Kevin Drum

Land of the Free

| Sun Dec. 28, 2008 1:21 PM EST

LAND OF THE FREE....Juan Gómez, American citizen, would like to be able to return to his country after an overseas trip the same way every other American citizen does: by showing his passport and walking in. Unfortunately, Juan Gómez is in TSA hell:

Time and time again, I've been cleared for entry into the United States. So why does my name remain on the list? Will I have to go through this for the rest of my life? In desperation, I always ask airport-security officers how my name can be removed. I've heard it all, from writing to my congressman (as if that would do any good) to filling out a form (never mind that no one has been able to produce the document or tell me where I can find it). The most honest answer came from a young, Afghan American officer at Dulles a couple of weeks ago: "There's absolutely nothing you can do."

Welcome to America, Juan.

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*Modern Architecture

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 4:30 PM EST

MODERN ARCHITECTURE....The Los Angeles Times asked eight local worthies to choose the ten all-time best houses in Southern California. The results: nine out of ten houses are in Los Angeles and ten out of ten were built more than 40 years ago. Discuss.

Nightmare on Main Street

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 2:03 PM EST

NIGHTMARE ON MAIN STREET....From the Wall Street Journal, this is as gruesome a statistic as I've seen yet:

Corporate-turnaround experts and bankruptcy lawyers are predicting a wave of retailer bankruptcies early next year, after being contacted by big and small retailers either preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection or scrambling to avoid that fate.

....AlixPartners LLP, a Michigan-based turnaround consulting firm, estimates that 25.8% of 182 large retailers it tracks are at significant risk of filing for bankruptcy or facing financial distress in 2009 or 2010....Recent changes in the bankruptcy code make it more difficult for retailers to emerge from bankruptcy reorganization....Lawrence Gottlieb, a New York bankruptcy attorney at Cooley Godward Kronish LLP says that only two retailers have successfully emerged from bankruptcy proceedings since the amendments to the code were passed.

A quarter of all major retailers may be in either Chapter 11 or liquidation next year? Holy cow.

The Student Loan Mess

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 1:47 PM EST

THE STUDENT LOAN MESS....The student loan market is a mess, and it's mainly a mess because the federal student loan program is woefully inadequate. Natalie Hickey learned the hard way:

Hickey got caught in an increasingly common trap in the nation's $85-billion student loan market. She borrowed heavily, presuming that all her debt was part of the federal student loan program.

But most of the money she borrowed was actually in private loans, the fastest-growing segment of the student loan market....Whereas federally guaranteed loans have fixed interest rates, currently either 6% or 6.8%, private loans are more like credit card debt. Interest rates aren't fixed and often run 15% or more, not counting fees.

....Hickey ended up with $20,000 in low-interest federally guaranteed loans issued by Sallie Mae, and $120,000 in higher-interest private loans issued by Sallie Mae. Hickey said no one explained the difference to her.

There's really no excuse for this. At the very least disclosure practices need to be tightened up, but what really needs to happen is a substantial increase in the current limit for federal student loans. It's not even close to the amount needed to get through school these days.

What's more, there's really no reason that the feds should be guaranteeing private loans instead of just originating the loans themselves anyway. Bank origination may have been the only practical option 40 years ago, but that ceased to be the case long ago, and the private student loan market has since become a cesspool of graft, corruption, and abusive practices. Today, federal origination is cheaper and more efficient for both taxpayers and students, and there's really no reason why the Direct Loan Program shouldn't be expanded to the point of putting the private market out of business.

Passive Houses

| Sat Dec. 27, 2008 1:06 PM EST

PASSIVE HOUSES....I've wondered vaguely for a while why you couldn't build a house that was basically vacuum sealed and thus needed almost nothing in the way of heating and cooling. But it turns out you can, and ground zero for research into "passive houses" is the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany, where I spent a couple of nights just a few months ago. The New York Times reports:

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants' bodies.

....Decades ago, attempts at creating sealed solar-heated homes failed, because of stagnant air and mold. But new passive houses use an ingenious central ventilation system. The warm air going out passes side by side with clean, cold air coming in, exchanging heat with 90 percent efficiency.

....In Germany the added construction costs of passive houses are modest and, because of their growing popularity and an ever larger array of attractive off-the-shelf components, are shrinking.

But the sophisticated windows and heat-exchange ventilation systems needed to make passive houses work properly are not readily available in the United States. So the construction of passive houses in the United States, at least initially, is likely to entail a higher price differential.

Interesting stuff. Old news to some, but new to me, and probably new to a few of you as well. More passive houses, please.

Friday Cat Blogging - 26 December 2008

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 3:40 PM EST

BOXING DAY CATBLOGGING....We spent Christmas Eve this year at my mother's house, which naturally means I acquired many new pictures of her implacably adorable new kittens. I think they went through three complete cycles of manic zeal followed by utter slumberland during the few hours we were visiting.

