Sunday, December 20, 2015

Straining at gnats, swallowing camels

This Saturday's Kittanning Leader Times published two editorials critical of governmental actions. The tone and focus of both are excellent illustrations of the need for the current editorial writers to either up their game or be fired. The first editorial attacks the EPA for using social media platforms to promote the EPA's own clean water rules that were under threat by Republican members of congress. BTW, those rules have survived so far Republican attempts to kill them. A rider attached to the omnibus budget bill passed by congress this week failed to make it into the final version. The senate passed a separate bill specifically to prevent implementation of the rules. That bill is likely to pass in the house as well and will almost certainly be vetoed by President Obama. Say what you want about Obama's failures to achieve progressive goals; without his administration our country would be in a much worse place in many areas.

What exactly did the EPA do wrong, and who found out about it? The editorial mentions a report by the General Accounting Office which found that the EPA's social media outreach in two cases amounted to "impermissible 'covert propaganda.'" The editorial doesn't go into details on precisely what the GAO report found illegal. I am not so bound by space restrictions here -- nor by any allergies to inconvenient truths -- so I can report the details. The EPA has been using multiple social media platforms to publicize its work. You can get a glimpse of its rather extensive list of social media outreach sites here. Out of all this content the GAO report found two social media posts that violated federal rules restricting federal agencies from advocating for policies via covert grassroots campaigns. One was a blog post by Travis Loop, Communications Director for EPA’s Office of Water. This post includes links to websites of other organizations. The other websites include prominent sections advocating readers to contact members of congress to protect the EPA's clean water rules. The GAO report concludes that these links constitute an attempt by a federal agency to indirectly generate grassroots action influencing congressional action, which would be against a law passed by congress in 2014. The GAO's assessment appears to be correct.

The second was an EPA post to Thunderclap. This site is designed to amplify publication efforts of a social media post by attracting others with a social media presence to join a publicity campaign. The result is supposed to lead to a huge number of people who watch the social media feeds of the other people to see the originator's post. The EPA's Thunderclap post clearly identifies the EPA as the source of the post. Based on Thunderclap's own description of what appears to the end reader when the Thunderclap-formatted message is broadcast, the EPA logo identifying them as the source of the post would not appear to the end readers. That fact, plus the wording of the message makes it appear as if the supporter rather than the EPA is the origin of the message. In that regard the GAO report's criticism of the EPA is correct. The EPA staffer(s) responsible for the post should have worded it to make it clear that the EPA is the source of the message or not used Thunderclap at all.

Of course, since the GAO is a government body, I didn't fully trust its report any more than I fully trust the EPA. I checked the Facebook posts of the organizations that signed on to the campaign myself, just to see what EPA the post looks like when it was carried over. First, I checked to see what happened if I tried to embed the EPA post's Thunderclap link into my own Facebook page. It came up showing the link to the Thunderclap post and the images, including the EPA logo, clearly displayed. Next, I tried finding the EPA post reposted on the Facebook pages of a couple of the groups who signed up as supporters of the EPA post. I checked the Facebook pages of the National Wildlife Foundation, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Cindy Skrukrud. Nothing going back all the way to the beginning of 2013. According to the GAO report, the Thunderclap campaign should have reposted the EPA post to the Facebook pages of all these supporters simultaneously on September 29, 2014. Out of frustration I searched Facebook for 'September 29, 2014 clean water.' I turned up tons of posts dated September 29. 2014, tons of posts containing the phrase 'clean water,' a bunch of posts about Lee Min Ho and only one -- ONE -- f*cking post that had to do with the EPA's Thunderclap campaign. It was posted to the page of the Santa Cruz Water Authority. Based on that post, the GAO report is correct that the message does not clearly identify the EPA as the source of the message. Trouble is, this post is NOT one auto-generated by Thunderclap. Rather, it appears to have been posted by someone at the Santa Cruz Water Authority, urging readers to check out the Thunderclap campaign page. I did the same search on Twitter and turned up squat regarding the EPA's Thunderclap post again. In short, I can't find any evidence to support or disconfirm the GAO's report. WTF? Did all 908 of these supporters delete the EPA post? I find that highly unlikely. So I'm going to ask the obvious question: Did the GAO bother to check whether the EPA campaign ever got carried out? Did they talk to Thunderclap to find out what happened to all these simultaneous posts that have now completely disappeared? How about the owners of the Facebook pages on which these posts were supposed to appear? I'm certainly not going to quiz readers of the various supporters' Facebook pages or Twitter feeds whether they actually saw the EPA post on September 29, 2014. I've already spent too much of my precious time on this issue. The GAO staff does get paid to answer this question. Why didn't they?

