2011 - %3, February

Chevron Accuses Amazon Plaintiffs of Extortion

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 9:32 AM EST

I reported recently that Chevron has been trying some interesting tactics in what appear to be the final weeks of the court case over contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon. The company has alleged that the signatures of some of the plaintiffs in the case were forged, thereby making the case illegitimate. Last week the company filed a suit against the plaintiffs in New York accusing them of racketeering—and in it named the very individual Ecuadorian plaintiffs that they previously claimed weren't legit.

Here's a copy of the complaint that Chevron filed in the Southern District of New York on Feb. 1, which names the lawyers as well as 47 plaintiffs in the case as defendants in the counter suit. The plaintiffs have accused the company of failing to address the toxic pollution left behind in the Amazon after decades of oil drilling there by Texaco, a company that Chevron later acquired. The court case is drawing to a close in Ecuador, and Chevron could be on the hook for billions in damages if the judge rules in against the company.

Chevron's new suit seeks to prosecute the plaintiffs under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which is  intended to deal with organized crime—you know, like the Mafia. It accuses the plaintiffs (who are mostly indigenous Ecuadorians living in the Amazon) their lawyers, environmental consultants involved in the case, and environmental groups that have advocated for the plaintiffs of trying to "extort, defraud, and otherwise tortiously injure" Chevron.

The legal dispute over the Amazon case has dragged on for almost two decades now. It began in US courts but was moved to Ecuador at the behest of Chevron. But since then, the company has sought to have it dismissed there as well. In addition to this latest suit, Chevron has also sought the raw footage of a documentary filmmaker that the argue will prove malfeasance on the plaintiffs' part.

The plaintiffs are seeking $113 billion in compensation in the case. In response to the RICO suit, they have accused Chevron of trying to both intimidate the plaintiffs and avoid the question at hand in the case, which is whether the company is responsible for the contamination in the Amazon. "Irrefutable scientific truth will triumph over Chevron's intimidation tactics and desperation," said Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney in Ecuador handling the case for the plaintiffs, in a statement this week. "We will not be frightened by corporate bullying … Chevron is trying to turn the victims of its own unlawful misconduct into criminals."

It appears Chevron may be gearing up for a loss in Ecuadoran courts in this case. Because the company does not have assets in Ecuador at this point, any judgment against them would have to be enforced in a country where the company does have assets, like the US. They appear to be building a legal case here to prevent that from happening should the judge in Ecuador rule against them.

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Street Talk With Grammy Hopeful Ana Tijoux

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 6:00 AM EST

According to French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux, Chileans really know how to butcher Spanish. "Every culture has their own slang, but I think in Chile specifically we speak very bad," she says over the phone. "So we have a lot, a lot of slang."

Despite this, or maybe because of it, Tijoux has an incredible way with words. Even if listeners don't understand her Spanish, they will sense the graceful fluidity of her style, which often relies on unusual syncopations and internal rhymes. Tijoux, who spent a childhood in France after dictator Augusto Pinochet forced her parents into exile, says she's "always been fascinated by the aesthetic of words." As down-to-earth as they come, she manages to make use of quotidian conversations, minor details, and yes, plenty of "slahng" (as she pronounces it), to render the world in poetry.

More Smart Meter Questions Answered

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 5:30 AM EST

When I posted on smart meters a few weeks back I expected some amount of hoopla in the comments section, and gosh was I right! The triple whammy of radiation, privacy, and utility shenanigans really got everyone going. While some extra eager folks chose to address me in all caps on my personal email and Facebook accounts, most readers kept the comments civil and raised some interesting questions, a few of which I'll attempt to answer (or at least shed some light on) here. 

1. Will smart meters result in the laying off of meter readers?

Possibly, though the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) says that California's utilities have largely been able to avoid layoffs. About 80 percent of PG&E's former meter readers are now working in other positions at the utility, and most of the remaining 20 percent either chose to retire or took the buyouts that the company offered, says PG&E spokesman Paul Moreno.

