Thursday, September 28, 2006

America the Tortureful?

Boy has America come a long way (much of it in the wrong direction) in the last 5 years. The New York Times has a true and depressing piece today about the so called anti-terrorism bill about to get shoved through Congress. Passing such a bill is surely a victory for the terrorists.

With all respect possible to those who died on September 11, the greatest damage done by the terrorist attacks has been the damage we have (and continue) to inflict on ourselves by pretending that we somehow gain safety by compromising our national and moral principles. The end (keeping ourselves safe), justifies even the worst means (up to and including torturing innocent civilians) as long as we believe (however foolishly) that doing so can make us safe.

It is ok to attack any country for any reason or even for imagined/no-reason (as long as we hit upon a noble purpose like spreading democracy). It is ok to lock people up indefinitely (without review) because of our suspicions. Those held at Gitmo are predominately "suspected terrorists". It is ok if our president breaks our laws (wiretapping), because he tells us he wants to keep us safe (that is after first denying that he was spying on us). It is ok to treat other people with less dignity and respect than we would demand in reversed circumstances (Geneva conventions) because the president finds the terms dignity and respect vague. It is ok to redefine torture so the way we currently treat prisoners is less likely to be fit within such a limited new definition. And oh yeah the president gets to decide in secret what really is torture/abuse. And evidence given under torture/abuse/duress can be used against them in court. It is ok to try and convict people based on evidence they cannot hear or see (thus shredding any notion of fairness in defense or trial). All these things are ok, because if your name is Abu or Hamid you are presumed guilty, if we even suspect you.

And yet we wonder how radical ideology and anti-americanism can be so widespread and growing...why some people are opposed to our occupation (culturally/economically if not physically) of oil-rich countries in the mid-east.

It doesn't have to be this way! We can defeat terrorists without shredding our constitution and surrendering the rights our founders so bravely fought for. We do not need to participate in the human sacrifice of American sons and daughters to the GODS OF TERROR.

Our president says we fight them over there so we don't have to fight them if they don't know where we live! It only took 19 of them (aided by our complacency/lack of imagination) to kill ~3000 innocents on 9/11. And now there are hundreds and thousands more entering the jihadi cause. Our president somehow thinks our military can defeat an enemy we do not understand, cannot recognize, and will not speak to (other than to taunt "bring it on") in distant lands where all our soldiers can do is point their guns and asses the threat of every person they encounter in completely foreign surroundings, until they make a mistake and either wound/kill an innocent or be wounded/killed by a hostile.

Yeah and Mr. President how is that whole Iraq thing going? I mean how is it really going? not the BS/spin/crap/lies about turning corners and "freedom is on the march". Just hoping or wishing that everything will turn out well, does absolutely nothing to make it so. We've heard what you believe about the freedom loving people in Iraq, and how wonderful it was to see these brave people brave such danger to vote democratically.

But how much longer can the Iraqis themselves stand the sectarian violence and the islamofascists tearing the country apart? One more year, three more years, ten more years, longer? So long as our occupation of Iraq fuels more terrorism and violence and resentment among Iraqis, we will never "defeat" this tactic called terror (or even the jihadi extremists in Iraq) and we will never be able to withdraw our troops. Sadly our current strategy gives the terrorists control of our foreign and military policy as they can veto any withdrawal of troops by stirring up violence (as they have done this summer).

Monday, September 25, 2006

A look at a CO2 for Payroll tax swap.

I felt that it might be interesting to look at some numbers related to the concept of replacing the payroll tax with a CO2 emissions tax as Gore recently proposed. I assume that any major change like this one would be phased in over a number of years (i.e. 10% for each of 10 years).

It looks to me that annual payroll taxes amount to ~$750 B.
Roughly 100 M taxpayers x $50,000/taxpayer x 15.3% payroll tax (worker + corp)

The US uses about 7.5 B barrels of petro/yr and ~1.1 B tons of coal/yr. Obviously putting all the tax on either would be unfair to the other ~$100/barrel of oil or $680 ton of coal.

