Friday, March 30, 2007

Curmudgeonly Spring Break

The Curmudgeon is taking a Spring Break with the family. We'll be back in the blogosphere by April 5 or so.

Watch for us on "Curmudgeons Gone Wild!"


The Scourge of Autoimmune Disease

We just learned that the 13 year old daughter of some dear friends has been diagnosed with lupus, a systemic autoimmune disease, so we thought we'd say a little here about autoimmunity.

The term "autoimmune disease" encompasses a range of diseases and conditions in which the body's immune system essentially turns on itself, attacking the body's own tissues. Some autoimmune diseases, such as lupus and scleroderma, are systemic, meaning the immune system attacks many different parts of the body, whereas others are organ-specific, in that they involve only one particular organ--for example, Addison's disease attacks the adrenal glands.

Lupus is a particularly pernicious disease because during flare-ups it can be debilitating, causing widespread joint pain, fatigue and muscle weakness, while it also can attack almost any organ in the body. Although sometimes fatal, most lupus cases can be treated with steroidal therapies and many lupus patients live mostly normal lives. Our friends' daughter's case was diagnosed early, which makes her prognosis, with treatment, quite good. Still, it's devastating news, all the more so for such a young person.

The Curmudgeon had never heard about autoimmune diseases before working on some legal matters, a number of years back, involving claims that a medical device had caused autoimmune reactions. We were shocked to learn how common these diseases are in Americans--affecting at least 3% of the population (some estimates are as high as 20%), with roughly three-quarters of cases occurring in women, who tend to have higher rates of autoimmunity than men. (Many of the particular autoimmune diseases are quite rare, but when they're all combined they are fairly common, and some, such as rheumatoid arthritis affect millions of Americans.)

Despite years of research, the mechanism that triggers autoimmunity is poorly understood and most autoimmune diseases have no cure. Some, such as scleroderma--a systemic disease that results in thickening of the skin and fibrous tissue in internal organs--have relatively high fatality rates.

Many cases of autoimmunity go undiagnosed because the symptoms sometimes masquerade as a type of low-level chronic illness, and because diagnostic tests--generally blood tests for certain "auto-antibodies" (i.e., antibodies to our own tissues)--are notoriously imprecise.

Despite the widespread suffering caused by autoimmune diseases, as well as an estimated 30,000-40,000 deaths a year, this scourge gets relatively little research funding from the federal government--tens of millions of dollars compared to the billions devoted to cancer, heart disease and major illnesses.

One organization that is trying to change that (and which the Curmudgeon has supported for a number of years) is the Autoimmune Diseases Association (previously, the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association), which lobbies Congress and the National Institutes for Health for increased funding, privately supports promising research, holds conferences on autoimmune disease and serves as a clearinghouse of information for sufferers of these diseases.

If you're interested in learning more, or helping out, visit their website at:

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Could Eliz. Edwards Cancer Recurrence Resurrect Mark Warner's Campaign?

Despite the brave face put on by John and Elizabeth Edwards, the recurrence and spread of her cancer have to be devastating news. For now, John says he will continue the campaign, urged on by Elizabeth. We don't doubt their sincerity--Elizabeth is clearly a strong and resolute woman.

The lingering question, however, is where the Edwards campaign will be in six months or so. Treatments for Elizabeth's cancer are bound to take a toll. They have small children. And this is an unusually long election campaign. John Edwards is, by presidential standards, still a young man. He could ultimately decide to withdraw from the race to deal with his wife's illness and still make a comeback down the road (perhaps, at some point, running for Governor of North Carolina to get some executive experience).

IF Edwards were to withdraw by this Fall, it would open the door to reconsideration by former Virginia Governor Mark Warner. Although Warner withdrew from the race last year, citing the toll it would take on his family, he's still going around the country meeting with small groups of Democratic activists. He has enough personal money to jump start a campaign late in the season.

While the betting is that Warner is trying to position himself as the Dems VP nominee, he might very well see an Edwards exodus as an opportunity. It would be a tough calculus--on the one hand, getting back in would certainly burn all bridges with Hillary's supporters. On the other hand, we still think Warner ultimately would be a strong general election candidate, with tremendous appeal to moderate independent voters. While we think highly of both Hillary and Obama, we're concerned that in head-to-head polls with Guiliani and McCain, they generally lose.

One would think that at this point in the game, with Bush's popularity in the toilet and Republicans on the defensive, the head-to-head match-ups would go for just about any leading Democratic contender. That hasn't been the case, and while we're still a long way from the general election, it belies serious problems with how independent voters view the leading Democratic contenders.

(We also think there's still a good chance the Republican Party will melt down into Baghdad like strife, especially after Gingrich enters the race--which we're increasingly confident will occur--and either nominate someone besides Guiliani or McCain, or launch a splinter movement for a conservative third-party candidate. If that happens, Democrats chances in '08 vastly improve.)

We're not making any predictions, certainly not at this point. But if you have a "Warner '08" bumper sticker or pin, hang on to it, at least for now.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Webb's Born Fighting PAC Announces First Beneficiaries

Senator Jim Webb's "Born Fighting" PAC announced today that it will start out playing DEE-Fense. The PAC's initial beneficiaries will be Democrats in the General Assembly and in the U.S. Senate whose seats are deemed vulnerable. In the email we received, Jim said:
"Today, I am happy to announce Born Fighting PAC's first 4 featured candidates: Del. Donald McEachin, Del. David Poisson, U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, and U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson.
In Virginia, we must build upon the momentum from the election of Tim Kaine in 2005 and our victory in 2006, by helping Democrats capture the Virginia State House and Senate in 2007. Helping Donald and David win is critical to this goal.
In the U.S. Senate, 2008 will be our opportunity to expand the Democratic majority, but before we capture new seats, we must defend seats currently held by Democrats. Sen. Landrieu and Sen. Johnson represent so-called "red" states and are the top targets of Karl Rove and the Republican leadership."

McEachin is a bit of a different story: payback time. McEachin is running for the Virginia Senate seat currently held by Benny Lambert. Both are African-American, but Lambert fatally endorsed George Allen--AFTER macaca--while McEachin stepped up and actively campaigned for Webb.

We hope Born Fighting will also find some new Democrats gunning for incumbent Republicans, just like Webb did last year. Jim, of all people, should know how critical it is for such candidates to get some early funding and attention.

Dominion Re-Regulation Bill Amendments--A Start In The Right Direction

Governor Kaine made some important amendments to the Dominion Re-Regulation Bill passed by the General Assembly. For stories from the Washington Post and Richmond Times-Dispatch, see here and here. (The Times-Dispatch story has more detail.)

In a nutshell, Governor Kaine has strengthened provisions promoting greater energy conservation and increasing investment in renewable energy sources, which is certainly to the good.

Notably, the Governor raised from 5% to 10% a goal for reducing energy consumption through conservation measures between 2006 and 2022. (Still too modest a goal, but we can work to increase it further in the future.)

In addition, the amendments increase the incentives to invest in renewables such as wind, solar and hydro. Other provisions also provide incentives for "clean coal" and, more importantly, reduce the profit that can be made from conventional coal-fired electric plants. (National cap and trade legislation may further discourage new construction of conventional coal plants.)

Kaine also smartly decided to exempt large industrial consumers of electricity in the state from requirements that they help cover the "costs" to utilities if those consumers fund their own investments in renewable energy generation. (More on this below.)

Finally, the Governor tinkered with some other provisions to provide marginally greater protection to consumers from large rate increases.

We share the disappointment of the Piedmont Environmental Council and other conservation groups in the state that the Governor didn't do more on the environmental front, especially while he had clear leverage over Dominion since it desperately wants this bill. (Indeed, Dominion's spokespeople voiced support for the Governor's amendments, meaning plenty was left on the bargaining table.) (But, just imagine where we'd be on this if Republican Jerry Kilgore had defeated Kaine.)

That said, the amendments are a good step forward. We've never believed for an instant that Virginia will suddenly become a green mecca, a' la California. Rather, it will take a sustained effort over many years to make good progress. It will help if Democrats continue to gain seats in the Assembly, as we expect they will, and it will also help when farmers, fishermen, hunters, coastal residents and others realize they have a big stake in all this and become more natural allies on these types of measures.

The good news is that between the conservation/renewables provisions of the re-regulation bill and the energy bill passed last year, there is ample room for small, incremental amendments over the next few years to further boost conservation and renewable investment.

We also want to say a word about the provision that allows large industrial users to invest in renewable energy without compensating Dominion for the "cost" of opting out. This is an excellent amendment. We want to encourage the largest power users to search out and invest in renewable sources of electricity to service their needs. As a practical matter, today that means mostly wind energy, because it is economical, but the mix may change down the road.

