Tag Archives: Michael O’Hare

Phytoplankton Numbers Are Phalling

Lauren Morello at Scientific American:

The microscopic plants that form the foundation of the ocean’s food web are declining, reports a study published July 29 in Nature.

The tiny organisms, known as phytoplankton, also gobble up carbon dioxide to produce half the world’s oxygen output—equaling that of trees and plants on land.

But their numbers have dwindled since the dawn of the 20th century, with unknown consequences for ocean ecosystems and the planet’s carbon cycle.

Researchers at Canada’s Dalhousie University say the global population of phytoplankton has fallen about 40 percent since 1950. That translates to an annual drop of about 1 percent of the average plankton population between 1899 and 2008.

The scientists believe that rising sea surface temperatures are to blame.

Ed Yong at Discover:

Graduate student Daniel Boyce focused on some of oceans’ smallest but most important denizens – the phytoplankton. These tiny creatures are the basis of marine food webs, the foundations upon which these watery ecosystems are built. They produce around half of the Earth’s organic matter and much of its oxygen. And they are disappearing. With a set of data that stretches back 100 years, Boyce found that phytoplankton numbers have fallen by around 1% per year over the last century as the oceans have become warmer, and if anything, their decline is getting faster.  Our blue planet is becoming less green with every year.

Meanwhile, post-doc Derek Tittensor has taken a broader view, looking at the worldwide distributions of over 11,500 seagoing species in 13 groups, from mangroves and seagrasses, to sharks, squids, and corals. His super-census reveals three general trends – coastal species are concentrated around the western Pacific, while ocean-going ones are mostly found at temperate latitudes, in two wide bands on either side of the equator. And the only thing that affected the distribution of all of these groups was temperature.

Together, the results from the two studies hammer home a familiar message – warmer oceans will be very different places. Rising sea temperatures could “rearrange the global distribution of life in the ocean” and destabilise their food webs at their very root. None of this knowledge was easily won – it’s the result of decades of monitoring and data collection, resulting in millions of measurements.

Boyce’s study, for example, really began in 1865, when an Italian priest and astronomer called Father Pietro Angelo Secchi invented a device for measuring water clarity. His “Secchi disk” is fantastically simple – it’s a black-and-white circle that is lowered until the observer can’t see it any more. This depth reveals how transparent the water is, which is directly related to how much phytoplankton it contains. This simple method has been used since 1899. Boyce combined it with measurements of the pigment chlorophyll taken from research vessels, and satellite data from the last decade.

Boyce’s data revealed a very disturbing trend. Phytoplankton numbers have fallen across the world over the last century, particularly towards the poles and in the open oceans. The decline has accelerated in some places, and total numbers have fallen by around 40% since the 1950s. Only in a few places have phytoplankton populations risen. These include parts of the Indian Ocean and some coastal areas where industrial run-off fertilises the water, producing choking blooms of plankton.

On a yearly basis, the rise and fall of the phytoplankton depends on big climate events like the El Nino Southern Oscillation. But in the long-term, nothing predicted the numbers of phytoplankton better than the surface temperature of the seas. Phytoplankton need sunlight to grow, so they’re constrained to the upper layers of the ocean and depends on nutrients welling up from below. But warmer waters are less likely to mix in this way, which starves the phytoplankton and limits their growth.

Michael O’Hare:

What makes human life worth living? Content, obviously: news, art, music, conversation – social intercourse in all media.  What makes it possible?  Food and drink, broadly defined: fresh water and all the plant and animal products we eat and use.

This morning I came upon a paper in Nature whose abstract is as follows (emphasis added):

In the oceans, ubiquitous microscopic phototrophs (phytoplankton) account for approximately half the production of organic matter on Earth. Analyses of satellite-derived phytoplankton concentration (available since 1979) have suggested decadal-scale fluctuations linked to climate forcing, but the length of this record is insufficient to resolve longer-term trends. Here we combine available ocean transparency measurements and in situ chlorophyll observations to estimate the time dependence of phytoplankton biomass at local, regional and global scales since 1899.We observe declines in eight out of ten ocean regions, and estimate a global rate of decline of ~1% of the global median per year. Our analyses further reveal interannual to decadal phytoplankton fluctuations superimposed on long-term trends. These fluctuations are strongly correlated with basin-scale climate indices, whereas long-term declining trends are related to increasing sea surface temperatures. We conclude that global phytoplankton concentration has declined over the past century; this decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries. (paywall)

