Monthly Archives: December 2016

Trump(doesn’t)care

Generally the citizens of red states take in more from the feds than they pay out in taxes. Conversely blue states pay out more than they take in. There are exceptions, red Kansas pays out more than it takes in and blue New Mexico takes in more than it pays out.

Both Trump and the Republicans in congress have repeatedly stressed their plan to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare.) Will it be replaced? If So what will replace it? House majority leader Kevin McCarthy said “”Nothing’s been decided yet but I would move through and repeal and then go to work on replacing.” There are several competing ideas floating around, all of which will mean less support for healthcare.

The medicaid expansion is certain to go, eliminating healthcare support for about 14 million people nation wide. Most republican plans drive people with pre-existing conditions into very expensive high risk pools, essentially eliminating insurance for those with lower incomes. Most republican plans will return to annual and/or lifetime limits – exceed your limit and you no longer have insurance at any cost.

People will continue to get sick, insurance or not. In fact without the preventive care measures built into Obamacare, they likely will get more sick. Without reasonable healthcare protections, they won’t be able to afford to go to a clinic for treatment of a cold. They will wait until on death’s bed with pneumonia before they go to the hospital for treatment but can’t pay with dollars they don’t have.

So our population will suffer more serious health care emergencies, increased medical bankruptcies will lower payments to hospitals and staff, and smaller rural hospitals which operate on narrower margins will close their doors, further decreasing access to health care for much of the state’s working poor.

And it won’t stop with just healthcare. Expect cuts to any number of federal programs including food stamps, housing subsidies, subsidies for transportation, etc.

Here in Arkansas we are one of the net takers receiving more in federal dollars than we pay in taxes. Over 684,000 votes were cast for Trump. Around a half a million voters and their children will lose some or all of their healthcare support. Another half a million more could lose some or all of their nutritional support (foodstamps, WIC) including children. What do you think a Venn diagram of Trump voters and beneficiaries of federal largess would look like? Considerable overlap?

The real irony in all this is that the republicans’ lust for smaller government will negatively impact their voter base in the red states. The more prosperous blue states will have their treasuries buoyed by the reduction in federal tax payments. They can use that money to provide for the health and welfare of their citizens. The less prosperous red states will be allowed to continue on a downward spiral with lower wages, poorer health and an every person for themselves paradise. Be careful what you wish (vote) for.

Parasite Powers

In nature there is an abundance of examples of two organisms living together. These can be two plants, two animals, or a plant and an animal. Regardless, the relationship is called symbiotic.

If both organisms benefit from the relationship it is called mutualism. Coral reefs are built by a two organisms that both benefit from their relationship – a coral polyp is an animal that has a plant called zooxanthella living within it. In a commensal relationship such as the mites that live in our eyebrows, one organism benefits without any impact on the other. Humans are the unaffected host for the commensal follicle mite.

The relationship with the greatest “yuck” factor is parasitic, where one organism suffers while the benefits. A broad array of worms, insects, mites, etc plague both plants and animals, sometimes with lethal effects. Complex strategies have evolved over millions of years to allow a parasite to take advantage of the host.

The ability of some parasites to manipulate the behavior of the hosts in nothing short of amazing. The example of the horsehair worm is illustrative. The adult form of this organism, phylum Nematomorpha, is a free living aquatic organism. As the name implies it is long skinny worm. Its life cycle starts as an egg in freshwater. The egg hatches to a larva which lives on the bottom of a lake or stream. Larvae eaten by fish or snails are a dead end, but if consumed by an aquatic insect it can encyst in the body of the insect. When the insect matures, into a mayfly for example, the encysted larva make its way to land. If, after the insect dies, it is eaten by a cricket the hairworm larva has found its destined host.

All this is incidental so far. The real trick is when the larva matures to a juvenile., It has to make its way to water, but crickets don’t normally go to water. Crickets infected with hairworms however change. They seek out water and willingly jump in only to drown, thus releasing the worm back to the aquatic environment. Zombie crickets.

How about zombie ants? The lancet fluke lives in the liver of a cow. To propagate the fluke produces eggs that end up in the animals manure. The eggs get eaten by snails first, then they are passed from the snails to ants – ants like snail slime apparently. An infected ant is then directed by maturing flukes to go find the tallest blade of grass and climb to the top and die. Along comes a cow which grazes the tender tips of the grass. In the process it ingests the dead ant with the flukes, and in so doing completing the life cycle of the fluke.

Even plants and fungi are part of the zombie game. A fungus which inhabits a mustard plant causes the plant to to halt flower production and instead produce small bright yellow leaves that appear to be flowers. These fake flowers contain the reproductive parts for the fungus which are then transmitted to other mustard plants by foraging bees.

