Kevin Drum

Regulating Carbon Dioxide

| Thu Feb. 19, 2009 2:27 AM EST
Last year the Supreme Court ruled that the EPA is required to decide if carbon dioxide is a pollutant as defined by the Clean Air Act.  The Bush White House basically just ignored the ruling, but now there's a new sheriff in town:

The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to act for the first time to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that scientists blame for the warming of the planet, according to top Obama administration officials.

....Lisa P. Jackson, the new E.P.A. administrator, said in an interview that she had asked her staff to review the latest scientific evidence and prepare the documentation for a so-called endangerment finding....If the environmental agency determines that carbon dioxide is a dangerous pollutant to be regulated under the Clean Air Act, it would set off one of the most extensive regulatory rule makings in history. Ms. Jackson knows that she would be stepping into a minefield of Congressional and industry opposition and said that she was trying to devise a program that allayed these worries.

This is sort of a good-news-bad-news situation.  The bad news is that the Clean Air Act probably isn't a very good vehicle for regulating greenhouse gases.  Its state-based machinery just wasn't built for something like this.  The good news is that this very fact might act as a spur for Congress to enact something better, such as a national carbon tax, cap-and-trade plan, or even simply some more appropriately designed regulation.  Of these, cap-and-trade seems to be the most likely candidate, since it has support both in Congress and the White House already, and it might pick up some Republican votes it wouldn't otherwise get if the alternative is to let the hated EPA start writing its own rules.

And if it doesn't act as a spur?  Then it's still good news, because it means at least we'll get something, even if it's not the most efficient regulatory regime we can imagine.  All things considered, I'm a fan of cap-and-trade myself, but I figure any port in a storm.  If I can't get what I want, I'll settle for the EPA at least getting the ball rolling.  Eventually the business community will scream hard enough to make Congress do something intelligent.

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Sarah Palin Update

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 4:33 PM EST
Sarah Palin is the crack cocaine of political celebrities.  I want to ignore her, but I just can't.  And you can't either.  Admit it. Michael Leahy of the Washington Post serves up the latest embarrassment:

A couple of weeks before the Alaska legislature began this year's session, a bipartisan group of state senators on a retreat a few hours from here invited Gov. Sarah Palin to join them. Accompanied by a retinue of advisers, she took a seat at one end of a conference table and listened passively as Gary Stevens, the president of the Alaska Senate, a former college history professor and a low-key Republican with a reputation for congeniality, expressed delight at her presence.

Would the governor, a smiling Stevens asked, like to share some of her plans and proposals for the coming legislative session?

Palin looked around the room and paused, according to several senators present. "I feel like you guys are always trying to put me on the spot," she said finally, as the room became silent.

Never forget: this is the person who John McCain thought was qualified to be a heartbeat away from the presidency.

More Pork

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 2:29 PM EST
A few days ago I noted that a Dan Eggen piece in the Washington Post about "pork" in the stimulus bill wasn't about pork at all.  The stuff he wrote about was just normal spending, not earmarks.

But I suppose one man's normal spending is another man's pork, and a couple of days later Eggen followed up with a piece that provided an actual number from Republican critics.  Bob Somerby glosses his report for us:

According to Eggen, Republicans had “identified $25 billion” in spending provisions which were “questionable or non-stimulative.” ....But readers! The price tag for the stimulus package as a whole came to $787 billion!

....That’s right! According to Republican allegations, only 3.2 percent of the bill constituted a spending spree involving larded-up pork! Only 3.2 percent — a rather minuscule amount. You’d almost think that this percentage might have appeared in Eggen’s report. But given the way this press corps works, numbers like that will appear in the Post about the time pigs, and related pork products, fly. Modern journalists don’t do policy, as Eric Boehlert noted last week.

So even if this stuff was pork — a debatable notion in the first place — it was only 3% of the total.  And presumably this was the best Republicans could come up with.  The bottom line, then, is that even according to its sharpest critics, the final stimulus bill was 97% muscle.  If that's true, this is probably one of the cleanest spending bills in the history of congress.  Nice work, Democrats!

The 6th Street Viaduct

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 2:07 PM EST
The 6th Street Viaduct in Los Angeles has been slowly crumbling for years thanks to defects in the cement originally used to build it, and the city recently unveiled its plans for a replacement:

After a series of public meetings over the last two years, city engineers decided that replacing the bridge was the only viable option....A model of the proposed span shows two rectangular towers in the middle of the bridge, with cables down both sides.

