2010 - %3, January

Buzzkill: Seven-Buck Chuck?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 5:10 PM EDT

Seven-buck Chuck! Fourteen-buck six-packs! To the barricades!

I thought this was an April Fool's prank when I first saw it on LAist, but it's quite legit. People are always proposing nutty initiatives here in California—because they can. This round Josie and Kent Whitney, ostensibly a temperate San Diego couple, have introduced a state ballot initiative that reeks of Prohibition.

Citing alcohol's many ills—and there are plenty—they want to slap taxes on drinking that are high enough to render you stone cold sober. The current 6-cent excise tax on a sixer of beer? Make that $6.08! You'll likely be paying an extra $5.07 in taxes for a 750-milliliter bottle of wine. And the hard stuff? Hell, you won't be affording cocktails anymore. The Whitney proposal (title: Alcohol-Related Harm and Damage Services Act of 2010) would pump up the excise tax on a bottle of distilled spirits from 65 cents to $17.57. 

That's no typo. Okay, sure, the Whitneys have some perfectly valid points: Alcohol is indeed a drug. It can contribute to people being raped. And it adds significantly to crime and health care costs. Meanwhile, California is in the shitter, so a sin tax doesn't sound unreasonable. But $6.08 on a sixer—Christ almighty! The proposed initiative states that alcohol costs California taxpayers $38.4 billion a year, due to everything from crime to illness to lost productivity to increased welfare.

Let's assume that's accurate...But how much does alcohol net us? And with the state wine industry and high-end eateries hurting from the recession, how many waiters, bartenders, farmers, grape-pickers, vintners, brewers, distillers, scientists, shop owners, and restaurateurs would be devastated by such a draconian tax?

An analysis by the state Legislative Analyst's Office focuses on the direct impacts: The proposed law would likely raise $7 to $9 billion for the state, it says, with unknown state and local sales-tax losses (because you and I would be buying less hooch). But the analyst kind of buried the likely employment ripple effect:  

Indirect Economic Effects. If the measure were to result in declines in overall economic activity in California, it could produce indirect state and local revenue losses. Such effects could occur, for example, if businesses were to close because they could no longer remain profitable as the overall economy adjusted to a lower demand for alcohol in the long run. If these lost resources were not redirected back to California's economy into equal or more productive activities, then it would likely lead to a net loss in taxable income and spending for state and local governments. The magnitude of these potential revenue losses is unknown.

Here's my favorite part: Bootleggers! Smugglers! Hello, Al Capone.

Potential Costs and Savings for Law Enforcement. An increase in the tax rate on alcohol would increase the incentive for persons to illegally produce alcohol, smuggle alcoholic beverages into the state, or avoid the tax by other means. Law enforcement officials have some discretion as to how to allocate their resources. To the extent that illegal activities related to the production or procurement of alcoholic beverages increased, and law enforcement officials allocated additional resources to combat it, state and local law enforcement costs would increase.

Short answer: They need about 434,000 signatures by August to get this on the November ballot. I figure anyone who signs has got to be high! Then again, getting high could soon be legal in California.

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday, April 2

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 4:48 PM EDT

Measles Mystery: Anti-vaccine folks try to use graphs to prove their point.

Drill, Baby, Drill: Obama opens up coasts to new oil and gas drilling.

Bagging Plastic: DC's new plastic bag tax is working well, despite being only five cents.

CAFE Stop: New CAFE standards, 35.5 mpg before 2016, are finalized.

Healthcare 101: Quick primer on how healthcare reform would work in practice.

Gang Green: Oregon and other states are fighting Obama's reform on healthcare.

Climate-Hacking: How much weather manipulation could the planet take?

White Tax: Some argue that a proposed tax on tanning salons is racist.

 

Feds Sue KBR Over Iraq Bills

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 4:39 PM EDT

Given Mother Jones' recent investigation of KBR's waste in Iraq (you know, the one that found a bunch of mechanics who worked 43 minutes a month for millions of bucks), as well as the third degree put on the war contractor's flacks by members of the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting Monday, the US government could take its pick of actionable business practices by the Houston-based profiteer. And it finally selected one to sue over. Perhaps it's the start of something bigger.

Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press reports that the government has filed suit against KBR in a Washington federal court, alleging that the company (an ex-subsidiary of the Dick Cheney-helmed Halliburton) "and 33 of its subcontractors used private armed security at various times from 2003 to 2006. The suit claims KBR knew it could not bill the U.S. government for such services but did so anyway." That's actually a convenient (if hard-to-explain) scam that outlets like the Washington Post have been wise to for several years. Back in 2007, The Nation's resident expert on private military contractors, Blackwater author Jeremy Scahill, estimated that KBR passed on nearly half a billion dollars in personal security expenses to the US government—including payments to Blackwater, a mercenary outfit that's built up quite the reputation for corruption and violence.

