2010 - %3, May

New York Has Country's Dumbest Drivers

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:36 PM EDT

The results of the GMAC National Drivers Test are out, and this year the most knowledgable drivers in the country come from.....Kansas! Hooray for Kansas. Oregon, South Dakota, and Minnesota get honorable mentions. The least knowledgable come from New York. Boo New York. New Jersey, DC, and California have nothing to brag about either. Click here to see how your state did.

Thirsting for more? The GMAC test has 20 questions, and nearly 20% of Americans failed by getting a score of less than 14. Older drivers did better than younger ones. Men did better than women. Toughest question: what should you do at a yellow light? 85% of drivers got it wrong.

(Full disclosure: I got it correct, but only by sussing out the "right" answer. My typical behavior is much more in line with the 85%. I think you can guess what I'm talking about here.)

Anyway, more details here. You can take the test here. I got 19 out of 20 correct. If you know what a diamond-shaped sign means, you have a chance of beating my score.

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Is Anti-Government Anger Fueling Violence Against Census Workers?

| Thu May 27, 2010 2:04 PM EDT

Earlier this year, anti-government activists had mounted a crusade against the Census as a constitutional invasion of privacy—even threatening violence against Census takers. "I dare them to try and come throw me in jail...Pull out my wife's shotgun and see how that little ACS twerp likes being scared at the door," RedState blogger and CNN commentator Erick Erickson said in April.

Now, a new report from the US Census Bureau reveals that more than 113 census workers have been assaulted or attacked since April 1—a number that's significantly higher than the last US Census ten years ago. According to the Washington Post, the incidents involved "29 threats involving a gun, four robberies and three instances of being held against their will or carjacked.” In one incident, a California woman who aimed a shotgun at a census taker on her doorstep was subsequently killed in a confrontation with police officers. In another incident, a 14-year-old carjacked and kidnapped a worker sitting in a car clearly marked with a Census Bureau sign. The Census has hired 635,000 people as temporary workers to follow up with people who didn't send back their questionnaire by the end of April.

The report from the Census Bureau came at the request of Rep. Carolyn Mahoney (D-NY), who wanted to determine whether the attacks on Census workers were the sign of a larger trend. It's unclear whether any of these recent threats and attacks against census workers were politically motivated. But it’s clear violent threats against public officials have escalated on the whole, with the FBI reporting a recent surge in death threats against lawmakers. And when a government worker comes calling, some US residents aren’t hesitating to bring a shotgun to the door.

Does Privacy Have a Future?

| Thu May 27, 2010 1:37 PM EDT

The London Times recently announced that they would be putting their entire paper behind a paywall. Their view is pretty simple: giving away their news for free cuts into subscription revenue but produces almost nothing back in the way of ad revenue because advertisers aren't willing to pay much for the "useless tourists" who drop by new sites occasionally but aren't serious about either the news itself or the advertising. Paying customers, conversely, tend to be demographically more desirable and they spend more quality time looking at both the news and the accompanying ads. So charging for access should be a net benefit. Felix Salmon comments:

The logic here has existed in print publications for years: newspapers with a cover price tend to have higher ad rates than free sheets, because their readership is more affluent and is also more likely to actually read the paper (and see its ads).

....But the fact is that online there are much more useful and granular ways for an advertiser to work out who they're targeting, beyond just saying “we want people who are willing to pay to read this publication”....The fact is that if I sign in to a free site using my Twitter login, I'm actually more valuable to advertisers than if I paid to enter that site. That's because the list of people I follow on Twitter says a huge amount about me, and a smart media-buying organization can target ads at me which are much more narrowly focused than if all they knew about me was that I was paying to read the Times.

We're not quite there yet. But it seems to me that online publications are making a big mistake if they make subscribers go through a dedicated registration and login process, because the demographic information they can get from that will be less useful and less accurate than if they outsource the reader-identification procedure to Twitter or LinkedIn or Facebook. And people will definitely enjoy an automatically personalized reading experience, where they can see what their Facebook friends are reading and what the people they follow on Twitter are reading.

I have an abiding fear that Felix is right. There's an analogy here to the world of supermarkets. In the past, supermarkets charged everyone the same price and made a small profit margin doing it. Then came loyalty cards. And they were popular! So once one supermarket started offering them, everyone else did as well. Eventually they were ubiquitous.

