9.17.2010

The New Fuelist

Check out my energy and environment news curation site!

10.19.2009

This is my brain on journalism.

I haven't abandoned this ship, I have just been away learning to be a journalist, and contemplating the role of a blogger who is also a journalist. No conclusions yet, but I'm happy to report that Josh Marshall finally inspired me to post another block quote. Not surprisingly, it's about journalism. (emphasis mine)
If you actually watch Fox News with any regularity it's hard to see any point to discussing the fact that the station operates more or less openly as a wing of the GOP. The more interesting question is whether and (I would say) how news organizations with strong editorial viewpoints can maintain the highest standards of journalistic integrity, fairness and reportorial excellence. That's the critical question for journalism today because in many ways that is the direction much if not all reportage is going. But it's a conversation Fox isn't even a part of except as the paradigmatic example of how it's not done.

That's called hitting the nail on the head.

9.26.2009

Clean Energy, G.D.P., and Baseball, Oh My!

Much of the domestic and geopolitical climate-change and energy policy debate is an argument about money. Ambitious emissions targets would require nations to invest heavily in clean energy, and opponents to such targets believe they would be too much of an obstacle to economic growth.

But what is economic growth? Earlier this month, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and a group of economists, including American Nobelist (and Columbia University Professor) Joseph Stiglitz, called for a re-evaluation of gross domestic product--broadly considered the most telling indicator of a nation's advancement. G.D.P. should be more comprehensive, they said, by accounting for things like personal well-being and sustainability of a nation's economy. According to Financial Times, Dr. Stiglitz stated,
"What we measure affects what we do. If we have the wrong measures, we will strive for the wrong things."

Stiglitz's statement reminds me of Bill James, who in the late 1970s began to challenge the entrenched use of certain indicators to assess a baseball player's worth. Among many other things, James is credited with shifting the focus from batting average and RBIs to a more comprehensive measure of a player's overall contribution to runs scored, which accounts for things like walks and total bases. He also ushered in an entire new world of baseball statistical analysis, and revolutionized the front-office position of general manager, as Michael Lewis described in Moneyball (Amazon link).

Global policy-making is obviously much more complicated than baseball. But the point here is that there is value in re-assessing the usefulness of heavily-relied-upon indicators. Why isn't some measure of economic sustainability included in G.D.P.? If it was, the merits of investing in clean energy would probably be much harder to ignore.

9.14.2009

This Just In

My favorite middle linebacker donates his brain to science. (Seattle Times)

Does that nicotine patch itch? Some researchers think they know why. (Reuters)

Gordon Brown: Codebreaker Alan Turing "deserved so much better."

And last but not least: John Boehner valiantly continues his quest to win the "Most Ironic Rhetoric" award at The House of Representatives end-of-the-session awards banquet. (Talking Points Memo)

8.25.2009

Swine Flu As A Case Study

Ezra Klein makes a lot of good points--in general and specifically in this post about Swine Flu and the fractured public health infrastructure in the US.
We have a tendency to judge the health-care system primarily by its capacity to deliver extremely sophisticated and advanced care for traumatic injuries and catastrophic illnesses. The sort of stuff you see on "House," say. But we think much less about its role as a public health infrastructure — its ability to deliver flu shots, and make sure that all of the country's inhabitants have a trusted medical professional they can see if they're sick.

On those measures, our system performs terribly. It's simply too fractured to do anything different. Almost 50 million Americans have no insurance. Many more are underinsured. Many don't have a particular doctor or even medical center where they feel comfortable receiving care. Many are uncertain about what is and isn't covered in their health plan. Many have recently been uninsured, and so have no regular contact with the medical system and haven't established an obvious way to begin having some.

The backstop to all this chaos is that you can go to an emergency room when things get really bad. That's fine for a car accident. It's not good for preventing the spread of the flu. You don't go to the emergency room when you're a bit sick. You go when you've become really ill. Which not only increases the likelihood that you wait until you get really sick, but with the flu, that you infect many others along the way. That in turn gives the flu more opportunities to mutate into something much worse. And let's not even talk about our insistence on keeping the illegal immigrants who prepare our food and clean our homes from seeing the doctor, as if H1N1 can't be transmitted by people who don't have a green card.

