Archive for July 2012
Alaska Birds: A Photographic Essay
WC will have a photo exhibition, Alaska Birds: A Photographic Essay at Denali State Bank‘s Airport Way Branch, 1989 Airport Way, Fairbanks. The show opens August 3, 2012, a First Friday, and will be on display all month.
Denali State Bank is hosting a reception from 4:00 – 5:30 PM on August 3. WC will be there, flogging 2013 Alaska Birds calendars and prints.
If you still don’t know who WC is, this is your Big Chance to find out. And see some of the photos that have been posted here in higher quality than on a computer screen.
For those readers who are a long ways out of town, WC will post a virtual tour of the photo exhibition later in the month.
WC went to a garage sale this past weekend. For the first time in probably twenty years. Most garage sales WC has seen feature recycled dumpster diver trophies. But this garage sale was at Candy Waugaman’s house. Candy is an amazing Alaska historian. She turned out to have a few truly appalling items:
But she also had some pretty amazing stuff for sale, too. Jeannette Nichol’s 1924 History of Alaska, and a first edition of Robert Griggs’ 1922 The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. All the proceeds from her garage sale went to charities. Let’s just say that despite his best intentionsWC made some charitable contributions. And Nichol’s and Griggs’ books live with WC now. But not the lamp.
Part of Mrs. WC’s job involves trying to purge alien invasive weeds from a private nature refuge. She spends entire days pulling and carting off white sweet clover, purple vetch and yellow toadflax. All are invasive. None are native. All outcompete native species.
White Sweetclover creates huge monospecific fields, crowding out most other plants. One White Sweetclover plant can produce 350,000 seeds. This pest is believed to have been brought to Alaska in imported forage or by roadside seeding projects.
Bird Vetch is a climbing vine, and smothers surrounding plants. It creates dense, waist-high thickets whose vines and tendrils can be very difficult to push through. In a dry autumn, on a hot days the seed pods will explode, scattering the seeds.
Invasive plants have gotten more attention recently. Rick Sinnot did a fine piece for Alaska Dispatch and the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported on the threat of Canadian Waterweed, Elodea canadensis, an invasive water plant that has the potential to completely clog every slow-moving stream in Interior Alaska. The University of Alaska Anchorage has set up an on-line database that tracks invasive species in Alaska. Public awareness is growing. But it has a long ways to go. Someone calling themselves “Chasm” posted a comment to the Alaska Dispatch article:
Worrying about this is absurd, it’s called change. If a species is suited for Alaska, it will survive. It can come on the wind, or ocean currents, on a truck or car, or even by airplane. Personally I think the dandelion is a pretty flower, dandelion wine is not bad, and the greens are quite edible, what’s not to like?
If you don’t want any change, you can commit suicide.
WC refuses to debate someone who apparently thinks Dutch Elm Disease is just fine. That was the introduced fungus that extirpated most of North America’s native elm trees. WC suggests the chasm is between this guy’s ears. It’s probably impossible at this date to get either White Sweetclover of Bird Vetch out of Alaska. But we can make an effort to control it. It’s the right thing to do.
The Mitt and his fellow travelers have repeatedly characterized the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act as a “failure.” The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business conducted a poll of 44 leading economists. 80% of these professionals agreed that the ARRA lowered the U.S. unemployment rate.
So according to a moderately large group of professionals, The Mitt is lying. Again.
Then there is The Mitt’s claim that a tax cut will stimulate the economy, to such an extent that any revenue loss from the tax cut will be more than offset by increased revenue from the stimulated economy. It turns out none of the economists polled believe it.
You probably didn’t need a doctorate in economics to recognize this. It might have been true when the maximum tax rate was over 90%, but not at current marginal rates.
The Mitt hasn’t disclosed much about his economic plans, and even less that makes sense. His idea that we can increase defense spending and further cut taxes, and make up the deficit by closing loopholes is laughable. But his claim that a tax cut will increase revenue, the premise of economist Art Laffer, has been disproven many times. Most recently by former President George Bush.
The economy is stagnant and unemployment remains high for two reasons. First, the housing market is still in the tank. Second, the failure to spend enough money to reboot the economy, a result of Republican obstruction, especially in the U.S. House. And the second cause, carrying with it lower and stagnant income, has aggravated the first problem, since there is reduced demand for housing.
But The Mitt won’t talk about those real issues. Instead, he is trying to focus the election on ideas that are rejected by the majority of economists. WC suspects he knows it. But we already know The Mitt and the truth are sometimes strangers.
Only a minority of WC’s readers are birders. WC is working to change that, with limited success thus far. But WC saw a new bird Friday and will walk readers through the process he used to identify the bird.
Gulls and terns – Larids – are WC’s favorite North American birds. Some gulls go through as many as eight different plumages on the path to adulthood. Some gulls, in sub-adult plumages, are quite similar. It makes identification a real challenge. And both gulls and terns are so beautifully adapted that all of them are fun.
The first view of WC’s mystery bird was at a considerable distance, but the bird was clearly a gull or tern.
