Author Archives: jtellerelsberg

Carbon labeling on my mind

[Crossposted at my work blog.]

BusinessWeek’s GreenBiz blog tipped me off to a recent BW article on carbon labeling. Carbon labeling means to label consumer products with an indicator of how much greenhouse gas was emitted in the production and distribution of each product to the point of having it on the shelf in front of the customer. The idea has been around for a while, but only recently have manufacturers (like Timberland shoes) and retailers (like Tesco, a British chain of mega-grocery stores) started to implement carbon labeling programs. As it turns out, according to BW’s article, carbon labeling is tricky for a few reasons. First, it can be tremendously difficult to squeeze all the aspects of modern, globalized manufacturing into a single numerical measurement of greenhouse emissions. Second, for such programs to work, there needs to be a fair bit of consumer education so that people will have any idea of what these carbon labels actually mean. (If a label says, “50 grams of carbon,” is that good or bad or what?)

Here are some thoughts suggestions that probably have been thought of by other people as well, but what the hey:

1) The ideal carbon label will be structured similarly to the energy guide labels on refrigerators and other appliances we see in the US. That is, on a line that shows the minimum-to-maximum amount of greenhouse emissions caused by similar products to the one in your hand (like all canned vegetables or all pasta products or all color televisions) as well as an indication of where on this line the individual product falls. If canned vegetables incur anywhere between 10 and 100 grams of carbon-equivalent greenhouse emissions (using made up numbers for sake of the example), and the can in your hand incurred 30 grams, then you’d see something like “10”””“30“””””””””“100″³. That’s the first part of the labeling scheme, and would be called the “Manufacturing & Distribution” count. For some products, like canned vegetables, that would be enough. For products like TVs that require the ongoing consumption of energy in use, there would be another line (like the existing energy guide labels on refrigerators and such) that indicates the relative use of energy going forward, based on the average greenhouse emissions of the electric grid across the country. This would be the “Usage” count. Finally, for products that have both counts on their label would be a third measurement line called “Expected Lifetime” which would be a combination of the “Manufacturing & Distribution” count and an estimate of the probable cummulative lifetime “Usage” count, for example the combination of M&D plus 10 years worth of normal usage of a TV. Some products might have high M&D counts but be more efficient in use, and therefore their lifetime impact would be lower than an alternative product that had a lower M&D count but was inefficient in usage.

2) I realize that this notion of an ideal carbon label still ignores the difficulties in actually figuring out accurate counts for greenhouse emissions; but if you can get decent estimates of the emissions, then I think that’d be a good way to do the labeling in a way that consumers could interpret and make meaningful choices between products. You have to have the relative position of each product on a scale for the number to mean anything.

3) If you want to educate the populace on how to use these things, teach 10 year olds about it. They will quickly and insistently instruct the rest of us, treating us like absurd fools until such time as we master the system as well as they have.

4) The trickiness of figuring out accurate and consistent greenhouse emission labeling is an argument in favor of using carbon taxes/cap-and-trade systems. Sorta. On the one hand, the financial tool of carbon tax/cap-and-trade “” implemented on upstream sources of carbon (and other greenhouse gases) “” easily introduce an effective alternative to the carbon label into the economy. Product prices will rise relative to the amount of extra cost their manufacturers & distributors face as a result of the greenhouse gas emissions incurred during manufacturing and distribution. The can of corn that involved more greenhouse emissions will incur a greater carbon-cost increase than the alternative can of corn that involved less emissions. However, this isn’t totally satisfactory, because so much else is involved in pricing: the “price signal” is terribly noisy and prone to distortion and/or misinterpretation. In addition, there are some “” how many? “” people willing, even eager, to pay more for products that they are confident involve less greenhouse emissions. Working the greenhouse effect of a product into the product’s price is a good thing, but that doesn’t obviate the usefulness of a more fully informed consumer as a second level for reducing carbon footprints. One further thought on this, though: it’s possible that if a carbon tax is implemented, the tax itself could be used as a tool for measuring the greenhouse emissions on a product and therefore be the basis of the carbon label. Businesses already keep track of the taxes they pay, and so the added burden of accounting should be less than trying to account for a new system of purely physical carbon emission counting. Right? Because the carbon tax itself is predicated (or should be) on a carbon-equivalent scale, it would be an easy translation to take the cumulative taxes paid on a product through its manufacturing and distribution lifetime and restate that as an amount of carbon emitted during the process. The increasing use of rfid chips in distribution chains only makes this easier to implement, as you have better tracking going on and the ability to link movement of materials and goods to the taxes those materials and goods incur for the businesses making and moving them. (Having said this, I still favor a Peter Barnes’ style cap-auction-trade-dividend approach over the carbon tax approach.)

