The Rebound Effect Or Why A Prius Won’t Save The Planet

December 14, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

Complicating Stephen Budiansky's thoughts on emissions and efficiency, here is Bjørn Lomborg:

Here's something to think about. Back in the early 1970s, the average American expended roughly 70 million British thermal units per year to heat, cool, and power his or her home. Since then, of course, we have made great strides in energy efficiency. As the Washington Post recently reported, dishwashers now use 45 percent less power than they did two decades ago, and refrigerators 51 percent less. So how much energy do Americans use in their homes today? On a per capita basis, the figure is roughly what it was 40 years ago: 70 million BTUs.

This surprising lack of change is the result of something economists call the "rebound effect." It's a phenomenon familiar to urban planners, who long ago discovered that building more roads doesn't ease traffic jams—it merely encourages more people to get in their cars and drive.

The underlying principle is a decidedly counterintuitive fact of life. You might think that learning to use something more efficiently will result in your using less of it, but the opposite is true: the more efficient we get at using something, the more of it we are likely to use. Efficiency doesn't reduce consumption; it increases it. 

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The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

The Rebound Effect Or Why A Prius Won’t Save The Planet

December 14, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

Complicating Stephen Budiansky's thoughts on emissions and efficiency, here is Bjørn Lomborg:

Here's something to think about. Back in the early 1970s, the average American expended roughly 70 million British thermal units per year to heat, cool, and power his or her home. Since then, of course, we have made great strides in energy efficiency. As the Washington Post recently reported, dishwashers now use 45 percent less power than they did two decades ago, and refrigerators 51 percent less. So how much energy do Americans use in their homes today? On a per capita basis, the figure is roughly what it was 40 years ago: 70 million BTUs.

This surprising lack of change is the result of something economists call the "rebound effect." It's a phenomenon familiar to urban planners, who long ago discovered that building more roads doesn't ease traffic jams—it merely encourages more people to get in their cars and drive.

The underlying principle is a decidedly counterintuitive fact of life. You might think that learning to use something more efficiently will result in your using less of it, but the opposite is true: the more efficient we get at using something, the more of it we are likely to use. Efficiency doesn't reduce consumption; it increases it. 

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The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Can Credit Repair Save Housing?

December 12, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

Credit Repair Housing Market ImageNow that short sales are such a large portion of the housing market, we should expect to see more home buyers using a credit repair company to help re-establish themselves as credit-worthy for new home loans. Considering that a majority of home sales in Florida are going to be distressed property, I felt it would be prudent to report how credit repair works and what future homebuyers can expect from these types of operations.

The first thing that I learned when researching what to expect from a credit repair company is that many of these operations are not on the “up and up.” It is very important that anybody with damaged credit first do their homework before just paying the first credit repair site to magically promise them an instant 800 credit score …. because that is not going to happen.

Credit Repair: A Legal Solution For Homebuyers With Damaged Credit

The Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA, passed in 1970) provides consumers with rights, and specifically the right to have the information about them reported accurately. All reported information must be verifiable, and if disputed by the consumer, must be given a detailed response in a certain amount of time (30 to 40 days I believe).

And why do you think this law was passed? Because many credit reports are not accurate and contain errors. The Federal Trade Commission receives scores of complaints about the credit bureaus, almost more than any other industry.

The other law that protects you is CROA, the Credit Repair Organizations Act. If credit repair was illegal then there would not be a law governing Credit Repair Organizations.

Watch Out For Credit Repair Scams

Just as we project a rapid growth for the credit repair industry, we will no doubt begin to see more and more credit repair scams. It is only natural to assume that there will be those who do not operate within the law, so I would recommend two key points to ensure that you do not fall for a credit repair scam:

  1. Understand the process that the company will use – For most people, it took some time to damage their credit, so a credit repair program that offers immediate results is most likely a scam. Remember, a legal credit repair company has a process to help people with damaged credit, but they will not get somebody’s credit repaired overnight (or even in a month or two). A quick repair could take four months, while most would take nearly a year to complete.
  2. Do your homework – Do not grab the first company you find through a google search, rather thoroughly research to find a company that is proven to be successful at credit repair. Make sure the company provides proof of success and that their past clients provide glowing testimonials.

How To Buy A Home While Working With A Credit Repair Company

For our long-time readers of the Tallahassee Real Estate Blog, you probably already know the answer to this … Do a lease-purchase! We refer people to a solid credit repair company while we help them purchase a home. The great news is both can happen simultaneously.

We can do the following steps, in conjunction with hiring a credit repair company, to get homebuyers into homes right away:

  • We refer our homebuyers to the US Consumer Credit Restoration Association
  • We provide our homebuyers with a list of homes where the sellers have expressed an interest in receiving a lease-purchase contract
  • Our homebuyers preview the homes they like on the list
  • CENTURY 21 First Realty prepares offers and finalizes contracts between the homebuyers and sellers
  • CENTURY 21 First Realty arranges for a lease agreement between the two parties
  • The homebuyer moves into the home under a lease agreement and then closes on a new home loan when the credit repair helps them achieve a home mortgage loan

Credit Repair Company Restores Your Credit ImageThis process might seem long or confusing, but I can tell you it is not. Too many people think that it takes 7 to 10 years to fix their bad credit, but the reality is that it can be done much quicker and it does not need to stop them from achieving and maintaining the American Dream of home ownership.

Liberty Pundits Blog

Special Forces Units Ignore Bureaucrat Memo, and Save Lives

December 9, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

By signing a memo Oct. 29, 2007, James R. Clapper Jr. exposed U.S. military personnel to greater-than-necessary danger as they served their country in Afghanistan, Iraq and other hot spots around the world.

