2010 - %3, November

Senators Protest Proposed Pipeline

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 12:12 PM EDT

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that a controversial pipeline that TransCanada hopes to build from Alberta to Texas is likely to be approved, even though a full analysis of its impacts has yet to be completed. Her remarks didn't sit well with ten senators, who on Friday blasted the proposal and urged Clinton in a letter to reject "dirty oil" from Canada's tar sands.

"Approval of this pipeline will significantly increase our dependence on this oil for decades," the senators wrote. "We believe the Department of State (DOS) should not pre-judge the outcome of what should be a thorough, transparent analysis of the need for this oil and its impacts on our climate and clean energy goals."

The signatories to the letter were: Sens. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and Ben Cardin (D-Md.). Because the pipeline would cross international boundaries, the State Department has the final say on whether it will be built.

The proposed TransCanada Keystone XL pipeline expansion would run 1,661 miles from Alberta to Nederland, Texas. A decision about the project isn't expected until early 2011, but Clinton said in an October 15 speech that, while the State Department has "not yet signed off on it…we are inclined to do so." Yet the pipeline remains highly controversial; oil from the tar sands has a carbon footprint two to three times higher than conventional fuels. The XL expansion pipeline would have the capacity to bring 510,000 barrels of oil from the tar sands to the US each day.

The pipeline has also been criticized in the states it would cross, particularly Nebraska, where it would bisect a major aquifer. Given the recent history of oil spills and pipeline accidents in the US, folks in the path of the pipeline are growing increasingly concerned about the possibility of a spill in their area. Clinton's remarks also drew ire from both of Nebraska's senators, Mike Johanns (R) and Ben Nelson (D), who have raised concerns about the proposed path of the pipeline.

In the letter, senators outline a long list of questions about the proposal, including inquiries about how much it would increase greenhouse gas emissions in the US, whether it would increase output from Canada's tar sands, and whether there is adequate response capability should an accident occur. The full letter is posted here.

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California Propositions

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Because early voting has become so popular, I posted my usual review of California ballot initiatives a couple of weeks ago. However, since most of us still vote on election day, I figured I should repost them today. So here they are.

As longtime readers know, I'm generally unhappy with the entire initiative process (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you continue reading. This doesn't mean I oppose everything, but it does mean that even things I basically approve of have to pass a pretty high hurdle before I'll vote for them. (With this in mind, if you'd like to see a more conventional take on this year's ballot from a liberal perspective, check out the Courage Campaign's ballot guide here.)

UPDATE: I originally labeled Prop 19 a Maybe. And technically I guess it still is, since it's far from perfect. But there's no use pretending I'm not going to vote for it. Imperfect or not, we have to start somewhere. I'll be voting Yes on Prop 19.

  1. Marijuana Legalization: MAYBE. Let's be honest: nobody needs my help with this one. If you're in favor of legalizing pot, vote Yes. If not, vote No. I'm a little embarrassed to admit this, but I probably won't make up my mind about Prop 19 until I'm actually in the voting booth and ready to push the button.

    On the merits, the big problem with Prop 19 is that it puts California squarely in opposition to federal law. However, this strikes me as a feature, not a bug, since I think it might just be time for a few fireworks. Prop 19 also shares one of the drawbacks of all initiatives, namely that it sets its rules in stone and allows the legislature very little scope to change them if things don't work out. And there's no question that allowing every county in California to write its own marijuana laws could create a fair amount of chaos. What's more, there's also the fact that legalizing marijuana won't just create more casual marijuana users, it will almost certainly also create more heavy users. That's not a good thing.

    So there really are a few things to be careful about here. On the other hand marijuana is, overall, basically a pretty damn safe drug, and the dangers of increased use are modest enough that there's really not much excuse for the state prohibiting grown men and women from using it if they want to. What's more, a perfect legalization measure is unlikely to ever come along, and the California legislature won't work up the stones to deal with this any time soon either. As initiatives go, this one isn't bad.

