked at the State Department or in the Obama Administration, which means nearly all of the official emails already had copies on other government servers, leading to raging speculation about emails that are already in government possession. 

In short, Ms. Clinton seems to have followed both the letter and the spirit of the law, and is in the process of producing more information than anyone has asked for. Naturally, Republicans are therefore doing their best to invent a scandal, led by the current chef Benghazi persecutor, Trey Gowdy. As with all the other non-scandals Republicans have invented about the Clintons personally, the Obama Administration, or the Clinton Administration, nothing is expected to come from this non-scandal either, except a lot of snippy emails.

Monday, March 9, 2015

47 Morons

Forty-seven  Republican senators have gone rogue, trying to revolt against the Administration. Unlike the noble and heroic characters of the Japanese folktale of the "47 Ronin", these Republican seditionists are possessed of the basest motives and are engaging in the most dishonest and despicable sort of gamesmanship.

In their effort to undermine not only the President, but also the Constitution, forty seven Republican senators have written an open letter they pretend was addressed to "the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." It is insulting and condescending, and its clear purpose is to interfere with President Obama's negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons development.

I provide a link to the letter here (or click on the small version below). Go read it. I'll wait.

The message of this letter is clear: It doesn't matter what you agree to with this President. We Republican senators will never approve any agreement he negotiates with you. And the next president can therefore nullify any unratified agreement with a wave of his pen. So don't bother.

This is stoopid on so many levels. First, the chief Iranian negotiators were educated in the United States. Even if they hadn't been, one would think they'd have educated themselves about the nature of our nation before entering into negotiations. They are likely already to know how the American constitutional system works. Little constructive purpose could be served by treating them like idiots.

Second, the Constitution gives the President the power to negotiate treaties and other international agreements. For the Senate to interfere in that process as these senators are trying to do violates the basic principles of the separation of powers. Their lecturing on the Constitution is thus self-negating.

Third, late last year, Republicans tried to make a stink about the President writing letters to the leader of Iran, encouraging him to help fight ISIL. Now here they are, writing a letter to "the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," as if they hadn't previously criticized doing exactly that.

The worst dishonesty though is in who the audience of this letter really is. Yes, Republicans are trying to scuttle an international agreement that would stop Iranian nuclear weapons research, because such an agreement would make war with Iran less likely. An agreement would also mean yet another foreign policy victory for this President, once again undermining the Republican meme of President Obama somehow being inept at his job (Republicans are still trying to live down the embarrassment of Bush 2). Yes, Republicans are very much afraid an agreement is in sight -- they brought out Bibi in their attempt to stop it, and now they're doing this. That's all true, but these are all secondary considerations.

There's a reason this was an "open letter" rather than a communication sent through any official channels. It's not really intended to send a message to "the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran." It is intended as fodder for the nutty right-wing base, in an effort to keep them riled up and engaged. The letter isn't really a lecture on the nature of our Constitution meant to educate Iranians -- it is intended to remind the nutty American right about the meme of President Obama trying to ignore the Constitution.

These 47 Morons are not pretending to lecture "the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran" about the Constitution. They are pretending to lecture the President. When they say, "you may not fully understand our constitutional system," it is the President toward whom they are directing that insult.

Republicans are losing this fight, and they know it. The President is free to negotiate an end to Iranian nuclear hopes, and they can't do anything about it. Mitch McConnell tried to schedule a vote in the Senate to pre-block approval of any such agreement, and was forced to un-schedule the vote. This is a fight Republicans can't win. All they can do is get their crazy base angry at President Obama once more doing something good for America.

ADDENDUM: It turns out, the Republicans who wrote this lecture on the Constitution apparently do not themselves understand the Constitution. They should be embarrassed, but then, Republicans are way beyond the capability to be embarrassed by their stupidity and perfidy.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Presidential Pop

Since sometime in the summer of 2009, we've been hearing that President Obama has "historically low approval ratings." Is that true? Well, he has, recently and briefly, fallen below 40% approval in some polling, and that sounds pretty dismal. Is that unusual for a modern president?

