Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Father of Fracking On Drilling Regulations

Of course, innovation is one thing. Whether it's good for society is quite another. And, like nuclear energy and genetic engineering, fracking draws critics, fearful of the drilling effects on drinking water, and the carbon emissions implications.
"That's going to prolong our dependence on the fossil fuel industry," Emily Wurth at Food and Water Watch. "Which is in their best interest, at a time when we need to be aggressively moving away from using fossil fuels."
Mitchell's view on that is a bit of a twist. He supports fossil fuel taxes, which could phase out his discovery. And his foundation has given millions to research clean energy.
And Mitchell wants stiff regulation of drillers, especially small, independent players.
"I've had too much experience running independents," Mitchell says. "They're wild people. You just can't control them. And if it doesn't do it right, penalize the oil and gas people. Get tough with them."
The words of a Texas oilman, talking out of school. It's not the first time George Mitchell has turned an idea upside down. And now, his breakthrough has turned America's fossil fuel debate on its head -- from one of scarcity to one of abundance.
That is very interesting.  The whole article is worth reading.  Their big breakthrough was finding that water was the best fracking fluid base.  That is potentially the most damaging breakthrough, also.  Water, it's scarcity, and the pollution thereof will be, along with climate change, one of fracking's biggest potential limitations.


OVERVIEW from Planetary Collective on Vimeo.

Of Bo Jackson and Joe Dudek

Just in time for this year's Heisman presentation, Michael Weinreb looks at the unlikely story of Joe Dudek and his 15 minutes of fame in 1985:
Reilly was in his first year at SI, covering college football. He was unimpressed by the Heisman Trophy field, and more than that, he and editor Mark Mulvoy were seeking to make a statement. College football was seething with blatant and in-your-face corruption, punctuated by the sordid happenings at Southern Methodist University. And even though Bo's career at Auburn had nothing to do with this — even though the supposedly inconsequential injuries, like a thigh bruise that kept Jackson out of certain games and that Reilly cited as the primary reason for Bo's lack of qualifications, were, in fact, very real — he and Iowa quarterback Chuck Long became symbols of the Heisman's insistent celebration of mediocrity. By extension, they became symbols of college football's inevitable degeneration into a semiprofessional avocation. In search of an anti-antihero, Reilly happened upon Joe Dudek, who had the name, and the car, and the lack of scholarship money — one of the myths that made the rounds was that Dudek actually worked cleaning up the stadium after the games (he's still not sure where that came from) — and who had run for 265 yards in his final game at Plymouth. Then, suffering from injuries and exhaustion, he had to be carted from the field by ambulance. Thigh bruise, indeed, Reilly sneered at Bo.
The cover: A mug shot of Bo, and a mug shot of Chuck Long. And at the bottom, a mug shot of Joe Dudek. Check boxes next to each; only the bottom box marked. Headline: The Thinking Fan's Vote for the 1985 Heisman Trophy. Inside, a shot of Joe posing next to the brown jalopy he drove, the totem of purity and innocence SI was seeking. The article's headline: "What the Heck, Why Not Dudek?"
"At a time of growing suspicion about the money side of big-time college football," wrote the Christian Science Monitor after the issue was published, "Joe Dudek has emerged as a symbol of the virtues and appeal of the game's purely amateur version."
"There's nothing wrong with creating a hero," Mulvoy told a few years ago. "Let's face it: Madison Avenue did it, everybody did it."
The whole thing is entertaining to read.

A Time For Dissecting Babies?

Garrett Epps explains the announcement that the Supreme Court will weigh in on gay marriage:
United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry are a matched set, each turning on when government in the United States may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and when "equal protection of the laws" forbids such discrimination.

Windsor is a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act, which declares that federal marriage benefits are available only to "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." In it, the Supreme Court is likely to revisit the question of when, if ever, it makes sense for society to discriminate against gay couples or individuals. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in effect decided that the answer is virtually never. Homosexual men and women, it reasoned, have been subject to such long-lasting prejudice and persecution that any law affecting them must be presumed invalid unless government can show a very good reason for adopting it.   

Hollingsworth v. Perry concerns a California ballot initiative that declared "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." In Perry, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals fudged the issue, holding that California's decision to offer marriage to gay couples, and then to retract the offer after a popular vote, was so arbitrary that no court could uphold it.

If the Supreme Court holds that neither federal nor state law can restrict marriage, the result would be revolutionary. Although the lawyers behind Perry are determined to obtain such a ruling, it seems less likely than another: that states may restrict marriage, but if a state decides to open the institution to gay people the federal government may not refuse to recognize the resulting unions.

A decision that restrictions on gay marriage don't violate the Constitution would not halt or reverse the trend demonstrated in last month's referendum victories for same sex marriage. It would nevertheless be a profound setback to the movement for equality -- history provides mournful examples of court cases that slowed needed social change, sometimes by many decades.
This will be a very interesting case to watch.  Most of the issues in the two cases have been addressed by the Court in very historic cases previously.  Decisions for federalism in inequality of the law were made in both Dred Scott (although that was only a small part of it) and Plessy v. Ferguson.  The case for overturning bigoted state marriage laws was made in Loving v. Virginia, and the issue of state stigmatization/criminalization of homosexuality was addressed on opposite sides in Bowers v. Hardwick and Lawrence v. Texas. 

This highlights the quandary the conservatives in these cases face.  To rule for the states' rights to discriminate puts them in the territory of some of the worst rulings in court history and against some of the most historic.  However, all of the conservative members have been in favor of states' rights versus federal power for their entire lives.  Roberts and company have to know that within 25 years (at the furthest) any case ruling that states have the right to decide against gay marriage will be overturned, either by the voters or, more likely, by the Court in a Loving style case.  It will come down to their willingness to stand for federalism (and favoritism of majority religious belief and/or bigotry) over civil rights against the nearly certain judgement of history. 

