Tuesday, May 26, 2009

You Gotta Be Kidding Me

Following up on his astonishing embrace of global warming denialism, here's George Will ranting about trains.

Why does he dislike trains? Well, apparently, because he just loves cars THAT much. And why love cars THAT much? Because of the gub'mint! "It subverted their agenda of expanding government—meaning their—supervision of other people's lives. Drivers moving around where and when they please? Without government supervision? Depriving themselves and others of communitarian moments on mass transit? No good could come of this."

Two problems with this. First, it's hilariously stupid. No, really, I started chuckling as soon as I read the passage. It quite literally doesn't pass the laugh test.

Second, car travel is closely and carefully regulated. You can't drive off the road, at least in many parts of the country. You have to stop at stop signs. You have to wait at stoplights. You can't go above a certain speed. You can't go below a certain speed. You can only drive in certain lanes, depending on what kind of vehicle you're driving and how many passengers you have. You need insurance, you need to be unimpaired, you need to wear a seatbelt... the list goes on.

And, naturally, you can't drive anywhere where you can't find parking, which is one of the major reasons one wouldn't want to drive in a city core to begin with. Public parking is limited (and gub'mint run!) and private parking is prohibitively expensive where and when you need it. Side-of-the-road parking is carefully limited. And because of parking issues, consumers are drastically limited in the sorts of places they can shop. Even if you wanted to shop at a small downtown boutique, the cost of parking and gas would make shopping anywhere other than those gargantuan power centers and shopping malls very difficult.

And because of sprawl (which Will characterizes as "low-density housing", a lovely euphemism if ever there was one) you must drive. You have no choice. Hope you like Wal-Mart.

I'd say, in all honesty, a cyclist is probably freer. Parking's generally trivial, maintainance costs are comparatively tiny, and most cities worth cycling in have accomodations for the things. Plus, exercise.

Freedom isn't what this is about. Will's just trolling, in the best example of internet trolls who somehow manage to reach print. He's hoping the left gets angry, and the right rallies around him and his invocation of "FREEDOM!" like some lightweight bowtie-clad William Wallace.

But, honestly, it just reminds the rest of us how irrelevant people like Will are. Opinion writers are ubiquitous in the post-blog mediascape—I've been at it longer than many, for what that's worth—and Will is neither skilled enough nor inventive enough to distinguish himself. He might as well be on Townhall, for all the sense he makes. I suspect, that's where any successor of his will be relegated as well.

North Korea's Nukes

So, yes, it's more likely now that the DPRK actually has nuclear capability, thanks to the earthquake-causing detonation detected underneath the "hermit kingdom" on Monday. And they've been following it up with regular launches of short-term missiles. Nobody's happy about this:

Although Monday's detonation did not appear to be a significant technical advance over Pyongyang's first underground test three years ago, it has triggered a faster and more negative response from other countries, including China and Russia, North Korea's historical allies. The missile firings are adding to the tension. .

South Korea said Tuesday that it would join a U.S.-led effort to intercept ships from countries like North Korea that are suspected of exporting missiles and weapons of mass destruction -- a step it had been reluctant to take in the past for fear of provoking its isolated neighbor into additional retaliation. North Korea has repeatedly said it would regard the South's participation in the security effort as a "declaration of war."

The U.N. Security Council moved quickly in an emergency meeting Monday to condemn the North Korean test, saying it constituted a clear violation of a 2006 U.N. resolution barring the communist state from exploding a nuclear weapon. The council's speedy response reflected what analysts called deep displeasure by Russia and China, and contrasted with protracted discussions that followed North Korea's April 5 launch of a long-range missile.

The Chinese government, North Korea's main economic patron, said it was "resolutely opposed" to the test and told Pyongyang to avoid actions that heighten tensions and return to multi-nation talks focused on dismantling its nuclear program. China's response Monday was significantly more pointed than it was to North Korea's first nuclear test, in October 2006.

President Obama, whose staff was informed of Monday's test about an hour before it took place and who had been briefed several times in the past week about the possibility, accused North Korea of "blatant violation of international law."

"By acting in blatant defiance of the United Nations Security Council, North Korea is directly and recklessly challenging the international community," Obama said in a brief statement outside the White House. "North Korea's behavior increases tensions and undermines stability in Northeast Asia. Such provocations will only serve to deepen North Korea's isolation."
You don't say.