2. Won't smart meters make it easier for utilities to turn off poor people's electricity? And without a meter reader, how will the utilities know about extenuating circumstances, such as an elderly person on oxygen?

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for February 7, 2011

Mon Feb. 7, 2011 5:30 AM EST

U.S. Army soldiers in four-wheel vehicles wait as bundles of fuel are air delivered by a C-17 Globemaster III to Forward Operating Base Waza K'wah in Paktika province, Afghanistan, Jan. 30, 2011. The soldiers are assigned to the 101st Airborne Division's 4th Brigade Combat Team. Courtesy photo

Is 2011 Really Better Than 1973?

| Mon Feb. 7, 2011 12:47 AM EST

Here's the thought experiment of the day: If you could be transported back to 1900 with your current income, would you take the deal? The answer is almost certainly no. Sure, your current income would go a hell of a long way in 1900, but you'd still swelter in the summer because all the money in the world couldn't buy you an air conditioner. Ditto for plane travel, penicillin, automobiles, etc. etc. Even with a lot of money, 1900 looks pretty crappy.

But change it up: would you take the same deal if you could be transported back to 1973? Again, your income would go a lot further (about 5x further, in fact), which means you'd be pretty well off, but you'd....

Well, you'd what? Obviously you'd miss your cell phone and the internet and your HD television with 300 channels. But a car would still basically be a car, and interstate highways are about the same as now. Ditto for plane travel, antibiotics, air conditioners, etc. etc. So what do you say? Would you take the 1973 version of this deal? Scott Sumner says he would. Bryan Caplan, and Arnold Kling say they wouldn't.

In my case, I almost certainly wouldn't take the deal. Partly that's because I've never been much of a money hound and I already lead an upper middle class life, so having 5x my current income just doesn't appeal to me all that much. Also, the biggest difference between 1973 and 2011 — personal computers and the internet — are really, really important to me. It would take a lot of other stuff to make me give that up.

Still, unlike the 1900 deal, it's not a slam dunk. If a big house in a nice location means a lot to you, and traditional entertainment (film, books, theater, etc.) could easily take the place of the internet in your life, then maybe 1973 on a big income starts to look pretty good.

But it depends a lot on circumstances, doesn't it? If you suffer from chronic depression and Prozac has turned your life around, then 1973 doesn't look very appealing. If you like dining out on good ethnic food, 1973 would be something of a wasteland in most parts of the country. If you're a woman who wants a career as a corporate lawyer or a business executive, 1973 probably looks a little grim. If you're gay, you'd be insane for wanting to go back no matter how much they paid you.

(This conversation was originally kicked off by a discussion of how impressive productivity gains have been since 1973, something that this thought experiment is meant to help us get a handle on. So you might object that social inequities really shouldn't count. But I say they should. Progress is progress, and the utility of a person's life depends on a lot of things, not just material wealth. So this stuff counts for everyone who's not a straight, white, WASPy male.)

Of course, we're all so used to our current goodies that it's hard to imagine that we'd be happy without them. That's loss aversion for you. But what if you'd never experienced them before? Would they sound all that great? Or would you be happy with your current stuff? Things probably look a little different from 1973 looking forward than from 2011 looking back.

And income level matters too. If you choose a middle-class 2011 income level, then 1973 gets you an upper class lifestyle. But the difference between middle class and upper class isn't all that big, so you'd take 2011 because of all the goodies we have. But if you choose a poverty-level 2011 income, then 1973 would turn that into an upper middle class income — and that makes things look a lot different because the difference between middle class and abject poverty is huge. All the goodies in the world probably don't make up for it.

POSTSCRIPT: Alternatively, this just means that nominal dollars are a lousy way of comparing eras. It would be pretty easy to convince me of that, in fact.

UPDATE: Edited considerably a few minutes after posting to remove some fairly dumb stuff.