  2. Redistricting Reform: YES. Two years ago we passed Proposition 11, which took redistricting of state districts out of the hands of the legislature and put it in the hands of a "citizen commission." There were two modest downsides to this: (a) the way the commission was set up is a little bit squirrelly, and (b) there's a lot of evidence that redistricting reform is unlikely to have a big effect.

    Still, I recommended a Yes vote on Prop 11 and I recommend extending it this year to congressional districts. Having legislatures draw their own boundaries is crazy, and we've passed up a bunch of opportunities in the past to fix this. This one isn't bad — the "citizen commission" may be a little squirrelly but it's not obviously biased in favor of either party — and even if it makes only a small difference, small is better than nothing.

    (Also note that this is the kind of thing the initiative process is actually designed for. It's not ballot box budgeting, it's not something trivial that doesn't belong in the constitution, and it's not something the legislature is likely to tackle on its own.)

  3. Park Surcharge: NO. This initiative increases the vehicle license fee by $18 and applies the revenue to maintaining state parks. It's a hard one to vote against since it's fully self-funding and fiscally defensible, but we just can't keep doing stuff like this. Every year we pass ever more initiatives that set up special funds or earmark revenue for special purposes or demand that the legislature allocate spending in a certain way. Then we complain that the budget is a mess. We really have to stop doing this, even in a good cause.

  4. Prohibit State Raids of Local Funds: NO. This one is a little hard to vote against too. It's yet another long-term domino effect of Proposition 13, which not only lowered property taxes but essentially made Sacramento the final arbiter of how to allocate them. As a result, sometimes the state allocates money in ways that local communities resent, like giving more money to schools or using transportation money to pay off state transportation bonds. I sympathize. But you know what? Them's the breaks. Voters wanted lower property taxes in 1978, and one of the results is that local communities lost a big chunk of their funding and gave up a lot of fiscal control to Sacramento. I think that was a bad trade, but if voters ever decide to agree with me the answer is a full-scale overhaul of Prop 13, not constant piecemeal attempts to tie the legislature's hands and continue our collective fantasy that tax cuts have no consequences.

  5. Eliminate Greenhouse Gas Limits: NO. This is a no-brainer. The legislature passed AB 32, the Global Warming Act, four years ago, and it mandates a range of measures to cut greenhouse gases and encourage the use of renewable energy sources. It's extremely popular, as it should be, except with a few big oil refiners who are trying to buy themselves an initiative that would, in practice, repeal it forever. It's a bad idea.

  6. Repeal Business Tax Cut: NO. Another tough vote. These tax cuts were unnecessary, we can't afford them, and they were passed only as part of horsetrading with Republicans in order to enact a budget a couple of years ago. But look: ugly or not, these are the kinds of deals legislatures need to be able to make.

    But I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I might vote Yes once I actually get into the privacy of the voting booth. Special interest tax cuts like these are pretty indefensible in a state with a $19 billion budget hole.

  7. Pass Budgets With a Simple Majority: YES. It is almost clinically insane that California requires a two-thirds vote to pass our annual budget. The whole point of a supermajority requirement is that it be reserved for only a few specific matters of special concern. The annual budget is the exact opposite of that. For good or ill, of course it should only require a simple majority.

  8. Require Two-Thirds Vote To Increase Local Fees: NO. Proposition 13 is most famous for lowering property taxes, but it also established a two-thirds vote requirement for future tax increases of any kind. But what about fees? Those can be raised with only a majority vote, and both the state and local communities often use fees to charge businesses for safety and cleanup programs — for example, levies on beverage containers to pay for recycling programs or fees for cleaning up oil spills and fighting air pollution. Needless to say, oil, tobacco, and alcohol companies don't much care for this, and Prop 26 is their way to put a stop to it. But even if they have a point about the fuzzy boundary between taxes and fees, flatly eliminating the ability to charge corporations for the damage they incur goes too far. (I say "flatly eliminate" because in practice no fee increase can ever get a two-thirds vote and they know it.) The last thing we need is another initiative from rich special interests that effectively ropes off yet another budget area from legislative control. It's madness.

