2009 - %3, May

California's Constitution

| Thu May 21, 2009 1:33 AM EDT

California is broken.  So what's next?

As the notion of California as ungovernable grows stronger than ever, Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has expressed support for a convention to address such things as the state’s arcane budget requirements and its process for proliferate ballot initiatives, both of which necessitated Tuesday’s statewide vote on budget matters approved months ago by state lawmakers.

“There could not be more of a tipping point,” said Jim Wunderman, chief executive of the Bay Area Council, a business group that moved forward on Wednesday with plans to push for a constitutional convention. “We think the interest is going to grow by orders of magnitude now.”

I'm actually in favor of this idea, even though it would almost certainly turn into a circus of unparalleled proportions.  Latter day Madisons and Hamiltons are thin on the ground here in the Golden State.

But — just to remind everyone: in order to even hold a constitutional convention, it has to be put on the ballot and approved by a majority of the electorate.  And how does the question get put on the ballot?  It has to be approved by two-thirds of the legislature.  But this is the problem we're trying to solve in the first place: to pass a budget or raise taxes takes a two-thirds vote of the legislature, and Republicans have enough votes to stop that from happening.  Votes that they use regularly.  So why wouldn't they also stand in the way of a constitutional convention whose main purpose would almost certainly be to remove the two-thirds requirements for passing a budget and raising taxes?

Now, maybe sheer desperation would get a few of them on board.  Maybe some kind of backroom deal could be arranged.  Who knows?  But one way or another, you have to get two-thirds of the legislature to agree to it.  That's a problem we obviously haven't solved yet.

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Right Whales Found on Old Grounds

| Wed May 20, 2009 7:06 PM EDT

Another good day on the whale front. Scientists have documented the presence of endangered North Atlantic right whales in an area the species was believed extinct.

Using underwater hydrophones, a team from Oregon State University and NOAA recorded more than 2,000 right whale vocalizations off the southern tip of Greenland—on the Cape Farewell Ground, site of legendary 19th-century whaling operations.

Although only two right whales have been sighted in the last 50 years at Cape Farewell Ground, the hydrophones located right whales at three widely space sites on the same day. Even three whales is significant since the entire population of North Atlantic right whales is estimated at only 300 to 400 whales. Plus there are likely/hopefully more.

“The technology has enabled us to identify an important unstudied habitat for endangered right whales and raises the possibility that—contrary to general belief—remnant of a central or eastern Atlantic stock of right whales still exists and might be viable,” said David Mellinger of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

The discovery is important not least because this is an area that could be opened to shipping if polar ice continues to melt. Slow-moving right whales are extremely vulnerable to collisions with ships.

The pattern of recorded calls suggests that the whales moved from the southwest portion of the region in a northeasterly direction in late July and then returned in September—putting them directly in the path of proposed shipping lanes.

"Newly available shipping lanes through the Northwest Passage would greatly shorten the trip between Europe and East Asia but would likely cross the migratory route of any right whales that occupy the region," said Phillip Clapham, right whale expert with NOAA’s National Marine Mammal Laboratory, who participated in the study. "It’s vital that we know about right whales in this area in order to effectively avoid ship strikes on what could be a quite fragile population."

Results of the study were presented this week at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Portland, Oregon.
 

Chart of the Day

| Wed May 20, 2009 5:53 PM EDT

The latest MIT study of global warming has now been published in the Journal of Climate, and its conclusions are grim.  The chart on the right shows their new projections (in red) compared to previous projections (in blue).  (The heavy lines are the median projections; the lighter lines are the 5% and 95% percentiles.) In the middle latitudes, they project warming of nearly 5ºC compared to previous projections of about 2ºC.  At the poles, they project warming of 8-10ºC compared to 5-6ºC.

Why the change?  Joe Romm summarizes the technical explanation: "The carbon sinks are saturating, and the amplifying feedbacks are worse than previously thought."

