Blogs

Word of the Year: Hypermiling

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 3:58 PM EST

The New Oxford American Dictionary has announced its word of the year: hypermiling. Hypermiling, of course, is maximizing your car's mileage by any means necessary, from simple solutions like driving barefoot (to lighten your lead foot) to putting MPG before mortality and tailgating big rigs (to minimize drag). And when you look up hypermiling in the dictionary, the guy whose picture should be there is Wayne Gerdes, the mileage master who coined the term and whom MJ entertainingly profiled nearly two years ago—way before the lexicographers caught on. And way before the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers discovered hypermiling and tried to rebrand it as "EcoDriving." Ugh. Hopefully the Oxford word mavens will scrape the bottom of this year's short list (staycation, tweet, hockey mom) before they immortalize that term.

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EPA Whistleblower Charges Political Interference in Shutdown of BP Investigation

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 3:05 PM EST

The environmental watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) is pushing for an investigation into whether the Bush Justice Department improperly shut down an investigation into a massive BP oil spill in Alaska. The allegations of potential political interference were lodged recently by EPA whistleblower Scott West, the former special agent in charge of the investigation, who retired from the agency in early November after 19 years of service. On West's behalf, PEER filed a complaint on Monday requesting an investigation by the Justice Department's Inspector General.

West's allegations stem from a 2006 spill from a BP pipeline that leaked a quarter-million gallons of oil onto the Alaskan tundra, the largest in the history of Alaska's North Slope. The company ignored workers' warnings that maintenance was needed prior to the spill. An investigation by federal and state authorities ensued, but was cut short in October 2007 when the Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with BP, in which the company was given a misdemeanor charge and fined $20 million. According to PEER's compliant, this was a slap on the wrist compared with the penalties the oil giant should have received. "The fines proposed by Justice (to which BP immediately agreed) were only a fraction of what was legally required under the Alternative Fines Act. EPA had calculated the appropriate fine levels as several times what Justice offered BP—ranging from $58 million to $672 million." The settlement also ensured that BP executives would not face potential criminal liability, according to the PEER complaint.

That $700 Billion Wall Street Bailout May Be Closer to $3 Trillion

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:50 PM EST

How much will the Wall Street bailout cost? Remember that the widely-used number was $700 billion. Well, it may be over three times that amount. Bailoutsleuth.com reports that the actual (and perhaps rising) price tag now stands at over $2 trillion:

Adding together the $170 billion that the Treasury Department has currently agreed to provide banks in additional capital, the $150 billion that the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve are providing to AIG and the $2 trillion that the Federal Reserve has provided banks in emergency loans brings the total assistance to $2.32 trillion.
If the estimated savings from the new tax breaks are included, the assistance would climb to $2.46 trillion. That total does not include other measures not focused directly on banks, such as Treasury Department's $200 billion in support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the Federal Housing Administration's $300 billion HOPE for Homeowners program.

Add all of that together and you reach almost $3 trillion. (How many solar panels can you buy for that?) Remember that Bill Clinton came into office and he and his aides encountered deficits much bigger than expected. What's going to happen when Obama moves into the White House and has to contend with the real cost of the so-called rescue? (Yes, the Treasury is supposed to get some of this money back--eventually.) By the way, to provide some context, the current (and falling) GDP of the United States is $14.4 trillion. The total bailout tab is over one-third of the nation's entire output of goods and services.

Netbooks

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:49 PM EST

NETBOOKS....As part of my mission to stay hopelessly behind the curve in technology matters, I just yesterday discovered the existence of a new class of notebook computers called netbooks. I guess they've been around for nearly a year, but my local Micro Center didn't carry any the last time I was there in August. Yesterday, though, they had half a dozen different models, all of them small enough to toss in a purse or tote without thinking twice, but with screens large enough (barely) to get real work done.

As it happens, I've always wanted something in exactly this form factor, so I almost bought one on the spot. But I didn't. After all, I just bought a Mac notebook on impulse a few months ago. And it's not like I compute mobile-ly very often anyway.

Still, they're pretty damn cute. And cheap. And I think I want one. So consider this an open thread. Should I buy one? What kind? Anyone have any personal experiences to share?

When Will We See a Blue Texas? Hispanics Will Decide

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:29 PM EST

immigration_march.jpg

Many Democrats believe it is simply a matter of time until George W. Bush's home state goes from red to purple to blue.