5) I gotta get back to work!

Krugman on odds of achieving universal health care: w/ Clinton not bad, w/ Obama near zilch

Paul Krugman’s latest column asserts that Senator Clinton should be the clear favorite for those in favor of universal health care.

The principal policy division between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama involves health care. It’s a division that can seem technical and obscure — and I’ve read many assertions that only the most wonkish care about the fine print of their proposals.

But as I’ve tried to explain in previous columns, there really is a big difference between the candidates’ approaches. And new research, just released, confirms what I’ve been saying: the difference between the plans could well be the difference between achieving universal health coverage — a key progressive goal — and falling far short.

Specifically, new estimates say that a plan resembling Mrs. Clinton’s would cover almost twice as many of those now uninsured as a plan resembling Mr. Obama’s — at only slightly higher cost.


On the other hand, and mucking up the analysis of what’ll happen if Clinton is elected versus Obama (assuming one of them is indeed elected over the Republican candidate), is the idea I’ve seen advocated that Obama on the November ballot will better help in the election of lots more Democrats to the US House and Senate. The idea being that Clinton is more divisive, so even if she wins, there will be fewer middle-ground and moderate-Republican voters who will feel enthusiastic about the Dems in general, and so less likely to vote for other Dems on the ticket. But Obama is seemingly more unifying and uplifting of a character, and so good vibes for him will rub off on other Dems on the ticket. And if that’s true, then ironically Obama would have a Congress to work with that would be more amenable to a strong health care initiative, whereas Clinton would have a harder fight on her hand because the Congress she faced wouldn’t be as friendly to progressive causes. (Examples of this sort of analysis from The Nation and DailyKos.)

And is Krugman right that those opposed to universal health care will actually and successfully be able to kill an attempt by Obama to expand his policy vision by turning his primary campaign words against him? It seems plausible that he could change his vision and that, if this occurs during a honeymoon first 100 days following a landslide victory, brush aside those sorts of attacks without too much trouble. Maybe I’m being too optimistic. It’s just that I find myself reasonably convinced by the “Obama brings with him a stronger Congress than Clinton” arguments and so have been finding myself moving towards supporting him for that reason. (I’m in Vermont and our primary isn’t until March 6.)


[Update] It’s all pretty frustrating, this not being able to predict the future. I say that because I agree with something else that Krugman has said (though I can’t recall where to link to it at the moment) that establishing a viable universal health care system is enormously important, both for the wellbeing of the country in general, and for a left/progressive movement as well. It’d be like a new New Deal–it would provide a kind of shared benefit that tens-, hundreds of millions of people would feel and appreciate. They’d not only be better off, they’d know that it was the left that got them better off. Large numbers of people who felt that there was no useful difference between the Republicans and the Democrats would learn that in fact there is. (And even if you think there isn’t currently, the establishment of universal health care would in itself be the fact of difference.) Large numbers of people who think government is just a big joke would learn that government can indeed do some things–some very, very important things–right, do them better than the alternatives. A decent universal health care system, alongside a carbon cap-and-dividend system, would breathe vibrant new life into a progressive political movement. We’d gain a generation or more of new loyalty and energy.

And we need that loyalty and energy. There’s lots to be done, from avoiding the worst of global warming to eliminating poverty, from ending the Iraq war to rebuilding crumbling schools and other infrastructure. These things are big jobs and expensive. To do them right means having the backing of the majority of the people. To get that backing, the people have to feel–to know–that “we’re all in it together” is more than empty rhetoric. Universal health care is the achievable reality that makes that rhetoric tangible. It’s a policy of solidarity that makes each next step a little easier to achieve. It’s why I’ve been quipping (mostly to myself) for a while now that “universal health care is an environmental issue.” If we can provide universal health care that makes it one heck of a lot easier to convince people that we all have to face restrictions on energy consumption (and so consumption in general). We have to face both the restrictions and the benefits (of health care, of a healthy environment, etc.) together.