This finding – and I’m trying hard not to hyperventilate here – is not too far down the scary scale from discovering a small inbound asteroid. This is the whole ocean we’re talking about: the earth’s production of organic material is going down half a percent per year.  Oddly, I did not come upon it in the New York Times, which seems not to have run the story at all.  The Washington Post, I found only after I searched, did run the AP story somewhere way below whatever passes for the fold in a web edition, but I didn’t see it there either.  I found it, through a Brazilian accumulator, here.

How can this be? Well, the world’s production of traditional news (not newsworthy events, writing about them) is down along with the plankton (and the menu items at your favorite seafood restaurant…remember when you could have haddock for dinner?).  Every grownup, quality-conscious outlet is putting out less stuff every day, in fewer column-inches on smaller pages (or in more vacuous hours on TV padded out with ephemera that a small crew in a truck can get some meaningless video of).  The new, lean, pathetic Times just didn’t have room for this one (or salary to pay an editor to stay on top of stuff), a story I can make a case was the most important news of the week (why the Globo happened to put it on page one is not clear (as did the São Paulo paper), but muito obrigado, a Sra. da Silva também!).  I guess I can stay informed if I go to six web pages in four languages every day, but who has time, and why is that better than the way things were before the content markets fell apart?  And how long will even that strategy work?

We can’t live without the ocean, every time we look at climate change it’s worse than we thought, and we can’t get back from the precipice, or even know how close it is, without news.

We are so f____ed.

Kevin Drum:

So, anyway, as temperatures rise the plankton die. As plankton die, they suck up less carbon dioxide, thus warming the earth further. Which causes more plankton to die. Rinse and repeat. Oh, and along the way, all the fish die too.

Or maybe not. But this sure seems like a risk that we should all be taking a whole lot more seriously than we are. Unfortunately, conservatives are busy pretending that misbehavior at East Anglia means that global warming is a hoax, the Chinese are too busy catching up with the Americans to take any of this seriously, and you and I are convinced that we can’t possibly afford a C-note increase in our electric bills as the price of taking action. As a result, maybe the oceans will die. Sorry about that, kids, but fixing it would have cost 2% of GDP and we decided you’d rather have that than have an ocean. You can thank us later.

Megan McArdle:

The die-off of most of the phytoplankton would be a huge catastrophe.  However, here are some reasons that we shouldn’t succumb to outright panic quite yet:

1.  It’s one paper.  I am not casting aspersions on the authors or their methodology, but the whole idea of science is that even the smartest people can be wrong.  As with other attempts to reconstruct past climate, they’re using a series of proxies for past events that have much weaker accuracy than the direct measurements we’re now using.  That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, but it does leave them more open to interpretation.

2.  All the carbon we’re burning used to be in the atmosphere.  Yet the planet supported life.  Indeed, the oil we’re burning comes from the compressed, decayed bodies of . . . phytoplankton.  This suggests that some number of phytoplankton should be able to survive high concentrations of the stuff.

3.  There are positive feedback effects, but also negative ones.  One of the things that drives me batty about environmentalists and journalists writing about climate change is the insistence that every single side effect will be negative. This is not really very likely, unless you think that every place on earth just happens to be at the very awesomest climate equilibrium possible as of 9:17 am this morning, or that global warming is some sort of malevolent god capable only of destruction.

Mind you, this is not an argument for letting it happen; I’m not a fan of tampering with large, complex systems that I don’t really understand, which is why I tend not to support much direct government intervention in the economy–and why I do, nonetheless, support a hefty carbon tax.

But there’s a certain tendency to ignore mitigating offsets, such as the fact that higher carbon concentrations make terrestrial plants grow more lushly, sucking up some of that extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  At least, as long as we don’t turn them into biofuels, that is.  There’s also a tendency to ignore mitigation rather than reduction, on the grounds that emissions reduction is “easier”.  Well, I suppose it is easier if you assume away the political problems.  But no matter how hard I assume, I keep waking up in a world where we’ve made no meaningful progress on emissions reductions.  At this point, I’ve got more faith in America’s engineering talent than in her ability to conquer fierce political resistance to reductions at home and abroad.

