June 28, 2007

What Drug War?

Watched a bit of the Democratic debate tonight. The candidates were all asked about race and racial issues, and only Mike Gravel mentioned the War on Drugs and the devastating effect it's had on inner-city African-American communities. By my count, he brought it up at least three times, and none of the other candidates ever backed him up, or even mentioned the subject. (Kucinich has talked about it elsewhere, I think.)

On the bright side, it seems like it's now pretty uncontroversial for a mainstream presidential candidate to say that the penalties for crack and powder cocaine should be equal. I guess that counts as progress.
-- Brad Plumer 10:34 PM || ||
Bush Does Health Care

Now that immigration reform's pretty much dead and buried, it looks like Bush might turn his attention to health care next. He's wrangling with Congress over how much money to give S-CHIP, the public program to cover uninsured kids. (Naturally, he thinks congressional Democrats are being too generous.) He even gave a little speech on the subject yesterday:
The fundamental question is, what should we do about [the fact that so many children are uninsured]? On that question, our nation has a clear choice. One option is to put more power in the hands of government by expanding federal health care programs and empowering bureaucrats to make medical decisions.

The other option is to put more power in the hands of individuals, by making private health insurance more affordable and accessible and empowering people and their doctors to make the decisions that are right for them. That's the divide.
Okay... into the thicket we go. Most S-CHIP programs actually contract with private managed-care companies to cover their beneficiaries. Bush, for his part, wants to give families tax credits to purchase insurance on their own. So the main "divide" here isn't really public vs. private; it's that, under S-CHIP, the managed-care providers have to adhere to certain standards--there's a minimum benefit level, and co-payments are usually capped. Under Bush's plan, that presumably wouldn't be the case, and families would get no guarantees that they could buy adequate coverage or limit their out-of-pocket payments. (And there would be nothing to prevent insurers from turning down applicants with pre-existing conditions.)

In fact, as the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities points out, Bush's proposal looks suspiciously similar to something Congress did back in 1990, when it created a health tax credit for low-income workers. That program ended up being a fiasco: Among other things, in the absence of regulations, shady insurance companies were able to swindle families into buying up policies that were basically worthless. After an investigation, Congress ended up repealing the credit in 1993.

Now, conservatives have criticized proposals to expand S-CHIP because it would "crowd out" private insurance: Some families with private coverage would drop their current insurance to sign up for the government program (this would happen with about 25 percent of all new S-CHIP enrollees). But as MIT's Jonathan Gruber--the expert everyone cites on this point--has explained, this will happen with any attempt to expand coverage. S-CHIP just happens to be the cheapest way to do so, even after the "crowd out." By contrast, Gruber found that Bush's tax credit proposal wouldn't expand coverage at all.

Meanwhile, a recent Urban Institute study found that low-income children in public-insurance programs actually get better care than their privately-insured counterparts: They see doctors and dentists more frequently, and it's all done at a lower cost. For whatever reason, the S-CHIP route is vastly more effective than tax credits and the like. Then again, since one approach involves additional government spending and the other involves cutting taxes (sort of), we know full well which one Bush will favor, no matter what the "studies" show.
-- Brad Plumer 4:10 PM || ||
The View From Burundi

It's not often I go in for the long blockquote, but Nick Kristof's New York Times column today, filed from Burundi, definitely warrants it:
If we need any more proof that life is unfair, it is that subsistence villagers here in Africa will pay with their lives for our refusal to curb greenhouse gas emissions. ...

People in Burundi have an annual average income of $100, nearly one child in five dies before the age of five, and life expectancy is 45. Against that grim backdrop, changing weather patterns in recent years have already caused crop failures--and when the crops fail here, people starve. ...

Greenhouse gases actually have the greatest impact at high latitudes — the Arctic and Antarctica. But the impact there isn’t all bad (Canada will gain a northwest passage), and the countries there are rich enough to absorb the shocks.

In contrast, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned this year that the consequences for Africa will be particularly harsh because of the region’s poverty and vulnerability. It foresees water shortages and crop failures in much of Africa.

"Projected reductions in yield in some countries could be as much as 50 percent by 2020, and crop net revenues could fall as much as 90 percent," the panel warned. It also cautioned that warming temperatures could lead malaria to spread to highland areas. Another concern is that scarcities of food and water will trigger wars.
On a related note, the United Nations released a new report today, concluding that a whole bunch of fertile land will probably crumble into desert within the next generation, especially in Africa and Central Asia--creating an "environmental crisis of global proportions." About 50 million people are at risk of displacement. (A fifth of the population of Mali, for instance, already moves to Ivory Coast during drought years.) Some African countries, presumably, will have to give up trying to feed themselves and start importing food. Not all of that is due to climate change, but some of it is.

Now, even if the world does manage to curb its emissions and stabilize carbon in the atmosphere, some amount of global warming is still on the way, which means that increased droughts or famines due to climate change could still happen. (Of course, reducing emissions will limit the extent of that disaster.) So countries in Africa and Central Asia will still need help adjusting in any case. Back in April, though, the Times had a stunning story about how the world's richest nations are spending billions at home to adapt to the likely effects of climate change, while to tossing pitiful sums at places like Africa, which emits a fraction of the world's greenhouse gases, but will end up bearing the brunt of global warming.