...

Got intellectual dishonesty?

8.18.2009

Series of Accidents

Matt Yglesias has range like Ozzie Smith. If necessary, he will even dive straight into the metaphysical weeds for a correlation (emphasis mine):
But in general it seems to me that we pay extraordinarily little attention to the giant role played by luck and happenstance in determining who becomes a super-successful businessman. Bill Gates, for example, clearly knows something about software and something about business. But there are lots of people who fit that bill. There’s only one Gates because it’s in the nature of things that only one firm gets to write the operating system that, thanks to strong network effects, becomes dominant and lets you start reaping monopoly profits. Nothing wrong with it, that’s life. But in general, as a society we tend to treat successful businessmen as if they were omniscient central planners who’d gotten rich through their powers of clairvoyance. In fact, the whole point of having businessmen instead of central planners is that nobody’s that omniscient—we let some flowers bloom and some chips fall and life moves on. But there’s no particular reason to believe that the ex post winners have enormous insights. If you hang around a casino, on any given night someone’s going to make money playing roulette, but that doesn’t mean you should ask him about his roulette strategy and it certainly doesn’t mean you should ask his opinion about public policy issues far outside his area of focus.


Armey: Medicare is tyranny!

8.15.2009

Delusions and Entitlement

Bruce Bartlett's Daily Beast bio describes "one of the original supply-siders" who was a "leading Republican economist from the 1980's and 90's." His point in this well-researched piece is simple: Conservatives delude themselves when they buy the claim that in recent history the GOP has practiced what it preaches about fiscal responsibility. Just look at the data:
In January, the Congressional Budget Office projected a deficit this year of $1.2 trillion before Obama took office, with no estimate for actions he might take. To a large extent, the CBO’s estimate simply represented the $482 billion deficit projected by the Bush administration in last summer’s budget review, plus the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, which George W. Bush rammed through Congress in September over strenuous conservative objections. Thus the vast bulk of this year’s currently estimated $1.8 trillion deficit was determined by Bush’s policies, not Obama’s.
...
[C]onservatives have an absurdly unjustified view that Republicans have a better record on federal finances. It is well-known that Clinton left office with a budget surplus and Bush left with the largest deficit in history. Less well-known is Clinton’s cutting of spending on his watch, reducing federal outlays from 22.1 percent of GDP to 18.4 percent of GDP. Bush, by contrast, increased spending to 20.9 percent of GDP. Clinton abolished a federal entitlement program, Welfare, for the first time in American history, while Bush established a new one for prescription drugs.

Regarding the current moment in our national politics, the Fox News/Drudge Report/elected Republican spin begs a reasonable question: Where was the passionate stand against government spending, expansion, and "meddling with our health care" when George W. Bush passed the Medicare Prescription Drug Plan in 2003?

Montana!

8.11.2009

Inflection Point

When all is said and done, I think the former Governor of Alaska's "death panel" remark will be viewed as a turning point, similar to the "lipstick on a pig" moment during the Presidential campaign.

Speaking of the campaign, TPM reader JM makes a good point. The need to fix our health care delivery and reimbursement system was as self-evident then as it is now, which inspired BOTH candidates to campaign on plans for government intervention.
If you watch the MSM on health care you'd think McCain never even ran for President in 2008 and never even suggested taxing employer based health benefits, or never suggested a "federally supported Guaranteed Access Plan" for people denied due to preexisting conditions, or never proposed cost containment measures including coordinated care and moving away from fee-for-service, or cutting Medicare Part D subsidies for Big Pharma. One can argue whether these were good or bad ideas but Mccain did in fact have ideas to reform health care.

8.10.2009

Default = Inertia

For better or for worse, Frank Rich is right.
The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It’s a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy. If anything, the most unexpected — and challenging — event that could rock the White House this August would be if the opposition actually woke up.