We here at MoJo haven't gotten our hands on the court filings yet—and we will. But suffice to say that if the suit is successful—and federal attorneys are likely to mount a much heavier legal offensive against KBR than poor Jamie Leigh Jones can manage on her own—an avalanche of legal claims against KBR may ensue. A dubious firm that once claimed immunity to US suits could end up in tatters. Something good may come out of the Iraq war yet.

Obama Admin Issues Plan To Actually Decrease Oil Dependence

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 4:13 PM EDT

The Obama administration actually made two major environmental strides on Thursday, perhaps in apology for yesterday's oil news: the new guidelines on mountaintop removal coal mining, and the announcement of new standards for automobile emissions.

The new car rule, a joint effort of the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency, will increase the average fuel efficiency standards for cars and light trucks to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. They also put in place the first-ever greenhouse gas emission limits for transportation fuels. The goals aren't a surprise; the administration first announced them last May. These are just the first rules specifically detailing what automakers will need to do for the next four years. Jon Hiskes has a good rundown of what exactly the new rules mean over on Grist.

In a call with reporters today, administration officials estimated that the rules would save consumers $3,000 on fuel over the life of a 2016 model car. The rules would also cut one billion tons of emissions, compared to current standards. This is a pretty big deal in terms of climate change policy; the transportation sector is responsible for 28 percent of US emissions.

The rules are also expected to save 1.8 billion barrels of oil over the life of the new vehicles. This, I would say, will go a lot farther to address our oil problem than yesterday's big offshore drilling announcement. The rules are also notable in that they represent a deal struck between automakers, states, and the federal government to reduce automobile emissions, and are the first national rules limiting planet-warming gases. "America needs a roadmap to reduced dependence on foreign oil and greenhouse gases, and only the federal government can play this role," said Auto Alliance CEO Dave McCurdy in a statement.

Not everyone is happy about cutting our oil use, though. The American Petroleum Institute fired off the obligatory statement condemning the new rules on Thursday: "The rule is not just about vehicle efficiency. It's about EPA overreaching to create an opportunity for regulating greenhouse gas emissions from virtually every firm and business in America, no matter how unwieldy, intrusive and burdensome such regulation might be."

Poor API. Not every day can be Christmas like yesterday.

EPA Blasts Mountaintop Removal

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 3:47 PM EDT

After Wednesday's sucker-punch to enviros on offshore drilling, the Obama administration made an announcement today more to their liking: new guidelines to encourage tougher oversight of mountaintop removal (MTR) coal mining. Anti-coal activists are calling the directive the "most significant administrative action ever taken" on the controversial practice.

The Environmental Protection Agency has provided guidance to ensure that state and federal regulators enforce existing environmental standards more strictly. The EPA also made public several scientific reports on the impacts of surface mining, and announced the creation of a website where citizens can track the permitting process for new mining sites.

Mountaintop removal mining, which involves blowing off the tops of mountains to reach coal seams beneath the surface and dumping the waste in valleys and streams, has devastating effects on the environment and local communities. The EPA's announcement was perhaps most notable for formally recognizing those impacts:

The resulting waste that then fills valleys and streams can significantly compromise water quality, often causing permanent damage to ecosystems and rendering streams unfit for swimming, fishing and drinking. It is estimated that almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried by mountaintop coal mining.
"The people of Appalachia shouldn't have to choose between a clean, healthy environment in which to raise their families and the jobs they need to support them. That’s why EPA is providing even greater clarity on the direction the agency is taking to confront pollution from mountain top removal,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “We will continue to work with all stakeholders to find a way forward that follows the science and the law. Getting this right is important to Americans who rely on affordable coal to power homes and businesses, as well as coal communities that count on jobs and a livable environment, both during mining and after coal companies move to other sites.

The EPA has had a mixed record on MTR in the past year. Last fall they called for a time-out on MTR permits, but soon afterward approved a mine site in West Virginia, alarming many anti-MTR activists. Last week, however, the EPA vetoed the largest proposed MTR site in the country.

Enviromentalists cheered today's move. But as Rainforest Action's Amanda Starbuck points out, the administration stopped short of issuing an outright ban on MTR, which many groups have called for. "Moving forward, we urge the EPA to take holistic measures to end this devastating practice once and for all," says Starbuck. "We cannot end mountaintop removal coal mining pollution without ending mountaintop removal all together."

