Waiting for the Meltdown

Leaving aside Jonah Goldberg's contention that Sonia Sotomayor is "the most left-leaning Hispanic possible/confirmable" Supreme Court nomination, this actually strikes me as an interesting point:

If Obama picked a centrist, opposition would have been principled, but pro-forma. By picking Sotomayor, conservatives will no doubt demand full-throated opposition, which plays perfectly to Obama's purposes (so long as he doesn't dump Sotomayor for some, any, reason). I don't think this was the key factor in his decision, but you can be sure the White House will love casting conservative opposition in those terms.

I also doubt that this was a key factor, but it wouldn't surprise me if a few people in the West Wing did indeed figure that this was a nice bonus.  The wingnut wing of the Republican Party seems hugely energized by Sotomayor's nomination and ready to go ballistic over it.  This might be good for them in the short term (it's a nice fundraising opportunity, brings internal factions together, etc.), but Obama, as usual, is looking a few moves ahead and understands that a shrieking meltdown from the usual suspects will mostly help the liberal cause: the American public already thinks the conservative rump running the Republican Party is crazy, after all, and this will help cast that feeling in stone.  Most normal people think empathy is a good thing, not a code word for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

And Obama?  He gets to be the calm at the center of the storm, providing his usual striking contrast to the seething stew of preachers, radio screamers, and Gingrich acolytes who will be making themselves ever more tiresome to Mr. and Mrs. Heartland with their ranting jeremiads.  I don't blame conservatives for opposing Sotomayor even though they know that she'd only be replaced by someone equally liberal if they did somehow manage to derail her (liberals did the same with Roberts and Alito, after all), but if they're smart they'll realize that the usual shriekfest is playing right into Obama's hands.

But they're not smart, are they?

North Korea

Dan Drezner remarks on the DPRK's recent nuclear test:

I think the Obama administration has come up with a novel way of dealing with the North Koreans — get everyone to talk about something else.

That is novel — at least compared to the nonsense normally spewed by the Bush administration every time Kim Jong-il decided to yank their chains.  And in any case, if meaningless bluster isn't your thing, there aren't a whole lot of choices available:

The alternatives to the repeated short-term carrot strategy are even less appealing.  There is no viable military option unless everyone is comfortable with the destruction of Seoul; there is no viable sanctions option unless China decides to cut off the energy tap, and they'll only do this if they're sure it won't lead to a stream of North Korea refugees entering Manchuria.

In other words, there's really not a lot we can do about this unless China, against all odds, (a) finally tires of Pyongyang's antics, (b) beefs up its suprisingly porous border with North Korea, and (c) decides to cut off aid.  There's some evidence of (a), but not much for anything else.

The Sotomayor Nomination

Jack Balkin thinks that Barack Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is likely to go smoothly:

Senators are just as aware of the politics of appointments as Obama is.  Obama will likely need one or two Republicans to avoid any threat of a fillibuster; a candidate who appeals to important constituencies that Republicans also need will be harder to oppose and can help provide the 60th vote. Also helpful may be the fact that Sotomayor was first appointed to the bench by a Republican and is being positioned as a moderate or pragmatic liberal. In this respect, the careful positioning of Sotomayor as not the most liberal candidate Obama was considering helps to make her confirmation easier and also helps establish Obama's own image as a non-doctrinaire pragmatist.

But if you prefer to be prepared for the worst, Tom Goldstein at ScotusBlog outlines the most likely lines of attack against her:

Opponents’ first claim — likely stated obliquely and only on background — will be that Judge Sotomayor is not smart enough for the job....The second claim – and this one will be front and center – will be the classic resort to ideology:  that Judge Sotomayor is a liberal ideologue and “judicial activist.”....The third claim — related to the second — will be that Judge Sotomayor is unprincipled or dismissive of positions with which she disagrees....Finally, critics will characterize her as gruff and impersonable, relying on excerpts from oral arguments and anonymous criticisms in the Almanac of the Federal Judiciary.

There's more at both links.  In the end, I don't think Sotomayor will have any real trouble winning confirmation.

