2011 - %3, March

Quote of the Day: Balancing the Budget

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 7:05 PM EDT

From Bruce Bartlett, on the latest product of the GOP hive mind:

In short, this is quite possibly the stupidest constitutional amendment I think I have ever seen. It looks like it was drafted by a couple of interns on the back of a napkin.

Come on, Bruce. Don't hold back. Tell us what you really think. 

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The Abortion Taxman Cometh

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 6:15 PM EDT

The House Ways and Means Committee approved a bill on Thursday that uses the tax code to limit access to abortions in the US. As we've reported, the language in the bill extends the ban on federal funding for abortion to the tax code, blocking tax credits from being used for insurance plans that cover abortion services and forbidding tax deductions for the costs of an abortion.

The proposed law would not apply to abortions in cases of rape, incest, or if the life of the mother is at risk. It passed on a straight party line vote on Thursday afternoon.

Republicans say they're just bringing consistency to federal policies. The bill will "make sure that the destruction of an innocent human life is not subsidized by this government," says Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas). But Democrats and abortion rights advocates argue that the bill would significantly limit the availability of abortions in this country.

The measure, HR 1232, is similar to the language on the tax code included in HR 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act," and would likely be incorporated into that bill should it go to the House floor. HR 1232 does clean up some of HR 3's notoriously vague legislative language, but the bills are similar in many respects.

Like HR 3, HR 1232 blocks small businesses that provide health care to their employees or the self-employed from getting tax credits for their health insurance if they choose a plan that covers abortion. The small business tax credits, worth about $40 billion over ten years, were passed as part of the Democrats' health care reform law and took effect during the 2010 tax year.

The bill also bars the use of flexible spending arrangements (FSAs) or health savings accounts (HSAs)—which allow employees to set aside pre-tax earnings for medical uses—to pay for abortions. And if a woman does obtain an abortion using FSA or HSA money, she would have the cost of that abortion added to her taxable income.

HR 1232 would also have the impact of reducing the number of health plans that cover abortions, says Donna Crane, policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America. While 87 percent of plans currently offer abortion coverage, many would likely drop it in order stay cost-competitive with other plans. "That will mean that Americans in this country will have diminished access to abortions," said Crane. It also means that women who seek an abortion would be forced to pay out of pocket—which can be a sizable cost.

The provisions could also lead to abortion audits—where the IRS is forced to evaluate whether or not an abortion was in fact permissible for tax coverage because it was the result of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother. "Not only is that insensitive, to put burden on woman going through an absolute terrible time in her life, but I don't think it's workable," said Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) in Thursday's mark-up. "A criminal case wouldn't fit conveniently within the tax season."

In explaining the bill in the hearing, Thomas Barthold, the chief of staff for the Joint Committee on Taxation, acknowledged that there is a "gray area" in terms of what is considered to endanger the life of a woman. Similarly, how the IRS would handle evaluating the reason a woman obtained an abortion is also unknown. "If this were to come up in an audit, I'm not exactly sure how it would be resolved," Barthold said.

Republicans argue that HR 1232 would have "negligible revenue effect," overall. But Democrats note that the bill would increase the tax burden for individuals and small businesses that want to purchase insurance that covers abortions. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-NY) introduced an amendment, which was voted down on a party-line vote, that would have nullified the bill should it increase the tax liability for anyone.

That it was voted down, Crowley said afterward, is evidence that Republicans in the committee are "willing to use the tax code for movement on their social agenda," even if it raises costs for some.

A Few Nuclear Nuts and Bolts

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:23 PM EDT
Rusted bolt.

I wrote last week about the issue of saltwater corrosion, referring to the less-than-stainless nature of stainless steel. I heard back from a knowledgeable reader who reminded me:

Stainless steel has two nominal positions on the electrochemical series. In the absence of [oxygen] the alloy becomes highly active and thus subject to very high rates of corrosion, including fatigue corrosion. Heated water, particularly boiling water, [off]gasses latent [oxygen] almost immediately, thus stainless steels in such an environment rapidly corrode due to both becoming active and being at an elevated temperature.

Sounds like a nasty brew in a boiling-water reactor. More alarmingly, this reader told me that a hot reactor doused with seawater would likely drive flanged bolts—particularly stainless-steel bolts—to failure in as little as months, and that steam plants are pegged together with thousands of flanged volts.

