2010 - %3, October

Audio: Googling in the Wind

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 5:21 PM PDT

Once upon a time, Google was a simple white web page with a little search bar.

Now, the company has its own Google Price Index, Google Television, a Google phone — even a "driverless" Google car.

So what's next for the search giant? Apparently, green energy.

Google announced last week that it was investing at least $200 million in an unprecedented plan to build a transmission network for wind energy across the Atlantic Seabord. Called the Atlantic Wind Connection, the 350-mile spine would allow off-shore wind farms in the waters off Virginia, Delaware and New Jersey to power as many as 2 million homes, once the project gets off the ground in 2016.

As a company, Google has drawn its fair share of criticism, from privacy advocates for example. But the wind farm project seems to have achieved a surprising amount of consensus. Both the Republican governors of New Jersey and Virginia are for it, as is the Obama administration.

To learn more about the plan, Need to Know's Alison Stewart spoke with Rick Needham, the director of green business operations for Google and a former nuclear submarine officer. According to Needham, Google's investment not only makes good sense, it makes good business as well.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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States Have Clean-Energy Momentum, But It’s Under Threat

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 4:56 PM PDT

For all the dysfunction, moral cowardice, and hamfisted leadership in the fight for a federal climate bill, there's a good deal of ambitious work being done at the state level. Cleantech entrepreneurs are finding ways to build profitable businesses nearly everywhere, but particularly in states that deliberately encourage it.

Thirty-two states do this by participating in the Northeastern, Midwestern, or Western cap-and-trade programs. Thirty states guarantee a market for clean energy through renewable-energy standards (which require electricity providers to get X percent of their power from clean sources by X year). Interestingly, Texas, Colorado, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and others have strengthened their original targets after finding them cheaper and quicker to reach than expected.Shaded states have some form of renewable energy standard.: Image: The fantastic map collection at the Pew Center on Global Climate ChangeShaded states have some form of renewable energy standard. Image: The fantastic map collection at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change

The progress isn't just on energy. Other states are changing the built environment through complete-streets policies, smart growth plans, and transit investment that reduces the need for oil.

However—you knew it was coming, right?—much of this work is threatened by candidates for governor who don't buy the potential of clean energy, don't see the point of non-auto transit, or simply demonstrate indifference to it all. Of the 37 Republicans running for governor this fall, 22 reject the science of climate change, as Brad Johnson of Think Progress found in a run-down.

California Republican Meg Whitman, Florida Republican Rick Scott, Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker, and Ohio's Kasich all promise to reject federal high-speed rail funds for their states. A frustrated Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood compared this to states trying to opt-out of the President Eisenhower's interstate highway system in the ‘50s.

Can the GOP Tweet its Way to Victory?

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 3:36 PM PDT

If next week's midterm elections were held on Facebook and Twitter, the GOP would probably sweep both houses of Congress. Republican Senate candidates, for example, now marshal a total 1.4 million Facebook fans and 500,000 Twitter followers—roughly five times more than their Democratic opponents. It would appear that even after Howard Dean's tech-savvy 2004 campaign and Barack Obama's impressive 2008 online organization, the Democrats have gone from being the party of geeks to being the geeks who missed the party.

Anthony Calabrese of PBS' Media Shift has pulled together data and charts suggesting that 2010 "is shaping up to be the election year that's defined by social media." He points out that members of online social networks are about twice as likely as nonmembers to donate to candidates; they're also twice as likely to say they're "occasionally or very active in politics." Does that mean progressives should get on Facebook and try to close the digital enthusiasm gap by immediately friending Nancy Pelosi?

O'Donnell and Coons social media stats from Media ShiftNot necessarily. Delaware's tea party senatorial candidate, Christine O'Donnell, has five times as many Facebook and Twitter fans as her Democratic opponent (left), but seems to be headed for defeat. Champion tweeter Carly Fiorinia counts more Twitter followers (300,000) than all Senate candidates from both parties combined, yet is trailing Sen. Barbara Boxer in the polls. Both of them could learn a lesson from the presidential campaign of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), which in late 2007 counted more Facebook and MySpace supporters than any Republican; more Google searches, YouTube subscribers, and website hits than any presidential candidate; and more Meetup members than the front-runners of both parties combined. In 2008, Paul shattered single-day fundraising records with his online "money bombs." Yet he still failed to win a single state primary.