Brad Plumer at TNR on McArdle:

She’s partly right. Not every side effect will be negative. Just this week, The New York Times ran a piece about how marmots will thrive in a hotter world. So, three cheers for marmots. But the bad news tends to far outweigh the good. As the IPCC concluded in 2007, “Costs and benefits of climate change for industry, settlement and society will vary widely by location and scale. In the aggregate, however, net effects will tend to be more negative the larger the change in climate.” No one’s ignoring the upsides. They’re just focused on the larger downsides. For instance, McArdle suggests that more CO2 in the air will boost plant growth, which in turn will help suck more carbon out of the air and ameliorate things somewhat. It might surprise her to learn that scientists are perfectly well aware of that fact. But recent modeling suggests that this effect will likely be offset by other plant-related factors—like changes in evaporation—and the net result will likely be more warming, not less.

One main point to note here is that, on the whole, global warming will be neutral for this round little rock adrift in the ether that we like to call Earth. You could even say this is an exciting time for Mother Nature. Big changes are afoot. Some species will thrive and many others will die. Evolution will proceed apace. There will still be some forms of life around even if the planet heats up by 5°C or 10°C. As McArdle rightly notes, there have been periods in the past, millions of years ago, when carbon concentrations in the atmosphere were even higher than today, and, to quote Jurassic Park, life found a way.

The problem here is for one very particular life form: people. As I wrote in this TNR piece on planetary boundaries, we big-brained hominids have enjoyed a relatively stable climate for the past 10,000 years—a geological period dubbed the Holocene. Sea levels have been kept in check. Temperatures have fluctuated around a narrow band. And that relative predictability has enabled us to stay rooted in one location, to set up farms and cities, to plan for the future. We’ve adapted very well to the planet we have, and we’ve grown quite used to it. Most of our infrastructure has been built under the impression that the planet will basically look the same tomorrow as it did yesterday. That means that wrenching shifts in our ecosystem run the risk of being extremely painful—in the same way a big disruption to our financial system was extremely painful.

The second problem is that we just don’t know what’s in store. By belching up millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we’re running a massive science experiment on the planet, one that can’t really be reversed. Maybe this phytoplankton stuff is just a blip. Or maybe it’s part of an ominous trend that’s going to rearrange the face of the oceans as we know it—oceans we’ve come to rely on for our survival. That doesn’t strike me as a gamble worth taking.

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Filed under Environment, Science

Count How Many Blog Posts Had The Word “Chutzpah” In Them


Michael O’Hare:

If you’re still collecting evidence that a society built on extractive wealth is liable to moral pathology, put this one in your dossier.  The Saudis are demanding that if we use less of their climate-toxic export, we should pay them (and the other oil-exporting countries) for what we don’t buy.

Let us pause in awe at the nerve of this idea.  The citizens of Gulf oil states toil not, neither do they spin, yet Solomon in all his glory was not coddled as one of these privileged lottery winners, swanning around the lobbies of ridiculous hotels and airconditioned shopping centers in spotless white dishdashis, never carrying anything bigger than a cellphone with which to check on the steady inflow of unearned money from a no-work government job, or his brokerage account, or the current price of his pied-a-terre in Mayfair. If something actually needs to be, like, done (cook dinner, build a hotel, look for oil, drill for oil, pump it) they hire expats from around the world and watch. What the government doesn’t pay its men for knowing nothing and doing nothing, it spends to abuse its women, and to spread ignorance, superstition, and savagery through the land and maybe some terror amid the overseas suckers who found, extract, refine, and buy the oil.

They have had more than half a century to accumulate wealth beyond the wildest imagination of people who work for a living, simply because they were struck by underground magic lightning where they happened to have pitched their tents.  That wealth could have made them the most educated, productive, creative, fixed-for-centuries society in the world, but they chose to spend it becoming the most incompetent, dependent, and primitive.  Now these parasites propose that the world owes them this lifestyle even if our taste for oil changes to a taste for planetary survival?

Alex Massie:

Good luck with that.

Andrew Sullivan:

This is, of course, somewhat encouraging. It means the Saudis have a tiny feeling the West might finally get its act together and wean itself off their oil, and all the imperial weight it carries. I sure hope they’re right.

