2011 - %3, September

Rick Perry's 235th Execution Won't Come Yet

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 5:00 AM EDT
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in modern American history.

Update: On Monday afternoon, despite a late push for a retrial from a prosecutor who helped convicted him, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Duane Buck's petition for clemency. Buck will be executed as scheduled on Thursday, unless Perry or the district attorney intervene to grant a 30-day stay of execution. This post was originally published on September 2 and updated on September 13 with new information.

Update II (September 15): On Thursday evening the US Supreme Court issued a temporary stay of execution, giving it time to review the case, Reuters reported.

A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck's conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial. In 10 years as governor, Perry has presided over 234 executions, more than any other governor in modern history; only once has he granted clemency in a case where the Supreme Court hasn't already mandated it. Now, just as he steps onto the national stage, Perry will have to make what looks like a tough call—with GOP primary voters watching.

The inmate, Duane Edward Buck, is set to be executed by lethal injection on September 15 for murdering two people at the home of his ex-girlfriend in 1995. The issue at hand isn't Buck's innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck's guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove "future dangerousness"—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck's race (he's African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future. (Quijano answered in the affirmative to the question of whether "the race factor, [being] black, increases the future dangerousness for various complicated reasons.")

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 2, 2011

Fri Sep. 2, 2011 4:57 AM EDT

Securing The Landing Zone

US Army 1st Sgt. Gerald Eagan, with the 6th Engineer Battalion, throws his rucksack in front of him while pulling security on a remote mountain landing zone during a heliborne insertion mission while participating in the Order of the Arctic Sapper competition Aug. 17, 2011, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska. Six teams of eight to 11 soldiers competed in mountain climbing, rappelling, river crossing, and other combat engineer events to be inducted into the Order of the Arctic Sapper. US Air Force photo by Justin Connaher.

My Jobs Plan: A Trillion Dollars For Infrastructure

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 4:55 AM EDT

A few weeks ago I rode an American train for just about the first time in my life. It was the 9:07 Metro North from Grand Central Terminal to New Haven, Connecticut, and I'm sort of embarrassed to say that I was slightly shocked by the experience. It's not that I had any problem getting to New Haven: The train left on time and arrived on time. But the two-hour ride itself was terrible: bouncy and loud and swaying and uncomfortable for practically the entire way. If you're not a car-happy Southern Californian like me, maybe this doesn't surprise you. But it did surprise me—at least a little—and there's a reason for this: Although I've never taken a train anywhere in the United States, I've been on plenty of trains in Europe. Not bullet trains, just ordinary intercity trains. And so I always figured this was what all first-world trains were like: fast and quiet and suspended on a railbed that's smooth as glass.

Go ahead and laugh. I deserve it. But although this is a minor annoyance in the great scheme of things, it's symptomatic of our deteriorating public infrastructure in the United States. A gas pipeline in San Bruno, California, exploded last year, killing eight people, and on Wednesday the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board announced the results of its investigation: The explosion was a story of "flawed pipe, flawed inspection, and flawed emergency response." It was, she said, "not a question of if the pipe would fail, but when." And this wasn't just a story about San Bruno or just about Pacific Gas and Electric: The rest of our national gas pipeline network is under similar strain.

Our electrical grid is just as famously antiquated. In 2003, the failure of a transmission line in Ohio, which should have inconvenienced a few thousand customers in the Cleveland area, instead produced a massive rolling blackout along the entire Eastern seaboard that affected 55 million people. Why? Because of aging and poorly integrated control equipment—equipment that, nationwide, hasn't improved much since. This is a problem almost everywhere. Our trains, even in the busy Northeast corridor, are second rate, our airports are embarrassments, our dams are leaking, and our bridges are crumbling. Taken as a whole, the average age of our public capital stock has risen from 16 to 23 years over the past four decades, "suggesting great underinvestment in public infrastructure," Mike Mandel says.

The American Society of Civil Engineers agrees. In their most recent report card, they gave our solid waste facilities a C+, our bridges a C, our rail a C-, our energy infrastructure a D+, our dams and schools a D, and our roads, levees, and inland waterways a D-. Nothing got an A or a B.

