2011 - %3, April

The Deepwater Horizon Disaster in Book Form

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 9:11 AM EDT

There is certainly no shortage of books about the Deepwater Horizon disaster: at least eight by my count, and nine if you include the 300-page package of recommendations that the National Oil Spill Commission put out earlier this year (which you can buy on Amazon for about $40). Many of these books were published just in time for this week's first anniversary of the spill, and several of them managed to make it to my desk.

I'd like to say I read every last work of every one of them, but, well, they're all pretty long and I've both read and written quite a bit about the disaster. I wish I could say, "If you were going to read just one book on the oil spill, it should be X," but frankly each of these books offers pretty different takes on the same explosion and ensuing nightmare.

Antonia Juhasz's Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill surveys the overconfidence in safety and technology that led to the situation on the Deepwater Horizon and the scale of the disaster it unleashed. Juhasz, who directs the energy program at the environment and human rights group Global Exchange, talks to the families of the victims of the explosion, combs through accounts of the survivors, and pulls together many of the strings of the story of what really happened on April 20 in a way that's both engaging and informative.

As her 2008 book The Tyranny of Oil would suggest, Juhasz is certainly no big fan of the oil industry. And her criticism is pretty scathing, if not undue. While it has a lot of important information, hers is not the most compelling narrative; it could benefit from some more literary flow and story-telling. Some of her descriptions of people and places a bit clunky and strained. It's an engaging read overall though.

Noted conservationist and writer Carl Safina's offering on the Gulf disaster, A Sea in Flames, is a passionate and detailed account of both the explosion and the giant mess that unfolded over the ensuing months. He expends a good deal of effort explaining things like exactly how drilling works in vivid detail. Having spent a lot of time trying to understand this kind of thing myself, I can only imagine that for him, writing the book was also an exercise in trying to better understand what exactly happened.

Safina's book is best at the points where he does not remove himself from the story. It's most telling moments are when he expresses the frustration and sadness that many who lived through the spill must have been feeling. And one point he recalls trekking across beaches on June 8, which is World Ocean Day. "I'm having a bit of a hard time, emotionally speaking, with that," he writes. No kidding.

Also telling is Safina's exploration of what exactly went wrong in the administration's handling of the spill. It's a question that has bothered me greatly; the Obama administration has pledged to uphold science and has appointed a number of truly great scientists, yet some of the things that happened in the months following the spill were truly horrifying. Safina pays particular attention to Jane Lubchenco, the noted marine ecologist and current head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, whose handling of both the undersea plumes of oil and the report on where the oil went drew fair criticism. Safina has worked with Lubchenco closely in the past, so his take on the of the pressures the administration faced in dealing with the politics of the spill—the fact that they did not do a particularly good job of it in many regards—is quite interesting.

Safina's writing has many elements that seem more like something jotted in a notebook than thoughts fleshed out for a narrative. At times it's useful, but more often it gets a little grating. Also tiresome is his use of the initials "BP" to make points throughout the book, which gets stretched at times—Big Paycheck, Beyond Payable, Big Pressure, Breaking Point … you get the idea.

For more of an industry insider's take on what went wrong, I recommend Bob Cavnar's Disaster on the Horizon: High Stakes, High Risks, and the Story Behind the Deepwater Well Blowout. Cavnar, who blogs at the Daily Hurricane, spent more than 30 years in the oil and gas industry. His is the perspective of someone who understands the cultural and political elements of offshore drilling, but he also delivers the criticism it deserves. He is also able to maintain realism about both the problems of oil dependence and the logistical challenge of getting off petroleum any time soon.

Cavnar offers a thorough examination on the regulatory system that allowed this disaster to take place, and of the revolving door and close relationship between industry and the government that developed over the years. The portion of the book devoted to where we should go from here left me wanting a bit. Given that nothing has really changed in terms of policy and politics on the issue in the past year, A more detailed look at what should and can be changed would have added to the conversation.

A few other books out there on the topic that I haven't yet been able to check out: Fire on the Horizon: The Untold Story of the Gulf Oil Disaster, by Tom Shroder and John Konrad; In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took it Down, by Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald; In Deep Water: The Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf, and Ending Our Oil Addiction, by Peter Lehner and Bob Deans; Blowout in the Gulf: The BP Oil Spill Disaster and the Future of Energy in America, by William Freudenburg and Robert Gramling; and Drowning in Oil: BP & the Reckless Pursuit of Profit, by Loren C. Steffy.

