Archive for the ‘Information’ Category
This point bears repeating since the irony is so sickly rich:
- Since 2001, U.S. police departments have been militarized at great expense in order to defend against Terrorism.
- As thanks, U.S. police departments are now using military weapons against hundreds to thousands of peaceful protesters, the very taxpayers that provided the funds in order to be kept safe.
The abuse of chemical weapons (tear gas, pepper spray) by police here in Oakland and across the country is now so well-known as to be cliché. But Chicago is preparing to step up its abuse with acoustic weapons aimed at protesters of the upcoming NATO summit. The city is poised to repeat the mistakes of Pittsburgh police by deploying a weapon better known for its use against Somali pirates against unarmed crowds. The type of device that Chicago and many other cities now own can cause permanent hearing damage to anyone within 15 meters, and severe pain and other symptoms at much longer distances.
The Chicago police claim that the sound cannon is meant to be used as a “communication device,” and that could very well be the initial intention. However, recent history demonstrates U.S. police departments’ inability to resist using (and abusing) military gadgetry once they own it.
Take note. Carry earplugs.
I sent this message to Diane Feinstein (links added for this post).
Dear Senator Feinstein,
It was reported by the New York Times recently that the FBI plans to
expand its already invasive practices by conducting database searches,
surveillance, and going through the trash of American citizens who are
not even suspected of wrongdoing.
This is one more outrage in a long series of outrageous secret and
illegal violations of civil liberties by the Federal government which
are destroying America. Since its founding, this has been a country of
laws, and that is what made us great. America is becoming an oligarchy.
When that transition is complete, we will be no better than the
tyrannical dictatorships we are fighting against.
I know that, as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, you are
privy to even more of the lawless, power grabbing activities than the
substantial abuses that are publicly known. If you are a patriot, I urge
you to fulfill your Constitutional responsibility as a check on
Executive power and oppose the new FBI guidelines as well as other
attacks on civil liberties.
A fascinating thing I learned in a seminar today: there is life almost 6 km (3.7 mi) underground — basically as far down as we can drill, we’ve found living microbes. We don’t know the limits of life below the surface, so it could go much deeper. Estimates indicate that more than half of the earth’s biomass could lie in the “deep biosphere”, that is, on a mass basis there could be as much or more life deep underground as there is on the surface and near-surface.An interesting feature of the organisms that live down there is that they live very slowly, with lifetimes of a thousand years or more. The seminar was on the “Deep Carbon Observatory“, a new, 10-year research effort to understand the deep carbon cycle.
I recorded a demo EP. 5 songs, full-band arrangements, all originals. Themes include climate change, the financial crisis, disillusionment with the Obama administration, the dystopian future, and turning 30. There is even a music video. Check it out on my music website: http://www.stolaroff.com
I started working on this project maybe a year and a half ago. It turns out, recording an album on your own is a lot of work. Why do many of us take on challenging creative projects with dubious rewards? It’s something I continue asking myself, and I think I’ve explored it far enough to know that the answer is not, simply, “for fun”.
The beauty of capitalism, argues Adam Smith and my textbook, is that resources are magically guided by the invisible hand of the market to their most efficient uses. No central planning body is needed, as it is in communism, to decide how much of each product should be produced and who should receive it.
On the micro-scale, this is true in many ways. The individual decisions of millions of businesses, communicating through prices, add up to a system that satisfies most people’s wants with a dizzying array of constantly-improving products. We don’t need a giant bureaucracy to set the price of raisin bagels or determine how many electric lawnmowers should be built.
However, what I’m now discovering is that there is no “invisible hand” analogy on the macro-scale. The “natural” macroeconomic outcome of an entirely free market is abhorrent. Devastating cycles of boom, bubble, and recession; ever-more concentrated wealth; terrible working conditions for the poor; and, perhaps, resource depletion and collapse. It’s entirely up to the government (and, in some cases, labor unions), to guide the market with fiscal policy (government spending), monetary policy (mainly the interest rate), and human rights protections, and to clean up after the market with social welfare programs.
The hands are quite visible. So how much do you trust your government? They’ve been doing a bang-up job lately. Poor monetary policy (years of super-low interest rates, among other problems), contributed greatly to the housing bubble and our current Great Recession.
I just think it’s important to remember when certain pundits and Wall Street executives plead for small government and financial deregulation, that there is no reason to believe that would help in macroeconomic terms.
On the micro-level — when you are talking about things like price tariffs, subsidies, restrictions on trade, product standards — there is a justification, at least in theory, to call for “smaller government” or deregulation. Because here the market allocates resources more efficiently than the government would (again, at least in theory). But we already know what happens to the macroeconomy, left to its own devices, and that is everyone but the fabulously rich and very lucky gets smacked around by the invisible hand.
My latest paper1, going by the title above and written with Chris Weber and Scott Matthews, has been published online. It refers to the Mandatory Greenhouse Gas Reporting Rule proposed by the EPA, which is out for public comment until June 9th.
The point of the rule is to collect greenhouse gas emissions data from facilities in order to support future regulations and climate policy development. It is an exciting first step toward controlling emissions from the majority of sources across the economy. Many of the issues that have to be hammered out about who is in or out of the system and what kinds of emissions are included are the same for the reporting rule as for a cap-and-trade system. In this way, the reporting rule may very well set the groundwork and the boundaries of a cap-and-trade system or other regulation. Cap-and-trade, however, will not be enough to solve the climate problem.
Our major point in the paper is that the reporting rule can be easily augmented to collect more data to support a wider array of future policies and regulations. We also discuss the choice of reporting thresholds (the proposed rule did not use any objective criteria to set the threshold of 25,000 tons CO2e/yr across the board) and basically recommend a lower threshold than what was chosen.
I encourage interested members of the pubic to (read our paper and) submit a comment on the rule.
The Post has apparently declined to publish my letter. As the stories of U.S.-sponsored torture and the Obama Administration’s continuing support of it continue to unfold, I encourage everyone to pressure the mainstream media to present the situation accurately. I also encourage everyone to read Glenn Greenwald, who continues to give clear, honest, and comprehensive accounting of our government’s violation of laws and civil rights.
Waterboarding is torture. It’s a well known and accepted fact by everyone except a small number of extremists like Dick Cheney, and unfortunately, editors of major newspapers like the Washington Post. The torture memos recently released by the Justice Department describe waterboarding, among other forms of torture. However, as one example in a pattern of underplaying torture committed by the U.S. Government, today in a news article the Washington Post referred to the techniques described in those memos as “harsh tactics that critics liken to torture”. This is akin to describing carbon dioxide as “an industrial byproduct that critics liken to pollution” or referring to current economic conditions as “a slowing of the market that critics liken to a recession”.
Of course you can find many people, even people in prominent or powerful positions, who believe carbon dioxide is not a pollutant (e.g. Senator James Inhofe), or who don’t characterize current economic conditions as a recession. But that does not justify presenting a widely-held and generally-accepted fact as a fringe belief. Waterboarding is widely and generally accepted to be torture, not “likened” to torture and not only by “critics”, just as carbon dioxide is not merely “likened” to pollution and not only by “critics”.
I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post about this; I’ll let you know what happens.
This link comes via Vinney via someone in the EPA smart growth office: a fascinating picture of subway systems of the world, presented on the same scale. Check it out.
I went to a panel discussion last night on “Merging Climate and Transportation Policy”. There were panelists from roughly the political left, right, and center, but all were thoughtful, had many good points, and agreed that the current system for spending federal transportation dollars is terrible. A lot of discussion about transportation and climate change tends to focus on technological fixes, like electric cars or biofuels, but this one focused on reducing driving — essentially changing behavior. The center and left panelists seemed to be boxing at the shadow-accusation that any such attempt is “social engineering”, largely by arguing that putting the right price on driving (i.e., making it significantly more expensive) isn’t about changing behavior, it’s about letting people make the right choices.
Well, prices changes behavior. That’s the point. There is some psychological value to giving people options, even ones they can’t afford, as opposed to mandating something (“You can only drive on odd-numbered days”), but it’s still about changing behavior. We know that raising the price of driving causes people to do it less (cf. recent increases in gas prices and subsequent fall off in car travel), but it’s not a terribly strong effect. If we want big reductions, like cutting miles driven in half, it’s hard to imagine that just pricing people out of their cars ($15 gas?) will be acceptable. I’m convinced the much more powerful (and palatable) tools will be land-use planning, making urban cores more attractive places to live (e.g. by improving urban schools), and cultural shifts toward valuing neighborhoods and urban features.
One of the interesting questions that came up was, “will policies to reduce miles driven also suppress economic growth?” This is something the right and center panelists were very concerned about. And actually, it’s hard to see how a pricing-based policy wouldn’t. There could be some rebound effects, like a more vibrant commercial economy if congestion-pricing makes the city more pleasant to shop and do business in. Or perhaps everyone would save fuel on balance because congestion-pricing eliminates gridlock. However, the main effect of charging more for driving is that people have less money to spend on other things. But let’s think about the other types of policies — the ones that get people replacing cars with transit and living closer to things. Offhand, I would say the economy becomes more service-oriented. People go out to eat more, spend more on cultural attractions, meet each other in bars and so on — the classic urban lifestyle model. They have smaller houses which they spend less to fill with things and, or course, less on cars. Bad for the economy? It’s not obvious, but I’d guess it’s better for communities to have more-local economies in the long run. Another direction it might go is that car travel gets expensive/unpleasant but the alternatives aren’t great either, so people just stay home. Probably yes, this would slow economic growth. Although that shouldn’t be the question. Are people less happy? Spending more time with the family and less time commuting to far-flung jobs is not bad. Staying home to watch tv and get isolated and depressed, on the other hand, probably is bad. So there is a right way and a wrong way to reduce driving. I expect that the strategies based on building vibrant communities support both economic growth and movement to a service-based economy that is better for the environment and connects people with each other.
Thanks to Vinney for passing on this story. Apparently Japan is starting a program to label certain types of consumer goods with their carbon footprint, that is, with the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted over the life cycle of the product, from extracting raw material to disposal or recycling. The UK has a similar system in the works, and there have been some voluntary programs in Europe, but, as far as I know, this will be the first mandatory carbon labeling program. It’s easy to argue with the details of such a scheme — measuring carbon footprints is a highly uncertain venture, but personally I welcome the attempt. I have been pushing for the development of life cycle emissions reporting from my small corner of the EPA and to my friends on the Hill for about a year now, and I’ve had little to point to by way of precedent.
On the one hand I find it a little disingenuous that the Japanese plan focuses on food product labeling when the climate impact of individual food items are pretty small for consumers to be constantly worried about, and the differences between comparable food items (say, one brand of soda versus another) are likely to be within the margin of error of the footprint values. It might make more sense to start with the big-ticket items, like consumer electronics or furniture, and not overwhelm already-complicated food purchasing decisions with more cryptic labeling. On the other hand, it might be good to get carbon labeling on to something that people see and worry about every day. Maybe the impact of people shifting their food purchases won’t be that big, but there could be a spillover effect from the raised awareness of carbon footprints. It could be one of those things where you add up carbon labels, recycling, reusable bags, and suddenly you get a conservation society — the much-sought-after cultural shift where people start to think about their impact on resources and not just the cost of things. After a while, it becomes natural, like wearing a seatbelt. Of course you choose the house with the lower carbon footprint. You wouldn’t throw a can in the trash, would you?!
Well, a fellow can dream.
A pair of articles that just became available in Science (1-2) and a slightly earlier article (3) have found that biofuels like ethanol produced from corn are net greenhouse gas (GHG) losers over decade to century timescales (also reported by the Times here).
The debate about whether plant-derived ethanol saves GHG’s over its life cycle compared to gasoline has been going on for years. The basic story is that bio-ethanol and gasoline emit similar amounts of CO2 at the tailpipe, but on the bio-ethanol side, when plants regrow they capture some of that carbon back from the atmosphere. However there are other energy inputs to make fertilizer, run farm equipment, process the plants, and transport the fuel. On balance, looking across many studies, it appears that ethanol from corn provides a modest GHG benefit over gasoline, and technology in development to make ethanol from a whole plant (“cellulosic ethanol”) would provide a big benefit (4).
The new contribution of the first three references is to look at the carbon lost from plants and soil when you convert land from some other use to grow biofuel crops like corn, soy, palm, or sugarcane. The stunning result is that you lose so much carbon converting a piece of land to cropland, that it takes decades or centuries of making biofuels from it to even break even on GHG emissions. What is really disturbing is that as prices for corn and ethanol have gone up, people are already chopping down tropical rainforest to grow more biofuel crops. Even if you make sure to buy ethanol produced from land that was already cropland, that is just pushing land for food crops to be converted somewhere else (since the total demand for food is relatively inelastic).
Even in the U.S., taking out-of-use cropland, of which we have millions of acres, and converting it to grow corn for ethanol, results in a carbon debt that takes about 50 years to pay back (1). That is essentially because when ag land is out of use for while, it turns back into grassland or forest. With future, more efficient means of producing biofuels, the payback times will be shorter, but still substantial.
Does this mean biofuels are a Bad Idea? My opinion is, on a grand scale, yes. There are some exceptions. Fuels from agricultural wastes are still a good idea. And cellulosic fuels from a careful mix of native grasses grown on marginal land is still a good idea with significant potential. But can we rely on biofuels to make deep cuts in transportation sector emissions? Probably not. And this is an important salvo in the climate policy debate.
And there is a larger story underpinning the findings of these papers, and that is that land-use change is a key element of climate policy, one which hasn’t got enough attention so far. There is a huge amount of carbon currently stored up in natural lands and we are rapidly setting it free, whether by converting it to cropland to feed a growing and increasingly meat-hungry population, converting it (perversely, it seems) to grow biofuels, or clearing it for urban development. Continuing to do so will undercut our efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
There is also an interesting connection here to my research on capturing CO2 from air. In principle, one could extract CO2 from the atmosphere using industrial methods (as opposed to using plants), add a lot of energy, and get liquid fuels. The industrial method uses at least 10,000 times less land than the corn-ethanol method, and so basically avoids the land-use change issues we are talking about. On the other hand, the biomass method runs largely on solar energy but the industrial method would require a huge amount of energy from somewhere to synthesize the fuel. Back in the ’70′s, Steinberg proposed doing it with nuclear (5). Now maybe we can find something better.
- Fargione, J.; Hill, J.; Tilman, D.; Polasky, S. and Hawthorne, P. “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1152747
- Searchinger, T.; Heimlich, R.; Houghton, R. A.; Dong, F.; Elobeid, A.; Fabiosa, J.; Tokgoz, S.; Hayes, D. & Yu, T. “Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change.” Science, 2008. DOI: 10.1126/science.1151861
- Righelato, R. & Spracklen, D. V. “Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?” Science, 2007, 317, 902-.
- Hammerschlag, Roel. “Ethanol’s Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present.” Environmental Science and Technology. 2006, 40, 1744-1750.
- Steinberg, M.; Dang, V. D. “Production of synthetic methanol from air and water using controlled thermonuclear reactor power: Technology and energy requirement”. Energy Conversion. 1977, 17, 97-112.
The following quote comes from Laura Miller’s review of “The Secret History of the World”, a new book compiling the mythologies Eastern and Western secret societies like the Freemasons and Rosicrucians. She skewers the book as well as esoteric belief systems and other books about secret spiritual societies in general, noting that the power and allure of secrecy is the main thing that many such societies have going for them. When the details of, for instance, Scientology, are exposed, it all just seems kind of absurd. Miller concedes that the author has a point that while Richard Dawkins derives sufficient awe from the material universe, a lot of people need something else:
Most people will still choose to believe in something “more,” whether it’s the ninefold path of the Buddha or the pillars of Islam or pyramid power. Chances are that whatever they choose will sound ridiculous to anyone who doesn’t also believe. That’s something religion has always had in common with sex: If you’re not into it, it looks silly. Which explains why all the really clever people do it behind closed doors.
I generally feel that people are not worked up enough about corporate invasions of privacy. So it’s good to see an article like this in the Times talking about these issues. People think I’m a little crazy when I tell them I trade supermarket club cards with other people to confuse the consumer profiling system. Maybe that’s because, according to the sidebar, 64% of people don’t realize supermarkets can sell their customers’ purchase information to other companies.
The author makes an interesting framing of personal privacy as an implicit contract. It’s not illegal for someone to follow you around from store to store and record your purchases, but we would consider it an invasion of privacy. We implicitly regard such information as belonging to you. The information has value to every company that can sell you more things if they know your purchasing habits, but this information has (largely) not been monetized. Apparently, the main way that buyout artists made money on hostile takeovers in the ’80′s was by breaking implicit contracts, like the implicit contract to pay senior workers more.
From my own experience from my father’s work in wholesaling, this seems to be a major way that large companies push out small businesses. Some of it is due to higher efficiency from economies of scale, but a lot of the lower prices come from breaking implicit contracts. A small sales business relies on personal relationships. “Good service” is based largely on the understanding that if something goes wrong, it will be fixed at no charge. The small businessman builds loyalty with the customers, often investing a lot up front in samples, demos, and time. The implicit contract is that the customer will stay on board for a while if she finds value in the product. A big company, on the other hand, can offer lower prices, but demos and personal time are short. Likewise, service is more an “our way or the highway” approach. Big companies can freeload on the value that smaller companies invested to get a new product adopted by coming in afterward, perhaps with a cheaper knockoff, and undercutting. At the same time, they keep costs low by redefining the implicit rules of good service and doing less for the customer.
If a small company who you’ve been doing business with for years says, “okay, I’m going to renege on all our agreements, but my prices will drop a little next year”, you’d probably be mad and find another supplier. But a new entrant has an easier time changing the rules, like the way the buyout artists could hire new managers who hadn’t made any promises about future salary. Similarly, online entrepreneurs have this incredible opportunity to break implicit contracts because the social rules of the Internet are still fuzzy. Corporate behavior is checked to some extent by consumer opinion, and behavior that really breaks the social code is sometimes met with a profit-shrinking backlash. But when the social code is fuzzy, this mechanism is less of a protection. Facebook bungled its attempt to spy on users’ purchases by going too far too fast. But I suspect if they made a more staged, strategic invasion of privacy, they would have gotten away with it. How did Google get away with reading private email? If a corporation started scanning our paper mail for keywords and tacking ad fliers on the envelopes, people would not stand for it. But now no one seems to mind the Google approach.
The capitalist compulsion is to monetize everything that can be legally (or sometimes illegally) monetized. It looks to me like the social lawlessness of the Internet and ill-formed social views about digital information are openings allowing personal identities to be rapidly monetized. Perhaps a partial solution is for online communities to coalesce around certain principles and defend them, as seemed to work in the Facebook case. If a major online community really drafted the “Internet Rules of Privacy” and got some prominent other communities to sign on, perhaps pledging to boycott companies that don’t follow the rules, that might really change the game.
As much as I’d like to see a landmark piece of legislation that defines ownership of personal information and restricts the collection of personal data, I wonder if the bottom-up approach, a sort of citizen-union, could work faster in the case of the Internet.
Thanks to Costa at Sustainable Research for pointing out this amazing data visualization tool. The folks at Gapminder have put together an interactive graph that lets you plot a variety of statistics by country, like “physicians per 1000 people”, and “percent urban population”. After looking at a lot of different relationships (hmm, what happens with % women in the labor force vs. % of government spending on the military?), I’m surprised how few variable pairs have a clear relationship. Most of them look random, or maybe have different trends for different regions. But what begins to become interesting is identifying the outliers, like, who has higher per capita CO2 emissions than the US? Who would’ve guessed Trinidad and Guam? Looking at trends over time is also fascinating. Time runs as a variable-speed animation, so you can step through the decades and watch China’s life expectancy dip during the cultural revolution, and watch Rwanda’s make a startling plummet during the genocide.