In any event, it is a myth that there is somehow some "cost" to Dominion, or to other ratepayers, when large consumers decide to generate their own electricity from renewables. Quite the contrary, those investments reduce the need for Dominion to build new plants to meet growing demand, reduce the need for new high voltage lines, help distribute the energy load more efficiently around the state, help reduce the cost down the road for medium and smaller consumers to invest in renewables (by developing the technology infrastructure and expertise), and force Dominion to keep its prices competitive or lose customers.

For all those reasons, we should encourage the largest power consumers to "go for it" on renewable energy, and that's what Governor Kaine's amendment will do.

Now, the one thing we can't yet figure out is whether Dominion will be required to offer its "Greenpower" program--available in North Carolina--to Virginia consumers. That program allows a consumer to pay a premium for electricity generated from clean sources--in essence to help fund increased renewable generation. Getting that program to Virginia consumers is one of our priorities.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Details Slowly Emerge On Dominion Re-Reg Bill

Hat tip to Walker for pointing us to this Richmond Times-Dispatch story on Governor Kaine's amendments to the Dominion re-regulation bill. Although details are still pretty sketchy, it appears the Governor did add some additional incentives for conservation and renewables. We'll wait for additional info promised tomorrow from both the Times-Dispatch and Washington Post before embarking on any analysis.
Here's today's Dispatch story:

Changes in power re-regulation bill


Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has proposed several changes in an electric re-regulation bill passed by this year's General Assembly but none alter the bill's hybrid approach to re-regulation proposed by Dominion Virginia Power last December.

The governor's amendments include new incentives for constructing renewable sources of power generation such as solar, wind or hydro power plants and for facilities to capture carbon emitted by fossil-fuel burning plants.

Amendents also raise from 5 percent to 10 percent a goal in the legislation's for energy efficiency efforts and make several changes to a section that provides incentives to utilities to add renewable energy to their generation mix. Those are apart from the governor's proposed incentive for renewable facility construction.

Kaine's amendents also increase from 0.5 percent to 1 percent the leeway given the State Corporation Commission to adjust the return on shareholder equity that utilities are allowed to earn and accelerate the return of any excess utility earnings to shareholders.

One change that could prove controversial with consumer groups exempts large commercial and industrial consumers of electricity from having to cover the cost to utilities of adding renewable sources to their generation mix. That cost would now be borne by residential and other smaller consumers.

Last December Dominion surprised lawmakers and others by proposing to return the state's electric supply to regulation but not in the way utilities were traditionally regulated prior to the 1999 passage of the state' deregulation law. Dominion, instead, proposed a hybrid model that bases allowed earnings for Virginia utilities on the returns of a peer group of utilities in the U.S. Southeast, allows special rate riders to cover certain expenses and provides extra profit for utilites that construct new power plants or improve old ones.

Dominion, which serves 80 percent of Virginians, has plans for a new coal-burning plant in the works in Southwest Virginia and a new nuclear reactor at its North Anna Power Station in Louisa County.

For details, see tomorrow's Times-Dispatch.

Serious Third Party Candidate in '08?

It appears increasingly likely that at least one, perhaps more, serious third-party (or "independent") candidates will opt to run for President in '08 after we all get thoroughly sick of the current crop of Democratic and GOP candidates.

One who could be formidable--because of his personal fortune--is NY Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Pictured here with a possible running mate.) The Washington Post yesterday sought to fan those flames with an article speculating on Bloomberg's interest, despite the Mayor's avowal he has no such interest.

We can't see Bloomberg winning, but we could, ironically, see this nominal Republican hurting a Democratic nominee.

Then there's the somewhat quixotic Unity '08 movement to draft a "bipartisan" ticket. One can speculate for hours on various tickets they might come up with. What about the "G" ticket: Gore and Gingrich? (Gingrich could cast votes in the Senate to prevent legislation proposed by Gore.)

After Sen. Joe Lieberman's successful run as an independent following his decisive loss in the Democratic primary, perhaps a number of the current party candidates will also consider an independent run.

How's this for a field: Rudy Guiliani, Republican candidate. Hillary Clinton, Democratic candidate. Al Gore, Green Party. Newt Gingrich, Right to Life (and adultery) Party. Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg Party. Chuck Hegel and James Webb, Out of Iraq Party. Barack Obama, Clean Articulate Party. John McCain, Straight Talk Party. And while we're at it, let's have Nader, Sharpton, Kucinich, Brownback, Thompson and Huckabee run as independents as well.

Could be a lot of fun.

Ethanol Bush

It's a sure sign of the lameness of our national energy policy that all President Bush can come up with to show his concern for our "addiction to oil" and global climate change is photo op after photo op to tout ethanol.

Yesterday, the Prez schmoozed it up with the CEO's of Detroit's Big Three to tout their contributions to increased ethanol use.

GM in particular, had nothing much to offer: a flex-fuel Impala. How advanced! A car that guzzles ethanol instead of gasoline. That's really not going to help much. (Flex-fuel vehicles can run on a blend of ethanol and gas that is 85% ethanol, as opposed to most of today's vehicles that are limited to a blend containing no more than 10% ethanol.) GM is like a big brontosaurus, lazily chewing the tops of trees while a giant asteroid blazes its way into the upper atmosphere.

Chrysler didn't do much better, showing off a biodiesel Jeep SUV. Biodiesel's a little better than corn-based ethanol, but really, are we going to achieve anything with large SUV's guzzling plant material?

Ford, at least, had something different to display: a hydrogen-electric Ford Edge. Can Ford get these into its showrooms anytime soon? Who knows.

If we want to combine energy independence with lower carbon emissions, then a combination of electric/ethanol technology has great promise. Cars powered largely by plug-in batteries with small back-up motors running on ethanol could get over 100 miles per gallon of ethanol, making it fairly easy for us to vastly reduce our dependence on foreign oil without running up the price of corn and other food sources diverted into fuel production.

While we may achieve energy independence, we doubt we'll be buying the autos of the future from Detroit.

Disappointment on Dominion Re-Regulation Bill

We've looked around and can't find anything on Governor Kaine's actions with respect to the Dominion re-regulation bill, which we take to mean he signed it as is, or at most made minor revisions. If so, that's quite disappointing.

If anyone out there has additional info, let us know.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Subprime Collapse Hits Close To Home

The collapse of the subprime mortgage market was all too predictable. All those low introductory teaser interest rates and short term adjustable rate mortgages were bound to blow up as soon as interest rates went up. And interest rates, at record lows, had nowhere to go but up. Suddenly, millions of new homeowners with low to modest incomes find their mortgage payments doubled--or more--while their incomes haven't exactly kept pace with those of CEO's and the hotshots who packaged all those shaky loans into securities.

For many immigrants, the subprime meltdown is a double whammy, because the income to pay the mortgages on their new homes came from jobs in the formerly booming housing construction industry. (See, e.g., Foreclosure Wave Bears Down On Immigrants.) Now they're losing those jobs or finding work more intermittent. And many used up what little savings they had to get into their new homes that are now about to be foreclosed on.

For the Curmudgeon, the crisis has hit close to home: our nanny, a legal immigrant from Panama (and now a U.S. citizen), who's taken care of our kids for 12 years, is one of the victims of the crisis. She's in better shape than many--she hasn't defaulted and may be able to sell her home at a slight profit. But she needs to sell it soon, because the mortgage payments have doubled and her husband is finding little construction work these days. Selling won't be that easy, either, because she's in a neighborhood of mostly Hispanic immigrants, all of whom are struggling with the same issues, meaning many other homes are also on the market in her area (Woodbridge, Virginia). (We won't let foreclosure happen to her, but we hope we won't have to offer a bailout either.)

As with the S&L crisis of the 1980's, the subprime meltdown will no doubt result in years of lawsuits and recriminations, while regulators--having stood by and watched as the barnyard emptied out--suddenly decide to take steps to put new locks on the gates (which will only deepen the housing crisis).

Perhaps we're to blame. We knew our nanny's loan was risky. But we didn't say anything. After all, it seemed the Washington area housing market could only go up forever (despite ample historical evidence to the contrary, having purchased our home in the downturn of 1991).

No doubt that will be the defense of the mortgage brokers, real estate agents, lenders and everyone else in the chain who profited mightily from the unrealistic housing boom: "who knew rates would go up so dramatically and that home values would suddenly decline?"

It's too bad, really. So where will our nanny go? She'll probably rent one of those townhomes or condos that suddenly no one can sell. And so goes the cycle.

Go Hoyas!!

Wow, what a thrilling victory by the Georgetown Hoyas over my sister's UNC Tar Heels yesterday. (Thrilling for us, not for my sister and brother-in-law.)