Social media success may have more to do with a candidate's personality than his or her electability. O'Donnel, Fiorina, and Paul are all interesting, polarizing figures whose tweets and status updates are more unpredictable (and fun to read) than, say, Harry Reid's. Many of their followers don't live in the same state. And there's no guarantee that all their followers will even vote for them any more than all of @SarahPalinUSA's hundreds of thousands of Twitter pals would vote for her. All of which points to the fundamental problem facing this season's Republican challengers: They've generated a lot of online buzz, but "likes" and tweet memes don't necessarily translate into warm bodies in voting booths. Even for winning candidates, the economic climate, the prevailing mood towards incumbents, and the ability to get supporters to the polls may prove more important than how many friends they have. 

Did a Small Stimulus Doom the Democrats?

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 3:31 PM PDT

Yesterday Paul Krugman argued that if Democrats had enacted a bigger stimulus in 2009, they'd be looking at manageable losses next week instead of huge ones:

Could the administration have gotten a bigger stimulus through Congress? Even if it couldn’t, would it have been better off making the case for a bigger plan, rather than pretending that what it got was just right? We’ll never know.

What we do know is that the inadequacy of the stimulus has been a political catastrophe. Yes, things are better than they would have been without the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act: the unemployment rate would probably be close to 12 percent right now if the administration hadn’t passed its plan. But voters respond to facts, not counterfactuals, and the perception is that the administration’s policies have failed.

There's something about this argument that bugs me. It's not that it's wrong, it's just that it's exaggerated. A bigger stimulus almost certainly wouldn't have saved the Democrats' bacon. Here's what I mean:

  • The actual stimulus bill that was passed in Feburary 2009 amounted to about $800 billion. The biggest bill anyone was talking about at the time was $1.2 trillion. That's 50% bigger, and presumably would have been about 50% more effective.
  • For calendar 2010, CBO estimates that the stimulus bill reduced unemployment by something between 0.7 and 1.8 points. Split the difference and the consensus average is about 1.2 points. A stimulus bill that was 50% bigger would therefore probably have reduced unemployment by 0.6 points more than the actual bill.

If this is in the ballpark, it means that with a bigger stimulus bill unemployment today would be 9%, not 9.6%. That would have been well worth the price, but just because it was worth doing doesn't mean it would have made a big electoral difference. Unemployment of 9% is still enormously high, and almost certainly well above the point at which voters start to freak out. You can make similar arguments for GDP growth, disposable income, or any other economic statistic. A bigger stimulus might have made a difference, but it just wouldn't have been big enough to change the dynamics of next week's elections other than very modestly.

Now, if Democrats end up losing control of the House by three seats, the potential for even a modest improvement will seem like a pretty big deal. Still, modest is modest. It's most likely true that the stimulus was too small, but like every other electoral just-so story, it probably doesn't explain as much as you might think.

UPDATE: In comments, several people suggest that the real issue is that the stimulus should have been bigger and better. About 40% of the stimulus was in the form of tax cuts, which have a low fiscal multiplier. So if the stimulus had been $1.2 trillion, and all of it had been spending, we might be talking about a difference of two points of unemployment, not 0.6 points.

That might be true. It depends a lot on estimates of fiscal multipliers, which are pretty tricky because there's so little empirical evidence available on the subject. Still, the argument for a bigger and better stimulus is definitely stronger than the argument for a merely bigger stimulus.

(Unless, of course, you're talking about a truly gargantuan stimulus. But in that case, you're really talking pie in the sky. There just wasn't support in Congress for that.)