All of this is common knowledge. What's also common knowledge is that manufactured outrage over the deficit aside, the federal government can currently borrow money for free. Actually, it's even better than that: It can borrow money at negative interest rates. If we want to upgrade our national infrastructure, there's no better time to do it than right now. As Dartmouth professor Matthew Slaughter puts it, "There is a crucial connection between potholes and unemployment." Repairing our infrastructure will put people to work during a long and seemingly unending economic slump; it will provide us with the capital stock we need to compete on the world stage in the future; and it will cost us less now than it ever will again. It's a no-brainer.

All of us have our fantasies about what we'd like President Obama to say in his big speech next week about jobs. Here's mine: ask Congress to appropriate a trillion dollars to be spent on infrastructure upgrades over the next five years. That's it. That's the jobs plan. A trillion dollars to make us into a first-world country again. And as part of the enabling legislation, ask for emergency powers to temporarily streamline the regulatory red tape, interagency approval processes, environmental-impact statements, and labor rules that might otherwise keep the money from being put to work speedily.

Will a Republican Congress agree to do this? Almost certainly not—at first, anyway. But building and repairing infrastructure is no boondoggle. It needs to be done, it needs to be done now, and it would be an easy sell to a public cynical about the government's ability to do anything concrete to help them. Make the case aggressively and you never know. Free money is free money, and even Republican voters like the idea of clean water, safe bridges, pipelines that don't blow up, electrical grids that work, and dams and schools that aren't crumbling.

So that's it. A trillion dollars for infrastructure. That's the plan. Let's do it.

What's Bugging Small-Business Owners?

| Fri Sep. 2, 2011 1:03 AM EDT

Is Barack Obama's relentless love affair with regulatory overkill choking the life out of America's small business owners? McClatchy's Kevin Hall decided to go out and ask them:

McClatchy reached out to owners of small businesses, many of them mom-and-pop operations, to find out whether they indeed were being choked by regulation, whether uncertainty over taxes affected their hiring plans and whether the health care overhaul was helping or hurting their business.

Their response was surprising. None of the business owners complained about regulation in their particular industries, and most seemed to welcome it.....Rip Daniels [] owns four businesses in Gulfport, Miss.: real estate ventures, a radio station and a boutique hotel/bistro. He said his problem wasn't regulation. "Absolutely, positively not."

....For many small businesses, their chief problem is an old one: navigating the bureaucracy of the Small Business Administration to secure government-backed loans....Other small firms say their problem is simply a lack of customers.

"I think the business climate is so shaky that I would not want to undergo any expansion or outlay capital," said Andy Weingarten, who owns Almar Auto Repair in Charlotte. He's thinking about hiring one more mechanic. Added Barry Grant, the regional president of Meritage Homes Corp., in California, "It starts with jobs....There's an awful lot of people sitting on the fence; they're waiting for a sign."

Well, I guess these responses might be surprising if you subsist on a steady diet of Fox News and Chamber of Commerce press releases. For the rest of us, not so much. The small business owners that Hall talked to complained about the banking system, workers' compensation, the Small Business Administration, insurance, and competition from the internet. And they talked about a lack of customers.

In other words, all the usual stuff that's been around forever, plus a lack of demand because the economy is in lousy shape. Maybe we should consider doing something about this?

Table of the Day: Manufacturing Down Around the Globe

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 8:00 PM EDT

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, this table shows manufacturing activity (as measured by the ISM's Purchasing Managers Index) around the world. Only China and the Czech Republic are showing positive improvement. Three countries are contracting, but doing so a little bit slower than last month, and everyone else is just plain doing worse. Not good news.

How Perry Pushed Donor's Nuclear Waste Dump

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 5:46 PM EDT

Texas Gov. Rick Perry tried to remove a state commissioner who opposed expanding a West Texas nuclear waste dump run by one of his largest political donors, Reuters reports today. When it became clear that Bobby Gregory of the Texas Low-Level Radioactive Waste Compact Commission might be able to block the dump from accepting out-of-state nuclear waste, Perry's office offered him an alternative job—a prestigious post on the board of regents of a state university.

The news is certain to fuel the longstanding political scandal over the dump, which was licensed in 2008 by Perry's top environmental regulator, Glenn Shankle, over the objections of his staff, three of whom resigned rather than sign off the on the deal (Shankle later left to become a lobbyist for the dump's parent company, Waste Control Solutions). WCS is owned by Harold Simmons, a billionaire corporate raider who has given Perry's campaigns at least $1.2 million.