Then an Under Secretary of Defense and now our nation’s Director of National Intelligence, Clapper designated the polygraph and its hand-held cousin, the Preliminary Credibility Assessment Screening System, as the “only approved credibility assessment technologies” in DoD. At the same time, he sent a dangerous message to U.S. troops: “Stop using the Computer Voice Stress Analyzer.”

Fortunately, some of our nation’s bravest warriors sided with common sense and opted to ignore The Clapper Memo. One of those who did was, until recently, a member of the Army Special Forces whom I will call “Joe” (not his real name).

Trained in counterintelligence and as an interrogator, this former SF operator used CVSA to conduct nearly 500 interrogations of enemy combatants and third-country nationals — more than anyone in the U.S. military — while serving in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq and regularly working 18-hour days from 2004 to 2009.

Joe agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity about his firsthand experience with CVSA and why Department of Defense leaders are wrong to keep the technology now used by more than 1,800 U.S. law enforcement agencies out of the hands of people in uniform.

“I was still downrange when that memo came out,” said Joe, who spoke with me on condition of anonymity.

After learning of the memo, Joe said he went to his commander and asked one question: “You want me to stop?”

His commander replied, “Hell no, don’t stop! You’re just not using it anymore, right?”

Despite Pentagon orders to the contrary, Joe’s SF commanders wanted him to continue using CVSA for one primary reason: They knew it was far superior to PCASS when it came to dealing with various types of detainees, captured enemy combatants, third-country nationals and others who could pose threats to U.S. and allied troops in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait and Qatar.

“The craziest thing about this whole deal was that it became such a controversy that, for us to continue to go up there and continue to fight — to say, ‘Hey, we need to use this,’” — “we were ordered to stand down and not even mention the words anymore,” Joe said.

Why the stand-down order? Because, according to Joe, someone in Army leadership was more willing to rely upon laboratory studies commissioned by officials and agencies with vested interests in the continued use of the polygraph instead of trusting operational research like that Joe conducted almost daily.

One of the often-cited studies that proves his point, “Assessing the Validity of Voice Stress Analysis Tools in a Jail Setting,” was conducted by University of Oklahoma Professor Kelly R. Damphousse using funds from a noncompetitive $ 232,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research, development and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice.

For their participation in the 2007 study, inmates at the Oklahoma County Jail received candy bars as rewards but faced no real jeopardy, a factor that makes or breaks the validity of the test.

In places like Iraq, where CVSA worked so effectively for SF operators, Joe said, he could tell an interview subject, “Hey, you’re gonna be here for a really long time and convicted as a terrorist if I find out you’re lying to me.” Conversely, he could say, “You’re gonna go home tomorrow if you clear this chart.” In other words, jeopardy was clearly present. Not candy bars.

Not surprisingly, Joe isn’t the only soldier who shares Joe’s opinions about the polygraph and CVSA.

One “Anonymous Fort Bragg CVSA Examiner” sent me the message below soon after I published my first serious piece about the polygraph-CVSA controversy April 9, 2009. It appears unedited below:

“I was one of the first US Army soldiers trained on the CVSA system back in 2005. I have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and have used the CVSA in both theaters. Despite the unofficial “ban” on the system by the Army polygraph examiners, my commander and chain of command have supported and continue to support the CVSA.

“Over the past 4 years I have conducted over 200 CVSA exams, and kept records and logs of each exam as required by SOP. My CVSA exams have been accurate at least 94% of the time, because the information I developed from the CVSA was independently confirmed by other evidence we developed during our operations. And that is either Deceptive or Not Deceptive.

“Unlike the PCASS, there are no flashing lights, and no inconclusive results when you use a CVSA. The CVSA always lets you know whether a subject is Deceptive or Not Deceptive. Oh, did I mention some buddies from Fort Campbell who are also CVSA examiners went through PCASS training and they refuse to use it because it simply does not work. The whole PCASS concept is a joke, and when they went to PCASS training the instructors got pissed when they asked informed questions about the CVSA and polygraph.

“We will not risk our lives on a piece of junk that was put together by eggheads who don’t have a clue about the real world, and have probably never been to a combat zone. The CVSA is accurate, and has been instrumental in obtaining legal (by the book) confessions from the tests I have conducted. I have used it to get confessions from bombers , spies, infiltrators, killers, and other low life’s. They break down quickly once they know that you know the truth, and they confess.

“The CVSA has helped us round up more bad guys than I care to count. It is well regarded by Army SF and NSW, because it works. It has saved the lives of US personnel, ask any of the guys who have conducted the hundreds of CVSA exams in Iraq.

“I forgot to mention that the polygraph examiners go crazy when they find out we are using it. They will fly into our AO waving their regulations, and our chain of command boots them in the ass, and they leave with their tails between their legs. It is funny these clowns are more concerned about protecting their turf than they are about us and our mission. I am surprised the Army leadership puts up with the bullshit. They have ZERO successes to point to, only failures.”

Days later, another confidential source provided me a copy of an After Action Report written by an “insider” at Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility following a 30-day test of the technology in 2003. It’s summary included the praise below:

“During the test period, it was obvious that CVSA would become an invaluable tool for focusing the efforts of intelligence collection. By virtue of utilizing the CVSA equipment and training, interrogations could be focused on areas where deception if indicated, versus wasting time and energy on avenues of exploitation that would have little to no value. The outcomes of the 30 day test period has shown outstanding results, and has generated a high degree of interest and satisfaction among the intelligence community.”

I also received a copy of a letter written by a high-ranking interrogation official (name withheld) who served at GITMO while CVSA was tested there. He listed seven distinct advantages of CVSA (shown unedited below) over the traditional polygraph system:

1. It is more portable.

2. It is less intrusive (microphone as opposed to galvanic, heart, blood pressure, and breathing monitors).

3. Less training required for the examiner.

4. The test is easier to explain to the subject before the test is administered.

5. The test results are easier to explain to the subject. (The charts for both control questions and relevant questions can be shown and explained. This makes post test questioning much easier.)