Update: And yes, it is true that climate change can't explain all of the changes. From the Times write-up of the desertification report: "Experts say climate shifts are one of several converging stresses creating the raised vulnerability in dry areas. Others include population growth, diversion of rivers for irrigation and a lack of ability to store water from flooding rains to use when dry times come."
-- Brad Plumer 10:24 AM || ||
Climate Sausage

In the current TNR, Eve Fairbanks has a fantastic article about how John Dingell, chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, became the bête noire of greens everywhere. Unexpectedly, though, Dingell just pledged to craft a bill by the fall that would require an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. He's also made vague, very vague, noises about a carbon tax. If true, that would be a major, major shift--only a few weeks ago, Dingell was looking to undermine state tailpipe regulations and subsidize liquid coal fuel; now he's staking out the green-most edge of the climate-change debate.

So I agree with Dave Roberts--it's probably not terribly smart for MoveOn to go around attacking Dingell--with radio ads calling him "Dingellsaurus"--at this point. As one energy consultant told Eve: "Don't piss him off... it doesn't serve their interests." (On the other hand, Dingell made his announcement the day after the MoveOn ads aired--so maybe a little pressure works.)

Meanwhile, in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Virginia Republican John Warner has just announced that he would help write a bill to cap CO2 emissions. Warner's been on the fence for awhile, and from what I saw, he was pretty moved by Gore's testimony to Congress in March. Now, Warner probably won't push for drastic reductions, but seeing as how, according to the Hill, Max Baucus--a coal-state Democrat on the committee who's up for re-election--is a likely "no" vote, Warner's going to be the crucial swing vote for getting a climate-change bill moved in the Senate.

Update: A reader writes in to suggest that Baucus might not be so unreceptive to an emissions-reduction bill after all.
-- Brad Plumer 9:53 AM || ||

June 27, 2007

IP Mania

Okay, there's an amusing aspect to this New York Times story, in which the Pearl Oyster Bar sues Ed's Lobster Bar for ripping off its menu, décor, and general look. But wait--isn't this a pretty serious issue?

I mean, if the courts actually ruled that food preparation and restaurant themes were protected under copyright law, wouldn't that grind the restaurant industry to a halt? As the Times points out, even the Pearl Oyster Bar itself ripped off a few things from the Swan Oyster Depot in San Francisco. And while the owner of the Pearl is upset that people are filching her saintly Caesar salad recipe, she herself learned it from her mother, who in turn... nipped it from some chef in Los Angeles. Presumably most restaurants work this way, and you'd have a barrage of lawsuits in short order. Dunno, I can't see how this would be a good thing.
-- Brad Plumer 5:26 PM || ||
Dead Zones

I can't imagine there's a huge demand for blogging about oceans, but here's another tidbit. Dead zones are created in the ocean whenever oxygen levels fall below the levels needed to sustain marine life--usually caused by fertilizers being dumped into the sea. And, as many people know, there's a massive dead zone the size of New Jersey down in the Gulf of Mexico. But now comes a new paper suggesting that U.S. farm policy may partially be to blame:
Scientists studying nutrient inputs that feed the Gulf's hypoxic zone have known that certain intensively farmed areas in the upper Midwest leak more nitrogen derived from fertilizers than others. Now, there’s a new twist. Farmers in areas with the highest rates of fertilizer runoff tend to receive the biggest payouts in federal crop subsidies, says Mary Booth, lead author of the paper and a former senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.

Booth maintains that agricultural nitrate loading could be reduced substantially if farmers took just 3% of the most intensively farmed land out of production. Accomplishing this target, she adds, wouldn’t require a large increase in overall federal funding, but monies would have to be shifted from commodity to conservation programs under the Farm Bill set to expire in September.
The thing is, it's going to be very difficult to take "3% of the most intensively farmed land out of production" so long as new biofuel mandates are driving up the demand for corn. On the other hand, there are experts who say it's possible to reduce the Gulf of Mexico dead zone without sacrificing crop production--using management techniques to reduce fertilizer use. I really have no idea. The dead zones themselves are fairly creepy, though, especially the way they expand and contract seasonally, like living blobs.
-- Brad Plumer 5:10 PM || ||
Who Hates Sick Leave?

As Ezra Klein says, there's not too much that's shocking about the new Labor Department report finding that workers want more sick leave and paid vacation while businesses want, well, less. But this paragraph seemed ominous:

Many businesses complained that the Labor Department's definition of a serious health condition enabling workers to take leave was unclear and too generous. Many companies also said their operations were hurt when workers with chronic conditions, like asthma or migraine headaches, took frequent leaves.
Employers have been complaining about the "chronic condition" clause for a long time. Now they finally get to put in a formal complaint. Presumably that means that the administration is looking into a way to make sure that workers with migraines are required to suck it up and keep working. In particular, the National Association of Manufacturers wants employers to have better access to the medical records of their employees--for the workers' own good, of course. At this point, it wouldn't be terribly shocking if the Labor Department was actually receptive to that idea.

