2013 - %3, January

Gun Owners Can't Handle the Truth

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 2:30 PM EST

There's only one reason to fight the very idea of doing research in a particular field: because you're afraid of what the truth might turn out to be. Brad Plumer has more.

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Ontario Cares Aboot Coal

Canada's most populous province becomes North America's first jurisdiction to boot coal.

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 2:06 PM EST
Ontario's coal-fired Lambton Generating Station is scheduled to close this year.

Ontario, Canada's most populous province, will become the first jurisdiction in North America to boot coal completely out of its energy mix, the province's Minister of Energy, Chris Bentley, announced last week. By the end of 2013, Ontario will shutter 17 of its 19 coal-fired power plants, leaving less than one percent of the province's energy mix provided by coal, and close the last two next year, a decision Bentley says was fueled by concern about global climate change and local health.

The phase-out has been coming down the pipeline since 2003, and it's already paying off: Canada's Pembina Institute found that greenhouse emissions from Ontario's energy sector fell by 30 million tons in the last decade.

The move is made somewhat easier by the fact that Ontario was never a major coal addict to begin with: In 2011, less than three percent of its total power generation came from coal; that same year in the US, the share was 42 percent. And part of what has tended to make coal so intractible in the US—thousands of jobs on the line—is a non-issue for Ontario, which never had its own coal mining industry, importing most of its supply from the US, Bentley said. The province, although a net electricity exporter, also imports a little of its power from adjacent US states and Canadian provinces; a spokesperson for Ontario's Independent Electricity System Operator said they had no way to know whether any of the imported power came from coal-fired plants.

Ramping down coal over the last several years has given Bentley time to shore up other energy resources to fill the supply gap, including a booming wind industry—which more than tripled in the last five years—and, like in the US, a growing dependency on natural gas.

Down here south of the border, although our appetite for coal is waning, industry lobbyists and GOP pols from states like West Virginia are raising hell, and we're still pretty far from zero. And even though the US has its own unique challenges in confronting coal compared to Ontario, Bentley says he learned one thing from his experience cutting it out that can apply to his US counterparts: "There are far more people who are supportive than the critics would like you to believe."

Aaron Swartz Case Is About a Lot More Than Just Aaron Swartz

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 1:34 PM EST

I haven't said anything yet about the Aaron Swartz case because I wasn't sure I had anything much to say that hadn't already been said better by others. But Orin Kerr has written a couple of lengthy posts about the case over at the Volokh Conspiracy, and I think he makes an important point about the accusation that federal prosecutors basically hounded Swartz to his death:

I think it’s important to realize that what happened in the Swartz case happens in lots and lots of federal criminal cases. Yes, the prosecutors tried to force a plea deal by scaring the defendant with arguments that he would be locked away for a long time if he was convicted at trial. Yes, the prosecutors filed a superseding indictment designed to scare Swartz evem more in to pleading guilty (it actually had no effect on the likely sentence, but it’s a powerful scare tactic). Yes, the prosecutors insisted on jail time and a felony conviction as part of a plea.

But it is not particularly surprising for federal prosecutors to use those tactics. What’s unusual about the Swartz case is that it involved a highly charismatic defendant with very powerful friends in a position to object to these common practices. That’s not to excuse what happened, but rather to direct the energy that is angry about what happened. If you want to end these tactics, don’t just complain about the Swartz case. Don’t just complain when the defendant happens to be a brilliant guy who went to Stanford and hangs out with Larry Lessig. Instead, complain that this is business as usual in federal criminal cases around the country — mostly with defendants who no one has ever heard of and who get locked up for years without anyone else much caring.

I don't know what the answer is here. I think a lot of us have an intuition that hardball tactics are probably defensible when you're dealing with Tony Soprano, but not so much when you're dealing with a guy whose only crime was to download a bunch of academic research as an act of civil disobedience. But how do you make that distinction in a way that's workable, and in a way that's enforceable?

I'll leave that to others, for now, because I simply don't have the legal chops to address it. But I agree with Kerr: the problem here isn't Aaron Swartz. The problem is with all the other people you've never heard of because they aren't Aaron Swartz.

Why Climate Change Legislation Failed -- And What to Do About It

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 1:15 PM EST

Theda Skocpol has written an immense study of why the 2010 climate bill failed. I haven't read it yet, but Brad Plumer talked to her yesterday and got the nutshell version: climate hawks had a really bad legislative strategy:

BP: So around 2007, Republicans were becoming more skeptical of climate policy. Yet the main climate strategy in D.C. was to craft a complex cap-and-trade bill amenable to businesses like BP and DuPont in the hopes that those companies would bring in Republican votes.

TS: I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But I don’t think the Republican Party right now is mainly influenced by business. In the House in particular, ideological groups and grassroots pressure are much more influential. And in the research we’ve done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA.

BP: So environmental groups weren't quite ready for Republican resistance. But then why did health care succeed when cap-and-trade failed? What was the difference?

TS: The two groups had slightly different strategies going into 2009. Health care reformers were thinking about how to build support among Democrats while many environmentalists were focused on reaching out to Republicans.

I think everyone agrees that there were lots of reasons that cap-and-trade failed. Still, I'd say the basic reason is the most fundamental one: the votes just weren't there, and nothing could have changed that. Sure, reaching out to Republicans was probably a doomed strategy, but what choice was there? You need at least a few Republican votes to break a filibuster in the Senate. Likewise, maybe Obama could have handled things better, but what did he have to offer skeptical senators in return for their votes? Not much. Unlike healthcare reform, where you could essentially buy off the opposition, there are big costs to cap-and-trade for certain states and senators simply aren't going to ignore that.

All this is pretty obvious, but I'd add one more thing: Democrats have been trying to pass some form of national healthcare for nearly a century. They failed half a dozen times before finally passing Obamacare by the skin of their teeth. Deep in their bones, they knew how hard it was to pass something like this; they knew how badly they wanted it; and they knew they wouldn't get another chance for a very long time. So, finally, after a hundred years, they stuck together just long enough to pass a bill.

Climate change doesn't have that history. It hasn't yet been bred into Democratic DNA and it hasn't yet failed enough times to make it clear to everyone just how hard it is and just what kind of infuriating compromises it takes to finally pass something. The unfortunate truth is that for something this big, you have to fail a few times before you can succeed.

The problem, of course, is that we don't have time for several decades of failure before finally doing something serious about climate change. This means that the usual legislative process might simply be unworkable as a way of limiting carbon emissions. The climate community may have to get a bit more direct about things if they want to make progress before the planet gets baked to a cinder.

Can These New Federal Rules Rein in Foreclosure-Frenzied Banks?

The CFPB issues new mortgage regulations. But conservatives may erode their effectiveness.

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 12:52 PM EST

On Thursday, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal consumer watchdog set up by the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, announced a new set of foreclosure-prevention rules focused on keeping loan servicers honest.

Servicers, which collect mortgage payments from borrowers and work out terms of a loan, are supposed to explore all alternatives to foreclosure before reclaiming a home, and to give homeowners a fair and clear evaluation process. But as millions of borrowers fell behind on payments in the wake of the financial meltdown, loan servicers got slammed by tons of added legwork and administration, and many more got perverse incentives to fast-track borrowers into default. Some servicers put on a spectacular show of incompetence and outright fraud, routinely losing paperwork, "robo-signing" people into wrongful foreclosures, and locking people out of their houses when the borrowers thought they were on road to loan modification. Much of this is still happening. The new CFPB rules are supposed to help fix it. (A similar set of regulations targeting mortgage lenders was released last week.)

Republicans Vigorously Oppose Imaginary Obama Gun Proposals

Republicans respond to imaginary gun proposals rather than the ones Obama actually made.

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 11:54 AM EST
President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announcing the White House's proposed action on guns Wednesday.

Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) knew that President Barack Obama's proposed ban on guns wouldn't work, saying as much to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly Wednesday night.

"What the President is proposing is problematic for a couple of reasons, but primarily because it doesn't work..." Rubio said. "These ideas don't work. It's not just Chicago. Washington, DC had a very similar gun ban. And it didn't work. In fact violent crime and murder and all these things skyrocketed in Washington during the time of those bans."

There's only one problem: Obama hasn't proposed gun restrictions that resemble anything like those in Chicago or those that were overturned in Washington DC. It's possible Rubio hadn't actually looked at what the White House proposed before reacting. If so, he wouldn't be the only Republican to make that mistake. Senator Rand Paul (R-Tenn.), speaking to Fox News' Sean Hannity, vowed to "nullify anything the president does that smacks of legislation," adding that "there are several of the executive orders that appear as if he's writing new law. That cannot happen." Paul's staff might want to inform him that Obama signed no executive orders Wednesday. He did sign several presidential memorandums directing relevant agencies to alter their behavior regarding gun tracing, health research, and criminal background checks, in addition to issuing a list of other executive and administrative actions that he will take on guns. 

Obama's legislative proposals on guns, meanwhile, still have to get through a Republican-controlled House of Representatives that is unlikely to greatly restrict gun rights. They include a new ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, but nothing as restrictive Chicago or DC laws. Despite this, Republicans have already brought up impeachment, including Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.), and Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Tex.), who didn't even wait for Obama to unveil his plan and pretend to read it before deciding the president had met the threshold for removal from office.

Republicans were primed to expect a gun grab. Prominent conservatives like Matt Drudge have made historically obtuse warnings that Obama, like Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, is bent on disarming the population (presumably prior to building a gulag and engaging in genocide). But rather than of banning guns by fiat, the White House's list of executive actions consists mostly of practical or symbolic measures, containing lots of phrases like "release a letter," "start a national dialogue" and "provide incentives." It's not exactly the stuff dictatorships are made of, but Obama's imaginary executive actions on guns are certainly more exciting than the ones he actually proposed. 

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Quote of the Day: Bill? What Bill?

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 11:52 AM EST

From Florida governor Rick Scott, explaining the virgin birth of the law that turned Election Day into chaos in his state:

It was not my bill....I didn't have anything to do with passing it.

It's true that Scott signed the bill mighty quietly, but sign the bill he did. And he defended it tooth and nail after that. But I guess sometimes the buck doesn't stop at the top after all.

New York Rep. Wants Ban on 3D-Printed Gun Magazines

Texas manufacturer to Rep. Steve Israel: "Good fucking luck."

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 10:56 AM EST

When University of Texas Law School student Cody Wilson published a YouTube video last month of an AR-15 he'd made with the assistance of a 3D-printer, Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) sprang into action. He announced new legislation (actually a reauthorization of the 1988 Undectable Firearms Act, which expires at the end of the year) that he said would "stop so-called 'wiki-weapons.'" As I reported at the time, Wilson's response was fairly understated. He believed his plan to make and test guns made with printed plastic parts—and then post all of the instructions online—was legally sound, and had no intention of backing down.

Last week, Wilson published a new video. This time, his AR-15 is outfitted with a different printed plastic component—a 30-round magazine, the same kind President Obama proposed outlawing in his new gun control package. Take a look:

Israel's response: ban plastic magazines too. Wilson's response:

WikiWeb DevBlog/Tumblr

If nothing else, it should make for a fun set of hearings—if it gets that far.

MAP: In These 22 States, Every House Republican Voted Against Sandy Aid

Even reps of hurricane-prone places like the Carolinas raised a middle finger to the storm victims.

| Thu Jan. 17, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Almost three months after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, the GOP-controlled House approved a bill that provides $50.7 billion in disaster relief for the storm's victims. While passage of the bill is being hailed as a bipartisan success by some (the vote was 241-180), a closer look at how the parties voted by state lines indicates otherwise. GOPers overwhelmingly voted against funding—unless, of course, their state was hard hit.

In 22 states, every last Republican representative voted against HR 152 or abstained on the bill, which includes $17 billion for immediate repair and an amendment introduced by a Republican, New Jersey Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, that tacks on another $33.7 billion for long-term recovery and prevention. These included Maryland and the Carolinas (remember Hugo and Floyd?), states that are vulnerable to seasonal hurricanes but were largely spared by Sandy.

America's Brutal Treatment of Its Struggling Wealthy Class

| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 10:17 PM EST

A couple of weeks ago the Wall Street Journal ran a story explaining the details of the fiscal cliff tax increases. Today it got new life as several bloggers united to mock the graphic that goes with it. Brad DeLong wants to know just how many single mothers with two kids and an income of $260,000 even exist. Xenos is amused that everybody in the graphic looks as though President Obama "ran over the family dog." And I want to know why even the retired black couple looks so miserable despite the fact that their taxes didn't go up at all.

In any case, I thought I'd help out by demonstrating why all these well-to-do wage slaves feel so brutally treated. It's because their taxes have gone up by a whopping 1-3 percent of their income. Where are the torches and pitchforks when you need them?