2009 - %3, July

Social Networking: The Next Frontier

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 2:29 PM EDT

Business cards are so old-school.

The new way to exhange information? The poken, an electronic portal for personal deets. Basically, it works like this:

1. Upload your profile—including twitter, facebook, and other social network accounts—to the poken.

2. Touch your poken to someone else's.

3. Upload that person's information to your computer, and they can do the same.

I got the gadget at a recent social media gathering, and it's pretty nifty—even if it must reach critical mass to prove useful.

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Tanning Beds: Top Cancer Risk

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 2:20 PM EDT

Yet another reason not to fake bake: Today the World Health Organization elevated tanning beds' UV radiation from the "probable carcinogen" category to "carcinogenic to humans," its highest-risk designation. And if you're a young adult, it gets worse: A review of current studies found that artificial tanning before age 30 increases your melanoma risk by 75 percent.

This is pretty damning news for salons, but the industry seems to be rolling with the punches. The Toronto Star reports:

Steven Gilroy, executive director of the Joint Canadian Tanning Association, which represents 1,200 tanning salons across Canada, dismissed the international agency's report.

"When you dive into the research ... there is no increased risk," he said. The tanning industry has recently promoted the moderate use of artificial tanning as a way to boost vitamin D levels, which tanning proponents say may be associated with lower risk of some forms of cancer.

Yeah, except the WHO did dive into the research, and it found...a definitively increased risk. As for the Vitamin D argument, as I report here, we ain't buyin' it: Most people can get all the D they need from a supplement, with none of the cancer risk.

Do Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias Want A Revolution?

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 2:14 PM EDT

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has a fascinating post on the shift that seems to be happening in the thinking of the moderate, lefty blogosphere from process-oriented gradualism towards what you might describe as a kind of revolutionary cynicism. In a different era, if you were less kind, you might even describe Ezra Klein's and Matt Yglesias's recent claims—that our political system is irrevocably broken, that we won't do anything about health care costs or global warming—as "shrill." DiA compares Klein and Yglesias to Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, which is another way of saying the same thing. The (anonymous) DiA blogger points to this post by Klein as evidence of a near-total loss of faith in the system:

The country, and the system, will continue to whistle while our wages get eaten up and our government tumbles further into debt and our interest rates rise and other priorities get squeezed out and a serious and painful fiscal reckoning inches ever closer.

Meanwhile, as DiA notes, Yglesias has been calling for the abolition of the US Senate. That's not moderate wonkery. It's radicalism. (That doesn't mean Yglesias is wrong.) DiA thinks "there's something going on with these guys," and it could lead to "the kind of thing you saw happen to those clean-cut moderate liberal kids who wrote the Port Huron Statement."

So I say to the Juicebox Mafia et. al.: Why not? Sure, no one appointed you or elected you. But that didn't stop the kids at Port Huron (or in Sharon, Connecticut, for the matter). You're in leadership positions whether you like it or not. I'm serious. Set up a wiki and get to work. I'm sure the wider lefty blogosphere would be happy to help. Get some sort of statement together, and let DiA and others know for sure exactly how radical (or not) this generation of young liberals really is.

Blowing Bubbles

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 1:46 PM EDT

How do we pop financial bubbles before they get out of hand?  Alex Tabarrok surveys the literature and comes away pessimistic that it can be done:

Bubbles occur even as uncertainty about the fundamental value diminishes.  We also know that once a bubble starts it's difficult to stop.  Circuit breakers and brokerage fees (transaction taxes), for example, don't do much to stop bubbles....Investor education doesn't help (for example telling participants about previous bubbles doesn't help). Even increasing interest rates doesn't do much to stop a bubble already in progress and may increase volatility on net.

So what's the answer?  Once a bubble gets going, maybe there isn't one.  However, some lab experiments suggest that having lots of cash sloshing around is instrumental in getting bubbles going in the first place:

[These] experiments are consistent with the Fed having a significant role in bubble inflation (a theory I have not pushed).  In other words, rather than identifying and popping bubbles already on the rise, not blowing bubbles in the first place may be easier and more productive.

That would be a start, anyway.  More research, please.

Financing Solar

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 1:12 PM EDT

My homeowners association would go ballistic if I tried to install solar panels on my roof, but if you live in a less benighted area it's an attractive option.  The problem is that the upfront cost is too high for some people, and if you take out a conventional loan you run the risk having to keep making payments even if you sell your house.  One option is an outfit like SolarCity, which leases the installation for a set monthly cost.  If you sell the house, the lease goes with it, so your risk is minimal.  Brad Plumer passes along news of another alternative:

Two years ago, however, the city of Berkeley figured out an easy financing trick to get around this problem — the city itself just issues a bond to pay for the upfront costs of installing the panels, and the homeowner then repays the government over the course of 20 years via a small line item on the property-tax bill. (This way, if the home is sold, the costs of the panels get passed on to the new owner getting the benefits.)