In any case, it's possible that the NAM actually has a valid complaint about the "chronic condition" clause being abused. I don't really know. But surely, then, they'd be amenable to some sort of grand bargain in which that rule gets tightened (in some way that doesn't involve letting employers have detailed medical files of all their workers) in exchange for more paid leave. Oh, wait, my mistake, they'd never agree to something like that.
-- Brad Plumer 1:09 PM || ||

June 26, 2007

Fish Farming

Not that I care to be preachy about it, but I first became a vegetarian after reading Julia Whitty's grim Mother Jones cover story about the death of the oceans. That particular fable had plenty of overarching morals, but for me the biggest was that meat-eating was unsustainable. The irony, of course, is that I never stopped eating fish or seafood—just cows, chicken, sheep, whatever waddles or grazes on land. And then I sort of stopped thinking about how the world's fisheries were being depleted. At least until I read a recent New York Times report about how Japanese chefs were starting to put horsemeat in sushi because they were running out of tuna. Oh, right. That.

Now along comes Jeffrey Sachs to talk about how the oceans are being horrendously over-fished—by some counts, we may run out of fish in 50 years—and we need to put the oceans on a more sustainable path. (The link is via Reihan reloaded.) Enter aquaculture. Sachs likes the idea of water farms, where fish, shellfish, and other aquatic plants are grown for food. A great deal of salmon, shrimp, carp, catfish, and oysters are already being reared in various ponds and marine habitats. By some counts, aquaculture produces roughly 30 percent of the world's fish supply.

So does Sachs think we can avoid completely ransacking the oceans by ramping up aquaculture? That's what he implies. Of course, there are real problems with farming marine life. The waste from those farms—fecal matter, uneaten food, pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics—can turn the ocean floors into toxic sludge and do a number on the surrounding waters. The fish are often crammed in close quarters and end up breeding disease. Non-native species can escape the farms and wreak havoc—Atlantic salmon are now flopping all over the Pacific Northwest.

An example: In New Brunswick, salmon farms occupy about 0.1 percent of the regional coastal area, but scientists have looked at the surrounding areas and found lowered oxygen levels, invasive species, algal blooms, and the destruction of the nursery habitats for wild fish. It's a mess. Plus, as Sachs points out, many farmed fish species are carnivorous—herring are used to make salmon feed, so they've been heavily harvested in the wild, which in turn puts pressure on the oceans. (On the bright side, mollusk farming is truly excellent in just about every way. Really.)

Sachs seems aware of all of this, but then, sanguine as ever, waves away the problems by claiming that "better aquaculture technologies are already evolving rapidly," implying that, someday soon, fish farming will become sustainable on its own. I'd say there are other hurdles besides technological ones. In the U.S., for instance, there's no comprehensive oversight of the industry—it's governed by a patchwork of state laws, executive orders, and international treaties, and it's not always clear which ones apply to which aspects of marine farming. All the technology in the world won't help so long as there aren't laws to ensure sustainability. Isn't that a predictably liberal thing to say?

The Pew Center's invaluable report, "America's Living Oceans" (PDF) has a bunch of suggestions to promote sustainable aquaculture. National standards factor in heavily. International ones, too. Actually, as an overview of the broader issues problems facing the oceans, the Pew report is terrific. By the by, I should mention that I'm terrified of fish—in the way that some people are terrified of heights or speaking in public. That's another story. For now, the environmental crisis facing the oceans (which goes well beyond running out of tasty fish to eat) scares me more. And I can't tell if even Pew's favored policies would save the day at this point.
-- Brad Plumer 11:41 PM || ||
Fun With Auctions

Dave Roberts excerpts a great CongressNow article about an obscure, tediously wonky, and utterly important climate-change issue: If Congress decides to create a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse emissions across the country, how should it give out the pollution permits? Auction them off? Or should legislators figure out for themselves who deserves pollution credits and simply give them away for free?

On the merits, a cap-and-auction seems somewhat more efficient, letting the market settle the initial distribution of CO2 credits. By contrast, if Congress was the one handing out credits, there's a risk that they'd hand out too many credits to well-connected companies. As I understand it, that's exactly why Europe's trading regime has foundered so badly. Basically, a cap-and-auction is pretty similar to a carbon tax--there's less favoritism, and the government can raise revenue to invest in clean energy or public transit or to ease the pain of higher energy prices for low-income families. The big difference is it avoids the "t"-word. (Also, Congress would be explicitly setting a ceiling for emissions, rather than a dollar amount for the tax.)

Of course, this is exactly why many companies don't want the credits to be auctioned off, because they'd have less chance of making a killing on the trades market. They also wouldn't be able to lobby for excess credits. So if Congress started seriously talking about a carbon auction, all those companies who are throwing their support behind climate-change regulation--GE, Duke Energy, BP--would suddenly start sounding a lot less green.
-- Brad Plumer 10:28 AM || ||
Bong Hits 4 All

Scott Lemieux notices some selective originalism on display from Clarence Thomas yesterday. In the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case, Thomas found that the original meaning of the Constitution gave schools nearly limitless power to censor student speech. But when it came time to weaken campaign-finance laws, his history lessons on original meaning were nowhere to be found. How curious. Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick nicely captures some of the oddness at work in the two speech cases yesterday:
In Morse, Roberts goes to great lengths to insert meaning into the silliness of the words on the student banner. He insists the phrase "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" can be read as "celebrating drug use"; indeed to get there he needed only insert the imaginary words, "bong hits [are a good thing]." When did we enter into the era of constitutional interpretation through inserting pretend words? The sign could have as easily been read to say "bong hits [will kill you]."

