Co2 To Ploughshares

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 9:22 PM EST

800px-Farmer_plowing.jpg An ancient method of ploughing charred plants into the ground to revive soil may also trap greenhouse gases for thousands of years. Here's how it works: Plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere as they grow. Burning these plants and trees in airtight conditions produces a high-carbon substance called biochar. Johannes Lehmann of Cornell estimates the carbon storage time of stable biochar could be a few thousand years, reports Reuters.

Lehmann's ambitious scenario estimates biochar could store 1 billion tons of carbon annually. That's more than 10 percent of 2007's 8.5 billion tons of global carbon emissions. His conservative scenario prescribes heating without oxygen (pyrolysis) 27 percent of the world's crop waste and ploughing it into the soil to store 0.2 billion tons of carbon a year.

According to the International Biochar Initiative, soils with biochar made by Amazon people thousands of years ago still contain up to 70 times more black carbon than surrounding soils and are still higher in nutrients. . . Two big howevers: We can't cut forests to do this and we can't avoid reducing CO2 emissions at the same time. But we can put all the little fixes together starting now.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the PEN USA Literary Award, the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal.

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| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 7:33 PM EST

RISK....Brad DeLong says that, ultimately, the global stock of capital fluctuates based on five factors: (1) savings and investment, (2) good and bad news out in the real world, (3) the default discount, (4) the liquidity discount, and (5) the risk discount. The first two haven't changed recently. The third has produced about $2 trillion in mortgage losses and $4 trillion in followon recession-based losses. The fourth, thanks to heroic efforts from central banks, has had a positive impact of about $3 trillion. So in Brad's estimate, the first four factors have produced a net loss of about $3 trillion worldwide. However, total actual losses worldwide during the economic crisis of the past year have come to about $20 trillion so far:

Thus we have an impulse — a $2 trillion increase in the default discount from the problems in the mortgage market — but the thing deserving attention is the extraordinary financial accelerator that amplified $2 trillion in actual on-the-ground losses in terms of mortgage payments that will not be made into an extra $17 trillion of lost value because global investors now want to hold less risky portfolios than they wanted two years ago.

....Our models predict that in normal times, with the ability to diversify portfolios that exists today, the risk discount on assets like corporate equities should be around 1% per year. It is more like 5% per year in normal times — and more like 10% per year today. And our models for why the risk discount has taken such a huge upward leap in the past year and a half are little better than simple handwaving and just-so stories. Our current financial crisis remains largely a mystery: a $2 trillion impulse in lost value of securitized mortgages has set in motion a financial accelerator that we do not understand at any deep level but that has led to ten times the total losses in financial wealth of the impulse.

.... $2 trillion shocks to global wealth [] happen every several years, every time there is a recession or a big rise in the prices of natural resources. But financial distress of the magnitude we see today happens once a century. Since the Bank of England developed its lender of last resort doctrine in the 1830s, we have only had two episodes this bad: the Great Depression and today.

If I had to guess, I'd say the financial accelerator was so outsized this time around because of the size and scope of the uncertainty it generated. During an oil shock, say, or a dotcom bust or a Latin American default, investors have at least some idea of which investments are going to be hardest hit and — more importantly — which ones aren't. But this time around, because of the size of the initial losses and their fundamental opacity, every investment has become suspect. After all, until the global derivative chains are somehow unwound, virtually every bank, hedge fund, and corporation with any serious exposure to modern financial instruments is — maybe, possibly — bankrupt. A housing bust wouldn't normally affect IBM very hard, for example, but what if it turns out that IBM has a bunch of CDS counterparty exposure to mortgage losses somewhere on its books? They probably don't, but how sure are you of that? Multiply that uncertainty by every company in the world, and you get $17 trillion in losses.

Eventually, I guess, the housing market will bottom, the toxic waste sloshing around the financial system will once again have a reasonable range of values, and the question of who has exposure to the losses will start to get narrowed down. Until then, the risk premium will probably stay sky high.

NBC May Cut Back on the "B" Part

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 6:48 PM EST

mojo-photo-nbclogocuts.jpgHow the mighty have fallen. We knew things were bad at NBC, with ratings falling right along with the economy, but we didn't know quite how bad. Heads are rolling over at the Peacock, with some high-ranking executives getting axed, along with 3% of the company's 15,000-person workforce. But the network might not be done with it's slicing-and-dicing. Rather than actually try to come up with shows people want to watch, NBC Chief Executive Jeff Zucker has announced that the network is considering just cutting back on the hours--or even the number of nights--it provides programming. From the AP:

"Can we continue to program 22 hours of prime-time? Three of our competitors don't. Can we afford to program seven nights a week? One of our competitors doesn't," Zucker said. "All of these questions have to be on the table. And we are actively looking at all of those questions." … Part of the problem at NBC has to do with the economic crisis and slowdown in advertising revenue in a market that is "as difficult as any we've seen," Zucker said. "Businesses are just afraid to commit."

