Is U.S. Driving at an All-Time High?

Eric Jaffe, in City Lab, counter’s Brad Plumer’s claim that “Americans are apparently driving more than ever … Indeed “vehicle miles traveled,” the primary metric for U.S. driving habits, has been on the rise—up 3.5 percent on the previous year, as of September.”

“But when you adjust VMT for the driving population, you get a very different picture. As it happens, Doug Short at Advisor Perspectives did just that last week. Turns out VMT per capita is on the way up in 2015 but remains a full 6 percent off the all-time peak hit in mid-2005. Instead of suggesting that Americans are driving more than ever, Short describes U.S. driving as being ‘about where we were as a nation in June of 1997.’”

“Where Plumer is onto something is his suggestion that cheap gas has led to this year’s VMT surge … Economics obviously play a role in driving habits—perhaps the largest one. Still, the fact that so many U.S. states hit their peak well before the recession is all the more reason to believe that there’s a new normal when it comes to our roads that isn’t entirely bound to financial fortunes, and to respond accordingly.”

A Decline in Fracking Could Hurt Efforts to Tackle Climate Change

Mason Inman, writing in Grist, asks: “What happens if the shale boom truly goes bust?”

“My worry is that natural gas and oil prices will shoot back up, driving a return to coal, an expansion of tar-sands extraction, and more generally a push to scrap limits on greenhouse gas emissions … According to EIA data, in nearly all the nation’s major shale gas zones — including the biggest of all, the Marcellus — production is now falling.”

graph: Natural gas production from four biggest US shale zones

“With higher natural gas and oil prices serving as a brake on the U.S. economy — and economic growth worldwide — I fear these short-term economic interests will trump the long-term effort required to tackle climate change.”

“To avoid this kind of reversal, the United States needs to continue and expand efforts that will accelerate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”

“To accelerate the rollout of renewable energy, the country can reinstate tax credits that aided wind, and extend tax credits for solar that are due to expire at the end of 2016.”

“My hope is that if oil and natural gas prices do shoot back up, alternative sources like solar, wind, and electric vehicles will have made enough progress to be able to better compete. But even so, the transition to clean energy will require the enactment of wise, increasingly strict policies — and keeping them in place— whether oil and gas prices are low or high.”

Can the Koch Brothers Win Over Latinos?

Greg Sargent: “The Koch brothers are sinking big money into an expanding effort to win over Latino voters in the 2016 cycle with a simple message: Don’t go with the party that will make you reliant on government. Vote Republican instead.”

“Ashley Parker of the New York Times reports that the conservative billionaire Kochs are helping to bankroll a multi-million-dollar effort to reach out to Latino voters, called the Libre Initiative, that is meant to fill a vacuum left by the Republican Party, which the group thinks has failed miserably in this outreach mission.”

“The trouble with all this is that Latinos tend to support the overall Democratic governing vision — and not the Republican one — when it comes to economic issues and health care, too.”

“If the Koch-funded group’s core message is that Democratic economic and health care policies produce an over-reliance on government — whereas scaling back government and unleashing the power of free enterprise are the only true solutions to maximizing opportunity and self-realization for Latinos — it would not be surprising if many of them end up rejecting its fundamental animating principles this time around, too.”

2015 Hottest Year on Record and 2011 to 2015 Hottest Period Ever

Eco Watch: “The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) announced today that 2015 is likely to top the charts as the hottest year in modern observations, with 2011-15 the hottest five-year period on record.”

“With two full months still to add in, the global average surface temperature for January to October in 2015 was 0.73C above the 1961-1990 average. This already puts it a long way above 2014, in which average global temperature reached 0.57C above the 1961-1990 average.”

“To put today’s news another way, global temperature in 2015 is likely to pass the “symbolic and significant” threshold of 1C above preindustrial levels, says the WMO.”

Global annual average temperature relative to 1961-1990 based on the three major global temperature datasets (HadCrut4, NASA GisTEMP and NOAA). Red bars indicate an El Niño year, blue is La Niña and grey is neutral. Margin of error is about 0.1C. Photo credit: WMO

Despite Glitches, Obamacare is Still a Success

Paul Krugman acknowledges that “Obamacare has hit a few rough patches lately. But they’re much less significant than a lot of the reporting, let alone the right-wing reaction, would have you believe. Health reform is still a huge success story.”

“First, premiums are going up for next year, because insurers are finding that their risk pool is somewhat sicker and hence more expensive than they expected … That’s a slight disappointment, but it’s not shocking, given both the good news of the previous two years and the long-term tendency of insurance premiums to rise 5-10 percent a year.”

“Second, some Americans who bought low-cost insurance plans have been unpleasantly surprised by high deductibles. This is a real issue, but it shouldn’t be exaggerated. All allowed plans cover preventive services without a deductible, and many plans cover other health services as well. Furthermore, additional financial aid is available to lower-income families to help cover such gaps.”

