2010 - %3, November

GOP Cynicism Gone Wild

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:48 PM EST

This is ridiculous. Both Democrats and Republicans agree that the new 1099 reporting requirements included in the healthcare reform bill should be repealed. The pain-in-the-ass factor is simply too high to justify forcing everyone to create the mountains of new paperwork it would require. The problem is that the new requirements essentially raise taxes on contractors and small businesses and this raises revenue. So if you want to repeal the requirements, you need to figure out how to make up the revenue, and Democrats and Republicans have been unable to agree on how to do this.

Yesterday, however, Sen. Max Baucus decided the hell with it. The amount of revenue is tiny (less than $2 billion per year), so why not just repeal the 1099 provision, lower everyone's taxes, and forget about paying for it? This is an eminently sensible position, since Republicans want the provision repealed and have repeatedly and unanimously taken the position that tax cuts don't need to be paid for.

So Baucus introduced an amendment to do the deed. And it failed because all but two Republicans voted against it.

Can anyone defend this in any kind of principled way? Republicans are eager to extend the Bush tax cuts on the rich without paying for them, and this will cost over $70 billion per year. Ditto for the estate tax. But the $2 billion 1099 tax? That's a no go. Gotta be paid for. If I didn't know better, I'd say that Republicans don't really want to repeal the 1099 provision at all. They want to keep it around so they have an issue to hammer Democrats with, even if it means voting not to relieve small businesses of a widely cursed new paperwork burden. 

Even for a confirmed cynic, though, this is cynical beyond measure. Anybody got a more Republican-friendly explanation?

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Science Shots: Snake Oil, Corn Oil, Partying Elk

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:16 PM EST

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers: Oil and corn don't mix (at least for the Gulf of Mexico); How snakes climb ropes (and why they climb ropes); Energy not housing crashed the economy. Plus a bonus video of elk partying in Yellowstone.

  • One hundrd seventy million gallons of oil was bad for the Gulf of Mexico. But so are biofuels. A new study by the USGS finds that converting fields from cotton to corn increased the nitrogen load in parts of the Gulf watershed by 7 percent, adding to the Gulf's seasonal hypoxia woes. The problem stems from the USDA Biofuels Initiative, which promotes corn over cotton and has reduced cotton acreage by 47 percent, while increasing corn acreage by 288 percent, between 2006 to 2007. Furthermore, cultivated corn uses 80 percent more water than cotton and is acclerating the depletion of the Mississippi River Valley aquifer, which is currently being drawn down faster than rain can replenish it.

 

Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Pratheepps, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • A new paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology reveals the secrets of rope climbing by snakes. The researchers enticed the snakes to climb by placing a dark refuge at the top, then filmed the ascents, while measuring the rope tension as the animals coiled and uncoiled their grip on thin (3 millimeter/0.11 inch) and thick (6 millimter/0.23 inch) rope. All ascents were extremely slow, ranging from 0.5 to 1 cm s–1, and the snakes only reached their top speeds on the thickest, tensest ropes. Check out the video:
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  • Declining energy quality could be root cause of the current recession, according to a new paper in Environmental Research Letters. Yes, the real estate bubble burst, but that's because everyone paid more for electricity, gasoline, and heating oil, leaving less  for mortgages. The paper outlines a new way to measure energy quality—the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR), which calculates how much profit is obtained by energy consumers relative to energy producers. The higher the EIR, the more economic value consumers get from their energy. Analysis of past recessions showed the longest and deepest downturns since World War II were preceded by sustained declines in EIR for all fossil fuels. The author suggests that to grow the economy again, Americans need to produce and use energy more efficiently—as happened after the last energy crisis, when fuel efficiency standards were raised, more natural gas was used for electricity, and new technologies coaxed more oil from the ground.

 

The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.The worst recessions of the last 65 years were preceded by declines in energy quality for oil, natural gas and coal. Energy quality is plotted using the Energy Intensity Ratio (EIR) for each fuel. Recessions are indicated by gray bars.