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All the President's Taxes

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 7:30 AM EDT

Presidents pay taxes, too. They're not obligated to reveal what they owe, but ever since Richard Nixon was caught stiffing the IRS, every resident of the Oval Office has released his tax returns (sometimes starting on the campaign trail). For the curious and/or wonky, Tax History Project has collected the returns of eight presidents, including FDR. Examining a sample of these filings, from Roosevelt's 1929 paperwork to Obama's latest 1040, provides a unique glimpse into presidents' financial affairs.

A few highlights: 

Franklin D. Roosevelt's returns harken back to an era when federal tax rates where considerably lower. In 1929, FDR paid about 11% in taxes and gave away 12.5% of his income. Interestingly, following a rate hike in 1932, his charitable giving dropped to about 3%. (A couple of the recipients of his largesse: the Will Rogers Memorial Fund, $100; the American Ornithological Union, $3.) As Reason notes, FDR wasn't above trying to avoid paying his fair share of taxes, either: In 1937 he tried to talk the IRS into taxing him at 1933 rates.

In the 13 returns sampled here, Ronald Reagan paid the highest effective tax rate, 40% in 1981. Yet by 1987, his signature tax cuts had gone into effect and he forked over 25% of his income, which had included $1,312 in residuals from his movie career and $281 in royalties from his autobiography, Where's the Rest of Me?

George Bush the elder wins the prize for charitable giving—he gave away nearly 62% of his $1.3 million income in 1991. Some of his donations: $40 to the Yale Class of 1948 fund, $1,000 to the Desert Storm Foundation, and $789,176 to a lucky organization called the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

Buried in Bill Clinton's 1992 return are hints of the incoming president's dietary habits and forthcoming legal hassles: A $60 dividend from TCBY and a $1,000 gain from the Whitewater Development Corporation.

In 2007, then-Senator Barack Obama paid a 33.7% tax rate on more than $4 million in income. His 2010 return (made public last week), shows that the president's post-election income has dropped while his charitable giving has increased. An addendum (PDF) discloses that he donated $100,000 of his Nobel Prize winnings to the charity run by recently discredited Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson. However, he did not claim his Nobel money on his tax forms since he gave it all away. Generous, but also a savvy tax-reduction move. 

More details from the eight presidents' tax returns:

presidential tax chart


Eco-News Roundup: Friday April 22

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 6:45 AM EDT

Health and environmental stories from our other blogs this week.

Company Men: Dems opposing Medicare panel have industry ties.

Old Hat: BP is back in the politics game, greasing palms in DC.

Anti-Anal: Map of states that still have legal bans on anal sex.

Old Guy, New Ad: Ad suggests if GOP reforms Medicare, gramps will have to become a stripper.

Teen Spirit: Study says living in a Democratic area reduces suicide by gay teens.

Cutting Candidates: Bill requires long-form birth certificate or circumcision record to run for office.

Cost of Business: There's a key flaw in the notion that health care is a consumer good.

High Costs: Americans pay a lot for health care, but they don't get much covered.

Mr. Robato: Tech multitasking may be eating your brain.

 

 

Dems Warn Constituents About the Evils of RyanCare

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 5:01 AM EDT

Back in their home districts for the Easter recess, some House Democrats have put the GOP overhaul of Medicare front and center with their constituents. On Wednesday night, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) asked all the callers participating in a telephone town hall to vote on whether they supported the GOP Rep. Paul Ryan's plan to replace Medicare "with a voucher system to help seniors defray the cost of health insurance." Of some 1,300 callers who responded, the choice seemed overwhelming: 73 percent wanted to keep Medicare as is, while only 27 supported the GOP overhaul. 

The informal telephone poll falls in line with a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that found that 65 percent of Americans oppose the Ryan plan for Medicare. That number that jumped to 84 percent when respondents were told that the cost of private insurance is supposed to outpace the cost of Medicare insurance, weakening the value of the "premium support" that recipients would receive under Ryan’s plan. 