Conclusion? The GAO, a federal government body, reports correctly on the illegal activities of staff in another government body, the EPA. Those in charge at the EPA need to take steps to ensure that this type of activity stops. But there are larger lessons here: 1. Government -- in this case EPA staff -- can do wrong. 2. Government -- in this case the GAO staff responsible for their report -- can work. 3. Government -- in this case the same GAO staff responsible for their report -- can make mistakes. Not very profound, I know. That's the point. The fundamental problem with government is that it is made up of people. Want to fix government? Fix people. Of course, the editorial board is so worked up about this particular case because they agree with critics of the clean water rules that they are regulatory overreach. If a government agency guilty of illegal advocacy happened to be influencing legislation in a way that conforms to the board's own views and was caught by the GAO, do you think we would be reading an editorial criticizing the agency? ROFL

Now, about that people problem. Never fear, the editorial board has a fix for that. Just look at their second editorial, in which they criticize the outcome of the UN climate conference. Of Ban Ki-moon's claim that the agreement to reduce carbon emissions is a "monumental success for the planet and its people" the board had this to say:

Such delusions. Such a pig in a poke.

The Paris accord will do little to "save" the planet and much to hurt its people

How does the editorial board support this assessment? With a quote from a Heartland Institute "scholar" named James Taylor? Seriously? This "scholar" complains that the agreement ignores sound science in favor of political corectness and international wealth transfers. He's a f*cking lawyer. Don't worry, though, the board has more than "expert" opinion on its side; it has facts. Like, "human civilization developed and excelled at temperatures warmer than what the U.N. brokered deal calls for." Where do they get this factoid from? Not from NOAA. Maybe from here. If so, the source they are using is just wrong. But no, this factoid actually comes from an article by the same scholarly James Taylor. Taylor's article includes no citations to justify his factual claims. The other "facts" asserted by the editorial are pulled from the same source and likewise no references justify these claims either. I won't bother repeating them in detail.

What inspired this phony piece of right-wing B.S. masquerading as a piece of serious editorial craft? It could be that the editors buy into the misguided arguments floating around the web that an increase in global temperatures of the magnitude and rapidity suggested by mainstream climate models is neither unique to human history nor particularly threatening. I'm not even going to bother arguing this point. The editorial board is not a group of ignorant teenagers who could benefit from some patient, detailed explanation. Maybe they are premillenialist Christians and think that Jesus will return sometime in the very near future. In that case we don't need to worry about what would otherwise happen in 75-100 years. Ha, ha, ha! Maybe they aren't premillenials but still hold the misguided idea that God has somehow placed limitations on humans' ability to influence global climate, limitations enough that modern industrial society could not change the climate. Anybody who believes this -- yes, I'm talking to you, Senator Inhofe -- is an idiot. Maybe the board realizes that, like me, they will all be dead by the time the worst effects of rising global temperatures appear. Putting off expensive and disruptive solutions to this problem will allow them and their corporate sponsors to hang on to their money. Anything bad that happens afterwards will no longer matter to them. So, who cares? This is the most cynical interpretation of their persistent stupidity. Whatever motivates these psychopaths, you can be sure of this: If we fail to invest significant resources in reducing and counteracting the effects of AGW, hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, of human lives will be lost to starvation, disease, and violence. With so many fewer people, we won't need so much government. See how the editorial board fixed the EPA problem? Brilliant!

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