July 07, 2007

John Dingell being a little turd on global warming

The New York Times reports the Michigan Democrat is planning to introduce a carbon tax bill, including a hike in the gas tax, simply to try to prove Americans don’t want to pay for it.
“I sincerely doubt that the American people will be willing to pay what this is really going to cost them,” said Mr. Dingell, whose committee will be drafting a broad bill on climate change this fall.

“I will be introducing in the next little bit a carbon tax bill, just to sort of see how people think about this,” he continued. “When you see the criticism I get, I think you’ll see the answer to your question.”

Here’s what I think Dingell is trying to do.

Hold the new CAFÉ standards passed in the Senate hostage in the House. How much will the House cave, if this is the correct interpretation? And how much will Dingell compromise?

That said, this is a dishonest bill. It says nothing about what America could save with carbon taxes in place, whether from weather-related, pollution-related, or job creation-related causes.

But, given John Dingell’s blindsight history of protecting the Big Three at all costs, it isn’t surprising.

Now, that said, I hope other Democrats take him up at face value, point out the savings side, and call his bluff. We need something like this. After all, for all the good CAFÉ standards do, coal-fired electric power plants are far and away the top emitters of carbon dioxide, well ahead of automobile traffic.

July 06, 2007

Once again Gen. William Odom gets it right on Iraq

He says Congressional Democrats need to grow a spine:
If the Democrats truly want to succeed in forcing President Bush to begin withdrawing from Iraq, the first step is to redefine "supporting the troops" as withdrawing them, citing the mass of accumulating evidence of the psychological as well as the physical damage that the president is forcing them to endure because he did not raise adequate forces. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress could confirm this evidence and lay the blame for "not supporting the troops" where it really belongs – on the president. And they could rightly claim to the public that they are supporting the troops by cutting off the funds that he uses to keep U.S. forces in Iraq. …

The president is strongly motivated to string out the war until he leaves office, in order to avoid taking responsibility for the defeat he has caused and persisted in making greater each year for more than three years.

To force him to begin a withdrawal before then, the first step should be to rally the public by providing an honest and candid definition of what “supporting the troops” really means and pointing out who is and who is not supporting our troops at war. The next step should be a flat refusal to appropriate money for to be used in Iraq for anything but withdrawal operations with a clear deadline for completion.

The final step should be to put that president on notice that if ignores this legislative action and tries to extort Congress into providing funds by keeping U.S. forces in peril, impeachment proceeding will proceed in the House of Representatives. Such presidential behavior surely would constitute the “high crime” of squandering the lives of soldiers and Marines for his own personal interest.

September, with the Petraeus report, etc., is the last date Congressional Democrats can halfway reasonably be expected to act before 2009. After September, if they won’t stand up to GOP pressures then, the cycle of the election calendar will see them paralyzed until after the November 2008 general election.

Craziness is top companies borrowing money just to pay higher dividends

But, it’s happening. But:
Even blue-chip companies such as IBM (IBM, news, msgs) are borrowing money to beef up their dividend payouts, and other companies are taking on tons of debt to pay for acquisitions to fund their own purchase by a buyout fund.

In this article, Jim Jubak goes on to explain how collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and collateralized loan obligations (CLOs) work, and what the subprime crisis means for them.

July 05, 2007

‘Sicko’ inspires impromptu town hall — in DALLAS, not SF or NYC

Even conservative rednecks are THAT tired of our healthcare system, or lack thereof. Read on:
When the credits rolled the audience filed out and into the bathrooms. At the urinals, my redneck friend couldn't stop talking about the film, and I kept listening. He struck up a conversation with a random black man in his 40s standing next to him, and soon everyone was peeing and talking about just how fu**ed everything is.

I kept my distance, as we all finished and exited at the same time. Outside the restroom doors... the theater was in chaos. The entire Sicko audience had somehow formed an impromptu town hall meeting in front of the ladies room. I've never seen anything like it. This is Texas goddammit, not France or some liberal college campus. But here these people were, complete strangers from every walk of life talking excitedly about the movie. It was as if they simply couldn't go home without doing something drastic about what they'd just seen. My redneck compadre and his new friend found their wives at the center of the group, while I lingered in the background waiting for my spouse to emerge.

