2011 - %3, November

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for November 4, 2011

Fri Nov. 4, 2011 5:57 AM EDT

A soldier from the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team runs through STX lanes during the Full Spectrum Training Event being held at Hohenfels Germany. US Army Europe Public Affairs photo by Richard Bumgardner.

 

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Solar Power's Good News

| Fri Nov. 4, 2011 5:55 AM EDT

The past couple of months have been grim ones for anybody who favors federal support of renewable energy. First, Solyndra declared bankruptcy, providing gleeful conservative skeptics with weeks of anti-solar headlines. Then this week Beacon Power, a flywheel storage company, followed Solyndra into bankruptcy, and an Energy Department watchdog told Congress that the DOE had been ill-equipped to quickly distribute the $35 billion in new funding it got from the 2009 stimulus bill.

So today let's take a break from the gloom and look instead at some good news on the federally funded renewable power front. A couple of weeks ago, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced a "game changing" new development in solar panel fabrication. It's not sexy: It's called the Optical Cavity Furnace, and it's a new way of manufacturing solar cells that uses optics rather than radiant or infrared heat. There are a couple of big benefits to this new technology.

First, NREL says the new furnace uses around half the energy of traditional manufacturing processes, costs 25 to 50 percent less, and has faster process times. This means that solar panels can be made both faster and cheaper than before.

Second, because its optical technology is more precise, the solar cells it creates have a higher efficiency.  "Our calculations show that some material that is at 16 percent efficiency now is capable of reaching 20 percent if we take advantage of these photonic effects," NREL principal engineer Bhushan Sopori said. "That's huge." Lauren Simenauer and Sean Pool explain what this means:

The White House has challenged the solar industry to produce clean electricity at $1 per watt. It has also set a national goal to achieve 80 percent clean energy use by 2035…The good news is that researchers are racing toward that goal at an impressive rate.

In fact, the cost of photovoltaic, or PV, cells had already fallen 50 percent in the past two years prior to the DOE announcement. A June 2011 projection predicted PV module prices would hit the goal of $1 per watt by 2013; now the finish line of the proverbial "race to the bottom" seems even more imminent.

In a way, this is the quiet silver lining behind Solyndra's highly publicized failure. Solyndra's goal was to produce cheaper, better solar power, and it failed because other companies beat them to the punch. But this is good news. Whether it's Solyndra or someone else, what's important is that stiff competition in the solar sector is producing dramatic gains in solar efficiency. Ramez Naam provides the numbers:

Over the last 30 years, researchers have watched as the price of capturing solar energy has dropped exponentially. There's now frequent talk of a "Moore's law" in solar energy. In computing, Moore's law dictates that the number of components that can be placed on a chip doubles every 18 months…If similar dynamics worked in solar power technology, then we would eventually have the solar equivalent of an iPhone—incredibly cheap, mass distributed energy technology that was many times more effective than the giant and centralized technologies it was born from.

…Averaged over 30 years, the trend is for an annual 7 percent reduction in the dollars per watt of solar photovoltaic cells…If the 7 percent decline in costs continues (and 2010 and 2011 both look likely to beat that number), then in 20 years the cost per watt of PV cells will be just over 50 cents…The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now…10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today. Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favorable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.

Solar power isn't the answer to all our energy needs. No matter how cheap it gets, we'll still probably need nukes or natural gas to provide baseload power. But even if solar can only provide electricity during daylight hours — and improved storage technology may change even that in the future—daylight hours are when electricity use is highest. Combine cheap solar with hydro, wind, and, maybe, biofuels, and the need for fossil fuels could diminish dramatically over the next few decades. What's more, the need for the worst of the fossil fuels, coal, could diminish even more.

All that depends a lot on how serious we get about this, but it depends even more on solar power getting cheaper than coal. Federally funded basic research, like NREL's work on the Optical Cavity Furnace, is a key part of that.

