Tuesday, May 22, 2012


The EPA is right to appeal a judge's decision attempting to curtail its authority:
The Environmental Protection Agency last year revoked a permit for a planned, 2,278-acre West Virginia coal mine that encapsulated everything wrong with a particularly destructive form of strip mining known as mountaintop removal. Two months ago, however, in a wrongheaded decision, a Federal District Court judge ruled that the agency had not only exceeded its authority but resorted to “magical thinking” to justify its action.

The agency has announced that it would appeal the judge’s decision. This is exactly the right move, on two counts. First, the Spruce No. 1 mine would have buried 6.6 miles of streams under tons of mining waste, inflicting permanent damage on the environment and local communities. Second, it is important for the E.P.A. to assert its authority under the Clean Water Act at a time when both the law and the agency are under fire in Congress.


As the agency pointed out, Section 404 of the Clean Water Act gives the E.P.A. broad authority to protect water quality, including the power to “withdraw” a permit “whenever” it determines that a project will cause unacceptable damage to the environment. This authority has been used rarely, but it is there.

Mountaintop mining involves blasting the tops off mountain ridges to expose subsurface coal seams, then dumping the rubble below. Thousands of miles of streams in Appalachia have been destroyed in this way. The administration is right to stop this mine as part of its broader campaign to halt a ruinous and unnecessary practice.

In light of the hullabaloo around TED's supposed censorship, some thoughts on what TED stands for:
The guiding principle of TED is that you can present a vision of ever-marching technological progress, that you can be a purveyor of the “big ideas” that will shape our society, that you can show the future, all without descending into the unpleasant muck of political debate. In other words, TED’s dominant political idea is the denial of politics—a refusal to acknowledge any real power struggle in public life.

This is evident in the contradiction between the TED website’s assertion that it “believe[s] passionately in the power of ideas to change...the world” and the Anderson’s insistence that the organization not include talks that would be “regarded as out and out political.” The notion that there is not only real disagreement about what changes are of benefit to our society, but actual conflict over these different political visions—involving the exercise of actual political power—does not fit within TED’s framework of “Ideas Worth Spreading.” The organization refuses to acknowledge that there are private interests—monied and staffed with lobbyists—that are aggressively promoting a version of the future in which their wants are met at the expense of others’ needs.

The default politics of TED, then, are an amalgam of Clintonian neoliberalism and techno-utopianism (the likes of which Evgeny Morozov has ably critiqued), with a philanthro-capitalist approach to social issues (an approach brilliantly taken apart in Alix Rule’s “Good As Money,” which ran in Dissent a few years back). The New Inquiry recently published a longer critique of TED, which featured a fine tweet by Mike Bulajewski: “TED’s ‘revolutionary ideas’ mask capitalism as usual, giving it a narrative of progress and change.”

NIMBYism in Marin County reveals deep-seated antipathy towards The Poors; apparently believing low-income people deserve housing is incitement of class warfare (h/t Andrew):
[A]fter spending years and millions of dollars, Mr. Lucas abruptly canceled plans recently for the third, and most likely last, major expansion, citing community opposition. An emotional statement posted online said Lucasfilm would build instead in a place “that sees us as a creative asset, not as an evil empire.”

If the announcement took Marin by surprise, it was nothing compared with what came next. Mr. Lucas said he would sell the land to a developer to bring “low income housing” here.

“It’s inciting class warfare,” said Carolyn Lenert, head of the North San Rafael Coalition of Residents.

Mr. Lucas said in an e-mail that he only wanted “to do something good for Marin,” waving away accusations of ulterior motives.

“I’ve been surprised to see some people characterize this as vindictive,” he said, adding that there was a “real need” for affordable housing here. “I wouldn’t waste my time or money just to try and upset the neighbors.”

Whatever Mr. Lucas’s intentions, his announcement has unsettled a county whose famously liberal politics often sits uncomfortably with the issue of low-cost housing and where battles have been fought over such construction before. His proposal has pitted neighbor against neighbor, who, after failed peacemaking efforts over local artisanal cheese and wine, traded accusations in the local newspaper.

The staunchest opponents of Lucasfilm’s expansion are now being accused of driving away the filmmaker and opening the door to a low-income housing development. That has created an atmosphere that one opponent, who asked not to be identified, saying she feared for her safety, described as “sheer terror” and likened to “Syria.”

Carl Fricke, a board member of the Lucas Valley Estates Homeowners Association, which represents houses nearest to the Lucas property, said: “We got letters saying, ‘You guys are going to get what you deserve. You’re going to bring drug dealers, all this crime and lowlife in here.’ ”

Bring back Glass-Steagall:
Banks enjoy state support because they provide essential services, like a payments system and a repository for deposits. One proposal to limit them to these vital services is “narrow banking,” or requiring that deposits be invested in only safe and liquid instruments. This idea was put forward by Irving Fisher and Henry Simons in the 1930s, and has been championed by the right (Milton Friedman), the left (James Tobin) and banking experts (Lowell Bryan of McKinsey).

A less radical idea would be to eliminate credit default swaps over time (they are too embedded in current practice to ban them; banks need to be weaned off them). There are no socially valuable uses for the product. Contrary to defenders’ claims, they aren’t a good way to short bonds (not only does it deal with only one attribute of bond risk, it does so badly: payouts in actual credit events on credit default swaps vary considerably, and are generally less than payouts to holders of real bonds). These swaps were the driver of the crisis. They were the mechanism that allowed real economy exposures to risky subprime bonds to be multiplied well beyond the number of actual borrowers and thus cause vastly more damage.