 

 

 

WikiLeaks and the Rest of the World

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 7:01 PM EST

The reliably bellicose Victor Davis Hanson has a bone to pick with the founder of WikiLeaks:

Julian Assange prides himself on being a bomb-thrower, eager to take down Western governments and banks, the U.S. military, etc. Yet, in cowardly fashion, he stays clear of getting involved with dissident leakers from those governments and groups — e.g., China, Iran, North Korea, Hezbollah, Russia, Syria — that (1) do far more damage to the global body politic than the United States, and (2) might well do bodily harm to Mr. Assange should he do to them what he does to Western interests.

I have no doubt that Assange is eager to cause the United States grief, but is there any actual evidence that he's avoided getting involved with China, Russia, Syria, etc.? After all, WikiLeaks has in the past posted leaked documents related to Somalia, Kenya, Scientology, the UN, and Iran. WikiLeaks also hosted some of the Climategate emails, and Assange has warned of coming disclosures about Russia. If WikiLeaks has never posted anything from Hezbollah or North Korea, my guess is that it's because they haven't received any leaks from disaffected North Koreans or Hezbollah militants.

Anyway, this is rapidly becoming a common talking point. Does anyone know if there's any actual truth to it?

Where to Start on Climate? How About Subsidies for Dirty Energy

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 6:08 PM EST

The agreement reached in Copenhagen last December left much unsettled. It established a target of keeping global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), but it left the specific goals and actions they would take to meet those goals up to individual countries.

Arguably, one of the most specific points of agreement among nations last year was that they would phase out fossil fuel subsidies, a deal reached by G20 nations ahead of last year's UN climate summit. Countries agreed to "rationalize and phase out over the medium term inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption." But now, more than a year later, countries have done very little to make good on that promise.

Oil Change International, a group that encourages policies to cut reliance on oil and other fossil fuels, and Earth Track, a group that focuses on environmentally harmful subsides, recently took stock of the efforts taken so far to meet that commitment. Their conclusion: "No country has initiated a subsidy reform specifically in response to the G20." Half of the G20 countries have reported efforts to cut some subsidies, but everything they've put forward was already in the works before last year's G20 agreement.

There hasn't even been very much progress on identifying and disclosing those subsidies. Most members of the G20 have been reluctant to offer up subsidies they are willing to cut. The report states:

G20 reporting of fossil fuel subsidies remains spotty. Of the 20 member countries, eight stated that they have no fossil-fuel subsidies at all subject to phase out, of which two (United Kingdom and Japan) provided no information at all. Only one of the twelve countries (the United States) reported more than ten subsidies subject to reform. Three countries discussed energy subsidies in a general sense without listing any specific subsidy policies (Indonesia, Russia, and Mexico).

The report notes that countries have been reticent to list subsidies that could be eliminated, as leaders believe the subsidies support job creation or rural development, or don't artificially deflate the prices enough so as to matter. The report also points out that there are a number of problems with the fossil fuel agreement that G20 leaders outlined. For one, there's been no agreement on what they mean by phasing them out in the "medium term." Nor do they define the terms "subsidy," "inefficient subsidy," or "wasteful consumption"–each country has basically been allowed to make its own definition so far.

The subsidies are pertinent to the climate negotiations underway in Cancun right now. If the Copenhagen Accord pledges were fully implemented, the world would be 70 percent of the way to its goal of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees by 2020, according to a report from the International Energy Association released earlier this year. Phasing out those subsides alone could account for almost a 7 percent reduction in emissions by 2020, however.

The IEA report found that 37 countries are responsible for the bulk of these subsides—representing more than 95 percent of subsidized fossil-fuel consumption in the world. In 2008, nations provided $557 billion in subsidies for fossil fuel consumption—up fro $342 billion in 2007. (Iran, which is not one of the G20, leads the world in subsides, at $101 billion.)

Another way to think about it: Phasing out those subsides, the IEA found, could cut global demand for energy by 5.8 percent—equal to the energy used by Japan, Korea, Australia and New Zealand combined. It would also cut demand for oil by 6.5 million barrels per day by 2020. "Phasing out such subsidies would send a price signal to create incentive for more efficient use," the report concludes.

Army Kicks Out More Gays Than Fat Soldiers

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 5:26 PM EST

As Congress prepares—again—to debate Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Mother Jones has unearthed data showing the Army in recent years has been tougher on purging gays from the ranks than soldiers who are physically unfit for duty.

Earlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates released a military study showing that repeal of the services' ban on gays wouldn't adversely affect force readiness. But the Army's recent discharge statistics (.xls), given to MoJo by a government source, suggest that the service has been far more concerned about its soldiers' sexual orientation than their waistlines, muscular endurance, or cardiovascular ability. In fiscal 2007 and 2008, the Army brass threw out 592 enlisted members for violating DADT—more soldiers than it ejected for excessive body fat or fitness-test failures combined. (See info box below.)

The Pentagon's Don't Ask, Don't Tell Report

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 4:35 PM EST

The Pentagon has finally released its long-awaited report [PDF] on the potential effects of repealing the military's Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy, which bans gay men and women from serving openly. The New York Times sort of buried the most interesting bit of it (almost everyone else did, too). The authors, Jeh C. Johnson, the Pentagon's top lawyer, and Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of the Army in Europe, weren't asked to investigate whether DADT should be repealed, just what the effects of repeal might be. They found those instructions hard to follow:

[O]ur engagement of the force was wide-ranging enough that we did answer the question of whether the U.S. military can implement repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. To be clear, the Service member survey did not ask the broad question whether Don't Ask, Don't Tell should be repealed. This would, in effect, have been a referendum, and it is not the Department of Defense's practice to make military policy decisions by a referendum of Service members. But, among the 103 questions in the Service member survey and the 44 questions in the spouse survey were numerous opportunities to express, in one way or another, support for or opposition to repeal of the current policy....

...We are both convinced that our military can do this, even during this time of war. We do not underestimate the challenges in implementing a change in the law, but neither should we underestimate the ability of our extraordinarily dedicated Service men and women to adapt to such change and continue to provide our Nation with the military capability to accomplish any mission.

In the end, the review of what was could be done ended up being something very close to a referendum on what should be done. And the pro-repeal side won. 

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Pentagon: DADT Repeal Not a Problem

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 3:47 PM EST

The military has finally released its long-awaited study on the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, and the results are unsurprising: most service members don't think repeal would be a problem:

The Pentagon has concluded that allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the United States armed forces presents a low risk to the military’s effectiveness, even at a time of war, and that 70 percent of service members believe that the impact of repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” law would be either positive, mixed or of no consequence at all.

The full report is here, and an interesting table is below. It turns out that although 30% of respondents think that repealing DADT would affect their unit's ability to train well together (a number that shows up pretty consistently on every question about the effect of repeal), only 10% think it would affect their own readiness and only 20% think it would affect their ability to train well. In other words, there's pretty good reason to think that even the 30% number is overstated. It seems to include a fair number of people who are assuming that DADT repeal would have a negative effect on other people even though it wouldn't have a negative effect on them. My guess is that a lot of this is reaction to a small number of vocal traditionalists, which makes opposition to repeal seem like a bigger deal than it is.

Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s chief counsel, agrees, saying that surveys about personnel changes "tend to overestimate negative consequences, and underestimate the U.S. military’s ability to adapt and incorporate within its ranks the diversity that is reflective of American society at large." I suspect he's right. In the end, real opposition is probably more in the range of 10-20% than 30%, and even that will probably produce nothing more serious than occasional grumbling and discomfort for a year or two at most. There's really no further excuse for inaction. It's time for Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership to figure out a way to cut a deal and get repeal passed before Congress recesses.

Defining the Al-Awlaki Case Down

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 3:00 PM EST

There still seems to be some confusion over the issues at stake in the federal court battle over the fate of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born radical Muslim cleric and Al Qaeda booster who is reportedly hiding out in Yemen. The Obama administration has reportedly targeted al-Awlaki for killing. Two civil liberties groups, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, are suing the government on Al-Awlaki's behalf. They're not saying that the government cannot kill al-Awlaki under any circumstances. They're just saying that the circumstances under which the US government can assassinate a US citizen should be limited and clearly defined. Adam Serwer explained this well earlier this month:

This point is key, and I think it's been lost in the noise—the ACLU/CCR lawsuit doesn't seek to prevent al-Awlaki's killing as a last resort in the event that he poses an imminent danger to Americans, merely ensure that he only be killed under those circumstances. It is also trying to force the government to disclose the criteria under which American citizens are added to its reported "kill list." The government, responding to this claim, argues that the ACLU/CCR lawsuit relies on speculation that those criteria aren't actually being followed.