....The cost of replacing the viaduct with the proposed structure is estimated to be about $345 million, officials said.

This is just idle musing, but I wonder why this bridge costs so much?  The original structure cost $2.3 million, which comes to about $36 million in today's dollars.  In real terms, then, the bridge costs ten times as much today as it did in 1932.

Why?  Labor costs are proportionately higher today, of course.  The old bridge has to be built around and then demolished.  LA is built up and we can't just build a cement factory on site, the way we did 75 years ago.  Earthquake standards and general permitting requirements are more stringent.

On the other hand, we also have 75 years of technology progression.  Labor costs may be higher, but we use less total labor and more machinery these days.  And computers help with most of the design work.

Like I said, just idle musing.  But it sure seems odd that after 75 years of fantastic technological progress, it not only costs more to build a bridge than it used to, but it costs ten times more.  That's a lot of dough.  I just hope it's shovel ready.

Comparative Effectiveness

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:33 PM EST
Via Ezra, medblogger KevinMD writes in favor of federal funding for comparative effectiveness research:

Physicians need an authoritative source of unbiased data, untainted by the influence of drug companies and device manufacturers....The only way to tackle such a huge project is with money, and indeed, the Obama administration recognizes this fact by including $1.1 billion in comparative effectiveness research in the economic stimulus package.

Clearly, the pharmaceutical and device industry would like both the public and physicians to continue to assume that "newer means better." Not asking these questions allows them to continue promoting profit-making brand-name treatments.

Their motives in attempting to quash comparative effectiveness research could not be more obvious.

Indeed, their motives are obvious: They know perfectly well that a lot of their newest and priciest treatments aren't any better than the stuff going off patent next year, and they'd just as soon no one knew that fact.  But I'd like to know, and I'm positively delighted to kick in my share of that $1.1 billion to find out.  Anyone who's not a pharmaceutical executive ought to be pretty happy about it too.  Ezra has more on how the whole scam works.

GOP Meltdown Watch

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:15 PM EST
The Republican leader in the California state senate is one of only two GOP senators who's agreed to back a budget compromise that includes both spending cuts and tax increases.  Last night, Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) taunted the holdouts, telling them, "You ought to follow your leader or choose a new one."  It turns out they agreed:

Around 11 p.m., a group of GOP senators, unhappy with the higher taxes that Senate leader Dave Cogdill of Modesto agreed to as part of a deal with the governor and Democrats, voted to replace him in a private caucus meeting in Cogdill's office.

They chose Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, a staunchly antitax lawmaker from Murrieta, as their new leader.

....Hollingsworth said he does not want to see a tax increase passed, but he offered no plan for resolving the budget crisis.

So it's back to square one with the flat earthers determined to wreck the state.  A friend of mine emailed to say that my post the other day comparing California Republicans to lemmings and neanderthals was unfair to both lemmings and neanderthals, and I guess he had a point.  So what do we compare them to now?

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Homeowner Bailout

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:03 PM EST
President Obama unveiled his homeowner bailout plan today.  The first provision is aimed at motivating mortgage servicers to offer underwater homeowners improved loan terms:

Servicers can receive an up-front payment of $1,000 for each eligible loan modification that meets certain criteria. The government said it would pay servicers $500 and mortgage investors $1,500 if at-risk loans are modified before borrowers fall behind. The government said it would also help pay down the principal of certain mortgages by up to $1,000 a year for up to five years if the borrower doesn't miss any payments.

Hmmm.  Loan servicers already have an incentive to rework loans that would otherwise go into default, and for the most part they aren't doing it.  Will a couple thousand dollars change their internal calculus?  Offhand, it doesn't sound like enough to really make a difference — though another provision of Obama's plan adds a stick to the carrot, by allowing bankruptcy judges to unilaterally alter mortgage terms.  So it's possible that the carrot and the stick together will have a noticeable impact.

The second major part of the program is aimed at lowering interest rates on underwater loans:

Finance companies cannot currently refinance a loan if the homeowner owes more than 80 percent of the home's value. But under the plan, Fannie and Freddie — which were taken over by the government last year — would be able to refinance a mortgage if it does not exceed 105 percent of the current value of the property. For example, if the value of the borrower's property is $200,000, but the homeowner owes $210,000, he or she could still qualify for the program.

