Monday, April 27, 2009

Deep Thought

I hope the terrorists take the rightwinger advice and spend lots of time training to resist waterboarding and other torture, rather than spend that time getting skills they can actually use.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Volokh Non-correction #3, I think

Eric Posner sneaks some environmental common-sense into the conservative Volokh blog, eviscerating some simplistic arguments by John Tierney here and here, where Tierney argued that getting richer is virtually a universal solution to every environmental problem. I don't have anything much to add - it's pretty obvious that richer societies can afford to legislate stronger environmental protections, and yet another reason why richer countries should act first on climate change.

Some anti-technology environmentalism in the 1970s was misguided, from my distant viewpoint. The anti-environmental critique has never noticed how environmental groups have gone a long way since then. And the anti-environmentalists have gone nowhere.

Friday, April 24, 2009

California ballot - yes on 1A to 1E, and who cares about 1F

California League of Conservation Voters has the scoop - these constant budget impasses lead to situations where anti-environment members of the legislature offer budget votes in return for weakened enviro laws. Measures 1A to 1E are a stopgap measure, which is about the best we can get. 1F is window dressing about politician's salaries and doesn't really matter. I'll vote yes on the first five and no on the last.

Tom Friedman says something that isn't annoying

In previous years, I've rarely liked Tom Friedman's writing. He was a powerful, allegedly independent voice for going into Iraq and then staying there for a very long time. Even when I agree with him, as with his environmental crusade, his patronizing tone just bugs me, as does his air of delivering profound wisdom when what's said is simplistic is even more irritating. Friedman's latest attempt to think outside the box by opposing cap-and-trade legislation reinforces all this.

But, I have to admit that sometimes it works. One of his patented simple explanations finally worked for me on NPR's Talk of the Nation. He doubted that we are truly witnessing a green revolution yet, asking something like "Have you ever seen a revolution where nobody gets hurt?" (Sorry, can't find a link, but he seems to say it a lot.) This makes sense to me on a level I can't actually justify - the economists seem to think fixing climate change won't be that expensive. I just have a feeling that it won't be that cheap, and some financial hurt at least is inevitable. Score one for Friedman in having crystallized that idea.

UPDATE:  edited tone, and softened as I've decided his attempts to describe things in different ways from how everyone else does it may have some use, especially for people who aren't following issues in detail.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Impeach Bybee (and why you hear more about Yoo)

Berkeley lawprof John Yoo has earned a lot of notoriety for his role in the memos authorizing torture of detainees, but only recently has his superior, Jay Bybee, emerged from "forgotten man" status and become the target of potential (very unlikely) impeachment.

There are some obvious reasons for attending to Yoo, particularly his prominent public position that contrasts to Bybee's keeping his head low. Here's another reason though - the people leading the charge against this misuse of the law are themselves lawyers, and it's not an easy thing for a lawyer to publicly say a powerful appellate court judge could be a war criminal. There's both the chance that you'll someday be in front of that judge, and that other judges do not want to hear that kind of language coming from officers of the court.

Bybee should be impeached because he is incompetent and/or disloyal to the public and to the bar, and quite possibly a war criminal that should be jailed.

I write this as a lawyer who hasn't litigated in nearly six years and has no current plans to return to trials, but even so it feels like a scary thing to say, however true and necessary. The lawyers who are fighting torture are much closer to judges than I am. Impeachment is a tough thing; I'm glad people are finally bringing it up and I respect the people leading the charge. Just the stigma applies some tiny level of accountability.

UPDATE: Here's an online petition to the California Democratic Party calling for impeaching Bybee, and another to the House Judiciary Committee. Also edited the above for clarity.

UPDATE 2: An interesting article in the Washington Post suggests Bybee "regrets" the memos. If he wants to accept some responsibility then he should resign the judicial post, allowing him to publicly renounce the memos, explain his actions and apologize for his level of responsibility, all of which could help somewhat to fix a problem that he created. Accepting responsibility without consequences doesn't help that much.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

"Hard to miss" cuts both ways for big vehicles

I'll mostly outsource the criticism of a NYTimes article on how small vehicles do worse off against bigger ones in accidents to Deltoid. Like Tim says, smaller cars are providing a social benefit of increased safety for bigger ones, much like they generally do with air pollution issues.

There's an additional issue too - a small vehicle might end up missing having an accident entirely, precisely because it's smaller. A side-swipe or clipping accident that would send one or both vehicles rolling turns into a near-miss for a vehicle that's six inches narrower or two feet shorter. I'll admit that a smaller vehicle is harder to see, but a big one is harder to miss when you're at the edge of having an accident.

More smaller vehicles not only mean less kinetic energy poured into accidents, it could mean fewer accidents to begin with.

Monday, April 13, 2009

The "Unstated Qualifier" Argument is almost as bad as the slippery-slope type

I've blathered before about how much I hate the slippery-slope argument, usually trotted out when the arguer can't give a convincing reason about why something is bad, so they just claim it will lead to something worse. Of course, there are still more bad arguments.

