Blogs

Tuesday Tree Blogging

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 7:35 PM EST

TUESDAY TREE BLOGGING....The wind was too strong for the tree removers to come yesterday, but today the Santa Anas died down and our Jacaranda is no more. A sad moment, but it had to be done. Tomorrow the roots come out. Your before and after tree blogging is below.

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One More Problem With Wind Power: Space Aliens Ramming Our Windmills

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 5:55 PM EST

Via the New York Times comes this ITN report about a wind turbine in England that seems to have been hit by an unidentified flying object, which we can only assume was an alien spacecraft. Apparently local observers saw lights moving rapidly across the sky one night last week, and the next morning, it was discovered that a nearby wind farm's turbine had been damaged, with one blade missing and one bent. Sure, the Guardian says it could have been an ice chunk or fireworks, and the idea that intergalactic superbeings could manage to fly here across the vast reaches of space but aren't smart enough to avoid fender-benders with windmills doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense, but never mind, the spooky video report is highly entertaining. They can't find the missing blade!! Plus, there's got to be a way for Republicans to turn this news into a call for more drilling, right?

Back on Tracks

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 5:20 PM EST

BACK ON TRACKS....One of the big problems with our economy in recent years has been the massive growth of the FIRE sector — Finance, Insurance and Real Estate — at the expense of sectors that produce actual useful goods and services. Corporations have spent too much of their time engaged in M&A and stock buybacks instead of investing in new businesses, the savings glut from overseas flowed into the housing and finance market, and either through indolence or inability to attract attention, more traditional industries stagnated. In the current issue of the Washington Monthly, Phil Longman argues that this is roughly what's happened to America's freight railroads. Even though they're cheap, green, and efficient compared to trucks, they're short of track, hobbled by bottlenecks, and unable to haul a fraction of the freight they ought to:

Why don't the railroads just build the new tracks, tunnels, switchyards, and other infrastructure they need? America's major railroad companies are publicly traded companies answerable to often mindless, or predatory, financial Goliaths. While Wall Street was pouring the world's savings into underwriting credit cards and sub-prime mortgages on overvalued tract houses, America's railroads were pleading for the financing they needed to increase their capacity. And for the most part, the answer that came back from Wall Street was no, or worse. CSX, one of the nation's largest railroads, spent much of last year trying to fight off two hedge funds intent on gaining enough control of the company to cut its spending on new track and equipment in order to maximize short-term profits.

....There are many examples around the country where a relatively tiny amount of public investment in rail infrastructure would bring enormous social and economic returns....Chicago, America's rail capital, [] is visited by some 1,200 trains a day. Built in the nineteenth century by noncooperating private companies, lines coming from the East still have no or insufficient connections with those coming from the West. Consequently, thousands of containers on their way elsewhere must be unloaded each day, "rubber-wheeled" across the city's crowded streets by truck, and reloaded onto other trains. It takes forty-eight hours for a container to travel five miles across Chicago, longer than it does to get there from New York. This entire problem could be fixed for just $1.5 billion, with benefits including not just faster shipping times and attendant economic development, but drastically reduced road traffic, energy use, and pollution.

As regular readers know, I have my doubts about pouring lots of money into long-haul passenger rail, high-speed or otherwise, but freight is another story entirely. I don't need much convincing on this score. Trains can haul freight far more cheaply than trucks, both in money and carbon emissions, and an infrastructure overhaul that included electrification would make them more efficient yet. Longman suggests that an investment of $250 billion to $500 billion over the next 20 years would get 85% of all long-haul trucks off the nation's highways, reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by 38% (and oil consumption by 22%), and thanks to logistical efficiencies, would also leave the our economy 13% larger by 2030 than it would otherwise be.

This is a program that would far outlast any short-term stimulus bill, of course, but that's not a bad place to get the whole thing kick started. There are plenty of projects that could begin immediately, and if they're successful then private funding would likely take over much of the burden in the out years. And for those of you who are more enthusiastic about passenger rail than I am, there's another bonus: upgrading the freight infrastructure upgrades the passenger infrastructure at the same time. What's not to like? For more, the whole piece is here.