Cuauhtemoc "Temo" Figueroa, Obama's top Latino outreach official, said [Texas] could be taken seriously as a presidential battleground if Democrats could win statewide races there in 2010. "I don't know if it's four years or eight years off, but down the road, Texas will be a presidential battleground," Figueroa said.

The reason is demographics. Across the Southwest, Latino voters are increasingly powerful. In Colorado, their share of the vote went from 8% in 2004 to 13% in 2008. Nevada, 10% to 15%. New Mexico, 32% to 41%. Every 30 seconds, a Latino is added to the American population, the fastest rate of any minority group. By 2050, Hispanics will represent 29 percent of the American population.

In 2008, Latinos voted 67-31 for Barack Obama.

Texas is already 35 percent Hispanic.

You can see where this is going.

Space!

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:14 PM EST

SPACE!....Ross Douthat suggests that any conservatives foolish enough to support Newt Gingrich as chair of the RNC ought to reread the list of fabulous new ideas for the Republican Party that he published in Human Events last May. I don't have a dog in this fight, but I went back and refreshed my memory anyway. Here's one of Newt's suggestions for GOP revival:

Implement a space-based, GPS-style air traffic control system. The problems of the Federal Aviation Administration are symptoms of a union-dominated bureaucracy resisting change. If we implemented a space-based GPS-style air traffic system we would get 40% more air travel with one-half the bureaucrats. The union has stopped 200,000,000 passengers from enjoying more reliable air travel to protect 7,000 obsolete jobs. This real change would allow the millions of frustrated travelers to have champions in congress trying to help them get places better, safer, faster.

Now, Newt loves anything space-based, and he loves to bash unions too, so this is right up his alley. But what's the deal with this space-based air traffic control system, anyway?

Well, it turns out that it's been on the drawing board for a while. The underlying technology is called ADS-B and has apparently worked well in tests in Alaska and other countries. Last year the FAA awarded a contract for part of a GPS-based system to ITT, but not much has been done since then. The entire project is known as NextGen, and according to this AP dispatch from last month, the real opposition to it comes not from the unions, which are skeptical but apparently not dead set against it, but from the airlines themselves, which don't want to bear the cost of upgrading their planes.

I guess this might be more than you wanted to know about this, but hey — I was curious. It was one of Newt's Top Nine ideas, after all. In the end, though, it turns out that the story is fairly prosaic: a GPS-based air-traffic control system might be a very fine thing that would save fuel and allow more air traffic, but it would cost a lot of money, be extremely complex to implement, has some technical issues to overcome, and faces some modest opposition from entrenched interest groups, including both airlines and the air traffic controllers union. In other words, just your standard gigantic federal technology project.

And, perhaps, just the thing to throw into a trillion dollar stimulus bill. Who knows? But part of the rebirth of the Republican Party. I'm thinking probably not.

UPDATE: By coincidence, the Wall Street Journal has a story about this exact subject today. No mention of union opposition at all. You can read it here if you want the latest.

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House Democrats

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 1:32 PM EST

HOUSE DEMOCRATS....Did congressional Dems underperform this election compared to Barack Obama? Should they have won even more than 20 additional seats? Andrew Gelman cries foul:

The only trouble with this theory is that it's not supported by the data. Obama won 53% of the two-party vote, congressional Democrats averaged 56%. The average swing of 5.7% from Democratic congressional candidates in 2004 to Dems in 2008 was actually greater than the popular vote swing of 4.5% from Kerry to Obama.

I think this is basically right, but I want to add something. Andrew compares the average district vote in each state, and for technical reasons he thinks this is the right measure. I, however, prefer something cruder: total congressional vote, which turns out to be a pretty good predictor of total House seats won by each party.

So how did Dems do? In 2004 they lost to Republicans by 2.2 percentage points. In 2006 they won by about 7.4 points, an astonishing swing of 9.6 points. This year they won by about 8.2 percentage points, an even more astonishing swing of 10.4 points since 2004 — and, as Andrew points out, bigger than the 8.7 point swing from Kerry to Obama.

So I guess my question to the skeptics is: Just how much do you think the Dems should have won by? Ten points is an enormous margin, far bigger than any party has enjoyed for the past two decades. If that's underperforming, I'll take it.

