Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Archive for October 2009

Why Obama is like Sully Sullenberger

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Imagine my surprise reading an editorial in the Wall Street Journal yesterday saying “the ethanol boondoggle is also an environmental catastrophe.” This is the editorial page that never wastes a chance to argue in favor of business over ecology—all of a sudden the minions of Paul Gigot are concerned about environmental catastrophes? Flummoxed, I read on.

The piece describes a paper in Science showing what many have suspected for at least a year: If you account for the emissions resulting from the clearing of forests in order to grow plants for biofuels, biofuels like ethanol are no longer carbon neutral. The editorial continues:

Cap-and-trade programs exacerbate the problem because developed countries (where emissions are putatively capped) get credit for reductions from ethanol—despite the fact that their biofuels are generally grown in developing countries (where emissions aren’t capped). So if Malaysians burn down a rain forest to grow palm oil that ends up in German biodiesel, Malaysia doesn’t count the land-use emissions and Germany doesn’t count the tail-pipe emissions.

This is a serious problem, to be sure. But the WSJ editorial page has spent the last 20 years or more claiming that climate change is bullshit. Why are they arguing that Waxman-Markey erred in banning the study of land-use changes as a gift to farm states?

Because it’s a chance to beat up on President Obama, of course! How could they ever pass that up?

Look, I’ve been pretty disappointed in much that Obama has and hasn’t done so far. But the man is the Sully Sullenberger (pilot who landed the plane with two dead engines in the Hudson River back in January, remember?) of politics. The country is the plane, the Bush administration are the geese, the economy is one engine and the wars are the other. In this metaphor, well, the Republicans are the ground: They exist to foil the captain’s purpose, even if it means crashing the plane.

Editorials like this one prove it. If these people are so disingenuous as to defend something as a critical component of something they’ve done nothing but decry, there’s really no value in anything else they have to say. Ttheir motives are not intellectual, but purely political.

It’s sad, pathetic, and unpatriotic, and it demonstrates the emotional maturity of a 12-year-old. Do we really want people like that running our country?

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A quick fix for our broken government

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The public option has been gutted, and government negotiation of drug prices was cut from health care reform. The “Cadillac tax” on the costliest policies is on the chopping block. No significant regulation or legislation has been passed addressing abuses that nearly sent the economy over a cliff last autumn. President Obama’s pledge to make industry pay for pollution permits under cap-and-trade didn’t make it into Waxman-Markey.

What do all these things have in common? Between when the changes were proposed and were voted on, barrels of corporate cash were injected into campaign coffers of the relevant decision-makers. The banking industry paid members of Congress $300,000 in the days before a vote on credit card reform—during which time the bill was watered down. Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus’s top corporate contributors are drugmakers and insurers. The health insurance industry spent $133 million lobbying Congress in the second quarter.

For over 100 years, the US has treated the corporation as a person for some useful legal purposes: It can sue and be sued, it can own property, etc. The Supreme Court is now considering a case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, that would unleash corporate power into the political arena even more than it is today: By ruling in favor of a polemical right-wing group engaged in the hateful politics of fear, companies could be given the same free-speech rights as humans—opening a floodgate of corporate money into campaigns. Which justices will consider the insanity of this? Only in a country where a 12-year-old can be declared an adult for trial would an entity existing on paper be accorded the same political rights as flesh-and-blood.

The notion that a corporation is a person rests on one spoken sentence—it wasn’t even in a decision—by a Supreme Court chief justice in 1886, ushering in the era of robber barons and the greatest disparity of wealth in US history. (We’re nearly breaking the record today.) Ever since, the idea has stood essentially unchallenged. The social contract requires that the interests of the whole be accounted for in the decisions of the individual. But corporations operate only in allegiance to themselves; even the worst humans have natural empathic tendencies. Hitler had a dog.

Is anyone still blind to the fact that solving our country’s problems begins with removing the corrupting influence of corporate cash from politics?

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Dog's carbon footprint twice that of a Land Cruiser?

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New Scientist reports on a study calculating the carbon footprints of various pets. The worst, chiefly because of its consumption of meat, is a dog:

A medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food.…That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals. It takes 43.3 square metres of land to generate 1 kilogram of chicken per year – far more for beef and lamb – and 13.4 square metres to generate a kilogram of cereals. So that gives him a footprint of 0.84 hectares…Meanwhile…a 4.6-litre Toyota Land Cruiser…driven a modest 10,000 kilometres a year, uses 55.1 gigajoules, which includes the energy required both to fuel and to build it. One hectare of land can produce approximately 135 gigajoules of energy per year, so the Land Cruiser’s eco-footprint is about 0.41 hectares – less than half that of a medium-sized dog.

The article leaves the reader to draw the conclusion that his or her own meat-eating is a significant contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions, a point of view detailed here.

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Written by ptullis

October 26, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Marketplace: "Everything is fine"

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A bizzare juxtaposition of stories on “Marketplace” last week. Felix Salmon from Reuters and business writer Heidi Moore spoke with the host about the Dow reaching 10,000 and both agreed that as the economy goes, “everything is fine.” All that’s needed to fix it, they agreed, is for CEOs and consumers to understand this supposedly plain fact and start spending.

Minutes later, RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan was on, talking about his new book: “You look at this economy and…you look at people suffering,” he said.

Did no one at Marketplace think it odd to juxtapose these comments? I’ve got news for newspeople Salmon and Moore: Everything is not fine. The underemployment rate is at an all time high. The unemployment rate is actually higher than it was 27 years ago because Reagan changed the way they measure the unemployed, to make the number look better.

Not to get all self-pitying and shit, but I for one have been underemployed for 10 months and watched my life savings diminish by half since Bear Stearns imploded.

Perhaps business writers need to spend less time looking at their Bloomberg terminals and more time on the streets of America, because times are strange indeed when a rapper–even one as gifted, intelligent and well-informed as RZA–knows more about the state of the economy than two so-called business journalists.

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Written by ptullis

October 23, 2009 at 8:06 pm

More dishonesty from the WSJ editorial page

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In its never-ending quest to attack any changes to the health care system– you’d think a group of people that likes to think of itself as fiscally responsible would be more amenable to ameliorating a situation threatening to bankrupt our country, but that’s hypocrisy for ya–the Wall Street Journal editorialized on Monday against the way the Senate Finance Committee plan scales its insurance subsidies.

Calling it a “tax on work,” the editorial makes a fundamental mistake which destroys its argument. The gist of it is, if the income of a family earning, say, $42000 rises to $54,000, it will lose a third of its insurance subsidy–and will therefore be motivated not to earn the extra money.

So put yourself in that situation. You are going to turn down a $9000 raise because it’s not a $12000 raise? This is insane.

The editorial also assumes that people consider only economic factors when making economic decisions, which, as anyone who has had a job can tell you, is not the case. And that’s assuming the decision is yours to make: If you get a promotion, you don’t always have a choice whether or not to take it. The alternative could be a $42000 reduction in pay, if you catch my meaning. Moreover, people work more or less or at different jobs for all kinds of reasons having nothing to do with money: status, convenience, getting the hell out of the house, to name just a few.

The egregious thing is that the Journal knows this. Behavioral economics is at the cutting edge of research in the field, as academics are trying to figure out why people don’t always act–and markets don’t always behave–“rationally.” To write so dishonestly otherwise reveals the true motive behind so many opponents of health care reform and President Obama’s generally: self-interest and sour grapes.

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Written by ptullis

October 22, 2009 at 12:23 pm

NYT lauds toxic, water-hoarding method of natural gas extraction

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The New York Times on Saturday featured an article extolling the promise of tapping shale fields to increase the supply of natural gas:

energy analysts are already predicting that shale could reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas. They said they believed that gas reserves in many countries could increase over the next two decades…

the article breathlessly explained. It went on to explain how great this greenhouse gas is for global warming:

More extensive use of natural gas could aid in reducing global warming, because gas produces fewer emissions of greenhouse gases than either oil or coal.

But a whole lot more than zero! Natural gas is a critical greenhouse gas no matter what you compare it to.

I was disappointed and dismayed not to find a single mention of how water-intensive and how very damaging to the environment where it occurs this method of extraction is.

Reporting by organizations such as ProPublica and WNYC has revealed that

In New Mexico, [this kind of] oil and gas drilling…has already caused toxic chemicals to leach into the water table at some 800 sites. Colorado has reported more than 300 spills affecting its ground water.

Moreover, the method — called fractured drilling or horizontal drilling — requires huge amounts of water, often in an area that is drought-prone or drought-stricken, such as the American West.

Instead of portraying oil-shale drilling as a savior, the Times should be describing how incredibly damaging and resource-intensive it is. The answer to ameliorating global warming is not finding new sources of natural gas but investing in wind and solar–technologies that create jobs, diminish environmental damage, and have a generation’s worth of fuel costs built in.

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Written by ptullis

October 12, 2009 at 3:04 pm