Not one of the regularly breeding gulls or terns, unless a juvenile. Too chunky in the chest to be a tern; probably a gull. The bird was dropping to the surface a lot, and not very gracefully. Likely a juvenile with limited flight and hunting experience. The bird was slowly moving closer.
A very strong, distinctive pattern on the wings; should be easy to key out in Sibley [Amazon link] (Sibley is the best field guide for immature gulls). The large black ear spot suggests a black-headed gull in non-breeding or, again, juvenile plumage. Thin, sharp bill. Maybe a juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull?
And then the mystery bird landed. On the wing of a Cessna 185 on floats, ironically enough, providing an outstanding view of the bird.
And there you have it. WC’s first juvenile Bonaparte’s Gull. A few minutes with Gulls of North America, Europe and Asia [Amazon link] removed any lingering doubt. Yes, it would have been fun to find some accidental visitor, a Black-headed Gull maybe, but Bonaparte’s kid is pretty cool. To get a decent photo of it is just icing.
An irregular series of historical footnotes that were overlooked in your Alaska history class.
Jefferson Davis, and not the one you are thinking of, either, fought on the Union side in the Civil War. He murdered his commanding officer, Maj. Gen. William “Bull” Nelson, but never faced charges. He was responsible for the Tragedy at Ebenezer Creek, during Sherman’s March to the Sea. He was a racist, regarding both the recently freed Africa-American slaves and American Indians as subhuman.
And he was the first Governor of Alaska. More correctly, He was the first commander of the Department of Alaska, from March 18, 1868, to June 1, 1870. The start of what the late Ernest Gruening, in his history of Alaska, the Era of Complete Neglect. During this time, he ordered Russian residents of Sitka to leave their homes, as he maintained that they were needed for Americans. And it was General Davis who ordered the bombardment of three Native villages by the U.S.S. Saginaw.
What better solution to the problem of a racist, homicidal general than to ship him off to Alaska?
Almost a year ago, WC wrote an open letter to then Attorney General John Burns, asking why Ben Stevens has never been charged with any crimes by the State of Alaska. Why? Consider this rap sheet:
Item: Ben Stevens, while representing his Anchorage constituents and Enstar Natural Gas customers in the Alaska State Senate, was also serving on the Board of Directors of Semco, Enstar’s owner. To help hide the $70,000 in politically embarrassing director’s fees from his constituents, Little Ben deferred receipt of those fees to a future date. He managed to avoid an Alaska Public Offices Commission fine for his failure to report the deferred fees, but the whole business came out.
Item: Ben Stevens, while representing his constituents in the Alaska State Senate, collected more than $240,000 in “consulting fees” for performing no documented services for his erstwhile employer, Veco. Now it may be that Little Ben was performing services; after all, former Veco Vice President Rick Smith testified under oath that Veco was bribing Ben Stevens. But the absence of any evidence of . . . legitimate . . . work by Little Ben bothered some of the more scrupulous folks at Veco, like Roger Chan and outside counsel Jack Miller.
Item: Ben Stevens was the unindicted co-conspirator – “Senator B” – in United States v. Kott. At least according to U.S. District Judge John Sedwick. Why “unindicted” when the FBI had recorded damning telephone conversations between Bill Allen, Veco CEO, and Little Ben? We can only speculate.
Item: Republican political gadfly Ray Metcalf has carefully documented $923,000 in “consulting fees” by fishery industry companies to Ben Stevens. Those same companies are alleged to have received more than $12 million in payments directed them by Little Ben.
Item: Ben Stevens had a confidential option to purchase a 25% interest in Adak Fisheries at the time his father, the late U.S. Senator Ted Stevens, was pushing through a bill to create a fishery allocation project. The law had the effect of great increasing Adak Fisheries value – and the value of Little Ben’s secret option. At the same time, Little Ben was on the board of directors of Aleut Enterprise Corporation, which was charged with allocation of the pollock fishery. Without disclosing the conflict of interest, Little Ben voted for a big allocation to Adak Fisheries and argued against a larger share to Aleut Corporation.
Item: In August, 2011, in the wake of the badly botched Polar Pen fiasco, Ben Stevens was told the feds wouldn’t be pursuing criminal charges against him. Why? The Feds won’t say. We can only speculate.
Item: In September, 2011, WC was advised that because the State of Alaska had awaited the outcome of the federal investigation before acting, and because the federal investigation went on so long, the statute of limitations – the time during which a criminal charge may be brought – for violations of Alaska’s criminal laws had run. Alaska law requires a criminal charge to be filed within five years. There’s some statutes that extend the interval, but not far enough to save the Alaska Department of Law’s bacon.
Why didn’t the Feds prosecute Little Ben? In all of the investigations and post mortems of the botched prosecution of Ted Stevens, the question has never been addressed to WC’s knowledge. Cliff Groh has some interesting speculation, including the intriguing idea that by duly reporting all of his
bribes consulting fees, Little Ben made the prosecution much harder. But is that all it takes?