Daniel Drezner:

If Saudi Arabia was serious about diversifying its economy, it would open up its spigots and let the price of oil fall to the point where there were market incentives for economic diversification.  Somehow, I don’t see that happening.

So, this isn’t really going to go anywhere — but what I do find particularly amusing is that if one thought about compensating dirty energy producers for the costs of climate change mitigation, then oil producers would be close to the back of the line.  Coal-producing economies — like China and the United States — would be justified in demanding much greater levels of compensation, since coal is a much dirtier energy source.  Oil would be in front of natural gas producers, and that’s about it.

Readers are encouraged to proffer their own proposals in the comments that would seem more outlandish than the Saudi one.  Creativity counts!!

Matthew Yglesias:

It’s interesting to look at the range of policy responses different countries have had to oil wealth. Norway has been incredibly far-sighted, while Abu Dhabi and Qatar also score quite well. All the way on the other end of the spectrum are Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea. And then there’s Saudi Arabia, kind of the oil exporters and apparently world champions in chutzpah.

Tyler Cowen

Free Exchange at The Economist:

If the billions of dollars per day the world has been sending oil producers for years now haven’t been enough to fund diversification, I’m not really sure what will be.

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Filed under Energy, Environment, Middle East

But Will My Blue Cross/Blue Shield Cover This?


Over At The Reality-Based Community, there’s been quite a flurry of posting over the NPR story on positive thinking and/or prayer and how it effects health. No one there quite believes it.

Harold Pollack

Every day in America, millions of people are suffering or dying. Many are blessed with the prayers of loving and supportive friends and neighbors who wish them well. An even larger number of people pray every day asking God to relieve world hunger, to reduce the suffering of children afflicted with malaria, dysentery, simple hunger, or AIDS. The love and support are precious. And I would not disparage anyone who wishes to pray for any good person or cause—especially because so many of the people doing the praying do so many other wonderful things to make our world a better place. Sadly, there is no evidence that the more spectral aspirations of these prayers is doing any good. The only reason to believe otherwise is our fervent wish that this were true.

Michael O’Hare

But the nonsense NPR is peddling destroys another kind of social capital, respect for science and actual facts and, um, thinking. It can also do much more direct injury. For example, the positive thoughts of these parents didn’t work out too well for their daughter, not to mention leaving the whole family with lifelong guilt that they didn’t pray hard enough. And not vaccinating children you want the best for because you get your medical guidance from entertainers can sure hurt them, and other children they can then infect.

Mark Kleiman

No, “quantum entanglement” doesn’t have anything to do with the the price of beef. And NPR shouldn’t have presented the idea that it might as a reasonable viewpoint. Too many New Agers think that the mantra “quantum mechanics” is a license to believe whatever bullsh*t makes them feel good, and NPR has no business encouraging that sort of mental and moral laziness…

…But that outrage is a reason to think carefully about what we say, especially to patients, not a reason to disregard the finding. Yes, the people who ask cancer patients “Why do you think you needed to give yourself cancer?” ought to be strung up by their thumbs. But if it’s true — as it seems to be — that there are healthier and less healthy attitudes to take towards having one or another disease, we need to learn how and why, and if possible how to use that knowledge.

There’s a deeper question here for us atheists. (For these purposes, my own religious position is equivalent to atheism.) What if the sort of religious belief we think is not just false but rather cowardly — the idea that adults ought to entrust their welfare to an imagined super-parent in the sky rather than taking responsibility for it — turns out to be an aid to recovery? We already know that some sorts of false belief are healthy to have: the technical term for “not suffering from the illusion that one’s social standing and popularity are greater than they in fact are” is “depression.” But should we encourage false beliefs that happen to be healthy?

Michael O’Hare

The placebo effect is real, and comprises a very wide variety of things a patient thinks will help, like acupuncture, and that ‘work’ for that reason and that reason alone. In my post I was also intending affirmatively to recognize a therapeutic benefit (for the condition in question, not just feeling generally better) of affection, good will, concern, and the like; if expressed in prayer, fine. I’m not at all surprised that confidence and optimism, including confidence of faith, accelerate recovery and that the effects superpose on the effects of conventional therapy. This is very far from blaming patients for making themselves sick by impiety or doubt. (It’s thought-provoking that many of the conditions known to have a psychosomatic origin afflict the skin (including the skin of the alimentary canal), and that the nervous system originates from an infolding of the same ectodermal layer that forms skin.)