Having effortlessly decoded the unintended pro-drug message behind the student speech in Morse, the chief then takes the issue ad in FEC at face value. The commercial that Wisconsin Right to Life wanted to run--which didn't say "don't elect Russ Feingold" but asked you to think darn hard about what Feingold did and to let him know that he is a bad, bad man--is protected "core political speech," regardless of its effect on viewers or the integrity of elections. ...

In the first case, the umpire gets to toss some new words out onto the field in order to get the outcome he desires. In the other, he merely reads out decades of congressional purpose and intent.
The truly weird part about Alito's opinion in the school case, though, is that he went out of his way to say that political speech was still protected in schools. So students can still protest against the War on Drugs or even agitate for legalizing marijuana. But the moment they start saying kooky things like "Bong Hits 4 Jesus"--even if they're doing so to rail against drug laws--then it seems that they're no longer protected. Eugene Volokh has more. Anyone care to make sense of this?

Update: Thinking about it some more, I think I agree with the outcome in the campaign-finance case. On principle, I'd prefer campaign-finance laws that deal with the supply-side--giving ordinary citizens a greater voice through, say, public financing--rather than trying to restrict special-interest money or speech. The "Bong Hits" case still seems ludicrous, although I guess even Alito's weird distinction (in which students can say "Legalize bong hits!" but not "Bong hits!") is better than Thomas' preference for a world in which schools can censor just about any student speech.
-- Brad Plumer 9:55 AM || ||

June 25, 2007

John Roberts Unleashed

The Supreme Court went on a rampage today: weakening McCain-Feingold, barring ordinary taxpayers from challenging the White House's faith-based initiatives in court, siding with businesses over environmentalists in a dispute about endangered species, and ruling aganist a student who unfurled a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner in school (no, really).

Worth noting: All of those decisions were 5-4, Alito and Roberts wrote two majority opinions apiece, and in all cases, the court liberals--Ginsburg, Stevens, Souter, Breyer--were on the dissenting end of things.
-- Brad Plumer 11:15 AM || ||
Politics as Usual

Let's review: In Act One, Barack Obama clasped hands with the coal industry and promised subsidies for liquefied coal fuel. In Act Two, environmentalists growled that Obama was backing one of the worst technologies ever devised from the standpoint of global warming, and, eventually, the senator backed away, which in turn made the coal industry very upset. So now we've reached the finale, in which Obama tries to pacify all sides with a clever compromise:

[T]his month, his Senate office quietly sent out a clarification of his coal-to-liquid position, saying he would support subsidies only if the fuel could be created with 20 percent lower carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum-based fuels. The statement dismayed those pushing coal-to-liquid, who noted this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage.
The thing is, the coal industry's quite right to be dismayed. No one's even come close to figuring out how to develop a coal-to-liquid fuel with a lower emissions profile than plain old gasoline. Right now, even under the most optimistic assumptions--say, engineers figure out how to sequester carbon underground and actually keep it there--liquefied coal fuel will be no better than the status quo. Realistically, that's the best case scenario. And that assumes some serious technological leaps.

But let's say Obama's wildest dreams comes true, and someone develops a kinder, gentler, cleaner liquid-coal fuel. (Baard Energy has claimed that it might be possible.) Obama's position would still make environmentalists upset, and rightfully so. After all, those coal subsidies would still cost billions, and that means billions that can't be spent elsewhere, on far more effective strategies to reduce greenhouse emissions. Like efficiency measures. Or renewables. Heck, even just using coal to generate electricity for plug-in hybrids would be preferable to liquid-coal fuel. (The coal industry just wouldn't be able to get as many handouts.) And that's why Obama's vote to shovel $200 million in grants and $10 billion in loans toward "greener" coal gasification projects made enviros so angry.

There's no satisfying compromise here, and Obama can't just rise above politics as usual--at least not on this issue. Either he supports the liquid-coal boondoggle or he doesn't. As the Washington Post points out, trying to reach out to both sides just ends up pleasing no one.
-- Brad Plumer 10:51 AM || ||

June 24, 2007

Crackdown in Iran

For whatever reason, the online version of Neil MacFarquhar's report about the Iranian government's new crackdown on dissidents didn't include this gruesome paragraph, which was in the print edition:
Young men wearing T-shirts deemed too tight or haircuts seen as too Western have been paraded bleeding through Tehran's streets by uniformed police officers who forces them to suck on plastic jerrycans, a toilet item Iranians use to wash their bottoms. In case anyone misses the point, it is the official news agency Fars distributing the pictures of what it calls "riffraff." Far bloodier photographs are circulating on blogs and on the internet.
And it's getting worse. Ideally, there would be something the United States could "do," but that's probably not possible. Not at this point. Maybe not for a long, long time. Negar Azimi had a in-depth piece in the New York Times Magazine today about how efforts by the U.S. government to promote democracy in Iran have mostly ended up backfiring. Most democracy activists in Iran don't want to come anywhere near American money, for fear of being arrested—or worse. Even U.S. officials sound gloomy:
Suzanne Maloney was on the policy-planning staff at the State Department for two years before she left last month to take up a post at the Brookings Institution. Her experience with the Iran portfolio demonstrates some of the difficulties inherent in democracy promotion. "In a small room it sounds terrific," she told me. "You put some money on the table, we support freedom and it gets us some points at home."