By my rough calculations 1 barrel of oil yields about 0.4 tons of CO2 emissions (20 lbs x 42 g/bl) and 1 ton of coal yields about 2.1 tons of CO2 emissions. A total of ~5.5 B tons of CO2 from these two sources: 3.2 B tons from oil and 2.3 B tons from coal. [Natural gas CO2 contributes another ~1.2B tons of CO2 emissions. All 3 produce a total of ~6.7 B tons.]

This implies a tax of about $110 per ton of CO2 emitted, which works back to a surcharge of $47/barrel of oil and $225 per ton of coal.

It works out to a total of $1.12/gallon over the decade, or $0.11/gal hike each year, significantly less than the "natural" price swings we have seen lately. This is about half the increase I expected.

On the other hand $225+ per ton of coal? Yikes!
Coal only costs about $30-40 ton delivered to the plant today.
Even if you break this down to a $22.5/ton yearly increase over the decade this is a significant increase compared to the baseline. A carbon tax at this level would increase the cost of coal energy by about 0.2 cent/kwh/yr or ~2.1 cents/kwh for the decade. Around a 5% increase a year [assumes 4-5 cent/kwh baseline] before savings from carbon storage projects. [Natural gas electricity prices should rise about 1 cent/kwh for the decade (45% of coal's increase).]

You can bet this would speed up efforts to capture and store carbon mightily. The website is proposing a 2012 start date for a new prototype "clean coal" plant. The plant is called FutureGen, presumably because they don't need to worry about generating with clean technology until far in the future.

Workers and companies would save a combined 1.53% of payroll tax each year as the tax is phased out. This equates to an average of ~$765 saved per year per employee (assuming a $50k base salary for the average worker). For the decade each worker would save an average ~$3,750 in payroll taxes.

At the end of the decade, would the average worker be better off under this scenario?

If the average taxpayer uses ~12,000kwh/yr and drives 12,000 miles/yr, the extra cost (assuming they did not become more efficient during the decade) would be around $1,200 for direct energy expenses, leaving them $2,500 better off (before potential knock on effects of higher energy prices).

One of the best arguments for a tax swap like this is that relative to today's system, it would encourage employment and discourage pollution and waste.

Edit 10/1/06: updated figures to include natural gas CO2.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Outrage Overwhelmed.

After five years of careful observation, I think that the current administration has set out to do so many outrageous things that no matter how much time and energy you devote, there is just not enough time or energy to be properly outraged about each and every outrageous activity.

It is simply impossible to get worked up and sufficiently steamed about each harmful/depraved/duplicious/arrogant/malicious/petty/boneheaded/
mendacious/overreaching/corrupt/reckless endeavor.

First the congress, then the media and finally the citizens were each in turn overwhemed by the assault on prudent action and sensible policy. There is barely enough time to catalog/register the faults, errors and failures, let alone finding the energy to respond and repair even the most egregious excesses.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Hats off to Al Gore!

"Carbon Freeze" is a singularly impressive speech by Gore.
I ran into it over at gristmill.
If you haven't seen it/read it, please do so, you won't regret it.

I think it absolutely the right call at this time.

The speech follows up on the discussion he began with An Inconvenient Truth. Gore assembles a number of (existing) proposals and combines them, creating a big picture solution. He asks America to reclaim its position as world leader and take the necessary steps to address the Climate Crisis. Gore calls on all of us to make a Carbon Freeze a reality and he recalls the grassroots Nuclear Freeze movement that provided the political will to address an equally global seemingly insurmountable crisis. Gore's movie showed us that the debate about climate change was over.

Now he offers a laundry list of possible solutions--all existing or at least well understood in principle such as carbon sequestration--in power generation and grid management, in transportation and agriculture, in cogeneration and architecture, in forestry and conservation. He points to business leaders (GE and Walmart) and politicians (CA and the mayor initiative) that are championing existing solutions and investing in developing the technology to address climate change.

