Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Tale of Two Tests: Together We Learn to Read and Write

A Tale of Two Tests: Together We Learn to Read and Write. By Francis Beckwith
What's Wrong with the World, May 29, 2009

On Sotomayor's Bartlett v. the New York State Board of Law Examiners case, 1997.

Solar Dreaming: Power at 7x the Cost

Obama's Solar Dreaming: Power at 7x the Cost. By Ronald Bailey
Reason Hit & Run, May 28, 2009, 10:15am

During a Democratic Party fundraising swing out West, President Barack Obama dropped by Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for a photo op with a 140 acre array of 72,000 solar photovoltaic panels. The president praised the installation, declaring it

"a shining example of what's possible when we harness the power of clean, renewable energy to build a new firmer foundation for economic growth."

The Nellis solar facility cost $100 million and can produce 15 megawatts of electricity when the sun shines. So how does this compare with conventional sources of power? The Electric Power Research Institute recently released a report which found that a 1,000 megawatt conventional coal-fired plant would cost about $2.8 billion to build.

A rough scaling up the Nellis solar facility to a 1,000 megawatts at $100 million per 15 megwatts would mean that a comparable solar plant would cost $6.6 billion to build. But wait, there's more. Coal-fired plants operate at about 90 percent capacity, so a truly fair comparison would take into account that a solar plant generally operates at 30 percent of its rated capacity. That would mean that a solar photovoltaic plant using the technologies available at Nellis would actually cost nearly $20 billion to build in order to produce the same amount of power that a conventional coal-fired plant would.

Of course, new breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies may make those costs go way down in the future, but using the current Nellis-type technologies (even with production economies of scale) do not seem to be a way "to build a firmer foundation for economic growth."

But doesn't this fulfill President Obama's much touted promise of creating "five million new green jobs that pay well, can't be outsourced, and help end our dependence on foreign oil"? Well, the solar panels at Nellis were manufactured in the Philippines and assembled in China. Don't get me wrong, if American taxpayers and ratepayers are going to be forced to use solar power, by all means, let's buy the panels from the cheapest sources possible. Even if it increases our dependence on foreign solar.

See also President Obama's praise for a similarly costly facility in Denver here. That array of panels reportedly has a pay back time of 110 years.

Paul Krugman: If Only California Could Just Raise Taxes

Paul Krugman: If Only California Could Just Raise Taxes. By Matt Welch
Reason Hit & Run, May 26, 2009, 9:31am

I wholeheartedly agree with New York Times econ columnist Paul Krugman here:

Despite the economic slump, despite irresponsible policies that have doubled the state's debt burden since Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor, California has immense human and financial resources. It should not be in fiscal crisis; it should not be on the verge of cutting essential public services and denying health coverage to almost a million children. But it is — and you have to wonder if California's political paralysis foreshadows the future of the nation as a whole.

But we part paths at Krugman's next sentence:

The seeds of California's current crisis were planted more than 30 years ago, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, a ballot measure that placed the state's budget in a straitjacket.

This notion, as mentioned here previously, is as taken for granted among the state's political/journalistic class as water is by fish. Yes, Prop. 13 (which capped property-tax increases) created some legitimately challenging process issues, in terms of funds being transferred from the local level to the state level and back again. But the real complaint is that the famous tax revolt made it difficult to, well, hike up taxes. Krugman again:

Even more important, however, Proposition 13 made it extremely hard to raise taxes, even in emergencies: no state tax rate may be increased without a two-thirds majority in both houses of the State Legislature.

Here is where the traditional liberal argument loses me. The California budget "emergency" isn't a tax problem, it's a spending problem. State spending in the past two decades, as this Reason Foundation report [PDF] spells out, has increased 5.37 percent a year (and nearly 7 percent for the past decade), compared to a population-plus-inflation growth rate of 4.38 percent. If the budget growth rate had been limited to the population-inflation growth rate, the state would be sitting on a $15 billion surplus right now. Surely enough to dip into during a real emergency. What's more, despite this alleged tax straightjacket, Californians manage to still pay 21.9 percent in state and local taxes, compared to 14.5 percent for Texas.

So to demonstrate that insufficent taxability is the root of California's problems, a persuasive anti-Prop. 13 commentator would need to at least address the fact that state residents still manage to pay a high rate of taxes, and that the government keeps on growing voraciously in both good times and bad. If you're going to tax residents still more (as Krugman desires), don't they deserve to know why the cost of government services keeps going up up up up UP!?

Instead of any of that, Krugman goes on a name-calling binge against minority Republicans. ("Driven mad by lack of power," "the party of Rush Limbaugh," "the party's growing extremism," and so on.)

I am entirely confident in claiming that I know California better than Krugman does (evidenced if by nothing else than by his lazy, college-newspaper usage of the phrase "banana Republic" to describe my native state), and I know intimately from that experience just how many fruits and nuts are sprinkled generously within the state's GOP. And yet surveying a California political and fiscal landscape that has been utterly dominated the past decade by the Democratic Party, and concluding that the problem is the vanishing tribe of Republicans, is at best puzzling. At worst, it's something quite a bit darker than that.