Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ironic that a man named Mead doesn't understand the US Civil War

Maybe his misunderstanding comes from losing the "e" at the end of the name.  The current Mead sayeth:
An endless war of limited intensity is worse, many Americans instinctively feel, than a time-limited war of unlimited ferocity. A crushing blow that brings an end to the war—like General Sherman’s march of destruction through the Confederacy in 1864-65—is ultimately kinder even to the vanquished than an endless state of desultory war.
This Mead wants massive Israeli retaliation against Gaza regardless of civilian casualties and thinks Americans would agree with him.  He appears to be under the impression that not much happened in the US Civil war prior to Sherman's march, and that single crushing blow was all that counted.

The reality was that it took years of unlimited ferocity to win the Civil War.  The side that had better logistics won the war, and Sherman's march was a logistical success, living off the land while destroying its ability to support the enemy.  Not a lot that parallels Gaza here.

More broadly, I think there's little evidence that shock and awe achieves its psychological goals.  The British, German, and Japanese people didn't break over the bombing raids.  Psychology does have its place - the Doolittle Raid heightened American morale and convinced the Japanese to make the stupid mistake of withdrawing carriers to defend the home islands and to undertake the high-risk attack on Midway.  Brutality by itself, though, won't win wars.

Tangentially related:  Brad DeLong has been live-blogging a history of World War II.  Definitely worth checking out.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The California Cap passes its first test, barely

News coverage of the California cap-and-trade auction results diverged fairly sharply into whether it went well or had problems. Put me in the half-full category that it went well enough, but just barely.

The Air Board announced a sale price of $10.09 a ton, just barely above the reserve price of $10 and lower than the expected $11-15. Digging around a little doesn’t make the auction mechanics very clear – many bids were far higher than this. The reports imply that everyone paid $10.09, which would mean some type of Dutch auction setup.  (UPDATE:  confirmed it's a Dutch auction arrangement where everyone pays the same price.  Good explainer of the whole auction by Reed Smith is here.  The reserve price is a minimum that keeps the market from collapsing - if there's not enough demand for all the allowances to keep the price above that minimum, the effect of the reserve price is to reduce the supply of allowances being sold.)

I doubt it’s coincidental that the price is just above the reserve – that suggests the ‘market’ expectation is that it won’t be too hard to for California emitters to meet the cap, something that’s uncomfortably close to the problem of the European market that has too high a cap and a collapsed market. OTOH, emitters didn’t have to buy any allowances if they thought they could meet the cap on their own, so their expectation is that the Air Board will keep the California market from collapsing. I put the word ‘market’ in scare quotes because a sealed-bid auction barely qualifies – we’ll get a better idea of market price when trades start happening on a regular basis.

So it worked. A somewhat higher price would suggest a better-functioning market and more incentive for carbon reductions, although a much higher price would provide ammunition to critics’ ridiculous claim that the cap harms California’s economy.

Critics of the system include the state-level California Chamber of Commerce, treading a perilous line against California green energy businesses. The state Chamber filed a lawsuit against the auction on the day before it started. I expect they’ll take some flak for waiting so long to file, but I’ll have to save a look at their legal interests for another day.

The economic interest here is that free carbon allowances actually benefit emitters – the allowances have economic value that can be resold, and California is issuing 90% of the first emissions for free (that percent will decline over time). A 90% benefit isn’t good enough for the Chamber though – they want it all for free, forever. At least they claim they’re not trying to destroy the cap market – they just want free allowances – and that distinguishes them from the evil that is the US Chamber.  This isn't a trivial distinction from the US Chamber, by the way, and shows some-if-inadequate level of responsiveness to in-state business politics.

Even a 100% auction in my opinion would benefit California green businesses and help cement the leadership this state has on the green economy. The state Chamber is being short-sighted on a number of levels, especially if their effort to change the cap market ends up destroying it. This might be a good place for the state legislature to step in and backstop the Air Board’s decision, something that could be possible now that the Democrats have two-thirds majority in both houses, a requirement under the tax-revenue stupidity of California's Proposition 13.

