Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Focusing Like a Moonbeam on the Big Issues

California becomes first in nation to enact statewide plastic bag ban
Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday signed the nation's first statewide ban on single-use plastic bags at grocery and convenience stores, driven to action by pollution in streets and waterways.

A national coalition of plastic bag manufacturers immediately said it would seek a voter referendum to repeal the law, which is scheduled to take effect in July 2015.

Under SB270, plastic bags will be phased out of checkout counters at large grocery stores and supermarkets such as Wal-Mart and Target starting next summer, and convenience stores and pharmacies in 2016. The law does not apply to bags used for fruits, vegetables or meats, or to shopping bags used at other retailers. It allows grocers to charge a fee of at least 10 cents for using paper bags.

State Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, credits the momentum for statewide legislation to the more than 100 cities and counties, including Los Angeles and San Francisco, that already have such bans.

The law marks a major milestone for environmental activists who have successfully pushed plastic bag bans in cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Austin and Seattle.

"This bill is a step in the right direction -- it reduces the torrent of plastic polluting our beaches, parks and even the vast ocean itself," Brown said in a signing statement. "We're the first to ban these bags, and we won't be the last."
However, the benefits of the "Bag Ban" are largely illusory; to make environmentalists feel good:
Empirical work on the effects of a plastic bag ban on grocery and convenience stores in Los Angeles was undertaken in an NCPA study two years ago. This found that areas with the bag ban on average saw sales decline by 3.3 per cent over a one year period, compared with an average increase in sales of 3.4 per cent in areas without the ban. Of course, given that ours is a charge, not a ban, and is applied to all supermarkets across the country we might expect the distortive aggregate effect to be much smaller. Yet the government evidently thinks it will have a detrimental effect on some businesses, otherwise it would not have exempted small businesses and independent stores from the legislation.

Indeed, the most baffling part of this sort of legislation is its inconsistencies. If plastic bags are the thing we want fewer of, then why are some shops exempted? More importantly, if it is plastic per se we want less off, why are we only imposing charges on plastic bags? What about plastic pots and food containers? Will not imposing charges on the bags simply lead to adjustments to packaging to make the goods easier to carry in the first place?

In reality, it’s rare for the public discourse to seem to be concerned by plastic per se. Perhaps this is just because of the visual effects of plastic bag pollution. But one gets the sense that the anger surrounding their use is more to do with opposition to the casual consumption they represent, considered ‘vulgar’ by some.

Then there are the environmental trade-offs, of course. Since people still need some sort of means of carrying their shopping, we cannot only consider the humble plastic bag in isolation. One of the reasons why plastic bags are so cheap, for example, is precisely because they are extremely energy and water efficient to produce. For an equivalent amount of groceries, the NCAP study finds that production of paper bags consumes three times as much energy as plastic. Paper bags also produce substantially more landfill waste, whilst both paper bags and reusable bags lead to much higher greenhouse gas emissions than their plastic cousin.

In fact, an Environment Agency study found that cotton bags would need to be re-used over 100 times before they yielded net environmental benefits. But it found that cotton bags are only re-used around half that amount, making them worse than plastic on net for the environment. This is before considering the energy and water required to clean and maintain them, and the potential for negative health effects in relation to bacteria brought about by repeated use.
But it's worth forcing down the throats of all Californians if it makes environmentalists feel good about themselves.

Obamacare Schadenfreude: Oklahoma Federal Court Says No

The big news of the day is that a Federal court in Oklahoma read the law, and decided that it meant what it plainly said: Oklahoma Federal Court Rules IRS Attempt to Save Obamacare's Subsidies for Federal Exchange Enrollees "Arbitrary, Capricious, an Abuse of Discretion, and Otherwise Not In Accordance with the Law"

This is the same issue as with Halbig vs. Sebelius Burwell, that the law as written only permits federal subsidies for state exchanges, not the federal exchanges. The law was clearly written that way to encourage the states make exchanges, but a majority of the states called their bluff and decided to let the feds carry the burden, and then the IRS decided to extend the subsidies to the Federal exchange anyway. At this point, the a D.C. Circuit Court panel found against the IRS in the Halbig decision (which is expected to go the to full court, where it will likely be overturned by Nukular Harry Reid's handpicked packees), while the 4th Circuit Court has sided with the IRS, claiming the actual words of the statute are irrelevant.