  9. Eliminate Redistricting Reform: NO. This would undo redistricting reform completely. Obviously I'm against that.

Photo Finish for Florida Guv

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 10:39 AM EDT

Down in the Sunshine State, it's a nail-biter of a governor's race, with a new poll released today, on the morning before Election Day, showing Democrat Alex Sink and Republican Rick Scott neck and neck. The poll, released by Quinnipiac University, puts Sink, the state's chief financial officer, ahead of health-care executive Scott by a single percentage point, 44 to 43. Other candidates claim 4 percent in the poll, while 9 percent are undecided.

Sink may be ahead, but it looks like her momentum is slipping on the eve of Election Day. In a Quinnipiac poll from last week, Sink led Scott by 4 points. Here's more from the Miami Herald's Naked Politics blog:

Sink remains slightly better-liked, with 43 percent of voters having a favorable opinion and 40 percent an unfavorable one. Scott remains upside-down: 50 percent view him negatively; 39 percent positively. Sink is also favored by independents (47-34) and draws slightly more Republican votes (10 percent) than Scott (5 percent).

The poll also finds 9 percent of voters say they might change their minds. That's probably doubtful. If there's any change of heart, it could involve not going to the polls. And that would likely hurt Sink. Despite the closeness of the race, Sink remains behind right now, with Republicans vastly outperforming Democrats in votes cast by early and absentee ballots. If Sink fails to inspire rank-and-file Democrats tomorrow, call him Gov. Rick Scott.

And because you've read this far, and have soldiered through this bitter, contentious, attack-heavy election season, here's some lighter fare for you. (Teaser: It's Alex Sink dancing to "Dangerous" by Akon. Judgment withheld.)

A GOP Sweep in Pennsylvania?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 9:22 AM EDT

Despite President Obama's last-gasp visit to Pennsylvania this weekend to drum up Democratic votes and the First Lady's own scheduled rally today, it looks like a GOP sweep is on the cards in that state's hotly contested Senate and gubernatorial races. A new survey by Public Policy Polling shows a GOP double-win, albeit by slimmer margins than previously expected, in the Joe Sestak-Pat Toomey senate race and Dan Onorato-Tom Corbett battle for the governor's mansion.

According to PPP, Toomey, former president of the conservative Club for Growth, leads Sestak, a House congressman, by a 5-point margin, 51 percent to 46 percent. The gap is the gubernatorial race is slightly wider, with Corbett leading Onorato by 7 points, 52 percent to 45 percent.

The driving force behind this latest surge in support for Pennsylvania's GOP candidates? Obama-weary Democrats. As PPP's Tom Jensen noted over the weekend, 21 percent of Democrats in Pennsylvania disapprove of Obama—and more importantly, those jaded Democrats are breaking for Republicans Toomey and Corbett by margins of 68-23 and 69-25, respectively. Jensen adds:

What that leads to overall is 15-19 percent of Democrats voting Republican in these two races. Meanwhile GOP voters are extremely unified, giving each of their nominees 88 percent. Independents are splitting pretty evenly so it is that party unity advantage that has the GOP candidates in a position to win here.

As is the case for him throughout the Midwest Obama's very unpopular in Pennsylvania with 54 percent of voters disapproving of him to just 40 percent who think he's doing a good job. Outgoing Governor Ed Rendell has also fallen strongly out of favor, posting only a 34 percent approval number while 53 percent of voters disapprove of him. As we saw in Wisconsin earlier this week the combination of an unpopular Democratic President and an unpopular Democratic Governor has the potential to be lethal for the party's hopes of keeping some of these offices under their control.

