politics

Conditional cash transfers for energy poverty... and murder reduction

Conditional cash transfers — paying people to change behavior, usually to spur positive ‘social’ outcomes — continue to be in the news. Much of the focus is on their use as poverty reduction tools (Bolsa Familia in Brazil, JSY in India) through encouraging behaviors like antenatal care visits and sending children to school.

Two recent article — one in the NYT, one in Mother Jones — highlighted the use of CCTs and other targeted cash transfer tools for dramatically different outcomes.

In the NYT, poverty and energy issues were at the fore:

The Indian government subsidizes households’ purchases of cooking gas; these subsidies amounted to about $8 billion last year. Until recently, subsidies were provided by selling cylinders to beneficiaries at below-market prices. Now, prices have been deregulated, and the subsidy is delivered by depositing cash directly into beneficiaries’ bank accounts, which are linked to cellphones, so that only eligible beneficiaries — not “ghost” intermediaries — receive transfers.

Under the previous arrangement, the large gap between subsidized and unsubsidized prices created a thriving black market, where distributors diverted subsidized gas away from households to businesses for a premium. In new research with Prabhat Barnwal, an economist at Columbia University, we find that cash transfers reduced these “leakages,” resulting in estimated fiscal savings of about $2 billion.

There’s even more “smart” targeting coming soon. My advisor and colleagues in India have been working to “[describe] how the LPG subsidy could be even more completely targeted to the poor without any actual ‘taking away’ of the subsidy from the rich and middle class, which would likely trigger heavy political push back. As a result, several hundred million additional poor Indians could have affordable access in the next decade without increasing subsidy costs to the government (indeed probably reducing them) or LPG imports — both not likely to be popular.”

In Mother Jones, CCTs were being used to reduce murders:

Richmond hired consultants to come up with ideas, and in turn, the consultants approached [Devone] Boggan. It was obvious that heavy-handed tactics like police sweeps weren’t the solution. More than anything, Boggan, who’d been working to keep teen offenders out of prison, was struck by the pettiness of it all. The things that could get someone shot in Richmond were as trivial as stepping out to buy a bag of chips at the wrong time or in the wrong place. Boggan wondered: What if we identified the most likely perpetrators and paid them to stay out of trouble?

It seems to be working.

It was a crazy idea. But since ONS was established, the city’s murder rate has plunged steadily. In 2013, it dropped to 15 homicides per 100,000 residents—a 33 year low. In 2014, it dropped again. Boggan and his staff maintained that their program was responsible for a lot of that drop-off by keeping the highest-risk young men alive—and out of prison. Now they have a study to back them up.

On Monday, researchers from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a non-profit, published a process evaluation of ONS, studying its impact seven years in. The conclusion was positive: “While a number of factors including policy changes, policing efforts, an improving economic climate, and an overall decline in crime may have helped to facilitate this shift, many individuals interviewed for this evaluation cite the work of the ONS, which began in late 2007, as a strong contributing factor in a collaborative effort to decrease violence in Richmond.”

Josh Marshall: Obama on the Hoofbeats of History

Marshall, writing at the Editor’s Blog at TPM, eloquently describes the last month in American life, placing President Obama at its center:

It was a momentous week. I had wanted to write something about it at the time. But I couldn’t quite form my views on it. It seemed more like something to take in than to talk about. In one short string of events so much of the President’s legacy which had been up for grabs, contingent and uncertain, was suddenly confirmed and driven home in ways that allowed little doubt. Not all of these wins were Obama’s of course. He did not even support marriage equality in 2008 let alone run on it. The Court’s decision and the sea change in public opinion which made it possible and perhaps inevitable were the products of decades of activism stretching back into years when no one had ever even heard the President’s name. But we’re talking here not about a single person or political leader but of the aspirations of those who elected him. And judged through this prism, the rush of events in late June come together as a unified picture.

Reminds me of a part of Marc Maron’s interview with President Obama on WTF, when the President spoke of the slow march of change. It also harkens back to the use of Sam Cooke’s classic “A Change is Gonna Come”, right?

A fever dream of liberal change, punching through into reality through the tireless work of an administration. An incredible — and uniquely American — month, with incredible progress punctuated by tragedy.

NYT: "Emissions From India Will Increase"

India’s new Minister of Environment and Forests, in the New York Times:

The minister, Prakash Javadekar, said in an interview that his government’s first priority was to alleviate poverty and improve the nation’s economy, which he said would necessarily involve an increase in emissions through new coal-powered electricity and transportation. He placed responsibility for what scientists call a coming climate crisis on the United States, the world’s largest historic greenhouse gas polluter, and dismissed the idea that India would make cuts to carbon emissions.

“What cuts?” Mr. Javadekar said. “That’s for more developed countries. The moral principle of historic responsibility cannot be washed away.” Mr. Javadekar was referring to an argument frequently made by developing economies — that developed economies, chiefly the United States, which spent the last century building their economies while pumping warming emissions into the atmosphere — bear the greatest responsibility for cutting pollution.

Not great news. Vox has interesting coverage of this story, as well; the bottom of their story has a great collection of links.

Kirk R. Smith in Science: In Praise of Power

Professor Kirk R. Smith in an editorial in Science:

Along with advanced biomass combustion, biogas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, and other clean fuels, electric cooking needs to be directly incorporated into modernization plans for the world’s poorest people.

For those worried about CO2 emissions from power plants, consider that modest efficiency measures that reduce 3% of electric power consumption in rich countries (which are also largely supplied by coal) would “free” enough electricity to supply half of all biomass households with induction stoves. New supplies of electricity would produce far less than a 1% increase in global CO2 emissions.* It is not the cooking of the poor that threatens the climate.

Switching from solid to clean forms of energy can bring more health benefits than nearly any other modernization, including clean water and sanitation.† It is too early to tell whether induction cooking can be successfully promoted in biomass-using rural areas, but not too early to predict that electric cooking appliances will be attractive to people as electricity becomes more reliable. Although in one sense the most mundane of energy issues, given that billions do not use modern fuels in their households and suffer great impacts on health, welfare, and the local environment as a result, finding solutions for providing electricity has important implications for global health and sustainable development.

Gates Notes: Two Videos That Illuminate Energy Poverty

Bill Gates, at his blog:

Many developing countries are turning to coal and other low-cost fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need for powering homes, industry, and agriculture. Some people in rich countries are telling them to cut back on fossil fuels. I understand the concern: After all, human beings are causing our climate to change, and our use of fossil fuels is a huge reason.

But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Gates links to two videos from political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. They’re interesting and decent encapsulations of issues we grapple with regularly. We know what works, and indeed most of us in the developed world use either gas or electricity — or both — to cook everyday. Offering solutions that only partially protect health seems morally dubious, a point Lomborg and Gates make. Lomborg’s videos are embedded below. Grist for the mill.

Paulson on Climate Change and the Price of Inaction

Henry M. Paulson, writing in the NYT:

In a future with more severe storms, deeper droughts, longer fire seasons and rising seas that imperil coastal cities, public funding to pay for adaptations and disaster relief will add significantly to our fiscal deficit and threaten our long-term economic security. So it is perverse that those who want limited government and rail against bailouts would put the economy at risk by ignoring climate change.

This is short-termism. There is a tendency, particularly in government and politics, to avoid focusing on difficult problems until they balloon into crisis. We would be fools to wait for that to happen to our climate.

When you run a company, you want to hand it off in better shape than you found it. In the same way, just as we shouldn’t leave our children or grandchildren with mountains of national debt and unsustainable entitlement programs, we shouldn’t leave them with the economic and environmental costs of climate change. Republicans must not shrink from this issue. Risk management is a conservative principle, as is preserving our natural environment for future generations. We are, after all, the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

The Petroleum Product That Can Save Millions Of Lives Each Year

Professor Kirk R. Smith, writing at Forbes:

The fracking furor over shale gas is the latest in a series of environmental debates that have bedeviled the oil and gas industry in spite of what might be considered an enviable record compared to related industries, coal for example. From off shore spills to the Keystone Pipeline, the industry probably feels a bit set upon at times. Similarly, its products are often the focus of environmental concern and consequent strict regulation, for example diesel air pollution. Finally, it often bears the brunt of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change risks.

The industry might keep in mind, however, that one of its products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG — bottled gas containing propane and butane), is actually the most effective solution available for the largest environmental health risk in the world: cooking with solid fuels.

and

There is some opposition in the environmental community to promoting LPG, a fossil fuel, because of climate concerns. In reality, however, because of the poor combustion typical in biomass stoves, which produces black carbon, methane, and other climate-active pollutants, and the often non-renewable nature of the biomass supplies, which results in CO2 emissions, the net climate impact of a switch to LPG would be negligible. Even if only considering CO2, the incremental impact on global emissions of a switch to LPG would be no more than a percent of the emissions from the developed sector globally. It is not cooking by the poor that poses risk to the climate.

What's old (very old) is new again: Edwin Edwards announces Congress Run

Unbelievable.

After seven years in Congress, 16 years as governor, eight years in the federal penitentiary and several weeks of coyly prodding the speculation of political reporters, Edwin Edwards, 86, announced on Monday that he would be running as a Democrat to represent Louisiana’s Sixth Congressional District.

