2010 - %3, November

August Oil Report Was Right, Says NOAA

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 3:17 PM EST

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday released new documentation that largely affirmed the much-criticized oil budget report the agency released in August. The oil spill budget from August 4, which offered estimates on where the 4.9 million barrels of oil spilled from BP's Gulf well had gone, was largely accurate in its assessment, NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco told reporters.

The final figures are "quite close to those created in the heat of the response," said Lubchenco, which is "a compliment to those who worked under an immense amount of pressure." She said that the original report was intended to guide responders in clean-up efforts. The "sole purpose was to inform the responders," she said. "It does not tell us where the oil is today, or its final fate, or what the impact of the oil was."

The latest figures—which she said have been peer reviewed—updated some numbers from their August tally. The new report says that 16 percent of the oil had been chemically dispersed as of August. Another 13 percent had been dispersed naturally, 23 percent of it had evaporated or dissolved, and another 23 percent was unaccounted for—meaning it was at or near the surface of the water, washed up on beaches, or otherwise still somewhere out in the Gulf. Lubchenco noted that there is still a good deal of uncertainty with some of those figures. The report was compiled by scientists from NOAA, the US Geological Survey, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The update comes several months after the August report was strongly criticized for several reasons. One, senior White House officials erroneously touted it as evidence that the oil was "gone" when in fact it showed that nearly three-quarters of it was still in the environment. A draft report from the Oil Spill Commission also criticized the Obama administration for misrepresenting the oil spill budget in the press. NOAA was also criticized for releasing the August report without any of the documentation or mathematical calculations that went into creating it.

Lubchenco was criticized for wrongly claiming that the original document had undergone "peer-review" in a press conference. Lubchenco took the blame for that in the call Tuesday. "That report was not peer-reviewed, and I was in error," said Lubchenco.

But she said the latest report largely validates what the first budget found. It "pretty much says that the initial calculations were by and large correct," she said, which is "primarily a reflection of the quality of work that went into the original report."

It's important to note that today's updated figures are a more refined and peer-reviewed version of the report issued in August, not a statement on how much oil is left today and where it is currently. Lubchenco said additional studies on the fate of the oil and its impacts are forthcoming.

She said that "comprehensive and extensive monitoring" is underway to assess how much oil remains and where it is now, and 125 expeditions have taken samples to assess the state of the Gulf. Some independent studies have found oil in undersea plumes or on the floor of the Gulf.

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The Obama Business Environment

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 2:47 PM EST

Speaking of American businesses, both big and small, and whether a slightly higher personal tax rate will ruin them:

American businesses earned profits at an annual rate of $1.66 trillion in the third quarter, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. That is the highest figure recorded since the government began keeping track over 60 years ago, at least in nominal or non-inflation-adjusted terms.

Corporate profits have been going gangbusters for a while. Since their cyclical low in the fourth quarter of 2008, profits have grown for seven consecutive quarters, at some of the fastest rates in history.

In fairness, I couldn't care less whether this is a record in nominal terms. But if it's a record in nominal terms, it's gotta be at least close to a record in real terms too, what with inflation being so subdued in recent years. That Obama character sure has been bad for business, hasn't he?

Understanding the Smart Meter Backlash

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 2:44 PM EST

David's been writing lately about the intersection of technology and human habits and culture, arguing that energy is a behavioral challenge as much as a technological one. There's a prime of example of how these things collide—and why climate hawks should pay attention—in the backlash against smart meters in California.

The New York Times is the latest to cover the trend of residents responding in outrage when utilities install smart meters—home-energy computers that provide detailed information on what appliances you're using, and when. They're a necessary element in building a clean-energy grid that relies on wind and solar power, feeds electric cars, and supports greener dishwashers and other appliances (here's a good backgrounder).

California utility PG&E has been a national leader in rolling out the devices. It's also faced the strongest revolt.

Complaints about the meters have led to class-action lawsuits, calls to suspend the rollouts, and protests at farmer's markets. Some opponents even tried to link the meters to the San Bruno natural gas explosion that killed eight people and destroyed 35 houses, according to a utility executive's complaint. The protests tend to come in with jumble of reasons, but there are three kinds of objections: price, health, and privacy.

