Solar Eyesores

No one said saving the environment would be pretty, but suburban homeowners associations are blocking solar panel installations because they think they’re ugly, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times and MSNBC.com. Kevin Drum wrote that his homeowners association (HOA) would go ballistic if he installed panels on his roof, and he's not alone as homeowners around the nation are battling their associations for the right to mount the energy savers on their property. The HOAs' aesthetic arguments against energy conservation has pro-solar groups pushing for the federally protected right to solar installation. I contacted advocate Raymond Walker, Standard Renewable Energy’s Senior Vice President, to get the Houston-based solar installer's take on the right to install panels, even if the neighbors don’t like the color.

It began with a tweet.

Some fighting words were exchanged.


And last night, after much online trashtalking, the long-awaited trivia battle between the staffs of Salon and Mother Jones took place deep in the heart of San Francisco. The intensity was palpable, as the two teams wrestled over the most important issues of our time, like how many bones are in a baby's body at birth? And what was 1885 Biff's nickname in Back to the Future III?

 Team MoJoTeam MoJo
Team SalonTeam Salon
Also, there may or may not have been some livetweeting going on from across the room.

Yes, muckrakers are also nerds.Yes, muckrakers are also nerds.

Long story short, your very own hellraisers triumphed. 60-51. Yes, it's true. We hippies store extra knowledge in our leg hair.

Salon was a great sport, and their staffers were kind enough to present us with an award, a fancy Ralph Waldo Emerson quote emblazoned with a tiny Salon logo. We tried to understand the meaning of this quote paired with the tiny logo, but the sweet taste of victory and/or malt beverages distracted us from Chris' full explanation.

Thank you, we accept.Thank you, we accept.
In any case, great fun was had by all. We met some cool people. We succeeded in wrenching useless information from our brains. And we won an award. It is now proudly displayed in our conference room, nestled among, you know, some other awards.

 

Thanks to everyone for showing up, and keep those trivia hats at the ready. We're still scanning the San Francisco media horizon for the next poor, unsuspecting publication to defeat.

P.S. Salon has courageously requested a rematch. The liberal elite, what can I say, they're just suckers for pain.

Importing Socialism

Byron Dorgan (D–ND) has proposed an amendment to the Senate's healthcare bill that would legalize reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada.  No big surprise there: Dorgan's a Democrat, after all.  But drug reimportation has lots of Republican supporters too, including Olympia Snowe, David Vitter, Chuck Grassley, and John McCain.  Ezra Klein notes just how nonsensical this is:

The case for drug reimportation, as Vitter says, proceeds from the recognition that residents of other countries get much, much lower prices on drugs than Americans do. Many of these drugs were invented by American companies and produced in American factories. But Canada gets them at a discount. Why?

Well, Canada's government bargains its prices down. So does the French government, and the German government, and the British government....But Medicare, and the federal government more generally, are barred from doing the same. And this isn't just about drugs. The story is similar for everything from surgeries to doctor's visits.

....In closing, Vitter urged the Senate to "take this step and do what we all say should be a top priority and actually lower health-care costs. I urge all my colleagues to come together and do this in a bipartisan way." Boiled down to its essentials, Vitter just made a case for a bipartisan embrace of a single-payer system.

Drug reimportation is quite possibly the most ridiculous and hypocritical way conceivable to get lower pharmaceutical prices.  If you think the government should bargain down drug prices, then at least have the spine to say that the government should bargain down drug prices.  Don't outsource the job to Canada's government-run healthcare system, which, according to conservative conventional wisdom, is little better than an icy death factory that dooms its citizens to bad hips, painful cancer deaths, and endless waiting lines.

There are times when I feel that I'm pretty inured to political opportunism and duplicitousness.  But railing against any kind of government interference in the health industry as death panels and socialism, and then turning around and suggesting we take advantage of the benefits of an actual socialist healthcare system really takes the cake.

A bit of balagan, as my family would say, has broken out over Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch's first foray into Jewish music, such as it is. Though his song, "Eight Nights of Hanukkah", bears no resemblance to any traditional Jewish music, it does treat an obviously Jewish theme—the story of Hanukkah—and was meant, in all earnestness, as a gift to the Jews. The New York Times called it "nonreturnable,"  probably an apt description for the way many American Jews feel about evangelicals and their love of all things Old Testament. Which is, truth be told, a little bit feh. After all, many American Jews are a) secular and b) liberal, whereas American Evangelicals are essentially the opposite.