Beyond the specific statistics available, this is an amazing tool for visualizing data. Between the x-axis, y-axis, dot color, dot size, and time animation, you can individually select and see 5 dimensions of data at the same time, all with a friendly and effective user interface. Of course, it raises the question of whether people can actually process that much information. I found myself turning one or more dimensions off so as not to confuse myself. Maybe with experience you could train yourself to detect patterns or outliers in a 5-D visualization, but I wonder if you’d be able to see, for instance, a 3-way interaction that wasn’t obvious in any 2-D representation.
Many of us know of chef Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse and an originator of California Cuisine. In her new cookbook, she promotes local, seasonal, organic, and minimally-processed foods, and a philosophy of paying attention to where your ingredients come from, taking time and care with your food, and eating with friends and family. These are all things I agree with. And I’ve spent time thinking about the health and environmental consequences of my food. But Waters elevates the importance of our food choices above the direct impacts of the ingredients. In an interview in Salon, she makes the most eloquent case that I’ve seen so far that food choices have cultural consequences:
When we’re eating fast food, we’re not just eating the food, we’re eating a set of values that comes with the food. And it’s telling us that food should be cheap. It’s telling us that food should be the same no matter where we are on the planet. It’s telling us that advertising confers value. That it’s OK to eat 24 hours a day. That there are unlimited resources. It’s telling us that the work of the people who grow or raise the food is unimportant — in fact we don’t even need to know. And all of those values are informing what’s happening in the world around us. We’re ending up with malls instead of beautiful places to live in.
Our orientation session on the interaction between science and the media included a panel of esteemed science journalists from the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Science Magazine, and the National Journal. Amid friendly discussions of how to improve science writing and how scientists can relate successfully to the media, they gave us unsurprising advice like “use plain English to describe your research.” They explained how the standard journalistic strategy of getting a “balanced” story by quoting a nut on either side of an issue works badly for science stories, and two admitted guilt of doing this for climate change stories in the past. Among the non-obvious advice, 3 of the 4 panel members stressed that contacting reporters and editors directly is a good way to influence coverage and to get stories into the press. According to former Washington Post Science Editor Curt Suplee, “one of the last professional classes in America that actually answer their phones is reporters, and, 60% of the time, editors. In contrast, the press release, which I had been told in a university seminar on dealing with the media is the way to get in the press, is useless. 3 of the 4 said they never read press releases, and the 4th, Neil Munro of the National Journal, said
“I read a lot of press releases. Not for the lead, but to see what people are selling. Sometimes you get a story out of that.”
Public Relations people were held in similar low regard as sources for a story.
Most of the tone of the discussion implied reporters are basically trying to present accurate information that gets read, and scientists are trying to inform the public, especially about the importance of their research. In contrast, Munro’s comments were rooted in a cynicism of bracing purity, painting reporters as vain and self-interested and scientists as flawed and, well, self-interested. That is to say, his comments were fascinating and enlightening.
“Journalists”, he explains, “write for other journalists”. They are trying to impress their peers. They consider themselves a professional class, like lawyers, and as a consequence, do afford scientists some respect as professional peers. And they are subject to flattery. We can flatter them, for instance, by giving them a story that confirms their prejudices, which is an “easy way to get a story into the media.” Another way to influence the media is to give them what they want. For example, be “responsive and interesting — no geeks.” Or give them a story about a scientist who “subordinates the scientific ideal to professional interests.”
Scientists, for our part, know that the journalist’s service is really valuable to us:
“A front page mention in the New York Times is worth how much? 20,000? 50,000? Do I hear 200? Do I hear a MacArthur Grant? An NIH grant?”
In his view, when scientists come to journalists, we’re not doing science, we’re advancing an agenda, we’re doing PR.
A couple of other gems:
- Asked about engineering coverage as opposed to science coverage, Munro quipped, “The problem is, if engineers do their jobs right, the bridge doesn’t fall down.”
- Asked how she felt about Hollywood celebrities getting involved in environmental issues, Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post said that she interviews them sometimes, and that some celebrities know what they are talking about and some don’t. Then, “Actually, Robert Redford knows what he’s talking about and most of the others don’t.”
Today was all about foreign policy. We heard from 3-star General William Odom (Ret.), who was the head of the National Security Agency under Reagan and is now a professor at Yale. His unexpected but reasonable assertion was that the Greatest Threat to the United States is not terrorism, or China, or a nuclear North Korea or Iran, but incompetent American leadership. America, he says, has enjoyed a unique sort of empire since World War II, largely by virtue of the troops left in Europe and Northeast Asia since that time, creating security which allowed Japan, Germany, and South Korea to develop into prosperous, friendly states. That troop presence has been reduced under Bush, and if it is further reduced or eliminated, Odom fears disaster would ensue. And of course, Bush is doing many other things to destabilize “America’s Inadvertent Empire.”
Among Odom’s other refreshing views: the energy crisis should be solved by putting a $2/gallon tax on gasoline and using the proceeds to fund a Manhattan-project-style shift in the energy system, including a network of bullet trains to displace passenger air travel and cargo trucking, and development of improved nuclear power plants.
In other news, Moisés Náim, Editor-in-Chief of Foreign Policy and former director of the World Bank made the provocative claim that the Greatest Threat is not terrorism but illicit trade (smuggling, trafficking, counterfeiting). He explained that these activities are ubiquitous, sophisticated, highly organized, rapidly growing, and have never been successfully contained by any government. It’s all in his new book. By the end of his talk, I don’t know if I was convinced illicit trade is the the most important thing, but I went from not caring about the subject to being intrigued. I put the book on my potential reading list.
Náim also gives us today’s quote, which relates to yesterday’s post. He was explaining that the extensive illegal trade networks can exist because governments, or at least parts of governments, are complicit:
“All regulated businesses spend a portion of their revenue influencing their regulators. In some countries, it’s legal, it’s called lobbying. In other countries, it’s illegal, it’s called corruption.”
Said with black-and-white assurance, as only an economist can pull off.
Today we heard from several lobbyists, including a lobbyist for a large, public university, a lobbyist for the American Medical Association, and one for the American Physical Society. I think they wanted to make the point that not all lobbyists are evil and that they perform an important function in our government. They emphasized direct trading of money for votes is illegal, and mentioning campaign donations while in a representative’s or senator’s office is illegal. Also, many lobbyists and lobbying firms have rules about the kinds of clients they will take on and won’t lobby for the tobacco industry, for instance. On the other hand, there is no doubt that money makes politics go; the average House representative has to raise $10,000 per week to mount a competitive reelection campaign. Political donors get priority when congress members and congressional staff are choosing who to meet with. The speakers admitted that other lobbyists (not like them) are simply available to the highest bidder, and one mentioned that the going rate to buy 15 minutes with your representative is $5000.
Nonprofit organizations, however, like public universities and scientific societies, are prohibited from making campaign contributions. They must rely on appeals to reason, to abstract benefits, and goodwill toward their institutions to gain influence. And so the quote of the day comes from the university lobbyist, who lamented, “being a higher education lobbyist is like being a eunuch at the orgy.”
Today at a talk I attended, a Senior Specialist in American National Government at the Congressional Research Service related the single most important factor to change the U.S. Congress since the 1960′s. It’s not the rise of cable news networks, the increase in bitter partisanship, or accelerating technological change. It’s the jet plane. The jet plane allows members of congress to take more trips home and spend less time in session. The number of trips per year was limited by internal rules for a while. The limit was increased and eventually gave way, culminating in the last Congress, when members typically only spent Tuesday to Thursday in Washington, heading home every Thursday afternoon. The extra time in the home district allowed them to be more available to constituents and more responsive during local crises. Of course, floor votes and committee meetings still had to be attended, so what aspect of congressional business was sacrificed for this compressed schedule? “Being informed,” says the Specialist. They used to hold hearings with experts to get informed on issues and legislation, but that became less and less common.
Later in the day, I heard a talk from U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) who informed us that Nancy Pelosi, upon becoming Speaker of the House, decided they needed to make up for a lot of lost time and one of her first actions was to institute a 5-day work week. The current Congress, apparently, is set to hit some record of most number of days in session. And they have been holding a lot of hearings. They heard testimony from the Administrator of the EPA, who, Markey says, hasn’t appeared before the committee in charge of EPA funding in any of the previous 6 years (which is rather amazing).