The economy is in the toilet, but there's at least one industry that appears to be going great guns (sorry...): the firearms business, particularly the firms that manufacture ammunition for American gun owners. You may have read Yasha Levine's piece about the surge in ammo sales in Victorville, California, where, Levine reports, fears of tighter gun regulations under the Obama administration have given way to a new kind of arms race.

The same phenomenon exists in Montana. According to the Missoulian, ammo is racing off the shelves at a record pace. Darren Newsom, owner of Bitterroot Valley Ammunition's three local manufacturing facilities, told a reporter that his company produces 300,000 rounds a day, but is still unable to meet demand. "We probably have about six months of back orders right now," he said, adding that he sold more than 300,000 rounds in just two hours at a recent gun show. "It's just unreal... Somewhere in lots of basements around the country, there are millions of rounds of ammunition being stored." 

Is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi acceding to Republican demands that the membership of a special commission to investigate the global economic crisis be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats? The 10-member commission was originally slated to have a 6-4 split in favor of the Democrats. Earlier this month, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, urged Pelosi to follow the model of the 9-11 Commission and the Iraq Study Group, on which both parties were equally represented. He may be getting his wish: at her weekly press briefing on Friday Pelosi suggested that she had a Republican in mind for one of her two picks.   

Previously, a Pelosi spokesman had been quick to defend the idea of a panel made up of six Democrats and four Republicans. While asserting that the speaker would choose the "most qualified" people regardless of political affiliation, the spokesman argued that 50-50 commissions have been the exception, not the rule, in recent years. He even sent Mother Jones a detailed set of commission-related statistics:

Counting all the commissions identified by CRS Report R40076 and subtracting out the commemorative commissions (such as the Ben Franklin Tercentenary Commission), there are a total of 23 congressional commissions created by legislation between the 107th and 110th Congress (2001-2008).

Of these 23 commissions:

7 had an even partisan split

4 had a one-appointment advantage to the majority party

8 had a super-majority advantage to the majority party

4 were appointed entirely by the executive branch, with only recommendations or consultation with congressional leaders

Pelosi's spokesman, Nadeam Elshami, also noted that two other bills introduced by House Republicans would have created similar bodies with majority-Democratic memberships. Plus, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-GA), who sponsored the original Senate amendment creating the commission, has said he thinks Republicans are already getting a fair shake, even if they're outnumbered on the panel.

So why is Pelosi bowing to Issa's demands?  Maybe she has come around to the view that an even split would help the commision's credibility. Or maybe she just thinks she's found the best person for the job.

President Barack Obama will nominate Sonia Sotomayor, a judge on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals, to the Supreme Court, numerous sources are reporting. What you need to know right now:

Judge Sotomayor, 54, who has served for more than a decade on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals based in New York City, would become the nation’s 111th justice, replacing David H. Souter, who is retiring after 19 years on the bench. Although Justice Souter was appointed by the first President George Bush, he became a mainstay of the liberal faction on the court and so his replacement by Judge Sotomayor likely would not shift the overall balance of power.

But her appointment would add a second woman to the nine-member court and give Hispanics their first seat.

President Obama is set to announce the nomination in a statement at 10:15 EST. More on this as it develops.

Flu Fears

Even as the story fades, the A(H1N1) flu epidemic is getting more interesting. But the plotlines are scattered so far and wide and of such relatively low impact individually that they masquerade as unalarming. Compiled, however, this drama continues to escalate:

  • It's not a new flu at all. Probably been circulating undetected in the atrocities we call pig farms for years.

 

  • World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan calls A(H1N1) a "subtle, sneaky" swine flu virus and urges developing countries to be prepared for more severe cases.

 

 

  • Meanwhile, other WHO officials admit that most developing countries can't detect or track seasonal flu let alone monitor a pandemic strain.

 

  • With regards to kids: A study from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota disputes the recommendations of the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending annual flu vaccinations for all kids from 0.5 to 18 years old. The inactivated TIV flu vaccine is not effective in preventing influenza-related hospitalizations in children, especially asthmatic kids. In fact, kids who get the flu vaccine are more at risk for hospitalization than those who don't. These results aren't specific to A(H1N1) but they're worth noting in light of A(H1N1).

