2011 - %3, January

Is Energy Really "Non-Partisan"?

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 7:00 AM EST

Many have remarked already at this point that Tuesday's State of the Union address did not include a single reference to "global warming," "climate change," or even something vague like "the environment." There was, however, a lengthy discussion of energy, with President Obama calling for a new goal of drawing 80 percent of electricity from "clean" sources by 2035.

Obama has made clear statements on climate in his previous addresses; his first in 2009 talked about the need to "save our planet from the ravages of climate change," and called for a "market-based cap on carbon pollution" to drive the production of renewable energy. And in 2010 he called on Congress to pass "a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America." There was no such mention this year which, coupled with Monday's announcement that climate czar Carol Browner is hitting the road, has likely upped the market for heartburn medicine among greenies.

With a cap and trade bill all but dead, it's no mystery why he left it out this year. Instead, he devoted a page and a half of the 21-page printout of the speech handed to reporters Tuesday night to discussing energy. As one can expect, environmental groups weren't all that excited about the inclusion of "clean coal" and nuclear in that mix, but that's pretty broadly expected as the price one must pay to draw broader support for a clean energy standard. (See more on what they actually mean by the term "clean energy" here.)

On top of the 2035 goal, his plan calls for putting 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, giving 80 percent of American access to high-speed rail, and ending a number of subsides and tax loopholes for oil (the part of his package that I believe might actually accomplish quite a bit on climate). The administration also said that it will call for expanding the Department of Energy's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy in this year's budget and doubling the number of innovation hubs to six. (More on the plan here.)

Other pundits have already wondered whether the issue of climate has simply become too divisive. The theory, then, is that clean energy should be an issue that crosses party lines and brings us all together for that Sputnik moment that Obama emphasized. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the Senate's champion on climate and energy issues, told me last night after the speech that she SAW this a deft move on the part of the president. "He's trying to unify," said Boxer. "There are a lot of people, when they hear 'climate change,' they say, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about it' … I think it was very smart of him."

And in a call with bloggers on Wednesday morning, Secretary of Energy Steven Ch, reiterated the belief that energy is a "nonpartisan issue," as it means creating jobs and building wealth. "It doesn't matter because this is wealth creation," said Chu. "Rather than get in a debate about climate predictions, say this is a debate about our future prosperity." (Chu also noted that "energy is more of a regional issue than a Republican-Democrat issue," which I think is absolutely true.)

Here's the problem: I really, really wish Chu, Boxer, and Obama were right. But I haven't seen much to indicate that this is the case. In remarks at a House hearing on Wednesday, Alaska Rep. Don Young spun Obama's remarks last night as evidence that he "doesn't believe in fossil fuels," as if they were akin to unicorns. There are plenty of people—and most of them happen to be Republicans—who don't think that policies to support clean energy are worthwhile and who will oppose any attempt to move away from them. See the list of programs they'd like to cut if you don't believe me.

My colleague David Roberts makes a compelling case for why this gambit just might work, but color me not yet convinced. Meanwhile, this latest iteration of the Obama climate and energy plan includes few of the driving forces that would actually make renewables cost-competitive in the near future and allow renewables to compete (the big one being, of course, a price on carbon pollution). Utilities aren't making the switch out of the goodness of their largely-coal-powered hearts; they will do it because what has long been the cheap option will be significantly less so. And making that happen requires an acknowledgment that carbon pollution is bad and clean energy sources are good.

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for Janary 27, 2011

Thu Jan. 27, 2011 6:30 AM EST

A U.S. Army Soldier from Company C, 1st Battalion, 133rd Infantry Regiment, works his way through some brush outside the village of Nengaresh, Afghanistan, Jan. 21. Photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Ryan C. Matson, Task Force Red Bulls Public Affairs Office

Zaire Paige and Others Who Roughed Their Way to Hollywood

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 4:00 AM EST

In Hollywood, it takes a gangster to play a gangster. Zaire Paige, the 21-year-old who recently scored a role alongside Richard Gere and Don Cheadle in the new-release Brooklyn's Finest, hung out with Crips members during his adolescent days in Brownsville—New York City's "most murderous" neighborhood. Paige auditioned for the role in 2008 at the urging of a friend who was hired to consult on the film's "street authenticity," as the Village Voice reports. Director Antoine Fuqua was sold immediately. "He is a kid who obviously comes from a violent world...He just fit the bill," Fuqua later said of Paige. "He had no fear in his eyes."