Chart of the Day: Voting Your Pocketbook

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 3:30 PM EDT

We've seen this before, but why not see it again? Jeff Frankel shows graphically today the disconnect between how much net money the various states get from the federal government vs. how those states' residents feel about government spending. Long story short, the ones who say they hate government the most are also the ones who are sucking the hardest at the federal teat.

Now, there are enough problems with calculating state shares of federal spending that you have to take this with a grain of salt. Still, it's a solid point. If you want to kvetch about federal spending, that's fine. But if you're going to do it, how about first giving back some of your federal largesse to the states that provided it to you in the first place?

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Books: Mad World

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 2:57 PM EDT

English comic novelist Evelyn Waugh's close relationship with the aristocratic Lygon family forms the basis for a compelling narrative in Paula Byrne's new biography, which shows the extent to which they served as models for the characters in Brideshead Revisited, one of his greatest works.

Waugh met Hugh Lygon—who later became tragically alcoholic, and inspired the character of Sebastian Flyte—at Oxford, where the two carried out a homosexual love affair. After the publication of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies—a scathing satire of 1920s London and its party-wild "Bright Young Things" (a circle in which Waugh traveled, and which produced his first, most disastrous, marriage)—Waugh began frequenting the Lygons' country estate, Madresfield, where he grew close to two of Hugh's four sisters, Mary and Dorothy. Byrne provides a page-turning account of a scandal involving Lord Beauchamp, their father, who was exposed as a homosexual and hounded out of England by his brother-in-law, the Duke of Westminster. Waugh wrote about this incident in A Handful of Dust, which featured an old-fashioned gentleman exiled from his country home—a character that, in Byrne's words, "owes a profound debt to Evelyn's knowledge of the last man to be hounded out of England: Earl Beauchamp."

Waugh has been criticized for snobbery by some biographers and critics, who interpret his close-knit friendship with the Lygon girls and his obsession with Madresfield as aristocracy-worship. (Waugh was the son of a middle-class publisher.) Byrne takes pains to defend Waugh's "love affair" with the family, and the portrait she creates here is a generous one, providing a nuanced view of the writer's life as it concerns the Lygons. The importance of these friendships to Waugh becomes abundantly clear through Byrne's able scholarship—previously unutilized private papers have been pored over, passages of letters reproduced in full where once they had been published in censored form—and the result is a wonderfully illuminated perspective on Waugh's sexuality, his sense of humor, and the devotion and fascination that drew him towards the Lygon family. All of this leads Byrne to conclude that "what he is really in love with is the family, not any one member of it," and that this makes Brideshead "one of the great expressions of what might be called the bisexual imagination." 

An excellent, engrossing biography—even those who have never had the pleasure of reading Waugh will find Byrne's work fascinating, and will certainly feel compelled to seek out the works drawn from this remarkable period in the novelist's life.   

 

General Petraeus Facts

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 2:25 PM EDT

Mark Bowden has written a long profile of General David Petraeus for Vanity Fair. Spencer Ackerman doesn't like it:

If you’ve never read a profile of Gen. Petraeus and you don’t mind really purple, sycophantic prose — “[W]hen Petraeus tests himself, he usually wins” is a line that survived the editing process — then by all means check out Mark Bowden’s thing in Vanity Fair.

Spencer has more, but the "when Petraeus tests himself, he usually wins" line reminded me of the whole "Chuck Norris facts" meme, which parodied the ridiculous badassness/kickassery of Chuck Norris. The meme was later applied to Jack Bauer and Vin Diesel, but if anyone is a great target for it, it's Petraeus. This isn't the first time someone has thought of this, of course. There's already GeneralPetraeusFacts.com, a not-entirely-tasteful site that a friend and I created in our spare time back in the day (I didn't write all of the "facts"). But the Bowden article definitely stands a chance of kick-starting a "Petraeus facts" meme. These lines are also in the piece:

Beyond his four-star rank, he possesses a stature so matchless it deserves its own adjective—call it “Petraean,” perhaps.

He is all gristle and bone. You sense that, if he ever were to overindulge, the fat cells would not know where to check in.

The sheer velocity of his career has created aftershocks, and those who stood too close have sometimes been bruised.

Interestingly, Bowden seems to recognize that Petraeus has been glorified:

For success to breed success, it must be seen and be heard. Much of his story has begun to undergo the slight embellishment and exaggeration that turn history into legend...—and this, too, contributes to his leadership. He is smarter, he is stronger, he is faster, he is more determined. He is “King David.” Once, in a heady and unguarded moment after an impressive ceremony in Iraq before 800 cheering sheikhs, he joked to a Washington Post reporter that sometimes it felt “like a combination of being the president and the pope.” He regrets that remark, which was turned into an embarrassing headline, but the Legend of David Petraeus now defines what an American military officer should be.

