Monthly Archives: April 2014

“No Fracking Way: The Natural Gas Boom Is Doing More Harm Than Good”

That was the proposition being debated on the Intelligence Squared podcast.

Moderated by ABC News’ John Donvan, the debate featured Deborah Goldberg (Managing Attorney at Earthjustice) and Katherine Hudson (Watershed Program Director at Riverkeeper) who argued for the motion; and Joe Nocera (The New York Times) and Sue Tierney (Analysis Group; Former Assistant Secretary for Policy at U.S. Department of Energy), who argued against the motion.

Here is description of the debate:

Natural gas, touted for its environmental, economic, and national security benefits, is often thought of as the fuel that will “bridge” our transition from oil and coal to renewables. The ability to extract natural gas from shale formations through a method called hydraulic fracturing has unleashed vast, untapped sources—by some estimates, the U.S. now sits on a 100-year supply. But contamination from toxic chemicals used in the fracking process has been the source of increasing health and environmental concerns. Can natural gas be part of a clean energy solution, or is it a dangerous roadblock to a fossil-free future?

For more on fracking, check out Saturday’s post liking to a This American Life story about natural gas in Pennsylvania.

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April 28, 2014 · 9:42 am

Sunday Funday: Colbert, Affirmative Action and the Ballad of Cliven Bundy

This edition of Sunday Funday is the first two segments of the most recent episode of the Colbert Report.  Colbert discusses race in two contexts.  First, he discusses the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling.  Second, Colbert singing “The Ballad of Cliven Bundy,” the  Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who stood up to the federal government . . .  by refusing to pay grazing fees and subsequently gave his thoughts on “the Negro” who, he ponders” might be “better off as slaves, picking cotton.” 

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April 27, 2014 · 6:57 pm

PA Natural Gas and the Fracking Debate

I was reminded recently of an episode of This American Life about Pennsylvania natural gas, the hydrofracturing debate, and two PA professors’ predictions abut natural gas.  

Here is a description of the episode: 

A professor in Pennsylvania makes a calculation, to discover that his state is sitting atop a massive reserve of natural gas—enough to revolutionize how America gets its energy. But another professor in Pennsylvania does a different calculation and reaches a troubling conclusion: that getting natural gas out of the ground poses a risk to public health. Two men, two calculations, and two very different consequences. (Transcript)

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April 26, 2014 · 8:16 pm

Dead Giraffes v. Dead Syrians: Which Is More Outrageous?

Clearly, the answer is Syrians.  However, if one were to use media coverage as a barometer, one would think that the death a Marius the giraffe, a Copenhagen giraffe killed and butchered in front of a crowd, is more important than the Syrian genocide.  The video of Marius’s murder went viral and created widespread outrage.  The Syrian genocide is a horrible abstraction, the stuff below the fold in the New York Times. Recently, the Freakonomics Radio podcast investigated the phenomenon of selective outrage.  Although not explicitly about public policy, it is not hard to see how selective outrage has ramifications in political and public policy debates.  

Here is a description of the podcast from the Freakonomics blog: 

This week’s podcast is about selective outrage — why we get so upset over some things, and then not over others. It’s called “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado?” . . . 

We start with Marius the giraffe. Marius lived at a zoo in Copenhagen. Zoo officials said he was a “surplus” animal: too genetically similar to other giraffes, and therefore he couldn’t breed. It was kinder, they said, to kill him. So they fed him some rye bread (“his favorite food”), shot him in the head, and dissected him in front of a crowd of onlookers, including kids. Next they fed his corpse to the lions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world reacted with outrage.


How did this compare to the outrage expressed over the killing of more than 146,000 people during the ongoing civil war in Syria? Not quite commensurate. Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, noticed this disparity, and he talks about it withStephen Dubner:


HIRSCH: If you recall there was saturation coverage of a Danish zoo that killed a giraffe in front of dozens of schoolchildren and fed it to the lions. And it struck me that that received so much attention and so much publicity — not that I’m in favor of killing giraffes, in general, or killing any animals, let alone in front of children — but it was at the time when there was such savagery around the word, and in particular, hundreds of people in that week were butchered in Syria, and there was such little coverage about that event, and so much coverage about the killing of one giraffe that it simply struck me that that probably says something about how we think and about the nature of our society.