Why Investors Want Higher Inflation

| Sat Feb. 5, 2011 5:25 PM EST

I'm back. But I've been busy catching up on crossword puzzles this morning, and either this week's puzzles were harder than usual or else my brain is slowly decaying, because they took me a while to finish. Probably the latter.

And speaking of brain decay, before I left I posted a chart showing that, starting in 2008, inflation expectations suddenly started to correlate really well with stock market prices. Scott Sumner and Paul Krugman say this demonstrates that our sluggish economy is due to a slowdown in aggregate demand, and although I'm happy to believe this, it wasn't clear to me why this correlation had anything to do with aggregate demand. So I asked for help.

Unfortunately, two posts were waiting for me when I got home, each disagreeing with the other. Here's a nickel summary:

Kash: Normally, high inflation leads to high corporate profits, which makes investors happy. But they also realize that high inflation will cause the Fed to raise interest rates and this will slow growth. So they're also unhappy, and these two reactions cancel out. However, when interest rates are at zero and the Fed has made it clear they aren't going to raise them, there's nothing to be afraid of. So higher inflation is a purely good thing, and therefore high inflation expectations lead to high stock market growth.

In other words, this doesn't have anything to do with aggregate demand. It's merely a reaction to the fact that interest rates are at zero and everyone knows they aren't going up anytime soon.

Karl Smith: Normally, inflation expectations are just inflation expectations. They don't really affect the underlying productive capacity of the economy, so investors react neutrally. However, in 2008 the stock market suddenly started reacting positively to inflation expectations. Why? If it wasn't because anyone thought it would affect the underlying capacity of the economy, it must have been a reaction to the Fed's announcement that it planned to print more money — and the only effect of printing more money is to induce people to buy more stuff.

In other words, investors were convinced that the economy's problem was a lack of demand, and printing more money (and therefore causing more inflation) would increase demand and fix things up. So whenever inflation went up, the stock market went up.

I score this one for Karl. Kash's explanation seems incomplete: After all, if investors think high inflation will genuinely lead to high corporate profits, not just a rise in the overall price level, they must think those profits are going to come from increased consumer demand for the stuff corporations are making. So they must be associating inflation with increased demand.

Plus Karl frames his answer in the form of an amusing Socratic dialog, so he gets points for that too. In any case, I've linked to both arguments, so you can read them for yourself. Like Glenn Beck, I insist that you do your own homework and not take my word for anything.

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The Iowa Gay Marriage Video: What the Blogs Missed

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 10:09 PM EST

Gay marriage in Iowa made national headlines again this week, after the state's House of Representatives voted 62-37 in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban it. The vote angered the marriage equality movement, but from it a star was born: Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old University of Iowa student and son of a lesbian couple, spoke at the capitol building the day before and his speech has since gone viral.

But many of the blogs that reposted the video of Wahls have neglected the broader context of his speech. Here's a look at what the house's vote means for Iowa and the rest of the nation.

Corn on "Hardball": How Important Are Jobs For Obama's Reelection

Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:29 PM EST

David Corn and Todd Harris joined Chris Matthews on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss the recent drop in the unemployment rate and how it plays for Obama's reelection chances.

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He's also on Twitter.

The Week in Sharia: How the West Was Lost

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:00 PM EST

Image: Wikimedia CommonsImage: Wikimedia CommonsAnd what a week it was:

  • Arkansas has fallen. A bill introduced late last month by state senator Cecile Bledsoe to ban the use of foreign or religious law has apparently stalled in the legislature. Bledsoe told Arkansas News that her bill isn't meant to target Islamic law, but rather all foreign law. This is a pretty standard defense and sounds very innocuous, so it's worth explaining why it's false: Bledsoe didn't write the bill from scratch; as Little Rock's KUAR reported, she had help from a group called the American Public Policy Alliance, an organization with a stated mission to "protect American citizens' constitutional rights against the infiltration and incursion of foreign laws and foreign legal doctrines, especially Islamic Shariah Law." (Here's Bledsoe's bill, and for comparison, here's the APPA's sample legislation).