Meanwhile, authorities in Japan are finally voicing the reality that the situation at Fukushima is going to need babysitting for years.

 

Example of a spent fuel pool. Credit: DOE via Wikimedia Commons.Example of a spent fuel pool. Credit: DOE via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In this week's issue of Science, Eli Kintisch takes a chilling look at the realities of reactor #4 at the Fukushima plant—especially in light of the fact that the reactor was offline at the time of the quake. Its spent fuel rods were still cooking though in their spent-fuel pool.

Concerns among scientists amp up because there are more than 350 reactors worldwide with spent-fuel pools too, and no one knows why #4 has behaved as badly as it has:

The pool held the entire complement of fuel rods from the reactor's core, which had been emptied 3 months before the 11 March earthquake and tsunami struck. And yet on 15 March the building exploded, apparently fueled by hydrogen, leaving nuclear engineers to speculate about the source. Adding to the confusion are reports of fires in the pool, a worst-case scenario that had never before occurred in a working nuclear plant.

The problem at #4 might be related to the zirconium alloy tubes holding the spent fuel rods.

Lab experiments have shown that zirconium can burn either with steam or with oxygen. Both reactions progress rapidly at roughly 800°C [1,472°F]; the former, crucially, releases hydrogen. The hydrogen explosion at reactor #4 points to the steam reaction, which releases less energy and therefore melts the fuel more slowly. But knowing which reaction dominated could help scientists quantify how much radioactivity was released from pool #4. A 2006 study by the U.S. National Research Council said that a heat up after a loss-of-water event could melt the spent fuel, allowing the escape of volatile radionuclides, including "a substantial fraction of the cesium," into the air.

 An alga from the genus Closterium. Credit: 	  ja:User:NEON / User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.An alga from the genus Closterium. Credit: ja:User:NEON / User:NEON_ja, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Richard A. Lovett at Nature reports on a presentation yesterday at a meeting of the American Chemical Society on the power of a humble alga, Closterium moniliferum, to remove the element strontium from water and then deposit it in crystals inside its own cells.

Minna Krejci, a materials scientist at Northwestern University, believes Closterium might have a talent for cleaning up the radioactive isotope strontium-90—a dangerously carcinogenic isotope that infiltrates milk, bones, bone marrow, blood, and other tissues.

The algae don't actually target strontium. Instead, they incidentally collect strontium as they go about the business of gathering barium. But that could work in our favor cleaning up radioactive water.

Krejci's research has found that it is possible to enhance the uptake of strontium by tailoring the amount of barium in the algae's environment. This, she says, means that it might prove possible to seed nuclear waste, or a spill of radioactive material, with barium to encourage the algae to grab the strontium—easy to do, she says, because "it would only be a small amount" of barium. It might also be possible to improve the process by tinkering with sulphate levels in the environment, thereby changing the amount of sulphate in the vacuoles. "Once we learn about how the cells respond to conditions, we can think of more elegant ways to manipulate them," says Krejci. Once isolated by the bacteria, the strontium could be sequestered in high-level nuclear waste repositories, while the rest of the waste could go to a less expensive lower-level repository, saving space and money. Currently, Krejci says, there are hundreds of millions of litres of stored nuclear waste in the United States alone, much of which contains strontium. "So we know it's a big problem," she says.


Tea Party Rally Washout

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:04 PM EDT

Previewing a protest on the Hill targeting the GOP leadership's failure to sufficiently cut the federal budget, the Washington Times ran a front-page, above the fold story headlined "Tea party to storm capital for 'gut check.'" The storm never came—unless you are referring solely to the weather.

Given the weak turnout for the "continuing revolution" event, as the Tea Party Patriots dubbed it, it would be hard to say that any storming occurred at the rally—unless you are solely referring to the weather. Maybe 40 or 50 tea partiers turned out for the "continuing revolution" rally. Granted, it was 40 degrees and raining out, but tea partiers are a hearty bunch who are not usually deterred by bad weather. The problem may lie with the issue at hand: it's awfully hard to mobilize people around yet another "continuing resolution" to keep the government open.