China's clearly tired of this, and it looks like the South Koreans are feeling none-too-"sunshine" about it as well. But I'm not sure either mattered that much. (Japan's outrage certainly wouldn't, considering the North Koreans' relationship with that country.) Pyongyang is almost certainly smarting over the widespread perception that their previous nuclear test was a failure, and wants the world's attention to return to the DPRK and their successful development of nuclear capability.

They want that for the same reason they always have: more concessions at the bargaining table, and security against any outside invaders. Considering Kim Jong-Il's health situation, they may think they need it; there's likely to be a bitter battle over who gets the throne after he's gone. It's likely that Pyongyang is trying to prevent exploitation of that period of "weakness" by the DPRK's various perceived enemies. Those concessions will also be seen as necessary to sustain their grip on power; their fragile economy isn't getting any better, and exports of weaponry are only enough to sustain the military.

Will it work? I'm not sure. The Japanese, Korean, and Chinese responses are the ones that matter most. China can pull the plug on North Korea's economy in days if they so desire, and all involved know that. Their annoyance may hint at a serious threat of doing so in the future. South Korea joining American counterproliferation efforts is unlikely to start a "war", whatever Pyongyang says, and I wouldn't be terribly surprised if the South Koreans follow through.

It's Japan that concerns me. Nothing stokes the fires of Japanese nationalist outrage faster or fiercer than the DPRK; it was the flyover of a DPRK missile in 1998 that really sparked the movement to reform Japan's peace constitution and Japan's anti-nuclear principles, as well as Japan's extensive missile defense capabilities. You've already got one hothead in the LDP yelling about "preemptive strikes"; who's to say where things go as the reality of the situation sinks in.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Tamil Tigers Surrendered

If Sri Lanka president Mahinda Rajapaksa meant what he said about reconciliation, this could be a welcome step towards peace in Sri Lanka, and certainly the Tigers won't be missed much.

But the international community must keep a close eye on Rajapaksa and his regime. The appearance of anti-Tamil discrimination (or even ethnic cleansing) must be quickly revealed and decried, especially right now when the urge to "consolidate victory" will be at its strongest.

The Tamils deserve to be treated as full Sri Lankan citizens with full civil rights; there will be no lasting peace without that.

Japan's GDP Drops Like a Stone


Japan's economy contracted at the fastest pace since 1955 as exports plunged and companies slashed production.

Japan's real gross domestic product, or the total value of the nation's goods and services, shrank at an annual pace of 15.2 percent in the January-March period, the government said Wednesday.

The result represents the steepest decline since Japan began compiling GDP statistics more than five decades ago. It also marks the fourth straight quarter of decline after the GDP fell 12.1 percent in the October-December period.
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On a quarterly basis, GDP fell 4.0 percent from the previous three-month period, according to the Cabinet Office's preliminary data.

Japan's first quarter results were markedly worse than other major economies, outpacing the euro zone's 2.5 percent quarterly decline and a 1.6 percent contraction in the U.S.

The world's second-biggest economy relied heavily on the rest of the world to buy its cars and gadgets to drive economic growth. Like the rest of Asia, it has been pummeled by the unprecedented collapse in global demand triggered last year by the U.S. financial crisis.
I can't even begin to imagine what this will do to Japanese society, especially coupled with the already-existing alienation with the old growth- and export-focused economy of the postwar era. The Post says that the numbers may have bottomed out, and I hope that's true, but the old system was on the bubble to begin with, and I think it's well and truly popped.

Japan could be going in a very different social and economic direction in the near future. Considering their newfound cultural impact on America, I wonder whether that will have an effect on the other side of the Pacific as well.

Friday, May 15, 2009

"I Have Seen the Future, and it Won't Work"

Savage piece about Chinese greenhouse gas emissions by Paul Krugman today. The situation isn't just bad, it's overwhelming:

China’s emissions, which come largely from its coal-burning electricity plants, doubled between 1996 and 2006. That was a much faster pace of growth than in the previous decade. And the trend seems set to continue: In January, China announced that it plans to continue its reliance on coal as its main energy source and that to feed its economic growth it will increase coal production 30 percent by 2015. That’s a decision that, all by itself, will swamp any emission reductions elsewhere.

So what is to be done about the China problem?

Nothing, say the Chinese. Each time I raised the issue during my visit, I was met with outraged declarations that it was unfair to expect China to limit its use of fossil fuels. After all, they declared, the West faced no similar constraints during its development; while China may be the world’s largest source of carbon-dioxide emissions, its per-capita emissions are still far below American levels; and anyway, the great bulk of the global warming that has already happened is due not to China but to the past carbon emissions of today’s wealthy nations.
I'm surprised the economist didn't mention sunk costs.

Anyway, going on:

It is unfair to expect China to live within constraints that we didn’t have to face when our own economy was on its way up. But that unfairness doesn’t change the fact that letting China match the West’s past profligacy would doom the Earth as we know it.

Historical injustice aside, the Chinese also insisted that they should not be held responsible for the greenhouse gases they emit when producing goods for foreign consumers. But they refused to accept the logical implication of this view — that the burden should fall on those foreign consumers instead, that shoppers who buy Chinese products should pay a “carbon tariff” that reflects the emissions associated with those goods’ production. That, said the Chinese, would violate the principles of free trade.

Sorry, but the climate-change consequences of Chinese production have to be taken into account somewhere. And anyway, the problem with China is not so much what it produces as how it produces it. Remember, China now emits more carbon dioxide than the United States, even though its G.D.P. is only about half as large (and the United States, in turn, is an emissions hog compared with Europe or Japan).

The good news is that the very inefficiency of China’s energy use offers huge scope for improvement. Given the right policies, China could continue to grow rapidly without increasing its carbon emissions. But first it has to realize that policy changes are necessary.
I suspect that it will have these changes imposed upon it. I would not be terribly surprised if protectionism and environmentalism come together and push through these "carbon tariffs" that Krugman was talking about.

Yes, the Chinese would be angry. But there are already questions arising about the extent to which unqualified free trade actually benefits a country or its people, and it may be the only way to provoke real climate change action in China- which will be necessary if "green jobs" are going to be sustainable in the west.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Blue Dogs are Going to Be the Death of the Union

First they kill mortgage restructuring.

Now they've killed credit card interest rate limits.

And it's becoming clearer and clearer that they're going to kill any meaningful health care reform.

Is there ANY reason why people should believe that the Dems are going to every accomplish anything useful, when Reid either cannot, or will not, give his party the kind of cohesion that the Republicans enjoy as a matter of course?

Are the Dems even going to HAVE primaries anymore?

What a terrible bunch. What a dark day for America.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kos and "Community"

Kos has an interesting take on a Howie Kurtz lament about the decline of media. Here's Kurtz:

Newspapers are probably dying as a mass medium, except perhaps for elite or specialized audiences. Cutting down forests, printing the product and trucking it across the region no longer make economic sense. What is lost is the sense of community when everyone read the daily rag.
This is what Kos quoted. I think this is a bit unfair, though, since it was in the context of these preceding grafs:

The online cacophony that would follow the demise of newspapers would be fast, furious and fun, insightful and opinionated. But let's face it: Who would pay for a Baghdad bureau, or even a bureau in Albany or Annapolis?

I still have the buffet mentality, the idea that news, sports, entertainment and so on can make for a tasty package. Buffet folks like to get a fill, a briefing, a contextual sense of what's important. But so many others in the iTunes age would rather cherry-pick, clicking on one story and rushing off, window shoppers who rarely come inside.
Now the argument makes a bit more sense. The internet really does change the way you engage with the news; it tends to make you focus more on individual stories and issues, removing the gestalt of stories you get with a physical newspaper. Couple these individualized stories with comment threads, and you have serious tunnel-vision.

But here is Kos' response:

Groan. This "sense of community" bullcrap has been also spouted about the rise of good television. You see, in the 60s, 80 percent of Americans watched one of the three networks' nightly news. I mean it was just the three -- ABC, CBS, and NBC. It was a world in which Walter Conkrite could turn on the war in Vietnam, and the rest of the country would follow suit. If you're a media type, that's the ideal -- unparalleled influence and access to a vast national audience.

But cable TV, and then satellite TV, became hugely popular because people weren't happy with the limited crap provided by those three networks. Now you have hundreds of channels, most focused on narrow niche topics that were otherwise ignored in years past. For example, as I type this I'm watching coverage of the Giro d' Italia on Universal Sports -- a network focused on less popular but niche-y sports like diving, international hockey, sailing, track and field, mountain biking and cycling. It's the first time I've ever been able to watch the second most important cycling event in the world on television, and all because of the creation of yet another niche network. So the more the merrier!

Same thing has happened in print, with niche media proliferating on the web, and people unhappy with their local coverage splintering off to read about the stuff they are most interest in. So that "sense of community" thing? It never existed. Newspapers have always served the wealthiest members of their communities -- the people that will buy the stuff that advertisers were peddling. So ethnic communities have always been underserved. In San Francisco, Asians make up over a third of the population -- the largest single ethnic group in the city -- yet the San Francisco Chronicle doesn't have a single Asian columnist in its stable. Do you think the Asian community sees the Chronicle as a member of its community? Of course not. And given they were traditionally a relatively poor immigrant community, the Chron had little interest in engaging that part of the city.

All around the country, you see the major metro dailies completely ignore entire chunks of their cities. Why do you think the New York Times writes story after story after story talking about those poor unemployed Wall Street types no longer able to buy caviar or $800 doll houses for their daughters?

The reason alternate media has taken off was because the traditional media didn't deliver a product people wanted. If people felt a "sense of community" from their newspaper, perhaps they may have stuck with the product. But they don't, hence it's easy to toss it aside for the countless alternatives at the public's disposal.

And these new niche publications online are a community of their own, based not on geographic proximity, but on shared interests.

So I have no idea what Kurtz is talking about when he decries the lose of "sense of community". I have found far more community online than I ever did in those dark, pre-internet days.
Well, first, of course YOU have, kos. You run the most successful liberal blog in the world, that has a giant dedicated community. Those people who aren't Markos Moulitsas may differ about how much community they've found online.

Markos also misses the point. Kurtz is lamenting the way that things like the news brought people together. Because everybody saw the same stories and heard the same takes, they had the same rough understanding of what was going on in the world. Yes, that understanding was often blinkered, xenophobic and overly conventional, but it was shared. Shared experiences are extraordinarily important.

Those shared experiences are gone. People are more atomized than ever, thanks to the abundance of choices of media outlets, with the attendant breakdown of what the hell "media" is supposed to mean. They often have little to do with their community; kos' assertions aside, it's the local media that have been taking it in the shorts. That segment of the alternative media that isn't either funded by hooker ads or wealthy sponsors has been having a rough time of it lately, and replacing it with bloggers simply isn't going to cut it. We aren't you, kos.

Sure, it means that people who have been underserved by the previous community's media outlets now have ones to call their own. And, yes, they read/watch/listen to it. But does that mean they've been included into the broader media? No, of course not. They're as isolated and atomized as everybody else, focusing on their own community at the expense of others.

Saying "well, the newspaper was only serving the elite" is just foolish, too. I don't disagree that that was the case. But even after all this time, the the "media outlets" and "communities" on the Internet are still dominated by wealthy white males. If you want to bring the poor in, then don't give them their own little playground to be subsequently ignored by the guys with the money. Bring in publicly funded media, the Yin to the atomized Internet's Yang.

I get what he's saying. I get why he's saying it. And certainly Markos should be the champion of internet communities, he's had whole conventions named after him. But tunnel-vision is part of the problem, kos. Not the solution.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Organic Explosion!

No, I'm not referring to some horrible carbon-based conflagration. (Though, come to think of it, they all are carbon-based.)

Instead, I'm referring to this interesting entry by Tristero over at Digby's place:

It's true: These days, "organic" hardly means what most of used to think it meant. And yes, "organic" doesn't take into account, for example, the environmental impact of shipping produce a gazillion miles. And the class/cost issues: let's not go there right now but let's also not forget these are real issues and they are profoundly complex and troubling.

Still, the above chart, which is part of a fascinating graphic accompanying this article points to an amazingly rapid surge of interest among a large group of Americans in eating food grown quite differently than the stuff industrial agriculture provides. Good.

Now, if more of us continue to insist on eating what Michael Pollan calls "food" instead of "food-like substances," and if more of us insist that that food be produced in a sensible fashion, you can bet your bippy there will be a backlash funded by the Smithfield Foods of this country And it will be cast as a culture war, between the" elite foodies" and real Americans - windsurfing versus red-blooded hunting redux. Remember the arugula wars? It's gonna get nasty.

So let me be clear. I see absolutely no reason why the US government should be in the business of encouraging your children to eat in a way that drastically increases their chances of becoming diabetic and obese. But, via an entirely whack food policy that's written in the best interests of big industrial food suppliers, that is exactly what is going on.
I like that term "food-like substances." Apt description of a lot of what's out there.

I also like this move to organics. I think it'll drop a fair bit, since organics really are more expensive than "regular" food a lot of the time. The precedent is still set, however, as demonstrated by the spectacle of spokespeople for Heinz talking about "reducing additives" and the public desire for "authentic foods." Organics aren't going anywhere.