Is Waxman-Markey enough to stop this?  Not even close.  Will anything we do make a difference if we don't get the rest of the world on board?  Nope.  Does that mean we should give up?  Or continue wanking away on cost-benefit studies that still assume a 2ºC rise over the next century?  Or join the GOP buffoon caucus in pretending that CO2 is harmless because otherwise they wouldn't put it in Coca-Cola?  No, no, and no.  It means we have to work even harder to strengthen Waxman-Markey and then press the rest of the world to follow suit.  The time for wanking is way past over.

Meet the Climate Lobby

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:15 PM EDT

There are now four climate lobbyists for every member of Congress -- an increase of 300 percent in just five years. But who are they working for and what do they want? The Center of Public Integrity has a new report on the climate change lobbying stampede which finds that the fight over energy policy has exploded in complexity. While big polluters still comprise more than half of the groups or companies lobbying on climate legislation, they've been joined by a diverse roster of new interests, all with complicated designs on government reforms. 

In addition to those entities that are simply trying to support or block efforts to cut carbon emissions—positions that now look increasingly retro—many companies and trade groups see climate legislation as inevitable and want to shape the resulting reforms to their own ends. The financial sector, for instance, has 130 lobbyists pushing for a cap and trade system that banks could profit from. There are city and county governments that see an opportunity to snare some federal money. And then there's the renewable energy sector and environmental groups, although they're outnumbered by everyone else by eight to one.

All of this activity has resulted in a bewildering proliferation of proposals on how to regulate pollution or encourage efficiency. Small wonder that the Waxman-Markey bill is now 900 pages long and counting, or that House Dems have hired a speed reader to keep up with GOP amendments. More on all of this to come...

Credit Report Hell

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:11 PM EDT

This morning I got an email from reader SD about a recent experience with the credit reporting industry:

Through some screwups and misunderstandings settling my father's estate, we were hit with a tax lien.  We immediately cleared it up, but a year or so later when I went to get a car loan there it was on the record.  Got a notarized proof of clearance on it, sent it to the credit reporting agency.  A few years after that, we got a home improvement loan and there it was.  My wife was visiting our daughter recently in San Diego and looking at houses and a realtor ran a credit report and there it was.

It appears that when any credit reporting agency gets some dirt on you, they immediately tell all the peer operations....who tell all that they work with, and on and on.  Not only that, but it's nearly impossible to ferret out every instance of such misinformation (which should be the credit reporting agency's responsibility to clean up), AND the chain reaction keeps going until the same piece of disinformation that you originally expunged from, say, Experian, comes BACK to them and they enter it their database against you AGAIN.

Financial organizations should not only be made liable/responsible for correcting this kind of thing, but should be responsible for making sure that all instances of it are expunged.

As it is, they love and live for dirt on you, and take no responsibility for its correctness or the integrity of their data.  And you never find out, all the while suffering under the bad credit score unknowingly until you formally take out some kind of loan....

Credit reporting agencies don't care about making sure their reports are accurate.  Why should they?  There's no penalty for screwing up someone's life.

If the tax lien automatically showed up on SD's credit report, it should just as automatically be removed when it's taken care of.  Why should SD even have to handle this in the first place?  Beyond that, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for correcting your credit report.  Likewise, there should be straightforward procedures, mandated by law, for ensuring that corrections are sent immediately to every credit reporting firm.  Anyone who doesn't correct their records within 24 hours should be liable for statutory damages.  End of story.  Do that, and guess what?  Credit reporting agencies will suddenly start caring about the accuracy of their reports.

Private Health Insurers Can't Compete With the "Public Option": Medicare

| Wed May 20, 2009 3:08 PM EDT

In case you had any doubts, here’s the real reason why insurance companies don’t want health care reform to include a so-called public option: These champions of freemarket capitalism know that they simply can’t compete with a government-run plan.

The insurance lobby is already trying to scare people off the idea of a public  option, warning that the government will leave all of us to die slowly and painfully as we try to wade through its bloated bureaucracy. (One example of the industry’s PR efforts appears at the end of this post.) But the truth is that on a level playing field, the government would probably drive private insurers out of business, because it can deliver health care more effectively and efficiently than any profit-driven corporation.