6. There are no inconclusive test results.

7. The examiner can identify the questions to which the subject’s answers appeared to show deception. This helps to focus additional questions and subsequent interrogations. (The polygraphers would not identify the questions to which the subject appeared to be deceptive when answering. They would only say the test showed “No deception indicated, deception indicated or inconclusive.”

That same GITMO interrogator included the paragraph below as his closing statement:

“My opinion based upon my observation is that CVSA is superior to the polygraph when used as a tool in the interrogation process. Consequently, I conclude that those who wish to remove CVSA from the “interrogator’s tool box” are more interested in protecting their turf than they are in gathering intelligence that protects the American people.”

The pro-CVSA opinions above stand in stark contrast to official answers I received in response to questions asked about the Army’s use of the portable lie detectors.

Appearing carefully-constructed and thoroughly-coordinated, they arrived in my inbox in early May 2009 — after 27 days and the exchange of dozens of e-mails — from U.S. Central Command. The person delivering the answers was Maj. John Redfield, an Air Force PAO assigned to CENTCOM.

Asked whether officials at the joint command considered PCASS effective after one year of use, CENTCOM responded as follows:

“The comments from forward commanders and their principal intelligence advisors regarding the value of PCASS have been very favorable. In Iraq and Afghanistan, PCASS has proven its value; aiding in the identification of individuals with inimical interests to the U.S. government and our allies has allowed commanders to take actions to reduce the risks these individuals posed.”

Asked if CENTCOM had plans to continue, expand or otherwise modify the use of PCASS devices in the field, they wrote:

“CENTCOM published guidance which authorizes the use of PCASS in our area of responsibility. The continued use and any expansion of use will be decided by commanders on the ground and those ready to deploy after consultation with their military service leadership. CENTCOM does not envision modifying the use of PCASS, as our current policy permits the use of the device as a screening tool in some very specific situations on specific individuals and under specific conditions. To expose those specifics would endanger the lives of American military personnel.”

Asked if PCASS has been credited with directly saving any American lives or thwarting any enemy operations, CENTCOM replied as follows:

“Unlike a bulletproof vest, PCASS is not a stand-alone tool which one can point to and give credit for saving lives. PCASS is an aid which complements other techniques and is a device which is complemented by other procedures. Together these tools have aided intelligence personnel in the identification of locally employed persons who were corresponding with violent extremist organizations, foreign intelligence and security services, and criminal elements. There is no way to measure how many lives were saved by taking positive action against individuals who would pass friendly information to persons who would then use that information to attack or attempt to disrupt U.S. and coalition military operations.”

In stark contrast to the official message coming from headquarters, Joe told me SF operators would “rather go back to the stubby pencil and taking an educated guess” than use PCASS.

One of the major flaws in the technology that cause Joe and others to discount PCASS can be found in polygraph training, Joe said.

“If you can trick yourself into thinking you’re a bomber,” Joe said, “then why can’t you trick yourself into thinking you’re not and trick that machine?”[Note: To see the training scenario Joe cited from the Defense Academy for Credibility Assessment (formerly the DoD Polygraph Institute) at Fort Jackson, S.C., click here.]

Joe added that he thinks rank-and-file polygraphers would embrace CVSA if given the opportunity.

“If you take PCASS operators and CVSA operators, cross-train ‘em and, at the end of that, give ‘em some time to work with the equipment in the field, I would say 95 to 96 percent of them guys — because, you know, some people just don’t like change if they were PCASS guys first — will tell you that the CVSA is a much better piece of equipment.

As for those who remain opposed to CVSA, Joe had this message: “Anybody looking out for the welfare of the soldier and really looking at this open-minded (would) see that the CVSA is the best tool for the job,” he said.

I asked Joe what he would say, if given the chance, to our nation’s leaders in Washington about the prohibition on the CVSA use by U.S. troops.

“I would testify in front of Congress that this piece of equipment is essential for HUMINT personnel on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “If they want to save lives, they’ve got to put this piece of equipment back into that theater. Every unit should have this equipment.”

Fortunately, Joe told me that SF operators are skilled in knowing how to keep equipment “off the books.” One can only hope that some of the CVSA computers remain in use.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Stay tuned! The information in this and previous articles I’ve written and published about the polygraph-CVSA controversy represents only the “tip of the iceberg.” More will appear in my upcoming book about this controversy, “Turf War: Detecting Lies and Deception.”


  • To read true stories about the use of CVSA technology on the Arabian Peninsula during the past decade, click here.
  • To read this author’s previous posts about the polygraph-CVSA controversy, click here.

Big Peace

Open Thread: WaPo Says Save Obama, Primary Him

December 8, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

Oh my.

But there is a real way to save the Obama presidency: by challenging him in the 2012 presidential primaries with a candidate who would unequivocally commit to a well-defined progressive agenda and contrast it with the Obama administration’s policies. Such a candidacy would be pooh-poohed by the media, but if it gathered enough popular support – as is likely given the level of alienation among many who were the backbone of Obama’s 2008 success – this campaign would pressure Obama toward much more progressive positions and make him a more viable 2012 candidate.


Public officials who would make excellent candidates should they run on this platform include Sens. Russ Feingold, Bernie Sanders, Barbara Mikulski or Al Franken; Reps. Joe Sestak, Maxine Waters, Raul Grijalva, Alan Grayson, Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, Lois Capps, Jim Moran and Lynn Woolsey. Others include Jim McGovern, Marcy Kaptur, Jim McDermott or John Conyers. We should also consider popular figures outside of government. How about Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? Why not Rachel Maddow, Bill Moyers, Susan Sarandon or the Rev. James Forbes?