Round 2 on the TSA Backlash

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 2:26 PM EST

Because I'm basically a coward, I'm reluctant to keep wading into the TSA screening debate. But that's not the only reason. It's also because this is not a subject where I have a lot of confidence that I'm right. Maybe it is all just useless security theater! All I can say is that when something like this turns into a feeding frenzy of almost universal scorn and mockery, largely driven by the Drudge/Fox noise machine, my BS radar starts clanging.

But various people brought up some good questions via blog, email and Twitter, and I thought it might be a good idea to respond. Obvously I'm not trying to defend everything TSA does (the "enhanced" patdowns strike me as fairly ridiculous, for example), and equally obviously, plenty of people outside the Drudge/Fox axis have been complaining about TSA protocols for a long time. So with that said, here we go:

Matt Yglesias: If you assume the existence of a person willing to die for Osama bin Laden’s war on America, located within the United States of America, and in possession of a working explosive or firearm, there’s basically nothing stopping him from blowing up the 4/5/6 platform at Union Square or the 54 bus in DC....[So] don’t ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to prevent terrorist attacks,” ask yourself “what amount of hassle and expenditure is worth paying to shift terrorist attacks off airplanes and onto buses”?

Me: This is extremely logical. But it also seems to be wrong. For whatever reason, Islamic terrorists have a long and tenacious obsession with air travel. For the past decade it's been way harder to blow up an airplane than the 54 bus, but they keep trying to blow up airplanes anyway. That's just the reality we have to deal with.

Will Wilkinson: So do you think all this jazz actually has/does keep people from dying in/from planes?

Me: Well, yeah. Obviously this isn't something that I can prove geometrically, but that's baked into the cake of security issues like this where your goal is to prevent people from even trying to blow things up in the first place. Still, we've made it very, very hard to bring explosives onto airplanes, and I think it makes sense to believe that if we hadn't made it so hard more people would have tried it. For example, my guess is that the reason no one has tried a shoe bomb since Richard Reid's failed attempt is that everyone knows it won't work. Shoes are now x-rayed, so there's no point in trying.

randomsubu: OK *IF* backscatter images reliably destroyed/not photographs. Otherwise....

Me: I agree completely. Here's Peter Kant of Rapiscan on that subject:

The systems are designed without any capability of storing, saving or otherwise archiving any images or data that are taken from the checkpoint. Finally, we are releasing in the next few months ... a threat-recognition upgrade where the system never even uses an image. It just automatically detects any anomaly on the body and directs the [Transportation Security Administration] officer where on the body to ask the passenger, "What's in your back pocket?" or whatever. No image is ever created or used of the passenger — and that is only a couple of months away from being available.

The scans that were famously saved and distributed in Florida were not done by Rapiscan devices and have nothing to do with airport security.

Reader PJC via email: This also raises another potent issue -- TSA actions creating, rather than obviating, terrorist options. The more we have to strip down, pat down, stand in multiple lines for multiple machines, the longer and slower the lines get. Right now, the best option for a terrorist attack (and I'm surprised it hasn't happened already) is actually the security line into the terminal. You could easily enter a terminal with an automatic weapon or a bomb without anyone knowing since you will not have hit the security scanners yet. Then you blow up or shoot everyone waiting in line, hemmed in by the rope barriers so they can't easily escape. One backpack filled with C4 and nails. That's all it takes. What do we do then? Hide under the blankets? Will we randomly scan anyone within a mile of the airport?

Me: Again, this is perfectly logical, and a lot of people have made exactly this point before. But in real life this hasn't turned out to be a big target for terrorists. Not dramatic enough, I suppose. In any case, I've flown regularly since 9/11, and except for the first year, before airports had adjusted to the new protocols, lines don't seem to have gotten much longer. What's more, a bomb in a security line can only kill just so many people. Once you have 20 or 30 people lined up, you've pretty much exhausted the killing power of your basic backpack explosive device.

Melissa McEwan: Leaving aside my lack of enthusiasm for the calculation that we should give an inch's worth of encroachment into our civil liberties in order to stop the government taking a mile [...] there are practical and valid objections being made by people with disabilities, parents of children with disabilities, and survivors of sexual violence....Those millions of people are not just potentially "inconvenienced." Being triggered does not mean feeling hassled or being annoyed or having your feelings hurt or getting upset. It means experiencing a physical and/or emotional response to a survived trauma, having a significantly mood-altering bout of anxiety. Someone who is triggered may experience anything from a brief moment of dizziness, to a shortness of breath and a racing pulse, to a full-blown panic attack.