An aside - there is a dividend component to the cap.  In a somewhat complicated procedure, utilities get all their allowances for free but are required to sell some and split the proceeds so 15% goes to reducing greenhouse emissions and the remainder as a credit applied to utility bills.  Seeing that credit will help counter the inevitable claim that the money is just going to solar power fat cats.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Lessons or lack thereof from bipartisan movements

As Obama heads off to Burma, I think back to when I knew something about that country.  I spent two winters there doing volunteer work in the early 90s and then several years in the mid-90s in Oregon focusing on Burma human rights work, comparing the situation to South Africa.  I'm cautiously optimistic at this point, although the ethnic conflict is far from over and even democracy will be no guarantee of good treatment for ethnic minorities.

Relative to most other western nations, the US did pretty well in Burma, backing up Suu Kyi and others in the elected/overthrown leadership.  When we activists went Congress to ratchet up sanctions, the senators we counted on were Patrick Leahy, Mitch McConnell, and Jesse Helms (Ted Kennedy was also good, I think).  Our little Oregon group got every member of the Oregon congressional delegation to support sanctions, with liberal Republican Mark Hatfield being the hardest one to convince.  Burma never became polarized in American politics, as far as I can tell.

In another field that has long been polarized, things are changing.  Washington Monthly has a good piece titled The Conservative War on Prison, with conservatives starting to hop onto the alternatives-to-prison bandwagon.  The article is good on the what and when aspects of conservative change, but less so on the why and why at this particular time aspects.  There was this, though:
At the start of the 2007 legislative session, legislative analysts predicted that Texas was on track to be short 17,700 prison beds by 2012 because of its growing inmate population. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s response was to ask legislators to build three new prisons, but Madden and Whitmire had other ideas. Not only did they bring back a revamped version of their probation proposal—they also took aim at the revolving-door problem by cranking up funding for programs such as in-prison addiction treatment and halfway houses. This time, Perry relented (persuaded at least in part, the duo contends, by a high-stakes meeting they held with him shortly before the opening of the legislative session). Since then, the prison population has not increased, and last year, the TDCJ closed a prison for the first time in decades.

Budget shortfalls do not explain this shift. In 2007 Texas was basking in a huge projected surplus, and the Great Recession was still a year away. Instead, Madden and Whitmire had different winds at their backs. For one thing, the policy context favored reform. One legacy of the state’s prison litigation trauma is that Texas has strict restrictions on overcrowding (unlike, say, California). Under Texas law, when the system approaches capacity, corrections staff must seek certification from the attorney general and the governor to incarcerate more prisoners. The approval process forces state leaders to confront the choice between more prisons and more diversion programming. The political environment had also changed since the GOP completed its takeover of state politics in 2003. As a longtime observer of the state’s criminal justice notes, “Now … all the tough guys are Republicans. They don’t want to be outdoing each other on this stuff.”

I'm not entirely happy with this explanation.  I have my own, which is that ideological movements get bored.  After saying the same thing for a long time, there's a desire to say something else.  I think conservative ideology takes longer to get restless than others, but it still happens.  It's also not always successful:
Of course, there are limits to how far ideological reinvention can go. As political scientist David Karol has argued, it is unlikely to work when it requires crossing a major, organized member of a party coalition. That’s something environmentalists learned when they tried to encourage evangelicals to break ranks on global warming through the idea of “creation care.” They got their heads handed to them by the main conservative evangelical leaders, who saw the split this would create with energy-producing businesses upon whom Republican depend for support.
That's a rather simplified description of what happened among evangelicals, including who started it, how far it got, and whether the movement's truly ended.  It also downplays the difficulty in crossing the ideological and economic barriers of the tough-on-crime mindset and the prison-industrial complex.

I'm not sure what lessons to draw from all this for climate policy purposes.  Sometimes all you can do is wait for people to change - or push change through without their help.  I've also thought for a while that Al Gore has been careful to avoid some of the limelight.  Conservatives are showing some real ferment over immigration, modest change on gay marriage, and tiny little cracks in climate denial.  Maybe we'll get lucky.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Happy California Cap-And-Trade Eve

Nice radio program on California's cap-and-trade allocation auction that starts taking bids tomorrow, and on Monday we'll find out the price per ton, with a minimum price set by regulation at $10/ton.  Second biggest cap-and-trade market in the world after Europe.  Hopefully we've learned from other's mistakes (and I think we have).