Let's look at the range of approval highs and lows for the last thirteen presidents, Roosevelt through Obama, which is as far back as the data goes.

The presidential polling data for this article is taken from the Roper Center Public Opinion Archives. I invite interested readers to create a similar set of graphs for any other polling organization (say, Gallup), which should yield similar results.

First, here is a graph which shows, for every president since Franklin Roosevelt, the highest and lowest approval ratings. The presidents are in chronological order.

The first striking thing about this graph is the high degree of overlap. All presidents,with only three exceptions, spanned the range from 50% approval to 70% approval -- that is, their highest was above 70%, and their lowest was below 50%. In fact, since Johnson, that overlap range is wider still, from a high exceeding 70% to a low under 40%.

The three exceptions to those overlapping ranges are: one Democrat, Kennedy (who never fell below 56% approval) and two Republicans -- Nixon (who never exceeded 67%) and Reagan (who never exceeded 68%).

What can we say about President Obama's "historically low" ratings? They seem, in fact, to be fairly average. That came as a mild surprise. What is more surprising still is that the patron saint of modern Republicans, Ronald Reagan, whom we frequently hear was amazingly beloved, actually had approval ratings that seem mediocre at best. But how bad were they? Read on.

The next graph shows the presidents in order by their highest approval rating. Who hit the highest highs?

One surprise that jumps out here is that the president who hit the highest high was George W. Bush, at a whopping 92% popularity, which he hit shortly after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It seems likely anyone who was president at that moment would have reached a similar high, but let's be generous and simply acknowledge that the worst terrorist attack in American history did indeed happen on his watch, and give him credit for being president at the time.

One other surprise is that the beloved Ronald Reagan isn't anywhere near the top. In fact, he's almost at the bottom. The only president with a lower high point is Richard Nixon, and Reagan beat Nixon by only a single percentage point. That's saying something.

And Barack Obama, with his "historically low" ratings? He is nearly smack in the middle, with seven Presidents showing higher highs, and five with lower highs. Eisenhower, who occupies the center seat, had a high of 79%, beating Obama's high of 76% by a statistically insignificant three percentage points, only two points more than the margin by which Reagan beat Nixon.

To be fair, the myth about President Obama's "historically low" ratings isn't that he was never as popular as other presidents. It is that he has achieved abysmal depths. So let's re-order the presidents by their lowest recorded popularity.

Here we find that the president with the highest low point was John Kennedy, whose popularity never fell below 56%. In fact, only three presidents -- Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower -- have managed to not fall below 40%. The president who hit the lowest mark -- the one with the "historical lows" we keep hearing about -- was not Barack Obama, but George W. Bush, the guy who also hit the highest high. That's a curious fact, and one to which I shall return.

President Obama's abysmal rating? His lowest point is actually amazingly high. Only three presidents -- Kennedy, Roosevelt, and Eisenhower -- did better. So much for the myth of Obama having "historically low" ratings, eh?

And the beloved Reagan? He's tied for the center point with Lyndon Johnson, both of whom hit a low of 35% approval. Johnson was so unpopular he declined to run for a second full term. All of the presidents with approval lows worse than Johnson and Reagan are generally considered to be among the least effective of modern presidents -- G. H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter (both of whom were unpopular enough to loose their re-election bids), Nixon (forced to resign in disgrace), Truman (a disappointment after Roosevelt), and G. W. Bush (whose ineptitude led to two military quagmires, soaring federal debts, and the worst economic crisis since before any of these presidents were elected).

Looking closer at the curious case of George W. Bush, who has both the highest high point and the lowest low point -- this means he has widest popularity range of all these presidents. Below are two graphs, the first showing the actual approval range of the presidents, listed by the size of those ranges. The second shows the ranges themselves, to give a better feel for the magnitude of the differences.

The most striking thing about these graphs is that the presidents with the widest ranges are usually accorded less respect than the presidents with narrower ranges -- probably because a wider range tends to mean the president in question is likely to have been able to fall lower in popularity, precisely because their range was larger (or, conversely, their range was larger precisely because they fell lower). And indeed, the six presidents with the widest ranges of popularity -- G. W. Bush, Harry Truman, G. H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon -- were also the presidents with the lowest lows in popularity. (Johnson tied with Reagan to achieve the sixth lowest mark.)