It's just like old times, when the Curmudgeon was in law school at Georgetown in the early 80's: Coach John Thompson and some big plays by a fellow named Ewing (not to mention some other guys named Green, Hibbert, Summers, Wallace and Sapp), playing in a big game against the top team from the ACC.

Our guess is that Florida is glad is not headed to a rematch with the Hoyas--yet. We hope it will happen, in the Championship Game. The Hoyas played the toughest game against Florida last year, in the Sweet Sixteen. We're sure they'd love to try it again. (But first, we've got to get by a superb Ohio State team that, like the Hoyas, has shown it can dig out victory in the unlikelist of circumstances.)

Go Hoyas!!!!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Gore Testimony; Tobacco Trial; Blanco Quits; Novak on Defensive; GOP Phone Jam Reversal; Hurricane Forecast

A lot of little things on the Curmudgeon's mind this morning:

Gore Testimony Revives Dinosaurs On Hill

One of the things Al Gore's global warming testimony did yesterday is remind us why it's so important to win additional Senate reaces in 2008. Gore's appearance brought out some of the GOP's most strident dinosaurs, especially Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who held up a picture of icicles in Buffalo and asked "where is global warming when you need it?" We guess that the Senator from Exxon figures since it's still cold and icy in the Arctic, global warming is a fiction.

At least some Republicans are embarasssed: Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, stated "it's possible to be a conservative without appearing to be an idiot" after some silly comments by his colleague Joe Barton from Texas.

DOJ Tobacco Lawyer Charges "Politics"

Today's Washington Post has a front page story featuring a charge by former DOJ lawyer Sharon Eubanks, who headed the federal government's civil racketeering case against the tobacco industry, that political appointees at Justice interfered with the case's prosecution by career lawyers.

The Curmudgeon worked on the tobacco case (representing defendant Brown & Williamson). We doubt "politics" was what was going on. Instead, it appears that Eubanks, who is clearly disgruntled and taking advantage of the flap over U.S. Attorneys, was engaged in a legal dispute with her superiors at Justice.

There was a clear legal issue about the scope of remedies being pursued, with a mid-trial decision by the court of appeals putting major constraints on the DOJ's strategy. It appeared the DOJ trial team wanted, essentially, to ignore those constraints, while the higher-ups (who were political appointees, but also decent lawyers in private practice before joining DOJ) were trying to come up with a strategy that would fit within those constraints.

Disputes over application of the law and the trial strategy to accommodate legal constraints are frequent in a major trial. Resolution of those disputes does not necessarily mean politics were involved, and we doubt that was the case here.

Blanco Quits in Lousiana

We're happy to see that Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco has decided not to seek re-election, paving the way for former Senator John Breaux to run for the Democrats. We were never impressed with Blanco's Katrina performance and would like to see the Lousiana state house stay in the blue column.

Bob Novak: Plame Defensive On CIA Leak

Today, conservative columnist Robert Novak, who outed CIA agent Valerie Plame in his column after being urged to do so by various Bush administration stooges, tries to justify his actions by arguing, among other things, that since Plame drove her own car to CIA HQ in Langley, she must not have been covert.

Give it up, Bob. You know full well that if something like this had happened in the Clinton administration, you and your GOP hackster friends would've been all over it every day, 24/7. You just couldn't resist. And now you have the nerve to attack CIA Director Hayden for suggesting that Plame's status was, in fact, covert.

Here's some advice: loose lips sink ships. When in doubt, leave it out. (I.e., unless you are dead positive a CIA employee is not in any way covert, why write about her publicly.)

If you were the patriot you claim to be, you would've said to Armitrage, your original source, "shame on you, I'm not going to print that and you shouldn't be calling reporters with info on CIA operatives."

Sorry Reversal of GOP Phone-Jam Conviction

We're sorry to report that an appellate court has overturned the conviction of New Hampshire GOP operative James Tobin, who was sentenced to a trifling 10 months in prison for his role in a scheme to jam Democratic Party get-out-the-vote phone lines on election day in 2002. The appellate court questioned whether prosecutors had shown that Tobin intended the scheme to "harass" anyone.

Duh! Is it possible the 800 hang-up calls that jammed the Democratic line on election day were all just accidental wrong numbers coming from a group of confused callers who just happened to be working for Tobin?

We hope prosecutors will re-try Tobin.

Busy Hurricane Season Forecast

Forecasters at Tropical Storm Risk, a London-based group used by insurers to estimate their risks, predict a much busier than average Atlantic hurricane season this year, with 17 tropical storms, of which four will turn into major hurricanes.

Where have we heard that before? Last year, similar forecasts by U.S. prognosticators turned out to be quite wrong. The hurricane season was instead a mild one. The year before, the experts were wrong in the other direction, predicting a slightly worse than normal year when it turned out to be the worst year on record.

We'll be watching to see if these "experts" get it right this year. We'll let you know around Thanksgiving, after the storm season ends.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Solar Synergy For Northern Virgin-y

We were reading a Washington Post article today on the natural synergy in the Pacific Northwest between hydroelectric power and wind energy and it got us thinking about the local situation in Northern Virginia.

(The synergy in the Pacific NW occurs because wind farms can ideally be placed near existing underutilized high voltage transmission lines used for hydro power and because hydro can efficiently kick in when wind is scarce.)

In Northern Virginia, a different kind of synergy exists, with solar power.

As discussed in this blog on a number of occasions, Dominion Virginia Power plans to build a $300 million high voltage transmission line through parts of Northern Virginia to meet the region's voracious demand for electricity. Absent the new line, Dominion says some parts of NoVa may experience temporary blackouts by 2011 or 2012. While there's vigorous debate about some of Dominion's numbers and motives, there's not much dispute that NoVa's continued rapid development will, sooner or later, tax the region's distribution system IF something isn't done.

One answer is solar energy. We're the first to tell you that as a stand-alone proposition, solar electric is still not economical for the average home or business. However, solar has one quality that fits perfectly with NoVa's needs: it generates maximum output on hot summer afternoons when the distribution system is strained by high air conditioning demand. Solar, therefore, is a great relief valve that can stave off the need for additional high voltage lines. And, when you factor in the high costs of peak power and additional distribution capacity, solar suddenly becomes much more economical.

Alden Hathaway, who built a solar home in Loudon County and wrote a book about it, estimates that each zero energy solar electric home cancels out the need for peak power/additional distribution capacity of four standard homes on a hot summer afternoon. The Curmudgeon's experience with solar panels so far would seem to validate that: during the middle of the day on a sunny day, we're generating a good deal more electricity than we're using, putting it back into the local grid.

Solar electricity stabilizes the grid because it is usually produced right at the source of consumption, rather than miles away in a power plant, such that there is no need to build expensive high voltage lines to transfer it around. (In contrast, wind turbines often are most ideally situated in remote areas, requiring additional transmission lines to get the power to where its needed.)

Here's how Dominion--given the proper incentives--could alternatively invest $300 million in solar power in NoVa instead of building a new, ugly, intrusive, expensive high voltage line. Take the $300 million and offer homes and businesses a 25% subsidy for installing solar cells where they are suitable. The subsidy would make solar sufficiently economical for many homeowners and businesses to want to invest in the other 75%. That way, Dominion could transform its $300 million into $1.2 billion in new solar in NoVa, which would make a huge dent in peak summertime power consumption.

As an additional incentive, Dominion could credit solar power generators with a summer peak premium for the electricity they provide during certain hours on certain summer days, reflecting the true value of such power.

(While conservation is generally less expensive than solar, it is not that helpful on hot summer afternoons. For example, the cheapest conservation measure--installing fluorescent lighting--has little impact during daytime summer hours when lighting needs are minimal. Dominion could, however, encourage greater use of the most efficient air conditioning systems, especially in all new homes.)

Our back of the envelope calculation suggests Dominion could fund 60,000 Curmudgeon-sized solar systems (about 2.5 kws) with our 25% subsidy scheme, and could probably do much better because it could achieve greater economies and efficiencies. It would also stimulate a large investment in solar infrastructure for further development over time.

We'd also rather see Dominion--and other local utilities--head up programs like this because they'd generally be more efficient than government. For example, Dominion presumably would want to get the most bang for its buck and would therefore select solar sites with the most optimum characteristics.

The key, of course, is to give Dominion the proper incentives for structuring such a program, allowing it to recoup a premium on its investment. With a little creativity, we have no doubt that such incentives can be crafted, just as they have in other states. (Dominion could also increase the investment pot by being granted authority to charge a higher peak power rate, with the extra money going to solar and conservation subsidies.)

