King Corn

Via the LA Times, this is the best news I've heard all day:

The Obama administration on Tuesday proposed renewable fuel standards that could reduce the $3 billion a year in federal tax breaks given to producers of corn-based ethanol. The move sets the stage for a major battle between Midwest grain producers and environmentalists who say the gasoline additive actually worsens global warming.

....While biofuels as a whole — including grasses and even algae — are considered promising alternatives to petroleum, some researchers have begun challenging the use of corn for this purpose.

In particular, they point to the "indirect land-use" effects of pulling corn out of the world food supply, which could force farmers in developing nations to clear rain forests — and release massive amounts of carbon dioxide in the process — in order to plant corn.

Please dump the corn ethanol subsidies.  Please, please, please.  Dollar for dollar, it might well be the stupidest use of taxpayer cash in the entire federal budget.

Stress Test Update

The New York Times reports that the Treasury's stress test has determined that Bank of America needs $33.9 billion in new capital.  That's nearly half the current value of the entire company, which has a market cap of about $70 billion.

If BofA can't raise this money itself, it means either (a) more TARP money or (b) conversion of the Treasury's current $45 billion in preferred shares into common shares.  I continue to think that (b) is little more than a shell game, but better minds than mine have suggested that it would have some genuine value.  If that's what happens, conversion at Tuesday's closing price would give the government a one-third stake in BofA.  But if their stock plummets and conversion happens at a lower price, Treasury could end up with a majority stake.

On the other hand, BofA's chief administrative officer bravely says they have plenty of options for raising the money themselves before they have to strike a deal with the feds.  For example, BofA could decide to quickly sell a third of its stake in China Construction Bank, which would bring in about $8 billion.  The sale of First Republic and Columbia Management could generate about $4 billion.

Maybe.  It's hard to say at this point.  But $33.9 billion is a lot higher than anyone's been talking about so far.  Any way you slice it, it's bad news for Ken Lewis.

Watching the Banks

I approve of this:

Banks that want to return Troubled Asset Relief Program funds will have to demonstrate their ability to wean themselves off another major federal program, according to senior government officials, making it less attractive for some banks to return the money.

The other program, a guarantee of debt issuance offered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., allows firms to borrow money relatively inexpensively. Banks have $332.5 billion of debt outstanding under this program, which began last fall.

If a bank is healthy and solvent and able to lend money freely, then it should be allowed to turn down extraordinary government aid and operate without extraordinary government oversight.  But there's more to the federal bailout program than just TARP, and if a bank is really healthy it doesn't need to take advantage of any of the other extraordinary programs either.  Until and unless that happens, however, Treasury should insist that they keep their TARP money and stay under TARP rules.  No stealth bailouts, please.

Somewhere between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar—nearly double the known amphibian fauna on the island. The new study suggests that biodiversity in this biodiversity hotspot has been significantly underestimated, even in well-known and well-studied national parks.

"People think we know which plant and animal species live on this planet," says Miguel Vences of the Technical University of Braunschweig, one of the authors. "But the century of discoveries has only just begun—the majority of life forms on Earth is still awaiting scientific recognition."

In the 15 years prior to these findings, researchers had discovered and described over 100 new frog species from Madagascar and believed their species inventory to be nearly complete.

But the new surveys show far more species than suspected. The results come from DNA sequencing of 2,850 specimens of amphibians at 170 sites. The data don't show suggest more individual amphibians living in Madagascar—only more species diversity. Which means the new species are likely fragile and less populous.

The new research also implies that total biodiversity of all species on Madagascar could be higher than previously thought. Therefore the continuing destruction of rainforest in Madagascar may be affecting more species than we know.

Although many reserves and national parks have been created in the past ten years, real protection on the ground is thin. Madagascar has already lost more than 80 percent of its historic rainforest.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that nearly one-quarter of the new species were discovered in unprotected areas.

Ah, technology animating the voices, and the sins, of the past.