An interesting fact about John Kennedy is that he achieved both the narrowest range of popularity rankings, and -- at 56% -- he had, by far, the highest low point. This stands him in stark contrast to G. W. Bush, who had the lowest low, the highest high, and the widest range.

Perhaps Kennedy's narrow range and very high low point are both due to his short time in office. He was, after all, assassinated after less than three years as President. Perhaps he simply didn't have time to become unpopular. Perhaps presidents who are in office longer have more time to achieve both soaring highs and dismal lows.

While that may be a contributing factor, it can't be the whole story. Below is a graph showing the popularity ranges of the presidents, with them listed in order from the longest-serving to the shortest (darker ranges for presidents who served longer). The graph following that shows the lengths of each president's total time in office measured in years. There doesn't seem to be an obvious correlation.

The president with the longest time in office -- FDR -- had a very narrow range of popularity rankings. Only Reagan, Eisenhower, and Kennedy had narrower ranges, and two of these -- Reagan and Eisenhower -- served for two entire terms. This means presidents with three of the four narrowest ranges all served two or more complete terms. And while Kennedy did serve a very short term (which might otherwise explain his narrow popularity range), his wasn't the shortest time in office. That distinction is held by Gerald Ford, whose presidency was even shorter than Kennedy's, and whose popularity range is smack in the middle -- six presidents having larger ranges, and six having smaller.

If there is a correlation between length of service and size of popularity range, it would appear to be the opposite of what one might expect. To some extent, presidents whose popularity remains rather stable tend to remain in office the longest.

This isn't a hard and fast rule -- G. W. Bush is a spectacular exception in one direction, JFK in the other, but their situations can both be written off as special cases. JFK was assassinated, so we really don't know how either the full range of his popularity would have played out, nor how long he would have remained in office (would he have had a second term?). Bush's high point was due to the 9/11 attacks which (we have to assume) he had nothing to do with, and so can't take credit for. Both of these presidents therefore had externalities which affected their popularity. We can't know how popular they would have been if not for these history-shaking events.

This also means length of service can't have anything to do with the clear differences between President Obama's popularity and, say, Ronald Reagan's. Though Obama's second term is not yet over, one assumes he will fill it out and serve as long as Reagan did -- and, barring any externalities, the range of his highs and lows is unlikely to change significantly from what it is now. We can therefore draw what are likely to be some safe conclusions.

President Obama's highest popularity rating was rather average for presidents since Franklin Roosevelt, whereas his low point was very good indeed -- fourth highest out of thirteen, or in the top one third.

President Reagan, in contrast, had a low point that was right in the middle of the pack, tied with Lyndon Johnson's low point, with six presidents doing better and five doing worse. His high point, however, was absolutely dismal, beating only Richard Nixon, and that only by a single point.

The conclusion? Whereas President Obama's approval rating can be considered somewhere between average and very good, the beloved Reagan's must be ranked average to terrible.

Further, think about the evidence provided by the presidents who reached the highest approval ratings -- G. W. Bush, G. H. W. Bush, Harry Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson. Four of these -- the two Bushes, Truman, and Johnson -- also had four of the five greatest overall ranges in popularity. And three of them (the Bushes and Truman) were among the five lowest popularity ratings (those five being G. W. Bush, Truman, Nixon, Carter, and G. H. W. Bush). What does this mean, that the same presidents who scored highest also tended to score lowest?

Probably it means that presidential popularity is a pretty meaningless measure. The popularity at any given moment, or any given extreme, may have nothing to do with what comes after, or what went before.

Reagan's dismal popularity performance, coupled with the near-worship of modern Republicans, also implies that a president's popularity while in office may have little resemblance to the myths that are formed once that time in office is done.

And the persistent and false meme about President Obama's "historically low" popularity shows the myths may be unrelated to reality even while a president is still in the White House.