So Little Ben will never face a jury for any of this stuff. He gets away with it. About all a citizen can do when the government lets the public down like this is to make certain Ben Stevens never again gets elected to public office again. So WC will, from time to time, remind readers of just how bad Little Ben is.
Gizmodo has an interesting and troubling article from Jesus Diaz, reporting on a recent study by Mark Rober from NASA. Rober put rubber alternating rubber animals – a turtle, a snake and a tarantula – on the shoulder of a road. Out of the traffic lane, mind you; on the shoulder. And kept track of what passing drivers did.
6% – Six Percent! – of the drivers swerved out of their lanes, onto the shoulder, to run over the rubber animals.
[Is WC the only one who immediately thought of Anthony Burgess's novel, A Clockwork Orange, and the protagonist, who drives back from a night's orgy of violence, "driving over small, squealing animals"?]
But here’s the punchline. Of the 6% who went out of the way to drive over and kill the animals, 89% were driving sport utility vehicles, SUVs. Bezoomny.
RPOT, of course, is the Republican Party of Texas. It has adopted a new platform. And it is a doozy. As an insight into Neocon thinking, it is priceless. But you may need antacid tablets after a few of its 22 pages. To spare you unnecessary nausea, here are some of the choicer bits.
We oppose the teaching of . . . critical thinking skills and similar programs. (p. 12)
WC had always suspected this was the real neocon agenda. We just can’t have people thinking critically about the pablum being fed to them, apparently. It’s great to see them ‘fessing up to it. Cue the 1984 Apple Computer commercial.
We urge Congress to withhold Supreme Court jurisdiction in cases involving abortion, religious freedom, and the Bill of Rights. (p.5)
See, this is what happens when you oppose critical thinking. You oppose abortion, right? How will you get rid of the Constitutional right to abortion under Roe v. Wade if you take away the SCOTUS’s jurisdiction? And exactly how do you propose to “withhold jurisdiction” if the U.S. Constitution is holy writ?
We support legislation requiring labor unions to obtain consent of the union member before that member’s dues can be used for political purposes. (p. 5)
WC will agree with you on this but only if you agree that corporations have to obtain the consent of all their shareholders before corporate income can be used for political campaigns. Why should corporations be treated differently? It’s that failure to teach critical thinking again…
We urge that the Voter Rights Act of 1965 codified and updated in 1973 be repealed and not reauthorized. (p.5)
Why not just insert a plank in your platform supporting a return Jim Crow laws instead.
We support eliminating bureaucratic prohibitions on corporal discipline and home schooling in foster homes. (p. 10)
Wouldn’t you love to know what this plank is doing here? And WC suspects the RPOT may mean “corporeal,” unless it needs to punish low level officers of the armed forces.
All adult citizens should have the legal right to conscientiously choose which vaccines are administered to themselves or their minor children without penalty for refusing a vaccine. We oppose any effort by any authority to mandate such vaccines or any medical database that would contain personal records of citizens without their consent. (p. 11)
WC will help by translating this one: every parent has the right to let their child suffer and die from poliomyelitis, rubella, pertussis and a host of other diseases. See how it all keeps coming back to the business of critical thinking?
We support objective teaching and equal treatment of all sides of scientific theories. We believe theories such as life origins and environmental change should be taught as challengeable scientific theories subject to change as new data is produced. (p. 12)
No real scientist objects to teaching all sides of any scientific theory. But every real scientist objects to the teaching of superstition as a “scientific theory.” And it’s “data are produced,” not “is.” The Texas educational system may need improvement.
We support school choice and believe that quality education is best achieved by encouraging parental involvement, protecting parental rights, and maximizing local independent school district control. (p. 12)
Until such time as all texts are required to be approved by the SBOE, each ISD that uses non-SBOE approved instructional materials must verify them as factually and historically correct. Also the ISD board must hold a public hearing on such materials, protect citizen’s right of petition and require compliance with TEC and legislative intent. Local ISD boards must maintain the same standards as the SBOE. (p.13)
Well, which is it? Local control or statewide control? No wonder the Texas educational system has problems.
We support abolishing all federal agencies whose activities are not specifically enumerated in the Constitution; including the Departments of Education and Energy. (p. 16)
Damn, there goes the U.S. Air Force. Bummer. There were seven Air Force bases in Texas, too. And farm subsidies!
We oppose any government support of special interest organizations, such as ACORN and the ACLU. (p. 17)
So you oppose income tax and property tax breaks for churches? All those United Ways in Texas shouldn’t be exempt from taxation? WC wonders if this plank has been thought through.
Abolishing property taxes
Shifting the tax burden to a consumption-based tax (p. 18)
WC notes you want a strong economy. Did you know 70% of the U.S. economy is based upon consumer consumption? Gosh, WC wonders what will happen if there is a tax on consumption? Do you think it might have an impact upon consumption? Would that mean consumers had less to spend? Would that have an impact on the economy, do you think? Oh, wait. WC had forgotten. You officially don’t think.