This isn’t something we need to speculate about, since we already have a government-run health plan on which to base comparisons: Medicare. For years, studies have shown a high level of satisfaction among Medicare beneficiaries. Last week, a new study released by the Commonwealth Fund revealed how Medicare measures up against private plans. It was bad news for the insurance industry.

Elderly Medicare beneficiaries are more satisfied with their health care, and experience fewer problems accessing and paying for care, than Americans with employer-sponsored insurance (ESI), according to a study by Commonwealth Fund researchers….The gap between consumers’ ratings of Medicare and ESI has widened since a similar survey in 2001….

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Why Jon Huntsman Juked Left

| Wed May 20, 2009 1:27 PM EDT

Zvika Krieger proposes an answer in his profile of the Utah governor, Obama's nominee to be the US ambassador to China:

If Huntsman was planning to run for president, why would he move so brazenly to the left at a time when the GOP seems to be heading rightward? The most obvious reason is that he may actually be a moderate. "I'm not very good at tags," he tells me. "I just try to do my best, and maybe that makes me a pragmatist." He joins a long tradition of moderate Republicans from Utah, despite--or perhaps because of--the fact that the state is the reddest in the country, with the GOP holding every statewide office and more than two-thirds of the state legislature. The GOP lock on Utah politics allows the party to welcome a broader swathe of politicians, and breed leaders who are less combative and ideological than their besieged colleagues in more competitive states. And if Huntsman has learned anything from the failed Mitt Romney campaign, it is that the only thing worse for a Republican than not being a conservative is being a phony conservative.

Emphasis mine. If Huntsman does make a run for the presidency, the big question will be whether or not he will resist that GOP pressure to move right.

 

Hiding Ida

| Wed May 20, 2009 1:01 PM EDT

A new primate fossil was unveiled yesterday.  Hooray!  But what's up with this?

Hurum and team have been studying the fossil in secret for the past two years, going to great lengths to keep the finding under wraps until they were ready to publicly announce it.

...."There have been lots of reasons for the security and secrecy surrounding this project," said Anthony Geffen, producer of the new documentary. "The scientists wanted to get on with the research, and then get to that day, which is today, which is incredibly exciting for all of us, when the find could come out."

Hmmm.  What reasons?  Maybe this is unfair, but something about this reminds me of the fantastic lengths that scholars went to for decades to keep the Dead Sea scrolls under wraps.  In that case, it seemed to be motivated by pure professional greed from a group that was determined not to let anyone else contest their interpretations or beat them to a discovery.  In this case, it's — what?  A desire to wait until a massive publicity campaign was ready?

The event, which will coincide with the publishing of a peer-reviewed article about the find, is the first stop in a coordinated, branded media event, orchestrated by the scientists and the History Channel, including a film detailing the secretive two-year study of the fossil, a book release, an exclusive arrangement with ABC News and an elaborate Web site.

“Any pop band is doing the same thing,” said Jorn H. Hurum, a scientist at the University of Oslo who acquired the fossil and assembled the team of scientists that studied it. “Any athlete is doing the same thing. We have to start thinking the same way in science.”

Scientific research isn't all done in the glare of a spotlight, and peer-reviewed research takes a while to finish.  Maybe there's nothing wrong with this group's Manhattan Project-esque secrecy.  But something about it rubs me the wrong way.  Am I off base here?

UPDATE: The general consensus in comments from knowledgeable observers is that this is fairly standard procedure with fossils.  So regardless of how you feel about the massive publicity rollout, it sounds like there was nothing dubious about this.  More here.

The Burbs Revisited

| Wed May 20, 2009 12:10 PM EDT

Education blogger Kevin Carey is unhappy with me:

As a rule I enjoy Kevin Drum's blog at Mother Jones. But his occasional forays into education generally descend into naysaying and pessimism — Kevin's one all-purpose insight on the subject is that education policy is hard and as such not worth trying to solve.