Why Some Enviros Hate Obama's EPA Pick

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 4:53 PM EST

eastickmarr.gif Only a few of Obama's cabinet nominations have received any criticism during this transition period; most have been fuss-free. But Lisa Jackson, commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection since 2006 and Obama's pick to head the enervated Environmental Protection Agency, has been slammed by an environmental nonprofit called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) that has blasted her in the toughest terms, calling her incompetent, weak, and unaccomplished.

Other environmental groups are cheering Jackson as she heads to the Senate for a confirmation hearing on Wednesday. But PEER has produced pages and pages of research (PDFs available here) that it claims serve as an indictment of her 31-month tenure as the Garden State's top environmental officer. The organization points out that in 2006 Jackson said publicly that "developing a new ranking system to prioritize" polluted sites due for cleanup was "the most important thing" her department was working on. Without a ranking system for the state's more than 15,000 contaminated sites — the longest such list in the nation — her department could not identify New Jersey's most dire pollution problems. But, PEER complains, Jackson never delivered a ranking system and then proposed to outsource clean-up responsibilities to private contractors. Jeff Ruch, the executive director of PEER, says, "She never developed a coherent plan. This was supposed to be her specialty, because the time she had spent previously at the EPA was spent on toxic cleanup. But she never displayed any expertise in a way that was helpful."

At Confirmation Hearing, Hillary Treads Lightly on Afghanistan Question

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 4:07 PM EST

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It was a foregone conclusion that Secretary of State aspirant Hillary Clinton would sail through her confirmation hearing on Tuesday morning. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is a club, and whatever their disagreements, it's members love to see their own rise to the top. (President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Joe Biden were also Committee members.)

The hearing was a classic game of political softball, in which Clinton's examiners gushed over her wonderful achievements and wished her well. Many used the occasion to win television time for their own pet projects: Indiana Republican Richard Lugar talked about nonproliferation; Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski urged action on the Law of the Sea Treaty; California Democrat Barbara Boxer discussed women's rights; and many others—including Massachusetts Democrat, former presidential nominee, and disappointed Secretary of State hopeful John Kerry—brought up the issue of Israel's ongoing war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Surprisingly, there was almost no mention during the morning's opening round of questioning about former President Bill Clinton's Global Initiative and the potential conflicts of interest inherent in his wife's ascendance to the country's top foreign policy post; the organization relies, in part, on funding from international donors. Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, among the relative few to even mention the Global Initiative, suggested that rather than complicating Clinton's nomination, it illustrates her and her husband's deep engagement in the world. (Yes, but as AP reports today, there is evidence of Senator Clinton intervening at least six times during her years on Capitol Hill on issues directly affecting firms that later donated to her husband's foundation.)

Obama's Pick for HHS Deputy: Actually Qualified For The Job

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 3:05 PM EST

The election of George W. Bush came as a boon to the tobacco industry. Cigarette companies helped pay for his election, and Bush repaid them handsomely once in office. Right off the bat, in 2001, his Justice Department tried to derail a major federal racketeering lawsuit against the tobacco companies before it went to trial. A few years later, the administration tried to scupper the first international tobacco control treaty (which the U.S. still hasn't ratified). And in 2007, Bush issued two of the 12 vetoes of his entire presidency to twice kill off bipartisan legislation to increase health insurance coverage for poor kids. Why? Because it would have raised taxes on cigarettes.

What a difference an election makes! Today, President-elect Obama announced his selection of William Corr as deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Corr is currently the executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a major foe of Bush's favored industry. More important than his public health advocacy, though: Corr actually has extensive experience with health care policy, a key component of HHS's responsibilities and one of Obama's top priorities. Corr started his career running nonprofit health clinics in Appalachia, and, in a major departure from the last eight years, he has actually worked inside the agency he's been chosen to run.

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Obama Inauguration Concert to Include U2, Beyonce, Springsteen, Many, Many, Many More

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 2:40 PM EST

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The Washington Post has the full lineup for this Sunday's Obama inaugural celebration concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and it's something, alright. Take a deep breath for the alphabetical list: Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Josh Groban, Herbie Hancock, John Legend, Jennifer Nettles, John Mellencamp, Usher, Shakira, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, U2, will.i.am and Stevie Wonder. Whew. Legend and Brooks aren't really up my alley, but you know, this isn't a bad concert, even without Please-Can't-You-Just-Be-President-Right-Now Obama dropping by. Of course, they had to give it a terrible name: "We Are One." Blergh! The first time I glanced at this story, I read it as "We Are the World" and just about had a heart attack. As long as they don't have a "We Are One" theme song, we should be okay. The 90-minute concert will be broadcast on HBO, except it'll be some sort of free version of HBO that will, I guess, just show up on our TVs somehow. Hooray, new president, but this better not interfere with the Flight of the Conchords premiere.