Today, overall supermarket prices are still the same as they've always been, they're just tiered differently: those with cards pay less and those without cards pay more. So on average, consumers haven't benefited. What's more, competition is generally fierce in the supermarket biz, which means that overall profit margins are also the same as they've always been. So supermarkets haven't benefited.

So who has benefited? Well, as near as I can tell, the answer is: marketing firms. Loyalty cards generate mountains of purchasing data that allow third parties to target advertising more effectively. This is great news for marketing companies and their clients. Whether it's great news for the rest of us is a little harder to determine.

But this might be the news model of the future. Basically, you'll be able to get access to the Times two ways: either by paying for a subscription or by registering with your Facebook/Twitter/LinkedIn ID and agreeing to give the Times access to your online life. This is roughly the same trade that we've made in the supermarket biz: pay more and maintain your privacy, or pay less in return for giving it up.

The big difference, of course, is that supermarkets had a perfectly viable business model before loyalty programs started up. Newspapers don't. This might actually be the only way they can save themselves. But it might also be a sign of much broader things to come. In the future, the poor and middle class will essentially have no privacy in their day-to-day life. They will have sold it away, because in practical terms the poor and the middle class simply can't afford to give up a 5-10% discount on everything they buy. Only the better off, who can, will have the option of maintaining their privacy.

Maybe this is OK. I don't like it, but plenty of people seem fine with the idea. But there's a reason that all this information is so valuable, and it's not because marketing firms and consumer goods companies are genuinely interested in your welfare. This is a brave new world we're stumbling into.

The Curious Case of Joe Sestak

| Thu May 27, 2010 12:14 PM EDT

Back in February, Joe Sestak told reporters that the White House had once offered him a federal job as an inducement not to run against Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary race for Pennsylvania's senate seat. Since then Sestak has refused to talk further about the matter and so has the White House. Republicans have tried to make hay out of this, but Stan Brand, a Washington lawyer who specializes in ethics matters, tells David Corn today that it's virtually certain that nothing illegal took place:

Though he dismisses Issa's pursuit of Sestakgate, Brand says that White House actions are keeping the scandal alive: "Gibbs dissembling doesn't help them. Don't be defensive about it. Just say this is what goes on. They're looking guilty over something that isn't illegal." He adds: "That's not the first time that this has happened."

This is surely one of the weirder pseudo-scandals of the year. It's not weird that Republicans would try to get some mileage out of it. That's politics. What's weird is two things: (1) How could Sestak possibly have been stupid enough to mention this in the first place? and (2) Why don't he and the White House just tell us about it?

As to #1, I have no idea. But #2 is murkier. Republicans are trying to pretend that the job offer was made "in return" for Sestak not running against Specter, but that's ridiculous. A job offer is just a job offer. If Sestak accepted, he automatically wouldn't be running for office. It's like saying that I offered a cashier some money in return for not having me arrested when I walk out the door with a Blu-Ray player under my arm. It's implicit in the whole thing.

So the White House either offered Sestak a job or they didn't. If they didn't, they would have said so. So presumably they did. If they and Sestak just fessed up to this, wouldn't the story go away almost instantly? If the White House announced, say, that Sestak had indeed been under consideration for a position in the Navy Department last summer, but Sestak turned them down, then that's the end of it. It's not even good campaign fodder. All Sestak has to do is confess that in the heat of the campaign he got a little carried away and characterized it badly.

What the hell am I missing here? I just see no downside to this.

Will Arizona Encourage Criminals To Prey on Immigrants?

| Thu May 27, 2010 12:00 PM EDT

Proponents of Arizona’s new immigration law regularly characterize immigrants as criminals, pointing to the killing of two Phoenix police officers by illegal immigrants and the (still unsolved) murder of a border-area rancher earlier this year. But in Arizona, as elsewhere, immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, according to many criminologists and non-partisan immigration researchers. Rather than target the perpetrators of crime, Arizona’s new law could actually increase crime and encourage criminals to prey upon immigrants, according to a group of police chiefs from across the country.

The police chiefs—including officials from Tucson, Los Angeles, Houston, and other major cities—met with Attorney General Eric Holder on Wednesday to discuss their concerns about the impact of the Arizona law, which they believe will make it harder for them to do their jobs by driving a wedge between immigrants and police. Within local communities, “it will put a level of mistrust, and it will break down those relationships we have worked so hard to establish,” said Tucson Chief of Police Roberto Villasenor on a conference call Wednesday. “That will probably increase crime rather than reduce crime.” The police chiefs stressed their fear that Arizona’s law could inhibit people from coming forward as crime victims or witnesses, making law enforcement efforts “doomed to failure,” said Los Angeles Chief of Police Charlie Beck. 