Maloney, who was one of a handful of staff members at the State Department who spoke some Farsi and had actually been to Iran, said she found herself doing a lot of damage control during her policy-planning stint: "I was worried about the safety of those on the receiving end of the funds. But I also just wondered if this was feasible. I don't see how a U.S. government that has been absent from Tehran for 30 years is capable of formulating a program that will have a positive effect."

She continued: "You had to wonder where this money was going to go and what's going to happen when you don't have the time to sit down and sift through the more questionable proposals. There's just not enough oversight. Of the 100 or more preliminary proposals I saw under the first call, it was an enormous challenge to find anything viable. This may have been a very high profile, sexy project, but the likelihood of real impact was minimal."
Much of the $75 million intended for Iran hasn't even been spent. And some of the programs that have been funded have been a disaster, like a Voice of America broadcast for Iran—which, as Azimi notes, has been turned into a propaganda organ rather than an actual forum for free discussion. Once Tom Coburn realized that a the creation of a free Persian-language radio station might involve having speakers who criticized U.S. policy—and take a more nuanced view of Iranian politics—he started complaining, and things changed. It's the same complaints conservatives have about Al Jazeerah, despite the fact that the station is a far more potent catalyst for democratic reform in the Middle East than anything the U.S. government has ever done.

Now, on the issue of Iran, who knows? If U.S. officials weren't always blustering on about regime change, maybe Tehran wouldn't be so paranoid about all grassroots democracy-promotion efforts. Or maybe not a damn thing would change either way. At this point, though, Iran's rulers are beyond convinced that the U.S. wants them overthrown, and seem dead set on locking up anyone who talks about even modest human rights improvements. It's a grisly scene all around.

Update: Oops, I guess this is why the aforementioned paragraph was excised online. Check out the very bottom of the article for the correction.
-- Brad Plumer 3:35 PM || ||
There Goes the 'Hood

In the latest issue of Mother Jones, Dashka Slater wonders how gentrification in lower-income and minority neighborhoods affects the people who already live there. On the one hand, having a bunch of middle-class professionals move into the neighborhood can lead to "high housing prices, evictions, and a creeping NIMBY-ism that elbows out social services." But the newcomers can also bring "investment, jobs, and tax revenue to neighborhoods that desperately need them," as well as—sometimes—the "political know-how required to extract money and services from urban bureaucracies." Okay, that's what you'd expect. But this, in particular, was interesting:
A 2005 study by Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University, found the chances that a poor resident of a gentrifying neighborhood would be forced to move were only 1.5 percent—compared to a 1 percent chance of that same resident being displaced in a nongentrifying neighborhood. This is partly because poor people tend to be transient anyway, and partly because poor neighborhoods tend to have high vacancy rates.
That doesn't seem like the whole story, though. Once a neighborhood starts gentrifying, poorer families from elsewhere are less likely to move to the area, as housing prices go up and there are fewer vacancies. So I'd guess that the 1.5 percent figure doesn't capture everything that's going on. Plus, the families that stay can see their rents (or property taxes) go up. Maybe the inflow of investment and jobs can make up for that pinch, but maybe not. A recent NBER paper offered new research suggesting that, for many low-skill African-Americans, labor market discrimination and weaker employment networks were much bigger problems than the lack of decent jobs nearby. So in many minority-heavy urban cores, the "benefits" of gentrification might not be all that great. Hard to say.

Slater cites a green lining to gentrification—namely, that it's better, from an environmental point of view, for middle-class families to move into urban centers than to flock to low-density suburbs (where, according to one University of Toronto study, they would consume twice as much energy and produce twice as much greenhouse gases). That's true. Admittedly, this isn't a topic I know a ton about. The Wikipedia page on gentrification has a lot of good stuff—including not one, not two, but three different theories on why it happens in the first place. Who knew?
-- Brad Plumer 2:55 PM || ||

June 23, 2007

To Donate Or Not?

Let's say I have a few bucks to give to the presidential candidate of my choice. What should I do? I'm fairly agnostic about which of the "Big Three" Democratic candidates I want to see nab the nomination--Obama has the least hawkish foreign policy instincts, Edwards the most sweeping domestic policy vision, while Clinton's the most adept at winning political skirmishes, but the differences are probably smaller than they might appear. Among the also-rans, Kucinich's views come closest to my own, but he appears to have scant interest in actually campaigning.