As I reported in March, WCS had been trying to expand the dump from a fairly limited repository for waste from Texas and Vermont into what could become one of the largest nuclear waste dumps in the country. Approving the expansion was up to the compact commission, which was composed of six Perry appointees and two appointees from Vermont. But with the Vermont appointees likely to be replaced by anti-nuclear Democrats and Gregory and another Texas commissioner opposed to the expansion, Perry's office apparently saw a need to replace someone on the commission with a crony more friendly to Simmons.

After Gregory refused the governor's job offer, Reuters reports, the commission was called to vote on January 4th, before the terms of the Vermont Republicans ended. It approved expanding the dump by a vote of 5-2.

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Is it Stealing or Sharing?

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 4:42 PM EDT

Is piracy of digital information (music, videos, ebooks, etc.) the same as stealing?  Matt Yglesias says no:

The two acts have almost nothing in common besides being illegal. If I email you a copy of the new Fountains of Wayne album, then nobody has less stuff than they had pre-emailing. By contrast, if I break into Adam Schlesinger’s house, take his shoes, and then give the shoes to you, the upshot is that Schlesinger has less shoes than he had before.

I've always been bothered by this argument. Let's take a closer look at it.

First, what's the effect of stealing Adam Schlesinger's shoes? Saying that he has "less shoes" than before is correct, but in a money economy, if you want to compare two different things you really want to convert them into dollar values first. So what is Schlesinger's financial loss here? Is it the retail price of the shoes? That's one way of looking at it. But in the real world, we usually make some adjustments. If Schlesinger bought the shoes at a discount store, they're worth less to him. If the shoes are old, they're worth less still. If Schlesinger never liked the shoes in the first place and doesn't wear them anymore, maybe they're worth almost nothing. Who knows? Basically, though, what you can say is that his financial loss is the retail price of the shoes modified by some factor that depends on circumstances.

Now, what if we steal a copy of his new album? What's his financial loss? Is it the retail cost of the album? Again, that's one way of looking at it. But in the real world we make adjustments. If the album is normally sold at a discount, it's worth less. If we only care about Schlesinger, and not the rest of the production chain, then his loss is the royalty payment he won't get on the album you didn't buy. On the other hand, if you just downloaded the album on a lark and never would have paid real money for it in the first place, his loss is almost nothing. Who knows? But again, what you can say is that that his financial loss is the retail price of the album modified by some factor that depends on circumstances.

Economically, this is all that matters. In both cases, you're causing Adam Schlesinger to take a financial loss. Maybe it's big, maybe it's small, but it's theoretically quantifiable. That makes these cases very similar.

Now, it's true that there are lots of ways of causing people to take a financial loss, and not all of them come under the rubric of stealing. So at first glance, it might seem fair to object to the word in a digital context. But in actual operation, this objection rarely strikes me as arising out of sophisticated arguments about nonrival goods. Rather, it mostly seems to be a way of avoiding the very real fact that you've caused someone a financial loss by appropriating something you haven't paid for. In that sense, "stealing" is a whole lot more descriptive than "copyright infringement" or "illegal downloading."

None of this is meant to take sides on the broader questions of appropriate copyright policy or intellectual property law in general. For the most part, I tend to agree with the pro-reform camp on these issues, and I think that lots of corporate abuse of current IP law is both foolish and blinkered. Still, no matter what kind of IP rules you favor, if you break those rules I think that calling it stealing is pretty close to the mark. Matt finishes with this:

In some ways I think the decision of the pro-copying community to try to appropriate the language of “sharing” as an alternative to the language of “piracy” simply served to obscure how genuinely different digital copying is. Even if you and I “share” a physical object, there are still limits. If I borrow my girlfriend’s car to drive somewhere, I haven’t stolen it from her, but it’s genuinely the case that she can’t use it until I bring it back. If she copies a file I own, then we both have it.