The talk gradually centered around a core of 10 or 12 strangers in a cluster while the rest of us stood around them listening intently to this thing that seemed to be happening out of nowhere. The black gentleman engaged by my redneck in the restroom shouted for everyone's attention. The conversation stopped instantly as all eyes in this group of 30 or 40 people were now on him. "If we just see this and do nothing about it," he said, "then what's the point? Something has to change." There was silence, then the redneck's wife started calling for email addresses. Suddenly everyone was scribbling down everyone else's email, promising to get together and do something ... though no one seemed to know quite what.

Now, if we can get those “rednecks” to start switching OFF Fox when Neal Cavuto claims national healthcare aids terrorists, we’ll be starting to accomplish something.

Oh, MoveOn has a toll-free number, 1-866-459-6050, to connect people with the presidential candidate of their choice, to direct their anger and passion over this issue.

Some of the problems with paying for college

First, college costs have tended to run ahead, or well ahead, of inflation over the last decade and more. Here in Texas, tuition was deregulated two legislatures ago, and it skyrocketed.

Second, your primary funding source today, outside of scholarships, is loans, not grants. But, there area couple of problems:
There are three basic types of loan programs for undergraduate students: direct loans made by the federal government; federal loans made through private lenders but subsidized and guaranteed by the federal government; and private loans made by private lenders, with no federal guarantees or taxpayer subsidies.

The total amount undergraduates can borrow from the first two categories, direct loans and federal loans made through private lenders, has been frozen since -- get this -- 1992. (To understand how very long ago that was: It was the year Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" topped the charts.) Meanwhile, average college costs have more than doubled. So students increasingly have turned to private lenders to pay their bills.

And by increasingly, I mean shockingly so: Amounts borrowed from private lenders soared 1,201% between the 1995-96 academic year and 2005-2006, according to the College Board, from $1.3 billion to $17.3 billion. The amount tripled in the past five years alone.

Yes, Congress is looking at this issue, but it needs to look more. This is a slam-dunk middle-class election issue for Democrats. And, to the degree states can either rein in state tuition rates or provide more state funding for in-state college students, at least to attend state colleges and universities, it’s a slam dunk at the state level, too.

Subprime crunch continues to belie “go-go” Texas economy

Texas is now third in the nation in foreclosures.

A large part of the problem here? The story details a Hispanic family who don’t speak Engligh well — easy pickings for an unscrupulous mortgage broker.

Meanwhile, national problems continue to mount:
More than 2 million home loans across the country could face default because of subprime lending practices, according to the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit organization in Durham, N.C.

Again, there’s the ripple effect, of real estate agents, mortgage brokers, etc. having their jobs impacted. Defaulting homeowners have their credit rates shot and can buy less on credit in the future, too.

July 04, 2007

Mercenaries outnumber US troops in Iraq

Crazy, no? But true. The details:
The number of U.S.-paid private contractors in Iraq now exceeds that of American combat troops, newly released figures show, raising fresh questions about the privatization of the war effort and the government's capacity to carry out military and rebuilding campaigns.

More than 180,000 civilians — including Americans, foreigners and Iraqis -- are working in Iraq under U.S. contracts, according to State and Defense department figures obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Yes, 2/3 are Iraqis:
The numbers include at least 21,000 Americans, 43,000 foreign contractors and about 118,000 Iraqis — all employed in Iraq by U.S. tax dollars, according to the most recent government data.

But:
There are also signs that even those mounting numbers may not capture the full picture. Private security contractors, who are hired to protect government officials and buildings, were not fully counted in the survey, according to industry and government officials.

Continuing uncertainty over the numbers of armed contractors drew special criticism from military experts.

“We don't have control of all the coalition guns in Iraq. That’s dangerous for our country,” said William Nash, a retired Army general and reconstruction expert. The Pentagon “is hiring guns. You can rationalize it all you want, but that’s obscene.”

And, just how much do we know of the loyalties and intentions of those 118,000 Iraqis? Probably not a lot. They may be even less trustworthy than those that help our soldiers and marines.

Cross posted at SocraticGadfly.

Housing slump even hits Houston

For those of you who think Texas is immune from housing problems, this should make you think again. The Big H is going to see a 20 percent drop from last year’s record. The details:
In May, sales of homes in the $80,000 to $140,000 price range — which made up 32 percent of the transactions during that month — were down 8.3 percent, compared to the year before, according to the Houston Association of Realtors.