Healthcare Costs Going Up, Up, Up

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:50 AM EDT

The Los Angeles Times reports today on enormous rate hikes for small businesses in the health insurance market:

Five major insurers in California's small-business market are raising rates 12% to 23% for firms with fewer than 50 employees, according to a survey by The Times.

...."We don't have that money," said Ann Terranova, a San Francisco financial planner who is dropping Blue Shield for herself and two employees after learning that their annual premium would jump to more than $19,000 a year from $11,000. 

....California insurers defend their rate hikes as sound and fair, saying they struggle to balance affordable rates with the need to remain competitive and turn a modest profit. Blue Shield, for example, said hospital charges rose nearly 20% last year, while physician costs and pharmaceutical fees increased almost as much. Anthem Blue Cross also cited the cost of medical care in explaining its average rate hikes of 13% this year.

If conservatives want to avoid the specter of federally funded single-payer healthcare in the United States, this is what they need to come to terms with. Canada provides high quality healthcare for everyone — including small businesses and the elderly — for a cost per person of about $4,000 per year. Ditto for France and the Netherlands. Britain and Japan do it for about $3,000. Ann Terranova is being asked to pay more than $6,000 per person — and that's for three working-age employees.

One way or another we have to deal with this. This year's healthcare reform bill takes some small strides toward reining in costs, but they're not nearly enough. We need to do far more, and if the private market won't do it then eventually public opinion will force us to adopt a European-style system. If conservatives really understood this, they'd take the problem more seriously. But they don't seem to.

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As BP Stops the Well, Other Problems Mount

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:46 AM EDT

The Coast Guard reports this morning that the "top-kill" of the Gulf gusher has succeeded in stopping the flow of oil and gas. When pressure stabilizes, they can begin cementing the well to permanently close it, now five weeks after the spill began.

Meanwhile, things are looking worse for BP, the operator of the rig and owner of the well. The government team assembled to evaluate the flow rate said today that preliminary findings indicate the spill is two to five times the size of previous estimates.

The investigations into the spill have also yielded a lot of bad press for BP. In Louisiana, one of the company's officials on the Deepwater Horizon at the point of the explosion, Robert Kaluza, invoked the Fifth Amendment rather than testifying at a Coast Guard hearing. He was expected to appear today, but has backed out to avoid self-incrimination.

And according to documents released by a Congressional investigator, several days before the blast BP officials decided to use a type of casing for the well known to be the riskier option in order to cut costs. The exploration at this well was six weeks behind schedule; the Deepwater Horizon was supposed to move to a new site on March 8–about six weeks before the blast. The New York Times reports that, at an estimated cost of $500,000 per day, a 43-day-delay had added up to more than $21 million for BP by that point, possibly increasing the desire to cut corners.

Even if BP has succeeded in stopping the well, there's still no end in site for the environmental catastrophe in the Gulf. Wildlife officials report that more than 300 sea birds, nearly 200 turtles and 19 dolphins have been found dead along the Gulf Coast.

But will Americans actually see this still-unfolding Gulf disaster? Newsweek reports today that, like our own Mac McClelland, photographers in the Gulf have been barred from access to spill sites where the impacts of the disaster are most apparent.

BP might have finally controlled the well, but efforts to control the story appear to be ongoing.

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Is BP Dodging $2 Billion in Fines?

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:35 AM EDT

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) ripped oil corporation BP today by claiming they were low-balling the spill's damage to dodge more than a billion dollars in financial liabilities. Markey's attacks come on the same day an independent report put the BP oil spill at between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, far exceeding BP's 1,000 to 5,000 estimate. “What’s clear is that BP has had an interest in low-balling the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government,” said Markey, who chairs the select committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Energy and Environment subcommittee.

According to Markey, the difference between BP's and independent scientists' estimates on the spill's size amounts to tens of millions of dollars everyday. If the spill were really 1,000 barrels per day, the fines would total between $5 to $15 million each day; if 14,000 barrels a day, then BP is looking at fines of $14 to $42 million every day. The current governing financial liabilities for oil spills like BP's, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, mandates fines of $1,000 per barrel or, in the case of "gross negligence," $3,000 per barrel. All told, BP, using scientists' projections on the Gulf spill, the oil giant could face fines of $444 million and $2.1 billion now on the 37th day of the spill.