And so if in fact that’s all true, then boy oh boy will it be disappointing if Obama (or Clinton) is elected president–especially if he (or she) is backed by a newly enlarged Democratic majority in Congress–and yet fails to seize the opportunity. Boy oh boy, very disappointing.

Some popular vote numbers for the primaries

I was curious about overall popular vote numbers for the primaries this year. I’ve seen a number of pieces, particularly at DailyKos (like this one) pointing out that Democrats are going to the polls in much larger numbers than Republicans. But a little bit of searching came up with nothing as far as overall popular vote tallies. They’re out there, I’m sure, but I couldn’t find them easily. So I put some together and they’re over on my workplace blog, in case you’re curious.


I admit to feeling some of that “lack of consumer confidence” myself. No pink slips at my workplace, not that I’ve heard rumor about at least, but news like this doesn’t help.

Employers cut 17,000 jobs from their payrolls in January, Labor Department figures showed. Economists had been expecting a rise of 80,000.

The job losses were across all sectors of the economy including manufacturing and professional services.

“The economy is in recession mode,” said Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland.

On the topic of recessions and workers (employed or otherwise) and what we can expect, Working Life blogger Jonathan Tasini reports on analysis from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

Why listen to what CEPR says? Well, for one, if the world had listened to CEPR, and, in particular Dean Baker, rather than the morons on Wall Street and on the flickering screen, we would have realized a housing bubble was a serious threat long time ago.

So, CEPR says: [click through to see for yourself]

Chemical weapons in a class war?

Bruce E. Levine has an interesting article over at Alternet on the use of psychiatric medication to tame defiant youth. Some tantalizing excerpts:

For a generation now, disruptive young Americans who rebel against authority figures have been increasingly diagnosed with mental illnesses and medicated with psychiatric (psychotropic) drugs.

Disruptive young people who are medicated with Ritalin, Adderall and other amphetamines routinely report that these drugs make them “care less” about their boredom, resentments and other negative emotions, thus making them more compliant and manageable. And so-called atypical antipsychotics such as Risperdal and Zyprexa — powerful tranquilizing drugs — are increasingly prescribed to disruptive young Americans, even though in most cases they are not displaying any psychotic symptoms.

Many talk show hosts think I’m kidding when I mention oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). After I assure them that ODD is in fact an official mental illness — an increasingly popular diagnosis for children and teenagers — they often guess that ODD is simply a new term for juvenile delinquency. But that is not the case.

Young people diagnosed with ODD, by definition, are doing nothing illegal (illegal behaviors are a symptom of another mental illness called conduct disorder). In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) created oppositional defiant disorder, defining it as “a pattern of negativistic, hostile and defiant behavior.” The official symptoms of ODD include “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules” and “often argues with adults.” While ODD-diagnosed young people are obnoxious with adults they don’t respect, these kids can be a delight with adults they do respect; yet many of them are medicated with psychotropic drugs.

Throughout American history, both direct and indirect resistance to authority has been diseased. In an 1851 article in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright reported his discovery of “drapetomania,” the disease that caused slaves to flee captivity. Cartwright also reported his discovery of “dysaesthesia aethiopis,” the disease that caused slaves to pay insufficient attention to the master’s needs. Early versions of ODD and ADHD?

In Rush’s lifetime, few Americans took anarchia seriously, nor was drapetomania or dysaesthesia aethiopis taken seriously in Cartwright’s lifetime. But these were eras before the diseasing of defiance had a powerful financial ally in Big Pharma.

It would certainly be a dream of Big Pharma and those who favor an authoritarian society if every would-be Tom Paine — or Crazy Horse, Tecumseh, Emma Goldman or Malcolm X — were diagnosed as a youngster with mental illness and quieted with a lifelong regimen of chill pills. The question is: Has this dream become reality?

Conflict of interest alert: I work for Chelsea Green Publishing, publishers of Levine’s recent book, Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic.

A poem

A friend just sent this to me. It’s an English folk poem, circa 1764, so he says.

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

The Law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common’
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

Missing the recession boat

Today’s NYTimes article on Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s testimony to Congress yesterday, and the simultaneous drop in the stock market, includes a few noteworthy passages:

The stock market plunged again on Thursday on bad economic news, taking little comfort from reassuring words by the chairman of the Federal Reserve or an emerging consensus about a stimulus plan that many worry could be too late.