Humans have parasites, the only question is, is our behavior being manipulated? Are we zombies?

Trump’s Environment

The votes have been counted and we have a result. Donald Trump will be our next president. For the second time in the last 16 years a Democrat drew more votes than the Republican only to lose to the vote in the electoral college. Secretary Clinton out polled Mr Trump by 2.8+ million votes, more than a 2 % margin.

If President Trump follows through on only a portion of what Candidate Trump said, it will be trying times for the world climate and the environment. Based on his dismissive attitude towards global warming, it is likely that the Paris Accord signed by Obama will be scrapped. World leaders meeting currently in Morocco are constructing the details of how to implement the international law. The objective is to reduce carbon emissions to prevent the temperature of earth from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)

Whether he makes a pronouncement to abandon the accord or not, his avowed policy of expanded use of fossil fuels, coal in particular, will make meeting carbon reduction goals impossible. The US has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 27 % compared to 2005 levels. The United States alone is responsible for over 20% of total global carbon emissions, and our target will reduce our share proportionately.

The only thing that may constrain his proposed expansion of the use of coal is economics. Cheap natural gas has undercut the price of electric generation from coal. Burning natural gas to produce electricity produces lower carbon emissions per unit of energy produced, hence replacing coal with natural gas will result in lower emissions.

Inaction has two damaging effects. First, not meeting our goal will seriously impair the attempts to stabilize the climate. The US and China alone account for nearly half of the global warming gasses. For us to not participate means one fifth of the global goal won’t be met.

Not participating also has a profoundly negative impact on international relations. Like it or not we live in a global economy and the only way a global economy works is if we all play by the same rules. Many other international laws protect us through other country’s participation: Whaling, fishing, hazardous waste disposal, illicit drugs, and the list goes on. Do we really want to tell the rest of the world we don’t care?

Meanwhile to our north, Canada will begin taxing carbon as a mechanism to reduce carbon emissions. An initial tax of 7.62 dollars Canadian per metric ton of carbon. At this rate it would add about a dollar to the price of a barrel of crude oil, currently around 44 dollars. Each year until 2022 the price will go up by 7.62 dollars till the tax reaches 38 dollars per ton. All fossil fuels – natural gas, oil and coal will be taxed.

We could do the same, in fact previous republican administrations have called revenue neutral carbon taxes a free enterprise way to manage the cost of pollution.

Crude Movements

It seems that oil pipelines are in the news of late. Some of the new pipelines are to deal with the expanded production of crude oil here in the US. New and better technology – hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling have resulted in the need for transportation of that oil, pipelines generally being the cheapest.

We produce about 10 million barrels of crude oil per day and import another 10 million barrels from sources all over the world. Most of this is turned into fuels such as gasoline and diesel fuel and only a pittance for non-fuel petrochemicals.

But are pipelines the best way to go? Other methods to move the crude oil from where it is produced to where it is refined include barges, rail cars and tank trucks. What is the best way to do it? It depends entirely on what metric you use to measure “best.”

If you simply want to compare the least oil spilled when normalized for amount of total oil transported per distance moved (ton/mile) the ranking is barges and tankers are better than rail is better than pipeline is better than truck.

If your metric is human deaths and property destruction we get a different rank: barge is better than pipeline is better than rail is better than truck. How about environmental damage? Because aquatic environments are more sensitive the ordering becomes: Rail is better than truck is better than pipeline is better than barge.

Oh but it gets more confusing, because so much of the crude oil moves by pipeline, about 70%. Another 23% by barge and tanker, trucking 4% and rail transport a mere 3%.

If a decision were made to go to more trucking for example the change for the better (or worse) would not necessarily be linear. More trucking would mean more congestion, hence an increased risk of untoward events even after adjusting for total oil moved.

There is already some evidence of the non-linearity of change. From 1975 to 2012 trains were much shorter and had very few spills, but the recent oil boom means a higher proportion of oil moving by train. Because of longer trains and more frequent crashes, more oil was spilled in 2013 alone than the previous 37 years.

It is just not a simple “what is the best.” This conundrum is reminiscent of a senate hearing back in the 1970s. Ed Muskie was conducting a hearing as to the risks of the supersonic Concorde flying over the United States. The committee’s chief scientist said, “Senator, we’re ready to testify,” and Muskie responded, “Okay, tell me what the answer is. Is this going to be a danger?” The scientist responded “I’ve got these papers here that definitely tell us this is going to be a danger.” Muskie was ready to conclude right there, but then the NAS scientist interjected, “On the other hand, I have another set of papers over here that says these papers aren’t good enough to know the answer.” Incredulous, the senator looked up and yelled, “Will somebody find me a one-handed scientist?!”

A one-handed scientist may produce a simple answer, but it won’t necessarily be the only or best answer.