2010 - %3, March

Asilomar Dispatch: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 1:00 PM EDT

Tinkering with the Earth and its atmosphere in an attempt to fend off global warming—a.k.a. geoengineering—seems like the stuff of science fiction: Lacing the stratosphere with sulfur aerosols or whitening clouds over the ocean to reflect sunlight back into space. Fertilizing the oceans with iron to help them absorb more carbon dioxide. It's big science on a comic-book scale, and as such, it carries no small dose of risk and controversy.

"Some of these technologies seem inappropriate," Victor Menotti, director of the International Forum on Globalization, told MoJo at a press briefing Thursday. "There's a sort of scientific arrogance that these experiments will be manageable. But before we get into talking about a Plan B, we want to get back to how we can cut emissions."

"People think this is still science fiction, but it's not," added Silvia Ribeiro, program manager for ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization. "Science [magazine] said this conference was like geoengineering coming out of the closet."

She's referring to the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, where I've spent the past week schmoozing some of the field's top researchers. ETC Group has circulated a letter—signed by dozens of like-minded organizations—questioning the entire conference and the motives of its attendees. (You can download the group's report here.) Quoting the conference's stated goal, Ribeiro said, "They are saying we are going to deploy this without asking if this is what we want."

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The New Math

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:33 PM EDT

William Brafford on mathematics pedagogy:

I’ve always found it very handy that I have my basic times tables and division tables burned into my brain, and it seems like elementary school is a fine time to do this kind of rote learning.

Division tables? What the heck is that? Miss Jensen only taught us times tables back at Wakeham Elementary School in 1966. Is this some kind of  newfangled invention?

Energy Stars for Everyone!

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:28 PM EDT

Energy Star is often lauded as one of the federal government's most successful energy efficiency programs. Most Americans have seen the logo on air conditioners, refrigerators, lamps, and laptops. The Energy Star stamp of approval is supposedly reserved for products that use 20 to 30 percent less energy than federal standards for appliances. But an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the program hands out stars like candy. In fact, GAO investigators were able to get Energy Star approval for products that a) weren't even remotely energy efficient and b) didn't actually exist.

In its report released today (which was scooped by the New York Times), the GAO explains that its auditors conducted a nine-month study of the program, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. They applied for stars for 20 fake products. Three-quarters of the applications for bogus devices were successful—including a "gasoline-powered alarm clock," described as "the size of a small generator." The GAO notes that the clock received the Energy Star label "without review of the company Web site or questions of the claimed efficiencies." A computer monitor got a star "within 30 minutes of submission." The GAO also won approval for a "room air cleaner"—actually just a space heater with a feather duster and some fly strips attached.

The fake products were typically greenlighted without any questioning or investigation. In fact, auditors discovered that the application process was often automated, meaning the submissions had never been reviewed by an actual person. Companies approved as an Energy Star partner could also just download the logo and stick it on any of their products—including those that hadn't been approved for the label.

About 40,000 products currently bear the Energy Star logo.  The program was created in 1992 under the Clinton administration to help consumers make better decisions about household goods. As the GAO points out, the government uses federal tax credits and appliance rebates to promote Energy Star, and all federal agencies are required to purchase products certified by the program.

Even more worrying, the Energy Star program is also the inspiration for the Obama administration's proposed $6 billion Home Star program, which will award ratings and incentives for more energy efficient homes.  

The Department of Energy and EPA issued a renewed pledge earlier this week to improve the program, promising to do a better job of testing and enforcement. "Consumers can feel confident" in the program, said the release, because in 2009 it "saved enough energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars—all while saving nearly $17 billion on their utility bills."

Energy Star and Home Star have a lot of potential to encourage smarter energy use. But not if the feds are slapping gold stars on non-existent gasoline-powered alarm clocks.

News Flash: World Still Getting Hotter

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:25 PM EDT

The World Meteorological Organization yesterday confirmed that the past decade was the warmest on record—the latest evidence that humans are heating up the planet. The report confirms what NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies concluded several months ago.

Temperature measurements from 2000 to 2009 find that the Naughts were the warmest decade since the adoption of modern temperature recording began in the 1850s, confirms the WMO. Last year was ranked as the fifth warmest on record.

“A number of extreme weather and climate events were also recorded in 2009, including in particular heatwaves in China, India and southern Europe, as well as in Australia,” said Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of WMO. The report also notes that parts of the United States, Canada and Siberia experienced cooler temperatures than average, while other parts of southern South America, Australia and southern Asia experienced extreme high temperatures.

Don’t expect 2010 to be any better. NASA’s earlier report predicts that "a new record 12-month global temperature will be set in 2010."

It's also worth noting that it was the WMO's temperate data that George Will grossly distorted in support of his bizarre theories of global cooling last year, as Mark Goldberg points out. Despite the fact that the WMO called him on his fudging, he's so far continued to repeat those distortions. I can't wait to see how he'll manipulate the latest report.

Chart of the Day: Women in Politics

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:22 PM EDT

According to a new study of how parties recruit candidates to run for office, women just don't get asked as often as men:

They are less likely than men to be recruited intensely. And they are less likely than men to be recruited by multiple sources....These findings are critically important because women’s recruitment disadvantage depresses their political ambition and ultimately hinders their emergence as candidates.

This comes via John Sides at the Monkey Cage. The chart below shows the basic findings. To be honest, I'm surprised the numbers are as close as they are. I would have expected an even greater disparity.

Slouching Towards Foreclosure Help

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 12:10 PM EDT

Talk about timing. A day after Congress excoriated the Obama administration's multibillion-dollar foreclosure rescue, and after many months' worth of criticism and hand-wringing, the administration rolled out today a revamped plan to help beleaguered homeowners and try to slow the pace of foreclosures, after a record-breaking 2.8 million were filed last year.