The other main contention in comments is that Obama did a lousy job of setting expectations so that he could go back for more money if the economy didn't respond the way he thought it would. I'm less sympathetic to this argument. Given Republican obstructionism, I simply don't think Obama ever had a chance of getting a significant amount of additional stimulus after the first package passed. Even the meager $150 billion the House passed in late 2009 never went anywhere, and I doubt that different rhetoric from Obama would have affected that much.

Inside One of the GOP's Newest Money Machines

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 3:02 PM PDT

The Center for Public Integrity's Peter Stone has a profile of David Carney—George H.W. Bush adviser, Rick Perry consultant, and GOP operative. Carney is the founder and puppetmaster of Americans for Job Security, a shadowy Republican-leaning 501(c)(6) group that's spent $9 million on negative ads this season. (Reporter Andy Kroll and I visited AJS's address recently, which turned out to be a mailbox at a UPS store.)

As a non-profit business league, AJS doesn't have to disclose its donors, making it an ideal partner for wealthy Republican donors who want to unload their cash quietly. Stone reports that the group has offered help to donors looking to cover their tracks, and dabbled in legally dubious campaign activities in Colorado, Texas, and Alaska:

"If you have a candidate, a campaign or an election that needs some help, we can be of some assistance," was Carney’s message, according to the GOP source, who said he has known Carney for two decades and spoke on condition of anonymity because of his broad political ties. "What he was suggesting is, if you give us some money, we'll spend it for you."

Check out the full story.

Take the "How Elitist Are You?" Quiz!

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 2:07 PM PDT

My always-on-point colleague, Kevin Drum, posted this quiz today that's based on the anti-"New Elite" Washington Post ramblings of quasi-eugenicist Charles Murray. (This poll's originator, Claire Berlinski, called it the "How Plebe are You?" quiz, but I happen to think that "plebe" is a fairly elitist term.) So, do establishment conservatives and tea partiers have us lefties pegged right, or are we actually plebeian as all hell? Take a gander at my results:

HOW PLEBE ARE YOU?

1. Can you talk about "Mad Men?" Yep. (-10)
2. Can you talk about the "The Sopranos?" Sure. (-5)
3. Do you know who replaced Bob Barker on "The Price Is Right?" Yep, he's a former jarhead. (+20)
4. Have you watched an Oprah show from beginning to end? Sadly...yep. (+1)
5. Can you hold forth animatedly about yoga? Animatedly? Um, no. (+0)
6. How about pilates? Only to bitch about its most religious adherents. (+10)
7. How about skiing? Nope. (+5)
8. Mountain biking? Nope. (+5)
9. Do you know who Jimmie Johnson is? Yes, and I even know he's not actually a Southerner. (+20)
10. Does the acronym MMA mean anything to you? Does it! Did you see Brock Lesnar get schooled by Cain Velasquez the other night? (+50)
11. Can you talk about books endlessly? Indeed. (-50)
12. Have you ever read a "Left Behind" novel? Yes, and I can tell my Tim LaHaye from my Hal Lindsey. (+30)
13. How about a Harlequin romance? Yes...and it was NASCAR-themed. (+100.)
14. Do you take interesting vacations? While stationed in Iraq (+5000), I once took leave in Paris (-5000).
15. Do you know a great backpacking spot in the Sierra Nevada? No, but my dog peed on the Continental Divide once. (+1)
16. What about an exquisite B&B overlooking Boothbay Harbor? Huh? (+5)
17. Would you be caught dead in an RV? I've ridden in one, but would prefer not to die in one. (+0)
18. Would you be caught dead on a cruise ship? Do USS Constitution, Rhode Island, or Boone count? (+25)
19. Have you ever heard of of Branson, Mo? Yep. Like Memphis and Graceland better, though. (+25)
20. Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club? Nope. (-20)
21. How about the Rotary Club? (-20)
22. Have you lived for at least a year in a small town? Raised in Saugerties, NY. You tell me. (+25)
23. Have you lived for a year in an urban neighborhood in which most of your neighbors did not have college degrees? It's called Hamilton Heights, but you probably just know it as Harlem. (+25)
24. Have you spent at least a year with a family income less than twice the poverty line? I live on the poverty line now. Growing up, my family lived in a trailer in the woods and subsisted for a winter on frozen sausage and saved-up garden herbs. (+500)
25. Do you have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian? Or half my family? Here's where they worshiped. (+50)
26. Have you ever visited a factory floor? Yep. (+10)
27. Have you worked on one? No (-10), but I applied and was rejected for a job on a Motorola line (+10), and went back to waiting tables and teaching for another three years (+50).