 

  • US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius pledges $1 billion to develop key components for a swine flu vaccine and conduct clinical studies into its efficacy. Will they take into account the Mayo Clinic assessment of kids and vaccines?

 

  • And then we're about to spend all this money just as we learn that people 60 and older have greater immunity to A(H1N1). These are the people most likely to be targeted with a new $1-billion vaccine they may not need.

 

  • A(H1N1) is forcing health officials to rethink the way we classify epidemics and pandemics. It's acting pandemiclike—Japan's blossoming caseload, for example—yet it remains mild enough to avoid the designation. In other words, A(H1N1) is finding a clever and stealthy way to attack our preparedness.

 

So what are we going to do about those atrocious pig and chicken farms that are making our new diseases along with the bacon and buffalo wings? Farms isn't the right world, really. Can we call them concentration camps?

More than half of the 15 trillion gallons of sewage Americans flush annually is processed into sludge that gets spread on farmland, lawns, and home vegetable gardens. In theory, recycling poop is the perfect solution to the one truly unavoidable byproduct of human civilization. But sludge-based as fertilizer can contain anything that goes down the drain—from Prozac flushed down toilets to motor oil hosed from factory floors. That's why an increasing number of cities have begun to explore an alternative way to dispose of sludge: advanced poop-to-power plants. By one estimate, a single American's daily sludge output can generate enough electricity to light a 60-watt bulb for more than nine hours. Here are the six most innovative ways that human waste is being converted to watts:

Poop-Eating Bacteria
Digesters similar to brewery casks house anaerobic bacteria that eat sludge and belch out methane. This technology is the oldest, cheapest, and most proven poop-to-power method. Even so, fewer than 10 percent of the nation's 6,000 public wastewater plants have the digesters; of those, just 20 percent burn the methane gas for energy (the rest simply flare it off). Flint, Michigan, and several other cities use the methane gas to fuel fleets of city buses. The problem with anaerobic digesters is that they only reduce sludge's volume by half and capture a portion of its embedded energy.

Turd Cell Smashers
Destroying the cell walls in sludge—by heating it under pressure, zapping it with ultrasonic waves, or pulsing it with electric fields—boosts its methane production by 50 percent or more in anaerobic digesters. On the downside, researchers have found that some of these processes can unleash nasty odors and even a "chemical attack" on sewage machinery.

Geological Toilets
Last summer, Los Angeles began injecting sludge into a mile-deep well, where pressure and heat are expected to release enough methane to power 1,000 homes. The well also dissolves and sequesters carbon dioxide that the sludge would normally release, removing the equivalent exhaust of about 1,000 cars per year. "This renewable energy project is absolutely electrifying," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the LA Times. "It will save money and make money."

Feces Ponds
As a cheaper green option, some 50 waste plants in 20 countries have installed versions of UC Berkeley professor William J. Oswald's Advanced Integrated Wastewater Pond Systems Technology--large open-air ponds that primarily rely on anaerobic digestion and photosynthesis to break down sludge and convert it into a fertilizer or animal feed of nitrogen-rich algae. The algae in turn can be used as a feedstock for biofuels. Rich Brown, an environmental scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, sees an obstacle in the ponds' huge footprint: "For rural areas it’s great," he says. "For San Francisco it wouldn’t work so well."

Gassifiers
Sludge gasification plants are popular in Europe and especially Germany. A low-oxygen reaction transforms the solids in sludge into a carbon-rich "char" similar to BBQ briquettes. Next, the char is gasified in the presence of air to produce a syngas that can be burned for energy.

Poop Pyrotechnics
Last year, Atlanta-based EnerTech built the world's first commercial sludge "pyrolysis" plant in Southern California. Its patented SlurryCarb process converts sludge from a third of Los Angeles and Orange Counties into char pellets that replace coal at a nearby cement kiln; its ash is mixed into the cement.