8.09.2009

Bass-Ackwards

If conservatives "win" the healthcare battle, I have a hard time understanding how that will help them politically, given reality. David Frum ponders the all-to-real hypothetical, and draws this refreshingly sensible conclusion. (emphasis mine)

The problem is that if we do that… we’ll still have the present healthcare system. Meaning that we’ll have (1) flat-lining wages, (2) exploding Medicaid and Medicare costs and thus immense pressure for future tax increases, (3) small businesses and self-employed individuals priced out of the insurance market, and (4) a lot of uninsured or underinsured people imposing costs on hospitals and local governments.

We’ll have entrenched and perpetuated some of the most irrational features of a hugely costly and under-performing system, at the expense of entrepreneurs and risk-takers, exactly the people the Republican party exists to champion.

Update: Former Bush strategist Matthew Dowd agrees.
"I think the Republicans soon have to be careful of something," Dowd said. "I know Republicans are all patting themselves on the back and saying, "We've got the Democrats on the run, Obama on the run.' I don't think it's necessarily a good political place to be in by November if you've defeated any health care reform."

8.06.2009

If Nothing Else...

At least the the democratic push to reform the kingdom of health care delivery and reimbursement has been illustrative. It's a dark picture of greedy industry royalty and their mercenaries in Congress. It has always been there, but if nothing else at least we are talking about it for a few minutes.

Not all talk is useful though, especially when it is parroted versions of false correlations designed to reinforce "infantile denial." (link)

The big lie that Medicare isn't, nor ever should be, financed and regulated by the government, is a nice illustration of Slate founder Michael Kinsley's hypothesis, articulated in his 1995 book Big Babies, that infantile denial lies at the heart of much contemporary political disaffection. The American people, Kinsley wrote, "make flagrantly incompatible demands—cut my taxes, preserve my benefits, balance the budget—then explode in self-righteous outrage when the politicians fail to deliver." Although Kinsley conceded that big babyism had been enabled by both conservative and liberal politics, he wrote: "It is conservatives, more than liberals, who stoke the fires of resentment and encourage vast swaths of the electorate to indulge in fantasies of victimization by others." This is perhaps 1,000 times more true today than it was 14 years ago.

8.05.2009

The Lamp

Josh Marshall is correct.
Politics, as they say, ain't bean bag. And more than that, real political engagement is not and should not be a debating exercise. There's organizing and rough-and-tumble. That's not an unfortunate concession. That's how people with strong beliefs peacefully hash out their differences in a democratic society. But, c'mon, showing up as a mob and shouting people down is showing up as a mob and shouting people down.


Update: Even Michael Steele agrees. Doesn't he? (emphasis mine)
"… I'm not telling people to go out and be disruptive, because there's no upside to doing that. We want to have a legitimate debate…there's no upside for us in starting a fight with the Democratic Party, or with elected officials that we disagree with."

8.04.2009

Sad State?

Just like he knew all along that Roger Federer would beat Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon Final, Matt Taibbi wasn't surprised by the news that the Senate Finance Committee's health care bill would not contain the public insurance option.
This whole business, it was a litmus test for whether or not we even have a functioning government. Here we had a political majority in congress and a popular president armed with oodles of political capital and backed by the overwhelming sentiment of perhaps 150 million Americans, and this government could not bring itself to offend ten thousand insurance men in order to pass a bill that addresses an urgent emergency. What’s left? Third-party politics?

Say What You Will

8.02.2009

News is Good

I have to agree with this assessment by Yglesias. (Emphasis mine)
The nature of the 20th Century market for news happened to incentivize a certain kind of staid inoffensiveness. This style of covering things has some virtues, but other styles have virtues too. Because such an overwhelming preponderance of the profession was squeezed, for basically economic reasons, into that style a habit developed of labeling the virtues of that style the virtues of journalism. But they’re not. There’s a lot that’s nerve-wracking about the current moment in media, but the stylistic diversity and openness to new ways of doing things should be viewed as exciting.

7.31.2009

Provoking Thoughts

I continue to be fascinated by the (at times direct) interplay between the rising forces of "New Media" and the established "Old Media" forces, particularly when it comes to political analysis. A couple weeks ago, there occurred a very interesting discussion between Glenn Greenwald and NBC's Chuck Todd. (Transcript)

Greenwald originally called out Todd for being a "spokesman" for the Obama Administration when he went on MSNBC and characterized hypothetical torture investigations/prosecutions as a "distraction from what matters." Todd's statement was an example of the all-to-typical behavior of "media stars," Greenwald argued, behavior that helps create an environment in which politicians can break the law with little fear of investigations or prosecution. Todd responded by agreeing to a debate.