The Most Important Social Security Chart Ever

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

This is apropos of nothing in particular, but I guess that Social Security is going to be back in the news when the president's deficit commission reports back, so I want to take this chance to post the single most important chart you'll ever see about the finances of Social Security. Here it is:

This is from page 15 of the latest trustees report. What's important is that, unlike Medicare, Social Security costs don't go upward to infinity. They go up through about 2030, as the baby boomers retire, and then level out forever. And the long-term difference between income and outgo is only about 1.5% of GDP.

This is why I keep saying that Social Security is a very manageable problem. It doesn't need root-and-branch reform. The trust fund makes up Social Security's income gap for the next 30 years, so all it needs is some modest, phased-in tweaks that cut payouts by a fraction of a point of GDP and increase income a fraction of a point. Here's a proposal from Jed Graham that's designed to cut benefits a bit for high earners and encourage them to retire later, and maybe it's great. I haven't looked at it in detail. But the point is that the changes he recommends are fairly small. Any plan for fixing Social Security requires only tiny benefit cuts and tiny revenue increases. It's just not that big a deal.

The Guilty Pleasures of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 7:00 AM EDT

Bradford Cox is growing up. As the singer and primary songwriter of Atlanta-spawned Deerhunter, and under his solo moniker Atlas Sound, his music has often bridged the closer-than-you'd-think divide between pop accessibility and experimentation. But early Deerhunter releases tended toward noise and bombast, an overt exertion of youthful energy and chaos. With each subsequent release, with Deerhunter and on his own, Cox has increasingly explored the more contemplative side of his musical coin, and to great effect. His 2008 Microcastles/Weird Era Cont. contained some of his band's catchiest tunes and most fully realized lyrics to date. Deerhunter's brand new album, Halcyon Digest, further tones down the noise and ramps up the vocals. We recently probed Cox's complex mind to learn about the music he listens to in the privacy of his own tour bus.

Mother Jones: What's your favorite new or upcoming release, and why?

Bradford Cox: Avey Tare's Down There, because it makes every day Halloween.

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Basia Bulat's Northern Exposure

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

If you remember June Carter Cash then you'll certainly recall her autoharp, the fretless cousin of the zither, with buttons that allow the musician to play automatic chords. Canadian folk singer Basia Bulat deserves some credit for reviving the instrument in the contemporary music scene, although, as she will tell you, she's far from the only person strumming one. "Sufjan Stevens uses it in almost every song," she insists, then ticks off a list of others: "Grizzly Bear, PJ Harvey; the first time I saw it was at a Bonnie Prince Billy concert." At performances, fans can catch Bulat clad in brightly colored skirts, blond hair streaming, cradling her autoharp and belting out lush folk tunes—her Tracy Chapman-like voice has almost the opposite timbre as Cash's.

Her instrumental talent is extensive. The daughter of a music teacher, she grew up playing piano, upright bass, flute, guitar, you name it. She  experiments with all sorts of obscure instruments, like the hammered harp and the ukelin (a cross between a mandolin and a ukulele). "A lot of them that I found, you would get out of an old Sears catalog as a novelty," she explains. "I think they were trying to sell them as the next big thing, but they never quite made it."

These instruments don't tour well and get out of tune very easily, so why bother? "I think I just like hybrids, I think I like weirdos," Bulat replies.

How to Speak to the Taliban, Maybe [VIDEO]

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

This week Gen. David Petraeus's latest "advancing to the rear" war tactic takes effect. As of Monday, all US troops stationed in Afghanistan will now need to demonstrate some proficiency in Dari, a Persian-based dialect spoken by half the Afghan population.

"Even a few phrases really breaks the ice and just shows good intentions," Petraeus told a military interviewer in a puff piece extolling FRAGO ("fragmentary order") 10-32.

Too bad soldiers and military experts don't share his enthusiasm. "Luckily, none of the Taliban or the communities they control speak Pashto, Urdu, Punjabi, or Arabic. Learning those would be silly," says Joshua Foust, an Afghanistan researcher and writer for PBS's Need to Know.

