Tuesday, October 31, 2006

I Wish I Could Fire off Retorts that Good

From the wacky world of inter-party shouting matches: John Kerry said something stupid (presumably on accident), and Tony Snow called him on it, then Kerry came back with a total zinger.

Kerry, who was speaking to a group of students, warned them that those who don't study hard or do well in school could "get stuck in Iraq." At today's White House press briefing, Snow said Kerry should apologize to US troops and their families for insinuating that those who serve in the military are not smart. "What Senator Kerry ought to do first is apologize to the troops," Snow said. "This is an absolute insult. And I'm a little astonished that he didn't figure it out already." Snow was clearly prepped and probably looking to fire up the Republican faithful with attacks on Kerry, one of their favorite punching bags.

Kerry, who has been appealing more and more to the Democratic left as he plots a second run for president, quickly fired back at Snow with an unusually strong-worded press release arguing that President Bush and Vice President Cheney should be the ones to apologize to the troops. "If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they're crazy," Kerry said. "I'm not going to be lectured by a stuffed suit White House mouthpiece standing behind a podium, or doughy Rush Limbaugh, who no doubt today will take a break from belittling Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's disease to start lying about me just as they have lied about Iraq."

Oh snap! I should consult John Kerry next time my sister and I start bickering.

Seriously, though, I'm glad he fought back, especially given that his offensive remark was a mis-statement. He meant to say "if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy... You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq." He left out the "getting us" part. So he meant to imply that George W. Bush is the dullard for getting us stuck in Iraq, not that the troops were relegated to life of military service because they weren't smart enough to get better jobs.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The Slate Green Challenge

In case you're not a regular Slate reader (I'm not, save for the ever repulsive "Dear Prudence" column), you might have missed the Slate/Treehugger.com Green Challenge. It's a series of weekly informational articles that educate participants about easy (and not so easy) ways to reduce carbon emissons. It's quick and informative! Take a look.

I am in a bit of a bind, though, because part of the challenge participation means "pledging" to make changes in your lifestyle that will help reduce carbon emissons, and a goodly chunk of the pledges don't apply to me. For example, I can't drive 25 fewer miles per week (I'm pretty sure you can't drive negative fifteen miles over any period of time). I can't promise to weatherize my windows to save on heating and cooling(I already don't climate control my apartment). And if next week's food-themed challenge asks me to reduce my meat consumption, I'll be hard pressed to comply. (I assume they'll also ask me to eat more locally-produced food, which I could definitely stand to do.)

But even this smug little environmentalist is learning some useful facts about how to cut back on carbon emissions (I now get to nag my boyfriend about regularly checking his tire pressure!), so someone less neurotic about conservation could probably learn a tip or two.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Bad News, Good News

Bad News: Bush signs bill authorizing fence construction on U.S.-Mexico border

Good News: California Golden Bears' d-fence keeps them in top twelve.

Enjoy the by-week!

Separation Tuesday

I just received in the mail an "Official Election Notice" informing me that my polling place has been moved from a location 0.5 miles from my apartment to a location 23.4 miles from my apartment. What gives? We shall see...

Update: The Contra Costa County elections office informs me that the mailing is legit, but a mistake. I should be receiving a correction in the mail in a couple of days.

Al Gore Speaks!

Here (yes, click here!) is the last portion of Al Gore's speech at Berkeley from Monday. (Thanks to Thinker for pointing it out.)

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Kevin Drumm is confused

When you find that your understanding of the world is deficient - when people say and do things that are inexplicable to you - it could be a good sign that you're assumptions about the world are incorrect. Take Kevin Drumm:
I see that ABC News is running a story today about right-wing attack ads. The story acknowledges that "the nastiest rhetoric right now is coming from the political right," and Jake Tapper and Greg McCown document this with several examples. Then they end with this:

Democrats aren't necessarily running clean campaigns, though. As the races tighten in the next couple of weeks, the left will likely unleash its garbage as well.

Needless to say, they present exactly zero evidence for this.

