Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The bees knees

NY Times:Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Keepers in Peril

David Bradshaw has endured countless stings during his life as a beekeeper, but he got the shock of his career when he opened his boxes last month and found half of his 100 million bees missing.

In 24 states throughout the country, beekeepers have gone through similar shocks as their bees have been disappearing inexplicably at an alarming rate, threatening not only their livelihoods but also the production of numerous crops, including California almonds, one of the nation’s most profitable.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Mr. Bradshaw, 50, said from an almond orchard here beginning to bloom. “Box after box after box are just empty. There’s nobody home.”

The sudden mysterious losses are highlighting the critical link that honeybees play in the long chain that gets fruit and vegetables to supermarkets and dinner tables across the country.

Beekeepers have fought regional bee crises before, but this is the first national affliction.

With all of the challenges our food supply is under (climate, bio-fuels, pesticide resistant insects, herbicide resistant weeds, growing demand) we are increasingly vulnerable to any setback.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

War with Iran: Who wins, who loses

Which way will the balls bounce?

Ezra Klein: The Edwards Interview
Iran: His [John Edwards'] position here is more thoughtful and nuanced than his comments at the Herzliya conference revealed. "what happens," he asked, "if America were to militarily strike Iran? Well you take this unstable, radical leader, and you make him a hero—that’s the first thing that’ll happen. The Iranian people will rally around him. The second thing that will happen is they will retaliate. And they have certainly some potential for retaliating here in the United States through some of these terrorist organizations they’re close to, but we’ve got over a hundred thousand people right next door. And most people believe that they have an infrastructure for retaliation inside Iraq. So, that’s the second thing that’ll happen. And the third thing is there are a lot of analysts who believe that an air strike or a missile strike is not enough to be successful. To be successful we’d actually have to have troops on the ground, and where in the world would they come from?"

Something I've been thinking about the last few weeks is who wins and loses if war (or a facsimile thereof) breaks out between the U.S. and Iran. Being as the grunts are tied down in Iraq I imagine a plan similar to Arthur Herman's, heavy on special forces, air and sea power.

Iran: Undoubtedly their air force and navy would suffer terribly. If oil facilities and refineries were damaged they would have a hard time bringing in outside supplies and experts for rebuilding (especially if sanctions were ongoing). Iran already faces declining production aggravated by a lack of investment in the oil sector On the other hand the threshold of victory is a lot lower for Iran than it is for the United States. As we saw in Lebanon, Iran just has to refuse to quit until international pressure forces the U.S. to knock it off. The U.S. will be starting in a P.R. hole (especially after being seen as crying wolf on Iraq's WMDs) and CNN will be rebroadcasting every shot of dead Iranian kids that comes over Al Jazerra. Criticism from allies, rivals, and assorted tinpot dictators will flow in a mighty wave. Even if Iran is whipped militarily they could still "win" the war.

Iraq: Iranian instigated violence against the U.S. and/or the Sunnis would no doubt make things worse. More neighborhoods flattened, more bodies in the streets. If the pessimists are right (and Iraq has been nothing but kind to pessimists) and the U.S. forces come under heavy attack and have to pull back to a few bases or even quit the country, full bore ethnic cleansing and civil war will probably be the order of the day. The Kurds are friendly with the Iranians so the Northern part of the country might not be that good of a spot to pull back to (depends how scared of Turkish intervention the Kurds are). We may have to choose between Iran and Iraq.

Saudi Arabia and Kuwait: It depends if Iranian missiles reach them and if the straits of Hormuz are blocked for any period of time. If they can keep pumping they will be rewarded with even greater oil wealth as oil prices shoot up. Having the Iranians cut down to size will probably make them feel more secure in the long term. Civil unrest among Shia populations in the oil rich part of Saudi Arabia might cause some sleepless nights in the house of Saud in the short term though.