I really can't see the conservatives being willing to uphold DOMA, and expect it to be overturned in almost any outcome.  It will be the issue of federalism versus civil rights and the Fourteenth Amendment which will be the most controversial and momentous.  Conservatives have had it in for the Fourteenth Amendment and federal power for a long time.  They have to know that they are on the wrong side of history, but will they revel in locking in that place in the future?  Epps says the case comes down to Kennedy.  However, the same thing was said about Obamacare, and it came down to Roberts.  I will be interested in seeing what happens here.  I would say that there is a real possibility that you could see up to a 6-3 ruling for a historic overturning of all the state bans, but that isn't a large possibility.  5-4 or 6-3 for the states and against DOMA are probably the most likely, with some dodge on technicalities being between that and the historic decision. 

Division III Semifinals Today

Mary-Hardin Baylor plays Mount Union at 2 o'clock and St. Thomas meets UW-Oshkosh in the MIAC versus Beer and Sausage League matchup at 3.  Go Tommies.

Some Good Governance News

The Atlantic:
By the time Sandy hit, the MTA had addressed those concerns to a great extent. Some $30 million in flood prevention projects had been completed, according to the NYU report, from raising 30 station entrances to replacing old flood pumps to creating an emergency response center. Before Sandy's arrival on October 29, the authority suspended service, moved trains and equipment to higher ground, blocked entrances and covered grates to limit flooding, and prepared pumps for post-storm use.
After the storm surge, the MTA immediately began pumping flooded stations (with some eventual help from the Army Corps of Engineers). None of its rolling stock was damaged, buses resumed service the following day, and limited subway service was possible by November 1. By November 3, about 80 percent of the system was operational, and by November 16 all lines were operating except the R and A trains.
The MTA also kept the public informed through online updates, published emergency service maps that were updated frequently, and released videos of its efforts to enhance transparency. It also worked with other transportation modes to provide alternative commutes. An "impromptu Bus Rapid Transit" service sprouted between Manhattan and Brooklyn, with hundreds of buses crossing Manhattan Bridge on exclusive lanes. Emergency ferry service was established to parts of the Rockaways and Staten Island.
The MTA's preparedness was matched by the "inventiveness" of city commuters, writes the NYU report. With the L train out of service, some 7,400 commuters took the East River Ferry on November 1, doubling the typical ridership for an entire season. That day some 30,000 people also commuted by bicycle, more than double the daily average, a feat enabled by the city's expanding bike infrastructure. Private commuter vans played a helpful role as well.
At least they got some things right.  Public sector failure is in the news too often.  Maybe next time they'll do even better.  There will be a next time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Cholera, Influenza and Murder

Morning Edition:
Zeoli recently decided to test that theory using the lens of public health research: When scientists study the outbreak of an infectious disease like AIDS or the flu, they don't ask what it is about specific individuals that made them sick. They look for broader patterns, knowing that illness in any individual stems from a process of contagion.
Along with colleagues Jesenia M. Pizarro, Sue C. Grady and Christopher Melde, Zeoli asked whether homicide might follow the same principles of contagion.
"We looked at homicide as an infectious disease," Zeoli said in an interview. "To spread, an infectious disease needs three things: a source of the infection; a mode of transmission; and we need a susceptible population."
The researchers studied every homicide that occurred in the city of Newark, N.J., over a period of a quarter century, from January 1982 to September 2007. In all, Newark had seen 2,366 murders in that period, a rate of homicide some three times as high as that of the general U.S. population.
The researchers tracked down the time and location of every single murder. They plugged the data into a software program that has previously been used to track infectious diseases: When you put in the geographical location and the time of infection of each victim of the infectious disease, the program creates a model that shows how the epidemic is spreading — and where it might go next.
"We hypothesized that the distribution of this crime was not random, but that it moved in a process similar to an infectious disease, with firearms and gangs operating as the infectious agents," the researchers wrote in a paper they published in the journal Justice Quarterly.
The analysis showed that homicide spread through Newark very much like an infectious disease. The value of tracking murder in this fashion, Zeoli said, was not just to let police know where murder was happening — police already track hot spots and direct resources to those areas — but to make predictions about where homicide might spread next, based on the path of the epidemic.
Zeoli said that the model could make specific predictions about how and where homicide would spread in the future — information that could prove very valuable to police and other city officials.
I'm not extremely surprised by this.  I think a lot of things work along these lines.  Social influence causes people to act in certain ways, good and bad.  For another example, sometimes teen suicides come in little groups.  One action ends up making similar actions more acceptable.

We're Working Too Hard

Well, at least most people are.  I'm still a slacker:
November's jobs report is probably not going to be good. There will likely be a lot of noise in the data tied to Superstorm Sandy and the closing of Twinkie-maker Hostess Brands.
But some economists see hope for better jobs gains ahead, despite fiscal cliff fears. Why? In a nutshell, those of us who have jobs are reaching our breaking point. That can't continue for much longer.
The government reported some interesting figures yesterday that were largely overlooked by the market. Productivity in the third quarter was revised to a jump of nearly 3%. At the same time, unit labor costs fell nearly 2%.
In other words, we are working a lot harder ... but not seeing the rewards for it in our paychecks. Corporate America seems to be taking their Neil Young too literally. It's better to burn out than fade away. My my, hey hey indeed.
Bob Baur, chief global economist for Principal Global Investors in Des Moines, Iowa, noted that U.S. workers may be reaching the point where they are stretched too thin.
Baur cited figures that showed the U.S. is already one of the most productive nations among the world's largest markets. During the past ten years, the growth in gross domestic product per worker in the U.S. has outpaced growth in Britain, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany as well as emerging market Brazil.
What's that mean? At some point, U.S. corporations need to recognize that they can't keep trying to do more with less, especially if consumers continue to shrug off fiscal cliff fears and spend.
I am amazed at the hours many people I work with put in.  My job is alright, but it sure as hell isn't my life.  Hopefully, corporate profits are peaking, because, as this guy says, something has to give.  