Foust has a point. The original Afghan Taliban speak Pashto, the language of the Pashtun ethnic group that straddles the border with Pakistan. By the CIA's own estimation, half of Afghans speak one of thirtysomething languages other than Dari. Critical shortages of Afghan language experts have plagued post-9/11 US military efforts. Even when officers host local "shuras" with tribal leaders to generate face-to-face goodwill with Afghan civilians, firsthand videos—like Sebastian Junger's and Tim Hetherington's Restrepo—show the futility get-togethers can be useless. "[It's] immediately obvious, from the language barrier, to the total opposition of priorities, to the relentless references to former squad leaders whose approach to community relations left much to be desired," writes one reviewer of Restrepo. (Having seen the film, and similar local council powwows in Iraq, I won't disagree.)

Not only that, the nature of military bureaucracy means FRAGO 10-32 will probably amount to nothing. Fragmentary orders are on-the-fly commands issued as updates to standing military policies in a given war theater. In a theater as fast-changing and unfavorable as Afghanistan, such orders are as abundant as flies on a far—and about as powerful, too. "You know how many FRAGOs are out there? And how many are ignored?" tweets Captain Crispin Burke, an Army pilot who writes extensively on counterinsurgency.

So what gives with Petraeus' order? Is it simply sheer optimism? Maybe not. Some reports indicate that the general is trying to set the groundwork for a US withdrawal by shoring up security in major centers like Kabul and Kandahar, and ceding much of the territory that's already held by the Taliban and other anti-NATO elements. Those disputed territories are generally in regions where Dari won't get you very far, but GIs might find Dari for Beginners more useful in the populated areas that they'll be reinforcing: It's the lingua franca for most political communication in the country.

That's not losing, maybe, but it's definitely advancing to the rear. And as a strategy, it doesn't inspire great confidence even among military officers. As one NATO soldier told the New York Times recently, if the Taliban makes a big comeback in populated areas, "Then we'll know that it didn't work."

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 1, 2010

Mon Nov. 1, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

With his wingman, Command Sgt. Maj. Marvin Hill, by his side, Gen. David H. Petraeus praises 160 Soldiers with the 4th Cavalry, 10th Mountain Division for their patriotism and dedication to duty before reenlisting them in the U.S. Army. Petraeus, commander of NATO and International Security Assistance Force troops in Afghanistan, traveled to Camp Spann near Mazar e Sharif in Balkh Province to preside over the mass reenlistment ceremony. Hill is ISAF's top enlisted Soldier. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Lorie Jewell

Should You Shut Down Your Computer or Put It to Sleep?

| Mon Nov. 1, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Phew! You've made it through another day at the office. You're just about to don your coat and head out into the evening—but your computer's still on. Should you turn it off, or leave it in "sleep" mode? Some say it's better to shut down, since that way it won't be using any power while you're not around. But others say that the process of shutting down and starting up again uses more power than letting your machine sleep. Who's right?

First things first: Turning your computer off, then on again does not use more power than leaving it on in "sleep" mode. "That's a myth," says Bruce Nordman, an energy efficiency researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Another myth: Turning your computer on and off is bad for the machine. "In order to do any real damage, you'd have to turn it on and off far more frequently than anyone would ever want to," says Nordman. That said, trying to remember to shut down your machine every night isn't necessarily the most effective energy-savings strategy. Here's why.

Fifteen years ago, when computer manufacturers first experimented with sleep mode (it used to be called "standby"), the energy savings weren't very dramatic. Today things are different: According to energy efficiency expert Michael Bluejay, while in use, the average laptop requires 15-60 watts, while desktops use 65-250 watts, plus an additional 15-70 for the monitor. In sleep mode, however, most laptops use a measly two watts, and desktops with monitors use 5-10 watts, says Nordman. ("Hibernate" modes on some computers use even less energy—for a good rundown on the difference between various power management modes, check out Michael Bluejay's guide.) Because sleep settings use so little energy, Nordman believes that it isn't really worth making a big production out of remembering to shut down your computer every day: "Much more important to make sure that your computer is set to go into power-saving mode after a certain period of idle time."