“Iacta alea est,” Mr. Edwards said, after describing how Julius Caesar came to the rescue of the unhappy citizens of Rome. “The die is cast. Today I cross the Rubicon.”

The announcement, delivered at a gathering of the Baton Rouge Press Club, did not come with Caesar’s element of surprise. When Mr. Edwards entered the conference room at the Belle of Baton Rouge Casino and Hotel, leading his 35-year-old wife, Trina, and pushing his 7-month-old son, Eli, in a stroller, a large crowd was waiting with camera phones at the ready.

The Age of 'Infopolitics'

Interesting piece by Colin Koopman on “Infopolitics” and society:

After the initial alarm that accompanies every leak and news report, many of us retreat to the status quo, quieting ourselves with the thought that these new surveillance strategies are not all that sinister, especially if, as we like to say, we have nothing to hide.

One reason for our complacency is that we lack the intellectual framework to grasp the new kinds of political injustices characteristic of today’s information society. Everyone understands what is wrong with a government’s depriving its citizens of freedom of assembly or liberty of conscience. Everyone (or most everyone) understands the injustice of government-sanctioned racial profiling or policies that produce economic inequality along color lines. But though nearly all of us have a vague sense that something is wrong with the new regimes of data surveillance, it is difficult for us to specify exactly what is happening and why it raises serious concern, let alone what we might do about it….

We need a concept of infopolitics precisely because we have become infopersons. What should we do about our Internet and phone patterns’ being fastidiously harvested and stored away in remote databanks where they await inspection by future algorithms developed at the National Security Agency, Facebook, credit reporting firms like Experian and other new institutions of information and control that will come into existence in future decades? What bits of the informational you will fall under scrutiny? The political you? The sexual you? What next-generation McCarthyisms await your informational self? And will those excesses of oversight be found in some Senate subcommittee against which we democratic citizens might hope to rise up in revolt — or will they lurk among algorithmic automatons that silently seal our fates in digital filing systems?

Attack on California Power Plant

I don’t usually link to this kind of stuff. As it is related to energy and physical infrastructure — and is a different type of failure than we’re used to — I think it is worth some thought. The story was originally covered by the WSJ and Foreign Policy; both of those articles are behind paywalls.

The strike against the power plant sounds surgical. The WSJ outlined the timeline of events:

At 12:58 a.m., AT&T fiber-optic telecommunications cables were cut—in a way that made them hard to repair—in an underground vault near the substation, not far from U.S. Highway 101 just outside south San Jose. It would have taken more than one person to lift the metal vault cover, said people who visited the site.

Nine minutes later, some customers of Level 3 Communications, an Internet service provider, lost service. Cables in its vault near the Metcalf substation were also cut.

At 1:31 a.m., a surveillance camera pointed along a chain-link fence around the substation recorded a streak of light that investigators from the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s office think was a signal from a waved flashlight. It was followed by the muzzle flash of rifles and sparks from bullets hitting the fence.

The substation’s cameras weren’t aimed outside its perimeter, where the attackers were. They shooters appear to have aimed at the transformers’ oil-filled cooling systems. These began to bleed oil, but didn’t explode, as the transformers probably would have done if hit in other areas.

About six minutes after the shooting started, PG&E confirms, it got an alarm from motion sensors at the substation, possibly from bullets grazing the fence, which is shown on video.

Four minutes later, at 1:41 a.m., the sheriff’s department received a 911 call about gunfire, sent by an engineer at a nearby power plant that still had phone service.

Riddled with bullet holes, the transformers leaked 52,000 gallons of oil, then overheated. The first bank of them crashed at 1:45 a.m., at which time PG&E’s control center about 90 miles north received an equipment-failure alarm.

Five minutes later, another apparent flashlight signal, caught on film, marked the end of the attack. More than 100 shell casings of the sort ejected by AK-47s were later found at the site.

Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Climate Change: If you see something, say something

Powerful opinion piece by Michael E. Mann in the NYT:

If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

Those are the stakes.

Planet Money, T-Shirts... and Household Energy

Planet Money recently tracked the creation of a t-shirt — from the farms of Mississippi and the yarn factories of Indonesia to garment factories in Bangladesh and in Columbia. They wrapped up with a meta-political piece about how trade deals allowed the creation of the garment industry in Bangladesh and opened the doors of the US to imported garments. The entire series is fantastic — well reported, compelling, fun, and insightful.

Household energy and cooking got a mention in the piece on Bangladesh. The story follows two sisters — Minu and Shumi — who move from a village to a city to work in a garment factory. Minu and Shumi cook on a gas stove that they share with neighbors near their modest one room apartment. The story then follows them to their parents’ home in a village a few hours away.

Their mom cooks in the back room. The difference between her life and her daughters’ lives is very clear. No gas burners here — its a fire pit, made from mud. There are holes underneath to stick branches into and the room fills with smoke when she cooks. Minu and Shumi grew up cooking like this, with sticks instead of gas…

Shumi and Minu send money back to the village… And you can see how that’s changed things right here in the kitchen. The stove is the same as what they had growing up — but what’s inside the pot is different. It’s chicken… Factory money has paid for a new house for Shumi and Minu’s parents. The house they grew up in was made of bamboo — it leaked — this house is made of brick. It’s water-tight.

Telling - and a little surprising - that Planet Money used a gas stove as an indicator of modernity and as a way to draw contrasts between city and village life. The flow of money back to the village paid for household improvements and chicken and fish, still cooked on the traditional stove. It would be interesting to track the point at which the transition to a more efficient cooking technology occurred, if ever. What other needs are perceived as priorities over replacing the stove? How much of the issue is related to supply of liquid fuels and their costs? How much is related to the perception that wood and biomass are free? You can see a niche for clean cookstoves in there — meeting the requirements of using a ‘free’ fuel, but also using it more efficiently and more cleanly. The endless challenge will remain - finding a clean stove that people want to use - and use often.

see a whole load of stories here

David Byrne: Will Work for Inspiration

David Byrne, in an editorial at Creative Time Reports:

Some folks believe that hardship breeds artistic creativity. I don’t buy it. One can put up with poverty for a while when one is young, but it will inevitably wear a person down. I don’t romanticize the bad old days. I find the drop in crime over the last couple of decades refreshing. Manhattan and Brooklyn, those vibrant playgrounds, are way less scary than they were when I moved here. I have no illusions that there was a connection between that city on its knees and a flourishing of creativity; I don’t believe that crime, danger and poverty make for good art. That’s bullshit. But I also don’t believe that the drop in crime means the city has to be more exclusively for those who have money. Increases in the quality of life should be for all, not just a few.

The city is a body and a mind—a physical structure as well as a repository of ideas and information. Knowledge and creativity are resources. If the physical (and financial) parts are functional, then the flow of ideas, creativity and information are facilitated. The city is a fountain that never stops: it generates its energy from the human interactions that take place in it. Unfortunately, we’re getting to a point where many of New York’s citizens have been excluded from this equation for too long. The physical part of our city—the body—has been improved immeasurably. I’m a huge supporter of the bike lanes and the bike-share program, the new public plazas, the waterfront parks and the functional public transportation system. But the cultural part of the city—the mind—has been usurped by the top 1 percent.

The Elvis Impersonator, the Karate Instructor, a Fridge Full of Severed Heads, and the Plot 2 Kill the President

Remember that crazy story about the dude in Mississippi who mailed ricin to Obama and then tried to frame some other dude in Mississippi for the crime? Well, as Wells Tower discovered when he traveled to Tupelo and started poking around, the story is a thousand times crazier than you thought.

This is the most insane thing I’ve read in a while. Highly recommended.

Errol Morris's The Unknown Known

Errol Morris is at it again. From an interview at The Daily Beast:

… Of all the so-called nefarious characters within the George W. Bush administration, why Rumsfeld?

If I’m asked to think about the two major Secretaries of Defense of the last fifty years, it’s Robert S. McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld—two Secretaries of Defense who presided over disastrous wars and were major public figures. People are going to say this is The Fog of War 2. One very big difference between [McNamara and Rumsfeld] is that McNamara says the war was a mistake, it was wrong. He didn’t say it at the time, but has subsequently said it. Rumsfeld? Not so much. I always say it’s Tabloid 2.

The topic of war seems to fascinate you. Why are we in a seemingly constant state of war?

Because I think people are crazy. I talk very briefly about Shakespeare, and with Shaskespeare, the motivating force of history is insanity, greed, jealousy, hate, power. Rumsfeld said, “Well, maybe that was true then, but it’s different now.” Then he reads this memo to Condi Rice where he basically tells her to shut up, you’re not in the chain of command, nobody wants to hear from you, and if you continue to talk out, I’m going to the president and I’m going to have you muzzled.

This is going to be fascinating. And terrifying.

via kottke

EIA: World petroleum use sets record high in 2012 despite declines in North America and Europe

U.S. Energy Information Administration:

The world’s consumption of gasoline, diesel fuel, jet fuel, heating oil, and other petroleum products reached a record high of 88.9 million barrels per day (bbl/d) in 2012, as declining consumption in North America and Europe was more than outpaced by growth in Asia and other regions (see animated map). A previous article examined regional trends in petroleum consumption between 1980 and 2010; today’s article extends that analysis through 2012.