One critique deserving a response is whether including a minimum and maximum price on allocations somehow proves a failure of the cap system.  The idea is if a cap's appeal over a carbon tax is that it determines the total amount of emissions, then the floor and ceiling prove the lack of commitment to determine the right amount of emissions.

Three responses:

1. Doesn't matter anyway unless the price hits the floor or ceiling.

2. It's a little simplistic to say a tax focuses on specific price for carbon while a cap focuses on specific quantity of carbon emissions.  The floor and ceiling for a cap just lets society choose a tradeoff between price and quantity.  You could do something similar with a tax by letting the tax price change if total emissions fall through a floor or above a ceiling.

3. If greenhouse gases were as easy to eliminate as ozone-destroying chemicals then we'd have a similar schedule for phaseout.  It's not that easy, so we're doing things less quickly under either a carbon tax in Australia, or cap in Europe and in parts of the US.  Putting a floor is an indication that we overestimated the difficulty in achieving a reduction and therefore will require a larger reduction.  It's actually good news, that we can achieve reductions more quickly than anticipated.

Friday, November 09, 2012

The path to citizenship will be crooked for Republicans

A few more thoughts on the election and then I'll let it go:

Immigration.  The Republicans are in trouble on immigration and citizenship no matter what they do.  No change and they imitate the California Republican Party in relevance.  Much of their elite seems to realize this and want to compromise, but the Democrats should put them through a wringer and demand everything the Ds think should happen:  a reasonable pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have been here for a reasonable amount of time.  The 1987 amnesty applied to people who had been in the country for over five years, setting them on a path to citizenship seven years after being legalized.  Personally I'd lengthen the first period and shorten the second one, but it's a reasonable model for the future.

If the Rs refuse to pass something like this through Congress, then beat them up over it in 2014 while also getting the best compromise possible.  If the Rs do pass something substantial, then they still lose, because those legalized citizens will be Democratic voters for a generation and a fraction.  The Rs painted themselves into this corner, it'll be a long time to get out.  The white vote share of the presidential electorate is declining 2 points every four years, probably translating into a one-percent gain each cycle for the Democratic candidate.

Denialists lost seats.  In under-reported news, four out of five Congressional Representatives dubbed the "Flat Earth Five" by the League of Conservation Voters for denying climate reality lost their seats, and eleven of twelve generally anti-environment candidates also got beat.  These people were specially targeted and I've been looking for more specifics; the League needs to update their website (a little update here).  This is a nice bit of karmic payback for 2010, when most of the eight Republicans who voted to do something about climate lost their seats to primary challengers.

Citizens United redistributed income.  Some billionaires redistributed a few percent of this year's income to the somewhat-less wealthy without causing too much harm at the federal level in this election.  I'm not quite as sure they were harmless at the state and local level this cycle, and even the dumbest of rich people may learn to spend their unlimited campaign money more effectively in the future, again most likely by targeting it at the state and local level.  Watch out for next time.

Overturning Citizens United.  Obama will probably nominate 2-3 justices over the next four years.  Ginsburg, age 79 and with previous cancer bouts, should have retired a year or two ago but took a huge risk hanging on.   Hopefully she'll do the right thing, and Breyer, age 74, might do the same.  The conservatives' ages are 76 (Scalia), 76 (Kennedy), 64 (Thomas), 62 (Alito) and 57 (Roberts).  They'll do their best to last out four years, but might not have a choice.

Bahrain Silence = Climate Silence.  Juan Cole had an interesting post about continuing repression in Bahrain against the Shiite majority.  Too bad that Romney wasn't asked to compare his relative activism over Syria, which I liked, to the situation in Bahrain.  Maybe the Republican talking heads on the Sunday shows could still get asked - this is the worst situation of the US looking the other way, for somewhat obvious military reasons.