Me: I don't honestly have a good answer to this. I can't pretend that I understand what this is like for everyone. However, if anything, the backscatter machines ought to eventually reduce the number of patdowns. What's more, patdowns have been part of TSA security ever since 9/11, and as I said above, I very much doubt that the "enhanced" versions are justifiable. So unless I hear a pretty good argument from TSA about this, I'd be in favor of returning to the old patdown standards and trying to eliminate some of the pain Melissa is talking about.

Stephen Bainbridge: Everybody knows El Al security includes racial and ethnic profiling. So we can't use it in the USA because profiling would violate the civil liberties of those who get profiled. And that's how it should be, for both prudential and moral reasons. But instead we have a system that violates everybody's civil liberties. Excuse me for preferring a system in which nobody's civil liberties get violated.

Me: Part of me agrees with this. But look: there's a difference between something being annoying and something being a violation of civil liberties. At TSA checkpoints you are now required to take off your shoes. That's not a violation of civil liberties. You are required to take your laptop out of your bag. Ditto. You are limited to 3-ounce bottles of liquid. Ditto. Your carry-on luggage has to get x-rayed. Ditto. You are required to go through a scanner. Ditto. If you can't or won't go through the scanner, you have to, um.....OK, like I said, the super duper patdowns really do seem hard to justify, and if they aren't technically a violation of civil liberties they're pretty damn close. But with that exception, I have to say that I don't really see this stuff as a violation of civil liberties. I don't like it much, but that doesn't make it illegal or unconstitutional.

I guess that's enough. I'd add to this list that there are concerns about the radiation exposure from backscatter machines, and I think that deserves to be taken seriously. I can only give my sense from reading what various experts say, but it sounds to me like these concerns are overblown and mostly just tossed out to add another log to the anti-scanner bonfire. But I might be wrong about that. I'm completely in favor of making sure that these machines are thoroughly and independently tested.

I'm not really comfortable taking the side of this argument that I've ended up taking, and I'm wide open to changing my mind. But the plain fact is that Islamic terrorists really do have a long history of trying to blow up American airplanes, and all the evidence suggests that they're going to keep trying. Reacting to that makes sense. And for those who suggest a sort of cost-benefit analysis — if we reduce the security and simply accept a few dozen additional deaths each year we'll come out ahead — I think this is just wildly divorced from the way actual normal human beings react to attacks from other human beings. Maybe us hyperlogical types think that way (I certainly do), but most people just don't.

One final note: I was pretty surprised by the number of tweets and emails I got agreeing with my take on this. It wasn't a monstrous number, but frankly, I was expecting zero. It wasn't just mindless save me from the terrorists! stuff either. I suspect there might be more people out there who are OK with stiff airline security protocols than the talking heads are admitting right now.

Invasion of the Body Scanners: Airport Security May Not Work, But It Does Cause Cancer

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 1:00 PM EST

On the eve of some of the busiest travel days of the year, airport scanners are causing hysteria–and with good reason. Never mind the puerile TSA screeners giggling at your naked body. It turns out that the things may pose serious health concerns. In a letter to John Pistole, administrator of TSA, New Jersey Congressman Rush Holt, a scientist and the Chairman of the House Select Intelligence Oversight Panel, raised the possibility that the machines might be carcinogenic.

In March, the Congressional Biomedical Caucus (of which I am a co-chair) hosted a presentation on this technology by TSA, as well as a briefing by Dr. David Brenner of Columbia University on the potential health effects of “back scatter” x-ray devices. As Dr. Brenner noted in his presentation and in subsequent media interviews, the devices currently in use and proposed for wider deployment this year currently deliver to the scalp “20 times the average dose that is typically quoted by TSA and throughout the industry.”