Some other specific points of interest:

Between 2008 and 2012, Asia’s consumption increased by 4.4 million bbl/d. The rapidly industrializing economies of China and India fueled much of Asia’s demand increase, growing 2.8 million bbl/d and 800,000 bbl/d, respectively. If China’s use of petroleum continues to grow as projected, it is expected to replace the United States as the world’s largest net oil importer this fall.

Petroleum use in Europe has declined in every year since 2006. Part of this decline was related to a reduction in overall energy intensity and government policies that encourage energy efficiency. Europe’s weak economic performance has also affected its petroleum use, with declines of 780,000 bbl/d in 2009 and 570,000 bbl/d in 2012 occurring at a time of slow growth and/or recessions in many European countries.

EIA: World energy consumption will increase 56% by 2040

EIA’s recently released International Energy Outlook 2013 (IEO2013) projects that world energy consumption will grow by 56% between 2010 and 2040, from 524 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) to 820 quadrillion Btu. Most of this growth will come from non-OECD (non-Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, where demand is driven by strong economic growth.

Renewable energy and nuclear power are the world’s fastest-growing energy sources, each increasing 2.5% per year. However, fossil fuels continue to supply nearly 80% of world energy use through 2040. Natural gas is the fastest-growing fossil fuel, as global supplies of tight gas, shale gas, and coalbed methane increase.

The industrial sector continues to account for the largest share of delivered energy consumption and is projected to consume more than half of global delivered energy in 2040. Based on current policies and regulations governing fossil fuel use, global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are projected to rise to 45 billion metric tons in 2040, a 46% increase from 2010. Economic growth in developing nations, fueled by a continued reliance on fossil fuels, accounts for most of the emissions increases.

David Simon: "...real pride is earned and internalized only with a grown-up understanding that even a good or great nation, while deserving of our allegiance and civic commitment, can indeed shame itself."

David Simon, writing toward his vocal detractors, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin decision:

To those who can’t conceive of anyone ever being ashamed, or expressing shame at those moments when this country abandons or even betrays its core values, I’m actually willing to go even further than my initial comment: You may, in fact, be the one who doesn’t understand what it means to be a proud American. Not truly and not deeply; not without some measure of shame as well.

Why not? Because just as good cannot be truly understood to the marrow without a corresponding sense of evil, pride in one’s country — if it is substantive pride, and not merely the rote, pledge-allegiance mouthings of patriotic cliche — requires the sober knowledge that American greatness is neither assured, nor heaven-sent. It comes to us from our national premise and ideals — and our willingness to maintain those things at all hazards. And if you’ve never felt ashamed for us for having strayed from our core values in even the most appalling ways — say, the wartime detention of Japanese-Americans, or a My Lai or Kent State , or Bull Conner, or COINTELPRO, or life sentences for juvenile defendants, or prisons-for-profit — then maybe you’ve never really acknowledged what the actual stakes are for a republic, or how much work, rather than platitude, is required to assure an honorable, democratic future. Yes, you claim an all-encompassing pride and you wallow in it, brooking not even a mention of anything shameful that happens on our watch as citizens. But in fact, real pride is earned and internalized only with a grown-up understanding that even a good or great nation, while deserving of our allegiance and civic commitment, can indeed shame itself. Saying so when it happens is a fundamental of self-governance, as all dissent is a fundamental of self-governance.

Details on 'Power Africa,' the White House's new plan for electrification across sub-Saharan Africa

From the White House:

Today the President announced Power Africa, a new initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is without electricity, and more than 85 percent of those living in rural areas lack access. Power Africa will build on Africa’s enormous power potential, including new discoveries of vast reserves of oil and gas, and the potential to develop clean geothermal, hydro, wind and solar energy. It will help countries develop newly-discovered resources responsibly, build out power generation and transmission, and expand the reach of mini-grid and off-grid solutions.

According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity access by 2030. Only with greater private sector investment can the promise of Power Africa be realized. With an initial set of six partner countries in its first phase, Power Africa will add more than 10,000 megawatts of cleaner, more efficient electricity generation capacity. It will increase electricity access by at least 20 million new households and commercial entities with on-grid, mini-grid, and off-grid solutions. And it will enhance energy resource management capabilities, allowing partner countries to meet their critical energy needs and achieve greater energy security.

As that first paragraph points out, this is inherently an issue of rural energy — and of household energy. The following bit seems a bit… optimistic:

Power Africa will work in collaboration with partner countries to ensure the path forward on oil and gas development maximizes the benefits to the people of Africa, while also ensuring that development proceeds in a timely, financially sound, inclusive, transparent and environmentally sustainable manner.

Obama: "...that bright blue ball rising over the moon's surface, containing everything we hold dear -- the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity -- that's what's at stake."

President Obama, yesterday at Georgetown, at the end of his speech calling for action and outlining new policies on climate change:

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth. And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote. Make yourself heard on this issue.

I understand the politics will be tough. The challenge we must accept will not reward us with a clear moment of victory. There’s no gathering army to defeat. There’s no peace treaty to sign. When President Kennedy said we’d go to the moon within the decade, we knew we’d build a spaceship and we’d meet the goal. Our progress here will be measured differently — in crises averted, in a planet preserved. But can we imagine a more worthy goal? For while we may not live to see the full realization of our ambition, we will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.

“It makes you realize,” that astronaut said all those years ago, “just what you have back there on Earth.” And that image in the photograph, that bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface, containing everything we hold dear — the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity — that’s what’s at stake. That’s what we’re fighting for. And if we remember that, I’m absolutely sure we’ll succeed.

Mother Jones’s nice outline of the key points of the speech follows:

Here are the key components of the plan aimed at reducing US emissions:

  • Directs the EPA to issue draft emission rules for existing power plants by June 2014, to be finalized by June 2015.

  • Asks the EPA to “work expeditiously” on finalizing rules for new power plants that the agency issued in March 2012 (though does not appear to include a due date for that).

  • Pledges that the federal government will draw 20 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of permitting an additional 10 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2020.

  • Sets a goal of putting 100 megawatts of renewable energy on federally subsidized housing by 2020.

  • Creates a new, $8 billion loan guarantee program for advanced fossil fuel projects at the Department of Energy (think clean coal, etc.).

  • Directs the EPA and the Department of Transportation to work on fuel economy standard for heavy-duty trucks, buses, and vans for after 2018 (following up on the 2014-18 rules they rolled out in 2011).

  • Sets a goal of cutting at least 3 billion tons of carbon pollution by 2030 through improvements in energy efficiency standards.

  • Calls for an end to US funding for fossil fuel energy projects overseas unless they include carbon capture technology.

Miranda rights and the public safety exception

The bombings during the Boston Marathon were horrendous and terrifying. There’s no excuse for these types of behaviors and the folks behind the bombings should be (and have been) chased with the full weight of our considerable outrage. But, that said, in the end, the sole living suspect is a naturalized American citizen… and should be treated as such. The ACLU’s executive director Anthony Romero puts it best (emphasis mine):

“The ACLU shares the public’s relief that the suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings has been apprehended,” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU executive director. “Every criminal defendant is entitled to be read Miranda rights. The public safety exception should be read narrowly. It applies only when there is a continued threat to public safety and is not an open-ended exception to the Miranda rule. Additionally, every criminal defendant has a right to be brought before a judge and to have access to counsel. We must not waver from our tried-and-true justice system, even in the most difficult of times. Denial of rights is un-American and will only make it harder to obtain fair convictions.

Slate has a nice description of the public exception and attempts to expand exceptions under Holder.

Excellent Infograph in NYT: The Small-State Advantage in the United States Senate

from the first part of the related interactive article:

What is certain is that the power of the smaller states is large and growing. Political scientists call it a striking exception to the democratic principle of “one person, one vote.” Indeed, they say, the Senate may be the least democratic legislative chamber in any developed nation.

Behind the growth of the advantage is an increase in population gap between large and small states, with large states adding many more people than small ones in the last half-century. There is a widening demographic split, too, with the larger states becoming more urban and liberal, and the smaller ones remaining rural and conservative, which lends a new significance to the disparity in their political power.

And this little gem:

Beyond influencing government spending, these shifts generally benefit conservative causes and hurt liberal ones. When small states block or shape legislation backed by senators representing a majority of Americans, most of the senators on the winning side tend to be Republicans, because Republicans disproportionately live in small states and Democrats, especially African-Americans and Latinos, are more likely to live in large states like California, New York, Florida and Illinois. Among the nation’s five smallest states, only Vermont tilts liberal, while Alaska, Wyoming and the Dakotas have each voted Republican in every presidential election since 1968.

NYT, WaPo cut back environment coverage, since we're not worried about that anymore

Grist.org:

On Friday afternoon, The New York Times discontinued the Green blog, the paper’s one-stop shop for environment-related news. Then on Monday, the Washington Post announced it was pulling its star climate reporter, Juliet Eilperin, off of the beat and putting her on an “online strike force” covering the White House.

All of this can only mean one of two things: 1) The environment is fine, or 2) imminent global catastrophe is not as interesting as photo essays of matching, over-upholstered apartments in Manhattan.

Collisions

I stumbled across an article this evening on Twitter entitled, “Google Adopts the Language of Steve Jobs for New HQ” by Bryan Chaffin. Chaffin quotes a Vanity Fair piece about Google’s new Googleplex. One specific goal of the new building is to spur casual encounters, “to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

That sentiment sounded familiar to Chaffin. It’s precisely what Steve Jobs set out to do at the Pixar campus in Emeryville. From Walter Isaacson’s biography:

Jobs “had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.”

He did so by designing the building around a huge atrium that included all of the bathrooms (two large facilities for each sex), all of the mailboxes, the company’s café, and the stairwell to get to any other part of the building. Even the screening theaters empty into this atrium, guaranteeing unplanned meetings.

“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” Mr. Jobs said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”

He added, “If a building doesn’t encourage [encounters and unplanned collaborations], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

I went to a workshop bright and early Saturday morning called “Supporting Data Science” that embodied this general thought, except at the level of the university, with its many scales of sacred silos. The meeting drew a varied group of academics, staff, and (a few) students from across the University who came together to discuss challenges and opportunities in working with “big” data (which, in the end, was decided to be any data bigger than you’re accustomed to working with. A little cheeky… and wholly true).

The group of folks who gave ‘lightning talks’ were impressive and included Josh Bloom, Charles Marshall, Henry Brady, Fernando Perez, Ion Stoica, Bin Yu, Cathryn Carson, Dave Dineen and Cyrus Afrasiab, Lee Fleming, and Marti Hearst. The whole thing was moderated and kept moving and interesting by Saul Perlmutter (yup!) and David Culler.

Brady’s comments, in retrospect, honed in on the same essential idea that Jobs shared with Isaacson. Brady discussed how, prior to the advent of personal computers, students and researchers would meet at mainframes, waiting in line to get access to the machine. During those long waits, they’d converse — true and fruitful cross-disciplinary conversation that spurred creativity and built strong bonds between researchers. He lamented the silo’d nature of the academy these days and, perhaps rightly, saw the cross-cutting nature of big data and the challenges associated with managing and interpreting it as a prime area to spur this kind of collaborative exploration moving forward.

C. Everett Koop (1916 - 2013)

C. Everett Koop — public health hero, activist, and the man who brought power and sway to the office of the Surgeon General — died at 96 today. Among his largest achievements were (1) speaking candidly about AIDS from a bully pulpit, from which he advocated condom use, prevention, and early sex education, despite his conservative Presbyterian beliefs; and (2) bringing the harms of smoking to the forefront nationally by comparing the habit to heroin and condemning it as “the greatest killer and producer of premature deaths” in the United States.

From the NYT:

As much as anyone, it was Dr. Koop who took the lead in trying to wean Americans off smoking, and he did so in imposing fashion. At a sturdy 6-foot-1, with his bushy gray biblical beard, Dr. Koop would appear before television cameras in the gold-braided dark-blue uniform of a vice admiral — the surgeon general’s official uniform, which he revived — and sternly warn of the terrible consequences of smoking.

“Smoking kills 300,000 Americans a year,” he said in one talk. “Smokers are 10 times more likely to develop lung cancer than nonsmokers, two times more likely to develop heart disease. Smoking a pack a day takes six years off a person’s life.”

When Dr. Koop took office, 33 percent of Americans smoked; when he left, the percentage had dropped to 26. By 1987, 40 states had restricted smoking in public places, 33 had prohibited it on public conveyances and 17 had banned it in offices and other work sites. More than 800 local antismoking ordinances had been passed, and the federal government had restricted smoking in 6,800 federal buildings. Antismoking campaigns by private groups like the American Lung Association and the American Heart Association had accelerated.

The New Yorker looked backed into their archives and pulled a nice profile written upon his retirement that highlights his work on AIDS.

In his frequent interviews with the press and in his reports to the public Dr. Koop insisted on using words that are considered taboo in much of the country—“condom,” “penis,” “rectal intercourse”—not to shock but, rather, to dispel the dark mystery that cloaked the AIDS epidemic. To Dr. Koop, there was nothing immoral about medical wisdom. By using those banned words, the Surgeon General accelerated the ongoing sexual education of America. He also alienated many of his supporters on the right: they accused him in the bitterest terms of abandoning his fundamentalist Christian convictions and promoting illicit sexual behavior. “I’m not the nation’s chaplain general—I’m the surgeon general,” Dr. Koop would counter. Meanwhile, liberals, including those on Capitol Hill who in 1981 had vehemently opposed his nomination, because of his impassioned stand against abortion and his reputation for moral fervor (Dr. Kook, they tagged him), took to hailing him as a new folk hero. But throughout this political firestorm Dr. Koop insisted that he was the same man: the same reverence for human life that had impelled him, as a distinguished surgeon at Philadelphia’s Children’s Hospital, to operate on horribly deformed infants no other doctors would go near now drove him to take bold measures against the spread of AIDS. Explicit safe-sex education for the general public, and care and protection for those stricken with the disease—these were the twin pillars of Dr. Koop’s public-health strategy.

Everyone in the US owes Koop their gratitude, especially those of us in public health. His writings and speeches are collected at NIH’s National Library of Medicine. Highly recommended.

Ella Chou: What Would China's Carbon Tax Regime Look Like

A thoughtful and insightful overview of the proposed carbon/environmental tax by Harvard graduate student Ella Chou. Some excerpts follow.

The first thing I want to clarify is that calling it a “carbon tax” would be a gross misnomer, because for a long time to come, the majority of the tax collected from this would still be from what used to be called “pollution discharge fees”, not from taxing carbon emissions.

The tax on carbon would in fact be puny. The Xinhua report noted that previous MOF expert suggestion for the carbon tax was 10 yuan (US $1.5) per ton of carbon dioxide in 2012, with gradual increase to 50 yuan ($7.9) per ton by 2020.

…[T]he tax on coal in China is merely 2-3 yuan (US $0.4) per ton, and 8 yuan (US $1.27) per ton for charred coal, even though the price of coal has increased to several hundreds of yuan per ton.

The point of a carbon tax, be in China or elsewhere, is to set the price signal straight. We tax income; we tax property; we tax goods and services — all the things we want more of, so wouldn’t it be logic to actually tax the thing we want less of: pollution?

I should note that the proportion of environmental tax in the overall revenue of any level of government would be tiny, as is the pollution discharge fee portion of the revenue mix now. Local governments would continue to come up ways to give industries tax rebates and subsidies to attract them to their own jurisdictions, so the effect of the environmental tax or the carbon tax on the industries would be negligible. Standardizing fees into a tax is a step in the right direction. China can use a price on carbon, and environmental issues in general, as a starting point to address the price distortions that are stifling its long-term growth.

Mississippi ratifies 13th amendment, finally

The Clarion Ledger, the daily newspaper out of Jackson, Mississippi, posted a story Saturday, February 17 that reads like something out of the Onion:

Historic oversight corrected: Film ‘Lincoln’ inspires look into slavery vote

This is, all jokes aside, a kind of amazing story. Two non-politicians — one a physician, one an “anatomical material specialist” — from University of Mississippi Medical Center acted to get the ratification officially passed.

After seeing Lincoln, the curious physician scoured the web to investigate the progression of states ratifying the amendment. From the article:

… there was an asterisk beside Mississippi. A note read: “Mississippi ratified the amendment in 1995, but because the state never officially notified the US Archivist, the ratification is not official.”

The initial resolution went to the state’s senate and house in 1995, which still seems absurdly late. Regardless, the resolution passed back then, but was never formally filed with the Office of the Federal Register. That ‘oversight’ was formally resolved on February 7th.

Climate Change in Obama's 2013 State of the Union

Strong words from President Obama on climate change during his 2013 State of the Union Address

But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change. Yes, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15. Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods - all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it’s too late.

The good news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while driving strong economic growth. I urge this Congress to pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago. But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will. I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year - so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.

In the meantime, the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. That’s why my Administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits. But I also want to work with this Congress to encourage the research and technology that helps natural gas burn even cleaner and protects our air and water.

Indeed, much of our new-found energy is drawn from lands and waters that we, the public, own together. So tonight, I propose we use some of our oil and gas revenues to fund an Energy Security Trust that will drive new research and technology to shift our cars and trucks off oil for good. If a non-partisan coalition of CEOs and retired generals and admirals can get behind this idea, then so can we. Let’s take their advice and free our families and businesses from the painful spikes in gas prices we’ve put up with for far too long. I’m also issuing a new goal for America: let’s cut in half the energy wasted by our homes and businesses over the next twenty years. The states with the best ideas to create jobs and lower energy bills by constructing more efficient buildings will receive federal support to help make it happen.

Divestment in San Francisco

From a 350.org press release:

This Tuesday, February 5, San Francisco District 11 Supervisor John Avalos will introduce a resolution urging the Retirement Board of the San Francisco Employee’s Retirement System (SFERS) to divest from the 200 corporations that hold the majority of the world’s fossil fuel reserves.

“San Francisco has aggressive goals to address climate change,” said Supervisor John Avalos. “It’s important that we apply these same values when we decide how to invest our funds, so we can limit our financial contributions to fossil fuels and instead promote renewable alternatives.”

If the resolution is approved by the Board of Supervisors, San Francisco would become the second city in the nation to pursue fossil fuel divestment. This December, the Mayor of Seattle pledged to keep city funds out of the fossil fuel industry and urged the city’s pension funds to consider divestment. Avalos is also introducing a resolution today to push SFERS to divest from arms manufacturers.