Except for love and affection, which have no downside except if they displace treatments that do work, placebos of all types raise a perplexing issue for the health system that I have never seen examined. We can’t just put them aside, because they do work sometimes, and sometimes when we have nothing else to offer. But they only work to the extent that we lie about them; a hospital that uses placebo treatment whenever it might help should have a sign over the door saying “placebo treatments are never used in this facility” and the health authorities must conspire never to uncover the scandal of this coverup.

Harold Pollack

When someone asserts an unlikely but psychologically appealing hypothesis linking spirituality and health, when someone posits implausible causal mechanisms that supposedly underlie these research findings, I generally presume that she believes what she is saying because she fervently wants to believe it, not because she is dragged kicking and screaming by the scientific evidence to believe the hypothesis is true.

Mark Kleiman

I don’t know whether the equanimity I found had any connection with my cure, but it must have been an advantage to sleep well and not to have stress hormones coursing through my veins. If some people get that equanimity from religion, it’s not hard to imagine that they might get health benefits from it.

Others in similar circumstances seem to get serenity as a result of their use hallucinogens, either before or after the threat of death becomes apparent. A mystical experience seems to be a fairly reliable cure for death anxiety, and the hallucinogens have a way of bringing about such experiences if taken under the right circumstances.

If that turned out to be predictably true, then there would be a good argument for using the hallucinogens with some patients to treat for anxiety in the face of life-threatening illness. At least, that’s the premise of at least three current medical studies.*

If some people get the same result with religious texts and traditions rather than with chemicals, why isn’t that also an important medical finding?

Mark Kleiman again, with a long post.

Rod Dreher on the same story, with a different perspective.

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Filed under Health Care, Religion

Tax, Cap and Roll


The picture is the Carbon Dioxide Molecule. Obviously, not made to scale. (Picture: Michigan State University)

This post will be a bit jumbled and out of chronological order, I’m sure. There are about a billion posts out there about taxing carbon, cap and trade, and Waxman-Markey. Just trying to recap some highlights the past couple weeks as the blogosphere (particularly Jim Manzi and Kevin Drum) have had a lot to say.)

I. The Five Part Kevin Drum series on taxing carbon, with responses.

Part One: Taxing Carbon, with a link to Joe Romm at Climate Progress. Michael O’Hare responds to Joe Romm, Andrew Sullivan responds to both Drum and Ryan Avent, whose post is quoted here  in entirety:

Some important points:

1) Reasonable people can disagree over whether cap-and-trade or a carbon tax are the “better” policy.
2) It is not true that either has significant advantages over the other.
3) There is only one plan with a serious chance to get through the Congress in the near term.
4) So if you are out there arguing that we should really be adopting a carbon tax rather than cap-and-trade you’re undermining that best chance at a carbon price law for at most a slight improvement in policy.
5) Given the stakes, you, arguer, should be shouted down.

Part Two: Titled, appropriately, Taxing Carbon-Part 2. Jeffrey Sachs weighs in along with others at a Yale Environment blog. Michael Tobis agrees with Sachs. Andrew Sullivan points out the parts of Drum’s argument he likes Ryan Avent responds to Sullivan. Ryan Avent responds to Sachs. As does Kevin Drum, which gets us to…

Part Three: In Which Drum responds to Sachs. Taxing Carbon-Part 3. Which leads us to…

Part Four: In Which Drum posts Sachs’s response to Drum’s post on Sachs. Taxing Carbon-Part 4

Part Five: Taxing Carbon-Part 5:

But there’s one general point about the debate between carbon taxes and cap-and-trade that I want to make directly.  Namely this: it’s an unfair fight.

Here’s the thing.  Cap-and-trade is a real-world program for reducing pollutants.  We used it successfully with sulfur emissions in the 90s.  Europe is already doing it with carbon.  The northeastern states are doing it with RGGI.  The Waxman-Markey bill is a real piece of legislation that’s hundreds of pages long and festooned with a hundred different compromises that will (we hope) allow it to survive the legislative sausage grinder.