Hanging up my local politics crystal ball.  My water district had three elections, and I called all three wrong.  It doesn't make the results bad - I'm actually thrilled that our funding measure that needed two-thirds' support under California law received 72.65% support, and it includes $24 million that helps prepare for sea level rise along San Francisco Bay.  Staff's first draft had $5 million for this; I can (and will) take credit for much of the increased funding.

UPDATE:  forgot to add my plea to reduce the Senate filibuster bottleneck, along with the actually-still-alive hope that Harry Reid might do it.

UPDATE 2:  with actuarial tables and my trusty calculator, I get a 79% chance of four-year survival for each of Scalia and Kennedy, 93% for Thomas, 94% for Alito, and 96% for Roberts, leaving a 52% chance that all five will survive four years.  Their health probably makes this an underestimate, but severe disability might also get one or two of them to leave if they really couldn't serve.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Sixty seconds of Sergio

Not sharing Eli's hesitation about blogging on subjects beyond my expertise, I thought I'd fix the dearth of spaghetti western blogging here at Rabett Run:

I've been watching the above clip for more times than I can count as part of a little project I'm working on.  It's the climax from Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the second best of Leone's westerns, and the best climax.  The rest of this post is all spoilers, of course.

The part that really interests me is the final 60 seconds of the face-off, starting about 6:30 in the video.  Watch it once and it seems to end in a swirl of faces and a gunshot.  Watch it a couple dozen times and you get a story.

A timeline:

6:30 Angel Eyes starts inching his hand over to his gun.

6:33  Blondie looks at him, and he brings his hand back

6:49  Blondie looks at Tuco and gives him the slightest nod.  Now we who know the outcome also know there's no direct reason for Blondie to give a signal to Tuco - Blondie had tricked him and unloaded his gun.  It's what happens next that shows the reason - Angel Eyes saw the nod and flickers his view back and forth, unsure if there's a plan against him.

7:01  Unnerved, Angel Eyes starts slowly reaching for his gun, looking for Blondie to spot him moving.  Blondie never looks at him again, staring straight ahead at Tuco.

7:16  Angel Eyes takes an almost-last look at Tuco, hand inching closer.  Tuco's starting straight at Blondie.

7:17 - 7:27  Confusing closeups accelerate.

7:28 - 7:31  Tuco finally glances at Angel Eyes.
                  Angel Eyes nervously shifts his view between both opponents and makes his move.
                  Tuco sees the move and begins drawing himself (not that it matters).
                  A shot rings out, and Angel Eyes falls.  Blondie shot him without ever looking away from Tuco.

We learn later that Blondie had tricked Tuco by emptying Tuco's gun, so Blondie never had to really worry about Tuco.  Only by watching it closely do you see that Blondie also tricked Angel Eyes with the meaningless head nod to Tuco, and then by seeming to not pay attention to Angel Eyes, while watching him with peripheral vision and waiting for him to draw.

Nice.  Really nice.

Couple other points:  I had trouble with Angel Eyes walking across the line of fire between Tuco and Blondie earlier in the clip, but I finally realized it helped conceal his draw from Blondie even if it made the hand more visible to Tuco.  Maybe he wasn't quite as worried about Tuco.

At 7:32 you can see Tuco shooting his empty gun at Angel Eyes, i.e. not at Blondie.  Maybe it was just a response to Angel Eyes, but it might have been a choice.  Maybe that had something to do with Blondie's decision to spare Tuco at the end of the movie (not in the clip).

Speaking of the movie's end, Blondie tortures a guy with a fake execution/near strangling and he's "The Good"?  Maybe it was less jarring in the days before enhanced interrogation.  That's just one more good thing about re-electing Obama.

In the preceding movie, Angel Eyes was a good guy.  Nice climax as well, clip here.  Interesting how much swarthier Leone made the kind-of same character and same actor when he was The Bad.

I started watching this clip over a month ago, and immediately started getting lots of Romney ads on YouTube.  I thought that was amusing.

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The time window for a revenue-neutral carbon tax is 2017-2018, so get cracking

My theory that our time for serious climate legislation is the two years after the 2016 election relies on the following reasons why up to 2016 won’t work:
  • Before 2014 is no good because the current House majority would never pass it (and the Senate minority would filibuster).
  • 2014-2016 is no good because the president’s party almost always loses seats in the House in the off year.
Then there’s 2016, the counterpart of the lucky fate of 2012 Senate elections. The Senate gets elected in three separate waves, with a few more Ds than Rs. Fate decreed an uneven distribution with a large minority of Ds up for election in 2012, 23 Ds versus 10 Rs, a big reason why this election was supposed to be bad in the Senate, until the Rs pulled out their unregistered pistols and shot up their own feet. Fate said 2014 would be somewhat closer in distribution between parties, so Math said that 2016 is the vulnerable year for Rs, with 24 Rs up for election compared to 10 Ds.

While far from certain, it’s possible that for two years after the 2016 election, and only for those two years, Ds will have somewhere in the vicinity of 60 votes in the Senate. That’s the chance. The 2018 election puts the Ds back on the defensive, 25 D seats versus 8 R seats.

I suggest two alternatives for explaining climate politics. One is Roger Pielke Jr.’s so-called Iron Law:

When policies focused on economic growth confront policies focused on emissions reduction, it is economic growth that will win out every time.

The other is the acronym BOSO, or Brian’s Obvious Statement of the Obvious:

Getting 60 votes in the Senate is hard.

Only one of these is likely to display true insight into climate politics. The Iron Law appears to be unfalsifiable because it’s not applied where it doesn’t work, so you can probably guess which way I lean. If you go with the Iron Law though, then you make a few bets on technology and just hope for the best (and please don’t annoy Godwin by pointing out that was Hitler’s end-game strategy too). If by contrast you’re just a BOSO, then look for the best strategy to get to 60.

I’m assuming the president will be a Democrat, or a Republican who favors action, and that the House will pass a bill like they were able to in 2010. Getting Republican and possibly squishy Democratic support is the reason, really the only reason, to do a revenue-neutral carbon tax. A revenue-generating tax could do positive things for climate mitigation and adaptation, or a cap-and-trade law could provide similar incentives. It’s the possibility of getting a few Republican votes and the difficulty of BOSO that makes me think we should explore a revenue neutral tax.

And I’m saying “possibility,” not probability for all the above. On the hopeful side, science will continue to beat over the heads of the ignorant, and not-hopeful tragedies like Sandy may do the same.   Renewables will continue to expand while costs decrease, and shale gas can cut into the stranglehold that coal has over electricity politics in swing states like Ohio.  Demographics also favor reality. On the other hand, two election cycles between now and 2017 aren’t that many to get reality into Republican politics, which is actually getting more ideologically rigid at the state and local level.

Still, it’s an opportunity that we should plan for as much as possible, and revenue-neutral carbon tax might be the best way to do it. Meantime, stick with Eli’s strategy of regulating our way through this via the Clean Air Act (and I expect eventually through the Clean Water Act for ocean acidification).

 If the Republicans don’t bend in 2017 and there aren’t enough votes to get around them, then their rigidity will eventually make them a national version of the California Republican Party, a group so unpopular and powerless that it will have less than one third of the seats in both houses of the state legislature. That, however, will take even more time before it happens.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Taking on our toughest challenges

The Christie cameo is probably no accident - enviros would love to split him off from the denialists.

P.S.  For my wonderful Santa Clara County voters, please vote Yes on Measure B!

Friday, November 02, 2012

If campaigns are zero-sum games, why will neither side talk about climate?

I've seen the justified lamentations about the lack of climate discussion in the campaign, and occasional discussion of why Obama hasn't talked that much about it.  (I provided my own explanation - Ohio.)  There's less discussion of why Romney doesn't talk about it, and little about why the interaction between candidates doesn't produce discussion.

In zero-sum politics, a disadvantage for one candidate should be an advantage for the other candidate, so why doesn't at least one of them push his opinion?

Unlike Karl Rove, I don't have THE answer, but I do have possibilities:

1.  This NYTimes article says their positions aren't that different.  Both acknowledge people are changing climate, so there's no reason to talk about that as opposed to their actual differences over energy policy.