Russia: Falling oil prices were a big part of what brought down the Soviet Union. So the boost in oil prices will improve job security for the in crowd at the Kremlin. The Soviets won't be happy to see their wishes ignored which feeds into the sense that they are not taken seriously since the end of the Cold War. The Russians see the influence they used to have and had accepted as their birthright gone and that doesn't go over well. Russia may well land contracts to redevelop the Iranian infrastructure and even a greater amount of influence over Iranian production. Russia wouldn't mind altogether having the Iranians knocked down a bit though given their traditional desire to be surrounded by vassal buffer states (and the potential for an insufficiently cowed and dependent Iran to make trouble in the Muslim territories). And hey, if some of those new misslies they sold Iran knock down a few American planes that'd be a heckuva ad for Russian arms exports.

China: The story of China's foreign policy the last few years has been the scramble to secure resources. China has been offering no questions asked deals with rogue states that possess oil and minerals and has been pushing hard for pipeline deals to lessen their dependence on sea lanes for oil. As a fairly energy inefficient producer of exports this could hurt them both with an increase in costs and a drop in demand. China has to maintain growth to keep the populace reasonably happy. No doubt they will sell lots of new toys to the Iranians to replace the ones broken by the Americans but that seems a small consolation.

Mexico: They are heavily dependent on oil wealth for government spending and face declining production. So this could delay a day of reckoning for the Mexican government.

Much of the third world loses. They have been priced out of the oil market already and increases in price which would be painful for the west could be catastrophic to countries on the edge.

The United States: The best likely outcome is Iran being forced to accept international inspectors and back off its nuclear program after a short engagement with relatively light costs to the U.S. Even with this scenario, Oil will spike in price and probably set off another round of inflation which of course will require the good doctor Bernanke to administer another round of tough love to the economy a few months later . Higher prices (especially higher energy prices) will cut disposable income. Couple that with Interest hikes and ARMs resetting and you have a lot of marginal homeowners who just became ex-homeowners. So housing takes another hit. Domestic automakers are hit with the economy slowing down in general and energy prices incompatible with their product mix, perhaps even incompatible with life. Hope the Republicans don't need Indiana, Ohio, or Michigan to win the Presidency in 08.

In the Worst case Iran emerges bloodied but unbowed. Probably the nuclear program is delayed a year or three due to damage to the facilities themselves and to the Iranian economy but the country is determined as a point of national pride to follow the path to the bitter end. The U.S. suffers massive casualties in Iraq and in retaliation attacks elsewhere (probably leading to more punitive strikes on Iran and more long term reductions in Iranian oil production). The Straits are closed for a period of time and some oil facilities in nearby countries are damaged by missiles or terrorists. Mix in a hurricane or two that forces a shutdown, even a brief one, of the Gulf of Mexico and oil is at triple digit levels. The big 2.5 are in chapter 11, if not chapter 7. The country is in a deep recession and the bears are murmuring about a depression. Republicans endure many a "thumpin" and minority status for the next decade. Worst of all, many, many American troops aren't coming home....ever.

assimilation....or not

The American Scene:His Fordship

Second, while Ford's politics were odious in many respects, his belief (and the belief of his fellow industrialists) in the importance of teaching immigrants "American ways" and "the English language" was crucial to early-twentieth century America's ability to assimilate a huge influx of foreign-born laborers. One of the problems facing contemporary America is that the transition from an industrial to a service economy has changed, to some degree at least, the incentives for employers who hire immigrants. When you run a huge automotive plant, you need a workforce that speaks the same language and sticks around long enough to be trained to handle dangerous, complex machinery, and you need to be willing to pay them high(ish) wages to keep them there. Whereas when you're hiring people to dig gardens or mow lawns or clean offices, the benefits of having an unskilled, somewhat unreliable non-English speaking employee base (namely, that you don't need to pay them as much) often outweigh the costs. So where the old business lobby wanted assimilation, the new business lobby wants "temporary guest workers" - which makes Henry Ford look, well, maybe not so bad after all.