We note that environmental groups have, of late, had some success in sitting down with utility executives and negotiating agreements to reduce carbon emissions and invest in green power. Perhaps its time to do the same with Dominion?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

More Economic BS From The WSJ

We've made this point before, but we feel compelled to make it again.

The editors of the Wall Street Journal, who normally can be counted on to at least be sophisticated about economics, continue to insist on misleading accounting when it comes to tax fairness.

In today's Journal, the editors pull a rabbit out of the hat (hence our furry friend to the right), claiming that the latest IRS data "show that the wealthiest Americans continue to carry a record share of the income tax load." They then go on to argue that an "irony" of the Bush tax cuts is that they "have made the U.S. income tax code more progressive."

That's pure baloney. The data to which the Journal's editors refer shows that the share of the income tax burden borne by the wealthiest 1% of Americans has risen from 31.6% in 1996 to 35.6% in 2004. But that's only half the story--the other key component of the data is not revealed by the WSJ's editors: the increased concentration of wealth in the richest Americans.

The reason the richest 1% of Americans are paying a higher percentage of taxes now is because they control a higher percentage of income and wealth. While the trend started before the Bush tax cuts (meaning, we guess, that Clinton's tax increase must've also been great for the wealthy), it accelerated with the Bush tax cuts. In 2004 alone, the top 1% of households garnered 53% of the income gains! (See here.) That disparity produced "an exceptional jump in income concentration in 2004," such that the share of income controlled by the top 1% rose, in just one year, from 17.5% to 19.7%, one of the greatest increases in 100 years. (Id.)

And it's not just income that is becoming more concentrated in the top 1%--corporate wealth, which accounts for tax payments on dividends and capital gains--is also becoming much more concentrated. In 1991 the richest 1% controlled 38.7% of corporate wealth, but by 2003 they controlled 57.5%. (See here.)

So of course the rich, with a greater percentage of income and wealth, should be paying a higher percentage of taxes. But that doesn't mean they're paying proportionately more taxes--indeed, they're paying less as a proportion of their income and wealth. That hardly makes Bush's tax cuts more "progressive." Quite the opposite: the Bush tax cuts are a reason for increased concentration of wealth among the rich.

We're confident the Journal's editors know better. The real "irony" is that their misleading analysis is contained in an editorial accusing Democrats of "sleight of hand" in their budget projections.

'08 Election Could Bring Interesting Virginia Match-ups

With a full slate of legislative elections in Virginia this year, we're skipping ahead a bit to focus on '08, where some interesting races are beginning to shape up.

The big question is whether Senator John Warner seeks re-election. If not, Democrats have a terrific opportunity to pick up another Senate seat and one or two House seats.

Rep. Tom Davis, a moderate Republican representing an increasingly Democratic district in Northern Virginia, has expressed interest in running for Warner's seat. If Davis does so (or otherwise decides not to run for re-election), the Chairman of Fairfax County's Board of Supervisors, Gerald Connolly, a Democrat, has been hinting that he'll make a run for Davis's seat. With the huge Democratic majority in Fairfax County, Connolly would probably win, marking a Dem pick-up.

The race for Warner's Senate seat could be quite interesting. Aside from Davis, former Senator George Allen has recently expressed interest in running if Warner steps down. That could set the stage for an entertaining Republican primary. On the Democratic side, we can only hope that former Governor Mark Warner will run. We think Warner would best either Allen or Davis. The question in our mind is whether Mark Warner will instead be focused on the possibility of obtaining the nod as Democratic candidate for Vice President, a position of which he's made known his interest.

Virginia with two Democratic senators? Now wouldn't that be sweet!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Bill Richardson For President!

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who has also served as Secretary of Energy and U.N. Ambassador, is our pick for the Democratic nomination for President.

Before we say why, a few words about the overall field. The Curmudgeon is a moderate progressive Democrat. Polls show that most Democrats are satisfied with the choices they have for the 2008 nomination, whereas many Republicans are unhappy with their choices. We concur--we would be satisfied with and vigourously support any of the major Democratic Party choices for the nomination--Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Gore if he runs. We also wanted former Virginia Governor Mark Warner to run and would have worked our tail off for him, but that didn't happen.

After dispassionately studying the field for the past few months, however, we've concluded that Bill Richardson is the Democrats' best candidate. Here's why:

First, Richardson has broader and more relevant experience than the three Democratic front-runners (Sens. Clinton and Obama and former Sen. Edwards). History has shown that former governors often make good presidents, in part because both are executive positions. Richardson is currently serving in his second term as Governor of New Mexico, but also has headed a major federal agency, the Dept. of Energy. His governmental executive experience far exceeds that of the other candidates.

One of the knocks on governors, however--especially from small states like New Mexico--is their lack of foreign policy experience. That demerit doesn't apply to Richardson, since he served as U.N. Ambassador for two years. (He also has a master's degree from the highly regarded Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; worked at the State Department and as a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee early in his career; and was active on international issues in his 15 years in Congress.) In short, Bill Richardson has the type of sophisticated foreign affairs knowledge and understanding that was notably lacking in a certain recent Governor of Texas who went on to become President and single-handedly destroy America's standing in the world community.

Second, Richardson's resume makes him a natural as a leader on some of the most pressing issues of the coming decade: energy and environment, immigration and restoration of America's international standing. Richardson's background in energy, in particular, puts him in position to articulate a cohesive national energy strategy and to deal with a fractured Congress that largely wants to cater to local energy interests without regard to the national interest.

Third, the New Mexico governor brings a fresh political dimension to the Democratic Party that can only improve the odds of winning what undoubtedly will be a close race in 2008. As governor of a western state, Richardson will have greater appeal to key swing independent voters in the Mountain West, where Democrats have been making gains at the local level. These voters are particularly suspicious of Hillary Clinton, and probably of Obama and Edwards (and Gore) as well. If Democrats can take New Mexico, Colorado and perhaps Arizona and Nevada in 2008, their chances of winning are vastly improved.

Richardson also holds tremendous appeal to Hispanic voters. His mother is Mexican and his father, originally from New England, spent much of his life in Latin America. Richardson was raised in Mexico City until age 13. If Democrats can increase Latino turnout in the 2008 election and swing more of that vote their way they have an excellent chance of carrying Florida and improving their margin in other states. At the same time, Richardson's waspy name and mainstream credentials keep his Hispanic background from scaring off socially conservative independent voters.

(Richardson may have some trouble with Chinese-American voters due to his involvement, while Secretary of Energy, with the Wen Ho Lee scandal. We think he can successfully mend most of those fences, however.)

Despite his broad and sometimes high profile government experience, Richardson is still relatively unknown to most Americans. This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that few voters have any negative image of him, in contrast to Sen. Clinton. The curse, of course, is that even among Democrats, many don't know much about him. With what looks like an increasingly compressed primary schedule, that makes for a very uphill battle for the nomination. On the other hand, if he were to be nominated, he would have plenty of time to let the country at large get to know him before the general election.

Other intangibles favor Richardson as well. He is a good speaker--no one will call him a "rock star" like Obama, and he is not quite as high on the charisma scale, but he generally leaves an audience quite satisfied. At the most recent DNC meeting, at which most of the candidates spoke, many delegates thought Richardson's thoughtful speech was the best.

He's comes across as a political moderate and his personal life appears clean. He's been married for 33 years to his "high school sweetheart"--a nice contrast to Guiliani, McCain and Gingrich. He was also a good athlete, having been scouted as a potential professional baseball player (he decided to go to college, then injured his arm, ending that career). Richardson mingles well with working-class voters and won't make the Kerry-esque mistakes of being photographed wind-surfing, or declining a cheesesteak in Philly.

In the end, Richardson will have greater appeal to independent voters than Clinton, Obama and Edwards (Edwards polls well among independents now; we're not sure that will last since he's articulating the most liberal positions of the major candidates). We believe he would win the general election if nominated, and would become an excellent President, one who would work with and listen to Congressional leaders as well as world leaders, to advance our country's interests.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Race To The 100 MPG Car

Recently we highlighted GM's "can't do" attitude when it comes to producing more fuel efficient cars, with GM CEO Rick Waggoner whining to Congress about any effort to impose even slightly higher mileage standards on auto makers.

Here's an article, from Popular Science (as reprinted on CNN) making a good case for our other point about GM: if it can't make a better car, someone else will, because the market demands it.

The article discusses three technologies currently being explored by small companies that may one day make it big. One uses a low weigh, low drag concept that it hopes will result in an auto with up to 330 mpg at a cost of $20,000. The second uses hybrid technology, but replaces the heavy, expensive batteries with a small, relatively cheap hydraulic pump that can nearly double fuel economy. The third, and more radical, approach takes a page from jet engine technology to vastly increase the efficiency of the fuel used.