John Conyers? Rachel Maddow? Al Franken? Maxine Waters? Susan Sarandon? I sort of feel like Michael Bluth in that moment when his family makes fun of him by calling him a chicken and doing the chicken dance to which Michael responds: “Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?”

Has columnist Michael Lerner ever even seen a Democratic primary? This idea is more ridiculous than anything Joe Biden could even come up with, and that’s saying a lot.

But for a more serious discussion: if Obama were to face a primary challenger (which is looking more and more likely), who would be chosen? Would the challenger be a moderate to appeal to independents? A progressive to make Obama look like a compromiser? Evan Bayh? Discuss.

Big Journalism

Europe Tries to Save Itself with Massive New Bailout Program

December 2, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comments Off 

Last week (see Ireland Bailout Fails to Calm Markets), we showed you graphs of bond yields (interest rates) for four of the PIIGS countries — Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain.

Now, here are the graphs for Italy and Belgium:

10-year bond yields for Italy and Belgium as of November 30, 2010 (Bloomberg)10-year bond yields for Italy and Belgium as of November 30, 2010 (Bloomberg)

These interest rates are still around only 4-5%, not the 9-12% rates we were talking about for the other countries. But you can see from the graphs that they’re rising parabolically, and that’s causing EU officials to become nervous and panicky. The financial crisis is spreading.

It’s not just countries that are affected. European corporations that wish to borrow money by issuing bonds are even worse off, according to the Financial Times (Access).

“Borrowing costs for most companies and banks in Europe have jumped but issuers from countries on the eurozone’s periphery have suffered most,” according to the article. “Analysts and bankers said that, in effect, bond markets had mostly shut for these issuers.”

Bond yields improved slightly on Wednesday on the rumor that the European Central Bank (ECB) was going to propose a massive new bailout program on Thursday, on the order of 1-2 trillion euros. Under the proposal, the ECB would purchase the country bonds and possibly also the corporate bonds at lower-than-market interest rates, effectively transferring the debt risk from the individual countries and corporations to the European Union itself.

It’s not at all certain that the proposal will be accepted. Similar programs by the American Federal Reserve central bank could be enacted with much less difficulty because of the highly centralized American government. But the European Union is still a loosely confederated group of countries.

“The knives are out,” says a Euro Intelligence analysis, which says that Spain is accusing Germany and France for destabilizing the euro, and Ireland is blaming the ECB for pushing Ireland into an unnecessarily unfavorable bailout situation. As for the rumored ECB bond purchase program,

“Germany would go ballistic. Considering Axel Weber’s publically announced opposition to the puny bond purchase programme, which so far added up to a mere €60bn, it is hard to predict how Germany would react to a breach of European law, not to speak of German constitutional law. The loss of confidence in the euro and its institutions would be complete. This is another of those brilliant ’solutions’ that backfire within a short time after their announcements.”

(Update: After this story was written, the ECB announced that it would not pursue the bond purchase program, although existing more modest liquidity programs will continue, according to the NY Times. In other news, it’s been revealed that the Fed has provided $ 3.3 trillion in loans to foreign, according to Blooomberg.)

However, Europe is running out of time, according to a Reuters analysis. According to one analyst, “The politicians in Europe as a group, and perhaps an orchestrated group, keep putting out the message that everything is fine when it is obviously not. There reaches a point, which arrived [on Tuesday] in my opinion, when the investment community’s faith was breached one too many times and now people are fleeing the scene.”

An analysis in Spiegel examines what will happen if the euro currency collapses. There are two scenarios considered. In one scenario, the euro is eliminated, and each country returns to the national currency it used in the 1990s. The article points out that some 50% of Germans would like to see the deutsche mark currency reinstated, and that an estimated 13 billion deutsche marks are still stashed away in people’s mattresses and other hiding places.

In the second scenario, the euro would split into two currencies. The more stable euroland countries, including Germany, Austria and the Netherlands, would jointly introduce a “northern euro” or “hard-currency euro,” based on budget discipline. The PIIGS countries would join a southern or “Club Med” euro that could be devalued at any time.

The article points out that either of these scenarios would be disastrous for Germany. The costs to implement the new currency would be “staggering.” But more important, the strong northern euro would make German exports so expensive that German exports would tank, and unemployment would skyrocket.

This last point is particularly ironic. Readers may recall that back in the days of the bitter discussions of the bailout of Greece, Germany was accused of being responsible for Greece’s troubles, by having lent money to Greece so that Greece could purchase German exports. That trick would no longer be possible if a southern euro were devalued.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, writing in the Telegraph, compares the situation to World War II, and says that only one solution remains: Create a “total fiscal union to all members of the eurozone before everything falls apart, and to be enshrined in EU treaty law forever.”

Under this proposal, “All debts of Greece, Cyprus, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland will be fused immediately with German debt; a single treasury will control spending, and issue euro-bonds for all Euroland.”

Ever since the credit crunch begain in August, 2007, central bankers and fiscal authorities around the world have used one monetary easing trick after another to head off panic. In 2007, it was only necessary for the Fed to lower the Fed funds interest rate by 1/2%. Each crisis since then has been bigger than the previous one, and each monetary easing trick has had to be bigger than the previous one. Now, we may be talking about a 1-2 trillion euro bailout.

In a column entitled, “The Euro has no Clothes,” appearing in the NY Times, Roger Cohen made a rather astute comparison between the euro currency and the League of Nations.

“Is the euro to the early 21st century what the League of Nations was to the early 20th: a fine idea that became a political orphan and was condemned to unravel?

As Ireland follows Greece in the great bailout domino game, and Portugal and Spain loom, the euro can no longer take its survival for granted just because its collapse would be unthinkable.