Steve Levitt says that outrage over Marius’s death, and the increased level of compassion people have for animals, is overall a positive sign for society:


LEVITT: I think being nice to animals is a luxury good. I remember when I first went to China 14 years ago to adopt my daughter and we went to an open-air market. And the animals they had to eat and the circumstances of these animals were just, to a Westerner, outrageous… And then when I went back about five years later, to the same open-air market, what just amazed me is that suddenly they had a big section of the open-air market that was devoted to fish tanks. In just five years, China had boomed in wealth. [They went] from literally eating anything they could find, to deciding it was fun to have animals for pets.


You will also hear from Wall Street Journal reporter Jose de Cordoba, whose article about the Mexican avocado trade perhaps should have outraged people but didn’t. De Cordoba explains how most avocados eaten in the U.S. are “blood avocados,” made to pass through a criminal cartel that extorts, kidnaps, and kills.


And finally, big thanks to listener Rebecca Pearce. She wrote to us with a question that gets Levitt and Dubner wondering what’s more valuable: the life of a polar bear or the life of an economist.

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April 25, 2014 · 12:50 pm

One Sentence, Sixty Words and Over a Dozen Years of War

Recently, NPR’s Radiolab aired an episode entitled “60 Words” about the sixty words that encompass the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).  The AUMF, passed just after the attacks on September 11, 2001, provide the legal foundation for the ensuing “war on terror.”

Here is a description of the show from the Radiolab website: 

In the hours after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a lawyer sat down in front of a computer and started writing a legal justification for taking action against those responsible. The language that he drafted and that President George W. Bush signed into law – called the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) –  has at its heart one single sentence, 60 words long. Over the last decade, those 60 words have become the legal foundation for the “war on terror.”

This hour we pull apart one sentence, written in the hours after September 11th, 2001, that has led to the longest war in U.S. history. We examine how just 60 words of legal language have blurred the line between war and peace.

In this collaboration with BuzzFeed, reporter Gregory Johnsen tells us the story of how this has come to be one of the most important, confusing, troubling sentences of the past 12 years. We go into the meetings that took place in the chaotic days just after 9/11, speak with Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former Congressman Ron Dellums about the vote on the AUMF. We hear from former White House and State Department lawyers John Bellinger & Harold Koh. We learn how this legal language unleashed Guantanamo, Navy Seal raids and drone strikes. And we speak with journalist Daniel Klaidman, legal expert Benjamin Wittes and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine about how these words came to be interpreted, and what they mean for the future of war and peace.

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April 24, 2014 · 2:08 pm

Innovative Tax Collection Techniques

In “celebration” of Tax Day last week, NPR‘s Planet Money podcast did a story about innovative tax collection techniques that are employed internationally.  

Here is a description of the story, titled “The Tough, The Sweet And The Nosy,” from the NPR website: 

Millions of tax cheats never get caught. And the IRS seems powerless to stop them.

This isn’t just a problem in the U.S. American taxpayers are Dudley Do-Rights compared to people in some other countries. On today’s show, we head to some of the cheating-est places on earth to bring you tales from some of the roughest, toughest tax collectors around. These guys have tricks, tax collector mind-games, that they play to get people to do the right thing.

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April 23, 2014 · 10:12 am

Marijuana Legalization and Public Health

This year saw a strange overlap of holidays.  Easter corresponded with the pot smoker celebration of 420.  Perhaps even more significant is the fact that this is the first 420 where marijuana can be purchased legally (in Colorado and Washington state).  The Diane Rehm Show recently discussed marijuana legalization and its public health effects. 

Here is a description for the segment from the show’s website: 

Across the country, public attitudes towards legalizing marijuana have shifted and state legislatures are responding. No state has gone as far as Washington State or Colorado—where marijuana sales are legal—but many are moving to decriminalize the drug or make it available for medical use. And cash strapped states considering legalization are closely watching Colorado where the governor recently predicted a tax windfall. But while politicians are more eager to get on board, public health officials continue to raise alarm bells about the safety of lighting up. Guest host Susan Page and her guests discuss the business and changing politics of marijuana.


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April 22, 2014 · 8:22 pm