Another route would be to implement the Volcker Rule as Paul Volcker envisaged, meaning without the portfolio hedging exemption that JPMorgan relied on. Or officials could enforce Sarbanes Oxley, which has the chief executive officer certify the adequacy of internal controls, which for a major financial firm includes risk controls. Had any chief executives been targeted for Sarbanes Oxley violations for the massive risk management failures during the financial crisis, it’s pretty likely that Jamie Dimon, head of JPMorgan, would have thought twice before giving the chief investment officer both the mandate and the rope to enter into risky trades.

Maybe it's time to recognize that these firms are too big and in too many complex businesses to be managed. Jamie Dimon was touted as a star who could supervise a sprawling firm running huge risks, and he fell short because no one can do the job adequately. A less disaster-prone financial system requires more simplicity and redundancy. Re-instituting Glass-Steagall or other variants on the narrow banking theme isn't a full solution, but it would make for a good start.

Former NEJM editor-in-chief Marcia Angell offers a left-wing critique of the individual mandate as nothing but a giveaway for private insurers:
Dworkin argues that there are national precedents for the ACA mandate to purchase health insurance. But is that true? The mandate is not like the requirement to pay for Medicare and Social Security through payroll taxes. Instead, it requires people to buy a commercial product from investor-owned companies at whatever price the companies choose to charge. In short, people are required to contribute to the profits and corporate salaries and marketing costs of companies like WellPoint and UnitedHealthCare. I don’t believe there is any precedent for that.

My objection to the mandate is not that it requires people to purchase insurance, but that it specifies they buy it from investor-owned companies, whose practices have done much to make our health care system the “unjust and expensive shambles” Dworkin accurately describes it as being. No one should be required to enter this treacherous market; it is not the same as paying for publicly administered services, like Medicare or police and fire protection.

Dworkin dismisses concerns that if Congress can make us buy private health insurance, then it can make us buy any other commercial product, arguing that public opinion would prevent Congress from unreasonably extending its power in that way (“politics supplies the appropriate check”). That’s a mighty thin reed to hold on to, given the recent record of Congress and its capture by corporate interests. I would feel better if we didn’t provide the precedent.

He is also too sanguine about the ability of regulations to stop the worst abuses of the private insurance industry, such as denying coverage for people with pre-existing conditions. The fact remains that these companies will profit by avoiding high-risk patients if they possibly can, and they will probably find ways to do so. The ACA does some of that work for them, by allowing them to charge up to three times as much for older patients as for younger ones, age being a good proxy for a higher risk of chronic illness. A few years ago, in a private discussion with a senior executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the industry’s trade association, I was told that if the regulations did squeeze the profits of the insurers, they would simply raise the premiums. There is nothing in the ACA to prevent that.
Dworkin offers a response to Angell in the pages of the NYRB, as well.

Toxic exposures and a cluster of male breast cancer cases among Marines.

Another reminder that it's more complicated than just pushing for screening, screening, screening.

Remembering to include people in transit-oriented design.

Eschewing the 'burbs for dense, walkable communities and compact housing.

Who's consuming water and how?

Mining sand: the other side of fracking.

Extreme rain storms are increasing in frequency.

The chemical industry hates disclosure.

Shanghai's land subsidence problem.

On green chemistry.

Unplug and save energy.

Methane bomb.

The BLM and subsidizing of coal development.

Mining threatens Alaska's Bristol Bay.

The ESA works.

Bribing inspectors is one way to get around fishing regulations.

While he obtained the docs through deceptive means (and has apologized), Peter Gleick did not engage in forgery.

Throwing unneeded pills away is the greenest disposal option.

The palm oil industry brings out the big guns.

2007: so quaint.

ProPublica rounds up the best reporting on student debt.

Everywhere is getting poorer.

Krugman on the necessity of financial regulation.

Both parties are corporatists, so it's no surprise private equity loves the Dems.

JPMorgan Chase is Tim Johnson's biggest contributor.

The dumbing down of Congressional speech?

Political lies and the liars who tell them.

DOJ says it's ok to record cops in public.

Holding tax dodgers accountable is what the Nazis would do.

Hawaii is just fucking with Arizona's birther Secretary of State.

Republican voter fraud paranoia: who needs evidence?

More from the GOP War on the Census: “Our laws are made by idiots.”

Is the fillibuster unconstitutional?

Why is Mitt laughing?

Yet another victory in our sane and righteous War On Drugs.

Patent trolls in Canada. (Somewhat reminiscent of the This American Life episode on Intellectual Ventures.)

Proprietary big data.

An economic approach to preventive medicine.

Who knew? There's apparently a good time and not-so-good time to brush your teeth.

Tapeworm cysts in your brain. (h/t Wifey)

Tough times in Alabama's schools.

Push up your credit score.

As my professional copyeditor wife would tell you, I use way too many commas.

Pictures of this Sunday's solar eclipse. And more pics.

The oil industry, as art.

O-Dub and Matthew Africa break down The Emotions' “Blind Alley.”

What were J. Spaceman's musical influences growing up?

Eugene Mirman gave a chuckle-worthy commencement speech at his alma mater, Hampshire College:

Think that's funny? Well, so is his advice book, The Will To Whatevs. And you can win yourself a signed copy of that book, while also helping me pay for cancer treatment. Everybody wins.

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