A particularly compelling point in the discussion was when Greenwald conceded that it's unrealistic to expect presidential administrations to relinquish powers grabbed by their predecessors--even if, as Todd pointed out, they campaigned against those very expansions of Executive power. Is that true?

I think this was the key exchange:
CT: And the problem is, there is a department, and you can't, whether this, you can sit here and say, you know what, that's exactly what's wrong with the Beltway. But there has been this fatigue about it because the use of prosecutions has been too politicized, to the point where I think it has made it where it's just unfortunately too easy to dismiss an investigation.

GG: And as a result, powerful politicians know that they can break the law and get away it.

CT: I don't disagree with your conclusion here.

GG: Politicians know that they can break the law and get away it because there is that quote-unquote 'fatigue', that dislike, that contempt for holding political officials accountable in Washington, because these are the people you go to work and see every day, and it's unpleasant when they're having to respond to subpoenas--

CT: That's not--

GG: ... and go to court and be accused of criminal wrongdoing. And that's why the political class typically insists that politicians not be subjected to the criminal process. And they know that they can break the law and get away with it for exactly that reason. And I think that's a huge problem.

CT: Well, look, I think the problem, though, sits not with the media in this respect. And this is what frustrates me a little bit, is that the problem, the people we should be upset with are the folks on the Hill, folks in the White House, folks at the Justice Department. Those are the ones who have the power of the subpoena, and the power to do these things, not the media. And I know we get beaten up about it. But the power does lie in Congress. And the power does lie in the Justice Department.

GG: Agreed. And that's why I think that's the appropriate place for these investigations and prosecutions to take place, is in the Justice Department. That's why I'm in favor of what Eric Holder's about to do.

A couple questions: In listening the the whole conversation, do you think Greenwald is naive to discount the significance of the "political reality?" Conversely, does Todd put too much stock in its significance?

7.23.2009

Good Question, Roy Blunt!

"Our bill is never going to get to the floor, so why confuse the focus?" Blunt said yesterday. "We clearly have principles; we could have language, but why start diverting attention from this really bad piece of work (the Democrats have) got to whatever we’re offering right now?"

--Representative Roy Blunt (R-Missouri) (link)

Here's another question: What problem is the House GOP Health Care Solutions Group, of which Rep. Blunt is chairman, working to solve?

7.21.2009

Eff-22

The Senate killed the F-22 today with a 58-40 vote. President Obama had threatened to veto a defense policy bill that funded the program. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates had his back in a speech last week in Chicago:
Some might ask: Why threaten a veto and risk a confrontation over a couple billion dollars for a dozen or so planes?

The grim reality is that with regard to the budget we have entered a zero-sum game. Every defense dollar diverted to fund excess or unneeded capacity – whether for more F-22s or anything else – is a dollar that will be unavailable to take care of our people, to win the wars we are in, to deter potential adversaries, and to improve capabilities in areas where America is underinvested and potentially vulnerable. That is a risk that I will not take and one that I cannot accept.

And, with regard to something like the F-22, irrespective of whether the number of aircraft at issue is 12 planes or 200, if we can’t bring ourselves to make this tough but straightforward decision – reflecting the judgment of two very different presidents, two different secretaries of defense, two chairmen of the joint chiefs of staff, and the current Air Force Secretary and Chief of Staff, where do we draw the line? And if not now, when? If we can’t get this right – what on earth can we get right? It is time to draw the line on doing Defense business as usual. The President has drawn that line. And that red line with regard to a veto is real.

John McCain agreed, arguing on the floor of the Senate that the F-22 was "no longer needed beyond where it stands today" and represented "the military-industrial complex at work."