Here's Markey's full release on BP's financial liabilities:

Following the release of a report on the flow rate of the oil spill by a technical team assembled by the Obama administration, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) today continued to raise questions about BP’s potential motivations to low-ball the flow rate and size of the spill, and released new documents showing BP knew the spill could have been much bigger than they claimed.

The report, conducted by the National Incident Command’s Flow Rate Technical Group, found that the spill was likely between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels a day, far above the 1,000-5,000 barrels a day BP estimated for most of the spill’s duration. Rep. Markey has engaged with numerous independent scientists on this issue who claimed the spill was much larger than BP’s estimates.

"Now we know what we always knew—this spill is much larger than BP has claimed," said Rep. Markey, who chairs the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming and the Energy and Environment Subcommittee in the Energy and Commerce Committee. "What’s clear is that BP has had an interest in low-balling the size of their accident, since every barrel spilled increases how much they could be fined by the government."

Yesterday Rep. Markey pressed this point with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, citing documents he obtained from BP that showed BP knew as early as a week after the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that the spill could have been much higher than their initial estimate of 1,000 barrels. Secretary Salazar agreed with Rep. Markey that BP could have a financial interest in underestimating the size of the spill.

The documents can be found here

One document, dated April 27, shows that BP’s high estimate for the daily rate of the spill was 14,266 barrels per day, well within the midrange of today’s technical group report. Yet one day later, BP was asserting to the public that the spill was only 1,000 barrels a day—their low estimate for the size of the spill.

The implications for BP’s financial liability are directly tied to the size of the spill. Under current law—the Clean Water Act as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, following the Exxon Valdez disaster—a company that spills oil is subject to fines up to $1,000 per barrel, or up to $3,000 per barrel in the case of gross negligence.

For BP, the difference between an estimate of 1,000 barrels per day and one of 14,000 barrels a day could really be the difference between $5 to $15 million per day in fines versus $14 to $42 million per day. That means, at the end of yesterday, the 37th day of the spill, the difference could potentially be between $37 million in fines or $1.5 billion in fines, according to BP’s own estimates from the documents.

According to the range reached by the technical group today, BP could be subject to between $444 million and $2.1 billion in potential fines for the oil spilled thus far.

"BP has to stop protecting their liability and start dealing with the reality of the size of this spill,” said Rep. Markey. “Knowing the size of the spill is vital to all facets of this spill, from response to recovery to accountability."

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BP Spill Two to Five Times Previous Estimate

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:22 AM EDT

The amount of oil that has been leaking into the Gulf for the past 37 days might be as high as 25,000 barrels per day, according to preliminary results from the government team assembled to evaluate the flow. Based on a variety of estimates from team, the spill is most likely between 12,000 and 19,000 barrels per day, the head of the team said Thursday.

There were several teams evaluating satellite images of the surface of the Gulf and video from the spill site. Even the lowest estimate from one team, 11,000 barrels per day, is twice the amount that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimated on April 29. The highest estimate was 25,000 barrels, which would be five times the previous estimate.

U.S. Geological Survey Director Dr. Marcia McNutt, who is heading the spill rate team, emphasized in a call with reporters that these are preliminary figures and teams continue to evaluate the flow. McNutt also said that the initial low figures didn't influence response efforts, which have "been based on a worst-case, catastrophic scenario." "The scale of response would have been the same at 1,000 barrels a day or 100 times that," McNutt said.

NOAA head Jane Lubchenco has said that the 5,000 figure "was always understood to be a very rough estimate." "That number was useful and the best estimate at the time," she told reporters last week.

The new figures give a better, if still wide-ranging, estimate of the total amount of oil now in the Gulf of Mexico. Even going by the lower estimate, a total of 17 million gallon have hemorrhaged into the water. The highest estimate would put the spill at nearly 40 million gallons so far. Either number would mean that the Gulf spill has eclipsed the Exxon Valdez, which dumped 10.8 million gallons into the Prince William Sound, as the worst oil spill in US history.

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Gulf Spill Apparently Stopped

| Thu May 27, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

It's nice to occasionally wake up to some good news:

Engineers have stopped the flow of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico from a gushing BP well, the federal government's top oil-spill commander, U.S. Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, said Thursday morning.

The "top kill" effort, launched Wednesday afternoon by industry and government engineers, had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well, Allen said. The pressure from the well was very low, he said, but persisting.

The well hasn't been cemented yet, and this whole thing could yet fail. But keep your fingers crossed.

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