Question my weighting if you like, but I appear to stand firmly in plebeian territory at 853 points. Also, I feel it fair to point out that I actually was a plebe once—in fact, my plebe-year class at the Naval Academy was documented in a photo exhibition (+1000), but the photographer is now President Obama's official White House photog (-1500). Which brings me a little closer to normal.

By the by, Murray, the architect of this kulturkampf litmus test, is a truly plebeian fellow of the Washington-based right-wing think thank the American Enterprise Institute. He's a 1965 graduate of Harvard, with a Ph.D. from MIT (-20000), but I won't knock him on it, since after Annapolis I too went to an Ivy (as well as a state school), and like me, he sounds like he got there on his own hard work and financed an education himself. And Lord knows there's nothing more elitist than drawing unfair, generalizing conclusions about people you haven't bothered to meet!

Do you disagree with my self-assessment? Or perhaps with Murray's asinine standards of "real" petit bourgeois Americanness? I'd run them past my parents, but their AOL dial-up connection takes forever to load a page, and since they still have to run a small business with little savings and no health insurance, they tend not to have that sort of free time (+1000000).

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Check Out My Daughter's Sexist Homework

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 12:03 PM PDT

One day last week, our five-year-old brought home the evening's first-grade homework—"decodables" books 29 and 30 from the Open Court Reading series—and my wife and I were like, huh?

Had the textbook publishers failed to make progress on gender roles since the Dick and Jane books of our childhood? Open Court is a phonics program published by SRA/McGraw-Hill and used to teach reading in elementary schools across America, including California, where we send our kids to the Oakland public schools.

To be fair, it's possible we may encounter instances of women in the workplace and men doing housework elsewhere in the series. But having these two books come home simultaneously brought me back to the days of feathered hair, puka shells, and John Travolta in a white disco suit.

Just look at these pages from "Best Mom" and "Jeff's Job."

The GOP's $1,000 Cup of Coffee

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 12:00 PM PDT

On my way to work each morning, I walk past the Capitol Hill Club, an exclusive Republican Party club in southeastern Washington. With its "Fire Pelosi" sign hanging above the entrance, the CHC looks exactly like where you'd expect Boehner and Co. to hang out: stately and posh—with quite delicious food, too. (Or so I'm told.) But is it swanky enough to charge $1,000 for a cup of coffee?

That's what a fundraising invitation from Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) seems to suggest. An invitation obtained by the Sunlight Foundation reveals that Stearns, a shoo-in for re-election in his Ocala, Florida, district, is offering donors 30 minutes of his time for "Coffee Talk" this Friday at the Capitol Hill Club Grill. A member of the energy and commerce and veterans' affairs committees, Stearns' handlers want $1,000 from political action committees in exchange for chatting with the Florida congressman over a cup of joe. (Individuals, I should add, only need to fork over $500 to clink mugs with Stearns.)

It's not like Stearns needs the cash for his reelection bid. As of mid-October, he'd raised $621,000, spent $587,000 of that, and had $2.4 million in cash on hand. By comparison, his challenger, Steve Schonberg, a political novice running without a party affiliation, had raised nothing, spent $7,748, and had $3,001 inthe bank. Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight projects there's a 99.9 percent chance of Stearns winning. 