But there will be riots in the street (punctuated by the occasional snooze) if Inkblot and Domino are booted from their rightful spots as America's Favorite Cats™ for two weeks in a row. So here they are. Domino is in her normal morning position, draped over Marian's head and sucking up all her bodily warmth. Inkblot, whose relationship with the new pod is sometimes a fraught one, was in a pod-loving moment a few days ago and spent the morning curled up in the sunshine on the other end of the bed. Usually he disdains the pod and sleeps right by Marian's feet, which basically makes her into a cat sandwich. On the other hand, my mother now has four cats, and apparently all of them like to sleep on the bed at night, so I guess it could be worse.

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A Fall From Greatness

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 3:10 PM EST

A FALL FROM GREATNESS....As American manufacturing prowess continues its long decline, even American crime is being affected. Secret Service agent Charles Green explains to the Kansas City Star:

More counterfeiters are using today's ink-jet printers, computers and copiers to make money that's just good enough to pass, he said, even though their product is awful.

In the past, he said, the best American counterfeiters were skilled printers who used heavy offset presses to turn out decent 20s, 50s and 100s. Now that kind of work is rare and almost all comes from abroad.

....Green pointed to a picture hanging in his downtown conference room. It's a photo from a 1980s Lenexa case that involved heavy printing presses and about 2 million fake dollars. "That's what we used to see," he boomed. "That's the kind of case we used to make."

....Green's voice sank as he described today's sad-sack counterfeiters. These people call up pictures of bills on their computers, buy paper at an office supply store and print out a few bills. They cut the bills apart, go into a store or bar and pass one or two.

That is just a sad state of affairs, my friends. Whatever happened to taking pride in your work? I guess all the real crooks have decided that identify theft and computer fraud are the hot tickets these days.

As an aside, though, I have my doubts that the good stuff all "comes from abroad." My guess is that it comes from right here in the U. S. of A. Just not from counterfeiters.

Quote of the Day - 12.26.08

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 1:40 PM EST

QUOTE OF THE DAY....From Michael O'Hare, after reading some disturbing news:

Great challenges, widespread deprivation, and collective enterprise need more chocolate, not less.

Quite so, and Barack Obama better not forget it. All together, I think I received about four pounds of chocolate this Christmas, so I'm set for the next couple of days. After that, store shelves better remain fully stocked if everyone expects this blog to continue.

Climate Change Update

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 12:28 PM EST

CLIMATE CHANGE UPDATE....My morning paper delivers some good news and some bad news on climate change. The bad news:

In one of the report's most worrisome findings, the agency estimates that in light of recent ice sheet melting, global sea levels could rise as much as 4 feet by 2100. The intergovernment panel had projected a rise of no more than 1.5 feet by that time, but satellite data over the last two years show the world's major ice sheets are melting much more rapidly than previously thought. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are losing an average of 48 cubic miles of ice a year, equivalent to twice the amount of ice in the Alps.

I wouldn't be surprised to see this number grow further as more studies are done. But there's also good news:

The report is reassuring [] on the prospects for some potentially drastic effects, such as a huge release of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, that is now locked deep in the seabed and underneath the Arctic permafrost. That is unlikely to occur in the near future, the scientists said.

"It's unlikely that we're going to see an abrupt change in methane over the next hundred years, but we should worry about it over a longer time frame," said Ed Brook, the lead author of the methane chapter and a geosciences professor at Oregon State University....By the end the century, Brook said, the amount of methane escaping from natural sources such as the Arctic tundra and waterlogged soils in warmer regions "could possibly double," but that would still be less than the current level of human-generated methane emissions.

The release of methane from melting permafrost is one of the worst of the feedback-loop scenarios that could cause climate change to spiral out of control during the middle part of the century. If we really have a hundred years or more before it gets out of hand, that's good news.

Milk

| Fri Dec. 26, 2008 12:17 PM EST

MILK....Matt Yglesias explains why he didn't like Milk as much as he expected to:

My first instinct was to say that the problem with the film is that the pacing is odd, but I think the problem may actually be that on some level Harvey Milk's story isn't that interesting.

This is an underappreciated phenomenon. When it comes to fiction, everyone understands that an uninteresting story is a death knell. But when it comes to stories based on real people, filmmakers too often seem to think that just because a person has done something of note, it means that this person's life story is inherently interesting. But it's not. Harvey Milk did worthwhile things and his life ended in a dramatic way, but his life story is actually fairly ordinary. The same can be said for the subjects of a disturbingly large number of biopics.

Which isn't to say that Milk is bad. I didn't think it lived up to its hype, but it was still pretty good. And Sean Penn did a phenomenal job in the title role. The film might be worth seeing just for that.