Will any of these make it big? Hard to say--it's not the first time some new technology has been hailed as a possible breakthrough. This time could be different, however: the X-Prize Foundation, which offered a $10 million prize to independent rocket makers for a space breakthrough, is apparently prepared to offer a $25 million prize to the first successful manufacturer of a 100 mpg car that can achieve an as yet to be set sales goal.

So, if GM can't do, maybe someone else can.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Cindy And The Sprite Girls

It's always fun to see a creative endeavor come to life.

Last night, we went to the "world premiere" of a musical, "Cindy & The Sprite Girls," at Gunston Middle School. How many middle schools would attempt to put on an ORIGINAL play, much less a musical?

Yet Gunston pulled it off. The play, written and directed by Gunston's Theater Arts teacher, Sharon Steen, with original music scored by Band Director Matthew Rinker, is performed by a talented cast of sixth through eighth graders that includes an excellent Cindy in the lead role. It's a cute story about the anxieties of middle school, set against the casting of Cindy as Cinderella in her first school play.

For a first performance of an original musical, we were quite impressed. With a little editing--there was a bit too much repetition in places and it was a tad long--it could be a great performance for middle school theater departments around the country, with simple enough songs and music for sixth graders, but catchy enough lyrics to keep the adults tapping their feet.

We particularly liked the songs "Nerds" and "Snobs", dealing with some of the typical cliques that develop in school (and the eventual resolution into a much nicer rendition as the cliques break down).

Clearly, a lot of hard work went into this production (and you could feel it in the adrenaline-laced squeals of the cast members right after their first night was done). (And no, our middle schooler wasn't one of them, but we think he was inspired to give it a try next year.)

For you Arlington readers, Cindy & The Sprite Girls has three more showings: today (Saturday March 17) at 2:00 pm, and next weekend: Friday, March 23 at 7:30 pm; Saturday March 24 at 2:00 pm. All performances are at Theatre One at Gunston Middle School, 2700 S. Lang Street (just off Arlington Ridge Road). Admission is a bargain at $3.00. Make sure to take your middle schoolers (and soon to be middle schoolers).

March Madness: Curmudgeonly "Top Four" Rule Works

A few days ago, before the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament began, we suggested the NCAA selection committee should adopt a guideline--which we called the "Top Four" rule--that would normally prevent a team from competing if it didn't finish in either the top four of it's conference regular season standings or the top four of the conference season-ending championship.

The rationale for the rule is to get in more mid-major teams and less mediocre teams from so-called "power" conferences, while also making the regular season count for something and reducing "bubble" speculation.

Turns out the rule works quite well.

In this year's March Madness field, there were six teams that would have failed the Top Four rule: Duke and Georgia Tech from the ACC; Marquette and Villanova from the Big East; Michigan State from the Big Ten; and Arizona from the Pac-10. Of those, five lost in the first round and the only one to advance--Michigan State--did so by beating Marquette in a match-up that ensured at least one of the Top Four losers would go to the next round. We'll see if Michigan State gets any further today.

(It's particularly egregious that the selection committee would put two middlin' "power" teams like Marquette and Michigan State in a first round match-up. Why not let them go against some good mid-major schools to see if the power conferences really are all that deep.)

Our take: the Top Four rule would effectively bar from the tournament teams that the regular season showed really have no business being there in the first place, while opening up a few at-large slots for deserving mid-major teams that make the tournament more interesting and fun.

UPDATE (Sunday March 18):

Two things to say here, both of which support our guideline (we say guideline because it should be a general rule, subject to exceptional circumstances):

1. The only remaining team that would've flunked our Top Four guideline, Michigan State, handily lost to North Carolina in the second round. Indeed, Michigan State was the only team not to take a game down to the wire in yesterday's (Saturday) second round.

2. One reader raised a good point: how'd the at-large teams from mid-majors fare? After all, if they all lost in the first round, there wouldn't be such a great case for inviting more of them, at the expense of power conferences.

Here's the answer: there were six mid-major at-large berths awarded this year--Butler, Old Dominion, Nevada, Brigham Young, Xavier and Southern Illinois. Four of them advanced to the second round: Butler, Nevada, Xavier and So. Ill. Moreover, the two that didn't advance--ODU and BYU--lost to other mid-major at-large teams.

In the second round, Butler advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating Maryland, and So. Illinois handily beat power conference team Virginia Tech.

Pretty clearly, the mid-majors outplayed the power conference Top Four flunkers, although, unfortunately, we have no head-to-head test.

We ought to also note that none of the Top Four flunkers had to play a particularly tough first round opponent. Georgia Tech played the highest seed, a #7, while the rest played opponents seeded between 8-11. And while Mich. State lost to a #1 seed in the second round, it was nowhere as thrilling as Xavier's loss to #1 seed Ohio State.

Again, the data points in favor of our Top Four guideline.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Another Record Warm Winter

It's official: this winter was the warmest ever recorded, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (See Reuters story here.) (We wish it would be warmer this weekend!)

While we enjoyed playing golf in our shorts in January, we doubt it's a good thing for our earth in the long run. This year, Virginia will celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Jamestown colony. Our question: will the land on which the Jamestown colony was settled even be in existence in another 400 years? Or will it be under the rising sea?

While we're at it, MIT has released a report--The Future of Coal--arguing that advances in technology make it possible to burn the black fuel cleanly in the future, with minimal carbon emissions. You can find the report here. We're a bit dubious--clean coal is expensive and we think the investment would pay off faster in conservation and wind energy, perhaps solar.

BUT, it appears inevitable that rapidly developing economies in India and especially China will rely heavily on coal, so it may be wise to develop and advance these coal technologies nonetheless.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

News Flash: Khalid Mohammed Was Second JFK Shooter, Engineered Watergate Break-in And Was Zodiac Killer

This just in from the Guantanamo military trial of terrorist mastermind Klalid Sheikh Mohammed.

It seems that Mohammed has now confessed to personal involvement in numerous additional atrocities. Mohammed described how he masterminded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, personally firing the fatal shot from a grassy knoll in Dallas.

Later, in 1972, Mohammed, posing as an Arab oil sheikh, suggested to President Richard Nixon that he bug the Democratic National Committee HQ in the Watergate building, then alerted D.C. police as the break-in was occurring.

KSM also admitted that he is the long sought after Zodiac killer, responsible for a string of sensational unsolved murders in San Francisco.

The terrorist mastermind hinted at involvement in a number of other schemes in the U.S. and around the world as well. For example, he strongly implied that it was he who ordered the pizza that Monica Lewinsky delivered to President Clinton, and that he suggested to her that she expose her thong as a way to catch the President's eye. Likewise, KSM explained that it he who had designed the infamous butterfly ballot used in the 2000 presidential election in West Palm Beach County, Florida. He also took credit for cajoling a young Colonel Oliver North to sell arms to Iran as a means of funding Nicaraguan contras in the Reagan administration.

Beleagured Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, happy to change the subject from politically motivated firings of U.S. Attorneys, declared at a news conference today that: "This administration is proud to have finally solved the JFK assassination and Zodiac murders, and to have uncovered information proving that the Watergate break-in was, in fact, a terrorist plot. We look forward to the continued trial of Mr. Mohammed and the resolution of other criminal plots and historical mysteries."

Do we really believe this guy?

GM's Can't Do Attitude

Can General Motors successfully do anything other than sell behemoth SUV's that are moving toward extinction?

GM's CEO, Richard Wagoner, testified at a House hearing yesterday that it would cost GM as much as $44 billion to meet higher gas mileage standards Congress is considering imposing. He (and to be fair, other automakers) were there to oppose even President Bush's modest proposal to boost fuel economy by 4 percent a year over the next ten year, arguing they just can't get it done.

What bunk! GM has had 40 years--since the oil crisis in the 1970's--to come up with better technology. And yet they're basically selling the same thing now as they did back then--giant gas guzzling cars and trucks that aren't particularly well made and, by and large, aren't particularly stylish.

Fortunately for us, it doesn't matter that much what Congress decides to do--like it or not, GM will be forced by higher gas prices to compete on fuel economy.

If GM wanted to be a leader in the coming decade, if it wanted to show the way on reduced carbon emissions, it could do so. But that would take a corporate brain transplant from the can't do attitude that permeates its management today.

It's sad to see the American automotive industry continue its worldwide decline through a lack of leadership and innovation.

Progress On Dominion Re-Regulation Bill Veto

The Washington Post today reports on a number of Virginia organizations that have joined the Curmudgeon in calling on Governor Kaine to veto the hastily passed bill, practically written by Dominion Virginia Power, to re-regulate the electric utility industry in the state.