In that case, Ron Paul might actually be my best bet. No, I'm not nostalgic for the gold standard, and no, I don't want to abolish the Department of Education--though I would be down for abolishing the Energy Department--but there's no danger of either of those things happening. Ron Paul does, however, expose Republican voters to ideas on foreign policy that I think should be widely disseminated--namely, that we shouldn't go around attacking other nations willy-nilly. He's not polling very well, but if he's actually capable of changing minds or broadening the GOP debate on foreign policy, then it would be a grand thing for his campaign to keep on trucking.

On the other hand, it's possible that Ron Paul comes across as so wacky in the debates that he makes guys like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani--who would, apparently, still attack Iraq if they could do it all over again--seem reasonable to the median viewer. If that's the case, Paul does more harm than good, and I definitely shouldn't give him any money. So which is it?
-- Brad Plumer 3:36 PM || ||
Various Links, Some of Them Interesting

Some odds and ends:

1. The New York Times on freeganism. Best line: "Opening that first bag of trash... is the biggest step." Admittedly, I've done this once or twice for donuts late at night, and while foraging for food from supermarket trash bags isn't as putrid as it sounds--and might even be a good way to stick it to the man--it's absurdly time-intensive.

2. Yes, I think the United States needs to aim for an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. But I don't think it's a politically impossible goal. Not entirely. New Jersey just passed a bill gunning for 80 percent by mid-century. We'll see how they fare, but the realm of what's politically feasible is very rapidly evolving. A few years ago, not even the bluest of states were talking about drastic reductions.

3. Democrats in the Senate tried to pass a bill that would require electric utilities to get 15 percent of their electricity from solar, wind, or biomass by 2020. Republicans gave it the ol' filibuster. If you actually read, say, the EIA's analysis of the bill, it's clear that, contrary to conservative objections, the mandate would barely impact consumer electricity prices (of course, it would only make a small dent in emissions growth as well). On the other hand...

3a. Grist's Sean Casten says the government shouldn't be picking winners among alternative energy technologies--in this case, wind, solar, and biomass, to the exclusion of things like, oh, waste heat recovery. Instead, Congress should just pass general goals for utilities (that they should get X percent of their electricity from non-carbon sources by 2020) and see what happens. That's halfway to the GOP position on mandates (Domenici wanted to include a broader set of clean technologies in the mandate--though he also wanted to let states opt-out, which is ridiculous), but I think I agree.

3b. In a similar vein, Kevin Drum has an excellent post about how reducing fossil-fuel consumption is going to require a mix of policies, rather than one "silver bullet." Maybe that should go without saying, but he says it quite well. See also the post on Sweden, below. Yes, they slapped down a hefty carbon tax, but they didn't stop there.

4. Interesting IHT piece on how global warming could make it harder for nuclear plants to operate, by limiting the availability of water to cool reactors. During the 2003 heat wave in France, 17 nuclear plants had to either shut down or operate at reduced capacity.
-- Brad Plumer 10:53 AM || ||

June 22, 2007

Sweden Shows How It's Done

The Age has an interesting piece on how Sweden is on its way to becoming (mostly) carbon-free. "Today, Sweden's annual greenhouse gas emissions are just over five tonnes per capita, compared with Australian and US levels in the high 20s and climbing." The country's aiming to end its oil dependency by 2020. And they've managed to do it without suffering economic ruin and abject poverty. Quite the concept.

Now granted, it's not clear how closely other countries could follow Sweden's example--the Swedes seem to use a lot of biomass to make electricity, for instance, and there's probably not enough biomass to power the whole planet--but it does suggest that a carbon tax (Sweden slapped down a hefty one way back in 1991) plus various other policies can go a long way toward curbing emissions. Most notably, the government's done a lot of work to convince people to drive less and "encourage high-density living over urban sprawl," although the piece is a bit vague on how they managed to accomplish that.
-- Brad Plumer 5:35 PM || ||
Communists Everywhere

Communist rule was a disaster. No question. But Michael Kazin points out a paradox: In many Western countries, communist movements often did a great deal to advance liberalism in the 20th century. In France and Italy, many communist voters wanted no part of Stalinism, and instead provided crucial support for the creation of the social-democratic state. In the United States, meanwhile, the communist left helped lead the push for racial equality in the 1940s and 1950s and spurred the growth of labor organizations such as the CIO in the 1930s:
The Popular Front allowed rank-and-file Communists–most of whom were either immigrants or had grown up in ethnic or racial enclaves separate from the larger society–to embrace Americanism. The reformist party line gave CP members permission to follow their hearts as well as their minds–to identify and work with a variety of their fellow citizens in big battles for undeniably important and feasible ends. In 1937, the Young Communist League chided the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) for neglecting to celebrate the anniversary of Paul Revere’s ride. They marched up Broadway in New York City with a sign that read, "The DAR Forgets but the YCL remembers." It didn’t seem absurd at the time.

Communists thus put grassroots muscle, and their tightly blinkered idealism, behind the goals of the New Deal and joined the coalition that kept it in power. "I don’t turn my organizers upside down to see what kind of literature they have in their pockets," CIO leader John L. Lewis told critics who doubted the wisdom of allowing Leninists to spearhead union drives in auto factories and steel plants. In fact, that literature often promoted causes like interracial unions, progressive taxation, and national health insurance that many Democrats in Congress opposed.
Obviously this doesn't "excuse," say, the Cultural Revolution, but there's no reason it needs to. Of course, once the Cold War began, mainstream liberals distanced themselves furiously from their erstwhile communist allies, while adopting many of their positions--on race, for instance. Kazin argues that liberals were right to do so (not all those allegations about espionage were false). Fair enough, although I'd say that, in hindsight, the AFL-CIO's long decline began when it purged itself of leftists in the 1950s and became a conservative group bent on destroying progressive unions around the world. More on that here. Not everyone agrees. Either way, Kazin's essay is well worth reading.
-- Brad Plumer 5:17 PM || ||

That was quick. Yesterday, the AP reported that administration officials were going to meet today to discuss the future of Guantanamo, with a "consensus... developing" to shutter the facility. But, according to today's Washington Post, after the AP broke the story, the issue "was removed from the agenda." And, judging from the Post story, it doesn't seem like there's anything nearing a consensus just yet.

The administration could still end up closing Guantanamo, but it's not at all clear what would happen after that. Gates and Rice have recommended that the detainees be transferred to American soil, but that would give the suspects clear due process rights--something that Cheney and the Justice Department have "vehemently opposed." As much as I'd like to think otherwise, it's hard to see the vice-president losing that battle.

It still seems much more likely, as Marty Lederman wrote last month, that some of the detainees would just be shuffled to sites abroad--the Bagram internment facility in Afghanistan, say--where there's even less oversight. Or sent to countries like Libya, where they could well be tortured. By itself, closing Guantanamo certainly wouldn't resolve any of the broader questions about the United States' far-flung enemy-combatant detention system--or about whether the president should have nearly limitless authority to fight the "war on terror." Sure, it would be great PR--and that's no small thing--but what about beyond that?
-- Brad Plumer 10:57 AM || ||

June 21, 2007

When Taxes Fail

Matthew Yglesias has a good post on why, when it comes to reducing CO2 emissions, carbon taxes are preferable on the merits to "command and control" type solutions (i.e., renewable fuel mandates or stricter fuel-economy standards). I'd endorse most of what he says, with one big caveat.

At some point soon, the United States is going to need to help curb emissions growth around the world--at least if we care about fending off drastic climate change--and that means finding an approach that can be put into world-treaty form. It's going to be very difficult to harmonize and coordinate carbon-tax regimes across the globe, not least because, well, many countries are corrupt. On the other hand, standards for, say, fuel-efficient cars can probably be universalized more easily. (It seems simpler to draft a treaty ensuring that all new cars get such and such mileage than it is to persuade every nation to levy higher gas taxes, no?)

As I understand it, that was the idea behind the Montreal Protocol--the world's nations got together and agreed to set standards for certain appliances, rather than trying to set a international tax on CFCs (or some other complex emissions-trading scheme). And it worked well. Maybe I'm overestimating the difficulty of creating a global tax (or cap-and-trade) regime, but that's one area in which some non-tax approaches might be superior on the merits.
-- Brad Plumer 3:02 PM || ||
More Alarmism, Please

Many of the articles in the New Left Review are either over my head or nonsense—I can't decide which. Consider this, from the latest issue: "Jane Bennett presents a case for seeing matter as actant inside and alongside humankind, able to exert influence on moods, dispositions, decisions." Hmm? I don't even know what that could mean. Maybe it's tripe. Or maybe it's brilliant and I'm the philistine.

But NLR still has good stuff. This month, Clive Hamilton and George Monbiot have a lively debate about how to deal with global climate change. Hamilton gets points for conjuring up an image of Texans cranking up their A/C in order to enjoy a log fire in the summertime, by way of illustrating how insane our current energy consumption patterns are. But the key part is Monbiot's overview of why the world needs to cut emissions 80 percent by 2050 to prevent an additional 2 degrees of warming:
Two degrees of warming is the point at which up to 4 billion people could suffer water shortages, crop yields could fall in many regions of the poor world, mountain glaciers disappear worldwide and the irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, which could eventually raise global sea levels by 7 metres, is expected to begin. It is also the point at which several important positive feedbacks could be triggered. ... A two-degree rise in temperatures could cause the runaway warming of permafrost throughout the Arctic Circle [which would release methane, leading to more warming, and so on].

For this and other reasons—including the die-back of tropical forest, the accelerating metabolism of soil bacteria, a reduction of the earth’s reflectivity as ice melts—two degrees of manmade warming could cause a total impact of three degrees; and three degrees could lead inexorably to four. In other words, if two degrees of warming takes place, the problem is snatched from our hands. The biosphere becomes a major source of greenhouse gases, and there will be little we can do to prevent further climate change. Two degrees is the only target worth setting. ...

A paper published recently in the journal Climatic Change shows that in order to obtain a 50 per cent chance of preventing the global average temperature from rising by 2° above its pre-industrial level, we require a global cut of 80 per cent by 2050.
That seems right: Last month, NASA's James Hansen and 46 other climate scientists published a new paper (PDF) arguing that once carbon concentrations in the atmosphere reach around 450 parts per million (we're currently at 384), the earth will hit a tipping point. And while scientists don't know exactly how high sea levels could then rise, climate records show that, during previous eras in which CO2 was between 350 and 450 ppm, the earth was ice-free and sea levels were 81 feet higher than present. It's a big fucking deal.

RealClimate recently had a nice post about how Hansen's models from the 1980s have held up extremely well over time. (Granted, that didn't stop Pat Michaels of the Cato Institute from misrepresenting Hansen's work during a congressional hearing in 1998, but what can you do.) In any case, it would take a brave soul to seriously suggest that we should just sit around and wait to see for ourselves if Hansen and Monbiot are right about the 2°/450 ppm tipping point.

That means the United States has less than a decade to halt its emissions growth and get on track to slash greenhouse emissions some 80 percent by 2050, in addition to bringing China and India on board. You'd think that timeframe would induce a bit of panic in the political classes, but it hasn't really sunk in yet. Oh, sure, the Democratic presidential candidates all have position papers discussing an 80 percent reduction, but most of the actual talk on the campaign trail is about health care and so forth. I'm all for universal health care, but on the list of urgent concerns, it's definitely a second-tier one at best. I do like Bill Richardson's list of priorities:
The first day [in office], I would get us of Iraq with diplomacy. The second day, I would plan a huge initiative on making America energy independent with an Apollo-like program to become more reliant on renewable fuels. I'd ask the American people to sacrifice in so doing. Third, I would have a major initiative on climate change. Ninety percent .. .. reduce emissions by 2050. The fourth day I would take off.
Whether he truly means it or not, I do wish every Democratic candidate would take this tack. Monbiot's right, I think—all other concerns can wait. Is that too "alarmist"? It should be.
-- Brad Plumer 9:45 AM || ||
Desalination Blues

The world doesn't have enough freshwater. Okay, I don't know if that sentence is literally true or not, but considering the fact that 1.1 billion people don't have clean drinking water, the frequency of conflicts over water supplies (Sri Lanka's a good example; so is, to a small extent, Israel and Palestine), and the fact that global warming could very well increase the frequency of droughts in the coming years, then it may as well be true.

Desalination was always the great hope for water scarcity. Scoop the water out of the ocean and turn it into drinking water. That's how Saudi Arabia gets about 60 percent of its water. But now a new report by the World Wildlife Fund suggests that desalination could end up making the problem worse—especially since it's an energy intensive process, which will increase greenhouse emissions and accelerate the global drying trend. WWF says it's better to conserve. I agree, though if the plants were powered by, say, solar energy, this objection would largely vanish, no? (Then again, the destruction of coastal habitats is a valid concern.)

P.S. The Center for Media and Democracy says that the World Wildlife Fund is actually just a hapless repository for corporate greenwashing efforts. So, when a company wants some good PR, they'll shell out a few bucks to the WWF and sponsor some meaningless eco-project. Maybe, although I'm not sure I really understand why WWF's latest initiative with Coca-Cola is getting so much grief. Sure, Coca-Cola's evil, but the actual conservation project itself seems worthwhile...
-- Brad Plumer 12:34 AM || ||
The Subs Keep Coming

Here's a little story: Joe Courtney is a Democrat who, in 2006, helped his party take back the House by ousting a popular Republican incumbent by a mere 83 votes. But now he's facing re-election, and things look dicey. Luckily, Courtney has an idea. General Dynamics employs 6,000 people in his Connecticut district building nuclear-powered submarines. But since the end of the Cold War, business has been bad. So if Courtney could just win General Dynamics a contract to build, say, a new nuclear sub, his constituents would be thrilled, and maybe he could win re-election in '08.

Naturally, then, he becomes an expert on nuclear subs. He asks key members on the House Armed Services Committee for help. Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha, well aware that the Democrats need to protect their thin majority, heed his concerns. And Courtney learns to talk about how China is building submarines, so we need to build even more subs to counter the Chinese menace. When Peter Pace appears before Congress, Courtney berates him for not taking the sub issue seriously enough. Soon enough, Murtha starts hinting that a new sub contract might be in the offing. Voila!

That little tale came from Michael Leahy's profile of Courtney in the Washington Post a few weeks ago. A gripping profile, I'd say. Mostly it's about how Courtney spends his days, trying to establish himself as a freshman representative, scrambling to raise money, learning to be in campaign mode from the very first day. He actually comes across as an endearing guy. But the submarine subplot is noteworthy. Here's a budding China hawk, pushing for a 21st-century arms race (mainly) because 6,000 people in his district are employed in the sub industry. And they say socialism's dead.

Meanwhile, I'm sure this isn't an original point, but the Courtney profile does drive home one of the ways in which genuine campaign-finance reform—say, publicly funded elections—would be a boon. Members of Congress really do have to spend an absurd amount of time running around, hobnobbing with donors, flying across the country raising money. It's a wonder that most of them have any time left to actually think about policy issues and so forth. Or think about anything at all. Of course, most of them don't. A bit of a problem, I'd say.
-- Brad Plumer 12:12 AM || ||