Checking the Vote-Checking in Minnesota

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 1:04 PM EST

Minnesota is in the middle of something called a "post-election audit." It is not the Franken/Coleman recount; that starts next week. It is a check of the accuracy of Minnesota's optical scan voting machines, mandated by state law and performed after all statewide elections.

Election officials are hand-counting ballots from selected precincts and comparing the results to the machine-tabulated totals. Sounds like a recount, right? Except it operates on a much smaller scale — in 2006, the post-election audit reviewed ballots from just 5 percent of the state's precincts.

So how is it going so far? The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which has not been friendly to Franken in this election, makes it sound like the post-election audit is slowly eliminating Franken's chances for making up the 206 vote deficit that is keeping him from unseating incumbent Republican Norm Coleman.

Twenty men and women settled in along tables at the Ramsey County elections office first thing Monday morning and began plowing through more than 7,700 ballots cast last Tuesday in the U.S. Senate race.
After nearly three hours of counting, Norm Coleman had lost exactly one net vote in five of the county's precincts. Al Franken had gained exactly one.

But that gives readers an impression that is badly wrong. As Senate Guru points out, this is good news for Franken:

The Car Tax

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 12:41 PM EST

THE CAR TAX....The LA Times chimes in this morning to suggest that if Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to raise revenue, he should think about reimposing the old vehicle license fee, which he cut when he took office, rather than raising sales taxes:

The car tax is a smarter choice than a sales tax for digging out of the current budget hole. Asking Californians to pitch in through their vehicle registration fees rather than at the cash register would have fewer negative effects on sales, which we can expect to be diminished too much already in the coming months.

Sales taxes are regressive: They take a higher percentage of household income from the poor than from the rich. A 1999 California Policy Research Center study found vehicle license fees to be nearly as regressive, but at least the proceeds are unrestricted and could be used to bail the state out of its mess. Because of voter fiat, sales taxes paid at the gas pump are off limits for any use but transportation. Local government also claims a share. Another advantage of car taxes: They are deductible from federal income tax. Try deducting your sales tax on your 1040 form and see how far you get.

I'll add another couple of related points. First, the California sales tax is already high, and local add-ons make it even higher. Schwarzenegger's proposal would hike it above 10% in most places, and most of the tax literature I've read suggests that 10% is an upper bound for an effective sales tax. Above that it has serious effects on sales revenue, promotes out-of-state purchasing, and produces compliance problems.

Second, sales taxes are regressive by nature and there's only a limited amount you can do about it (exempting food purchases is the most common approach to adding a bit of progressivity). Not so with the vehicle license fee. Right now the VLF is a flat rate on the assessed value of a vehicle, which is based on its purchase price and a fixed schedule of depreciation (basically 10% per year). It's true that if all you did was raise the VLF to its old rate of 2% it would remain about as regressive as a sales tax (see Table 5 here), but that's not the only way you can do it. Unlike a sales tax, which needs to be a flat rate for administrative reasons, the VLF could easily vary by assessed value. It could stay at its current rate of 0.65% up to, say, $10,000 in assessed value, increase to 2% for more expensive cars, and increase still further to 4% for top end cars. The average rate would still be about 2%, but the incidence of the tax would be more progressive.

And finally, here's one more great reason for increasing the VLF. It's a truism that if you tax something, you get less of it. So ask yourself: which could California use less of? General consumption? Or cars? The question answers itself, doesn't it?

Stimulus Math

| Tue Nov. 11, 2008 2:11 AM EST

STIMULUS MATH....Goldman Sachs says we're about to suffer the deepest recession since World War II, with unemployment expected to top 8.5% next year and maybe inching a little higher in 2010. So how big should a stimulus package be given the size of the economic tsunami we're headed into? Paul Krugman tells us today that since Okun's Law suggests that every point of unemployment above 5% represents a 2% output gap, an 8.5% unemployment rate means that the economy is performing 7% under its potential:

So we need a fiscal stimulus big enough to close a 7% output gap. Remember, if the stimulus is too big, it does much less harm than if it's too small. What's the multiplier? Better, we hope, than on the early-2008 package. But you'd be hard pressed to argue for an overall multiplier as high as 2.

When I put all this together, I conclude that the stimulus package should be at least 4% of GDP, or $600 billion.

Given the likely length of this recession, we'll probably need nearly this much again in 2010. Call it an even trillion bucks when it's all said and done.

As recently as a few months ago that would have seemed unimaginably large to me. Today, not so much. Stimulate away, President Obama.