Blogs

Heat Stroke: Are We Ready?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 6:28 PM EDT
There's no vaccination against climate change. And a lot of diseases are on the move because of it. So have you ever wondered how much our federal government spends on health research related to climate change? You know, all those problems coming our way—some already here—like heat-related mortality, diarrheal diseases, diseases associated with exposure to ozone and airborne  allergens, plus all the health effects from altered air, water, agriculture, and ecosystems services. How about less than $3 million a year?

Kind of hard to believe. Multiply that number by 33 and you get the amount in bonuses AIG is planning to pay its executives for destroying their company. Bonuses paid for with federally funded bailout money.

A new study in Environmental Health Perspectives says that even though climate change will seriously impact public health, the US has yet to allocate anywhere near adequate funding to prepare for these impacts. So what's needed? A measly $200 million or so. Enough to shift research priorities at the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The report points out that funding research on the effects of climate change on human health is a wise investment, consistent with the goals of restoring economic stability, justice, environmental quality, and reducing healthcare costs. So can't we just beg, borrow, or print a little more money to do that?

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Post Office Bailout?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 5:34 PM EDT
If you're like most people, you've probably given up a few extravagances in recent months. Vacations? Fancy dinners? Mailing a letter?

Yes, we're onto you. You've been cutting corners by denying your great aunt her birthday card. And because of your penny pinching ways, the USPS is about to run out of money. According to Postmaster General John Potter, the postal service is on track to be bankrupt before the end of the year.
Potter told a House subcommittee Wednesday the lingering question is: Which bills will get paid and which will not.
He said he will make sure that salaries are paid, but also said other bills might have to wait. Potter is seeking permission to reduce mail delivery to five days a week and wants to reduce other costs.
Nice one.



Regulator Says Banks Pressured him to Avoid Oversight of Derivatives

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 3:53 PM EDT
For the first time, the former chief regulator of the $2.69 trillion municipal bond market has come out swinging at the banks, alleging that they prevented him from regulating the swaps and derivative deals that ultimately cost municipal governments more than a billion in losses.

Until 2007 Christopher "Kit" Taylor was the executive director of the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board, a body set up by Congress in 1975 to make rules for firms that underwrite, trade, and sell municipal debt. The board is basically run by Wall Street firms, which control 10 of its 15 seats. “The big firms didn’t want us touching derivatives,” Taylor, told Bloomberg yesterday. “They said, ‘Don’t talk about it, Kit.”

Taylor went on to condemn the banks for stalling his efforts to close revolving doors and increase transparency in the bond market, and generally being less concerned about the health of the overall economy than their balance sheets.“I saw more bankers looking out for their self interest in my last years at the MSRB,” he told Bloomberg. “The attitude had changed from, ‘What can we do for the good of the market,’ to, ‘What can we do to ensure the future of my business.’ The profit wasn’t in the underwriting, it was in the swap.”

This story should be put into the fat file called "Why Self Regulation Doesn't Work." When that question is answered by the guy who was supposedly in charge, the need for real regulations seems pretty damn obvious.

H/T tpmmuckracker

Public Financing Bill on the Horizon

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 3:24 PM EDT

OpenSecrets.org's Capital Eye blog reports that a bill establishing public financing for House and Senate campaigns will be introduced next week. Similar bills have failed in the past, but good government advocates are committed to trying again and again. The hope is that by providing candidates with federal money with which to campaign, two things will happen: (1) incumbents will be able to spend their time governing instead of dialing for dollars; and (2) special interests will have a much harder time buying influence with politicians. Here are the details, if you're a campaign finance nerd (and if you are, high five!).

According to materials on the Fair Elections Now Coalition's website, candidates for House races would need to collect at least 1,500 contributions from residents of their state and raise a sum of $50,000 to qualify for public financing monies. Senate candidates would be required to raise a number of contributions in a manner that correlates to the state's population according to the formula 2,000 + (500 x CD's), where "CD's" equals the number of congressional districts in their state--an attempt to provide more money to candidates in large states, where campaigning is pricier.