A Tale of Three Charts

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 3:55 PM EDT

Actually, this is a tale of three versions of the same chart. The first one comes from John Taylor and shows fixed investment plotted against unemployment from 1990 to the present:

This is a very striking correlation, and Taylor jumps to an immediate conclusion, namely that "the most effective way to reduce unemployment is to raise investment as a share of GDP." Because of this, he applauds the recent move to "lighten up on the anti-business sentiment coming out of Washington." But Justin Wolfers isn't so sure. Why start at 1990? What happens if you use the full time series all the way back to 1948? You get this:

Wolfers concludes that Taylor's correlation is spurious, "advocacy, dressed up as science." If you look at a longer timeframe, there's virtually no correlation at all.

But Paul Krugman thinks the 1990-2010 data is worth looking at. However, after decomposing it, he concludes that the recent plunge in fixed investment is mostly due to the collapse of the housing bubble. Business investment isn't doing badly at all — and in any case, surely the causation runs in the other direction, with unemployment affecting investment? So he flips the axes, replots the data to look at business investment only, and then Brad DeLong dresses up the chart a bit. Here's what he gets:

Brad's conclusion: not only is business investment a "bit stronger" right now than you'd expect from the data, it's "substantially stronger. 2% of GDP stronger — that's $300 billion a year more in business investment than we would have expected to see with the unemployment rate this high."

Interesting! But I have an entirely different question. First: why did the correlation change so dramatically right around 1990 or so? Second: why did it apparently change again right around 2009? Brad attributes the 2009 break to changes in policy:

Had there been no fiscal and banking rescue policies and if investment had not been boosted by policy, the unemployment rate might as a result be at the 16% of the Blinder-Zandi Republican policy baseline, and only THE ONE WHO IS knows how low business investment spending would be — but it would surely be a lot lower than it is now.

But what about the break around 1990? What accounts for that? Or, perhaps more pertinently, what was it about 1990-2007 that was different from both the period before and after?

UPDATE: Possible answer here!

"Be A Man of Your Word and Dish Out This Money."

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 2:22 PM EDT
Community members wait to speak with Kenneth Feinberg.

"My name is Anna Luke. I don't need to say anything; you know me. I was promised by you not once, not twice, but three times that you will handle this. I'm asking you to stay good to your word."

Luke was one of several dozen Gulf Coast residents who showed up at a town-hall meeting in Mathews, Louisiana, earlier this week to give a piece of their minds to Kenneth Feinberg, the Obama administration's oil-spill-compensation czar. Feinberg, who's previously been the White House's executive-pay czar and overseen the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund, is in charge of a $20 billion fund set aside by BP to help fishermen, oil workers, and others directly affected by last year's disastrous oil spill. Eleven months after the Deepwater Horizon sank, many like Luke say they're still waiting for their checks. 

Scenes from Monday's meeting: 

Kenneth FeinbergKenneth FeinbergThe abandoned Wal-Mart in Mathews has been reincarnated as the Lafourche Parish government building. For the meeting, a corner of it has been set up with a podium facing the table where Feinberg and a panel of officials sit. The rows of chairs for members of the public are full, so lots of people stand around the edges.

Yet for a moment, half the people who have chairs are standing, too, because Feinberg has just stopped a woman named Cathy Blanchard who was speaking. When she said, "We haven't been paid," he cut in, "In your case." And then she turned exasperatedly to the crowd behind her and said, "Stand up if you haven't been paid."

Blanchard's husband was one of the seven cleanup workers who were hospitalized last May. She says that her husband hasn't been reimbursed for his hospital bills and they've since been sent to collections. "I'd like you to be a man of your word and dish out this money," she says.

 


SOME PEOPLE WHO are getting paid don't deserve it, a lot of people at the meeting say. And people who do deserve it are slipping through the cracks. Feinberg doesn't believe that undeserving recipients are getting money. "I don't buy it. If you think this money is going to strippers"—he raises his voice, and keeps it raised—"you are incorrect! If you are hearing that [the Gulf Coast Claims Facility] is not paying fishermen, oystermen, crabbers, or shrimpers, that isn't true. I am telling you it just isn't true! This idea that almost $4 billion is going to waiters, and strippers, and barbers, is ridiculous!" Earlier, he said the GCCF, which he administers, has paid out 200,000 claims ("To who?" the audience yelled) totaling $3.7 billion, and had said then, too, "If you think this $3.7 billion is going to STRIPPERS and waiters..."