It's a small policy tweak, but quite sensible. No mandates, no regulations, just offering homeowners an extra option if they choose. So it's not surprising to hear that, as Kate Galbraith reports today, the idea's been proliferating like crazy: This year alone, eight states have followed California's lead by giving their municipalities permission for this sort of financing, including Colorado, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Wisconsin. (Apparently, a lot of cities need permission from the states before they can mess with property-tax bills.)

Another benefit of this is that cities can generally borrow at lower rates than private homeowners, so the economics of the panels work out better.  It makes a lot of sense, especially in sunny areas like California and the southwest.

UPDATE:

Getting Out of Iraq

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 12:51 PM EDT

Things are going so swimmingly in Iraq that we might speed up our exit plans:

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Wednesday that the relatively low levels of violence in Iraq and improved cooperation of late between U.S. and Iraqi forces have raised the possibility that commanders might be able to "modestly accelerate" the reduction of U.S. forces this year.

....Gates said if trends throughout Iraq remain generally positive, the United States could withdraw three combat brigades, each consisting of about 5,000 soldiers, from Iraq this year. The existing plans call for two brigades to be withdrawn.

The expedited schedule might also have something to do with the tensions Ernesto Londoño reported a few days ago following the American response to an insurgent attack in Baghdad:

When the shooting subsided, another confrontation began. A senior Iraqi army commander who arrived at the scene concluded that the Americans had fired indiscriminately at civilians and ordered his men to take the U.S. soldiers into custody. The U.S. military said the soldiers had acted in self-defense and had sought to avoid civilian casualties; U.S. commanders at the scene persuaded the Iraqis to back down.

....Word of the incident quickly spread among U.S. soldiers in Baghdad. Several said it heightened concerns that the split-second decisions they make now have the potential to draw a sharp rebuke from Iraq's increasingly assertive security forces. And reaction from Iraqi military officials seemed to confirm those fears.

These things might be entirely unrelated.  Gates himself implicitly dismissed the incident by saying, "There clearly will be the occasional hiccup by someone who doesn't get the word."  Still, if violence is generally under control and Iraqi commanders are starting to harass American troops, that might make quick withdrawal into a more welcome option than it would be otherwise.  Just a thought.

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Who Loves Medicare?

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 12:15 PM EDT

Matt Yglesias points out today that socialistic single-payer healthcare is actually quite popular in the United States.  It's called Medicare.  The chart below, from a Mark Blumenthal column last month, shows that Medicare users are far more satisfied with their healthcare than users of private insurance.  So why is it so hard to persuade Americans to simply expand the program?  Blumenthal explains:

The higher scores for Medicare are based on perceptions of better access to care. More than two thirds (70 percent) of traditional Medicare enrollees say they "always" get access to needed care (appointments with specialists or other necessary tests and treatment), compared with 63 percent in Medicare managed care plans and only 51 percent of those with private insurance.

....If the Medicare experience is so positive, why are people so easily talked out of expanding on it? First, younger Americans not enrolled in Medicare do not share the enthusiasm of seniors for the program. Six years ago, the Kaiser Foundation asked a national sample of adults to rate the Medicare program. Medicare was hugely popular among those aged 65 or greater....Those under 65, however, had very different views. Only 45 percent rated Medicare favorably. Only 36 percent considered it well run, as compared to 47 percent who said the same about private health plans. While 73 percent of those over 65 said Medicare allowed patients to choose any doctor, only 28 percent of those under 65 agreed.

There's a pretty obvious political dynamic that's responsible for this.  Seniors, who actually use Medicare, know perfectly well that it's a good program.  They can see any doctor they want, they get care when they need it, and the quality of service is high.  So why do younger Americans have such a negative attitude toward Medicare?

Answer: because conservative politicians have been bellowing for years about what a terrible program it is.  And since younger workers don't actually use it themselves, the bellowing works.  They figure it must suck.

In reality, Medicare works fine.  Not perfectly, but fine.  It offers service at least as good as private insurance despite serving the highest-risk population there is, and it does at least as good a job of reining in costs — slightly better, in fact.  Sure, it could be improved, but it's already probably better than the employer insurance that you have right now.  I'd switch in a second if I could.

But I can't, and neither can you.  And nothing like it will be offered to you anytime soon.  After all, if you actually used it, you'd probably like it.  Which is exactly what conservative politicians are afraid of.