Both the League of Nations and the euro were conceived for worlds that vanished. The League emerged in 1919 from the ashes of World War I with the aim of preventing another war. But its idealism was an early victim of Hitler’s violent nationalism. Changed forces in Europe could not be checked by its covenant.

Jacques Delors’s “Report on Economic and Monetary Union,” laying out the path to a single euro currency, was presented in early 1989 just as all changed utterly.

Within months, the Berlin Wall fell, Germany was reunited, the Soviet empire imploded and Yalta’s imprisoned European nations were freed. …

Yes, the League of Nations collapsed, but it did lead to the United Nations. The euro may also unravel but the idea is too good not to return in force. Between the League and the U.N. lay catastrophe. From here to euro 2.0 is not going to be pretty.”

From the point of view of Generational Dynamics, the League of Nations and the euro currency were both created at roughly the same time in the generational cycle: during an Unraveling era just preceding a crisis era and a crisis world war.

The survivors of World War II created the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation (Green Revolution), and other international organizations not only to prevent a new world war, but also to end poverty and starvation and to improve health. This happened as World War II ended, and could not have happened at any other time. That’s the way the world works.

There are many big projects floating around these days — the European Union, the euro currency, universal health care are examples. All of these projects are doomed to failure, like the League of Nations, and will be destroyed by the approaching world war. But once the war ends, all of them will be resurrected and implemented by the survivors.

Big Peace

Climate Alarmist Wants WWII Style Rationing to Save Planet

November 29, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Submit to gasoline stamps now or face calamitous floods, droughts and mass migration in fifty years!
American Thinker Blog

Obama to freeze federal worker pay, save $5 billion over two years

November 29, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Big help.

Give the President some credit.  This mainly empty gesture will net a lot more than Barack Obama’s earlier exhaustive budget trimming that saved all of $ 100 million after running up a $ 1.3 trillion deficit.  Today, Obama will announce a two-year freeze on the wages of civilian federal workers that will arguably result in $ 5 billion […]

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Hot Air » Top Picks

Save Us From the Intellectuals

November 29, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Super-genius political science professor Charles H. Franklin of the University of Wisconsin, Madison recently gave loud voice to a widely held liberal belief: Ordinary Americans, especially conservative ones, are stupid.

At a conference by the Society of Professional Journalists, alternative newspaper editor Bill Lueders asked Franklin why "the public seemed to vote against its own interests and stated desires, for instance by electing candidates who'll drive up the deficit with fiscally reckless giveaways to the rich."

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How Texting Could Save Lives

November 27, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Ryan Singel investigates how the ability to text 9-1-1 could increase efficiency for emergency responders:

The last real overhaul of 911 by the FCC came in 2001, when mobile carriers were required to allow 911 to identify the location of callers either through GPS or cell-tower data. … But the 911 system still can’t handle text messages, multimedia messages or streaming video, all of which could be very helpful to first responders. A system that could handle those messages would also allow people to report crimes without being overheard, which could be useful in situations ranging from kidnapping to seeing someone being robbed on the street.

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The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan

Fascinating history of the movement to save Soviet Jewry

November 25, 2010 · Posted in Uncategorized · Comment 

Yossi Klein Halevi has written a semi-autobiographical book review of “When They Come for Us We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry” by Gal Beckerman, at The New Republic.

His review may be almost as good as the book.

Here’s the beginning:

By the standards of the 1960s, the founding demonstration of the Soviet Jewry movement was hardly notable. On May 1, 1964, a thousand students gathered across from the Soviet mission to the United Nations in Manhattan to protest a Soviet ban on baking matzo and other anti-Jewish measures. Compared to demonstrators for the far better known causes of the time, they were a tame lot. No one blocked traffic or scuffled with police. Instead, protesters marched in a circle so orderly that one reporter commented on how refreshingly responsible these young people were, which was damning praise for a movement aspiring to change history.

Yet that is precisely the process that was set in motion by the May Day demonstration. The struggle to free Soviet Jewry would become one of history’s most successful protest movements, a sustained quarter-century-long campaign that lost none of its fervor and encompassed ever-widening circles of participants. Though the movement failed to persuade the Soviet Union to permit the free baking of matzo, it went on to fulfill its most improbable goal: forcing open the Iron Curtain and restoring to the Jewish people several million Jews marked by the Kremlin for coerced assimilation. In the process, American Jewry discovered its political power and its spiritual vitality, as a once-timid community learned to become a vigorous advocate of Jewish interests. This was the pre-history of the élan that American Jewry acquired in the wake of the Six Day War a few years later.

The movement’s significance transcends its impact on Jewish history. In the mid-’70s, Congress adopted the JacksonVanik amendment linking trade credits for the Soviet Union to its Jewish emigration policy. By mobilizing Congress to override a reluctant White House, the movement helped to establish the principle that human rights supersede national sovereignty, that democracies are morally bound to intervene in the internal affairs of dictatorships. The Soviet Jewry movement in America was also a milestone in modern humanitarian politics.

And, according to Gal Beckerman’s superb and likely definitive narrative of the Soviet Jewry struggle, the movement deserves credit even for helping to hasten the fall of the Soviet Union. Deftly moving between the Soviet Union and the United States, the two main arenas of the struggle, Beckerman shows how Jewish activists on one side of the Iron Curtain emboldened Jewish activists on the other. The more risks Soviet Jews took in challenging their government, the more American Jews intensified their campaign, in turn further encouraging Soviet Jews, who initiated acts unprecedented for Soviet citizens, such as sit-ins at government offices. The “refuseniks,” as Jews denied exit visas were known, created the Soviet Union’s only mass dissident movement that spanned the USSR, and the vigorous support of Jews abroad provided a measure of immunity, ensuring that refuseniks would not become anonymous and therefore extinguishable targets. By weakening the capacity of the Soviet system to instill fear, the movement eroded the self-confidence of Soviet leaders. “Zionism is making us stupid,” Beckerman quotes Leonid Brezhnev complaining to his Politburo. In effect, the Kremlin was confronted with a bleak choice: either renew Stalinist-era repression or concede defeat. Soviet leaders tried to respond with a third, and more ambiguous, approach: allow some refuseniks to emigrate while jailing others and keeping still others in limbo. That process failed because every exit visa pried from the Kremlin only convinced activists to intensify the pressure.

Halevi was himself involved in the movement from the beginning, so he has some interesting insights on the subject.

The New Republic provides some bloggers and their readers with a special pass-through URL to go past TNR’s paywall, so you can read the entire review here. (Just another benefit of reading EoZ!)

And if you want to buy the book, please use this link to support the blog.

Elder of Ziyon

How To Save Society And The Planet Too: A Book Review of Prescription For The Planet

November 24, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Ron has had an increasing amount of posts about the coming energy shortages that are going to threaten industrial society. The estimates are converging across nations and social groups: we have already hit peak conventional oil and it is almost definite we will have sizeable overall oil shortfalls by 2015. Various agencies across the world project this to be around 10 million barrels per day or about 15% of total demand. This will cause oil to skyrocket to unimaginable levels or lead to a commensurate decline in economic activity. In other words, we are out of time to avoid the first wave of shortfalls.

One of the criticisms about the energy peaker-environmental movement is that it doesn’t offer any “solutions.” Yet this criticism is loaded because it has an implicit assumption that is never stated: it demands solutions that will maintain the current socio-economic paradigm. Well there aren’t any and at this point the rise of propaganda in the press to cover over this fact is becoming interesting. For instance, in a recent New York Times piece they go to great lengths to not only dismiss problems but to portray an era of unbridled prosperity! Of course even a cursory amount of skepticism shreds the piece apart. Embedded in the narrative is the acceptance that the age of cheap oil is waning (but that’s ok because of the unconventional oils) and anyway we have tons of natural gas (a hundred years supply at current consumption rate!) that we will undoubtedly transition over to to get around the oil prices (but wait, what is the supply of NG at the new consumption rate?). With an energy 101 education the piece is even worse as it glosses over the fact that the natural gas supplies are continuously revised upward because it assumes the safety and efficacy of fracking techniques that haven’t been proven yet. In fact there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that fracking delivers far less extractable gas than claimed at a far higher environmental and health cost. It also ignores the concept of energy return on energy invested of non-conventional oil. Conventional oil is around 80-100, meaning an barrel of oil of energy use returns 80-100. Non conventional is 20 on the high end (some deep water) and 3-4 once you start talking about the heavier tar sands. This means that thermodynamically we will have a lot less usable energy from these deposits, so in order to compare to a Middle East oil field you should divide the announcements of new finds by 4-20 based on their type. Once this is done the numbers quickly fall apart.

It’s been assumed (and feared by people that are worried about CO2) that the world would transition to coal as a stop gap measure, but there is increasing evidence that peak coal energy extraction (not total amount, but the net energy from it) will peak in around a decade as well. Of course there is growing consensus that not only will global temperatures rise to the top of the models but that the environment/weather is far more sensitive than previously imagined; so we’re going to be forced to do without expanding coal one way or another.

Renewables can’t plug the gap in nearly enough time.

All of this combined it is evident that our current industrial paradigm is finished. Finito. No mas. Ron has been covering that well enough and the intellectually honest disagreement is about what society will look like afterwards. It ranges to apocalyptic to pre-industrial to low impact techno-localization. The latter posits that we have made enough technological and scientific advances that it is possible for most localities to produce the majority of their needs while maintaining a high standard of living and trade can be relegated back to its historic role of luxuries. In this paradigm travel is a luxury but we’ll hardly be starving…the trick is how to transition without everyone getting blown up.

This is the only realistic positive scenario I’ve seen but a book recommended by DLS has a framework that would actually enable us to continue with our social paradigm largely intact. Not only is it very convincing based on my technical understanding, but I have been unable to find any substantiative criticisms. Indeed it has won plaudits by several physicists and scientific environmentalists.

It has the provocative title Prescription for the Planet: The painless remedy for our energy and environmental crises and is the brainchild of Tom Blees. My emphasis added by the way…with a subtitle that strong my skepticism level was at 11 going in. But, much to my surprise, he managed to (nearly) pull it off. I will give a basic overview while noting that the Australian blog Brave New Climate has an extensive series of posts that comment about its technical merits.

Blees starts out with a few fundamental social premises that frame his narrative:

  • Global warming is the greatest challenge that civilization has faced in a very long time
  • It is unjust that industrialized societies have a high standard of living that is predicated on resource extraction of weaker countries
  • We are running out of time when it comes to cheap fossil fuels
  • Humanity will level off at around 11-12 billion people if there are no great conflicts

One thing that i particularly liked about his book was taking both the status quoers and the green energy wizards to task for proposing models that are unsustainable even for a billion people with high standards of living when the only reason why globalization is being accepted is the promise that nearly everyone will eventually reach it. Unlike most green books he takes great pains to put his solutions in the context of not only industrialized society but helping to build emerging ones, and accurately points out that developing countries are responsible for much of the environmental pollution in their quest to participate in the global economy.

In the first part of the book Blees summarizes the potential sources of energy and blasts away the vast majority of them as being able to contribute anything of significance. He saves his most pointed vitriol towards corn ethanol which is obviously valid (I cannot think of anyone that supports it other than politicians and agribusiness) while being light footed around solar and wind but chastising those proponents for their wishful thinking. This section is very solid and lays to waste the idea of green utopia as it is commonly presented.

Then there is the section on nuclear. While Blees is quick to deride anti-nuclear advocates as being irrational and fear mongering, he makes it clear that he is no fan of the nuclear energy complex himself. He brings up waste and security issues with tepid personal feelings but notes that they are political hurdles of good policy and thus any proposed solution must address them. His biggest issue with reactors though is there isn’t a whole lot of uranium left. If we were to start producing the majority of electricity from nuclear power, we’d only buy a few decades until peak uranium, so we haven’t gotten anywhere.

So, in one fell swoop he has cast aside everything that is commonly discussed. What’s left?

To Blees it is nuclear power (done the right way), a reusable fuel for transport and a way to recycle other materials, including organics that can be made into plastic. Oh yeah and all of the technologies already exist in nearly complete form.

The backbone of Blees’ world is the integrated fast reactor (IFR) which is his name for fast breeder reactors. Unlike the plants currently in usage that use about 1% of the total energy available in the uranium and leave a ton of radioactive waste, IFRs create more radioactive material than they consume in most of the cycle, allowing for nearly 100% energy extraction over the course of several cycles. Blees also takes pains to point out that they are significantly simpler and safer, which will allow for reduced costs through standardization and eliminates any risk of a major leak occurring. Fast breeders have been around since the beginning of the nuclear power age, but the downside is that the fuel that must be reprocessed has a huge amount of weapons grade plutonium and it’s always been seen as a proliferation hazard. The “integrated” part of the IFR is to note that the reprocessing is built into the secure area of the plant, minimizing risk. Moreover, this technique would guarantee that only a very small amount of radioactive waste ever leaves the plant, and that waste is orders of magnitudes more manageable due to a much shorter half life. Oh yeah, and they can use the current waste that we have lying around, which Blees’ calculates that we would be able to run the world for two hundred years without mining ANY more uranium.

The math is simple: without IFR we have about 40 years of uranium left if we were to make it our dominant power source, with IFR we have (including using waste) ~40,000 years! What is astonishing to me, although not mentioned in the book, is that this was known back in the 1950s. I came across a speech by Edward Teller noting that we should use breeder reactors for this very reason (and also to avoid global warming due to excessive CO2 emissions) that was given in 1961 I believe. The science has always been on the IFR side, it’s just politics that has gotten in the way, and believe you me, Blees has a bit to say about that. He has a fascinating tale about the government’s research into this technology and Clinton’s success in killing it (well to be entirely accurate it was John Kerry but Clinton didn’t stand up for it).

In any case, Blees is on fire about the potential for IFR to the point that he gets highly repetitive and I started skimming the book because he started making the same points from a thousand different directions. But there is a reason for this as it powers the most innovative part of the book.

Imagine that you could drive a car that a) had no emissions, b) had entirely reusable fuel and c) had similar energy density to gasoline. That would be the perfect car to me and I would have thought science fiction. Blees says it’s possible through the magic of boron. He points out that fine grains of boron will combust in a 100% O2 environment to form boron oxide in an exothermic reaction that is sufficient to power a car. To make matters even better, boron oxide can be turned back into boron through electrolysis. Using these facts he imagines a car that is fueled with pure boron and has a built in oxygen extractor to grab O2 out of the air. Add in a powerful electrical system and this setup gives us the ABC above, with the quirk that instead of the car getting lighter as fuel was burned, it’d actually get heavier (O2 would be continually reacting with the boron, adding weight). He has some numbers and shows that boron itself has an energy capacity that exceeds gasoline but that the fully reacted boron would make it about the same, so cars would most likely travel around the same distance they do now.

After all the boron was reacted he imagines that you could go to a convenience store, drop off your used boron and pick up a new block. That boron could then be shipped to a reprocessing center that would make it good as new and send it back out. Thus as long as we have a huge amount of electricity (conveniently provided by the IFRs) we would be able to drive to our hearts’ content without worrying about any environmental impact once the initial amount of boron was extracted.

He argues that financially and politically this setup is great because it requires very little added infrastructure to get started. The construction of even one reprocessing plant could serve all the initial adopters of the technology as the boron blocks could be shipped over rail, so there is no need for pipelines or complex storage. Moreover, he calculates that the per gallon equivalent would conservatively be about 45 cents a gallon, although I feel that he went out of his way to add in more costs than needed. Based on the amount of electricity that regenerating uses, even 45 cents a gallon would give a four-five times larger profit margin to the transporters and retailers than currently exists for gasoline. I really could see no flaw in his suggestion other than the fact that small O2 compressors don’t exist yet, but that is an issue that I feel confident can be overcome although I haven’t done the math myself to make sure about the rates of compression are realistic given the physical constraints.

This overview is getting long but there is one final piece to his technovision: plasma incinerators can be used to recycle basically all garbage. I’ll be very brief but the basic idea is that you dump all your garbage through plasma that operates at such high temperatures that it tears apart things to their molecular level. Organics will naturally be able to be extracted in gaseous form and those can be used to do all sorts of neat things like make plastics, while metals can be theoretically extracted based on their molecular weights. He has a lot of detail but the short end of it is that we should be able to reuse nearly 100% of the elements in products for a cost far cheaper than mining virgin sources. I felt that this particular chapter was the weakest as it is by far the most speculative in how difficult it will be to separate the different materials out of the sludge that is created. Indeed, the incinerators I’ve found that are operational only extract the organic gases and ignore everything else, and even then there are some issues. I can see that theoretically his vision will work but it will require a lot of research and experimentation before anything close to it can be approximated.

All of the above is in the first half of the book, the latter half is about the politics of implementing the vision, which is almost as interesting as the technology itself. However, unlike the technical aspects, I imagine there will be a ton of disagreement about his politics, although it is a view that I wholeheartedly support. If there is interest I can summarize that at a later date.

I highly recommend that everyone reads this book and am amazed that DLS hasn’t pointed to it more than a few times. Blees not only does a good job of providing enough information to win over technical skeptics such as myself, but he does it in such an engaging fashion that I imagine general readers will be able to communicate the logic behind his vision with ease. His writing style is full of energy and barbs but never becomes detached from his larger messaging of inclusiveness. Honestly his wit and passion is much needed in this area as most of the genre breaks down to hyperventilation in one camp and accurate but exceedingly boring writing that will never stir anyone to action in the other.

My biggest problem with the book was that it was too good. While I have always been a believer that we can overcome the challenges of the 21st century through clear proactive thinking, I’m growing increasingly pessimistic that we will be able to do it for political reasons. At least I could always take comfort in the fact that what I believed was necessary was a huge paradigmatic shift to society on all levels, so it was understandable that it wouldn’t be embraced except as a reactionary move. To be convinced that there is actually a straightforward and practical way of addressing the problems in our current paradigm, that we have known how to do most of it for decades and that it is no where to be seen? Well that’s harder to swallow. I just hope that these ideas will leak out to the point that in a few years it will provide a blueprint for governments around the world to embrace as a long term vision.

The Moderate Voice

FSOC’s 15 Minutes to Save the World

November 23, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

As I noted, the Financial Stability Oversight Council is meeting today. As announced, they discussed foreclosure fraud and securitization.

For less than 15 minutes.

And then they moved on, without once raising the issue of whether or not the banks’ exposure due to securitization problems posed a systemic risk to our financial system.

As the first order of business in the public session (the Council had an hour of private business before the public session), the departing Michael Barr reviewed what the “foreclosure working group” was doing about the problem. He noted that there seemed to be problems, but described that onsite examiners were collecting information and would not be done doing that until the end of the year; they’d issue a substantive report in January. He did, however, say that there had been putbacks and he expected them to continue.

And that was it. Timmeh Geithner asked if anyone had questions. And no one did. No one asked, “What do you expect will happen between now and January.” No one asked, “Do you think this is systemic.” No one asked, “What kind of exposure are we talking about here.”

No one even pointed out that existing home sales were sliding again, at least partly because the banksters couldn’t sell their foreclosures and partly because consumers weren’t stupid enough to buy them. So no one mentioned that waiting until January may not be so smart, as nothing is getting fixed in the meantime.

Now perhaps they did ask these questions during the hour of private business before the cameras started rolling. Perhaps they spent the hour before we got to watch screaming “hair’s on fire, hair’s on fire, hair’s on fire,” before taking a sip of tea and performing a complete lack of concern about this. Perhaps they talked about how serious this might be before we were allowed to watch, not wanting to concern the markets (which are busy freaking out, in any case, about a run on Europe’s banks).

But the optics of it-this apparent lack of concern about the way the banks will postpone insolvency by degrading the private property system in this country-suck. They sure provide zero confidence that the FSOC intends to do its job.

Related posts:

  1. Remember the Stress Tests?
  2. HUD Secretary Donovan: Banks Should Fix Problems Caused by their Law Breaking
  3. Confirmed: Official Administration Policy Is to Continue Foreclosures


Can Rapiscan save air travel?

November 23, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 


Kevin Drum has an anti-anti-TSA rant, of which I think this is the most persuasive paragraph:

Maybe you think that even if TSA’s procedures are slightly useful, they aren’t useful enough to justify all the intrusion. Instead, we should just accept the risk of an occasional plane falling out of the sky. Think again: if a plane comes down, you can just kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Today’s TSA procedures will seem positively genial compared to what takes their place with the full and eager support of the American public. Given that reality, if you’re really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.

There’s really something to this, and it’s why, with apologies to Homer Simpson, Rapiscan might be the cause of, and solution to, all of air travel’s problems.

The bureaucratic incentives of airport security all point in one direction: toward more of it. You can’t be the director of homeland security who decreed that passengers could keep their sneakers on and then watched a terrorist finally get a shoe bomb to work at 33,000 feet. You can’t be the director of homeland security who knows that three terrorists tried to mix a liquid explosive on a flight and then did nothing to stop them from trying it again. It’s bad to be blamed for annoyances. It’s much worse to be blamed for deaths. And the voters can’t credibly promise to hold the security state blameless for an actual terrorist attack. So the security state, and the people who run it, won’t take the chance.

The answer to this? Rapiscan, maybe. Annie Lowrey* visited their headquarters the other day, and their basic message was that this is still the paleolithic period for security scanning. As the technology gets better, so will air travel. The company is working on shoe scanners that will let you keep your shoes on, that can detect whether your liquids are benign, and that allow for constant flow rather than the stop-and-start rhythm of current units. This won’t make the security state less invasive, of course. But it might make it less of a hassle. And this will depress my civil libertarian friends, but I think it’s the hassle that people are really objecting to here.

Photo credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP.

Ezra Klein

Can Arab-Americans Save Detroit?

November 21, 2010 · Posted in The Capitol · Comment 

Bobby Ghosh reports on the influx of Middle Easterners to the Motor City:

The four-county region of southeastern Michigan has a population of at least 200,000 of Middle Eastern origin; some estimates put that number far higher. … For Detroit, a city in critical condition, this new blood could make a difference. The impact is twofold: a desperately needed infusion of new citizens at a time when an exodus has drained metro Detroit of its middle class, both white and black; and an economic boost from a culture that likes to start new businesses. The Arab-American community in metro Detroit produces as much as $ 7.7 billion annually in salaries and earnings, according to a 2007 Wayne State University study. (That amounts to more than twice Detroit's annual budget.)

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