 


"I'M A CRABBER. I'm not a fisherman, I'm not an oysterman, I do crabs. I turned in every piece of paperwork I have but my dog license and my marriage certificate [for claims processing]. In 2010 I was half a million off on my business from 2009, and 2009 was even a bad year. I bought 7,000 pounds of crab today, it's the first time since last June we've seen any crab. The guys in Baltimore tell me they don't want it. They took Gulf seafood off their menu in Baltimore, in Chicago. They're live. They got about 24 to 30 hours they're good. After that they're junk. You wanna buy 'em from me? I'm half a million off, and I got a claim check for $100,000."

 


Dean BlanchardDean BlanchardDEAN BLANCHARD IS locally famous for being charming. Also for owning the largest shrimp business around. Shrimping king. LSU fan, chain-smoker. "Welcome to Wal-Mart!" he says to Feinberg, and everyone starts laughing, and laughs harder when he adds, "I'm practicing for my new job." This past weekend, Blanchard was at the International Boston Seafood Show. He went to dinner with the buyers from Winn Dixie, and unfortunately they showed up with a USA Today showing oil on Grand Isle again. That's oil from a new spill, but BP's oil is still washing up there, too.

"BP chose to sink the oil and spray dispersants all over and kill the marine life and the marine life is our life," Blanchard says. "Every day someone comes to me and says they see oil: sport fishers, shrimp fishers. My office is on the water and every day I see it." Several times he acknowledges that Feinberg has a hard job. "I wouldn't want your job," he says. Yet: "You got a raise. BP must be happy with you. You must be happy with them. Make us happy now."

 


FEINBERG: I DO not represent BP."

Crowd: "Boooo!" "Yeah right!"

 

 

FEINBERG, INTERRUPTING A person complaining about not being compensated for paralyzing headaches: "You gotta demonstrate that the physical injury is due to the spill. We are paying physical injury claims."

Crowd: "LIE! LIE!" "You are such a lying piece of shit!"

 

 

captionYET ANOTHER MAN says he has incapacitating headaches, though he explains (as do the other men) that he is not the type of man who just gets headaches. But these headaches, you can't even understand how painful they are. "I'm not trying to get rich," he says. "I'm just trying to come out where I was before. I've received seven percent what I'm owed. I have all my documentation, and I put it together in this packet for you. This is the fourth time I'm giving these documents to you. Tony Hayward said he wanted his life back? Everybody in this building wants his life back."

 

 

ONLY ONE OF the community members who stands in line to speak says he does not have a claim to settle with BP. But his son, who has a speech impediment, does. So the father waits to ask why his son, a fisherman who makes $17,000 to $18,000 a year, got denied when he only asked for $8,000 in compensation. His claim had all the right records, a letter from a politician...

Feinberg, who's been reclining in his chair, leans toward the microphone. "If he's been denied, there's a reason. You need to have shrimp tickets—"

"I have shrimp tickets!" the man yells, his voice wavering. "I drove to Baton Rouge to get it!"

Feinberg says, "I'll take a look."

 


THERE ARE A couple forms of encouragement that Feinberg offers to those who come before him. Like: "I will do my best." Or: "We'll take a second look."

The woman whose husband was furloughed by the oil company he works for because of the spill—"Not because of the moratorium?" Feinberg asks; no, she says, because of the spill, dammit, because he worked on a rig that was right by the exploding Deepwater Horizon and had to be shut down regardless of the ensuing deepwater drilling ban—she will have her claim looked at again.

We'll take a look at your claim. Judging by the applause she receives from the audience, one woman's response to this line seems to speak for many in attendance. She says her husband's diagnosis says clearly that he's sick "due to chemical exposure." But there's been no compensation; she had no choice but to finally pay his ambulance bill, putting it on her credit card just today. When Feinberg responds that he'll look at her claim, her shoulders sink. "I work in the claims business," she says. "If I 'look' at a claim all…day…long, it won't get paid."

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Florida GOP: No Talk of Wombs on Statehouse Floor

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 2:12 PM EDT

Clearly having seen my roundup yesterday, and hoping to outdo it, the Florida GOP offered us another precious moment today. From the St. Petersburg Times:

At one point [Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando] suggested that his wife "incorporate her uterus" to stop Republicans from pushing measures that would restrict abortions. Republicans, after all, wouldn't want to further regulate a Florida business.