Still, there is a treasured American tradition of Mormon- and Evangelical-on-Hebraic love, and Orrin Hatch loves Jews. Like, keeps a Torah in his office kind of love. Like, has more mezuzot (to be fair, also more doorways) than my house kind of love. 

"I feel sorry I'm not Jewish sometimes," Hatch told the Times. Aww. 

As with most Jewish holidays, the Christians read their own special meaning into the teachings of Hanukkah, a minor holiday celebrating the rebellion of a group of religious zealots in Jerusalem that occurred about two hundred years before the first Christmas. The senator—an avid hymn writer—does not himself carry the song, relying instead on the very talented Rasheeda Azar of Indiana. Talented, sure, but Ofra Haza you are not, sweetheart.

 "So all it is is a hip-hop Hanukkah song written by the senior Senator from Utah. That's all it is." Priceless. 

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

Apparently Congress has funding rules by which our representatives must abide. In a complaint to the Senate Ethics Committee, watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington questioned Sen. John McCain's mastery of those rules today. The complaint alleges that the former presidential hopeful misused cash from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) to fund statewide robocalls boosting health care reform opposition in states with moderate democratic senators to target Blanche Lincoln (AR), Michael Bennet (CO), Ben Nelson (NE), Byron Dorgan (ND), and Kent Conrad (ND) this month. CREW explained the ethics breach in a press release:

CREW’s complaint alleges Sen. McCain violated Senate Rule 38, which prohibits senators from maintaining "unofficial office accounts," meaning they cannot use private donations to support official senate activities and expenses. By urging voters to call their senators to urge them to support his motion, Sen. McCain was engaged in grassroots lobbying. This activity clearly was related to Sen. McCain's official duties. By using an outside entity’s funds—those of the NRSC—to pay for expenses related to his official duties, Sen. McCain violated Senate rules. 
Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director, said "The rules are clear: if Sen. McCain wanted to lobby voters in an effort to see his motion passed he should have paid for the calls himself. Ethics rules are not optional; all the rules apply all the time, not just the ones senators like and not just when it is convenient to follow them." Sloan continued, "The Senate Ethics Committee should investigate the funding for the calls and if the NRSC in fact paid for them, sanction Sen. McCain appropriately."

Admonishing McCain won't save the public option, but it's an unwelcome distraction for the senator, who trails a set of potential challengers for his long-held Arizona seat in 2010.

One week after President Obama announced new targets for Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, the military commander in Afghanistan, and US ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry expressed their support for the newly revealed plans.

The previously feuding but presently affectionate General and Ambassador defended the President's strategy before the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on Tuesday. Amidst answers to questions on Osama bin Laden and the July 2011 target for withdrawing troops, both McChrystal and Eikenberry came back to a central theme, agriculture, as a key part of eventual success in the region. Referring to the Department of Defense’s agricultural program that was employed decades earlier in South and Central America, the two men emphasized the critical rural infrastructure support that Agri-business Development Teams (ADT) will provide for the region. 

ADTs are comprised of national guardsmen and women who are working with Afghanis following the guidance from US Department of Agriculture officials stationed in Kabul. By teaching “critical skills in marketing, storage, and even ice production” the DoD hopes to bolster exports, and thus revive Afghanistan’s agricultural economy and diffuse the economic power held by the Taliban’s drug trade.

This focus on agriculture is part of a larger effort initiated by President Obama to better coordinate US, NATO, and Afghan efforts in defeating the Taliban. At Tuesday's hearing, Eikenberry said there will be 65 ADTs operating in Afghanistan by January which are “going to get great effects.”

Gen. McChrystal even went so far as to say that the agricultural component “is what makes security durable.”

Thankfully, I haven't yet seen a TV commercial for Reebok's new EasyTone shoe.  But Sophia Lear brings me up to date here:

It took being assaulted by this ad a few times to pinpoint what makes it so horrifying. The message of the ad seems to be: what women really want is to have a butt so cute that they will be objectified like the woman in the ad.

It took a few viewings to figure this out?  Here's the very first line of the ad:

Reebok EasyTone shoes not only look fantastic, they'll help make your legs and butt look great too.

Emphasis very decidedly in the original, accompanied by the camera zooming in for a tight closeup on the woman's butt.  This is not a subtle sales pitch.  You can see for yourself at the link.