Such as one from Rick Warren's PR machine. He is on the hot seat for saying recently regarding California's anti-gay marriage initiative, that he "never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going," when there's a video of him saying publicly, "I urge you to support Proposition 8 and to pass that on."

The PR flacks tried to recover with this statement: "When Dr. Warren told Larry King that he never campaigned for California’s Proposition 8, he was referring to not participating in the official two-year organized advocacy effort specific to the ballot initiative in that state." (The link has all the quotes/videos.)

The PR spin is what I call the Unstated Qualifier Argument - a statement or promise that is incorrect or reneged actually included an unstated qualification that limited its scope to a smaller premise, commitment, or contingency that isn't refuted. I've encountered the UQ Argument a fair bit in my day job fighting developer schemes, and it often makes as little sense from them as it does from Warren's spin machine.

And then there's one vexing thing about the UQ Argument, which is that I've used it myself. The difference between a poor argument and a frivolous argument is the poor argument isn't always wrong, it's just overused. Mainly though, the one or two times I can think of where I've used the UQ Argument is in admitting that I communicated poorly, rather than trying to claim I'm simply right. The UQ Argument fails both when it substitutes for an admission, and when it's really a coverup after the fact for something earlier that was unqualified.

Anyway, I hope that calling out the unstated qualifiers and slippery slopes as the weak arguments they are will help limit their overuse, if only a tiny amount. Warren, it's time for an apology.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Discounting dilemma for enviros - Reilly and Stern can't both be right (I think)

Climate Progress quotes the Republican congressional claims that cap-and-trade legislation will cost $3100 per household in increased energy costs. They came up with this figure by taking MIT Professor John Reilly's estimate of total costs of the legislation up to 2050 and then dividing the figure by total households. Reilly has issued a letter protesting how completely wrong this is and a misrepresentation of the study. Among several mistakes, the Republicans used a 0% discount rate, saying we have no preference between incurring a cost now and incurring the same cost in 40 years. Reilly, by contrast, uses a 4% discount rate typical for the value that the stock market exceeds inflation.

The Stern Review famously concluded that costs from unchecked climate change between now and 2100 will be very large. Part of the reason is that Stern assumes a low discount rate, about that of government bonds (which I believe is around 1%). To confuse matters, or maybe just confusing me, Stern assumes a near-zero "social discount rate" which I think is different from the monetary discount rate, but regardless, Stern uses rates of 1% or less.

The dilemma for those of us supporting action on climate change is that Reilly and Stern can't both be right. It might not be a problem for Republican leaders to talk out of both sides of their mouths, but the reality-based community can't accept one set of discount rate assumptions for assessing costs of climate change and another for assessing costs of actions to address change.

So it's fine for Climate Progress to quote without dissent Reilly's estimate of cap-and-trade costs of $340 per household, but it's contradictory to also say Stern's discount rate wasn't flawed. I'm sure that the bloggers there just overlooked the contradiction and that many other enviros made similar mistakes. It's also possible for both Reilly and Stern to be right on their overall conclusions, based on many factors beyond discounting. But Reilly and Stern can't both be right on their cost figures and discounting assumptions.

FWIW, which isn't much, I'm leaning towards Stern on discount rates for John Quiggin's general reasons. I also suspect the assumptions on the historical rate of return for stocks will have to be reduced after recent years, even long after this recession fades from memory.

So yes, climate change is going to be very bad. I also suspect doing something about it won't be cheap. Better then to get started soon on a big and expensive project.

UPDATE: Just noticed the first Climate Progress post is a guest post and not by Joe Romm, so I've changed the wording throughout. Joe and his guest blogger are contradicting each other.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The way to handle the Amernian genocide problem

So Obama is avoiding his campaign statement that he would call the Turkish expulsion and killing of hundreds of thousands of Armenians a genocide. Not too surprising. He's an improvement over a regular politician, but he's not the fabled arrival of the Honest Statesman.

Still, I think there's a politically-viable way for America to finally call a genocide a genocide. It would be for the Congress and the president to formally recognize the Armenian genocide and, at the same time, formally recognize that in some cases, the American and colonial treatment of Native Americans also constituted genocide. I think that could help get Turks off their high horse if we're willing to put ourselves in the same category. Obama even came close in his own speech to the Turkish Parliament, when immediately before discussing the "events of 1915" he said "Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans."

This recognition of American genocide might be difficult for some Americans (and not every American interaction or war with Native Americans was genocidal; the vast majority weren't). It might then also help those Americans understand the Turkish reluctance. Anyway, having company in acknowledging sin might make it a little easier to do.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

PUMA looks pretty good to me

I hope the whole PUMA thing gets beyond the concept vehicle stage. Personally I think my wife and I could drop down to one car if we had one of those. Maybe we could have two PUMAs and one car and then only drive the car when absolutely needed. Their ability to drive in trains could be the beginning of the personalized pod transportation I've been hearing about for years, too.