We're happy to be joined by the likes of the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, Piedmont Environmental Council, the Virginia Citizens Consumer Council and AARP Virginia, among others.

Quote of the day: Republican Delegate Clarke Hogan, who helped draft the Dominion bill, says now is the time to act "versus having this deregulation train running down the tracks at us and having to do something drastic at the last minute."

Let's be clear: the current law doesn't lift regulation until 2010, so we have plenty of time to act. What is inexcusable, is how Dominion, with the legislature's cooperation, rammed this bill through with minimal discussion, i.e., "something drastic at the last minute." So Del. Hogan is correct: the bill should be vetoed to avoid drastic last minute legislation. Following a veto, Dominion and other interested parties can sit down and start working out a more considered bill for the next legislative session.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Affordable Microturbine; Loudon Solar Home

We picked up some interesting tidbits from our solar contractor, Don Sandros of Sand Energy in Leesburg, during a visit yesterday to fine tune our solar panels (i.e., get them better oriented to the sun).

First, you may remember our featuring a post on a microturbine manufactured by Southwest Windpower, which is suitable for individual homeowners, costs just $10,000 to install and will deliver around 425 kwh's of electricity a month if you have a decently windy location.

Don is familiar with the Southwest microturbine--he's installed a few in Virginia and says they're the real deal. They're small, mounted on a 35-40 foot pole, and so far Don has found them reliable, easy to set up and true to their specifications.
Since the $10,000 microturbine generates about twice the electricity of the Curmudgeon's $20,000 solar panels, the payback is four times as fast.

Of course, you do have to have wind, which rules out Arlington. But, if your property includes an unobstructed ridgeline in Loudon or Fauquier County, or if you live near the coast (or along a lake) you might just have enough wind to justify one of these machines (pictured above).

Don also told us about a gentleman he met at a Loudon County Committee for a Sustainable Society meeting, Alden Hathaway, who a few years ago built a completely solar home out in Loudon and has written a book about it: "Building An Affordable Solar Home."

Hathaway's book is available as a pdf. on his website. We read a good chunk of it last night and found it quite readable and entertaining. One of Hathaway's key points--which Curmudgeon readers will find familiar--is that energy conservation and use of renewable solar energy go hand-in-hand. As we've pointed out many times here, he notes that many energy conservation measures cost less than putting in solar panels. He does a great job of breaking down the economics of various conservation measures.

The website also has a presentation Hathaway gave at the National Building Museum with four years of data on his solar home. If you get a chance, give it a visit.

Make March Madness More Mid-Major

We don't usually comment on sports topics since there is an entire separate blogosphere devoted to all sports all the time. But every now and then we get a thought we just have to get off our chest.

With March Madness (Go Hoyas!) upon us, we're struck by the annual controversy over a few teams that feel they shouldn't have been left out, as well as the perennial debate over whether more teams from the "mid-major" conferences should get a shot at the title.

The NCAA should adopt a couple guidelines to help tame some of the controversy. First, no team should qualify for the tournament unles it finishes either (a) in the top four of its conference's regular season standings, or (b) in the top four in its conference season ending championship tournament. We'll call this the Top Four rule. After all, the measure of true success in the NCAA Tournament is whether you finish in the Final Four. If you can't even make your own conference final four, why be invited to the Big Dance? Such a rule would also give "bubble" teams clear guidance on what they need to do to get in: not in your conference's top four at the end of the season? Then you'd darn well get into the semi-finals of the conference tournament.

Second, no more than six teams should be taken from any conference. (Theoretically, under rule one, above, eight teams could qualify, although that's not too likely.) Honestly, how can you say that a team no better than 7th or 8th in its conference belongs in the NCAA Tournament? (Sorry, Georgia Tech.)

These restrictions would somewhat limit the number of teams from the "major" conferences, thereby opening up a handful of additional slots for good teams from the mid-major conferences. At the same time, so-called "bubble" schools that don't meet the standards could hardly complain--they knew what they needed to do, but didn't do it.

For example, there'd be no debate this year about Syracuse, because it finished fifth in the Big East and failed to make it to the Big East tournament semi-finals. (Also, in the ACC, neither Georgia Tech nor Duke would qualify, knocking the ACC down to five teams, instead of seven.) By the same token, Drexel--which did get a raw deal--would be in.

The other thing our Curmudgeonly Top Four rule would do is make the major conference regular season standings and championship tournaments much more meaningful--and fun.

But then, what would all those sports blogs have to talk about now?


So far, our "Top Four" rule works. In the first round Thursday games, three teams, Duke, Marquette and Michigan State would not have qualified for the tournament based on our Top Four rule. Duke lost to mid-major VCU, while Marquette lost to Michigan State. Obviously, the Marquette v. Michigan State match-up ensured one would lose and one would advance.

For the Friday first round games, Georgia Tech, Arizona and Villanova would fail our Top Four rule. We'll see how they do today.

No big surprise: Georgia Tech, Arizona and Villanova all lost. None was playing a particularly highly-seeded team--instead, the regular season told us they were mediocre.

The only team left that would've been disqualified by our Top Four rule is Michigan State. We'll see if they survive today.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Would You Hire This Contractor?

Our friend John Kelly, at the Washington Post, reports today on a home building contractor (identified as SCS Contracting Group) who has sued at least two of his former clients for defamation because they made disparaging remarks on the web about the contractor's performance.

Now, let's put ourselves in this contractor's shoes for a moment and see if this is a good strategy. Assume that, in fact, we did a good job. There were some problems--after all, there always are--but it wasn't our fault. Let's further assume that the homeowners who complained on the web did so unfairly, even to the point of exaggerating some of the facts. And let's assume at least a couple people told us they saw the posts and it made them reluctant to hire us.

Should we sue the homeowners for defamation?

Not unless we're deranged! After all, who in world would hire a contractor who might SUE if they say something bad about his work? You'd have to be crazy to invite that possibility.

In contrast, there are more positive ways to deal with a situation such as this, without ruining your own business in the process. For example, in one instance, a homeowner posted negative comments on a site called Angie's List, where consumers can evaluate service providers. The contractor could post a response, and could also get other clients to post favorable reviews. Then readers on Angie's List would have a more balanced view and might decide the one homeowner was just disgruntled. (That assumes you have satisfied customers; if not, suing the dissatisfied ones is probably not a good idea.)

Counterbalancing unfavorable web reviews is not uncommon. If you read individual reviews of restaurants on the Post's website, or one of many others that allow individuals to spout off their opinions, you'll see some pretty bad ones for even the best of restaurants. But if you look at them in context, it's pretty obvious they are outliers.

Another possibility is to work out the problems with the complaining customer. While that doesn't always work, good businesses follow-up on web complaints and try to learn from them. Again, restaurants will often offer an offended customer a perk or an apology and try to get them to give it another try.

What if, instead, a restaurant starts suing every bad reviewer for defamation? What's going to happen? That's right: empty restaurant! Bankruptcy. Not because of the bad review; but because of the responsive lawsuit.

We might very well consider hiring a contractor despite a negative review from another client. But we'd NEVER hire a contractor who'd sued a customer for defamation simply for stating their opinion on a website.

In any event, truth is an absolute defense in a libel/defamation case. Just think of the risk of losing.

Monday, March 12, 2007

We Like Your Plan, Mayor Fitch!

The Mayor of Warrenton, a town of maybe 10,000 nestled in the foothills of western Virginia, has a plan to make his burg energy independent and virtually carbon neutral. (See Washington Post story here.)

George Fitch, the Mayor, wants to build a $30 million plant at the county dump to convert waste into electricity and ethanol. And, he thinks he can do it without raising taxes or taking on debt.

We sure hope he succeeds. What a fabulous precedent that would set for other communities across the nation!

Fitch and his allies in Warrenton are not exactly pie-in-the-sky liberals. (According to one of Fitch's fellow town council members, they aren't "environmentalists" because that would be "somebody who wears Birkenstocks and carries a knapsack and too-long hair and spends his free time working for the Sierra Club." Guess the Curmudgeon's not an environmentalist either--phew!)

Instead, they offer up the possibility of a mainstream conservative vision of energy conservation, independence and environmental stewardship. (This is quite a contrast to the complete lack of vision espoused by hard-right conservative Mark Sanford, governor of South Carolina, in an insipid op-ed piece in the Post a couple weeks ago, about which we've already commented.)

What Fitch recognizes is that turning garbage into energy simply makes eminent sense as an example of good government. If adopted as a widespread model, it also makes everyone more secure both by reducing reliance on imported oil and by widely distributing electric production facilities (which makes the grid less vulnerable to terrorism).

We just hope Fitch's vision doesn't cause Warrenton to be overrun by long-haired Birkenstock-clad backpackers in Prius's covered with Sierra Club stickers.