    As Oklahoma's famous case demonstrates, you can't just explicitly single out a particular kind of religious law, and so the Public Policy Alliance doesn't. But the only threat they talk about on their website is Islamic law. Meanwhile, David Yerushalmi, the New York City attorney who APPA hired to draft the sample language, is the head of an organization that proposes to ban Muslims from entering the United States, deport all Muslim non-citizens, and make it a felony to promote Islam. In other words, this is absolutely about Sharia. Just so we're clear. (Neither Bledsoe nor the APPA has responded to multiple requests for comment).

  • On that note, South Dakota legislators are weighing their own similarly vague constitutional amendment to ban judges from considering "the law of any foreign nation, or any foreign religious or moral code." Because this is South Dakota, two of the bill's five sponsors also co-sponsored legislation this week to make gun ownership mandatory for every adult.
  • A 63-year-old Vietnam vet was arrested last weekend after threatening to blow up a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. Roger Stockham, 63, has been charged with threatening to commit an act of terrorism, and possessing contraband fireworks. That's where they get you.
  • The Onion reports that terrorists are now deploying "patriotic, peaceful, decoy Muslims" to throw us off their scent—which, come to think of it, is pretty what Washington Times columnist Frank Gaffney has been saying all along.
  • And finally, Glenn Beck examined the evidence and reported what the media simply refuses to acknowledge: Bill Ayers and the Muslim Brotherhood are in league. Not to nitpick, but how can the Mediterranean simultaneously be "on fire" and in the middle of a "snowball." Shouldn't the latter metaphor extinguish the former? Or has the Muslim Brotherhood rediscovered the lost secret formula for Greek fire?

 

Black Children Are Not Hawaiian Monk Seals!

| Fri Feb. 4, 2011 7:00 PM EST

Oh, when will the race-baiting end? Back in October, I wrote about conspiracy theorists who believe that legalized abortion is a genocidal scheme to wipe out black people. "Black Children Are An Endangered Species," proclaimed billboards in Georgia (and now Los Angeles!). Even Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum recently joined the chorus by saying Obama should oppose abortion because he’s black.

On Wednesday, Arizona state representative Steve Montenegro took the theory further. Right Wing Watch reports that the GOP congressman, who supported Arizona's ban on ethnic (read: Mexican American) studies, is now sponsoring two bills that would make it a felony for a doctor to perform an abortion based on the race or gender of the fetus. The bills would require women to sign documents saying they’re not terminating due to race or gender, and would allow a prospective father, if married to the woman who gets an abortion, to sue the doctor on behalf of the fetus. If the mother isn’t 18 yet, the maternal grandparents could sue. (Similar bills have been attempted in Georgia, Mississippi, Idaho, and Oklahoma.)

Preventing race- and gender-based abortion seems like a no-brainer, right? But how real a problem is it?

There hasn't been much research on this. In one 2008 study, researchers at Columbia University using 2000 US Census data found that second and third births in Chinese, Korean and Indian families living in the US were skewed toward boys. If the first child was a girl, the researchers reported, the second child was more likely to be a boy. If the couple had two girls, the third child was even more likely to be a boy. In white families, the researchers found only a small variance from the expected gender ratios.

The Columbia study stops short of attributing these variations to abortion. Couples doing IVF, for instance, can select the sex of an embryo prior to implanting it. In any case, the number of Asian girls born in the US is on the rise, and Asian American women make up a relatively small proportion (less than 9 percent) of women having abortions in the US. What's more, the Arizona Capitol Times points out that 92 percent of abortions in Arizona occurred before 13 weeks of pregnancy, whereas women can't generally learn the gender of a fetus until week 17.

Not that Montenegro would care. His agenda seems to be more in line with anti-choice rhetoric than any real concern about Asian fetuses. He told Capitol Media Services, for instance, that he had information "that there are targeted communities that the abortion industry targets," and that more females are aborted than males.