On a day when stocks were pushed down another 3 percent on reports of more weakness in housing and manufacturing “” bringing the decline this year to a stomach-churning 9 percent “” all the major players in Washington agreed on the need for putting extra money into people’s hands quickly.

President Bush publicly confirmed for the first time that he would propose a package of emergency measures, outlining its basic principles on Friday, in an effort to restore the eroding confidence of investors and consumers. The package is expected to include more than $100 billion in one-time tax rebates for individuals and an opportunity for businesses to rapidly write off their capital investments.

Adding to the pessimism, which drowned out the reassurances by Mr. Bernanke that a recession could be averted, were reports that manufacturing activity could be slowing even more than analysts had expected, and that housing starts dropped 14 percent last month and reached their lowest level in 16 years.

Mr. Bernanke insisted that despite concerns about “slowing growth,” the economy remained “extraordinarily resilient.”

I say “noteworthy” in light of Dean Baker’s ongoing crusade to right the wrongs in mainstream media reporting on the economy–and in mainstream economists’ ability to figure out what exactly is happening in the real world. Several of his recent posts deal with the failure of most economists to recognize when a recession begins until long after the fact: “economists have an enormous bias against seeing recessions. Virtually no economist saw the recession coming in 2001, even after the stock bubble was already well on its way to deflating (okay, none of them saw the bubble either). This includes all the official forecasters, CBO and OMB both projected solid growth in 2001.” Scroll through all of Dean’s recent posts and you’ll see more of the same clear-eyed view.

In light of this, how reassured should anyone be when Bernanke says a recession can be avoided? What are the odds that a year from now, the economics establishment won’t have determined that the recession actually started a few months back in 2007? And on top if it all, given that it took the stock market five years (and a terrorist-induced recession and boondoggle war) to largely deflate from the peak of the 1990s bubble (only in 1995 did the S&P 500’s price-to-earnings ratio drop down to the 25-year average — and even that average is well above the longer-term average [pdf chart]), how shocking can it be when it tumbles again and again in face of reality?

Peter Barnes’ new book: Climate Solutions

My day job is as an assistant editor at Chelsea Green Publishing. I’ve been particularly excited about one book that we’ve been working on, Peter Barnes’ Climate Solutions: A Citizen’s Guide: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why. Well, it’s just shipped from the printer, so now’s your chance to get a copy and check it out.

[update] I just came across a little BusinessWeek article focusing on Barnes’ ideas for a carbon dividend. They don’t get all the details quite right (all the more reason for you to read the book!) and they don’t mention the book (curses!), but “cap-and-dividend” just might be turning into a powerful and politically relevant meme.

Candidates with hairstyles on economic policy

Paul Krugman has a NYTimes op-ed column on the economic policies of all the big-name presidential contenders. One of his final comments is, “on Sunday Mr. Obama came out with a real stimulus plan. As was the case with his health care plan, which fell short of universal coverage, his stimulus proposal is similar to those of the other Democratic candidates, but tilted to the right…. I know that Mr. Obama’s supporters hate to hear this, but he really is less progressive than his rivals on matters of domestic policy.”

A friend had sent me a link to Krugman’s column, and knowing that she’s been torn between backing Clinton or Obama I replied to her

Go Hillary! (Right?)


Go Barack! (Not right but Left!)

To which she replied

Haha, I don’t know…I mean, maybe slightly right on economic policy isn’t such a bad thing…? There sure are a lot of moderately right leaning economists…I just thought it was an interesting (and new) way to compare the candidates

To which I replied

No, slightly right on economic policy is bad. Slightly right on economic policy means slightly closer to:

  • ever-growing government deficits and/or slashed social services
  • ever-growing economic inequality
  • greater turbulence in the economy thus increasing risks of more frequent and deeper recessions
  • more frequent and larger government bailouts of high-risk corporate losses (see point above)
  • and a total ban on all cheese. [My friend loves cheese more than life itself.]

There are a lot of moderately right leaning economists because most economists have never been exposed to any genuinely left economic thinking and there’s a tendency for left leaning people who might otherwise become economists to instead become sociologists. They think Paul Krugman is a lefty when in reality he’s only mildly left leaning.

Just thought I’d share. Feel free to add more bullet points in the comments.

(And if you’re wondering about my mention of hairstyles in the title of this posting, just read Krugman’s column and you’ll see.)

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