2010 - %3, June

The Virtue of Competition

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:55 AM EDT

Back home from China, Ezra Klein writes about the common sentiment that America needs to do better on [fill in the blank] because otherwise China will surge ahead of us:

Polls and focus groups show that people go nuts for this sort of rhetoric. If you want the country to get behind your policy initiative, just tell them that China is beating us to the punch. But.....

Wait a second. "But" what? If the rhetoric works, why not use it? If competition with the Soviet Union could get us to the moon in less than a decade, why not let competition with China help jumpstart green energy development? Ezra again:

Competitive language is used in service of worthy goals, but it's also dangerous stuff. We're telling Americans to fear the economic development of other countries, when what they should actually fear is the reverse. If China or India stagnate, that means they won't become huge markets for our exports, it means they won't develop new technologies that can better our lives, it means that they won't be geopolitical anchors in the way that only rich, stable countries can be. The global economy isn't a race so much as it's a relay.

Well, maybe. If the competition trope turns into China bashing, and if it takes a turn toward actively trying to impede China's development instead of improving ours, then sure. It's a bad thing. But I'd argue that for the most part, it (a) hasn't and (b) probably won't. We will, I think, shortly end up in some pretty serious competition with China over resources — mostly oil, but possibly other commodities as well — but if anything, that should just reinforce the message that we need to get more serious about renewable energy.

Competitive fervor can be a great motivator. Granted, there's sometimes a thin line between a bit of healthy motivational anxiety and outright populist fearmongering, but I'd say this is a risk worth taking in this case. The American public could use a little motivation right now.

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Native Americans Fear their Future in the Oil Zone

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:41 AM EDT

Check out this Natural Resources Defense Council OnEarth magazine video about the impacts of the oil spill on the Native American Atakapa-Ishak people who call Louisiana's Grand Bayou home. For generations the Philippe family has relied on these lands and waters for fish, shrimp, crabs, and oysters. Now they don't know what they're going to do.

 

 

 

 

BP Oil: Coming Soon to a Beach Near You

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:33 AM EDT

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) just released this horrifying animation of how ocean currents may carry all the oil in the Gulf of Mexico. According to their computer modeling of currents and the oil, the spill "might soon extend along thousands of miles of the Atlantic coast and open ocean as early as this summer."

"I've had a lot of people ask me, 'Will the oil reach Florida?'" says NCAR scientist Synte Peacock in a statement accompanying the animation, which he worked on. "Actually, our best knowledge says the scope of this environmental disaster is likely to reach far beyond Florida, with impacts that have yet to be understood."

The models show oil hitting Florida's Atlantic coast within a few weeks, then moving north as far as about Cape Hatteras, N.C., before heading east.

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The Times Takes on Dartmouth

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:23 AM EDT

As you may recall, one of the best known studies of healthcare costs, and one that got a lot of attention over the past year, is the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, which shows, for example, that although patients in Miami get a lot more healthcare than people in Minnesota, and they get it a lot more expensively, their health outcomes aren't any better. This suggests that there are lots of possibilities out there for cutting back on healthcare costs without impacting the quality of care.

Last night I came across a New York Times article that questioned whether the Dartmouth folks had really proven anything at all. But lazy bastard that I am, I got this far and then just gave up:

But the real difference in costs between, say, Houston and Bismarck, N.D., may result less from how doctors work than from how patients live. Houstonians may simply be sicker and poorer than their Bismarck counterparts. Also, nurses in Houston tend to be paid more than those in North Dakota because the cost of living is higher in Houston. Neither patients’ health nor differences in prices are fully considered by the Dartmouth Atlas.

WTF? This stuff has been controlled for endlessly, and the Dartmouth data still holds up. But I was tired, so I went to bed instead of posting about this. However, other, more energetic people have now taken the trouble to lay out the evidence, so let's review. Here's one of the co-authors of the Dartmouth study explaining their work a year ago in the New York Times (!):

It is true that some regions of the country experience more illness than others, and of course sick people spend more on health care. To deal with this bias, the Dartmouth group has compared expenditures and frequency of treatment across regions for people with similar diseases. The most extensive study compared spending across regions using a variety of cohorts such as people who had suffered a hip fracture or heart-attack patients. This study examined people who were equally sick, whether they lived in Louisiana or Colorado. The researchers further adjusted for any differences in patient income, race, and prior health. They still found gaps of up to 60 percent in spending among regions.

And here, via Brad DeLong, is David Cutler, who was quoted in support of the writers' point that "failing to make basic data adjustments undermines the geographic variations the atlas purports to show":

[T]he reporter asked ‘what do you make of the fact that the price adjustment changes the ranking of communities?’ I said something to the effect of ‘why do I care about the non-price adjusted data.’... [T]he Dartmouth people have done the price adjustment, so we don’t have to fight about what such an adjustment would do. Hard to tell why my comments are beating up on anything (except a mythical version of the Dartmouth data in which they had never done price adjustment)...