Huffpo links to a piece on how Google has stirred up Japan's past bigotry (read: forced it to acknowledge it) simply by taking an interest in its history and uploading vintage maps from its past:

The maps date back to the country's feudal era, when shoguns ruled and a strict caste system was in place. At the bottom of the hierarchy were a class called the "burakumin," ethnically identical to other Japanese but forced to live in isolation because they did jobs associated with death, such as working with leather, butchering animals and digging graves.
Castes have long since been abolished, and the old buraku villages have largely faded away or been swallowed by Japan's sprawling metropolises. Today, rights groups say the descendants of burakumin make up about 3 million of the country's 127 million people.
But they still face prejudice, based almost entirely on where they live or their ancestors lived. Moving is little help, because employers or parents of potential spouses can hire agencies to check for buraku ancestry through Japan's elaborate family records, which can span back over a hundred years.
An employee at a large, well-known Japanese company, who works in personnel and has direct knowledge of its hiring practices, said the company actively screens out burakumin job seekers.


If These Are "The Best And Brightest" Pray That We Never See "The Worst and Dumbest"

Though it seems impossible, everyday we hear newer and more inane arguments for why the torturing Bushies and economy-busting Wall Streeters shouldn't have to answer all our pesky questions and, you know, live with the consequences of all their besting and brightest-ing.

At Salon, Michael Lind (a former colleague) dispenses quickly with this latest argument, of which he offers the following examples: 

Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult.


 Please, please tell me I'm being punked. Please. From ThinkProgress:

Relying on an International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission translation of a recent Al Arabiya story, the blog Towleroad reports that Iraqi militias have been engaging in some particularly brutal tactics toward gay men in Iraq:

"A prominent Iraqi human rights activist says that Iraqi militia have deployed a painful form of torture against homosexuals by closing their anuses using 'Iranian gum.' ...Yina Mohammad told that, 'Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.' According to her, the new substance 'is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cellphones in Iraq.'"

OK. It's a punkin'. Has to be.

The link leads to something or other in Farsi or Arabic (I guess?) which gives the vast majority of us ig'nent 'Mericuns any idea of what's going on.

For once, I'll be ecstatic to learn that I was gullible beyond belief. 'Cuz I just can't believe this shite. But these days, it's hard to calibrate our once-reliable bullshit-o-meters.



Taxing Carbon

Should environmentalists concerned about global warming support a quick, simple carbon tax rather than a complicated, long-term cap-and-trade plan?  James Hansen thinks so, but Joe Romm explains the facts of life to him:

1. A carbon tax, particularly one capable of deep emissions reductions quickly, is a political dead end....

2. A carbon tax that could pass Congress would not be simple. Advocates of a tax argue that simplicity is one of its biggest benefits.  Again, those advocates seem bizarrely unfamiliar with the tax code in spite of the fact that they pay taxes every year....

3. A carbon tax is woefully inadequate and incomplete as a climate strategy.  Why?  Well, for one, it doesn’t have mandatory targets and timetables.  Thus it doesn’t guarantee specific emissions results and thus doesn’t guarantee specific climate benefits.  Perhaps more important, it doesn’t allow us to join the other nations of the world in setting science-based targets and timetables.  Also, a tax lacks all of the key complementary measures — many of which are in Waxman-Markey — that are essential to any rational climate policy, but which inherently complicate any comprehensive energy and climate bill.

It's true that in some pure economic sense a tax is a more efficient way of pricing carbon than a cap-and-trade plan.  But that's only if you get exactly the tax you want (you won't) and only if you accept a very specific sense of the word "efficient" (which you shouldn't).  And even if you magically got the simple, efficient tax you wanted, a tax lacks the one critical thing that cap-and-trade provides: a cap.  End of story.  If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, the best way to do it is to cap them.  This is something the public can easily understand.  The trading scheme that comes along with it is, admittedly, complex, but it's only there to allow us to go after the low hanging fruit first and reduce the cost of complying with the cap.  It's the cap itself that's key.

