Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Citizens United's worst impact will be where you can't see it

I've been meaning to write for months that Citizens United will primarily harm democracy below the radar, but Ezra Klein's gone and done it for me:

....even at the end of the [congressional election] campaign, many potential voters will know very little about their congressional candidates. They will be susceptible to ads telling them terrible things. Some of those candidates won’t have the resources to fight back.
No one knows that better than the candidates themselves. Both incumbents and potential challengers realize that a deep-pocketed PAC could decide their race. So when they get a call from that PAC’s director urging them to support this or that, they’re that much likelier to listen. The result, then, isn’t just that moneyed interests can throw congressional elections. It’s that they wield more influence after the election — and they can exercise that power without spending a dollar.

Read the whole thing as they say.  I think state level elections are even more subject to this - don't expect the US Chamber of Commerce to have overlooked that.

Unlimited money from the people who have unlimited money, to make sure the system's rigged to allow them still more unlimited money.  Thanks, US Supreme Court.

UPDATE:  best we can do now is disclosure, although that might also be under threat.  For my fellow Californians, there's the California Disclose Act that would help a great deal if it passes.  Best of luck if you live in a Red state, you'll need it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Skinny people dieting to reduce human biomass

So concludes David Appell about Mexico's new climate change law (my paraphrase).  Kinda hard to find detailed info about the law - David has useful stuff, a little more at Nature, and then way too much to sort through at the official legal gazette in Spanish.

The 50% below 2000 levels by 2050 will attract attention, but short term is what counts most to me.  They want 30% below business as usual by 2020, which sounds impressive but vulnerable to weird accounting.

They set overall limits and allow emission trading, so this is cap-n-trade for those who don't like that kind of thing.  I think it can be done well or done poorly.  Hopefully the American and European experiments will help Mexico figure out a good system.

Mexico's drought may have spurred political support for the law.  Too bad we've seen less action here in the States, although climate weirding has seemed to pick up some popular notice.

Progress, a bit at a time.

UPDATE:  what I really wanted to find out is if the law has a counterpart to what's been in American proposals - a tariff on imports from foreign nations that don't control carbon emissions.  That would be interesting, and entirely appropriate.  I skimmed the long Spanish web page but ran out of steam before I could find out.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Give this guy a job in politics (UPDATE: Kobayashi Maru in action)

The only problem is that his trick doesn't work on a repetitive basis.  Someone that imaginative could come up with something else, though.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Obama reconsidering buffer zones for Syrian refugees

Turns out that a strict talking-to didn't fix things.


With the Syria deal in jeopardy and questions as to whether Syria will truly cease its military operations, particularly after Syrian troops fired across the border into Turkey, discussions within the Obama administration about creating a Syria-Turkey border "buffer zone" have intensified, State Department officials tell CNN. 
"It would be correct to say this idea is getting another look in the last week or so," one official said about the buffer zone.

Fox says Turkey isn't onboard, but who knows.  This should've been done some time ago, but better late than never.  Havens could allow the development of a Free Syria alternative to Assad, would put increasing pressure on the military to get rid of the leadership that's causing the loss of territorial integrity, and could allow Turkey and the West to filter out some of the jihadist elements that could make things worse.

Now that we've delayed and the opposition has lost most of the territory it controls, I'm less supportive of arming the opposition - it's less clear now whether that could save lives.  Arming some vetted groups in the safe havens though, instead of whatever crazies that Saudi Arabia wants to arm, could be a good idea.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Live blogging the new EPA coal plant rule - this'll be exciting

The rule discussed by Eli will require new coal plants in the US to emit no more CO2 than natural gas plants do.  Thought I'd take a closer look at it, so here it is.  Below are a few topline comments, then after the jump are specific callouts and leg-shivering quotes from the doc.

  • If you want to see our existing coal plants required to either install carbon capture and storage, do offsets that hopefully work, or get shut down, then you should hope that this proposed rule results in new coal/coke plants get constructed and use CCS.  Given the economics favoring natural gas over coal for new plants after the next few years finish coal plants that are already in the pipeline for construction, then the only way this will happen is through subsidies for CCS.
  • This is a regulated utility market we’re talking about, not a regulated free market.  Don't expect classic economic principles to work here.
  • This proposal is meant to help get carbon capture and storage going. The way it does that is that it requires CCS for new coal plants, and because CCS is required, utilities can add it and then pass on the costs/risks to customers. Absent the requirement, then the utility might not be allowed by regulators to pass on the costs. Consider this proposed rule to be a “permission slip” to do carbon sequestration.
  • Big implication: if CCS gets off the ground for new plants and proves to be not too expensive, then it may be required for old plants.  See for example, discussion of plant modifications on p. 42-44.
  • Treating new coal plants as having to meet natural gas emission standards, rather than establish special standards for coal, is important precedent for future attempts to regulate existing coal plants.
  • I think I may submit actual comments to the EPA, see discussion of pages 48 and 62.  Anyone want to join in?