Bottom line: all the "data adjustments" the Times reporters talk about have, in fact, been done. Researchers at Dartmouth and elsewhere have controlled for price levels, for demographics, and for differing rates of sickness, and their results largely hold up. There are big variations in cost that have very little impact on quality of outcome. In the end, then, the authors of the Times piece end up with almost nothing. By the time their piece is done, they've basically only got two things left. First, the Dartmouth researchers admit that, on occasion, they might discuss their findings more broadly than they should when they're talking to a lay audience. Second, there are individual bits and pieces of their dataset that other researchers have disputed. Just as there are with any large, complex dataset.

In other words, there's no there there. The Dartmouth research is not the be-all-end-all of healthcare research, but its basic conclusions are extremely robust and have been confirmed over and over. Why the Times chose to pretend otherwise is a mystery.

POSTSCRIPT: The Dartmouth researchers respond to the Times here.

Spill Commission Co-Chair Still Hasn't Talked to BP

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 11:10 AM EDT

Former Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat who was appointed almost two weeks ago by President Barack Obama to co-chair the commission on the BP oil spill, told Bloomberg Television this morning that he hasn't actually talked to BP yet.

"The answer is no, I have not talked to anyone from BP," said Graham.

Graham continued that he planned to "withhold judgment as to what kind of relationship we’re going to have." He added, "I hope it will be a good one."

Graham said that the commission plans to issue a report by the end of the year examining both the disaster and the long-term prospects for offshore drilling.

"I see this role to which the president has just assigned me as being somewhat like a juror," said Graham. "We’re supposed to approach it with an open mind, collect the information on this particular situation and then use that as a key part of making some judgments about what we should be doing in the future. So I’m reticent to be making a judgment at the very beginning. We’ll have plenty of judgments when we get to the end of this process."

Here's the full video of the interview:

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Sea Surface Temps, Hurricanes, and Oil

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 10:19 AM EDT

NASA just released this graphic of current sea surface temperatures at the beginning of what looks to be an extremely active huricane season. The yellow and red colors denote waters already warm enough to foster hurricane formation. In the normal gestational cycle, the storms fuel up in the waters off Africa, where it's already piping hot, then typically travel the warm water highway across the mid-Atlantic. As you can see, the waters of the Gulf of Mexico are primed with plenty of heat right now.

Here are a few salient points related to hurricanes and the BP oil spill, via NOAA's Oil Spill response (pdf):

  • The oil is not expected to appreciably affect either the intensity or the track of a fully developed tropical storm or hurricane.
  • The oil slick would have little effect on the storm surge or near-shore wave heights.
  • The high winds may distribute oil over a wider area, but it is difficult to model exactly where the oil may be transported.
  • Storms’ surges may carry oil into the coastline and inland as far as the surge reaches. Debris resulting from the hurricane may be contaminated by oil from the Deepwater Horizon incident, as well as from other oil releases that may occur during the storm.
  • The oil slick is not likely to have a significant impact on the development of a hurricane.
  • Near the leaking well, where concentrations are heavy, a hurricane may pull deep-water oil to the surface, though probably not farther from the well head where oil concentrations in the water are lower. 
  • The experience from hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005) was that oil released during the storms became very widely dispersed by the hurricanes.
  • There will not likely be oil in the rain related to a hurricane since hurricanes draw water vapor from a large area, much larger than the area covered by oil, and rain is produced in clouds circulating the hurricane.

 

 

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Quote of the Day: Obama on Republicans

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 10:17 AM EDT

From Barack Obama, explaining the Republican attitude toward governing:

It’s a belief that government has little or no role to play in helping this nation meet our collective challenges. It’s an agenda that basically offers two answers to every problem we face: more tax breaks for the wealthy and fewer rules for corporations.

....As November approaches, leaders in the other party will campaign furiously on the same economic arguments they’ve been making for decades. Fortunately, we don't have to look back too many years to see how their agenda turns out. For much of the last 10 years we've tried it their way. They gave us tax cuts that weren’t paid for to millionaires who didn’t need them. They gutted regulations and put industry insiders in charge of industry oversight. They shortchanged investments in clean energy and education, in research and technology. And despite all their current moralizing about the need to curb spending, this is the same crowd who took the record $237 billion surplus that President Clinton left them and turned it into a record $1.3 trillion deficit.

Feisty! But will he keep it up? One speech won't have much of an impact, but if he takes to the campaign trail and starts making this argument repeatedly, it might start to sink in a bit. It's worth a try.

Press 1 If You Look Like an Illegal Immigrant

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 9:30 AM EDT

Traveling to Arizona soon? Worried you might be considered "reasonably suspect" under the state's harsh immigration law? The country's largest labor union has some advice for you. Ahead of President Obama's face-off with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer today, the Service Employees International Union has launched a "travel advisory hotline" for travelers to Arizona who might be at risk of being questioned and detained under the new law. The hotline—which can be reached at 1-800-958-5068—is a tongue-in-cheek explanation of how visitors might avoid being profiled as illegal immigrants:

If you plan to wear jeans, press 1. If your skin is even remotely tanned, yellow, brown or blue in hue, press 2. If you tend to eat fast foods, drink bright colored juices or eat fresh vegetables in lieu of meat products, press 3.