The idea of an "imminent threat" is the key issue here. Imminency was once the generally accepted legal standard that made it okay for the government to kill a citizen without due process. It's based on the idea that no one is going to fault a cop for shooting a suicide carbomber who is barrelling towards a building. And no one—not even the ACLU and CCR—is going to fault the US government for killing al-Awlaki if his death would prevent immanent death and destruction, rather than simply punish him for alleged past crimes. The civil liberties groups have explicitly acknowledged that they believe the government can kill al-Awlaki as "a last resort to protect against concrete, specific and imminent threats of death or serious physical injury." 

Terrifying Widget of the Day

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 2:56 PM EST

I just spent a few minutes on the website of the Population Institute, and according to the fast-moving, somewhat panic-inducing ticker in the upper right corner of the home page, the world population grew by some 6,000 people in that time.

What's the problem? These stats from Julia Whitty's recent Mother Jones cover story:

As recently as 1965, when the world population stood at 3.3 billion, we collectively taxed only 70 percent of the Earth's biocapacity each year. That is, we used only 7/10 of the land, water, and air the planet could regenerate or repair yearly to produce what we consumed and to absorb our greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Global Footprint Network, a California think tank, we first overdrew our accounts in 1983, when our population of nearly 4.7 billion began to consume natural resources faster than they could be replenished—a phenomenon called "ecological overshoot." Last year, 6.8 billion of us consumed the renewable resources of 1.4 Earths.

[...]

The only known solution to ecological overshoot is to decelerate our population growth faster than it's decelerating now and eventually reverse it—at the same time we slow and eventually reverse the rate at which we consume the planet's resources. Success in these twin endeavors will crack our most pressing global issues: climate change, food scarcity, water supplies, immigration, health care, biodiversity loss, even war. On one front, we've already made unprecedented strides, reducing global fertility from an average 4.92 children per woman in 1950 to 2.56 today—an accomplishment of trial and sometimes brutally coercive error, but also a result of one woman at a time making her individual choices. The speed of this childbearing revolution, swimming hard against biological programming, rates as perhaps our greatest collective feat to date.

Check out what all we're up against here. And this excellent companion piece about how it's kind of the Vatican's fault here.

Does PPACA Contain a Surprise?

| Tue Nov. 30, 2010 2:13 PM EST

One of the reasons that employer-based healthcare is so prevalent in the United States is that it's a good deal: unlike the normal income they recieve, employees don't have to pay taxes on their healthcare benefits. A $5,000 policy costs $5,000. Conversely, if your employer simply paid you a cash wage in lieu of healthcare benefits, you'd have to receive, say, $6,000 in order to buy the same policy. Why? Because you have to pay taxes on the $6,000 and still have $5,000 left over to pay the premium.

This difference in tax treatment is something that wonks on both left and right generally oppose, though in somewhat different ways and as part of somewhat different overall structures. Still, pretty much everyone opposes it. And guess what? Thanks to the healthcare reform bill, it might be going away. The details are complex, but Austin Frakt provides the gist:

PPACA may make it possible for workers to get the same tax break for purchasing health insurance on the individual market (via an exchange or otherwise) as they would if they bought their employer-sponsored plan (if they’re offered one). If this is the case, it removes one huge incentive for maintaining employer-sponsored coverage. With respect to taxation, it levels the playing field between the group and non-group (individual) markets.

There’s still the issue that until 2017 only employees of firms with fewer than 100 workers are eligible for exchange coverage. Beginning in 2017, states can open exchanges to employees of larger firms. Workers of firms of any size could buy coverage on the individual market that is outside the exchange, they just can’t obtain federal subsidies for them. Still, it’s the tax subsidy that makes employer-based coverage so valuable to workers. If it can be applied in the non-group market it would hasten the erosion of employer-based coverage (which is not a bad thing, necessarily).

This all depends on a particular interpretation of provisions in PPACA, but if regulators write the enabling rules properly it might well allow individuals to buy insurance on the exchanges with pretax dollars. This would reduce the cost of insurance substantially for anyone using the exchange. It's worth keeping an eye on.