Apparently the GOP leadership of the House didn't like the one-liner.

They told Democrats that Randolph is not to discuss body parts on the House floor.

"The point was that Republicans are always talking about deregulation and big government," Randolph said Thursday. "And I always say their philosophy is small government for the big guy and big government for the little guy. And so, if my wife's uterus was incorporated or my friend's bedroom was incorporated, maybe they (Republicans) would be talking about deregulating.

"It's not like I used slang," said Randolph, who actually got the line from his wife.

Wait. Uterus? What's wrong with uterus? It's a pretty common medical/anatomical term, right? A House GOP spokeswoman explained that Randolph's comment lacked "decorum" and could pervert the kiddies:

...the Speaker believes it is important for all Members to be mindful of and respectful to visitors and guests, particularly the young pages and messengers who are seated in the chamber during debates. In the past, if the debate is going to contain language that would be considered inappropriate for children and other guests, the Speaker will make an announcement in advance, asking children and others who may be uncomfortable with the subject matter to leave the floor and gallery.

You know what I say to that? Take a long fallopian walk off a short doggoned uterus, you sigmoid colonoscopes!

Sorry, that was a little over the top...Oh dear, hope I don't get fired.

Obama and Global Warming, Part 2

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 1:30 PM EDT

Is the Obama administration willing to sell out the EPA in order to get a budget deal, as the AP reported yesterday? Greg Sargent gets a statement from the White House that says it's not:

As the administration has made clear, the funding bill should not be used to further unrelated policy agendas, and we remain opposed to riders that do that, including as it relates to the environment.

That's not exactly the most Shermanesque kind of denial I've ever seen, but still good to hear. Plus, as Greg says:

As a side note, even Republicans I’ve spoken with privately concede that they’re well aware that it’s unlikely that the latter is a concession they could win, since it would be very hard for many Congressional Dems to support any budget deal containing it.

More later as this develops.

House Panel Marks up Tax Portion of GOP's Abortion Bill

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 1:23 PM EDT

The House Ways and Means Committee is marking up language dealing with the tax code provisions of the GOP bill that would drastically alter the shape of US abortion law. As we've reported here, the language in the bill would extend the ban on federal funding for abortion to the tax code.

I'll be live-tweeting the markup below:

Scott Walker Agrees to Halt Controversial "Repair" Bill

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 11:48 AM EDT

After a county judge ruled for the second time that Wisconsin's controversial anti-union bill was not in fact law, Republican Governor Scott Walker and his administration agreed to suspend its implementation.

On March 18, Judge Maryann Sumi issued a temporary restraining order blocking the bill until a court decided if Republican legislators had violated a state open meetings law when they originally passed the measure. But the Walker administration went ahead with plans to enforce the law anyway, gearing up to start deducting more money from the paychecks of state workers mandated by the bill. The bill's most controversial provisions, of course, ban collective bargaining rights on health care and pension benefits for most public-sector unions—provisions that have sparked nearly two months of protest in Madison, the state capital.

Early this morning, Judge Sumi clarified that the bill was not law and threatened to sanction on anyone who tried to enforce it. An official with the Walker administration announced soon after that "given the most recent court action we will suspend the implementation of [WI Act 10] at this time."

Here's more from the Associated Press:

Early Thursday morning Sumi added the non-effect declaration to her restraining order clarifying that the law has not been published and is therefore not in effect. She is expected to take more testimony at a hearing on Friday.

Ozanne said Thursday that Sumi's ruling speaks for itself. Justice Department spokesman Bill Cosh had no immediate comment.

A spokesman for Republican Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald said he had nothing new to say beyond his previous statement that he didn't believe the judge had the authority to interject herself into the affairs of the Legislature given the separation of powers.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald had no immediate comment.

The Legislature was scheduled to be in session Tuesday to pass other parts of Walker's plan to balance the current year's budget that faces a $137 million shortfall. There were no immediate plans to take up the collective bargaining piece again. The judge has said lawmakers could avoid the legal fight by passing it a second time, but legislative leaders have said they are confident it was done correctly the first time and it will prevail in court.