"Sophisticated and Fact Based"

Earlier this week David Brooks penned a cri de coeur about the "revolutionary fervor" he found lurking beneath the covers of Barack Obama's budget proposal for next year.  The next day he started getting pushback from White House aides.  By the time he'd finished talking to them, Brooks says, he didn't find himself completely convinced:

Nonetheless, the White House made a case that was sophisticated and fact-based. These people know how to lead a discussion and set a tone of friendly cooperation. I’m more optimistic that if Senate moderates can get their act together and come up with their own proactive plan, they can help shape a budget that allays their anxieties while meeting the president’s goals.

Fact based is a big improvement over the past eight years, no?  All by itself, that demonstrates a certain pragmatism and moderation even if Obama does favor things like carbon pricing and universal healthcare.

On the other hand, Brooks also came away from his conversations convinced that the Obama administration is "plotting politically feasible ways to reduce Social Security as well as health spending."  I wonder if he's going to get another set of phone calls about that on Friday morning?

Vote The Rock

Whether we like it or not, we're going to have to learn how to sequester CO2. Current suggestions include storing liquid or gaseous CO2 underground in saline aquifers, depleted oil wells, and porous coal seams. These "solutions" however come with nuclear-bomblike thrills of unintended consequences: notably, sudden and unintentional leaks.

But there's another idea. Turning carbon back into a solid. Which just happens to be  a way to permanently get rid of CO2 emissions. Our ally in that mission is rock. And geologists have now mapped 6,000 square miles of ultramafic rocks at or near the surface in the US (map [pdf]) that could absorb more than 500 years of America's CO2 production. Most of these formations are clustered along the east and west coasts, some near major cities, including New York, Baltimore, and San Francisco, making the sequestration process downright convenient—someday. Soon. We hope.

Here's how it works: Ultramafic rocks originate deep in the Earth and contain minerals that react naturally with CO2 to form solid minerals—a process known as mineral carbonation. Columbia University’s Earth Institute scientists are experimenting with ways to speed up a process that under natural conditions takes thousands of years.

One model involves capturing CO2 directly from power-plant smokestacks and other industries, dissolving in water and piping it underground, while capturing the heat generated by the reaction to accelerate the process. The first major pilot study is underway in Iceland, where a collaboration of international researchers will inject CO2-saturated water into basalt formations, also good sequesters. The rock should absorb 1,600 tons of CO2 from a nearby geothermal power plant over 9 months.

That's not all. Another mapping effort is underway in Oman, where peridotite formations might mineralize as much as 4 billion tons of CO2 a year—about 12 percent of the world’s annual output. And another pilot study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will eventually inject 1,000 tons of C02 into rock under land owned by a paper mill in Washington.

But wait, there's more. Hazardous tailings left behind by asbestos mining in Vermont and California could finally be neutralized by CO2 sequestration. The asbestos was mined from peridotite formations and the tailings are just waiting to gobble CO2 and return to their former lives as mantle rocks benign enough for your mantlepiece.

Just as Gordon Brown was lauding Senator Ted Kennedy in the U.S. House chamber yesterday, his government was basking in its victory before the European Union court to uphold a British law forcing people into mandatory retirement at 65. The British, of course, are also in the midst of a big economic downturn, and what their law does is to deny older people the right to work to get the money to provide for themselves with a modicum of decency–especially now that their retirement savings are decimated, just like ours are.

As the BBC reports, “The government continues to consign tens of thousands of willing and able older workers to the scrapheap,’’ said one advocate from Age Concern, the group that brought the suit. And Paul Cann, director of policy for Help the Aged, told the BBC, “Mandatory retirement ages are unfair and the government should act to abolish them as soon as possible…Challenging financial circumstances mean it is even more important for older workers to be able to choose to work longer if they want to. Ageism in all its forms must be eradicated from our society once and for all.”

The irony of this is extraordinary. Kennedy, who is 77 and was going strong until his recent diagnosis with brain cancer–and who has spent his entire life fighting for health care and decent treatment of workers of all ages–receivies a knighthood from the Queen, at the precise moment her government is sending older members of the British working class down the gangplank.

Don't Bank on It: FDIC Running Out of Money

Driven by a tanking stock market, a lot of people are looking to move their money to a “safe” place. This is especially  true of older people, who don’t have the option to follow the advice that’s being doled out by most money managers, which is to “stick it out” and wait for the market to “come back.” The safest place of all is supposed to be an FDIC-insured bank, where it may earn no more than a pittance, but it will at least be protected, since up to $250,000 in deposits for each individual are backed by the federal government through the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The problem is, the FDIC is now running out of money itself. According to Bloomberg news:

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair said the fund it uses to protect customer deposits at U.S. banks could dry up amid a surge in bank failures, as she responded to an industry outcry against new fees approved by the agency….

The fund, which lost $33.5 billion in 2008, was drained by 25 bank failures last year. Sixteen banks have failed so far this year, further straining the fund.

Banks are reportedly upset that they are being asked to pay additional fees to the government to shore up the FDIC. They are accustomed to money flowing only in the other direction–from the government's coffers into theirs.