We believe the Minimum Wage Law should be repealed. (p. 19)
Our founding fathers warned us of the dangers of allowing central bankers to control our currency because inflation equals taxation without representation. We support the return to the time tested precious metal standard for the U.S. dollar. (p. 20)
We support the withdrawal of the United States from the United Nations and the removal of U.N. headquarters from U.S. soil. (p. 20)
WC had kind of wondered where the surviving members of the John Birch Society had ended up. In Texas, apparently. WC hasn’t seen this old chestnut since the Commies burned down that giant billboard on I-5 outside of Salem, Oregon.
WC will summarize the rest of this extraordinary document this way: it calls for a return to the United States pre-FDR, approximately the time Herbert Hoover put the U.S. in the Great Depression. Jim Crow, isolationist, segregationist Texas. All the RPOT left out was the lynching. The United States of 80 years ago, with polio and tuberculosis wards. Remarkable. And the majority of Texas – a famously Red state – really think this way. Appalling.
WC will stipulate that bona fide al Qaeda terrorists present a legal dilemma. Because they use grossly different moral values than Western cultures, abhorrent even to the overwhelming majority of their fellow Muslims, but murder is murder. Homicide is still homicide. And even if the circumstances make the homicides a useful tool, a closed, hidden process for selecting targets is antithetical to American values.
Nor are the weapons as precise as we claim. A Hellfire surface-to-air missile launched from a Predator drone carries 20 pounds of high explosive. That’s not very discriminating when it explodes. And that’s when the intelligence data is good. Otherwise, it’s another wedding party blown to bloody giblets.
The website PakistanBodyCount.Org (by Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani, a Fulbright Scholar at the Florida Institute of Technology) shows 2,902 civilian deaths between June 2004 to July 1,2012 and tallying 305 drone strikes carried out by the U.S. That’s just Pakistan. Data for Yemen doesn’t seem to be available.
Some bloggers are even more upset when Americans are killed by drone-launched missiles. Sorry. That’s hypocrisy in WC’s book. An ultra-secret, wholly unsupervised CIA group selecting and wasting humans is simply wrong. Collateral losses – a vile euphemism for killing innocents – simply makes it worse. And probably helps al Qaeda recruitment.
And, in the medium term, probably highly dangerous to U.S. interests. At some point in the not-distant future, drones are going to be available to the bad guys in the same numbers as AK-47s and anti-armor missiles are today. And the precedent set by the U.S. will not only deny us the moral high ground; it will provoke an escalating war of drone and missile technologies.
Like Gyges’ ring, our technology gives us an advantage: we can deliver a butcher’s bill at minimal risk to American troops. At least until someone replicates out technology. It doesn’t make our actions ethical. Or lawful. Or effective. Or even strategic.
It’s bittersweet, because Ron Santo didn’t live to see it. But his widow, Vicki Santo, speaking Sunday at the 2012 Hall of Fame induction, did a fine job. To quote Bleed Cubbie Blue’s Josh Timmer, “Vicki Santo just hit Ronnie’s last home run for him.”
The Hall of Fame selection process may be deeply flawed. But the honor is real. Congratulations, Ronnie.
Readers may recall WC caught Brandi Carlile and her very good band at the Loon last year. The lady can rock, and her band can seriously rock. Despite the problems with the Loon as a concert venue, it was a fine show.
So WC looked forward to Carlile’s solo show at Hering Auditorium last Thursday night with mixed feelings. A far better venue, but the lady is a rocker, and her band is pretty special.
So it was unsurprising that the show was a bit of a mixed bag. WC really missed that band on some of the songs, especially some of the songs from her earlier album, “The Story” (Amazon link). But on the ballads, Carlile’s voice and very good guitar work were great. WC described Carlile as the gifted and talented love child of Patsy Cline and Eddie Vedder. When the songs called on the Patsy Cline genes, she was terrific. When the Eddie Vedder genes got involved, WC really missed the Hanseroth twins.
Hering Auditorium sports a huge Bösendorfer concert grand piano. It has a reputation for being difficult to play. The keys in the lowest octave have to be hit pretty hard to achieve that dark, rich tone. It messes up a player’s rhythm. And on the first two songs Carlile struggled a bit, but she was more used to it in some of the later songs. Not that many pop performers would even try to play it, so WC gives her props for the effort.
Carlile is terrific on Patsy Cline songs. Her version of “Crazy” raises the hair on the back of your neck. And she can do a credible old time gospel song, in this case “His Eye on the Sparrow.”
Her guitar chops are very good. She played an open-tuned Martin dark body, a traditional Gibson and what WC thinks was a tenor guitar. Much better than expected.
And she has an easy, warm relationship with a crowd. The 1,000 or so people at Hering were boisterous, but she was comfortable with it, and seemed to draw a lot of energy from the raucous bunch. Her song lyrics are okay to good; her music good to very good.
All in all, a pleasant evening, with an artist willing to work outside of her comfort zone, and bring it off well. Thanks to Anchorage’s Whistling Swan Productions for bringing Bradni back to Fairbanks.
For a few years now, WC and Mrs. WC have hosted house concerts. We invite friends over, pack them into the living room, and share with them a terrifically talented singer-songwriter they’ve never heard of. It’s hugely fun. You get to hang with your friends, listen to outstanding music and talk with amazing artists.
Last night Beth Wood sang at WC’s house.
Energetic, charismatic and talented, her classically-trained voice and megawatt smile utterly charmed the audience. Her songwriting, singing and playing skills are superb. Serious ballads and light-hearted zingers, she has a wide range of styles and can’t be classified.
The trick, of course, is finding artists like Beth Wood. For that, you need to know someone like Bud Johnson, host of Acoustic Accents, based in Tok, Alaska. A long time ago, Bud Johnson was at a barbecue hosted by Mrs. WC, looked at the living room and said, “This would be a great place for a house concert.” The result has been a series of outstanding singer-songwriters live in the living room. Capped by the delightful Beth Wood.
WC sends special thanks to Bud Johnson, the 60 plus friends who were kind enough to stop by and, especially, to Beth Wood. It was a terrific show.
Alaska boasts six species of grouse, the family Phasianidae. WC only has photos of five of the six. The White-tailed Ptarmigan has eluded him so far.
Taking the Grouse species first, by far the most common is the Ruffed Grouse. Some years ago there was a confused Ruffed Grouse with a territory on the edge of Creamers Field. He was nicknamed Dennis. He had the bad habit of incautiously attacking anything and anyone who came through is territory. The results were some remarkable closeups.
You just knew those genes weren’t going to reproduce and, in fact, they didn’t. WC will spare his gentle readers further details. By the way, it you hear a noise like a badly tuned engine in the woods, it might be a Ruffed Grouse drumming.
Less common is the Spruce Grouse, the black-spruce thicket-loving cousin of the Ruffed Grouse. At least in Interior Alaska, the species is darker and grayer.
Even less common than the Spruce Grouse is the Sharp-tailed Grouse, unless you are lucky enough to find a lek, and get to see the males dancing for the ladies.
A male Sharp-tailed dancing is nothing less than astonishing; too bad U.S. Army Alaska destroyed the one lek WC knew about.
The other grouse in Alaska are, in fact, ptarmigan. The most common is the Willow Ptarmigan.
By the way, the most reliable place to see Willow Ptarmigan WC knows is the floor of the Savage River downstream from the bridge in Denali National Park. In mid-July, you can even find chicks following their parents around.
The higher altitude cousin of the Willow Ptarmigan is the Rock Ptarmigan.
In winter plumage, shown here, you can tell the Rock Ptarmigan from the Willow by the strong black eye line in the Rock. The female is molting. She’ll be on eggs soon on the brown tundra, and needs the camouflage. The male remains whiter longer to act as a distraction for predators.
As noted above, the White-tailed Ptarmigan has eluded WC’s camera. WC will grouse about it, but persist.
As the neocons and The Mitt whine and complain about excessive government regulation, and how it stifles capitalism, WC offers in response five different, specific examples of why regulation is absolutely necessary and why unfettered capitalism a very, very bad idea. Five easy examples, Five Easy Pieces.
1. Frédéric Chopin: Fantasy in F minor. JPMorgan Chase managed to lose $7 billion (and still counting) by – how to say this charitably – failing to adequately supervise one of its departments. JPMorgan Chase is in that special class of U.S. financial institutions that is Too Big Too Fail. It JPMorgan goes down, it could take with it the U.S. economy. But it places billion dollar bets using taxpayers’ monies. And complains about excessive regulation.
2. Johann Sebastian Bach: Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue. Then there is Barclays Bank and its LIBOR games. LIBOR is the reference interest rate for an astonishing number of financial deals, ranging from your credit card to Alaska bond rates to U.S. Treasury rates. Yet it turns out that Barclays, and likely other banks, having been gaming the rate for their own benefit. The bankers and traders at Barclays didn’t care about the repercussions of gaming the rate; they only cared that it made them more money. It’s too early to know how big this debacle is, but it may be the largest single criminal act in history.
3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major. WC has written earlier about GlaxosmithKline and its marketing of drugs for unapproved purposes. GSK pled to three charges the USDOJ had made against it. First, that it marketed Paxil, an anti-anxiety drug, for use on children and adolescents, when it was only approved for adults. Second, that it marketed Wellburtin, an anti-anxiety drug, as a weight loss drug. And third, that GSK failed to report grave safety issues with its Avandia, a diabetes drug. The $3 billion fine, while the largest every levied on a U.S. company, may be less than a pimple on its financial statement, but it may make GSK more prudent in the future.
4. Frédéric Chopin: Prelude in E minor. WC has also written earlier about MF Global and its theft of investors’ trust funds. In a desperate financial jam, MF Global, headed by a former U.S. Senator, didn’t hesitate to do so. MF Global did not hesitate to put its own interests ahead of its customers.
5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Fantasy in D minor. And as our final piece, Capital One has been caught once again ripping off its own credit card holders. As a result, Capital One is facing fines totaling $210 million Most of the fine arises out of the first reported enforcement action of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, who obtained a consent decree – a de facto admission of wrongdoing – from Capital One. Consent Decree 0001, in fact. The Comptroller of the Currency tagged Capital One for bogus billing practices. Capital One is a recidivist, a repeat offender. It was nailed by the Comptroller back in 2010 for extorionate fees, including big fees to close an account.
Like Bobby Dupea, the surly protagonist of the movie, capitalism is utterly amoral. In its rawest form, it is accountable only to its shareholders for the highest possible profit. Capitalism requires big businesses to obey the law only if the cost-benefit ratio justifies it. If there is more money to be made by selling dangerous, unapproved drugs to kids than the likely fines if you get caught, then pure capitalism requires – mandates – that the company do so. If Capital One can make more money tricking its customers into buying bogus payment-protetion insurance than the fine it will face if it gets caught, then that’s what it will do.
It’s not just, it’s not fair and it’s nor right. Regulators always struggle to keep up. They get co-opted. They get bribed. But however limited their success, the result is better than no regulation. Defending them is easy. Five Easy Pieces.
When we last saw Captain Zero, he was muddied and bloodied by his loss in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Affordable Care Act was – Gasp! – constitutional. Captain Zero’s efforts to defeat the Evil Federal Monster had failed again.
Captain Zero had fought the Evil Federal Monster and its Minions many times before. The Endangered Species Act and Cook Inlet Beluga Whales. The Environmental Protection Agency and Greenhouse Gases. The Department of the Interior and its moratorium on off-shore leases following the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The heroic Captain Zero has been tireless in fighting the Evil Federal Monster.
Completely futile, as it turns out, losing every time, but you have to admit he has been tireless.
But not this time. This time, he has invited the Evil Federal Monster into the governor’s mansion. He’s baked cookies and he’s serving the Monster tea.
The Affordable Care Act requires states to set up health care exchanges. These are intended to be one stop shops, managed by the states or a nonprofit selected by a state, to provide a single point for comparison shopping of health insurance plans. Alaska’s very high rate of uninsured citizens and comparatively few health insurance providers make this a big deal. A carefully designed health insurance exchange might attract more insurers to the Alaska market. More insurers might mean more competition, lower premiums, better coverages and less confusion. It would have involved some work and, yes, some expense, but it carried the potential to provide huge benefits to the Alaska public.
But Alaskans know what Captain Zero does when he fails to get his way: he packs up his marbles and goes home.
Even if it means letting the Evil Federal Monster design and implement Alaska’s health insurance exchange. Because that’s what is going to happen. Rather than develop a state-operated health insurance exchange, Captain Zero has decided to let the federal government do it. Because it might cost the state of Alaska money if the State were to do it and, you know, that would be an unfunded mandate. Oh, wait. Captain Zero already rejected the Federal funding to help set up the health care exchange.
The idea of a cost benefit analysis apparently has escaped Captain Zero, as he scooped up his marbles and ran home.
Captain Zero has surrendered Alaska’s ability to control its health care destiny. It’s a huge chunk of the Alaska economy. According to the University of Alaska Institute for Social and Economic Research,
Health-care spending for Alaskans reached about $7.5 billion in 2010. For comparison, that’s close to half the wellhead value of all the oil produced in Alaska that year. It’s also roughly equal to half the wages Alaskans collected in 2010. (Emphasis added.)
And health care spending is growing, both in amounts spent and as a percentage of the economy. ISER also found
The state’s health-care spending has been rising fast, tripling since 1990 and jumping 40% just between 2005 and 2010—and at current trends it could double by 2020, reaching more than $14 billion.
And Captain Zero’s justification for letting the Feds develop the health care exchanges is that it might cost a little money to set them up? Perhaps $6.7 million. Against a $7.5 billion a year item that’s growing at 8-9% a year? It doesn’t wash, Governor. It doesn’t even pass the red face test. This is about posturing for the teabaggers. This is about sulking because the Affordable Care Act is constitutional. You’ll fight a ridiculous, stupid and losing lawsuit over Beluga Whales to limit federal powers. But you’ll abdicate to the Feds in the multi-billion dollar health care struggles.
To paraphrase Garry Trudeau, “How long does it take to betray everything you’ve ever stood for, Governor?” WC thinks the paperwork alone must be incredible.
We don’t have Brian Newton to kick around any more. The General Manager of Golden Valley Electric Association resigned suddenly and unexpectedly. A recruiting effort to find a replacement is under way. In the meantime, local attorney for GVEA, Cory Borgeson, is serving as interim General Manager.
For out-of-towners who read this blog, Golden Valley Electric Association – GVEA – is the electric service provider for all of Interior Alaska. Through an embarrassing, expensive and improbable series of gaffes and bad planning, GVEA generates a 60% of the electric power it sells measured by fuel cost (37% by kilowatt hour) by burning oil. GVEA has a spur pipeline of of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline at North Pole, Alaska, drawing from the Trans Alaska Pipeline. It is very, very expensive energy, sometimes, depending on the price of crude. Piss-poor planning.
GVEA was also involved in a disastrous “Clean Coal” power project in Healy, Alaska, which promised a high tech solution to the problems of burning coal. Especially the problems of burning low grade lignite coal just a few miles from Denali National Park. The short version of that long disaster is that Healy II hasn’t produced a kilowatt of power and sits idle, a failed technology.
But recriminations about bad planning over 15 years aren’t a solution. WC would like to look instead at some numbers gleaned from the annual reports available on-line. Because GVEA annual reports have varied in what they disclose and how they disclose it over the years, it’s a bit difficult to compare straight across. And these numbers are not corrected for inflation.
|Total Members||36,945||37,154 (2009)|
|General and Administrative Expenses||$2,757,997||$9,729,758|
|Total Long Term Debt||$138,069,421||$284,430,780|
Now sometimes GVEA list “members,” and sometimes it lists “meters,” and it doesn’t always seem to be consistent across annual reports. But if WC has this right, for an effectively unchanged number of members in the co-op, from 1998 to 2010 long term debt at GVEA has more than doubled and general and administrative expenses are up an astonishing 350%. Even Brian Newton’s amazing $455,000 salary can’t explain that increase. Whatever severance package he got isn’t even on these books. And it can’t all be Mike Kelly’s retirement package.
GVEA’s proposed solution to the high cost of producing energy is to start up the abandoned Healy II plant as a traditional coal-fired power station. WC is skeptical that a huge new point source for air pollution a few miles from Denali National Park is going to get green-lighted by the Feds, or even should be approved by the Feds, but assuming that happened, any “lower costs of fuel” are created by failing to address the true cost of burning coal. Coal produces at least twice as much CO2 per unit of electricity as does natural gas. Coal injects more sulfates, nitrates and fine particulates into the atmosphere. Coal is “cheaper” than other hydrocarbons only if you leave those costs off of the balance sheet. And then there’s the transmission loss moving that new electricity from Healy, where there is very little demand, to Fairbanks, something like 100 miles of controversial high transmission lines.
The true savings from burning natural gas are so great the GVEA should be working harder and faster at trucking natural gas from the North Slope to Fairbanks and converting the North Pole power plant to gas. Trucking should be the bridge to a pipeline from the Slope to the Interior. The economics are very good because natural gas prices are very low now, as a result of increased natural gas production stateside. It’s not just WC pushing this idea; Dermot Cole thinks it’s pretty attractive as well. The availability of natural gas for residential heating is an added plus. The project is reportedly under way at GVEA, but it’s pretty unclear exactly where it stands.
GVEA also needs a freeze on hiring and a serious discussion about the long term debt issue. There are likely real savings there as well. But the big savings are from getting off oil.
But GVEA, at least under the Newton administration, would rather mount a protest the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, which is actually a member of GVEA. And NAEC’s members are, for the most part, themselves members of GVEA. All because NAEC knows that “clean coal” is an oxymoron. So we have been treated to the ugly sight of a monopoly nonprofit picketing another nonprofit. It’s divisive in a community that doesn’t need more divisive issues. And it accomplishes nothing useful.
Those readers who are GVEA customers should talk to their Board members. We own this outfit.
WC’s readers know that WC has low expectations for Governor Parnell. But you’d think he could find a case to win, somewhere. But it didn’t happen in the District of Columbia Circuit on June 26, 2012, when the most prestigious of the federal circuits slapped Captain Zero down. Again.
In Coalition for Responsible Regulation et al. v. Environmental Protection Agency (the case caption alone runs to more than fifteen pages), the court upheld the EPA’s modest efforts to phase in regulation of greenhouse gases.
The backstory is pretty interesting. Under the Bush administration, the EPA resisted mightily efforts to make it regulate greenhouse gases as pollutants under the Clean Air Act. The EPA had to be dragged all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where, in Massachusetts v. EPA in 2007 the Roberts court held that the EPA had to regulate greenhouse gases. It was a significant loss for the Bush administration. And likely a really bitter pill for Senator Imhofe (R., OK and Crazies), who denies climate change.
So, forced kicking and screaming to regulate greenhouse gases, the EPA undertook some very slight regulation of the more obvious sources: tailpipes on automobiles and trucks, and major point sources (more than 250 tons of greenhouse gases per year). The industries squealed like stuck pigs. The states where the industries are located and too many industry groups to count rushed to court.
Including, WC is sorry to say, the State of Alaska. In fact, Alaska is the first-named plaintiff in the first of the consolidated cases. You might think that the state where global warming is happening in real time might hesitate to rush to challenge efforts to mitigate the cause. But you’d be wrong.
The Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in its per curiam opinion, upheld the EPA’s actions.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497 (2007)—which clarified that greenhouse gases are an “air pollutant” subject to regulation under the Clean Air Act (CAA)—the Environmental Protection Agency promulgated a series of greenhouse gas-related rules. First, EPA issued an Endangerment Finding, in which it determined that greenhouse gases may “reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.” See 42 U.S.C. § 7521(a)(1). Next, it issued the Tailpipe Rule, which set emission standards for cars and light trucks. Finally, EPA determined that the CAA requires major stationary sources of greenhouse gases to obtain construction and operating permits. But because immediate regulation of all such sources would result in overwhelming permitting burdens on permitting authorities and sources, EPA issued the Timing and Tailoring Rules, in which it determined that only the largest stationary sources would initially be subject to permitting requirements.
Petitioners, various states and industry groups, challenge all these rules, arguing that they are based on improper constructions of the CAA and are otherwise arbitrary and capricious. But for the reasons set forth below, we conclude: 1) the Endangerment Finding and Tailpipe Rule are neither arbitrary nor capricious; 2) EPA’s interpretation of the governing CAA provisions is unambiguously correct; and 3) no petitioner has standing to challenge the Timing and Tailoring Rules. We thus dismiss for lack of jurisdiction all petitions for review of the Timing and Tailoring Rules, and deny the remainder of the petitions.
Across the board. Another dead flat loss for Captain Zero. And a very small success for the environment.
The Mitt is having a tough week.
The Mitt has a few accomplishments as an elected official; most famously the Massachusetts mandatory health care plan. But to keep his core constituency in his own party he has had to disavow that accomplishment. So instead he is running as a successful businessman. And Bain was his success: it made him rich, at least.
But Bain has turned into a trap. In the period 1999 – 2002, Bain made its millions mostly by shipping American jobs overseas. The Mitt has pretty much admitted what Bain did. The data are really indisputable. So The Mitt has attempted to minimize the damage by claiming he left Bain in 1999, so it was those other guys, the ones who replaced him, who wickedly sent American jobs abroad.
But The Mitt’s claims of non-involvement are doubtful. First, Bain filed documents with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission in which The Mitt was described as sole owner, president and CEO of Bain in 1999, 2000, 2001 and 2002. And was paid a $100,000 salary. So while The Mitt is appearing on talk shows now, claiming he wasn’t involved, at the time he was CEO. We know what the late President Harry Truman would have thought about this.
But The Mitt? Not there; living in Utah, supervising the Winter Olympics. Not in charge. As Joe Trippi, writing for Fox News (Fox News!) put it:
Romney now is either the first sole shareholder, chairman, CEO and president of a company in history to claim that he had nothing whatsoever to do with managing that company or he is responsible for the worst practices of Bain.
But the second part of the box is The Mitt’s residency. When he ran for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, his residency – his eligibility to be a candidate – was called into question. To establish that he was a resident and entitled to be a candidate, in sworn testimony during a 2002 Massachusetts hearing to determine if he met the residency requirement to run for governor, The Mitt declared that he had remained on the board of a company in which Bain was an investor. He claimed he was still in Massachusetts on Bain matters often enough to meet the residency requirements to be candidate for govenor. Under oath.
The firestorm of non sequiturs, ad hominem attacks and Big Lies coming out of the Romney camp in response to the Bain Problem suggests that this may be a big deal. The Mitt has finally been caught in a lie where the voters may actually care. After lying so many times for so long this doubtlessly comes as a shock to The Mitt.
The Mitt could partially solve his problem by getting Bain to produce corporate minutes showing he wasn’t involved. He hasn’t. In his 2002 testimony on his residency, The Mitt acknowledged that he could pin down what dates he was where by looking at his calendars. He hasn’t. The Mitt holds the keys to the trap he has made for himself. But the keys may themselves be dangerous: they may not prove what The Mitt claims. The Mitt is a man who lives by risk-benefit analysis. It’s at the heart of what he did at Bain. It’s how he thinks. The benefits to releasing these documents are very great. Knowing how The Mitt thinks, the risks associated with releasing Bain corporate minutes, diaries and calendars and tax returns must be very damning indeed.
But mostly WC is deeply gratified to find his Grandma Ruth proven right once again: liars eventually get caught in their own web of lies.
We live in an age of instantaneity. The internet, and in particular social media, have greatly accelerated the speed at which information and disinformation spreads. The trends have even created an expectation of instantaneity.
We all enjoyed a graphic example of this effect with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act. CNN and Fox News read only the first few sentences of the syllabus of the decision, saw that a majority had ruled that ACA couldn’t be sustained under the Commerce Clause, and leapt to the conclusion that ACA was unconstitutional. Oops. Equally impressive was the speed with which social media excoriated CNN and Fox News for their blunder. There’s a really excellent minute-by-minute analysis of the events by Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSBlog.
To some extent, it seems to WC that reaction has trumped reason. An instantaneous response is deemed more important than a reasoned, thoughtful response. Worse, the speed with which information moves today seems inversely proportional to the accuracy of the information.
Famously, Britain’s King George III supposedly wrote in his diary on July 4, 1776, “Nothing important happened today.” It took weeks for news of the Declaration of Independence to cross the Atlantic. Today, WC supposes, it would be live-tweeted. But quick doesn’t mean better.
Speed at the expense of accuracy is worthless, even harmful, to society as a whole. WC wants to make a plea for a pause for reasoned reflection. H.L. Mencken reminded us, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” We are surrounded by complex problems like health care; speed results in hasty, simple and dead, flat wrong decisions.