Why we shouldn't compare Beijing in 2013 to mid-20th century London, Pittsburgh, and Chicago

This week, amidst all the kerfuffle over Beijing’s smog, both Andrew Revkin at the NYT and Alexis Madrigal at the Atlantic looked back to historical periods of extreme pollution in the US and the UK as proof that cleaning up the air in large, rapidly developing cities can happen — will happen — given long enough time frames. Madrigal points to Chicago and Pittsburgh, noting

The fundamental struggle of any kind of pollution control is trying to get the polluters to internalize the costs of their pollution. Because if they don’t, the rest of us have to pay more. We — i.e. all of society — subsidize their businesses through increased health care costs, declining values of certain kinds of housing, toxic land or water or air. And the only reason they get away with it is that tracing the line of causality back to them — even when the air looks as disgusting as it does in these photographs — is just that difficult. They hide their roles in the complexity of the system.

So, next time you see one of the photos of Beijing’s pollution and say, “Geez! The Chinese should do something about this!” Just know that it took American activists over a century to win the precise same battle, and that they’re losing a similar one over climate change right this minute.

Similarly, Revkin first looks back to the 1950s London smog episodes and then looks forward, offering potential solutions.

…Much of what we in the West see as shockingly aberrant in today’s industrializing countries and fast-growing cities was our norm a short two generations ago. The same is true for rivers. As I wrote last year, while Nairobi has foaming floods of pollution now, the Hudson, which is now swimmable, had shores sticky with adhesive and shimmering with automotive paint a few decades ago. Prosperity leads to rising public environmental concern and the wherewithal for governments to change rules and practices.

Last year, I asked this question: “Can China Follow U.S. Shift from Coal to Gas?” The country has vast reserves of shale gas but lacks expertise and experience in hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, the innovative mix of technologies that is poised to transform America’s energy prospects (if drilling is done with communities and the environment in mind). A prompt shift from coal to natural gas in China — which would have to involve substantial collaboration with the United States — could potentially be a big near-term step toward stopping growth in greenhouse-gas emissions, and of course clearing the air in crowded, coal-dependent cities.

A few things stand out. While it’s perhaps fair to argue that pollution controls will come on a long enough time frame, it’s a bit problematic to compare 1940s - 1960s Chicago and Pittsburgh to emerging market mega-cities. Beijing’s population is approximately 20 million. Delhi and its surrounding National Capital Region, which suffer from similar bouts of intense ambient air pollution, have an estimated population of a bit over 22 million. In 1940, the population of Pittsburgh was ~700,000; Chicago was home to ~ 3.4 million. London was quite a bit larger during the smog episodes, with a population of ~9 million, but still much smaller than current-day mega-cities. The magnitude of the pollution in these cities — coupled with the sheer number of people residing within them — leads to extremely large, health-damaging population level exposures.

As Revkin points out, there’s a path forward that could lead to more rapid improvements in environmental quality and have a number of political and health-related cobenefits — collaboration between developed and developing markets to improve the quality of energy production. While I’m not 100% onboard with fracking, Revkin’s general point emphasizing cooperation should hold. We, the West, have repeatedly been through the pathway of industrialization -> environmental degradation -> outrage, illness, death -> <- regulatory struggles -> technological innovation -> cleaner environments. We’ve emerged from it in two or three generations with vastly improved environmental conditions, though we must now face the looming specter of climate change. It is in our own selfish interests — indeed, in everyone’s interest — to facilitate cleaner energy production and industrialization globally. The pollutants affecting millions in China and India have long-lasting global impacts that affect us all. Developing and developed countries acting in concert to reduce emissions results in a win-win.

Some caveats. I’m in no way implying that Revkin and Madrigal haven’t thought through these issues. They have - repeatedly and far more eloquently than I - throughout their writings. Second, I fully acknowledge that development occurs on vastly different timeframes and scales in each emerging market. The pace of development today is breathtaking — change occurs at a pummeling pace, enabled by our past technological innovations that now have a global reach. One hopes, given our global interconnectedness and inter-dependency, that we could avoid repeating some of these catastrophes. We’ve been through this repeatedly. We know the cost of environmental degradation in terms of human life, ecosystem quality, and money. And, to an extent, we know how to clean up our industrial processes. We have a fundamental obligation to share this knowledge, to make it heard, and to use our significant global clout to bring it to bear.

NYT dissolves environment desk

I heard about this via kottke.org and found it pretty shocking. Most of the response on the internet has been somewhat bimodal, with positions of meh and dismay.

Grist offers a somewhat more balanced response.

…While the environment desk itself is fairly new, the Times has been a bulwark of robust climate coverage for decades. While it’s not clear if the reassigned environment desk reporters will still maintain a focus on the environment in their reporting, other areas of the paper will gain new reporters with a deep knowledge of and concern about environmental issues. The Times will still continue to turn out good climate coverage.

Part of the (justifiable!) hand-wringing over the move stems from the poor reporting of climate issues elsewhere. Earlier this week, a study revealed that the number of newspapers that maintain a weekly “Science” section dropped from 95 in 1989 to 14 currently. (The Times is one of the 14.) Television news continues to give climate coverage short shrift, especially in the context of policy and politics. With public opinion suggesting that Americans link the threat of global warming with information about its effects, it’s understandably disconcerting to think that one of the most vocal outlets on the subject is changing its approach.

There’s one thing that is certain. As the months and years pass, every other bureau of the New York Times will have to deal with the effects of a changing climate: business, international, health, even sports. Having reporters close at hand who are well-versed in the subject will be an asset to the paper. The problem is less with how the Times staffs its environment coverage and far more with how few other outlets knowledgeably cover the environment at all.

While I tend to agree with Grist’s take on the issue, a couple things stand out. First, we won’t really know how this will impact the paper’s coverage of environmental issues and climate change for weeks or months.

Second, and importantly, much of the uproar has surrounded potential impacts on coverage of climate change. The Times has been a stalwart source of information on other environmental news, as well — including political positions and opinions on the environment, global environmental change, environmental health,the relationship between industry and the environment, and the like. While climate change is perhaps the most pressing of our ongoing environmental concerns, it is certainly not the only one.

I worry that some the Times’ nuanced coverage of other environmental issues may suffer from this move. Moving knowledgeable reporters to other desks in the news department could help bring an environmental perspective to more stories. But it may also lead to weaker coverage of the environment — one can imagine environmental voices getting drowned out by other concerns and editorial decisions. Time will tell.

Borowitz: Al Qaeda Disbands; Says Job of Destroying U.S. Economy Now in Congress's Hands

The Borowitz Report at the New Yorker:

In an official statement published on the group’s website, the current leader of Al Qaeda said that Congress’s conduct during the so-called “fiscal-cliff” showdown convinced the terrorists that they had been outdone.

“We’ve been working overtime trying to come up with ways to terrorize the American people and wreck their economy,” said the statement from Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. “But even we couldn’t come up with something like this.”

Mr. al-Zawhiri said that the idea of holding the entire nation hostage with a clock ticking down to the end of the year “is completely insane and worthy of a Bond villain.”

“As terrorists, every now and then you have to step back and admire when someone else has beaten you at your own game,” he said. “This is one of those times.”

No words.

Dave Pell, writing in NextDraft:

There will be a brief debate about whether this is too soon to bring up the issue of gun control and gun violence in America. At the first press briefing following the shooting, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said “today is not the day” to debate gun policy. Every day is the day. Someone needs to lead. We’ll never be able to fully understand or control the madness in a mind that could conceive and execute an act like this. But we can at least enact policies that will slow down the rate at which killers can carry our their deranged plots and increase, if only slightly, the barrier between their tortured minds and our “beautiful little kids.”

The Onion:

Following the fatal shooting this morning at a Connecticut elementary school that left at least 27 dead, including 20 small children, sources across the nation shook their heads, stifled a sob in their voices, and reported fuck everything. Just fuck it all to hell.

All of it, sources added.

“I’m sorry, but fuck it, I can’t handle this-I just can’t handle it anymore,” said Deborah McEllis, who added that “no, no, no, no, no, this isn’t happening, this can’t be real.” “Seriously, what the hell is this? What’s even going on anymore? Why do things like this keep happening?”

Kottke has the best and most thoughtful coverage on this tragedy.

A Minimum Tax for the Wealthy

Warren Buffett, in the NYT:

Between 1951 and 1954, when the capital gains rate was 25 percent and marginal rates on dividends reached 91 percent in extreme cases, I sold securities and did pretty well. In the years from 1956 to 1969, the top marginal rate fell modestly, but was still a lofty 70 percent — and the tax rate on capital gains inched up to 27.5 percent. I was managing funds for investors then. Never did anyone mention taxes as a reason to forgo an investment opportunity that I offered.

Under those burdensome rates, moreover, both employment and the gross domestic product (a measure of the nation’s economic output) increased at a rapid clip. The middle class and the rich alike gained ground.

So let’s forget about the rich and ultrarich going on strike and stuffing their ample funds under their mattresses if — gasp — capital gains rates and ordinary income rates are increased. The ultrarich, including me, will forever pursue investment opportunities.