Justice Served To Busta

Poor Busta Rhymes. The controversial rapper, who refused to cooperate with New York police in an investigation into his bodyguard's murder last year, has been barred from filming the Manhattan scenes of a new movie, "Order of Redemption," in which he stars with Tom Berenger.

It seems the police decided the uncooperative Busta's presence in the City "raised public safety concerns."

The movie's director is reported to have said "this is tremendously unfair to Busta, who has been nothing but professional during this project."

Unfair? Tell that to the family of his slain bodyguard. They probably didn't find him all that "professional."

We say, bully for the NYPD.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Right Wing Judicial Activism: Heinous Gun Decision In D.C. Circuit Court

Talk about judicial activism! The right wingers on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals have tossed out the District's 30 year old ban on handguns, asserting that the Second Amendment provides an inviolable individual right to own a handgun.

This case is certainly headed for a major confrontation in the Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, the District says it will first seek en banc review by the entire D.C. Circuit, which will only delay the inevitable Supreme Court battle by several months to a year. We say, skip that review, which is not mandated before a petition to the Supreme Court.

Instead, get this case going so that it is argued in the high court in 2008 during the midst of a wide open presidential campaign. We want the voters to see the arrogance of the National Rifle Association and its allies on full display.

Indeed, the NRA gestapo has gone so nutso that it's not above figuratively shooting its own members if they don't toe the line. Recently, a lifelong NRA member and popular host of a outdoor television show on hunting, Jim Zumbo, had the temerity to suggest, in his blog, that military assault weapons had no place in hunting, especially of small game such a prairie dogs.

Oh my, the hue and cry that followed! For that one little reasonable observation, Zumbo is now persona non gratis in the paranoid world of the NRA. My goodness, how DARE he deprecate the rights of assault weapon wielding hunters to machine gun down a few prairie dogs for sport! (For more, see here.)

We assume that hyper-conservative jurist Larry Silberman, who authored the majority opinion striking down the D.C. gun law, has no qualms with the NRA's party line. (We're looking for his car so we can photograph the "guns don't kill people" bumber sticker.) Silberman couldn't resist adding a footnote--completely irrelevant to the legal issue presented--observing that "the black market in handguns in the District is so strong that they are readily available (probably at little premium) to criminals" despite D.C.'s law."

Two observations Judge Larry: 1. Those illegal handguns mostly come in from Virginia, where NRA's headquarters are located, and Maryland, both of which have numerous gun dealers who have repeatedly violated federal laws regulating gun sales, laws that the NRA has done everything in its power to dilute.

2. Your logic leads to the legalization of all illicit drugs, since, to paraphrase you, "the black market for illegal drugs in every state in the nation is so strong that drugs are readlily available (probably at little premium) to criminals." Indeed, if we apply a test of effectiveness to our laws, most will fail.

While the political pendulum is gradually swinging back to the middle, this heinous gun decision shows the lasting price we'll be paying for the Bush years.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Battle of the Engineering Consultants On Tysons Tunnel

Proponents of a an underground rail line through Tysons Corner have produced reports from their consulting engineers predicting that a tunnel will cost no more than an above-ground line and take no more time.

Governor Kaine, who so far opposes a tunnel (but who we believe is probably open-minded), has now released a report from his consulting engineers stating that a Tysons tunnel will cost more and take longer to build than an above-ground rail line. (See Washington Post story here.)

As anyone who lives inside the Beltway is well aware, you can always find a consultant to say whatever you want. You could even still find a couple people with scientific degrees who would dispute that smoking is harmful to health.

So, who to believe?

Let's start with the Tunnel's proponents. Clearly, they want a tunnel and they're going to hire consultants who'll come up with figures to support their plan. That's not to say they're dishonest. Rather, they suffer from a significant optimism bias. You can see that in the report of the Governor's consultants, who note that it's not practical to run a tunnel boring machine (like the one pictured here)24-hours a day without some maintenance delays.
They also note that the advanced tunnel boring technology advocated by the Tyson Tunnel proponents has not been used on tunnels as large as those for Metrorail. So, let's just say that the Tunnel proponents are presenting, at best, a very rosy view. Experience shows that with complex high tech construction projects, such rosy views almost never prevail.

That said--and before you tunnel proponents hit the comment button to skewer us--the Governor's report doesn't make a terrific case for the above-ground version. The Governor's engineers say it will cost roughly $160 million more (at a minimum) for the tunnel, and add six months to the project's construction timetable (they add more time for non-construction delays). IF a tunnel would cost only $160 million more on a $4 billion project, and IF it would delay things only another six months, then WE think the tunnel is a viable option.

The biggest variable is whether going for a tunnel would also jeopardize $900 million in federal funding, without which nothing will be built. We don't think folks should sit around and speculate about this--instead, there should be a sit-down with the right people. If the feds are open to a tunnel--and we think they may be--then the tunnel option should be back on the table. (Yes, we know, this is a reversal of our position a few weeks ago; we've been trying to read up since then.)

That said, we also don't buy the doom and gloom predictions about the consequences of having an above-ground rail line through Tysons. Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman, who also sits on Metro's board, is correct that this is "once-in-a-generation" issue, i.e., one with major consequences for Northern Virginia over the next 30-50 years.

All things being equal, a tunnel through Tysons would probably be better than an above-ground line. But the above-ground line is hardly a disaster. Tysons would do just fine with such a rail line--it would prosper and grow and incorporate the design into its future.

Our bottom line: the burden is on Tunnel proponents to establish that a Tunnel will not endanger federal funding, nor will it unduly delay the entire process. If they can get by those hurdles, then the Tunnel is the way to go.

A Poem For Scooter Libby

Libby Lied.
His Lawyer Cried.
Bush Will Set It All Aside.

No New Trial.
No Good Appeal.
No Jail Due To Pardon Deal

(Thanks to our good friend and terrific trial lawyer Mike Jones at K&E for this little rhyme.)

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Environmental Fixes For Dominion Re-Regulation Bill

Governor Kaine has his plate full with the defective, but still fixable, transportation bill sitting on his desk.

That leaves little time for him to focus on an equally important bill dumped in his lap by the General Assembly, which would dramatically change the way electric utilities--particularly Dominion Virginia Power--are regulated in the Commonwealth.

Among other things, the bill is an environmental disaster. Here, we explore some ideas for improving the bill on the environmental side. However, the entire bill needs careful consideration--which it did not get this term. The Governor should veto it so that he, the Attorney General and the General Assembly can more carefully consider these important issues next year.

Others have done an excellent job of detailing the way Dominion rammed this bill through the General Assembly this term without anyone really understanding what it will do to electric power consumers in the state.

Our focus today is on the environmental side. For all practical purposes, Dominion is the only electric utility in the state of Virginia. We are fortunate that it is a well-managed company that has kept electricity rates relatively low.

Dominion, however, is behind on the environmental curve, and it won't even try to catch up unless the legislature, Public Service Commission, Governor and Attorney General force it to.

Dominion badly wants new legislation that will change the way it is regulated and allow it to raise the capital needed to meet Virginia's future power demands. That puts the state in an excellent bargaining position to obtain some key environmental concessions.

First, Dominion should be required to offer its Greenpower program--which is available in NC--to Virginia customers. This program, similar to programs offered by other utilities around the country--allows a customer to pay a bit extra to obtain his or her power solely from renewable resources, such as wind energy. These programs incentivize utilities like Dominion to expand their investments in renewable energy.

Second, Dominion should be required to expand its net metering program in Virginia by providing a set amount of financing for consumers who want to install their own renewable energy generation onsite. This further encourages development of wind and solar energy in the state. At present, there is a cap on the amount of net-metered energy that Dominion must accept, equal to 0.1% of its total energy demand in Virginia. The cap should either be removed, or raised to at least 5%. There is some other tinkering that can be done with the net metering provisions to further encourage individuals and businesses to develop their own alternative sources of renewable electricity.

Third, Dominion should be required to make aggressive investments in conservation. There are ways to structure regulation that will give Dominion appropriate incentives to promote electricity conservation programs. We should study successful programs from other states and implement them here. Remember: a 100 megawatt reduction in electric demand is just as good as building a new 100 megawatt powerplant. There is plenty of room for Virginians to reduce their consumption without any impact on lifestyle. (I have detailed on my own blog how I reduced my power bill by as much as 30 percent in some months by taking simple steps that don't require any sacrifice.)

[One way to improve conservation is to raise rates. We note that higher rates does not necessarily mean higher bills: if rates go up 25% but as a result you use 25% less energy, your total bill will stay the same. Californians use, on average, almost half the electricity of Virginians. Their electric rates are higher, but their total electric bills are not.]