Throughout the call, Connolly hit upon the main talking points that Democrats have been using to assault RyanCare, calling the plan a "radical proposal" that would force seniors out of Medicare and into the private market. "I’m going to fight tooth and nail...to make sure we preserve Medicare, and we don't adopt the Ryan proposal which would dismantle it as we know it." To be sure, Connolly's district is also one that’s more likely to be sympathetic to such arguments: the 11th district is just north of Washington, DC, heavily populated by federal employees and contractors, and swung for Connolly by more than over 10 points in 2010. But it's a message that's beginning to hit the airwaves in Democratic attack ads—and that other Democratic members, like Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), are pushing in their home districts this week.

Connolly also swatted down an emerging counterargument to the Democratic attack on the Ryan plan. During the town hall, one participant a year away from retirement criticized the Connolly for misrepresenting the Republican plan. The public might get "the impression that you’re talking about me losing my Medicare coverage this year," the caller said. "The proposal doesn’t kick in for that sort of thing for 10 years." It's the same reason that PolitiFact attempted to discredit a new Democratic attack ad that portrays seniors being forced to work (and, in some cases, work it) to pay for Medicare. "Ryan’s plan leaves Medicare as is for people 55 and older…all seniors would continue to be offered coverage under the proposal," Politifact writes.

Republicans are hoping that their graduated timeframe will help build political support for the Ryan plan: most older Baby Boomers and all current Medicare beneficiaries won't be affected by their plan. It's a demographic that’s more likely to vote for Republicans in the first place. But Democrats are hoping it won’t be enough to convince voters that RyanCare will ultimately benefit the public good. "You and I would be grandfathered in. What about the next generation? I don’t think that’s right," Connolly concluded.

The Great Collapse and You

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 5:00 AM EDT

Earlier this week, David Frum wrote that although he's been a Reaganite free market true believer for nearly 30 years, he recently realized that the bargain he thought he had made simply hasn't been kept:

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and — maybe above all — Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

....Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans — and not only Americans — were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Obviously Frum is still considerably to my right. There are just a lot of things we're never going to agree on. But it's nice to read this, and not because it moves Frum modestly in the direction of my own worldview. It's nice to read it because it's such an unusual concession to reality. The financial crisis of 2008 was a stupendous event, and it's frankly stunning to me how few people seem to have responded to it in any substantive way. Occasional throat clearing aside, it's been business as usual for a huge chunk of the political, business, and pundit class, especially on the right.

I just don't get that. The Great Collapse was a big enough, and unexpected enough, event that it should have changed your mind at least a little bit about something. If it didn't, you either have godlike powers of prognostication or else you've simply decided not to let real world events ever affect your worldview. I'm willing to put money on the latter.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for April 22, 2011

Fri Apr. 22, 2011 3:00 AM EDT

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Hector Hoyas (right), an aerial delivery field service department instructor, and Air Force Senior Airman Matthew Phillips, turn away from the rotor wash as a Nevada National Guard CH-47 Chinook helicopter takes off with a Humvee at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., during sling-load training on April 15, 2011. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Michael R. Holzworth, US Air Force.

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Multitasking vs. Task Switching

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 1:01 AM EDT

Isn't multitasking a great subject? It must be since I keep coming back to it. Today, Matt Yglesias, who is still (barely) a twenty-something, says that he's long since figured out that true multitasking is impossible (i.e., literally paying attention to multiple things at once), but:

I’m never totally sure what it is that people mean by “multitasking.” Does switching between tasks rapidly count? I do that all the time. A little reading, write a post, respond to some emails, send some tweets, then do it all over again. That seems inherent to the life of the professional blogger. And I do think it’s scrambled my brain a bit, insofar as I find it much harder now to read long books than it was when I was in high school....I think people ought to try to distinguish between switching between tasks (useful as more kinds of tasks are invented) and actually trying to do multiple things simultaneously, which seems to me to be a fool’s errand.

Task switching is obviously a different thing than multitasking, and humans have been doing it for a long time. Anytime you get interrupted, either electronically or in person, you have to switch tasks at least briefly. And the cost of this is that you lose your train of thought and have to get it back when you return to your original task.

This is harder for some things than others. Blogging is obviously tailor made for task switching. Each blog post is a single short thought that doesn't require a ton of concentration to keep in mind. So if the phone rings or someone IMs you, it's not a big deal. Writing computer code, by contrast, is exactly the opposite: it usually involves keeping a complex problem in working memory for a substantial time as you put together a few dozen or hundred lines of code to address it. When I was in the computer biz, programmers complained bitterly whenever they were deeply into a tricky piece of coding and some yahoo product manager (i.e., me) would wander by their cubicle to ask them why they'd put a button in one place instead of another. Poof! Their concentration was broken and they'd have to spend several minutes regaining it after I left. I've done just enough coding myself to understand this state of mind perfectly, and this is no prima donna excuse making. It's absolutely real.

