Archive for the ‘Opinion’ Category

The Most Interesting Stories of 2010

January 1st, 2011

Every new year begins on this blog with a collection of my favorite news items from the previous year. Be sure to check out my 2008 and 2009 recap posts for those who are bit lost. Happy New Year everyone and thanks for reading!

1) Why Can’t the I.R.S. Help Fill in the Blanks?

IN the digital age, filing income tax returns should be a snap. The important data from employers and financial institutions have already been sent to the government’s computers. Yet taxpayers are still required to perform the anachronistic chore of preparing a return from scratch. And, in many cases, they pay a software company for the privilege.

Requiring taxpayers to file returns without being told what the government already knows makes as much sense “as if Visa sent customers a blank piece of paper, requiring that they assemble their receipts, list their purchases — and pay a fine if they forget one,” said Joseph Bankman, a professor at the Stanford Law School.

Many developed countries now offer taxpayers a return containing all information collected by the taxing authority — to “get the ball rolling by telling you what it knows,” Mr. Bankman says.

It’s a stunningly reasonable idea.

2) Truthful Somali pirates (thanks Wikileaks!)

It was September 2008 and a band of Somali pirates made a startling discovery.

The Ukrainian freighter they had just commandeered in the Gulf of Aden was packed with weapons, including 32 Soviet-era battle tanks, and the entire arsenal was headed for the regional government in southern Sudan. The Ukrainian and Kenyan governments vigorously denied that, insisting that the tanks were intended for the Kenyan military. […]

But it turns out the pirates were telling the truth — and the Kenyans and Ukrainians were not, at least publicly. According to several secret State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks, the tanks not only were headed to southern Sudan, but they were the latest installment of several underground arms shipments. By the time the freighter was seized, 67 T-72 tanks had already been delivered to bolster southern Sudan’s armed forces against the government in Khartoum, an international pariah for its human rights abuses in Darfur.

Bush administration officials knew of the earlier weapons transactions and chose not to shut them down, an official from southern Sudan asserted in an interview, and the cables acknowledge the Kenyan officials’ assertions that they had kept American officials informed about the deal. But once the pirates exposed the arms pipeline through Kenya, the Obama administration protested to the Ukrainian and Kenyan governments, even threatening sanctions, the cables show.

3) Immodestly Dressed Atheists Cause Earthquake as Cleric Predicted (and close to home!)

Boobquake, a day of action that calls on women worldwide to dress scandalously and prove wrong an Iranian cleric who blames natural disasters on immodest cleavage, has started disastrously, reported Monday.

At 11am (local time), a 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit Taiwan, no doubt causing thousands of Boobquake fans to hastily button up.

Although Boobquake founder Jennifer McCreight, of Indiana., has claimed that the quake does not count because it happened outside her Boobquake time zone, she admitted on her blog that the wobble was significant, but not unusual.

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Open Door Issue Heats Up

July 14th, 2010

There are some exciting new developments in my campaign to get retail stores to close their doors when the air conditioning is on (and the DC power grid is strained).  Most importantly, I’ve begun a dialogue with the very responsive DC council member Mary Cheh and started discussing the next steps.  Jeremy Faust, Director of Legislative Affairs for the Committee on Government Operations and the Environment, was helpful enough to dig up some dead legislation that was introduced by Jim Graham in 2007 called the ‘Closed Doors and Windows Energy Conservation Act’ [pdf link].  It’s not perfect, but hopefully it can be re-examined and improved upon.

In other news, the NBC Washington site published a big article (also on MSNBC) about air condition use in DC that fortunately highlighted my letter but unfortunately did a very poor job of reporting (and somehow got a way with a lot of editorializing).  I responded in the comments where things got really interesting, including a lovely example of Godwin’s Law.  Here is an excerpt from the article (where I am called ‘local man’) and then some choice comment highlights:

D.C. resident Nicko Margolies is rightly annoyed by the practice of many stores in the city to set their air conditioning on full blast while leaving their front doors wide open.

In a letter to the Washington Post, Margolies calls it “an extraordinarily wasteful act that strains the city’s electrical grid” that is “terrible for the environment.”

True. But Margolies isn’t just griping — he is also calling for legislation. He wants the District to “punish stores” that “blow cold air directly into the street.” He tells us that he will be contacting every member of the D.C. Council, and “hopefully starting a movement” toward legislation similar to that adopted by New York City two hot summers ago. (So far, nine New York stores have been slapped with $200 fines.

I won’t copy the whole article, but it gets a little off base.  Here are some of the comments of support:

Hey Nicko, I feel for you. This site’s reporting ethics seem synonymous with that of communist propaganda sometimes. You had a valid point and they left it out. People would never intentionally leave their own door open with the AC on, so why should you be heckled by a utility company when businesses do it all day long? Georgetown is the worst example around here. The rest of you critics need to read deeper into these things. NBC Washington is failing to report valid points made, and that’s not something any respectable reporter would do.

[via NBC Washington comment #7]

I would love to get Mr. Margolies contact info so that I can join his efforts !

[via NBC Washington comment #9]

Mr. Margolies —
I’m glad you commented on this story and further explained your point of view. The reporter made you sound like some whacked out hippy.

[via NBC Washington comment #10]

Nicko Margolies is right and Orvetti misses the point entirely. It’s not about people’s “right” to waste (which is nonetheless deplorable), it’s about the grid and the environment.

