2009 - %3, April

Chart of the Day - 4.21.2009

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 8:00 AM EDT

I don't want to bum everyone out on Earth Day, so I'm going to link to Joel Makower's article in our current edition today instead.  Two decades after writing The Green Consumer, he says he's about ready to throw in the towel.  The problem is that when it comes to waste and recycling, it hardly even matters what individuals do.  Consumers, he says, are mere pikers:

Consider what I call "A Tale of Two Circles." Perhaps you've seen the bottom circle, a pie chart containing nine slices, representing the composition of the stuff we throw out — a.k.a. municipal solid waste, or MSW. It shows that paper makes up about a third of our nation's trash, while yard waste, food scraps, and plastics each represent about 12 percent. They are followed by smaller amounts of metals, rubber, textiles, leather, glass, wood, and other materials.

The MSW pie chart is well known in environmental circles and is the grist for a range of claims and disputes. The plastics industry, for example, uses it to "prove" that plastic bags are less of an environmental problem, at least a solid waste problem, than their paper counterparts. Aluminum, wood, and glass industries use it to make their own cases. Everyone, it seems, finds some solace in the numbers.

But there's another circle — a much, much bigger one, totaling about 10 billion tons of waste a year, or roughly 40 times the MSW pie. This circle doesn't have an official name — indeed, it's virtually unknown in environmental circles, and the EPA doesn't publish it. I've dubbed it gross national trash, or GNT....The thinnest slice of the pie — a minuscule 2.5 percent sliver of the whole — is municipal solid waste.

Read the rest here.

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How Not to Deal With Pirates

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:46 AM EDT

Robert Farley passes along the news that a Dutch naval vessel raided a pirate ship this weekend but then released all seven captured pirates because NATO has no authority to arrest pirates:

This, my friends, is not change we can believe in. Especially since the same thing happened again yesterday; a Canadian frigate operating under NATO authority chased down a group of pirates over the course of seven hours, forced them to surrender at gunpoint, and then released them....I'm reluctant to join in the right-wing chorus of denunciation against bureaucrats and lawyers, but someone somewhere in NATO has screwed up badly. There isn't the faintest question that Canada and the Netherlands have the authority to arrest and collect evidence against pirates, and the idea that the aegis of NATO would make that impossible is infuriating.

Anybody feel like defending the bureaucrats and lawyers here?  Anybody?

On the Color of Swans

| Tue Apr. 21, 2009 12:24 AM EDT

Rotwang sez:

I'm tired of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He isn't as brilliant as he thinks he is. He may be a quant jock, but he talks about an idealized laissez-faire capitalism as if he's never read a history book. Dude, this is the way the system works. This IS the system. The bubble bursting was not some unforeseeable event. It's happened many times. Lots of people foresee it. They just don't foresee the timing.

That's kind of my untutored feeling too.  If an asset bubble followed by a banking crisis is a black swan, then black swans must be about as rare as black point guards.  Our current crisis is bigger than most, but it's hardly unprecedented.

UPDATE: In comments, ack says:

This is completely and utterly wrong! Nassim Taleb has two independent arguments:

1) Due to a cognitive limitation, people tend to underestimate the likelihood of improbable bad events ('black swans'). Therefore, you can out-bet the market by continually betting that bad events will happen....Taleb has even described the current crisis as a 'white swan,' and argued that it was totally forseeable.

James Joyner makes the same point at greater length here. Consider me corrected.

Suriname's Green Nobel Winner

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 8:37 PM EDT

Want some Earth Day inspiration that has nothing to do with Susan Boyle? Check out the seven Goldman Environmental Prize winners this year. From Indonesia to Appalachia, shipping to logging, these "Green Nobel" winners all have great heart. The one I spoke with, Hugo Jabine, comes from the forests of Suriname, where the Maroon community founded by freed African slaves has lived for 300 years. Goldman award materials say Jabine and his co-recipient Wanze Eduards "successfully organized their communities against logging on their traditional lands, ultimately leading to a landmark ruling for indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the Americas to control resource exploitation in their territories."

Here's how he tells it:

Wealth and Wall Street

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 6:58 PM EDT

Gabe Sherman has a piece today in New York magazine about how gobsmacked the Wall Street crowd is that people are pissed off at them these days.  There are a million things you could say about it — and since I'm coming late to this, a million things probably have been said about it — but I just want to excerpt this one piece:

Wall Street people are not moral idiots (most of them, anyway) — it’s not as if they’ve never pondered the fairness of their enormous salaries. “One of my relatives is a doctor, we’re both well-educated, hardworking people. And he certainly didn’t make the amount of money I made,” a former Bear Stearns senior managing director tells me. “I would be the first person to tell you his value to society, to humanity, is far greater than anything that went on in the Bear Stearns building.”

That said, he continues, “We’re in a hypercapitalistic society. No one complains when Julia Roberts pulls down $25 million per movie or A-Rod has a $300 million guarantee. We have ex-presidents who cash in on their presidencies. Our whole moral compass has shifted about what’s acceptable or not acceptable. Honestly, you can pick on Wall Street all you want, I don’t think it’s fair. It’s fair to say you ran your companies into the ground, your risk management is flawed — that is perfectly legitimate. You can lay criticism on GM or others. But I don’t think it’s fair to say Wall Street is paid too much.”

It's hard to know what to say about this.  It just leaves you speechless.  And this guy is one of the more self-aware ones.

Later on Sherman quotes another Wall Streeter who's livid over Obama's plan to raise tax rates slightly on the rich.  "He doesn’t want to have any wealth creation," the guy wails, and that really seems to get to the heart of all this.  Financial industry players sincerely seem to view all "wealth" as equal.  If the market pays you a lot, it's because you're responsible for creating a lot of wealth, and that's that.  The fact that the wealth you created was largely divorced from even a notional real-world benefit to the larger economy doesn't matter.  Money is money.