The President, The Secretary of Defense, and John McCain couldn't convince more than 58 Senators that we need to spend our defense budget more intelligently? Better yet, how did it even make it out of committee? Matt Yglesias was right in this post from three weeks ago.
(It's) an illustration of America’s desperately dysfunctional institutional structure. One basic problem of democratic governance relates to concentrated interests versus diffuse ones. Organizing broad groups of people to advance the public interest in the face of entrenched opposition is difficult. And the committee structure is like it was designed to make this problem as bad as possible. The upshot of the way congress does business is that agriculture policy is made by a special minority of legislators who represent the interests of agricultural producers. And energy policy is made by legislators who represent the interests of energy producers. And defense policy is made by legislators who represent the interests of defense contractors. If you just announced an unexpected swap and had the Armed Services Committee set farm policy and the Agriculture Committee do procurement, you could get better results.

7.18.2009

How Much For That Life?

The business of healthcare is one big bioethical conundrum, and central to the age-old healthcare reform policy debate is a bioethically complex question: How much, in dollars, is human life worth?

Luckily for non-bioethicists, Princeton's Peter Singer recently addressed that very question in the NY Times. It's a must read. An important point to remember when analyzing the political posturing around this issue is that politicians who recklessly warn that proposed legislation will lead to healthcare "rationing" have already completely missed the point. The reality is that medical care is already rationed:
Health care is a scarce resource, and all scarce resources are rationed in one way or another. In the United States, most health care is privately financed, and so most rationing is by price: you get what you, or your employer, can afford to insure you for. But our current system of employer-financed health insurance exists only because the federal government encouraged it by making the premiums tax deductible. That is, in effect, a more than $200 billion government subsidy for health care. In the public sector, primarily Medicare, Medicaid and hospital emergency rooms, health care is rationed by long waits, high patient copayment requirements, low payments to doctors that discourage some from serving public patients and limits on payments to hospitals.
(emphasis mine)
...

Speaking of assigning a quantitative value to human life, what about non-human life? Are some non-human lifeforms more valuable than others?

The answer to these questions, of course, depends on who you are. Few neuroscientists, for example, would disagree that certain organisms contain inherent value because of what their brains could teach us about our brains. Great apes are usually the first examples that come to mind (Don't think they have complex social brains? Watch a gorilla exchanging symbolic language with Mr. Rogers). Birds have illuminating brains too.

But I want to talk about whales. The use of military sonar has been shown to very harmful, even lethal, to whale populations. Last November, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled a California appellate court which had ruled, in the interest of whale preservation, to heavily restrict the Navy’s use of sonar devices in its training exercises. This aptly titled story adds important context:
In the end, the Supreme Court dispute over the use of sonar can be viewed as a turning point in our fraught relationship with whales — a moment when new insights into the behavior of our long-inscrutable, seabound mammalian counterparts began forcing us to reconsider and renegotiate what once seemed to be a distinct boundary between our world and theirs. Scientists have now documented behaviors like tool use and cooperative hunting strategies among whales. Orcas, or killer whales, have been found to mourn their own dead. Just three years ago, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York discovered, in the brains of a number of whale species, highly specialized neurons that are linked to, among other things, the use of language and were once thought to be the exclusive property of humans and a few other primates. Indeed, marine biologists are now revealing not only the dizzying variety of vocalizations among a number of whale species but also complex societal structures and cultures.


(Read more from Wired on whale culture.)

Along with sonar, whale hunting also quickly depletes whale populations (even though a recent report found that whale watching holds more profit-potential than whale hunting). Last month, the International Whaling Commission failed to broker a compromise between whaling opponents and people that have killed over 40,000 whales since 1985. As a result, international calls are being made for better whale policy.

7.16.2009

Caption Contest


(Photo from Whitehouse Flickr stream)

Remember, creativity and ingenuity at all times.

7.14.2009

Good Point, Glenn Greenwald

Read his blog a few times and you will come to understand at least one thing about Glenn Greenwald: He's on a mission.

The mission is multifaceted, and his approach is educated by his experience as a constitutional law and civil rights litigator. And he has little patience for weak intellectual arguments and/or scurrilous revision of history.

