2009 - %3, March

Electric Cars

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 12:24 PM PDT
For a long time my favorite electric car has been the Aptera, a teardrop-shaped three-wheeled affair that looks like it came straight out of the Jetsons.  Unfortunately, Marian would probably never set foot in one.  Plus it's expensive.  So I'll probably never get one.

But here's an interesting thing: one of the bonuses of the Aptera's design is that since it has three wheels, it counts as a motorcycle, which means you can use it in carpool lanes.  Hooray!  Unfortunately for the Aptera folks, since their car has three wheels it counts as a motorcycle, which means they don't qualify for federal loans for ultra-efficient vehicles.  Boo!  Over on our main site, Steve Aquino and Nick Baumann "investigate."  Video is included.

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Will the Feds Spray the Border?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:58 AM PDT
The latest addition to the Border Patrol's most-wanted list isn't an illegal immigrant, but a plant.

Well, okay, a plant that could conceal illegal immigrants, the Patrol fears. The plant in question is Carrizo cane, an invasive weed that grows in dense thickets along the border. The Feds' plan (which, predictably, has drawn some Agent Orange comparisons) was to spray the cane with the herbicide Imazapyr, but not everyone is thrilled about that:
A lawsuit accused the Department of Homeland Security of violating the National Environmental Policy Act regarding the now-delayed U.S. Border Patrol plans to conduct aerial spraying of an herbicide on carrizo (kah-DEE'-zoh) cane near the Rio Grande.
Residents of two Laredo neighborhoods on Tuesday sued DHS in a lawsuit which alleged the public wasn't sufficiently notified about the spraying program, the Laredo Morning Times reported in a story for Wednesday's editions.



 

How to Prosecute a War Criminal

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:40 AM PDT

    Length: 16:10 minutes (14.81 MB)
    Format: Stereo 44kHz 128Kbps (CBR)

War crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has dedicated her career to bringing the world's worst human rights violators to justice. As chief prosecutor for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Del Ponte successfully prosecuted some of the most powerful masterminds of mass murder, including Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Her recent memoir, Madam Prosecutor, details her experiences in The Hague. I spoke with Del Ponte's co-author, Mother Jones contributor Chuck Sudetic, by phone from Croatia. (Del Ponte, now a Swiss ambassador to Argentina, has been barred by her government from speaking publicly about the book—for the backstory, listen to the podcast).

Two quick highlights from our conversation:

How Does Taking Nekkid Photos of Yourself Make You a Sex Offender?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:27 AM PDT

Finally, some of the young folks being persecuted by prosecutors for taking scandalous cell phone photos of themselves are fighting back via lawsuits. But I don't understand the charge: Why is it illegal to take/send someone dirty pictures of you, whatever your age? Granted, I will break my kids arms if/when I catch them doing something so stupid—and I certainly wish young girls, especially, wouldn't disrespect themselves this way. But a crime, a sex crime? See if this makes sense to you. From the Times:

The picture that investigators from the office of District Attorney George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County had was taken two years earlier at a slumber party. It showed Marissa and a friend from the waist up. Both were wearing bras.

Mr. Skumanick said he considered the photo "provocative" enough to tell Marissa and the friend, Grace Kelly, that if they did not attend a 10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence, he was considering filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. If convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders.

It was the same deal that 17 other students—13 girls and 4 boys—accepted by the end of February. All of them either been caught with a cellphone containing pictures of nude or seminude students, or were identified in one or more such photos.

I'm so confused: Who are the minors being sexually abused? Unless the photos were taken without the consent of the subject, I don't see the criminal justice issue. To this DA, possession of a dirty photo of yourself is a crime. To me, it's just really, really stupid.

I guess his heart's in the right place, but where'd he learn legal logic?

On the bright side, maybe this will help Joe Average understand how coercive the criminal justice system can be. These kids have the kind of parents who can wage lawsuits on their behalf; other kids go to jail for crimes they didn't commit, then live with a criminal record.

California's Own Hooverville, Circa 2009

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:17 AM PDT

You may have seen Oprah's version of the Sacramento "tent city" story recently, which involves a sensationalist video (preview below, full report here) of reporter Lisa Ling talking to Dorothea Lange-styled Great Recession refugees. NBC and Fox News have also flocked to the story; by last weekend, authorities were turning away news crews. But this week, we went to visit the 300 people living in tents along the American River at the north end of downtown Sacramento, and what we found was quite a bit different from the version you'll see on prime time. Here's the factchecked reality of what's going down at California's "new" Hooverville.

Listening to the Talking Heads

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:17 AM PDT
Today Nick Kristof hauls out the columnist's favorite evergreen subject for a slow day: Philip Tetlock, the Berkeley professor who famously found that expert predictions weren't much better than throwing darts.

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. [The worst performance came from] experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted

....Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.

I don't have any actual data to back this up — which, ironically, might make this a hedgehog-ish thing to say — but my experience suggests that a key difference between the two types is respect for history and broad trends.  That is, Tetlock's foxes understand that if you want to know what's going to happen in the future, you should pay attention to what's happened before.  If simpleminded data says there's a housing bubble, there's probably a housing bubble.  If foreign occupations usually turn into guerrilla wars, then your occupation is probably going to turn into a guerrilla war.  If tax cuts usually reduce government revenues, then your tax cut will probably reduce government revenues.