Will backroom deals among rich nations lead to death and devastation for poorer ones? That's the fear of negotiators from world's most impoverished countries—a bloc known as the Group of 77, or G77—especially after an early draft of proposed negotiating text was leaked to the media on Tuesday. It outlined a weak agreement that required fewer emissions cuts from wealthy nations. In the conference's first flashpoint, G77 negotiators stormed into a main hall in the middle of the busy conference center. "We will not die quietly," they chanted.

"We have been asked to sign a suicide pact," declared Lumumba Stanislaus Di-Aping, the Sudanese chairman of the G77. The proposed levels of warming that the draft would allow mean "certain death for Africa," he said. The group also slammed the proposed levels of funding from rich nations to help developing countries adapt to climate change and curb their own emissions. "Ten billion dollars is not enough to buy us coffins," charged Di-Aping, according to reports from the scene.

The leaked draft is not necessarily the negotiating position for many developed nations. But it has raised suspicions that rich nations aren't being honest brokers. Mother Jones talked to Di-Aping on Tuesday night about the draft and what it means for those countries for which the talks at Copenhagen are already a matter of survival.

To read the interview, click here.

Joe Lieberman's latest excuse for not supporting a public option is that it would pay lower prices to hospitals, which would then make up the difference by charging higher prices to everyone else.1  This is called "cost shifting," and this morning I got a timely email from Austin Frakt telling me that there was some handy new high-quality research from Vivian Wu on exactly this question.  Is Lieberman right?  Is cost shifting real?

Wu’s main result is that on average prices paid to hospitals by private payers increases by 21 cents in response to each dollar reduction in public revenue. By way of comparison, this 21% rate of cost shift is about half of the lowest estimates produced by industry studies and is far below their common assumptions of 50% to 100%.

....The policy implications are clear. Wu doesn’t state them, but I will. Within the range of variation studied by Wu, with respect to hospital payments, overall health costs can be reduced by 79 cents per dollar of Medicare payment reduction, the other 21 cents being shifted to the private sector. However, the more competitive the hospital market the less the cost shift. For some hospitals in some markets Wu found cost shifting rates as low as 5%. Therefore, sound public policy would encourage greater competition among providers (wherever possible) in tandem with reductions in public payments. Doing both concurrently would reduce public health expenditures with minimal impact on private payments.

In other words, Lieberman is, at most, 21% right.  There's a little bit of cost shifting, but the vast majority of payment reduction actually goes toward reducing payments.  Hospitals might not like that, but why shouldn't the rest of us?

And this reminds me: I've got several posts from Austin bookmarked that I never quite got around to blogging about, and I suppose at this point I never will.  They tend to be pretty wonky, but if you like that kind of stuff you should check out his blog.  It's called The Incidental Economist.

1Actually, I don't know for sure if this is his latest excuse.  He changes them too fast for me to keep up.  But I'm pretty sure this was one of the more recent ones.

It's Adobe's Fault

As you all know, the Transportation Security Administration mistakenly posted a copy of its screening manual a few days ago, providing access to lots of interesting little nuggets about how they operate.  The manual was supposed to have sensitive portions blacked out, but as in so many previous cases, the people who did it didn't realize that PDF documents come in several flavors:

Government workers preparing the release of a Transportation Security Administration manual that details airport screening procedures badly bungled their redaction of the .pdf file. Result: The full text of a document considered “sensitive security information” was inadvertently leaked.

....This is not the first time that redacted documents have leaked sensitive data.  AT&T lawyers defending their company in a spying suit made the same mistake three years ago in a redacted court filing. Confidential details discussed during a closed-door settlement hearing in a lawsuit against Facebook were revealed earlier this year when parts of the hearing transcript were insufficiently redacted. Federal prosecutors also made redaction errors in court documents they filed against two San Francisco reporters who covered the BALCO steroids story.

In 2003, the Justice Department botched the redaction of a controversial workplace diversity report, and in 2000 the New York Times inadvertently leaked the names of CIA collaborators when it published an improperly redacted CIA file on its website that documented American and British officials’ engineering of the 1953 Iranian coup.

I've long wondered when government agencies will finally figure out how PDF documents work, but so far the only answer is "not yet."  In the meantime, my great fear is that some overzealous bureaucrat is finally going to get tired of this and decide that the only answer is a government-wide ban on PDFs.  Or perhaps a government-wide ban on searchable PDFs.  That would be a huge pain in the ass for the rest of us.  But you just know it's coming if this kind of thing keeps happening.