People with kids might feel differently about dropping to one car, but maybe even some families might go for it. Everything that can get some of us off fossil fuel is a great step. I think this could be a bigger change than the regular Segway, if they make the effort to move forward. I know that many past concept vehicles, particularly the environmental ones, were just greenwashing attempts to claim future technology trumped the need for present-day regulation. Hopefully this will be different.

UPDATE: in a related climate issue, I just saw this note about Obama possibly backing off on 100% auctions of carbon allowances, which would be a big mistake, as Drum says. I think there's a way to do less than 100% auctions without making the public subsidize the polluters, though: make the free allowances non-transferable. You lose the market efficiency from selling allowances, but I think it's politically more viable. I've never heard anyone suggest it, though.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Thoughts on our buying a condo

*Alan Greenspan manipulated credit markets not to help the economy but to make more people homeowners and supporters of his personal ideology, capitalism. In a sense, it's worked on me - it's now a lot harder for me to support ending the regressive and environmentally destructive mortgage tax deduction. I'd still support a gradual phaseout though. Otherwise, though, I don't feel any more inclined to Greenspan's stupidity than I did before.

*There's a large tax credit for first-time home buyers that we'll get. Thanks, taxpayers! While we're not wealthy, I think there could be better uses of the money. Along the lines of Jonathan Zasloff's consideration of whether straight supporters of gay marriage shouldn't be married until everyone can, I suppose we could refuse the tax credit. As with marriage, I don't think that's going to happen. Maybe we should up our donations some, though.

*Fannie Mae charges a fee of 0.75% of the mortgage if you're buying a condo instead of a house, waived only if your downpayment is 25% instead of 20%. While I'm sure they have their financial reasons, it's a disincentive to smart growth.

*I believe increased residential mobility is environmentally beneficial, as in several years ago when I moved to cut my work commute to one-tenth the time. On the other hand, I've just been reminded what a complete time-wasting pain in the neck it is to move, one that gets worse as you get older and hoard more stuff. I'm not planning to move soon.

*We decided to clean our old apartment ourselves rather than spend several hundred dollars. Over forty hours work later, I'm not sure that was a great idea. Still can't figure out how it could take so long.

Friday, April 03, 2009

BICEP and USCAP mean it's time to Green the Chamber of Commerce

BICEP is a new business affiliation of progressive companies that's calling for quick action on climate change. USCAP is an even bigger coalition of companies and environmental groups, including some major power users, that calls for climate legislation (although not to the same urgent level as BICEP).

And then there's the US Chamber of Commerce, which has done all it can for years to stop attempts to control greenhouse gas emissions. The inmates are in control, and I've seen this as well on the local environmental level here in the Bay Area, where city Chambers take destructive environmental stances that have little or nothing to do with business interests.

But not always. The Chambers aren't monolithic entities, and individual ones can take different stances. The Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce has a strong Environmental Committee organized by a friend of mine, Alex Kennett. That Chamber organizes the city's Earth Day celebration and the environmental committee promotes green businesses. Not coincidentally, the Morgan Hill Chamber has abstained from the destructive environmental stances taken by other Chambers.

There is a real opportunity for growing environmental businesses to change the destructive policies of the Chambers. Especially here in Silicon Valley, an epicenter of renewable energy, our Chambers should be taking pro-environment stances. By pushing local Chambers in the right direction, environmentalists could start affecting the state and national levels as well. I've thought for a long time that this is something some major environmental groups and foundations should be working on changing. Time to get going.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Hey Sen. Inhofe, hire me to write your climate commentary!

Saw this Inhofe quote at Talking Points Memo:

'I look forward to a full, open and honest debate over the 600-plus page Waxman-Markey climate tax bill,' Senator Inhofe said. 'It appears that this legislation is yet another version of the same story: a job-killing tax increase on American consumers that jeopardizes America’s energy security, while doing nothing to address climate change. In short, it’s all economic pain for no climate gain.'

Considering that the bill's even stronger than Obama's position in the short term and calls for 80% reductions in 2050, I thought Inhofe's claim that it would do nothing was worth seeing in full.

I went to Inhofe's site for the full commentary, and the paragraph above was the full commentary.

Inhofe's new communications guy, Matt Dempsey, needs to step up his game. Here's the analytical paragraph I would add to support Inhofe's conclusory statement:

'I know that unless China and India both agree to a binding greenhouse gas reductions where they explicitly acknowledge that a Chinese person is one-third as worthy as an American, and an Indian one-tenth as worthy, then any reductions by the US will actually CAUSE increases by China and India,' Senator Inhofe said. 'I say this without any evidence to prove it, because my gut instinct is all I need and all I ever need. I also say this without any cynical intent to stop greenhouse gas regulation, despite the fact that I also claim to believe the whole thing is a hoax. And by the way, I refuse to put my money where my mouth is by betting over global warming.'

That's much better.