The problem is that most people don't find this kind of thinking at all persuasive.  If somebody gets on TV back in 2005 and explains in detail why this time it's different and high housing prices are completely sustainable, it all sounds vaguely plausible.  The skeptics don't believe it, but they don't have fancy arguments.  They just point to a chart and say that the numbers look really high by historical standards, and whenever that's happened in the past there's been a crash.  So there's probably going to be a crash this time too.  And they're duly ignored.

Details are important for operational planning, but they mostly just blur things at a broader level.  Even in my own areas of expertise, I've usually found that to be true: if the broad trends point in a particular direction, odds are that's what's going to happen.

"This time it's different" is probably the most dangerous phrase in the world.  It's especially dangerous because every once in a while it's true.  But not often.

As for Tetlock, I've read so many columns about him that I guess I really ought to read his book.  Too bad it's not available for the Kindle.  Princeton University Press needs to get on the stick.

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Black (and Brown) Can Only Be Just So Beautiful

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 11:06 AM PDT

Kim Kardashian got airbrushed lighter, smoother, and thinner for a photo shoot. Happens every day in Hollywood, I know. I don't know if she was in on it, but I know I wasn't when it happened to me.

A while back, my hairdresser asked me to be photographed for a black hair magazine. Trust me: we sisters LUV those things. I was beyond psyched. Until I saw the photos. I threw the magazine away in disgust, so I can't show it to you, but they'd airbrushed me at least five shades lighter and gave me gray eyes. Gray!

This was a totally black-run operation. They wanted my kinky hair (checks my twists on this page), but not my actual blackness. How pathetic.

When I first started doing TV, the makeup chicks (I've rarely had a non-white one) would cagily, carefully, ask me questions about what kind of foundation I wanted. "Whatever matches...?" Were these trick questions?

I figured there was something special about being made up for TV that a newbie like me just wasn't hip to. Finally, when they figured out that I wasn't going to go off, they told me that often blacks wanted to be made as light as possible. You'd be amazed at some of the names, but I ain't going there.

Pathetic.

We Have a New FOIA Policy

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 10:59 AM PDT
The Obama Administration has nailed down its Freedom of Information Act policy, which will go a long way in determining whether or not the federal government is open for public inspection the next four/eight years. The verdict: way better than Bush, but not perfect.

Chart of the Day - 2.26.2009

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 10:32 AM PDT
From Brad Setser, who notes that "much of the expansion of global trade over the last decade...rested on a weak foundation."  In particular, countries like China and Japan and Germany exported too much and countries like the United States and Great Britain consumed too much.  Since this needs to change in the long term, you'd like to see the surplus countries running bigger stimulus programs than the deficit countries, but that's not what's happening:

Big external deficit countries like the US and the UK are going to run fiscal deficits of between 8 and 10% of their GDPs, while the deficit in surplus countries like China and Germany remains between 3 and 4% of their GDPs.

....All in all, fiscal policy clearly is being used to support global growth, as it should be. The fall in exports globally in February leaves no doubt that there is an enormous shortfall of demand, relative to the world’s capacity to produce. But the global decomposition of the stimulus doesn’t suggest that it will do much to support “rebalancing.” The surplus counties generally aren’t leading the stimulus league tables.

Something more for Obama and Geithner to talk about at the upcoming G20 meeting.

The Geithner Put

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 9:55 AM PDT
Tim Geithner's toxic waste plan allows investors who want to bid on distressed assets to use Treasury matching funds plus FDIC non-recourse loans to lever up their investments.  The combined leverage is about 12:1, so a hedge fund that wants to buy $100 worth of toxic assets would end up investing about $7 of its own money.  What's more, since the FDIC loan is non-recourse, it means that if the investment goes bad the hedge fund doesn't have to pay back the loan.  It only loses its original $7.

For investors, this is a great deal.  If the investment does well, they make lots of money.  If it tanks, they can only lose $7.  The upshot is that they can afford to bid more than they normally would since their losses are capped.  But how much more?

Estimate 1 comes from Paul Krugman, who suggests they'll overvalue the assets by about 30%. Estimate 2 comes from Nemo, who suggests it could be as high as 68%.  Estimate 3 comes from Rortybomb, who figures something on the order of 20% or so.  Estimate 4 comes from Wagster, who thinks that in real life the assets will be overvalued by less than 10%.

So who's right?  Beats me.  To be honest, I don't even completely understand the four posts I just linked to.  But it's a pretty important question that some financial engineering types should spend some more time on.  If, in the end, the toxic waste gets overvalued by 10% or less, that's not too big a deal.  If it's overvalued by 50%, it's a disaster.  Not only will taxpayers likely lose a lot of money, but no one outside the auction will have any faith in the prices.  And since price discovery is one of the goals of Geithner's plan, lack of faith would be disturbing indeed.

Anyway, I just thought I'd toss this out to stimulate discussion.  I can't really participate since I don't have the financial engineering background to have an opinion, but plenty of other people do.  Let's hear from them.