VW Tries to Blame Engine Emissions Fraud on Low-Level "Engineers and Technicians"

| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 1:44 PM EDT

I guess it was just a few bad apples. That's a relief:

Volkswagen has blamed its emissions scandal on a “small group” of people and has suspended a number of staff as Matthias Müller was unveiled as its new chief executive.

....Berthold Huber, the acting head of VW’s supervisory board, called the crisis a “moral and policy disaster”....“The test manipulations are a moral and political disaster for Volkswagen. The unlawful behaviour of engineers and technicians involved in engine development shocked Volkswagen just as much as it shocked the public.”

This is ridiculous. What incentive do low-level engineers and technicians have to do this on their own? Hell, they couldn't even take on a project like this unless their managers OKed the time to do it, and their managers wouldn't do it unless they were being pressed by higher-ups. Anybody who's ever worked at a big corporation knows this perfectly well. And according to Bloomberg, that's exactly what happened:

Volkswagen AG executives in Germany controlled the key aspects of emissions tests whose results the carmaker now admits were faked, according to three people familiar with the company’s U.S. operations.

....Their accounts show the chain of command and those involved in the deception stretched to Volkswagen headquarters.... Ulrich Hackenberg.... Wolfgang Hatz are among those who will leave the company in the wake of Winterkorn’s resignation two days ago, two people familiar with the matter said. The two previously ran units at the heart of the affair — Hackenberg, a Winterkorn confidant, was responsible for VW brand development from 2007 to 2013, while Hatz ran the group’s motor development from 2007 to 2011.

Will it go even higher? Stay tuned. However, I'll call BS on UBS, which apparently thinks this scandal "could signal the eventual end of the combustion engine." Please. There's no difficulty "amassing accurate data" on engine emissions, as one of their analysts suggests. VW amassed very precise data. They just chose to hide it by means of a calculated, premeditated, multi-year fraud. Anyone who hasn't done the same should be in fine shape.

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| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Last night the Mother Jones site suddenly went crazy—but only on Firefox on my tablet. Every other combination of site, browser, and platform works fine. This morning, AdBlock suddenly stopped working. Everywhere. Have gremlins invaded my house? I guess I'll just wait a day or two and see if everything spontaneously fixes itself, as so often these things do.

UPDATE: Apparently AdBlock wiped out my filter subscriptions on every device. Why? Gremlins, perhaps. I added another one and now it works again. But I still have weirdo rendering on the MoJo site, on my tablet. Perhaps some strange difference between Firefox on Windows 7 (desktop) and Windows 8.1 (tablet)?

UPDATE 2: Now the New York Times crossword puzzle site is broken on my desktop, but works fine on my tablet. It was fine yesterday. WTF?

UPDATE 3: Huh. The NYT crossword works if I disable AdBlock. Something related to the new filter subscription?

Chart of the Day: The Current State of the GOP Race

| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 7:00 AM EDT

Here's the Real Clear Politics take on the Republican primary race as of Friday. I've modified it to show only the top six candidates—which, let's face it, are the only ones we're really interested in at this point. Note that this is not a single poll, but an aggregate of the most recent four national polls, all taken after last week's debate.

Needless to say, you shouldn't treat this as gospel. Other poll aggregators may show slightly different results. Still, it's a pretty good roadmap to the current state of play.

UPDATE: Here's the HuffPost Pollster version of the same chart. I decided I didn't really care about Ted Cruz, so I ditched him.

Julia Holter's Hypnotic Chamber Pop

| Sat Sep. 26, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Julia Holter
Have You in My Wilderness


Soothing and gently unsettling at once, Julia Holter's beguiling fourth album could be the elusive music you hear in an intense but puzzling dream. The Los Angeles native's graceful chamber pop is distinguished by an appealing lightness of touch, both in the string-centric arrangements and her placid vocals, with occasional detours into Nico-like gravity. While artfully crafted lyrics abound, they never diminish the primal power of the hypnotic melodies, tending more to delicate allusion—note the recurring aquatic imagery—than literal insistence, aside from the anguished query "What did I do to make you feel so bad?" Offering different subtle pleasures with each hearing, Have You in My Wilderness promises to have a long shelf life.

New Hillary Clinton Emails Surface

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 8:23 PM EDT

Uh oh:

The Obama administration has discovered a chain of emails that Hillary Rodham Clinton failed to turn over when she provided what she said was the full record of work-related correspondence as secretary of state, officials said Friday, adding to the growing questions related to the Democratic presidential front-runner's unusual usage of a private email account and server while in government.

This is the kind of thing that really could hurt Hillary Clinton. But when you scroll down to the details, it looks a lot less sinister:

The messages were exchanged with retired Gen. David Petraeus....They largely pertained to personnel matters and don't appear to deal with highly classified material, officials said.

....The State Department's record of Clinton emails begins on March 18, 2009 — almost two months after she entered office. Before then, Clinton has said she used an old AT&T Blackberry email account, the contents of which she no longer can access. The Petraeus emails...start on Jan. 10, 2009, with Clinton using the older email account. But by Jan. 28 — a week after her swearing in — she switched to using the private email address on a homebrew server that she would rely on for the rest of her tenure. There are less than 10 emails back and forth in total, officials said, and the chain ends on Feb. 1.

In other words, we're missing the very tag end of an innocuous email chain from Hillary's Senate days that spilled over into her tenure as Secretary of State. That's a little hard to get too exercised about.

I don't know what the broader picture is here. Clinton has consistently said she switched to her new email address on March 18, but the Petraeus emails make it look like she might have switched by January 28. Or maybe she partially switched? Or else emails started getting forwarded to the new account as a test for a few weeks, and then got deleted on March 18 when she began using it for good? Beats me.

Either way, this seems typical of this whole affair. Substantively, it's hard to believe anything shady is going on here. After all, it's unlikely there's anything to hide from her first few weeks in office, and certainly not the Petraeus emails. But optically, it certainly looks bad. It seems like another example of Clinton handling her email issue awkwardly and defensively when she doesn't really need to.

On the bright side for Hillary, this news was released on a day when the media was preoccupied with popemania and John Boehner's resignation. So at least she's not getting another round of dismal front-page headlines out of it. Yet.

Music Review: "The Claw" From Barrence Whitfield & the Savages' Under the Savage Sky

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 5:35 PM EDT


"The Claw"
From Barrence Whitfield & the Savages' Under the Savage Sky

Liner notes: Powered by honking sax and brutal beats on this raunchy raveup, Barrence Whitfield commands listeners to stop "flapping your jaw" and start dancing.
Behind the music: Born Barry White—no relation to the soul legend—the Bostonite has fronted various versions of the Savages since the '70s.
Check it out if you like: Greasy rock and roll, from Little Richard to the Sonics and Nick Curran.

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China's Climate Plan Isn't Crazy and Might Actually Work

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 3:30 PM EDT

Today Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama are planning to jointly announce long-awaited details of China's plan to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. The plan, which will commence in 2017, will make China the world's biggest market for carbon cap-and-trade, a system that sets a cap on the amount of CO2 that major polluters like power plants and factories can emit, then allows those entities to sell off excess credits (if they pollute less than the limit) or buy extra ones (if they pollute more than the limit).

The idea of a system like this is that it uses the market—rather than simply a government mandate—to force cuts in the emissions that cause climate change. Want to pollute? Fine, but it's going to cost you. If you clean up, you can make cash selling credits to your dirtier neighbors. A similar type of policy, a carbon tax, imposes a different kind of financial incentive in the form of a fee paid to the government for every unit of CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the rationale behind both systems is the same: Because corporate polluters now have to pay a financial price price for their emissions, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption both go down, clean energy goes up, and the climate is saved.

Many environmental economists agree that some kind of carbon price—either cap-and-trade or a tax—is the most efficient and effective way to quickly curb fossil fuel consumption, and thus give us a chance at staving off global warming. Democrats in Congress attempted to enact a national cap-and-trade program in the US in 2009; it passed the House but was killed by the Senate Republicans. Since then, a national carbon pricing system has been a non-starter in Washington. But there are plenty of other examples of successful systems elsewhere that should make us optimistic about China's new plan.

The Northeast United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade market that includes nine states in the Northeast, set up in 2008. The program is widely considered a success and is expected to reduce the region's power-sector emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. This year, the price of credits has been riding high, a sign that the market is working to create a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. The most recent auction of credits, in September, generated in $152.7 million for the states—revenue that is re-invested in clean energy programs and electric bill assistance for low-income households.

California: When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through legislation in 2006 to set aggressive climate targets for the state, the key mechanism was a cap-and-trade program, which finally opened in 2013. So far, it seems to be working. Emissions are down, while GDP is up. In fact, the California program was a primary model for the Chinese system.

British Columbia: This Canadian province's carbon tax, first enacted in 2008, is one of the most successful carbon pricing plans anywhere. Gasoline consumption is way down, and the government has raised billions that it has returned to citizens in the form of tax cuts for low-income households and small businesses. The program "made climate action real to people," one Canadian environmentalist told my former colleague Chris Mooney.

Australia: For a country that is notoriously reliant on coal, Australia had been on the progressive side of climate politics after it passed a national carbon tax in 2012. The tax was scrapped just two years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed it for a sluggish economic recovery and high energy prices. But the repeal actually yielded an unexpected insight into the success of the program: In the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis. In other words, the tax had worked effectively to drive down emissions.

Europe: Of course, carbon pricing systems aren't without their flaws, and the European Trading Scheme has provided a good example of the risks. The system has often been plagued by a too-high cap, meaning the market becomes flooded with credits, the price drops, and polluters have little incentive to change. This month, regulators passed a package of reforms meant to restrict the number of credits and bolster the market. But even with the low price, the ETS has been effective enough to keep the EU on track to meet its stated climate goals.   