One Small Poop for Man. . .
With billions in stimulus funds slated for wastewater improvements, is the time right for poop power? Such efforts, which reduce landfilling and emissions, have earned praise from some anti-sludge groups. Caroline Snyder, the founder of Citizens for Sludge-Free Land, calls it a "win-win situation."

The EPA says sludge power holds promise, but it's not ready to quit pushing sludge as a wonder fertilizer. This hasn’t deterred the sewage industry, which sees a chance to get into the renewable energy business and put a stop to the stream of health complaints and costly lawsuits. "After almost 40 years of working in biosolids," a sewage industry official wrote in a recent newsletter. "I never thought I’d say this: it is an exciting time for sludge!"

H/T to the State of Science Report: Energy and Resource Recovery from Sludge, published by the Global Water Research Coalition. Photo from Flickr user gtmcknight used under creative commons license.

Friday Cat Blogging - 22 May 2009

This week we have file photos.  The picture of Domino on the left was taken right after the Showdown on the Stairway™ that I featured here last week.  The picture of Inkblot on the right was part of the 10th birthday series of studio portraits that I took a couple of weeks ago.  (Note: "studio" = backyard.)  But hey — they're both good pictures, so why waste them?

Have a nice Memorial Day weekend, everyone.  Don't forget to give your pets an extra treat on Monday.

A Taxonomy of Consumer Credit

Are credit cards, generally, good things?  Steve Waldman says we have to distinguish between two benefits they provide.  The first is transactional credit, which is simply the convenience of using a card to buy stuff instead of hauling around cash or checks.  This type of credit gets paid off every month.  The second is revolving credit, which is when you deliberately buy more than you can afford with the intention of paying off the charges over time.  It's essentially a preapproved loan available anytime you have an emergency — or merely an irresistable urge to buy a pair of shoes you don't happen to have the money for right now.

Steve is right that transactional credit is basically beneficial, while revolving credit isn't.  In moderation it's fine, but human nature being what it is, it's often not used in moderation, which suggests it might be a good idea to limit its availability.  I'm tentatively on board with this so far, but then things go off the rails:

In fact, while transactional credit provision is a perfectly good business, it might be reasonable for the state to offer basic transactional credit as a public good. This would be very simple to do. Every adult would be offered a Treasury Express card, which would have, say, a $1000 limit. Balances would be payable in full monthly. The only penalty for nonpayment would be denial of access of further credit, both by the government and by private creditors. (Private creditors would be expected to inquire whether a person is in arrears on their public card when making credit decisions, but would not be permitted to obtain or retain historical information. Nonpayment of public advances would not constitute default, but the exercise of an explicit forbearance option in exchange for denial of further credit.) Unpaid balances would be forgiven automatically after a period of five years. No interest would ever be charged.

Let's think about how this would work. For most people, access to various forms credit — transactional credit, auto and home loans, unsecured revolving credit, whatever — is worth more than $200 per year. Although people might occasionally fall behind, for the most part borrowers would pay off their government cards, simply because convenient participation in the economy is worth more than a once-in-five-years $1K windfall. However, people with no savings and irregular income (for whom transactional credit is a misnomer, since they haven't the capacity to pay) might well take the money and run. The terms of the deal amount to a very small transfer program to the marginal and disorganized, and a ubiquitous form of currency for everyone else. People with higher incomes would want more transactional credit, or revolving credit, which they would acquire from the private sector.

I don't really get this.  We already have "Treasury Express" cards: this is basically what debit cards are, and they provide the same benefits of transactional credit that regular Visas or Mastercards do.  Why do we need the government for that?

That leaves us with the problem of limiting revolving credit, which is the same problem we have now.  Do we need firmer rules on interest rates, fees, and penalties?  Better bankruptcy protection?  Bans on things like universal default?  An end to tricks and gimmicks and fine-print-laden marketing come-ons?  More sensible ways of setting credit limits?  Maybe.  Probably.  But unless Steve is suggesting that we essentially ban credit cards entirely — and then create some kind of federal mega-authority to limit every other kind of consumer credit too — those are all the same issues we have now.  I'm not really sure what his proposal would accomplish.