I'm not breaking any new ground here when I say that this is, as usual, inexplicable. Sure, neither party is simon pure, but Tapper and McCown know perfectly well that the nauseating and polarized nature of modern American politics is almost entirely a Republican invention.
Which of Drumm's beliefs is wrong? Is it that "the nastiest rhetoric right now is coming from the political right"? Or is it that Jake Tapper and Greg McCown understand how journalism is supposed to work? Or is Drumm wrong in assuming that Jake Tapper and Greg McCown desire to practice journalism rather than simply acting as stenographers for whoever is willing to complain the loudest about "media bias"?

Yes on Prop 87

So I made a slip up before and wrote that prop 87 was a bond measure. This is wrong. Prop 87 is a program funded by a tax on oil produced in California. The money would be used to fund alternative energy research. That seems like a laudable goal; becoming a leader in Alternative energy research would do a lot to boost California's economy.

I took a look at the pro and con sites here and here. You can take a look at the official Prop 87 summary from the Attorney general here (PDF) . Let's take a look at the arguments against Prop 87 one at a time.

Argument: Prop 87 means higher gas prices.
Counter-Argument: When something is taxed it's price goes up. The problem is the implication that the increased price of oil will be born by Californians only. This is not true. Oil is fungible meaning it can be cheaply transported and sold elsewhere. That's why the price of oil is the same in Finland and Japan and the US. A tax on production won't change that so any oil price increase due to prop 87 will be born by the whole world more or less equally. (In contrast, a tax on California oil consumption would increase the local price of oil. That's why different countries pay different amounts at the pump.)

Argument: Prop 87 would mean more reliance on foreign oil
Counter-Argument: The US doesn't actually purchase that much oil from Saudi Arabia. The problem is that if Saudi Arabia falters in production, the people we buy oil from will suddenly have a lot more buyers and will raise their price accordingly. So we should make it clear that "Independence from foreign oil" is really about economic independence and not physical independence. So given that oil is fungible, prop 87 won't increase our economic dependence on foreign oil perceptibly. More importantly it won't increase our reliance on foreign oil any more than it'll increase South Africa or Germany's reliance on foreign oil.

Argument: Prop 87 will create a new bureaucracy of 50 political appointees with no accountability to taxpayers
Counter-Argument: Wait, I thought the whole point of political appointees is that their boss is accountable to the taxpayers? Ok, so they're going to have to form a committee. And yes, committees are soul-crushing. But committees are sometimes necessary. At my company we have more than one committee and they didn't form by accident. They were formed because our business leaders understand that committees are sometimes the best way to accomplish a goal.

Argument: Prop 87 reduces available revenues for schools & public safety
Counter-Argument: Evidently Prop 98 from a few years back said that X% of the budget should be spent on education. In order to not screw up with the existing funding system Prop 87 exempts the tax revenue it generates from the Prop 98 calculation. This doesn't seem like a big deal to me especially give that pass-or-fail prop 87 will not change the amount going to education one iota.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

My ballot run-down

I though, this being a political site and all I'd give everyone my two cents on what I think they should actually vote for. In this post I'll tackle the propositions only. I haven't voted yet so please feel free to chime in if you think I missed something.