Scaling Up

True confession: as a blogger, I like articles that have a clear takeaway which I can excerpt and comment on.  If there isn't one, I sometimes put the piece aside and then never get back to it.  Bad blogger.

Paul Roberts has a piece like that in our current issue.  It's about food, and it's got way too many moving parts to summarize fairly.  So here's a sort of randomly chosen taste:

When most of us imagine what a sustainable food economy might look like, chances are we picture a variation on something that already exists — such as organic farming, or a network of local farms and farmers markets, or urban pea patches — only on a much larger scale....But that's not the reality. Many of the familiar models don't work well on the scale required to need billions of people.

....Consider what it would take to make our farm system entirely organic. The only reason industrial organic agriculture can get away with replenishing its soils with manure or by planting nitrogen-fixing cover crops is that the industry is so tiny — making up less than 3 percent of the US food supply (and just 5.3 percent even in gung-ho green cultures like Austria's). If we wanted to rid the world of synthetic fertilizer use — and assuming dietary habits remain constant—the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure) would more than double, possibly triple, the current area of farmland, according to Vaclav Smil, an environmental scientist at the University of Manitoba. Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming — making this clearly only a theoretical notion."

I'm something of a bug about scale problems, so this whole theme appeals to me.  But the rest of the article is really good too.  It's well worth a few minutes of your time.

Choosing a C-Something-O

We don't have a CTO yet, but we do now have a national CIO, a 34-year-old by the name of Vivek Kundra. Early reports suggest that his job portfolio will include a lot of things one would expect a CTO to do, which makes sense since Kundra's previous job was Washington DC's CTO. And by all accounts, he was exceptional it.

Maybe a CTO will be next. He or she will likely be Kundra's close partner. Together, they'll be doing some of the most cutting edge stuff in the administration, like using technology to democratize government information, encourage citizen engagement, and increase transparency across the executive branch.

Oh, and by the way, my favorite part of this WaPo profile of Kundra?

Kundra was born in India and moved to Tanzania at a young age. His family came to Gaithersburg when he was 11. His first language is Swahili.

One of his earliest memories after moving to Maryland is seeing a TV commercial for dog food. "I was shocked," he said. "I was used to seeing people starve in Africa. It was mind-boggling to me that people could afford to feed their dogs!"

Zombie Auto Companies

Megan McArdle argues today that GM's annual report makes it pretty clear that they're doomed to Chapter 11.  Unfortunately, she makes a pretty good case.  And though she doesn't say it, there's probably an equally good case to be made that Chrysler can't even hope for that.  Liquidation may be all that's left for them.  This is bad.

Ban the Laptop!

At the beginning of his Criminal Law class last semester, Eugene Volokh decided to ban laptops as an experiment.  So how did it go?  As the post-class survey summarized below shows, pretty well.  Unsurprisingly, the ban was a net negative for note taking, but it turned out to be a pretty strong net positive on every other scale.  This is mostly of interest to students and professors, but even outside academia it's an intriguing data point for anyone who thinks that the increasing device-driven ADD in modern America might deserve a little more pushback than it usually gets and would like some evidence to back up their instinct.

DA's Link Arms With Sleazy Debt Collectors

It's hard to believe anyone really writes checks anymore, but apparently they do, and lots of bad ones--enough that collecting on them has turned into a big business. And according to ProPublica, one of the biggest beneficiaries of the bad-check collection biz may be your local prosecutor. District attorney offices around the country have outsourced bad check collections work to sleazy debt collectors. Because they are technically working for the local DA (check kiting is a criminal offense) the debt collectors, often pretend to be law enforcement officials when they call up to hound people into paying off their $47 checks (plus hefty fees to the collection agency), even threatening people with arrest. Writes ProPublica:

"Budget data from a dozen of the biggest counties that use ACCS show that DA offices have cashed in. Over the past four years, Los Angeles County received $1 million. In Illinois, Cook County collected more than $160,000 over a 12-month period. Florida's Miami-Dade County raked in $375,000 between April 2005 and September 2008)."

Perhaps just another good reason to pay with cash...

Screwing the Poor

Karen Tumulty writes in Time this week about her brother, Pat, who was diagnosed with kidney failure and then learned that the private insurance he'd been paying for for years wouldn't cover him.  That's bad enough, but then there's this:

A paradox of medical costs is that people who can least afford them — the uninsured — end up being charged the most. Insurance companies, with large numbers of customers, have the financial muscle to negotiate low rates from health-care providers; individuals do not. Whereas insured patients would have been charged about $900 by the hospital that performed Pat's biopsy (and pay only a small fraction of that out of their own pocket), Pat's bill was $7,756. For lab work — and there was a lot of it — he was being charged as much as six times the price an insurance company would pay.

There are lots of things to hate about our current medical system, and all of us have our own favorite things to hate.  This is mine: the fact that the system massively overcharges you if you're uninsured, and they do it just because they can.  If you're uninsured, you've got no leverage, no alternatives, no nothing.  So you get screwed.  It's like the shopkeepers who charge twenty bucks for a pair of flashlight batteries after hurricanes.  Maybe it's the free market at work, but if so, that's all the worse for the free market.  In the healthcare biz, it just doesn't work.