According to the proponents' website, House candidates who qualify would receive an initial grant of $900,000 to be split between the primary and general elections. Senate candidates would receive $1.25 million, plus another $250,000 per congressional district, to be split between the primary and general elections. Additional public monies could be tapped into through a provision that allows for the matching of additional home-state, small-donor fundraising done by the candidate, up to three times the initial amount. Supporters say this would provide enough money to run a "competitive campaign"--even if a candidate participating in the public financing system is facing a well-financed or self-financed opponent who is not participating in the system...

The money for public campaigns would be provided for by a small fee on large federal contracts, according to OpenSecrets. I'm all for it. The good government community is all for it. President Obama is all for it. And yet the bill faces opposition from not just one specific special interest, but from all special interests -- anyone who wants to continue to buy influence with America's politicians. We'll see where it goes.

Electric Cars

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 3:24 PM EDT
For a long time my favorite electric car has been the Aptera, a teardrop-shaped three-wheeled affair that looks like it came straight out of the Jetsons.  Unfortunately, Marian would probably never set foot in one.  Plus it's expensive.  So I'll probably never get one.

But here's an interesting thing: one of the bonuses of the Aptera's design is that since it has three wheels, it counts as a motorcycle, which means you can use it in carpool lanes.  Hooray!  Unfortunately for the Aptera folks, since their car has three wheels it counts as a motorcycle, which means they don't qualify for federal loans for ultra-efficient vehicles.  Boo!  Over on our main site, Steve Aquino and Nick Baumann "investigate."  Video is included.

Will the Feds Spray the Border?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:58 PM EDT
The latest addition to the Border Patrol's most-wanted list isn't an illegal immigrant, but a plant.

Well, okay, a plant that could conceal illegal immigrants, the Patrol fears. The plant in question is Carrizo cane, an invasive weed that grows in dense thickets along the border. The Feds' plan (which, predictably, has drawn some Agent Orange comparisons) was to spray the cane with the herbicide Imazapyr, but not everyone is thrilled about that:
A lawsuit accused the Department of Homeland Security of violating the National Environmental Policy Act regarding the now-delayed U.S. Border Patrol plans to conduct aerial spraying of an herbicide on carrizo (kah-DEE'-zoh) cane near the Rio Grande.
Residents of two Laredo neighborhoods on Tuesday sued DHS in a lawsuit which alleged the public wasn't sufficiently notified about the spraying program, the Laredo Morning Times reported in a story for Wednesday's editions.



 

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How to Prosecute a War Criminal

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:40 PM EDT

    Length: 16:10 minutes (14.81 MB)
    Format: Stereo 44kHz 128Kbps (CBR)

War crimes prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has dedicated her career to bringing the world's worst human rights violators to justice. As chief prosecutor for the United Nations War Crimes Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, Del Ponte successfully prosecuted some of the most powerful masterminds of mass murder, including Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Her recent memoir, Madam Prosecutor, details her experiences in The Hague. I spoke with Del Ponte's co-author, Mother Jones contributor Chuck Sudetic, by phone from Croatia. (Del Ponte, now a Swiss ambassador to Argentina, has been barred by her government from speaking publicly about the book—for the backstory, listen to the podcast).

Two quick highlights from our conversation:

How Does Taking Nekkid Photos of Yourself Make You a Sex Offender?

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:27 PM EDT

Finally, some of the young folks being persecuted by prosecutors for taking scandalous cell phone photos of themselves are fighting back via lawsuits. But I don't understand the charge: Why is it illegal to take/send someone dirty pictures of you, whatever your age? Granted, I will break my kids arms if/when I catch them doing something so stupid—and I certainly wish young girls, especially, wouldn't disrespect themselves this way. But a crime, a sex crime? See if this makes sense to you. From the Times:

The picture that investigators from the office of District Attorney George P. Skumanick of Wyoming County had was taken two years earlier at a slumber party. It showed Marissa and a friend from the waist up. Both were wearing bras.