Court Finds Biologist Guilty of Poisoning Cats

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 6:37 PM EDT

A few months back, I asked whether feral cats are bad for the environment. The answer that I got when I posed the question to the conservation biology community was a resounding "yes." Unsurprising, since cats, officially an invasive species in the US, take a major toll on birds and other small critters. This unfortunate fact of nature has resulted in en epic battle between two very able opponents: the cat people and the bird people. In the past, the cat people have really brought it:

Many of the biologists I spoke with say they've been harassed and even physically threatened when they've presented research about the effect cats have on wildlife. In 2005, research by Stan Temple, an emeritus professor of wildlife biology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was cited by a panel that proposed studying cats' impact on birds in that state. In response, he received several death threats. "You cat-murdering bastard," one activist wrote to Temple. "I declare an open season on Stan Temple." (Police promptly arrested the suspect.) When Travis Longcore, science director of the environmental group Urban Wildlands, filed suit in Los Angeles against the city's TNR program, an irate blogger posted his cellphone number.

But now a wildlife biologist has taken the fight to a new level. Science reports that the D.C. Superior court has found Nico Dauphiné, a wildlife biologist who has written papers about the threat that feral cats pose to birds, guilty of attempting to poison cats. A neighbor of Dauphiné's, who had been leaving food out for strays in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood, noticed that in the mornings the food was sometimes coated with white powder. She alerted the local humane society, who tested the powder and found it to be poison. The Humane Society then teamed up with police to make a video of the food bowls, which was used as evidence in Dauphiné's trial:

That night around 10:30 p.m., Dauphiné can be seen approaching the bowl, pulling something out of a small bag, reaching down toward the food twice, and then leaving the scene. The next morning, police found the food covered with the same white powder as before, which tested positive as poison.

Oof. A bunch of the conservation biologists I talked to for my piece accused cat advocates of acting emotionally rather than rationally in defending cats that kill birds. But the poisoning incident doesn't exactly make Dauphiné look like a dispassionate scientist, either.

 

 

The Pentagon's Bulging Toy Chest

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 5:57 PM EDT

Rep. Buck McKeon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, writes to the New York Times to defend himself against the slander of caring about jobs:

To be clear, as a fiscal conservative I have never supported policies that advance government expenditure for the express purpose of job creation. Indeed, I believe that the private sector is far better equipped to promote lasting jobs growth than Washington will ever be.

....Congress is charged by the Constitution with providing for the common defense by raising and supporting our armed forces. We don’t spend tax dollars to protect American jobs, but to protect American lives. As such, it is accurate to point out that cuts in defense spending will cripple a critical industry, result in huge job losses and erode our ability to provide for the common defense.

Fine. McKeon doesn't care about jobs. He's a Republican, after all. But would cuts in the defense budget really "cripple" the defense industry? Adam Weinstein directs our attention to a new study from the Stimson Center that  suggests the Pentagon's cupboard isn't quite as bare as they'd like you to believe:

The study shows there's one big reason the brass are concerned about budget-cutting discussions in Congress: They've been double dipping into the taxpayer's pocket to finance weapons purchases. Of the roughly $1 trillion spent on gadgetry since 9/11, 22 percent of it came from "supplemental" war funding—annual outlays that are voted on separately from the regular defense budget. Those bills are primarily intended to keep day-to-day operations running in Iraq and Afghanistan—meaning that if a member of Congress votes against a supplemental spending bill, she exposes herself to charges that she doesn't "support the troops" in harm's way.

But once the services got the supplemental money, they managed to spend $232.8 billion of it back home on the manufacture of costly weapons like Abrams heavy battle tanks and the troubled F-22 jet fighter—neither of which has proven particularly useful in counterinsurgency warfare.

There's more at the link. Bottom line, though, is that the Stimson report suggests that the Pentagon has very successfully modernized its forces over the past decade and isn't quite the red-headed stepchild McKeon makes them out to be. If budgets need to be cut, the Pentagon will just have to figure out where its fat is like everyone else.

Tax Base Broadening: Debunked

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 3:30 PM EDT
Anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

Business leaders, some congressional Democrats, and almost all congressional Republicans think corporate tax rates should be lower. By closing loopholes, corporate tax-cutters argue, the government could reduce rates from the current 35 percent to 25 percent or even lower—all without losing revenue. The Tax Policy Center's Howard Gleckman, though, says that idea is bogus

The non-partisan [Joint Committee on Taxation] found that even if Congress scrubbed every single corporate preference from the code (a political fantasy if ever there was one) it could not get the corporate rate below 28 percent without adding to the budget deficit, raising taxes on individuals, or cutting spending.

The JCT study, which was requested and released by House Ways & Means Committee Democrats, comes just days after the panel’s chairman, Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI), proposed a 25 percent rate as part of a major corporate reform. Camp did not say how he’d pay for his proposed changes.

My Tax Policy Center colleague Eric Toder has been making a similar point for months: It is painfully difficult to find the money to reduce rates very much. Unlike corporate breaks, there are more than enough individual tax preferences out there to pay for individual rate reduction (and have money left over the cut the deficit). The problem is merely a lack of political will. Abolish the mortgage interest deduction anyone?

According to the JCT, there aren’t enough tax breaks, in dollar terms, to lower the rate below 28 percent. 70 percent of corporate tax breaks come from breaks for expensing research and experimentation costs, and capital investment.

As Gleckman points out, a number of companies, including Google and GE, already pay an effective tax rate below 10 percent, thanks to various subsidy packages and tax breaks. In fact, a study that Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy released on Thursday found that 71 of the 280 companies surveyed paid a tax rate of less than 10 percent of their pre-tax profits last year. GE, for example, paid a rate of minus 45 percent, according to the report. (The company calls the study "inaccurate and distorted," and said it has paid billions in taxes over the past decade.)

In any case, one imagines that companies that are already paying negative tax rates—i.e., getting money from the government—would have some pretty unkind words for any lawmakers daring to unwind their favorite loopholes. And that's what makes corporate tax reform so hard to execute.

Florida Tea Partiers Freak Out About Shariah, Vol. XXVIII

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 3:13 PM EDT

I have a piece up today on Florida Republican Adam Hasner, who has used his record of fighting radical Islam (in the form of university professors and interfaith lobbying groups) as a springboard for a US Senate run. Hasner's rise has been made possible by the political culture of South Florida, which has seen a boom in anti-Islam think tanks and activist groups since 9/11. You should read the piece, but as if on cue, Ashley Lopez at the Florida Independent has a good story that perfectly illustrates the landscape:

Hassan Shibly of the Florida chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has been disinvited by organizers of the upcoming Florida Tea Party Convention.

While tea party organizers say it was because CAIR "disrespected" one of its speakers, CAIR members say it was because an event organizer was called out for trying to shut down an upcoming CAIR convention while he was reaching out to the group.

Long story short: After originally inviting CAIR to attend the tea party convention, organizers sought to sabotage the group's own functions behind the scenes and, when called on it, disinvited CAIR. Organizer Geoff Ross tells Lopez he's upset that CAIR has criticized anti-Muslim blogger Pamela Geller, and believes that the organization is using "Shariah" to silence its critics. That comes just a few weeks after Nezar Hamze, president of CAIR's South Florida outfit, was blocked in his bid to join the Broward County Republican Executive Committee over concerns about his loyalties. As Justin Elliott reported, the opposition to Hamze was led by Richard Swier, vice president of United West—the organization Hasner helped found to combat radical Islam in South Florida. Full circle.

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Good News About Beer and Butchers

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 2:54 PM EDT

While the food and ag industries can use their lobbying power to dominate national ag policy, they can by no means shut down the work going on all around the country to create vital alternatives. Two news items have crossed my desk this week that remind me not to despair about recent shenanigans in Washington.

• The first one involves beer—specifically, a bubbling up of craft brewing in St. Louis, the US headquarters of global beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev. According to a recent New York Times article, the number of craft breweries in the city have jumped to 11 from three in 2008, the year the Belgian conglomerate InBev bought then US-based Anheuser-Busch, maker of the iconic (and dreadful) Budweiser brand. In the suburbs surrounding St. Louis, The Times reports, there are now another dozen brewhouses.