Gore suggests replacing the payroll tax (a drag on employment) with a carbon tax (a drag on waste and pollution). Gore points to religious leaders that are pressing for urgent action and says that (addressing climate change) is question of right vs. wrong rather that right vs. left. We all have a common interest in preserving our planet.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

More on recyled paper products

A couple weeks back I put up a post about my joining a boycott of consumer paper products.

I automatically assumed that I would have to give up performance/quality for recycled feel gooding. I was stunned to quickly find a recycled TP that is BETTER than the major tree-killer brands. (Believe me, I figured recycled TP would be the LAST product I'd embrace!)

Earth First recycled TP (2-ply) performs better than Charmin or Scott. Getting 2-ply is important (at least for how I use TP) as I found a single ply recycled from Marcel to be next to useless. Better performance and eco-feel gooding...can't beat that!

I'd rate Earth First paper towels as ok, I like Fiesta a bit better simply because they feel more like I'm accustomed to paper towels feeling. Either one works as well as I've needed for day to day stuff. I don't typically make (or find) daily messes, but every few weeks I'll be glad to have a roll of paper towels handy. I've also tried Earth First napkins (my supermarket only carries one brand of recycled--lol) and they are not great. I mean I'm real happy to be using recylced napkins, but I definately notice the performance drop...of course these were 1-ply recycled napkins so maybe its just a matter of finding 2-ply napkins.

I've been anxious to share what I've learned and my success such as it is with recycled paper products.

Edit 9/26/06: Gristmill has some discussion of recycled TP if you want more options:

Detour and Distraction

If the Taliban had proven to be a tougher foe, perhaps Americans would have felt properly avenged and the military sufficiently indispensable that we could have focused attention on improving security at home. Instead, before we had completed our objective of disrupting and capturing Al Queda's leaders, our leaders turned their attention to strikingly more ambitious goals of transforming the entire Mid-East into a series of peaceful America loving regional democracies. How would we achieve this noble goal? We could achieve this either through bluff and intimidation, or through regime change and other words at gun point.

Didn't they notice that throughout history, violence begets violence?

In their hubris and folly, our leaders embarked on a national (and international) campaign of misinformation, intimidation, spin, deceit and fear mongering with the express purpose of "regime change in Baghdad". Yeah I'm sure the oilmen in office didn't miss the fact that Iraq has huge oil reserves. Knowing that people might object to the cost (both human and economic) of a war, the administration deliberately lowballed the required troop levels, length of stay and corresponding cost estimates of such an enterprise, retiring or marginalizing the few people who were bold or foolish enough to call them out.

At the same time they took every opportunity to prejudice the public (i.e. scare the bejebus out of us) with doomsday scenarios of nuclear or chem/bio weapons assault delivered against us via fictitious Iraq-Al Queda connections. We were told that Saddam Hussein was a madman that had used WMDs against his own people. (Now were those the same weapons that we supplied him?) The obvious implication was that nothing could be ruled out. We were told there were links between Al Queda and Saddam. These "links" have since been shown to be pure fabrication or so tenuous that it would be as accurate to suggest that Bush has links to Mara Salvatrucha a.k.a. MS-13. Bush is president and MS-13 operates in the US, case closed.

We were told that the risks of inaction were much greater than the cost of a quick military campaign, and oh yes we KNOW, 100% sure, incontrovertible proof of where they have WMD, we just can't (for fear compromising national security) say where publicly. Well, our leaders scared, lied and intimidated us into starting preemptive war. So much for "democratic countries are peace loving countries".