Er... especially to crappy shows.

Food News Round-Up

| Mon Dec. 8, 2008 6:04 PM EST

As I was browsing the internet and reading e-mails today, I came across a number of interesting food-related headlines. Instead of blogging them all, I've put them in an easily digestible (no pun intended) format, below:

  • Tomorrow, Greenpeace will release a new version of their list of supermarkets ranked in order of seafood sustainability. At the top, Whole Foods. At the bottom, stores like Trader Joe's and Price Chopper that still stock "red list" animals like swordfish and Chilean sea bass.
  • A new gadget that looks like a Pixar character produces drinking water out of humid air.
  • Netflix is buying DVDs of a controversial animal rights documentary, despite the fact the film has no distributor. The documentary, Earthlings, was requested by so many Netflix users that the company decided to make an exception to their usual policies.
  • PETA's Bruce Friedrich, via the Huffington Post, raises some interesting points about a comprehensive food policy under Obama.
  • Vanilla-lovers may be in trouble. A nasty, orchid-killing fungus has broken out on the island of Madagascar, which produces 60 percent of the world's vanilla beans.
  • Experts say just because a fruit is brighter, or tastes better, doesn't mean it's more nutritious.
  • Obama Makes Early Demands of Special Interests Public

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 4:56 PM EST

    Think back to when Dick Cheney formulated energy policy early in President Bush's first term. Because the White House did not release the names of the people Cheney met with, nor the demands they were making of the administration, the public did not know until 2005 that Cheney had met with oil executives, and that those executives supplied Cheney with "detailed energy policy recommendations."

    The Obama Administration is determined to do things differently. It is posting the policy proposals it is receiving from special interest groups on a section of its website called "Your Seat at the Table." What is the teacher's union demanding on education reform, for example? Not only can you find out on the transition's site, you can comment on the union's proposals and submit your own ideas on the subject.

    It's another early step toward open government for the new administration and it's something to be applauded, especially if it leaves these documents up after decisions start to get made, so watchdog groups can determine whose wishes were fulfilled and whose were not.

    Blackwater Contractors Indicted For Manslaughter, "Surrender" in Utah

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 3:42 PM EST

    The Justice Department has unsealed a 35-count indictment (.pdf) against five Blackwater contractors charged with the manslaughter of 17 Iraqis in a Baghdad traffic circle in September 2007. Those indicted, all former US soldiers and Marines, include: Donald Ball from West Valley City, Utah; Dustin Heard from Knoxville, Tenn.; Evan Liberty from Rochester, N.H.; Nick Slatten from Sparta, Tenn.; and Paul Slough, from Keller, Texas. All face up to 30 years in prison under an obscure law dealing with the use of machine guns in violent crimes that federal prosecutors have adapted for the case. A sixth Blackwater guard also involved in the shooting incident, Jeremy Ridgeway, took a plea deal (.pdf) offered by the Justice Department.

    The unsealed documents offer a gritty, blow-by-blow account of what happened as "Raven 23," the Blackwater security convoy's radio call sign that day, entered Nisour Square and opened fire—either in self defense, as Blackwater has claimed, or "upon a sudden quarrel and heat of passion," as the indictment alleges.

    The five Blackwater guards "surrendered" to authorities today in Salt Lake City, Utah, in hopes that a potential trial there would involve jurors more sympathetic to their case, reports NPR.

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    Finally, Some Consistency: Time, Guardian, New York Release Best Album Lists

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 2:41 PM EST

    mojo-photo-lilwaynecarteriii.jpgIdolator points out that three biggies have just weighed in on the best albums of the year, making the list-obsessed among us all giddy. Time, New York and the UK Guardian released their lists today, and while each have the character you'd expect from the publication (Idolator calls them "mainstream," "middlebrow" and "muso") there's actually some interesting similarities, which is nice, considering the mixed, Nick-Cave-elevating-by-default tally of recent lists. Both New York and Time had the same Top 2: Lil Wayne and TV on the Radio. Of course, the Guardian has to be all cool and diverse, throwing the not-even-out-in-the-US Amadou and Mariam in at #2, while Time, bafflingly, includes Metallica. USA! USA! But perhaps the most important thing to realize about the average of these three lists is that it turns out to very closely resemble my Best Albums of the First Half of 2008 list posted back at the end of June, proving, once again, that the Riff is your best bet for scientifically sound arts and culture commentary.