If 1: Jeans are worn by many working people targeted by the new Arizona immigration law. Please wear slacks or khakis to avoid appearing suspicious. For more information, please press 4.

If 2: Working people come in many shapes and sizes, but anyone who doesn’t resemble a J. Crew or Ralph Lauren model, should be very, very careful. Consider wearing conservative or preppy clothing to avoid getting noticed. For more information, please press 4.

If 3: Many working people targeted by the new immigration Arizona immigration law eat fast foods and drink bright colored juices. Avoid these foods while traveling in Arizona to avoid undue attention from law enforcement officials. For more information, please press 4.

SEIU's new hotline plays off the notion, voiced by the Arizona law’s supporters, that state officials could use clothing to identify the illegal immigrants they should target under the new law. "They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there is different type of attire, there is different type of—right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes," Republican Rep. Brad Bilbray (R-CA) told Chris Matthews. Though the law requires police to ask about immigration status only if an individual has been stopped for another offense, opponents argue that the law will invariably encourage racial profiling.

Should all else fail, potentially suspect travelers to Arizona who want to take extra precautions could always pick up a gringo mask.

Carly Fiorina: What Climate Change?

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

In a slickly produced commercial with an outright bizarre message, Carly Fiorina, the Republican frontrunner vying for the US Senate, ripped her opponent, Democrat incumbent Barbara Boxer, for describing climate change as an issue of national security. The ad shows a 2007 clip of Boxer, in a tiny video frame (no doubt intentional), saying, "One of the very important national security issues we face, frankly, is climate change." To which Fiorina, whose image now fills the frame, retorts, "Terrorism kills—and Barbara Boxer is worried about the weather."

Really, Fiorina? This is demon sheep stuff here. No one doubts that terrorism, as Fiorina mentions, is a major national security issue. But, according to the Pentagon, climate change is, too. Indeed, the mighty Pentagon has been warning for years, even during the Bush administration when climate change wasn't believed by the White House, that climate change be could a destabilizing force throughout the world, stoking ethnic, racial, and economic conflicts. In the Quadrennial Defense Review released earlier this year, the Pentagon said "While climate change alone does not cause conflict, it may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden on civilian institutions and militaries around the world." And the CIA, an institution Fiorina name-drops in her Boxer-bashing ad touting her experience having worked on an external committee there, has opened a intelligence center on climate change to collect data on its effects around the world. The question is: With the US's major defense and intelligence organizations saying climate change is a national security issue, how Fiorina say otherwise and retain any credibility?

And back to the "weather" rhetoric. The evidence supporting global climate change is so abundant, so voluminous, that to call it "weather" is appalling. Even Fiorina herself has previously said, "I think there is growing consensus that the issues of climate change and energy independence are inextricably linked," and that climate change "matters to a lot of people." Now: "weather." Talk about a flip-flop.

Here's the full ad for your viewing pleasure:

Crisis PR Expert: BP Disaster is "Unspinnable"

| Thu Jun. 3, 2010 8:34 AM EDT

The ecological catastrophe that BP has wrought upon the Gulf of Mexico has been a profound teaching moment, and not just for environmentalists. Corporate America's trusty public relations officials, and their hard-working elite, the crisis communications experts, are eagerly taking note of BP's every word and deed. Mostly, it seems, to remember what not to do when the shit hits the fan.

Chris Lehane is a crisis communication expert whom Newsweek named a "Master of Disaster" for his role in the "rapid response" team that the Clinton Administration assembled to deal with scandals such as Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair. His consulting firm, Fabiani & Lehane, has represented California Edison during the California Energy Crisis, Goldman Sachs during the the financial crisis, and Cisco Systems when the Internet bubble burst. Yesterday Mother Jones spoke with Lehane about the BP crisis.

Mother Jones: From a crisis communications standpoint, what has BP done well?

Chris Lehane: Making the video [of the ruptured oil well] available so that people could see the live feed. One of the rules of thumb of crisis management is that you can never put the genie back in the bottle in terms of what the underlying issue is. People evaluate you in terms of how you handle things going forward. And obviously doing everything to be open, transparent, accessible is the type of thing that the public does look for from a corporate entity in this type of situation.

The video, at a tactical level, is the type of thing that makes sense because you are obviously giving people the capacity to go online and look at this stuff and evaluate it themselves. The challenge for them was that they weren’t necessarily open, transparent, and accessible with everything else, so I’m not sure how much of a benefit they got from that.

MJ: What has BP done poorly?

CL: This is just from a professional perspective: They set up a series of expectations in terms of what they were going to do to resolve the issue, and time after time after time they have not worked out. If you tell people what you are going to do, and you suggest it’s going to be successful, you need to be successful. Because once you create those expectations and you don’t fulfill them, when you already have a significant credibility problem, it just further degrades your credibility.