“Oh, and official projections now say that fewer people will enroll in those exchanges than previously predicted. But the main reason is that surprisingly few employers are dropping coverage; overall projections for the number of uninsured Americans still look pretty good.”

“Without question, the run of unexpectedly good news for Obamacare has come to an end, as all such runs must. And look, we’re talking about a brand-new system in which everyone is still learning how to function. There were bound to be some bobbles along the way.”

The Painkiller Epidemic Grows

The Washington Post got an early look at a Kaiser Family Foundation survey which shows 40% of Americans know someone who has been addicted to prescription painkillers, including 25% who say it was a close friend or family member and 2% who acknowledge their own addiction.

More from the survey:

  • 16% say they know someone who has died from an overdose of prescription painkillers, including 9% who say that person was a family member or close friend.
  • 56% of the public say they have some personal connection to the issue.
  • Prescription painkiller abuse is most common among whites (63%) and the affluent (63% among people with incomes of $90,000 or more).

Who Takes More? Law Enforcement or Burglars?

Christopher Ingraham: “Here’s an interesting factoid about contemporary policing: In 2014, for the first time ever, law enforcement officers took more property from American citizens than burglars did. Martin Armstrong pointed this out at his blog, Armstrong Economics, last week.”

“Officers can take cash and property from people without convicting or even charging them with a crime — yes, really! — through the highly controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Last year, according to the Institute for Justice, the Treasury and Justice departments deposited more than $5 billion into their respective asset forfeiture funds. That same year, the FBI reports that burglary losses topped out at $3.5 billion.”

“Boil down all the numbers and caveats above and you arrive at a simple fact: In the United States, in 2014, more cash and property transferred hands via civil asset forfeiture than via burglary. The total value of asset forfeitures was more than one-third of the total value of property stolen by criminals in 2014. That represents something of a sea change in the way police do business — and it’s prompting plenty of scrutiny of the practice.”

Americans Hate Government But They Like What it Does

Washington Post: “The Pew Research Center has just released a fascinating deep-dive on how Americans feel about government … One finding stands out: Even if Americans don’t trust the government, they still want the government to do a whole bunch of stuff.”

“The low level of trust in government is not surprise … Small wonder, then, that only 19 percent of Americans interviewed in this Pew survey said that they trusted the government always or most of the time.”

“But when given along list of issues, most Americans still wanted government to have a ‘major role’ in handling those issues. The vast majority (94 percent) thought government should help keep us safe from terrorism. About three-quarters said that it should have a major role in strengthening the economy, protecting the environment and maintaining the nation’s infrastructure. Majorities also wanted the government to play a major role in helping the poor and seniors.”

“In fact, what’s striking is that majorities of both Republicans and Democrats felt this way on most of these issues. Here’s a graph from Pew:”


A Failing Grade for GOP Candidates’ Climate Science Knowledge

Associated Press: “When it comes to climate science, two of the three Democratic presidential candidates are A students, while most of the Republican contenders are flunking, according to a panel of scientists who reviewed candidates’ comments.”

“At the request of The Associated Press, eight climate and biological scientists graded for scientific accuracy what a dozen top candidates said in debates, interviews and tweets, using a 0 to 100 scale.”

“To try to eliminate possible bias, the candidates’ comments were stripped of names and given randomly generated numbers, so the professors would not know who made each statement they were grading. Also, the scientists who did the grading were chosen by professional scientific societies.”

“Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had the highest average score at 94. Three scientists did not assign former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley a score, saying his statements mostly were about policy, which they could not grade, instead of checkable science.”

The Case for High Gas Prices: Safety

City Lab: “In a sharp post on the topic, Joe Cortright at City Observatory points us to a very instructive study that sheds new light on how safety suffers when pump prices plunge. Or, if you prefer rosier goggles, how higher gas prices lead to fewer crashes.”

“During hard times, or when gas prices surge, people drive less: some shift to cheaper travel modes, some just stay home.”

“For the recent study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, researchers gathered Mississippi crash data from April 2004 to December 2012 on a month-by-month basis. Then they collected gas prices over this period as well to see when safety connections emerged … For every 10 percent increase in gas prices, the lagged effect produced a 1.5 percent decrease in traffic crashes per capita.”

“The researchers extrapolate the findings to estimate what the broader safety impacts would be at either end of the gas price spectrum. If fuel costs had been at their lowest point ($1.81) over the entire study period, the researchers would expect 57,461 more crashes to have occurred—a 5.7 percent rise. But if fuel costs had been at their highest ($4.17) during this time, the expectation would be for 70,655 fewer crashes, or a 7 percent decline.”