Specific comments/excerpts after the jump.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Did Romney pay zero taxes in 2009? And 2008?

Romney's caught heat for a lack of transparency in his finances, especially compared to his father's presidential run.  He's now announced a delay in filing his final 2011 taxes, presumably looking for a time when people will be less resentful of a multi-millionaire paying lower tax rates than they do.

Back in the heat of the primary, though, Romney was forced to release his 2010 taxes and estimate 2011, but failed to do any more as the Democrats have demanded.  The Washington Post blogger guessed it was the exotic nature of his finances that made him hesitant to release them.  Let me try another guess.

Among the details that may spur fresh debate: The returns show that Romney was able to cut his taxable income by $4.8 million because of losses carried over from previous years. Under the tax code, taxpayers who lose money from their investments can deduct those losses against their capital gains. If a taxpayer ends up losing so much that the losses outweigh the gains in a given year, the rest of those losses can be carried to the next year and subtracted from income.
Capital losses are carried over from previous years - the years that Romney still refuses to release.  The carryover means he had no net capital gains in 2009, possibly in previous years as well.  The only taxes he paid in 2010 were capital gains - he had no earned income.

Unless he had earned income in 2009 that he didn't in 2010, which seems unlikely because he's been running for president since 2006, then the information he has given suggests he paid no taxes in 2009, or even earlier if he took large capital losses in 2007 or 2008 that carried over for subsequent years.

I'm no tax expert so maybe I'm missing something, but this looks like dynamite to me.

UPDATE:  looks like others have had the same thought.  More links here.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Thoughts on blocking evolution denial comments?

I've been away spreading CO2 emissions, and comments to my last post went down the rabbit hole dealing with creationist nonsense.

This blog tackles climate denialism, so I'm not too bothered with climate denialist comments that come up and get shot down in the comments, (altho I'd prefer the silly arguments and responding to them take up less bandwidth than is the case).  We haven't the same role on fighting the good fight for the science of biology.

I'm actually interested in the creation wars but as an observer, rather than trying to wade in against arguments that are even worse than the ones made up for climate denial.

Soooo, I'm pondering a policy to delete evolution denial.  Thoughts?  

Note that follow-up commenters might post a response before I woke up from being distracted, reference a comment that's since been deleted, and look a bit strange.

For now, no policy unless I say something in a particular blog post.  And this is just Brian talking - Eli and John manage their own threads.

UPDATE:  no outpouring of demands to block the evolution denial comments, so I'm going to let them stay.

Monday, April 02, 2012

National Review tosses out the racist John Derbyshire

Just announced a couple of hours ago.  Took them two days to do it, they couldn't openly admit that it was over racism, and Derbyshire's done this before, but still I'm glad they took action.

I take Derby at his word that he's been feeding his poison into his teenage sons, and that's pretty sad. May they have experiences as adults that open their minds.

IIRC, Derb was one of the relatively few NRO conservatives that would come swinging against the creationists.  I think he's not one of the worst climate denialists, although hardly a science believer.

These guys are just weird.

UPDATE:  might be worth mentioning the poisoned racist roots of National Review in the beliefs of William F. Buckley.  Buckley btw is claimed to have overtly renounced his overt racism in the 1960s - I have never found any proof of that other than secondhand statements by others, years later, and a rather half-hearted statement by Buckley himself in 2004.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

A "Rentership Society" sounds like a good society

To the Point asks "Is the US becoming a 'Rentership' Society?" as the home ownership rate plummets in the last six years.  I don't see a problem with it.

In the olde times of 15-20 years ago, the ubiquitous 30 year fixed rate mortgage with limited refinancing operated as a useful nudge for increasing the savings rate, but those days are gone.  It now doesn't make that much sense for middle class people to tie up such a large portion of their limited assets in a risky investment.  The few poorer people who could buy, should invest instead in either something safer or something more liquid in case something happens to them like a medical emergency.  Homeowner sale costs also limit job mobility.

Renters are probably somewhat less interested in making community improvements, but they can provide incentives for the same by voting with their feet.  More acceptance of renting can also facilitate more dense housing that works well with renting.  If only we eliminated or greatly reduced the mortgage tax deduction then we'd do a ton to fight sprawl, but that's a dream.

What's apparently not a dream is trend of people moving back from the worst of the exurban sprawl in the US.  That's good, although some of the urban counties they describe that I happen to know - Alameda and Contra Costa - can have plenty of people living pretty far away from the Bay Area's urban core.

A Randian zealot, Alan Greenspan, is partially responsible for the US and global financial meltdown because he openly manipulated the housing market to support his political ideology.  Less manipulation in a rentership society sounds like a better choice.

(FWIW, my wife and I own a townhouse in a 30 unit association.  It's fine, but I can also see us renting.)