This might sound like a frivolous thing to get excited about, but hear me out. Two massive global companies, Anheuser-Busch InBev and its rival SAB Miller, produce nearly 80 percent of the beer consumed in the US. In their business model, beer is a flavorless industrial commodity, to be churned out in a few vast factories and bottled into a dizzying array of contrived brands.

The GOP's Deregulatory Christmas List

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 2:50 PM EDT

The Senate is set to take up votes on the Republican and Democratic infrastructure proposals this afternoon, but the GOP has already stuffed their proposal with regulatory rollbacks they know the Democrats will never agree to. 

The GOP proposal contains the REINS Act, which would require a separate vote on economic regulations "with an expected annual economic impact of $100 million or more," which would, as Ezra Klein noted back in February, "destroy the government's capacity to pass major regulations," by adding a major procedural hurdle that sounds like a minor change.

The bill would also restrict the ability of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate pollution under the Clean Air Act, a change which the EPA estimates would lead to 20,000 premature deaths due to adverse health effects from pollution. It also contains the Regulatory Time-Out Act, which would prevent new economic regulations from being put in place for a year, a move Senate Dems view as just a backdoor way for Republicans to forestall Wall Street reform. Obama has actually put in place fewer regulations than Bush at this point in his term, and weak consumer demand rather than excessive regulation is holding back job growth, but why not ask for a pony even if you know you're not going to get one?

While the GOP proposal contains some funds for infrastructure spending, rather than accept a minor surtax on millionaires it pays for itself by cutting spending so drastically the White House has threatened a veto. This GOP alternative is less a jobs proposal than a deregulatory Christmas list.

UPDATE: Naturally, the Democrats' bill was filibustered this afternoon.

South Park on Occupy Wall Street

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 2:40 PM EDT
Eric Cartman is the 1 percent.

It was only a matter of time: South Park has something to say about Occupy Wall Street. On Wednesday night, Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Comedy Central series ran an episode titled "1%" that drew some topical humor and mild-to-moderate jabs from the ongoing #OWS protests sweeping the country.

The analogs are blatant: During a schoolwide President's Challenge exam, the corpulent, Jew-baiting Eric Cartman tanks the fitness test. Because the student body's evaluation is based on an average, Cartman's performance severely slashes the score of the rest of the students, thus condemning everyone to gym class during recess. Cartman is unanimously dubbed the "1 percent" who is dragging down the other "99 percent." Students unite to "fight the system" that's rigged against them, while Cartman grumbles and loudly plays the victim.

To watch the full episode, click here. Here's a clip:

Days before the episode aired, conservative pundits were already quivering with anticipation. Awaiting a harsh comedic takedown of #OWS, right-wing bloggers got all enthused: On RedState, "BigGator5" wrote about how "South Park [Actually] Took Down #OWS, YEARS AGO!" with their 2005 episode "Die Hippie, Die," and how Cartman's "only redeemable character trait is that he's a capitalist." On Andrew Breitbart's Big Hollywood, "Hollywoodland" looked forward to the show's "first, full-on commentary on the fledgling political movement" that would dole out the barbs fairly.

But many of these commentators, surely itching for a chance to confirm that the hip, politically incorrect Comedy Central satirists are on their side, smugly miss the point.

OMG! It's ODS at the G-20

| Thu Nov. 3, 2011 1:58 PM EDT

Dan Drezner encounters Obama Derangement Syndrome in the wild today and is revolted. You see, the Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper is outraged that at today's G-20 meeting President Obama hugged Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, someone who, as Dan points out, is an American friend and ally. But Halper is outraged anyway, because "Turkey has made its hostility to Israel abundantly clear." Dan has a question:

To be blunt about it, is Israel now America's ally uber alles? If other countries disagree with Israel, does that mean, in Goldfarb's eyes, that they no longer qualify as either friend or ally? Are there any other of America's friends that fall into this super-special status? I really want to know.

I think the answers are Yes, Yes, and probably Yes. I'm thinking of France for question 3, but I suppose there are others too. That's life in the fever swamps.