The Immigration Show

| Thu Jan. 27, 2011 2:37 AM EST

Even though deportations of illegal immigrants are up under the Obama administration, the LA Times reports that Republicans want to return to the high-profile workplace raids of the Bush era. But why return to a less efficient program? Let's take a look:

Targeting employers is part of an effort by the administration to thwart illegal immigration by reducing the demand for illegal jobs, which draws hundreds of thousands across the border each year to look for work. "There is a laser-like focus on holding employers accountable. In the final analysis, they are the ones supplying the jobs. It is the greatest use of the resources," [Kumar] Kibble said.

Under Obama, cases against employers are up sharply: Immigration and Customs Enforcement quadrupled the number of employer audits after Obama took office, increasing the number of inspections and arrests against those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Businesses were fined $6.9 million in fiscal 2010, up from $675,000 in 2008.

That explains it. The Obama approach might be more effective, but it actually targets the business community, and we can't have that, can we? Better to do something showy but ineffective instead.

Is Tunisia the First Domino?

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 11:00 PM EST

Joshua Tucker makes an argument today that Tunisia might be the leading edge of a broader revolt in the Middle East, just as Poland was the leading edge of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989. But then I think he undermines his own case:

One fundamental difference that I can not help noting between 1989 and 2011, however, is the lack of a powerful external actor enforcing the non-democratic regimes in the Middle East. East-Central European communist propaganda notwithstanding, few probably doubted by the 1980s the most of the region would throw off communism if Moscow ever gave them the opportunity to do so. Thus perhaps the most crucial information transmitted by the success of the Polish and Hungarian revolutions was precisely the fact that the Russians were not planning on intervening. I'm not sure there is anything analogous in place in the Middle East.

I'm no expert on 1989, but I think it's hard to overstate the importance of Mikhail Gorbachev in all this. For a variety of reasons, he chose not to intervene to prop up the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, as his predecessors had done in 1956 and 1968, and that made all the difference. If Soviet tanks had rolled into Warsaw or Prague, there's no telling how much longer the Iron Curtain would have remained standing.

It's pretty unlikely that anything similar will happen in the Middle East. After all, its leaders know the lesson of 1989 just as well as we do. As Marc Lynch puts it, "Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past." Still, after ticking off all the reasons that the Tunisian revolt probably won't spread successfully, he says that skepticism sounds a bit hollow this time:

There are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off. And yet... it doesn't feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table... and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.

Tunisia has manifestly inspired people across the region and galvanized their willingness to take risks to push for change, even without any clear leadership from political parties, Islamist movements, or even civil society. The Tunisian example has offered the possibility of success, and models for sustained action by a decentralized network, after a long and dispiriting period of authoritarian retrenchment. Al-Jazeera and the new media have played their role in reshaping political opportunities and narratives, but it is people who have seized those opportunities. And the core weaknesses of these Arab states — fierce but feeble, as Nazih Ayubi might have said — have been exposed. They have massively failed to meet the needs of their people, with awesome problems of unemployment, inflation, youth frustration and inequality combined with the near-complete absence of viable formal political institutions.

Stay tuned.

Fox News Missed Obama's SOTU PowerPoint

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 8:11 PM EST

Ellen Ratner, one of Fox News Channel's on-air White House pundits, has a bone to pick with President Obama's State of the Union address: It was soooo 1.0. In a FoxNews.com missive titled "Obama's State of the Union Speech—Where Was the Power Point?" Ratner disses the prez for being long-winded ("The speech needs to be shorter. A good speech can be given in twenty or thirty minutes.") She also takes issue with the medium of his speech:

Now, with people clicking on the Web [sic] for information 24/7, it is time for the State of the Union becomes a place where Americans watching from home or office can consume the information in a manner that makes sense for them...

What if the president had prepared a clear PowerPoint presentation on the taxpayer dollars given to the oil companies by taxpayers and had shown citizens how he would use that additional revenue to invest in "tomorrow's energy."

She goes on to list a couple of other things the POTUS should have included in a State of the Union PowerPoint. And the thing is: He did. Aside from her in-touch-with-reality problem about taxpayer dollars going to oil companies (we love our civic duty to keep our petro-CEOs accustomed to making $141,000 a day!), Ratner's got a big not-doing-her-homework problem, too: The White House released a detailed graphic presentation of its SOTU agenda online. It's included below.

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Should Real Life Be More Like Videogames?

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 7:04 PM EST

Game researcher Jane McGonigal writes in the Wall Street Journal today that real life isn't good enough anymore:

Gamers want to know: Where in the real world is the gamer's sense of being fully alive, focused and engaged in every moment? The real world just doesn't offer up the same sort of carefully designed pleasures, thrilling challenges and powerful social bonding that the gamer finds in virtual environments. Reality doesn't motivate us as effectively. Reality isn't engineered to maximize our potential or to make us happy.

....In a good game, we feel blissfully productive. We have clear goals and a sense of heroic purpose. More important, we're constantly able to see and feel the impact of our efforts on the virtual world around us....When we play, we also have a sense of urgent optimism. We believe whole-heartedly that we are up to any challenge, and we become remarkably resilient in the face of failure.

Well, sure. After all, games are deliberately engineered to be addictive, and they do it largely by producing an artificial world in which failure has no serious consequences and success is all but guaranteed to anyone willing to put in a moderate amount of effort. That's why we call it "entertainment." But this is nothing surprising. Lots of other leisure activities make you artificially "alive, focused and engaged in every moment" too: gambling, skydiving, and snorting cocaine, just to name a few. The difference, McGonigal thinks, is that the artificial thrills of gaming can be put to real-life use:

In 2010, more than 57,000 gamers were listed as co-authors for a research paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. The gamers—with no previous background in biochemistry—had worked in a 3D game environment called Foldit, folding virtual proteins in new ways that could help cure cancer or prevent Alzheimer's. The game was developed by scientists at the University of Washington who believed that gamers could outperform supercomputers at this creative task—and the players proved them right, beating the supercomputers at more than half of the game's challenges.

More recently, more than 19,000 players of EVOKE, an online game that I created for the World Bank Institute, undertook real-world missions to improve food security, increase access to clean energy and end poverty in more than 130 countries. The game focused on building up players' abilities to design and launch their own social enterprises.

After 10 weeks, they had founded more than 50 new companies—real businesses working today from South Africa and India to Buffalo, N.Y. My favorite is Libraries Across Africa, a new franchise system that empowers local entrepreneurs to set up free community libraries. It also creates complementary business opportunities for selling patrons refreshments, WiFi access and cellphone time. The first is currently being tested in Gabon.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't pretty skeptical of this. With rare exceptions, real life is just never going to be much like a videogame. But it's certainly an interesting idea, and I'd love to be proven wrong.

UPDATE: Here's an article about McGonigal and gaming that we published on Monday.

Wyoming State Rep.: Ban Sharia, Blow Up Congress

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 6:59 PM EST

Step aside, Joe Manchin. Meet Wyoming state representive Gerald Gay, of the great city of Casper. Last week, Gay introduced legislation to ban Sharia law from being implemented in his state, making Wyoming the 11th state to consider such a proposal. (So far only Louisiana, Tennessee, and Oklahoma have actually banned Islamic law.)