And in Iraq we remain stuck almost 3.5 years later trying to enforce peace and democracy at gunpoint. And we are stuck, no two ways about it. We can't pull out, or those terrorists (who were not there until we invaded) might claim victory. In taking this approach we have basically ceded control of our military (& foreign policy) to the terrorists. They get to say when it's quitting time not us. Meanwhile our staying there is only fueling the violence of those factions that want us out. A number of cultural and communication challenges, not to mention some president approved aggressive interrogation tactics, have led our troops to engage in a number of actions that were viewed as highly offensive by many Iraqis (Abu Gharib...). So the longer we stay the worse it gets. And the worse it gets the more determined our president is to "stay the course".

Yup Bin Laden's got you by the balls Mr. President. He had that Zarqawi fellow tie up your military for 3 years. 150,000 troops pinned down in Iraq with 2+ US soldiers dying each day and our military now spending over $400 million a day. We recently got Zarqawi, but by them the violence lawlessness and killings had taken on a life of their own. But hey, you were the one that told them to "Bring it on."

Moreover contrary to all the happy talk we've heard from this administration (we have turned so many corners, I'm dizzy) about all the progress in Iraq, we have not been able to provide significant or substantial reconstruction aid (which is one thing we could have achieved that might have won more Iraqis to our cause) because of the miserable security situation. Electricity and water supplies are down. Heck we can't even get as much oil production going as Saddam did while under UN sanctions. Individual militias and insurgents are running rampant throughout select provinces.

Our military is very good at destroying armies and quite good at precision bombing, but in fact the job we have given them of occupying and securing Iraq against insurgents and forestalling a civil war has been and continues to be an impossible job. Obviously there is no simple way to positively identify terrorists or insurgents in a crowd (before they strike), even if they speak perfect English so it is no wonder that our troops have a difficult time dealing safely and respectfully with the general Iraqi populace. Even more disturbing, the uniform leadership of the military has been cowed and broken by a civilian leadership that doesn't understand (or care to understand) what the military is or is not capable of. It is frankly a disgrace that nobody (aside from a couple foot soldiers) has been held accountable for the serious and persistent errors of leadership that have occurred in the last 3.5 years. And our leaders wonder why we are not meeting our military recruiting goals...

If only 2,500 American fighting men and women hadn't died since (not to mention the 45,000 innocent Iraqi civilian deaths) that day Bush appeared in front of the Mission Accomplished banner.

Meanwhile, the government has been so distracted that we have not taken nearly enough steps towards real, measurable security in terms of screening and control of our ports and boarders, securing loose nukes around the world, removing barriers to communication between intelligence and law enforcement agencies or even the simple things like creating (and sharing) a single database of known and suspected terrorists. And we all know that if a terrorist attack were ever to occur (which the president and vice-president like to remind us (just before elections) is a matter of when not if) we can count on zero help from FEMA.

And the worst part is that Iraq had nothing to do with Al Queda in March 2003! But by entering Iraq we have acted out our script exactly how Bin Laden, and his extremist henchmen would have wished, in fact in many ways we are likely exceeding his goals.

Yet our Vice-President has the gall to suggest that only those who question their policies are aiding and comforting the Terrorists! I bet Bin Laden was tickled pink that Bush/Cheney won in '04. And oh by the way are we trying to get Bin Laden or not?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The Response

A terrible thing happened to our country 5 years ago. For a brief moment I thought our country could respond with both strength and compassion. Yes, we needed to take strong action to improve security and disrupt Al Queda. But I was sure others would see that the best way to drain the swamps of hatred and frustration that nurtured extremists (and terrorists) involved greater international cooperation and a massive investment in international development. The old carrot and stick approach, but this time offering a serious carrot which could amount to billions of targeted development aid and assistance. After all we already have the biggest stick. Unfortunately the reaction of our nation's leadership was a poisonous combination of fear and arrogance. Fear is a very natural reaction to what our country faced, I mean if some unshaven dude with an unpronounceable name, wearing a cloth on his head, and living in a cave halfway across the world could cause us this much harm...well it was clear that we were not as safe as we had imagined.

Weather or not they shared this fear our leadership saw in this fear a chance to reshape the domestic and international landscape to their partisan benefit. And they took it with both hands. Believing that world superpower status granted us moral as well as military authority, we declared war (rightly) on terrorists and those who harbor terrorists.

Sadly and for the most part unknown to many of us at the time, the administration also used the situation to engage in an unprecedented power grab by the executive branch. As commander-in-chief our president said it was ok to use torture, cruel and degrading treatment against our enemies, because they did not belong to a recognized state, they had not agreed to the Geneva Conventions that were designed to protect military personal in combat. They used extreme and absurd hypothetical arguments, such as the ticking bomb scenario to argue that any interrogation methods including torture were justified to save lives.

The ticking bomb scenario posits that a known terrorist is in custody and furthermore that it is known with absolute certainty that this terrorist knows the location of a bomb that is set to go off (killing thousands if not millions) in the very near future. Given this premise it is further assumed that under aggressive interrogation (i.e. torture) this terrorist will disclose the true location of the bomb (all in time to defuse it and save the innocent otherwise victims). Isn't it ok to bend the rules a bit? Play a little rough with one guy since we know we can save so many? Aren't we in fact morally obligated to torture one person (or maybe a dozen) and justifiably so to save so many? What would you do in such a situation?

The problem of course is that this fictitious hypothetical scenario assumes as given every possible point of ambiguity. Like, how do you know there really is a bomb? And how do you know this character is an actual terrorist? And how can you be certain he knows where the bomb is located? And why do you think he will tell anything useful (like the true location) under torture rather than send you on a wild goose chase? One could just as easily assume the interrogator already knows the location of the bomb.

The whole notion of predicating actual policy on fictitious hypothetical scenarios is morally bankrupt.

Not content to simply occupy the moral low-ground, we immediately began to alienate necessary allies with crisp moralistic pronouncements like "you are either with us or against us" and "axis of evil" and perhaps most unfortunately "crusade". Using swift and flexible forces we quickly and (perhaps too) easily ousted the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, successfully disrupting Al Queda and forcing the remnants to go to ground. Inexplicably we didn't use our military forces to capture Bin Laden when he was cornered in Tora Bora, instead we relied on proxy forces of questionable loyalty who somehow allowed the man we wanted "dead or alive" and with a $25 million bounty on his head to escape apparently unharmed.

Monday, September 11, 2006

My remembrance

Five years ago we witnessed a terrible tragedy. We were hurt, although none so deeply as those who lost family members, loved ones and lifelong friends. We were shocked, I mean could what we were seeing ACTUALLY be happening? We were why? for what possible reason? We were overwhelmed, how on earth do you evacuate a 110 story building? let alone go about finding survivors in that wreckage? The scale and scope was so monstrous, the attack so seemingly random, although clearly purposeful, and the destruction so utter and complete that everyone was forced to reconsider reality. So many people were involved directly and indirectly that everyone around the country had a relative or a friend or a friend of relative that was affected. In the days that followed those of us not in New York watched on TV the Herculean task of search and rescue and later recovery teams sifting through the rubble. We were more than onlookers or voyeurs because we also grieved as a city of survivors coped and recovered from the most incredible attack of our lives.

We also witnessed (and indeed participated in--although again diluted by distance) an incredible spirit of camaraderie and openness, sharing and oneness. Our hearts went out to the widow, the orphan, the heroic policewoman and firefighter whose partner had fallen with the twin towers, just the way we would if they lived next door or down the street in our own community. In the face of indefinable hatred, unimaginable sorrow and pain, out of these shattered lives, and bittersweet acts of courage, Americans everywhere (and many too from other nations) came together and forged a psychic whole indivisible, determined to recover, rebuild and remember. Never again, we vowed, would we allow ourselves to be surprised by such outrageous and vile acts. We would hold those responsible to account!