Still, not everything is like that, and I've always thought that although the media onslaught that bathes kids from earliest childhood had obvious drawbacks (most notably a shortening of attention spans), it probably also had advantages. The main one, it seemed to me, was that kids raised this way could probably task switch faster than older people like me. And who knows? In the world of the future, maybe that will be more important than having a long attention span.

But this is what makes the recent research on multitasking so dismal: it turns out that high multitaskers can't task switch faster than others. In fact, they're worse at it. They're worse at everything.

Now, who knows. Maybe experiments in the lab are incomplete. Maybe things will be different for kids who grow up this way from earliest childhood. Maybe. But I doubt it. More likely, critical brain functions are being lost, and nothing is being gained in return. It's kind of grim.

Yet More Boring Tax Blather

| Fri Apr. 22, 2011 12:25 AM EDT

I'm forced to defend my honor again on taxes. But I want to make this fairly brief. I don't have a staff to run the numbers and I don't have access to the details it would take to do a tax exercise with precision. But that probably doesn't matter too much. Basically, I just want to put together a rough proof of concept showing how the kind of tax increases I have in mind to deal with the long-term deficit would (in my ideal world) hit the average family.

So here's what I did. Basically, I took the deficit reductions in the Rivlin-Domenici plan and converted them into one-third spending cuts and two-thirds tax hikes. Then I figured those tax hikes as a percentage of national income, rather than a percentage of GDP, since we're ultimately interested in how much of their income taxpayers will have to pay under my proposal. All of this jibed pretty well with the latest CBO report on the deficit, so I think the numbers are in the right ballpark. In fact, if anything I'm being more aggressive than I need to be.

So here's the way I figure it. In the medium term, we need to let the Bush tax cuts expire, allow the Medicare cuts in ACA to take effect, and cut perhaps another $50-100 billion per year in spending. This will wipe out the primary deficit and then some.

Then, between 2015 and 2030, we need to phase in tax increases that ultimately amount to about 7% of national income. The CBO has a nice table showing how national income is split up between different household income levels, so my task is to divvy up the tax increases so they add up to a total of 7%. Here's how I did it:

The top row shows the share of national income from each quintile. The second row shows how much additional income they'd pay in taxes by the time my full tax hikes were phased in. The poorest don't get hit at all. The 2nd quintile has to pay an additional 2% of their income in taxes. The middle quintile pays an additional 3% of their income. All the way to the top 1%, who pay an additional 12% of their income. All of this adds up to 7% of total national income.

Remember, this is only the tax half of the deficit plan. To make the numbers come out, you'd also need spending cuts amounting to about half of the tax increases. Beyond that, a couple of comments:

  • Conservatives will be aghast that I'm raising the effective tax rate on the richest 1% by 12 percentage points. But the rich have had a helluva ride over the past 30 years: their incomes have skyrocketed and their tax rates have gone down. Now the holiday from history is over. Sorry guys. And since I don't belong to a religion that pretends that higher tax rates on the rich will inevitably produce economic catastrophe, I'm free to simply allocate taxes in a way that's fair and equitable.
  • I'm making no assumptions about how we change the tax code to accomplish this. It might be a combination of income tax rate hikes, payroll taxes, carbon taxes, estate taxes, reductions in tax expenditures, consumption taxes, or anything else. All I'm saying is that after you figure out the incidence of whatever taxes you raise to get to 7% of national income, this is how I'd like to see it distributed.
  • As I suggested before, half the country would pay no more than an additional 3% of their income in taxes, and 80% of the country would pay no more than an additional 5% of their income. And this would be phased in gradually over the course of fifteen years. It's not pain free by any means, but it's not the end of the world either.

No one should take this too seriously. It's not a real proposal, the numbers are back-of-the-envelope, and trying to make plans on a 20-year horizon is a mug's game anyway. However, it does show that if we rein in the deficit with a 2:1 ratio of tax hikes to spending cuts, the tax increases can still be quite manageable.