And, wow, do we have plenty to invest. The Forbes 400, the wealthiest individuals in America, hit a new group record for wealth this year: $1.7 trillion. That’s more than five times the $300 billion total in 1992. In recent years, my gang has been leaving the middle class in the dust.

I had a hard time deciding on the pull quotes from this article. The whole thing is worth a read. Buffett’s on fire.

Read this Blog: davidsimon.com

David Simon’s been writing on his blog pretty often of late. He wrote a post on Petraeus and on what we, as Americans, should expect in response to revelations of the sexual peccadilloes of our public officials.

The second piece intensely recalls Simon’s interaction with John O’Neill. He concludes the piece:

Everyone I’ve talked to in the FBI acknowledges that had John’s reputation as a profligate ladies man not accompanied him, he would have easily weathered the internal investigation of the security matters and continued as the head of counterterrorism. And his lobbying effort with the Yemenis would have continued as well. But Mr. Freeh and others equated John’s personal life with his professional endeavors and he was told to take the pension or risk termination.

And yet, if all of the Americans killed in 911 and all of their families could speak to this dynamic, what do you think they would say? Yes, the price of greatness is responsibility and no sacrifice is too great, and no individual so unexpendable, that we must keep the head of counterterrorism doing his job. Fire his womanizing ass. Or, would they say, who gives a damn who this guy screws or why? He made the Cole case. He supervised the embassies investigation. He went to Pakistan to arrest the man who shot up the CIA headquarters in Langley. He’s the best we have in counterterrorism. Let him do his damn job. And while we’re at it, let Winston Churchill, the greatest wartime leader of the century, drink whatever the hell he wants in as much quantity as he can manage, as long as he continues to lead this country as he does.

I don’t need rectitude from my leaders. I need competence. I need results. If you have someone better than Petraeus, then that’s one thing. If he’s the best at counterinsurgency, then he is not expendable at this time, when counterinsurgency and our response to it mean actual American lives in the balance.

And, to hammer the point home, reflecting precisely on General Petraeus: If you were a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan, right now or the family of a combat soldier or Marine or a CIA operative on the ground in Afghanistan right now, who do you want in command of the American intelligence agency? The man who is regarded as the better counterinsurgency expert who can’t keep it in his pants? Or the moral paragon of marital fidelity who is in any way less effective at counterinsurgency. That’s a real-world choice. Just as forcing John O’Neill out of the FBI in the run-up to 911 was a real-world choice.

Barack Obama And The Death Of Normal

David Simon on the re-election of Barack Obama:

This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election. Arizona will soon be in play. And in a few cycles, even Texas. And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against each other, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.

A Victory for Obama and for Obama's America

Relief. It’s finally over. Obama is (still) President.

The speed at which the 2012 Presidential election came to a close was astonishing. The aggressive, lumbering, expensive build up over the past year and a half, with meteoric gains in velocity over the last 8 weeks, came to an abrupt and complete halt.

It all happened so quickly last night — and with so little in the way of added madness (save some Rove/Fox insanity). As major networks called the election, commentators shifted gears and began punditing almost immediately, with conservative bobbleheads predicting more gridlock and imminent doom as the world falls off a fiscal cliff.

John Cassidy, writing on a blog at the New Yorker, summed it up nicely.

With Obama on his way to the McCormick Place convention center in downtown Chicago to greet his supporters, the talking heads were already vying to predict what would happen next: two more years of Washington deadlock; a civil war inside the Republican Party as the long-muzzled moderates finally take on the likes of Sarah Palin and Grover Norquist; a reinvigorated President ready to reach across the party divide; a boom in the Colorado tourism industry as potheads the world over flock to the Rockies to get high. (A ballot initiative there to legalize marijuana passed by fifty-three per cent to forty-seven per cent.)

Hang on a minute, y’all. Who knows what the future holds? For now, let’s take the measure of what has happened, which is historic enough. For the fifth time in the past six Presidential elections, the Democrats have won the popular vote. For the second time in succession, Americans have elected a black man, the same black man, as President. Throughout the country, Republican extremists like Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock have been repudiated. Residents of Maryland and Maine (and probably Washington state, too) have voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. The United States of 2012 hasn’t turned into Scandinavia, but it isn’t the United States of 2010 and the Tea Party either. To the extent that the election was about anything more than negative advertising and relentless micro-targeting, it was a triumph of moderation over extremism, tolerance over intolerance, and the polyglot future over the monochrome past.

And we got a slight climate nod in the acceptance speech.

More fun with Google Trends

Fun times with Google Trends — this time featuring terms like Hurricane Sandy, Obama, Romney, and Presidential. More or less what you would expect — interesting to note Romney’s spike.

I should mentioned this before, but the values are all relative to some sort of Google-created Index. A bit hard to fully grasp what that means, but when/if I figure it out I’ll post an update here.

update:

The numbers on the graph reflect how many searches have been done for a particular term, relative to the total number of searches done on Google over time. They don’t represent absolute search volume numbers, because the data is normalized and presented on a scale from 0-100. Each point on the graph is divided by the highest point, or 100. When we don’t have enough data, 0 is shown.

Will Ferrell wants you to vote.

Obama’s twitter feed just posted this. Hilarious!

Decode DC: The DecodeDC Voter Guide

An exemplary episode of Andrea Seabrook’s new, crowd-funded, political podcast. The series is outstanding — but this is the best one yet, and offers a slightly more optimistic take on the election.

Perhaps the most cockeyed voter guide you’ve ever heard, this piece intentionally avoids the big issues of this race. Instead, Andrea talks to brilliant thinkers — among them Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Lawrence Lessig (The Future of Ideas, One Way Forward: The Outsider’s Guide to Fixing the Republic) and Jim Wallis (Sojourners, God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It) — about what they’re thinking as they head to the voting booth.

Gott and Colley's Median Poll Statistics

A lot of talk in the blogsphere about Nate Silver and his ‘tarnished’ (pun-slap) reputation.

J. Richard Gott, III and Wesley N. Colley have their own, open and published statistical models that look at the median margin of victory. These chaps claim to be pretty right, pretty often.

As of the 5th of November, they have Obama winning 291-234. And then the vitriol will hopefully subside a bit.

Hurricane Sandy News Coverage Declining (?)

Looks like coverage of Sandy is on the decline, despite numerous stories out there describing the heretofore untold devastation, environmental degradation, and suffering that continues. In the shadow of Tuesday’s election, coverage is shifting back to typical election-time tropes (red state, blue state, statistics, winners, losers).

All the while, hundreds of thousands of people are without electricity — and potentially without food or safe drinking water. If you can afford it, donate to the Red Cross or another group on the ground.

Michael Lewis at the Berkeley Public Library

Beth and I attended Michael Lewis’s lecture at the Berkeley Public Library in late October (thanks to Zoe Chafe, who let us know about the event). The talk focused on Lewis’s profile of Obama from Vanity Fair; Lewis was remarkably frank about his interactions with and around President Obama and open about how he interpreted the man and his motivations and how they were shaped by the office.

He ended with some great reflections on Obama, both as an individual and as a President. Worth the 70 minutes of your time. And if you haven’t read the piece, read it now.

On October 17, 2012, author Michael Lewis met with Linda Schacht Gage at the Berkeley Public Library to talk about his recent Vanity Fair article, “Obama’s Way.”

The evening was a program of the Berkeley Public Library, sponsored by the Berkeley Public Library Foundation and the family of Harry Weininger. With support from the East Bay Media Center, the entire program was recorded and is available for all. Enjoy! Special thank you to Michael Lewis and Linda Schacht Gage.

The YouTube videos are embedded below.

90 Days, 90 Reasons

90 Days, 90 Reasons is an independent initiative unaffiliated with Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. 90 Days, 90 Reasons was conceived by two guys originally from Chicago, Dave Eggers and Jordan Kurland. In late July, they looked around and saw that many of Obama’s voters and donors from 2008 needed to be reminded of all he has accomplished, and all he will do if given another term. They asked a wide range of cultural figures to explain why they’re voting for Obama in 2012, in the hopes that this might re-inspire the grassroots army that got Obama elected in the first place. Every day, a new reason will be posted—in short, Twitter form, with a longer essay available here. Please spread the word.

Romney's once-sensible energy politics & presidential ambitions

A long excerpt from an interesting NYT piece:

Decades later, when he was governor, Mr. Romney remarked to an adviser, Rob Gray, that “we’d be a lot better off in this country if we had European gas prices” because Americans would buy more energy-efficient cars. He also invited Amory B. Lovins, the head of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research organization devoted to energy efficiency, to meet with him in Boston. While Mr. Lovins “shared his vision of a 75 m.p.g. hybrid automobile built with high strength steel and composites,” Mr. Romney wrote, “I shared my own dream for a super-efficient commuter vehicle.”

When Mr. Romney ran for governor in 2002, he fashioned himself “in the tradition of New England Yankee Republicans,” Mr. Clarke said — a tradition in which “the environment is a nonpartisan issue.”

He was animated by ideas like smart growth and sustainable development, former aides say. He wanted high-density housing clustered near public transportation, pedestrian-friendly urban areas and parks. To carry out his vision, he created an Office for Commonwealth Development, headed by an über-secretary who would integrate policy in housing, transportation, energy and the environment.