I'm not buying it, first because it far overstates Romney's acceptance of climate change: "there remains a lack of scientific consensus on the issue."  That leaves plenty of room for a fight between reality and denial.  Also the strong difference in energy policy - support a growing sector versus abandoning it to China in favor of a declining and polluting sector - should easily reference back to climate.

The article does provide a service in saying Obama hasn't been completely silent.  And Romney's oblique references have been mocking Obama's intention to do something about it.  Let's refine the question to why both sides say so little instead of being silent.

On to more promising ideas.

2.  One or both sides overestimate the risk to their position.  If each side thinks the issue can backfire and hurt their side relative to the other, then neither will bring it up.  Both campaigns might think the issue has a 55% chance of helping the other side - that's not possible in zero sums, but would mean someone has bad political judgment.

I think this plays a role.

3.  It's not climate as an issue but their own ability to hurt themselves.  Maybe the candidates figure anything they say is more likely to motivate the other side than it is to motivate their own side, so again they keep quiet.  The analogy would be to Romney's relative silence over his abortion position, and the Democrats' relative silence about their somewhat-tepid opposition to torture and civil rights violations.

Problem with this one is that surrogates and Superpacs would likely go on the attack over climate, but everyone has little to say.

4.  It's like space policy - not enough people cared to force it on the agenda.  If Hurricane Sandy had happened in September then things might have been different.  If last summer's heat wave had more time to get into the public mindset, it also might have changed things.  The idea here though is that while the policy elites may be thinking of these things, most of the public isn't.

Sadly, I'm giving this last option the most credit, with an assist from overestimating risk.  It doesn't excuse a lack of leadership, but again helps explain it.  And it means those of us who care about climate have to do more.

For a little respite from climate silence, here's a debate between campaign surrogates with the last part discussing climate.  Romney's surrogate flat-out lies in the debate about current coal technology not producing pollutants, but admits that Romney would eliminate greenhouse gas controls that the EPA is currently phasing in under the Clean Air Act.  He also says the government should provide some money for energy research, but nothing to reduce carbon emissions.  So much for the NY Times article.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

How dare Nate Silver suggest that someone put his money where his mouth is

The public editor at the NY Times is aghast that Nate Silver proposed a $1000 bet for charity against Joe Scarborough over the election outcome.  Silver thinks the math and data shows a high likelihood of Obama victory, while Scarborough doesn't like math and think people that use it should be told to shut up.  Perhaps sensing that her pearl-clutching isn't too convincing, the editor suggests people think he's a journalist when he's clearly a columnist discussing his own view of things, and gets a news editor to suggest discomfort with a journalistic slippery slope.

I honestly don't get why people have problems with other people proposing bets.  My guess is they don't like betting themselves and therefore think nobody else should be allowed to bet, so they make statements like it's "classless" to bet with money going to charity.  I kind of like incentives, myself, but maybe I'm classless.

As for that scary slippery slope, I would gladly give a push and would love to see other columnists put their money where their mouths are, because it might rein them in a little bit, or their critics.  Kind of harder to do that on the straight news side where it's an institution that's reporting out, not just the names on the byline, but if the institution can figure out a way to do that, then more power to them.  What a wonderful world it would be.

A better critique, also noted by people in Silver's Twitter feed, is that if Scarborough believes the odds are 50-50, and all Silver is offering is an even odds bet, then there's no advantage to Scarborough in taking the bet.  No disadvantage either, but there's no incentive from Scarborough's perspective.  Silver should put up $1250 against $1000 to fix that.  Also the money shouldn't go to the same charity but ideally to different ones that the two sides rank differently in preference.  Part of betting is to make people think carefully about their claims, and if the same charity gets the money then you lose some of that incentive.

And while I'm on the subject - there are many many reasons why Mitt Romney would be terrible for the country, especially on climate change, but I don't think his $10,000 bet offer was one of them.  As a gotcha line in the debate it might have been kind of lame, the outcome might have been deceptive, and the cavalier attitude towards that kind of money is unfortunate, but the simple concept of betting someone over a false statement isn't wrong.  Bloomberg has much better reasons for voting for Obama instead of Romney.