The alternative, of course, is some pretty savage cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. If conservatives think they can sell this to the public as an alternative to tax increases like mine, more power to them. But I don't think they can. The public, bless their black little hearts, doesn't want program cuts or tax increases, but when they're finally forced to make a decision, as they will be, I think they're more likely to accept tax increases like mine paired with modest program cuts, rather than small (or no) tax increases paired with big cuts. We'll see eventually, I guess.

What We Didn't Know About Internet Controls

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 4:20 PM EDT

A new Freedom House report has uncovered increased threats to internet freedom worldwide. It's no news that politically restrained countries like China, Iran, and Burma are among the worst offenders, but as the report details, similar practices are fast spreading. Some surprising findings:

  • Even relatively democratic countries—notably Brazil, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey, and the United Kingdom—are seeing increased threats to internet freedom, such as "legal harassment, opaque censorship procedures, or expanding surveillance." In many cases, censors target content related to illegal gambling, child pornography, or inciting violence, but censorship incidents are also politically motivated. South Korea, for example, blocked access to some 65 websites related to North Korea, including the official North Korean Twitter account launched in August 2010.
  • Arrests of online activists are on the rise. In 23 of the 37 countries assessed, a blogger or other internet user was arrested for content posted online. Authorities in Vietnam sentenced four activists to a total of 33 years in prison for posting human rights violations and pro-democracy views on the internet.
  • In all the countries studied, governments made decisions about restricting internet content arbitrarily and without transparency. Even in democratically governed countries, censorship decisions are made without public discussion, and appealing the decisions "may be onerous, little known, or nonexistent."
  • If you thought Egypt's internet shutdown in January was bad...in recent years 12 of the 37 countries were known to exploit their control over telecom infrastructure to restrict access to politically relevant information.
  • More websites, activists, and dissidents are self-censoring. China is known for pressuring websites to censor their own content, an issue that led Google to move its search engine operations off the mainland to Hong Kong in early 2010. Since 2007 Thailand, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, and Venezuela have issued new laws or directives that put the onus of politically unfavorable comments on the media outlet. At least one editor in Thailand, for example, is facing criminal charges over comments that criticized the monarchy.

All in all, what we're seeing is "a very worrisome trend," with the state of internet freedom around the world "on the decline," and cyber attacks "against regime critics intensifying," said the report's co-editor Sanja Kelly on Monday at a panel hosted by the World Affairs Council. Alex Fowler of Mozilla, also on the panel, noted that as we celebrate the advent of Twitter, Facebook, and Google in spurring discussions of protest, "those things are centralizing information about individuals" that create "a lot of new risks."

Electronic Frontier Foundation's International Director Gwen Hinze says a company based in a more free internet country like the US can't really get around censorship rules in countries with tighter controls. She notes that expansions in US laws on wiretapping and invasion of privacy can set a bad precedent for countries around the world.

Fowler, Hinze, and Yahoo!'s Ebele Okobi-Harris add that while internet and telecom companies are bound by the laws of the countries they operate in, there are ways in which they can prevent a bad situation from getting worse: stepping up consumer protection measures by alerting users when their information is requested by authorities.

Rick Perry Asks Texans to Pray for Rain

| Thu Apr. 21, 2011 3:41 PM EDT

Texas is in the grip of historic wildfires that have destroyed nearly 1.8 million acres of forest and grassland in the state as well as 400 homes. The almost 8,000 fires so far this year are unprecedented, which last weekend prompted Gov. Rick Perry to call upon the national government for assistance. Now Perry is calling upon the Man Upstairs for help.

Perry issued a proclamation on Thursday declaring the next 72 hours the "Days of Prayer for Rain in Texas," asking residents to appeal to whatever higher power they prefer for help. It states:

WHEREAS, throughout our history, both as a state and as individuals, Texans have been strengthened, assured and lifted up through prayer; it seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought and these dangerous wildfires;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal and robust way of life.

Now, for a little bit of context: Perry is well-known for his skepticism about the existence of global warming—a phenomenon that has contributed to the conditions that cause wildfires. It's also more than a little ironic given that the state last year filed a lawsuit to block the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations of planet-warming emissions, claiming that the finding that climate change poses a threat to humans is based on flawed science. 

I reached out to a Andrew Dessler, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, for some thoughts on the governor's proclamation. "I certainly don't think that praying will hurt. My concern is that the Governor has no Plan B," wrote Dessler in an email. "If praying doesn't work, what then? If we don't start taking reasonable steps to protect ourselves soon, then I will indeed be praying—for better leadership in Austin."