Saturday, August 09, 2008


So I was watching the Olympics opening ceremony with my family last night, and on comes the McCain ad you see below. An attack ad! On the first night of the Olympics!

I used to have some respect for McCain, but he's turned into a real piece of crap. Seems the only thing he learned from the vicious smears about his adopted daughter in the 2000 campaign was to hire the guys who did them this time around.

John McCain: Proving that if you're old enough, integrity is just another word you can't remember.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Another One Bites the Dust

The Republican effort to kill the UW system seems to be working. Another prominent scientist just left UW-Madison for greener (in more ways than one) pastures.

Jon Foley, the founder and director of the UW-Madison's Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, was earning about $115,000 here at the UW. Not bad, but the University of Minnesota offered him a position as head of their Institute on the Environment, at twice his UW salary, plus a cool 1.2 million dollars of start-up mad money. Pretty sweet! UW-Madison wasn't able to come anywhere close to matching such an offer, so we lost one more of our heavy hitters.

Usually when a superstar like Foley gets lured away it's difficult to pin the blame on anything specific, but in this case we have a pretty good idea what happened. Seems Foley explained the situation in an email that he sent to friends, and that email was leaked to the State Journal. Here's part of what he had to say:
"It is remarkable how big a difference having a constructive and supportive legislature — even when money is still tight — makes in campus morale and attitude. There is a startling difference between the two universities (UW-Madison and the University of Minnesota) right now."
Perhaps influenced by their party's growing antipathy towards science and education, Republicans have spent the past two decades trying to turn Wisconsin into an intellectual and economic wasteland by cutting money out of higher education and putting it into prisons. Our great universities may be rotting from the inside out, but being Tough on Crime® has sure helped a lot of Republicans get elected. Besides, we've locked up a heck of a lot more scary black folks, and who could complain about that?

Check out the chart below showing how state funding for UW-Madison has changed over the past twenty years. Pretty sad, although there has been a slight improvement recently. No doubt just a coincidence that the upturn occurred as Democrats took more power in the legislature. Click on the chart for a larger version. Email me if you'd like the data in a spreadsheet.


Full disclosure: My wife is a professor at UW-Madison. Coincidentally, she was also recently offered a significantly higher salary to take a high-profile position at a school in another state. Although she turned it down, we probably would have left if our kids weren't still in primary and secondary school here.

My wife is prominent enough in her field that she'll continue to be recruited by both private industry and other universities in the future, and in a few years our kids will be old enough to no longer be a factor. Unless state funding priorities change drastically, it's likely that she'll become one more symptom of the brain-drain that threatens the UW system.

Money isn't everything when it comes to academia, but only fools, and some Republicans, seem to think that it doesn't matter.

Is Coal the New Oil?

Something very strange is happening to coal prices in the US. A massive discrepancy has opened between prices east and west of the Mississippi, with the far west flat at around $12 to $15 per ton and the east soaring to nearly $150 ton, triple last year's prices.

Because coal is expensive to ship, and rail and barge transportation is limited, coal is usually three to four times more expensive in the east than in the west. But as you can see from the chart at the bottom, the current trends are extraordinary.

Coal matters because most of our electricity comes from coal. Higher coal prices inevitably mean higher electricity prices, which we all pay. But what could be causing such an odd and dramatic price increase? The usual market forces don't seem to explain things. Demand for coal in the US has been flat, exports haven't increased significantly, and inventories are reasonably high. This leaves market speculation as a real, and likely, possibility.

Speculation in energy markets tends to occur where there's the least regulation and, perhaps even more importantly in the Bush era, the least regulatory attention. After Enron it became very hard to manipulate the electricity market. Too many nosy people keeping an eye on things. As a result, over the past five years or so, speculators moved into oil, but given all the attention they've been getting in that market, perhaps they're starting to put their money elsewhere. Coal would be a logical choice. The coal market is much more geographically fragmented than oil, making it easier to control and manipulate. And, at least in the eastern US, the coal market is also fairly inelastic, again making it easier to manipulate.

Looks like coal could become the new oil. Enormous profits for the few, much higher energy costs for the rest of us. It's the American way.

Click on chart for a larger version. Source: EIA. The Powder River Basin is in Montana and Wyoming, and the Uinta Basin is in Colorado and Utah.