Early Drought Warning

The Atlantic:
While nothing can be done to bring the rains, scientists are working on improving our ability to forecast drought conditions, which could give cattle farmers more time to find new sources of feed or take other precautionary measures.
A method presented yesterday at the American Geophysical Union meeting was able to find indications of drought a month before the U.S. drought monitor by looking at stress -- plant stress. Using data from NASA/NOAA's satellites, scientists mapped where plant surface temperatures were cooler, indicating they were using water in the soil to sweat and cool themselves, and where they were hotter, indicating scarcer water in the soil. In the case of a drought like 2012's -- a flash drought, meaning it came on very quickly -- a month of extra lead time could translate to huge savings.
In the video below, you can see the early, flickering signs of this summer's coming midwest drought, long before the region suddenly turns to a deep, dark red.

It highlights how dry it got in the fall of 2010. That is the season we almost set our 5 day old combine on fire, and did set over an acre of beans on fire.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Fine Mess You've Gotten Yourself Into

I went in to feed my chickens tonight, and when I picked up the big waterer off of the cinder block it sits on, I noticed a hen had gotten herself stuck in one of the holes of the cinder block. I tried to pull her out, but couldn't. So I took the block over by the door so there was a little more light, and still couldn't get her out. I went back to feeding, and when I came back with the camera, she'd managed to extricate herself. I was kind of glad I didn't have to pull her out, but I was disappointed I didn't get a picture.

Mr. Burns Explains the Fiscal Cliff

Crazy Video of the Day

All I could think was, "They aren't going to show it are they?" A little more information:
 A couple years back a drunk woman fell on to the subway tracks in Boston, and the whole incident was caught on tape. With a train coming at full speed, the only thing bystanders could do was to wave and point in the path of the train, which stopped inches - inches! - short of the woman. The stumbling woman kicked - but was somehow not electrocuted - by the third rail, and was finally helped back on to the platform. No wonder no one jumped in front of a moving train.

My Home County Makes The News

And not in a good way:
This rural community, 22 miles north of Dayton, has seen an explosion of poverty in the past four years that is among the highest increases in the nation. Last year, 16,000 people lived in poverty in Miami County — one of every six residents, the Census says. Four years ago, just as the Great Recession was taking its grip on the nation, one in 16, or 6,000 people, suffered in poverty here.
The recession hit the Miami Valley hard, squeezing the lifeblood of the local economy: the auto industry and manufacturers that shed thousands of jobs. Families living on the margins of poverty found themselves catapulted into its misery.
This pain has festered even as the circumstances for many Americans have improved. Although the U.S. poverty rate hovers at a daunting 15%, economists agree a slow recovery is afoot. Housing prices are stabilizing, manufacturing is rebounding and last week's consumer confidence index reached the highest level in five years.
But for people in Troy — and the tens of millions of Americans like them — the daily hardships of poverty aren't captured in statistics or healed by political promises. As lawmakers in Washington grapple with the "fiscal cliff" and Americans do their holiday shopping, thousands of people in Miami County are managing on little or no income. With a population of 103,000, Miami County has seen a particularly sharp increase in poverty among children and the unemployed. The number of poor children in the county increased from 1,900 in 2008 to 6,000 in 2011, according to the Census, which estimates a quarter of the county's children live in poverty. The number of unemployed who were poor increased from 711 in 2008 to 2,200 in 2011.
Times are tough everywhere.  It is kind of surprising that so many people in our area are shocked to find out how many people are struggling badly.  I followed foreclosure listings for a long time, and people were losing very affordable homes.  It was pretty clear there were a lot of people barely getting by.   But lots of folks don't know anybody who is having a hard time of it, or the people they know aren't letting on.

There Used To Be Something About Mary

The Atlantic features this:
Each year I mark the continued calamitous decline of Mary as a girls' name in the United States. Not to be over-dramatic, but in the recorded history of names, nothing this catastrophic has ever happened before. Mary was the most common name given to girls every year from the beginning of record-keeping (at least back to 1800) through 1961 (except for a six-year dip to #2, behind Linda).
And then it happened. In 2011, according to the latest report from the Social Security Administration (SSA), Mary fell three more places, to 112th. In absolute numbers, the number of girls given the name Mary at birth has fallen 94 percent since 1961. Here is the trend:

My explanation is that for much of our history, Catholics were a growing portion of our population, and naming girls Mary was ridiculously common, and had the added effect of differentiating them from Protestants.  Thr Post-Tridentine Church emphasized Mary seemingly to spite the Calvinists and stake out their differences.  I think this trend fell off with suburbanization moving Catholics out of their ghettos and into neighborhoods with Protestants, and it accelerated after Vatican II with the drop off of many traditional Marian devotions.  Anyway, it is a trend I've paid attention to also, so I found the story interesting.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Have a Drink and Celebrate

Prohibition ended 79 years ago today.  Have a shot!

That's A Commercial?

A strange ad for a product I've never heard of:

External world (1.0) from epokhe on Vimeo.

Stadium Funding, AKA, Sticking Taxpayers

Deadspin crunches numbers on one of the best examples of welfare for the wealthy:

  • Public financing of stadiums is not a new development; it began with the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which opened in 1923. Los Angeles was also the first city to devise a more complex public/private-funding mix: Dodgers Stadium was 25 percent publicly funded in 1962.
  • The mid-century urban-renewal movement led to a major boom in ugly stadium construction, most of it publicly funded. From 1956 to 1976, 50 stadiums were built—2.4 per year—at a cost of $10.8 billion in 2012 dollars, with 75 percent coming from the public. In the previous 47 years only 27 stadiums had gone up, at a cost of $1.0 billion, with 47 percent coming from the public. By 1957 more public money had been spent on stadiums than private, and it's stayed that way every since.
  • Recessions are bad for the stadium business. In the 10 years from 1977 to 1986, during which span the country fell into a double-dip recession, only six stadiums were built, at a cost of $1.0 billion, of which 90 percent was public.
  • The 1990s and early 2000s, on the other hand, were absolutely insane. From 1991 to 2004, a whopping 78 stadiums—5.6 per year—were built or underwent major renovation. This came to a cost of $26.0 billion (61 percent public).
  • While stadium growth has slowed since then—only 18 stadiums built since 2004—private funding (53 percent) has actually surpassed public funding for the first time in decades. This is largely due to four mega-projects: Cowboys Stadium, new Yankees Stadium, Barclays Center, and MetLife Stadium. Combined, those projects cost $5.4 billion, of which $4.5 billion was private (83 percent).
Now that this cycle of stadium building is complete, we hopefully won't be building more with taxpayer dollars.  But if it is anything like the last time, they'll knock these down before taxpayers finish paying them off.

 Hamilton County homeowners will pay more in property taxes next year after commissioners today reduced the property tax rebate to cover a $7 million deficit in the fund that pays for the professional sports stadiums.
In a 2-1 vote -- with lone Democrat Todd Portune the no vote -- commissioners rolled back the rebate by 50 percent for 2013 and agreed to do it again in 2014. This year property owners saved $70 for every $100,000 value of their home. That means next year they’ll pay $35 more per $100,000 of home value.
In choosing to scale back the rebate promised when voters approved building the stadiums in 1996, commissioners rejected Portune’s plan to raise the county’s sales tax a quarter cent to 6.75 for 10 years. That was seen as a long-term solution, while the rollback doesn’t solve the deficit going out beyond 2014.
Hamilton County taxpayers take it on the chin.

Time To Drop The Supply Side Lie?

Mark Thoma thinks Republicans use the growth argument as a ruse to attack entitlement programs, since there is no evidence to support their claims of economic growth from tax cuts:
Despite their failed promises, the Republican Party is asking that we extend the tax cuts for the wealthy, and some are even calling for further reductions in tax rates. However, if the Republican Party is truly the party of business, then surely it will understand that no responsible financial institution would continue to invest in a business that failed meet, or even come close to the growth and revenue projections that justified the investment in the first place. The payoffs from tax cuts that were promised during the Bush years have not been realized, and the failed promises about growth and revenue have damaged the health, education, and retirement programs the working class depends upon in our increasingly globalized economy.
A true party of business would end our investment in the false promise of supply-side economics. However, a party with a goal of reducing the scale of programs such as Social Security and Medicare along with delivering tax cuts to wealthy political backers would use arguments about the economic effects of tax cuts to disguise its true intentions. Which description fits best? Many Republicans still claim that tax cuts for the wealthy enhance economic growth despite the evidence to the contrary, but it’s rare to hear a Republican admit that these supply-side policies have failed.
I think the Republicans see pushing for tax cuts continuously as win-win.  If they get tax cuts through, it weakens the government and puts money in their and their supporters' pockets and erodes the government cash flow.  If they can't get tax cuts through, they scream harder that business would be booming if the tax cuts had gone through, even though there is no evidence of that.  Right now, though, Obama is making them flesh out how they plan to balance the budget, and I don't think people will like the details.  So far, though, still no details.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Casting A Large Shadow

Charles Pierce profiles Tom Crean's revitalization project at Indiana, and the tarnished legend who's continued presence off stage (or on TV) weighs on his work:
On his way out of the interview room, Oladipo stopped and talked with Bob Hammel, the local Indiana beat writer who had been Bob Knight's amanuensis throughout Knight's entire stormy tenure in Bloomington. In fact, Hammel was central to the strangest interview of my career. In 1991, while I was working for The National, prior to our unfortunate accident while docking in Lakehurst, New Jersey, I went out to Indiana to work on a story about the 15th anniversary of the 1976 national championship team, which had gone through the entire season undefeated. (At that time, UNLV was on the verge of doing the same thing, but eventually lost to Duke in the national semifinals in, oddly enough, Indianapolis.) I talked to almost every player on Indiana's 1976 roster, and the coach was my last interview.
I was told to meet him after practice. This already was not promising; Indiana was a good team that year, but not a great one, and Knight was never a field of buttercups after practice even in the best of times — which, after all, was what I was coming to talk to him about. Knight and Hammel and I adjourned to Knight's office, whereupon he proceeded to give me what has to be the world's longest string of monosyllables. It was like interviewing Tarzan. But, at one point, Knight said something about a particular game, and Hammel jumped in and corrected him. Knight's face lit up and then he and Hammel embarked on a 90-minute conversation about that season that was brilliant and insightful and that I wish had gone on for four more hours. I was allowed to keep the tape running. The ground rule, apparently, was that Knight would answer all my questions as long as Hammel asked them. (I still owe Hammel for this, by the way.) That oddball combination of genius and truculence and Christ-alone-knows-what-else is as much a part of the Indiana tradition that Crean has tried so hard to revive as Branch McCracken is. And, watching Victor Oladipo bend over and touch Hammel gently on the shoulder, I realized that, for all the work he's done, Tom Crean still has one very big, besweatered elephant sitting in the corner of his office at Indiana University.
Knight was definitely a piece of work.  He had some great instincts, and he had some terrible ones.  I don't know if many people would welcome him back as coach at IU if such a thing was possible.  I would guess his strongest supporters are dying in ever increasing numbers.  But he was definitely a legend in his own screwed-up way. 

He is also a totem of the changes I've made as a person.  In high school, I thought players who quit from his team were cry baby liberal losers.  Today, I wouldn't fault anybody for walking away from an abusive ass like him.  Things look different at different times in life.

A History of Income Tax Changes

Owen Zidar gives us this history of tax changes over the past 50 years:

This chart shows how income tax liabilities have changed each year for the five income quintiles over the past half century.  Here are a few things to notice:
  1. We love cutting income taxes. Almost all of the changes are tax cuts (i.e. they fall below zero in the chart), especially for the bottom 80%. Note that this pattern does not hold for payroll taxes.
  2. Tax cuts almost always benefit top income earners most. They pay the most taxes in dollar terms, so they get the most back. For example, the top 10% paid roughly 70% of federal individual income taxes in 2009. Increases in income inequality tend to increase this share.
So the case that tax cuts will increase revenues more than leaving rates the same doesn't seem to hold up considering that deficits started really ballooning around 1980.  I am shocked. Hey and look when we actually were starting to run a surplus (at least on paper).  The other thing to pay attention to is the giant crater in 2003 when dividends went from regular income rates to 15% and capital gains went from 20% to 15%.  That needs to go away.

Industrial Food Storage

Via the Dish, Nicola Twilly looks at large scale food storage and transportation.  Here is the description of Kraft's underground storage facility in Springfield, Missouri:
Over in the New World, Kraft also stores its cheese underground—in giant yellow drums, stacked five high, alongside Oscar Mayer meats and Jell-O puddings. Their four-hundred-thousand-square-foot subterranean warehouse and regional distribution center is housed in a disused section of a limestone mine, rather than a natural cave, in Springfield, Missouri.

The mine, which was begun in 1946 to extract agricultural lime and now produces aggregate for construction, is a hundred feet below ground, and thus maintains a steady 58°F—analogous to a natural cheese cave. Some of the blasted rock walls and the ceiling in the Kraft rooms have also been left au naturel, albeit accessorized with special anchors to hold lights and fixtures. But the similarities to traditional affinage end there: Kraft’s industrial cheese cave is underground—alongside an increasing volume of refrigerated data centers and photo archives, as well as food storage—for reasons that involve energy savings rather than terroir. The facility’s manager, Tony Snyder, estimates that Kraft uses 65 percent less electricity than a comparable surface warehouse, even though they rely on a chilled brine pumping system to bring the temperature down to a much less microbe-friendly 36°F.

Interstate-adjacent, with below-ground truck docks and rail sidings, as well as forty-five-foot ceilings to accommodate cranes, booms, and lifts, these kinds of titanic, fluorescent-lit, artificially refrigerated underground caverns increasingly house our food, our data, and our most valuable cultural artifacts. 

There's a lot of other cool information in the article.

Is The Commodity Boom Nearly Over?

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard thinks commodities bears may be underestimating the short-term demand from China (via nc links):
Chengdu’s planning chief told me the Hukuo feudal system that keep peasants stuck in their villages is being dismantled in Sichuan, opening they way for a fresh wave of migration. She expects her city to grow from 14m to 20m by 2020.
Nor is it clear that the Communist Party is yet ready to wean the country off state credit, top-down planning, and chronic over-investment, an addictive model for Maoist patronage.
China’s Development Research Council knows that the catch-up model launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978 is no longer fit for purpose as China moves up the technology ladder.
Yet the Party’s 10-year power transition last month seems to have been a victory for hardliners. Key reformers were shut out of the seven-man Standing Committee. The North-Korea trained Zhang Dejiang has tightened his grip, a boon to the state-owned behemoths. It looks as if the Politburo may try to keep the infrastructure blitz going for another cycle, extending it to the 800m or so people of the hinterlands.
This is fatal for China. Such a course risks ensnaring the country in the "middle income trap" over the long-run. But in the short-run -- say another five-year cycle -- it could kindle a fresh burst of uber-growth, with demand cascading through the Asian tigers and the commodity complex.
As he says, we'll soon find out if the new regime cranks the infrastructure spending back up.  If so, things may get crazier in the grain markets.  If not, farmers may be sorely disappointed in the near future.

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Winning Bar Bet

Smithsonian magazine (h/t Ritholtz):
Diaconis is a professor of mathematics and statistics at Stanford University and, formerly, a professional magician. While his claim to fame is determining how many times a deck of cards must be shuffled in order to give a mathematically random result (it’s either five or seven, depending on your criteria), he’s also dabbled in the world of coin games. What he and his fellow researchers discovered (here’s a PDF of their paper) is that most games of chance involving coins aren’t as even as you’d think. For example, even the 50/50 coin toss really isn’t 50/50 — it’s closer to 51/49, biased toward whatever side was up when the coin was thrown into the air.
But more incredibly, as reported by Science News, spinning a penny, in this case one with the Lincoln Memorial on the back, gives even more pronounced odds — the penny will land tails side up roughly 80 percent of the time. The reason: the side with Lincoln’s head on it is a bit heavier than the flip side, causing the coin’s center of mass to lie slightly toward heads. The spinning coin tends to fall toward the heavier side more often, leading to a pronounced number of extra “tails” results when it finally comes to rest.
I gave a penny several spins. Tails every time.

Love Letter To Plywood

Love Letter to Plywood. By Tom Sachs from Tom Sachs on Vimeo.

With a title like that, how can somebody not watch?

Productivity Gain Allocation and Peak Oil

The Economic Populist has an interesting post on the permanent underclass in the U.S. I highly recommend it. I found this graph and portion of the post interesting:

 The creation of the dependency class can be linked to the oil price shocks of the early 1970s. Up until this point, real personal income followed an upwards trajectory that was in line with productivity, which implies that labor was benefiting from improvements in productivity as much as corporations were. This link was broken around 1975. Productivity continued on an upwards path, but real personal income began to stagnate.
At the time, the productivity improvements were the result largely of the introduction of computers to the work force. Enormous numbers of man-hours spent on simple tasks, such as typing documents, organizing files, tracking sales orders, or managing cash accounts, were freed up for more useful and profitable purposes. As companies began to appreciate the magnitude of the profit opportunities that were opening up, they began to rethink where that profit should go. The long ingrained concept that companies worked to benefit customers, employees, and communities gave way to the idea, pushed aggressively by consultants, that companies should be working first and foremost for the benefit of the shareholders. The cult of the shareholder was born, along with the rather dubious theory that if management concentrated almost exclusively on creating shareholder value (meaning increasing profitability), overall success was assured. Conveniently for management, all this was happening at a time when executive stock options were being invented, which gave management a direct pocketbook interest in boosting the company’s stock price over anything else.
The average worker, who may have received small stock grants but did not participate in the executive stock option program, did not benefit very much from the productivity gains that were feeding into stock market performance and enriching executives. An unprecedented stock market boom, unseen in 200 years of stock trading in the US, began in 1982 and extended until 2000 at an annual growth rate of 16%. The stock market was reflecting the enormous improvements in productivity, enhanced by the “peace dividend” that the US enjoyed in the 1990s when defense spending was reduced as a response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The stock market boom entered its final spurt upwards in the mid 1990s when the invention of the internet led to a frenzy in technology stocks.
The tech mania came to an end in 2000 with the crash of many of the stocks. The NASDAQ index, heavy with technology stocks, lost over 50% of its value in one year. White collar workers lost heavily in the market collapse because most had invested passively in the stock market through their 401k plans, which corporations were increasingly offering their workers as alternatives to the traditional pension plan that corporations were abandoning. The crash added yet another burden to the middle class worker, who was already coping with paltry salary increases and bonuses, plus cutbacks in benefits, that companies were imposing on the work force.
I would attribute the first impact on real personal income to the peak of U.S. oil production in 1971.  The oil embargo grew out of U.S. dependency on imported oil.  Since then, energy costs have been eroding away real personal income.  The productivity gains helped level out some of the impact by offsetting the rising energy costs.  Meanwhile, the folks at the top of the economic pyramid have managed to pocket the majority of the productivity gains.  I think domestic oil production is often overlooked in the timing of the changes in our economy as we transitioned from the  "good old days" until now.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Tax Burden In Charts

NYT, via Ritholtz:

The third one is the key one.  That is where much of Romney's 47% is paying taxes, while most of his income isn't even taxed under FICA.  Also, the 15% tax on dividends and capital gains is key.  Dividends were taxed as regular income until 2003, so for the very wealthy that was a cut from 35% to 15%.  The state and local taxes have become even more regressive over the years.  The NYT has a nice chart on them also.

NASA Photo of the Day

November 30:

Clouds in Cygnus
Credit & Copyright: Image Data - Bob Caton, Al Howard, Eric Zbinden, Rogelio Bernal Andreo;
Processing - Rogelio Bernal Andreo
Explanation: Cosmic clouds of gas and dust drift across this magnificent mosaic covering a 12x12 degree field within the high flying constellation Cygnus. The collaborative skyscape, a combination of broad and narrow band image data presented in the Hubble palette, is anchored by bright, hot, supergiant star Deneb, below center near the left edge. Alpha star of Cygnus, Deneb, is the top of the Northern Cross asterism and is seen here next to the dark void known as the Northern Coal Sack. Below Deneb are the recognizable North America and Pelican nebulae (NGC 7000 and IC 5070). Another supergiant star, Sadr (Gamma Cygni) is near the center of the field just above the bright wings of the Butterfly Nebula. A line continuing up and right will encounter the more compact Crescent Nebula and finally the Tulip Nebula near the top of the frame. Most of these complex nebulosities are located about 2,000 light-years away. Along with the Sun, they lie in the Orion spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

Ram On The Run

Des Moines Register:

Rodney White/The Register
A Navajo-Churro ram jumped out of its trailer near the Iowa Capitol on Friday morning, Nov. 30, leading Capitol workers, Animal Rescue League officials, Capitol troopers, Des Moines Police and animal control officers on an hour-long chase around the Capitol complex until it was caught by contractors and others at the central power plant. The ram was being transported from Creston by Travis Brogden to Cedar Rapids
That just makes me laugh.  However, it does remind me of the day when I was hauling a cow with a dislocated hip up to the stockyard. I had just turned onto a U.S. Highway and looked in the rear view mirror, and saw she was sticking her head out of the trailer.  I quickly turned into a driveway and found out that the sliding door on the back gate of the trailer had jostled loose and slid open.  She easily could have stepped out of the trailer, either while we were going down the road or when I stopped.  It was kind of challenging to push her head back in so I could shut the gate, but all I could imagine was an already barely ambulatory cow stepping out into the way of a semi.  She wasn't worth much in her condition, but I sure as hell didn't want to try to figure out how I would clean up that roadkill carcass.  That was a scary one.

Land and Transportation

Tim DeChant:
The transportation-centric layout of ribbon farms in North America traces its roots back to medieval times. When France was trying to stabilize its colonial foothold in the New World back in the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu (an adviser to the king and powerhouse in French politics) hatched a plan. To encourage more intensive settlement, he parceled the land similarly to the way it was divided in France: in long, thin strips oriented perpendicularly to a transportation route – which in Nouvelle France was primarily the St. Lawrence River.
Much of arable North America, however, was not allocated in ribbon farms. The Public Land Survey System carved up large portions of the United States into one square mile sections, each of which were subdivided to create farms and aggregated to form townships. Canada adopted a similar system, the Dominion Land Survey, for its prairie states.
So when the U.S. started with square farms, the process and the results were the exact opposite from ribbon farms: We plotted the farms first and then pondered the logistics. It’s therefore no surprise that Americans feel transportation should come to us instead of the other way around. We pick a place to live and then figure out how to get where we need to go. If no way exists, we build it: roads, arterials, highways, interstates … and so on.
And it’s this quirk of geography – the shape of a typical American farm – that I believe influenced the development of the entire nation.
Here’s how: Roads snaked out to farms where they were needed, which is to say nearly everywhere. Farmsteads, and later suburban houses, were more or less evenly distributed across the landscape rather than concentrated alongside existing roadsides. In regions dominated by ribbon farms, transportation was clearly the foundation. But in much of the rest of North America, parcels were delineated first; transportation routes followed.
The fact that the farm, not the transportation, came first is important. It was a geographic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Flexible and distributed transportation networks are really the only solution compatible with this way of thinking. Trains, which rely on a strong central network, never had a chance. We were destined for the automobile all the way back in 1787, when we first decided to carve up the countryside into tidy squares.
The Public Land Survey System fascinates me.  This is a pretty interesting take on one unintended consequence of the grid system.  One of the hard parts for Ohio to deal with in the future will be the upkeep of our farm-to-market roads.  At least in our part of the state, almost all of the roads are paved.  I anticipate some of those roads will go back to gravel in the future because the cost won't be affordable for infrequently traveled roads (I've seen our future, and it's Indiana). 

Another transportation-linked area of interest for me is how some railroads got built to run to certain developers' towns to help spur the towns' growth.  We have an abandoned railroad in our county that ran all over the place to hit a couple of places that now qualify as crossroads.  It wasn't an efficient route by any stretch, but it goes a little more toward what he's talking about above, with transportation ahead of where we decide to live.

Dynamics Class Comes To Life

More here

Tax Giveaways Cost Local Governments Dearly

NYT (h/t Ritholtz):
A Times investigation has examined and tallied thousands of local incentives granted nationwide and has found that states, counties and cities are giving up more than $80 billion each year to companies. The beneficiaries come from virtually every corner of the corporate world, encompassing oil and coal conglomerates, technology and entertainment companies, banks and big-box retail chains.
The cost of the awards is certainly far higher. A full accounting, The Times discovered, is not possible because the incentives are granted by thousands of government agencies and officials, and many do not know the value of all their awards. Nor do they know if the money was worth it because they rarely track how many jobs are created. Even where officials do track incentives, they acknowledge that it is impossible to know whether the jobs would have been created without the aid.
“How can you even talk about rationalizing what you’re doing when you don’t even know what you’re doing?” said Timothy J. Bartik, a senior economist at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The Times analyzed more than 150,000 awards and created a searchable database of incentive spending. The survey was supplemented by interviews with more than 100 officials in government and business organizations as well as corporate executives and consultants.
A portrait arises of mayors and governors who are desperate to create jobs, outmatched by multinational corporations and short on tools to fact-check what companies tell them. Many of the officials said they feared that companies would move jobs overseas if they did not get subsidies in the United States.
Over the years, corporations have increasingly exploited that fear, creating a high-stakes bazaar where they pit local officials against one another to get the most lucrative packages. States compete with other states, cities compete with surrounding suburbs, and even small towns have entered the race with the goal of defeating their neighbors.
These deals are just a screw job for taxpayers, and a large part of our trickle-up economic model.  I find it amazing that some states let companies actually keep the state taxes which are withheld from their employees pay checks instead of sending it on to the state.  Essentially, the workers are paying their employer for their jobs, and paying taxes twice for governmental services.  The best deal would be for all state and local governments to completely cease offering these deals. Unfortunately, Republicans love them because they weaken government and enrich corporations.

Insourcing Gains Momentum

The Atlantic:
For much of the past decade, General Electric’s storied Appliance Park, in Louisville, Kentucky, appeared less like a monument to American manufacturing prowess than a memorial to it.
The very scale of the place seemed to underscore its irrelevance. Six factory buildings, each one the size of a large suburban shopping mall, line up neatly in a row. The parking lot in front of them measures a mile long and has its own traffic lights, built to control the chaos that once accompanied shift change. But in 2011, Appliance Park employed not even a tenth of the people it did in its heyday. The vast majority of the lot’s spaces were empty; the traffic lights looked forlorn.
In 1951, when General Electric designed the industrial park, the company’s ambition was as big as the place itself; GE didn’t build an appliance factory so much as an appliance city. Five of the six factory buildings were part of the original plan, and early on Appliance Park had a dedicated power plant, its own fire department, and the first computer ever used in a factory. The facility was so large that it got its own ZIP code (40225). It was the headquarters for GE’s appliance division, as well as the place where just about all of the appliances were made.
By 1955, Appliance Park employed 16,000 workers. By the 1960s, the sixth building had been built, the union workforce was turning out 60,000 appliances a week, and the complex was powering the explosion of the U.S. consumer economy.
The arc that followed is familiar. Employment kept rising through the ’60s, but it peaked at 23,000 in 1973, 20 years after the facility first opened. By 1984, Appliance Park had fewer employees than it did in 1955. In the midst of labor battles in the early ’90s, GE’s iconic CEO, Jack Welch, suggested that it would be shuttered by 2003. GE’s current CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, tried to sell the entire appliance business, including Appliance Park, in 2008, but as the economy nosed over, no one would take it. In 2011, the number of time-card employees—the people who make the appliances—bottomed out at 1,863. By then, Appliance Park had been in decline for twice as long as it had been rising.
Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, Appliance Park opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2—largely dormant for 14 years—to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years—and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.
Finally we see some good news in manufacturing.  This is definitely a good sign.  The most interesting part of the story is that some folks think that companies never actually saw any real savings from shipping work overseas, while they saw real losses of manufacturing and design expertise because engineers weren't physically near the manufacturing locations.  They just couldn't see the shortcomings of various ideas firsthand.  You really get the feeling that executives just made the decision to outsource because everybody else was doing it, so it must make sense.  For all the charges that, say, shipping port clerks are overpaid, nobody is overpaid like corporate management.

Fracking and Livestock

The Nation:
Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first (and, so far, only) peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled case studies of twenty-four farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems. Exposed either accidentally or incidentally to fracking chemicals in the water or air, scores of animals have died. The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning.
Exposed animals “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”
In Louisiana, seventeen cows died after an hour’s exposure to spilled fracking fluid. (Most likely cause of death: respiratory failure.) In north central Pennsylvania, 140 cattle were exposed to fracking wastewater when an impoundment was breached. Approximately seventy cows died; the remainder produced eleven calves, of which only three survived. In western Pennsylvania, an overflowing waste pit sent fracking chemicals into a pond and a pasture where pregnant cows grazed: half their calves were born dead. The following year’s animal births were sexually skewed, with ten females and two males, instead of the usual 50-50 or 60-40 split.
In addition to the cases documented by Bamberger, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed around well pads in New Mexico found petroleum residues in fifty-four of fifty-six animals. In North Dakota, wind-borne fly ash, which is used to solidify the waste from drilling holes and contains heavy metals, settled over a farm: one cow, which either inhaled or ingested the caustic dust, died, and a stock pond was contaminated with arsenic at double the accepted level for drinking water.
Cattle that die on the farm don’t make it into the nation’s food system. (Though they’re often rendered to make animal feed for chickens and pigs—yet another cause for concern.) But herd mates that appear healthy, despite being exposed to the same compounds, do: farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of fracking contaminants before middlemen purchase them. Bamberger and Oswald consider these animals sentinels for human health. “They’re outdoors all day long, so they’re constantly exposed to air, soil and groundwater, with no break to go to work or the supermarket,” Bamberger says. “And they have more frequent reproductive cycles, so we can see toxic effects much sooner than with humans."
Fracking a single well requires up to 7 million gallons of water, plus an additional 400,000 gallons of additives, including lubricants, biocides, scale and rust inhibitors, solvents, foaming and defoaming agents, emulsifiers and de-emulsifiers, stabilizers and breakers. About 70 percent of the liquid that goes down a borehole eventually comes up—now further tainted with such deep-earth compounds as sodium, chloride, bromide, arsenic, barium, uranium, radium and radon. (These substances occur naturally, but many of them can cause illness if ingested or inhaled over time.) This super-salty “produced” water, or brine, can be stored on-site for reuse. Depending on state regulations, it can also be held in plastic-lined pits until it evaporates, is injected back into the earth, or gets hauled to municipal wastewater treatment plants, which aren’t designed to neutralize or sequester fracking chemicals (in other words, they’re discharged with effluent into nearby streams).
It amazes me that one of our two political parties generally hews to the thought process that if environmentalists are against something, then they are for it.  I am stunned that drillers have been so successful in avoiding regulation in the fracking process.  They can keep the ingredients in fracking fluid secret, even though they are injecting millions of gallons of water and fluid into the ground where they could do real damage to neighbors' property.  These may be isolated cases, but it sure seems like the industry is getting a free pass on some pretty risky shit.  I'll say it again.  I'm glad we're not blessed with shale gas in Western Ohio.  Let other folks get rich and put up with the risk of pollution.

A Pretty Good Gig

LA Times:
The union, which handles the vast amount of paperwork associated with the ports' container cargo, has been working without a contract since June 30, 2010.
Its strike has crippled the port because of support from the ILWU dockworkers, who have 50,000 members on the U.S. West Coast, in Canada and in Hawaii. The dockworkers negotiate their contracts separately, but the 10,000 members who work at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have honored the smaller union's picket lines.
As a result, seven of the eight cargo container terminals at the Port of Los Angeles remain closed. Three of the six cargo container terminals at the Port of Long Beach are also closed.
The union says that its main issue is what it claims is the outsourcing of its jobs, which are being lost through attrition, retirements, illnesses or other reasons.
The shipping lines and terminal operators say the union's outsourcing claims are bogus and say they have offered "absolute job security."
The employers have repeatedly said the union members are the highest-paid clerical workers in the U.S., having a total compensation package of $165,000 a year, including wages, benefits, pension contributions and paid vacation. That package would be worth $195,000 a year under management's new offer, the employers have said.
On Saturday, the union offered a rebuttal, saying that the employers' claims were misleading. Wages reached $40 to $41 an hour, for an annual pay level of $80,000 to $82,200 a year, not counting overtime, retirement or benefits. The union has asked for a 2.5% raise, said union spokesman Craig Merrilees.
I would tend to support a push by Walmart workers for higher wages sooner than this walkout.  Maybe I misheard, but I thought a news story said the clerks get 11 weeks of vacation.  $40 an hour ain't too shabby, with or without that much vacation.  This seems like a dangerous move on the union's part, considering that the majority of Americans make less than the clerks.