Even with these good examples to draw from, there are still challenges ahead for China. How will the government allocate credits among different polluters? Will the polluters actually trade with one another? How effectively will the government be able to monitor emissions, to ensure that the credits actually match real pollution?

But at the very least, Republicans in the US just lost one their favorite excuses for climate inaction: That China, the world's biggest emitter, is doing nothing.

Friday Cat Blogging - 25 September 2015

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 2:50 PM EDT

A few weeks ago Hopper got her picture taken in the bathroom sink, so naturally Hilbert immediately decided he wanted his picture taken in the bathroom sink. He doesn't fit quite as nicely, but he seemed pretty happy. He never went back, though. Once he'd evened things up with Hopper, he moved on to other attention-demanding exploits.

Donald Trump Is Not Fit to Win the War on Christmas

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 2:48 PM EDT

Donald Trump is pandering to some social conservatives today, so naturally he brought up the nonexistent War on Christmas:

"The word Christmas, I love Christmas," Trump said. "You go to stores, you don’t see the word 'Christmas.' It says 'happy holidays' all over. I say, 'where's Christmas?'"

"I tell my wife, don’t go to those stores," he continued, as the crowd began cheering. "I want to see Christmas. You know, other people can have their holidays, but Christmas is Christmas. I want to see 'Merry Christmas.' Remember the expression, 'Merry Christmas?' You don’t see it anymore. You’re going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you that right now."

Trump did not explain how he would, as president, compel business owners to promote Christian expressions.

But if President Trump really wants to defend Christmas, he's going to have to explain his earlier flirtations with the enemy:


The Criminal Investigation of FIFA's Sepp Blatter Is Finally Here

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 1:50 PM EDT

On Friday, Swiss officials opened a criminal investigation into embattled FIFA president Sepp Blatter "on suspicion of criminal mismanagement" and "misappropriation."

In September 2005, Switzerland's Office of Attorney General said in a press release, Blatter signed a television contract with the Caribbean Football Union deemed "unfavorable to FIFA" during former FIFA executive Jack Warner's tenure as league president.

Blatter was also accused of making a "disloyal payment" of 2 million Swiss francs to UEFA president Michel Platini "at the expense of FIFA" for work conducted between January 1999 and June 2002.

The criminal probe comes five months after 14 top soccer officials and corporate executives, including Warner, were indicted for widespread corruption spanning the past two decades.

Here's a short recap of what has happened in the Blatter orbit since the indictment came down:

May 27: The US Department of Justice indicts 14 top soccer officials and corporate executives on charges of racketeering, wire fraud, and money laundering for a massive corruption scheme that spanned two decades and totaled more than $150 million. Plainclothes officers raided the five-star Baur au Lac hotel in Switzerland, where FIFA executives gathered for the league's annual meeting. The charges focus on the buying and selling of votes for the 2010 World Cup in Africa. A separate Swiss investigation hones in on the bidding for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and 2022 World Cup in Qatar. 

May 29: Blatter wins election for the fifth time and promises to "take the responsibility to bring back FIFA."

May 31: Blatter says he has an idea why the indictments went down two days before the FIFA election: "No one is going to tell me that it was a simple coincidence, this American attack two days before the elections of FIFA. It doesn't smell right. This has touched me and FIFA…There are signs that cannot be ignored. The Americans were the candidates for the World Cup of 2022 and they lost. The English were the candidates for 2018 and they lost, so it was really the English media and the American movement."

June 1: The New York Times reports that Jérôme Valcke—the FIFA secretary general and Blatter's right-hand man—is linked to a $10 million transaction between FIFA and another soccer official, a central part of the bribery scandal. On June 10, Valcke concedes that he authorized the transaction, but denied any wrongdoing.

June 2: Blatter announces he will resign as head of FIFA after 17 years and calls for a special election. "FIFA needs a profound overhaul," he said in a statement at the time. "While I have a mandate from the membership of FIFA, I do not feel that I have a mandate from the entire world of football—the fans, the players, the clubs, the people who live, breathe and love football as much as we all do at FIFA."

June 15: A federal judge in Brooklyn unseals a plea agreement of former FIFA executive Chuck Blazer, who pleaded guilty in November 2013 to 10 counts of racketeering, wire fraud, money laundering, and tax evasion. Blazer cooperated with federal investigators in secret for two years before his plea, providing information that is believed to have helped lead to the arrests of the 14 officials. That same day, a Swiss newspaper reports that Blatter is reconsidering his resignation from FIFA's top post.

September 17: FIFA places Valcke on leave "until further notice." Swiss authorities accused Valcke of selling tickets to the 2014 World Cup for more than face value.

September 25: Swiss authorities open criminal investigation into Blatter.