Fourth, we need to explore incentives to discourage Dominion from building new coal-fired power plants in Virginia (or elsewhere for purposes of supplying Virginia). With prospects high for the enactment of national legislation to discourage carbon emissions, it would be economic folly for Dominion to commit the state to new generation from coal. In any event, it is environmentally irresponsible. Virginia has a long and sensitive coastline that is vulnerable to rising sea levels and increased storm activity. We can ill afford to endanger our historically significant and economically vital coastal communities through such short-sighted actions as building new coal electric plants. If anything, we should be looking for ways to retire the existing ones.

With its good management and sound financial base, Dominion could, with the right incentives, become an environmental leader that would do Virginia proud. Now is the time to make sure those incentives are put in place.

Governor Kaine should veto the bill hastily pushed through the General Assembly this term, followed by a commitment to work with Dominion, environmental groups and consumer advocates for a bill that suits all Virginians in the next term. (We might add that Attorney General Bob McDonnell is at grave political risk on this bill, since his office undertook to study and attempt to modify Dominion's original draft bill. Unless he wants to be known as "Dominion Bob" when he runs for Governor, McDonnell should support efforts to bring in a wider array of citizens groups to meld a better bill in a future term.)

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Right Wing Hypocrisy on Libby And U.S. Attorneys

Today we look at a couple forms of right wing hypocrisy when it comes to the judicial system.

1. Pardon Me! Libby Hypocrisy.

No sooner is Scooter Libby convicted than the Wall Street Journal begins beating the drums for a presidential pardon in not one, but two, editorial pieces (one an official WSJ editorial, the other an op-ed piece they've obviously been sitting on just waiting for the verdict).

What hypocrisy. This is the same newspaper that went after Bill Clinton and every member of his cabinet with every piece of sleaze and dirt it could dig up, no matter how reliable. They relentlessly promoted books and videos produced by the most virulently paranoid right-wing fanatics and pushed for the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on questionable special prosecutions. The cheerleaded a silly impeachment proceeding.

But now the WSJ intones that Bush "owes" Libby "a pardon and an apology." Evidently, the WSJ doesn't think it's serious business when Republicans lie to grand juries and obstruct justice.

[Fox News had its own unique take on the Libby trial yesterday, running a banner across the story declaring that Libby had been acquitted, which of course was true as to one count, but not the real story. Fair and balanced, as always.]

To be sure, we do feel sorry here for Libby, who certainly is a scapegoat. But Libby's problem was that he was too loyal to his boss, Dick Cheney. All Libby had to do was tell the truth to the FBI and grand jury. As it turns out, if he had told the truth, there would have been no consequences.

We don't share the WSJ's casual--and partisan--disregard for the legal process.

Partisan Politics With U.S. Attorneys

Another side of right wing hypocrisy is the unfolding scandal over the Bush Administration's dismissal of a number of U.S. Attorneys around the country. (See Washington Post story here.)

Of course the Bushies and their congressional allies are in full-blown spin mode on this one, claiming that no one was dismissed for political reasons.

We hardly need congressional hearings to know that's false. If we've learned anything about this administration over the past six years, it's that EVERYTHING is political. Clearly, when it comes to personnel appointments, loyalty to the White House and the Rove machine is valued over all other traits. That's one reason the administration is so incompetent. They don't care if you can do the job, man--just that you're loyal.

So now we're learning that various federal prosecutors received calls from Republicans in Congress about the status of their investigations into certain political figures. It's not yet clear whether those calls were instigated by Rove's office--we wouldn't be surprised. But you can bet that AFTER those calls, follow-up complaints were made to Rove, who in turn got friendly Justice Department officials in meting out discipline, Rove style.

The most obvious case, so far, is that of New Mexico prosecutor David Iglesias, who received a call one day AT HIS HOME from Sen. Pete Domenici, a Republican. Domenici pointedly asked Iglesias whether charges would be filed against a local Democrat, under investigation, "before November" (i.e., before the election). When Iglesias said no, Domenici reportedly said "I'm sorry to hear that" and hung up.

Domenici claims he didn't ask that Iglesias be fired over the issue. We're sure he didn't put it in exactly those words--Washington is a bit more subtle. But we'd love to put Domenici under oath. We're pretty sure he managed to convey his displeasure to the appropriate officials in the White House and at Justice, and that, as they say, those officials "got his drift."

Of course, none of this is really new. Instead, it's just larger pieces of the political corruption iceberg that's been coming into view over the past two years as we've learned how the Republicans operated in the Capital during their reign.

Have they learned anything since the election? Evidently not--see 1. above!

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Veto The Dominion Bill

We were going to put something together on the multiple problems with the bill hastily passed by the General Assembly to "re-regulate" electric utilities in the state, but someone else has already done an excellent job, so we'll just point you in the right direction.

To recap, Dominion Virginia Power, pretty much the only private electric utility in the state, drafted up its own bill to "re-regulate" itself. After minimal study and virtually no public input, Dominion managed to ram the bill through the General Assembly, which was consumed with the transportation issue.

It's a bad bill. We can, and should, do much better, and we have time, as deregulation doesn't kick in until 2010. We urge Governor Kaine to veto the bill and set up a task force, study group--whatever you want to call it--to work with Dominion reps on a more balanced comprehensive bill that can be introduced next year.

Here are links to a three-part series on why the Dominion bill is bad for the environment, bad for consumers and bad for the state's political system.

1. Bad for the environment.

2. Bad for consumers.

3. Bad for political system.

Webb Iran Bill; Surge Kills U.S. Soldiers; What Does NRLC Have To Hide; Cold Coulter Shoulder; Obesity Surgery For Kids; Callahan Retirement

Today we cover a potpourri of Curmudgeonly short subjects:

Webb Bill Would Limit Authority To Start A War With Iran

Jim Webb has introduced a bill in the Senate that would prevent Bush from using funds to start a war with Iran without Congressional authorization. See here for details.

Bombs Kill U.S. Soldiers In Baghdad

The risks of a troop surge in Iraq were obvious: sending in more U.S. soldiers and placing them in the streets of Baghdad makes them more vulnerable to attack. Today, those risks hit home as bombs killed at least nine U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and maimed many more. Why are we fighting in this civil war?

What Does The National Right To Life Committee Have To Hide?

The National Right To Life Committee has "vowed" to kill legislation that would require executive branch officials to disclose who has been lobbying them. (See story here.) This is pretty reasonable legislation in the wake of the Abramoff scandals and other related examples of insidious political lobbying of the Bush administration. The legislation would obviously apply to future administrations as well, whether Democratic or Republican.

We wonder what the NRLC has to hide.

Let Coulter Run Her Mouth

We really hate to even mention the lady's name in any way because it only gives her the attention she obviously craves. However, we're happy to have AC make public appearances in front of conservative audiences to call people she disagrees with "faggots" and "traitors" because it lets the independent middle of the road citizens see what Brown Shirts these "conservatives" really are.

Obesity Surgery For Children

We haven't said much about obesity for some time--evidently the issue has dropped off the media screen. We did see a report today that the number of children having radical surgery to treat obesity tripled between 2000-2003, and presumably has increased more since then.

That's pretty sad news. While many food marketers have become more responsible in their advertising, we still see plenty of promotions that do little more than encourage overeating. Burger King is a particularly big offender in this category, evidently because it is desperate for business. Wendy's may be worse, because unlike Burger King it pretends to be concerned about obesity and children's diets, yet continues to promote massive triple sized bacon cheese whatever burgers, while also retaining its misleading 20 ounce "small" drinks.

Worse is Quiznos Subs, which has been going after Subway by comparing its meat-filled overstuffed sandwiches with Subway's leaner offering. Maybe the Quiznos person in the ads should weigh 300 pounds, compared to Subway's Jared. (In any event, a regular Subway sandwich costs about half that of a regular Quiznos; for some extra $ you can make your Subway just as fattening.)

At bottom, public health officials have made little headway against obesity in recent years, with most initiatives, such as banning sodas in schools, being minor band-aids.

It's truly sad to see children so large they need life-threatening radical surgery to save themselves.

Fairfax GOP Delegate Vincent Callahan To Retire

The Washington Post reports that Fairfax Republican Delegate Vincent Callahan, who has served a remarkable 40 years in the Virginia House, is retiring at age 75. This presents an excellent opportunity for a Democratic pick-up in the fall election--Callahan was the sole remaining Republican inside the beltway.

Still, it comes at a high cost to Northern Virginia. Callahan was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, a perch from which he could steer money to NoVa (from whence the money came, we might add).

It's too bad Democratic gains often come at the cost of more moderate Republicans, but that's the way it will be, both at the state and national levels, in our current political environment.