Free trade, like most other major policy shifts, has had a whole raft of unintended consequences. A big part of the Democratic Party surge in the "Rust Belt" has been the persistent negative economic effects of international competition on highly paid blue collar workers. The nation as a whole has suffered as well. Union factories were means for those in the underclass to move to a middle class life which in turn allowed them to invest in their children who could go to college and move up the ladder. Still the assumption is out there that Hispanics will be like other waves of immigration and migration and generationally will advance solidly into the middle class. Often you here this from the folks who sing free trade's praises and decry Unions as parasites on society. The conditions on the ground have changed. Hispanics are no worse or better than Southern Blacks that headed to Northern Cities or the European immigrants who came to America for opportunity. The thing that has changed is the economy (and thus the incentives on the actors).

There are good things about the changes (higher quality goods and lower prices) but the costs are still being tallied.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The good hands are wearing boxing gloves

CNN:Insurers play hardball in minor crash cases
If you are injured in a minor car crash, chances are good that you will be in the fight of your life to get the insurance company to pay all the medical costs you incur -- even if the accident was no fault of your own.

That's what CNN discovered in an 18-month investigation into minor-impact soft-tissue injury crashes around the country. Those are accidents in which there is little damage to the vehicle and the injuries to people are not easy to see by the naked eye or conventional medical tools like X-rays.

Since the mid-1990s, most of the major insurance companies -- led by the two largest, Allstate and State Farm -- have adopted a tough take-it-or-leave-it strategy when dealing with such cases.

The result has been billions in profits for insurance companies and little, if anything, for the public, according to University of Nevada insurance law professor Jeff Stempel.

"We can see that policyholders individually are getting hurt by being dragged through the court on fender-bender claims, and yet we don't see any collateral benefit in the form of reduced premiums even for the other policyholders," Stempel said.

"So I think now we can say to continue this kind of program is in my view institutionalized bad faith."

If you have never heard of the strategy, it's because insurance companies don't want you to know that they are paying out less and less for minor crashes even while their profits soar and your premiums continue to rise.

But after a review of more than 6,000 company documents and court records, interviews with a dozen people nationwide, including former company insiders, and conversations with accident victims, the picture is clear: If you challenge the offer by some insurance companies you will be left with no option but to go to court, where you will be dragged through the wringer.

In an affidavit in a New Mexico case where Allstate is being sued, one of the company's former attorneys said the strategy is to make fighting the company "so expensive and so time-consuming that lawyers would start refusing to help clients."

.....The cases, CNN found, illustrate a carefully developed strategy to make the victims look like they are trying to defraud the insurers.

But documents CNN obtained indicate profit, not fraud, is the reason companies decided to play hardball in small accidents.

For Allstate and State Farm, according to documents obtained by CNN, the strategy was developed in the mid-1990s with the assistance of consulting giant McKinsey & Co.

Looking for a way to boost profits, McKinsey focused on soft-tissue injuries incurred in minor crashes.

While the McKinsey documents -- numbered in the thousands -- are under seal in courts around the country, CNN saw several of them during a court hearing in Lexington, Kentucky.

Playing off Allstate's signature slogan, one document recommends the insurer put boxing gloves on its "good hands" for those who insist on going to court.

The strategy, according to former Allstate and State Farm employee Jim Mathis, relies on the three D's -- denying a claim, delaying settlement of the claim and defending against the claim in court.

"The profits are good, and as long as the community, the public allows this to occur, the insurance companies will get richer and people ... will not get a fair and reasonable settlement," Mathis said.

So the insurance companies are making more money by offloading their obligations onto the public. Meanwhile, premiums keep rising. Insurance companies are no longer satisfied with the spread between the premiums and the risk, now they are refusing to pay the full cost of the risk. Whether we're talking about health, homeowners, or auto insurance the pattern is the same: constantly increasing premiums and even more denied claims. This is what today's "free market" looks like, institutional fraud on a massive scale.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Because we, like, don't need to know anything about Hurricanes..

Jeff Masters' wunderblog:Hurricane research flights grounded
For the first time since NOAA began flying research aircraft into hurricane in the 1950's, there is no money to fund airborne hurricane research for an upcoming hurricane season. NOAA's state-of-the-art flying weather research laboratories, the two P-3 Orion hurricane hunter aircraft, may sit idle this hurricane season due to a lack of funding. NOAA's Hurricane Research Division (HRD) usually receives several million dollars each year to perform hurricane research using the P-3's. However, funding for HRD has steadily declined over the past decade, forcing HRD to reduce staff and cut back on hurricane research. Now, this key form of hurricane research has been zeroed out by NOAA.

Not only is this dumb as a policy decision, it's dumb as a political decision.

Guiliani and the future of the Republican party

John Podhoretz weighs in on Guiliani as a candidate:

So I don't think he can win the nomination without making some peace with social conservatives. The question then is what responsibility social conservatives — or, more precisely, those who lead social-conservative organizations — will do then. Because here is the profound problem facing us in 2008: If social conservatives decide to run a third-party candidate out of disgust with Rudy (or even John McCain, who could cause the same sort of schism on, say, immigration), they will ensure the election of Hillary or Barack or John Edwards.

No one should surrender their deepest beliefs on the altar of political expediency. But American politics is most often a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils. That's the real choice social conservatives may have to make in 2008 — between a principled stand that leads to a terrible result or a more pragmatic stand that requires some real bending.

L.A. Times:State aims for Feb. 5 primary to boost clout

With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's backing, state lawmakers from both parties are moving rapidly to make California a player in choosing the nation's next president by holding the state's primary four months earlier.

A bipartisan group of state senators introduced legislation Friday to change the 2008 presidential primary from June 3 to Feb. 5. Another bill was introduced by an Assembly Republican on Thursday, the day after Schwarzenegger declared that moving up the primary date would make California "relevant" nationally and was "something to shoot for."

The February date — the earliest the state can choose under national party rules — would place California at the beginning of the election season, right after four states that have secured the most privileged spots in January for their Democratic caucuses or primaries: Iowa (Jan. 14), Nevada (Jan. 19), New Hampshire (Jan. 22) and South Carolina (Jan. 29). The Republican calendar has Iowa and New Hampshire first, with the rest of the schedule in flux.

......Republican moderates such as former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who might face opposition in Southern states for their liberal views on social issues, could benefit from the change.

The train wreck I see coming here is "values" voters being faced with nothing but unpalatable choices in a Giuliani candidacy. They could walk away from the Republican party and try to build something new from scratch (which probably will go nowhere and then they will be going back hat in hand). They could take one for the team and pull the lever for the lesser of two evils. Of course once the GOP gets away with a pro abortion president are they ever going to willingly go back to nominating pro-life presidential candidates (we'd probably get a veep or some other consolation prize)? Or, they can stay home in 08 to teach the Party a lesson and let the Democrats have the keys to the "anti-Terrorism" Leviathan Bush built (which if Clinton the First's term is any guide will probably be targeted against "domestic terrorism"). On the other hand, one lesson the party brass might take from this would is the Christians are not to be trusted, leading to even more unpalatable candidates as the GOP tries to forge a new consensus not overly reliant on values voters.

The Democrats would cheer any of these outcomes for the immediate partisan boost. But I'm not sure convincing a decent sized swath of the populace they that the federal government is an unrestrainable bad actor is a good thing for the future of progressive values, or for that matter of the nation. The Anti-D.C. strain of political thought is strong enough without adding fuel to the fire.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Buh-bye John

Chicago Tribune: Edwards to keep bloggers

John Edwards, the former North Carolina senator and Democratic presidential candidate, is keeping his hired bloggers who, after what must’ve been a very sober talk with him, have promised they’ll be more temperate in their language than they were before they joined his campaign.

Here’s the statement issued by Edwards' campaign:

The tone and the sentiment of some of Amanda Marcotte's and Melissa McEwan's posts personally offended me. It's not how I talk to people, and it's not how I expect the people who work for me to talk to people. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but that kind of intolerant language will not be permitted from anyone on my campaign, whether it's intended as satire, humor, or anything else. But I also believe in giving everyone a fair shake. I've talked to Amanda and Melissa; they have both assured me that it was never their intention to malign anyone's faith, and I take them at their word. We're beginning a great debate about the future of our country, and we can't let it be hijacked. It will take discipline, focus, and courage to build the America we believe in.

For anyone who hasn’t been following this story, the Edwards campaign has caught flack from conservatives after past anti-pope and anti-conservative personal blog postings by Marcotte and McEwan gained wide circulation through outraged right-of-center bloggers and talk radio.

Marcotte once wrote:

“The Pope's gotta tell women who give birth to stillborns that their babies are cast into Satan's maw. . . . The Catholic Church is not about to let something like compassion for girls get in the way of using the state as an instrument to force women to bear more tithing Catholics."

McEwan called social conservatives “wingnut Christofascist base.”

These are the ones safe for publication. Other charming statements "not intended to malign anyone's faith" are swimming around the net. Of course anyone who points out the statements these two have made is to blame for the controversy.

Anyone who hire bigots to run their campaign's communications, and sticks with them after their bigotry is exposed, deserves to lose. Even more brilliant is hiring a vocal bigot who targets one of the swing constituencies Edwards would need for a general election run (Catholics). Catholics may not agree with the church on social policy, but I don't think they are anxious to sign on with someone who attacks their faith. Just like members of any group they will complain, but that doesn't mean they will accept attacks from outside.

I liked Edwards' emphasis on poverty, but there are places you do not go.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The diffeence between a boy and a man taking responsibility

The Chicago Tribune-Mike Downey:Bears coulda, shoulda

Grossman was dejected to see this game and this chance to quiet his critics slip away.

"It was slippery," he said of the wet football. "When the ball was snapped up from center, it would just kind of slide off of my hands."

The defense's leader, Brian Urlacher, also saw a Super Bowl ring slip through his fingers.

"We just couldn't make the plays we needed to make and we didn't do a good job of tackling," Urlacher said. "The defense and I just didn't make plays. All season long we have prided ourselves on our defense and on making plays, and we did not come out and do that."

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Surge....Super Sized!

TPM Muckracker:"Surge" Far Larger Than 20,000 Troops
A analysis released today by the Congressional Budget Office shows that the administration, in its public comments, has vastly underestimated the actual number of extra troops that will be deployed to Iraq under the president's "surge" plan.

The administration's estimate of approximately 21,000 extra troops only counts combat units, according to the analysis, and because combat units require support forces, the actual number of additional troops who will be in Iraq will likely exceed 35,000......

Also, it turns out it's going to cost 2-3x the amount the administration claimed. What a shock.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Sports Illustrated:NFL won't let church show game
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- The NFL has nixed a church's plans to use a wall projector to show the Colts-Bears Super Bowl game, saying it would violate copyright laws.

NFL officials spotted a promotion of Fall Creek Baptist Church's "Super Bowl Bash" on the church Web site last week and overnighted a letter to the pastor demanding the party be canceled, the church said.

Initially, the league objected to the church's plan to charge a fee to attend and that the church used the license-protected words "Super Bowl" in its promotions.

Pastor John D. Newland said he told the NFL his church would not charge anyone and that it would drop the use of the forbidden words.

But the NFL objected to the church's plans to use a projector to show the game, saying the law limits it to one TV no bigger than 55 inches.

The church will likely abandon its plans to host a Super Bowl party.

"We want to be supportive of our local team," Newland said. "For us to have all our congregation huddled around a TV that is big enough only for 10 or 12 people to watch just makes little sense."

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the league's long-standing policy is to ban "mass out-of-home viewing" of the Super Bowl. An exception is made for sports bars and other businesses that show televised sports as a part of their everyday operations.

"We have contracts with our (TV) networks to provide free over-the-air television for people at home," Aiello said. "The network economics are based on television ratings and at-home viewing. Out-of-home viewing is not measured by Nielsen."

So it's OK to publicly show the Super Bowl in a business that derives economic benefit from it but not in a non-profit that does not. I guess it's OK that the "Nielson" doesn't count all the folks in bars across the country, but Goodell forbid that the folks of the Fall Creek Baptist church might not be watching at home (just how many members in the church are Nielson participants?)