Still, both these guys are right: the big players in the financial industry get paid a lot because they're responsible for creating gigantic streams of money for their firms.  As long as that stays the case, they're going to continue making truckloads of money no matter what we do.  But if we reduce that stream of financial rents to levels more related to the actual value it creates in the real world, pay levels will become more reasonable too.  That's what we should focus on.

Dishing on Chrysler

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 5:58 PM EDT

This afternoon brings yet another story in which the most interesting question is, Who leaked this?

Top officials at Chrysler Financial turned away a $750 million government loan because executives didn't want to abide by new federal limits on pay, sources familiar with the matter say.

....The Treasury Department previously had loaned Chrysler Financial $1.5 billion....During March, when it seemed that the first loan would run out, the Obama administration began working on a deal to lend the company another $750 million.

Quickly, most of the agreement fell into place. But on April 7, Treasury asked Chrysler Financial to have its top 25 executives sign waivers regarding their compensation, sources said....Within a week, the company responded that some of the executives had refused to give their approval.

Sure, this is sort of interesting on its own merits.  Mainly, though, it seems interesting as a shot across the bow in the war between Washington and the business world over executive pay.  Someone in the White House apparently wants word of this particular round in the fight to become very public indeed.

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Susan Boyle's 20 Media Euphemisms

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 5:29 PM EDT

A Lexis-Nexis search turns up 952 articles concerning Britain's Got Talent Superstar, Susan Boyle. Why? She's got a smoking singing voice, but she's not-hot, and that's touched a cultural nerve. We are shallow. We don't want to be shallow. Or at least, we don't want people to know how very shallow we are. But we can't talk about how shallow we are without mentioning how not-hot Susan Boyle is and how we wrote her off because of her not-hottitude. Right?

So. How many colorful euphemisms can the media come up with? Lots—see 20 below.

1. "The plain Jane superstar," in a Daily News article about an offer from a porn company to put Boyle in an adult film. (It plans to fly her to L.A. on Virgin Airlines.)

2. "Like Shrek come to life," Rosie O'Donnell to People magazine.

3. "Frizzy-haired" from Mother Jones's own Party Ben.

4. "Plain, dowdy, unemployed," in New York Magazine's round up.

5. The Age of Melbourne let an imaginary Jane Austen do the dissing and refers to her as "ill-favoured."

 

Crazy GOP Fundraiser Watch

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 3:48 PM EDT

A few weeks ago I reported two senators, John Rockefeller and Olympia Snowe, had introduced the Cybersecurity Act of 2009, a bill that would give the president and commerce secretary power to halt internet traffic on "critical" networks in the name of "national security."

And today, David Corn sent me a hysterical email he received from a conservative PAC, the Republican Majority Campaign, urging the reader to contact his representative in order to stop "Barack Hussein Obama and his cronies" from their "power grab"—Rockefeller and Snowe's bill.

Politicians and lobbyists want to take away our Constitutional rights -- we need to make sure they FAIL. And we've got a GREAT way to do that!

We've set up a website where you can send "blast faxes"to EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF CONGRESS, telling them to say NO to this attempt to take over the entire internet! For less that what it would cost you to gather every fax number and send all those faxes yourself, you can send HUNDREDS of faxes, ALL AT ONCE to Capitol Hill -- to make SURE they hear your voice!

Of course, I clicked the link to the "blast fax" page. And of course, it wants me to pay them: Just $119 to fax all 535 members of Congress!—"about what it would cost you in time and telephone charges."

If this seems shady, it should. In what world does it cost $119 to send 535 pages via fax? Secondly, as they've obviously discovered email, why aren't they using an email blast? Third, why don't they just list the names of the members of the Senate Commerce Committee so I can call them myself?

In March of last year, TPM Muckraker linked the Republican Majority Campaign to Republican PACs that shut down after the Washington Post reported its founders were running them like their own piggy banks, taking in loads of money but only spending a tiny fraction of it on political action. At the time, TPM called the Republican Majority Campaign a "murky group," but this fundraising scheme parading as an action letter just seems brazen to me.

UPDATE: Joe the Plumber is also getting in on the shady GOP fundraising party.

Video: Dissecting Portugal's Approach to Drugs

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

Reason sits down with Glenn Greenwald, who just completed a study on Portugal's drug decriminalization program. Interesting stuff.

Via Andrew.

This Should Be Interesting

| Mon Apr. 20, 2009 2:23 PM EDT

The 2009 Pulitzer prizes were announced on Monday, and the New York Times' David Barstow won the investigative reporting prize for his story on former military officials who were organized by the Pentagon to cheerlead for Bush administration war policies as "analysts" on cable television. Most of the "analysts"—called "message force multipliers" by the Pentagon—had ties to major defense contractors and had significant financial interests in the continuation of Bush war policies. And as Barstow reported, those relationships were rarely disclosed by the cable news networks that had the former officials on as purportedly unbiased analysts. The "message force multipliers" named in Barstow's article appeared or were quoted some 4,500 times on ABC, ABC News Now, CBS, CBS Radio Network, NBC, CNN, CNN Headline News, Fox News, MSNBC, CNBC, and NPR between January 1, 2002 and May 13, 2008, according to a report by Media Matters for America.

The response to Barstow's story from the cable networks that hosted the officials from the military's propoganda team was, and continues to be, "deafening silence." Officials from the networks even refused to appear on PBS' award-winning News Hour with Jim Lehrer to respond to Barstow's charges. It should be interesting to see whether the media can keep up that silence now that Barstow's reporting has been recognized with a Pulitzer.