Sully links to Dave Roberts at Grist. Matt Y. jumps in:

I’d put it this way: It’s true that the carbon tax I would design would be better policy than the cap-and-trade program congress is designing, but by the same token the cap-and-trade program I would design is better than the carbon tax law congress would right. Congress is an inherently problematic institution, populated by flawed human beings who are primarily accountable to the short-term desires of narrow interest groups. Consequently, it’s a rare day indeed when a congressional process results in an optimal policy outcome. But that’s just life. There’s no sense pretending that if advocates took a different approach that the inherent limits of politics would be transcended.

Sullivan links to that and to Felix Salmon, asking what is feasible. Matt Steinglass posts on the whole debate. Megan McArdle comments on Steinglass, Jim Manzi agrees with McArdle. David Frum dismisses cap and trade.

II. Bills, Bills, Bills

We’ll start on the Inglis-Flake carbon tax bill.

Jim Manzi:

A revenue-neutral carbon tax is superficially appealing. It sounds like something as close to a free lunch as we offered in this fallen world. But like most free lunches, it turns out to be expensive.

The most important point is that revenue neutrality is most likely a mirage. We would have to maintain the carbon tax for decades in order to generate the consumption reductions that advocates argue will occur, but FICA rates aren’t static over decades. In 1950 the FICA rate was 1.5%; by 1970 it was 4.8%; by 1990 it had risen to its current rate of 7.65%. It has been stable for about two decades, but meanwhile the programs that it (in theory) funds are in crisis.

Jonathan Adler and Ilya Somin weigh on at Volokh. They point to the John Broder piece in NYT on how cap and trade became consensus. Alex Tabarrok quotes the piece and his book with Tyler Cowen.

The CBO releases a paper on climate change. Cowen has thoughts. Patrick Appel at Sully’s place comments on the whole debate about the GOP bill and the CBO paper:

That said, it’s clear that legislators on both sides like to pretend that their chosen global warming plan will be cheap or free. They might be a bargain in the long run compared to the havoc global warming will wreak, but both plans constitute a massive new tax. There is no hiding that. And unlike a new entitlement – which voters grow accustomed to and will fight strongly against cutting – either global warming plan is simply an attempt to slow the rate of carbon emissions and maintain the status quo or improve it slightly. Even if the Waxman-Markey cap and trade bill passes, I wonder whether it will be vulnerable to political attacks for this reason – especially in its current form.

On to Waxman-Markey, Paul Krugman‘s column is approved by Matt Y and Hilzoy. Both Appel and Tyler Cowen

want a cost benefit. Jim Manzi provides.

Appel responds to Manzi. And this begins a debate on a guy named Chip Knappenberger, who Manzi cites and readers point out to Appel, leading  Appel into having doubts about Kappenberger.

Manzi responds. Appel puts up more reader responses to Manzi. Manzi responds.

More later, after my head stops spinning.

UPDATE: Will Wilkinson on Manzi

UPDATE #2: Ryan Avent responds to Manzi

UPDATE #3: Manzi responds to Avent.

UPDATE #4: Via Sullivan, Tyler Cowen and The Economist

UPDATE: #4: Avent responds to Manzi and Wilkinson. Wilkinson responds to Avent.


Filed under Domestic Affairs, Environment, Legislation Pending

The Photo-Op From Hell

Much blog chatter about the panic caused by the President’s plane in NYC yesterday.

Doug Powers, on Malkin’s site: “Look for Obama’s people to claim it was a selfless gesture on the part of the president to take New Yorkers minds off the swine flu.”


Charles Johnson at LGF, on President Obama’s apology: “He’s getting very good at apologizing. But the other question that needs answering is: at a time of great financial crisis, combined with the largest federal budget in history, why is money being wasted on unnecessary extravagances like this?”


Allah Pundit has videos:


Brian Faughnan at Redstate notes that the administration is throwing their appointee under the bus:


Brad Schaeffer at New Majority:


Some on the left commented on this incident, too. Kevin Drum:


TPM reader AN on the Mothership blog yesterday:


Any more posts out there on this subject? Put ’em in the comments.

UPDATE: James Joyner:


UPDATE #2: Jason Zengerle in the New Republic:


UPDATE #3: Michael O’Hare:



Filed under Homeland Security