[via MSNBC comment #4]

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Letter to the Editor: Don’t let the cold air out

July 12th, 2010

This morning the Washington Post published my letter to the editor about commercial establishments keeping their doors open and the air conditioning on. Next steps are to email every member of the DC Council, all local blogs and hope to start some legislation in DC modeled after the law in New York City.

With the sweltering summer heat upon the city, I find myself stunned by the policies of many area retail stores to keep the air conditioning on full blast and the front doors wide-open. It is an extraordinarily wasteful act that strains the city’s electrical grid and is terrible for the environment.

Pepco recently sent a message through the D.C. government’s alert system asking residents to refrain from using power-heavy appliances during peak hours, but there is no rebuke for businesses that blow cold air directly into the street. The D.C. Council should pass legislation to punish stores because this profligate practice must go — a smart move that New York City made two years ago.

Nicko Margolies, Washington

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Indefensible Spending, Defense Contractors and Political Suicide

June 29th, 2010

With many politicians distancing themselves from ‘Washington’ and pointing to big government, I think it is time to look at a sometimes taboo subject. Military spending.

According to the fantastic annual budget visualization, Death and Taxes, military spending accounted for approximately 63% (or $895 billion) of the 2011 federal discretionary budget. Now I won’t argue that this spending is wholly unjustified, I enjoy a reasonable amount of deterrence as much as the next guy and I do enjoy some sweet programs like missile defense (star wars!), but some of this stuff is manic. Here’s a stat I dug up with a few minutes of poking around. According to the Department of Defense’s own 2009 Budget Request Summary Justification [pdf link], if you completely cut only the F-35 program (instead of just re-negotiating) you could double the entire budget of the National Science Foundation [pdf link of budget proposal].

Aside from silly programs that have no practical battlefield applications, there is the outsourcing of materiel production to contractors that is troubling. Northrop Grumman, the third largest supplier of military equipment, recently had to pay $12.5 million in a settlement to the government because it didn’t properly test items for navigation systems in warplanes, submarines and space equipment. How did this get exposed? An internal whistleblower who was probably enticed by the provisions of the False Claims Act that got him almost $2.4 million. Money talks. This is just the most recent example of contractors who get too much money for shoddy work and get virtually no oversight. In my opinion, the more spending you have the more transparency you need. Is 63% of accountability and oversight dedicated to defense spending? Hell no.

The largest roadblock to this uniquely American epidemic is that cutting back on defense spending is a very sensitive political subject. People want to feel safe. The American answer to fear is spending. Big guns make you feel safe. Big guns are expensive.  Bottom line: Be very cautious to take away big guns from scared people who somehow still have a blank check.

But there is hope! And not Obama’s style of hope, but a historians style of hope! Look back and notice: it has been done before! After the cold war, defense spending fell over 25 percent between 1985 and 1993. And guess who was defense secretary? Dick Cheney!

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Statutory Cap

April 11th, 2010

I read an article in yesterday’s Post that revealed the measly $16.4 million fine against Toyota for its unintended acceleration issues was only a fraction of the full $13.4 billion that was issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Turns out, the government is unable to issue fines above $16.4 million against any manufacturer, no matter how dangerous the safety issue or the scope of its damage.

From the Washington Post article:

Under the law, the penalty for failing to notify regulators of a safety defect is $6,000 a car. Toyota had to recall 2.3 million for the sticky pedal.

If not for the cap, that could have subjected the automaker to the $13.8 billion in fines. Among the reforms being proposed as a result of the Toyota controversy is a proposal to lift that limit.

I tracked down the law limiting fines (not named in the article) and found the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  According to a summary of major provisions (pdf link), the law “increases civil penalty caps from $5,000 to $100,000 per individual violation, and from $1,250,000 to $15,000,000 for aggregate violations.”  (Also see the law itself) I wish I had time to do more research, but I would be curious to find the rationalization by lawmakers for having a ceiling for violations.  Smaller government?  Let the leaden toys and endlessly accelerating cars flow freely into our economy?

Of course, remember that there wasn’t even a fine in the 70s from the Ford Pinto going up in flames after getting in rear-end collisions. So I guess this is…progress?

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Truth in Advertising

March 8th, 2010

[image taken last weekend on the DC Metro – Red Line]
[graph via Good Medicine – Autumn 2007 – Vol. XVI, No. 4]

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Another Fun Day of Telecommuting

February 10th, 2010

Thanks to Aaron for thinking of me and connecting me with Stephanie Armour of the USA Today.  After a very friendly ten minute conversation, here’s the quote she selected for the article, published today:

The ability to work from anywhere also means snow days no longer offer a break from work. Many are like Nicko Margolies, a communications assistant at the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based non-profit.

With the federal government shut down, his office closed. Margolies worked at home.

“No snowstorm, no matter how big, will keep me from working. I lost heat, but I had my space heater and network access, so I kept on trucking. It’s actually a seamless transition from home to work,” he says. “The only difference is I’m in my pajamas.”

The full article is on USA TODAY. My quote was also picked up on Time Magazine’s ‘It’s Your Money’ blog and reposted on the Battle Creek Enquirer in Michigan. The image credits on this post go to NASA for this beautiful photograph taken by the Terra satellite (which I cropped).

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