Like Romm, I don't really understand how it is that smart people don't get this.  Politically, cap-and-trade is the only climate plan that has even a remote chance of getting through Congress, it's the only plan that institutes a firm limit on greenhouse gases, and it's the only plan on the table.  Is it really worth giving all that up for the chimera of a tax that has some esoteric technical advantages on a whiteboard, but in the real world can't pass and wouldn't solve the carbon problem even if it did?  It's hard to see why anyone serious about real-world change would buy into this.

If you're interested in the political blogosphere and the netroots in general, Eric Boehlert's Bloggers on the Bus is a great read.  It's built around potted sketches of some of the best known liberal bloggers (Atrios, Digby, Jane Hamsher, John Amato, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Greenwald, and others) and some of the blogosphere's greatest campaign hits during 2008 (the Obama MySpace debacle, the John Hagee meltdown, the Sarah Palin eruption, the great sexism debate), and Boehlert really does a terrific job of diving in and explaining how everything unfolded.  I followed almost all of this stuff pretty obsessively in real time, but I still learned lots of details I'd never heard of before.

It's a very fast, entertaining read, and since it focuses (almost) exclusively on the liberal blogosphere it mostly avoids the sense of triumphalism you might get in a more partisan book.  Which is a good thing since it ends with this:

The bad news for liberal bloggers was that as the Obama campaign unfolded, as his new commuhity-based coalition was being built and celebrated, it became obvious that bloggers were never really invited to the party.  Liberal bloggers simply never became active partners with Obama in the way they had been with the Dean insurgency four years earlier, and the way they had been with scores of Democratic politicians in skirmishes throughout the Bush years.  Why?  Mostly because Obama didn't seem to want the bloggers around.

That's true, isn't it?  For all the hype, the liberal blogosphere in 2008 had its biggest impact in state and local races, just as it did in 2004.  It's true that it was much more successful in pushing stories into the mainstream media than it was four years ago, but in terms of being active in the Obama campaign itself, it wasn't.  And that was primarily a choice made by Obama himself, who apparently felt that the raw partisanship of the blogosphere was something he wanted to keep at arm's length.

There were a couple of things missing from the book that struck me.  The first is specific: the Jeremiah Wright firestorm, which begged to be included in any book about the 2008 campaign, but which Boehlert inexplicably never mentions.  The second is more general: Boehlert does a good job of showing how the blogosphere managed to gain attention for stories that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, but at times his account feels too blinkered.  The mainstream media played a pretty big role in all this too, and even in a book about the blogosphere this deserves a little more attention.  At the very least, there should have been a chapter devoted to the relationship between blogs and the MSM.

But these are nits.  If you're looking for a blog's eye view of Campaign '08, Bloggers on the Bus is a terrifically readable and carefully reported book.  Highly recommended.

The Government Accountability Office released a report Tuesday concluding critical federal information systems are "not sufficiently protected to consistently thwart cyber threats," which are "evolving and growing."

According to the GAO, a majority of those threats come in the form of unauthorized access and improper use, from people who fall into several categories: Foreign spies, thieves, hackers, "hacktivists"—people who engage in "politically motivated" attacks on the Web to "send a political message"—terrorists and, "disgruntled insiders."

Reported incidents of attempted and successful security breaches have more than tripled since 2006, to more than 16,000, all while the GAO has, over the last several years, submitted "hundreds of recommendations to [federal] fully implement information security programs."

The failure to completely enact those security programs has left 20 "major agencies" with "inadequate information system controls over financial systems," according to the report. The GAO also cited cybersecurity "vulnerabilities" at the Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls more than 50 nuclear, hydroelectric and fossil fuel power plants, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory, one of the US's nuclear weapons research sites.

Last month, Senators John Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) introduced a bill that would give the President and the Secretary of Commerce broad powers to shut down internet traffic in the case of a cyber threat. Without such action, Snowe said the US would risk experiencing a "cyber-Katrina." The bill, the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, was referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which has yet to vote on it.