1-A: NO
This would make it illegal to spend gas-tax money on things other than transportation related things. I have no idea why we should have dedicated funding mechnaism anyways (in this case at least) so I have no desire to further hamstring our already box-in legislature.
1-B, 1-C, 1-D, 1-E: NO
I thought I'd lump all these guys together since they're all bond measures for one thing or the other. Having California fund things with bonds - which are basically loans that woudl have to be paid back with interest - is ridiculous. Prod 1-D for example would call for borrowing 10 billion which we would pay back along with another 9.9 billion in interest. The only reason anyone suggests doing so is becuase Prop 13* makes it impossible to raise property taxes. Well fine! California, in a fit of rage during the 70's you made it hard to raise money the easy way so now you don't get highway saftey, housing and emergency shelter, education funding or disaster prepardness funding. When a disaster befalls you that you aren't prepared for and you don't have the education to take the broken highway to the non-existent emergency shelter maybe you'll consider taxing corporate real-estate at reasonable levels.
Prop 83: Slight NO
I hate child molesters. But do I really think CA should spend millions coming up with a GPS tracking system? It'd be cheaper to do this.
Prop 84: NO
Another Bond.
Prop 85: NO
This is the parental notification for minor abortion prop. I see; she's old enough to be forced to raise a child she doesn't want but getting an abortion requires a signed permission slip. That's great. What, no incest clause?
Pro 86: Slight YES
This raises the tax on cigarettes by $2.60 and uses it to fund health related things. California needs more income and a sin tax is just the kind of fiscal responsibility I can get behind. Anyways, if smokers were mentally competent on the issue (i.e. not addicted to nicotine) they wouldn’t have to pay the tax because they’d choose to stop. And yes, this is the liberal nanny state talking.
Prop 87:??
I'm an idiot. Vote accordingly.
Prop 88: Yes
Hooray, an honest to god tax increase! Good for them. That takes balls. I don’t expect it to pass but we need money to fix our deficit so I’m voting yes. For those of you who don’t want tax increase and consider yourself fiscally responsible do this: list the programs we need to cut to pay for the billions (with a "b") in deficit we are projected to have. If your list has things like “get rid of the California EPA” then go ahead and add other unrealistic items like “cut unicorn subsidies”.
Prop 89: YES!
This prop is a publicly-financed elections bill. Taxes on corporations would be increased by a tiny .2 percent (note: a .2 percent increase in the current level of taxation – that’s much much less than a .2% additional tax). The revenue would be given to candidates in exchange for a promise not to raise funds from corporations or certain unions (those representing government employees like teacher, firefighters and police). This would get our representatives minds off of electioneering and on to governing and that’s good. I would prefer that all unions be stopped from giving money to candidates but I’d much rather have prop 89 than what we have now.
Prop 90: NO NO NO!
This would allow property owners to sue the state if the state takes actions that reduce the price of their land. How fucking wonderful. If the government does something to increase the value of your land you get to take that money to the bank – if the government does something to decrease it suddenly you get to sue John Q. Public. That's the conservative nanny state for you. Corporatism never sounded so good.

Thanks but no thanks. If you vote for this bill every time someone asks me why California doesn’t have a high-speed rail system like Europe my answer will be “Because of this guy. This guy right over here. It’s his fault, personally. Blame him.”

Ok, part of this bill is ok. It would stop the government from condemning private land for private uses (like putting in a Wal-Mart) but the language is unclear and it could even stop things like privately operated trains and public transportation. It’s funded by out of state land developers and would worsen our fiscal position.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Christopher Hitchen: A liar, or just insane?

What does it say about Slate that they let their writers mislead the public? What does it say about the trustworthiness of their editorial judgements when a writer is allowed to print falshood as truth? Here's Eric Alterman:
...the madman, Hitchens, writes in Slate:
"The Lancet figures are almost certainly inflated, not least because they were taken from selective war-torn provinces. But there is no reason why they may not come to reflect reality more closely. It is a reminder of the nature of the enemy we face, and not only in Iraq, and a very clear picture of the sort of people who would have a free hand in Iraq if the coalition were to depart."
In fact, the first claim is flat-out false. The study specifically did not pick particularly violent provinces, as Hitchens could have discovered if he looked at the study, not that he gives any impression of having any experience with this type of statistical sampling.
We await Slate's corrections.

"The Economist" syndrome

This post over at Crooked Timbers pretty much sums up why The Economist always bugs me when they report on American politics. After pulling a quote from a recent Economist article which called Hillary Clinton "the darling of the party's liberal activists" and John Edwards "Southerner, Westerner and moderate" Henry writes:
These claims don't seem biased to me so much as clueless. The bit about Clinton in particular strikes me as the sort of thing one might believe if one listened more to Republicans talking about Democrats than to Democrats themselves. I don't get the impression that the article's author actually knows very much about what's happening within the Democratic party. Not what you expect from a serious magazine.
This is what bugs me about The Economist. For a magazine that supposedly reports from the neo-liberal center they certainly seem to get their information from right-wing sources only. It's a failure I've seen in a lot of "center-left" individuals. Evidently, someone decided that only right-wing news sources are credible and that no self-respecting moderate publication could stoop so low as to learn about liberals from liberals themselves.

Update: Brad Delong (who I should have credited in the first place) has some more thoughts. After rounding up some thought from the blog-o-sphere he concludes like so:

In my view, it's not spores from Fox News infecting an unsuspecting population of Economist writers. In my view, it's a deliberate attempt by Economist management to shape its American political coverage by hiring people who will ape the political coverage provided by the Wall Street Journal editorial page--but, of course, without the coke, the meth, and the acid the Journal's writers consume daily. The assumption appears to be that pleasing the American circulation base and thus keeping the magazine going requires that its American political coverage start with the assumption that various Republican talking points and shibboleths are true, and then heads off into the Gamma Quadrant from there.

This does have costs: it makes me, for one, much less likely to trust or quote what the Economist writes about the rest of the world and about economics and finance than I was two decades ago.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Bad News, Good News

Sometimes we as a society can be negative Nellys. That's why I'm introducing Bad News, Good News, a weekly feature that counters depressing information with an inspirational nugget of positivity.

Bad News: The hole in the ozone layer is bigger than ever.

Good News: Seven layer dip is as delicious as ever!

Happy Thursday, and stay away from CFCs.

Favorite euphemism of the day award

It goes to FireDogLake for referring to gay Republican staffers as "denizens of Uncle Tom's Closet".

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Noted without comment

On how we name things

Caution: this post will put you to sleep.

Jorge Luis Borges once made a point about the way people organize their thoughts introducing an alleged Chinese encyclopedia in which animals are classified as:
(i) those that belong to the Emperor; (ii) embalmed ones; (iii) those that are trained; (iv) suckling pigs; (v) mermaids; (vi) fabulous ones; (vii) stray dogs; (viii) those included in the present classification; (ix) those that tremble as if they were mad; (x) innumerable ones; (xi) those drawn with a very fine camelhair brush; (xii) others; (xiii) those that have just broken a flower vase; and (xiv) those that from a long way off look like flies.
Though some of the categories mentioned are poorly defined* even the ones whose membership is clear are pretty useless. Even worse, dividing animals into “those that tremble as if they were mad” and those who don’t will make it difficult to think clearly exactly because it’s not a useful category.

I can see the value in the conservative definition of freedom as “absence of coercion” (negative liberty) though I prefer the liberal tradition of freedom as “having a wide range of appealing options” ( positive liberty). But I’m having trouble seeing the value of defining freedom as “absence of government coercion”. It doesn’t seem to describe a useful category.

To keep things simple I’ll refer to “absence of government coercion” as Freedomg.

Freedomg make it harder to think because it deprives us of the more useful definitions of freedom (Freedom- and Freedom+). Without those definitions we have to make decisions on the moral equivalent of the pre-Copernican gears-within-gears model of the solar system. Sure it gets us the right answer; it’s just harder than it has to be.

So let’s analyze the depravity of Evey’s imprisonment in “V is for Vendetta”. Using Freedomg you can’t make much progress without knowing 1) Whether her captor is really a government official 2) How much you personally value freedom vs. efficiency. Using Freedom+ and Freedom- the answer is clear: It doesn't matter who is confining Evey, her curcumstances are equally poor either way. End of story.

Or lets take an example with “animals that tremble as if they were mad” (Animalst). Here’s some advice: If you’re walking in a forest and a wild Animalt confronts you, play dead. Also, if an Animal not t confronts you, figure out if its dangerous and then act accordingly. Of course, it all depends on how dangerous you feel Animalst are visa-vi Animalsnot t.

Oh wait, I just put you all to sleep. Splash some cold twater on your face and try to think about it.

*How do we distinguish between fabulous and non-fabulous animals now that Liberace is dead?

Friday, October 13, 2006

Vindication for Leafy Greens

In general, plants aren't the favorite hang-out spot for dangerous food-borne pathogens like E. coli or BSE. I'm not a fancy clipboard-toting scientist in a white lab coat, so I can't tell you why exactly bacteria would rather set up camp in a lump of meat than on a carrot, but why question success? Being a vegan has seemingly shielded me forever from most iterations of food poisoning, barring a sloppy restaurant chef cross-contaminating my benign broccholi with some uncooked chicken breasts. In fact, every instance of veggie-based food pathogens I've read about was ultimately the result of that plant coming in contact with an animal product.

That's what makes Spinachgate so frustrating for me. A food I love, a food the vegetarian community can rely on, contaminated fresh from the farm!

And that's why this makes me feel more at ease:
Samples of cattle manure on pastures surrounding a spinach field have tested positive for the same strain of E. coli bacteria that killed at least three people and sickened nearly 200 others -- the first direct evidence linking a Salinas Valley farm to the outbreak that has spanned 26 states and one Canadian province.
I'm certainly not happy that people have suffered because of this contamination. But if the speculation that nearby cattle farms are responsible for the E. coli outbreak prove true, I hope this will be another wake up call that modern large-scale cattle farming causes more problems than are immediately obvious.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Another reason to oppose that childish fence

In case you were running out of reasons to lambast the proposed fence along the US-Mexico border, here's another:
Environmentalists and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wardens say the barrier would disrupt the migration of scores of species from jaguars to hawks and humming birds along a wildlife corridor linking northern Mexico and the U.S. southwest known as the "Sky Islands."

The chain of 40 mountain ranges links the northern range of tropical species such as the jaguar and the parrot in the Mexican Sierra Madre Mountains, and the southern limit of temperate animals such as the black bear and the Mexican wolf in the U.S. Rocky Mountains.

"Bisecting the area with an impermeable barrier such as a double reinforced wall or fence could really have a devastating effect on these species," said Matt Skroch, a wildlife biologist and executive director of the environmental non-profit group Sky Island Alliance in Tucson, Arizona.

"If they build it, we could really say goodbye to the future of jaguars in the United States," he added.
As one commenter noted, the only thing the fence won't keep out is illegal immigrants.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Share the Em Effing Road

The months-long Bay Area rainy season has officially begun, bringing with it slippery roads and limited visibility from behind the wheel of your large automobile. I think I speak for all bike commuters when I beg you to please share the road!

It's an indisputable scientific fact that choosing a biker over a car is good for society. Each bike represents one fewer car on the road, thus bike commuters:
  • Reduce car traffic
  • Reduce competition for and the cost of parking
  • Reduce competition for and the cost of gasoline
  • Reduce our dependency on non-renewable natural resources and foreign oil sources, thereby not contributing to the need for international conflict motivated by the need to acquire those resources
  • Reduce fossil fuel emissions, thereby not contributing to pollution or global warming
  • Get more exercise than drivers, thereby contributing to a fitter, better-looking populace
Given how much we contribute to our community, the least our community can do for us is to look in its collective rear-view mirror before swiftly opening its driver side door into our faces. Or maybe it can use its signal before making a right turn in front of us. Or maybe it can leave more than four inches of space between us and it when it passes us in its car. In all, it would be great if the driving community could show a little respect for its two-wheels comrades.

Monday, October 02, 2006

I want to say a lot more about this, but this post already constitutes a ramble.

There's a nasty myth out there that ecological responsibility is unattainable for or even deleterious to poor people. This belief manifests itself myriad ways: "Organic food is more expensive than conventional produce, so environmentally responsible food choices are off limits to the poor," or "Hybrid cars are too expensive for poor people," or "Poor people are too busy surviving to worry about recycling," or, most egregiously, "Environmental regulations stifle economic growth, which in turn harms the poor!"

This myth is perpetuated primarily by two groups. First, obviously, are corporations that make money by polluting or would make less money if forced to adopt more ecologically responsible practices. Complying with restrictions on emissions and waste disposal, they argue, drives down their profits, forcing them to hire fewer people or offer their product at a higher price; higher prices and fewer jobs, logic tells you, hurt the working poor. This is the same line of reasoning that rallies against labor unions and offering medical benefits and that lets corporations and governments turn a blind eye toward child labor and unhealthful working conditions. If production thrives, people of all classes will magically thrive along with it.

The second group of people correlating environmentalism and the plight of the poor are a more well-meaning band of (usually relatively wealthy) liberals and academics. To them, environmental justice means that environmental regulations not interfere with the working class’s economic mobility. They are prompted by their weekly outings to Whole Foods, where they notice that all the food is expensive and all the clientele are white people who drive Volvo station wagons. Obviously something is amiss, so it must be environmentalism itself.

These lines of reasoning imply a definition of quality of life that overvalues ownership of cheap consumer goods and undervalues personal health.

In the United States, having less money is fairly conducive to environmental sustainability, at least in theory. Working class folk are more likely to bike or take public transportation instead of driving; less money means fewer electronics, clothes, Swiffers, and other resource-intensive goods that need to be shipped overseas; and a plant-based diet is both cheaper and vastly less environmentally damaging than an omnivorous diet (and the financial difference would be even more magnified if it weren’t for corn and grain subsidies, which force taxpayers to fund cheap meat).

In China, or any country whose short-term economic growth is currently dependent upon selling cheap manufactured goods to rich consumers in countries whose long-term economic growth is dependent upon moving away from selling cheap manufactured goods, lax or nonexistent environmental standards on farms and factories give corporations another incentive to produce their goods overseas instead of in countries where those goods’ consumers live. These lax eco standards are supported by corporations who want to lower their production costs, consumers who want cheaper goods, and misguided humanitarians who stand by the adage that a crappy job is better than no job at all. But while pitifully low wages have only short-term consequences on the people who earn them, pollution and habitat destruction will negatively affect those people for generations to come. By the time every Chinese family has a car, river and air pollution will have already maimed an entire class upon whose backs this “prosperity” was built. True quality of life improvement is about education, medicine, democracy, and preservation of a community’s way of life, not how many TVs are in each household. I don’t think the local townspeople get to vote on whether a United States company gets to pay to illegally dump its trash in that community’s watershed.

If there were such a thing as the opposite of irony, this would be it: the piss poor environmental standards that allow more money to flow into developing nations in turn facilitates more environmental destruction in those areas as more people can buy cars, DVD players, and computers.

This isn’t an endorsement for poverty. I’m not that ridiculous. My point isn’t that being poor is good; my point is that being ecologically responsible doesn’t require that you have a lot of money, nor are poverty and sustainability incompatible. There’s nothing inherently elitist about environmentalism, even if most the movement’s members are relatively wealthy people in rich countries. Indeed, maybe we college-educated white liberals are unique in having the leisure time and education to fret about long-term global health. But if we privileged few don’t speak up for the disadvantaged many, by the time these billions of poor workers have the resources to advocate for their own environmental rights, it will probably be too late to repair the damage ecologically irresponsible production practices will have already inflicted.

It's also worth noting that the poor are the most negatively affected by environmental destruction. They have almost no legal recourse when eco standards have been violated to their detriment. They're the least equipped to financially absorb the medical costs associated with asthma, lead poisoning, and other pollution-related illnesses. They usually have the least access to information about environmental destruction and their ability to influence it. When a corporation or government is deciding to clear cut rainforest to make room for cattle pasture, I doubt the working poor have the liesure time and educational resources to fight back.

I'll address Paul's uninformed posit that organic foods are a luxurious option only available to rich people later. That's what prompted this post, yet somehow I didn't get to it here.