This sounds promising.  If the interest rate reductions are significant, it could provide some serious help to homeowners.  It will also help arrest the slide in home prices, which might be a worthwhile goal at this point.  It's true that house prices are still too high and need to fall further, but Obama's program most likely won't have a serious effect for another six months at least, and by that time we might be at risk of house prices overshooting on their way down.  A program that pushes against that tide could end up being a good countercyclical tool.

Bailing Out Detroit

| Wed Feb. 18, 2009 1:46 AM EST
The latest from Detroit:

The price tag for bailing out General Motors and Chrysler jumped by another $14 billion Tuesday, to $39 billion, with the two automakers saying they would need the additional aid from the federal government to remain solvent.

....The deteriorating finances of the two companies present the Obama administration with two options, neither of them appealing  It can provide the money in the hopes that the companies will stabilize, and no longer have to keep pushing workers into a growing pool of people without jobs....But if the federal government balks at the automakers’ requests, that would mean the two companies probably would have no choice but to file for bankruptcy protection, because they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars each month.

Hell's bells.  What to do?  I mean, does anyone believe this is the end of the bailout requests?  I certainly don't, and I doubt anyone else does either.  On the other hand, the alternative is allowing GM and Chrysler to fail in the middle of a recession.  Nobody wants that.  But on the third hand, even if we bail them out, what are the odds that they can survive in the long term anyway?

In the end, I suppose we'll continue bailing.  But this whole process shows up one of the big pitfalls of government action like this.  My own guess — and this is obviously just a personal hunch — is that while GM is at least arguably salvagable, Chrysler is a hopeless basket case.  So if we're going to do anything, we should probably bail out GM but let Chrysler go under.  That would save the taxpayers some money and reduce overcapacity in the auto industry at the same time. Unfortunately, politics being what it is, the Obama administration probably feels like they can't pick winners and losers and needs to treat them both equally.

This is almost certainly dumb, but it's what's most likely going to happen.  So the American public will end up pumping $10 or $20 billion into Chrysler in order to help it become, basically, the North American subsidiary of Fiat — a partnership that does the U.S. auto industry little good and will itself almost certainly crumble and fail before long in any case.  What a mess.

Performance Bleg

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 8:23 PM EST
A question for y'all: how's the performance of our site these days?  I use Firefox and Windows XP and my performance is sort of sluggish, but not wildly so.  Maybe 10 seconds to load the first few posts on the blog and another 10 or 15 seconds to finish loading the whole thing.  How about you?  Better?  Worse?  Is load time consistent or does it bounce around a lot?

Vitamins

| Tue Feb. 17, 2009 6:16 PM EST
Everyone needs vitamins.  Too little Vitamin C and you get scurvy.  Not enough B1 and you come down with beriberi.  But even a halfway balanced diet provides you with enough essential nutrients to avoid vitamin deficiency diseases, so scurvy and beriberi aren't things for most of us to worry about. A more important question for us developed world types is, Can large doses of vitamins help prevent other chronic conditions, like cancer and heart disease?  The New York Times says no:

The latest news came last week after researchers in the Women’s Health Initiative study tracked eight years of multivitamin use among more than 161,000 older women. Despite earlier findings suggesting that multivitamins might lower the risk for heart disease and certain cancers, the study, published in The Archives of Internal Medicine, found no such benefit.

Last year, a study that tracked almost 15,000 male physicians for a decade reported no differences in cancer or heart disease rates among those using vitamins E and C compared with those taking a placebo. And in October, a study of 35,000 men dashed hopes that high doses of vitamin E and selenium could lower the risk of prostate cancer.

....“I’m puzzled why the public in general ignores the results of well-done trials,” said Dr. Eric Klein, national study coordinator for the prostate cancer trial and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic’s Glickman Urological and Kidney Institute. “The public’s belief in the benefits of vitamins and nutrients is not supported by the available scientific data.”

Eating leafy greens is good for you, but apparently getting megadoses of the same vitamins in pill form doesn't do squat.  In fact, they even have some negative side effects.  Bottom line: have a salad tonight and skip the multivitamins.