And there is that ripple effect which ostriches don’t want to see
“When you start building fewer homes, you're selling fewer appliances, less carpeting, less cement and less wood to the local suppliers,” said Jim Gaines, a research economist at the Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University. “Generally, it takes awhile for that to show up.”

Oh, I did also find it halfway refreshing for a story about the construction industry in Texas to mention that “immigrants” are a lot of its workers. Try to be fully refreshing in the future, real estate writers, and tell us that illegal immigrants work there. We know it, and so do you, since you said they’re not counted in employment counts, but have the conejos to spell it out.

July 03, 2007

Win, lose AND draw proposed for Gitmo inmates

National Security Adviser Steve Hadley and Defense Secretary Bob Gates are proposing a new tripartite classification of Guantanamo inmates as part of shutting it down. But, the devil’s in the details of this arrangement, which would simply deny due process to a smaller portion of the Gitmo population:
Essentially, the administration would propose legislation that would result in dividing the estimated 375 Guantánamo detainees into three legal categories. The one that would call for legislative action would include detainees like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the September 2001 attacks, and others whose trials would risk exposing intelligence operations. This group, estimated at two dozen to 50, would be placed indefinitely in military brigs on American soil.

A second group would also be moved to the United States, most likely to face trial in military courts, but perhaps with more legal guarantees than in the current military tribunal system.

The third, and largest, group would consist of detainees to be released to their home countries.

I, like Spencer Ackerman, can’t see the status of the first group passing serious legal scrutiny. Assuming, as he says, this is just a sop to Cheney, why would Cheney go along with it, unless he doesn’t believe that actually is the case?

As far as getting Democratic support to rewrite the Military Commissions Act, I can’t see smart Democrats taking any action before the Supreme Court rules this fall on its constitutionality, unless they get something that comes close to ex parte advance contact on a probable ruling.

So, in my opinion, I don’t think it’s likely we’ll have major legislative movement on this issue before the SCOTUS ruling.

Gates wants to swap surge for ‘South Korea’ in Iraq

The Wall Street Journal reports that’s the strategy Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is looking at proposing to Congressional Democrats:
What Mr. Gates and some other high-ranking administration officials have in mind is a modern-day version of President Harry Truman’s “Cold War consensus,” a bipartisan agreement on the need to contain the Soviet Union. They hope lawmakers from both parties will ultimately agree to make a scaled-back U.S. mission in Iraq a central component of U.S. foreign policy even after Mr. Bush leaves office.

No thanks, I’ll say, for several reasons.

First, Democrats would be giving credence to the BushCo theory of “if we don’t fight them there, we’ll be fighting them here.”

Second, this assumes that Iraqis will be as accepting of a long-term U.S. military presence as South Koreans were.

Third, it presumes that such a long-term presence would magically make an Iraqi government more functional and Iraqi police and military units “step up.”

Fourth, what sort of numbers is Gates talking about remaining? What are the troops expected to do?

Fifth, the comparison and analogy of a religiously and ethnically multipartate Iraq to a nearly monolithic South Korea simply falters.

That said, I’m concerned many Democrats will take the bait, figuring they can make further changes after the 2008 elections.

Well, instead, they should consider a page, and a word, adapted, from Nixon. Start talking about the “Iraqification” of the conflict.

July 01, 2007

Not so fast on those gene patents

The United States National Human Genome Research Institute is officially on paper with new research findings saying that the idea of "one gene = one protein," or "one gene = one hereditary change," is now dead.

I have followed basic developments in this area for some time.

This has a number of serious implications. First, as the story linked below notes, it further calls into question the idea of biotech patents, since one gene may interact with a second gene for one new protein formation, then interact with a third and a fourth gene for something else, and produce a third protein by itself. (Example of complex multigenic interactions: One strain of malaria is caused by as many as 500 genes working together.) How can you claim to patent an engineered gene if you are patenting only for the one-gene alone change, without even knowing how that effects the interaction with other genes on the multigenic codings?

Also, “Frankenfood” labels aside, this does give credence to people who are concerned about biotech foods, for the same reasons listed above.

It also calls into question further some of the more wild statements of Evolutionary Psychology. The lowercase version of evolutionary psychology is somewhat safer, I would say.