Today, Sarah Posner digs a bit deeper and finds that Gay's far-right rhetoric extends well beyond fears of a North American caliphate. In a series of campaign videos last year, Gay, equipped with a Smith & Wesson double-action revolver, a pump-action shotgun, and a semi-automatic AR-15, destroys "socialism," the Affordable Care Act, the US Capitol, and cap-and-trade (depicted in the video as two rather unfortunate turkeys). As he explains, following the symbolic destruction of President Obama's legislative agenda, "that's the way you deal with those kinds of government programs." More, via Religion Dispatches:

[Gay's] web page at the State of Wyoming Legislature website also says he belongs to the JPFO -- Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. The JPFO, which is popular with militia groups, claims, among other things, that the late Sen. Thomas Dodd asked the Library of Congress to translate the Nazi Gun Control Act of 1938 into English so he could use it for the U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, and more generally insists that the citizenry needs to be armed against government "tyranny," which can lead to genocide. This sort of conspiracy theory is not unlike those being promoted by far right Christian groups after the Tucson shootings.

Update: South Carolina lawmakers, who unsuccessfully attempted ban Sharia last year, are at it again.

House Votes to Gut Presidential Public Financing

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 4:16 PM EST

The House of Representatives voted 239 to 160 on Wednesday, along party lines, to eliminate public financing for presidential elections. The bill to axe the Presidential Election Fund, as it's known, was brought to a vote without any committee hearings or expert testimony, and after only a day's worth of floor debate. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a staunch advocate of public financing, has called the move "a sneak attack on the system." Campaign reform advocates have likewise decried the financing repeal vote, saying it would usher in a new Watergate-like era where special interests—not regular voters—decide who wins and loses in American elections. "House Republicans voted to turn the presidency over to influence-seeking big donors, bundlers, and corporate and other outside spenders," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, in a statement.

The public financing bill now moves to the Senate, where it's unlikely to gain traction because Democrats still hold a slim majority.

As I reported on Monday, the presidential public financing system, which also funds party conventions, emerged from the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. After it was revealed that Richard Nixon's re-election campaign had illegally accepted donations from big corporations, Congress created a public financing system that would encourage small donations and reduce the influence of special interests. Except for Barack Obama, every presidential candidate, Democratic and Republican, since 1976 has used the system.

Campaign finance reformers said it is crucial to reform public financing, not eliminate it. "Imagine if you didn't make any changes to the tax code since 1976. Of course public financing is outdated," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center. "The issue, then, is not to get rid of, but how to fix." Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans have previously supported fixing the system, as I noted on Monday:

Legislation to make presidential public financing more competitive has won support from both parties in the past. In 2003, Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) of and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced a bill that would reform the public financing system; Reps. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) filed a companion bill in the House. "The public financing system for presidential elections, which aims to allow candidates to run competitive campaigns without becoming overly dependent on private donors, is a system worth improving and preserving," the lawmakers said in a joint statement.

The CBO's Crystal Ball

| Wed Jan. 26, 2011 4:04 PM EST

Over at The Corner, Avik Roy is outraged at today's estimate from the CBO that the 2011 deficit will be $1.5 trillion. Beyond the outrage, though, he also implies that perhaps this reflects badly on the CBO's forecasting ability, since they predicted a lower deficit last year. "What’s a $500 billion, 50 percent error among friends?" he sneers. ZOMG!

To his credit, though, Roy reproduces a table showing exactly where the $500 billion "error" comes from. Here it is:

Hmmm. Estimated 2011 revenues are down $442 billion, accounting for virtually all of the difference. And where does that come from? Table A-1 in the CBO report provides the answer: nearly all of it is due to the package of tax cuts that were signed into law during the lame duck session last year. Almost none of it is due to technical changes.

So there's no "error" here. The CBO did fine. What happened was that Congress passed a whole bunch of tax cuts — cuts that I'm sure Roy supported — and those cuts increased the deficit. Only a conservative could possibly be surprised by this. Or someone trying his best to undermine the credibility of the CBO for unrelated reasons. Like, say, someone who doesn't like the CBO's contention that healthcare reform will reduce the deficit.

By the way, did I mention that Roy mostly writes about healthcare reform?

UPDATE: Roy responds here. He's right that not all of the lost revenue comes from extension of the Bush tax cuts. The tax package passed during the lame duck session includes both extension of the Bush tax cuts and various other tax cuts implemented at the same time (the AMT patch, payroll tax holiday, etc.). I've corrected the text.