The Oklahoma Court also delivered a backhanded slap, as DWS might call it, to the notion that asserting the law means what is says is an inherently political act:
The court is aware that the stakes are higher in the case at bar than they might be in another case. The issue of consequences has been touched upon in the previous decisions discussed. Speaking of its decision to vacate the IRS Rule, the majority in Halbig stated "[w]e reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance." Other judges in similar litigation have cast the plaintiffs' argument in apocalyptic language. The first sentence of Judge Edwards' dissent in Halbig is as follows: "This case is about Appellants' not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act ('ACA')." Concurring in King, Judge Davis states that “[a]ppellants' approach would effectively destroy the statute . . . ." Further, "[w]hat [appellants] may not do is rely on our help to deny to millions of Americans desperately-needed health insurance."
. . . "
"Of course, a proper legal decision is not a matter of the court "helping" one side or the other. A lawsuit challenging a federal regulation is a commonplace occurrence in this country, not an affront to judicial dignity. A higher-profile case results in greater scrutiny of the decision, which is understandable and appropriate. "[H]igh as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still. . . This limited role serves democratic interests by ensuring that policy is made by elected, politically accountable representatives, not by appointed life-tenured judges."

This is a case of statutory interpretation. "The text is what it is, no matter which side benefits." Such a case (even if affirmed on the inevitable appeal) does not "gut" or "destroy" anything. On the contrary, the court is upholding the Act as written.
It's time for the Supreme Court to actually decide this issue, I think.

And while I know that the court is not supposed to care what the public thinks (except for the case of gay marriage of course), they should be reminded that: 60 Percent of Voters Want Obamacare to Be Repealed
A new poll finds that three-fifths of likely voters support the repeal of Obamacare. A large plurality — 44 percent — wants to see Obamacare repealed and replaced with a conservative alternative. A much smaller group —16 percent — wants to see it repealed but not replaced. Less than one in three respondents — 32 percent — would like to keep Obamacare, whether in its current form or in amended form. So, with a conservative alternative in play, 60 percent of Americans support repeal, while only 32 percent oppose it.
And, just because the liberals on the court like to look to European examples to set their goals:
Swiss reject switch from private to state health insurance
Swiss voters on Sunday rejected a plan for a seismic shift from the country's all-private health insurance system to a state-run scheme.

Referendum results showed that almost 62 percent of voters had shot down a reform pushed by left-leaning parties which say the current private system is busting the budgets of ordinary residents.

The results also underlined the national divisions over the hotly-contested issue as the country's German-speaking regions voted against the plan, while their French-speaking counterparts were in favour.
Obamacare Spending, 73 Billion (with a "B") and still counting:
It’s hard to get a good accounting of what we’ve spent on the Affordable Care Act so far.
The Barack Obama administration has never really tried to count the cost of all the different elements and put them in one place. The Congressional Budget Office, meanwhile, has pretty much given up. Luckily, we have Bloomberg Government, my employer’s government intelligence service, which has thoughtfully totted up all the data it can glean from public records and come up with a figure for spending to date: $73 billion.

This number is both more and less than projected. BGOV puts spending on the enrollment website, for example, at around $2 billion, more than twice the cost offered by the administration. The difference comes from several factors:

  1. Timing (the administration's figure stops at February, before a substantial outpouring of funds was made into cleanup work for the malfunctioning exchanges);
  2. Inclusion of spending to get the IRS and other agencies ready for Obamacare;
  3. Inclusion of the paper backup system, which proved so necessary during the rollout; and
  4. Which contracts it chose to define as Obamacare-related.

On the other hand, the IRS has spent much less than it was projected to need (possibly because the work isn’t finished yet), and premium subsidies are, the report notes, off to a “slower than predicted start.”

Medicaid spending isn’t included in this estimate at all, because reliable data are not yet available. But if that comes in at around the $20 billion that has been predicted, the total price tag for the Affordable Care Act in its first years will end up approaching $100 billion.
A billion here, a hundred billion there, pretty soon you're talking about real money. And for what?

Under the ACA, the Doctor Won’t See You Now
Getting access to a preferred, in-network doctor is getting harder all the time. Three big stories about access blocks under the Affordable Care Act came out this week. First, the NYT profiles the troubling rise of contract ER doctors. The emergency medicine departments in many hospitals now employ doctors who are out-of-network for a given insurer, even when the ER itself is listed as “in-network” for that same insurer. The result is that even patients who have the ability to choose an ER in an in-network hospital often wind up with out-of-network doctors treating them—and large, unanticipated, out-of-pocket bills as a result:
When legislators in Texas demanded some data from insurers last year, they learned that up to half of the hospitals that participated with UnitedHealthcare, Humana and Blue Cross-Blue Shield — Texas’s three biggest insurers — had no in-network emergency room doctors. Out-of-network payments to emergency room physicians accounted for 40 to 70 percent of the money spent on emergency care at in-network hospitals, researchers with the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin found. [...]
When emergency medicine emerged as a specialty in the 1980s, almost all E.R. doctors were hospital employees who typically did not bill separately for their services. Today, 65 percent of hospitals contract out that function. And some emergency medicine staffing groups — many serve a large number of hospitals, either nationally or locally — opt out of all insurance plans.
The ACA does nothing to address this trend, which is just one example of the barriers to access popping up all across the U.S. health care system. The LA Times reports that, despite several lawsuits challenging it, California intends to stick with its narrow doctor networks for ACA plans next year. Even worse, some insurance companies are planning to cut the number of in-network providers even further. There is still no registry that would allow people to make a comprehensive assessment of which doctors will be covered under their ACA plans, a gap which caused a lot of confusion for patients in the last year.
Just more people with insurance competing for few, less well paid doctors; what could go wrong?

And just in from the old stomping grounds courstey of Wombat-socho's "Live at Five: 10.01.14":
Oregon pols battle over when to pull plug on costly ObamaCare website
Cover Oregon was supposed to be a shining example of ObamaCare at its best.

The state insurance exchange for the state of Oregon received $300 million in federal grants to launch a state-of-the-art website. But it never worked, and not a single Oregonian was able to sign up for health care from start to finish.

So now, Oregon is in the process of pulling the plug on the site and switching over to the federal exchange and -- but the question is, how quickly they can do it.

“We need to move forward and do the best thing for the people of Oregon,” Republican State Sen. Tim Knopp said, “and I think that’s ending Cover Oregon as soon as we practically can.”

Knopp and other Oregon Republicans are calling for a special session of the Legislature -- since lawmakers created Cover Oregon, only the Legislature can end it. But Democrats control the Legislature and the governor’s office, and they’re pushing back against Republicans' demand, and would rather wait until the 2015 session convenes in February to complete the transition.

“There are functions that still have to be performed by someone in the next few weeks and months,” Democratic state Sen. Richard Devlin said.

Inaction comes with a price tag.

According to Republican leaders, it costs taxpayers $200,000 a day to keep Cover Oregon running. Waiting until February 2015 or beyond will cost $20 million.
Hey, it's not my money anymore. Now I pay for Maryland's debacles.

FERC OKs Gas Dock Expansion for Export

Natural gas exports from Chesapeake Bay OK'd

Calvert Cliff, Gas Docks on far left
Dominion Energy received federal approval late Monday to export liquefied natural gas from its Cove Point terminal on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland.

In its decision, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that the project, as approved with conditions, would minimize potential adverse impacts on landowners and the environment. FERC has approved three other LNG export projects, but this is the first one on the East Coast. The others are in the Gulf of Mexico.

"We are pleased to receive this final approval that allows us to start constructing this important project that offers significant economic, environmental and geopolitical benefits," said Diane Leopold, president of Richmond, Virginia-based Dominion Energy. She added that the company was committed to constructing a safe, secure, environmentally compatible and reliable export facility.

FERC's ruling adopted staff recommendations made in an environmental assessment, requiring Dominion to meet 79 conditions aimed at mitigating negative environmental impacts. That assessment, issued this spring, concluded the project would have "no significant impact" on the environment.
Interesting that although they could find no significant impact on the environment, they found 79 rules to impose as a result. When all you have is a hammer. . .

When I first arrived in the Bay region in 1985, the Gas Docks (and the shore facility) were relatively new, but unused, due to a glut of natural gas which made importing natural gas unnecessary and expensive.  It stayed that way for years, a collection of fishable pilings off of Cove Point.  After 9/11/2001 the facility was made off limits to boats, and then for a few years, it was actually used to import natural gas, with as many as 3 ships a week docking there to unload.

The shale gas boom killed its utility as an import facility, and now the US is in the position of being able to export natural gas, and this decision will provide jobs for hundreds of people (and more while the conversion of the facility is under way), and help restore the US balance of trade.

In Keeping with the Nautical Theme

Nina Agdal tries to sell the Carls Jr. Cod Fish sandwich:

Does she deliver? If so, I'll take two. Tomorrow and Friday.

Who Says It's Unwitting?

You should really care that the German Ethics Council (a government committee) haspronounced that Germany's laws banning consensual incest between adult brothers and sisters ought to be abolished.

Now, it's not because Germany's laws directly affect the United States; they don't, of course. And even within Germany itself, the ruling party of Chancellor Angela Merkel has indicated that it doesn't plan on following the council's recommendation.

The reason why Americans — and especially American liberals — should care about the council's ruling is that it gives us a glimpse of America's future.

The German council's position is based on the claim that "the fundamental right of adult siblings to sexual self-determination" overrides all other moral considerations, including "the abstract idea of protection of the family." That is very similar to the rationales that have been used to uphold reproductive rights and to strike down bans on same-sex marriage throughout the United States. And we have every reason to think the same logic will eventually apply to bans on sibling incest in this country. . .
Of course. If sex is only good as a benefit to the individuals involved and not the society as a whole, there really are no limits to what consensual sex can be.

And dead bodies are victim-less too. . .

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Double Day on the Bay

An absolutely classic early fall day on the beach. Absolutely no wind, 75 F, a few puffy clouds around the horizon and a decent low tide
Despite the lovely conditions the beach was all but deserted. We did scare up this Great Blue Heron, though. No signs of Ospreys.  Are they gone for the year?
The Marlee Jade in trouble just off shore, in shallow water. I think they got a crab pot line wrapped in their prop, and had to send somebody over the side to cut it off or unwrap it. It took a few minutes, but they were soon on their way again.

Remember when Capt. Keith had to go over the side to unwrap the prop, and hit his head on the side of the boat and almost drowned?  Good times!
Pretty good shark's tooth hunting today too, over 30 shark's teeth, including the handsome Snaggletooth on the left, 3 Black Drum's teeth, and what may be a fragment of a crocodile tooth. We go Sept up to decent numbers at the last minute, 210 teeth for the month.
The only other person on the beach, also collecting fossils.

As nice as it was, I went fishing after lunch. Fishing was OK, three decent Blue Fish on jigs near the discharge of Location X, and one feisty Striped Bass on a top water plug on structure nearby.
 I looked up from fishing at one point and saw a very strange ship coming down the Bay towards me.  Once it got reasonably close, I headed out to see what it was.

Why, that looks like an old Spanish galleon. Indeed, I managed to find it on MarineTraffic.Com and found that it was the Galeon Andalucia, (rough translantion, Spanish galleon) a Spanish flagged exhibit ship bound from Annapolis MD, to Morehead City NC. Clearly under power, she was making 6 knots without a stitch of sail up.

For a minute I felt like I might be stuck in an S.M. Stirling book.

An Excellent Question

Why Is James Clapper Still Employed?
. . .But Clapper’s resignation has already been demanded by a person whose authority is beyond our poor powers to add or subtract: the president of the United States.

There is just no other way to parse President Obama’s comments on Sunday’s 60 Minutes.

“I think our head of the intelligence community Jim Clapper has acknowledged that they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” the president told Steve Croft. When Croft went on to note that Clapper had also mentioned the failure of the “intelligence community” (a catch-all term for the 17 intelligence agencies that are publicly known, including the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the intelligence services maintained by such varied departments as Defense, Energy, and Homeland Security) to get an accurate measure of the Iraqi army’s ability to fight, Obama responded “That’s true. That’s absolutely true.”
In my view, James Clapper should have been gone a long time ago, when he was first caught blatantly lying to Congress about the NSA surveillance being carried out on the public. Deliberate deception of Congressional oversight should be a capital crime as far as government careers are concerned. As Tom Lehrer said, in a slightly different context "If you can't communicate, the very least you can do is shut up."

But Obama stood by his man, and a Congress divided between democrats and republicans couldn't get exercised enough to get together about being deceived and force him out.

Now, my theory on Presidents and the collection, presentation, and consumption of intelligence, based on nothing but my intimate knowledge of governmental organizations:

The many intelligence services collect a whole lot of information, much of it vague and even contradictory, and no doubt, in many cases, just flat wrong, as other countries have a strong motive for deceiving the United States.

To get to the President, a whole lot of that stuff needs to be boiled down to a few simple points, so he can get on to the golf course with plenty of time to get into the monkey suit for the evening fund raiser.

I have faith in bureaucrats, however, that the pertinent points are stated with sufficient equivocation (probabilities even), that President Jarrett Obama, has a number of options to focus on, probably arranged in some form of priority.

The President then, gets to pick among the options according to his own internal disposition. Now, President Bush, particularly after 9/11, was strongly inclined to assume to worst, and most warlike nuggets of intelligence, (and remember, before the Iraq war, even prominent democrats thought Saddam Hussein was up to no good).  The President chose accordingly.

However, President Jarrett Obama ran as the quintessential anti-war President, choosing to vote "Present!", and take the least possible action in the face of deliberate provocations.

Finally, we get to the feed back loop. Whosoever's intelligence that reaches the Oval Office and is acted upon by the President gains power and authority within the intelligence community, and is more likely to be forwarded to the President, and ranked higher among the possibilities laid out for the President in the future. No bureaucrat wants to be be put in the position of giving the top guy a plate of vegetables, however nicely cooked.

So, I'm relatively sure the President was told of the dangers of ISILS, but it was not high on the menu, or prominently featured. It was there, and he chose to overlook it, in favor of the chili dog with fries, and a large coke of doing nothing.

That's It; Now I'm Going to Watch Rugby

Check out these rules:

What, you mean it's not like this in real life? I'm so disappointed.

Swiped from Theo's.

Stay Alert on the Job!

We need more lerts.

Midnite Music: Hendrix on a 12 String Guitar

YouTube/Google must have selected this for me based on a recent search for a Hendrix tune to post elsewhere (Little Wing - I know I've beaten it to death here). Hendrix is not particularly well known for his acoustic guitar but this is pretty good: