moldybluecheesecurds 2

Thursday, July 31, 2008

A victory for rule of law

A judge ruled today that White House aides cannot ignore Congressional subpoenas, but even more significantly, told the Bush Administration that courts, not the President, determine the extent of executive privilege. 
In essence, Judges Bates held that whatever immunity from Congressional subpoenas that executive branch officials might enjoy, it is not “absolute.” And in any event, he said, it is up to the courts, not the executive branch, to determine the scope of its immunity in particular cases.
Hooray for checks and balances!

Iraq tours shortened (back) to 12 months

National Public Radio is a great news source and they promise news with context.  So it was an extreme disappointment to hear them parrot the Bush Administration's horn toot that Iraq tours of duty will be reduced to (the original) 12 months.

See, in April 2007, the Bush Administration increased tours of duty from 12 to 15 months as part of the "surge."

Go ahead and let the President have a quote about "helping soldiers and their families," but for God's sake tell the truth, too.  This isn't some sort of special benefit or policy, it's restoring the tours of duty to the length that soldiers actually signed up for

Oh, and "it won't apply to troops now serving."

Liberal media, my ass.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Why end oil dependence - in 10 words or less

Triple Pundit asks its readers to weigh in - why should we become oil independent?

No need to
Nation build when
We don't need oil

Your laptop and mobile phone lie to you

Those signal meters and battery icons aren't really giving you the straight scoop.  People like electronics that indicate long battery life and good signal quality, so that's what those indicators are designed to display. 

The article notes a couple tricks:
  • Battery life meters stay at full longer because it makes people think they're getting long phone life.  
  • There's no standard for what "more bars" means for mobile phone reception.  And even if the signal meter is accurate, it doesn't show what matters: signal-to-noise ratio.
I've always felt like my cell phone goes two days at full and then drops like a rock.  Now I know why - thanks, Sprint!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Why this blog misses the point on energy prices

If you read this piece, you're left with the impression that Democrats may be clinging to policies that keep energy prices high and that they're endangering their environmental message as people pay more attention to their pocketbook.  (Note: who has a pocketbook, anyway?  Gotta love the media for the inane metaphors for America's tough problems). 

The implicit message is that energy prices could be lower, if only we did something else. 


Energy prices are going up.  Period.  Oil is becoming more scarce relative to demand.  Same for coal, natural gas, etc.  Demand keeps rising (it's a world market, and the Chinese and Indians want to drive, too).  So even if we drilled our brains out, we're not going to be able to put enough oil on the market to drive prices down.

Renewable energy will prove cheaper in the long run, because fossil fuel price inflation will soon pass the cost of renewables (and has, in several markets).  And because many renewables are fuel-free (solar, wind), they won't become more expensive over time (though new wind turbines and solar panels can become more expensive, since they're made of metals and other materials that are also on the world market). 

So, America, listen up: THE ERA OF CHEAP ENERGY IS OVER.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Why David Brooks is a tool

I've never liked the guy, because he pretends to be a moderate but likes to pound on individual responsibility to the complete exclusion of cultural forces from corporations to consumerism.  This guy agrees, and he completely and thoroughly lays out the case why David Brooks is a tool.

A sample:
Brooks lies about how the [mortgage crisis and credit crisis] devastation occurred. An "unspoken code has been silently eroded, he reveals. Silently, David? Marketers of all kinds have spent billions for 40 years telling Americans they deserve a break today and that marketers from McDonald's and credit-card companies to mortgage lenders will give it to them instantly. This has been the most monumental, unrelenting campaign to destroy a culture the world has seen, barring perhaps the fascist and communist propaganda juggernauts of the 1930s. Our own governments are in on it, not just via de-regulation but with lotteries.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Why Americans are sunk in debt

The average household’s credit card debt: $8,565 (up almost 15 percent from 2000)
Typical interest rate: 19.1 percent (up 1.5 percent since 2005)
Becoming a nation of debtors: priceless

How did this happen?  In three ways, the banking industry has created a debtor nation.  First, by undermining the American value of thrift:
Eliminating negative feelings about indebtedness was the idea behind MasterCard’s “Priceless” campaign, the work of McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising, which came out in 1997. “One of the tricks in the credit card business is that people have an inherent guilt with spending,” Jonathan B. Cranin, executive vice president and deputy creative director at the agency, said when the commercials began. “What you want is to have people feel good about their purchases.” 
Thrift is less important, because banks now make the lion's share of their profit on fees and interest, not on repaid debt.  In other words, banks make money when people fail to repay their loans.

 “Today the focus for lenders is not so much on consumer loans being repaid, but on the loan as a perpetual earning asset,”
The lenders set up this system, first by lobbying for weaker lending regulations in 2003 and then by loosening SEC regulations of their investments in 2004.  The lax regulation allowed banks to gamble and lose.  And who pays?  We do, in a government bailout of the failed banks.

While we're paying them for making bad loans, the financial industry keeps the screws on us by pouring their profits into lobbying.  The 2005 bankruptcy law made it harder for Americans to escape from bad debt, such as loans made to people without any hope of repaying.  
Since 2005, when the bankruptcy law was changed, the credit card industry has increased its earnings 25 percent...even though sponsors of the bankruptcy bill promised that consumers would benefit from lower borrowing costs as delinquent borrowers were held more accountable, the cost of borrowing from credit card companies has actually increased anywhere from 5 percent to 17 percent.
Here's a nice year-after look at the impact of the bankruptcy law.  Summary: we got screwed.

Barack Obama plans to reform the 2005 bankruptcy bill to make it easier for consumers to escape bad debt.  You have a chance to make a difference in November.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Cleaning blog house - #1

I came to the realization that America is in the grips of a nefarious chicken-finger pandemic, in which a blandly tasty foodstuff has somehow become the de facto official nibble of our young.
This essay bemoans the children's menu at restaurants, noting that instead of downsizing adult portions, the kids menu often simply offers a few marginally nutritious comfort meals to quite the children while the adults eat. At a Chinese place, how about chicken fingers for the kids? Italian, chicken fingers! Thai, chicken fingers!

She notes that some restaurants are trying to adapt, reverting to the tradition of simply shrinking big people portions (and prices) for kids. But I found it interesting that restaurants have been catering to the parents' desire to have a good dining experience by catering to kids' comfort food (and waistlines).

Cleaning blog house - Preface

I have about twenty articles I bookmarked in the last year, as it became clear that working and blogging were not as compatible now that I had a job I actually liked. So this week I'm trying to clean house, providing at least a brief write up on each of the items I've let dangle for so long.

To the libertarian on health care: you're assumptions are wrong

Paul Krugman has a nice post about the challenge that libertarians have in accepting the evidence on health care - that their fundamental assumptions about the efficiency of markets just don't hold up.
The basic facts on health care are clear: government-run insurance is more efficient than private insurance; more generally, the United States, with the most privatized health care in the advanced world, has a wildly inefficient system that costs far more than anyone else’s, yet delivers no better and arguably worse medical care than European systems.
 See more of Krugman's post here

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mortgage crisis: Fannie, Freddie, and the rest

If you're familiar with "when banks compete, you win," then you probably listen to a news source that discusses the mortgage crisis.  Paul Krugman's been keeping me informed, and he does a nice job of explaining what's going on:
  • Fannie and Freddie are more closely regulated than private companies, so they're shenanigans were limited.  They couldn't do subprime loans - loans given with no income verification - by rule.
  • However, they weren't completely innocent, as they tried to stretch their ability to participate within the rules as much as possible.
  • The housing market is so bad, that even these more regulated companies are sinking as people with conventional mortgages end up with negative equity.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Consumer secret: it's all about the habits

An anthropologist with a passion for public health was stymied by the challenge of changing hygiene habits in Africa.  But with a little help from the consumer products industry, she's getting folks to soap up their hands and prevent the spread of disease.

The most fascinating?  The tangent into consumer psychology.  Because nearly 45 percent of our daily activity is habitual.
Over the past decade, many companies had perfected the art of creating automatic behaviors — habits — among consumers. These habits have helped companies earn billions of dollars when customers eat snacks, apply lotions and wipe counters almost without thinking, often in response to a carefully designed set of daily cues.
Proctor and Gamble faced a problem with Febreeze.  When marketed as a killer of bad odors, it flopped - people didn't have bad smells around enough to remember to use it.  But they changed their tactics:
The perfect cue, they eventually realized, was the act of cleaning a room, something studies showed their target audience did almost daily. P.& G. produced commercials showing women spraying Febreze on a perfectly made bed and spritzing freshly laundered clothing. The product’s imagery was revamped to incorporate open windows and gusts of fresh wind — an airing that is part of the physical and emotional cleaning ritual.
Thanks to marketing, Americans now spend $650 million a year spraying clean things with Febreze.  And Ghanians have increased their use of soap after a bathroom break by 13 percent. 

For more on how they marketed clean hands, check out the piece.

Peak fossil fuels = peak convenience

A thoughtful, short essay on the challenge to the American lifestyle as energy gets prohibitively expensive, from R-Squared:
However, many I know would never consider public transport. I know people who would circle the Walmart parking lot 10 times before they would walk from a parking spot that isn't within 50 feet of the front door. The only food they have ever known comes from the supermarket. These people scream the loudest for the government to do something about gas prices. These are also the people who I think will have the most difficult time adjusting to the new reality imposed by high oil prices. Some will sink ever further into debt as they wait in vain for the government to fix the problem.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

China's carbon emissions: how much are ours?

One of the big hangups in a global climate agreement has been the interest of the United States in holding developing economies accountable for their climate emissions.  But there's one big problem - a lot of the carbon emissions in China and India serve their export businesses, ones that U.S. firms often set up to obtain cheap labor and more relaxed environmental standards. 

In other words, we own a great deal of China's carbon emissions, because they serve U.S. consumption.  In fact, at least 23% of China's emissions are from exports to industrialized countries

I think our share is a bit bigger than we've admitted.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The power to declare war

An interesting look at the Constitutional authority to declare war, including a letter written by Abraham Lincoln on why it's important for Congress to retain it.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Want a quick way to strengthen democracy?

Serve as an election judge.  You work at the polls for the primary or general election (or both), basically just helping people vote.  No experience needed - in many municipalities you get a training session beforehand.  And by law, your employer must give you the day off to work the polls (and pay you). 

So call your city officials and support democracy at home!

Monday, July 07, 2008

A plan for our energy future?

Support for drilling offshore, in the Arctic, and just about everywhere has been rising along with gas prices.  Some enterprising cost-conscious folks have even launched an internet petition drive to encourage more drilling to increase supply and lower prices - a move I'd describe as "drill here, drill now, pay later."

Because, first of all, with the number of oil consumers increasing daily in China and India, there's no supply of oil large enough to bring prices back to $20 a barrel.  The supply/demand effect works both ways and more oil -> cheaper oil -> greater demand. 

And second, increasing oil supply to lower prices (which will increase consumption) ignores all the shitty environmental effects we've been trying to avoid, from wrecking the Arctic landscape to adding to the global warming problem. 

And of course, we're not going to see any of that new oil in the next 10 years, anyway, so if folks are looking for immediate relief, they're out of luck.  Sorry.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Flat panel TV helps global warming?

If it wasn't enough to find out that LCD televisions are power hungry beasts, now we find out that you're helping contribute to global warming, too.
Manufacturers use a greenhouse gas called nitrogen trifluoride to make the televisions, and as the sets have become more popular, annual production of the gas has risen to about 4,000 tonnes.

As a driver of global warming, nitrogen trifluoride is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide, yet no one knows how much of it is being released into the atmosphere by the industry.
 I guess my old TV set is just fine...