More likely, Stearns' coffee talk ties into his designs on the chairmanship of the energy and commerce committee should Republicans regain control of the House, which looks increasingly likely. Lately, Stearns has been buddying up with the GOP leadership—including presenting House minority (and likely House speaker) leader John Boehner with a $300,000 check last month—to make up for what Politico described as Stearns' "past decisions to sit on a thick campaign war chest as his party was losing seats." A GOP lobbyist in the same article quipped that Stearns had "a history of not always being in the team player category." Beefing up his war chest with $1,000-a-pop coffee talk could help the Florida congressman make nice with GOP leadership just in time for the Republican Party's imminent shellacking of the Democrats.

A press secretary in Stearns' Washington, DC, office wouldn't comment on the fundraiser.

Here's the invitation:

Alaska Senate Race Just Keeps Getting Weirder

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 12:00 PM PDT

Speaking of Alaska, if you're not paying attention to the three-way-race up in the Last Frontier, you're really missing out.

In just the past two weeks, we've had former Sen. Ted Stevens come back from the dead to endorse Lisa Murkowski. And in an appearance in Fairbanks last week, Murkowski burst into song to promote her write-in campaign. And hers is the relatively normal campaign when compared to Joe Miller's.

Over the weekend, the tea-party backed Republican candidate admitted that he was suspended from his job with the Fairbanks North Star Borough for three days in 2008 for violating its ethics policy. "It is true, during a lunch hour I did get on borough computers and I participated in a private poll for about five minutes," said Miller. "It was a mistake I made."

But other reports state that, as a part-time employee, he didn't get lunch breaks—and he was making a not-so-innocent attempt to oust state Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich (a position he wanted for himself) by voting on four different office computers. And this comes after Miller's security guards last week man-handled a reporter who was trying to ask about this very ethics issue. More information may be revealed later today, as a judge has ruled that Miller's personnel files should be made public.

We're eagerly awaiting those files, as I'm sure many folks are, given there's only one week until the election.

Angle Campaign: Reid Wants to "Steal This Election"

| Tue Oct. 26, 2010 11:46 AM PDT

Sharron Angle's campaign is accusing Harry Reid and his supporters of using "ACORN-style tactics" to buy off people's votes in the Nevada Senate race. "Harry Reid intends to steal this election if he can't win it outright," Cleta Mitchell, Angle's campaign attorney, wrote in a fundraising email to supporters on Tuesday, saying that the campaign needed to raise $80,000 to send "dozens of election law attorneys and poll watchers" to the polls. Mitchell continues:

As Sharron Angle's campaign attorney, I am sorry to report that the Democrats and their cronies are up to their same old tricks, of trying to manipulate the election in hopes of skewing the results in their favor.

Two days ago, the Democratic Secretary of State announced that voters can be provided "free food" at "voter turnout events." Harry Reid has been offering free food and, according to other reports, some Democratic allies such as teachers' unions are offering gift cards in return for a vote for Reid….Now, this week in Las Vegas, at our election hotline, we received reports that some teachers' union representatives were offering Starbucks cards to people to get them to vote for Harry Reid. It is even more disturbing and may be possible that they are using their influence and authority as educators to entice students on behalf of Reid…

The Democrats' willingness to allow voters to be enticed with a promise of any thing of value is a debasement of the process- and it may just destroy everything we've worked for.

Nevada's Secretary of State dismissed the Angle campaign's vote-buying allegations yesterday, saying that Mitchell "fails fails to cite any evidence of ‘vote buying’ in the State of Nevada other than reports to their election hotline about representatives of unions." The Secretary of State urged anyone who had an election crime to report provide supporting evidence such as witness statements, contact information, and specific descriptions of violative conduct."

Angle may the first major candidate to accuse her opponent of stealing the election outright this year, but it's unlikely that she'll be the last. A growing number of Republicans in tight races have taken up the crusade against voter fraud, including Mark Kirk, who's planning a large-scale operation to send poll watchers and lawyers on Election Day. In the meantime, it's also a good way to stoke the conservative base, which is already primed to believe that union thugs and New Black Panther wannabes will steal the election anyway.