Mr. Skumanick said he considered the photo "provocative" enough to tell Marissa and the friend, Grace Kelly, that if they did not attend a 10-hour class dealing with pornography and sexual violence, he was considering filing a charge of sexual abuse of a minor against both girls. If convicted, they could serve time in prison and would probably have to register as sex offenders.

It was the same deal that 17 other students—13 girls and 4 boys—accepted by the end of February. All of them either been caught with a cellphone containing pictures of nude or seminude students, or were identified in one or more such photos.

I'm so confused: Who are the minors being sexually abused? Unless the photos were taken without the consent of the subject, I don't see the criminal justice issue. To this DA, possession of a dirty photo of yourself is a crime. To me, it's just really, really stupid.

I guess his heart's in the right place, but where'd he learn legal logic?

On the bright side, maybe this will help Joe Average understand how coercive the criminal justice system can be. These kids have the kind of parents who can wage lawsuits on their behalf; other kids go to jail for crimes they didn't commit, then live with a criminal record.

California's Own Hooverville, Circa 2009

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:17 PM EDT

You may have seen Oprah's version of the Sacramento "tent city" story recently, which involves a sensationalist video (preview below, full report here) of reporter Lisa Ling talking to Dorothea Lange-styled Great Recession refugees. NBC and Fox News have also flocked to the story; by last weekend, authorities were turning away news crews. But this week, we went to visit the 300 people living in tents along the American River at the north end of downtown Sacramento, and what we found was quite a bit different from the version you'll see on prime time. Here's the factchecked reality of what's going down at California's "new" Hooverville.

Listening to the Talking Heads

| Thu Mar. 26, 2009 2:17 PM EDT
Today Nick Kristof hauls out the columnist's favorite evergreen subject for a slow day: Philip Tetlock, the Berkeley professor who famously found that expert predictions weren't much better than throwing darts.

Indeed, the only consistent predictor was fame — and it was an inverse relationship. [The worst performance came from] experts who provided strong, coherent points of view, who saw things in blacks and whites. People who shouted

....Mr. Tetlock called experts such as these the “hedgehogs,” after a famous distinction by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin (my favorite philosopher) between hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs tend to have a focused worldview, an ideological leaning, strong convictions; foxes are more cautious, more centrist, more likely to adjust their views, more pragmatic, more prone to self-doubt, more inclined to see complexity and nuance. And it turns out that while foxes don’t give great sound-bites, they are far more likely to get things right.

This was the distinction that mattered most among the forecasters, not whether they had expertise. Over all, the foxes did significantly better, both in areas they knew well and in areas they didn’t.

I don't have any actual data to back this up — which, ironically, might make this a hedgehog-ish thing to say — but my experience suggests that a key difference between the two types is respect for history and broad trends.  That is, Tetlock's foxes understand that if you want to know what's going to happen in the future, you should pay attention to what's happened before.  If simpleminded data says there's a housing bubble, there's probably a housing bubble.  If foreign occupations usually turn into guerrilla wars, then your occupation is probably going to turn into a guerrilla war.  If tax cuts usually reduce government revenues, then your tax cut will probably reduce government revenues.

The problem is that most people don't find this kind of thinking at all persuasive.  If somebody gets on TV back in 2005 and explains in detail why this time it's different and high housing prices are completely sustainable, it all sounds vaguely plausible.  The skeptics don't believe it, but they don't have fancy arguments.  They just point to a chart and say that the numbers look really high by historical standards, and whenever that's happened in the past there's been a crash.  So there's probably going to be a crash this time too.  And they're duly ignored.

Details are important for operational planning, but they mostly just blur things at a broader level.  Even in my own areas of expertise, I've usually found that to be true: if the broad trends point in a particular direction, odds are that's what's going to happen.

"This time it's different" is probably the most dangerous phrase in the world.  It's especially dangerous because every once in a while it's true.  But not often.

As for Tetlock, I've read so many columns about him that I guess I really ought to read his book.  Too bad it's not available for the Kindle.  Princeton University Press needs to get on the stick.