Over the past two days, Greenwald had a Twitter moment covering the confirmation hearing for Sonia Sotomayor. But the good point that earned him this post was actually a question--a question about a question on which GOP Senators are currently (and urgently) fixated.
Two weeks ago, Alito cast the deciding vote in Ricci v. DeStefano, an intensely contested affirmative action case. He did so by ruling in favor of the Italian-American firefighters, finding that they were unlawfully discriminated against, even though the district court judge who heard all the evidence and the three-judge appellate panel ruled against them and dismissed their case. Notably, the majority Supreme Court opinion Alito joined (.pdf) began by highlighting not the relevant legal doctrine, but rather, the emotional factors that made the Italian-American-plaintiffs empathetic.

Did Alito's Italian-American ethnic background cause him to cast his vote in favor of the Italian-American plaintiffs? Has anyone raised that question? Given that he himself said that he "do[es] take that into account" -- and given that Sonia Sotomayor spent 6 straight hours today being accused by GOP Senators and Fox News commentators of allowing her Puerto Rican heritage to lead her to discriminate against white litigants -- why isn't that question being asked about Alito's vote in Ricci?

7.13.2009

Lance is Back

Stage 10 of the Tour de France is Tuesday. I usually casually observe (mainly via sports news-tickers), but then Sports Illustrated's Twitter Santa left this gift under my tree. After reading I became much more intrigued.

International sporting events are like test tubes. Competitors could then be like unique elements or compounds that mix and/or react. For example, professional cyclists from Europe are of a wholly different chemical makeup than American pros.
Bike racing in Europe is what boxing is in the States -- a poor kid's way out. A chimney sweep won the first Tour de France, and since then honors have gone to carpenters, plumbers, bricklayers, welders, baker's apprentices and metalworking trainees. (One of the greatest, Italy's Fausto Coppi, wasn't even a butcher, but an errand boy for a butcher, which is how he learned his way with a bike.) The European peloton is a clan with a code, a sweatshop on wheels that doubles as a testing lab for designer doping products. Fans make the biggest heroes of those who suffer most; the founder of the Tour, Henri Desgranges, believed that the ideal race would be one survived by a single rider. If these hero-sufferers take drugs, goes the continental line of thinking, it's because no one can be expected to survive such an ordeal without palliatives, and besides, cheating has been woven into the Tour since its second staging in 1904, when the winner of the first, that chimney sweep, hopped a train for part of the route.

While:
In the U.S., bike racing is a way out too -- a way out of high school hell for geeky middle-class boys blown off by the jocks and cheerleaders. They take up cycling for the romance, for "breaking away," as that Indiana italophile, Dave the Cutter, did in the 1979 movie of the same name. Otherwise a bicycle is either a child's toy or an affluent middle-aged adult's means to health and fitness. In 1981 the first American to ride the Tour, Jonathan Boyer, traveled with a Bible, a blender, and a cache of nuts and dates. California's Bob Roll, who was living in a tent in Switzerland when the U.S. 7-Eleven team picked him up to ride the 1985 Tour of Italy, would inscribe his sidewheels with poetry.

Lance Armstrong, meanwhile, has successfully and consistently maintained his yellow-bracelet reputation in America while also holding his own with the European peloton.
Armstrong has long broadcast on two frequencies -- one to the European peloton, another to cycling-innocent followers in the States. A perfect example took place several months ago, after an out-of-competition tester from France's state-run anti-doping lab doorstepped him on the Riviera, and Armstrong, just back from a training ride, disappeared for 20 minutes to take a shower. Europeans know that the one thing a cyclist may not do under any circumstances is leave a tester's sight before providing a sample. They can recount the sport's colorful history of doping-control subterfuge, from hastily swallowed diuretics and blood-thinners, to stand-in urine delivered through concealed rubber tubing. When this departure from protocol briefly looked like it might lead to his suspension, Armstrong tweeted indignantly, Was winning the Tour seven times that offensive?!? That in turn cued up reactions Stateside of the "Of course they wouldn't let him take a shower -- they don't believe in showers!" variety. Not that Armstrong necessarily had something to hide; given his relationship with the French, he may have simply been up for a game of chicken, to dare them to expel from their great race its biggest name. The point is, he took them on and won, again.