    Check out the three Top 10s as well as another super-consensus chart after the jump.

    *John Thain's Bonus

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 2:15 PM EST

    JOHN THAIN'S BONUS....The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest in the bonus soap opera:

    Merrill Lynch & Co. chief John Thain has suggested to directors that he get a 2008 bonus of as much as $10 million, but the battered securities firm's compensation committee is resisting his request, according to people familiar with the situation.

    ....A few months ago, when the board began seriously considering 2008 bonuses, a proposal was presented to the compensation committee by Merrill that Mr. Thain should be paid in excess of $30 million, according to people familiar with the matter. That number has since come down in recent talks with various board members and Mr. Thain has recently indicated to committee members that $5 million to $10 million is more reasonable.

    Well, that's mighty big of him, isn't it? Especially for a guy who got a $15 million bonus just for signing on at Merrill a year ago.

    But garden variety outrage isn't what I'm after here. What I want to know is: what was Thain's bonus plan when he was hired? According to the Journal, "Merrill shares were trading above $50 when he was hired, and his pay package was structured heavily toward his ability to increase the price by another $40 or more. Merrill's shares have fallen steadily this year, closing Friday at $13.04 in 4 p.m. New York Stock Exchange composite trading."

    Look: the plan he signed is the plan he signed. If his bonus was based on increasing Merrill's stock price, and instead their stock collapsed, then he shouldn't get a bonus. Instead of just saying so, though, Thain and the compensation committee will apparently go through something that's become standard American CEO kabuki, in which the comp plan is essentially rewritten if "bad luck" reduces bonuses below a level that's tolerable to our titans of industry. In this case, Thain's argument is that he saved Merrill by selling it off to Bank of America, a deal that BofA had been lusting over for ages and that required, according to news reports, little more than a couple of days to put together.

    This isn't a matter of outrage toward John Thain personally. For all I know he did the best he could with the hand he was dealt. But that doesn't matter. He's getting paid plenty of money for showing up to work, and arranging a shotgun marriage after presiding over a historic collapse hardly seems deserving of special attention. If he doesn't have the horse sense to figure that out on his own, BofA might want to think twice about keeping him aboard.

    Abortion Politics

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 1:46 PM EST

    ABORTION POLITICS....In the New York Times yesterday, Ross Douthat made the case that hardline views on abortion didn't have much to do with the Republican defeat in November. I think he's basically right about that. Abortion just wasn't a high profile issue this year.

    However, then he goes a step further, arguing that conservatives aren't really so very hardline on abortion these days anyway. "Compromise, rather than absolutism," he says, "has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now." Steve Benen replies:

    The evidence of conservative willingness to "compromise" on abortion is surprisingly thin. In 2005, for example, pro-life and pro-choice Democrats crafted the Prevention First Act, which aimed to reduce the number of abortions by taking prevention seriously, through a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs. Dems sought Republican co-sponsors. Zero — literally, not one — from either chamber endorsed the measure.

    What's more, this year, pro-life activists in South Dakota and Colorado forced strikingly inflexible anti-abortion measures onto their statewide ballots. Both lost, but it was a reminder of the movement's "absolutism" on the issue.

    There is, of course, another side to this as well. As Ross himself points out in his piece, the Supreme Court's ruling in Roe v. Wade means that "the pro-life movement is essentially trapped." He takes this to mean that pro-lifers can't offer any genuine compromises because Roe doesn't allow them, but there's more than a whiff of disingenuousness to this. After all, does anyone really believe that the pro-life movement wants to overturn Roe (and Casey) merely in order to open the door to European-style compromise on abortion law? Anyone care to sound out James Dobson on that notion?

    The truth is more prosaic: pro-life activists have done exactly what you'd expect them to do. They've pushed for the most restrictive possible laws they can get away with, and in many states they've succeeded in making abortion de facto unavailable. If Roe were overturned, compromise would be the last thing on their minds.

    George Bush's New Neighborhood Doesn't Care About Black People

    | Mon Dec. 8, 2008 1:13 PM EST

    President Bush's future neighborhood, the wealthy Dallas area called Preston Hollow, has some unfortunate secrets:

    Until 2000, the neighborhood association's covenant said only white people were allowed to live there, though an exception was made for servants.
    Enacted in 1956, part of the original document reads: "Said property shall be used and occupied by white persons except those shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of different race or nationality in the employ of a tenant."

    I'll add this thought. The president bought his ranch in Crawford just before running for president and will move to a swanky suburban neighborhood just after leaving office. It's almost like his cowboy image was an affect cultivated for maximum political gain. Imagine that.

    And here's the inspiration for this post's headline: