Thursday, April 30, 2009

WSJ: China's Stimulus Spurs U.S. Business

The Wall Street Journal reports that US companies are finding opportunities in China's US$585 billion stimulus package. WSJ is a subscriber newspaper so I can't post the whole article, but Caterpillar, steelmakers in general, Goodyear Tires and Yum Brands (which owns KFC and Pizza Hut) were named as benefiting from increased economic activity and construction projects.

US and European companies benefit from international trade. The US and European countries should not attempt to discriminate against international companies in their own stimulus packages.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

US student suspended for taking birth control at school

The Washington Post has an article about how some schools in the US have gone so far on their zero-tolerance drug policies that they have lost perspective. A student in Fairfax, Virginia faces expulsion over taking her birth control pills over lunch. The school does not allow any drugs, even over the counter or legitimate prescription drugs.

Without understating the damage that drugs can do, the US as a whole has lost perspective in the 'war' on drugs.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Verbal testimony of Robert Greenstein, exec director of Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, before U.S. House of Reps

Greenstein gave this testimony before the Committee on Ways and Means. Legislators from all around the world should take heed of the principles outlined here.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. The main message of my testimony is that climate change legislation can fight global warming effectively while protecting consumers if it is designed appropriately.

Fighting global warming requires policies that significantly restrict greenhouse gas emissions, and an emission cap can serve this purpose. Under a cap, the price of fossil-fuel energy products — from home energy and gasoline to food and other goods and services with significant energy inputs — will rise. Those higher prices will create incentives, sometimes referred to as a “price signal,” for energy efficiency and conservation measures and for the development and increased use of clean energy sources. But they will also put a squeeze on consumers’ budgets, and low- and moderate-income consumers will feel the squeeze most acutely.

Fortunately, climate change policies can be designed in a way that preserves the incentives from higher prices to change the way that we produce and consume energy, while also offsetting the effect of those higher prices on consumers’ budgets. Well-designed climate policies will generate substantial revenue that can be used for consumer relief, as well as to meet other critical needs related to climate change.

To capture this revenue under a cap-and-trade system, it is essential that most or all of the allowances or permits used to limit emissions be auctioned rather than given away free to emitters. Giving away, or “grandfathering,” allowances is sometimes portrayed as a way to keep down costs for consumers, but that argument does not withstand scrutiny. If allowances are given away free to firms that are responsible for emissions, the firms and their shareholders will reap unwarranted benefits. The Congressional Budget Office has explained that these firms would receive “windfall profits:” they would be able to charge higher prices for their products due to the effects of the emissions cap but would not have to pay for their emissions allowances. Greg Mankiw, former chair of the Council of Economic Advisers for President George W. Bush, has written in a similar vein that consumer prices will rise regardless of whether allowances are given free to emitters and that grandfathering the allowances would constitute “corporate welfare.” There is little disagreement among economists about this effect.

Protecting low- and moderate-income consumers should be the top priority of consumer relief provisions included in climate change legislation. These consumers are the most vulnerable because they spend a larger share of their budgets on necessities like energy than do better-off consumers and already face challenges making ends meet. They also are the people least able to afford purchases of new, more energy-efficient automobiles, heating systems, and appliances. Middle-income consumers also will feel the squeeze from higher energy-related prices, and they should receive consumer relief as well.

Much of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ work on climate change policy has focused on developing concrete proposals to protect the budgets of low- and middle-income consumers in a way that is effective in reaching these households, efficient (with low administrative costs), and consistent with energy conservation goals. With these goals in mind, we have designed a “climate” or “energy” rebate, that would offset the impact of higher energy-related prices on low-income households — who are most vulnerable to these price increases — and middle-income households, who also will feel the squeeze. Such consumer assistance should offset the increases in households’ energy-related expenses for an array of items, not just the increases in their utility bills, which will account for less than half of the overall impact on their budgets.

As explained below, we recommend that consumer relief be provided through the tax system and existing benefit delivery systems. [1] Under the proposal we have developed, approximately 95 percent of households in the bottom fifth of the income distribution and more than 98 percent of households in the next two income quintiles would be reached automatically. (With outreach, these figures would go still higher.) Because the rebates would build on existing tax and benefit delivery mechanisms, this approach would not require new bureaucratic structures, and the administrative costs would be low, compared with alternative delivery mechanisms. The size of the energy rebate, and how far up the income scale it would extend, would depend on the amount of funding (i.e., the share of the allowance value) that Congress decided to make available for consumer relief.

This is decidedly preferable to an alternative approach — providing funds to utility companies to artificially suppress price increases in electric bills that otherwise would occur under an emissions cap. Artificially keeping electric bills down would undercut the incentives the emissions cap is supposed to create to reduce electricity use. As a result, this approach would lead to larger increases in prices for other energy products than would otherwise occur — since the use of other forms of energy would have to decline more to meet the emissions cap . The resulting inefficiency would place some burden on the economy. This approach also would fail to offset increases in energy-related costs other than home utilities, which as noted above, account for the majority of the impact on consumers.

This testimony provides principles for crafting consumer relief and then describes our proposal for efficiently providing relief to low- and middle-income families.

Obama backs away from truth commission on torture memos

President Obama backed away from the idea of a truth commission to investigate the torture memos, saying that he wants to look forward instead of backward.

In fairness to him, it will be very difficult to get a non-partisan commission together. Democrats are split over the issue. Republican legislators, for the most part, seem proud that CIA agents tortured prisoners of war. It will be very hard to tell the whole truth when the atmosphere is so partisan.

Telling the truth about torture should be done to heal the soul of the nation and the souls of those who conducted or authorized the torture. If it is done for partisan gain, it will not heal. This is the wrong time to tell the truth.

However, that doesn't change the fact that Dick Cheney and many other Republicans are basically acting like they are proud that we tortured prisoners of war. This is unacceptable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

NYT: Memo says waterboarding used 266 times on 2 suspects

The NYT quotes a 2005 CIA memo saying that waterboarding was used 183 times on 2 suspects. But, it's not torture! Let's get the two folks who wrote that editorial in the WSJ yesterday and waterboard them 266 times. Should be a piece of cake.

Monday, April 20, 2009

WSJ Opinion piece: we didn't torture

By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. and LEE A. CASEY, writing for the WSJ.

The four memos on CIA interrogation released by the White House last week reveal a cautious and conservative Justice Department advising a CIA that cared deeply about staying within the law. Far from "green lighting" torture -- or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees -- the memos detail the actual techniques used and the many measures taken to ensure that interrogations did not cause severe pain or degradation.

Interrogations were to be "continuously monitored" and "the interrogation team will stop the use of particular techniques or the interrogation altogether if the detainee's medical or psychological conditions indicates that the detainee might suffer significant physical or mental harm."

An Aug. 1, 2002, memo describes the practice of "walling" -- recently revealed in a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which suggested that detainees wore a "collar" used to "forcefully bang the head and body against the wall" before and during interrogation. In fact, detainees were placed with their backs to a "flexible false wall," designed to avoid inflicting painful injury. Their shoulder blades -- not head -- were the point of contact, and the "collar" was used not to give additional force to a blow, but further to protect the neck.

The memo says the point was to inflict psychological uncertainty, not physical pain: "the idea is to create a sound that will make the impact seem far worse than it is and that will be far worse than any injury that might result from the action."

Shackling and confinement in a small space (generally used to create discomfort and muscle fatigue) were also part of the CIA program, but they were subject to stringent time and manner limitations. Abu Zubaydah (a top bin Laden lieutenant) had a fear of insects. He was, therefore, to be put in a "cramped confinement box" and told a stinging insect would be put in the box with him. In fact, the CIA proposed to use a harmless caterpillar. Confinement was limited to two hours.

The memos are also revealing about the practice of "waterboarding," about which there has been so much speculative rage from the program's opponents. The practice, used on only three individuals, involved covering the nose and mouth with a cloth and pouring water over the cloth to create a drowning sensation.

This technique could be used for up to 40 seconds -- although the CIA orally informed Justice Department lawyers that it would likely not be used for more than 20 seconds at a time. Unlike the exaggerated claims of so many Bush critics, the memos make clear that water was not actually expected to enter the detainee's lungs, and that measures were put in place to prevent complications if this did happen and to ensure that the individual did not develop respiratory distress.

All of these interrogation methods have been adapted from the U.S. military's own Survival Evasion Resistance Escape (or SERE) training program, and have been used for years on thousands of American service members with the full knowledge of Congress. This has created a large body of information about the effect of these techniques, on which the CIA was able to draw in assessing the likely impact on the detainees and ensuring that no severe pain or long term psychological impact would result.

The actual intelligence benefits of the CIA program are also detailed in these memos. The CIA believed, evidently with good reason, that the enhanced interrogation program had indeed produced actionable intelligence about al Qaeda's plans. First among the resulting successes was the prevention of a "second wave" of al Qaeda attacks, to be carried out by an "east Asian" affiliate, which would have involved the crashing of another airplane into a building in Los Angeles.

The interrogation techniques described in these memos are indisputably harsh, but they fall well short of "torture." They were developed and deployed at a time of supreme peril, as a means of preventing future attacks on innocent civilians both in the U.S. and abroad.

The dedicated public servants at the CIA and Justice Department -- who even the Obama administration has concluded should not be prosecuted -- clearly cared intensely about staying within the law as well as protecting the American homeland. These memos suggest that they achieved both goals in a manner fully consistent with American values.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey, who served in the Justice Department under George H.W. Bush, were U.S. delegates to the U.N. Subcommission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Messrs Rivkin and Casey make a good point that the techniques used above weren't torture, given the rather strict limitations. In that case, when George Bush, Dick Cheney and other administration members responsible for human rights violations are imprisoned (probably for life), these techniques should be applied to them.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Climate change policies

There is an increasing amount of debate in the US on climate change policies. President Obama proposed a cap and trade system in his budget. All of the carbon permits would be auctioned off - none would be given to industry - and the bulk of the revenues derived would be given back to taxpayers as part of the Making Work Pay credit.

In contrast, in the EU, companies got a large proportion of the permits free - about $1.2 billion worth last year. This undermines the system.

The US Congress, unfortunately, is more short sighted. They are proposing that the MWP tax credit expire in 2011. They are also making noises about giving away some of the permits.

As to the first, low and moderate income consumers spend a large proportion of their family budgets on energy. They should receive a rebate to offset the costs of compliance. This also gives them the financial incentive to economize on energy - consumers get a windfall if they save. The link I posted is a Congressional testimony from an economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which advocates for low and middle income consumers.

As to the second, economists at CBPP and at the Congressional Budget Office argue that giving away permits would result in windfall profits to oil, gas and coal producers and users. Producers and utilities would not use this largess to reduce prices for consumers, either.

Congress must stop playing its usual short-sighted games. Now is as good a time as any to enact climate change - if we wait until the economy recovers (which may take years), the excuse will change to "we can't undermine our global competitiveness." Pass climate change now and make giveaways to consumers, NOT to energy and utility companies.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Maundy Thursday reflections

Maundy Thursday is the day before Good Friday. From Wikipedia:

Maundy Thursday (also known as Holy Thursday or Great and Holy Thursday), is the Christian feast or holy day falling on the Thursday before Easter that commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with the Apostles. It is the fifth day of Holy Week, and is preceded by Holy Wednesday and followed by Good Friday. In 2009, Maundy Thursday will occur on April 9 for Western Christian traditions including Roman Catholicism and on April 16th for Eastern Christian traditions including most Orthodox Churches.

On this day four events are commemorated: the washing of the Disciples' Feet by Jesus Christ, the institution of the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper, the agony of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot.

As Christians we focus a lot on Good Friday and Easter. Mel Gibson's movie the Jesus Chainsaw Massacre, aka Passion of the Christ, excessively glorified Good Friday. However, we should pay more attention to Maundy Thursday. For Christians in sacramental traditions (Anglicans among them), the primary ritual that puts us in touch with Christ is the Eucharist. Jesus asked the Disciples to continue breaking bread and sharing wine on that day.

NYT Editorial: Medically Assisted Torture

A New York Times editorial condemns medical personnel assisting in torture.

There was a great deal to be troubled by in a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross documenting the kinds of torture and abuse inflicted on terrorism suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency. One disturbing footnote is that medical personnel were deeply involved in facilitating the abuses, which were intended to coerce suspects into providing intelligence.

The report, prepared in 2007 but kept secret until it was published by The New York Review of Books, was based on Red Cross interviews in late 2006 with 14 “high-value detainees,” who include some of the most dangerous terrorists in custody. The prisoners’ complaints gain credibility because they described similar abuses and had been kept in isolation at different locations, with no chance to concoct a common story.

Various prisoners said they had been subjected to waterboarding, forced to stand for days with their arms shackled overhead, confined in small boxes, beaten and kicked, slammed repeatedly into walls, prevented from sleeping, deprived of solid food, forced to remain naked for weeks or months at a stretch, often in frigid cells and immersed in cold water. All were kept in continuous solitary confinement for their C.I.A. detention, ranging from 16 months to more than four years.

Medical personnel seem to have been involved mostly as facilitators rather than torturers or interrogators. In one case, they monitored a detainee’s oxygen saturation with a device attached to his finger so waterboarding could be stopped before the prisoner suffocated. In another case, an amputee forced to stand with his arms shackled overhead had his intact leg checked daily for signs of dangerous swelling. Several detainees said health workers sometimes instructed interrogators to continue, adjust or stop particular methods of abuse.

Such activities violate the ethical codes of major health organizations, both national and international. The Red Cross called it “a gross breach of medical ethics” that in some cases “amounted to participation in torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

None of the health personnel wore identification, but the prisoners inferred that they were physicians or psychologists. They also could have been paramedics, physician’s assistants or other less-trained personnel.

The report underscores the need to have a full-scale investigation into these abusive practices and into who precisely participated in them. Only then will we know whether indictments or, in the case of physicians, the loss of medical licenses, are warranted.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Dress for Success for Less

My dad said to me once, "Life is too short to wear cheap suits." I agree in general, but that was said when times were good. Prospective job seekers should check out this article from Kiplinger's, a personal finance magazine, on how to assemble that wardrobe on the cheap. Remember, you're not expected to dress like a CEO when you're just out of college, but you still need to look sharp.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Republican budget is an April Fools joke

From a report by the Citizens for Tax Justice:

Yesterday, the ranking Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives' Budget Committee, Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), released a budget plan which he argues is a more fiscally responsible alternative to the budget outline proposed by President Obama and the similar budget resolutions working their way through the House and Senate right now. His proposal is apparently an update on the plan that House GOP leaders introduced last week and is different in some key respects.

A new report from Citizens for Tax Justice compares the income tax proposals in the House GOP plan to the income tax proposals in the House Democratic plan in 2010, and finds that:

- Over a third of taxpayers, mostly low- and middle-income families, would pay more in taxes under the House GOP plan than they would under the House Democratic plan in 2010.

- The richest one percent of taxpayers would pay $75,000 less, on average, in income taxes under the House GOP plan than they would under the Democratic plan in 2010.

- The income tax proposals in the House GOP plan, which is presented as a fiscally responsible alternative to the Democratic plan, would cost over $225 billion more than the Democratic plan's income tax policies in 2010 alone.