Dr. Brenner has pointed out that the majority of the radiation from X-ray backscatter machines strikes the top of the head, which is where 85 percent of the 800,000 cases of basal cell carcinoma diagnosed in the United States each year develop. According to Dr. Brenner, excessive x-ray exposure can act as a cancer rate multiplier, which is why our government should investigate thoroughly the potential health risks associated with this technology.V

Various experts have questioned whether older people and children ought to be subjected to scanners, and whether people susceptible to or having melanoma and cataracts should undergo the scan. 

Holt also questioned the efficacy of the body scanners, which would come as no surprise to critics who’ve been lambasting them for years. Last January, when the government’s appetite for body scanners got a big boost from the underwear bomber, there was skepticism about their ability to detect the types of explosives favored by would-be airline bombers. As I wrote at the time:

Paying an Arm and a Leg

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:59 PM EST

So many charts, so little blog. Which chart should I show you from yesterday's release of the latest global comparison of healthcare prices? How about the cost of hip replacements? Here it is:

The "average" number is a little hard to see, so here it is: $34,454. That's 2x what it costs in Germany, 3x what it costs in France, and 6x what it costs in Switzerland. WTF?

This goes a long way toward explaining why hip replacements are so popular in the United States: they're a huge profit center for doctors and hospitals. Keep this in mind the next time someone starts going on about how you never have to wait in line for a hip replacement in America. It's not because our healthcare system is super efficient, it's because doctors are super eager to perform them.

The full set of cost charts is here, and they're pretty instructive. You can, if you want, try to make the case that we perform better hip replacements or do better angioplasties than other countries. But appendectomies? CT scans? Normal deliveries? As Aaron Carroll says about the astonishing numbers for routine CT scans and MRIs:

Why does it cost so much more in the US? Does the radiation work better here? Are the scanners different? If you’re wondering, the CT scanner was invented in the UK, so it’s not like there’s some reason to believe our machines are better....Let’s be clear. I have no problem with things costing more when they are demonstrably better. Or, if you’re getting more of them for your money. But a scan is a scan is a scan. There had better be a good reason for it costing more here, and I can’t think of a good one.

This is one of the reasons healthcare costs so much in America. We aren't getting more for our money, we're just paying a lot more for the same stuff as everyone else.

POSTSCRIPT: One caveat: the report doesn't mention how they convert foreign prices into dollars, and it probably makes a difference whether they apply purchasing power parity adjustments. Not a huge difference, but it's possible that different methodologies would produce modestly different results.

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Will Legislative Gridlock Really Help the GOP?

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:22 PM EST

Do the results of the midterms even matter? Most Americans don't think so, according to a new ABC News/Yahoo! Poll, 40 percent don't think the election results will affect the direction of the country, while 34 percent think the outcome will help the country and 21 percent think the outcome will negatively impact the nation. What's more, 56 percent of those surveyed think that "government gridlock" is a bad thing.

It's tempting to interpret the survey as a sign that the Republican Party should take heed and not overreach with its newly empowered House majority. "The survey reinforces the notion that Republicans, who rode a wave of public support into the House majority, still have much to prove after being voted out of power in Congress in 2006 and out of the White House in 2008," The Hill concludes.

But it's important to remember there has effectively been "government gridlock" ever since the passage of health care  and Wall Street reform. Exceedingly little has happened since then: there's been an extension of unemployment benefits and a ramped up border enforcement bill that didn't draw much attention. The Republicans didn't need to take the House back to jam up the works: they had already pushed the Dems to the brink in the 111th Congress, and skittish Democrats up for re-election refused to take any more heat after the big votes on financial reform and health care.

While Americans may not like the sound of "government gridlock," it's already begun. The GOP-driven obstructionism in the next Congress will just be a continuation of the status quo, and if Americans don't expect much to change in Washington, they're right. After all, it's already becoming clear that the GOP's most radical reforms—like repealing the federal health care law—don't have a real chance of happening. The GOP-controlled House does promise for more dramatic political showdowns but doesn't meant they'll be able to push significant legislation past the Democratic Senate, not to mention the president's desk.

Activists on both ends of the political spectrum may disappointed that their respective parties won't have accomplished more by 2012. But if little but the bare-minimum gets done, it's unclear exactly who middle-of-the-road voters will take to task for federal inaction.