The Bowden piece closes with an anecdote. When Petraeus was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer last year, it was kept a secret. The New York Times eventually got a tip, and asked about it, so Petraeus' staff prepared a press release. The General himself added a line about how the cancer was kept secret to "avoid giving al-Qaeda hope." His wife later took it out, but it says a lot about the man. Bowden may recognize that the Petraeus story "has begun to undergo the slight embellishment and exaggeration that turn history into legend." But it seems that the General himself has bought into at least part of the legend.

George W. Bush, Wind Guru?

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 2:05 PM EDT

President George W. Bush hasn't made many public appearances since departing Washington last year. He hit the motivational speaker circuit last fall, and spoke at the Safari Club International Annual Hunters' Convention in Reno, Nevada in January.

But next month, he is slated to address the 2010 national conference of the wind power industry in Dallas. And no, this isn't an April Fool's joke. The Texas native—reviled by enviros as president—will apparently be espousing the virtues of wind power at the meeting, sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association. From AWEA's blog:

The former president will talk about his experience as Texas's governor, and as President, in advancing the wind energy agenda. (Texas is the number one wind state in the United States and, though most people don't realize it, it was President Bush who first raised the prospect of getting 20% of U.S. electricity from wind.)

"Raised the prospect" is an interesting choice of words. Bush did sign into law a strong renewable energy standard in Texas 1999 as governor, which the state quickly surpassed. Texas now has more installed wind capacity than any other state. As president he did say in 2007 that the country could draw 20 percent of its power from wind by 2030, but he never actually took the steps needed to make that happen.

Bush reportedly charges $150,000 for his appearances, though he gives home-town events like this one at a discount—just $100,000. So wind advocates are probably paying a pretty penny to have his star power at this year’s event. The conference also features Jason Alexander—a.k.a George Costanza of Seinfeld fame. I can't decide which speaker is the more bizarre selection.

Barney Frank Blasts Aide Turned Lobbyist

| Thu Apr. 1, 2010 2:04 PM EDT

The story didn't make headlines, but it offered yet another glimpse of the endlessly spinning Washington-Wall Street revolving door: Peter Roberson, formerly a top policy adviser on the House financial services committee, recently left the committee to work as a lobbyist for a financial powerhouse in the derivatives industry—which also happens to be an industry the House committee is in charge of reforming as part of Congress' financial reform legislation.

Roberson's move to Intercontinental is so contentious because both the House and Senate are currently deciding whether to push much of the $600 trillion opaque, over-the-counter derivatives market onto transparent exchanges, like the New York Stock Exchange is for stocks. Intercontinental happens to own two major derivatives clearinghouses; the company processes trillions of dollars in derivatives trades. "This is a classic example of a revolving door abuse," Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, which backs tougher lobbying rules, told Bloomberg News. "He will be instrumental for Intercontinental." (Roberson did not respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones.)

Today, Roberson's former boss, financial services committee chairman Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), blasted the former adviser's move. "I completely agree" with criticism of Roberson's departure from Hill staffer to financial lobbyist, Frank said in a statement. The Massachusetts congressman said that when he heard of Roberson's potential move, Frank ordered his committee to sever ties with the staffer. And while there's a one-year ban on Roberson's interaction with members of the financial services committee, Frank said he's extending that ban for as long as Frank chairs the committee.

Here's Frank's full statement on the matter:

"Several people have expressed criticism of the move by Peter Roberson from the staff of the Financial Services Committee to ICE, after he worked on the legislation relevant to derivatives. I completely agree with that criticism. When Mr. Roberson was hired, it never occurred to me that he would jump so quickly from the Committee staff to an industry that was being affected by the Committee’s legislation. When he called me to tell me that he was in conversations with them, I told him that I was disappointed and that I insisted that he take no further action as a member of the Committee staff. I then called the Staff Director and instructed her to remove him from the payroll and provide him only such compensation as is already owed.

Stories about this correctly noted that there is a one year ban on his interaction with members of the Committee staff, but I do not think that is adequate. I am therefore instructing the staff of the Financial Services Committee to have no contact whatsoever with Mr. Roberson on any matters involving financial regulation for as long as I am in charge of that Committee staff. Fortunately, examples of staff members doing what Mr. Roberson has done are rare, but even one example is far too much and that is why I wanted to make clear I share the unhappiness of people at this, and my intention to prohibit any contact between him and members of the staff for as long as I have any control over the matter."