The man Mr. Romney installed in that job was Doug Foy, who had spent 25 years at the helm of the Conservation Law Foundation, an advocacy group that had sued Massachusetts numerous times on matters ranging from air pollution to cleaning up Boston Harbor. Mr. Foy says he found Mr. Romney “intellectually struck” by environmental concerns, though he filtered them through a business-friendly lens.

One of the first issues Mr. Romney and Mr. Foy tackled involved an aging coal plant in Salem that was spewing dirty particulates and was required by state regulations to clean up by 2004. The plant’s owner wanted extra time. The governor said no; three weeks into his administration, he denounced the company at a news conference.

“He strongly wanted to clean up the air,” said Eric Kriss, who founded the private equity firm Bain Capital with Mr. Romney and followed him to the Statehouse to become finance secretary. The governor and his entourage drove to Salem, where Mr. Romney confronted angry pickets — coal workers who said he was costing them their jobs.

“I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” Mr. Romney thundered. “And that plant, that plant kills people.”

Granted, a state is not a nation and a governorship is not the presidency. That said, it would be great to hear this kind of rhetoric or see a hint of this kind of flexibility (and let’s not conflate mental nimbleness with political switcheroos) on any policy front. The article goes on to discuss the regional carbon trading market that Romney almost agreed to and some of the political ambitions that may have played a role in his decision to instead choose less green approaches.

On Dec. 12, 2005, in an interview on national television, Mr. Romney embraced drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — a position that, like his withdrawal from the cap-and-trade negotiations, aligned him more closely with the right wing of his party.

A few days later, the governor informed the people of Massachusetts that he would not be seeking re-election — a sign, many residents believed, that he had set his sights on the presidency.

Of course, these issues - the environment and climate change - aren’t coming up. They haven’t been mentioned in the debates or the campaigns beyond some perfunctory sneers by one party and reaffirmations by the other during the conventions.

Nature, Nurture, Medication, Arrogance

A pretty terrifying article from the NYT about prescriptions of psychotropics - regardless of ADHD diagnosis - in school age children. I couldn’t read the article in any light but one of utter disbelief; I’m not sure if that’s me imposing my bias on it or if its actual paints the practice as problematic.

Some excerpts below, but read the whole thing.

Although A.D.H.D is the diagnosis Dr. Anderson makes, he calls the disorder “made up” and “an excuse” to prescribe the pills to treat what he considers the children’s true ill — poor academic performance in inadequate schools.

“I don’t have a whole lot of choice,” said Dr. Anderson, a pediatrician for many poor families in Cherokee County, north of Atlanta. “We’ve decided as a society that it’s too expensive to modify the kid’s environment. So we have to modify the kid.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration classifies these medications as Schedule II Controlled Substances because they are particularly addictive. Long-term effects of extended use are not well understood, said many medical experts. Some of them worry that children can become dependent on the medication well into adulthood, long after any A.D.H.D. symptoms can dissipate.

According to guidelines published last year by the American Academy of Pediatrics, physicians should use one of several behavior rating scales, some of which feature dozens of categories, to make sure that a child not only fits criteria for A.D.H.D., but also has no related condition like dyslexia or oppositional defiant disorder, in which intense anger is directed toward authority figures. However, a 2010 study in the Journal of Attention Disorders suggested that at least 20 percent of doctors said they did not follow this protocol when making their A.D.H.D. diagnoses, with many of them following personal instinct.

You can argue either way about this — that helping struggling students perform is a good thing; that riddling younger kids with drugs that we know are addictive AND for which we don’t know the long-term side effects of is insane. I tend toward two seemingly sensical principles here — 1) the precautionary principle, something largely eschewed in this country and 2) finding better ways to engage students in school beyond medication. Medication is appropriate when the prescription is made with a valid medical diagnosis. In some of the cases described, however, the diagnosis is flimsy, the ethics questionable, and the end-result hardly what we want, as a society, for our youth. I can’t help but think there must be another way.

Obama Profiled in Vanity Fair by Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has crafted a masterful profile of Obama. Compelling, personal, and deferent, Lewis covers everything from Obama’s favorite place in the White House to a basketball game at the FBI to his decision-making process. Some of my favorite bits follow.

On the basketball game:

Obama was 20 or more years older than most of them, and probably not as physically gifted, though it was hard to say because of the age differences. No one held back, no one deferred. Guys on his team dribbled past him and ignored the fact he was wide open. When he drives through the streets, crowds part, but when he drives to the basket large, hostile men slide over to cut him off. It’s revealing that he would seek out a game like this but even more that others would give it to him: no one watching would have been able to guess which guy was president. As a player on the other team, who must have outweighed Obama by a hundred pounds, backed the president of the United States down and knocked the crap out of him, all for the sake of a single layup, I leaned over to the former Florida State point guard.

“No one seems to be taking it easy on him,” I said.

“If you take it easy on him, you’re not invited back,” he explained.

On what he would tell Lewis if their roles were instantly reversed (and also on focus):

“You have to exercise,” he said, for instance. “Or at some point you’ll just break down.” You also need to remove from your life the day-to-day problems that absorb most people for meaningful parts of their day. “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions. It’s why shopping is so exhausting. “You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.” The self-discipline he believes is required to do the job well comes at a high price. “You can’t wander around,” he said. “It’s much harder to be surprised. You don’t have those moments of serendipity. You don’t bump into a friend in a restaurant you haven’t seen in years. The loss of anonymity and the loss of surprise is an unnatural state. You adapt to it, but you don’t get used to it—at least I don’t.”

Probability & Decision-making:

“Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama said at one point. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.” On top of all of this, after you have made your decision, you need to feign total certainty about it. People being led do not want to think probabilistically.

Oh, f-it. The point here is that you need to read this article.

White House Homebrew

From NPR:

Now comes news that Obama’s homebrew is packed aboard his campaign bus. At the end of his coffeehouse chat, the president had a bottle brought in for his new beer buddy. Watching this, the press corps who travel with the president were thunderstruck. And they wanted answers from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney.

Carney took flurries of questions about the beer. One reporter asked about transporting the homemade brew across state lines, in a line that drew laughter from the press pool: “Does the Treasury Department know about this?”

Carney was also asked, “Any other distilleries in the White House we don’t know about?”

“There’s a lot going on behind the trees on the South Lawn,” he said.

… Asked if he’d tried the White House beer, Carney said he had — calling it “superb” — and added that he thinks there are both light and dark style beers. But he wasn’t sure who is in charge of the brewing.

“Usually, when somebody hands me a beer I don’t ask how it was made. I just drink it,” he said.

See also this amazing picture of the President.

update: The White House has released the recipes for the two homebrews in rotation!

McCain: Decency in Defense of Huma Abedin

“Ultimately, what is at stake in this matter is larger even than the reputation of one person. This is about who we are as a nation, and who we still aspire to be. What makes America exceptional among the countries of the world is that we are bound together as citizens not by blood or class, not by sect or ethnicity, but by a set of enduring, universal, and equal rights that are the foundation of our constitution, our laws, our citizenry, and our identity. When anyone, not least a member of Congress, launches specious and degrading attacks against fellow Americans on the basis of nothing more than fear of who they are and ignorance of what they stand for, it defames the spirit of our nation, and we all grow poorer because of it.”

Lawrence Lessig: "A nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive."

Brilliant, poignant, and terrifying piece by Lessig in the Atlantic. Excerpted below. Mandatory reading.

A tiny number of Americans — .26 percent — give more than $200 to a congressional campaign. .05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. .01 percent give more than $10,000 in any election cycle. And .000063 percent — 196 Americans — have given more than 80 percent of the super-PAC money spent in the presidential elections so far.

These few don’t exercise their power directly. None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped.

Some call this plutocracy. Some call it a corrupted aristocracy. I call it unstable. Just as America learned under the Articles of Confederation, where one state had the power to block the resolve of the rest, a nation in which so few have the power to block change is not a nation that can thrive.

The only way to cure this disease is to spread the power to fund elections more broadly. Just as democracy spreads the vote among the millions it calls citizens, representative democracy in America must spread the power to fund elections among a group larger than those named “Lester.” We need a world were at least 30 million must band together to block the reform of 300 million — not this world, where 30,000 can assure that no sensible reform can happen.

"Selfishness run amok"

Frank Bruni, in the NYT:

Selfishness run amok is a national disease (and, to judge by Greece, Italy and a few other European countries, an international epidemic). Too many people behave as if they live in a civic vacuum, no broader implications to their individual behavior.

I’ve known a few of them. I bet you have, too. Making a mockery of all the Americans who rightly depend on such aid, they exaggerate impairments, pressuring doctors to validate their conditions, on the theory that no harm is really done, not when they’re suckling at a teat as elastic and amorphous as the federal Treasury.

But that treasury is the sum of us — of our deposits and withdrawals — and to cheat it is to cheat your neighbor. It’s really that simple.

You wouldn’t know this from the way people approach taxes, which are what the federal Treasury must take in if it’s going to spit out anything at all — for the military, the highways and a whole lot else. Americans most frequently boast of how little they manage to pay, crowing about accounting gimmicks exploited, tricks successfully tried. I’m all for cunning, but we’ve gone beyond that.