It's a multi-pronged plan, and here are the details:

If you're out of work...then this plan could help you. Specifically, servicers are required to lower payments for unemployed borrowers to 31 percent or less of your income, which is likely comprised of unemployment payments. So your payments would drop to about a third of your monthly unemployment cash. That period of lower payments can last from three to six months, during which time the hope is that the unemployed can find work. If you do, then you're also eligible for a modification under Obama's flagship modification program, the Home Affordable Modification Program. If you don't find work, then you could, under the administration's plans, try to short-sell or try a deed-in-lieu with your bank, both as a means to avoid foreclosure. This part of the program is slated to be up and running within a few months.

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No Booze or Bikinis Allowed

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:56 AM EDT

Speaking of spring break, when I was just in DC, I met a college student who worked for the US Campaign for Burma who had taken a very different kind of vacation to Thailand: a fact-finding mission about the Burma crisis. It was one of American University's "Alternative Breaks," and check out this superfun description of the itinerary: "Students critically examined refugee issues, US sanctions on Burma, governance within the Burmese government in exile and other sociopolitical organizations within the democracy movement, as well as the role of international institutions in responding to the complex humanitarian and political challenges to development in Burma." Party!

I'm familiar with alternative cruises and alternative summer camps, but wasn't aware that such a huge number of schools, from Stanford to Colorado State to the University of Virginia, offer opportunities to learn about topics like veterans' health care, the Cherokee Nation, human services in Argentina, and Nepalese gender stratification on spring, summer, and Christmas breaks. The number of kids participating in these continually expanding projects outweighs the number appearing annually on MTV Spring Break Challenge. Who says we're a nation of vapid and apathetic youth?

Finally, Some Real Oxygen for the Drowning

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:30 AM EDT

The rising tide of home foreclosures continues to be one of the biggest potential drags on economic recovery. Here's the latest news on the that front:

The Obama administration on Friday announced broad new initiatives to help troubled homeowners, potentially refinancing millions of them into fresh government-backed mortgages with lower payments.

....The escalation in aid comes as the administration is under rising pressure from Congress to resolve the foreclosure crisis, which is straining the economy and putting millions of Americans at risk of losing their homes. But the new initiatives could well spur protests among those who have kept up their payments and are not in trouble.

For an example of "protests among those who have kept up their payments and are not in trouble," here's a letter reprinted by Tom Brown from a reader who learned about Bank of America's plan to begin forgiving mortgage principal for some delinquent borrowers:

I am writing to inform you that I will never bank with your firm ever again.

Principal forgiveness is an affront to every responsible, non-delinquent borrower in your book of assets....You are rewarding those who bit off more than they could chew, while those who did not take on excess leverage, or who kept their income-to-debt ratios manageable, see no benefit, even as their home equity values have declined....Moral hazard be damned. Count me as one future cashflow stream you will never see again!

Roger that — and I suspect that this is a more common reaction than you'd think. Bailing out Wall Street is bad enough, but bailing out your profligate next-door neighbor is far, far worse.

Of course, so far none of these plans to mitigate foreclosures has worked anyway. This time, however, CAP's Andrew Jakabovics says the administration's plan has a real shot at succeeding:

The big news is that the administration has come up with the first systematic set of policies to address the problem of negative equity (homeowners owing more than their home is worth) by bringing mortgages down to the current value of the properties.

....In what is essentially a modern version of the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a borrower who is current on her loan but who owes more on her home than it is currently worth can refinance into an FHA loan for 97 percent of the property’s current value. Incentives will be paid to servicers to allow these borrowers to refinance for less than the outstanding amount. Given the much larger losses lienholders would face if borrowers defaulted, cash in hand may be sufficiently attractive to allow these short-refis to proceed.

....Implementing these changes to HAMP will be difficult, and the issue of second liens remains a challenge, but insofar as the FHA refi program can largely sidestep the issue of servicer capacity, it has significant potential to alleviate the foreclosure crisis.

More at the link.

Is Our Kids Learning, Revisited

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:02 AM EDT

Just a quick followup to yesterday's post about NAEP reading scores. Over at The Quick and the Ed, Chad Aldeman suggests that reading scores have improved more than I suggested — possibly due to a statistical anomaly called Simpson's Paradox1 that can produce different results for an entire group than it does for all its subgroups. But that's not what's going on here. The main issue is that he's looking at different test scores than I am: he uses the Long Term NAEP for 4th graders to look at progress since the mid-70s, while I used the Main NAEP for 8th graders to look at progress since 2002. The former shows significant progress for all ethnic groups, while the latter is virtually flat for every group except Asians.

Click the link for more. I don't have any special axe to grind about the use of either version of NAEP or about which timeframe is appropriate to look at. It all depends on what you're investigating. But it's worth knowing that different data is out there.

1A simple example is below the fold. I either wrote this myself about a decade ago or else copied it from somewhere else. I'm not sure which.

Another Embassy Guard Scandal?

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 10:42 AM EDT

Surely last September's scandal involving the bacchanalian hijinks of ArmorGroup’s vodka-butt-shot-taking guards taught the State Department—and specifically its diplomatic security division—a major lesson about the perils of loose oversight, right? Perhaps not, according to a recent review of Triple Canopy’s $438 million contract to guard the US embassy in Baghdad conducted by the State Department’s Inspector General.

No, Triple Canopy personnel were not spending their off duty hours gallivanting around with coconut bikinis covering their privates and subjecting each other to lewd hazing rituals. But the IG’s report [PDF], dated March 10 and first obtained by the Project on Government Oversight, does raise the question of whether anyone might have been the wiser if they had been. Among other areas where oversight was MIA, the IG’s office reported that the "Embassy is not properly overseeing" Camp Olympia, where Triple Canopy’s guards reside.