Obama in 2012, Revisited

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 12:15 PM EST

On Sunday I noted that Ray Fair had released a projection of Obama's odds of winning reelection in 2012. His conclusion: Obama should win in a landslide. However, this depends not just on Fair's model being accurate, but on his rosy forecast of economic recovery being accurate too. Brendan Nyhan isn't quite so optimistic:

The Philadelphia Fed survey of professional forecasters revised its forecast of 2012 growth downward last week from 3.6% to 2.9% (somewhat lower than the Blue Chip 3.2% figure or CBO's 3.4%). If we plug that value into Alan Abramowitz's simple linear fit of second-quarter GDP in election years and presidential election performance, we find Obama right around where President Bush was in 2004.

The regression on the right is not the entire Abramowitz model and doesn't take into account the advantage of being an incumbent running for reelection. That's dealt with in his full model and adds a couple of points to the forecast for a four-year incumbent. For that reason, this chart almost certainly underestimates Obama's odds of winning in 2012. However, as Brendan points out, there's also a lot of uncertainty around that growth forecast of 2.9%. If the economy ends up at the low end of projections in early 2012, Obama will be in a precarious position. Still likely to win, I think, unless we slip back into a full-blown recession, but it might be a close run thing.

Taxing the Rich

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 11:39 AM EST

Jim Puzzanghera of the LA Times writes today about whether small businesses are likely to reduce hiring if tax rates are raised on people making more than $250,000 a year. As he points out, big companies normally pay taxes at the corporate level:

But companies can also file as S corporations or partnerships. The business income flows to the owners or partners and is reported on their individual returns, so profits are taxed only once.

....[Rick] Poore, whose DesignWear Inc. takes in about $2.25 million a year [...] supports the expiration of the top-level tax cuts, pointing out that the costs of employees and equipment, such as a new automatic garment press he is purchasing, reduce his taxable income...."That's how small business works. We reinvest in our businesses. We try to minimize the amount of taxable income we have," he said.

Some small-business groups, such as the Main Street Alliance, a national network of state-based small-business coalitions, also support letting the top-level tax cuts expire. "Its disingenuous for people to say this is going to have such a horrible affect on small business if they let these expire," Poore said. "Either they're honestly ignorant of how this really works or they're being intellectually dishonest."

There are unquestionably small businesses who would be affected by the tax increase. But aside from the fact that only a tiny number of small businesses would have to pay the higher rates — perhaps 1-2% — it's important to understand how this works. As Poore says, in an S corporation, business income is passed through to the owner. So a tax increase doesn't affect the revenue of the business at all, and doesn't affect its incentives to invest in equipment or additional workers. What it does affect is the amount of income passed through. In other words, it modestly affects personal income, just as you'd expect.

If you think that would be a disastrous thing, fine. I disagree. But it has a very limited impact on the incentive of the business qua business to expand its operations. Those incentives are driven almost entirely by whether there's likely to be higher demand for their products in the future. Right now, financial uncertainty is high, and that's why business expansion is low. It has very little to do with new healthcare regulations or higher personal tax rates.

BP's Atlantis Still Operating, Despite Warnings

| Tue Nov. 23, 2010 11:06 AM EST

Nine months after members of Congress requested a thorough investigation of BP's other major Gulf project, the Atlantis, lawmakers are still waiting for that report. The results of the investiation are now six months late, and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement says they'll have to wait a little while longer. 

We've been covring the Atlantis for several months now. A whistle-blowing former contractor on the Atlantis first raised concerns that the platform is missing documents crucial to safe operation in 2009, and members of Congress asked the Department of Interior to investigate back in February, several months before the Gulf spill. But the Interior Department division charged with overseeing offshore drilling, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, has now pushed back the release of their report several times. It is now six months overdue. In the meantime, documents released in the recent months have provided still more evidence that the platform was not in compliance with federal laws. Today, The Hill reports that the investigation is still underway.

In a Nov. 3 letter to Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who has been dogging this issue, BOEMRE head Michael Bromwich said that while the agency has made "significant progress," the report has been delayed indefinitely as "new information came to light" while they were finalizing it. "It is critical that this investigation be thorough and comprehensive," Bromwich continued, without giving any specifics about what BOEMRE uncovered.

Despite the now multiple complaints an ongoing investigation, the platform continues to operate—and is doing so in deeper waters and producing more than triple the amount of oil that spilled from the Horizon site each day.