Obama's Veto Logic

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 11:57 AM EDT | Scheduled to publish Wed Jul. 29, 2009 2:24 PM EDT

Last week Obama got Congress to give up the F-22 by threatening to veto the defense budget bill. This week, he's pushing for even more cuts. He's threatened to nix the bill if it contains money for the presidential helicopter—a program Gates tried to cancel but which the House revived—or a second engine for the F-35 fighter jet.

This is an encouraging but puzzling move. In dealing with Congress, Obama has employed a distinctive strategy, especially as witnessed in the cap and trade and health care debates. In both cases, Obama has been prepared to keep all options on the table and let Congress take the lead in writing legislation. Predictably, this has resulted in some very disappointing bills. So what's the difference here? If he can play hardball with John Murtha, why not with Max Baucus?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for July 29, 2009

Wed Jul. 29, 2009 11:50 AM EDT

Sgt. 1st Class Lance Amsden, platoon sergeant for the 1st Platoon, Company C, 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, watches as CH-47 Chinook helicopters circle above during a dust storm at Forward Operating Base Kushamond, Afghanistan, July 17, during preparation for an air assault mission. (Photo courtesy army.mil.)

America's Energy Policy = American Values

| Wed Jul. 29, 2009 11:35 AM EDT

What does our energy policy have to say about our values? Everything, and a case currently before the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) shows why.

The story actually begins in the state legislature with a low profile bill to allow school districts to finance utility costs (water, gas, electric) if the project will save them money. Who could object to that, right?

In fact, nearly no one did.

The bill sailed through the AZ House without a single vote against it and was signed into law by Republican Governor Jan Brewer with no fanfare.

Enter two local high schools, wanting to use to the new law to sign an agreement with a solar panel installation & leasing company. The arrangement (called a solar service agreement, or SSA) would allow SolarCity to place panels of the schools' roofs, and sell the electricty to the district at a set price guaranteed to save the cash-strapped schools some serious money. (An estimated $4.7 million over 15 years.)

The new law allows districts to do exactly that, so, what's stopping them? Technically, nothing. The schools can sign on the dotted line. It's just that SolarCity isn't allowed to present the schools with any dotted lines.

Welcome to the barricades of the "energy revolution."

Here's the basic question: is SolarCity a public utility?

Think of a utility and what probably comes to mind is a mental image of giant power plants (coal, natural gas, nuclear) producing and selling a gazillion watts of electricity through the grid to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of customers.

SolarCity’s new business model doesn’t look anything like that. There's no giant power plant. Only one customer per contract: the school district. But there would be electrical generation taking place on those school roofs, and that's the rub. Some, including existing utilities, maintain that the act of turning the suns rays into electricity makes the setup a public utility which must be regulated by the ACC.

ACC chair and renewable energy advocate Kris Mayes recently called SolarCity's request “perhaps the most complicated case, and one of the most significant cases, in the history of Arizona.”

SolarCity spokesman Jonathan Bass told me that the new law “should make it easier for schools to enter solar service agreements and help establish reporting requirements." But, he went on, "without the ACC case being approved, it won’t help much, as solar providers will not be able to offer SSAs.”

And the non-profit group, Vote Solar Initiative, recently provided this take on the ACC case:

In California … most commercial-sized systems are installed under this model. Instead of a customer buying a solar system outright, the customer instead provides access to the roof for a solar company to install and operate a system, and the customer simply buys the electricity on a kWh basis. A big benefit is that there are no upfront costs. And for non-taxpaying entities like schools and government buildings, this is the only way they can leverage the 30% federal investment tax credit. Without this mechanism, any town/school/water district that wants to go solar has to leave serious money on the table. [My emphasis]

But this case has significance beyond Arizona’s borders and will affect far more than just schools. At issue before the ACC are the rules that will determine what kind of energy system our nation will have in the coming decades.

Will it be sustainable or will it remain focused on short term profits? Will it be efficient and flexible enough to allow small-scale clean and renewable sources into the game, or wasteful and protective of business, as usual? Will our energy policy help keep America safe, or will it increase threats to our national security? Will it foster democracy or centralize authority? Will it push us to support foreign dictators, eroding our moral authority in the world and making us vulnerable to the enemies of our “friends?”

The truth is that energy policy is not primarily about energy. Energy — how we get it and how we use it — is, above all, about our values. The new energy system we’re building (through cases like the one before the ACC) will tell us, and the world, who we are as a people. In this energy and environmental crisis, we've been given an opportunity to reaffirm our best American values. We mustn't let it slip away.
 

 Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy and the environment for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. He edited The Climate Bill: A Field Guide. For more of his stories, click here.