Affordable Care Act Upheld, Explained in a single paragraph

From SCOTUSblog, via the Atlantic:

In Plain English: The Affordable Care Act, including its individual mandate that virtually all Americans buy health insurance, is constitutional. There were not five votes to uphold it on the ground that Congress could use its power to regulate commerce between the states to require everyone to buy health insurance. However, five Justices agreed that the penalty that someone must pay if he refuses to buy insurance is a kind of tax that Congress can impose using its taxing power. That is all that matters. Because the mandate survives, the Court did not need to decide what other parts of the statute were constitutional, except for a provision that required states to comply with new eligibility requirements for Medicaid or risk losing their funding. On that question, the Court held that the provision is constitutional as long as states would only lose new funds if they didn’t comply with the new requirements, rather than all of their funding.

From the ruling:

Today we resolve constitutional challenges to two provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010: the individual mandate, which requires individuals to purchase a health insurance policy providing a minimum level of coverage; and the Medicaid expansion, which gives funds to the States on the condition that they provide specified health care to all citizens whose income falls below a certain threshold. We do not consider whether the Act embodies sound policies. That judgment is entrusted to the Nation’s elected leaders. We ask only whether Congress has the power under the Constitution to enact the challenged provisions.

From the New Yorker:

On the last possible day, the Supreme Court upheld most of the Affordable Care Act. (Here’s a pdf of the opinion.) Who won, then? John Roberts, the Chief Justice, who put himself in the majority with the Court’s four liberals, and may have changed the definition of what we call “the Roberts Court”; President Barack Obama, whose first term was defined by it; our sense of how the balance of powers ought to work, and against, perhaps, our growing cynicism about the Court’s politicization (although there is a fine line between cynicism and simple prudence). A conservative court, and a conservative justice, upheld a law passed and treasured by liberals. This is not the way the Court has worked in recent years, for either side. “The Court does not express any opinion on the wisdom of the Affordable Care Act,” according to the majority opinion, written by Roberts. No one asked it to.

But, really, the winners are Americans—the more than fifty million of them who don’t have health insurance, but also the rest. Income and well-being have increasingly come to define each other; this is a victory for our sense of fairness, and that there need not be two Americas—one where, say, a mother can get good prenatal care and a cancer patient has choices, and another where pregnant women show up at emergency rooms, “preëxisting conditions” can be a death sentence, and medical costs are one of the leading causes of bankruptcy and foreclosure. It won’t be immediate. This is a major step toward American fairness.

And (surprisingly, from error/spoiler CNN), a nice page collecting lines from the justices.

Stephen King: Tax Me, for Fuck’s Sake!

Stephen King, just slaying it with righteous anger. I appreciate anyone who can use “bullshit persiflage” and keep on steam-rolling. A few passages from the article below, though the whole thing is worth a read.

Cut a check and shut up, they said.

If you want to pay more, pay more, they said.

Tired of hearing about it, they said.

Tough shit for you guys, because I’m not tired of talking about it. I’ve known rich people, and why not, since I’m one of them? The majority would rather douse their dicks with lighter fluid, strike a match, and dance around singing ‘Disco Inferno’ than pay one more cent in taxes to Uncle Sugar. It’s true that some rich folks put at least some of their tax savings into charitable contributions. My wife and I give away roughly $4 million a year to libraries, local fire departments that need updated lifesaving equipment (Jaws of Life tools are always a popular request), schools, and a scattering of organizations that underwrite the arts. Warren Buffett does the same; so does Bill Gates; so does Steven Spielberg; so do the Koch brothers; so did the late Steve Jobs. All fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.

What charitable 1 percenters can’t do is assume responsibility—America’s national responsibilities: the care of its sick and its poor, the education of its young, the repair of its failing infrastructure, the repayment of its staggering war debts. Charity from the rich can’t fix global warming or lower the price of gasoline by one single red penny. That kind of salvation does not come from Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Ballmer saying, ‘OK, I’ll write a $2 million bonus check to the IRS.’ That annoying responsibility stuff comes from three words that are anathema to the Tea Partiers: United American citizenry.

I guess some of this mad right-wing love comes from the idea that in America, anyone can become a Rich Guy if he just works hard and saves his pennies. Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay—in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.

Via kottke.org.

Some gems from President Obama

These are non-sarcastic gems — honestly outstanding quips. First, on Congress and interest rate hikes on student loans (emphasis added).

For the first eight years of our marriage, [Michelle and I] were paying more in student loans than what we were paying for our mortgage. So we know what this is about.

And we were lucky to land good jobs with a steady income. But we only finished paying off our student loans—check this out, all right, I’m the President of the United States—we only finished paying off our student loans about eight years ago.

Madness.

Second, on false and forced dichotomies:

There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and putting people back to work. That is a false choice. With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.

I heard some interesting facts along these lines today from John Harte. No amount of praise I can heap on John is sufficient — he’s a brilliant scientist, an outstanding professor, and occupies a rare, trusted position in the realm of public intellectuals. John discussed a few examples of the environment vs. jobs myth, honing in primarily on old growth preservation in the Pacific Northwest. He noted that instead of jobs being lost by forest preservation, quite a few were created through the processing of “lesser” wood products that had a larger market. Profits increased, as well. He also pointed to rapid growth in the environmental sector in other countries who have a larger focus on renewables — China and Germany, predominantly.

Finally, back to Obama and the students, as he slow jams the news with Jimmy Fallon.

That mic drop was priceless.

WTF

Everything that's good about America. Eagles, explosions, and crazy rightwing nut jobs.

Also, Sarah? Broderbund from 1984 called. They want their copy of Print Shop back.

Not compromise, but capitulation.

In a letter to Lisa P. Jackson, the E.P.A. administration, the head of the White House office of regulatory affairs, Cass Sunstein, said that the president was rejecting her proposal to tighten the standard.

"He has made it clear he does not support finalizing the rule at this time," Mr. Sunstein said.

He said that changing the rule now would create uncertainty for business and local government. He also said there was no compelling reason to rewrite the ozone standard in advance of the scheduled reconsideration in 2013, a key demand of business interests.

Mr. Sunstein told Ms. Jackson that since the rule is due for reconsideration in 2013, an earlier review would promote confusion and uncertainty.

"In this light," he wrote, "issuing a final rule in late 2011 would be problematic in view of the fact that a new assessment, and potentially new standards, will be developed in the relatively near future."

From the NYT
update: another from the NYT: Stung by Obama, Environmentalists Weigh Options.

Centrally-planned development

Reading a short piece by Brad DeLong for a technology & development seminar. Opens strongly with the following quotation...

"...the bureaucratic planner with a map does not know best, and can not move humans and their lives around the territory as if on a chessboard to create utopia; that the local, practical knowledge possessed by the person-on-the-spot is important; that the locus of decision-making must remain with those who have the craft to understand the situation; that any system that functions at all must create and maintain a space for those on the spot to use their local, practical knowledge (even if the hierarchs of the system pretend not to notice this flexibility)."

Seems applicable to any program anywhere, but also extremely relevant... and not new. The lesson has not been learned.

Nuclear Boy + the fearless fifty

This video is a little strange -- but also telling about the cultural differences in disaster perception (and to an extent, risk communication). I haven't decided if the take in the film is good or bad or propoganda. The majority of the government and corporate communication about the reactors has been less than ideal. But the response among the people -- away from the kludgy, monolithic bureaucracy -- has been graceful and stunning. Its hard to imagine the difficult feat of stillness after such a far-reaching tragedy, yet we witness solidarity, calmness, and quiet amongst the cacophony of tragedy after tragedy after tragedy. And then there are the faceless, fearless fifty [or however many may actually be working at the plant] heroically, tirelessly, without individual acknowledgement or recognition, but with the promise of future danger, malaise, disease... not to be forgotten.

Our response in America seemed the opposite. We're re-learning what it means, as a population, to have a graceful, eloquent government -- and Obama lived up to our new external face. Meanwhile, our population at large exhibited a mixture of some empathy and overwhelming self-concern. The radiation is coming. Where can we get potassium iodide? The tsunami will obliterate the West Coast. And oh yeah... how're the Japanese?

Kristof has a great editorial about "Learning from the Japanese." Read it here.

A weathered skeleton
in windy fields of memory,
piercing like a knife.
- Matsuo Basho, Japanese Edo-period poet

Edouard Glissant (1928-2011)

“…despite our consenting to all the indisputable technologies; despite seeing the political leap that must be managed, the horror of hunger and ignorance, torture and massacre to be conquered, the full load of knowledge to be tamed, the weight of every piece of machinery that we shall finally control, and the exhausting flashes as we pass from one era to another—from forest to city, from story to computer—at the bow there is still something we now share: this murmur, cloud or rain or peaceful smoke. We know ourselves as part and as crowd, in an unknown that does not terrify. We cry our cry of poetry. Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone. “

Poems available on the web

Promenade of Solitary Death

Country, Highest Noon

Twain

I won't pretend to have anything unique, new, or insightful to say about this inane pseudo-sanitization of Huckleberry Finn. Instead, we'll turn to the proverbial horse's mouth.

"I have no race prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse."

"There is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And You are but a Thought -- a vagrant Thought, a useless Thought, a homeless Thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities."

"None but the dead have free speech."

Orange is the new white...

... and John Boehner stole Mjöllnir.

boehner.jpg

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