If that unintentional tribute to The Lion King is too mainstream for you, the Beastie Boys will headline a concert at D.C.'s 9:30 club on Sunday, except theirs has an even worse name: "Hey, America Feels Kinda Cool Again." Well, it felt cool, until you guys said that. Sheryl Crow will be slumming over there as well after her We Are One appearance, along with Citizen Cope. Scheduled for January 19 is Jay-Z, who will perform at the 2,000-capacity Warner Theater. Actual inaugural balls on January 20 abound, including an "Urban Ball" hosted by Ludacris and Big Boi and featuring David Banner, Lil Jon and more; a Legends Ball with Chaka Khan and George Clinton; and an MTV "Be the Change" party [edit: whoops, that was cancelled]. Plus there's the Party Ben We Are Watching It All From the Couch event, which promises to be very exclusive.

The Truthiest New Show on Television

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 2:02 PM EST

THE TRUTHIEST NEW SHOW ON TELEVISION....Over at TNR, Jeffrey Rosen reviews ABC's Homeland Security USA: "Every segment inadvertently reminded us why DHS officers spend so little time protecting the homeland against violent threats: Investigations that begin by looking for terrorists come up short, so officers have no alternative but to snag people for non-violent crimes." Good to know.

Stimulus Math

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 1:52 PM EST

STIMULUS MATH....Jonathan Stein points me to a Washington Post story telling us that Barack Obama has decided to ditch the $3,000-per-job tax credit that was part of his original stimulus proposal. Good. It was a dumb and almost certainly unworkable idea. But there's also this:

Obama advisers said further adjustments may be made to the president-elect's tax priorities, including to a proposed $500 payroll tax credit for individuals. Many Democrats have criticized Obama's idea of distributing the benefit over 12 months, saying it would amount to about $20 per paycheck for workers who are paid every two weeks. They would prefer to distribute the credit over a shorter period.

I'm basically with Obama here. But I'd actually suggest something different: make the credit bigger, pay it out over two years, and have it automatically decline. For example, how about $2,000 paid out quarterly over two years? The credit would be $400 in the first quarter, $300 in the second and third quarters, and so on until you get down to $100 in the eighth and final quarter. This front loads the stimulus now, when it's most needed, keeps it going throughout the expected length of the recession, and makes it predictable enough that people know they can count on it. It might also strike a good balance between the amount of the stimulus that gets spent vs. the amount that gets saved. Worth a thought, anyway.

Did Dick Cheney Ghostwrite This Season of 24? (Spoilers)

| Tue Jan. 13, 2009 1:42 PM EST

Much has already been written about Fox's 24 and its role in mainstreaming the use of torture. (The show's protagonist, Jack Bauer, is a frequent and effective torturer.) But the seventh season of the show, which premiered Sunday, seems to be turning away from the incidental normalization of torture (in which torture was shown to be necessary and effective but was rarely discussed) and is now instead making an explicit argument for the use of torture. I won't spoil much about the two-episode premier by telling you that Jack Bauer was called before a Senate hearing to account for his "crimes," but was conveniently pulled away at the last minute because of a pressing national security matter. Kevin Drum also watched on Sunday. He writes:

[I]t's obvious that the show is going to deal head on with the subject of torture this season... Is there any way for this end other than badly? After all, here in the blogosphere we opponents of torture like to argue that we don't live in the world of 24, guys. And we don't. But Jack Bauer, needless to say, does live in the world of 24. And in that world, there are well-heeled terrorists around every corner, ticking time bombs aplenty, and torture routinely saves thousands of lives. What are the odds that it won't do so again this season — except this time after lots of talk about the rule of law blah blah liberals blah blah it's your call blah blah? Pretty low, I'd guess. Hopefully the writers will surprise me.

After watching the third and fourth episodes of the season on Monday night, I'd be pretty surprised if Kevin is surprised by the writers. Over at Kevin's blog (where there's a great discussion going on in the comments), commenter Cuttle gets it exactly right, and is worth quoting at length: