Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson


Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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San Francisco To Make Recycling and Composting Mandatory

| Tue Jun. 9, 2009 7:01 PM EDT

"Don't Mess With Texas," perhaps the most famous state slogan in history, began as an anti-littering campaign. Having grown up in the Lone Star State, I remember a TV ad showing two fighter jets swooping over a highway, presumably about to strafe some guy who tossed a can out of his pickup. Well, turns out San Francisco is about to do Texas one better. Today, the city's Board of Supervisors made it illegal not only to throw that can out the window, but also in the trash; a new law will require you to recycle it. I can't wait for the bus ads featuring a gun-packing hippie: Don't mess with San Francisco.

Of course, San Francisco's strong recycling norms aren't unique along the Left Coast, which, as we noted in our recent Waste Issue, takes those curvy green arrows much more seriously than folks in New York. Recycling is already mandatory in San Diego and Seattle, where trash collectors shame offending homeowners by posting notes on their trash bins and leaving them unemptied on the curb. Still, San Francisco might up the ante. SF Weekly notes that its proposed fines for not recycling--$100 to $500--are ten times higher than Seattle's.

San Francisco is already the least trashy city in America. In May, it announced that it recycles 72 percent of its waste.  And most homeowners and more than a fifth of apartment dwellers compost (under the new law, everyone will). Fascinated by how the city where I live achieves such high numbers, I recently began following my garbage. I've tracked it from the can at my apartment building to its eventual reincarnation, learning a lot along the way about the obstacles to going "zero waste," as the city hopes to by 2020. Check back tomorrow for the first installment of this colorful--and stinky--trash saga, which will appear on this site throughout the week.

George Allen's New Macaca Moment? He's Back Online to Diss Cap & Trade

| Wed Jun. 3, 2009 5:52 PM EDT

Former Virginia Senator George Allen, whose 2006 "Macaca" speech turned into the most famous online gotcha video of all time, has resurfaced after a long political quiesence--and, of all places, online. In a new Web video for the American Energy Freedom Center, which he now leads, he replaces a brown-skinned menace with hints of a green one: Climate legislation. The video appears to be the first installment of what Allen describes as monthly "kitchen table talks" in which he'll "tell people the truthful story about America's energy potential."

The American Energy Freedom Center draws upon an oily pedigree. It is a partner group of the Houston-based Institute for Energy Research, which is funded in part by Exxon-Mobil and is headed by Robert Bradley Jr., who worked as a public policy director at Enron and a speechwriter for CEO Ken Lay.

So why have these guys turned to Allen? According to the Center for Responsive Politics, before Allen lost his Senate seat in 2006, he was Congress' number 3 recepient of campaign cash from the energy sector . Over his career he raised $1 million from energy companies, including $19,400 from Exxon Mobil. He also brings strong connections to other lawmakers as a former presidential hopeful, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, which plays a key role in crafting energy legislation. Moreover, as of 2006 Allen had personally invested somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000 in energy companies.

In short, he doesn't seem like the kind of guy I'd trust to sit in my kitchen and tell me how America should "promote the clean, creative, and thoughtful utilization of American energy." But here's his pitch, complete with a nifty lapel pin:


Did a Secret Wall Street Memo Make Geithner Go Soft on Derivatives?

| Tue Jun. 2, 2009 1:20 AM EDT

Given that credit default swaps caused the largest financial crisis since the Great Depression, you'd think that the folks responsible for them, people who are now surviving on the taxpayer dime, might be laughed out of Washington if they were to suggest that they be the ones to decide how to regulate them. Sadly, it's the opposite.

On Monday, the Times' Gretchen Morgenson published a little-noticed but excellent piece about the CDS Dealers Consortium, a group created in November by the nine biggest participants in the derivatives market to lobby against stricter regulation of derivatives. The move came a month after five of them had received bailout money. The group's head lobbyist, Edward J. Rosen, who was paid $450,000 by the banks for four months, wrote a secret policy memo that he shared with the Treasury Department and leaders on Capitol Hill. A few months later Tim Geithner released a suspiciously similar regulatory plan. 

It gets much worse: in February Rosen testified before Congress on derivaratives without disclosing his ties to the CDS Dealers Consortium. From 2007 to 2008, five banks in the consortium spent a combined $47.7 million on campaign donatations and lobbying.

Geithner's bank-friendly plan to regulate derivatives would force them to be traded on a privately-managed clearinghouse, rather than on an open exchange, similar to the stock market, where many experts believe that they'd be less subject to manipulation. Morgenson reports:

Critics in both the financial world and Congress say relying on clearinghouses would be problematic. They also say Mr. Geithner's plan contains a major loophole, because little disclosure would be required for more complicated derivatives, like the type of customized, credit-default swaps that helped bring down A.I.G. A.I.G. sold insurance related to mortgage securities, essentially making a big bet that those mortgages would not default. . .

But increased transparency of derivatives trades would cut into banks' profits — hence the banks' opposition. Customers who trade derivatives would pay less if they knew what the prevailing market prices were.

The Times piece is long, but reading it goes a long way towards understanding what is often a huge gulf between the Obama Administration's rhetoric and its tepid approach to bank regulation.


On Hanging Out With Anti-Abortion Extremists in Wichita

| Mon Jun. 1, 2009 3:35 PM EDT

In January, 2007, I visited the Wichita, Kansas, abortion clinic operated by Dr. George Tiller, who was shot to death in church yesterday by an anti-abortion crusader. Tiller's clinic had just become the last one in town. A shuttered clinic nearby had been purchased by an anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue, which was in the process of converting it into its headquarters, complete with a prayer garden and a memorial to the 50,000 unborn children that the group claims were murdered there. Over the next two days, I learned a lot about Wichita's radical hothouse of abortion foes.

Troy Newman, Operation Rescue's charismatic leader, who some have suspected is partly to blame for Tiller's murder, drove around town with me and vented his rage that nobody had yet shut down Tiller, who he called "the abortionist to abortionists."  A few days earlier, Wichita's district attorney, Nola Foulston, had moved to dismiss indictments against Tiller that had been filed by the state's outgoing attorney general. She later conducted her own investigation of Tiller and found he'd complied with the law, but Newman believed Tiller's clinic had killed a woman. "Our field plan is to expose the lies and misdeeds that they do," he said. "It's pretty simple: They're scum of the earth, they're dirtbags."

It struck me that Newman was deeply disillusioned with the legal system. "All laws are thrown out the window once you talk about abortion," he complained. "In the movement, we call it 'abortion distortion.'"

The next morning, at a bright cafe in the heart of town, Newman and two women discussed how to turn up the pressure on Foulston. Operation Rescue is famous for a strategy of harassing its foes outside their homes. "People have a public identity that they like to keep seperate from their private identity," Newman explained, "but we believe you can't separate the two when you are talking about killing babies. And people are more likely to listen to what you say and be influenced when you bring the issue home to where they work and live." It was a full-court press of constant annoyance: "You poke, poke, poke until they scream," he added, "and then you just keep poking some more."

Despite Newman's tough tactics, he was civil and professed to have  friends who disagreed with him on abortion. After spending two days with him, I'm willing to take him on his word that his pro-life views extend to grown humans, even abortion doctors. But it was easy to see the militaristic rhetoric of Newman, who is the son of an army recruiter, was goading people on towards something more extreme. "A lot of what we do is demoralize the enemy," he said. "This is a battle, and that's the strategy."

Later that afternoon I drove to Tiller's clinic and was promptly booted from the parking lot by a security guard. It was too dangerous to allow lone men inside, I was told when I called the clinic on my cell phone. So I parked on the curb, next to a "truth truck" that displayed a giant billboard of an aborted fetus.

Arrayed on the grassy median in front of Tiller's walled building were rows of white crosses and the plastic figurines of a nativity scene. Writen on chalk near the building's drivway was Psalm 94:20: "Can unjust judges be allied with you God? No!" Anti-abortion activists sat alongside the driveway in lawn chairs and pounced at any cars that tried to enter. As a frightened young woman was driven inside, one of them commented, "Another parent bringing in their daughter to have their grandchild killed."

An abortion protester who would only give his name as Brian spoke favorably of an array of local anti-abortion groups in town. He declined to give his affiliation, but pointed out that a group called Operation Save America had bought a house just across the street from Tiller's office. "Everybody has got a different approach," he said, "a different style."

Those words seem much more chilling when you consider the multiple attempts on Tiller's life. Newman's world is also one in which David Leach, publisher of the Prayer and Action News, which printed essays by Tiller's alleged murderer, can tell the New York Times that "To call this a crime is too simplistic. . .There is Christian scripture that would support this." Religious fundamentalism is still alive and well in the heartland, and isolation and defeat is likely to make some of its radicals even more desperate.

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