True enough. But if he had a draft magazine article stored on his hard drive, and his girlfriend copied it and sold it somewhere without his knowledge, I'll bet he'd consider it stolen — possibly with the word emphasized by hurled crockery and intemperate language. He'd consider it stolen even though, technically, he still has a copy too. And he'd be right to. Before the theft, he had the potential to earn a certain amount of money by selling the publishing rights to his work. Afterward, he didn't. That potential may not be a tangible physical object, but that doesn't make it a nonrival good. Once it's gone, it's gone.

Irene was the US's 10th Billion-Dollar Disaster This Year

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 4:15 PM EDT

While many along the East Coast have complained that Hurricane Irene was overhyped, the storm caused billions of dollars in damage—and has still left many communities dealing with its impacts. The storm ranks as the tenth billion-dollar disaster in the US in 2011, a new record.

Irene is projected to cost the US up to $13 billion, and comes at the end of a summer filled with heat waves, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires. Previous weather events had already racked up $32 billion in costs. In short, it's been a disastrous year when it comes to disasters.

Earlier this week, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) upset quite a few people with the statement that increased spending on disaster aid should be contingent on other spending cuts. But the fact remains that this exceptionally expensive year is going to require Congress to give more money to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep it running. FEMA was already short on cash before Irene, and the year's not over.

Over at the Daily Beast, Heidi Cullen, the senior research scientist with Climate Central, puts Irene and this year's other disasters into the broader context. Weather events are getting more extreme, and much more expensive, thanks to global warming:

Our weather is getting worse, and not saying it won’t make it go away. According to Munich Reinsurance America, one of the top providers of property and casualty reinsurance in the U.S., the number of natural disasters has tripled over the past 20 years. Average thunderstorm losses have increased five-fold since 1980. For the first half of 2011 there have been $20 billion in thunderstorm losses, up from the previous three-year average of $10 billion. The reinsurance company has also gone on the record saying, "It would seem that the only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change."

Just don't expect hear anything about it from the budget hawks in Congress.

Obama DOJ Cracks Down on Protesters Blocking Abortion Clinics

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 2:44 PM EDT

The Obama administration has stepped up efforts to protect abortion clinics from protesters illegally impeding access to clinic grounds. NPR reported Thursday that the Department of Justice is bringing more civil suits against protesters who trespass and block access to clinics:

The numbers are most stark when it comes to civil lawsuits, which seek to create buffer zones around clinic entrances for people who have blocked access in the past. Under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, the Justice Department's civil rights division has filed eight civil cases since the start of the Obama administration. That's a big increase over the George W. Bush years, when one case was filed in eight years.

Given the increasing attacks on abortion clinics around the country by lawmakers hell-bent on making abortion inaccessible, if not illegal, this is good news. But the piece also points out that there have been a number of incidents of violence in the past few months that should reiterate the need to take threats to clinics seriously. A Planned Parenthood office in McKinney, Texas and the Summit Women's Center in Detroit were both attacked with Molotov cocktails this summer, and a Wisconsin man was charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide after threatening to shoot abortion providers.

As Sharon Levin, vice president at the National Abortion Federation, notes in the NPR piece, protesters who commit minor violations, like trespassing, often end up escalating to more violent acts if they aren't prosecuted.

Hospital Infections Revisited

| Thu Sep. 1, 2011 1:56 PM EDT

Yesterday I posted a chart from a group called Medical Billing and Coding Certification that featured an astonishing statistic: in the U.S., one out of seven hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) leads to death. That's 14%. In Europe the number is only 1 out 122, or a mere 0.8%.

I guess it was too good to check, so I didn't check it. But a reader emailed this morning to suggest that this was preposterous, and he seems to be right. I checked the references at the bottom of the MBCC chart, and none of them seemed to back up their numbers. What's more, a few years ago the CDC estimated 99,000 deaths per year out of 1.7 million HAIs, a mortality rate of 5.8%. For the EU, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control estimates 146,000 deaths per year out of 4.5 million HAIs (see p. 27), a mortality rate of 3.3%.

That's a modest difference, and it gets even more modest when you read more about these estimates, which are very, very rough and depend strongly on exactly how you count infections and how you attribute deaths. You can read much more about it in this WHO report if you're interested. The chart below, from the WHO report (with U.S. figures added from here), shows HAI prevalence rates in various high-income countries, and on this score the U.S. does pretty well. Most likely, the U.S. is about average both in prevalence of HAI and in mortality rates from HAI. Apologies for the error.