I plead mostly guilty to this.  In fact, Kevin C. is being polite.  Not only do I think that education policy is hard, I think it's an absolute cesspool with very little to show for decades of effort.  In my defense, though, I don't think that means it isn't worth trying to solve education problems.  I just think that most claims to have done so turn out on inspection to be seriously overblown.

Take the post in question.  I argued that suburban parents are basically selfish SOBs who will never allow anything more than very modest levels of integration with urban school districts and will fight like crazed weasels to protect their own leafy citadels of learning.  Kevin C. disagrees.  I think.  He suggests that even suburban parents harbor some altruistic impulses, but then immediately admits that "when asked, parents will jealously guard the resources available to their own children."  Here's his solution:

So the key thing is to not ask.  For example, back when I worked on education funding in Indiana, we created a formula that allowed local school districts to keep all of the revenue they generated through property taxes, but then distributed state funds inversely to local property wealth, equalizing the overall funding level. The effect was to redistribute hundreds of millions of dollars of sales and income tax revenue from the wealthiest school districts to the poorest. But because that transfer occured in the context of an immensely complex formula understood by less than half a dozen people and negotiated in a back room long after the official hearings had finished and the press had gone home, nobody really got upset by it, because nobody knew exactly how much money they were losing, and we were in no hurry to tell them.

The point being, sometimes too much information is detrimental to fair public policy. States that have tried to explicitly transfer local property wealth between districts have had a horrible time of it, because the extent of the redistribution was too obvious. Sometimes it's better to hide the true extent of people's contributions to the common good. Otherwise they'll start asking questions and from there it's a slippery slope all the way back to every family huddling alone in a cave and foraging for fruits and nuts.

I'm not sure a rebuttal is even necessary.  It sounds to me like Kevin C. is agreeing that suburban parents will protect their schools like crazed weasels, and the only way to overcome this is to lie to them early and often.  And he thinks I'm the pessimistic one?

UPDATE: Richard Kahlenberg is unhappy with me too.  I don't blame him, really.  But as much as I respect both of these guys, neither of their counterarguments strikes me as very persuasive.  Lying to parents just isn't a long-term strategy, and the fact that urban/suburban transfers have worked in a very small number of special cases isn't evidence that it will scale well.

Besides, there's another problem here that no one mentions.  Even if you have a great system of urban magnet schools and urban/suburban transfers, what happens to the urban non-magnet schools?  They lose all their best students either to the magnets or to open spots in the suburbs, and the suburban kids are only transferring in to the magnets.  This means that the non-magnets end up with a worse student body than before.  The net result might still be positive, but the majority of urban schools are actually worse off.

Again, I don't pretend to know what the answer is.  But I continue to think that programs like KIPP or Green Dot that are just flatly aimed at improving urban schools are a more promising bet than counting on urban/suburban partnerships.

Fantasyland

| Wed May 20, 2009 11:30 AM EDT

Well, Californians basically rejected all of yesterday's budget initiatives, and since they were mostly gimmicks I don't really blame them.  So what's next?

Beats me.  There are legal, judicial, federal, and contractual limits to how much spending can be cut, and there are political limits (i.e., the Republican rump in the legislature) to how much taxes can be raised.  The sums just don't add up.

Californians are living in a dream world.  Prop 13 slashed property taxes and nobody wants to amend it, even for commercial property.  Arnold Schwarzenegger got elected in the middle of a budget crisis by promising to cut taxes.  When that proved to be an unsurprising disaster, the voters approved billions in borrowing, making the budget situation even worse.  It's easy to blame Sacramento for this mess (and I do!), but the public has been complicit every step of the way.

Historically, California has been a high tax/high service state.  That's fine.  Some states prefer a low tax/low service model.  That's fine too.  (It's a lousy idea, I think, but fiscally it's fine.)  But over the past few decades we Californians have somehow concluded that we can be a medium tax/high service state.  It's a fantasy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure just what it's going to take to jolt everyone out of their delusions.  Stay tuned.